Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Cherokee Tobacco Sales, Sallisaw Oklahoma, 2011

My work takes me all over the place and brings me into contact with all kinds of people. Sometimes I’m hanging out with highbrow sorts, other times with lowbrows. They’re all interesting to me.

I was out in Oklahoma the week before last. I’m sure there are many fine things to recommend Oklahoma. Oil and gas, for example. Perhaps another one of them used to be the law school at Oral Roberts University. But you don’t have to go to Oklahoma any more to find the Oral Robert University Law School. Televangelist Pat Robertson bought the school, lock stock and biblical barrel, and brought it to my hometown of Virginia Beach, where it now dispenses Christian law under the name of Regent University.

My work in Oklahoma took me to a less pretentious place, namely a small town about thirty miles across the Arkansas River from Fort Smith, Arkansas. The reason I was there was that this little town is ground zero in the nation for heavy use of a certain addictive product.

I wasn’t there to pass judgment on the people who use this product or try to talk them out of using it. I was there to learn about them.

I pride myself on being able to move among different kinds of people. The nature of my work demands that I be professional enough to not let my biases get in the way. I also have to make the people I study comfortable enough with me to say things they wouldn’t tell anyone else.

The biggest thing working in my favor as I travel around the country learning about people is that most people don’t think anyone ever listens to them or values their thoughts. Once they’re assured that I’m sincerely interested in listening to them, there’s very little people won’t tell me.

The kind of research I do has its roots in the modern practice of group therapy. So even though I rarely need to get to the basest elements of human behavior in my work—there’s only so much gestalt to be mined from discussions of hot dogs, for example—a well-run group discussion inevitably makes someone so comfortable that they’ll want to talk about their philandering spouse, drug addicted children or problems at work, whether these subjects have anything to do with what I’m talking to them about.

If you ask me, a lot of Americans would be a lot happier if someone would just listen to their stories from time to time.

Most of the people I was studying in this project have tough lives. Most are barely getting by. They’ve made bad decisions. Their relationships are messy and complicated. They’ve been on the short end of the stick enough times in their lives to be suspicious of outsiders, including people like me.

But if I do my job well, as I say, they’ll lose their inhibitions and talk to me about whatever it is I need to talk about with them. And that’s what happened with the folks I met in the little town in Oklahoma.

In fact, things went so well that at the end of the study, one of the guys who took part in the study, a ruddy fellow named Ricky who makes his living shoveling asphalt, invited me to go “grabbin'” with him. I initially thought this might have something to do with picking up trashy girls, or worse; let’s just say some of the people I met in the course of this study could have been extras in “Deliverance.”

But instead Ricky was inviting me to go out on the swollen Arkansas River with him and some of his buddies later that night and stick my hands and arms down under the trunks of sunken trees and see I couldn’t grab a catfish or two.

“You mean ‘noodling’?” I asked, for that’s what I’ve always heard this practice called. (If you’re not familiar with noodling, watch this or this.)

“You must be a city boy,” Ricky answered, his disappointment obvious. “I don’t know what noodling is. Out here we call it grabbin’.”

I’m sure spending the night grabbin’ along the shores of the Arkansas River with Ricky and his pals would have made for a good story. But I had an early flight the next morning. So I thanked Ricky for his kind offer and got the heck out of town.


  1. Grabbin'. That's a riot. I'll have to ask Joe if he's familiar with that term. I'm sure he'll have some unprintable comeback, but now I'm curious.

  2. I am kind of fascinated by the range of names and prices that exist for the marketing of cigarettes.

    What is basically chopped up, and processed tobacco is presented to us in so many colorful ways. There's obviously a whole lot of psychology involved here. That is for sure.

  3. I've always heard it called noodling, too. I've seen it done but think I'll stick to using a rod an reel.

  4. There is a show on the Animal Planet called "Hillbilly Hand Fishin'" where they do this. The main character owns a camp, and city folk can stay there, and he will teach them "the way". He is hairier than Sasquatch and really enjoys close contact in the water with the people he is teacing. I find it creepy, but good TV.

  5. I live in sallisaw,ricky sounds like an idiot.
    We call it noodlin' here as well.