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Cal Freeman was born and raised in West Detroit. He received his BA in Literature from University of Detroit Mercy and his MFA in poetry writing from Bowling Green State University. In 2004 Terrance Hayes selected him for the Devine Poetry Fellowship. His poems have appeared in such journals as Nimrod, Ninth Letter, Folio, Commonweal, The Journal, Drunken Boat, among others. He currently lives in Dearborn, MI with his wife, Sarah, and his stepson, Ethan. He teaches poetry and creative writing at University of Detroit Mercy.
Refrigeration or Nearness to the Bear by Cal Freeman
The refrigerator has always been a euphemism for white middle America. Instead of directly acknowledging petty suburban turf wars, it is much more convenient to speak of keeping food in the ice box. One’s refrigeration vocabulary is always an indicator of social class. The fridge is sublimated ideology; it is a root cellar without the hirsute roots.
When I think of refrigerators, I think first of Willy Loman’s tirade concerning the inferiority of his Hastings fridge, then Shel Silverstein’s poem “Bear in There.” The former is a tragic rendering of middle class disillusionment, the latter a humorous doggerel lyric poking fun at middle class anxiety over maintaining creature comforts.
Ours is a Maytag. We didn’t purchase it; it came with our house. An uncle who helped us move explained that it was a very good brand. A retractable arm attached to the top right shelf winds the shelf higher or lower to accommodate taller items on the lower shelf. When I think taller items, I think bottles of Prosecco, which probably ranks me among the petit-bourgeois mentioned in paragraph 2. (It also hints at an unhealthy proclivity for booze which transcends class.)
My impression that anyone who has driven a teamster truck knows refrigeration comes from the fact that the only two who have spoken to me about it in technical terms are my uncle, Joe Good, a twenty year Hostess driver, and my neighbor, Jerry Nichols, a retired driver of double-hitch gravel haulers. This is purely anecdotal though and not to be mistaken for empirical fact. When my father gave me an extra fridge, I put it in my garage and Jerry immediately saw it as a safe haven for his Budweiser against the summer heat.
Refrigeration’s relationship to the laws of thermodynamics is not an interesting topic, not even for scientists; few seem eager to discuss the machinations of the devices, certainly not the salespeople at the chains where we are apt to buy. Even if they understood, it would only make them repetitive and boring. How much can one say about compressor motors that vary little? Instead, retail makes a fetish of the boxes’ plastics.
The truly wealthy seem to like the fridges that blend with the cabinetry, dressed elegantly in oak or mahogany, trying to tastefully escape the semblance of use. Since refrigerator designers have not yet embraced a deconstructed style with gaping metal and plastic motors and exposed steel thermodynamic heating grates, these aristocratic boxes are probably the most honest refrigerators one can find, an acknowledgement and performance of pure style.
Style. Euphemistic statements about worry over food in the fridge are merely sublimated expressions of lifestyle anxiety. Middle class worries are not worries over anything as primal as sustenance. Shel Silverstein mocks us wonderfully when he writes, “There’s a polar bear / in our Frigidaire.” The bear in Silverstein’s poem is eating all the food, is eating us out of house and home. “He's nibbling the noodles, / He's munching the rice, / He's slurping the soda, / He's licking the ice.” That the domestic box could satisfy a bear’s gustatory needs reminds us of our relative opulence.
It isn’t that this opulence liberates us from food worry. We are still anxious over what goes into the fridge, but it’s our lifestyles and not our lives that depend on it. Our vegetable drawer usually has organic, locally grown stuff, for instance. We tell ourselves we’ve voted with our pocketbook, thus avoiding the messiness of genuine activism. We don’t have pop. Our milk comes from Calder’s Dairy in Monroe, MI just twenty miles from our house. Our chicken is organic free range. If you are what you eat, to borrow a pat American cliché, I am the ideology of comfort. I have stepped beyond the myriad rows of corn into the young professional caste, and I am honing my palate.