February 9, 2014

“Have you ever eaten a robin?”

robin_0346sPublic Service

In the 80′s, Al Ackerman worked in San Antonio from time to time as a census worker (other rag-tag occupations: mail artist, shoplifter, painter of cat portraits). To those who knew him well, this is a queasy and inherently humorous setup—the prolonged and formal interaction of Doctor Ackerman with the general public IN THEIR HOMES.

Its actually very hard to imagine him following through with it, given his general orientation, but at some point, the rent-man must be paid. The boredom was life-threatening, apparently. That’s why, after some months, Ackerman starter to improvise questions as he helped people fill out the census forms.

At times this would take the form of asking questions like “Have you ever lived in a special dwelling—like a tree house or a covered ditch?” These sorts of questions could be added in such a way that they didn’t derail the conversation but rather just opened up a slightly broader vista, and gave Ackerman a chuckle. But sometimes, stronger medicine was needed. The intense boredom of slow-moving conversations with census constituents would leave Al in such a state of horror that he felt compelled to “slip in” the ultimate question: “Have you ever eaten a robin?”

Usually this question would cause the person to suddenly come jerk up and alert on their couch—”ah, um, what, what did you say?!?” Ackerman would then respond with a regular question, as if nothing had happened. A subtle erosion of business-as-usual that might leave a creepy memory.

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