Miss Virginia, and the Need for Friends
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And unlike the Bronx elephants, Maxine and Patty, commentator Laura Lorson was very concerned about her appearance when she was a girl. She was heavy and uncoordinated. But she was able to make a friend who taught her the value of being kind and polite, as well as a thing or two about driving a good bargain.
LAURA LORSON: When I was a kid, my grandmother and my great-aunt were my best friends. That meant that their friends were my friends, which is fine as far as that goes. In 1976, though, when your friends are all over the age of 65, that meant you learned how to play Bridge and Canasta. And in my case, it also meant that I met my grandmother's good friend Ms. Virginia Huber.
Ms. Virginia worked part time at an antique store on Frankfurt Avenue in Louisville. I would pass by Earl's Antiques on my way to the Crescent Hill Branch Library, about a block away from my house. The store was right at the streetlight where I would cross and I would stand there fidgeting, my arm full of books waiting for the light to turn.
One day Ms. Virginia came out of the shop and asked if I would like to come in for a visit, which when it's 90 degrees out with 75 percent humidity and I'm juggling eight biographies from the Childhood of Famous Americans series, well, yes.
She sat me down in the back smack in front of an ancient, pre-Ralph Nader, dangerous looking electric fan and gave me a Coca-Cola, which she poured in to an enormous, heavy, cut glass highball tumbler. From that alone I was sold. Reading Meriwether Lewis: Boy Explore could wait.
After that I would stop in to Earl's on a regular basis. I would have a Coca-Cola, sit in front of the fan and ask Ms. Virginia questions. I now know that the woman was a saint. She must've been lonesome there in the back of the store and happy to have someone to talk to, even if it was just a seven-year-old. I asked about everything in the place. Victorian furniture, hair, jewelry, Jadeite, vacuum, coffee makers. I learned to love old things.
Ms. Virginia's husband, Mr. Leonard Huber, would sometimes drop by. We would sit in the back room with our sweating highball glasses full of soda, solemnly discussing the differences between Heppa white and Chippendale, dovetail finishing on drawers and what to look for in Vivarian porcelain.
After a few months of our visits, she would send me off to talk to customers, which turned out to be good for business as their minds fairly boggled at this chubby little kid reading them the riot act about bad refinishing jobs and trying to pass off glass as crystal when it came in for appraisals.
I learned how to calculate sales tax in my head, I learned how to bargain and I learned that dealers get a 10 percent discount when they pay cash. Of course at the time, I had no idea she was setting me up for a lifetime of hard bargaining. My husband just groans every time I go home to Kentucky. My mother and I troll antique stores and peddler's malls, never much looking for anything specific but all these years later I'm armed with what Ms. Virginia taught me about negotiating and spotna reproduction and the beauty in everyday objects. I come home with tangible proof of a time I can't remember and cash still in my pocket.
Ms. Virginia died about a decade ago, but the lessons I learned from her still hit me almost daily. I think at first we each thought we were doing the other a favor. She was being polite, reaching out to an awkward, overweight child with few friends her own age. I was being polite, thinking she needed someone to talk to.
But being polite allowed her to be a teacher. Being polite allowed me to experience the thrill of knowing a lot about a particular subject. Being polite isn't something that's onerous or optional. Sometimes it's a scaffolding that allows you to construct a friendship or a kindness.
SIEGEL: Laura Lorson still prefers to drink her Coca-Cola from a highball glass. She lives in Perry, Kansas.
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