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The Lexicon - Gabbies

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Word: Gabbies (var. of gaby, pl. gabies)

Definition: (n) simpletons

Origin: unknown, dialect chiefly English

Source: The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

On this evening Miss Amelia wrote with her fountain pen a good deal. But even so she could not be forever unaware of the group waiting out there on the dark porch, and watching her. From time to time she looked up and regarded them steadily. But she did not holler out to them to demand why they were loafing around her property like a sorry bunch of gabbies.

Though McCullers apparently misspells this word, it was wholly unfamiliar to me in either of its forms. In fact, it remains a mystery to a considerable extent as the origin is unknown and its usage is uncommon. But the image it evokes -- of a gaping, empty-headed composite of humanity -- is an apt metaphor for one of the less-explored themes of this brilliant novella.

The last time I read The Ballad of the Sad Cafe was likely in college, in the dark ages that preceded Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like. MySpace didn't even emerge from the primordial ooze until I was well out of graduate school. So reading it again a few weeks ago (as part of the ongoing series of read-alongs with A Public Space), I was struck by the ways the town and its inhabitants prefigure our submersion in social media.

Throughout this short novel, McCullers makes use of compression, opening with those two words "the town" that represent all the unique and remarkable truths it holds, telling her readers to grant the passage of years (all "much alike") in one brief phrase, insisting that the men who gather on Miss Amelia's porch are all "very much alike -- all wearing blue overalls, most of them with whitish hair, all pale of face, and all with a set, dreaming look in the eye." This group is like a murmuration of starlings:

after a time there will come a moment when all together they will act in unison, not from thought or from the will of any one man, but as though their instincts had merged together so that the decision belongs to no single one of them, but to the group as a whole.

Those gabbies on the porch are simpletons, not because they are themselves unintelligent (though perhaps they are that, too) but because they have emptied their heads of individual thought, ceded individual agency to the composite version of "the town." They move as one, without thinking, just as we all like and favorite and laugh at the same mindless videos and newsclips, rising and falling as one body.

Once the café is open, and Lymon struts through its center, we see ourselves in it just as though we are standing in front of a full-length mirror. McCullers explains the appeal of the café as a contrast between the "long, dim scramble just to get the things needed to keep alive" and the "certain pride" that comes from presenting yourself at the café, where, "for a few hours at least, the deep bitter knowing that you are not worth much in this world could be laid low." Just as the town went to the café to be seen and to see, we show up on social media to assert our own reality in a dreary and disconnected world.

And Cousin Lymon is every moment of celebrity gossip or shared public outrage that sparks on social media. Lymon, the troll (or the former President) who likes nothing more than to stir the pot. Lymon, the originator, of FOMO.

When he walked into the room there was always a quick feeling of tension, because with this busybody about there was never any telling what might descend on you, or what might suddenly be brought to happen in the room. People are never so free with themselves and so recklessly glad as when there is some possibility of commotion or calamity ahead.
Everyone looked at him from time to time, and some kept track of his chattering and others did not. There were times when every word he said was nothing but lying and bragging. . . . He could not bear to be left out of anything, even a great misery.

There we all are, a sorry bunch of gabbies, standing just outside the door and watching, grateful even for calamity because at least, then, that roar can drown out our individual and invisible dread.


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