Straighten Up And Fly Right

Stevie lit the last of her cigarettes and expelled a blue haze of smoke up towards the ceiling, watching the green, red, and blue lights mixing the colors of the hazy atmosphere that hovered over the bar. The thick smokey haze hadn’t dimmed to volume of noise from the Wiritzer in the corner as the contents from it’s bowels bellowed off the wooded walls and dance floor. She watched Ryan as he drained another bottle, he almost fell off his stool with the effort of a man one bottle short of a twelve pack.  “Hit me.” Stevie yelled to the the bartender as she placed a five on the counter.  A tumbler with gin, tonic and ice was pushed before her a minute later, the delay caused by last minute orders before closing time.

 

Dan was efficient behind the bar, doling out the drinks, collecting the cash and making change.  As the evening wore on he went from good listener to a mechanical ear that heard grunts and groans, responding in kind.  The patrons tipped, the boozers didn’t, he could live with that.  “Just another fact of life.” Dan would say to those who cared to listen.  “My feet ache, I think they’re swelling.”  the comment was said to no one in particular.

“Soak them in hot water for ten or twenty minutes.”  The voice came from the general direction of Stevie.  She was looking at him with that basic concern women tend to have in general.  The mother hen instinct.  Dan smiled and looked in her direction.

“Thanks for the tip, I was going to do that after I close up.  Got a new box of Epsom Salts.”  He never figured Stevie as one who might care if his feet hurt or not.  Delores, the redhead at the other end of the bar, was more worried who was buying the next round.  These thoughts were whirling around his head as he picked up the empty glasses and placed them in the sink.  He would wash them later.  The empties he threw in the trash, that would be emptied after he closed the doors.  Closing time was always a bigger chore as the bright lights he turned on hurt his eyes and his feet felt swollen, stretching his shoes to the straining point.  “God, I wish I had a woman to help close the place.”  His outburst had become part of his closing routine.

 

John, Dan’s partner, had opened the cafe at six for the breakfast crowd.  His wife, Jan, did the cooking and by the end of lunch retired to her home while John tended the early crowd.  Usually these were men stopping in for a beer after work before heading home to wife, family, and dinner, not necessarily in that order.  Sometimes Big Jim, the sheriff, would stop by with one of his deputies and sip a bottle of beer together while discussing the general social and criminal situation of the county.  This was a small town and off the main route, a man could have a sense of privacy here and Big Jim expected it so.  Dan came in at four.  Together him and john would check the stock and accounts although the formal accounting was reserved for Sunday when the cafe and bar was closed.  The two local ministers of the baptist and congregational churches would object to any extension of business hours into their day.  Parishioners were expected to refrain  from strong drink on the sabbath.

 

By seven that evening Delores had come in and perched on her stool.  Dan would have to listen to another variation on her problems and the husband who didn’t understand and the children who wouldn’t mind.  Come eight and most of the thirty or so regulars would be in residence as there was very little to do in town and any other form of entertainment was over two hours away.  Outside of religion there were only three forms of entertainment in the town.  Dancing, pool, and skee-ball, all held in the bar.  Dan never considered drinking a form of entertainment, at least not after his teenage days of obligatory beer guzzling and whisky foolishness.  Fact now was that Dan never touched a drop.  For ten years he had watched people pour alcohol of one kind or another down their throats and had seen the results first hand.  As he has said to one patron who asked why he never drank, “Serving drunks has taken all the enjoyment out of it.  It just don’t seem important anymore.  Hazard of being a barkeep, I guess.”

 

Meanwhile Dolores as drinking more heavily than usual.  She was also more animated and inclined to talk to herself, raising her voice with each drink she threw down.  Jeff came in and shouted, “Hey, whose suitcase it that outside?”  Delores raised her head and in slurred speech yelled back, “It’s mine, asshole.  You got a problem?”  The conversation stopped immediately.  If it weren’t for the jukebox the sound of silence would have been heard for the first time that day.  All eyes turned towards Delores.  “What are all you looking at?  Huh?  Why are you staring at me?  Why?”  Her defiant stare tried to shield her from the prying eyes of the crowd.  Then she nestled her head into her arms on the bar and started sobbing.  “Richard threw me out.  That pompous bastard!  He threw me out.  He said I had to straighten myself out.”  Delores was sobbing harder now.  The people in the crowd were looking away, embarrassed to watch a woman suffering in public.

 

Dan picked up the receiver from the cradle and dialed his partner’s number.  “Hello, John?  Would you call rev. Hightower?  Yeah, we got a problem with Delores.  I think she’s going to need some help.”  He put the receiver back on the cradle and looked over at Delores.  One of the woman, Janey, was trying to sooth her, whispering something into her ear.  Once you cross the line in a small town there is no where to go but the big city.  “Well, I won’t miss her.” Dan said quietly to himself.  He filled three orders, took the cash and gave back the change.  It was still early and his feet were starting to hurt.

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Bright Lights, Big City

I’ve always been attracted to the bright lights of the big city although I fear my relationship is more moth to flame.  I think the promise of action and intrigue lead many of us to those streets and yet we literally come up against a brick wall.  Like the old propaganda pamphlets handed out overseas, when you go to town looking for action you must remember you are the action.  Nothing is free, you’ve got to pay for your action.  One is an outsider in the city until one becomes an insider and that can take many years for those of us not blessed with good networking skills.  What Dale Carnegie called the ability to make quick friendships.  I’d tag along with Butch in those early years, try to b like him and make contacts.  Mostly I was ignored, politely.  Butch, on the other hand, was always striking up those acquaintances that lead at least to weak friendships.  I never knew how he did it.  At six feet two he had a presence, athletic build, dark hair and brown eyes, ruddy complexion, strong chin and other good features.  As I said, the man had presence even though his looks were fair.  I always marveled at his ability to walk into a room full of strangers and attract half a dozen men to his side and at least one woman.

 

“Kid, you just gotta walk into the place like you own, you know.  You can’t show fear but you can’t challenge a guy, you just stand your ground and show that you belong.  See, kid?  That’s all it is.”

Well, seeing is harder than doing, at least in my mind.  “Butch, it’s easy for you.  I don’t know, it’s just not me, you know?”

“Bill, you think too much!  You just gotta do, that’s all.  Just do it!”  And Butch just did as a matter of course.

 

He would surround himself with people, be in the swing of things.  Next thing I knew was that he had a job in the city.  Butch managed to talk himself into entry level management position in an import company.  The money was good and he came to know a wide network of individuals, many who became business contacts.  His star was rising.  I went off to the service and served my time.  Funny how many of us thought of it as almost a prison sentence with no time off for good behavior, only a medal that attested to that fact.  Around Christmas I would get a card from Butch with a few scribbled lines, just general stuff.  Writing was not his strong suit.  And once a month or so I’d drop him a few lines on my experiences.  Then I went off to a small university some distance away, my intent was to find a way to earn my living.  But while the money from my GI Bill helped, it wasn’t enough and I dropped out after two years.  Eventually I found a job with the phone company not far from home and settled in grind of making a living.

 

Then one Sunday I took a young woman up to the city for brunch and window shopping on the old fisherman’s wharf turned arts and crafts and all manner of import stores.  By chance, as we sat in the open air seating eating out late breakfast, Butch saw me and came over our table.  “Hey Kid, where you been?  What brings you to the city?”

“Well hello, Butch.  It has been a long time.  Let me introduce you.  Butch, well, I mean Frank.  This is Jennifer.  Jennifer, this is Frank, better know to friends and acquaintances as Butch.  Shake hands and come out fighting.”

“Bill, you’re still the card.  You know, Jennifer, Bill pulls that introduction on me every time I meet a new friend of his.  Gosh, this is what, the second time?”

“You got to watch this man, he’s quick on his feet.  So Butch, you still collecting women or did one of them catch you?”

“The man’s just jealous of my success, Jenifer.  No, Bill, I haven’t married yet.  I cam close to it last year, but no cigar.  Are you and Jennifer a regular item?”

I looked at Jennifer and saw that comment caught her unexpectedly.  “No, Butch, we’re still exploring that possibility.”  I saw a sigh of relief on her face and chose not to continue that line.  “What brings you down to the tourist traps?”

Butch gave me a wink, “I’m meeting some people here for lunch and maybe a little business.”  He looked around some and then in a hasty manner said, “Look, there they are now.  Hey Bill, here’s my card.  Call me later in the week.  Got to go.  Good bye Jennifer, nice to meet you.”

Butch headed toward a party of three men dressed in business suits.  Typical of Butch in that he had on slacks and a sports jacket.  If anyone could pull it off, he could.

 

Jennifer and I were still sitting at our table as I looked at the card.  I showed it to her.  “I see he is now a vice president.  He must be doing well, but he always seemed to have a flair for working with people.”  I failed to notice that Jennifer was committing the card to memory.  Well, a few more hours of the city and then we returned to suburbia.  I though we might extend the date into the evening but Jennifer pleaded a headache from the sun.  So I went home to my apartment with nothing much left of the evening but a bit of reading.

 

For the next couple of weeks Jennifer seemed to have a full social calendar.  Then it hit me, I wasn’t her type.  I am a bit slow to catch on to the hints.  Meanwhile I had tried calling Butch but his line was either busy or I was routed to voice mail.  About three months later I got a call from Butch.  “Hey kid, come up Saturday evening.  Got some free time and I want to catch up on the past.  You know where O Solo Mio is?  Good, meet me there for dinner, it’s on me.  See ya.”  We had been there several times in the past.  The restaurant is a rustic hole in the wall Italian place where to food is exceptional.  Butch had taken me there in the past when he needed a sounding board and so I expect that was why he invited me next Saturday.  Well, it beat watching the “Movie of the Week”.  So I dressed casual, as far as I knew how.  Believe me, I am not a fashion plate.  I work outside construction, an honest an noble profession but somewhat less than elegant in attire.  And off I went, earlier in the afternoon.  I couldn’t miss a chance to peruse a used book store or two.  That is one of my vices, books.  So I finally found my way to the restaurant, Butch was waiting for me.

“You’ve been at the book stores, haven’t you?”

“You know me too well.  Actually, I found a couple of good history volumes, very inexpensive.”

“So how many books in your library now?”

“About two thousand.”

“Bill, books don’t attract women.  You know that, don’t you?  How many girlfriends have you had since I’ve know you?”

“Ah, not many.”  I was silent for a while.  Then I asked what was the problem.   What did he have on his mind?

“Touche!  You still remember my ways.”  He paused to let that thought sink in.  “Well, I got two problems this time and they complicate each other.  You know those men I was meeting that Sunday I came across you?  Well, they own some businesses in China and want me to be the export manager.  See, I have ties to importers here and they figure I could use my contacts to move the merchandise.  Now hear me put before you say anything.  See, the problem is the manufacturing and warehousing is a small port, not very close to Shanghai.  You know me, I need the bright lights and big city life.  I mean, it’s a lot of money but I don’t know if I can stick to it.  They’re talking a five year contract on a low salary with a bonus paid if I stick it out the full five years.  You know, I could retire on that bonus and never have to work another day of my life.  But I don’t think I can take the withdrawal from the life I have now.”

“Yeah, I can see your problem.  So what about your present position, any future there?”

“That’s what worries me.  The company I work for is slowly going down the tubes.  That’s why I’m looking for a new position.  Problem is the the import business is being taken over by the big boys and I don’t look worth keeping.  That’s what scares me.  It’s not like the old days when I could walk in and impress people.  They say I need a degree and I’m just too old to go back to school.  Bill, what am I going to do?”

“Could you start your own import business?  I mean, you know a lot of exporters.  Maybe you could find a niche market.  You might look at India, a lot of handicrafts and knockoffs are coming out of that country.

“It’s a thought, but I don’t know if I can find the money I need to pull that off.”

“Butch, haven’t you saved anything?”

“I always meant to, but you know, it cost money to live in this city.  You know that.  I’ve got memberships in athletic clubs and other things like that.  It takes money to make money.”

I was silent for a while.  “Butch, what’s the other problem?”

“You remember Jennifer?”

“Yes, vaguely.  We had exactly two dates.”

“She showed up at one of the clubs I hang out and next thing you know, we’re an item.  What’s it been, maybe three weeks?  Anyway, we’ve been getting serious and that kind of worries me.”

“In what way, Butch?”

“I think she has marriage in mind.  Oh, she hasn’t said anything yet but I’ve got the strangest feeling that’s what she wants.  She talks about leaving some clothes in my apartment so she can save time when she comes up for the weekend.  things like that.  I mean she has organized my kitchen.  Bill. I can’t find a god damn thing in it anymore.  And she is always saying we should eat end more, save money and stuff like that.  Do you think she is serious about marriage.”

“Butch, let’s take the second problem first.  If you want to know if she is angling to hook you into marriage then do this.  Tell her you have a job offer.  I assume she knows you already have one but doesn’t know the particulars.  Well, tell her it’s in Japan.  Tell her that the business culture there means you have to go out with the people in the office and with customers until all hours of the morning.  That everyone goes to the clubs and drinks and carries on because it is expected and not to do so would be an insult.  Tell her that you will always love her but the job will have to come first and that means long hours at work and long hours of company and customer socializing.  And oh, wives are never invited or even seen at company functions.  I’d give her three weeks before she’s gone.”

“Bill, you sure about that?”

“Trust me, I’m sure.  As for the other, you need to find a niche importing market or take the offer and stick it out.  You could go back to college but that would take four or five years and I don’t think you have the resources or the time.  Otherwise use your contacts and take a lower lever and lower paying position.”

Butch thought about that for several minutes.  “I don’t know what I’m going to do, Bill.  I just don’t know.”

“Butch, stop intellectualizing and just do it.”

The Girl from Ipanema

A buddy of mine from my service days had ventured down to Brazil. Mark was a surfer dude and a damn good one before Uncle Sam made him an invitation he couldn’t refuse. Happens to be the best of us, we somehow end up being members of that merry band of pranksters. That is usually enough to put a little of the wanderlust in the soul of an ex prankster.  Mark took off in August of 1970 after his membership was cancelled by mutual consent and he drew his last bit of wages from the accounting office.  I remember how he had discussed his plans amongst us non short timers.  I always though Mark was the more serious type and this expedition into the unknown certainly would sound, at first blush, quite the risky venture.  But he had savings to tide him over and a plan.  “Bill, if I come back in a year or two it means I failed.  I think there’s opportunity down there.”  Such were the utterings of Mark, made in all seriousness.  So he left after all those goodbyes were exchanged and all the good wishes were gathered into the standard package of slaps on the back and handshakes.

Now me, I’m no surfer dude.  I don’t swim all that well, can’t even kneel on a board, and don’t have the upper body strength needed to paddle out to catch the waves.  My childhood disability limited my athletic ability.  But I would watch Mark off Santa Cruz’s Steamer’s Lane and could see that he knew his stuff.  As for Brazil, I knew what I remembered from the Disney Cartoon created back in the fifties and the music that drifted up to the states in the mid sixties and made Brazil 66 very popular in the late sixties.  Beyond that I only knew its history in a cursory manner, you know, read a few books written in the late fifties and scanned a few Look and Life magazines in the sixties.  When it comes to South America, I am not totally ignorant but I am hardly up to date.  Like Mark, I had an inkling of desire to drift down to Brazil or Argentina, maybe Peru.  It seemed like one of those exotic ideas that pop up in your youth.  But now Mark had blazed a trail for those who might wish to follow.  Seems I got bushwacked and all pretence of world exploration was purged from my memory.  I think we have as many regrets about what we never did as we do from what we have done.

Mark was the one who traveled in our stead and the time passed, as it always does, and fifteen years had flown by when he returned.  One thing leads to another and we finally caught up to compare notes.  Mine were plebeian while his were herculean.   Well, he had been somewhere and I had not.  About fifteen years later I chanced upon Mark at a former haunt of his in Aptos.  It was a restaurant where those in the know would go for brunch.  The omelettes were impeccable, individual works of art.  As I recall, they had a very good house chardonnay.  I was sipping my coffee while reading the Sunday SF Chronicle, not really aware of the coming and going of customers, when I felt a hand on my shoulder.  “Bill, is that you?”  The voice was strangely familiar.  Familiar because I thought I had heard it before and strange because I hadn’t heard that voice in a decade or two.  Mark quickly sat down in the chair across from my table as I was turning my head in his direction.  “Hey dude, you look surprised.”

Well, I am pleasantly surprised to see you here.  I thought you had permanent residence in Brazil?”

“I did, dude.  But I had to get out.  Things were getting ugly down there.” Mark sounded a little depressed or at least sad.  Normally he had that happy go lucky personality.  This was a new dimension I saw in his demeanor.

“So what happened?  Why’d you leave?”

Mark gave me a tired look and then spotted someone in the crowd.  “Look, I’ll tell you more later.  Can we meet tomorrow night?  say about seven?”  He quickly wrote ad address and a slip of paper and handed it to me.  “Got to go.  See you then.”  Then he left as quickly and he had come.  I saw him accompany a woman out the door and that was that.

Tomorrow night came and i was arrived at the address.  It was a run down apartment complex in Santa Cruz.  One would expect students UCSC to occupy the premises.  Santa Cruz had gone through its boom and bust periods and this way definitely one of the busts.  I climbed up the stairs and walked over to the door.  In my hand I held two bottles of decent wine, nothing expensive but drinkable.  Wine was one of the ties that held us together, strange as that may seem.  So I knocked on the door and waited the few seconds before it was opened.  “Hello Mark, how’s it going?”

“Good to you, Bill, come in.  You remembered!  What are we drinking tonight?”  A bottle of wine or two between friends does much to keep that friendship in good repair.

“Oh, just a couple of Haut-Medocs, nothing special.  You got a cork screw handy?”

“You know I do.  By the way, meet Chris, I’m staying with him.  Good thing you brought two bottles.  Here, you do the honors.”  as he handed me the cork puller.  Chris was a tall and dark complexion man of about thirty, a little younger than Mark.  He held out his hand in a timid manner.  Well, I was a stranger and dressed better, a bad habit of mine as I tend not to dress too far down.  As if to ease my concerns Mark continued, “Chris is a surfer friend of mine.  He’s helping me get back on my feet.  He’s good people.”

Mark found three glasses suitable for the wine as I opened the first bottle.  Then I poured out what seemed to be about four ounces into the glasses.  Mark motioned to me to sit in the chair as he and Chris occupied the couch.  “You know Bill, I always had that dream to travel to Brazil and I just had to take the opportunity.  Say, this is good Medoc.  Nice.”

“My pleasure, Mark.  I found half a case in San Leandro at a really cheap price.  Sort of like the old days.”

“Yeah, I remember.  You always had the nose of good wine.  Of course in Brazil one couldn’t always find good wine, at least not for the first five years I was there.  But Rio had other compensations, you know?  I tell you, some of the spots I found the surfing was really gnarly.  Some of the best I have surfed.  There are maybe half a dozen spots in the Rio area and I’ve suffered them all.  You know, we used to go on treks both north and south and I swear, some fantastic places to grove, you know?

“Yeah, but you were doing more than surfing, Mark.  I’m sure the locals had their own surfer culture.”  Well, it was something of a challenge to Mark’s way of thinking.  Mark was usually more excited when talking about surfing.  I mean, the man lived and breathed surfing.  There was much that he was not telling.

“Well, the first couple of years I was establishing myself.  You know, showing the locals that I could surf, perhaps better than them.  It’s that fitting into the pecking order and I has at the top of that order.  But you and I know that surfing doesn’t pay much.  Yeah, a few competitions and a bit of prize money, but not enough to keep to feed the habit.  It’s a different culture down there, you know?  So after a couple of years while I was banging on an old guitar I chanced to come upon a small club that needed a quartet to boost its sales.  So I make the right connections and I start learning that Bossa Nova style and I’m playing in the club and surfing in my spare time.  I mean, Bill, we are there at Ipanema and it’s all really beautiful.  You Know?”

Mark’s descriptions and tale of adventure had worn through the first bottle so I was obliged to open the second one.  “So Bill, I’m making a little money playing music and I make a few bucks teaching the upper middle class women how to surf.  It’s a racket, Bill, a license to steal.  I mean, I must have has half a dozen women paying me for lessons and, well, let’s face it, sex.”

Contrary to Gidget and other “surfing” movies, it’s an expensive hobby.  Mark had taught me that early in life.  You learn how to surf as a teenager because that’s when yo have the time and the money, even if it’s mom’s or dad’s.  “So how long did that go on, Mark?”

“I just fell into the habit, you know, it was so easy.  I mean most of the dudes surfing were doing it.  But I was the novelty, the American.  Then I noticed that my skills weren’t as good as they had been.  My mind wasn’t on surfing, it was on who would I take on next.  You know Bill, I was becoming addicted to the money, I was growing fat.  There was a sort of isolated beach area where the waves were really good and there weren’t any crowds.  Just small towns with maybe a hotel and a few hundred houses.  Sort of cut off from the world.  I mean, that’s where I needed to be, get my head together.”  Mark paused to sit back and take a few sips from his glass.  I could tell he was almost in another world from the look his eyes get when he is concentrating hard.  Suddenly his head jerked forward.  “Dude, this is really good wine.  Where’d you get it?”

“I found it up in the city.  One of those mom and pop stores was going out of business and I bought two cases on the spot.  Just a couple dollars a bottle.  You want a few bottles?”  I usually don’t go around hand out bottles of good wine to just anybody but Mark was a good friend back when and we were renewing that friendship tonight.

“Thanks dude for the offer.  Maybe when I got my own place, know what I mean?  I’ve got a deal with one of the board makers, he’s looking for someone to do some design work.  Kind of foot in the door position.  Got to do some of the epoxy work and help with sales.”  He paused for almost a minute then continued, “Last couple of years I tried to go into the business but things got tough down there.”

“How so, too much competition?”

“More than that.  As I was telling you, that little village on the coast changed me.  I had enough savings to surf for four or five months.  I didn’t need much.  Had a small tent to sleep, go to the market for some food.  There were fruit trees and wild vegetables in the hills.  The only misery was the occasional rain storms.  Sometimes I would go into one of the cafes at night and listen to the music.  It was the music, Bill, that saved me.  You know how we used to make fun of that commercial Bossa Nova junk they played on AM?  This was the real stuff.  They played and sang with real feeling and it had a lot of variation.  I mean, it got to the point where I was in one of the cafes almost every night.  I was picking up the language reel good too.  Some one gave me an old guitar and I started practicing chords and later fingers.  Me and some of the locals would be on the beach surfing and practicing and singing.  And then we go to the cafe and play all night.  A couple of months turned into a couple of years.  I’ll tell you Bill, I should’ve stayed there.”

I sat amazed by Mark’s tale.  Only a few individuals can take an ordinary life and turn it into an exotic adventure.  “Sounds like the perfect surfer’s heaven to me.  What made you leave?”

“One of the young women had a good voice and wanted to go to Rio.  She wanted to be a professional singer with all the fame and fortune she could get.  So I went with her, you know, as kind of a protector.  I did it as a favor to her father.  The old man had been good to me, let me use a room in his barn and made sure I had regular meals.  So I told him I’d look after her.”  He studied me for a minute.  “I know all this sounds crazy but I’m telling you what’s real.  In Rio everyone is a hustler, one way or another.  I should have remembered sooner, but I wanted things to be different.”  I saw the mist forming in his eyes and his voice lost his normal ease.  He spoke a little more slowly, a little more deliberate, almost as if each word was an individual pain accumulated over years of suffering.  “We went to the small clubs and cafes, not the best places to work but that’s where you get your foot in the door.  I didn’t know the business and we got fleeced a couple of times, but we survived.  Ana, that was her name, was starting to get known locally.  Well, after a year or so of struggling with small clubs we got a break.  A larger club in Downtown Rio signed her to a year long contract.  Ana was attracting a good audience.  She was becoming a hot property.  Bill, that’s when the real trouble started.  Ana became impatient for the fame and the money.  I tried my best to look after her but that music scene is full of sharks and cutthroats.  I was being edged out.”

Mark dropped his eyes to the floor for several minutes.  When a man has a painful story to tell you don’t rush him.  I could have guessed the ending if this had been the usual Hollywood movie, but I was in for a rude surprise.  “Bill, I really tried to protect her, I really did.  I still came round to the club and watched her.  The owner was making every attempt to seduce her.  Then one night I saw a look in her eyes that chilled me.  She was staring right at me, Bill.  She was pleading with me.  Then the owner noticed her look and followed her stare to me.  Five minutes later a couple of big guys were hustling me out of the club.  They beat the shit out of me, Bill.

I was in the charity hospital for a month trying to recover.  Finally they told me to leave, I was well enough and they needed my bed.  Hell, I was still on crutches, had no money and no where to go.  I had to sell my board for what little money I could get.  There was no way I could go back up north to the village, her father would kill me.  No, I’d have to go the the consulate and see if they could get me back to the states.  That took a few days to arrange and I was books on a flight for the next day.  Bill, I had to go back and see Ana one last time, I really did.  So I went to the club that night.  I saw the change on her face, in her eyes and in her voice.  She had a hard melancholy look about her, you know, that lost woman look.  Anyhow, her eyes sought me out.  It was as if she knew I’d be there that night.  And when she did, she started screaming about all the abuse the club owner had given her.  I mean, what she was saying about him was really bad, criminal.  The band leader tried to shut her up but she persisted.  As they dragged her off the stage she broke free and her accusations were even worse.  Something about two murders she had witnessed him doing.  I think that last confession is what did it.  The owner was suddenly on the stage and I saw him slice her throat.  The blood just flowed.”  Mark stopped his story, his face drained of all its blood.

Nothin From Nothin

We all have people in our past that have made an impression upon us in one way or another, some for the good and some for the not so good. I’ve never been close to those who went on the fame or glory but I( have know a couple of individuals who had run ins with authority in one way or another.  I was in my early thirties when I met Marshal Fields, no, no that that Fields of retail fame, possibly a very distant relation but we shall leave it at that.  The circle I traveled in was wine oriented at that time.  I worked a great deal of overtime and I could afford very excellent wines, mostly the older French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.  At the time the American dollar was very strong and could buy a lot of classic wine.  I was holding an informal wine tasting at my apartment one Saturday night and one of my friends brought along a young man of twenty two.  That was the first time I met Marshall and he made quite the impression on me.  I had collected half a dozen third and fifth growth Bordeaux for the evening’s fare, the vintage was 1964.  I am always astounded that in the mediocre and poor rated vintages the lesser growths seem to invariably make some very excellent wines.

 

There were eight of us, nine with Marshall, and we held semi regular wine tastings, opportunities to open a couple of bottles, sit back and examine the wines and generally socialize.  Usually I provide some imported cheeses since on of my friends managed a franchise retail establishment called The Cheese Shop.  His brother in law owned the property and John found himself with a profession by way of family appointment.  I met his brother many times, a very nice man.  The shop also sold wine, hence the connection.  You know how it is, you pick up friends from your interests of hobbies.  Paul was the assistant manager of a corner delicatessen and small wine shop.  He and Marshall had been childhood friends, so Paul asked if I wouldn’t mind the extra.  He promised to bring a bottle of something interesting, which meant it would be very good or not so good.  Alan Bilter was there, holding court, as usual.  He was a wine salesman for one of the major wholesalers and had many years of training in wine.  I mean, the man was damn good, as good as any of the illustrious wine critics, maybe better.  He was our teacher, our instructor, and our friend.  This circle of friends ever expands and I have come into contact with many in the industry of the older days, before wine became a religion in California.  But that is neither here nor there.

 

Marshall was an impressive young man.  He rated at the master’s level in chess.  He regularly practiced with a professional soccer team who was always after him to join their team.  He was taking a degree in mathematics at the local university and had a wide knowlege on many subjects.  His nose and palate were very good and he knew food as well as wine.  Most of all, he was charismatic.  By that I mean that when you and he held a conversation you felt that you two were the only ones in the room.  His focus was that damn good.  If ever there was a young man destine to great things, Marshall was that young man.  And to top it off, he could exude a sense of humility, common man stuff.  I’ve met only one other man who came halfway near to Marshall’s abilities.  But to continue our party, we all sat around and did our swirling of wine in the glass, sniffing the bouquet, and tasting in sips each wine throughout the night.  Ah, the joys of a good wine.  Opening the bottle, letting breathe a bit, the initial contact and examination, and then carefully the wine develop over the course of an evening.  It is truly a thing of beauty and we all loved beauty.  Of course we seldom had women to our tastings.  Nothing is worse than a woman who wears more than a hit of perfume.  The wine virtually suffocates in her presence, DOA, as it were.  For centuries the French had banned all women from their cellars to keep the wine safe from being hijacked by odors not natural to wine.  And that goes for men who wear more than a hint of aftershave or cologne.  Now if you have before you some two buck chuck in gallon jugs then any addition of foreign aroma is bound to be an improvement, but better wine deserves respect.

 

So we imbibe and talk.  Not just sealing wax and things.  No, we talk of wine and wineries and vineyards and business and politics and art and literature and , well almost everything except sports or television.  Towards the end of the evening I pull out from my cellar, such as it is, a couple of bottles of a German riesling and finally a bottle of vintage port complete with the Stilton, the slices of pippin apple and walnuts.  Maybe some cognac as a nightcap for those who wish to sleep over and the evening ends about two am.  Wimps are not welcome to these affairs.  Before I remarried I had a more enjoyable seven years of contentment.  To this day I wondered what happened to it.  No use crying over spilt wine unless it’s 52 La Tache.  That the second marriage was not.  Shame, I had such high hopes.  But I digress.  Yes, wine appreciation is sometimes considered a competitive sport for non athletic men but I have seen not a few women bent on catching up to the “old boys” and bully for them.  They earn their scars the hard way, just as we did.

 

So a friendship developed between Marshall and myself, including his girlfriend, Bebe.  Bebe was an interesting woman, perhaps a year, maybe two, older than Marshall.  She had gone to the professional culinary school in a nearby city and was trying to develop her own catering and cooking school business.  I come by cooking, or being a chef as I like to call it, in a most natural way.  I seem to understand food and seasoning.  Bebe helped to perfect my abilities when I hosted dinner for eight at my place.  Unofficially my dinners came to be known as the four-thirty club because they rarely ended before four thirty in the morning.  It was quite an affair since the wines, all top notch, were paired to the courses, all seven or eight or nine, depending on how you wanted to count them.  She and Marshall often attended my dinners.  sometimes she even helped in the prep work which would start two or three days in advance.  The making of stock takes two days.  and Marshall would often invite me to dinner somewhere.  It might be local or it might be at some winery or even a California sparkling winery with commercial restaurant.  I remember when eight of us helped Bebe buy a table at the Picnic at the Opera charity event.  My contribution was a jeroboam of a very good grand mark champagne and a salmanazar of a vintage Pomerol, premier cru, of course.  That took a big chunk out of my overtime pay.  But hey, just the doing of something grand is worth the effort and even the cost.  Bebe had prepared a feast that made the upper class matrons look positively middleclass with their red and white checkered table clothes and hot dogs on a white bread bun.  I swear, many of those people have little or no taste.  Bebe should have won first prize but she was allowed second for the simple reason that one couldn’t argue with the fare or the decorations.   That was a night to remember.

 

I remember that a good deal of my life was that off the wall living and experience.  I suppose I am a walking oxymoron, be that as it may.  Marshall came into a bit of inheritance and bought a failing delicatessen and wine shop.  Bebe planned to do a cooking school and catering for it had the facilities for such an endeavor.  The location was good, upscale clientele and walk in traffic.  As I said, Marshall was the kind of guy one expected to make a success of life in a big way.  He had millionaire written all over him.  Yet, like Achilles, he had a mortal point of weakness.  Marshall was afraid of failure.  I could never figure that out.  Here was a guy whose IQ was above mine, and I am in that fifth deviation from the norm (some people claim I am just a deviate and perhaps they are right) and he has every thing going for him.  He’s hansom, athletic, highly intelligent, the list goes on.  But he is afraid of failure.  I mean, literally afraid of failure to the point that he often withdrew from his university classes for fear of failing the final.  I mean, he could do the work but he suffered from that testing paralysis that destroys so many gifted individuals.  I think that is why he never turned professional in soccer.  He had the talent but was afraid of failing come game time.  Now I have that problem of commitment.  That is, I take my time before I commit and then I jump in the deep end, sink of swim, do or die.  I too, have a fear of failure.  But I will take the chance, try to do what I perceive as impossible and then do it.  It’s a difficult feeling to convey to others, I assure you.  But Marshall would never jump.  He would never take that chance to do or die.

 

We might look at his family and start to see some of the answers.  Dear old Dad was successful from what I have been told, amassed a few million in fortune.  Older brother John started an electronics company, was one of those geniuses whom the university had little to teach him.  Even sister Sarah found a sort of fame in the social sciences.  Marshall was the youngest and perhaps that is what made the difference.  Marshall turned to drugs and drug dealing.  He went through his share of the family fortune is a few years and found his business had gone bankrupt.  I wonder why.  Eventually Bebe left him.  funny that she turned to real estate as her method of supporting herself.  She left for another city and I never saw her again.  The last I heard of Marshall was that he was on the run from the one of the Colombian cartels, had burned some cartel underlings and was wanted by the feds.  After that he was supposedly doing ten years in federal prison and in some informant program and who knows what.  the friends, both childhood and adult, have never heard from him since, and that was thirty five years ago.  Sad, all one can say is, sad.  I am several states removed from that old circle of friends, only a few remain known to me.  I live more modestly these days, I am retired and no overtime nor millions in savings.  The old day are gone.  Would i welcome Marshall back into my life?  Perhaps, but I would ever be wary.  He burned his closest friend and I was lucky not to be among them.  But I don’t expect to see him here, in this state.  It’s too far from his memories.

The Daddy Test

One Sunday my daughter and her boyfriend drove up from the valley to our house in the mountains. We were having a family affair of some kind and my step daughter was staying the weekend with her husband and two children as were my step son with wife and brood in tow.  If I remember I was roasting a nice bone in rib roast and fixing the trimmings.  You know how that goes, bake potatoes, green beans with almonds and what all that went with it.  Family get togethers are like that.  A lot of food, some good wines, all the good things in life.  Meanwhile my wife played with her grandchildren and traded gossip with the adult children.  We were close to sitting down to eat when Rebecca, my daughter, and her beau walked in.  Introductions all the way round and niceties of family behavior, the curiosity of children satisfied for the moment, and now we are ready to eat.  I carve the roast and the women serve the food.  Time for a good wine and a little supper talk.

 

Rob doesn’t have much to say and I don’t blame him, after all, this is a new experience.  He doesn’t know us and we don’t know him and my daughter caters to his needs.  Jeff, the step daughter’s husband, is talking about work and the latest management screw up and what a grind work is.  Hey, I’ve been there and can commiserate with him.  We talk about his prospects for a raise and a possible promotion.  Rob’s only comment is “Oh, you work for that company?”  Well that and the weather are safe subjects.  My step son, Bobby starts to talk about moving to Colorado, he thinks he can get a job there as an electrician.  His wife chimes in that the community is rural.  We have discussed this before after they came back from a trip there to scout the area.  Again, Rob is being polite, I guess, “Is that up in the mountains?”  Bobby answers his questions and Rob is silent once more.  I’m thinking this could be a nice boy for my daughter, I don’t know, he hasn’t said much.  My impression is still neutral at this point.  The food and wine are making my enjoyment of the day complete.  so the end of the meal is at hand and I am lending a hand clearing the table and cleaning up in the kitchen.  I have a tendency to clean as I cook but today the food prep got away from my usual efforts and so I load the dishwasher and do a few odds and ends in the sink while others are putting the left overs away.

 

Now the fire needs another log or two and a bit of stoking and ash removal.  Wood fires take some maintenance.  Rob has never lived in a house where such things are commonplace and I explain the basic process of using wood heat what the chores that must be done to keep that heat steady.  Rob has a blank face.  Well, not everyone knows this things and the younger generation is remarkably ignorant on the basics of living.  So I sit in my chair and immediately three cats are in my lap, they aren’t dumb.  Daddy’s lap is warm in the winter and he strokes our fur occasionally and gives us treats.  He is the good daddy.  The Saint Bernard is at my feet expecting a rub or two with my feet.  God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world.  Now the conversation begins.  Rebecca explains that she and Rob are attending the local junior college and she is getting good grades.  I ask her what she is taking and she answers, the usual second year fare and her GPA is 3.0.  “Ah, good, very good indeed.  Do you have any problem classes?”  “Yes, I’m having problems with college algebra.”  I answer that one way to overcome that problem is to write out all the formulas and laws on 3 by 5 cards and make sure you memorize them.  The other is to do all the questions in each chapter.  Yes, I know, it’s a pain but that usually works.  Certainly helped me out.”

 

Now I ask Rob what he is taking in JC.  Rob says he is taking English composition and Algebra I.  “Oh, is that all?”  “Well, I have to work and so I don’t have a great deal of time for more classes and studying.”  Yes, yes, yes, time is a common problem for the young.  So I innocently inquire, “What do you want to do with your life?”  Out of the corner of my eye I see that Jeff has perked up in anticipation.  Yes, I did ask that very question of him and he failed most miserably in his answer.  The young, as a rule, seldom know what they want to do in life.  I know this is true because I didn’t know at that age any more than the average teenager/young adult.  We often back into our careers under some rather unusual circumstances.  Well. rob had his answer ready for me.  “I want to teach literature in public secondary school.”  Ah, most commendable of him.  Ask a leading question and watch them step into it, deeply.  “So, who are your favorite authors?”  That would be an appropriate question of someone who wants the teach literature, wouldn’t you think?  Sensing that perhaps his memory was offline at the moment I ventured that I liked literature and found the early novelists to be interesting.  “Certainly Pilgrims progress excites the mind of the believers while Dante showed us the torture of religious conviction when taken to the limit.”  Stunned silence.  “Still, while I find Jane Austin and the Bronte sisters interesting I appreciate Hard all the more for that historic period.”  More silence, “But perhaps you favor John Galsworthy’s critique of English society and government at the turn of the century.  And certainly Somerset Maugham wrote critical novels and short stories.  Did you ever read The Moon And Sixpence?”  Poor boy, his eye were like a deer caught in the headlights.  Seems he has never bothered to read literature.  “I’ve never read those authors.”  “Ah, then who is your favorite author?”  There you go kid, you should be able to supply one name.  Well, that name escaped his memory.

 

Meanwhile my eldest granddaughter came down the stairs with a most impatient message.  “Grampa, the computer doesn’t work!”  “Oh, Heather, that’s too bad.  I’ll be right up.”  So I disengaged the cats from my lap and started up the stairs accompanied by Jeff, Bobby, and of all people, Rob.  I go into the bedroom where I have an old 286 machine I built myself and sit down in front of the screen.  I see the blue screen of death.  the computer has “locked up”  or more precisely, it has reached an endless loop state and program can’t recover.  Rob is the first to offer advice.  I need to use control, alt, and delete to break the loop.  “Rob, the operating system is BSD, a version of UNIX.  A simple break command will suffice.”  And it did.  Again, Rob was quick with another stock piece of advice.  “Maybe you need to run the Defrag program?”  Rob, this is UNIX.  One mounts and unmounts the files.  The utility to run is somewhat different from Microsoft.  The real problem is the MS-DOS operating system these game run on.  It’s a piece of horridly written crap.  So I simply take the simulator for MS-DOS and reset it and the programs will run again.  There are floppy disk programs the kids are playing on, very simple programming.  This is not like the Pentium 4 I have in the other room, different animal.  As I was finishing what I was doing, Bobby looked at Rob and said,”My dad knows a lot about computers, it’s his job.”  Another deer caught in the headlights.

 

After Rob and Rebecca left for the long drive back down the mountain I hear Jeff sniggering.  Karen, his wife asked what was so funny.  “You remember when your dad gave me the Daddy Test?  Well Rob just flunked it big time.”  Karen was giggling, “You mean that’s why he had that scowl on his face?”  Jeff was jubilant for Rob had flunked the Daddy Test far worse that he.  I mean, Jeff was almost in tears from the laughter.  Bobby was amused as was his wife, Sylvia.  I gave her that female version of the Daddy Test before they eloped.  As for Rob, rebecca told me that for the two hour trip home he was raging at me.  In fact, he kept it up for two days.  Hey, if you don’t know your shit why pretend that you do?  Two lessons in life everyone needs to learn: never bullshit a bullshitter; and never assume Daddy it dumb and stupid.  Rebecca told me that Rob’s failure merely moved up the timetable of moving out and moving on.  Rob, well I guess he is still working at 7-11 and telling all the tennyboppers how smart he is.

My Heros Have Always Been Cowboys

Times were hard for me back when Bob Dylan once sang, ‘ you’re all alone and you’re out on your own like a rolling stone’….I was in Cincinnati working in a small factory for minimum wage and lucky to get that. I was looking at life and almost terrified of the future. When a man, or perhaps a woman, is young a year seems like a life time. Anyone over thirty is ancient history and should be praised for living so long.  Living in the YMCA downtown Cincy my only advantage was my Pennsylvania driver’s license, that stub of an IBM card printed with graphite instead of ink.  Take a razor and gently scrape away the graphite and use a number four pencil to change that last digit of the year of my birth.  Viola, I was twenty two, drinking age for all that it was worth.  I could buy real beer not that 3.2 crap.  When you’re new in town friends are difficult to make.  I mean, where do you go who do you meet.  I could take a hike toward the University of Cincinnati and find some beer bar and dance hall that catered to students, that was good for a night of dancing with the coeds but none of them were going to ask you back to their dorm.  I couldn’t afford a television set, things cost too much back then.  No, I was just breaking even at my rate of pay and no promise of milk and honey in the future.

 

But I did by chance meet the old man of the “Y”, well as far as I knew he might have been a hundred or thirty five for all I knew.  He lived in the “Y” for many years as far as I could find out.  The staff called him the Old Timer.  As such, he never seemed to have much money on him and always trying to mooch off the others, new strangers were his targets.  I guess he figured I had more money than sense.  He guessed wrong for a man can part with what he doesn’t have.  I think I said that right.  But I could buy a couple of cans of Colt 45 malt liquor every Saturday and I didn’t mind sharing.  So I’d go to his room and we would talk.  Actually he did most of the talking.  Loquacious is what it’s called and he was very.  I think though his world was more dream that reality.  Still, it was worth the can of malt liquor just to hear him talk.  I remember the first time he circumlocuted his way through that vast mine of memories.  The nuggets he pulled out were huge and sparkled like gold in the noonday sun to a youth of little experience.

 

“Bill, my heroes have always been cowboys.  I remember as a young kid going down to the Bijou and handing over my nikel to the woman in the cage in front of the theater just so I could see Tom Mix on that big silver screen.  Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard were larger than any men I ever knew.”  His face would brighten some as his eyes became slightly moist.  “You know they never drew down on a man first and never shot a man in the back.  No sir, never.  They were true to the code of the cowboy.  Yes sir re bob.”  Then he’d take another sip from the can, pause in thought for a moment, then look far off into the distance, far beyond the walls of his room, perhaps as far away as Hollywood.  “My how them fellas could ride and shoot.  All real good shots too.  You got to time it just right when you shoot from the saddle.  I just knew that was the life for me.  A man’s word is his honor, Bill, don’t you forget that.”  I said I wouldn’t, yes, I would be truthful.  I thought he was an old fool.  Never saw him go off to work or do much of anything.  Just a old man down on his luck.  He’d been kicked out of the television room and I can guess why.  The set would only show two channels and most people wanted to watch sitcoms or cop shows.  The few times that anyone was foolish enough to turn on a western that old man would be talking over the volume.  He’d be expounding about everything western, from horses to bunkhouses.  Might as well turn the set off.

 

Another sip and more reflections.  I listened.  For a couple of hours I was halfway entertained.  The only other thing I could do was to walk about the city for a couple of hours wishing I had friends and a nice place to live and a girlfriend.  At least I could sit and drink a little, smoke my cigarettes and hope the old timer had something interesting to say.  “Now we lived in New Jersey in Camden.  Never saw a horse in my life until I left home and headed west.  No sir, weren’t no horses in that city.  It was the Depression, Bill, when I left home.  My father was out of work and my mother had to take in washing and ironing just to get by.  Me and my brother, John, well, there just wasn’t any work for us.  So we left.  I quit school like my older brother cause I knew my mother was working herself to death trying to make ends meet.  You got to do what’s right in life, Bill.  Come hell or high water, you got to do what’s right.”  His voice trailed off, almost as if he was watching the past on those big screen eyes of his.  Another sip, man he had it down pat, how to milk the liquid out of a can of beer, make it last for hours.  He wasn’t as successful with his money.  Don’t know where he got that little pittance of his.  I only know there was too much month left after he paid for his room and weekly meal ticket.  The only life he seemed to have was his memories.  But I was young and callow and absorbed in my own lack of success.

 

“I rode the rails then.  Rode them all over this country.  Sometimes the bulls would get you and you might do a month on the farm.  Then out you go, run out of town and not even a nickel in your pocket.  I wanted work, but nobody was hiring.  Even in Montana and Wyoming, there I thought I could get work as a cowboy, you know.  They all laughed at me, call me a goll dern tenderfoot.  Well, that’s part of the code, telling the truth.  I was a tenderfoot.  What did I know about riding a horse?”  He took another sip and settled into that stare of his.  It always left me hanging until he would start again.  Perhaps he was teaching me a little bit about patience.  How to let a man tell his life’s story with out interruption.  “Never speak ill of any man, even if you’ve got a grudge.  Go walk in his boots first.  Yes sir, you’ve got to be gentle and kind to women and children and animals.  Especially animals cause they cant speak for themselves.  No sir, never harm anyone or anything less’n you have to.  You know, protect yourself. It’s the Cowboy Code, Bill, and a darn good one.  Yes, a darn good one.”  His voice trailed off again into that stare of his.  Another sip and some more thought.  You know, I made it to Los Angeles in ’36, Hollywood is near by there.  I tried to get work in the studios.  I though I could be a cowboy or a stunt man or extra.  They all just laughed at me.  Sent me packing.  I’d sneak onto those sets, find the ones where they was doing a western, you know.  Eventually they got so used to seeing me that I became one of the prop men.  Me, in Hollywood.”  He showed that sense of surprise at that thought.  His eyes moisten slightly and he held his head a little higher.  “All I did was stand around and move props when they told me.  Couldn’t do nothing else.  They wouldn’t even let me be an extra, said I had to join a union for that.  We didn’t make much, a dollar a day and that’s more than the extras could do seeing as how their work wasn’t steady.  It was the depression, you know.  I was grateful for any work.”

 

Another sip and another thought appeared on his brow.  “The war came, Bill.  Being patriotic is a cowboy’s duty, so I went down to enlist.  The gave me all sorts of tests and then said they couldn’t use me.  Imagine that, Bill.  They said they couldn’t use me.  Well the pay got better for us set workers and I use to volunteer at those canteens for the service men.  And every year I’d go down and try to enlist.  But is was always the same answer.  We don’t need you.  We don’t need you.”  Another stare into the wall, then another sip and another thought.  “Anyway, I got hurt in an accident on one of the sound stages, couldn’t work no more.  They pensioned me off, said they couldn’t use me anymore.  Just like that, they couldn’t use me any more.”  I could hear the pain in his voice.  I could not understand it then as I do now.  Most of his life had been full of pain.  Yet his cowboy code bade him to bear it without complaint.  It became just another sip.  Months later I’d be in the service, seems they needed me.

Still The One

After all these years, you’re still the one.  I had an appointment downtown in the city and since I am averse to traveling on the commuter trains during rush hour I had taken a mid morning train.  The meeting was scheduled for late afternoon and not wanting to waste the entire day worrying about its outcome, there were some picayune details that could affect my tax return and hence my income, I resolved to spend a few hours shopping.  My daughter’s birthday was coming up and I had no idea what I should give her, I am not up on the latest fad or fashion.  Besides, she is of an age where the gift must either be practical or esoteric.  I detest practical so I opted for esoteric and that meant searching in the out of the way shops.  You know the ones, sort of second hand and Asian import places when one just might find a real bargain or even a hidden antique.

 

I walked up the boulevard a couple of miles, a good stretch of the leg as they say, to an area where the streets are narrow and the buildings past their prime by several decades.  Red brick with soft edges, the decades of erosion, face the store fronts and apartments above them and the mix of inhabitants, both young and old seem to have that sort of worn look to match the neighborhood.  The haberdashers, dressmakers, green grocers, and dry goods stores left long ago after the invasion of the A&P and the cut-rate chain stores.  Customer loyalty switched by necessity to lower prices, the affect of lower wages and higher rents.  Life here is a struggle, survival of the fittest.  It was the third shop I entered that was, by chance, a fortuitous adventure.  The owners were in the process of liquidating their inventory as best they could before selling the lot to consignment brokers.  The doors to the courtyard in the back were open and a small group of people were gathered around a couple seated at one of several tables.  Curiosity propelled me into the courtyard to witness this event.  Several minutes passed as I stood observing what looking like a celebration of some sort.  Perhaps it was a wedding anniversary or the retirement of the couple, I could not tell.  A young man of forty something approached me (at my age, most people are younger, believe me) and stared rather hard at me for at least a minute.  “I’m sorry if I have intruded upon a private party but the door was open and the joyful noises were so inviting.”  I hoped that my apology would be accepted.  “I know you.  I know who you are!” the young man was quite enthusiastic on this point.  “You’re the writer!  I bought your book.  Look, momma, papa, this is Mr Lynn.  The writer.”  I was stunned.  True, I have published two novels and a few short stories but I am hardly a household name.  My sales and income will bear that point out.

 

I found myself being ushered into the presence of a couple who might have been into their seventies together.  A strange thing about age is that the longer a couple remains married the more then tend to look like each other.  If it were not for the long hair of the one I would have had difficulty telling the husband from the wife.  Well, the dress helped identify her, too.  Another son brought a chair for me and placed it beside the couple, obviously I have become a person of importance in their lives.  The husband started, “I’m Joseph and this is my wife, Margret, Joe and Maggie to our friends.  This is our fiftieth wedding anniversary so we are celebrating, as you can see.”  Joe pointed to the man who identified me, “That is John, my oldest son and that’s his wife, the one in the yellow dress.  Behind me, ‘come here Joe’, is Joe junior, my second son.  Maggie always said the second son should have my name, it gives him an equal position with my first born.”  Joe paused for a minute and beamed at Maggie and then looked around at the other guests.  “Joe junior’s wife isn’t here at the moment, she went to fetch so more food from the Italian place around the corner, Luigi’s Place.  It’s not like the old days when Luigi was alive.  It’s all canned sauce and over cooked pasta.”  A few of the other guests were giveing assenting nods and sighs.

 

One by one Joe introduced his guests, neighbors of many years, many decades.  Occasionally Maggie would have something to say about  them, “Elenore used to babysit John and Joe when I had to see my mother when she was ill.  God rest her soul.”  Or “David was always handy with the electricity in the building.”  I could feel the affection she had for each of her neighbors that were present.  My life was shifted back in time to the “old days”, times of which I still retained a few memories however dim today.  So I asked, “How did you meet each other?”  There was a prolonged silence, a couple of sighs, and then Joe spoke.  “We grew up in the same neighborhood in Baltimore.  We went to the same schools and the same church.  It was June and I already had received my draft notice.  Well, one thing led to another and the next thing we knew, we eloped.  Maggie had to skip her senior year and I had to find a job.”  I worked general labor, you know, not very good pay.  Life was hard and her father hated me.”  “Joe, you know that wasn’t true, my father just didn’t think you were ready for marriage.”  “Maybe your old man was right, I don’t know.  All I know is that we had a one room apartment and your were pregnant.  I was working for a small factory that only paid minimum wage, what that, a dollar an hour maybe?  We either walked or took the bus, couldn’t afford a car.  God, how I hated those days.”  “Joe!  We were happy, you know that.  Remember?  We’d eat crab at that place two blocks around the corner.  It was cheap then, not like today.”  “Then the factory went bust and I was out of work again.  You were pregnant with Joe Junior then.  I didn’t think we were going to make it.  I felt so crazy trying to find work and make ends meet.  Sometimes I think I should have enlisted, learn a trade and maybe have a nest egg when I got out.  You remember how bad it was, Maggie.  But my aunt gave us the money for the hospital bill.  What was that, about four hundred.  That was a lot back then, about eight or nine weeks work before taxes.”

 

Joe and Maggie told me the story of their lives together.  All the hard times and the good times.  The sons chimed in with their accounts.  It was not your typical Hollywood story with special effects and neatly written scripts and that happy ever after routine.  well, perhaps they were having that happy ever after routine now.  So I asked,”How did you come to buy this place and how long were did you have it?”  Joe continued,”Oh, the big factories like Martin closed down, went down south or where ever.  what was left was still heavily union, know what I mean?  You had to know a couple of guys in the union to find work.  No union card, no work, that simple.  A lot of the small places folded up, went out of business.  Seems like every two years, when I could get a job, the place I worked for went bust.  What year was it, Maggie?  About 1982?  Yeah, the year Reagan got elected.”  “Yes, dear, that was the year.  And my uncle John, in this city, died and poor Aunt Betty was left with this shop.”  “Oh yeah, I remember now.  Yeah, your aunt Betty didn’t know anything about this business and she said for us to come and live with her and run the place.  Well, not that we had any other options then.  But hey, Maggie has a head for figures so she took to the bookkeeping real quick.  And me, I could talk to customers, you know.  A little positive talk, a little smooze, and I would have me a sale.  Between Maggie and me, we did all right.  I ain’t saying we got rich, but the business kept us in body and soul and a little more.  And then when Aunt Betty died she left both the business and the building to us.  Well, you got to figure, eight apartments can give you a decent income.  Now we’re fifty years older and a developer offered us a nice price on this building.  this neighborhood is suppose to undergo renovation.  So we took the money, gonna go to Florida, maybe.  Well maybe not that far, I here North Carolina is a good place, cheap living and railroad access for half a days trip back here.  we’ve got grandkids to spoil, you know?”

 

I was about to leave for my appointment when Joe pulled me aside in front of Maggie.  “Babe, you know I was so tempted at times to cut and run on you and the kids.  But you know, after all these years you’re still the one I want whispering in my ear.”  “I know, dear, I know.”