Thursday, February 23, 2006

Living Life to the Fullest

We just had lunch with a publisher-client of ours at the local P. F. Chang’s, a sort of high-end Chinese restaurant. We follow the same ritual every year with this client: one morning in late February we meet at their office at 11:00 to discuss production work for five of their college schoolbook catalogs. The meeting inevitably wraps up early. We sit around and chew the fat for a while, then proceed to a restaurant within walking distance where our client treats us to lunch. How do you like that? A guaranteed free lunch every year! They are far and away one of the best clients we’ve ever had. God bless ’em.

So there we were in the restaurant chatting away. I had the presence of mind not to stick chopsticks up my nose just in case that tried and true gag might not work with this crowd (I’ve noticed some people don’t find it funny). I also didn’t ask for the standard Szechwan-style Alley Cat Platter that I once tricked an intern into ordering for me over the phone (true!). I was quite the gentleman really. Mommy would have been proud.

Our main contact for the publisher, Mr. Snrub, who sat to my right, could pass as a Renaissance painter’s model for Dionysus, the god of wine and partying-down. He is quite corpulent and fleshy, rosy-cheeked with tightly-curled hair. He always has a slight smile on his lips and a witticism at the ready. Throw a toga on him, clap a laurel wreath around his head, thrust a goblet of wine into one hand and a bunch of grapes in the other, and there you are.

We were all talking about our kids. He has an 18-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son. The daughter is going to UMass Lowell, and I mentioned that one of mine is going to UMass Boston; both are freshmen as it turns out. My daughter is undeclared, while his is already going for a degree in adolescent psychology; this past semester she earned all A’s except for an A-minus in English (which she vowed to dispute). She plans to spend four years there, get her degree, and then go on to divinity school where she hopes to get ordained as an Episcopal priest. Mr. Snrub wound all this up by saying very casually, “She only has 10 years left to live, so she really has to go for it.”

Honest to God, I thought he said that as a joke, so I chuckled a little. I thought he meant she acts as if she only has 10 years left to live, sort of a comment on the the young and ambitious. The flow of the conversation soon took another tack and I presently found a moment to replay in my mind what he said. Finally I asked him, “I don’t know if I misheard you, but did you mean it when you said your daughter has only 10 years left to live?” He told me yes; she has muscular dystrophy. The only reply I had to that was, “Wow! What a fighter!”

Ay dios mio! Look, hopefully I’ll never know what it’s like to have my life cut short, but I have to admit I have no idea how I would react to that kind of knowledge. The smart money would bet on me being a pitiful, sniffling, whiny crybaby. If you had 10 years left — and you knew it — what would you do? Would you work your ass off like Mr. Snrub’s daughter? Put every ounce of effort into a goal that 10 years from now you won’t be around to see? I’m guessing it must be a kind of legacy she has in mind — you know, make your mark on the world in grand style before time runs out.

That, folks, impresses the hell out of me.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Schprock at 50: A Quick Status Report

I just read an article in The Boston Globe about how men these days are less inclined to color their hair when it starts going grey. It seems that if the guy keeps himself fit, then that’s all that’s needed to give him the feeling of retaining his youth. Some men prefer to manage their greyness, achieving just the right mix of grey with their original natural hair color. And there are plenty of women who report that they go for the salt-and-pepper look. Apparently they think it’s “sexy.”

Well, you can survey the Schprock scalp all you want and not find a single grey hair. Nary a one. Why this is, I can’t explain, except that it took my father a long time to go grey, so I probably inherited this trait from him. A friend of mine has accused me several times of dyeing my hair. He claims every time he sees me, my hair seems to get darker and darker. But the truth is, the only thing I do to my hair is wash it.

So as I take careful inventory of myself on this, the 50th anniversary of my birth, I can report a healthy follicular fastness of color. No figment, just real pigment. It’s the true hue.

I’m skinny, like I’ve always been. My waist has gone from the 32 inches it was in my twenties to a still-svelte 34. I weigh approximately 195 pounds, 10 to 15 more than I did in my twenties, but all those are pounds I’ve needed anyway. I have love handles, which on a skinny guy won’t attract many appreciative stares on the beach, but my body still does everything I ask of it. I can ride a bike really far, I can still do my push-ups and sit-ups (every weekday morning), and I won’t embarrass myself too badly in a pick-up game of touch football or softball. I can walk forever. I can rake leaves and shovel snow for hours and hours on end. After my knee injury heals (which will be soon), I’ll start jogging again.

My face is definitely the face of a 50-year-old. Riding your bike through the winter is no rejuvenator of the skin, I can tell you that. I suppose I could use skin moisturizers if I wanted to, but, nah, let the wrinkles take their course I say. Inside, however, I feel young. I feel like I’m only 21. And I take much better care of myself now than I did at that age. I exercise more than I used to, I eat better, and I approach life with a lot more calmness and assurance.

I think I still have a good curiosity of mind. I am perhaps more open to new ideas than I was when I was younger. I no longer have a great urge to impress people, a silly habit I was in during my younger days. I always wanted people to see how intelligent or talented I was in a wasted attempt to validate myself. Now I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin. Going further, I find I can handle being misunderstood much better than I used to. I’ve got certain life skills I previously lacked; I can better deal with “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” All this is to the good.

Financially, I’m on a pretty good footing. Losing my job would sure take the starch out of my sails, but the missus and I do okay. We’ve invested in real estate and so far things seem to be working out. We’ve got two great kids, one already an adult and the other well on her way. They become more and more interesting with each passing day and I often get a kick out of talking to them, frequently speaking to my daughters as peers. My extended family is doing well; I get together with my father, a sister and my brother to play cards once a month. Both parents are still alive, everyone is in good health. No complaints.

As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve acquired more of a taste for the simple pleasures, something I was oftentimes impervious to in youth. An evening playing cards with family or friends constitutes a wonderful time. Stolen hours reading a book is nothing short of sublime. I enjoy the fundamental act of riding a bicycle, of feeling myself pass swiftly through space, smelling smells and seeing sights missed while driving an automobile. These days, I’m into body awareness; frequently I stop to investigate what I’m sensing right at that precise moment: the strain. say, of pedaling up a hill, or the feel of wind on my face; the intricate bodily actions that go into walking, the sensations of warmth and chill, or simply following the cool, sharp intake of a breath and the warm, soft exhalation of it. I think I am more appreciative of life, of its nature and its mystery. Sometimes I stop, look around and wonder: How did I get here? Is that guy in the mirror really me? Do all these things appertain to me? Sometimes I stop and think: Boy, what a lucky bastard I am!

So I mean this with all my heart: it’s great to be 50!

Friday, February 17, 2006

Migraines and Milestones

Well, things are heating up at work. The signs are all around me, like harbingers of a hurricane. The barometer is dropping, winds are picking up, and dark clouds are gathering overhead. More phone calls, more insistent deadlines. It’s like I’m expected to work for my pay, for crying out loud. So, it seems, I will not be such a frequent poster as I have been of late. But I shall make my presence known, by God. Yes, by God, I will.

Everybody knows about the Neil Entwistle saga, the alleged murderer of his wife, Rachel, and baby daughter, Lillian. Apparently it was supposed to be a murder-suicide, but the murderer didn’t quite complete the job, so now the Boston area is assaulted with the biggest local criminal justice story since the flap over the infamous au pair Louise Woodward, the young woman accused of fatally shaking a baby. Comparisons are drawn between the two incidents mainly for their notoriety and the fact that they both involve British nationals. But I can’t help thinking of Charles Stuart, the local man who shot his pregnant wife, Carol, and then tried to blame her murder on a fictitious car-jacker 17 years ago. Both his and Entwistle’s acts were cold-blooded and evil beyond belief. But here’s the difference: Charles Stuart at least had the decency to kill himself and thus spare the families some measure of pain and the state the expense of prosecuting him and then housing him for life. So here’s hoping Entwistle’s attorney gets a change of venue to Michigan, where Entwistle can team up with Dr. Jack Kevorkian as cellmates. Because let’s face it: that guy’s as guilty as OJ.

Well, tomorrow’s the big day: I turn 50. Yep, half a century. You know, I can remember when my father turned 50 and the jokes I made about him. Little did I consider that someday I, too, would join the ranks of the aged and withered. I’m ashamed to say it, but I still haven’t bought my rocking chair — I don’t know what the hell I’m going to sit on tomorrow when I tune in to Matlock and Murder She Wrote. And where can you get a decent shawl nowadays? The GAP doesn’t sell them. Anyone know? I’m kind of a junior senior citizen about this. I need someone to take me by the hand and show me the ropes.

Monday, February 13, 2006

“What’s Your Story?”

Yesterday it snowed in the Northeast, our first true snowstorm of the winter. Boston got whacked with about a foot or more of snow — light, powdery stuff for the most part. At about 4:00 in the afternoon, after pressing Daughters Number 1 and 2 into duty as snow shovel operators, we three went out and moved snow from one spot to another. My daughters had the comparatively easier task of clearing the front walk and steps and the portion of sidewalk that borders our property. My job was to dig out the back walk and driveway. Ours is not an ordinary driveway. It’s extremely wide and is reputed to hold five cars abreast — at least that’s what the realtor told us. It really fits four cars comfortably, which still means it’s pretty wide. Also, as the driveway happens to be on a one-way street with parking allowed on only one side, the snow plow, when it makes its run down our street, only clears a single swath on that part which is free of parked cars. So the gap in front of our driveway, where the queue of parked cars is interrupted, doesn’t get plowed — the snow plow just sails right on by, taking care, naturally, to deposit dirty, wet snow in its wake. I have to shovel that as well.

There are two physical chores I can honestly say I don’t mind doing: shoveling snow and raking leaves. I think the monotony of both tasks give them a meditative quality which acts as a balm to me. There is something almost restful or soothing about repeating the same action over and over. Often I listen to an audio book, as I did yesterday, and my absorption in the story is always complete as I, automaton-like, scoop up snow here and throw it over there. I have keys handy for all the cars and I juggle them around so every square foot of the driveway feels the scrape of my shovel. I invariably do a very thorough job.

When I was finishing up yesterday, putting the last touches on the back walk to make sure every centimeter of asphalt was once again clear to be trodden upon, I heard a ghastly, hacking cough coming from an apartment building that neighbors our backyard. It was the sort of cough a bad actor might do on stage, overdone to the point where the effect of pitiable sickness never quite gets achieved; instead, the result is unintentional comedy. It was a loud cough with an extra baritone groan thrown in there to give it good carrying power. You would think, if the cough were genuine, whoever it was must be in the last extremity. There should be an oxygen tank present, and a priest nearby to administer last rites.

I placidly finished up and put the shovels away, completely untroubled because the cough didn’t faze me in the least. Why? For the simple reason that I’m totally used to it. That cough has become as commonplace to us as a rooster’s crow is on a farm. We moved into the house to the accompaniment of that cough. It is the tune we listen to when we work in the yard, regardless of the season. Our visitors who enter using the back way are serenaded by it. That cough is to us what Old Faithful is the Yellowstone.

You see, there is a man living across from our backyard who is patiently and systematically smoking himself to death. His apartment has a little, covered balcony that might measure roughly four feet by nine feet and can be gained through a sliding glass door. There he keeps a small patio table and chair and, in good weather and foul, he sits on his white plastic chair and smokes and smokes and smokes. Sometimes, as I wait in the car for my wife to come out of the house (I spend half my life waiting), I watch him. He likes to sit slightly leaned over with his left hand on his lap and arm akimbo, while with the other hand he nervously works his cigarette, taking a drag, inhaling, tapping the ash into the ashtray, then cigarette back up to his lips for the next drag, never once pausing a moment to allow himself one breath of clean air. It’s nerve-wracking to watch him. And always the cough. If not a cough, then a mighty, mucous-tossed throat clearing.

Witty as I am, I came up with the name “Smoky” for him. Clever, right? I knew you’d think so. Believe it or not, it didn’t take me long to think that one up. Smoky is about my age, perhaps a year or two older, and is never seen without a battered, floppy hat on his head. He wears biggish, round, black-framed spectacles and has a shaggy, salt-and-pepper beard. His clothing is always drab. If you met him out on the sidewalk, you would assume he was homeless.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to fight down the urge to advise him that there are quicker, less costly and more efficient means available nowadays to kill yourself. But a stronger impulse than that is to ask him point-blank, “What’s your story?”

Haven’t you met odd, curious people that captivate your attention like that? Maybe they dress in a certain funny way or have habits that verge on the socially unacceptable. Wouldn’t you like to break through the barrier of conventional politeness, to thumb your nose at the rule of everyone minding their own business, and ask them, “What’s your story? What makes you like this? Everybody can see this makes no sense, so why do you it?”

Like that guy I saw in Kenmore Square one time, a normal enough looking fellow, walking along in clean, pressed, casual clothes and carrying a briefcase, who, suddenly incensed by a driver parked by the curb honking her horn to alert a friend in a nearby building of her presence, irrationally took to punching himself in the face, telling her he wouldn’t stop this self-abuse until she quit honking her horn. The sound of his fist hitting his face was sickening. How much I wanted to ask him, “What’s your story? What is it about you that makes you react this way?” And nearly every homeless person I see on the street, I want to ask, “What’s your story?” They started off as children just like everyone else, free of addiction and the base, wicked impulses that the weak have such a hard time resisting later on in life. What put them down the wrong road? Could they explain it? I would be very interested to hear their life’s story.

Who have you met that arouses this kind of curiosity in you? Do you feel compassion for them? In the case of Smoky, I have to confess I don’t really. Deep down, I feel it’s within his power to reverse this idiotic path he’s chosen. How about a co-worker? Or a relative? Someone who you can’t avoid seeing everyday? Who is it you’d like to ask, “What’s your story?”

Thursday, February 09, 2006

John Joseph Hammel: May He Rest in Peace

Well, here it is, 9:05 AM on a Thursday morning and my friend and colleague, John Hammel (of Random_Squeegee fame), has not yet shown up for work. He knows our office hours are from 9 to 5. Either one of two things have happened: he has either become incapacitated due to a severe injury, or, what is more likely, he is dead. Folks, the full force of this terrible news has yet to sink in. John was only 27 years old and had so much to live for. Excuse me, dear reader, as I attempt to assuage my grief — to make sense of this tragic loss — by sifting through some fond memories of our dear, departed, blogger brother.

It was I who hired him to work for this graphic design studio some five years ago. T’was a wee, shy lad who I let through the door that day, clutching his portfolio case as if he’d never let it go and tripping over a corner of the rug midway though his introduction. He mainly showed me cartoons he had drawn, which indicated the boy had talent. However, I was looking for an intern, not some damned cartoonist, a lackey to answer the phones, run errands and generally pick up after us while keeping out of our way. He was likable, sure, but not very socially skilled. Could I trust this quaking ragamuffin to answer the phones? To be the voice of our company? I gave the matter a half a minute of serious thought after we ended the interview. I then made my firm decision.

However, when no one else applied for the position, I called John up and offered him the job anyway. This was how the conversation went:

ME: Hi, this is Johann Sebastian Schprock of Screaming Cow Meat Processing and Design, Inc. Is this John Hammel?


ME: Oh, hey John. Um, this is about that intern position you applied for?

HAMMEL: Uh huh.

ME: Well, I’m just calling to let you know you got the job.

HAMMEL: Uh huh.


ME: Soooooo . . . can you start Thursday at 9:00 am sharp?


ME: Well, okay. Good. Yeah, well . . . I’ll see you then. Then. I mean, when you get there, I’ll see you. Then.

HAMMEL: Good bye. (click) (dial tone)

An inauspicious start to be sure. And, a week after he started, I had the satisfaction of being proven right: my boss had him taken off the phones and I found myself obliged once again to answer the phone myself.

History will show, however, that John was not a total wash-out. No, far from it. Not only was he a good intern, but he was good entertainment as well. The first time I could see the young fellow had a sense of humor occurred within his first week while I was watching an online cartoon about two college roommates. One roommate was just an average schlub like you and me, but the other was a superhero; he could transform himself into this giant, blue, muscular being who could fly anywhere he wanted and perform amazing feats. When he wasn’t a superhero, he looked just like an average human being, and I mean a total dick of a human being, everybody’s idea of the worst roommate imaginable. Has anybody seen this cartoon? I’ve completely forgotten the name of it. No matter. Anyway, I was showing an episode to John, and he said, yeah, he was acquainted with the series (John, by the way, was acquainted with EVERYTHING on the internet). Then he told me to wait until I got to the later episodes — it was like everybody in the show got hit with a “forget ray,” because things that were true for the beginning episodes, the rules that were followed, were forgotten in the later ones. In other words, there was a continuity problem with the series. But his way of expressing it, calling it a “forget ray,” stuck with me.

Random_Squeegee readers, it turned out that what you’ve read in his blog, those witty, off-beat posts, was really how he thought and talked. I used to tell him he should be a writer for The Tonight Show or David Letterman. I suggested he should have his own stand-up act. Being so shy, he said that if he ever gave such a thing a try, he’d have to do his entire comedy routine with his back to the audience — which, of course, would have been funny! There are many examples of his humor, but right now I’m so torn up emotionally I can’t think of them all. I’ll just give you John’s two standard pick-up lines:

PICK-UP LINE 1: Will you accept my seed?

PICK-UP LINE 2: Drunk yet? No? Okay, I’ll be back later.

That, my friends, is comedy gold. But it is gold that has lost it’s luster, because John Hammel will never (sniff) make us laugh again…

Oh, wait a minute — here he is. I guess he was just late. Never mind.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

On a Plane

I’m a vice president of marketing and sales for a corporation you’ve probably heard of — I’ll only say it’s a chain of stores that sells household items. These days, as you know, most business can be done out of the home office, what with faxes, emails, next day delivery, tele- and video-conferencing and so on, but the occasions still crop up when it becomes necessary to hop a flight and do the thing right, actually meet with people face to face. Our territory is mainly the eastern seaboard and I’ve traveled up and down it more times than I care to count. So I am no stranger to air travel. Usually the flights I take are uneventful. Every now and again you get some truly unusual turbulence, the kind where the plane sort of drops right off the table, giving the most hardened flyer a good fright. I’ve witnessed a heart attack or two, fainting spells, an epileptic seizure once, drunkenness, and so on . . . the sort of stuff that makes for good stories over lunch with your cronies. But what I’m about to tell you I’ve never witnessed before and don’t expect to again.

I was on an early morning flight that originated in Tallahassee, Florida. I must confess I was a little disappointed the office booked me on a flight that didn’t serve meals. I’m no lover of airline food, but something resembling breakfast would have been appreciated. I’m not one of those types who can work on his laptop on an airplane, nor can I sleep on one. If they’re showing something on the video screen, I’ll watch it. It’s either that or a magazine or book. Sometimes it’s pleasant to study the other passengers, making idle guesses about their personalities, their histories, what their business is and so on. I’m a happily married man, but an attractive female can hold my attention for a while. Ninety-five percent of the time, traveling by air is just plain humdrum. You sit yourself down, get yourself comfortable and stay there. You get used to it. Everybody does.

We touched down in Pennsylvania and took on more passengers; the plane was hardly half full when I boarded in Tallahassee. The three seats in front of me were empty for the first leg of the flight. In came the new passengers, all glancing at their tickets to double check their seat number and scrambling for just the right overhead compartment bin to stow their luggage. Presently, a young man somewhere in his late twenties approached where I sat. He wore the plainest, most nondescript suit I ever saw, dark brown and made of a thin material that was none too clean. You could see it was either a hand-me-down or purchased at a consignment store; the sleeves were a bit too short for him. His hair was the color of wheat and his face looked like a flat, square shovel with two eyes, a nose, and a mouth drawn on it. His mouth was scribed straight with a ruler, just a humorless, horizontal line. His eyes were watery blue and capped by eyebrows that were themselves two perfectly horizontal lines, like a pair of dashes; they gave him a habitual frown.

He placed a small, dirty cardboard suitcase in the overhead bin and took the window seat. Not long after that, a bustling young woman dressed in a smart, pinstripe business suit broke free of the bottleneck of passengers toward the cockpit and headed up to where we were. She carried a raincoat, a big floppy leather bag with a shoulder strap and a briefcase. She threw the leather bag into a nearby compartment, located her seat, glanced at the young man in the tired old suit who was to be her neighbor, registered a fleeting expression of disappointment, and took the aisle seat. The middle seat between them was empty and remained that way.

Finally, an obese man with a walrus mustache and wearing a very well-tailored suit — Armani, possibly — toddled down our way and took the aisle seat in my row after making a curt nod of greeting toward me. His cologne immediately saturated the air. Like the young man, I had the window seat, and, as it turned out, our middle seat stayed vacant too.

There was the ordinary slight delay in taking off, but finally we were back in the air. I tried to resume reading the paperback I purchased at the airport but just couldn’t pay any more attention to it. I had been out late the night before and had to get up at 4:00 that morning to make my flight, so I suppose I was a little worn out. Within ten minutes, Walrus Mustache fell asleep with his head thrown back and mouth open. How I envied that! How I wish I could pass these often wearisome flights in the oblivion of sleep. I wasn’t alert enough to do anything to occupy myself in a serious way, but I couldn’t sleep either. In the end, I decided to give it try. I placed my head in a spot where I thought it least likely to give me neck strain and closed my eyes.

As it turns out, I guess I did doze off, a shallow slumber that never lost the constant thrum of the airplane engines in it. However, my nap was terminated by the sound of Pinstripe Suit speaking into the satellite phone provided on the back of the seat in front of her. First, her conversation was merely a murmur that gently invaded my consciousness. Gradually, her voice became more strident until finally I heard her say, “That’s bullshit, Ed! That’s bullshit and you know it!”

I cocked open one eye. She was gesticulating with her free hand and I caught the flash of a gold bracelet; I noticed her lacquered nails, which were almost long enough to make her hand useless.

She went on: “No, no, no, it’s not Purchasing’s fault, it’s your fault, Ed. Christ!” There was a pause while — I assumed — Ed pled his case. She cut back in. “Look, I’m landing at Logan in an hour or so. I’ll be there probably by 11:00 at the latest. I want you and your team in my office waiting for me. You hear that, Ed? Ed? Hello?” She took the phone away from her ear, looked at it and said, “Fuck!” Then she roughly placed the phone back into its rest.

I could only see snatches of her features in between the headrests. I knew, when I first saw her, that she was attractive, but now when I saw, say, her ear or parts of her face in profile as they appeared and disappeared from view, and I could observe how healthy and perfect her skin was and notice the luster of her hair and so on, I decided she could be considered quite beautiful. Her personality put me off, though. I come from a different generation, one that still prefers women to be softer creatures than the specimen seated a row ahead of me. She struck me as way too hard-bitten. I didn’t much care for her language.

A flight attendant came by with the beverage cart. We decided not to disturb Walrus Mustache. I took a cup of black tea and then the flight attendant moved along to hand a coffee to the young man and an apple juice to Pinstripe Suit. Pinstripe gave the juice bottle a vigorous shake, uncapped it, took a sip and replaced the cap. Over the next ten minutes she repeated this procedure frequently. It made me wonder if she was slightly neurotic. Finally, she gave the bottle a good, strong shake and the cap came flying off and most of its contents splashed onto the left sleeve of the young man’s coat.

“Oh, shit!” she exclaimed. “Oh, Christ, I’m sorry!”

The young man put his coffee cup down on the tray in front of him and struggled out of the coat.

“I’ll get the flight attendant,” said Pinstripe. “I’m so sorry!”

She pressed the service button and presently a different flight attendant from the one who pushed the beverage cart came over to them. “Oh, look at this!” the flight attendant exclaimed in a motherly tone scented by a strong Southern accent. “My! What happened?” I was amused to see her handle the ratty old suit coat like it was fine material.

The coat was taken away to where the flight attendant promised something might be done with it. Once Pinstripe and the young man were left alone, she repeated to him, “I really am sorry.”

“Don’t bother about that, miss,” said the young man in a soft voice strangely at variance with his stern, almost grim countenance. “This suit’s just about wore out anyway.”

After a pause, Pinstripe asked, “You’ve got business in Boston?” no doubt feeling obliged to make conversation with her unintended victim. Her tone, when gentle, made her seem much more human to me. I was almost inclined to like her just then.

“Of a kind,” returned the young man.


“I suppose it’s more of a mission than anything else.”

There was about a minute gap of silence after that. Pinstripe pulled her laptop computer out of her briefcase and set it up on the fold-out tray in front of her. The young man’s words just sort of hung there. Finally, after launching a spreadsheet program, she asked, while keeping her eyes fastened on the computer screen, “What mission?”

“Well, that’s a bit embarrassing. It’s a family tradition started by my great-great grandfather…” His voice trailed off.

Now, I don’t consider myself especially nosy, but these were intriguing words. It seemed to me it wouldn’t be fair not to explain yourself after having come that far. Pinstripe obviously felt the same way. Her eyes left the computer screen and she glanced at her neighbor. “So what’s that?” she hazarded.

Here the young man chuckled. “You won’t believe it.” he said. “I’m going to Boston to find a wife.”

A shocked silence followed. Oh boy! I thought. What a hayseed! I couldn’t help feeling embarrassed for the poor kid. Could it be true that this rube expected to fly into an alien city, mix with its population and pick himself out a wife just like that? And why Boston of all places?

“Just . . . find a wife?” Pinstripe asked him, showing disbelief in her tone.

“I know what your thinking, miss, and I don’t blame you. I’m doing this more to please my pa than anything, though I aim to give it a full effort. See, my great-great grandfather found his bride in Boston during the Civil War and they eventually settled in Pennsylvania, where the family’s been ever since. Then when my great grandfather came of age and was still unmarried, his daddy ordered him to go up to Boston and find himself a wife, just like that, without never having stepped foot out of the county. Well, he did like he was told, took a train up to Boston, and found a woman to marry in three days. Then, years later, it was my grandfather’s turn and he found his wife that way, too. Then my pa found my ma in Boston when it was his time. It’s worked for every man in my family.”

There was another pause after this. At length, Pinstripe said, “You’re kidding.”

“No I’m not. It’s the God’s honest truth.”

“What’s your name?”

“Enoch Drebbin.”

You could see Pinstripe had forgotten all about whatever it was she was planning to do on her computer. “Look, Enoch,” she began, “does your family have access to newspapers, television, radio, internet, modern forms of communication?”

“Of course we do.”

“You might have noticed the world has changed a little since your grandfather’s time?”

“No question about it, miss.”

“So you admit this could be considered a fool’s errand?”

“Could very well be.”

“I mean — what’s your strategy for finding a wife?”

“I have no strategy.”

I heard her laugh, though it was strictly a laugh of amusement — there wasn’t any derision in it. Yet another pause followed.

“Okay, Enoch,” she said at last. “What are you looking for in a wife?”

Enoch took a moment to consider the question. “Well, miss, I’m a farmer, so I’m looking for a woman who’d be good on a farm, naturally. I reckon it’s a little like evaluating livestock, only more complicated of course. If you don’t mind,” he continued, “I’ll use you as an example.” He took a second to appraise her. “You’re young, in your twenties. That’s the right age. You’re in good shape — it’s pretty easy to see you must work out in a gym. That’s good, because farming is hard work. Those long fingernails would have to go, of course, and your hands won’t look so pretty anymore, but I can see at a glance you’d hold up just fine.

“Now let’s see — you’ve got good, strong teeth, nice and straight and white. You take care of yourself, probably do a lot of preventative health maintenance, which is good, it means you won’t break down so often. Healthy complexion, thick, shiny hair, shows you eat right. All that is excellent. Most likely, you’ll live a full, long, healthy life, just what I want.

“You’re educated, that’s plain to see. I’ll bet you’ve got a good head for figures, which would come in handy for working out household and farm accounts. You’re a sharp one, someone who can pick up things quickly. I’m looking for a woman who will know what’s what and not be taken in and cheated. We buy and sell all the time, and a wife who can help manage stock and feed, know the cost and maintenance of farm machinery and so on, is an asset I insist upon.

“Now, children are important and you’ve got what I call good breeder’s hips. I don’t doubt you could give birth four, five, six times and still keep your good form. And this is plain speculating on my part, but I have a suspicion I could count on more sons than daughters from you, which, if you’ll pardon me, fits more into my plans.

“Now, this life isn’t for everybody, but, having said that, I think everybody could benefit from it. It’s a simple life, but that’s the best thing about it. Your hours are regular. You can see the sun rise, smell the sweet smell of hay and grass and ripening vegetables when the dew’s still on them. You connect with the earth on a farm, and the earth, you know, is mother of us all. You work hard and steady, but the strain is never too much and you go to bed at night feeling you’ve done something honest and good and your conscience is clean like it was when you were born. Our neighbors are all from old families, good people who worship on Sundays and keep to the Bible as best as they can. It’s a fine life, really. I think it’s what most people need.”

He said all of this without interruption. No response from Pinstripe followed. I couldn’t see her face, but I imagined her jaw must have dropped clear down to the floor. I suppose I was in shock myself. Never had I heard anyone speak like this to a woman. Such utter frankness and naivete made me cringe. Where had this kid kept himself all his life?

They didn’t talk after that — after all, what could you say? After a half an hour you could feel the airplane start its descent. The usual ritual of trays being put in the upright and locked position and loose items stowed safely away followed. I popped some chewing gum in my mouth and chewed vigorously to keep my ears from hurting due to the change in cabin pressure. All of this I’ve done a hundred times before.

After we landed, the “fasten your seat belt” sign was turned off and everybody prepared to move out of the airplane. Walrus Mustache was awake by now, and I stayed in my seat waiting for him to grab all his stuff. Enoch and Pinstripe rose at the same time.

“Enoch,” I heard her say, “where are you staying?”

“Copley Marriott,” he replied.

“How long will you be there?”

“Through Sunday.”

She extracted a pen and a business card from her briefcase. She flipped the card over and scribbled something on its back.

“So I could reach you there if I wanted?” she asked while writing.

“I reckon,” said Enoch.

She handed him the card. “If you want, you can call me at that number.” Enoch quickly glanced at it and then inserted the card into the inner pocket of his suit coat, which had been returned to him and he now wore. “I’m Valerie, by the way,” she said with a smile. A half a minute later, the pair started their way down the aisle.

Disbelievingly, I turned to Walrus Mustache. “Did you just—?” I began. He looked at me questioningly. Then it dawned on me my neighbor had slept through the whole thing.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Coolest Guy Ever

Turner Classic Movies is featuring Oscar winning films this month. Last night, just as I was planning to hit the hay long about 10:00, I noticed Casablanca was coming up next. Well, thought I, no harm in catching a half hour or so before turning in. Right. Fat chance of that. Even though I’ve already watched Casablanca too many times to count, after five minutes I was hooked. I could no more get out of my chair than that poor woman whose husband Krazy Glued her butt to a toilet seat. What a story! What a cast! What a script! (written, BTW, by Red Sox GM Theo Epstein’s great-uncles!)

Has there ever been a leading man cooler than Humphrey Bogart? A rhetorical question, of course. That’s because Humphrey Bogart was so cool, he could handle being called Humphrey Bogart — who else could pull off a name like that? Can you? On your best day? And he was married to the prettiest dame in show business, Lauren Bacall. Let me ask you: what leading man today is even fit to carry Bogie’s ashtray? Come on, who? Brad Pitt? Harrison Ford? Tom Cruise? Yeah, right. Maybe Clint Eastwood, back in his prime, could have been Bogart’s chauffeur or something. Humphrey Bogart out-cools cool. He’s cool to the power of ten. He’s so cool, cool has to pay him rent. One time, Humphrey Bogart and cool were in the same room, and cool had to leave ’cause it heard its momma calling. Humphrey Bogart is so cool, if he ever went one on one with James Bond, he’d roll James Bond up and smoke him like a Chesterfield. Bogey is so cool, when he was born, he slapped the doctor unconscious and went to Vegas with the nurse. Einstein once proved nothing could be cooler than Humphrey Bogart. Humphrey Bogart is so cool, he appears as coolonium on the periodic table…

Everybody agrees with me, right? Well, help me out here . . . how cool is Humphrey Bogart?