|MARCH 1997 Part 2|
|I admit I am powerless over liquor salesmen. I stopped off at the liquor store - or what we called in Fargo the Package Store - to buy some beer. I was standing before the beer coolers, looking at the 100+ brands before I bought the same thing I always bought, when a dapper gentleman in his late 60s - possibly early 80s; you never know nowadays - appeared and said in a crisp happy voice:
Would you to sample a truly fine beer that's on sale today?
He had a broad grin, bright eyes and enough teeth. He wore a suit with the hue and lapel width of the mid eighties, but it was in good shape, and his shoes had a burnished brown glow. His entire demeanor suggested that he had spent many years wearing hats before, sadly, they fell from fashion. I said sure, and he took me by the shoulders like a suit salesman, and steered me to his display. It had been many, many years since a salesperson has begun a business relationship by touching me.
His domain was an elaborate cave's mouth made of gray Styrofoam boulders. BREWER'S CAVE BEER. He stood next to the cave's mouth.
"There are three varieties!" He held up each bottle and extolled its lightness, crispness, and flavor, then poured me a dram of each. It's hard not feel ridiculous at one of these beer testings - you feel as though you should swish it about in your mouth, adopt a thoughtful mien, deliver a few adjectives. To me it's simple: I like it, or it is swill. This was swill. The lager was swill, the other lager was swill,. The Black Barley Ale was almost as good as the ale I really wanted to buy. But damn, this man could sell. He had a nice smooth patter, and he paused respectfully when I drank, then issued some suggestions on how I might put into the words what I was feeling. But it wasn't the product he was selling: he was selling himself. He was putting so much into this pitch that if I failed to buy the beer, I was actually rejecting him. And why would I want to do that? He was a nice guy. He gave me beer.
It wasn't tough to figure out why this old man was doing this. He was a retired salesman bored with sitting around the house. Either he was tired of going to Arizona to golf or he couldn't afford it. In any case, this a bit of the old life without the pressure - the kids wouldn't starve if he didn't move the beer, they wouldn't lose the house if he didn't close the deal. Maybe he just wanted to see if he still had it. Some old people go to work at Byerly's handing out food samples, saying little, happy to be useful, but this man was going to spend his declining years in an apron passing out pizza squares with a small smile and a nod of the head. By God, he was going to give this everything he had.
I did not want to buy any Brewer's Cave.
I bought some Brewer's Cave.
"Would you like that cold?" he said. And he marched over to the cooler to fetch me a chilled edition.
"I'm buying this," I said, "as a tribute to your excellent salesmanship."
"You're a gentleman," he said with exactly the same smile, and for me that answered the question.
He knew he still had it. He's never doubted that once in his life.
Saw a pasta opera this weekend. "Donnie Brasco," another interminable, predictable and completely engrossing gangster movie. A pasta opera. They're all the same: the rise and fall of a criminal, puncuated with shootouts and some cheerful goombah good times. Johnny Depp was pretty good, although his performance consisted mostly of looking tense. All the women in the group thought he was a fine, fine actor, and the men all agreed with silent nods, thinking: And we liked Sirens because Elle MacPherson's acting skills were put to full advantage.
Al Pacino played Al Pacino like no one else can. He seems now to specialize in roles where you can look at his character and you know how he smells. Stale cigarette smoke, faint wine on the breath, overwhelmed deoderant soap.
On Sunday night I found "You Only Live Twice" on cable, and of course I had to watch the whole thing. This was the first grown-up movie I ever saw. My dad took me to see it a theater in Moorhead, perhaps as way of teaching me the facts of life. What better way to learn the rules of adulthood as in a Bond movie? Patriotism, rugged self-reliance, love of gadgetry, the importance of being a good shot, the civilizing aspects of cocktail preparation, and above all the ability to issue a sangfroid quip when your enemy is being consumed by pirahanas - crucial lessons for a North Dakota boy.
It also scared me. At one point a character is described as having been "liquidated," and I was sure this meant they were turned into liquid. The very notion gave me the terrors, and I spent the film in a vague dread waiting for someone else to be turned into a puddle. No doubt a raygun would be used. And then the janitor would throw sawdust over you, like barf in the grade-school hallway.
Last October, when my mother was reaching the end of her illness, I spent the nights reading my old Bond novels. Original Signet paperbacks from the 60s. It was a disappointing exercise. "You Only Live Twice" was the most god-awful book I'd read in years - crude, leering, and sadistic. And it was dull. Bond himself comes off as someone with a wit about two degrees below the average IQ of Playboy's Party Jokes, circa 1966. There's no connection between the movie and the book, save the title and Japan. Instead of being an assault on a fabulous villain's lair filled with cool aluminum furniture, it's Bond's one-man attack on the castle of Ernst Blofeld, for reasons I can't recall. Bond escapes with the aid of a balloon and floats to safety. Like Bozo.
In the cache of childhood boxes I also found my collection of Bond soundtrack albums. My love of classical music probably comes from the moment I heard that those grand melancholic C7-Gm chords of the theme for "You Only Live Twice." I bought all the soundtracks and studied them as if they were symphonies. (Although symphonies did not have movements with titles such as "Danger in Space.") All the Bond soundtracks were written by John Barry - a hack composer who nevertheless has an identifiable style and a skill for blunt, effective orchestration. His specialty is the long long melody played slow enough so it sounds Important and Big. Example: "Dances with Wolves," one of the better movies I ever fell asleep while watching; sing the theme fast and it sounds like incidental music for F-Troop.
My mother loved that theme, though. When she came home from the hospital and moved to the living room for her short final tenure, it was one of three CDs that rotated constantly in the box at the food of the bed. I sat there at the bedside listening to the disc over and over again until I could hear all the echoes of the Bond soundtracks.
For many nights after Mom died, Dad put the "Dances with Wolves" soundtrack on, set it on endless repeat, and went to bed. I would come upstairs and hear John Barry trickling from the speaker, and I had to shut it off. They use that theme in NFL commercials, and I have to change the channel. I can't listen to it. But the other night when the credits rolled for "You Only Live Twice" I discovered that I knew every word in the song, and by God I sang them under my breath; for a measure or two I felt a catch in my throat, and felt silly for it. Tearing up over Bond-movie tunes: hmm.
The more you live, the more innocuous things combine in unexpected ways. Is anyone else gonna be liquidated? I had asked my Dad, and he said no. He had no idea that wouldn't be the case, but it was his job to reassure me. What else could he say?
If you have eaten recently, or plan to eat soon, read no more.
Last night we had chicken, and my wife decided to give Jasper Dog some leftovers. She wants to give his short wordless life the full range of culinary joys. I understand: I slip him the occasional french-fry if he asks in the proper manner. (I have taught him to whisper - a barely audible wuf! - and doing it right earns a half-fry.) When I want to spoil the dog, I give him dog items - powdered ruminant bowels pressed into attractive bone shapes and flavored with interesting substances such as Charcoal.
I caught my wife preparing a dog dish of unusual aesthetic appeal. She arranged chicken scraps in a concentric pattern on a bed of kibble, and drizzled them with gravy. Only the parsley was missing. I would have eaten it. Honey, I said gently, either we have children soon or we entertain more.
She is fully aware of the silliness of all this, of course, but she loves the dog as much as I do. I'm over-protective, and have a stroke if he's not on the leash; she takes him for walks where he gets to romp untethered with other dogs. Someone has to be boss, and it's me. In the words of Dr. Laura, I am my dog's alpha dog. My wife is his sibling. Of course, I am not my wife's alpha dog, so my protests against the rich diet were noted and ignored in the name of Being Good to Jasper.
Jasper ate it all up, and the result was predictable. The result occurred six times this afternoon on a walk, once with such explosiveness I expected Jasper to be knocked forward on his face. He bolted down tonight's supper, but gacked it up a while later, and spent an hour sitting in the snow looking sadly into the trees. There are few things more pathetic than a sad sick dog. One of them is a guilt-wracked wife.
(Update: the dog, as dogs will do, recovered in an hour, and now bounding around with his squirrel in his mouth.)
At the store today a woman carrying a large inert baby asked the clerk for a bag with handles, and was told they didn't have any. A clear cue for gallantry, a chance to do the good-deed-of-the-day we like to think we're capable of, but rarely get the chance to do. So I offered to carry her bag for her, and she stammered, then declined: some understandable gumbo of I don't need help and I don't want to impose and You might be a maniac. I repeated my offer, and she said okay.
On the way to the car I tried hard to be Someone Who Was Not a Rapist. It's like being right handed, and trying to be someone who is not left handed - what do you emphasize, how do you act? Is a little eye contact reassuring, or signs of my nervousness? Is straightforward eye contact frightening? Make sure to push open the door with the hand with the wedding ring. I commented on the lovely weather. What I really wanted to say was I understand why you're nervous and I'm sorry I asked you twice if I could help.
She unlocked the door of the car, and then turned, blocked the door, said thanks and held out one arm for the bag. I was keeping my distance, so I had to lean forward a dump a heavy bag into her arm while she juggled the kid. And then she tried to open the door with her foot. This was ridiculous. She might have thought I was the incarnation of imminent violence, but I knew I wasn't, and what's more, I knew she was going to drop the bag or the kid. So I squeezed past her and opened the door, taking special care to be on the other side. Then I said some bright farewell and went off.
I can't wait until we have kids ourselves; I think that when I'm toting around a mueling brat I will be trusted on sight. A male alone at 4 PM is suspect, especially if he offers to help. I understand her caution. The more I think about it, the more I feel somewhat stupid for offering assistance. Not a happy revelation.
It was a day of such uneventfulness I actually felt I had accomplished something when I awoke from a nap. It was a twofold achievement: I had napped, and I had awakened.
On the radio today, this news: the Clinton administration parceled out certain minor-league perks to contributors, such as a seat in the President's Box at Kennedy Center. That gave me a grin. I was there once, and I didn't have to contribute a dime.
We were living in Washington DC at the time. A relative of my wife worked for Barbara Bush, and had access to the tickets the White House kept for dignitaries and friends. One weekend Grandma came from Duluth to visit, and we all got passes to see "Phantom of the Opera" in the President's box. It was a Saturday performance.
It is hard not to be impressed by the President's Box, and tough not to be impressed by yourself for being there. I knew full well this was all a matter of connections, not merit, but still: I'm in the President's Box! Outside the room stood an ancient Aegean statue of a naked spear-thrower, donated by the government of Greece. It was probably a sly insult: whenever you opened the door to the hallway, you saw the naked buttocks of an ancient culture mooning you. And mooning whatever frothy dross was being spun on the stage beyond.
The President has a cozy little pied-a-terre up there. There's a vestibule with a table and chairs, a vaulted ceiling that bounced conversation around the room. There was a red phone. I was afraid to pick it up, lest I get the Kremlin. To the right, an elaborate bathroom with thick white Presidential towels. To the left, a kitchenette stocked with dozens of tiny champagne bottles, each with the painted emblem of the Presidential Seal. There were Presidential Seal matchbooks, ashtrays, glasses, napkins, cups and saucers. Our host said it would be fine to take a bottle of champagne. It was expected. They probably fill the bottles with Seven-Up - who would ever crack the seal on such an heirloom?
We took our seats and watched the show. It was not entirely bad; it had a few good tunes, and enough grunting spectacle to justify its running length. At the final curtain call the Phantom came out for the usual insincere I-am-your-servant bows; he waved an arm to the orchestra. Applause! He waved an arm to the cast. Applause! And then he pointed straight up to our booth, right at us, and bowed deeply. Applause! Two thousand heads swiveled up to see who was sitting in the box with the Presidential Seal.
The answer was: Grandma, whose bunions were killing her. But no one knew this - they saw a noble gray head and her retinue. Was it some old Italian matriarch? A learned scholar, a half-sister of Indira Ghandi? I wanted to say IT'S GRANDMA FROM DULUTH. But why spoil it? I could pretend we were important, and everyone else could pretend they saw someone important. Why else would that old woman be sitting in the President's chair?
I'm sure it's standard practice for the Phantom, or whoever else is playing, to bow for the people in the Boss-man seats - you never know who's there, so you just do it every performance to cover your bases. It's fun to let the applause wash over you.
It's even more entertaining to realize that some contributors had to pay several thousand dollars for the right to be mistaken by the audience for a big wheel. I got it absolutely free. If you don't count the cost of parking.
The phone rings. It's the Washington Post. "Just one question," says the voice on the other end. "Could we change 'Shalala-sized teddy bears' to 'Shalala-shaped?'"
I say that's fine.
Thus ends the professional portion of today, day 19 of quasi-unemployment.
I am settling into a nice warm shallow pond of cheerful torpor. I know that this situation will not last, and that the end result might be quite nice, so I am disinclined to get as hideously morose about it. On the other hand, I am doing the absolute minimum of work needed to maintain self-respect, and I lack all enthusiasm for tackling the Big Projects.
What I have learned to do this week is nap. I don't like to nap. The process of falling asleep bothers me. Usually I stay up as late as possible, until I can no longer type or I am seeing the TV screen in triplicate. Even then I'll close one eye to eke out a few more minutes. Then I go to bed and fall asleep, instantly. But napping takes some effort - you have to pull yourself away from the day like a bandage slowly pulled off a well-healed wound, and all the sensations of falling asleep creep up on you. If feels like I'm being erased. I don't like the twilight state where you're 98% asleep but rational enough to think "I am going to sleep." The French call the fun part of sex the "petit mort," but they have that wrong - the nap is the little death. There's a point where you're awake enough to know you're going and asleep enough to keep from caring.
My naps are thin gruel. Today I dreamed that I had not fallen asleep at all, but was upstairs playing the piano. I woke thinking, what's the point of this?
If I sleep too long, I get those bright vivid dreams that hang in your mind for an hour after you wake up; nothing in the morning paper can push them away. A few mornings ago I woke grateful that Johnny Carson had come over to my table to say hello. He didn't have to, because he's Johnny, but he did. Then I left the table to drive a three-unit mobile home to a new location, where I rented out one of the units to a nice young couple. "It looks like someplace Patsy Cline would live," said the wife, and she meant that as a compliment. I was standing in the marigold kitchen talking about the damage deposit when I woke up.
It's nice to know that the real world is less confusing. In the real world, everything makes sense. People ask me if "Shalala-sized teddy bears" could be changed to "Shalala-shaped," and I know just what they mean.
Some days it seems I possess no social skills whatsoever, or that I am really speaking Esperanto and no one has the nerve to tell me I am an incomprehensible babbler of idiocies. Today at the coffee shop a man at the adjacent table suddenly cried: HEY! WHERE'D YOU GET THE CAP? I looked up, and saw a worker gathering the soiled rugs; he was wearing a cap with the logo of a Michigan athletic team.
"Michigan," said the worker. "Actually, I went to school there."
"Really? I'm from East Lansing!" the guy said.
The worker and the guy had a brief conversation about sports teams and Minnesota fans, and then the worker wrestled the rugs out the door and left.
I turned to the guy. "I think I was in Lansing a while ago. Gave a speech."
He gave me a look of utter confusion: what was I talking about? Why was I saying this to him? It was as if I'd said "rectal mites are chewing away the ottoman."
No, it wasn't like that at all. He'd mentioned East Lansing. I'd mentioned East Lansing. It's not as if I'd overheard someone say "see you in New York" and I pulled up a chair, sat down and said "I've seen New York on TV." It's East Lansing, for chrissakes. Not a common topic of conversation.
"I gave a speech," I continued, weakly. "Stayed in a really nice bed and breakfast - on a lake, an old brick mansion." He gave me the same blank look. I was now hopelessly lost. "It was built by some famous tycoon. He made a fortune in some sort of ointment." Ointment. There's a conversation killer.
"There's no lake in Lansing," he said.
"Do you have something called the Torch Club?" That's where I spoke: one hundred ancient wattled plutocrats who had received my speech with utter silence. One member of the audience was a 101 years old, and had to be wheeled out in the middle of my speech. I was convinced I'd killed him.
"Sure, the Torch Club."
"Then it was Lansing," I grinned, relieved.
And that was the end of that.
Cold day, cold wind, nasty needling snow blowing slantwise, the drifty stuff that doesn't accumulate but mills around like atomized styrofoam. A good day for bad news. Learned that the Reader is closing, and that's a pity. The Reader is one of the town's two alternative publications, and was purchased by the parent company of the competitor, City Pages. I used to write a column for CP, so I suppose I should feel some sort of solidarity with the victor, but that paper has moved far to the left in recent years while I have been flung off into untethered libertarianism, so we have little in common. It's now a weekly investigation of Why Everything Sucks. (Answer: Republicans, Reagan, Corporations, and the reluctance of Americans to hand over the entirely of their paycheck in taxes.)
Day seven of the cold that will not show its face. Weariness, raw eyes, a slight nag in the throat, punctuated by chest-pounding interludes of feelin' fine. Woke with a raw esophagus and the remnants of a horrible dream, the details of which I don't want to dump on anyone. It involved the disposal of disinterred bodies. The best part, though, came at the end: the municipal workers who got rid of the bodies also delivered pizza. And in this dream, you didn't order pizza by size, crust thickness or ingredients, but by a system of musical chords. An E-minor pie was one sort of pizza; a C-major7 was another. In the dream it was all quite logical, but dreams are like that. Everyone in my dreams understands me perfectly. Of course, I rarely bring up East Lansing. Maybe that's the key.