Bob Dylan once said: “This is a true story. It comes from the newspapers. Nothing in this story has been changed but the words.”
In that spirit, the following is an actual event. None of the words are the same as when they first tumbled out of out of the players’ mouths, yet somehow these things did actually happen.
So who are the players?
Bobby was a forty-year-old Greek man. He was obese. He looked like the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk (both in height and girth), but unlike that giant he was endlessly sweet and gentle. He also had such rampant psoriasis that some would have looked away and gossiped to others using words like tragic and horrifying. His size and skin condition, however, have only a slight bearing on this story. They are the what’s so about Bobby. They are a part of him, and now you know. He is simultaneously the protagonist of my story and the antagonist of his life. This makes him complex and layered, much like a properly made baklava.
Bradley was close to forty, if not older. As previously mentioned, his brain (and presumably the entirety of his insides) had been fairly damaged by an irresponsible level of alcohol consumption. I had always assumed that this made him look older than he was. Suffice it to say, be it from either unfortunate familial breeding or wormwood abuse, his brain was like a piece of driftwood ravaged by termites. In plain words, he was stupid. This plays an enormous role in this story. Every story needs a fool, which is just a cruel word for a comedic hero. And in this story, Bradley is our hero.
I neither drink too much (at least not at work) nor am I excessively overweight. In fact, my grandmother (who was long ago massacred by age, along with millions of other people born before 1910) constantly told me that I needed to eat more, that I was too thin, that I looked like a twig. She was relentless. And, like me, she was Jewish. This, too, has only a slight bearing on the story, but moreover it is key to understanding the genesis of her obsession with me being underfed. Also, as you will learn in the next paragraph, I was a bit of a nerd in high school. Not in the I-love-science-and-will-go-to-a-good-college sort of way. I just didn’t always have a lot of friends. This is another useless fact, but it is part of me, and now you know.
While there is neither dancing nor singing in this story, there are two other people who play minor roles. They don’t matter much, and you’ll barely notice them. I understand that in the theater they call these people the Chorus. In high school we called them nerds. As previously mentioned, I know this because I was one of them, and to call someone a nerd is just plain mean. So we’ll go with Chorus in this playbill.
And without further wasting any more of your time…
The scene: At a Mexican restaurant near our suburban office where the waitresses wear whatever they woke up in and there are never any specials because to call the food special would be a lie so grand that even the owner wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night. Bobby, Bradley, and I are sitting in a booth, eating.
“What’d you close last month?” Bradley asked Bobby. What this question means to someone whose income is 100% commission is: how much money do you make? While this would be rude in most professions, in the sales world it is like asking your date if she has lip herpes; it’s everyone’s business.
“More than you,” Bobby said as he slid his third taco into his mouth. Did I mention he’s obese? It’s one of the rare side effects of eating insane quantities of food.
“How do you know?” Bradley asked.
“Because everyone knows,” I said. And they did, because it was tracked on a large white board in the conference room and updated weekly. “Bobby’s a hustler, and I mean that in the most admirable way.”
“Well you better keep making that cash,” Bradley said. “I hear skin cream can get pretty expensive.”
Bobby stopped chewing and stared at Bradley. Both men were silent. Bradley’s raised eyebrows and slightly agape mouth betrayed a growing fear. After a long beat, Bobby slowly began chewing again, eyes still on Bradley. He raised his thick arm and reached for his glass of water and washed down whatever Chihuahua cheese was left between his teeth.
“I didn’t mean nothing by that, Bobby,” Bradley said. He actually seemed sincerely apologetic. So in his attempt to fight awkwardness with more awkwardness, he said: “I just meant I hear it costs a lot. I read it somewhere. Yeah, in the newspaper. I figure it’s true what they say.”
“And what do they say?” Bobby asked.
“You know,” Bradley said. “That it’s a real bitch. It’s real expensive for that sort of thing you go going on.” He motioned his hand around his own face in the spots where Bobby’s affliction was most ablaze.
“You’re a very stupid man,” Bobby said to him.
“What? How do you know I’m stupid?” Bradley replied.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked.
“I read it in the papers,” Bobby said. “So it must be true.”
The scene: Same place, about 45 seconds after the end of Act I. Important background information: As previously revealed, Bobby hustled, and it paid off for him. He made around $20,000 every month. However, he made most of his income from his side job. It was known to many that he was the distributor of copious amounts of cocaine.
“Where do you live, Bobby?” I asked. My intention had been twofold: (1) to change the subject from the previous conversation and (2) to simply learn what part of the city he lived in.
“In my old man’s basement,” he said.
“For real?” I asked. I was beyond surprised. My eyebrows were raised very high, a common side effect of great shock.
“Yeah,” Bobby said. “For real.”
“Oh wow,” Bradley said. “I didn’t know you were Italian.” Both Bobby and I looked at him with blank stares. Bradley was the sort of guy who received a lot blank stares, and they seldom alerted him that anything was amiss.
Bobby’s situation confused me. In my all-too-judgmental judgment, a forty-year-old man who made the kind of money he made should probably not be living at home. There are, of course, always exceptions.
“Is your dad sick?” I asked.
“Nope,” Bobby said, and went about sticking the bienvenido end of a burrito into the black hole above his top chin.
“So your dad probably has a big house, huh?” I tried again.
He shook his head side to side as he chewed.
“So then you two must just be pretty tight,” I said.
“Me and my old man?” he replied. “Not at all.”
“So, I gotta ask,” Bradley said. “What about the ladies?”
“Where are you going with this?” I interjected, understanding that the only ladies in Bobby’s life were the ones that tickled his undercarriage in trade for a free sample of his pixie dust.
“Well,” Bradley ventured to explain, “When you’re out at a bar or something, what do you tell the ladies when they want to come back to your place?” Again, two blank stares. He continued as I writhed with discomfort: “It’s gotta be a little embarrassing, right? Bringing them back to your dad’s place and all. That would suck. I could never do that.”
“So what does your dad do for work?” I asked Bobby, again desperate to change the subject.
“He’s a cop,” Bobby said.
Eyebrows lifted again. Super high this time, like above my hairline.
“A cop?” I asked.
“Yeah, a cop,” he replied.
“Like at the mall?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Like at the sixth district on South Halsted.”
“I heard the cops in that district were all pretty dirty,” Bradley said. Bobby and I both slowly looked up at Bradley.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked Bradley.
“What’d I say?” Bradley asked.
“You basically just called his dad a dirty cop,” I said.
“Who told you that?” Bobby asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You hear these things.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “I never hear those things. So where’d you get that garbage from?”
“Hmm…I’m just not really sure guys,” he replied, pretending as though it wasn’t something he had just made up. “I probably read it somewhere.”
“Of course,” I said. “In the newspaper, right?”
“No,” Bradley said. “Definitely wasn’t the newspaper.”
“You sure?” I asked, mockingly.
“Yeah, I’m sure” Bradley said, scratching his chin in deep though. “Definitely not. Who even reads the newspapers anymore?”
The scene: Same place, exactly 3 seconds after the end of Act II.
“So, Bobby, back to you living with your dad,” I said. “How does that work?”
“Well,” he said, “the place is pretty much paid for and my mom died back when I was in high school, so it’s just the two of us. I get the basement, and he’s upstairs.”
“Yeah, sounds organized,” I said. “But I meant about the other thing.”
“What other thing?” Bobby asked.
“That side business of yours,” I said. “How does that work when you’re living with a cop?”
“Oh, that,” Bobby said. “It’s a great cover, right?”
“Uhh,” I stumbled to come up with a reply. “I guess it is. Just seems a bit risky. I mean, if I were looking to escape from Auschwitz, I wouldn’t hide my escape plans in the Nazi’s barracks just because no one would be looking for it there. But, okay.”
“Wait a minute,” Bradley said, his hand pointing at Bobby’s chest. “Your dad’s a Nazi?”
“Who’s a Nazi?” said an old man in the booth behind me. I hadn’t noticed him before that moment, and he hardly mattered.
“I thought he was a cop?” Bradley said.
“He is a cop,” Bobby said.
“Was a cop,” said a woman walking by who was known by no one at our table.
“But now he’s a Nazi?” Bradley asked.
“Nobody’s a Nazi,” I said. “Right, Bobby?”
“Nobody’s a Nazi,” Bobby said.
“See?” I said, looking at Bradley.
“Yeah, not a Nazi,” Bobby said, chewing on the last of his burrito. “But if I’ve ever met a man who’d love to kill a few Jews, it’s him.”
As previously revealed, Bradley’s father was not a Nazi. He was, however, a dirty cop. He would steal cocaine from the evidence room at his district station. He would then supply that cocaine to Bobby, who in turn sold it and split the profits with his father. You know how I figured that out? I read it in the newspaper.
A dorm parent of mine at boarding school once told me to never let anyone surprise the shit out of me. He ended up going to jail for touching one of his wards, so I guess he was really talking from the heart when he’d said that. I’ve tried to carry that lesson with me. But every once it a while I’d forget it. It happened a few times at the chop shop, not just with Wayne the proselytizing pornographer, but also with Sal, the operations manager.
Sal lorded over Gene, the Shrek-ish sales manager, and reported to Scott, the out-of-town owner. At 50 years old, Sal could be at times extremely approachable and at others somewhat intimidating, a symptom of what sometimes occurred to me as split personalities. He made a big deal out of the fact that you never had to knock on his door, but when you did, he was a terrible grump. He loved tequila and bourbon, but he hated cursing (and probably dancing, too). He was a health food nut, but he had once owned a Subway franchise (pre-Jared), which also told me that he was opportunistic and thrifty and a man of limited culinary acumen.
“Praised be He,” Sal said one afternoon, mouth half-filled with corned beef. We were sitting at a bar near the chop shop, a place where we ate food as a vehicle to wash down the booze that called out to each of us like Monday sirens.
“Praised be He,” he repeated to Bradley, Billy the Vet, and me. My ears swallowed those words with a tinge of discord. While Sal always seemed to be a man of principal, a family man, one who might coach children’s sports or join the Elk’s club, I didn’t know him to be a religious man. So, like the others, I ignored him, hoping that whatever point he was getting at would simply go away. But he wasn’t finished. He was only getting started, and it was about to get worse. As we all stared uncomfortably at the mirror behind the bar, he said, “I love you.”
“Okay,” Bradley said, turning to face him. “I was willing to overlook the God bullshit since we’re in the only church I know. But I love you? Where’s Dave. He’ll back me up. This kind of talk is unacceptable.” Dave was the bartender. He was a handsome man, which Bradley had pointed out aloud on more than one occasion, much to the pleasure of those waiting to mock him (which was pretty much all of us).
“Your boyfriend, Handsome Dave?” Billy asked. “You’re so gay.”
“You’re so gay,” Sal repeated. “Maybe that could be another one.” We all looked at him, lost in his nonsense. “What do those sayings have in common: praised be He; I love you; you’re so gay.”
“They’re all things that should never be said in a bar between two men,” Bradley said.
“That’s true,” Billy followed. “Unless it’s a Christian gay bar.”
“I don’t think they have those,” Bradley replied.
“Oh, c’mon Bradley,” Billy said, “Of all people, you should know they do. They’re called rectories.”
“Not funny,” Sal said. “My cousin Thomas is a priest, and he’s a good man. And he’s only interested in broads, trust me.”
“Wait,” I said, “your cousin is a priest and he’s into women?”
“Well he’s no homo, if that’s what you mean,” Sal said.
“I didn’t say he was a homo,” I replied. “But that doesn’t mean he’s into women either. He’s a priest. Isn’t he supposed to only—I don’t know—be into God?”
“I asked him the same thing years ago,” Sal said. He then took another mouthful of his meat sandwich.
“…And…?” I pressed. “What’d he say?”
“He said: all men err.”
“Err?” Bradley said.
“It means fuck up,” Billy said.
“Yeah, Billy,” Bradley said exasperatedly. “I know that.”
“And that brings me to my point,” Sal said.
“Thank fucking God,” Billy said. “And what is your point?”
“Three little words,” Sal said. “Every man needs a motto, and that motto should always have three words in it. I love you; praised be He; all men err.”
“Or: you’re so gay,” Billy added.
“Yeah,” Sal agreed. “Whatever. Any three words. It’s like—your thing.”
“How about: shoot me now?” Billy said, looking for a high five from Bradley, who was in the middle of giving birth to a new thought, which was:
“How about: suck my dick?”
We all looked at him. He made it too easy.
“So what’s your motto?” I asked Sal.
“Veni, vidi, vici,” he said.
“What the fuck is that?” Billy asked.
“It means: I came, I saw, I conquered.” Sal said.
“Dude,” Bradley jumped in, knowing he was at last right about something, “that’s six words.”
“Not in Latin,” Sal said.
“Last time I checked, you weren’t from Mexico,” Bradley said, again met with blank stares.
“Three words,” Sal said. “Three little words. What about you, A.C.?”
“What about me?” I asked.
“What would yours be?” he replied.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“That one sucks,” Billy said.
“That’s not his motto, moron,” Sal said. “Don’t worry, kid. It’ll come to you.”
And Sal was right; it did come to me. About a month later, I was leaving the office, thinking that I was the last one there until I saw his office light seeping from beneath his closed door. By habit, I walked in without knocking. Apparently, he though he had been the last one there as well. He was sitting behind his desk, facing the door. His eyes yawned widely, his eyebrows reaching as high as they could. There was a bottle of tequila to his side. His upper lip was covered in white powder, and there were lines on his desk like a Morse code novel written in cocaine.
“Hey bud. How you doing?” he said with the speed of an auctioneer. “Whatchya need? Watchya want? Want a shot? Want a line?”
That’s when I figured out my motto, and while I try to make it something to live by every day, in reality they were the only words I could think to say aloud at the time: “Holy fucking shit.”
Bob Dylan was a man of change. And while I am most certainly not, I am making one small change for today’s post. I was inspired after hearing this quote by the great musician: “This is a true story. It comes from the newspapers. Nothing in this story has been changed but the words.”
The following is exactly that. After so many posts about what other people are all about, I figured I was due to shed some light on the one person about which I’m most familiar: me. So here it goes:
“Ha!” my father screamed over his office telephone. “Congratulations! We’ll have to celebrate sometime.”
I was fourteen, and had just told him that I received a C+ in ninth grade speech class. He was often too busy to hear the words that left my mouth, and often forgot how and when I came about, as if me and the fading orange corduroy La-Z-Boy might have been brought home from the same flea market the year he and my mom first moved in together.
It wasn’t that he didn’t care. Quite the contrary. He cared so much that he spent the majority of his time working to keep my sister, mother and me afloat in a near-tony suburb of Chicago. It was the town where Michael Jordan lived during his string of championships with the Bulls, but we couldn’t seem to afford the basic fanfare of Air Jordan shoes when it was social suicide to wear Tretorns and K-Swiss.
I had always been a terrible student. If I got a D for effort, it was usually out of kindness or pity or the sheer unwillingness on the teacher’s behalf to put up with me for another semester. I wanted to do well. The other kids, with their Celica convertibles and glow-in-the-dark wristwatches, all seemed to do just fine. Hell, many of them got paid for it. Fifty bucks for a B. One hundred for an A. That kind of graft wasn’t built into our family budget. I sometimes now wonder if cash had been on the table, would I have suddenly found myself wearing bowties to school and saying, hey, see you tomorrow to the librarians—who, of course, I would have known by first name—as I left at the end of a long Friday grind in the resource center. Would Harvard and Yale have been tugging at me from either side like two obese twins pulling at a Laffy Taffy? Would the Princeton Review have been pasting my face on public transit benches nationwide? As I hover over my thesaurus to identify the distinction between fantasy and possibility, I succumb to the notion that the only thing money would have accomplished in the motivation category is to allow me to buy one of those fancy hunter green JanSport backpacks from Marshall Field’s instead of the crappy yellow one from Marshalls. Either way, it would have sat empty in my locker as homework was the hangover I avoided to the alcoholism of my education.
By some sort of cosmic chain of events, I graduated from high school and was looking forward to college. At my high school graduation, I remember my father putting his arm around my gown-covered shoulder.
“Well, it wasn’t easy. But you did it,” he said. “I always knew you would.” He furrowed his brow and tucked his lips inside his mouth. I couldn’t tell if he was restraining himself from laughing or from crying. Looking back, I should have known it was both.
After a year-long boarding school stint at which I enjoyed my fifth year of high school and earned my second high school diploma, I enrolled at Ohio University. I was convinced that the admissions board must have skipped over my GPA and test scores, immediately seeking out the section of the application where I had checked off the Holy Trinity of College Application Boxes: (1) Will pay out of state tuition; (2) Does not require financial assistance; (3) White, neither Latino nor Alaskan Native.
At the time, the school boasted a top-ten (or so) undergraduate journalism school program. Breaking local news, however, wasn’t really my thing. Maybe I listened to the Doors too much back then or wore too many turtlenecks, but whatever the reason, poetry was the sort of writing that I was passionate about at the time. The problem was that I couldn’t find a curriculum with classes called Spending Time In Coffee Shops, Rhyming Is For Children, or Drinking Is Best Done Alone. So, breaking the news became the only other option. Surprisingly, the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism failed to see my potential as a newsy scoop-getter or as a chiseled-chin anchorman, a day-drinking ad man, a hip magazine editorialist or even a gossip-mongering public relationist. But, I took the Journalism School tour nevertheless. There had to be a way to get in.
“This is journalism,” said the professor/tour guide, who was so robust that it would have been indecent of him to eat his meals anywhere but in the privacy of his own home. “Poetry doesn’t belong here. You need to go to the English department. It’s over there,” he pointed to his left through a concrete wall off to an invisible destination.
Was he telling me to go? I was astonished. It was rude, and it made him an incompetent tour guide. I wanted to launch an insult his way because, well, I was nineteen and ridiculous. But I wasn’t in any position for that sort of nonsense. I needed him.
“So,” I said with despair, looking as though I might cry, “I can’t be a journalist?”
Somehow, he took pity on me. Perhaps he had been bullied as a kid and saw a similar devastation in my face. Whatever it was, it worked.
“Tell you what,” he said, testing the will of his suspenders with his free thumbs. “Why don’t you talk to Dr. P about this. He’s a poet and a professor here at the J school. He’d be a good person to talk to.”
The man showed me and my mother—who was along for a mix of support and her love of travel to any destination where wine might be served—to the office of Dr. P. I pictured this, um, doctor, in a black beret, a creepy thin mustache, a tweed blazer with elbow patches and—because we were in Ohio—white sneakers. As we waited outside his office, seemingly for many minutes, my mother realized that we were late for another appointment.
“We’ll come back,” she promised. “This is important.”
The appointment was with the dean of the Journalism School. To avoid unpleasantries, let’s call him Pinhead. Pinhead had been around for at least ten years, maybe more. He was tall and thin, wore glasses and had thinning, white hair parted on the left side of his head. It was eerie how much he looked like James Cromwell, the actor who had played everything from a guest on Little House on the Prairie to Jack Bauer’s father. But this man was no Jack Bauer; he was a nerd. And he read over my transcripts and application, leaning back in his brown leather and pushpin chair, swiveling a bit from side to side.
After clearing his throat as a signal to let us know he was prepared to communicate with us non-journalist lesser life forms, he said, “Well, it seems like we have made the right decision here. Your grades are lackluster, your extra-curricular resume is desperately in want, your test scores are average, and your essay essentially summarizes what those facts have already told me.”
“So,” my mother said, narrowing her eyes and straightening her back, “What are the odds that he can transfer into the Journalism School after his freshman year?”
I didn’t think Pinhead’s response was intended to be rude, but it certainly came out that way. “Zero,” he said, folding his arms and tucking away his hands.
“Really?” my mother said angrily. She had always been my biggest defender. “He has zero chance?”
“I suppose there is always a chance,” Pinhead said. “If he gets straight A’s, becomes very active with, say, the school newspaper, then he can certainly apply for a transfer at the end of his freshman year.”
“How many people transfer in as sophomores?” I asked.
“Typically no more than four,” Pinhead said. “Three or four from outside universities and then perhaps one from within Ohio University.”
Essentially, the transfers were people who wanted to study journalism and had gotten into much better schools. And once at those schools, they realized they felt more comfortable being the big nerd in the proverbial small science class and transferred to Athens, Ohio, to take up space in the program in which I so desperately wanted to be.
“So,” I tried again with pouting lips, “I can’t be a journalist?”
We were down, but by no means out. There was still one more hope: Dr. P. Like one more glass of Seagram’s whiskey in Charles Bukowski’s hand as he’s dragged out of the bar at closing time, I grabbed tightly onto the doorknob to Dr. P’s office and barged in unannounced. Thankfully, it was his open office hours for students and he mistook me as one—until he shook my sweaty palm, looked into my wide, anxious eyes and saw my mother walk into the room. I always blamed her for being the dead give away, but I did enough damage on my own.
He was extremely kind and thoughtful. We spoke about his poetry and his forays into journalism, both as a magazine writer and as an author on the subject of journalism ethics. I was endlessly excited and uplifted, figuring if we could both write a poem, then, surely, we could both be journalists and published authors. The future bylines were already streaming before me, awaiting with anticipation my frugal word usage and instructional punctuation.
As luck would have it, Dr. P happened to be on the board of appeals for admission to the Journalism School. He encouraged me to appeal immediately, to provide writing samples and a reworked essay. My mom and I thanked him an inappropriate amount of times and left hurriedly, before he had a chance to realize that my attention span was limited to seventeen minutes and that my mother was starting to itch for a glass of Pinot.
Upon returning home, I tasked myself with finding poems I had written, rewriting my essay and filling out any necessary paperwork. This exercise chiefly consisted of nagging my mother to do it all for me as I sat back in the desk chair looking helpless as she bent around my side to access the computer. When it came to picking out the proper poems to send, she picked the ones that rhymed, as she felt poems that didn’t rhyme weren’t worth the cheap, single-bound paper they were printed on.
“Shakespeare’s works all rhymed,” she said. “And he was no slouch.”
She was the best when it came to homework-related activities, paperwork, and deadlines. I think she wrote half of my high school English papers, which says very little considering the grades I had earned—or rather that she had earned. Having her do that stuff became second nature to me. In fact, sometimes, even now that I’m much older, when I’m writing at the computer, I look around the room to make sure it’s actually me sitting here writing these words. Check.
As the weeks passed, I nervously awaited the decision of the review board.
“Do you think the essay was good enough?” I asked one day.
“The essay was fine,” she said. She was always very confident in her work. Yet, here we were.
“And the poems?” I asked, biting at my fingernails. “Did we send the right ones?”
“The poems were wonderful,” she said. “C’mon, they rhymed.” See what I mean?
Then one day the letter came. When I got home from school, my mom was sitting at the kitchen table holding a white business envelope in her hand.
“I wanted to wait until you got home,” she said, and handed me the envelope. It had clearly already been opened and taped back shut. I looked at her and she raised her eyebrows as if to say: What? It came that way!
I didn’t mind, since any success belonged to both of us. However, if I got rejected, the failure was all mine. I slowly pealed back the Scotch tape and pulled the letter out of the envelope. My heart was beating so hard it actually hurt. The moment felt like a vision. It was as if I weren’t actually standing there, but instead watching myself from half an inch away. Unfolding the letter, I read the first line. It read: Mr. A.C. Repine. I was relieved. The letter was indeed mine. You never know, right? Next, I read the first paragraph. They had let me in. Dr. P ended up being my saving grace. It was a real cause for celebration in our house that night. My father came home from work early, gave me a hug and turned on the Cubs game—his longest and truest passion. My mom drank a glass of wine, and I got stoned in the back yard by myself. We all ended up on the couch together, watching the game in our own private heaven.
When I got up to go to bed, my father turned around and said, “You did it, kiddo. I always knew you would.”
That September, I packed up and headed off to college. I graduated four years later—on time and with honors (which is an entirely different story). I was no great academic mind. The Journalism School, as it turned out, was so desperate to ensure that their graduates got the best jobs that they handed out A’s like joints at a Phish show.
Shortly before our graduation, it was announced that Pinhead would be retiring at the end of the year. On one of the final days of classes, just before exams began, I saw him walking in the hall just a bit in front of me. I decided that I wanted to say something to him. I wasn’t sure exactly what, and I had never spoken to him since that day years earlier when my mother and I were visiting. When I caught up to him, I reached out and grabbed at his elbow, which now seems a bit maniacal, but at the time seemed to be the only way other than calling out, “hey, Pinhead, turn around!” He turned around and lowered his head in anticipation of my words.
I paused for a moment, still forming my thoughts, and finally said, “Four years ago, you told me I’d never get in to your school. Well, I did get in. And I aced it. So, thanks!”
A warm smile overtook his face. He reached out, grabbed my hand, and shook it gently.
“Congratulations,” he said. “I always knew you would.”
“Fucking doctors,” Glen muttered as he walked down the hall. As a manager, you’d expect a man like Glen to watch his fucking mouth a bit more around the help. You might also expect him to wear an oxford shirt without pits slightly more yellowed than his teeth, or to direct his hair with a comb instead of seemingly just look into the mirror and command: “Boo!” But as a manager at the chop shop, those expectations would fall short. Like Peter Dinklage short (for reference, google: famous midget actors).
“What’s wrong, Glen?” I asked. His mention of doctors made me nervous. He was obese and anxious at all times. I cared about him in a weird way.
“This asshole wants to charge me about two grand to stick a camera up my ass,” he said.
“Sounds like a fair price,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Bradley (reminder: office alcoholic/moron), “I wouldn’t do it for less than three. I mean, look at your ass. It’s huge.”
“It’s true, Glen,” I said. “The guy probably needs five feet of hose just to get in the front door.”
“And it ain’t all picnics and rainbows once he does,” Bradley said. “I bet you can’t get a whore to do it for less than that.”
“You’d know,” Glen replied.
“Not about the hose thing,” Bradley said. “No way. But I’ve paid near that for a lot less.”
Bradley, on top of booze, had a penchant for prostitutes. You know the really classy ones that A-list Hollywood types pay a ton of cash for? Well, I’m not talking about those. I was with him once when he got out of a cab on Chicago’s North Avenue bridge (pre-gentrification, of course) and procured the services of a woman who looked like she’d been featured in a Center for Disease Control pamphlet After picture.
“Did you shop around?” I asked, knowing that Glen was, if nothing else, a cheapskate.
“Hell no,” he said, taking the taped eyeglasses off his face and rubbing them on his dirty shirt. “Most of these sick fucks just want to stick their finger up your ass. You know, with the rubber glove. No thanks.”
“Yeah, but you can get that pretty much for free just for walking in their door,” Bradley said. Glen and I both stared blankly at him. “Tell you what. I got a guy I can ask about this.”
“You got a guy?” I asked. “What kind of guy do you have that came to mind when we’re talking about getting things shoved up Glen’s ass?”
“He’s a doctor,” Bradley said. “I’m doing his mortgage this week. I’ll ask him.”
“Oh, gee,” Glen said. “That’d be great. Just ask what he charges for the camera thing.”
So later that afternoon, Glen and I were in his office talking about a client when Bradley walked in.
“Hey, Glen,” Bradley said, clutching the door jam. “Talked to that guy. He’s in.”
“He’s in?” I said.
“Yeah, what do you mean?” Glen asked. “In for what?”
“He’ll do it,” Bradley said.
“Okay,” Glen replied. “But for how much?”
“I didn’t ask,” Bradley said.
“Wasn’t that the point?” Glen replied.
“Yeah, I know.” Bradley said. “But I figured he’d do it for a lot less.”
“Why?” Glen asked.
“Cause he’s one of those gay doctors,” Bradley said.
“I’m sorry?” Glen asked. Glen was from a time and place (Ohio, circa dawn of time through present time) where homophobia wasn’t a complex, but more of an understanding of just how things were.
“He’s gay,” Bradley said. “So, you know, I figure he’ll do whatever you want for less. Being your ass and all.”
“How do you know he’s gay?” I asked.
“I don’t care how he knows,” Glen said. “If he’s gay, I don’t want him anywhere near my ass.”
“I think it matters,” I said. “I’m kind of curious as to how Bradley came across this sort of information. Did you see him out somewhere?”
“No, dude,” Bradley said. “He told me. When I asked him what sort of doctor he was, he said, ‘homopathic.’”
I’ve decided to pass along some of the odd encounters I remember from the chop shop. Like flickers of memory, the small moments between all the big ones tend to shed the most beautiful light. So here is the first of my mini-anecdotes from mortgage hell:
“Hypocrite cocksuckers!” someone yelled. It came from the waiting room.
“What’s that?” I though out loud, poking my head around the corner to see whom the offender was, hoping I had misheard him. There were clients being shuttled from office to office, all within earshot.
“Cocksuckers!” he said again, this time in a slightly hushed voice. The man looked to be in his mid-thirties. He wore a suit that expressed a willingness to look good and yet an inability to afford that very same thing. He pawed at his slicked back hair, and licked his lips like how a great dane might.
“Who’s the retard?” asked Billy the Vet, my office-mate and chronic porn watcher. He and I had been standing at the mailboxes, pretending to be busy for the benefit of our boss, Glenn.
“Not sure,” I said.
“Probably schizo,” he said with certainty.
“What’s that?” said Bradley, who had the great misfortune of not only being the office boozehound but also the office moron (the latter title, of course, unbeknownst to him).
“Schizo,” Billy said. “You know, like you say shit out loud that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Kind of like you,” I said. “But it’s Tourette’s, dumbass, not schizophrenia.”
“Cooocksuckers!” the guy said again, building up to an emphasis on the suckers part.
“You know, a guy in my unit has a brother with that disease,” Billy said. Billy was a Marine until he quit on everyone one week prior to his Iraq deployment.
“It’s not a disease,” Bradley said. “It’s a mental illness.”
“Really, Doctor Doolittle?” Billy said. “What’s the fucking difference?”
“Well, for one thing,” Bradley started, seemingly unsure of where he was going with this but willing to continue anyway, “a disease is something you get from someone else. Like herpes. A mental illness is just bad luck. Some people just have it.”
“So, what’s cancer?” I asked. “I mean, you don’t get it from someone else—”
“No, you can,” Bradley interrupted. “Second hand smoke, dude. Disease. See?”
“He kind of has a point,” Billy says. “It’s fucked up logic, but it kind of makes sense.”
“Then being fucking stupid must be a disease, too,” I said.
“How so?” Bradley asked.
“Because you obviously got that from each other,” I said.
Some stories are simple, yet complicated to tell (or, perhaps, complicated to understand when, like me, complete concentration is a thing only successfully attained by magicians and people who attend private universities). But this story is simple in both idea and degree of difficulty in the storytelling category. It just happens to be about the complexity of communication. The moral (which, I know, is usually reserved for the end but I’ll happily share now for those like-minded individuals who won’t make it past this paragraph) is: if you can’t understand someone, it’s more than likely the case that they also can’t understand you.
Now, allow me to get out of my own way:
I had been asleep at my desk, this being a direct result of having struggled with the 41 Across clue (Spanish shellfish, 10 letters of which the second and last were both a) from the Friday NY Times crossword (two side points: (1) please understand that Friday is so much more challenging that Monday, in the event that Monday’s is the only one you’ve ever tried and happened to complete and (2) the answer was langostina). My office phone woke me up. Racing to add to the potential commission to my monthly tally (and keeping it from falling into the wayward hands of one of my insane/socially unviable co-workers), I un-reclined my chair and—without a thought of who might be on the other end and with a healthy balance of excitement and fear—I answered the call.
I had momentarily forgotten both my manners and the name of my company. So I sat there, clutching the receiver and pressing it against my cheek and ear, stewing in the death of quiet.
“Alo?” a man said into the silence. His voice was one part Spanish and one part Caribbean.
“Yeah, I’m here,” I finally blurted out.
“What?” he said.
“What what?” Now we were both confused.
“It wasn’t clear?”
“What wasn’t clear?” I asked.
“Is that what you said?” he asked. “That is wasn’t clear?”
“What? Are you asking me if I asked you if it wasn’t clear?”
“Umm…no,” I replied. I had no idea what could have possibly been unclear about this conversation so far (other than the point of the conversation itself). And this is where a terrible prejudice of mine came into play. I had always assumed in this sort of situation that if someone couldn’t understand what I was saying it was due to a general deficiency on his or her part. Possible causes: (1) that person was stupid; (2) that person didn’t speak English; (3) that person had been educated in a place where the style of phonics was more important than the substance of comprehension; (4) that person could only afford to live in an area with dodgy cell phone coverage—this last option obviously only being possible when communicating via telephone, but in our modern world it would have been careless to omit.
Wiping the slate of conversation clean (and having completely forgotten what I’d even said to begin with), I continued with my usual introductory spiel and bevy of questions about this man’s current financial needs (i.e. the reason for his call).
It didn’t take long for the caller—who I’ll call Franco because I came to learn that he was Puerto Rican and the only Puerto Rican whose name I can remember is a fictional one from a favorite television show of mine—to both confuse and shock me.
“So you’re engaged to the woman who owns the house, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” he confirmed.
“And you want to get her off the mortgage and put yourself and—I’m sorry—you and who?”
“The mother of my fiancé,” he repeated, which was necessary because the cobwebs of my nap were still fettering my every thought.
The reason why some people did this was to get someone off the mortgage who might not have sufficient credit to qualify for a new one. So to secure a lower rate and earn the right to wear the unbearable coat of financial responsibility that most of us have no place shouldering, it was deemed a reasonably standard practice to find someone else to wear that burden with you—at least on paper (until you realized three years later that this person disappeared like David Copperfield in a house of needles and left you wearing the coat alone like a brown bear fur in the Panamanian jungle). This would have been typical. However, this was not why Franco wanted his fiancé supplanted by her mother on the mortgage. Why then?
“Because she and I are going to get married now,” Franco said.
“You and your fiancé,” I confirmed, unsure why it was necessary to say this since I incorrectly assumed that he and I could agree that fiancé meant the same thing to both of us.
“No! No! No!” His patience was waning. “To her mother.”
“Okay,” I said. “I think I understand. You’re going to marry your fiancé’s mother and you’re going to ditch the current fiancé, right?”
“Right,” I said. “You’re going to get rid of her.”
“Oh, no, sir,” he said. “No one’s going to get rid of her. She’s just moving out.” A common miscommunication for some people, I’m sure.
“Right,” I said. “That’s what I meant. But…why?” This, of course, is the most asshole-ish word in the English language: why. I wish I had never learned it, but we all had to be two years old at some point.
“Because I love her,” he said. “Mirabella is a woman.”
“And that’s…the mother?”
“Yes, sir. She’s a woman, and my fiancé is just a little girl.”
It was right around this point where my skin began to crawl. I wanted to hang up, but there was business to be done (and, having a morbid curiosity, I simply had to meet this guy). So I invited the family to come down to my office where we could complete the required paperwork to get his deal moving forward.
“Does next Tuesday work for you?” I asked.
“No,” he said without any sort of counteroffer.
“How about Wednesday?”
“What day does work for you then?” I asked.
“I will be in Florida until Thursday with my fiancé,” he said.
“Okay,” I replied. A pre-wedding honeymoon, I figured. “A romantic trip with the fiancé?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. I could hear his lascivious smile. “Very much romance.”
We set a day to meet shortly after his return and I gave him one important thing to remember: “No matter what, don’t forget to bring your fiancé.” I said this because I wanted to make sure that the woman he was ditching—yes, getting rid of—was a willing participant in this fiasco. It seemed odd, at best, that she was going to walk away from her home and her man all at once without any sort of fight. I’d seen West Side Story as a kid, and I couldn’t believe any Puerto Rican woman could be giving up that easily.
He said he understood, and we hung up our respective lines. The following week came. At the time of our appointment, I was happy to see that Franco was on time and had a woman in tow. She was old and lopsided and her hair was half black and half burnt orange and her knees, which were exposed beneath her much-too-short yellow polyester dress, were brown and crusty and fatty and circularly layered like a week-old cinnamon bun. Not to mention that while I knew Franco was only twenty-two, she looked to be in her sixties. If this was the fiancé, then I’d hate to meet her mother.
“I am Franco,” he said with a smile so wide it was only outdone by his large, yawning eyes. “And this is my love, Mirabella.”
I was pretty sure at this point that he had brought the wrong fiancé. I led them into a private conference room, and we sat down in black leather chairs along one side of an elongated oval table.
“I thought I told you to bring your fiancé,” I said to Franco.
“Yes,” he said. “Mirabella is my fiancé now.”
I had almost forgotten my manners again. “Hi, Mirabella. Pleased to meet you.” That was a lie. I was shocked and horrified.
“She doesn’t speak any English,” he said for her.
“Okay. But I meant your old fiancé,” I said. Mirabella looked offended, which was odd since she supposedly couldn’t understand a single word I was saying. Her unibrow was raised on one side and began to slightly lift up the other end.
“I didn’t understand. It was unclear,” Franco said. “And there is no old fiancé. Only Mirabella now. Only one fiancé.”
“But I can’t really do this without her,” I said to them both. “I really need the other—her daughter—to be here.”
“But it was unclear!” he repeated, this time raising his voice to a yell. He stood, hovering over both his lover and me. “We must do this now! Why can’t we do this now? Time is very important now!”
“I’m sorry, Franco, but—”
“It was unclear!!!” He was panicked.
“Okay, Franco,” I said softly, trying to restore calm. “I get that it was unclear, and I’m sorry for that. We can work through some of these papers and you can bring her back another time. Maybe tomorrow?”
“Yes,” he said, sitting back down and patting Mirabella’s pancake palm. “I will bring her tomorrow.”
As we went through the fifty or so pages of signatures and warnings and needs-to-know sort of things, I made small talk as I did with all my clients.
“So how was your little romantic get-away to Florida?”
Sometimes time can be a funny thing. An hour can seem like a day, or a day a week. And other times you can take one single second and split it up into individual micro-parts like atoms that can’t be seen or charted or magnified at all. It was during one of those micro-parts of a second that Mirabella leaped out of her seat and angrily wrapped her loose-skinned python hands around Franco’s neck, seeming intent on stealing the last bit of breath from her lover’s body. I also jumped out of my chair, unsure if I should go get help or inset myself between these two people. Again, having seen West Side Story, I knew that there was at least a remote chance that someone might pull a knife on me, so I took a few steps back and let the rage ensue.
“Pero qué coño? Mamabicho!” Mirabella yelled at Franco. I still have no idea what that means, but I have a few guesses. It dawned on me just then—as Mirabella lunged toward Franco, her tremendous weight pushing him out of his chair and onto the ground, and as two of my co-workers, alarmed by the screaming hysterics, burst into the room and tried to pry the powerful yet elderly woman from her nimble lover—that I had been confused about which fiancé he was taking on his romantic trip to Florida. I was frozen, but wanted to do something to fix what I had broken. My co-workers were untangling the mess when Mirabella betrayed her secret knowledge of the English language.
“I’m going to fucking kill you!” she screamed. She wrestled away from my co-workers’ collective grasp and dove back on top of Franco.
He looked up at me from underneath her, his eyes filled with horror and hatred, and said, “You motherfucker!”
“I’m sorry Franco!” I screamed. “It was unclear! It was un-fucking-clear!!!”
“If we were playing by the rules, we’d be in gym class right now.”
These are the words of Ferris Bueller, one of my many childhood heroes (along with He-Man, Jeff Spicoli, and Fred Jones of Scooby-Doo fame). I find myself using that quote a lot. That’s probably a symptom of rarely doing what I’m supposed to be doing. And why would I anyway? Truly great things only happen to me when I’m completely off task. My father, an accountant with a penchant for deregulation, once told me: “Son, breaking the rules is what we’re doing when our dreams come true.”
At this very moment, there is webinar training session going on. I’m supposed to be paying attention to it, but it’s not up on my computer. I have it playing on the spare computer that sits about 10 inches from where I’m typing these words. I could be partaking in the webinar, but then where would that leave you and I? I’d be half-asleep and drooling on my keyboard, and you’d be reading some other blog written by some other narcissist.
And let’s say I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. What would that involve? For starters, I’d be watching this woman on a tiny video screen. Let’s call her Victoria (because every Victoria I’ve ever known—other than that hot slice Victoria Principal from the show Dallas—is scratchy and abrasive and makes me shiver just like this woman does).
She is in her mid-fifties. She’s got what looks like an orange and teal Pucci scarf tied around her bony neck, has chestnut hair that looks like it came out of a box, and is wearing so much lipstick that she looks like the Joker. As everyone signs on and waits for the show to begin, she’s warming up the crowd, snapping her fingers and shaking her head from side to side while Cheeseburger In Paradise plays in the background. She probably picked that idea up while on an exciting team-building retreat in Orlando a few years back when Marriotts were nice places to stay—oh wait, that was never.
The call, as always, starts out with a request for feedback on one question: “HOW DO YOU FEEEEEL!!!” The answers poor in, streaming down the screen too fast to read like a chat trail on a porn site or the credits of a TNT movie. Victoria calls out some responses, “Excited! Ready to go! Energized! Full of possibilities!”
I’m typing away and listening at the same time. I’m starting to feel nauseous. Did I eat something I shouldn’t have? Or maybe I forgot to eat at all. Oh, wait. It’s Victoria. Duh.
She’s droning on about her sales technique, the foundation of which she sums up in one simple sentence: People do business with people they like, people they trust, and people who make them money. I sum it up this way: Everything I need to know about sales I learned in kindergarten. Basically, she has turned a no-shit-Sherlock idea into what I can only assume is a prosperous training business that corporations pay her solid coin to administer for them. I have to give her credit for that. It’s a total racket.
Checking in with Victoria again: One of today’s tips is to identify a client’s hobby and win over his heart with inauthentic fervor for the same topic. Example: Doug likes to play old school video games. Her solution: send him articles related to Atari and Donkey Kong. My solution: buy him a hooker because he’s probably a virgin.
She’s encouraging a hundred mortgage professionals to fabricate friendships with their clients in order to win over their business. It doesn’t sound far-fetched. Any good salesman knows that this is how to get it done. But you don’t need to talk about it. And you certainly don’t need to sit through eight 90-minute sessions to figure it out. If you do, then you’re a moron and you need to go work at GameStop, where I’m sure you’ll run into Doug this Saturday evening. It’s like having a training session on lighting a match in the bathroom to cover your scent or instructing someone on how to throw your trash in your neighbors’ garbage cans in the alley because yours are already full. It’s sales 101. Everyone already knows this stuff. Some pictures just don’t need to be drawn.
The session goes on and on. I know I’ve referenced Willy Wonka a lot lately, but this is sort of like that boat ride he takes everyone on that goes on and on and when it will stop nobody knows. To me, it’s like the forth circle of hell. There’s worse, but not a whole lot. Then I hear something that I’m sure I misheard.
“If your client is of the opposite sex…” she says. I kind of lose her at this point. My mind wanders. What is she talking about? It’d be easier to just listen to what she’s saying, but I’m a terrible listener. She gets up and takes off her two-button shoulder-padded taupe jacket, throws it across her desk at the webcam, and bends over to hit play on her stereo. The sweet sounds of Jimmy Buffet fill the room again. The online chatter flows. Have I moved into the fifth circle of hell? No. Not at all. I’m not even seeing any of this. In fact, I’m not even at home any more. I’m eating an Italian beef sandwich down the street with a friend while my computer sits open atop my desk absorbing Victoria’s pain. There was no opposite sex talk, no stripping, no Wonka-ish maelstrom. I left about 30 minutes into the session and met a friend for lunch at the Vienna Beef factory outlet down the street from my house.
Because I’ve always wanted to be Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago. And if I was playing by the rules, my dream would never come true.