Don’t Do as I Say
When you’re an alcoholic, it is tough to distinguish between genuine, “earned” sickness and the corrosive effects of the drug. When such a person happens to fall ill, it’s the “disease” that gets the blame in the eyes of many observers. The fallacy of Post hoc ergo propter hoc, “After this, because of this,” is frequently committed in many cases. One may as well say to a non-drunk, “You wouldn’t have gotten sick if you didn’t always ride in the front seat.”
At any rate, I clearly got sick in the late winter/early spring. I still made it to work every day throughout this experience, one of the reasons Paul dubbed me “The Marathon Man.” The chief reasons were that I was always eager to work from lunch until closing, I never turned down a table, and I didn’t like clocking out for a meal break. (This was in a field and at a restaurant where many waitresses seemed pained to last longer than four hours.) And Lloyd’s had honed my competence at the trade. Since Paul had known me even before I worked nearly five years for him at the store, he looked at me with kind of a paternalistic eye. And while I had no ass-kissing agenda, we would often shoot the shit at the end of the night.
One night during this ill spell, I had a genial but high-maintenance customer who peppered me with detailed and occasionally obscure questions. Kitchen staffs often complained to me for actually burdening them with questions that I told the customer I would relay to them. “Just make up something.” “Tell them what they want to hear.” “Tell them Roger doesn’t have TB anymore.”
But, as a philosopher and a scholar, I am obligated to seek and pass on truth. I had to tell them things like that the only menu item that is homemade in any sense is the pizza sauce. I refrained from adding that it’s made by a big, hairy chef reaching elbow-deep into the paste, which is why they may occasionally find the “prize” of an arm hair in their pizza.
While cleaning the table next to this guy, who I sensed was scrutinizing me, I hoped he missed that a drop of blood dripped from my nose onto that table. When he was done and paid up, he said I was the best waiter he’d ever had. He then listed his reasons, much like I would instruct my students to argue their theses in their papers. I said, “If you’d like, you could tell my boss that.” I pointed Jane out when he asked whom that was, then immediately regretted my vainglorious attempt at self-promotion.
It turns out that Randy and several of the waitresses were congregating in the same spot. I called out, “No, sir,” but he was determined to deliver his assessment. Jane et al. must have clearly anticipated some bad news coming. I hoped that the good report they received would help insulate me from whatever criticism I may receive in the future.
My overall performance during this period—which, let the record show, did not lead me to curtail my drinking—confirmed something I’d learned from my tennis experience. I would often perform better when I was sick or had a slight injury. With tennis, I figured that because I was desirous of shorter rallies, I would capitalize on point-winning opportunities more effectively. And, importantly, it shows how the mind can triumph over material constraints. In New Age terms, it’s expressed in the idea of the thought forms: thoughts are things. And thoughts that are spoken have more bearing upon objective reality. Thus sayeth Swami Brian.
* * *
The best example from my personal experience about thought forms occurred while Will and I shared the apartment while in college. Back then, my addictions and compulsions tended to be healthier. Upon waking, my thoughts often quickly turned to how I would get my tennis fix that day. The one day I said to Will, “I’m going up to the courts to work on my serve. Maybe I’ll get lucky and someone will break their leg and I’ll get to play their opponent.” I’ll be damned if that’s not exactly what happened, and in the court next to me, no less.
I observed another unfortunate illustration of thought forms’ efficacy while waiting to cross the street near the hospital one day. A nurse, of all people, just bolted out into traffic, either oblivious to the danger or assuming that oncoming traffic would yield. Another wait-er with me said, “Only in the city.” I quipped that “at least if she got hit, she’d already be at the hospital.” As I passed that way again twenty minutes later, I learned that another pedestrian had been hit by a car at that very intersection.
So you’d think that with my intellectual and experiential knowledge of the potency of words, I’d be more careful about what I say. Not just for these mystical reasons, but for the more practical reason that my jokes, while not malicious or mean-spirited, often got me into trouble. My sense of humor has been, throughout my life, an asset at certain times, a liability at others. As I started to feel more comfortable at the Dollar, I began to engage in the types of antics that helped me fit in so well at Lloyd’s. I’ve been told that it can be difficult to tell when I’m joking and when I’m being serious, which is oddly consistent with regard to my own gullible susceptibility to jokes played on me.
In restaurants, I tended to get along especially well with the “back of the house,” in spite of the often antagonistic relationship between servers and the kitchen. Bryce was a busboy for whom promotion to dishwasher was probably his greatest life accomplishment to date. He was almost certainly the dumbest person there, and I was almost certainly the smartest. Yet we got along great and he was one of my favorite people to work with. He had the naive moral goodness one often finds in simpletons. We talked crudely to each other, making sex references and gay jokes.
He trusted me enough to ask me logistical questions about how to have anal sex with his girlfriend. I was flabbergasted. I told him I didn’t know anything about it. I could introduce him to some gay guys I knew who could advise him, but they might get the wrong idea about his curiosity. I knew that Bryce wouldn’t be able to muster the tact to extricate himself.
Once, when my fellow waitresses were giving him attention about having just turned 18, I interjected a taste of our style of humor. “Bryce, you’re 18 now, a man. It’s time to drop out of school, get your girl knocked up, get a job at [the factory], and become an alcoholic.”
“Brian!” one of the girls shrieked, “don’t tell him that! He’ll go and do it!”
Less than two months later, I realized she was right. He had dropped out of school and gotten his girlfriend pregnant. If I had at least introduced him to the gays and he had learned about anal sex, maybe the latter outcome could have been averted.
Another such busboy/dishwasher was a smart kid who was still in high school. When we joked around, I got the sense that I often got when I joked with certain people; that I’m blowing their minds with some of my jokes. I know they’re thinking, “Wow! My friends and I joke around, but this is on another level.” Of course, some probably just think I’m either on acid or crazy, but they tended to avoid these yuk-fests anyway.
The first time he was tasked with getting ice for the bar, he stood there with the two buckets and asked me, “Now what?” I remember my own such experience when I worked at the place. I was older than him but likewise new to the biz, wondering if I was allowed behind the bar.
“Just dump it right there on the floor,” I said with a casual but authoritative tone.
He thought for a moment, looked at me quizzically, then asked, “Are you serious?” Letting the suspense build for a few more seconds, just long enough to be funny but cognizant that the young pothead was just about to do it, I said, “Come on dude, I’m messing with you. Go dump it behind the bar where you see other ice.”
Jane had observed this but said nothing, then sternly threatened, “Brian, I swear to God I would have killed you.”
Somehow I had missed his sizable presence, but Jim, Brian and Craig’s stepdad, was dining two tables behind me and had apparently observed this. I almost jumped when I recognized the voice that bellowed, “Get in line.”
You will recall that he blamed me for Brian’s youthful transgressions, even though I was merely a co-conspirator and not the instigator. It would take commitment to nurse a grudge for that many years, especially since being a seaman seemed to straighten Brian out. No, such ongoing loathing needed to be refreshed every so often, much like a plant that needed watering.
In late September of ‘01, I got word that Brian was on leave from the Navy. I called up his house number—sometimes it’s a curse to be able to recall such things for years—and left a message on the machine.
I affected an authoritarian voice. “Mr. Bravowsky,” (I did not know his rank), “this is Captain Johnson. You are going to Afghanistan and we need you back on base post haste.” There was no dramatic pause here, as I quickly added in my normal voice, “Brian, it’s Brian. I heard you’re back and I’ll look you up at Brian’s tonight.” (We Brians tend to cluster together, like weeds.)
The desired effect for whoever heard the message was two seconds of horror, followed by a sentiment along the lines of, “Oh, what a son-of-a-gun! Had me going for a second there,” followed by a hearty laugh as nostalgic endearment washed warmly over the listener.
Instead, I was with Brian later that night when he got a call from the home front. “What?! Oh, fuck. I can’t believe it. All right, I’ll be home in about ten minutes.” He then informed us all that he was being shipped off to the sandbox. The news pained me. I started to express my sympathy when something occurred to me.
“Wait a second. Was this call from a Captain Johnson?”
Whoever heard and reported the message had either the comprehension ability of a stone or the reflexes of a ninja, as they would have to have stopped the message at the split second between the end of the fake message and the start of my real one. That distinction was academic, as the next time I called the house, several days later, I was the one receiving a message. “Is this Willard? If I would have seen you that night, I would have fucking killed you. You’re a no-good drunk whose life is going nowhere…” That last part, I should add, was not yet true.
Considering that Afghanistan has been dubbed “the graveyard of empires,” it’s no surprise the topic would prove a stumbling block to Jim and I burying the hatchet.
As he was reaming me out, I realized I’d had enough. It was time to lay into this prick. I had to stop suppressing my sense of injustice when I am treated like this by assholes like him. I didn’t want to end up atop a clock tower someday with a rifle because I could never directly deal with conflict.
So I said, “I’m sorry. It was just a misunderstanding.” He hung up before I got to that last word, so his imagination no doubt filled in the blank with “fucking riot to cause you more stress, Jim, and just when you thought I could never hurt you again,” followed by the sinister laugh of a movie villain.
Paul’s girlfriend, Trudy, was one person who generally had a better sense of humor about things, especially after a couple of drinks. A number of the catresses didn’t like her, but she was okay in my book, especially after I had a few drinks. When we both imbibed a few together, we were downright chummy. She confided to me that she regarded the whole Hile clan as nutty. She only hinted that this appraisal applied to her sugar daddy as well.
The one evening I was so swamped with tables that the business-less bartender picked up a party of six in my section. I suppose I could have handled it, but it wouldn’t have been pretty. Of course, I can always spare a little time for a joke. Given my Marathon Man reputation, it was easily conceivable that I was serious when I stopped and accusatorily said to Trudy, “I can’t believe that she stole a table from my section!”
She flashed an unmistakable look of fear in her eyes, looking like she was about to faint. When I cracked a smile, she laughed, smacked me on the arm, and said, “I thought you were serious! I mean, you’ve been under a lot of stress lately and I thought for a second you had snapped!”
“Hell, I snapped weeks ago, but so far stray animals in my neighborhood are the only ones that know. Yes, they know quite painfully.”
“Go get back to your shit and let me know when you’re ready for some more tables.” Her smile conveyed that she’d appreciated the comic relief, often necessary in those helter skelter moments.
* * *
It was antics like that that led a co-worker named Sterling Presley to remark, in a complimentary manner (to my friend Dan’s parents), “I never met a character like this guy.” This was very high praise considering whom he knew. You see, he was one of the Presleys, Elvis’s second cousin. He was a career waiter who had long ago exhausted whatever largess The King may have bestowed upon him. I got a kick out of old-timers like him, or Doris, who were trained using the paper system, where the ticket is handwritten and given to the kitchen. They were confounded by the newfangled computer system, but they did their damnedest to adapt.
He came up to me the one night and spoke to me quietly, in the manner of someone proposing something conspiratorial. I guess the nature of the question explained his demeanor: “Do you know where I can get any weed?”
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I tended to be taken aback when older people, who were not obvious burn-outs, expressed a hankering for such things.
“Uh, sure, if not tonight, almost definitely tomorrow.”
“I didn’t know if you were into that or not, but I knew I could trust you wouldn’t go blabbing to people. I recognize character. I’m only half as dumb as I look.” He laughed the brand of laughter that quickly led into old-man-smoker’s cough.
As it turned out, I was able to secure the arrangement within the hour. I knew I was going to our dealer-in-residence in the kitchen, but hadn’t expected him to have the goods on him. It’s funny that he was friends with Andy, the cook who was training to be a state cop.
Sterling and I went back to my place to toke up. Hailing, obviously, from the South, he was disappointed with the price. He was rather impressed with the quality. I would look skeptically at anyone’s claim to be related to Elvis, but I am also a good judge of character. I had to ask what it was like to witness all that ballyhoo and hero worship.
“You see, Brian, I don’t really talking about it to people I don’t know or to people that might think I’m bragging like I’m saying I went and did something impressive, because I know I didn’t do anything special. I just happened to be related to him.
“I was 12 when it just exploded, got real crazy, and I’ll never forget riding around town on the back of his cycle and all these girls just going crazy, like, like—”
“Like they’d seen Elvis.”
He laughed. “Right. I knew it had nothing to do with me but I still loved it. I was just a kid. It was great to see Elvis when he was doing well, but tough to see—well, you know how it got for him.”
“I only started liking his music a little just recently, but I’m really into ‘60s music and studying—as an amateur—the whole period in the historical sense. What amazes me is, in the late ‘60s, that many of the counter-culture figures genuinely believed they were going to succeed as revolutionaries. And the way the powers-that-be reacted, you knew they were scared too.”
“A lot of the people I knew, they were scared out of their shit in those days. Like the goddamn seventh seal was opening or something! I was just like, ‘What are you gonna’ do? Can’t stop the future,’ you know? Shit, that’s some really good weed. This bag’ll last me a while, but I know where to go when it runs out. I think I know who you went to but I won’t ask.”
“Just let me know. I like shooting the shit with you.”
“Same here. If I can ever help you with anything, let me know and I’ll do what I can. And my word is gold.”
“You have a sterling reputation, Sterling.”
“That’s a good one. I’ve never heard that one before.”
* * *
Sometimes, I erred by not saying enough, by not making my words clear, or golden (to use Sterling’s typology) enough. I was hanging out at a neighbor’s place several nights after Elvis’s kin had left the building, one of a number of hellions that came and went from the building. There were two people there I kind of knew. One was Timmy, a young super gay guy that I had often seen at the grocery store when I would stop on my way back from Lloyd’s. I got a kick out of his question the one night, when he asked if I was a rabbi. The question was undoubtedly based on the fact that I was bearded and always dressed in black for work.
The other visitor was the one who piqued my interest, the on-again/off-again girlfriend of Shane, a guy I would occasionally hang with, our associations always involving either alcohol or drugs. He seemed to me a bonhomie, so I was quite shocked when, while still in high school, he attacked some guy from the next town over with a baseball bat. Those petty small-town rivalries are interesting microcosmic illustrations of the conflicts we see in hot spots all over the world. April sure looked fetching enough to warrant a disregard of fear of Shane. I said to her discreetly, “I’ll be up late if you want to stop over.”
After about an hour, it seemed apparent that the pot that was to arrive “any minute now” could not justify any longer my company with my white trash neighbor. As I said “Adieu,” I winked at April.
I hadn’t explicitly stated that my invite was for her alone, for male/female purposes. April, come she did. Around 2:00 AM, there was a knock on my door. It was April, which excited me, but she had brought along Timmy. He was such a flamer that I worried he might pose a fire hazard in my newspaper-strewn apartment.
“Timmy here wants to know if he can spend the night.”
“Oh, no!” he feigned noninvolvement with the indecent proposal. His giggling was disconcerting.
“Uh…no,” I simply stated, although I wanted to shout it. “And,” acknowledging the (pink) elephant in the room, “I’m not into that anyway. Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” unable to pass up a chance to quote Seinfeld.
It’s unfortunate that the one time I get a knock on my door in the middle of the night, with a more or less explicit offer of sex from someone I barely knew, it involved a guy. I felt my manhood go down a few notches that night.
I didn’t know that my life in general was about to be ratcheted down several notches.