“You got a lot of hate mail on that last column.”
I was standing in a parking lot on St. Michael’s Drive watching my son London step in front of a solar panel the size of an oven door when a stranger approached me. Part of a neighborhood re-visioning celebration, the panel controlled the flow of water from a spigot into a bucket, and London was trying to manipulate how much sun reached the display. Maybe it was the steamy blacktop or lack of cars in the auto show, but London and I found this little energy trick particularly fascinating.
“Know what I find interesting?” the man asked me.
“How a story about your haircut generates more letters than the polar ice cap melting.”
I shrugged, not sure how this impromptu meeting would play out. London was perfectly happy playing chicken with the sun, so I didn’t pull him away to the friendly women manning the Backroad Pizza tent or revisit the SWAT vehicle’s sexy array of axes and battering rams.
“Now that you have a podium, you should steer your audience in a different direction.”
I didn’t tell him that I started this column when we thought Kerry would be president or that message-based writing gives me hives. Instead I offered a simpler truth: “I’m not political that way.”
He seemed surprised. “Never?”
I flashed back to a summer when I was in college. My friends and I worked at a pizza place called Arcudi’s on the Boston Post Road. Since we’d been employed there since high school, the owner often left us in charge, which translated to drinking on the job. I did my best that summer to work through The Bartender’s Guide with a blonde dynamo named Tracy. That night, we had gotten into the Million Dollar Cocktail, whose recipe included egg whites, bitters and both dry and sweet vermouth.
My best friend Todd worked as a pizza cook and, every Friday, a good baker’s dozen of us went to a bar called Onion Alley, where we swapped stories about the dinner shift and drank woo-woo shots out of plastic cups.
That night, Tracy was feeling saucy. She decided that the Bartles and Jaymes cutout by the bar’s entrance would be the perfect lovers (tall, mute) and escorted the pair down the stairs onto Main Street. A dishwasher from Onion Alley was driving by, recognized B and J, and stopped his muscle car in the middle of the street.
“Hey,” he shouted. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Million Dollar Cocktail, baby.” Tracy giggled and planted a smooch on one of the wine cooler spokesmen. I’m not sure which; I had a hard time telling them apart.
The dishwasher said something unkind that applied to women in general and Tracy in particular. Then he bumped into her. Todd was a foot shorter and pounds lighter than the pearl diver, but had been a state champion wrestler. You know the story: The bigger guy shoved the smaller guy who then flipped the bigger guy onto his back and the curb. I had wrestled (mostly unsuccessfully) with my brothers and Todd enough to recognize that my pal had employed the fishhook: a strangely intimate move where you insert your finger into your opponent’s mouth and pull toward the ear to paralyze his face long enough to land a haymaker with your other hand.
The police came within minutes of Todd landing his trophy, and the cops began to cuff both men-boys.
“Wait a second, officer,” I said, raising my finger in the air. Maybe I couldn’t fight, but I could damn sure orate. “He was just defending this woman here.” I pointed to Tracy, who was finding it difficult to hide her cardboard dates behind a telephone pole.
“Please step across the street, sir.” The officer nodded away from the flashing lights.
“I know my rights. I’m not on trial here.” I may have just watched The Verdict on VHS.
He shook his head, weary of loudmouths. “Move, or I will arrest you.”
“On what grounds? This is a public thoroughfare.”
“Obstruction of justice.” He placed his hands on his set of metal bracelets.
A liberal arts education meant nothing to the men in blue. “Don’t worry, Todd!” I yelled. “I have just the man for the job.” I sprinted down Main Street, trying to recall the exact wording of the Miranda warning, until I found a payphone. My family lived across the street from a lawyer named George Constantikes who’d kept all three of my brothers out of jail more than once. Surely, he’d know what to do. I called him collect. It was close to two in the morning.
“Mr Constantikes, myfriendToddwasjusttryingto…only…Bartles and Jaymes…” I stammered, feeling the Million Dollar Cocktail start to decrease in value.
He listened patiently until I was finished. I might have used the terms habeas corpus and founding fathers a few times. “I do have some advice for you,” he said calmly.
“Great!” I searched my pockets for pen and paper. This was going to be just like To Kill A Fucking Mockingbird.
“Stay away from the police and go to bed.”
I’ve tried to follow Mr. Constantikes’ advice ever since, but I couldn’t say that to the stranger at the event on St. Mike’s. He wouldn’t understand. Instead, I simplified my opinion by telling him: “I think there are better people to inform and inspire the masses.”
London looked at me, bored of the magic of solar power, ready to climb into something that ran on fossil fuels. As we walked away, the man called, “Why don’t I ghostwrite your column for you?”
“That would be a million-dollar idea,” I said.