Friday, July 31, 2009

A short piece inspired by the work of James Thurber during the running of the centathlon

The Reinstatement of the Heat

I can’t definitively state whether B. announced himself as an attorney before or after he uttered the Three Disparagements. I suspect it was before, but this is based on my interactions over the years with members of the bar, typically wining and dining in Manhattan (in fact B. was seated next to me at a group dinner at a Spanish restaurant where the emptied sangria pitchers crowded the chorizos and flambéed mushrooms to the rim of the table) during which introductions emphasized occupations. I am not a lawyer but B. was and I presume still is—and let me clarify that my socializing in Gotham was certainly not glamorous, though the men such as myself were often calculatedly unshaven and the women wore vintage jewelry delightfully crafted by themselves. In any case, it seems to me at this writing that when the Three Disparagements were issued, it had been established that B. represented the needy in criminal cases. He worked at an organization similar to Legal Aid, an organization of employees formidably underpaid and engaged for long, satisfying years in an honorable Calling rather than a traditionally lucrative Career.

B. presented as a good-natured soul. He may have told me about an aspiring gangster who fled the police in his mother’s houseboat at five knots under the Throgs Neck Bridge. Maybe he had mentioned another client, a thoughtful burglar, who brought croissants and baguettes twelve consecutive days for the office—aromatic fare that was both délicieux but, it turned out, unsurprisingly, volé. I can’t imagine how such tales would have come to my attention apart from B., as the other attorneys I befriended in his field offered grimmer and more sordid portraits in accordance with their trial work and personalities. B.’s stories likely preheated my disposition and facilitated the warmth I felt toward him, and continued to feel toward him even as he told me—it was a personal address, not an announcement to those across the horde of pitchers—that he had graduated from the law school of the University of Michigan, passionately supported the Wolverines, and held three collegiate squads in the utmost contempt and wished them failure and ignominy for all time: Ohio State Football, Notre Dame Football and Duke Basketball. B. elaborated in the same breath that these teams, as well as their adherents, respectively embodied Ignorance, Parochialism and Arrogance (I may have gotten the order wrong, but I don’t think so).

The sangria, while improving my heart health, no doubt contributed to the ease with which I sloughed off the Three Disparagements. I wasn’t insulted; I respect and admire bile when it is projected without premeditation up from the craw, especially when it spews from an otherwise happy camper like B. I smiled and responded that I am a Duke alumnus; my brother graduated from Notre Dame, where in 1988 I stood next to him as a member of the faithful throng in attendance at the glorious Catholics v. Convicts game; and my wife is a native of Columbus, and she and her extended family love their Buckeyes to a degree a greater than which cannot be conceived.

Naturally, my wife and I watch all Ohio State football games and contribute modestly to the spike of cell phone activity around and even during such events. When we visit from the East Coast during the holidays, we partake in the colloquies concerning things athletic, scarlet and gray. Married to the Midwestern mob, so to speak, I have been given my own Tresselian sweater vest and Woody Hayes bobblehead. This collection falls far short of the wardrobes and shrines of the natives, and my interest in the Buckeyes, despite my best efforts, pales next to theirs because it is not congenital.

Shortly after the most recent, successful installment of The Game, earning Coach Jim Tressel an even higher rung in Paradise one day, I had the occasion to stay in Columbus for several weeks on business. I was told beforehand that I would be in Columbus and in fact the mailing address was “Columbus” but my shelter lay a 30-minute drive west of the creaky Thurber House and the Franklin Park Conservatory, notable in my mind as the home of a robust collection of fanciful, vibrant glassware by a world-famous artisan whose name escapes me to this day, as well as the site of my wedding reception. It was both the distance from downtown and the decidedly suburban character of my temporary dwelling that perpetually led me to believe I was not “in” Columbus, which I ineptly and repeatedly articulated to my in-laws and other locals despite their apparent lack of interest in this observation. I myself grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, NY, and so found the outskirts of Columbus familiar in their flatness, in their multiplication of neighborhoods, many of them still under development as quickly evidenced by the lack of trees, and in their abundance of quality shopping. With the regard to the latter, this Long Islander was dumbfounded and made to feel inferior by the magnificence and cleanliness of Ohio’s malls, one of which offers, hold on to your hat, a Macy’s at either end. I was so struck by this twinning—clearly the manifestation of parallel universes—that I bought the same socks and boxers at each, using identical language (“Hi, I’ll take these.”) for each middle-aged saleswoman. When I reported, chuckling, about this to my hosts I was met with silence.

These hosts were friends of my in-laws and lived in a nearby community that spaced out stunted evergreens, suggesting the development was neither mature nor new. Their house featured a finished basement that served as my apartment and office excellently, as I was able to promptly access the Internet, watch ESPN in HD, and compare Archie Griffin’s signatures on a football and a napkin from a Cameron Mitchell restaurant (I forget which, but it wasn’t a steakhouse—it was one of Mitchell’s bastard start-ups.) They were industrious newlyweds who most nights, after work and dinner, undertook an impressive and unending series of projects such as the laying of hardwood floors, insertion of new closet shelves, and running of wire in a crawlspace the exact location of which I never did ascertain.

They were close with their neighbors on both sides. To the left lived an older couple and adult son, recently transplanted from Brooklyn, who called themselves The Garage People because they spent many hours actively entertaining guests and lolling in their garage on recliners. The parents were retired, the son did not work, and you could have a beer and watch ESPN in HD in their garage whenever you liked—they kept their two cars parked at the curb. Good people. To the right was a fair-haired couple with three sons who all favored the #33 jersey of James Laurinaitis. You could qualify the extent of this preference by arguing that the youngest son was barely one and therefore couldn’t possibly know if he adulated the relentless, fundamentally sound linebacker as did his three-year-old and five-year-old brothers, but who would hear your plea? There is no doubt I’ll never forget Venti, Grande and Tall, as I affectionately referred to them, at first publicly very much but then less so, on account of their cuteness and their integrality in the suspension and reinstatement of the heat.

After The Game, winter had begun to announce itself in Columbus through winds whose nature I did not recognize as I come from Long Island, where strong gusts bring rain or the redolence of seawater, making one think of the beach at summertime, whenever it may come. From my Ohio basement lair, listening to the shrieking blasts shaking the house, I didn’t know what to expect other than an outbreak of megatornadoes or the end of the world. When the winds didn’t blow, the temperature dropped, outside and inside. I’m not one to catch a chill—I tend toward the other extreme, and more than once a stranger at a dinner party has incredulously observed “You’re sweating!”—but I did become unusually aware of the season as a result of The Agreement. I wasn’t present, nor should I have expected to be, when my industrious hosts and their fair-haired neighbors decided they would turn off the heating systems of their homes. It was a contest: the parties had pledged to outlast each other and the first to succumb to the need for toasty comfort would have to pay. If my industrious hosts turned on the heat, they would have to buy a month’s supply of cereal for the fair-haired family; if the family lost, they would plant a vegetable garden for the couple. This all seemed friendly but excessive to me, as a Long Islander, but then I had never shopped at two Macy’s in one mall before.

The parties, through The Agreement and The Contest, were in a way acknowledging the contracting economy and the importance of relying less on fossil fuels. At least these greater issues were mentioned when I casually inquired about the progress—I was for a week very preoccupied with phone calls and onsite meetings with a client situated in a pristine yet sinister professional complex off I-270. One thing I was sure of from the outset was the prominent practice of the Reaganesque philosophy of “Trust but verify.” I had forgotten the deceased president’s adoption of the old Russian adage during the endgame of the Cold War—I was reminded when Venti, the oldest towhead, shouted “We’re doing a Reagan!” as he raced around my hosts’ house. On both knees Venti would slide over newly laid hardwood to the heating vents, usually by the wall, and feel the grates. This was his way of assessing if my hosts had capitulated. He reenacted this ritual nightly, after dinner and before his bath and bedtime I guess, followed by Grande, who similarly yelped and slipped, though he pronounced “Reagan” like “Crayon.” Down in my apartment I would hear the doorbell and then bound upstairs, as I enjoyed this inspection. My industrious hosts did too, I knew, because when I reached the top of the stairs, they had usually arrived from a hasty descent from the crawlspace. They, by the way, did not to my knowledge reciprocate any form of a Reagan; I guess they were inclined to trust and too busy to verify.

Despite my near-febrile constitution, my respect for higher ecological and economic concerns, and my status as a tenant paying no rent (thanks to Ohioan senses of community and hospitality), I became rather perturbed by the cold in the house. My breath hung between me, my laptop monitor, and the HD TV screen, and in the mornings it resembled a taunting phantasm. From a linen closet by the efficient washer/dryer, I removed a lined scarlet windbreaker, which I wore over several T-shirts and my sweater vest, and a Block O wool blanket in which I curled up, swaddled. I swear there was frost on the remaining slices of Donato’s pizza I left in the box overnight—breakfast was crunchy. My work became compromised by limited mobility and overarching grouchiness. Looking back, I realize I could simply have moved my laptop and my person to Panera’s or any other regulated site but my faculties were limited. I shivered and bore it. I was not alone in my suffering: my hosts wore matching scarlet ski suits and thick gray socks as they padded up to the crawlspace or Limbo. They laughed about The Contest, even when the inspector imps were not around, but I sensed they were near the breaking point nonetheless. One night after humming along with the dryer, which I ran several times a day although it was empty, I heard the couple wondering if they should do a Reagan. The husband had seen something like smoke wafting out of the chimney next door. I think I detected a quarrelsome tone.

The hour of reckoning came after two or twenty-two weeks. The timing was not fortuitous. I had chiseled off a Donato’s dinner and snuggled in vain through SportsCenter, and then I went to Kohl’s. “Going to Kohl’s,” my hosts had informed me during the cheery initial days of the Contest, was a bathroom euphemism synonymous with “Seeing a Man about a Horse” or “Powdering One’s Nose.” Why Kohl’s Department Store served as the fictional destination and not the doubly mighty Macy’s, I can’t say. Giant Eagle, the supermarket, would have fit the bill. Nevertheless, as a subterranean accustomed to solitude, I was ensconced at Kohl’s with the door open, when I found Grande watching me, red-cheeked and wide-eyed, and Tall at his side. Upstairs I heard the whooshing I’d learn to associate with the slide of Venti, the little Hans Blix.

“Shoo,” I said to Grande, and I made the universal shooing hand gesture, but the kid just stood still and giggled. His brother mumbled something in toddlerspeak. He may have been inquiring if I was going to be at Kohl’s for a while. In fact I had intended to, in part because I’d decided that the basement bathroom was my best refuge during an outbreak of megatornadoes, and the shrieking gales were at it again. When I made it upstairs, Tall in my arms and Grande scrambling behind, I found that the tousled fair-haired parents had joined the inspection. The father, grossly encumbered in layers of down, held in a bulbous mitten a piece of paper, the formal record of The Agreement, signed and co-signed. He and his wife, who was wearing at least five scarves, seemed ready to make an announcement when Venti exclaimed “Reagan! Reagan! Reagan!” His hands were bare and attached to a grate. Energized, Grande rushed over, at the last second remembering to slide, and touched the grate beside his brother, echoing, “Crayon! Crayon! Crayon!” My hosts were busted; they had turned on the heat just thirty minutes earlier, having run out of hot chocolate or instant oatmeal and disinclined to make a trip to Giant Eagle. It was all OK, the fair-haired father rejoined—he had also flicked the switch and reinstated their heat before walking over, or so he said, I think. They had had enough. He dramatically shrugged off his mittens and ripped up the Agreement. The adults enjoyed a hearty laugh (but did not hug, I noted); the young inspectors were immediately peeved that they did not seem to have won the Contest or anything at all, even though warm currents were at long last rising from the floor. I believe Venti wept from this bitterness as he followed his parents out the door, and Grande wept in reflexive sympathy for his brother. I don’t recall Tall’s disposition as he was tugged home in the wind.

I was summoned East the following day when my presentations were abruptly rescheduled, and so I never did fully enjoy the return of a normal climate at my hosts’. I regret to say I have not seen them since, though I’m sure I can rely on their continued good humor. I do hope to one day entertain them at my home with equally engaging hospitality. During the recent months that a mustachioed acquaintance has become embroiled in not a few professional disputes (involving the reluctance to pay his previously contracted fee, I’ve been stentoriously informed), I have fleetingly recalled the quick and amicable resolution of The Contest, the shredding of The Agreement, and the reinstatement of the heat. Such closure has eluded my acquaintance—he is relying on a bulldog attorney to pursue justice. That reminds me now that my sweet-natured hostess in Columbus once said that she didn’t care for lawyers much because they held forth like experts on everything. I didn’t disagree with her then and, as I said, I’ve always respected unpremeditated bile from a happy camper. I guess that marks me as a New Yorker, but I don’t live in the city anymore. I live in New Jersey.