He was an odd sight when he first appeared in the order department. Eddie, our supervisor, brought John around to introduce him to all the members of our department. Rather portly, thinning hair, pale complexion, and a manner that suggested someone "different" from what one would expect in a manufacturing company office. More like someone one might not be surprised to see in the corner at a loud party, surrounded by people with glasses in their hands and laughing a lot. I found out rather quickly that he was forty-five years old, and had spent most of his adult life in "show business."
Not that I had much experience among such people. I was twenty-two at the time, having recently returned from my enlistment in the Coast Guard. This was my first real job, if you donít count the six months I worked as a baler in a paper bag factory, or the three days I worked with a small logging crew in the woods near Port Townsend, Washington, right after my discharge. I was a clerk in the repair parts section of the order department, and spent my time digging through old files and musty-smelling drawings looking for, for example, the exact replacement brushes for an electric motor built forty years before. I was dating a young woman and struggling to live from payday to payday. Iíd budgeted my money so that I could afford one martini per week. The family I was living with included my best friend, so they didnít charge me much for my room and boardóincluding the bag lunch my friendís mother packed for me every morning.
John was outgoing, to say the least. One could hear him holding forth on just about any subject clear across the large office. He seemed to take an especial interest in the younger men, including me. He said he had returned to Cincinnati to care for his elderly parents, who ran a small neighborhood bar not far from our office.
Soon, we were introduced to the flamboyant world of show business, of traveling from city to city, staying in cheap hotels and dining occasionally in high-class restaurants. John loved classical music, particularly ballet. That was enough to attract me to his monologues delivered wherever there might be an audience. Our boss, Eddie, didnít seem to mind Johnís frequent dramatic stories, probably because John was very smart and took his work seriously, when necessary. In between those times, he joked and poked fun at anyone he considered pretentious. "Heís got a pole up his ass," heíd conclude.
He wasnít any kinder toward his former associates in the entertainment business. There were many references to "fat-faced queens" that in his mind took themselves too seriously.
John became rather a mother hen toward the young people in the department. He queried us about our activities and our friends, pronouncing judgment on those that he considered beneath us. He wanted us to enjoy life, but to avoid situations and people who might "drag us down." "And that was not a pun!" heíd exclaim when we laughed.
One young fellow, just a little older than I, had been married and was separated from his wife, who lived in a different state. He didnít complain much, but it was obvious that he was suffering. John gave him copious advice. When the wife appeared suddenly, demanding to be taken care of, the man was stunned. John pulled him against his ample breast and moaned with him, and then began to plot a way out of the situation. Whether the young man took his advice I donít know, but the situation eventually eased enough to cease being a topic of conversation.
One day he approached me, waving some tickets. "I have here tickets to the ballet," he announced, "and you are going downtown with me!" I hesitated, but he insisted. "They are free tickets, and Iím even going to treat you to dinner."
I had known that the balletóI donít remember which one it wasówas coming to town, but was resigned to the fact that I simply couldnít afford to attend. John was very persuasive. "Put on your best suit and weíll paint this goddam town red. Thereís a fabulous rib place thatís open all night, and weíll have drinks before the show. This is where you learn how the beautiful people live!" Even though John worked alongside me, and couldnít be making much more money than I did, he seemed to have a lot more financial resources. He talked about taking cabs here and there, and about carousing all night in expensive places in town. So I figured it was his money. He could spend it on me if he wanted. I really liked the idea of attending the performance.
When the day of the show approached, John told me that he was inviting someone else, as well. A student at the university, who was studying music. "He has the grandest tenor voice youíve ever heard."
We agreed to meet in front of the theater, where he said he had to pick up the tickets. I donít know how he got downtown, but I took a streetcar. When I arrived, he was standing outside. "I have to wait for some cancellations," he said. "You wait for me at the Brown Derby. Bradford is already over there, sitting at the bar."
When I protested that I didnít know Bradford, he waved me away. "Heíll be sitting alone. Youíll recognize him."
The Brown Derby was one of those downtown bars that cater to the theater crowds, with dim lights and soft music. I walked across the street and entered. Since it was summertime, it was still very light outside, so I had to stand inside the door until my eyes accommodated to the darkness. Several people sat at the bar, which was built of glass blocks with colored lights behind them. One young man sat alone, facing the door. He didnít say anything, but when I approached, he patted the stool beside him.
Bradford had a dark complexion, with that gray shadow on his chin that betrayed a very dark beard. He smelled of cologne. An unidentifiable drink sat in front of him, along with a couple of bills and a bit of change.
I sat down and ordered a gin and tonic. That was the first thing I could think of. When the bartender brought my drink, he didnít stand there waiting for his money, the way bartenders do in the kinds of bars I was used to. I laid a five on the bar, but Bradford gestured to me to put it back in my pocket, then pushed his stack of bills forward a few inches to show he was paying. "Thanks," I said.
Neither of us seemed to know what to do. I told him I heard he was a singer, and we talked for a few minutes about music. It seemed that he wanted to sing grand opera as soon as he finished his degree, but the field was very tight. I told him how much I loved classical music, but had little experience with opera. I kept watching the clock and wondering when John would appear.
It was nearly curtain time when John burst through the door, smiling broadly. "Come on, we have to hurry!"
Walking briskly across the street, I learned that John had only two seats together, and that Bradford and I were to take those. John would sit alone. I wasnít very comfortable with that, but there wasnít much to do about it. Inside, he handed us our tickets and pointed to our aisle, then turned and went up the marble stairway to the balcony.
It was fortunate that Bradford and I couldnít talk during the performance, since neither of us had much to say. We met John in the lobby during intermission, and he talked enough for all three of us. Bradford seemed as shy as I was. He answered questions, and asked politely about my life and interests.
By the end of the ballet, I felt more relaxed, and we smiled at each other as we stood and joined in the applause. The music had the effect of filling me with that kind of chest-expanding joy that only comes at the end of a concert and all other sound is drowned out by thousands of hands clapping together in exuberance and appreciation.
John met us in the lobby again, gushing over the music and the dancing. "Wasnít it just glorious?" He pressed his hands over his heart. "Glorious!" We joined the crowd going down the steps outside the theater. I thought, "This is really living!"
John steered us toward Fountain Square at a fast pace. "We could take a cab," he puffed, "but everybody else in the world wants a cab right now. Letís walk."
Bradford seemed like a regular guy, but John embarrassed me. He was so effusive, gesturing wildly with every word. One would have thought he knew everybody in town, the way he greeted those we met as we walked along the busy street. It was dark by that time, but in those days downtown was alive in the evening. I counted four movie theaters whose bright marquees were visible as we walked, and the traffic was thick and noisy. People were everywhere. Cars and streetcars rumbled along, reflecting the storefronts and streetlights, a furious kaleidoscope of a city.
We entered the bar of the nicest hotel in town. Inside, it was so quiet it felt as though my ears were stopped up. A stiff waiter led us to a small table, and stood by, holding menus, as we sat down. Bradford and I sat on the soft leather bench along the curved wall, and John took a chair, facing us. When the waiter handed us each a menu, John said, "Weíre only having a drink." The waiter took back the menus.
"Their martinis here are to die for," John said, and looked at us.
"Sounds good to me," I said. Bradford ordered a Perrier, "with a twist."
When the waiter returned with our drinks, John waved at us with a flourish. "This is on me," he said. After he had paid the check, I saw John slip the waiter a bill. To me, a quarter was a generous tip. (After all, a martini in those days was fifty-five cents.)
We talked as we drank, and I was getting more relaxed by the minute. I felt wonderful and loved everyone. I laughed at Johnís jokes and attempted to be sociableóno, to be sophisticatedóeven though by that time I couldnít have even pronounced the word. After a second martini, the three of us again took to the street, John leading the way, waving his arms as he talked. We found the ribs place that he spoke of, a brightly lighted restaurant a couple of blocks away. John ordered a side of ribs for each of us. Afterward, there was brandy and coffee. Nobody wanted dessert.
I donít remember the food at all. By the time we emerged from the restaurant, I was undoubtedly staggering, and so full I thought I might throw up in the gutter. John hailed a cab for us, and we jammed ourselves in the back seat.
"Tell him where you live," he told Bradford. "Weíre going to see an artistís apartment!" As we rode through the dark streetsóoutside the central business district, they were mostly desertedóJohn kept up his bright chatter.
The cab pulled up before an apartment building in the university district. "Why donít you two go on up," John said. "Iím too old for this carousing late at night. Iíll just go on home."
Drunk as I was, I was puzzled for a moment. Then I said, "No, Iíve had too much to drink. I think Iíd better go home, too."
Bradford got out of the cab, and John poked me. "Go on up," he whispered.
Then it began to dawn on me. I shook my head, and we said good night to Bradford as he closed the cab door. John was quiet as we drove away. I gave the cab driver my address. We drove home in silence. When I finally got out of the cab, John and I shook hands and said goodnight.
I walked up to my apartment trying to clear my head enough to figure out just what had happened this night. Before I went to bed, I vomited into the toilet and felt a little better.
It was the next day before I fully comprehended what John had done. Heís spent a small fortune on an evening with the idea that he would fix up a young friend. I didnít know whether he assumed that I was gay, or simply thought that I might be amenable to such things if I were treated well enough. We never mentioned that evening to each other again, even though we continued to work together.
I still had fond feelings for John. He was very good to me, and I felt that he forgave me for disappointing him. Later, I was transferred to another department, and I saw less and less of him. His parents eventually died, and a couple of years after I left the company I heard that he, too, had died of a heart attack. It must have been a real come-down for him, leaving the glitter of show business and taking a boring job in an office to make sure that his parents were cared for at the end of their lives. I wonder if he would have rejoined the world he knew and loved, if he had had some more years of his own.
Donald Skiff, August 10, 2005