Guy Walks into a Bar.
In Manhattan, several years ago. It’s Friday afternoon and I have time to kill before a flight home. The Guy in question looks to be in his 70s, sprightly, trim, full head of silver hair. Has a civilized and kindly authority about him, like Jimmy Stewart.
If you prefer a more modern reference, he could play the wry, witty and wise family patriarch in one of those movies with Diane Keaton that come out every year around Christmastime.
Without a word, the bartender places an icy mug of suds on the bar. The Guy grabs a stool next to me, has a nice long sip, turns and starts chatting. Maybe I should be more open to the Universe, as Oprah says, but when a guy in a bar sits next to me, turns toward me and starts chatting, my guard goes up and my expectations are low.
Not warranted. The Guy is charming, funny, his name is Bob. I quickly surmise that he is a man of some importance here.
The bartender and a procession of patrons greet him. “Hey, Bob.” “Good to see you, Bob.” “Is it Friday already, Bob?
At this point I’m game to get to the bottom of it all.
Bob, it turns out, is a retired U.S. Army colonel. Now I suppose there are lots of guys in bars who make up all kinds of military exploits, if for no other reason than to have cool nicknames like “Cap’n” or “Wing Commander.” So Bob shows me a creased black and white snapshot from his wallet. No question, it is a much younger Bob, straight and fit in his crisp uniform, hands on his hips, smiling at the camera. I’m sure he gave them hell back in the day.
Over the next hour or so, I learn that he devoted a lifetime to the military and loved every minute. It’s what he was meant to do.
In the Army he’d become a bit of a drinker. When retirement came, he couldn’t very well continue hanging around the Officer’s Club, retelling the same tales from the Pacific. So Bob reaches an accommodation of sorts with the wife. He does not drink six days a week. But Fridays, around noon, she drops him at the train station near their home in Connecticut and Bob rides into the city. He walks to this very bar. Unlimited beers for the duration of the afternoon.
Around dinnertime, Bob pours himself onto a northbound train, and his wife picks him up at his destination.
Bob has children who grew up and went in many directions. He is fiercely proud of each of them. One of his sons is a pilot for a big airline.
“Next time you’re flying out of LaGuardia, listen for the captain’s name, it might be him – Then go up to the cockpit and say hello- He’s just a helluva nice guy, my son.”
This was pre-911, of course, when such a thing could actually have taken place.
As Bob segues between stories, he peppers me with questions about my own life- my job, wife, kids. With each exchange, he leans back for a moment, sizes me up, then a hand on the shoulder and “Geesh, Kid, you got a LOT on the ball.”
It has a practiced ease and flow to it, this phrase. No doubt something Bob has said to countless young corporals with flawless Army bed corners and shiny boots.
Geesh, Kid. You got a LOT on the ball.
I am flattered, but I know this to be untrue. At this particular point of my life, I have the distinct feeling that I do not have a lot on the ball. To the outside observer, the box scores look ok. But I feel the team isn’t doing so well. I’m not even sure who has the ball, or what inning it is. Or even if I should be in this game. At the time, my assessment may have been skewed by the approach of my 40th birthday. But there was more to it than that.
We talk about my job at the conglomerate maker of bras and breakfast sausage, the office with the view of the lake.
Here it comes. WAIT for it.
Geesh, Kid. You got a LOT on the ball.
What’s your sign?
I know, Bob.
At one point I almost stopped him and launched into a litany of reasons I did not have a lot on the ball, but better judgement prevailed. Still, sometimes I wish I had. No doubt Bob would have pulled from all that life experience something sage and wise.
But that kind of male catharsis is frowned upon in bars. Particularly so, I imagine, among former Army colonels who saw action in the Pacific.
The best I could do was to ask Bob how the heck he did it. A job he loved for life. A marriage successful over multiple decades. All of it.
“Beats me, Kid.”
And then this gem, that I can still hear in my mind as clearly as if he’d said it five minutes ago: “Hey, I’m no walk in the park.”
He seemed astonished himself that it had all held together so well. And he gave much of the credit to others, no doubt. We knew, for example, that somewhere along the Metro North rail line, a longstanding and long-suffering former Army wife was preparing to chauffeur her inebriated husband home from the train station.
Or maybe at some point Bob just decided that the narrative of his life was good and true and meaningful. Anyone of a certain age who has paid the slightest bit of attention can attest to the power of that. And anyone over another certain age can tell you that being anywhere at all is awesome and remarkable.
In any case, he seemed grateful for it all. Humbled by it, even.
We said our goodbyes and I headed to the airport.
Occasionally, on Friday afternoons, I think about Bob and I imagine him on the train, anxiously chugging down the track past Port Chester and Harrison, savoring the thought of that first cold Bud from the tap.
If you’re out there, Bob. The first couple are on me.
And by the way, things are really good.
I’ll leave it to others to decide if I have a LOT on the ball.
But I’m doin’ ok.