Sunday, October 7, 2007

My Friends Call Me Dexter

The first things I remember about meeting the long-haired 19 year-old from West Virginia are that he was the first college boy who shook my hand when we were introduced, he laughed heartily at his own jokes, and he usually wore tee-shirts over thermal underwear tops. I’d never observed this particular fashion trend before nor have I, come to think of it, since. It was winter in Boston and he appeared to have no other clothes except one raggedy flannel shirt. I could recognize his loping gait across the quad, head down against the wind with gloveless hands stuffed in the warming pockets of his army fatigue jacket. Because of a big hole in the bottom of one of his Clark’s Wallabees, he zig-zagged around the puddles on the paths.

"Sad," I thought. He must be a poor coal miner’s son here on scholarship."

He was smart and cute and very, very funny. I started watching him more closely after one evening when I was walking through the dining hall hoping to play the grand piano (the only piano non-music majors were allowed to play). He was playing beautifully by ear and didn’t seem to notice me hovering about with my little canvas bag of music – the Scott Joplin rags that I skill-lessly stomped my way through for my own amusement. At one point he looked up at me, cocked his head and smiled. I took that as a sign and pulled up a chair to listen.

We were in the same biology lab and he lived on the same floor with the first two friends I had made that fall, Keith and Jim. I started to learn where and when I had the best opportunity to casually intercept him. We began talking more. When I said I had lost a contact lens and needed to go to a mall to replace it, he offered to drive me. He had a car! (Turns out his dad was a lawyer, not a coal miner after all.)

On our first date we drove up to Crane’s Beach in Ipswich. It was early spring and nippy but we talked and talked as we walked along the water. As we were heading back to the main road, we passed a hitchhiker with a cane. The man folded himself into the back of the car and told us his story. He had been in a bad car accident a year before and spent a long time recovering from several surgeries. This was his first time back to the beach and he had gotten tired walking home. He admitted he had been a little ambitious thinking he could walk the two miles from Ipswich and back. Dropping him off in the village center, we felt very happy with ourselves. It was late afternoon and there hadn’t been many people at the beach. Our rider would have had a long and painful walk if we hadn’t picked him up. I don’t remember his name now, though I did remember it for many years.

We decided to go to Nick’s Famous Roast Beef in North Beverly. Nick had recently renovated and when the new sign was unveiled what had once been a rather seedy little place called Nick’s Roast Beef was now a shiny place called Nick’s Famous Roast Beef. We went there again last summer and it is still good roast beef. I don’t know what they do to it, nor do I want to, but it’s remarkably good with no unidentifiable chewy things.

As we passed through the fancy little village of Hamilton, with its hunt club and horse farms, we saw another hitchhiker. This fellow looked about our age, a skinny, shaggy blond underdressed for March. We pulled over and I opened the passenger door and scooted forward in my seat to let him climb in the back.

"My friends call me Dexter," he said with a heavy Boston accent. "I just got out of jail."

"Oh my," I thought as we pulled back onto the road. The hitchhiker scenes from In Cold Blood flashed through my mind. I put my hands up near my neck so I’d be ready for the garrote. Our new friend Dexter told us how he had been framed for a burglary. We listened and sympathized but Dexter wasn’t in any way as pleasant or inspiring as our first companion. He made us uncomfortable and sad, though he himself seemed rather blasé about his troubles.

“You can drop me off here,” he said suddenly as we passed a Cumberland Farms. He’d been telling us about the lousy lawyer the court had appointed to his case.

“God bless you,” Scott called through the open door as Dexter stepped out along the roadside.

"Thanks," he said with a quick wave. "Great to meecha." Loose and lanky he scanned the parking lot and headed into the convenience store for a pack of smokes.

“Sheesh! What a day!” I said and we both started laughing. We marveled at the amount of blessing and blessedness that can transpire in the course of 15 minutes. And we haven’t picked up a hitchhiker since.

A few years ago, my now not-so-young but still cute and smart and funny West Virginian friend surprised me with a trip to Paris for my fortieth birthday. (After we returned one of our male friends took him aside and said, "Scott, buddy, don’t do things like that anymore. You make the rest of us look bad.") It was early October and lovely. Every night, with restaurant recommendations from friends, we hit a winner. However, because we don’t speak French, we were often subject to a segregation policy we dubbed “The American Row” – though once we were seated next to a couple from Spain.

You could be delighting in your seared and caramelized foie gras with micro greens and hear, from two tables down the line, a loud voice saying, "You’re from Ohio too! No kidding! Where abouse?" Scott would look up at me, cock his head, smile and refill my wine glass.

On our last night we went to Bofinger off Place de la Bastille, one of those famous old brasseries with lots of brass and wood and bustling waiters. Our table was within inches of a man dining alone. The only thing I noticed about him was that the maitre d’ and the assistant maitre d’ and his waiter seemed to be outrageously solicitous of him. Obviously he was an American, but if he were famous wouldn’t they have put him at a better table? What gives?

It was as he was finishing his dessert and coffee that he spoke to us.

"Are you Americans?" he asked quietly.

"Yes, we are," I answered. As I turned toward him what I saw poking over the edge of his table answered all my questions about the staff’s gentle treatment. The sweet, warm eyes of a golden retriever gazed at me and we realized the man was blind. We complimented him on the beauty and behavior of his dog.

He explained that he was in Paris for an international conference and would be speaking about challenging the British government to lift its quarantine restrictions for guide dogs. The president of the sponsoring association was English but unable to attend the conference because her dog would have had to remain in quarantine for six months after her return. Nor can people who use guide dogs travel to England without a similar punishment. We had never thought about the effect of such restrictions before. He opened up to us a world we know very little about.

A young woman, the assistant maitre d’, approached his table and in whispered, flawless English carefully itemized his bill and guided his pen to the right spot on the credit card slip. We said our farewells and watched him leave the restaurant with his dog. Earlier in the evening we had gone two blocks the wrong direction after exiting the Metro stop before we found the restaurant. We marveled at his courage to travel alone in a city he didn’t know well and at his courage for going up against the British government for the rights of people with disabilities.

Just as our first course arrived, two people were seated at the table on our other side. We instantly knew we were in trouble. They looked like they were in their late seventies. She wore a low-cut dress and lots of baubles. He was brash and introduced himself immediately.“It looks like we’ll be joining you for dinner!” he boomed, noting the proximity of our tables.

“Oh my,” I thought. This will wreck everything.” Then I watched a remarkable thing happen: my husband dusted off an amazing skill that he pulls out occasionally. He can befriend and disarm the most needy, the most annoying person by being gracious and inquisitive. I knew what he was up to, but I wasn’t happy about it. (Scott told me later that he instantly knew we had two choices: we could either seethe all evening about sitting next to this loud and nosy couple or we could engage and make merry. He chose to make merry.)

Though the woman’s hair was a carefully coiffed silver, her husband called her "Red." As is, "RIGHT, RED?"

"Right, Honey," she would say as though she’d been saying it for 60 years which it turns out she had.

The story of their lives soon came out: He had made and lost and made several fortunes in various businesses over the years. Their 60 foot sailboat sank somewhere off the Bahamas. Their daughter always stays at the Ritz when she’s in Paris. He told a war-time tale of returning several hours late to his base in England after his P-51 fighter had run out of gas in Belgium. When he arrived in his barracks, all of his buddies were toasting his memory with his own whiskey. They had already divided up his underwear. They all roared when they saw him walk in alive and the party went on until dawn.

Finally, desserts shared, brandy drunk, he, this loudest of loud Americans, said, "This has been a wonderful night for us, hasn’t it Red? What a wonderful dinner!" He gave us his son’s business card which Scott sweetly slipped into his wallet.

As we walked out of the restaurant for the Metro and our teensy-tiny hotel room, we mused about the wide variety of blessing and blessedness that can transpire within a few minutes, a few hours or the lightning span of 25 years.

"Sheesh! What an evening!" I said.

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