gall and gumption

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Life 101 (or 880)

Shortly after I arrived on a certain small Caribbean island about which I have written here before (I am not naming it for reasons that will become clear), I mean, just a couple of weeks, I made a joke that had consequences that reverberated throughout my stay there, and I did not realize this for almost a year. I had befriended the son of one of the old plantocrat families there, and we started sort of I guess you could call it dating. This weird Canadian woman one day told me that this man was totally unsuitable, a mess, led around by his mother who controlled all his money. "Well, show me someone suitable," I said, playing along. She pointed out this Senior Drinker from Georgia or Alabama or somewhere, a former prosecutor now in the offshore business, a man hagridden by a fundamentalist upbringing who had plunged himself into the dissipated expat life, neurotic, wretched, charmless, and when the fundie mojo would get on his back he would turn into a cranky, belligerent, slightly hysterical drunk. A total basket case, visible to the naked eye. "He's got lots of money, and he's lonely," she said. "Well, that's good to know," I replied.

I thought she was joking.

Relations between me and this woman soon cooled. She was a bore and a bully. I dated the plantocrat for a few months and then he began to get on my nerves so we parted ways, but the romance left me with two very dear friends, his mother and sister. It was some months after the breakup of this romance, I ran into his mother and sister during Carnival, they were having a rum punch. The subject of the son came up, naturally, how's he doing, etc. His mother, I discovered, had taken it as quite a matter of course and no reflection on me that we hadn't made a better go of it. Well, that's putting it mildly. Here are her exact words. I remember them because it was at that moment that she became my friend: "Oh my dear! He's my son and I love him but he's impossible! No sane woman could live with him." She was about 82 years old at the time.

At any rate, over the course of the year the Canadian woman spread the rumor that I had come to the island looking to marry money. This was what she had done, and in so doing had placed herself in the role of queen of the little expat society there, or, as I still prefer to call them, the Senior Drinkers. When these people began unaccountably to give me the cold shoulder I sort of vaguely noticed it but didn't really study it as I had long before lost interest in them. They were very boring.

During the winter another group of expats would come down and sort of pad out the group. Some of these were genuinely pleasant people. But a couple of them were even more boring than the Senior Drinkers. There was the Austrian man who should not have been going about with his shirt open and his sweaty chest exposed to all the world. His way of being boring was to complain at tedious length about various administrative arrangements that he found were not up to international standards. He showed up at the beach once with a piece of paper that he handed to me. "I hef a fex," he said. It was about the airport. The airport restaurant was run by a crony of someone in the government, and it was a national embarrassment. I suppose the cronyism could have been forgiven if the owner had not been also a self-promoting bullying blowhard who tended to introduce himself as "The Greatest Human Being I Have Ever Known," and if he had not kept the Christmas decorations up year-round and if the service and the food had not been vile. But that was the situation and nobody seemed able to do anything about it. Some friend of the Austrian, waiting for a flight that had been delayed, had made the mistake of trying to get a meal at the restaurant. The fax was hilarious, unintentionally so. Somehow the ancient hot dogs going around and around in their machine became for the man an image of despair. The truth is that the airport restaurant only kept up the appearance of wanting customers at all; it was a hangout for a few highly placed members of the government and their party followers. And now the Austrian expat brought this to me because I was the editor of the newspaper and was supposed to hold somebody's feet to the fire or something so his friend could get good service. He handed it me and gave me this look as I read it, unutterably smug and righteous. But there was really nothing I could do. One member of the government was trying to get this low-rent Donald Trump out of the airport, and with all his resources as a minister and all his capacity for vindictive mischief, he had been unable to dislodge him.

The Austrian, having given up on me, decided to try my friend Jamie, who happened to be the brother of the minister in question. But while Jamie would happily have cussed the airport restaurant guy to me with all his riches of invective, he tended to get touchy when expats made the mildest criticisms of anything on the island. I mean, touchy as in telling them to go intercourse themselves, calling them names, and finishing up with a promise to deport them. And here we were sitting at the beach and along comes this bore with his fax. But Jamie was not predictable. This time, perhaps because his friend Tex and I were visibly cringing, he did not let loose until after the Austrian had departed. "Who is that asshole?"he asked, as if he could almost see the guy being frogmarched onto a plane for boring him.

But the champion and ultimate bore was an Italian man named, for our purposes, A., who was married to an English woman who was slightly less boring but not much. When they weren't wintering in this island they lived in a village in Scotland. After they left, no doubt, the villagers all came creeping back to their homes, lit a bonfire and danced around it roaring drunk. A. and Mrs. A. were quite wealthy and threw exclusive dinner parties to which I was never invited. A. could clear out an entire bar. I am not exaggerating. I would stop by X.'s beach bar of an evening to wait for Tex and Jamie, and there would be no one there except A., his wife, and one person who had not succeeded in escaping in time. The rest of the crowd had all migrated to the next bar of the beach, where the music was too loud to talk, the owner was tiresome, and where the wind across the salt pond blew this horrendous stench into your face. There they would all be, peering hopefully from time to time around the side of the building to see if A. was gone yet. Then as soon as A. and his wife left, they'd all hurry back over to X.

If you chanced on one of A.'s conversations (with his wife sort of piping up assurances that yes, indeed it was so), you usually heard something like this: "I am deadly allergic to parrots. I could die if I am near a parrot." "He very nearly died once," pipes up Mrs. A.. Which one of several times is Mrs. A. referring to? They argue about when and then they argue about where. "I did not know there was a parrot in the Ouse, and this man, he brought the parrot near me, and I faint. They took me to the Ospital, I could not breathe." Long graphic and tedious description of symptoms ensues. "Meanwhile I was running around frantic trying to reach his children, thinking oh my god this is it I'm going to lose him this time, you can imagine the state I was in..." Mrs. A. contributes. "She was frantic," Mr. A. observes in corroboration. Then they argue about details. No matter what anybody else was talking about, sooner or later the conversation would devolve into this sort of duet on the theme of A's near-fatal encounters with parrots. Part of the problem was that there was an expat on the island who kept a pet parrot and carried her about with him wherever he went, giving A. frequent occasions to recall his parrot traumas and to apprehend new ones. You coudln't even be amused by it, it was just soul-crushing.

But there were people who would sit and listen to A. and Mrs. A., who courted them, who wanted to go to their dinners and wanted to be near them because they had money. One person I knew told me frankly that that was the reason why he hung around them. Shades of Mr. Eliot! And I'm sure you thought Jane Austen made those people up. I drew an invisible circle around myself and said that no one who sucked up to A. and his wife, or who took their social tone from the dreadful Canadian woman, could ever be inside it. (The Canadian woman thought I was out to steal her husband -- that's how she had got him.)

I reconnected recently with someone I had lost touch with about 18 years ago. I gave him a sketchy outline of my adventures. He said, "You've certainly tested your mettle." I suppose I have. Enough to know that testing your mettle is, well, a bore. Unless you can make people laugh about it. The person to watch is the one who knows how to be happy.

To develop the habit of being happy, it seems that we should simply do what makes us happy.

Yesterday I went to my happy place--Oakland--I can hardly describe the happiness I feel there. The sky was blue, sunlight dappled the water of the bay, people were wandering through the farmers market buying flowers and vegetables, and all was right with the world. I also went to Glittery Shiny Heaven, a beautiful magical place of color and light and amazing mosaic art that never fails to lift my spirits (there's a huge mural outside that contains the phrase "freelance angel"! They had a pet portrait exhibit that was fantastic! There's a spiky heart in the corridor! Huge flowers in bright paint decorate the cement walkway! The whole building is pink and purple! There's a mosaic house about 7 feet high that I would give all my possessions to own! The kitchen is filled with flowered Mexican oilcloth, bright colors, and one wall is covered with mosaic art, an image of a beautiful woman reclining!). Then I went next door and waited in line for a million years for the absolute best chai I have ever had.

(And, joy of joys, a Port-A-Potty fell off the potty truck on 880, and, really, what could be funnier than a downed Port-A-Potty, door flapping, while two drivers stand at the side of the road, scratching their heads and trying to figure out how to retrieve it across three lanes?)


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