All your gold

When I was little, my parents took me down to the local bank—Worcester County Institution for Savings—and helped me open a passbook savings account. If I recall correctly, there were cartoon squirrels on the marketing materials, hiding nuts for the winter. Every time I got a little money from a grandparent, we’d trek down to the bank and make a deposit. I would hand over the passbook, and the teller would put it in the printer, and the printer would go bitsi, bitsi, bitsi as it printed a few cents of interest for each month that had passed since the last visit. The more I deposited, the more interest I earned, and it was good.

My first real paycheck came from Treasure Valley. I think I made $250 the first summer; it went up a little every year, so by the time I went off to college, I had maybe $750 and change in the bank.

When I headed off to Salem State, there was an Automated Teller Machine on campus, right behind the Sullivan Building. However, it was out of order, and there was no branding on the outside of the kiosk. As I was leaving the cafeteria on my second day, there was a lady with a table set up at the entrance to the campus center, signing people up for BayBank checking accounts. I asked her if the ATM behind the Sullivan Building was going to be a BayBank machine, and if so, when it might be operational. She said it would be a couple of weeks at most, so I signed up. At the time, I agreed to pay eight bucks a month for the privilege of having a checking account, given that I was unable to meet any minimum balance, nor did I have direct deposit, or, indeed, an income.

A couple of weeks later, I was trying to stay awake in World Civ I (in the Sullivan Building) when I heard a beeping noise, like a truck backing up. I looked out the window and saw a massive crane hauling the ATM kiosk out of the ground. They loaded it on a flatbed truck and drove away. I was now looking at a mile and a half walk to the next nearest BayBank ATM, one way. But I am sure that lady got her commission for signing me up, so… that’s nice.

Now, unbeknownst to me, Worcester County Institution for Savings was acquired by Bank of Boston in 1993. However, I couldn’t miss the flood of marketing mailers when BayBank merged with Bank of Boston and became BankBoston in 1996, or when BankBoston was acquired by Fleet Bank and became FleetBoston in 1999, or when FleetBoston was gobbled up by Bank of America in 2005.

At some point in there, I went back to what had been Worcester County Institution for Savings, with the intention of closing out my savings account and moving the money to my checking account. I don’t remember which bank’s name was on the door at the time, but I handed over my passbook. The teller put it in the printer, and the printer went bitsi, bitsi, bitsi for quite a long time. She handed it back to me and I saw that the bank had started deducting eight bucks a month back in 1993, and after they had eaten all $750, I now had a zero balance. Account closed, thanks for your business. That left kind of a bad taste in my mouth, given that they had never even tried to contact me about the change. But I was a kid, and I didn’t know any better than to just suck it up and move on.

Around 1997, I got a real job, so between the direct deposit thing, and the minimum balance thing, I stopped paying a monthly fee to have a checking account. I didn’t really think about it—the ATMs were almost as ubiquitous as Dunkin’ Donuts, and that was enough of a reason to stick with the status quo.

When the financial crisis came along, Bank of America was in it up to their eyeballs. I was a little busy during those years, so I just kept on keeping on. Now Nate is older, and I am able to pay closer attention to my money. Someone at church mentioned Socially Responsible Investing, and I realized it was high time to put my money someplace else. I chose DCU as my new bank, and made an appointment at Bank of America to close out the checking account I’ve had since 1990. The banker made every effort to sign me up for a savings account and an investment account and a money market account, but I said no, no, no.

DCU has no minimum balance requirement, and their logo is the same friendly shade of green as the old BayBank logo. There are certainly fewer Allpoint ATMs than there are Bank of America ATMs, but we are quickly moving to a cashless society, so I haven’t had any problem adapting. And I love the feeling I get when I see a Bank of America ATM now. A bank is responsible to its shareholders, not its customers. My credit union’s only responsibility is to its members.

It’s weird to feel good about my banking. But it’s getting better and better.

And their eyes will pop

When I was a high school drama nerd, a friend of mine asked if I could run the light board for a dinner theatre cabaret show. I went to a rehearsal and took a look at the board, a big old Frankenstein-style killer dimmer panel with giant levers to shove up and down. I signed up immediately, and sat down with the lighting designer to create my cue sheets.

The production took place in a high school cafetorium, and the custodial cleaning protocol of emptying the trash and mopping the floor did not really cover the needs of an old theatre. There was dust everywhere, with that wonderful musty smell of old hemp ropes that might let go at any moment and drop a thousand pounds of lighting instruments on your head.

It was in the days before non-drowsy antihistamines. I was awakening to the fact that I had allergies, and that I could not really take anything for them, particularly if I didn’t want to fall asleep while in class, while swimming, or while riding my bike. I knew it was important to stay awake during the performance, so I came prepared with a pocket full of Kleenex.

My parents dutifully attended opening night. After the performance, I asked them how it looked. My mom said, “It was okay, not terrible. But there was this one magical moment! When they did Surrey With the Fringe On Top, one of the horses had this wonderful, manic expression on his face. He was just so proud to be pulling such a beautiful carriage. It made my whole night!”

I didn’t want to tell her the real story. Randy, the actor playing the downstage horse, had looked into the wings and caught a glimpse of me running the light board, with a Kleenex jammed in each nostril. He had to bite his tongue to keep from breaking character and laughing out loud.

King of the Road

I did not excel in high school math.

I enjoyed Geometry, but I did poorly in Algebra II, so poorly that I was in Algebra II-B my senior year instead of Trigonometry.

As I approached graduation, I had pretty much given up on my math class, and I spent sixth period twiddling a quarter-inch drill bit in my fingers, very very slowly drilling a hole through my desk. It was months before the hole went all the way through the desk. I tore a small piece of paper out of my assignment notebook and sketched a grayscale Union Jack. I licked the homemade flag and stuck it to my pencil, and planted it in the hole. Then I saluted. Ms. Tangney laughed.

A friend of mine, Rob, sat in the back of the class. He was even more checked out than I was, having given up on academics in general. He taught me the lyrics to “King of the Road” and “The Gambler,” and we staged mock kung fu battles in the back of the classroom before class started, complete with random mouth movements meant to suggest bad English overdubs.

One day, Rob decided to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” drowning out Ms. Tangney’s attempts at instruction. I joined in with gusto. She promptly threw me out of the classroom and sent me to see the assistant principal. Mr. Doherty drew the short straw and ushered me into his tiny office, barely big enough for his desk.

“What is it this time, mister?”

I admitted that I had been singing during class.

“What do you think would be an appropriate consequence?”

I said that I thought it was unfair that Ms. Tangney had sent me for disciplinary action and not Rob, as he was singing the melody and I was only singing harmony.

Mr. Doherty snorted and suppressed a laugh, but he quickly recovered his stern demeanor.

“Why do you suppose Ms. Tangney sent you to see me, but not Rob?”

I said I didn’t know.

“Let me ask you this. Between you and Rob, which of you is more likely to get your act together and make something useful out of your life? You don’t have to answer that, just think about it.”

My eyes opened wide as I tried to wrap my head around what I thought he was saying. I knew I would graduate with or without a decent math grade, but Rob was a burnout. Had he given up on himself? Had the school given up on him?

“While you think about that, think about this. I don’t give a damn if you learn algebra or not. But you will NOT disrupt the class and prevent someone else from learning. Is that clear?”

Yes, sir.

“Am I going to have any more crap out of you?”

No, sir.

Thank you, sir.

Something to hide

It all started with a trip to Lechmere, to buy blank Maxell reel-to-reel tape. It was sold in the music section, but this was in 1991, and the bored teenage employees didn’t have any idea what reel-to-reel tape was, never mind where it was. I had to look in every cabinet underneath every CD rack until I found it.

At checkout, the cashier zapped the bar code, and the register beeped. “You bought something from the Music department, so you get a free CD,” she said, and tossed it into the shopping bag. If I recall correctly, it was Sarah McLachlan, a promo for her Solace album.

When I got back to the apartment, I opened the CD and washed it carefully with dish soap and hot water. Then I put it in the fridge, in between two slices in the loaf of wheat bread, and waited for Paula or Heather to find it.

I don’t remember who discovered it, but they caught on to the game immediately. I found the disc in my box of Cheerios, and we were off and running. I remember once, I taped it to the shower head. Heather went in to take a shower and cold water sprayed sideways, soaking her bathrobe. She was not amused. And once, I stuck it to the living room ceiling with Blu Tack. It was right out in plain sight, but apparently no one noticed it. Heather was sitting on the couch, directly underneath it, when she said, “I haven’t seen the CD in a while. Where did you hide it this time?” At that exact moment, it fell in her lap. I was never able to convince her I hadn’t somehow caused it to fall.

Paula’s mother was a big fan of the Oriental Trading Company. Every time there was a holiday, Paula would receive a care package with some inflatable holiday-themed kitsch: a shamrock, or a Santa Claus. The best one we ever got was a six-foot-tall inflatable Easter bunny. He quickly joined the game. After Heather went to bed, we leaned it up against her bedroom door so it would fall in on her when she opened the door. The next morning, I heard her squawk and then laugh. And I am pretty sure I remember putting it under the covers in Paula’s bed.

This was also the year I met Dan. One night, he invited me over to watch Alien. I had never seen it. To this day, it remains one of my favorite movies, but that first time, it seriously creeped me out. I hadn’t watched a lot of horror movies. After the film ended, I walked the four blocks home in the dark, jumping at shadows.

When I got there, Paula and Heather had already turned in for the night. The apartment was silent. I went into the bathroom to get ready for bed, still as nervous as a cat. As I brushed my teeth, I looked in the mirror and saw the shower curtain behind me. I thought, “If this were a horror movie, there would be something nasty lurking in the tub.”

At that exact moment, there was a crash from the bathtub. I jumped about a mile and nearly wet my pants.

We had a shower caddy that stuck to the wall of the tub with suction cups. Heather bought her shampoo and conditioner in the giant economy size. About once a week, the weight of the half-gallon of hair product would overcome the suction cups and the whole thing would come crashing down. I realized that the damn shower caddy had decided to let go at the perfect moment to give me a heart attack.

Muttering under my breath, I pulled back the shower curtain to put the shower caddy back on the wall, and screamed at the top of my lungs. There, looming over me, was… the six-foot-tall inflatable Easter bunny.

I heard Paula and Heather cracking up from their rooms. I had to laugh too.

Waiting for the phone to ring

After I graduated from college, I spent some time working as a temp. I alternated between theatrical work and office work, one for fun and the other to pay the bills. One of my office assignments was at Hasbro Interactive in Beverly. The company has been out of business since 2001, so I think it’s safe for me to share this story.

I was covering for an executive assistant who was on vacation. I arrived a few minutes early, got my badge, and was introduced to the executive whose assistant was on vacation. He showed me to my desk and outlined my duties, to wit: if a fax came in, I was to make two photocopies. I would bring one copy to him, and put the other copy and the original into the file cabinet.

That was it.

I read toy catalogs until lunchtime. I ate a tuna sandwich in the employee cafeteria, admired the view out the window, then went back to my desk to re-read the toy catalogs. This is where I discovered Elefun. I may have fallen asleep at one point.

Around 1:30 a fax came in. I was very grateful to have something to do. I took the fax and went to the photocopier, but it was displaying an error message: replace toner.

“Sorry to disturb you, but where is the toner?” I asked.

“Oh, we have a technician from Xerox on site. Call the number on the poster and he will come change the toner for you.”

I assured him I was perfectly capable of replacing a toner cartridge, but no, only the Xerox Guy was allowed to open the machine. Okay then. I called the number and left a message.

At 5:00, the Xerox Guy had still not arrived. I went home.

The next morning, I brought a book with me. When the executive arrived, I asked, “Are you sure there’s nothing else I could be helping you with?”

The executive thought for a moment. “Actually, yes! You can check the email account. If an email comes in, print it out and make two photocopies. Bring one copy to me, and file the other with the original.”

I didn’t even try to explain all the different ways this was ridiculous. It’s their house; I am just a guest. I launched the email app (Groupwise, if I recall correctly) and was prompted for a password.

“Sorry to keep bugging you, but what’s the password for the email?”

“Oh, right. Well, there’s something strange about our email system. No matter what you type for a password, it shows up as an asterisk. So everyone’s password is five asterisks.”

I went back to the computer, trying desperately to keep my face neutral. I entered five asterisks and the email account opened up. There were no messages.

When I got home, I sent an email to Scott Adams. I never received a reply, but a couple of years later, he wrote a strip that I firmly believe was inspired by my email.

I was there for a week. The Xerox Guy never did show up. I think he was on vacation too.

Keep your old Confederate money

As I’ve mentioned here before, my house is overwhelmed with clutter. I’ve made some good progress, but there is still a long way to go. The level of disorganization usually hovers just under my threshold, but occasionally I need to find something that I know I have, and I get pushed over the line.

In December, Nate’s school held a Cluster Cash auction. Parents were asked to donate items, and students could bid on them using the scrip money they earn by being well-behaved in class. I knew I had a $25 Barnes & Noble gift card, but the last place I saw it was on a piece of furniture that we retired three years ago.

I tore the house apart looking for anything remotely shaped like a gift card, and I ended up with a four-inch-high stack of gift cards, loyalty cards, and stored-value cards. I did actually find the Barnes & Noble gift card too, but I set it down for a minute and it walked away. We ended up having to send in a different card for the auction.

Some of the cards I unearthed were from a long time ago. The oldest one was a wedding gift from my first wedding: a Filene’s gift card. The last Filene’s was converted to a Macy’s in 2006. I didn’t know how much the card was for, but I knew I would enjoy myself with it. First I called the Macy’s gift card customer service number. The rep told me I would have to take it in to a store. Last weekend, we went to the mall to use up as many of the gift cards as we could manage. Nate and I left Sandy at the Sephora counter and promised that she would be done before we were. We marched into Macy’s and I asked the nice lady at the makeup counter where I could find the customer service desk. She said there wasn’t really a customer service desk, and maybe she could help me. I showed her the card and she got very nostalgic: “Oh, I miss Filene’s!” Then she sent me upstairs to the executive office.

We got to the second floor and I asked the man at the perfume desk to direct me to the executive office. He asked if maybe he could help me. I showed him the card and his eyes got wide: here is a potential headache. The office is just through the towels department, have a nice day.

We found the office and knocked on the door. A nice young lady looked at the card and got the same expression on her face as the man at the perfume counter. She said that she couldn’t do anything from the office. Any salesperson with a cash register can do a gift card exchange. They might have to call a manager.

I went back to the perfume counter. The clerk called the number for a manager but there was no answer. He sent me back to the office and suggested that the woman in the office could page a manager. Fifteen-love, your serve.

The woman in the office finally found a manager on the phone. She came in and asked us to have a seat in the waiting room. She took the gift card and said she would be right back.

After about 15 minutes, when Nate had run out of Minecraft things to talk about, Sandy called. I gave her directions to the towel department. She could not understand why I was so happy. I tried to explain it, but I’m afraid I didn’t do a very good job.

When I was little, we used to go out for ice cream at Friendly’s. My father would always order the chocolate nut sundae. Invariably, they would bring him a hot fudge sundae and he would send it back. We would see all the waitresses clustered around the three-ring binder of ice cream recipes. My dad was the only one who ever ordered that sundae and no one knew how to make it. It was our family’s running joke. This was sort of the same thing. There was no way this gift card was still good. I got it in 2001; Massachusetts law was changed to say that gift cards can’t expire starting April 1, 2003. Whatever database held the stored value amount was probably in a landfill somewhere. But I was 100% certain that there was a process for this exact situation, written down in a dusty Macy’s three-ring binder somewhere, and I was delighted just imagining the phone call that poor manager must be having.

After 30 minutes, Sandy was ready to keep shopping, but we couldn’t just leave without the gift card.

After 45 minutes, another manager came through the executive office waiting room. “Are you being helped?” I explained the situation. Five minutes after that, the first manager came back, most apologetic, and handed me a Macy’s gift card for $100. Amazingly, she was able to determine that the Filene’s card had $50 on it, and yes, it had almost certainly expired but they couldn’t tell for sure but then a fixture fell on a customer’s foot and the customer’s father was very angry and she was so sorry for making us wait that she had added another $50 and she was really very sorry.

Sandy agreed that it had been worth the wait. We bought a new coffee maker and a stainless steel pan, and we still have a few bucks left for another trip.

All the riches buried there

First, you must be a boy 10½ years old and have completed the fifth grade or be 11 years of age or older but not have reached age 18.

“I don’t want to be a Boy Scout any more.”

I was twelve years old, that summer. My parents had come to collect me, itchy and sodden, from my first week camping at Treasure Valley Scout Reservation. This was in the ’80s, before the Boy Scouts of America had cracked down on hazing.

“They tied me to a tree and let the mosquitoes bite me. They sprayed Right Guard on my tent so the rain dripped in my face. And Josh jumped on my stomach. He said he was Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka.”

My parents agreed that I should quit the troop, but they suggested that a different troop might be better.

They were absolutely right.


My new troop was better in every way. It was smaller, and much friendlier. When summer rolled around again, I was thirteen, and very excited to go back to Treasure Valley for a week with my friends. I earned the Rowing merit badge and the Emergency Preparedness merit badge that summer. E. Prep was my first merit badge required for Eagle Scout. And I earned my Second Class rank. I remember making new friends from other troops, and telling ghost stories. I learned to keep my elbows off the table. I sneaked strike-anywhere matches from the kitchen and watched them burn. I found a tick on my scalp; Mr. Clancy carefully removed it. And I spent all my candy money to buy a mosquito net from the Trading Post.


The next summer, I was fourteen. I earned my First Class rank, and the Basketry and Leatherwork merit badges at the Handicrafts Lodge. I still have the leather pouch I made, and my basket. I remember the incessant sound of hammering, the feel of the rolled leather mallets with wooden handles, and the rich smells of cowhide and sawdust and paint. And the Swimming merit badge, another required for Eagle, and how it felt to pad across the dirt road in bare feet, the cold lake water dripping from my hair, and wiping the wet sand from my feet before putting on my socks and shoes. I’d go to the Trading Post, after, and buy a 3 Musketeers and a lemon/lime Slush Puppie with damp dollar bills.


Fifteen, and Star. I finished the requirements for Life Scout at Treasure Valley that summer. I earned the Safety merit badge, Personal Management, Environmental Science, Cooking, and Canoeing. For Cooking, we made brownies in a Dutch oven, crumbly and warm, fragrant and delicious. The Canoeing merit badge class was the most fun I’d ever had on the water. Requirement 9b is to capsize your canoe, and 9c is to empty it and climb back in. When we managed that more quickly than we were expected to, the merit badge counselor let us play for the rest of the class. We capsized over and over again, and slid over the belly of the canoe like otters.


Sixteen was my first summer on staff. I wanted to work in the Handicrafts Lodge, but I didn’t have a lot of leadership experience, and the Camp Director saw me better than I saw myself. “How would you like to be Camp Clerk?” he asked. I said I would do my best.

I was Camp Clerk and Trading Post Assistant for four years running, living at camp for seven weeks every summer. The staff tenting area overlooks the lake, and I remember waking up every morning with the sun just peeking over the top of the hill, mist rising off the surface of the water. I would take a deep breath of the cool morning air before heading to the shower house, pine needles collecting in my foam-rubber flip-flops. I learned every path and trail, every song, every building. I learned to drive the disintegrating pickup truck we called Mobile 7. We would gather on the back porch of the East Lodge in the evening and listen to Jon and Ray play their guitars. There were cribbage tournaments, and marathon games of Risk. We took turns as Officer of the Day, visiting every campsite at night to make sure all was well, and Charge of Quarters, sleeping in the CQ office in case something happened in the night. I was the camp bugler. I played Retreat and To the Colors at the Friday night closing ceremony, and I played Taps at the end of the campfire, each note echoing back from across the darkened lake.


When Nate finished Kindergarten, I took him to the Cub Scout recruiting night. I didn’t present it as a choice; it was just What You Do When You Finish Kindergarten. He accepted it cheerfully, and we marched in parades and slept on a battleship and visited the police station. When he crossed over into Boy Scouts, the Scoutmaster asked me if I would be interested in taking over as Troop Committee Chair.

In Cub Scouting, the parents are partners to their sons. They do everything together. In Boy Scouting, the parents must step back and allow their sons to be independent. Nate’s first camping trip with the troop was while he was still a Webelos Scout, not yet a Boy Scout. He came to me for help, as he always had, and I pushed him away over and over again, saying, “Ask your patrol leader.” The troop requires Scouts to address all adults, especially their parents, as Mr. or Mrs. Lastname at all Scouting events, to emphasize that separation. Your parents are no longer here to do it for you; you need to figure it out on your own, or ask your patrol leader.

He earned his Tenderfoot rank in April, and his first three merit badges at Camp Squanto this summer. When we picked him up at the end of the week, he said that Camp Squanto was the greatest experience of his entire Scouting career.


As Committee Chair, my job is to organize the administrative side of things, and to let Nate be on his own, and fail, and learn from his mistakes. I try not to go on the camping trips, to give him space. But when the Patrol Leaders’ Council announced that the September outing would be a weekend at Treasure Valley, I knew I would have to go.

I was afraid it would have changed, in 24 years, as all things must change. The first night, after the Scouts were in bed, I walked down to Boonesville Plain and listened to the hoot of an owl. Some things had changed, of course. The seven-foot bushes are now forty-foot trees. But the camp is well-cared for. I still know every trail. And the stars are still there, the Milky Way bright and clear across the night sky.

On Saturday, we took a hike into West Camp to see Sampson’s Pebble. As the PLC examined the trail map, one of the younger Scouts said, “Maybe we’ll find the treasure of Treasure Valley!”

Another Scout laughed and said, “The treasure is friendship!” I could tell he was being sarcastic, but my eyes blazed with recognition. Kid, you are right. You just don’t know it yet. 24 years, and I still keep in touch with those guys.


As we were packing up on Sunday, getting ready to leave, I asked the Senior Patrol Leader if I could borrow my son for twenty minutes, a breach in the troop’s protocol of separation and independence. I wanted to give Nate a quick tour: show him the Council Ring, my old tent overlooking the lake, the waterfront, and the parade ground on Boonesville Plain.

As we walked down the hill past the East Lodge, he said, “Do I still have to call you Mr. G?”

I smiled. “For this, I think you can call me dad.”

Wipe Out

The girl was heart-wrenchingly, impossibly beautiful.

—Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

Most of all, I remember the girl.

Bob O’Connell sat behind me in 7th grade math class. I remember exactly nothing from that math class, other than Bob, and the girl. Bob played drums, and like most drummers I have known, he rarely stopped playing the drums. He practiced his paradiddles on the back of my chair, and tapped on my backpack with his feet—something about a double bass drum pedal. And when the girl walked by us, I felt a strange pressure in my chest. Ah, so that’s why they call it a crush. To this day, I am still horribly embarrassed at the way I couldn’t stop staring at her. Eventually, she let me know it made her uncomfortable, but I couldn’t help myself. I was hooked, hard, and I had yet to learn self-control.

As she walked by, that day in math class, Bob noticed me noticing her, and nodded, once. Me too, he was saying.

In high school, Bob adopted a pseudonym, based on his passion for the works of Stephen King, and submitted several florid love poems to the school literary magazine. I think he and I were the only ones who knew that they were about that same girl. The editor selected them to feature in a section unofficially titled “Walk On Me.” I may have had one or two of my poems selected to run in the same section. There is always more than enough teenage angst to go around.

Eventually, I found my place. At the Coffee Kingdom, I belonged. Bob drank Ethiopian Yrgacheffe by the pot, and I can’t remember a day when he wasn’t there. I would stop in on my way to school for a pastry, on my way home from school for a cream soda and some chocolate ice cream, and back after dinner for one of Mary Beth’s amazing desserts and some live music. He was always there, smoking, writing, drinking coffee. The next morning, the shower would wake up the smell of his cigarettes in my hair, and I had to smile, remembering the night before.

Bob was the drummer in a high school punk band. They called themselves Biohazard (no relation to the famous band called Biohazard). One of the band members had a family member who worked at the UMass Medical Center, and he managed to lift a roll of Biohazard stickers from the supply closet, so that was the name of the band. I volunteered at a theatre downtown, so when Biohazard got a gig at the local community center, Bob came to me and asked if I could borrow some lighting equipment. I made a ridiculous mess of the lighting plot, which my designer friend Jason straightened out in about 30 seconds. I helped set up for the concert. I remember a song called “Welcome to Managua,” which involved a lot of screaming. And they did a cover of “Wipe Out,” complete with extended drum solo. Bob’s glasses flew off his face during that drum solo, as they so often did, and his squinched-up expression as he tried to see what he was doing resembled nothing so much as a far-sighted hamster. I still have a couple of Biohazard stickers, and that lighting plot is around here somewhere, with the drum kit labeled Hamster.

I also remember that the band members were planning a post-show celebration. They were going to wear rented tuxedos and go to Denny’s. The plan was to order Hot Fudge Brownies à la Mode, in unison, monotone, faces expressionless, and when the sundaes arrived, to plunge their faces in and eat them without using their hands. I have no idea if that ever happened, but I would like to think they went through with it.

There were more nights at the Coffee Kingdom, and love, and heartbreak. We went off to college, but it wasn’t until the Coffee Kingdom closed its doors for the last time that I truly lost touch with Bob.

Twenty years later, he found me on Facebook, and what do you know? He was working in the building next door to mine. Could we get together for lunch? We could indeed.

Over burgers at the Rattlesnake, we caught each other up on our adult lives. It’s funny how the important events of twenty years can be summed up in twenty minutes. I was no longer working in theatre; he was no longer playing drums. He told me of the loss of his mother; I told him about how I’d lost Sarah to cancer. I told him about Sandy, and he told me about his wife, Tricia. Our eyes met, and he nodded. I get it, he was saying. The way he spoke of Tricia, the look in his eyes, I knew he understood. Love is so much more complex and powerful than we ever imagined, in that seventh grade math class, struggling against our carbonated hormones, desperately yearning for something we didn’t understand.

He’s gone, now. He died last night, after a month in the hospital. Lung cancer. Wiped out, if you will, like an eraser across a chalkboard, and my faded memories of him like the ghost of what was written there. I want to be very careful, how I write this next part, because I don’t want anyone to think for a second that I am blaming him for anything. Cancer is pure evil. It can and does strike anyone. But scent is such a powerful memory trigger, and I can never smell a cigarette without remembering Bob, sitting at a glass-topped table in the Coffee Kingdom, French press, Think Book, denim jacket, and all. So when you smell cigarette smoke, take a moment to think of what happened to Bob, to Josh, to Sheila, to your friends. How quickly and easily they were taken from us, here one minute and gone the next.

You can’t live every day as if it were your last. Our minds aren’t built to handle that level of awareness. But once in a while, when you smell cigarette smoke, surface, for a minute. Remember how fragile we are, how briefly we are here. Tell someone that you’re glad they’re alive.

As for the girl, she is still beautiful. I could email her tonight, and apologize for the clumsy, desperate way we loved her. It had nothing to do with love. I know that, now. But Leave me alone, she said, and I have, and I will.

Sorry, wrong number

My first year of college, I lived in a dorm. It sucked, a lot, and so when my friend Paula asked me if I’d like to go in on an apartment with her and her (incredibly cute) friend Heather, I said heck yes. We each took a utility: Paula had the gas bill, Heather had electric, and I had the phone. I bought a telephone and an answering machine at Lechmere and we recorded a cutesy outgoing message.

Within minutes, we had our first call: a guy looking for Abbey Auto Rental. I told him he had the wrong number, and hung up. He called back immediately: Abbey Auto Rental? Nope, me again. What number are you trying to reach?

He read off my new phone number. I said, “Well, that’s the number here, but this is a private residence.”

He said, “Well, I guess you’re f—ed, because there’s a half-page ad for Abbey Auto Rental in the Yellow Pages with that number. Lots of luck.”

I grabbed the Yellow Pages and flipped to the car rental section. Sure enough, it was our number. I guessed they had gone out of business fairly recently, for the ad to still be included in the phone book.

So we changed our cutesy outgoing message to say, “Sorry, this is NOT Abbey Auto Rental. They are out of business. You’ve reached Dave, Paula, and Heather. Please leave a message.” It made no difference whatsoever; people kept leaving messages for Abbey Auto Rental.

At the end of the year, Paula and Heather moved out, and Dan and Jorma moved in. Jorma used to enjoy messing with the callers. He would take down their credit card number and make a reservation, promising free delivery, just as it said in the ad. Then he would go off to class. When the reservation time rolled around, the customer would call back, furious at the absence of their rental car, and frequently I would be the one to answer the phone.

Dave: Hello?

Irate customer: Where the hell is my car?

Dave: Sorry, Abbey Auto Rental went out of business two years ago.

Irate customer: What are you talking about? I gave my credit card number to someone this morning.

Dave: You must have been talking to the ghost of Mister Abbey! WoooOOOOoooo!

Irate customer: I’m coming down there to kick your ass!

Dave: OK, see you soon. You have the address from the ad, right? How are you going to get here with no car?

Irate customer: RRRAAAAAAAA

When Jorma moved out and Michelle moved in, we decided it was time to change the outgoing message again. We left longer and longer messages, but the calls kept coming. They had phone books! The phone books were three years old! Abbey Auto Rental must exist. It must!

Finally, I went out and bought a longer tape for the outgoing message. I recorded “The Gift” by the Velvet Underground. This song is eight minutes and sixteen seconds long. The left channel is the band noodling around aimlessly on their guitars, and the right channel is a male voice with a British accent, telling a story about a man who mailed himself to his girlfriend. We told all our friends to just hit the star key to bypass the outgoing message.

This, finally, eliminated the car rental messages. I left the answering machine that way, and tried to forget about it. Almost a year later, I came home to a light blinking on the machine. It was the peevish voice of a little old lady, who had clearly listened to the entire story, including the part where the girlfriend uses a sheet metal cutter to open the box, accidentally killing her boyfriend. The message said, “That’s a very nice story, but it doesn’t help me; I want to rent a car.”

Pleasantly Surprised

Scene: The bathroom behind the Boulevard Diner in Worcester. Nate has just finished getting sick to his stomach. Dad is helping to clean up.

Nate: Well, this was unexpected.

Dad: To tell you the truth, I expect something like this all the time. That way, when it doesn’t happen, it’s like a super-duper bonus.

Nate: So… every day of my life is like a super-duper bonus to you?

Dad: That’s exactly right.