A Man Who Thinks He Has No One

[Continued from a previous post]

I’m thinking about two people.

I first met George when he was in his fifties, but he was still as buff as a high school athlete.  He worked out a couple hours a day (his manager said four hours, but I suspect it was more like a couple) and was careful about what he ate.  He surfed, ran, and lifted weights.  He lived a superb physical life.

George also owned Stick ‘n’ Stein, a large neighborhood restaurant in El Segundo, California.  He was personable, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly.  More than once, I saw George say no to customers who demanded unreasonable things.  Once, on a particularly hectic day of demanding drinkers and rambunctious families, I saw him walk outside the front door and yell at the top of his lungs.


George needed to get that out of his system.  Then he came back inside and returned to work.  That day, I made sure not to ask George any favors.

George SNS 6 10b smaller

In many ways, Calvin was George’s opposite.  Every evening, Cal sat at his same spot at the counter at Stick ‘n’ Stein restaurant in El Segundo, a TV in front of him.  He wielded his own personal remote control like a Samurai warrior.

Click!  Click!  Click! 

He was emperor over all he surveyed!

Calvin was 300 pounds of pure intelligence.  Behind his Coke-bottle glasses lay an incisive brain that answered all “Jeopardy” questions before the onscreen contestants.  He could explain technical topics with great ease–the tax code, complex legislative proposals, obscure scientific concepts, anything nonartistic.  And as the evening wore on, he flipped from channel to channel and watched junk shows one after another: 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, Joe Dirt, Deuce Bigelow, and the like.  It was charming and sad at the same time.

But, as you’ll recall from a previous post, Calvin began to feel proprietary over his own personal seat at the counter.  One day, Cal walked into the restaurant at 5 pm to the sight of somebody sitting in his seat. He was incensed.  He demanded that George remove the customer from his regular seat.

“You want what?!”

“Remove the customer from that seat.  It’s my seat.”

But George refused.

“Why are you insulting me like this?” Calvin asked.

“I’m not insulting you.  I like you.  You’re a nice guy.  You’re a great customer.”

“But that’s my seat!  I spend hundreds of dollars here every month.  You make a lot of money off of me.  You’d think I’d get some special consideration for that.”

“You can sit anywhere else,” George said, gesturing with his arm to the many empty seats.  “Anywhere.  Take your pick.”


But George wouldn’t be rude to another paying customer, so Calvin stormed out of the restaurant.  He didn’t come the next day, or the next, or the next.  We all wondered when and if he would return.  Finally, three weeks later, Calvin showed up again, a pile of papers wedged under his arm, eying his beloved seat, which was, thankfully, empty.

“I think George got the message,” Cal said smugly.  “He paid a price.”

And with that, Cal returned to his beloved spot, took out his remote control, and began flipping through the channels again. He was back.

But a year later, Cal stopped showing up again, first one evening, then a second, then for an entire week.

“Oh God, what did we do now?” I said to the busboy.

“No telling,” the busboy said.

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“I was talking about politics with him last week.”

“Oh no.”

“He likes George W. Bush.  I had to set him straight.”

“That must have been it.”

One week stretched into two, which stretched into four.  The waiters and I thought of it as a kind of sad joke.

But George was genuinely worried.  One day, George did something that I never expected him to do.  Somehow, he procured Calvin’s address.  He drove over and visited Cal’s apartment building.  He knocked, but no one answered.  So George knocked on the apartment manager’s door.

“I’m trying to get in contact with Calvin,” George said.

“Oh, he’s in the hospital,” the woman said.

George would have said Oh my God, but he’s not that kind of man.  He just listened.

“Yeah, the ambulance came by and took him away one night.  He hasn’t been back in weeks.”

Unexpectedly, George took it further.

I don’t know what happened in that hospital visit, but it must have been extraordinary.  Here’s a man who thinks he has no one lying in a hospital bed.  Suddenly, here’s a restaurant owner appearing at his door.  Suddenly, looking at George in the doorway, Calvin knew that he had a friend.  It was certainly something he never expected.

When I heard about the visit, I tried to wrap my mind around it.  George was a businessman, pure and simple.  He’s presented with a customer who is a royal pain in the ass.  The savvy businessman could have simply ignored the irascible customer.  Nobody would have blamed him.  He had nothing in common with this overweight nerd.  In fact, he sometimes worried about Calvin breaking his counter seat, as another overweight customer had done, and what it had cost him.  But somehow, I don’t know how, Calvin had become somebody to George.  Over the months and years, they had talked and found common ground.  Somehow, George had begun to care.

It was all so surprising to me.  Still, maybe I should have known.  This was El Segundo, which residents often refer to as Mayberry.  Los Angeles is often considered just a cold collection of interchangeable municipalities.  People move cities as easily as they change toothbrushes.  It’s just the way it is these days.  But somehow, El Segundo had shown me a different way.

DSC00403Australian family 6 11 10 smallerTracy 6 11 10 smallerIt turned out that Calvin, at the tender age of 40, was suffering from a variety of health problems.  I should have guessed.  At the Stick, after inhaling his greasy meal–buffalo wings, fried fish, onion rings, whatever, ketchup and dressing and butter to the max–Calvin would always bring out his pharmacopeia, a collection of about 15 prescription bottles that he dutifully downed with a big glass of Pepsi.  Obviously, there were a lot of things wrong with Cal.  As the evening wore on, the food and the pharmaceuticals would have a dramatic effect on him.  By 9 pm, he was often asleep in his seat, buttressed from falling by his extra fat.

Once, around 8:30 pm, I was talking to Cal about a magic trick using a salt shaker.

“I’ll show you,” I said.  “Pass me that salt shaker, would you?”

“You know that I studied magic under the famous…” Calvin said, and in the process, wiggled his fingers as he reached for the salt shaker, but strangely, he never finished that sentence with what I knew he was going to finish it with: “John Scarne.”  Instead, he fell asleep.  I’m not kidding.  In the middle of a sentence, he fell asleep.  No lie.  While reaching for a salt shaker, he fell asleep.

“Cal?” I said softly.

I glanced with alarm at the busboy Manny, who was also listening in on the conversation, and he shot me back an astonished look.  I was glad that Manny had seen it, because otherwise, nobody would have believed me.  We moved away, not wanting to wake him.  When Cal finally awoke again, I went over to him.

“You know, you fell asleep during the middle of a sentence,” I said.

Cal suddenly stiffened.

“No I didn’t.”

“Cal, I was talking to you.  You were reaching for the salt shaker, wiggling your fingers, talking about magic, and then you just…fell asleep.”

“I did not.”

“Do you have narcolepsy?  Is that what they call it?”

“No I don’t.”

“I think you should go to a doctor and tell him what happened.”

After a few minutes, Cal had calmed down.

“I have sleep apnea,” he said quietly.  “But it’s nobody’s business.”

I was puzzled.

“But you fell asleep, you didn’t stop breathing.”

Cal insisted that there is a relationship between sleep apnea and sudden onset of sleep, and I suppose there is.  Now, looking back, things make more sense.  I assume that his extra weight had something to do with the apnea, and that perhaps the apnea kept him from getting a full night’s sleep.  Apparently, some of the medicines that he took were meant to treat his apnea.  But in the end, the portrait that I should have realized I was looking at was of a troubled, overweight specimen in very poor health at the tender age of 45.

Calvin spent months in the hospital, and George would visit him occasionally.  It took him a long time–a year or two–to get back to full health, but he finally got there.  But by that time, Stick ‘n’ Stein, that great “Cheers” coffee shop where everybody knows your name, had closed its doors forever.  Apparently, George had been renting the property, and the absentee landlord suddenly doubled the rent and that was that.  Seventeen years’ worth of friends and neighbors had to go somewhere else.  All those good times had to go somewhere else.  And Calvin had no Stick to return to.

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I hear that now, Cal has adopted another coffee shop in town, I don’t know exactly which one, but I hear it’s a chain.  I can see him now, coming in the door carrying his black accountant’s bag.  I can see him now, taking out his own personal remote control.  I can see him now, falling asleep at the counter while watching Police Academy 7.  I can hear him now, giving the young manager the third degree.

Who’s that sitting in my seat?!