Dedicated to: Daniel Fischer
by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Author’s program note. These kinds of things are happening to me all the time now. I was sitting in a booth at the Cambridge Common Restaurant just the other day and was anxious to enjoy the same American fare I always get there, namely a classic hamburger medium well, fresh lettuce and tomato with a whisper of Bermuda onion; side of onion rings (a specialite’ de la maison), justly renowned up and down Massachusetts Avenue, three half deviled eggs (uniquely available here) and large diet Coke; make sure there are three slices of lime. I am most particular about such matters, and don’t forget it, Pookie. Mind, just two won’t do.
Then the snag. I couldn’t get out of my top coat, suitably charcoal gray, the one that I acquired so many years ago in London, at Austin Reed, in that long ago era when being stylish still mattered to me, though even then not so very much (to my mother’s abiding chagrin).
This coat, now my straight-jacket, now my jailor… for, you see, I couldn’t take it off and I couldn’t get it on. I was a hostage and even doing the shimmy like my sister Kate didn’t help. Nothing did.
My irksome dilemma was compounded by the fact no waitron (as we call them in my progressive metropolis) was to hand. No, they were all bunched together at the entrance, where at least 4 of them cast jaundiced eyes at the folks (another Cambridge-ism) entering; what tip they might get their one and only concern.
And so I waited pondering the thoughts every hostage wherever held had thought; thoughts like how did I get myself into this friggin’ situation… how could I get myself out of it… and where was the cavalry to rescue me? After all, I pay my taxes.
Like I said, this wasn’t the first time I was trapped inside my top coat… or my favorite sweater, the thick one from France with the heraldic devices and fastidious moths… or any of those Ralph Lauren polo shirts, the ones that mysteriously disappear when certain light-fingered friends decide to spend the night because they’ve over served themselves from my dwindling supply of fine wines and liquors I shall never buy again.
No, this wasn’t the first time a determined garment decided to hold me for ransom, but it was the longest and most public such event, thus deserving of the most careful consideration and a thorough vetting of each and every detail, no matter how picayune you might think. Besides, who asked you for an opinion anyway?
So, by now I was one exasperated puppy with a fast rising temperature. I needed help and the staff had well and truly disappeared. Now what? Out of the corner of my eye I saw an elderly couple just finishing up. Then the absolutely unthinkable notion… they could help me. And all of a sudden I was confronted by one of the most profound and undeniable aspects of aging… that I, help giver par excellence for my entire life, now needed help…. and I didn’t like that one little bit… not least when my potential rescuers stood up and I realized with horror the “elderly couple” was my age… yes, card carrying Baby Boomers. It only worsened my dilemma… and made me feel damn foolish, too.
I mean, why couldn’t I just say in my most congenial and casual way, “Could you folks give me a hand?”. They would have said yes, pulled me up smartly and removed me from the troublesome coat.
They would then have smiled and quipped some phrase like “Don’t take any wooden nickles”, waved and gone on their merry way with that happy feeling that comes when you’ve taken time to do a good deed you didn’t need to do. The whole thing would have taken 120 seconds, or less. Besides, I had seen the gentleman look at me struggling. It seems to me he wanted to help but didn’t want to intrude, either for fear he’d be rebuffed by me or somehow “get involved”, a thing that trips us all up. We want to make the world a better place, we prattle on about it without surcease, but we want to do it without “getting involved”. How this can be accomplished no one knows. Thus I didn’t request his help, and he didn’t offer it. I remained trapped, arms pinned. And to think the gray haired couple and I all grew up on Bob Dylan and his 1974 masterpiece, “Forever Young,” “May you always do for others/ And let others do for you.”
Giving, yes. Getting, no.
I’m ok with the first half of Dylan’s line. Giving is what successful people do. Giving is an important aspect of their success. It firmly and unequivocally establishes them as a person of consequence, a person of empathy and kindness and generosity; a person who should be touched to ensure good luck and whose every word is solid gold, ready for chiseling on public buildings.
Of course I see myself this way and give with the well-honed and always gracious gesture of the grandest grand seigneur. When misery of any kind strikes within my circle and often without; (think typhoons in far-away places which even I cannot find with ease), I respond at once.
It is not an act of thought; it is rather an act of indelible habit long ago taught and constantly performed since. It affirms my superior status and good heart and immediately suggests God’s unqualified approbation and bounty. This thought comforted my God-fearing Puritan ancestors; it comforts me as well, just as it comforts me to give even where the response is anything but warm.
One day when I was returning from my walk about the neighborhood, I saw a family in distress.Their car didn’t work, and they were in despair, young children shrieking. I asked them where they were going and how much they needed. Connecticut. $500.
I offered to lend, not give, the money. Could they pay back, say, $50 a month? “Oh, yes, sir, we can and we will.” Fervent thanks were rendered and rendered again. A week or two after the first payment date, no funds received, I called. I expected an excuse and a promise for prompt recompense and renewed appreciation. What I got was an earful of the bluest and most vulgar, every word an expostulation of the rawest and most offensive; the whole proof positive that no good deed goes unpunished.
But here’s the rub. I was not disconcerted by the torrent of malice; quite the contrary. “There but for the grace of God…” What might so easily have resulted in a shouting match turned instead into a moment of quiet satisfaction and proof of God’s love. Could the man shouting unanticipated obscenities have said as much? Yes, God moves in mysterious ways and His account of the time we have been given and used is absolute, infallible, eternal. Yes, this is what happens to the givers, each blessed and rightly so. But what happens to those who are given? I didn’t need to consider this matter. It had been drilled into me from birth… and now prevented me from asking for help.
“If you want it done right, do it yourself,” I’d been taught. “God helps those who help themselves,” I’d been assured.” “Don’t wait to be asked. Take the initiative to do the right thing and do it now!”, every phrase an adamant declaration for independence here, independence now, independence forever.
These were the shibboleths of the people who shaped me, theirs the adamant voices ringing in my ear today. And they are right, for there is nothing more important as you age than the personal freedom and independent living which are constantly at risk and being chipped away, threatened, diminished day by day. Then out of nowhere, I heard a song begin to gather in my brain. And it went something like this…
“I am what I am/ I am my own special creation/ So come take a look/ Give me the hook or the ovation.”
And all of a sudden, as the song rose and its insistent lyrics soared, I got that feeling that I’ve known before, the feeling that He is there… that He is watching… and against every logical thought and sentiment He cares.
Thus did epiphany and perfect recognition hit me squarely between the eyes in an urban greasy spoon in the unlikely form of an anthem for drag queens everywhere featuring this electrifying line, “There’s one life, and there’s no return and no deposit.” (The song, of course, is “I Am What I Am” music and lyrics by Jerry Herman from the 1983 production of “La Cage aux Folles”. Go now to any search engine and find it. I prefer the version by George Hearn with resonant. adamant voice enough to uplift millions, including you and me.)
“I don’t want praise. I don’t want pity.”
And so the truths poured out. I shuffle now, my once strident walk slower now. This doesn’t matter.
My right hand tremors, This doesn’t matter.
Shoelaces a struggle to tie. This doesn’t matter either.
The agile letters that jump up and down on a page challenging meaning. This, too, doesn’t matter. What then does?
The waitress knew. “I’m sorry you had to wait so long. Need some help with your coat?” and so my incapacity begot a new friend with radiant smile and, in short order deviled eggs, onion rings, and apple crunch with vanilla ice cream… all on the house. “You deserve it,” she said…. and maybe I’m ready to admit that I do.
Dedication by the Author. It is my privilege and pleasure to dedicate this article to Daniel Fischer, my “monkey” and friend, a man of spirit, persistence, dedication and love. Remember, you are not alone and your example and dazzling smile inspire us all and always will, none more so than me.
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