Neighbor

“I got worried for a minute. Thought you were a bomber. That bag was there and I didn’t know where you had gone.”

He was a man I’d guess of about 6’2” with (once) formidable biceps that had softened a bit in his years, dignified gray hair, and a goatee. He was seated at the Starbucks window counter in Boerne, Texas, with my bag next to him that had been left for about five minutes. Maybe a bit less.

“Oh…I’m sorry about that,” I tried to say lightly but with a tone of sincere apology. I knew his anxiety. “I had to wait for the bathroom, and then…” my voice ellipsed. “Gotta be careful these days, right?”

“Shame, isn’t it?”

“Yes, indeed.”

He saw me pulling out my laptop and scooted his more to the side, giving me more room. “Need to plug in?”

photo: BootsnAll Travel

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Dining in an automat, alone

For years after I returned from college in 1985, Dad hounded me to go to the automat at 42nd Street and Third Avenue. Horn & Hardart. Now a lost brand name, like Edsel, or Moxie. Well, not so much the latter; I often say my wife has it.

“It’s the last one in Manhattan,” he would tell me.

He would go there in the 1960s and ‘70s when he worked on Madison and 40th selling out-of-home advertising space. His company, with the pedestrian but functional name Transportation Displays Incorporated, was owned by the Winston Network. People referred to it as “TDI,” so when my second grade teacher went around the room asking each of us what his father did for a living, I—having no other context than one of the popular TV shows at the time—replied innocently, “He works for the FBI.”

As I recall, my teacher didn’t correct me, and my classmates didn’t challenge me. Badass kid, I was.

Eventually the company went through a leveraged buyout and Dad, who was VP of Sales, was not aggressive enough in his forecasts. He was forced out at age 64 and sued the company for outstanding commissions as well as punitive damages on the basis of what he and his lawyer argued—rightly or wrongly—was age discrimination. With a $46,000 settlement, he went into a decline that lasted 13 years until my mother and brother and I found him dead in his bed with an empty bottle of pills and a drained gin bottle next to him on a silver tray. Plastic bag over his head fastened with a rubber band around the neck. Now 12 years after his death, as I pore over books on urban design in the mid-20th century and about neighborhoods with automats, I realize I am walking through his life in print. Questions sprout from each page like tender shoots—“Was the chopped steak dried out?” “Did you all think that this was the future of dining, like in a Jetsons cartoon?” “What kind of people would you meet there—were they lonely?”—only to wither under the unremitting sun of my father’s silence.

[to be continued]

photo: Hernan Hernandez