HEADS AND TAILS. 9-6-10
His first name is Ron and I don’t know his other name.
He is a service mechanic in an office building in downtown Manhattan and he brings in a thermos flask of coffee and a cheese and tomato, or cheese and lettuce, sandwich for his lunch everyday and no one has ever seen him spend any money.
His hair is cut to form a brushy peak on the top of his head and down the back of it he has a dirty-blond fall that’s caught up in a rubber band and that reaches down to his mid shoulders. He’s probably chosen that style because he can do it himself, easily.
He has pleasant features and he usually has a smile hovering somehow around his eyes.
He is not overly bright but is popular with his co-workers, and with the building’s tenants, because of his affable nature and with the Super because he is always looking for more overtime and will eagerly take anybody’s turn on the overtime roster for late night or weekend work if they have other plans – which makes the Super’s life much easier.
When I arrived at his building – I was going to spend a couple of weeks there tuning up the two groups of elevators – I was directed to the stairs that lead to the basement which is where the Super’s office is located and I found him in there and we shook hands and he got off to a bad start with me by saying, straight off, “We’ve been expecting you for months. Where’ve you been?”
After a few unnecessary admonitions about how I was to be careful about not letting my work interfere with the running of the elevators more than was absolutely necessary – and, inevitably, throwing out a few complaints about indicator lights being burned out, and the like – he called in Ron from the adjacent workshop and told him to take me up to the Elevator Motor Room.
On the way up we exchanged small talk and he recognized my accent as being English and he volunteered the information that he’d be over there in a month’s time and that he was going to stay there through Christmas and New Year’s. “Two weeks altogether.”
That interested me because I don’t think many US electricians go to London in December so I probed by asking him where he’d be spending Christmas Day.
“Getting laid,” he answered.
I laughed at his candor and his abruptness and then I asked, as he was unlocking the Machine Room door, “What about New Year’s Eve? Where will you be that night?”
“Getting laid,” he said again and then he turned away and went down the stairs.
I was intrigued, of course, and in the two weeks that I was there I made it a point to get to know him better and find out what he’d meant by his strange answers.
It turned out that he’d been sent to England by the Air Force, which he’d joined straight out of high school, and, towards the end of his eighteen month tour there, he’d met a girl called Audrey and they’d fallen in love and soon after that they lived together in a small apartment that was close to his base which was just outside London.
They’d neither of them slept with anyone who they were in love with before and they were astonished at how big the difference is and they were determined to get married as soon as possible and to live together forever.
However, the Air Force puts an automatic ‘hold’ – a ‘cooling-off period’ – in effect whenever one of its personnel wants to marry a ‘native’ – quite correctly and sensibly because they want to protect all parties – and so, because it was by then far too late to go through the procedure, Ron’s tour ended without him getting a ‘permission to wed’ form and he was sent back to the States without having married his Audrey.
They missed each other desperately but Ron had another year and a half to do in the Air Force and there was no way that he could get out of that.
Because the rent for the apartment that she was then living in alone was far too much for her to cope with on her meager salary Ron had to send her money every month so that she wouldn’t have to go back to living with her parents, who, understandably, weren’t very happy with how she was managing her life.
Eventually, Ron got out of the Air Force and by then he had a passport and so he was able to go hot footing across the Atlantic on the day after he became a civilian. They got married soon after that and they lived together as happy as clams until they began to run out of money and were forced to make a decision about their future.
The obvious answer was for them to go and live in Queens, where he’d always lived, but she categorically, and irrationally, refused to even think about crossing the Atlantic because from what she’d read about, and had seen in movies and on TV all through her life, she figured that at any given moment the majority of USA citizens had a life expectancy of around three days. When he suggested a short visit to New York City to see for herself that life there could be ordinary, “even dull,” the frightened look that came on her face at the very mention of ‘New York City’ made him give up on that idea completely.
He couldn’t get a job in England because the regulations forbid ‘Gainful Employment For Foreigners Without Special Talents’ and so he was forced to return to the States, alone, where he moved into his parent’s basement and found himself a job as an all-round Service Mechanic, which was just about the perfect fit for him seeing that he’d been given electrical training in the Air Force and he’d always been good at repairing mechanical things. He’d also picked up some plumbing skills on the job.
That is how matters stand now and have done so for better than three years. He still sends his Audrey money every month and he saves every penny of the all rest that he makes for air fare so that he can take time off from his job to fly to London for two weeks in the Spring and two weeks in the Fall and two more weeks at Christmas. He only gets paid for one of those vacations, of course, but his boss lets him take time off for the other two because he values him as an employee.
He and Audrey rarely talk to each other on the telephone because neither of them can bare to hang up first and it gets to be frustrating.
They e-mail each other several times in the evenings although the time-difference make it a bit awkward and they write everyday but they only mail the letters once a week. They don’t go to the movies ever nor out with friends very often because of the expense and they live for those two weeks together three times a year.
When he goes over there she meets him at the airport and they go to their apartment by subway – from one end of the line to the other – and then bus and after ten minutes or so at the beginning they don’t say much on the trip but they never let go of each other’s hand nor do they look away from each other’s face much either.
When they’ve closed the door behind themselves on that first day they don’t open it again in all the time that he’s there because she will have stocked up on enough food and beer to see them through.
They undress and get dressed again once in the entire fortnight.
They make love in or around every piece of furniture and every fixture in every room.
They don’t have a favored position or a favored place to do it because being together is everything and nothing else matters.
They eat when they’re hungry and sleep when it comes over them and they do not lose sight of each other as long as their eyes are open and rarely is one part of one of them not touching some part of the other one.
By experience Ron knows that he has to leave on the afternoon of the Friday of the second week of each visit. He sleeps on the plane to JFK and then all day Saturday and most of Sunday and even with that he can only barely get it together enough to get to work on time on Monday morning and start earning money to do it all over again. He told me that the flight to London is prolonged agony, “It seems to take twenty-four hours,” he said and the flight back to Kennedy, “seems to take about twenty minutes.”
It took me a long time, and much persistence, to worm all of that information out of Ron – I admit to shamelessly taking advantage of his reluctance to spend any of his own money on anything by making it a habit to get him a soda and one of his favorite pastries when I bought my own lunch and we ate together in his cubby hole in the basement that had a work bench in it and his tools and a beat up leather recliner and another, regular, chair – and when I’d gotten it all I commiserated with him and I asked him how long could he put up with it.
“It’s not a question of ‘putting up’ with anything, man,” he said, a little angrily. “This is how my life is. It won’t change and I don’t want it to change. You know, the average guy gets one, maybe two, honeymoons in his whole lifetime, right? Yeah, well I get three of them every year.”
I guess that he’s been defending the indefensible for so long that his mind, to preserve its sanity, has stopped him from recognizing the absurd and illogical position that he’s in and so, to let him cope with everyday happenings, it works around the problem like a computer can be programmed to ignore a whole series of inputs prefixed with a coded ‘reject’ reference or not prefixed with a coded ‘accept’ reference. He now really believes that he is content with his ridiculous life style.
I tried to force him into seeing sense by saying that there are surely lots of nice girls in Queens that he should check out but it didn’t so much as dent his armor and I guess now that his friends and, especially, his family have made the same comment to him many times over the years.
I left the building for the last time on the Friday of the second week at around lunchtime, having finished my tune-up work a half day early but please don’t tell that to anybody at my office, and I saw Ron sitting on one of the traffic barriers at the edge of the sidewalk that’s across from that huge and terrific bronze bull statue.
I stopped and went over to say goodbye and when he got up to shake hands he spotted something in the road and so he left me standing there with my hand stuck out as he picked his moment to dart out into the traffic to retrieve it.
It was a well-weathered penny, and thus incognito as to whether it was heads or tails up, and he pulled out one of those plastic coin purses that gape open in the middle when the two sides are pressed in and he dropped the coin into it.
“So long, Ron,” I said as we shook hands and, when he’d gone back to his seat on the traffic barrier, I followed up with, “Say hello to the Queen for me and have a Happy Christmas.”
“Fuck the Queen,” he said, “and all her stupid rules and, while you’re at it, all her horses too. Ha! . . . . And, uh, listen man, don’t be worrying about me having a Happy Christmas. It’s guaranteed.”