At Marlou’s yahrzeit my brother and my cousin both recalled how she had encouraged their kids to travel abroad. Marlou was a devotee of the American Field Service, a redoubtable organization that arranges international family stays with students in their third year of secondary school. These stories acquired magnitude with the passing of their principal character. For this was what was left, a human’s impact on the world. It was never intended, this effect, just given. This is what is left. All that anyone can leave anyone, I was thinking.
I am still thinking this as I sit opposite a fortysomething friend who is going through a divorce. He has things I don’t, particularly a couple of kids. Moreover, he has had a certain suburban stature, living on this street, serving on that board. And now it is all coming apart, or so he feels. I feel for him. I have been down this road, I say. And now the metaphors are mixing, and not unpleasantly. His life on his street, my life on my road. And kung pao shrimp, which we now order. His heart isn’t in the Chinese food, I can see. His heart is broken and battered, and I can see that too. The other thing I can see is that life goes on, and his life will go on…and stay tuned, I want to tell him. Actually, I do tell him something like this. That that midlife can be a time of tumult and of loss and even transformation.
It has always seemed such a misbegotten thing, my turbulent childhood, then my shattered 20s mostly spent, as I recall, looking for work…the latter only appearing in my early 30s. Nothing to brag about, I have always told myself. And now if not quite bragging, I am, as we say in California, sharing. His street, my road, some shrimp, what the hell.
‘Ride ’em, cowboy.’ These words take on an entirely different character coming from a Brit. The cowboy narrative belongs here, to me and my people, I was thinking as this moment erupted in 1981. Hard to recall exactly how it happened, but my former London neighbor, Martin, had arrived for a visit. With time short, we had flown to Reno and turned ourselves over to Messrs. Hertz whose first car literally died in the airport parking lot. I was driving the second one now, and precisely how this is possible…well, it’s slightly eludes my memory. After all, I am now rather anxious about driving my own specially equipped van, let alone an ordinary Buick without custom controls. That was what Hertz had given me after the first car had died. And why Martin wasn’t driving, I honestly can’t recall. Perhaps he wasn’t used to traffic on the right, although he has traveled enough for this to seem unlikely. Perhaps I was driving because I wanted to be driving, wanted to show him the sights while he looked on. Which he was.
We were climbing the relatively scenic highway out of the Reno high desert toward Lake Tahoe. Martin was discoursing as always. Fantasizing was more like it. He was singing ‘I’m an old cowhand from the Rio Grande…’ at the top of his British lungs. Not exactly his first time in the States, but the first time anywhere but New York. Nothing about our drive seemed particularly cowboyish to me, but we were passing the occasional barbed wire fence, cattle probably visible in the fields, and that was enough for Martin.
A pixieish figure, we have about the same height, but not the same demeanor. Martin is all twinkly. His round face beams often. His is an antic mind, lightly dancing about the topical landscape. Tending to delight in whatever takes his fancy. And fairly recently divorced, almost any reasonably attractive woman was taking Martin’s fancy on this particular trip, I could see that. The flight attendants on the short hop from San Francisco. The blond Hertz agent. All this randiness only temporarily on hold while we made our way up the mountain. A drive that should have taken roughly half an hour, but now lengthening and threatening to stop only about five miles short of Lake Tahoe. For the car was sputtering, incredibly a second rental dud.
Such ill fortune did not seem possible. But here I was, pulling off the road, embarrassed as though this was my doing. Somehow I thought that if I opened the hood, Martin could spot trouble. He found all this a matter of great merriment, absolutely confident in his own total ignorance of things automotive. There’s a bonnet, he said, and every appearance of an engine under it…and what do you want me to do?
One gets the idea, wholly inaccurate, that able-bodied people know everything that the disabled don’t. Still, I found it embarrassing, how our scant couple of days around Lake Tahoe had already turned sour. Or so it seemed. Martin slammed the bonnet. I started the engine, and new even sicker sounds blasted intermittently from the tailpipe. I put the car in drive, and it died. I tried this again, this time pressing the accelerator, and it died a bit slower. We were not in a place for complete and terminal automotive death, the Sierra winter being what it was. We were not even in a place to await a tow truck, my impatience being what it was. I gunned the engine, floored the accelerator and the car leapt off the shoulder, tires screeching, gravel flying and Martin twinkling his ride ’em cowboy encouragement.
Stopping in front of one of the big gambling hotels at Lake Tahoe, I more or less double-parked at the Hertz stand, grabbed my crutch and hobbled inside. Definitely time to be assertive, to rouse a certain level of ire and demand another, mechanically infallible car on the spot. Bad customer service may have seemed the issue, but for a disabled driver survival is the more powerful motivation. We rolled away from the hotel in a huge period gas guzzler, an early 80s behemoth of uncertain breed. Martin was still twinkling. The Hertz girl had large breasts.
I lead the way. This was my land. Martin probably knew as much about Lake Tahoe as I did about Lake Lucerne. Water spots with reputations. He probably never dreamed he would return to this Sierra gambling resort. His life was at something of a low ebb. There was the divorce. And the career. When we had lived more or less next door, Martin was a photographer for the London Sunday Times. His trademark style was black-and-white, mercilessly grainy close-up portraiture. From the late 60s on, people like Michelangelo Antonioni had undergone the Martin treatment, their pores, wrinkles and scars blown up for the Sunday enjoyment of Times readers. His work was as trendy as that of his subjects, and by the time I met Martin it was sadly on the wane. He had a new baby, a disturbed wife and, effectively, almost no job. For a while, he worked in a local pub. At his daughter’s second birthday party, Martin resurrected some magic tricks from his boyhood and delighted all. He was tireless in this way. In retrospect, money for gifts, even an elaborate party, were probably in short supply.
The magical birthday party act impressed several parents. Someone hired Martin to do another birthday party. Then another. A born impresario, Martin knew when he had something. His birthday party magic business was soon an established fact in West London. And naturally it didn’t stop there. A couple of years after I had moved back to California, Martin and I met for lunch. Which proved surprisingly complicated. Martin had an office now, actually a basement. He was making and selling his own magic tricks, advertising them in amateur magician magazines. There was no sign on his office door bell.
Part of the shtick, he told me, all twinkly in his basement shipping room. Not that there was another room, but packaging and mailing was all that seemed to go on here. And if someone really wanted to visit Martin in his premises…well, the locale was supposed to be secret, like the magic tricks themselves. Number 57 Lonsdale Crescent, or something like that, descent of some wrought iron steps and a knock on the unmarked door. Martin knew how to weave a mystery out of virtually nothing. Which drove people mad, but in the right sort of way. The success of his tricks drove him all the way to the world of stage magicians like David Copperfield, then major acts in places like Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. God knows what Martin designed for these particular illusionists. But this became his business. Which expanded into magic books. Magical thinking being completely absent from all this, Martin being more realistic than most of us.
Which gives me heart at this particular moment. Having not exchanged e-mails for about a year, I just got in touch with Martin, hoping to see him next month. He responded quickly, explaining that he has leukemia and has been in hospitals for much of the year. A January visit? Uncertain, he told me. No illusions. No magic. Just Martin. Or maybe Martin and me. Wherever, I told him, including some hospital near his Brighton home, if need be. Uncertain if I have something to offer him or he has something to offer me or both. One never knows, that is the thing. I can only offer the wisdom of Woody Allen. Most of life involves turning up.