Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Joining Team Walter

Walter the Substitute Bus Driver

When I was very young, there was a substitute school bus driver named Walter, an older gentleman who'd periodically appear, like an apparition, and give out bubblegum to kids as they got on the bus.

It gobsmacked me that such a person could exist. Bus drivers - I recognized with the instinctive reflex of those low on a food chain - were a nemesis for children to fear and avoid. You don't need to be a particularly clever bunny rabbit to know to run like crazy when a german shephard comes prowling. So you get on the stupid bus, walk all the way to the back, and try to avoid setting off the driver at all costs.
Imagine if you discovered that a certain mosquito, once you slow down its whine, is actually singing Mozart arias just to soothe you.
Walter Crowther rocked my world. Representing more than just a good version of a bad thing, he spurred a fundamental shift in my childhood experience. It had never occurred to me that anything positive could ever come from a bus driver. I suddenly realized, thunderstruck, that the world was studded with hidden and delightful Easter Eggs. A hunk of bubblegum had squarely launched me on my life path.

The Fabulous Mrs. Montesano

My first grade teacher was a sourpuss; a stuck-up, humorless horror. I just barely made it through the year, and was trepidatious about returning to school the next September. But I was assigned, for second grade, the fabulous Mrs. Gloria Montesano.

The prototypical Mrs. Montesano vignette took place the day Steven Bazone raised his hand and asked what "dash" meant. Without hesitation - not even a blink - Mrs. Montesano kicked off her heels and ran out the door.

She disappeared, leaving us unsupervised and completely mystified, for several minutes. Finally, someone pointed eagerly - almost hysterically - out the classroom window to the distant football field, which Mrs. Montesano was traversing at a very impressive speed.

We all gathered around the window screaming our heads off, pointing and jumping around in utter delight as Mrs. Montesano ran as if her life depended on it. Frankly, I'd never realized she was so athletic.

Finally, she arrived back at the classroom, winded and gasping. She put on her heels, and, with her remaining breath, explained that that's what dashing is.

It goes without saying that after my arteries harden in old age, the very final memory to vanish down my cognitive sink hole will be this word. I'll forget pizza, "2001", the 1973 Mets, and my own name long before I forget what it is to "dash".

Not all of Mrs. Montesano's lessons were flamboyant. I remember vividly how she explained how to remember "desert" versus "dessert". You want more “dessert” than “desert”. More esses! She explained this with such relish that it wasn't just a memory trick, it was like she'd initiated an entirely new way of seeing the world. Plentitude, even of mere consonants, felt like a gift.

I wish Mrs. Montesano had explained everything to me, but, alas, I had only one short year with her before it was back to the prigs.

Mrs. Montesano always encouraged my writing, and when I published my first book, I dedicated it to her, though I was too overwhelmed at the time (creating Chowhound) to get around to sending her a copy (I hadn't spoken to her since 1974). Finally, in late 2004, right at the time my life was turning upside down, I was going through my childhood boxes and found this ancient postcard from her, and I photocopied it and send it to her along with this reply.

The Painters

I mentioned a few postings ago that I've been having my house painted. Every day, I served the workers lunch. Really good lunch. And generally treated them like family. I blasted Radio Guatemala out of my windows all day and we shared beer at the end of most workdays. It was more like summer camp than a job. They called it "Camp Jimmy".

This is how I do it because of a tenet of Christianity that I particularly like - which also happens to be, in my opinion, badly misunderstood.

Everyone assumes "Love thy neighbor" refers to the person in the condo next door. But I am convinced that's not what it means. It means whoever you encounter right here right now. The clerk at CVS. The FedEx guy. The house painters.

You don't have to make an ostentatious big deal. You don't need to slap birthday hats on their heads and tell them how wonderful they are. But I go Pashtun. If you smash your thumb, you're going to get ice from me, stat, carefully wrapped, and you're going to eat a lunch that's the very best I can whip up - likely better than what I myself eat for lunch. With dessert, too (double "s" 'cuz you want more of it). Plus a bottle of really good beer to take home at the end of the day. And jokes. And respect. And knowing when to leave you the hell alone because it's not all about me.

But the one week job stretched to three weeks. So the expense went far beyond what I'd expected. With the guys working six days/week for three weeks, I likely blew close to four figures on hospitality expenses. Yikes.

By week three, it began to hurt a little, and I welcomed that pain. It signaled the collision of my vanity - my image of myself as a good person - with actual stakes. Everyone's a philanthropist with orange peels and used toilet paper. This was a test to see if I really meant it.

I welcomed the test. I embraced the raised stakes. Lunch got better and better. The sole problem in this scenario was my own discomfort, so I made an antagonist of it. No longer dressing panini with raw spinach, I'd begun to sauté the greens...and then escalated by sautéing with garlic. If they'd remained another few weeks, I'd have shaved in white truffles and sold computer equipment to finance purchase of rare caviar.

I steered straight into the skid, into my discomfort (and the residual wisps of hypocrisy lurking just behind it). I applied my Mazlow Hammer of commitment, upping my game. A friend asked why I was doing all this, and I explained about Christianity. He replied, yeah, great, lovely, but why are you actually doing it?

Switching Teams

I had to ponder the question for a few weeks (I can be very slow), but suddenly Walter's face flashed in my mind, and I realized this is the same irrational impulse that compelled Walter and Mrs. Montesano to induce delight. Not hoping that I, myself, would be considered delightful (hardly a risk for me, fortunately, as I don’t seem so, and seeming is everything), but just for its own sake.

I hadn’t planned it that way, so I never registered a point where I went from perennially wishing for a Walter to becoming a Walter ("being the change"). I'm just living out the spin imparted in me by he and Mrs. Montesano. Someone, many links back in the chain, had found a different way of doing things, and Walter, Mrs. Montesano, and I...and now the painters (and you!) were haplessly caught in the ripple effect.

Perhaps a blogger in 2060 will recall the dude who delighted him with delicious panini during his youthful summer painting job. But I'm not shooting for that. It's not about me. The guys were here. They got fed. Full stop. Why does there need to be further rationale? Does it really make so little sense as-is? That's why Walter gave out gum, and why Mrs. Montesano went overboard to teach not-especially-significant words. They were just moved to do what they did. Not much self-consciousness was involved.

I'm a bit more self-conscious, because I need to intellectually understand myself and my world or else I start feeling very lost and confused (hence this Slog). Yet I never noticed myself switching teams; from being a grateful admirer of Walter to being Walter. I never made a mental story out of it. It was just what happened. It took a while to even notice.

I remain a grateful admirer of Walter and Mrs. Montesano. More than ever, in fact. And I can't imagine placing myself fully in their pantheon. I'm not all that. I'll just keep making panini and icing thumbs and blasting Radio Guatemala, when appropriate, here at Camp Jimmy, and explaining my weirdo ideas here for the scattering of readers who offer their attention. I don’t think I’ll ever come up with a better explanation of my motivation. I’m comfortable with it as-is. I conjure up memories of Walter and Mrs. Montesano, and feel relieved to be preserving, in my small way, the customs of our random little tribe.

Further reading: The Generosity Impulse

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