Sunday, January 6, 2013

Friends in Medium Places

I don’t have friends in high places anymore. I did, many years ago, when for a brief period I found myself hobnobbing with the high-and-mighty. In time, I discovered these relationships were at best transient and, honestly, brought little to the table. Now I know and rely on less stellar beings, the average-but-resourceful on whose help I can count on when the going gets choppy. I suppose you could call them friends in medium places.

Take, for instance, the mechanic at a local garage who for years has been putting my cars through the Virginia State inspection. It is cars, plural; I have three, none newer than 1989, and they’re well-loved but cantankerous. Mike the Mechanic—an alias—whips them through his service station, tells me what may need to be done, quotes a friendly price and advises me to shop eBay for replacement parts. I’ve followed his advice and saved hundreds. We talk about the weather, his wife and her latest weight-loss program, and his 16-year-old daughter whom he worries about. He knows I used to work in a drug rehab and a while back he asked me about the warning signs of marijuana use. We spoke and days later I gave him some literature as well as the name of a doctor I know who willingly talks to concerned parents.

Mr. T (really, it says that on his nametag) is a physically impressive clerk who works in a nearby post office. He has helped me figure out the sometimes Byzantine postal rates charged for shipping goods overseas, as well as the US Customs forms that need to be filled. Sending stuff has gotten more complex since the Homeland Security people have taken an interest in outgoing mail (it seems to me they should focus on the incoming stuff, but what do I know) and Mr. T has suggested ways to ship more cheaply and faster. I’ve seen him deal with the rush of Christmas package senders with the aplomb of Eliot Ness facing the mob. He has never once lost his cool; he shakes my hand, smiles and asks how I am every time we meet. Now that’s a friend…

At my food store, I ran into a young check-out employee whom I used to see when he worked at Borders, before that bookselling chain went out of business.  Charles is thin, intense, and even looks like a writer, and when he manned the store’s espresso machine, I could always count on a couple of free shots, as well as good conversation on the latest literary gossip. The economy has treated Charles harshly; newly married and living in his in-laws’ basement with his wife, he now handles carrots instead of Camus and Pepsi rather than Pepys, but he’s still full of good advice. Where he once he pointed me to the hidden Borders shelf where a couple of difficult-to-find hardback masterpieces were for sale, Charles now sends me to the grocery store’s olive counter. The big green ones stuffed with red peppers are on sale, he says, though not marked as such, and the gherkins are out of this world.

I know a lot people like Charles, Mr. T and Mike throughout the area. They’ve had—and continue to have—more impact on my daily life than the US Senators I used to play music with, or the Presidential candidate who wanted me to ghost-write a novel for him—free of charge, I might add.

I’m not sure what to make of this, and probably there’s nothing to be made of it at all. In the Washington area, there’s not seven degrees of separation, there’s one or two, three at most, and everyone knows someone who is intimately acquainted with the movers and shakers, or has a child that attends the same school as the President’s daughter. We like to be associated with the richer and more famous, without realizing that more often than not, these people are takers, not givers.

My playwright friend Paul this morning reminded me of what used to be called ‘the King’s touch,’ the belief  held in the Middle Ages that a touch from royalty could heal many diseases.  A few hundred years later, those with faith thought that a coin that had been touched by the monarch held much the same powers—cure by osmosis. I think the belief still holds true; we think knowing the highly placed will somehow better our lives.

Me, I believe in Mr. T the Mailman and Mike the Mechanic.

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