Wednesday, January 13, 2010

When I was about six or seven, my mom used to have me ride my bike to the local tavern in San Rafael and fetch my father to come home for dinner. When I’d get to Pier 15, he’d usually order me a Shirley Temple while he finished his last drink, and then he’d toss my bike in the trunk of his car and we’d drive home. This was pretty much a daily occurrence for probably a year or so.

My regular route involved passing a huge, airplane-hanger-sized, factory or warehouse of some sort. And although the giant bay doors were open, I had no idea as to the nature of the business – What interested me was the long, marked driveway that ran from end to end. It was like a landing strip, painted green with white and black stripes. Everytime I went by, I had an urge to ride my bike from one end to the other, pretending I was Evel Knievel or Major Matt Mason. And it always appeared to be absolutely deserted. Too perfect.

So one day, I left a bit earlier in order to spend a few minutes riding through that factory. I got there, charged in and mid-way through, I heard some voices, a couple of muted laughs and a clicking sound. Being a curious kid, I carefully coasted over, rubber wheels on a painted concrete floor = stealthy. I came upon a bunch of black dudes throwing dice against the wall and holding money. One of them, a rail-thin man, at least 7’ tall, immediately spied me. “Whatchoo want, little man?”, he asked, smiling. I told him I was on my way to pick up my dad and just wanted to ride my bike through their factory. He told me to go right ahead, but almost immediately, another guy asked me if I’d like to try my luck with a roll or two. They seemed so nice, I figured “why not?” I asked him what the game was called and he told me, “craps.” I burst into laughter, not believing that there’d be a game with such a dirty name. Feeling like a wisenheimer, I suggested they call the game, “shits”, which sent them into spasms. Anyway, good feelings all around, I threw the dice, and apparently, I’d won! The guy who invited me gave me a dollar. I threw again and won again and got another dollar! Before long, I had $5 (!) and would’ve stayed forever, but apparently, it was six and at that point, they told me they all had to start work and invited me back anytime. So the next day, I dropped by again, still with my $5 in my pocket. After a few days, I’d learnt the game and was honestly wagering my own money, though I suspect they still weren’t letting me lose too much. And of course, by then I’d learned all the names of my new friends.

After a couple of weeks, I was bringing home handfuls of comics and 7-11 superhero Slurpee cups by the dozens. Fun!

And then, one day, they were gone. All of them. And the day after that. And the day after that. And I never saw them again. Sad.


Years later, on a trip down memory lane, I was visiting my old haunts with my wife and we stopped in front of that factory. It was a plastic molding company. And putting a suitcase in the trunk and approaching the driver’s door, was someone who looked very familiar. It was a rail-thin man, at least 7’ tall. I was sure it was that same man who’d invited me to play craps decades ago. Ben. Impeccably dressed, he greeted me with a guarded stance as I approached him to inquire if my hunch was correct.

It was. Ben immediately remembered me and told me what had happened. They’d all been caught gambling in the workplace and been fired. Up until then, Ben had been perfectly happy with his lot in life. He liked his job. It paid enough, he was hard worker, and at that time, was likely on his way to being promoted to a shop steward. Up until his dismissal, he was an entirely contented man. But after he was fired, he became bitter, and spent years between jobs, and sometimes, without one altogether. Until one day, when he decided to go to school and get a business degree. He’d come upon a fanciful notion of proving he could compete and beat the man at his game. And he did. It was not even a decade after getting his MBA that he encountered an opportunity to run the very company that had fired him so many years ago. He applied, even told him of his former employment there and got the job – And their apologies!

Amazed, and beaming, I told him that this was like a fairy-tale, complete with a happy ending. But then Ben told me that he wasn’t sure if he’d call it that. On his journey of reinvention and during his climb up the corporate latter, he lost himself. And his wife. And even his second wife. He’d become a changed man. No longer fun-loving, but serious-minded. A person driven; a man with something to prove, but nobody that mattered to share his success with. He told me he wondered if that man from so many years ago would’ve been happier had fate not intervened.

Then he gave me his best wishes and told me he had to hustle to the airport for a business trip. Then my wife and I went to Pier 15 and I ordered a Shirley Temple for old times’ sake. And then a couple of big boy drinks.


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