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People in Your Life

In Issue:

For one school year I worked with Harvey Decker and Ron Baylor and Randy, whose last name I may have never known. Ron, our boss, was about 40, and lived with “Mom and Dad,” always spoken in quotation marks. Ron was a former priest, which in my book is a lot like being a former lawyer, or a former Italian, or a former hypochondriac–there are certain states of being a person doesn’t drop that easily.

Ron was still a Catholic, but with a certain studied worldliness: He smoked and swore and told off-color jokes. But you could tell he was working at it. Ron was a man with what my mother called proclivities–a word I always confused as a child with the word cleavage, which left me with a certain residue of confusion attached to both words to this day. I never had the idea Ron Baylor acted on his inclinations; although, God knows, he acted on everything else. He was the most entirely busy person I have ever known. The man was sublimation incarnate.

My other co-worker, Randy, had started out to be a priest himself, but stopped midway. It’s a long procedure. I’ve known a few guys who thought they wanted to be priests, but then had second thoughts once their hormones kicked in. Randy was married–the kind of married man who brings his wife to every conversation and insists that everybody present talk about her like she’s just left the room for a minute. Good old what’s-her-name.

And then there was Harvey Decker who was newly divorced and had a dirt bike and a stamp collection and more money than anybody could account for. I liked Harvey. I used to go over to his apartment for lunch. We made a project of doing zero work that year, so we were always on the lookout for someplace to be not working. I can’t remember what we had for lunch. Sprouts, probably. It was the ’70s, and everything was sprouts and curries juxtaposed with newly invented foods like those uniformly shaped potato chips in cans, which were brand-new and the word “plastic” still headed up the list of ingredients on the red can.

I was the only female member of the foursome, freshly married to Carlton, an ex-Army recruiter who had just spent two tours in Vietnam and was finishing up his degree in engineering at Albany State. We were still in the early throes of marriage: unpacking wedding presents and having sex and making long-range plans. I got the job on the project that year by not clearly enunciating when I said what my master’s degree was in.

I remember we had a 1970 hunter-green two-door Audi, and during the year I worked on the project, we replaced every working part at least one time, and several parts twice. By the end of the year, we had a new car. Same body, but all new parts. We spent unconscionable amounts of time that year suing everybody from the local mechanic to Audi International to the Republic of Germany–at least in our minds. We finally sold that lemon of a lemon to an arrogant professor who smiled benignly and said he knew absolutely all there was to know about German automotives when we attempted to tell him the car would only run on high-test gasoline. It was a pleasure to watch him drive away.

But for our year of Audi ownership, Carlton walked to school, so I could take the car to work which was a joke, because even on the days when it was running, a boulder would fall from an overhang and splinter the windshield with a shotgun crash, or I would run out of gas, or fog would form a solid shield across the roadway, all of which meant that I would have to call Ron Baylor at 8 a.m. to say, You won’t believe this…and he didn’t (even though my story happened very often to be true). Nonetheless, Ron would send Harvey or Randy, or sometimes both, to Albany to pick me up–a distance of 18 miles one way.

Ron Baylor was the only employer I have ever known or heard about who didn’t want his employees to do any work. He wanted to do it all himself, which was just as well since I doubt I could have faked it. It isn’t clear in my mind just what the project was about. It wasn’t at the time. All I know is that we four shared a huge, tiled room on the second floor of a brand-new high school in the town of Gloversville, New York, a large room with seven or eight enormous metal tables piled all around with thick books and stacks of papers, and I remember that we relied heavily upon The Dictionary of Occupational Titles, or at least Ron did on our behalf.

On the days when through whatever convoluted means of transport I was actually at work, Ron would give me a subject to go read up on in the high school library–like, say, young adult fiction about farm life–and I would come back at two in the afternoon and tell Ron my eyes were shot, and he would say, Why don’t you pack it in? (He had a full repertoire of those casual-sounding phrases that are the exclusive purview of the truly uptight person.) And I would say, Are you sure? and he would say, Absolutely, and Harvey or Randy, or both, would drive me home.

“Ron would be really surprised that you and Carlton got divorced,” Harvey calls me back to the hotel lobby with the throngs of milling mental-health proponents all around.

“What? Ron?” I say. “I’m not sure how you mean. I don’t think Ron ever even met Carlton. I don’t feel like Ron even noticed me.”

Harvey points toward the large open door, and as the crowd begins to flow in that direction, puts his hand gently on the small of my back to guide me. Such a nice, old-fashioned gesture. “Bill Edwards, the first speaker today, is a guy I know from grad school,” Harvey says. “I’ll introduce you. Maybe we could all have lunch.”

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