“You could do me a favor,” said Marjorie. “If you’re going to San Francisco.”
I was off to play another industrial show for Joe. “What?” I responded.
My mother smiled ruefully. “You remember Jane Levin?” she began. The name rang a distant bell. One of mom’s school chums from long ago. Yes, I remembered some connection with Jane and the West Coast.
“Well, she died last year. I told you, but you probably forgot.’
She was right. I had no recollection of this. I’d met Jane and her husband once, briefly, years ago.
“And I’ve been feeling guilty about not being more in touch with Grant.’
This was Jane’s husband. And wasn’t there some medical connection? “Is he the psychoanalyst?”
“No, Johnny, he’s a brain surgeon –and a very renowned one.
He developed some procedure years ago which is now common practice in all the hospitals. He’s a very sweet guy, and he’s all alone now, he’s retired… and if you’re going to be in San Francisco you could do me a great favor and just call him up and take him to dinner.”
“I don’t know how busy I’m gonna be, Mom,” I hedged. “You can give me his number.”
I flew to SF with Margery Beddow, the choreographer. She was an attractive redhead, a Gwen Verdon look-alike. In fact she had been Gwen’s standby in Sweet Charity, Redhead and other shows. “God, I’m so thrilled,” she told me on the plane, “I just took the EST program,”. I was, of course, instantly on my guard. I thought the whole Werner Erhard thing was pretentious nonsense.
Plus I was never a joiner. I’d been to a meeting once, at Treva’s urging, and emerged unimpressed. The big deal was, they wouldn’t let you out of the room to pee. And you were responsible if your folks went down in a plane crash.
So when Margery mentioned it, I tried to keep the suspicion out of my voice.
“Yeah? What’d it do for you?” I asked her, as levelly as I could.
“Well.” she said triumphantly. “I was finally able to get my husband to sign my divorce papers. You see, I finally took responsibility.”
Mm, I thought.
Our job was unique and challenging: we had to teach Boeing executives to sing and dance. Most companies, like GE or Chevrolet, who put on industrial shows, went to great effort and expense to get professional performers, Broadway names like Dorothy Loudon or Hal Linden. Boeing was trying an experiment: they wanted their own guys up on stage. They thought this would lead to better identification with the sales reps. It was for the reps that these shows were mounted, to light a fire under them by demonstrating the new improved model, really get them behind the product.
It was both exasperating and fun for us, Margie and me, as we had to work within their limitations. Not all of them could carry a tune. Not all of them could move in sync with the others.
When Margie couldn’t get them all lined up in a simple step, her lips tightened in exasperation. We took a break and I pulled her aside. “Let them be klutzy, hon.” I said to her. “It adds to the charm.”
Of course when the shoe was on the musical foot, I found it hard to contain myself when they couldn’t form a simple triaid for the last note.
After two days of ten-hour work, I finally found a moment back in my hotel room to call Grant Levin. The voice on the phone seemed to lack a certain energy..and his speech was slow.
“Why, Johnny, how…very…thoughtful…of you to…call.”
“Grant, I’d love to see you. D’you think I could take you to dinner? Maybe Friday?”
“Oh no no, I’ll take you to dinner, you’ve come…all this way. Friday would be…lovely.” His voice reminded me of old, thick molasses, sliding slowly over stones in a stream.
“What time is good for you, Grant?”
“Shall we say six? I don’t…usually stay up too late.”
“OK, six it is. I hear there’s a new place in town, Venuti’s, it’s s’posed to be—“
“Johnny, if you…don’t mind, let me take you to the…St. Francis. They have a Grill Room there that’s…most conducive. And the food is…excellent. Let this old fella treat you to a little of the…real San Francisco.”
DISSOLVE TO: INT. DINING ROOM -DAY
The St. Francis on Powell street was one of SF’s classic hotels, dating from the days just after the heyday of the Barbary Coast. The dining room featured solid cutlery and a two-story ceiling, one of those hushed bastions of good taste where they wheel the roast beef trolley from table to table. The trolley’s casters make a soothing sound as it glides re-assuringly about the room like a Spanish galleon.
I got there a little before six, and was at my place when Grant appeared at the entrance. The maitre d’ smiled his recognition and indicated our table.
I watched Grant approach, walking slowly, with a slight shuffle, as if maybe he’d had a stroke. No, I thought, he’s just old. He wore a brown three-piece suit with a watch-fob in the side pocket. As he approached, he extended his hand. I rose and took it.
“I can’t get over how gracious you’re being,” he began. “Coming all this way.”
“Well, Grant, I think I told you, I’m here doing a job for the Boeing people, but I wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass without seeing you.’
“Tell me what it is precisely you’re doing—“
“Well, you know what an industrial show is?”
“Please excuse me, Johnny, I’m afraid I don’t.”
At that moment my heart went out to him. I felt a wave of empathy and compassion for this obviously sweet and humble man –a leader in his field, neurology- who was apologizing to me for not knowing what a stupid trade show was.
I explained, adding that this job was unusual in that it required me and Margery to train the Boeing employees in singing and dancing.
“She’s the choreographer. She’s a hot-looking redhead, and she’s good, she works quickly, but I have to laugh: she’s lost it a coupla times with these guys, got impatient with them. And this after telling me how balanced and level her life has become since her EST training.”
Again I explained, pausing to order. I took the striped bass with capers and lemon butter and Grant had the roast beef (with Yorkshire Brioche). A momentary silence fell between us as Grant gazed at his plate, pensively. I wondered what he might be feeling.
“How’s it going,” I ventured. “Without Jane?”
“Johnny, it’s kind of you to ask. I was in immense pain for about six months.
Sleep was hard for me, I had to resort to Valium at night, just to keep me level. Thank god I didn’t become dependent. But, you know, with time…” He gave a smile that covered his emotion. “It’s true what they say. It’s a cliché but it’s true.”
“Time does heal everything.”
I thought of the Jerry Herman song: Time heals everything/Tuesday, Thursday—
Grant insisted on paying the check. I fought him, but he insisted.
As we left the dining room, he paused to retrieve his coat. Bundled up in a silk scarf, he looked as though he were prepared for a walk through the snow in Central Park. I was in a sport jacket, no coat. It was about sixty-two degrees outside.
“Grant, is it really that cold?” He simply smiled.
“Where are you going now?” he inquired. I checked my watch. It was all of seven-twenty.
“Well, I’m meeting Margery. There’s a performance at the hotel. You know who Edie Adams is?”
“I’ve heard of her. Wasn’t she married to that comedian?”
“Ernie Kovacs, yes. Well, she’s doing her nightclub act in the show-room at our hotel. We’re at the Hyatt Embarcadero.” A brightness came to Grant’s eyes, he looked suddenly eager.
“Grant,” I said, noticing this, “would you like to come? I think you’d enjoy meeting Margery…and Edie Adams can be quite entertaining.”
“I’d like that…very much.” said Grant.
“Great!” I said, and I meant it. It was impossible not to respond to this man’s gallantry. Anything I could do to promote his well-being I was eager to do.
I thought how pleased my mother would be. “Let’s get a cab—“
“Oh, Johnny, not necessary. I’ll drive us.” he said. “I’m in the garage around the corner.”
I followed him to the garage. I couldn’t help noticing again the slight shuffle in his walk. He paid the man in the booth…and then began trudging up the incline to the second level. “Grant,” I called after him, “the guy will bring it down for you –where are you going?”
He was proceeding at a slow, steady pace, about to follow the curve to level three. I hurried to his side. “Do you always get your own car?” I asked him.
He nodded, pausing momentarily for breath. “Oh, yes. Always.”
We climbed in silence for a couple of minutes and when we reached level four Grant’s step seemed to quicken. He stopped by the row on his left, about a third of the way down and drew a key from his coat pocket. He applied the key to the door of a forest-green sedan.
My eyes widened. “Wait a minute,” I said. “This is your car?”
Grant looked at me with a quizzical smile. “Oh yes. Jane used to call this car my baby.”
The car was a Ferrari XK20, the most magnificent-looking vehicle I’d ever seen in the flesh. I mean, you see photos from auto shows of Aston-Martins and Porsches, etc. but here was the real thing: racy, virile and sleek, like a thoroughbred horse, it sat in its space, simply shimmering with class.
The wheels, with their chrome spokes, looked like sunbursts. And inside, I could almost feel the rich beige of the leather interior. Even the hood ornament spoke of luxury and elegance. It was a XXX.
The disconnect was too wide: it was almost impossible to put the image of this machine together with the picture I’d formed in my mind of Grant: conservative, soft-spoken, aging, nearly doddering.
“Wow,” I murmured, “I’ve never driven a car like this.”
Grant’s face lit up. “Would you like to take a turn behind the wheel?” he asked me.
Talk about ambivalence: my heart leaped at this opportunity -yet simultaneously I had a tremendous terror of the responsibility: what if I had an accident, or scratched the paint?
But Grant was grinning, pleased to be able to offer something to the thoughtful boy who’d come all this way to visit him. “Just let me get her downstairs, Johnny, these curves can be tricky.”
I sat beside him as he keyed the ignition, slid into first gear, then second –it was, of course, a manual transmission- and guided the car three floors down to street level. I saw now why he didn’t want any careless attendants handling his exquisite car.
He pulled parallel to the garage, opened his door and got out.
“Please,” he said, making a courtly gesture, as if ushering me into the presence of royalty…which, in effect, he was.
Feeling that intense mix of trepidation and exhilaration, I slipped into the seat. It felt as if my buttocks were being caressed by five gentle, satin hands. Staring at the dashboard, I hardly knew where to begin, it looked like what you’d find in the cockpit of an airliner, a dismaying array of dials and gauges.
“Just be sure the tachometer doesn’t go beyond sixty revs,” Grant told me.
What? I wondered. Tachometer? Sixty revs? What the fuck is he talking about?
“Oh, I won’t. I mean, I will.” With the car still in Neutral, where Grant had left it, I put my foot gingerly on the accelerator, simply to test the response.
At the slightest pressure, the engine gave a giant, purring hum of power. Wow.
I stepped on the clutch, gradually released it, and pressed very lightly on the accelerator. then I moved the shift into first gear. Thank you, Pop, for teaching me how to drive a shift car all those years ago.
The Ferrari moved forward with a slight lurch and I cursed myself for not correctly coordinating the clutch and the accelerator, but Grant only smiled, offering no comment, which was so tactful of him.
I headed towards the waterfront. Of course this would have to be San Francisco, city of hills and inclines, necessitating much attention paid to downshifting. I felt the sweat start gathering in my armpits.
Dividing my glance rapidly between the road and the dashboard, I finally saw the dial that read TACH and figured this must be the needle I needed to keep below sixty. Sure enough, the gauge was calibrated from ten to one hundred twenty, and seemed to be dependent on the acceleration.
I pulled the Ferrari carefully into an outdoor parking lot, touched the lock button, got out and locked the door again, manually, careful not to scratch the finish with the key.
Returning his key, I escorted Grant –at his restrained pace- across the cindery parking area and into the brightly lit lobby of the Hyatt Embarcadero.
The sight of Margery’s flaming red hair hit me immediately as we walked in.
She was sitting by the bubble elevator that climbed the interior of the building, and she rose to greet us.
“Hi. Margery, this is my very good friend Grant Levin. Margery Sinclair.”
Margery smiled at Grant and, as she took his hand, I saw in her smile the always alive, tacit awareness of the fact that this was a man, a bit older, yes, but a man all the same.
Grant was, in fact, nice-looking, slim, with even features. It was easy to imagine he’d been rather attractive in his day. His soft-spoken manner was very appealing.
“Grant’s going to join us, I thought he might get a kick out of Edie.”
“Isn’t that nice.” Margery actually took Grant’s arm as we led him into the show-room, and I saw Grant break into a smile. It was probably the first female attention he’d received all year.
Margery and I put Grant in the middle and we sat enjoying Edie Adams.
Edie was very amusing doing impressions of people like Abbe Lane, Marylin Monroe and, of course, Mae West: “Why doncha pick me up and smoke me sometime?” Edie had been the spokesperson for a cigar company, Muriel cigars, and in the TV commercial she’d mimicked Mae West. I glanced at Grant every so often, and saw he was having a good time. It wasn’t the show so much, he was simply stimulated to be out in the world again. Watching him, I realized how deeply the loss of his wife had affected him.
After the show, Margery accompanied us to the parking lot. She didn’t have to do that, she could easily have said Goodnight in the lobby. I wondered if…
But no. I knew Margery had to be up tomorrow by eight AM, as did I, to do the show. And yet…
“My goodness, is this yours?” Margery said as we paused by the Ferrari.
She was experiencing the same disconnect I had: this car and Grant just didn’t seem to go together.
Grant smiled absently. He was fiddling with the door-lock. “Johnny,” he said, “when you got out of the car, did you press the lock button?”
“The black one or the green one?”
My heart suddenly thudded into my shoes. “I –I didn’t even look—“
“Because if you pressed the green one…you’ve locked me out of my car.”
Oh, Christ, I thought, wait’ll mom hears this. The poor guy treats me to an expensive dinner, lets me drive his elegant Ferrari around the hills of San Francisco, and I lock him out of his own car.
Both Grant and Margery were staring at me. “Christ, Grant,’ I began, and was immediately sorry for using the word, which to him I’m sure was blasphemous, “I didn’t even realize there were two lock buttons—“
“Could Triple A help?” Margery asked.
“No, there’s a special code you have to program. Nobody has it but me, except it’s at home.” His shoulders slumped. “I’ll have to take a cab.” He sighed. “I’ll get my mechanic down here in the morning.”
There was a moment’s pause. “You know,” Margery began, “there’s an extra bed in my room. “ She winked at him in the half light. “I’d promise to be a good girl…whatever that means.”
I smiled to myself. Wouldn’t this be a terrific story for Mom: After a year of grief and abstinence, I got Grant laid.
But Grant was too old a dog to go for this new trick. We took him back to the Hyatt and called a cab. I watched as he gave Margery a chaste goodnight kiss.
Then he turned to me. “Johnny, I want to thank you again—“ he began.
“Grant, I feel just awful about your car.” He put out a restraining hand.
“Please don’t worry about it, I’ll bring my man down tomorrow.”
He got into the cab and was gone.
Margery and I rode up in the bubble elevator together, each silent, thinking our own thoughts. Margery was probably thinking, I guess I scared him off.
And me, I was thinking, What a kick mom will get out of hearing this.