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The closest call

Last Saturday My Home Town acquitted itself admirably in the field of ethnic celebration. I am referring, of course, to our St. Patrick’s Day parade.

There’d be no doubt I’d be there. When any group of my fellow local yokels decides to organize and execute an activity, and are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, you can be sure I’ll support it. This was especially true of the St. Pat’s parade, since it began at the very civilized hour of 1 pm. If they’d had the parade at some barbaric time – say, eleven in the morn – I might attend, but it’d be under protest.

As for the parade itself? Well, it’s got a way to go before it’s competing with NYC, Boston or Chicago. But it sure has come a long way since the first one four years ago. All in all, it was a joyful and entertaining time, the low temp and dusting of snow simply adding the Celtic equivalent of je ne sais quoi.

I’ve never been a big St. Patty’s party animal – you know, those guys with shamrock-painted faces, huge cartoony hats, drinking green beer at 0800. But I like the spirit of it. Besides that, every St. Pat’s day since 1973 I’ve indulged in an unbroken ritual. I call my friend Will Kendrick and wish him the best.

Not going with the flow

Willy’s friendship is one of my longest and dearest. We became close friends our last year in college, in 1968, and have stayed such ever since. Over the years, since we’ve rarely lived near each other, our visits aren’t as frequent as they could, or should, be. Regardless of where we are, or anything else, come St. Pat’s Day, I’ll call him.

It’s not some flukey habit; in fact, it’s about the most logical thing on earth.

When I was a kid, family ethnicity was either wholly ignored or downright taboo. Everyone wanted to be a real American, whatever that meant, and so they did their best to disguise the fact their families had foreign origins. No one had “foreign-sounding” names; family names were Americanized or simply changed completely. Native costumes and customs were packed away in attics, literal or figurative.

But none of this applied to Willy. All four of his grandparents had emigrated from Ireland, as adults. One of his grandmothers’ first language was Irish; his family played Irish music, read Irish literature, and talked about Irish history. So, naturally, Willy grew up with a strong Irish-American identity. And thus my making sure that no matter how little we were in touch during the year, I call him on St. Patrick’s Day.

While making the calls is special, the calls themselves aren’t. Just catching up, chit-chat, Old Home Week reminiscences, and the like. However, one call is permanently emblazoned in my memory, not for its content, but for its circumstances,

Oh, them changes …

It was a St. Patrick’s Day in the early ’80s and I was flying from Montreal to Florida to spend spring vacation with my fam. When I checked in at the ticket counter, I found out that due to storms around Atlanta, my flight was being rerouted through Chicago and I’d arrive in Florida much later than originally planned. No biggie. I called my bro and told him I’d be late, and in the meantime I had plenty to read. But there was one nagging detail — my call to Willy.

While Willy was at work, I’d be either in Montreal or in the air, so the only time I could call was when I was in Chicago. But with the change of plans came a change of layover time I’d have a mere 40 minutes to catch my next flight. Forty minutes, in theory, is plenty of time to change planes. In reality, it’s something else.

For one thing, takeoff can be delayed. For another, flights can be slower. Beyond that, landing time is one thing; how long after you land that you deplane is something else. Due to one thing or another, I’ve spent 30 minutes on the tarmac, on my way to the terminal.

And sure enough, when we landed in Chicago, the captain announced that something at our arrival gate had gone awry, it’d take a wee bit longer to get there, and he greatly appreciated our patience and blah blah blah.

Patience, hell!

I had no patience at all. But since I also had no choice, I did my best Buddha imitation (which, I confess, wasn’t very good at all).

Finally, we arrived at the gate … a mere 20 minutes late.

Of course, my seat was at the far back of the plane. If it’d been any farther back, I would’ve been riding in the crapper. So I was standing there, helpless, waiting for the plane to empty, which it seemed to be doing at a glacial pace.

Finally, daylight!

Rushin’

I was off the plane and in the terminal and now had to get to the next gate. I checked the monitors. I’d arrived at Gate 5, my connecting flight left from Gate 125.

It wasn’t as bad as it seems. Back then I was in the peak of my marathon-running shape, sprinting from one end of an airport terminal to the other was one thing I knew I could do.

I bolted down the corridor, dodging this man, that woman, those children and flew by the gates.

Gate 20 … Gate 40 … Gate 60 …

I was running flat out, but wasn’t even slightly winded — nor would I be.

Gate 80 … Gate 100 … Gate 120 …

As I screeched to a halt in front of Gate 125, I saw the last passenger board. The agent then announced boarding was over and the gate was about to close.

“About to.” Those were key words. They meant I still had time.

I grabbed a bunch of change that I’d been smart enough to stash in my pocket before I left home and ran to the bay of pay phones across from the gate.

(Quick note: To anyone under 30, you have to realize people once lived in a world without cell phones).

I punched in Willy’s number and the operator came on, telling me to put in $2.50 for the first three minutes.

As I dropped in the coins, I looked over at the gate. The attendant was still there, not looking like she was packing up just yet.

The phone rang. And rang again. And again. And suddenly Willy picked up and said hello.

The attendant announced something about the gate closing. I didn’t know what exactly that was, but I had a good idea.

“Willy,” I shouted so loudly I shocked myself, “Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!” and hung up.

Then I rushed over to the gate and handed my boarding pass to the attendant.

All she said was, “Close.”

In no position to argue, I nodded and tried to look like a pleasant dumbass, just a marginal kinda guy doing the best he could in his constant (and losing) struggle with a confusing cosmos.

She did something with my boarding pass, handed it back to me, and I ran down boarding ramp to the plane.

The stewardess there checked my pass and also said, “Close.” Apparently, there was a lot of that going around.

I made it to my seat and just sat there, breathing deeply and slowly, waiting for my pulse and blood pressure to return to normal. When they did, and after the last quart of adrenaline had evaporated, I was overcome by a great sense of calm and clarity.

And when I did, it dawned on me that I’d just paid $2.50 for a five second phone call.

Suddenly, one of Hamlet’s famous lines popped in my head: “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Which in my case was perfectly fitting.

One way of looking at that call was Ma Bell’s profit margin was a total ripoff.

The other way to look at it — and the one I chose — was paying 50 cents a second to wish my dear friend a happy St. Pat’s Day was The Bargain of the Century.

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