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The great escape

For years, my favorite coffee shop was Alice’s (previously named Betty’s, before that Bernie’s, and it’s now Cape Air).

As far as I was concerned, it had everything going for it.

The coffee was La Touraine’s highest octane — a sure way to either jump-start your heart (or send it into arrhythmia). It was served in heavy bone china cups by my favorite waitress, Helen Bishop.

Helen was already retired when Alice asked her if she wanted to be a waitress, and she figured she’d give it a try. She was excellent — personable, fun and as bright as a new penny. She was very low-key but never missed a thing. Sadly, she retired in her ninth decade because the arthritis in her hands became too painful.

I always sat in one of the booths, which were huge, comfortable and an ideal place to go over my lessons before I headed out for the trenches of academe.

The booths were also the perfect observation post from which I could check out the goings-on of The Boys, who sat at the counter on the other side of the room.

Helen had given The Boys their label, more out of affection than any chronometric accuracy: Not a one of them was on the right side of 70. Among the diehard regulars were Ed Worthington, a Lewis brother or two, Red Wilcox, Jug Hayes, Jim Gragg and Frank Gauthier. I never joined them, but I liked them all and visited with them when we ran into each other elsewhere. However, in Alice’s they had their territory staked out.

One day a new guy joined the group. I’d never seen him before, so I assumed he was new in town, which he was. But he fit the demographic of the group, except for one thing: While he gabbed along with them, he was downright unfriendly to me.

It couldn’t have been due to anything I did because he was like that right off the bat. The first time I saw him, I said hello, and not only didn’t he reply, but he gave a dirty look besides.

I thought maybe I was overreacting, but it happened the next time, and the time after that as well. So then, whenever our paths crossed, I just ignored him, as if he didn’t even exist. What the hey — I wasn’t running for local office, nor was I desperate for approval from some old poop, so sod him.

When NOT seeing is believing

A month or so after he first appeared, I was talking to someone on Berkeley Square when I saw the old poop across the street.

“You know who that guy is?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “His name is _______.”

(I’ll refer to him as X)

“So what’s his story?” I asked.

“From what I’ve heard, he’s amazing,” he said. “He’s done darn near everything and been darn near everywhere.”

Immediately my curiosity was piqued … and peaked.

There are people who truly have been around, have accomplished amazing things and have known all sorts of luminaries. But here’s the thing: They never talked about their exploits and never self-promoted. To a man, talking about themselves in glowing terms was considered bad form, something no one right-minded would do.

Some examples: One of my friends was a college two-sport All-American, but he never mentioned it. Then there was a man I knew for 30 years who’d flown with Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers in China, but I didn’t know it till I read his obit. My friend Ed Woodward was an Annapolis grad who’d been in submarines in China in the ’30s and in World War II was a commodore who commanded a nine-destroyer flotilla, without losing one. And while he’d answer my questions about what he’d done, he rarely offered it on his own. And when he did, it was always in a diffident or offhanded way.

Likewise, to me the greatest philanthropists aren’t folks who give the most money, but those who give what they can and don’t need to see their name cast in bronze for it.

So I automatically suspected that X was a phonus balonus. And the more I heard, the more my suspicion was confirmed. The simple fact was if he’d done half the things he’d said, he would’ve been at least 200 years old and able to occupy three places at the same time.

But none of that mattered since we never acknowledged each other … till one day I was no longer blessed, and he started talking to me.

I think it was prompted by him finding out I wrote for the paper and would thus be honored to immortalize him in print. Certainly, he had no interest in me as a person since he talked nonstop, and only about himself. It was fine with me because after hearing enough about how he turned the tide at the Battle of San Jacinto or pulled survivors from the flaming wreckage of the Hindenburg, I’d interrupt, tell him I had something to do, and put an end to his diatribe.

Grace under pressure

I never actually listened to what he said since I figured it was pure bumpf, but one time he actually drew me in.

He stopped me on my way out of Alice’s.

“I understand you do magic,” he said.

“That’s right,” I said.

“You know much about Houdini?” he said.

“Some,” I said.

Actually, I’d understated that, by a long shot. As a magician and history buff, I knew a lot about Houdini. Over the years I’d read everything I could get my mitts on: in books, magazines, magic organizations’ pubs — you name it.

Houdini is a riveting figure for every magician. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t a magician but an escapologist, and the greatest one ever. He was a stellar performer and the world’s foremost lock picker. He also was brilliant with publicity, doing all kinds of apparently death-defying public escapes that drew thousands of spectators … and dozens of reporters. This is why, almost 100 years after his death, you know his name but know none of his contemporaries’, even though they were equally famous then as he.

“You know about his packing crate escape in the East River?” he said.

“I do,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “I was there, and I SAW it.”

“Really?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “It was amazing. The river was completely frozen over, so they had to chop a hole in the ice. Then they put him in handcuffs and leg irons, he got in the crate, and they nailed it shut and threw it in the hole in the ice.”

He paused for impact and then went on.

“The crate disappeared, and we were sure he was dead. But a couple minutes later, he came back up through the hole. Turned out, when he got out of the crate, the river had carried him past the hole. But he found air pockets just under the ice, and that’s what saved him. It was unbelievable.”

And it was unbelievable, literally, because it never happened.

Yes, Houdini had done packing crate escapes like that. But NEVER through a hole in the ice. He was an amazing athlete and a great escapologist, but he was neither a daredevil nor a man with a death wish.

So where did that bit about going through the hole in the ice and the air pockets come from? Simple. From the 1953 Tony Curtis movie “Houdini.” All those details were in the movie. Beyond that, Houdini himself wrote about an escape like that he supposedly did in Detroit. He even went so far as to claim the river had frozen overnight and was 7 inches thick in the morning. While Houdini did do escapes in rivers in cold weather, even when it snowed, he never did it under ice, because if he had, his career would’ve been summarily, and icily, curtailed.

And now X was telling me it had not only happened but that he saw it happen.

What to do?

Well, I could’ve confronted him with the facts and given him authoritative proof he was wrong, wrong wrong.

And what purpose would that have served? Just this — not a damned one.

So I did the only thing I thought was right.

“Yeah,” I said, escaping any awkwardness on either of our behalfs, “I’ve read that in a bunch of places.”

Hey, if the occasion demands, I can be as gracious as the next guy — just as long as the occasions are few and far between.

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