Fifteen minutes later we were heading back home in Judy Blue Eyes’ baby blue VW Superbeetle that she’d affectionately named Pookie. How she ever persuaded her Cadillac-totin’ daddy to buy her a ‘death trap made by goddamned furriners’ I’ll never know.
I still vividly remember the first and only time I met Daddy Blue Eyes. I spent a long hour one afternoon dining with Mr. Riggs—first name Mister, of course—and the esteemed Missus, who had ‘just dropped by’ from Midland or Odessa or one of those other dusty humorless places that pass for civilization out in West Texas. A town where a hundred years ago there was nothing there but a general store—probably owned by Mr. Riggs’ great grandfather—that sold hard goods at whatever price they could get away with, and a saloon that took care of everything else: feeding your horse, cutting your hair, sloshing you down with cheap whiskey to make you forget the endless hours of eating the dust and smelling the farts of about a zillion head of cattle taking their own sweet time getting from one saloon to another, and selling you brief, furtive sex because there was no other way to get laid out where you were.
Mr. Riggs was loud and red-faced as he drank martinis and ate a well-done Porterhouse and railed against everything that wasn’t ‘Merican. He called the Mexicans that cut his grass and washed his floors and loved his kids along with dressing them in the mornings ‘Geeks.’ I remember how proud he was of that one: “Gooks and geeks are taking over the world,” he proclaimed.” Goddamn gooks and geeks.” Mrs. Riggs would put her hand on his arm and say, “Now Henry, don’t swear in front of the kids” and smile charmingly. Finally I got a little fed up with it all and my fake smile began peeling around the edges of my mouth and I started baiting him. “Probably shouldn’t have even let those greasy Mexicans go to Viet-Nam, Sir. I’ll bet half our casualties over there were from them allying with those fucking slant-eyes—excuse me, Mrs. Riggs, sometimes I lose my head when I get emotional about something—and at night when they were infiltrating our perimeter from the outside, the eef’ing Mexicans snuck up from the inside and cut the throats of all our boys except maybe sometimes they let the niggers live. But if we didn’t let them in the army, then more of our ‘Merican boys would have gotten drafted and killed and then the geeks would have taken over here. Really a conundrum, Sir, don’t you think?” And, “Do you know the real difference between our country and the godless commies, Sir? Communism is a system where man exploits man, where under capitalism it’s the other way around,” and so on until he finally caught on that I was mocking him and got so mad that he called for the check and left half of a perfectly-good ‘Merican martini (made from British gin, but I guess the Brits are almost as good as we ‘Mericans) sitting there and didn’t speak another word all the way back. I’m sure the only reason Judy Blue Eyes was still dating me was that her father demanded she never go near me ever again and she told him to stuff it. Whatever faults Judy Blue Eyes may have had, lack of courage in the face of her father’s ultimatums certainly wasn’t one of them.
But back to that life-changing Saturday. A couple of minutes’ ride and we were back at my apartment. On a day with ol’ Spring doing her thing to Mother Earth we could have walked to Westheimer to start with, but we’d needed to be prepared to carry home those weighty treasures we weren’t going to buy but what if? Then a little light kissy face, interspersed with apologies and that’s-OKs. ‘Sorry we had to cut the day short . . . that’s OK, I’d pretty much had enough for today’ and ‘We didn’t buy any presents and it’s less than two weeks until our birthdays. You want to go back tomorrow? . . . Gee, Judy Blue Eyes, I’m probably gonna have to study. Maybe next weekend.” You can write the script as well as I can—you’ve all made such excuses in socially acceptable ways.
Finally her little VW was putting off down the street without me having committed to entering a junk shop the next day. As soon as her car was safely out of sight, I unlocked my bike and headed for The Boomer’s apartment.
Not only was The Boomer my best friend, but he’s the best friend I’ve ever had. The Army definition of a good friend is someone who, if he has a pass and you don’t, will go to town and get two blow jobs, then come home and give you one of them. But The Boomer one-ups that: he’s such a good friend that if you and he were at Al’s with a bunch of the guys, drinking and watching Monday Night Football and hanging shit on each other, and he knew that you had an anatomically-correct inflatable doll named Candy (or a subconscious named The Marquis), it would never cross his mind to mention it.
Cementing our friendship was that neither of us was driven by an ambition to succeed (but mama, look at us now!). I’d never been able to respect anyone from our generation who valued success, particularly as measured by dollars. I mean, I’m a tolerant person for the most part. I recognize that there are differences in upbringing that could explain someone thirsting to succeed—like maybe he had to walk five miles to school through driving snowstorms every day and eat pinto beans six nights a week and all that stuff. I don’t even hold it against my parents’ generation (like many of my peers did, I’m a little ashamed to admit), living through wars and depressions and famine and pestilence or whatever those four horsemen are, for measuring the meaning of life by the size of their estates when they died. But I couldn’t help but feel, deep down inside (in the same place that Mr. Riggs believed people with dark skin just couldn’t be as important as white people), that anyone who lived through the ‘60s and still can’t see through that crap—and somehow manage to rise above it—was mentally and morally deficient.
Fortunately, no one ever accused The Boomer of the cardinal sin of ambition. He tended toward sloth for the same reason I did: he knew, deep down in his Mr. Riggs’ place, that the American Myth of life rewarding hard work was horse hockey. That added to his give-a-shit, take-it-as-it-comes approach to life that made him such a joy to be around.
In addition, while we were both eccentric aplenty, albeit in completely different ways, we each lived those eccentricities for ourselves and never tried to push them on others. I am eccentric by choice to define myself, and not because I believe the world would be a better place if somehow I could just make everyone else see what happier lives they could live if they drank two cups of Ginseng tea a day, never wore jewelry made from ivory, and always fastened their seat belts. I just don’t see the value in everybody being me. Holy shit, what a zoo within an asylum that would be.
But having said all that, it’s hard to imagine best friends less alike than The Boomer and I. He was an electrical-mechanical double engineering major, with a brilliant mind for mathematics, while my understanding of the universe around us was pretty much qualitative and certainly not described by formulae requiring math higher than geometry. On the other hand, the last poem he’d read was when they printed the words to Gotta Sink the Bismarck in Life. Instead, the Boomer was a television junkie. In the absence of an obsession to create/solve/design/engineer, he would probably have spent sixteen hours a day spaced out in front of the tube. He loved best those old movies where the actress picks up the phone, dials three digits, and is connected on the first ring with a man wearing a hat and talking out the corner of his mouth while smoking a cigarette.
And man was he a CONSUMER. I’ve seen him eat a ten-piece bucket of The Colonel’s finest fried chicken, wash it down with a six-pack of Bud, let out a mighty belch, open another beer, and take everybody out for ice cream. Already large at eighteen, the years of collegiate abuse added a noble girth to his frame and gave him a heartiness that he didn’t have when he played a reluctant offensive tackle in high school.
Another big difference between us is that The Boomer desperately wanted—or needed—to believe in a cosmic intelligence, or at least a sense of unity and purpose. Trouble was, the death grip that the scientific method had on his brain gave him fits every time he allowed himself such a luxury. So he read his horoscope every day and constructed computer models to demonstrate how the stars and planets could actually influence human affairs. I’ve seen the look of disbelief bordering on terror in the eyes of the computer freaks who thought they had a monopoly on the campus mainframe in the middle the night when he dropped in to submit a run. (If you can imagine, back in those days computer programs were entered via punch cards, and his took up three boxes). But he had a priority access code, along with a letter of authorization explaining that he was running top secret atomic modeling for the AEC, so all they could do was warn the other drudges working on projects at 3 am that turnaround time was about to go to shit (today you could do all those calculations on your laptop in seconds).
Nor was astrology his only venture into the realm of the metaphysical. The Boomer owned—and had actually read—every book ever written on ghosts. He’d collected a dozen binders full of notes and cross references, correspondence with eyewitnesses, and photographs of everything from tombstones to fuzzy sheet-looking blurs. His investigations into the existence of spirits made my thesis, “Louis XIV’s Son: A Critical Evaluation of His Lost Potential as King of France,” look like a high school term paper, and it wasn’t even for credit. I’d tried to talk him into giving up whatever he was researching in electrical-mechanical engineering and publish a dissertation on ghosts, but he adamantly insisted that once you started selling your hobbies you were officially a prostitute, regardless of your profession.
If The Boomer hadn’t been so weird in all of those non-scientific ways, I probably wouldn’t have gone running to him to tell my tale of why easy-come, easy-go Bradley Schuster, believer in nothing more ethereal than the lingering odor of beer in an empty can, desperately needed fifty bucks to buy a goblet from a junk shop because I somehow knew it was ‘different.’ Now that a little time had passed, I had to admit that the story sounded like the lunatic ravings of a man who’s been in a full body cast unable to scratch his balls for a month. And no amount of rational explanation was going to give it credence. But The Boomer would want to believe. He’d hand me the money, then go over there with me to see for himself.
Plus I knew he’d have the cash, perhaps the greatest major difference between The Boomer and me. Not just that he had money and I didn’t—even Judy Blue Eyes had money and I didn’t—but he had this weird affliction known in the business world as a ‘marketable skill.’ Which as near as I could tell meant that real people willingly paid him money to do things for them (as opposed to people in universities, who deal in grant money and therefore have nothing to do with the real world).
The Boomer fixed things that other people couldn’t fix. He also fixed things that other people could fix, but only for himself; he didn’t do brake jobs or unclog toilets for money. Too boring. But if your car had this aggravating habit of stalling out just as you stomped on the gas to enter the freeway and the team of factory-trained mechanics at Vandershoots Buick Oldsmobile Cadillac just scratched their heads because they’d already soaked you for about three hundred bucks without so much as scaring the problem and you were tired of the sickening sound of brakes screeching because someone was bearing down at seventy miles per hour on your car which wouldn’t move because it had stalled for the millionth time, why you just brought it to The Boomer, along with a hundred dollars in cash money, a six pack of beer better than Old Milwaukee, and any unusual tools that Detroit has made necessary to remove the whatzit. And in about twenty minutes your car would be as good as new and you’d be wondering why you ever wasted your time with Vandershoots. Except The Boomer wouldn’t work something unless what he called ‘The Factory Trained Idiots’ hadn’t tried and failed. I remarked one time that I thought it was arrogant to insist on someone else being unsuccessful at fixing something before he would deign dirtying his hands on it (which in his case is strictly a metaphor; I’ve seen him rebuild a carburetor and then go out to dinner without washing his hands in between). He was not only highly insulted but also shocked at the dimness of my understanding. The truth was, he expounded indignantly, if some dimmer lights has already tried and failed, he could rule out all of things that they would have tried. He informed me that when he worked on his own carburetor it would likely take him four times as long to fix because he didn’t have the luxury of the idiot rule-out.
Like I said, the man is brilliant.
Occasionally, The Boomer even made house calls. Those were strictly limited to two specific instances: the device to be repaired was too large to be transported to his apartment using reasonable means (such as the telephone system at Exxon, which took him nineteen minutes and forty-three seconds to diagnose and fix), or it belonged to an attractive and reasonably available female (note that I didn’t say single; The Boomer would never have set such restrictive requirements on availability). He’d printed business cards that referred to him as “The Fix-It Wizard,” and when he made house calls he wore a wizard hat. The damned thing was about two feet tall and pointy and blue with shiny silver stars and crescent moons pasted to it. It had to be awkward as hell to work in, but he managed. House calls to broken gadgets that were too large to be transported normally cost a thousand dollars, parts not included, although he gave a discount if the problem had the potential for challenging or amusing him. House calls for available females he did on a base-fee-plus basis, with the plus negotiable. He did alright.
As if all this wasn’t enough, however, The Boomer had another source of income: a monthly check for patent royalties that stemmed from a house call to Foleys. Their escalator had broken so often that business in the second and third floors was off by seventeen percent for the year, a sum hundreds of times his fee (needless to say). The Boomer had never seen the business end of an escalator, and in the course of fixing it he found what he considered a critical safety flaw. He had just read an article in Popular Mechanics called Patents and the Garage Inventor and so he took the time to ‘follow these seven simple steps’ before he let the escalator manufacturers of the world know what kind of damages they would be liable for should the sequence of events occur that his ‘Patented Escalator Foot-Muncher Preventer’ was designed to preclude, particularly when some slick lawyer told an impressionable jury that an inexpensive device would have prevented the tragedy. As a result, he gets a cut every time an escalator is upgraded or a new one installed.
Only once that I know of did The Boomer almost get stumped on a problem. A female of the attractive persuasion had a reel-to-reel tape deck that kept malfunctioning, seemingly at random. She would take it in for repairs and when it got back it would work fine, but a few days or a month later the fast forward went backwards or the tape speed didn’t match the setting. Or sometimes the problem would go away before she even got it in for repairs. The Boomer had sunk about twenty hours into the problem (and remember, this was a fee-plus job which meant his hundred bucks was going to average less than five bucks per hour and he hadn’t gotten so much as a sniff of plus yet) and still only stumbled onto the solution by accident. The woman’s six-year-old daughter was home from school sick one day while The Boomer was there and sat quietly watching him work for about twenty minutes before she got enough courage to ask, “Watcha doin’?” When The Boomer, who couldn’t believe that any kid could sit quietly for twenty minutes and was already half in love with her huge brown eyes and lip-biting intensity, told her that he was trying to figure out why the tape deck didn’t always work right, the little girl confessed that she couldn’t always see too well when she took the motor out by flashlight at night to use in her ’speriments and sometimes wasn’t sure that she got it back together exactly right. She showed The Boomer a miniature moon crawler she’d built, powered by the tape deck’s motor, that both walked and picked up samples. The Boomer was so enchanted that he brought her a dozen motors and a huge box of miscellaneous parts and made her promise that she would marry him when she grew up. He bought her an expensive present every Christmas and birthday so that she wouldn’t forget him. He told me that he’d seen the screwdriver scratch marks but assumed The Factory-Trained Idiots had left them. But he knew he was lucky to escape with his reputation intact.
The wizard business was good enough that The Boomer never had to worry about where his next six-pack is coming from. Consequently he drank what he chose, which was usually Bud, while I bought what was on sale, generally Pearl or Buckhorn (which were strictly for cheapskates in those days). On the other hand, his inexpensive lifestyle helped his cash flow stay positive and kept him from having to work harder than he wanted to—which is to say, not hard at all. He never drank Heineken when Budweiser was available. His 1968 Ford Fairlane wasn’t new when he bought it, and although it purred like a tom cat in a feline harem, he never spent a buck on paint or body work; it wore its dings proudly like so many bronze stars and purple hearts. Most of all, he didn’t spend money on women; the plus in his fee-plus package provided him all of the physical stimulation that he seemed to need or care about. His total annual expenditures on women more than doubled when he began buying presents for his six-year-old genius girlfriend-in-training.
I got to The Boomer’s house in less time than it took for you to read about The Boomer and his fetishes (unless you’re a speed reader, in which case you’ve been outside his door for a few minutes, waiting for me to get there). Knocking once, I went on in without waiting. It being early Saturday afternoon, I was sure The Boomer was in his workshop—the other bedroom of his two-bedroom apartment—with his headphones on and Wagner loud enough so that anyone standing beside him could enjoy it too (if you can somehow figure out a way to enjoy Wagner, that is). I was heading back to find him when the object on his dining room table stopped me cold.
A Barbie doll. I looked around for clues but didn’t spot a thing. Just a bare kitchen table with old Barbie lying there, wearing a pink nightie and looking plastic as ever.
I knew better, but I picked her up anyway.
“God, you woke me up,” Barbie Doll slurred in a nasal voice.”What time is it?”
Now I may have been well above average academically, but in unexpected situations I’ve always been a little slow. Besides, there was still this residual hangover. Somebody asks you what time it is, you look at your watch, right? Which I was doing when she added in her husky voice, “You know how horny it makes me when somebody wakes me up from a nap.”
By now I’d it figured out: The Boomer had been inventing again. A better mousetrap posing as a talking doll, triggered by body heat or motion or whatever.
“Do me a favor, Brad honey. Rip me out of these ol’ plastic panties and see how wet I am for you,” Barbie Doll pleaded.
I might have done it just to see what happened next except Barbie started laughing with The Boomer’s you’ve-heard-it-once, you’ll-know-it-forever laugh and spoiled the mood. Out from the back came The Boomer carrying a briefcase with a microphone plugged into it. “Bradley Schuster, what an engineer your friend is,” The Boomer and Barbie Doll spoke in unison.”Can you imagine how much fun we’re going to have with this thing?”
So we laughed and spent a cold brew trying to top each other thinking up outrageous things for Barbie to say and another cold one thinking up other perfect places we could hide the device currently residing in her guts, which turned out to be speaker, microphone, and power supply, along with all of the amplifiers and receivers and whatever else you needed, with a range of fifty to a hundred feet from the briefcase, all no bigger than Barbie’s narrow waist (all this in the days when the brains in your cell phone would have occupied an entire three-story building).
It was good to laugh. But then I remembered why I had come.
“Boomer, I need to borrow fifty bucks. I found a fucking beat-up goblet that wants me to buy it and it costs fifty bucks and have you got time to come and see it?”
So to make a long story short, The Boomer handed me the money, just like I’d known he would. We had one more cold Bud while I told him what little of the story there was, then piled into his Fairlane and headed for Erma’s.