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THE NEW ENGLANDERS
We'll call him 'Jack,' if only because that's his real name. His is a face from my youth; when my older brother Ken had a college-summer job as steward of Norwood's Civic Center playground, Jack played on his baseball team. I don't remember him as an athlete of note during high school, but he was always there, always around, and as the years slipped away he became what we call a 'townie,' one of those faces reliably scene, usually stopping in at the old corner Guild Variety store each morning, emerging with the Boston Herald folded and tucked under his arm.
We're talking forty years now. Reliably seen in Lewis's, Norwood's main town tavern, a bucket of beer and a Lewis burger in front of him on the bar, his eyes cast up following Sports Center, then back down to his sports page. The man has never once spoken to me. And I'm thinking: what makes a guy like that? How can a guy pass me by for forty years without a word? Is this what New Englanders are really like? It all seemed a sad waste, a forlorn morsel of unlovely music, forced upon an unpleased ear.
It struck me how small town New England it was, for forty years this guy, who obviously knew who I was, had never once - not once - spoken to me, had never once asked how the kids were or how the job was going, never once sat to reminisce of things Norwood past, never once did more than look me in the eye in passing, and nod. We would always acknowledge one another with a nod.
Why wouldn't he talk to me? He knows who I am, he's seen me these last forty years walking the same streets, watching the same games, talking the same local politics. We both love sports, we both drink beer in Lewis's, we know the same people, so why wouldn't he talk to me? Does he not like me? Does he not like my brother? Does he not like my friends? Why has he never spoken to me?
Forty years later we're in the same barroom, with a few others. Ed Hickey is bartending, known him for forty years. Played with Jack on the same playground baseball team for my brother all those years ago. Jack sits seven seats away, eating, reading his newspaper. When he passes behind me to retrieve a bottle of ketchup he says, "Hey, how's it going, Don?"
"Great Jack, great, how you doin'?"
I was elated that he had spoken to me. Finally, after forty years, this Norwood relic has spoken to me, and I marveled at how truly New England Jack was, and how sad and destructive, if those aren't too harsh a description, the whole thing seemed. I was so happy he had spoken to me that when I passed behind him on my way back from the mensroom, I clapped my hand on his shoulder, saying nothing.
I sat back down. And then I laughed, my hand on my bucket of beer next to my emptied Lewis burger plate next to my opened sports page of the Boston Globe, all morphing into the revelatory truth: I'd never uttered a word to him, either.