Saturday morning: my usual routine–swim, change cat litter, town dump, dry cleaner, coffee–is brightened today by festivities on the lovely greensward that graces the center of our town, like so many others in New England. I don’t mean our greensward travels around to other towns, they have their own; ours stays right where it is.
“*sniff* I just love that old money smell!”
The occasion? The annual antique car show, organized by the old codgers who only leave their estates to go to their summer homes in quaint towns on Cape Cod (where there are also antique car shows, so they don’t miss a beat) or to come to Town Meeting to vote against the bond issue for the new fire truck. The one we have is perfectly fine–it’s only forty years old!
You know how it is; you make your first ten million and you’re suddenly seized by the impulse–perhaps for the first time in your life–to give something back. To yourself! All that self-denial and delayed gratification gets to be tiresome after sixty or seventy years.
I pull into a parking space near town hall and survey the scene. There’s something for everybody here today. For descendants of families that came over on the Mayflower who’ve been lovingly maintaining the automotive heirloom with the single digit license plate issued to an ancestor by Cotton Mather when revenues from witch-burnings dried up, there’s a Stutz Bearcat. For those with more whimsical tastes, there are “woodies,” station wagons with real wood panels, not the fake kind. For the parvenus, les nouveau riche, there are Jaguar XKE’s from the ’60′s. It’s a car lover’s dream, even for a guy like me who thinks of cars as appliances on wheels.
“Hey you can’t park there!” I hear somebody yell, and I look up from my reverie.
“Why not?” I ask, all ingenous flip-flopped boy with cheeks of tan.
“That space is for cars that are entered in the competition.”
I size the guy up. I figure him to be the scion of one of those old Boston Brahmin families whose name used to be part of some money management firm–White, Weld, Smith, Barney, Upham, Felton, Shore & Bladda-Bladda–but they got squeezed off the letterhead by a merger or an attempt at re-branding. I think I can take him.
“What makes you think I’m not going to enter?” I say with a cocky air.
It’s his turn to look me over, like a butterfly pinned to a specimen box. “A 2002 Toyota Highlander?” he snorts. “Please–don’t make me laugh.”
I’m third from the bottom, right hand row.
He’s got me on a technicality. I check the program, and I see there’s no 21st Century Japanese division, so I’m going to have to fake it.
“This baby’s a classic,” I say, extending my arm in a gesture of display the way the models do at car shows. “V-6 or V-4, I forget. Plush leather interior. Six CD-changer. It’s cherry.”
Car-show girl: Probably not cherry.
“Cherry? What’s that mean?” the guy asks. I guess he’s so old he’s forgotten some of the cool slang adolescent males have handed down since time immemorial.
“Virginal. Clean. Low-mileage, one-owner. It’s hymen’s never been penetrated.”
The guy snorts again–must be allergies–and points to the hatchback. “Then what are all those boxes and crates?”
“Those? Oh–those are for recycling.”
Another snort–I offer him a Kleenex but he declines. “What’s the point?” he asks, and I have to admit he’s got a point. When I first fed deposit bottles into one of those automatic recycling machines and heard them get crunched up into a million pieces, my childhood illusion that there was some big room where they washed the bottles and returned them to the vending machines was shattered, along with the bottles.
Your local recycling center: A great place to meet earthy babes!
“It’s sort of my religion,” I say.
“Religion? Please–religion is that over there” he says pointing to the Unitarian Universalist Church across the green where, as the old joke goes, the last time they heard the words “Jesus Christ” was when the janitor fell down the stairs.
“I disagree,” I say. “I’ve been recycling since 1972, on the South Side of Chicago. I moved on to the western suburbs of Boston, down the street from where Larry Bird lived. I graduated to the Town Dump in Wellesley, Mass.–to my knowledge, the only dump that’s ever been featured on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. And I just came back from our quaint little town dump–it’s not Wellesley, but it’s ours.”
“Why do you say it’s a religion?”
“Because I do it out of faith, with no demonstrable evidence that it has any actual effect on my life, just because it makes me feel–better.”
“But it doesn’t involve God.”
“It’s got Gaia, primordial earth goddess of ancient Greek religion.”
“She’s not the God.”
“Dude,” I say, draping my arm around his shoulder. “Monotheism is way overrated.”
“Sure it is. You want to have a little competiton among vendors in your godhead shopping. I went to your little church one time, when our kids were young.”
“The sermon was ‘Why Timothy McVeigh is in Heaven Today.’”
He looked at me like I’d come to his daughter’s wedding with my shirt was untucked. Which it was.
“Well, I’m . . . uh . . . sure there was some deeper meaning . . .”
“Bullhockey!” I snapped, unleashing the full force of my extensive vocabulary of non-obscene curse words at him. “You know your fellow parishioners–they’re out there every sunny Saturday with their anti-war/anti-nuke signs. You know they had a sermon of love for the 9/11 highjackers. And I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that tomorrow’s sermon will be “Why the Norway Shooter Isn’t Such a Bad Guy.”
The look on his face appeared to concede that I might–just might–be right, even though I went to the wrong schools and grew up in the wrong part of the country and didn’t have a crocodile on my shirt.
“So you recommend . . .”
“Polytheism, jack. If you don’t like what your god’s puttin’ down, you can shop around. Try Gaia, or Shiva the Destroyer. You want a god who’s willing to kick some fuc–”
He cut me off–we still have a blasphemy law on the books here in Massachusetts.
Shiva, one kick-ass divinity.
“Okay, maybe I’ll give it a whirl. Say–are there any books I could read to sort of, you know, learn a little more about the vengeful gods they didn’t teach us about in Sunday School?”
“I’d start with H.L. Mencken’s ‘Treatise on the Gods.’ He compiled a catalog of more crazy-ass divinities than you can shake a stick at.”
The old guy seemed geniunely grateful. “Thanks,” he said, “thanks a lot.”
We shook hands and turned to part when he stopped me. “Say–you don’t really expect to win a prize up against all these old-money classics in mint condition, do you?”
“With my Lord and Master Zoroaster,” I said, “anything is possible.”