It was a steamy Washington summer exactly four decades ago. I was working for the federal government at a scandal-plagued agency alongside a veteran bureaucrat named Fred. Fred wasn’t going any higher on the org chart, but on the other hand–because of Civil Service regulations–he was never going to be fired, no matter how assiduously he avoided work and decision-making at all costs. He had a nice life, and he knew it. As Thomas Jefferson once said of federal jobs, “Vacancies by death are few, by resignation none.”
“Z-z-z-z-z-z-z . . .”
I learned many valuable lessons from Fred. You could take a nap in the carrels in the back of the library. S-t-r-e-t-c-h every project so that you never ran out of work; if you did, they might give you some more. The Three Questions That Must be Asked Before You Ever Respond to Somebody Else’s Question: Who wants to know? What do they want to know for? When do they want an answer? Mission-critical stuff that keeps this country moving!
Most importantly, take every minute–every second–of your allotted breaks. You’re not getting paid as much as the private sector, so don’t give your time away. If we finished lunch in the basement cafeteria in a half hour, we sure as hell weren’t going back to our desks for another half hour.
It was on these occasions that Fred taught me a valuable tool of literary criticism that I use to this day. “C’mon,” he said as we headed out into the Washington humidity, “Let’s go look for the Next Great American Novelist.”
An unlikely quest, you might say, and that was exactly my thought. Washington doesn’t produce novelists the way Russia cranks out chess champs and ballerinas, because the young and the creative don’t go to D.C. to fulfill their artistic dreams; they go to New York, or Hollywood, or Nashville–anyplace but D.C. Novels about national politics tend to have brief butterfly-length life spans; they may be the bright entertainment of the season–Advice and Consent, Primary Colors, etc.–but they don’t endure, proof of the maxim that love and other elemental human interests are more important than politics.
“You think it could be him? Nah.”
“Where are you going to find the Next Great American Novelist?” I asked Fred.
“You know, that’s the amazing thing,” he replied. “It could be anywhere–a bookstore, a coffee shop. Speaking of which, let’s try this place,” he said as he stopped outside a non-chain precursor to the espresso craze that would sweep the nation in the years to come.
We approached the counter and Fred turned to say “Watch closely.”
The barista looked up and acknowledged us, although not with enthusiasm. “That’s a good sign,” Fred said sotto voce.
“Hi,” Fred said in his friendliest manner. “What’s the coffee of the day?”
“It’s a dark-roast Sumatra blend with spicy overtones,” the woman said, and not unpleasantly.
“I guess I’ll have one of those, with room for milk, thanks,” Fred said, then turned to me and asked “You want anything?”
“A large iced coffee.”
“Very good,” the woman said, and turned to her task.
“So what do you think?” Fred asked me.
“I dunno. What does making coffee have to do with writing a novel?”
“Everything–and nothing. If you don’t consider serving a fellow human being in a commercial setting to be beneath you, you probably don’t have what it takes to be the Next Great American Novelist.”
“Ah,” I said, beginning to see the light as the Duke Ellington/Johnny Hodges song goes. “So you’re looking for somebody who’s condescending . . .”
“Indifferent . . .”
“I think ‘hostile’ is le mot juste . . .”
“. . . who basically sends the message that he or she has something better to do than wait on you.”
“Precisely–they should be writing the Next Great American Novel, but instead they’re stuck in some lousy minimum-wage retail job.”
We drank our coffee as we roamed the sweltering streets and, as we finished, found ourselves outside Hecht’s, then the top-shelf department store in D.C. “This place is a veritable breeding ground for Great American Novelists!” Fred said with enthusiasm.
We wandered the aisles for a while, exchanging nods with the floorwalker, passing through a haze of perfume sprayed by the spritzer girls in the cosmetics department, and then Fred stopped short, throwing an arm across my chest with such force he almost knocked me over.
“It’s him,” he said breathlessly. “If that isn’t the Next Great American Novelist standing there right in front of us, as plain as a pig on a sofa as Flannery O’Connor might say, I don’t know my scribblers.”
I looked up and saw the tie counter, and behind it a young man, well-groomed, apparently bored to tears, with barely-suppressed rage boiling up within.
O’Connor on sofa, sans pig
“You think so?” I asked, although the testimony of my senses answered my own question for me. The fellow hissed as sighs of disgust escaped from him. It was hard to fight off seasickness induced by the rolling of his eyes as he stood there, folding and arranging ties on hanging displays and under the glass counter.
“Let’s roll,” Fred said, and he approached the counter with all the modest self-restraint of a used car salesman.
“Hello there, young fellow!” he boomed out, his face a picture of amiability. “How are you today?”
“Fine,” the young man said as his eyelids just barely rose high enough to reveal his pupils. I noted he didn’t offer to help us.
“I’m looking for something in a stripe to go with a checked suit,” Fred said, scanning the haberdasher’s wares.
You could see the sales guy trembling inwardly. It shook him to his core to hear someone suggest that he would actually consider wearing a striped tie with a plaid suit, but he didn’t want to offer a suggestion to the contrary since that would have required . . . human interaction.
“We have some stripes over here,” the fellow said, as if he were offering us day-old mashed potatoes.
Fred surveyed the selection, then shook his head with distaste as if he were rejecting some long-held belief that had led him astray in life–virgin birth, warm water freezes faster than cold, always take the points on the road. “No, what I think I need,” he said thougtfully, “is a foulard. Have you got any foulards?”
The young man sighed loudly enough to be heard at the gloves and scarves counter. “The foulards are over here,” he said with annoyance.
Again, Fred trained his gimlet eye on the selection. “Could I see . . . this one,” he said, pointing to a vibrant pink number.
“No . . . that one,” Fred said.
“Why don’t I bring out both since I can’t see your fingers from behind the counter.”
“Very well,” Fred said.
When the selected ties were laid out on the counter, Fred put his finger to his chin and gave them the gimlet eye. “You know what,” he said after a few moments, “I’ve always been a big fan of Winston Churchill’s–do you have any of those little pin dot numbers he used to wear?”
I thought I heard the young man groan, but I couldn’t be sure. It wasn’t as loud as Old Faithful before it erupts, but on the other hand it was . . . audible . . . and growing in volume . . . like a freight train approaching a station from a long way off.
“Do you think you will be making a purchase in the next thirty seconds?” the clerk finally snapped.
“I don’t know,” Fred said, not even looking up. “Twenty-four ninety-five for a tie is a big investment.”
With that the young man turned on his heels and spun out the little gate to the department store floor, saying “Well that’s too bad, because it’s my break time!”
Another young man appeared wordlessly behind the counter, but Fred was too engrossed in the sight of the young man who’d been waiting on him as he strode purposefully away, like an ocean liner under full steam.
“I expect great things out of that fellow some day,” he said with admiration.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Maybe not Moby Dick,” Fred said, “but The Sound and the Fury is not out of the question.”