Miseducation of a Medical Publisher (Part 34)

The Garden State
The Garden State

At this time of year, two winters past, I found myself sitting in the passenger’s seat of a Toyota Prius, being driven around the northern-most edge of New Jersey, the part close to the Delaware Water Gap, by an infirm 83-year-old woman who liked to talk to herself while she drove, using incomprehensible sentence fragments, among them, “drat,” “umpf,” and something that sounded close to “Barney.” Here’s a situation that just cries out for sang-froid, I told myself, wracking my brain for a mild conversation-starter, just something to get her focused, I hoped. “Well,” I began, “how do you like the Prius?”

She turned her head slowly and faced me square on, casting her glance away from Route-wherever-it-was-she-was-supposed-to-be-looking. “I hate it,” she barked. Then she arthritically turned back to face the oncoming traffic.

Yes, I said, agreeably. Why’s that?

She turned again. “Because I keep driving it into trees,” she said, her voice restraining real anger. “Last time it cost the insurance company $12,000 in body work.” I decided it might be best to clam up and keep the seat-belt fastened.

“This isn’t a good car for me,” she said. “I can’t see through the back window. The roof pillars are too wide. Why would they design a car like that? When you’re old, things hurt. You can’t turn your head so easily. You don’t see very well. Things hurt.” With that, she cast her vision back toward the windshield. I quietly hoped her peepers were up to the task. Normally, I like to reassure people who complain about aging, using some quip I’ve picked up, such as “80 is the new 60!”, or something even more dismissive and non-empathic. But I had no idea where we were heading, other than off toward lunch somewhere, and I determined that a minimalist approach to conversation would be best.

“I just hope I can find the restaurant,” she said, as we passed through another north Jersey village with one more perfectly wonderful-looking diner, all baked goods made on premises. I asked if she ever sought directions from her car’s GPS, which was built into the Prius dashboard. The question revived her anger. “They’ve got that there to spy on me,” she snapped. “They always know where I am whenever I turn that thing on. Everyone always knows where everyone else is all the time. Tell me something…”

Now she was turning toward me again, while over the rolling hills another town approached dead ahead. Could have been Mahwah, I think. We must have been somewhere near the Tappan Zee bridge.

“How do people still have affairs, these days?”

David Ogden Stiers, a native of Eugene, Ore.
David Ogden Stiers, a native of Eugene, Ore.

I summoned up a slight smile, and tried to make it wry. I was trying to commune with my inner Charles Emerson Winchester, and ignore my inner Hawkeye Pierce. Hawkeye Pierce, with his repertoire of sharp one-liners, would not have helped. (In a tiny voice, Hawkeye whispered, “Why ask me, lady? Do I look like Dr. Kinsey?”)

We arrived at our destination, and my guide wondered if I could park the Prius, to cut down on the risk of potential tree-related mishaps. Which I did. We both ordered the Spaghetti Putanesca, and I had a glass of Valpolicella. We talked about the New York newspaper scene of the 1950s, when she was a staffer on the Journal-American, and I hadn’t been born. I asked if she ever met Westbrook Pegler, the Hearst paper’s star columnist and an infamous red-baiting lunatic. She told me you didn’t meet Pegler, he was too big a big-shot. You knew that he was around the building sometimes, but you never met him. And just how the hell did I know who Pegler was?

“Newspaper junkie,” I said. This is going pretty well, I thought to myself. I’d caught the Continental flight from Toronto to Newark to try to salvage a business deal that I’d signed with the woman’s son, who purportedly represented the privately held publishing company his family owned. Because business deals are never, ever what they’re supposed to be, it emerged that I had to reassure the CEO’s mother that she was dealing with substantial people from up in Canada. I’d persuaded our lawyer that this face-to-face palaver was preferable to seeking a legal remedy to the unexpected development of a signed contract being unilaterally voided by the CEO’s ancient mother. Our lawyer had no qualms about his ability to tackle the matter in a foreign jurisdiction, Bergen County or wherever, but I was certain of three things: that the costs would be unimaginable; that we would find ourselves in front of a judge named Honorable Sudsy Nussbaum or Justice R. Barton Caputo; and that we would lose.

So, we worked out an understanding of agreement, the CEO’s mamma and me. The deal was resuscitated across a maroon tablecloth during the espresso and biscotti course, and we made our way back toward the airport without encountering a tree-related mishap. By the time I was back behind my desk again the next morning Mamma had a few hours to re-think things and changed her mind, or else something brand new had come up, and the accord was fated to expire. The lawyers were set loose to duke it out, and it all ended in a draw, which meant the threats of litigation, ours and theirs, were revealed as so much trash talk. I never spoke to Junior again, and he had actually been a pretty good friend.

Sadly, the estrangement left me with no one left to discuss matters relating to the New York City press scene in the post-war years, which shouldn’t have been a tremendous personal loss to anyone, but was to me. Henceforth, whenever I’d blurt out, “I’ll see your Westbrook Pegler and raise you a Joe Liebling,” it would be to an empty room. Mamma was headstrong, obsessive, money-loving, capricious, childish, a woman after my own heart. I had been looking forward to years of challenging her with questions such as, “Young Ideas by Dick Young. Column ran in the Daily Mirror, or the Daily News? Walt Kelly. Cartoonist for PM, or the New York Star?” Knowing the answers, but looking forward to the walk down memory lane, or, more precisely, down 32nd Street.

But the smashed remnants of the business deal precluded any future contact, and you play by the rules of the game. Missus, if you’re reading this, and I would never say that’s an impossibility, please know that I haven’t the foggiest idea how people have affairs in the age of the GPS, or exactly how a GPS might intervene, but it should be a happy enough thought for anyone, on the cusp of a dark and creepy season in Ramapo, Nutley and Piscataway, simply to guess that they do.

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