Yesterday morning, I took my 2002 Ford Focus to the Ford dealer for the 55,000 check and an oil change.
I had brought a book so I could read in the waiting room, but the conversation around me grew more interesting, and I took notes in the little notebook I carry. What started as a slice of life poem expanded into a full narrative of the conversation around me.
"That woman lost 100 pounds," my neighbor tells me, jabbing a finger at the waiting-room TV, squiggly with ghosts. One foot turned out in a brace, metal cane propped against the wall, stomach pendulous in pleated polyester. "She looks good," he says.
I nod, resume reading.
Minutes later, he tells everyone he's getting season tickets to the Phillies this year for him and his son. "It's been my dream," he said. Now, retired, he's saving the sports page for his busy, professor son.
A woman across the room mentions some fancy hotel with gold faucets. "Could be plastic for all I care," she says. She wears a gray flannel coat, cream corduroys, gray argyle socks and a red and blue striped sweater.
"This is NBC News today," the TV intones.
With effort, standing up, in response to the weather report, the caned man says, "On Wednesday, I'm going to a funeral." And toddles out to the restroom. No one answers him.
Leaving the restroom, he gets into an argument with a gray-haired customer at the counter. "They take our Social Security money for the war," the caned man says.
"They've been doing that since Nixon's day," the gray-haired man argues.
"And what was Nixon?" the caned man asks. Their voices grow louder, and the caned man says, "You have an opinion, and I have an opinion. I don't want to discuss this with you."
The gray-haired man fumes, and the caned man lumbers to his chair, where he flips through a phone book. He fields a call on his cell phone, set to the default ring, and says cryptically, "It's about Gary, $47.20."
He flips channels on the TV, without asking. The flannel woman, just told she has an hour and a half to wait, watches.
"Be aware of what you're putting in your body," the man on the TV says. The caned man pauses briefly, until it becomes clear this is a Christian talk show. Then he flips.
He settles on Rachael Ray, a guest explaining a healthy food program for kids. The caned man peels an orange in one long spiral. Then, he picks up Ben Franklin's Almanac and reads.
As The View starts, he comes out of reverie. "That will be good tonight," he tells me, about an ABC 20/20 show on the royal family. We watch a clip. Prince Charles helps at a homeless shelter. The Queen reveals her favorite drink.
Caned man tells us how his son graduated from Swarthmore and got a Marshall Scholarship to Cambridge, one of 30. First, he spent a week at the British Embassy, where he met Prince Charles. Then, two years in university, paid for by the Brits.
They'd told his son, "You're from that colony of Pennsylvania, from some little school. You'll start as a freshman." But he argued that he'd already graduated, so they made him a senior.
The brother of Prince Charles, Prince Edward, was in his son's class. Not the best student, Edward got a 3.2, or a C plus, on his comprehensive exam. The caned man's son earned a 1.1, like an A plus, or "first" in Cambridge.
"Maybe he's not as dumb as they thought," the caned man chortled.
Then to Harvard and a master's degree.
Prince Charles visited Philadelphia earlier this year with his wife, Camilla, to sit in their box and view a concert at the Academy. They had a reception at the University of Pennsylvania, where caned man's son teaches. The Marshall scholars were invited for a reception.
Charles arrived late. "It's my wife's fault," he told everyone. "She takes so long getting ready."
In the reception line, you had to write down who you were so that Charles and Camilla would know. They had apparently done their homework, because upon greeting the caned man's son, Charles said, "You were in my brother's class at Cambridge."
And Camilla added, "I understand you sang at all the cathedrals in England as a member of the choral group."
At one point, the question came up, posed to Prince Charles: "How many suitcases do you have?"
He didn't know. A footman replied, "A hundred and one."
"You know," the caned man told us, "another person who got a first at Cambridge was Sir Isaac Newton." If you are a first at Cambridge you get a year's free tuition, 300 pounds credit at the book store, and whenever you queue up for beer, books or whatever, the line steps aside and lets you go first. This practice, the caned man told us, embarrassed his son.
But he did appreciate sitting at the Queen's box at the Ascot races. He had to wear a tuxedo, which in his case, he'd bought at a Bryn Mawr thrift shop for $22. "This tuxedo met the queen," the son likes to tell people. The shoes cost more than the suit.
The flannel woman observed that upper class thrift stores are a good place to shop.
His son traveled on the Queen Elizabeth II, where he wore his tuxedo and played in the casino.
"My son said he looks gorgeous, Charles. She looks weather-beaten, Camilla. They're good old salts. I'll watch that program tonight." He returns to Ben Franklin.
The flannel woman, glad of a chance to talk, observes, "They have a big audience, don't they, on The View?"
Looking up from his book, the caned man replies, "I've been working for 52 years. I wouldn't know. Usually, I'm at the gym at this time of morning."
She makes another attempt, bringing up the 9/11 conspiracies that former View co-host Rosie O'Donnell espoused. "Blowing it up from the inside, where did the people go?" she asked. "How ridiculous!"
The caned man says calmly, "We have a picture of the planes hitting, I believe."
The flannel woman, referring to Rosie's contention that the World Trade Center collapsed like a controlled explosion, countered, "Those buildings were made differently than today. That's why they came down."
Returned to his book, the caned man only nods.
A few minutes later, an employee comes into the waiting room to tell me my car is ready. As I gather my things, I wish the caned man a good time at the Phillies game with his son. "He sounds like a very good son," I tell him.
"Yes," he says. "I'm looking forward to it." And sinks his nose, at least temporarily, back into the Ben Franklin book.
I was fascinated by this strongly opinionated man, proud of his son. Despite an apparent disability, which might or might not be temporary, and despite struggling with obesity, he clearly had optimistic plans for the future. After all, he had those Phillies games to look forward to with his beloved son. And he was working out in a gym, interested in information about eating healthy. Over the hour or so I spent in the chair next to him, I learned so much about him.
There's a certain fascination about the lives of others. It's why we watch reality TV, why we read blogs. Reminds me of something a friend said to me once. We're all one bored god, split into parts and dreaming. When we come back together, we will tell each other our stories.
People don't always talk about their cars in the garage waiting room.