Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Art of Bluffing

Suppose you should be walking down Broadway after dinner, with ten minutes allotted to the consummation of your cigar while you are choosing between a diverting tragedy and something serious in the way of vaudeville. Suddenly a hand is laid upon your arm. You turn to look into the thrilling eyes of a beautiful woman, wonderful in diamonds and Russian sables.

She thrusts hurriedly into your hand an extremely hot buttered roll, flashes out a tiny pair of scissors, snips off the second button of your overcoat, meaningfully ejaculates the one word, "parallelogram!" and swiftly flies down a cross street, looking back fearfully over her shoulder.

O.Henry, “The Green Door”

Working with the public is a mixed bag. If I were in charge, I’d make it mandatory for everyone to work retail or food service for a minimum of one year, if only to take a step back and recognize the common humanity of everyone. Each person deserves respect but some prioritize, acting as though there is less humanity within some, and more in others. For myself, I will say that I have never been treated as cruelly or as kindly. The store where I worked was always packed, which created impatience in customers and exasperation with the workers.

The coffee stop was attached to a large shopping mall, which drew an impressive cross section of very different people. Our regular clientele were workers in adjacent stores and those who worked in the office tower nearby. Like soldiers besieged by wave after wave of enemy troops, we banded together for protection. The same obnoxious teenagers invaded their shores, too.  

Occasionally, I was propositioned by strange people. One Saturday evening, a man a few years older than me came in with a woman in tow. It was close to closing time and I’d already taken out the tenaciously sticky plastic wrap with which we used to wrap pastries. He didn’t know me from Adam, but invited me to his place two nights later anyway. Without my asking, he wrote down his number in ballpoint pen on a corner of the cardboard. I wondered how many other stores and establishments with whom he’d spontaneously advertised this get together.

I have an impulsive streak and crusading spirit at times. What had been thrust before me was pure adventure. Even though I already detected a multitude of red flags great and small, I was very intrigued. At worst, as I told myself, this will be a gathering of eccentrics. He had mumbled something women in a hot tub, which interested me far less. I think in his mind he must have felt that I might automatically be interested in a parade of bikini-clad women first and foremost.

I wasn’t even going to go, but after a typically stressful day at work, I decided to give it a try. I could always leave if it didn’t interest me. First, I needed to call Jeff. He had thoughtfully left his first name alongside his phone number.

“Is this Jeff?”  I said this pensively.

“This is the guy wearing his underwear. You’re late. The girls are just getting out of the hot tub.”

I had a thirty minute drive ahead of me. Notoriously bad with directions, I managed by luck to arrive without getting lost once. I’d been promised free pot for my troubles. Jeff had made that part crystal clear.  I was ushered in to a fairly unremarkable living room, in a fairly unremarkable house, where I took a seat and waited. There were no other women present aside from the one I’d seen at the store. I wasn’t sure if the scenario he had painted for me had been little more than a figment of his imagination.

In time, I realized I had walked into a domestic disturbance. His girlfriend looked very different with a change of scenery. She was blonde and superficially pretty, but rough around the edges. She must have been something of a trophy for him, even though the bonds that united them were visibly strained.

It was a low-grade grievance, one waged with words, not fists or elbows. She wanted out and said as much, repeatedly. Most couples would prefer to do their fighting without company present, but not them. She emerged from the kitchen and sat down next to me on the sofa, as though events like these were a routine occurrence. Tears or confessions were nowhere to be found.

What was present was a kind of vindictiveness, along with a desire to wound him severely. She had a small amount of pot in a small, circular Tupperware container. He staked sole claim to it. This was the focal point of their disagreement. When he stalked off to another part of the house, in a huff, she tried to share it with me. He arrived unexpectedly early, catching us in the act, recognizing immediately what she was about to do.

“You’re going to need to leave,” he said to me, nastily.

I departed, disappointed, but glad I had avoided fisticuffs.

Memory is a series of recollections being constantly stored and cast aside for another day. I frequently think in vignettes, snapshots in time like these. They make for good stories, with the right audience. God must have been looking out for me, because situations like these could have ended up in a violent, physical fight. Before I had the right medication in my system, I possessed the kind of insane courage that could only come from mania. Lacking fear of censure or reproach, I must have seemed confident and tough.

If this had been a poker game, one could say I’d been bluffing the whole time. Bluffing is an effective tactic if you don’t reveal your insecurities or tip your hand. I learned that playing crazy was my best defense. Only the roughest bad guy goes after the unpredictable, the loose cannons like I was. As tough as men try to be, insecurities and vulnerabilities exist in spite of their efforts to conceal them. The most successful exploit their knowledge and insight, then use it to their own advantage.

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