So, on Thursdays I usually headed downtown for dinner at the Club. The food was okay. The service was slow. The drink selection was limited. The dues were outrageous. But the company was never bad. Not that it was always exceptional, but it was never annoying. There was a rule against annoying. You could be boring or quiet but if management saw you annoying one of the other guests you would be gone very soon, and you wouldn’t be back. Or rather you might be back but the Club would be gone. It was a by-invitation-only organization that could and did change venue seemingly at random. If you didn’t show up for a week (or a month or a decade) no one would bat an eye when you showed up next. But if you didn’t get a change of venue notice then your presence was no longer desired. So, who was invited? Well any member could recommend a new member. But only the Owner sent out invites. And if someone was brought along by any member uninvited then both men would not be returning. Oh, and all members were men. Also, a rule. The first few times a new member attended he might mention the lack of women as an oddity (or even a relief) but soon it just became the norm. Now you might think that such an arrangement would dissolve sooner or later due to the friction that such arbitrary rules would create. Or that the desire to continue in such a seemingly mediocre establishment would not be strong enough to maintain a decent showing. You’d be wrong. On any given night twenty patrons would be in attendance. Some nights there might be forty. This popularity must be attributed to the ability of the Owner to pick men. He had a profile that provided almost fool-proof selection. His vetting process was scrupulous and thorough. The selection failures were few and so far, the fallout from these had always been repairable. Apparently, his damage control methods were effective and discrete.
So, what was the profile? Married with children, wife raised the kids and made a home for the family, husband supported the family (employed or a businessman), over thirty-five years of age and intolerant of the presence of idiots. Who decided what idiocy was limited to? In this case the Owner. He looked for signs and circumstances. Negative evidence was probably more important than positive. A lack of bumper stickers with slogans like Coexist and Tolerance was a given. The absence of financial support for any organization that explicitly or implicitly supported involuntary redistribution of wealth was a bare minimum requirement. Mostly he used second hand accounts followed up by field work. He was very thorough. There were no idiots. Finally, the smoking prohibition. You were prohibited from bothering anybody who wanted to smoke. There was a no-smoking section but that was pretty empty most nights.
Oh, and once a year you had to be able to tell a truly interesting story. So, either you were someone who had interesting things happening in your life or you had to be a great story teller. Either would do. Of course, how would you know if the story were true? Well, you couldn’t ask (another rule).
So, it was a Thursday. It was a warm night for early October. Barely jacket weather. No clouds and a bright moon. When I arrived, I was greeted at the front desk by Dave and buzzed in to the main hall. I could see it was a slow night, maybe twenty-five patrons were milling around and waiting for seating. I noticed the Owner (Dan) standing in a corner talking to a new face. I headed over to say hi and find out what was on the menu.
“Hey Dan, what’s good tonight?”
“If you ask me, nothing. I’d stick with the chicken fried steak. Unless you’re well insured, then go with the fish.”
“Wow. That’s grim. Maybe you should lie until the new members have ordered the special.”
“I’m not worried. Have you met Jim?”
“Nice to meet you Jim.”
“Jim, this is John. He’s a regular. Guess his wife is sick of looking at him.”
“On the contrary, I’m adored and pampered by the missus. I only come here to allow her a night to visit her family. When she gets home from seeing her sisters, suddenly I seem like more of a catch compared with her brothers in law. They’re quite a group.”
“Hi John. Nice to meet you. Yeah, I know what you mean. My wife’s got three sisters and from how they describe their husbands I’m guessing someone’s going to be on a most wanted show sooner or later.”
Dan broke in:
“So, Jim here is new, can you introduce him around and find a spot for him?”
“Sure. Jim, you interested in some penny ante poker before dinner?”
“I like poker, but I’m a pretty lousy player. I tend to bet over enthusiastically.”
“Great, you’ll be the most popular guy here tonight.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. Seriously I’ve only got a few bucks in my pocket. Will that get me through?”
“Sure, it really is penny ante. We only use money to keep it from getting too boring. Mostly we play to slow us down while we’re scarfing down cold cuts. Come on. I’ll introduce you to the boys.”
We headed over to a table of regulars that had a few empty seats. I introduced Jim and we all got to talking about the latest travesty in D.C. This proved very popular with everyone. Within five minutes Jim was right in the thick of the grumbling and indistinguishable from the veterans. A few minutes later the waiter came by and took our orders. As I mentioned earlier the food was so-so. But tonight, rib-eye was on the menu and the steak was usually very good. I think it was something Dan liked so we benefited from his choice in that respect. I ordered it along with a couple of baked potatoes and got back to the conversation. Consensus had built to the effect that if Obama was not actually Satan then at the very least, he was a close relation. The usual fifty-seven states and “corpseman” jokes were worked over again and everyone settled in for the dinner. Someone asked Jim where he was from. “I’m originally from Brooklyn but I’ve been living in various places in New England for the last twenty plus years”. This elicited the obligatory “pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd” responses and a few heartfelt shots at the Sox and Pats from the mostly New York City group. He laughed it off and said he was a die-hard Yankees fan but that he didn’t pay any mind to the rabid New England fans. “Mostly I just wait for the bad years and feign sympathy while they wallow in misery. It really is fun to watch.” Then I asked Jim if he had given his first annual story yet. He looked troubled and confessed that he was dreading it. “I’m not much of a public speaker. It’s gonna be like getting a root canal without Novocain.” “Hey, it’s a piece of cake. First of all, have a couple of belts before you get started and we don’t get started until we move into the sitting room. The chairs are very comfortable in there and really reduce the stress levels. Concentrate on someone sitting next to you and it won’t seem like public speaking. More like just a bull-session.” After that we got caught up in an argument over whether “The Maltese Falcon” was a better Bogey movie than “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” This lasted about half an hour and introduced all kinds of heretical views and produced much heat but almost no light. Luckily at that point the food arrived. Sure enough, the rib eye was just about perfect. By the time I was done with the second spud and was sopping up a little juice with a hunk of French bread I had reached what I imagined Gautama must have been hoping for when he started sitting cross-legged under that tree.
The beer and wine were flowing pretty freely at our table and the dishes had been removed and someone asked if we should start the card game up again but there were no takers so we wandered into the sitting room and the group continued with a discussion on the latest movie. It was a science fiction adventure yarn with Earth being invaded by super-intelligent lobsters from the Andromeda Galaxy. Many rude comments were expressed over the lack of actual proof that shellfish had what it takes to invent a really convincing warp drive. Interestingly, Jim was extremely quiet when disparagement of the idea that extraterrestrials might visit the Earth was being discussed.
Dan showed up and instructed the wait staff and the members to drag the chairs into the traditional half circle around the speaker’s seat by the fire place. By this point I could see that the crowd was about thirty men. And surprisingly Dan was leading Jim over to the speaker’s chair. As he settled himself in, I could tell that he was pretty nervous. Dan introduced Jim as a new member and applauded him for the courage to tell his story on his first night in the club. Jim thanked him, looked around the circle nervously and cleared his throat. Everyone expected him to proceed so a very noticeable silence built up for about two minutes while Jim seemed to be staring at his feet. Finally I could see several men fidgeting in their chairs and scratching their faces in a sort of impatient way. Then Jim cleared his throat again and began.
“As the subject of my story I’d like to tell you how I saved the Earth almost single-handedly from interstellar invasion.”
I could tell it was going to be a really good Thursday.