Friday, March 9, 2012

The George Bush Bet - Part Three

In Part Two of "The George Bush Bet," Sandy proposed a bet in the amount of 100 pounds centered on the question of whether George Bush Senior ever served as a US senator, representative, or governor prior to  becoming president.  I said none of the above, and Sandy took the field.  Part Three picks up with our search through the streets of London for the answer to this perplexing question.      

Sandy and I turned around and headed back towards the intersection we had crossed just a few minutes before.  The light was in our favor, so we crossed over to the corner on which Big Ben stood.  We passed beneath its towering presence, walking alongside the Parliament building towards the next light.  “You know, I’m a Free Mason,” he said, continuing his interesting habit of broad-jumping off into a new category of conversation for no apparent reason.  “Do you know what the Free Masons are?”  I told him I did, and that I had long been curious about the mysterious society and in particular, the illustriousness of their membership, which included Washington, Franklin and Jefferson, among many others.  I told him that my wife and I had gone into the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia once, but we had just missed the tour.  “You know, you’d make a good Mason.  I can tell about you that you’re a good man who’s interested in helping others.  What’s your religious affiliation, if you don’t mind my asking?” 

I have to admit, there were several moments where I got the distinct impression  he was conning me, this being one of them, but the simple sincerity with which he said things seemed difficult to fake.  I squinted, scrutinizing his face for any sign of contrivance.  He was looking at me expectantly, awaiting a response.  If Sandy was conning me, I decided, he was earning every penny with his performance. 

“Well, I was raised Catholic,” I replied, leaning subtly on the word ‘raised.’  I waited, as I always did, to see if the other person picked up on the nuance of the statement. 

“Oh,” he replied.  “In that case I suppose you would join the Knights of Columbus.”  I guess nuance doesn’t always translate well, even when it’s in the same language.

But I was persistent.  “You know, I really don’t see that happening,” I replied.  I smiled slyly and trotted out a favorite line I had appropriated from one of my friends.  “I’m more of a roaming Catholic.” I purposely added extra emphasis to the ‘ing,’ especially the ‘g’ sound, trying to ensure that he didn’t skip right over it, assuming I said ‘Roman.’  He gave no indication that he appreciated, or even noticed, the play on words.  I gave up.

“Let’s cross here,” he said, and we stopped to wait for the light to change.  He turned to me.  “Look, Kevin,” he said, suddenly and incongruously serious, “you’ve got a lot of great qualities.  But you’ve got to learn to trust yourself.  I can see you doing great things, but your uncertainty is holding you back.  Don’t worry so much about being right.  If there’s something you want to do, just go ahead and do it.  Of course you’ll make mistakes, but you’re smart, you’ll figure it out and fix them as you go.  Don’t hedge so much.  Believe in yourself.”

I was astonished.  What just a moment before had been nothing more than casual, friendly banter had suddenly, inexplicably taken a metaphysical turn into something I could only compare to a special, heart-felt episode of “Oprah.”  That he would say such a thing to an almost complete stranger was astounding enough, but the conviction and seeming lack of guile with which he said it just completely floored me.  Was I so completely transparent that someone could sum up my character and assess my personality defects in the same amount of time it generally took to read a cereal box?  Were my character flaws so overwhelmingly evident, did they exert such an obvious influence on my behavior that any average Australian Free Mason antique dealer could identify them in the span of not more than fifteen minutes?  It was an existentially troubling thought, to be sure.  

You might expect that I would react angrily, or defensively, or at least with some form of protest.  Yet, even though I had just been diagrammed like a simple sentence on a blackboard, with subject, verb, and predicate displayed with shocking clarity, I couldn’t manage to get upset.  He spoke with conviction, and yet without convicting me of my crimes.  And besides, I could fuss and fume all I wanted, but deep down I knew he was right.  What the hell.  I live for deconstructive criticism.  I just nodded and said, “Thanks. I appreciate that.”  He seemed pleased by my response.  His wide smile returned and he slapped me on the back.  “Let’s resolve our bet.”    

I leave it up to the reader to determine whether this bizarre conversational detour was merely one more component of a larger con scheme or not.  I decided a long time ago to take his words and actions at face value, perhaps to protect my own sanity.  In committing this story to writing, I almost didn’t include the preceding exchange, in part because I don’t want to give the impression that I was in some way attempting to embellish the story, or trying to add, in an artist’s contrived way, an extra dimension, an emotional depth to what would otherwise be a simple, straightforward account.  In the end, I included this peculiar bit of dialogue simply because that’s what happened.   The way I chose to look at it, if Sandy was a flim-flam man, then he was the Renoir of flim-flam men, a master of human psychology against whom I never stood a chance to begin with. 

We made our way around Parliament Square and into the busy business district north of there.  We initially followed Tothill Street, looking in each street level window and at the signs hanging along each side street for a bookstore.  By his suggestion, we split up our searching duties; I took the right side of the street and Sandy the left.  As we looked, he kept asking me if I wanted to change the bet in any way, which I declined each time.  He also asked numerous times why I felt so confident in my answer, and continued to ask about the Bushes, all questions he had asked before, just phrased slightly differently.  I answered them politely and consistently.   

He finally did branch off slightly into new territory of discussion.  “You know, I’m sure you’re probably right about our bet,” he said as we jointly searched with single-minded purpose, “but even if you happen to lose, don’t be surprised if you don’t.”

That was certainly a comment which required further explanation.  “What do you mean, Sandy?”

“Oh, is that a bookstore there?” he asked, stopping and pointing across the street.

“Where?” I said, trying to follow his aim while wondering what he was doing looking on my side of the street.  It vaguely bothered me that he was invading my visual turf.

“Oh, no, it’s not.  It’s a stationery store,” he said, resuming his brisk pace.

“Oh,” I said, trying not to show any irritation. 

“Well, what I was saying is that even if you lose the bet, I’d still like to give you something back.”

“I don’t know why you’d feel that way, Sandy.  A bet’s a bet.  If you win, you win.  There’s no reason to feel bad about it.  I’m a big boy.  I knew what I was getting into.”

“No, no it’s nothing like that.  I just want to do something nice for you.  You said you’ve never been to Australia before, right?”


“And you said that was a place you and your wife had talked about going to?”

“Many times.”  Where was he going with this?

“Well, maybe you’ll be getting a Christmas present from me this year,” he said grinning almost madly.  “Two tickets to Sydney, perhaps?” 

Although he looked as sincere as ever, I doubted that he was genuinely serious about it.  I had developed the sense since meeting Sandy that the world he inhabited was very different from mine.  Maybe things like that happened in Sandy’s world.  But he had already demonstrated enough of a grasp on my world to know that things like that just didn’t happen there.  I adopted a casual tone intended to convey that, while I thought it was a nice thing for him to say, I by no means expected anything to come of it.  “Why would you do that, Sandy?”

“I’d like you to come out to Sydney.  Meet some of my friends.  I could pick your brain a little bit.  Show you around.  It’d be a lot of fun.” 

“I have no doubt about that.”  I maintained my neutral tone, but smiled to let him know I appreciated the thought.  “Still, it’s a little extravagant, don’t you think?” 

“Ah, so what,” he replied.  “Just don’t be surprised if you get a little Christmas gift from Sandy this year.”

“Not if I win the bet.”

“Who knows?” he answered with a mischievous smile, shrugging his shoulders.

Again the suspicious side of my brain returned to the question of a con and how this little twist potentially played into his grand scheme.  Maybe he thought I was about to take an unexpected left turn down a narrow side street and disappear, and felt like he had to do something to prevent me from slipping away.  But that would run undermine my rapidly expanding theory of him as a master of human manipulation, because I had no intention of fleeing, and so could have given no unconscious signals away.  Perhaps his talent for invention was so great and so uncontrollable that he just couldn’t stop constantly elaborating on the illusion he was constructing. 

We continued walking up the same street.  We were at least a half-mile from Big Ben by now.  He stopped again.  “Is that a bookstore?” he asked, again pointing to a building on my side of the street. 

“I’m not sure,” I said, looking for a sign.

“Let’s go have a look,” he said, carelessly but successfully crossing between intersections amid the whizzing afternoon traffic.  I walked to the intersection and waited for the light to change. 

When I caught up with him, he was staring through the large plate glass window.  “It’s a library,” he said, beaming.  “Perfect!”

We went into the library and Sandy headed straight for the information counter, which was towards the back.  I looked around.  I had never seen a library quite like this one before.  It occupied the corner of a building, and one side was all windows.  Book shelves were crammed in every which way, and the aisles were narrow and crowded.  The entire space looked no larger than an average sized coffee shop.  The old book smell was strong.  Sandy returned quickly.

“She said we should try looking in reference. It’s upstairs.”
“There’s an upstairs?” I asked.  I felt bad for the people that had to come here, fight their way around to get a book, and then fight their way back out again like it was a crowded corner market.  There was no place to spread out, to get comfortable.  It seemed like a diabolical form of torture, all these books and nowhere to read them.

“There’s the stairs,” he said pointing to a spot somewhere in the middle against the inner wall. 

We made our way over to the staircase.  At the landing we were forced against the outside rail as a long line of school children funneled down.  They were young, probably seven or eight years old, and I exchanged looks with some of them as they passed.  “Hi, kids, how are ya?” I said in my bright American voice, pleased with the surprised looks, timid smiles, the low-voiced chattering and high pitched squeaking it seemed to produce. The long procession finally terminated with two teachers at the end.  I smiled at them, but they looked past me as they turned to descend the lower flight of stairs, herding the children before them.  At the first opportunity, Sandy was at the top and looking for someone to ask for help.  “I think that’s reference, there in the corner,” I said as I came up behind him, pointing towards the front where we came in on the first floor.   

“Let’s have a look,” Sandy said, weaving around a few scattered computer stations and book racks.  I looked around before I followed; this floor was the same size as the first, and though it wasn’t as crowded, it still had the same packed in, claustrophobic feeling.  I tried to imagine what it must have looked like a few minutes before, with an additional thirty children added to the mix.  I was glad we missed them. 

When I found Sandy, he was standing in front of a tall bookcase, browsing over the backs of the books.  “Which of these do you think we should look in?” he asked, eyes jumping from shelf to shelf in confusion. 

“Well . . .” I began, and quickly put my finger on a “Who’s Who in Politics” book.  “Maybe something like this.”  I pulled the book out.  “I wonder how recent it is,” I said, flipping to the publication page to check the date.  “1996. Well, that should work,” I smiled at Sandy, pleased with my own fabulously quick detective work.  Usually for me, any attempt to find a specific piece of information in a library inevitably became an epic quest instead of a brief, direct errand. 

“Hmm,” I said excitedly, “let’s hope this is an international edition.” 

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