J. Gordon Gribley kept his one business suit hanging from a hook on his living-room wall. He thought of it as his battle flag, and liked to imagine himself leaning forward on the bridge of a destroyer, his eyes narrowed against the wind as the ship knifed through a choppy sea on its way into battle. He’d smile grimly, unafraid, as the freezing spray whipped his face and enemy shells howled past — while overhead, his business suit streamed grandly from the ship’s masthead, proudly proclaiming his mission.
Of course, he knew this fantasy was ridiculous, and suspected that normal people kept their suits in the closet. He was tempted to do so as well because, after all, the quest for normality was a key part of his dream — not to mention that in the closet it would be protected from his cats and from the cooking odors that sometimes drifted around the apartment. But he also feared that it would be too easy to ignore if hidden away. So the suit stayed in plain view on the wall above the sofa, a constant reminder of his goal.
Occasionally he put it on. This earned him the privilege of sitting in a city bus with an almost-empty briefcase on his lap, feeling like a fool, and then sitting slumped in the waiting room of an employment agency or some company’s hiring office, trying not to look pathetic.
Sometimes, as soon as he walked in, the receptionist would glance at him and immediately do some subtle thing with her body or face to signal “go away.” Or she might tell him that no one was in the office that day — even though there were obviously lots of people walking around — or she’d say something equally dismissive and absurd. At best he might be handed a form to fill out, but even then he seldom got an interview.
On the rare occasions when someone did agree to meet him, he could plainly see that the interviewer was turned off the instant they met, before he even opened his mouth, and wouldn’t offer Gordon a job if he were the last living creature on earth. Despite the rapidity and clarity of this mutual understanding, the ritual would drag on for a little while, because it was too awkward for even hardened business people to tell Gordon to get lost only five seconds after they’d met. Instead the interrogator would say something like “We have several positions posted, which one were you interested in?” and Gordon would shift uneasily in the chair and stare at his knees and say “I don’t know. I’d probably take any of them, I guess,” and the interviewer would look at him as though he were an idiot.
On the way home, Gordon would try to divine what the mysterious factor might be that made him so obviously and instantly repellent to people. Minutely analyzing everything that had happened, overwhelmed with embarrassment at all the errors he must have made, his thoughts would drift into the logistics of throwing himself in front of a train. But then he’d remember that he was plodding down a public street wearing his suit, and people could see him, so he’d try to walk with a distracted-but-contented air like a busy employed person.
Later, wearing jeans and a plain white undershirt, he’d hunch over the old computer on his kitchen table and scan online job boards for a field he might be suited for. Roof repair. Dental hygienics. Toxic waste disposal. How did people ever get into such things? Did some child grow up wanting to clean teeth or fix roofs? He imagined a big-muscled guy with numerous tattoos waking up one morning, having a life-goal epiphany while slurping instant coffee, and suddenly slamming his fist on the table yelling “That’s it! I’ll look for a job disposing of toxic waste!”
It seemed unlikely, but also didn’t matter; even skilled blue-collar work wasn’t what Gordon wanted. What he wanted was to be a businessman. He had even invented the “J” in front of his name in order to sound more like a businessman on his résumé. Business, however, wasn’t a clear-cut category. Searching for the word online brought up an almost infinite number of pointless pages with nothing on them but ads and links, and the links pointed to other pages that were also just ads and links. He had to admit that, other than having something to do with wearing a suit and going to an office every day, he didn’t know much about business.
But he knew what business people looked like, since he saw them walking past in the street. They wore crisp clothing and carried expensive leather briefcases and had a determined stride. They seemed confident and well-adjusted, like they had friends and colleagues and lots of complicated financial transactions and appointments and events to track on their cellphone calendars. They seemed so normal. Imagine being one of them!
Gordon would sit at the table stroking his cats behind the ears and try to imagine the office job he’d have one day, but his thoughts were vague because he had no experience to base them on. Or he’d stand for hours at his stove, cooking strange meals not only for himself but for the cats too, experimenting with different cheap meats and other low-cost ingredients. The challenge was to come up with a concoction that was inexpensive to make and that both he and the cats would find palatable. He did this despite being sure that this little game was a ridiculous waste of time and that no businessman, in fact no normal person at all, ever cooked for their cats.
Sometimes he just stared down at the floor, listing in his mind all the possible reasons why he was unemployable, or torturing himself with the small memories of his life — mostly a succession of petty, temporary jobs working with people less bright than himself, swallowing endless indignities in shops and small factories, in warehouses and loading docks and basement mailrooms, never earning enough money for even routine things. “I must become normal” — he’d say this aloud to the cats, trying to believe himself — “a real person, you know? I can’t spend the rest of my life like this!” They’d look up at him quizzically, rub their bodies back and forth against his legs, and make meowing noises that sounded, perhaps, slightly skeptical.
Clearly he needed to get a white-collar job, but what kind? And how? Again and again he clicked through websites and filled out forms, snarling at the useless search engine that he’d come to hate. Sometimes he sent emails with ludicrous attached résumés to people whose names he found online, or to random departments at random companies. Other times he spent hours reading career guides, although he suspected that the only thing their authors really knew about was how to make a living writing career guides.
After a while, Gordon decided that applying for jobs electronically was too commonplace, that his emails were too easily ignored. So he fashioned an alternative job-hunting strategy: writing old- fashioned letters by hand. First he’d search online for the names and street addresses of important people. Finding the addresses was the hard part, and he couldn’t be sure whether they were real or bogus. Then he’d extract from the clutter on his table a fountain pen filled with dark brown ink and a sheet of blank, cream- colored paper, and he’d lick the pen’s nib once and then carefully start writing.
This was made difficult by the cats, however; when they saw him scribbling a job letter they’d invariably jump up on the table and scratch at the paper and bat at the pen with their paws, although he had no idea why. The big tabby, who was the oldest, was especially bad. Gordon would smile but gently push her away, asking her in a mock scolding tone “don’t you want me to become normal?”
He composed many kinds of letters. He wrote long, thoughtful, serious letters to names from financial websites. He wrote cheerily upbeat letters to names from lifestyle blogs. Sometimes, when in an especially strange mood, he composed sad, metaphysical letters to names from obituary listings. None of the important people ever answered his letters, except for an occasional pre-printed memo addressed to Dear Friend.
Sometimes he just gave up, and sat in the living room for what seemed like hours staring blankly at the suit hanging on the wall, or in the kitchen staring at nothing in particular. Eventually he’d decide that he had to cheer himself up and would launch one of his fantasies.
Gordon’s fantasies had many minor variations, but he’d observed that most of them fell into one of two basic categories, so he had invented a name for each kind, almost like the title of a movie. Strangely, neither daydream involved actually working at a job.
One kind of fantasy he called Explaining Myself. He’d be at a party (or waiting on line in a department store, or standing around at the zoo) chatting with someone he’d just met, and the stranger would ask him “So, what do you do?” In real life, such a commandment to name his job (although it rarely happened) was something he always dreaded. In fact, if he had ever been invited to a real party, he might have declined to go out of fear that another guest might ask him that question.
But in the daydream Gordon was an employed person who went to lots of parties, where he could expound on what he did for a living with no problem at all. The specific occupation he’d describe would vary from one episode to the next, and didn’t matter much, as long as it was businesslike and reasonably prestigious. Someone would pop the question — Nice to meet you Gordon, say, what do you do — and he’d explain his career (whatever it was that time) at some length and detail but in a casual, offhand way, as though being employed were no big deal, while hiding his feeling of pride — not just pride at having a job, but at being able to answer such a normal question in a straightforward way, just like a regular person.
His other kind of daydream he called The Job Interview. He capitalized it in his mind just like that — especially the opening The — to emphasize that it was the special one that would happen someday and change everything, not like the pointless repetitive encounters he was used to.
In a typical episode of The Job Interview, he was in a dimly lit wood-paneled room. It was the inner sanctum of the corporate headquarters of a multinational corporation, and he was sitting with a small group of expensively-suited businessmen around a mahogany table with exquisitely hand-carved edges. Circles of light shone softly on the polished wood from two or three antique brass table lamps, their shades the same dark red as the carpet on the floor. An antique chandelier gleamed far overhead, beautiful but not throwing off much light, as though too polite to call attention to itself. The walls were decorated with several large oil paintings in elaborately carved frames. They were not portraits of the company’s dead founders as one might expect (for this was an unusually interesting and intelligent company) but rather depictions of exotic locations where the company had offices — Tokyo, Katmandu, Ulan Bator.
The businessmen were very relaxed and did not seem to take any of it very seriously; they were not awed by the room. They sat leaning back with their suit jackets unbuttoned and their legs crossed, chatting and laughing softly, and Gordon was as casual as they were, speaking in a quiet voice, and they were all laughing — not laughing at him, but with him at the cleverness of his words. They were extraordinarily insightful and could sense exactly what Gordon was good for, even though he hadn’t known himself; out of all the possible jobs in the world (and their company was involved in most of them) they quickly figured out precisely what Gordon was put on this Earth to do, what business job he would be perfect for, and finally (after quite a bit of suspenseful banter) they made him The Offer.
Gordon spent a lot of time replaying Explaining Myself and The Job Interview in his mind, occasionally speaking some of the dialog out loud, and even imitating a laugh track and other sound effects; but he knew they were only foolish daydreams. They could make him feel better for a while, but they also made him angry at himself because they were just a distraction and waste of time. In real life he didn’t seem to be getting any closer to his goal.
One spring morning, as he sometimes did, Gordon put on some casual clothes and went wandering aimlessly about town. He enjoyed this but it was also slightly nerve-racking, because it was a weekday and passersby might wonder why he was walking around the street at an hour when normal people should be at work behind their desks. It didn’t occur to him that he would only be seen by other people who were themselves outside at the same time, or that plenty of employed people walk the streets at all hours for all kinds of reasons dressed all different ways. He also didn’t realize that most people were absorbed in their own affairs, not interested in his. It might have helped if somebody had explained these simple things to Gordon but nobody ever had.
When he felt awkward and conspicuous he often walked very quickly, as though he had someplace important to go — or he might adopt the opposite strategy, and force himself to walk slowly and casually, like confident people. On this particular morning, he concentrated on building a new skill: pretending to be interested in the shop-window displays as he walked past. That made him look normal, didn’t it? Sauntering around at random, carefully gazing at things that didn’t interest him, Gordon lost track of where he was.
Gradually the neighborhood changed, until he found himself in an outlying part of town he’d never seen before. Here there were no fancy window displays to gaze into, just flat-topped commercial buildings packed closely together, few of them more than two stories tall, not many parking lots and not much housing. There were small windowless warehouses, their frontages blank except for the graffiti scrawled on them, liquor and convenience stores, the paper signs plastering their windows so thickly you could barely see inside, commercial garages with pickup trucks parked at haphazard angles outside and clanging noises coming from within, and occasionally a store selling cheap tools or housewares, its jumbled wares spilling out onto the sidewalk. There were a few grimy restaurants with worn-out neon signs that flickered and buzzed, a couple of single-story buildings made of corrugated metal whose purpose was unclear, and people.
Gordon preferred not to encounter many people on his walks. He tried to ignore the folks in his own nondescript neighborhood, and was used to passing by the well-dressed businesspeople scurrying between the tall buildings downtown. He had little experience with a district like this, but vaguely thought of such places as semi-deserted, depressing, and rather boring. But in fact there were quite a few people about.
Gordon walked faster and tried not to look at the women in tight short skirts and the men wearing sunglasses and hip street fashions who were standing around doing nothing. He passed by a row of winos on the sidewalk, sitting slumped against a wall, but kept his eyes averted. He sped up some more and tried not to look at all the obviously employed people, the shopkeepers arranging merchandise on the sidewalk in front of their stores or pushing a broom, the waitresses with tight blouses chewing and popping their gum, the men with tattoos on their massive forearms, unloading trucks while calling out playful obscenities to their friends. But not looking at all of them left very little to look at except the ground, and so it was that Gordon was walking very fast with his face pointing almost straight down when he crashed into Lou in front of the restaurant next to the bus station.
Lou was bigger than Gordon, slightly shorter but much heavier, and when he walked outside with his cook’s apron on to take out the garbage, Gordon collided with him at full speed and Lou grunted and staggered a little as the garbage went flying and Gordon would have fallen down had he not bounced off the front wall of the building.
“Hey why don’t you watch where you’re going!” Lou yelled. Gordon thought of telling him what a conventional thing that was to say under the circumstances, but thought better of it and just bent down silently to help pick up the garbage. “What are you doing,” Lou growled more softly, “what are you doing runnin’ around here staring at the ground for, huh?” At this Gordon jerked a little and he looked up with his hands full of garbage and a startled expression on his face. Lou stared into Gordon’s frightened eyes for a moment and then looked him over carefully.
“Well, that’s okay, fella,” Lou said finally, taking the garbage from Gordon and stuffing it back into the bag. “No harm done. No harm done.” Being around pathetic people made Lou remember how lucky he was. The best thing about owning the restaurant, in fact, was when the derelicts and shopping bag ladies who hung out in the bus terminal next door would creep in to beg for a free cup of coffee or even ask him to lend them a meal and Lou could chase them out or serve them as he chose, but he usually chose to serve them, and then he would look at the bums and remember that his life could be worse and that the world was, despite all its troubles and when all was said and done, an okay place.
Now he looked at Gordon Gribley. Lou was used to strange people but he felt that there was something different about this clumsy fellow. He couldn’t quite identify what it was, but something was forming in his mind — perhaps an idea, or perhaps no more than a vague association, but there was something that felt promising about it; and for that matter, there was something slightly comical about Gordon too, although he couldn’t say why. It didn’t take much to make Lou smile, but he tried to suppress a grin and sound stern as he addressed Gordon in a soft voice.
“Say, fella, what you walkin’ around here for, anyway?”
This was exactly the wrong thing to say to Gordon, who had often fantasized that someday, someone would confront him on the street during business hours when everyone was supposed to be at work, and challenge his right even to be on the street at all.
“Just taking a walk,” Gordon said. “Sorry I bumped into you.”
“You don’t work around here, do you?” Lou asked, still saying exactly the wrong thing but in a kindly tone of voice.
Gordon smiled wanly. “I don’t work anywhere. I’m unemployed.” He was shocked to hear these words coming out of his own mouth, and immediately wondered what the hell had caused him to volunteer this shameful information. Perhaps it was Lou’s fatness, or the small cooking stain on his white apron, or the scraggly gray hairs sprouting at random intervals from his mostly bald head.
“Hell, no shame in that, fella. I’ve been out of work myself, lotsa times. O’course now I work here,” and he pointed first to the dark plate-glass window and then up above it.
Gordon looked up and saw a slightly faded sign with bold, antique-style lettering: Lou’s Up Diner. This seemed odd both because the name made no sense, and because the place seemed much too large to be a “diner,” which Gordon always thought meant a narrow little restaurant in the shape of an old-time railroad car. This place had a very wide front; in fact the bus station appeared to be the only other building on the block.
“I’m Lou, by the way. Yep, that’s my place,” he said proudly. He put his hand lightly on Gordon’s back and steered him through the door for a free cup of coffee.
Inside was a big, dark, noisy space — even bigger than Gordon had thought. But his eye was drawn first to several framed photographs hanging on the wall just inside the doorway. The largest was of a young man wearing what looked like an amateur-league baseball uniform, standing in a slight crouch at home plate, his bat at the ready. Across the bottom of the photo, in artistic hand lettering, the words Lou’s Up! had been carefully rendered. Gordon looked at the batter’s face, then at Lou, and saw that they were the same person, although separated by many years.
“You named the restaurant after —”
“Yep. That was my big moment, actually.”
A rueful smile flickered on Gordon’s face, and he gave a slight shrug of the shoulders. “I never had a big moment, myself.”
“Aw, fella, don’t talk like that! You’ll just make yourself sad. Everybody’s got their big-time moment sometime … each in his own world, y’know? Hell, even the mouse in the wall got his big moment.” He paused, a thoughtful look on his face. “Well, big among the mice, anyways.” They both laughed, and the shared laughter made Gordon feel entitled to look around more carefully.
Lou’s Up Diner was certainly no diner in the traditional sense. It was almost cavernous, perhaps a converted warehouse, and Gordon realized that rents in this part of town must be very cheap. In the dim light he could see walls of an indeterminate grayish color on which had been hung hand-lettered paper signs listing the day’s menu, and unframed and slightly warped or tilted travel posters, held up with strips of tape, depicting various exotic locations around the world.
The floor was plain wood planking that had probably been polished at one time. From the high ceiling hung fluorescent lights that flickered weakly and a few slowly rotating, creaking fans. A long lunch counter ran most of the length of one side of the room; surprisingly, it was topped with real wood, though battle-scarred. From behind the counter a clattering sound added to the general din. Gordon saw that it came from an enormous, battered coffee machine that appeared to be having an asthmatic fit as a stooped woman in a faded white apron filled a tray full of mugs from it. The machine belched smoke and spat coffee and wheezed in protest as a gas flame sputtered feebly beneath it. But neither she nor the diner’s customers seemed to notice.
As Gordon scanned the people sitting at the counter and at the tables and booths he slowly realized that they were — was it possible? Yes, although some were obviously workmen of various kinds, and one of them was mopping the floor, many of the customers appeared to be homeless street people. A restaurant for vagrants? How could this be? Gordon tried to look without seeming to stare. Some of them were dressed in long shaggy coats even though the weather was warm; one man was actually wearing a parka and a furry hat with earflaps. The women, who were in the minority, had shopping bags or even small wheeled carts filled with their belongings. One of the men wore a grimy baseball cap and a rumpled suit jacket that looked as though it had not actually been part of a business suit for decades.
Gordon stood just inside the doorway looking around; the scene was so bizarre that he momentarily forgot to feel awkward. He noticed that the customers seemed to fall into two broad groups. Some of them sat by themselves on rotating round stools at the long lunch counter; these seemed morose, and rarely paid attention to the other people near them. Many more, however, sat at tables out in the middle of the room, or clumped together in booths along two of the walls — sometimes six people jammed into a booth meant to hold four, even though there were empty places in other booths.
Unlike those at the counter, most of the people at the tables and booths were animated and noisy, their conversation swelling up into a din that filled the hall and almost drowned out the music from the ancient jukebox. They giggled and chattered and scratched their beards, they wandered around from table to table visiting, they yelled and drank soup and passed cigarette butts back and forth and tried to blow smoke rings in each other’s faces. They bickered and fought and called out vile profanities to each other or to no one at all, but a moment later they were friends again.
Lou steered Gordon to an empty stool at the counter, and then took his own place behind the counter right across from him, near the belching coffee machine.
Although Gordon had never traveled much, he felt like an explorer in an exotic land, an effect somehow intensified by the tattered travel posters on the walls. He’d never seen so many transients in one place before and he’d certainly never seen them so at ease, as though at home in their own domain. On the streets they tended to be more careful, unless they were completely drunk. Here they were not so careful and yet didn’t seem to be drunk either, but were almost as relaxed as though they were. Lou also seemed relaxed, standing behind the long counter and looking around with an almost fatherly air.
While Gordon sipped the surprisingly good coffee from an old white ceramic mug, Lou smiled at him and sniffed the air slightly, almost like an animal would. Then he leaned over the counter and whispered melodramatically in Gordon’s ear.
“I been looking for someone,” he said.
“You have? Who?”
Lou drew back importantly. “I’m looking to hire a specialty cook. I don’t suppose that you know anyone who —’”
“What the heck is a specialty cook? Why would I know anyone like that, anyway?”
Lou rubbed the back of his neck and pondered this very reasonable question. There was something about Gordon that had made him raise the subject, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was.
“I’m looking for someone to cook kidney pies,” Lou confided at last, apologetically, as though he’d said he was looking for someone to clean toilets.
“Kidney pies? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. Do people actually eat them? I thought that was only in England or something.”
“Well, see,” Lou went on, wiping his pudgy hands in embarrassment on his apron, “see we do a lot of business with derelicts here. They got to eat, don’t they? I mean we feed them, see? Some of them beg on the street, some get meal tickets. They get them from the Welfare people which is as good as cash to me because I turn them in for redemption.” He looked carefully at Gordon to see if he knew what “redemption” meant, but Gordon gave no sign and continued to sip his coffee politely. “You got any idea how many derelicts there are in a city this size?” Lou asked.
Gordon thought about this. “Hundreds, I suppose.”
“Thousands.” Lou was authoritative. He spoke enthusiastically but kept his voice low, so that only Gordon could hear him, as he waved one arm in the air. “This here metropolis is one of the derelict capitals of the world.”
Gordon found it almost comical the way Lou used formal words like “metropolis” and “derelicts”; he’d usually heard people call them either “homeless people” or “bums,” depending mostly on the political persuasion of the speaker. He supposed that Lou had been involved with these vagrants since long before the terminology had acquired political overtones, and saw no reason to update his speech now.
In fact, Gordon realized that the very idea of Lou’s using currently fashionable speech, or of the customers caring, was ridiculous: this place seemed to exist outside of fashion or current events, as apart from the normal life of the city as though it were a spaceship drifting slowly between galaxies. It somehow felt both universal and timeless, and Gordon mused that there might have been gritty places something like this, filled with the marginal street people of that time, in ancient Egypt or Rome.
Seated near him at the counter, a shopping-bag lady with disheveled hair had been hunched over on her stool staring down at her plate. Now she looked up at Gordon. She stared at him as though he were an apparition from another world, then looked down again at her meal, which she’d barely touched. Gordon shifted uneasily on his stool; he felt he should make some polite remark, but didn’t know what. Finally, he forced a smile and said, as softly as he could, “Hi, what’s your name?” Immediately he felt foolish.
“My name?” Her voice sounded raspy and annoyed. She gazed at him with open suspicion before finally speaking again. "Say, you always introduce yourself to strangers by asking their name?" Then she turned back to her soup and paid no further attention to him.
Gordon was surprised by her remark but, after a few moments, he realized the justice of what she’d said. Except for structured encounters like in a government office — or a receptionist checking you in for a job interview — people normally didn’t start conversations by asking someone their name. Unless … unless they were talking to a small child. And maybe not even then. Why the hell had he done that?
Feeling even clumsier than usual, he saw that Lou was leaning towards him on the counter and grinning. “That’s okay, fella,” Lou whispered. “They’re just people, actually. You’ll learn.”
Learn? Learn what? Anyway, why should he … his thoughts trailed off into incoherence. To end the awkwardness, Gordon swiveled on his stool so that he faced away from the counter, and looked around the large room.
In one booth two old white-haired winos were pointing with shaking hands at the torn remains of a subway map, arguing heatedly. At a table nearby a bag lady in an enormous ratty coat was conferring earnestly with several other derelicts, leaning in so their heads were close together, voices hushed, faces intently serious. Gordon wondered what they could possibly have to “confer” about — did hobos plot out strategy? For what? Perhaps the mere act of sitting around a table (or in a circle) with other people triggered something deep in human nature, something that transcended business and bums. He pictured fur-clad Neanderthals squatting around a rock, scraping diagrams in the dirt with a stick while planning the upcoming hunt. Suddenly one of the whispering vagrants leaned back and wrapped a white towel around his head like a turban, then lifted a small harmonica to his mouth and began to play a tune. The mood at the table instantly changed from seriousness to hilarity, but nobody seemed to mind.
Gordon surveyed the people at the other tables, or sitting at the long counter, or wandering around aimlessly, or clustering near the bathrooms and the half-open back door. They were a grimy lot for the most part, some cheerful, some sullen, some looking weary and resigned. He knew that most people would prefer that they didn’t exist, but there they were anyway.
He was suddenly aware that, despite the fact that he had a place to live and didn’t drink much, he had something in common with all these people — most of them were probably unemployed, just like himself. He tried to picture them in the waiting room of an employment agency, filling in forms. The image was absurd, but how different was he from them, really? He shivered slightly and felt a twinge of nausea — it was easy to imagine himself sliding down the one or two steps into their world.
“The point is,” Lou was saying, “they gotta eat, don’t they? Sure they do. They gotta eat protein, don’t they? Sure they do. Well, what are they gonna eat? Sirloin steak? Real hamburger? No sir. Not on their budget. The free soup kitchens don’t give ’em no good meat. They give ’em crap.” He waved one hand in an outward motion, a businessman contemptuously dismissing his competition. “They come here, they eat what I give ’em, but I want it to be good. I got my pride, you know?” He smoothed the front of his apron. “But it has to be made with what we can afford — which is what nobody else wants.” He lowered his voice conspiratorially, an entrepreneur revealing his secret methods. “What the butcher gives me cheap.”
“Correct!” Lou was excited that Gordon could follow his logic. He refilled Gordon’s coffee cup and plopped a frosted donut on a piece of wax paper in front of him. “Kidneys!” He was enthusiastic. “Sure! And other organs too! And the veggies, y’know when they’re just a leetle old the supermarkets, well, they just toss ’em in the dumpster — but they’re still perfectly good once you cook ’em up right, y’know —” Pausing a moment to collect his thoughts, Lou waved a spatula in the air, indicating in general terms the homeless people and simple workmen slumped at the counter, huddled in the booths, milling around the aisles, leaning in the doorway. “Sure they eat kidneys! Same at every other hobo palace in town. I’m just stewing ’em now ’cause it’s easy but that ain’t no good. Same every day, not enough variety.”
He tucked one hand under the side of his apron just above his expansive stomach, and threw his head back slightly (Gordon wondered if it was an unconscious parody of Napoleon) with the dignified air of a professional chef who takes his responsibilities seriously. “Not enough variety,” Lou repeated. He scanned his clientele with a compassionate look, then turned back to Gordon and asked directly, “Say fella, by any chance you know how to cook?”
“Why yes, I guess actually I do, but —”
“I got an employment need,” Lou said simply. “I’m looking for a specialty cook to make kidney pies and stuff.” Then he gazed silently and deeply into Gordon’s eyes.
A strange, peaceful feeling came flooding into Gordon, a calm that he hadn’t felt in a long time, and he tried to figure out why while he fought against it. Could it be because someone had apparently made him a — he could barely bring himself to frame the thought in this ridiculous context — a job offer? It was absurd, of course, but — did that mean that this chance conversation in this bizarre diner — what had Lou called it, a “hobo palace” — had actually been a job interview? This was so far beneath him as to be nothing but an embarrassment. ‘This proves nothing, this is not an accomplishment,’ Gordon admonished himself, ‘anybody could get a job like this.’ In fact, logically the offer was an insult, though he knew it hadn’t been meant that way. But that Lou could even think that Gordon, someone obviously destined for a business career, would consider such a thing!
Lou was still staring at him, patiently, simply, openly. ‘The man is completely lacking in complexity,’ Gordon thought, intending it to be a kind of silent criticism, but realizing with a little shock that he was jealous of Lou’s simplicity. Somehow he knew that Lou was regarding him with sympathy. The fat cook wasn’t just trying to fill a job opening, he actually thought he was doing Gordon a favor!
Gordon looked around at the bums, at the stained tiles on the wall behind the big stove. He wondered if any businessman wearing a suit had ever set foot in the place. Normal! There was no normality to be gained here. There was nothing respectable here.
He glanced at Lou in silence. The wheezing of the coffee machine had died down, and even the background din of voices seemed to have strangely diminished, so he could clearly hear the muted whap whap whap of the ceiling fan overhead. Farther along the counter, the restaurant’s Siamese cat woke lazily and, after yawning and carefully stretching each of its legs one at a time, walked a little stiffly but still fluidly down the counter towards them. Ignoring the other people with their food seated along the counter, it finally stopped in front of Gordon, sniffed the air and looked up at him questioningly with its brilliant blue eyes, then inserted its head firmly under his hand and pushed up. Gordon laughed at the cat’s impudence and rubbed it behind the ears until it purred. What had he been thinking about? Finally he had to speak. “I, uh, I mean I appreciate the offer, if that’s what it is, but what makes you think that I...”
“Could handle it? Well, I don’t know.” Lou was genuinely perplexed. “Something about you, I guess. It’s just a feeling I got, but I think you could cut it. Seems like you’d be all right. I got a recipe around here somewhere, you could start from that.” He paused uncertainly. “The truth is, though, you’d have to get used to...” Lou paused as though to figure out what he meant, and finally came up with a concrete image. “Uh, like the smell and stuff.”
“Smell? You mean the customers?”
“No, that’s not usually so bad, the shelters have showers and… I meant the cooking… you know, like the… the stuff in the raw kidneys until it boils away...” His face turned slightly red as he realized the indignity of what he was saying.
But Gordon just shrugged, and stroked the cat, and heard coming out of his own mouth a word that he was sure he could not intend, a sound that seemed to be coming from far away, from someone else. “Awright,” he mumbled. He felt calm but foggy, no longer sure he even understood the conversation they were having.
Lou got a reflective look on his face. “Actually, the hardest part ain’t really the smells.” He was revising his thoughts aloud. “It’s the way these people act, the way they are. They’re, um, natural people, you know? They’re not smooth, they’re not — uh —” He searched for the word.
“Graceful?” Gordon suggested. “They’re not graceful?”
“Yeah.” Lou smiled and nodded a little at the word that he had probably never used before in his life. “That’s it, they’re not graceful.”
Gordon returned Lou’s smile and made a small shrugging motion with his shoulders. “I guess I can handle that,” he said.
So Gordon became a kidney chef. He put on a new white apron that Lou bought for him, and a rather silly tall hat, and on the blackened stove of Lou’s Up Diner he learned to prepare kidney pie, and kidney stew, and Kidney à la Hobo in wine sauce. (For cooking wine he used either Thunderbird or Mad Dog, which the winos were already familiar with, though not for cooking — they drank it out of bottles inside brown paper bags.) Kidney à la Hobo was his own invention, and in the alleyways and junkyards of the city it was accounted delicious. Ragged souls leaning in the diner’s doorway would luxuriously pick their teeth while critiquing the cooking of Gordon Gribley. All his kidney dishes — Chile con Kidney, Kidney Kabob, Salvation Army Kidneys — were the best that anyone had ever tasted.
And then one afternoon three men who were casually dressed but were obviously not derelicts walked in and sat by themselves in a booth in the corner. Lou seemed to know who they were, and hurried over to speak to them. They ordered the special of the day, Curried Kidneys on Rice. When they had tasted the dish they asked Lou to call the cook over.
“We heard about you,” the fattest of the three men said.
“Me?” asked Gordon. “Me?”
“Do you curry the kidneys first and let them sit awhile, or just dump the powder in the pot?” And then Gordon knew that they were the kidney chefs from the other hobo palaces in town and he waited nervously for them to say how they liked the food. But they just watched him silently, appraisingly. When they got up to leave, the fat one paused in the doorway and looked sadly at Gordon. “You’re the king now,” he said, and they all nodded somberly and left.
And so Gordon Gribley became the center of a network, the skid-row cook’s network, and young men on the slide would come to him for advice, not sure whether they could become cooks or maybe just dishwashers or whether they would slide all the way into being vagrants themselves. Working stiffs from out of town, their yellow construction helmets resting on the counter next to them, would ask Lou how Gordon could make cheap stuff taste so good — but Lou would just smile and nod mysteriously and pour them another cup of coffee.
Everywhere Gordon went, casual day-laborers and outright bums, street-corner ranters and impoverished old women on food stamps waved to him. He could hardly walk down a street without being recognized by some winos slumped against a wall; as he passed they would raise themselves up on one arm and give him a shaky military salute. All over the city, derelicts and drug addicts, depressed starving poets and sidewalk psychotics looked up to him as a true culinary craftsman and artist, and a model of employed respectability.
One day, a crazed bag lady and her scruffy boyfriend were sprawled in an alley between two office buildings in the downtown business district, their backs leaning against some giant garbage cans, looking vacantly out across the wide street. Suddenly they thought they could see — say, wasn’t that him, way over on the other side — there — beyond the honking cars and fancy-dressed pedestrians? Wasn’t that — why yes! The great chef himself was passing by!
They jumped up and lurched out onto the sidewalk, yelling Gordon’s name. He must have been able to hear them, because he raised one hand in greeting, but was too far away to touch — so the frenzied bag lady seized a startled junior executive by his polyester lapels, shook him a bit and shouted into his face, “Hey mister, you know who that is? Over there — look over there! No, don’t look at me, you fool, look way over there! That’s Gordon Grubble! Gordon Griddle the Kidney King! You heerd of him? You know of him?”
The young businessman let out a yelp and looked wildly around for a cop while struggling to free himself from her grasp. Her boyfriend, overcome with excitement, waved his arms and jumped up and down, hollering incoherently, his tangled beard flapping. A small crowd gathered to find out what the fuss was about, and grew increasingly noisy with sarcastic remarks, laughter, and absurd advice for the businessman and his lunatic acquaintances.
As for Gordon, why, he just kept walking past in the distance, not even breaking his stride; but he did smile a bit and wave grandly — and, if the truth be told, a bit condescendingly — to his public.