The Smoker

“Can you get a tuxedo?”

Rob was Scottish-American, fair skinned and bright eyed, with an infectious mirth that seemed to wrap you in his private conspiracy that life was a joyous, ridiculous adventure. He would lean forward, look into your eyes and laugh wholeheartedly, holding your gaze until you too, were gifted with absurdity.

The fact that he was a corporate lawyer, did not seem to impress him very much. He belonged to the University Club, where once a week, I would meet him for a game of squash and dinner. The dinners themselves were preceded by a dry Manhattan, or two, a drink he introduced me to, and which I still drink for him.

We always had a wonderful time.

“The club is having a smoker!” he said, as if I should know what that was.

“They put up a boxing ring in the ballroom and all the members come in wearing tuxedoes and smoking cigars and drinking brandy and watch two golden glove boxers beat the crap out of each other”, he said excitedly.

“I’m going to bring you as a guest.”

The University Club was one of the last “men only” organizations left in San Francisco. The members exulted in and protected the boy’s club aura. So we showed up, black and white, in a gorgeous Victorian room, which had folding chairs set out in rows surrounding a central roped “ring”.

Two young men, both beautifully fit, obediently “ beat the crap out of each other” in front of the assembled throng, who screamed and swore and threw punches in the air as if they themselves were involved in a street fight.

They pissed out the windows onto the cars below, and filled the room with thick cigar smoke that gave the air a palpable pungency. The action in the ring was civilized compared to the behavior around it. Adult bankers, CEO’s, and heads of commerce, were hoarse from yelling. Spittle flew through the air. They would tear off their jackets as the action got heated; some down to their tee-shirts and shorts. Profanity was the preferred vehicle of communication.

It was savage and glorious.

Rob was a Christian. Not zealous, but a solid believer in moral certitude and stewardship.

And yet, he would insist on going to places that had an element of risk or were simply odd.

Once, before dinner, he decided we had to go have drinks in a lesbian bar, south of Market. I followed him in as he strode confidently to the back of the bar, and every face turned toward us, as if two idiot mice had walked into the cat club. Rob was oblivious.

“Have you ever been here before?” I asked.

He turned to me with utter glee, and laughed: “No.”

He was so charming to anyone who would respond to him, that by the time we left, the girls were slapping us on the back in bonhomie and inviting us to return anytime.

Once we went to see a stripper. Rob grinned like a child at Disneyland, but a child whose thrill seemed disposable, unlike me, who was haunted by the beauty of the girl for weeks.

He loved his wife, and would talk about her with such admiration that I loved him for it.

They had adopted two beautiful children and bought a run-down mansion in Piedmont which he was renovating as they lived in it.

There was an uncharacteristic halt to our meetings, and I didn’t see him for several weeks.                              When we finally had our customary game of squash, he played badly, laughing about it. I noticed his legs were full of bruises, and he said that he fell in the yard.

During dinner, he began asking me if I believed in spirit healers or shamans and whether they could heal the sick. This wasn’t unusual, since we often chose some bizarre topic over dinner. Usually it would result in hilarity. Not this time though. He seemed genuinely interested in witch doctors.

He asked me to come out to his house that weekend and take pictures of him with his wife and kids.                      I photographed him while we had lunch in his yard.

Three days later he died of a melanoma.

When the pictures were printed, I noticed that in many of them, he was gazing skyward, as if he was already waiting for his chariot to swing low…or just looking for a sign.

When Rob no longer came home, his five year-old son took a hammer and broke the windshield on his vintage Mustang.


~ by theoxherd on March 9, 2012.

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