by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
January 30, 2002
SEATTLE, Wash. -- Living in London, we picked up a phrase that was a Leitmotif of the weather forecast there: bright interval.
This comes in handy in Seattle, where there is a mammoth bright interval lasting from around May to September and, from then on, fleeting bright intervals between showers.
But these days, when I speak of bright intervals, I tend to mean those brief episodes of mental clarity that delight all of us defying the Biblical actuarial tables.
Jane Brody, the New York Times' expert on health, published a column the other day devoted to keeping mentally alert.
One of her recommendations was to work crossword puzzles. This was a great relief, since I do three or four a day.
Frankly, I did not need Ms. Brody's advice, since my favorite aunt, Aunt Helen, had told me this years ago: Never watch tv. Do crosswords.
"How about Jeopardy?" I asked.
"Trebek does crosswords," she said.
All this chat about mental clarity will introduce an episode, unfinished, of extreme mental befuddlement.
As I was coming off the fishing pier down at the marina I passed a couple, an old man in a wheelchair being pushed by a young woman.
The old guy greeted me with a few words and a look that I know well: the thirst for some conversation. I sat down and she pushed him up to me.
"Sir," she says, "could I ask you for a great favor? Could you just sit here with him for five minutes while I run for coffee?" There is a small café at the end of the pier. I say okay.
"Skinny latte for you, right, Pa?" she says as she runs off. Henods vaguely. To have something to say, I ask him what a skinny latte is. He says he has not the faintest idea - he drinks only tea.
This is the first thing that slightly worries me.
"Is she your daughter?" I ask, thinking that might be politer than granddaughter.
"She never said," he says.
I look in the direction of the café. The young woman (unmistakable in flame red shorts) is getting into a pickup truck, which then drives away. If she is going for Pa's skinny latte, she is going far. The sick feeling comes over me that the old guy and I are on our own.
I start to make conversation, but he says: "What time is it?" I tell him. "Sir," he says, "have you ever seen me before?" I have had odd conversations, mostly in bars late at night, but this is broad daylight on a pier and I say "No. Who are you?"
"That was my question. Who am I?"
"I can't tell you," I say, "but who was she?"
"She was someone they sent for me, to look after me, and to take me to the university when I had to be there."
"You're a professor?"
"I think so. Ask me something about fruit."
"How do you like them apples?"
"Are you a comedian?"
"Well, I like that," I said. "Here I am trying to help you out after you've been abandoned and you treat me like dirt."
"Dirt! Bless its heart. Long live dirt!"
What was I to do, aside from engage Pa in this pointless dialogue? Call 911?
But to say what? I am being annoyed by an old man in a wheelchair? I asked him his name.
"Walter Matthau," he said.
"Okay, now you're the comedian," I said. "But she has left us."
"It doesn't surprise me," he said. "What is your name?"
"Clarence Brown," I said.
"Gatemouth!" he beamed. "What happened? You look so pale."
"Now who is the comedian?" I asked. [to be continued]
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.