God, it was a long time ago. 1966, if you really must know. There I was, along with three other cocky sailors in the Poinsettia Bar & Grill in Key West, tossing back a few cold ones. An older gentleman in a straw hat and Hawaiian shirt at the far end of the bar made a few stabs at joining our conversation, but we only acknowledged him with perfunctory nods and, for the most part, blithely ignored his contributions.
Rosie, our favorite bartender, motioned several times for us to pay attention to the old gentleman and, at one point, informed us that he had bought drinks for the four of us. Hearing this, we looked in his direction, raised our glasses, and smiled briefly (we weren’t totally ignorant) before diving back into our own self-absorbed world. When we glanced in his direction a little later, we could see the old gentleman was gone.
“You idiots,” Rosie exclaimed, walking over to us, “what is the matter with you? I’ve been trying to tell you guys that you were just treated to a round of drinks by JOHN STEINBECK!”
“What?” I shouted. “Why didn’t you say so?” I tore out of the bar and ran to the car to get my copy of Travels with Charley. Always the would-be writer, boy, did I ever want that author’s signature! I grabbed the book and ran up and down Poinsettia Avenue to see which doorway had swallowed up Steinbeck. Sadly, I couldn’t spot a trace.
I’d like to think that day taught me to be a little more observant of others and a lot more tuned in to what they say. According to my wife, however, I haven’t quite gotten there yet.