It is almost summer and time for a change from Faux News all the time. A few years ago I published on the web a number of essays called “The Stories of Joseph Howell.” Some blog readers may have seen some of them before. Here (again) is one of my favorites:
Okay, let’s face it: Most people like to be liked and respected. And I am no different. I have yearned for popularity and respect my entire life, an endless quest , so to speak, rarely fulfilled.
Of course, being liked and being respected does not happen all the time and rarely happens at the same time, but it happened to me in the hot summer of 1981.
It all started with a phone call from an acquaintance from my former job where I worked as a developer of affordable housing. I hardly knew the guy, but he got right to the point. “Joe, I just wanted to call and tell you how much I respect you and how important you were to me when we worked together.”
I couldn’t believe it. Me? Important to a guy I really didn’t know? It just goes to show, you never know when you are having a positive influence on someone. It was surprising that he even remembered my name.
He went on to say that he respected and liked me so much that he was having a party in my honor and was going to invite a lot of his housing friends and people at HUD. It was going to be fun—but it was not just for me, it was also for my wife, and there would not be a party unless we both could attend. Now was that thoughtful or what? He did not even know Embry.
“The party is going to be on Wednesday, July 18. Can you and your wife make it?” I checked with Embry. I could make it. She couldn’t. I was really disappointed. Here was a guy having a party in my honor, and I couldn’t even make it. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity lost. I expressed my regrets, thinking how wonderful it would have been to be the center of attention.
“Oh, that’s ok, we can move it to the next Wednesday.” Wow, this guy won’t give up, I thought. The conversation continued with several other dates proposed until we found one that worked. Wednesday, August 9. Oddly, all the dates suggested were Wednesdays. His last words were that it was really going to be fun, that I would meet a lot of affordable housing people, and that it was very, very important that we got there on time. He gave me the address of his apartment, conveniently located only a couple of miles from our house in northwest Washington.
Since the party was almost a month away, I did not give it a great deal of thought; though when I did, I could not conceal my pride and sense of satisfaction. Being honored like this does not happen to many people. It was not that I did not deserve this kind of recognition. It is just that it is so rare and in my case was so long overdue.
About a week before the event, my excitement was starting to build. I got a call from my friend reminding me of the party and verifying that both I and my wife would be present and on time. He stressed that we should be there at seven at the latest.
There are two other things that you should know. First, I had just started up my own consulting practice (in affordable and seniors housing) and was desperate for clients; and two, August 9, 1981, the day of the party, could well have been the hottest and most unpleasant day in the history of Washington, with sweltering humidity and temperatures near 100.
The reason the first fact is important is that on that very day I was in New York City consulting with one of my few clients. I had planned to catch the two o’clock shuttle flight allowing me to get home in plenty of time for the party. My client asked if I could stay another day to finish the work on the assignment.
Rule number one: you never turn down a client request, especially if he is your only client.
I turned him down. I could not miss the party in my honor, after all the planning that must have gone into it. I just could not do this to my friend or, for that matter, to myself. I had never been honored in such a fashion. I caught the two pm plane, which was delayed, but did get into National Airport around five thirty, allowing time to get home, take a shower, get dressed and still make it by seven. But I had to hurry. I did not have a minute to waste
I told the cab driver to step on it, arrived home around six and stumbled out of the air-conditioned cab. The heat almost knocked me out. I raced up our front stairs, announcing that I was home and that we had only minutes to get ready. There was no answer. Embry was nowhere to be found. Puzzling, I thought. Before I had left for my business trip, I had reminded her how important the event was and how we had to be on time. Oh well, I thought, she will surely be here soon. The baby sitter showed up minutes later.
At six thirty I was showered, dressed, and ready to go. It would take about fifteen minutes to get to his apartment, plenty of time. Still no Embry. At six forty-five, still no Embry. By this time I was pacing the floor of our front porch scanning the sidewalk, sweating, and furious. How could she do this to me? At exactly five minutes to seven, I saw her. She was smiling, with our six-year-old daughter in tow, and had on her swimming suit. They had been for a refreshing swim at the neighborhood pool. She was casually walking toward the house.
“Do you know what time it is and where we have to be?” I shouted. Several passersby on the sidewalk gave me a puzzled look. Embry’s smile changed to a frown. “What’s the big deal? It is unbearably hot. We went to the pool.” she said, “I’ll be ready in a couple of minutes….”
A couple of minutes? I was ruined. It was already seven, and we would be at least a half hour late. I can’t remember exactly what I said to her next, but she gave me a skeptical look and said, “Are you crazy? You don’t even know this guy!”
Around seven thirty she reappeared. By this time I had calmed down a bit, realizing that the damage had been done, and there was nothing I could do about it. Maybe my friend would be a little upset, but it was not the end of the world. I jumped in the car and motioned to Embry to get in. How could she be so slow? I stepped on the gas as we raced up Connecticut Avenue, thankful that there were no cops around to nail us for speeding. We did not say one word to each other the whole way to the party.
Now that we were finally moving, I was finally able to relax a bit. I envisioned what it would be like when we did arrive. We would be warmly greeted. My friend would introduce us to everyone and say a lot of nice things about me. There would be great food, beer and wine and probably some good music in the background. I would feign humility and bask in the limelight, maybe even say a few words myself. All would be good. I managed to smile at Embry, who despite her look of bewilderment, managed to smile back.
I had his address on a sheet of paper—an apartment building on Connecticut Avenue, apartment 603. We pulled into a side street, found a parking space; and I leaped out of the car, pulling Embry along. Panting, we arrived at the front door of the apartment building, which thankfully was unlocked. It was now almost eight, and the elevator took forever to get down to the first floor. As the elevator door opened on floor six, I bounded toward apartment 603 and found it only a few doors away. Oddly there was no sound coming from inside the apartment—no noise or laughter or music. I must have written down the wrong address. I paused for a long moment. Embry suggested I should just knock and see what would happen.
I did. The door opened, and we gazed into a room packed with probably thirty or forty people, all stone silent and sitting on the floor. The room was suffocating. Air conditioning units are not equipped to cool an apartment packed with people when it is over 100 degrees outside. All eyes turned to us. There was a man standing in front of the group. He was probably around 40, was wearing a dark suit and tie, and had a deadly serious look on his face. My friend was nowhere to be seen.
“The Howells I presume?” the presenter said in a sarcastic tone, “We have your place reserved on the front row. You are one hour late.”
My friend suddenly appeared from nowhere and escorted us to a spot on the floor in the front as we tried to avoid stepping on anyone. We sat down on the carpet as people shuffled around trying to make room for us.
I had no idea what was happening or where we were. I immediately thought of Franz Kafka. Was this some kind of purgatory? Was this a bad joke? Was it some kind of torture? Was it a precursor to an execution? Or was it just a nightmare, which would fade into memory when I woke up?
I was so confused I could not focus on what the guy was saying.
But after a couple of minutes I began to get my wits about me and was able to see what he was doing. He had an easel and was drawing a pyramid with dollar signs all over it.
Wait a minute. I had seen this movie before. An out-of-town, old friend from high school had showed up at our house a few years before, supposedly for dinner, but had immediately brought in an felt board on which he placed a pyramid with dollar signs and insisted on talking about some hair-brained, get rich scheme, selling toothpaste and laundry detergent. I had told him I had no interest in selling toothpaste or laundry detergent. He said, I didn’t have to sell anything, just enlist six friends, and I would be guaranteed riches. When I told him we were not interested in riches and that we should just have dinner and talk about old times, he left in a huff, not even staying for dinner. Embry thought the guy was nuts. I never saw or spoke to him again.
I quietly turned to the woman next to me, who seemed to be spellbound by whatever the presenter in the dark suit was saying, and asked in a whisper, “Amway Products?”
She nodded yes, smiling.
The moment the young woman nodded, Embry, with a horrified look on her face and in a stage whisper heard by everyone in the room, exclaimed: “Joe Howell, I have been married to you for a long time and I have put up with a lot of shit, but I am not putting up with this shit for one instant.” She stood up and headed for the door.
There was a hushed silence. Then everyone looked at me.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I stood up as well, waved my hand, and with an embarrassed smile managed to say, “Bye bye,” and bolted for the door, trying not to step on anyone.
Someone opened the door but not before I was able to notice the stunned look on the face of my friend. The door slammed shut and Embry and I stood alone in the dim hallway. We looked at each other for a brief moment and burst out laughing.
So much for being respected and well liked, I thought. But life could be a lot worse. I could be selling toothpaste and laundry detergent.