Here is installment two. I wrote this in 1981 following the incident which you are about to read. Some 40 years later I remember every detail like it happened yesterday.
Okay, I admit it: I have yearned for respect most of my adult life and have watched others being honored hoping one day I too might have such an opportunity.
Of course, being honored does not happen often to anyone, but the opportunity 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.
He went on to say that he respected and liked me so much, 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. He had never met Embry and I do not believe even knew her name.
“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 disappointed. Here was a guy having a party in my honor, and I couldn’t 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,” he cheerfully replied.
The guy wouldn’t give up. I must have had quite an influence on him. The conversation went on like this 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 get there on time and that my wife accompany me. 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 had never happened.
About a week before the event, my excitement was starting to build. I got a call from my friend reminding me of the party in my honor 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 second, 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 degrees.
The reason the first fact is important is that on that 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 in consulting: you never turn down a client’s 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 caught the two pm shuttle, 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 babysitter 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. 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 must have sounded desperate. Several passersby on the sidewalk gave me a puzzled look. Embry’s smile changed to a puzzled 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 replied, “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 on the 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. There would be a presentation where he would 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 address wrong. I paused for a long moment. Embry suggested I should just knock and see what would happen.
I knocked. The door opened immediately, 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 conditioners 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, probably around 40, and wearing a dark suit and tie. He had a dead serious look on his face. My friend was nowhere to be seen.
“The Howells I presume?” he said in a sarcastic tone, “We have your place reserved on the front row. You are one hour late.”
My friend suddenly appeared and escorted us to a spot in the front as we tried to avoid stepping on anyone. We sat down on the floor 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?
Confused, I could not focus on what the guy was saying.
After a couple of minutes, I did begin 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 picture 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 easel on which he drew 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. He was representing a company I had never heard of called Amway. 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 heard from him again.
What I was watching seemed all too familiar.
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?”
She nodded yes, smiling.
I glanced briefly at Embry. Initially she had a horrified look on her face, quickly changing to a devilish grin.
Then in a stage whisper heard by everyone in the room, she exclaimed with the voice of authority: “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 stared at me. The presenter looked as if he did not know what to do.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I stood up , waved my hand, and with an embarrassed smile managed to say, “Bye bye,” then bolted for the door, trying not to step on anyone.
Someone opened the door but not before I was able to notice the look of horror 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 moment and burst out laughing.
So much for being respected and honored, I thought. But life could be a lot worse. I could be selling toothpaste and laundry detergent.