I Smile Paul Newman’s Smile

Posted by on June 2nd, 2010 at 10:13 AM

Something I want to do if I ever develop the balls: get into a “beef” w/ a cafe owner, then play a scene like the following.

Me: “Do you know who I am?”

Owner (with quiet menace): “No, my friend, I do not.”

Me: “Oh shit . . . This is Buffalo, New York, isn’t it?”

Of course, it isn’t Buffalo, New York. The idea is that, no, I’m not really trying to throw my weight around, that instead I have amnesia. The gag’s been done before, but it’s always played too bald: “Do you know who I am? No, really, I forgot” and so on. One looks for the proper bank shot to put over the idea.

Of course the cafe owner might not cooperate with my joke. Instead of saying he didn’t know who I was, he might say he didn’t care, or he might shove me, or he might do who knows what. And my nonexistent audience might wonder what was up with me and Buffalo. Was I the weatherman on a local channel? But I like the joke anyway. All it needs is a screenplay to go with it, so character and circumstances can be laid out — context.

The thought for the scene occurred to me because on Saturday I did get into a beef. It was with the owner of Cafe El Terra over on Milton. (No, it’s not really called El Terra.) He wanted the tv on, I wanted it off. Hey, I didn’t know he was the owner. I thought I was being polite, but his smile got tighter and tighter during our brief exchange. Kind of thin-skinned and territorial, I would say, him getting so pissed about his tv. He was a big fellow, taller than me, with close-cut hair and a very modest pot belly. Mainly he had muscles.

The thing is, the tv didn’t have the sound on. It was just mounted up on the wall, with some new-style revivial of George of the Jungle playing and nobody watching. (The cartoon was decent enough, from what I saw. Don’t ask me about the plot, I just noticed the colors and the drawing style, which seemed a bit foofy and wall-of-Sardi’s like, but not bad on its own terms.)

Let’s go back before the confrontation. I’d never been in the place before, so I had no idea what to expect. On arrival, I found a booth near an outlet and got down to work.Then the problem: I think a lot when I write, so I look off into space, and there was the new-style George. When I looked down at my computer, I still had the tv flickering at the top edge of my vision.

I looked around and verified that no one was watching the tv. They were all kids bent over their books, studying away, and the set was just on to be on. So I went to the counter and asked the girl there if she could turn off the set. She was surprised, and I gave a half-smile and cramped little shrug of my shoulder by way of apology.

All was well for 20 minutes or so. Then the tv flashed back on, and I looked behind me to see a tall, bullet-headed figure striding away from the counter after, it appeared, having given an order to the girl. This seemed a bit much. I got up to ask him why he wanted the set on.

Like I mentioned, he smiled throughout our exchange. I smiled back — I like friendliness, and I’m always a bit surprised and out of my depth when I find myself talking to a stranger. Therefore, I take surface indications at face value. Not much mental capacity is left for me to process deeper meanings. In this case they crept up on me, so that soon enough I had a sense of the real proceedings. Yet I couldn’t spell them out to myself until I sat quiet again.

The owner and I went thru the drill: nobody watching, set was distracting me, why have it on? I didn’t catch his answer to the last, but I think it was that he had paid for the set. If fully processed, that answer would have alerted me to his status, of course.

Now and then I would ask him to repeat himself because of his accent, which I think was Israeli. He pointed to this place and that place where I could plug in my computer without seeing the computer. None were suitable, just little nooks and crannies away from the window. The cafe’s best point is that it has big, broad windows facing onto the sidewalk; it’s nice to sit there. Not that I could assemble my reasoning on the subject.

I clued it together that he was the owner and (mentally) said the hell with it. But first, verification.

Me: “You’re the owner?”

Him (smile growing more incised): “Oh yes.”

Me: “Okay, then you’re the boss. You want the tv on, you can turn it on.”

Him (even more incision): “Thank you.”

Me: “Sure. You around here a lot?”

Owner (again incision): “I am.”

Me: “All right!”

I was very agreeable. In fact, when he gave me his artfully ironic “Thank you,” I felt my smile deepen. I didn’t know quite what was up, but something tickled me.

I sat back at my booth, sitting now on the opposite bench, and I flipped my laptop around. After a few minutes I realized why I didn’t want to face that way: when staring, I looked straight on the serving area, where the staff emerged from behind the counter and hurried here and there with orders. They had my eyes on them now, and I’m quite a goggler. A livable situation, but not nearly as good as leaving me free from the television and the servers free from my eyes.

The owner was pitching in and carrying plates to tables, which I think is only right. In between sentences, I let my eyes follow him around, checking out his physique and so on. He saw me and his shoulders started to bend forward. His eyes dropped.

I realized that I didn’t feel the way I should after giving up in a confrontation. My face wasn’t hot, my mind was free to piece together what had happened, that he had wanted the tv on just as a matter of territory — he was the owner, damn it. Some portion of my brain worked on could-have-saids, but they weren’t should-have-saids. Being far less urgent, they allowed me to go on with business as usual. That’s not the typical me after a faceoff. And, as noted, the owner was the one curling up at the edges.

Why did I come out all right? I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just lived enough decades by now. But so many times us poor non-toughs walk away from a confrontation and replay doctored scenes that have us scoring with a lifted eyebrow or a deftly composed phrase. We see scenes like that in movies and long for reality to write us one, preferably involving the jerk who cut ahead of us at the movies. I gave up on such hopes when much younger, and I’m glad I did. One of the blights of modern life is the pettiness of conversational point scoring.

The aim of these exchanges is to show that you find the other party amusing, a joke. Of course, the more you try to get the point across, the more you demonstrate that you don’t really believe it. And if you do pull off your little act, you’re simply being a jerk.

In this case, and I didn’t even know it until later, I did find the owner funny. The reaction floated up in me, light as the air in a balloon, and it allowed me to look at him and smile and do exactly what the would-be jerks try to do when showing their imperturbability.

The next night I watched Cool Hand Luke and imagine my surprise. I realized that, for the first time in my life, I had lived a movie scene, or the kind of movie scene that’s put together for the star to shine. A smiling refusal to take menace seriously — not because you want to score a point, but because you really don’t care. Who knew I had it in me?

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