We arrived at El Portal near the end of the third quarter of the annual rivalry game between USC and UCLA. The Mexican restaurant had two distinct areas; one side dedicated to drinking, the other to eating. The drinking side was well-lit. Neon lights spelled the names of premier Mexican beers, like Pacifico and Modelo, decorated the bar. A string filled with red, green and white Mexican flags ran from the top of an artificial palm tree by the front door to the area where the crowd filled many tables. Two girls dressed in short, tight skirts and halter tops skittered around a cardboard cutout of a guitar-playing Spanish man advertising Corona beer. The girls had consumed a lot of alcohol, laughing and swaying as they capture selfies with the two-dimensional advertisement, he dressed in a decorative black suit and a large white sombrero.
Happy hour ended when the third quarter started, but the crowd took full advantage of the two-for-one pricing. Waitresses carried trays filled with Margaritas, beers and shots throughout the second half. Cheers and disappointing groans filled the room as fans wearing Bruin blue and gold and Trojan cardinal and gold offered the coaches and referees advice and loud criticism. The game was close as it entered the fourth quarter. An invitation to a major bowl was on the line.
Tables and booths filled the other side of the restaurant. Colorful, hand-painted images decorated the walls, the pictures portraying aspects of life south of the border. The restaurant had not turned the lights in the dining area up yet; the light was dim, becoming darker as the light outside dissipated as the sun fell over the horizon.
The bar area looked fun, but it was hardly the place to have a serious conversation. We chose a table inside the dining area, but close to the bar, in view of flat screen televisions mounted on the walls. My friend and I were there to review and analyze the latest rumors about the company’s restructuring and early retirement packages. Work around the company was grinding to a halt as rumors swirled and speculation about the near-future became more and more outlandish in the absence of information from Senior Management. People speculated how many jobs the company would cut, the estimates ranging from a small number to large and inconceivable numbers that felt outrageous. People were also speculating about the packages, the incentives to get people to retire early and the involuntary severance that would likely follow if they didn’t get enough people to volunteer.
We ordered Margarita Especials, asked the waiter for chips and salsa, and asked her to bring dinner menus and a second drink the minute we emptied our glasses. We toasted before we drank. I told Michael I planned to take the package regardless of the terms. He told me he had no plans to leave.
“I am not ready to retire. I want to work another two or three years before I go. I can retire now. I have the money, but what would I do with all that time?”
“You’ll find something to do,” I said.
“I don’t think so. I am bored by the end of my weekends and my wife and I have nothing to say by Sunday morning,” he said.
“You can’t put your head in the sand and Janice it goes away. You’ll have to do something about it sooner or later”
“I know,” he said.
“You are sixty-five years old. Are you going to wait until you are seventy, like Bill, and get a paycheck while you have to withdraw from your retirement accounts? Then die two years later?” I asked. “You can’t work there forever.”
“I know, but not right now,” he said. He sighed, a deep heavy sigh. “I wish things would stay the same.”
“Not me. I’ll never retire, but I am going to take the package. Put it in my hands and I will sign it! I am ready for a change. I have been doing this work far too long.”
He disagreed with me. He said loved what he does, even though the last time we drank Margaritas he complained how bored he was. During his forty year career he has described the geology for most of the assets the company owned.
What do you plan to do “with all that time?” he asked.
My answer surprised him.
“You are going to write a book?”
I don’t tell many people, especially the professionals I worked with, that my dream is to write novels. Writing was something other people do, so I kept my dream to myself. I only shared my dream with the few in my industry who have similar dreams. I have not told Alan I wanted to write. Still, I was a little surprised by the emphasis he placed on “you.”
I swallowed my chip and salsa and took a sip of the Cadillac Margarita to wash down the spicy hot sauce. This was the best margarita I have had since Steve, my traveling friend, and I had at the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe.
After a long pause, I replied, “Yes.”
“Really?” I couldn’t tell whether he asked me a question or made a statement that expressed utter disbelief.
He dipped a couple of chips into the salsa, and before he put them into his mouth, he asked, “What kind of book?”
“Books,” I said. “I have outlined a trilogy and written several hundred pages. I also plan to write a memoir.”
“You’re going to write an autobiography?”
Half of the crowd on the bar side of the restaurant roared. Several stood up and gave fist pumps and chest bumps as if they had carried the ball across the goal line. The other half sat in shocked disbelief. A pick six gave the home team their first lead in the game. Less than two minutes remained on the game clock. I am neither a Bruin or Trojan fan so I ignored the game.
I didn’t want to explain the difference between a memoir and an autobiography to him. I took another sip, drinking from the last spot on the rim that still had salt.
“Yes,” I said.
“But,” he said, and followed it with a long pause, “You’re just an ordinary guy.”
I am not Neil Young waging heavy peace or William Finnegan searching the planet for the perfect wave and writing stories about the plight of Third World countries. I am not Barrack Obama reclaiming the American Dream or Victor Frankl describing the horrific struggle of life in a Nazi death camp. My childhood wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t gut wrenching like Jennifer Walls or Tara Westover. I have not performed heroic acts during a natural disaster. My fifteen minutes of fame may be a newspaper picture of my daughter and I at the Kern County Fair sliding down a gigantic yellow slide. So I guess my friend was right when he asked, why me, “an ordinary guy,” would write a memoir.
I agree with Michael; I am an ordinary man. Not everything I have done is ordinary, but at the most essential human level, I am an ordinary guy. I go to work, earn an income, provide for my family and give them an education to prepare them to be independent. Like many parents, I love my children very much and I want them to have a better life than mine. Like most people, I have been through ups and downs, experienced life’s highs and lows: marriage, divorce, child birth, watched the birth of my children (heard them take their first breaths as they entered the world and cried, cut their umbilical cord) , attend funerals for my two Dads, promotions and demotion. I have felt the false sense of immortality dissipate into mortality. I have been untouchable and vulnerable. I have felt the dark and the light. I have been the dark and the light. We all have.
That’s an ordinary life in my book.
I scooped salsa onto another chip and washed it down, emptying the glass. The waiter approached our table carrying a tray with Margaritas, a basket of chips, bowls of salsa and menus.
“Yes, I am an ordinary guy,” I said, as I took a sip of the second Margarita.
An ordinary guy who has something to say.