Just Passing Through
Cabbages and Kings
"The way I see things if you've had it all you've lived--and that's the only way.
"Back here you do things and never ask 'why?' 'cause there's no real answer. So you pay a thousand for a year at college, and more for the padded cell and the prison chow--the whole crew too anemic for words. You live from lab to library, a regular test-tube life.
"I had this bit once--this eight to midnight grind with weekends off. So on Friday you tie one on and talk about it for a week and call it excitement. Big thrill! It's a cream-puff world with less kicks than a bird-bath swim, and you make it a shell game and like it.
"You let the other guy live your life, and you like him for it--the Jimmy Dean sort of guy. And when you want to rebel you grow a beard, wear levis and cowboy boots, or smoke a pipe. But is this life? If one of these fellows with their picture-book notions ever met life face-to-face it would blow up his sand castle but good. They're even afraid of cracks in the sidewalk." He pulled out a cigarette, and someone had a lighter.
"Like I said, I had this routine; had it till junior year. Then I took off for Europe and haven't been home since. May never get back. Once you find guts enough to shove on out you don't feel like stopping. It gets in your blood and you know it's good. It's life--not the bottled kind, but real life.
"I hit France and picked up a vespa. Headed south, or something like south. Reached Switzerland before the bread ran out, and found a job in one of those international schools. A country club affair for various breeds of brats. The math teacher had the grippe and all I did was fake a college degree. It was a great job, all ski trips and German beer. Wrote the draft board I was getting educated and they lapped it up. 'Europe' has a ring of enchantment for the boys back home.
"Anyway, the teacher got better--he was an ox. And it was just as well, since my principles went against sticking in one place too long. (I was finding all kinds of principles I never knew I had.) So I gave up schussing and hitch-hiked to Spain.
"Wrote home for money and they sent it quick. Told them if they didn't I'd take up bull-fighting; or maybe gun-running in Algeria. They always liked me pretty much, anyway. I let the draft boys know I was studying Spanish for some diplomatic spot, so between us we were all happy.
"I found a job in a Barcelona bar--an American bar. All foreign liquor was illegal 'cause they want to peddle the local cognac, but the cops had a system where they'd come around once at Easter to collect a fine, and then you're holding aces for the rest of the year. They had real organization there; lots of it." He lit another cigarette and continued.
"Stuck to Spain for quite a while. Beautiful country. Developed a taste for fried octopus and red wine. The bar folded and for a month I taught skin diving to some paper-weight Americans, but my ear got infected, so I quit.
"I've seen both sides, so I know what I'm saying. If you stick here too long you'll be pigeon-holed for life. These guys come over there too, but they're so full of second-hand garbage they can't see what's real if they try. They're the night club crew. Ten minutes in Chartres, an hour in the Louvre, and all day in some sidewalk cafe (where they can see all the other Americans). They're the Lido boys, who travel first class and stay at the Ritz. The double-scotch-with-ice bunch that finds its Europe in a guide book. They take the tours and chat with friends, all cameras and golf hats and sport shirts; but they can't see further than their sun glasses."
A voice asked where he was going now, and he beamed his reply.
"I've got momentum and I guess the roll will outlast me. Heading west, Hong Kong in particular. Think I'll try setting up ice hockey there with some old washed-up Canadians, if I can get some ice. I've found my principles, boys, and you ought to find yours."
He left as he had entered, unheralded. A few laughed, but nervously. Others nodded knowingly and finished their coffee. Silence reigned for a moment, broken finally by a cry, "Hey! Who has my lighter?"