Friday, December 9, 2011

A Story For Bert

I first met Herbert C. Gardner back in 1981. It was on my first day at Bozell Advertising. We were introduced. He shook my hand and immediately bummed a cigarette. He bummed another the next day. And another the day after that, and in no time at all, I had two nicotine habits: My own and Bert’s.

Sometimes he felt obligated to sit in my office and be charming while he smoked my cigarettes. More often, he just mooched one and took it back to his office to smoke alone.

He was health conscious and from time to time he would try to offset the effects of smoking my cigarettes by going on exercise benders or taking up strange fringe sports.

For a while there, it was race walking. He would go on and on about how healthy it was and demonstrate his race-walking gait in the office hall. It was heel-toe-heel-toe, elbows at ninety degrees, those massive Big 12 tackle hips rocking side to side.

Then, flushed from the effort, he would bum another cigarette, race-walk back to his office, close the door and smoke it in contemplative solitude.

He seemed to have sent away for an Charles Atlas Course of the soul—to be living in a state of Charles Atlas-like dynamic tension with himself and the world. Flexing opposite activities, moods and traits against one another to get strong.

Smoking and race walking. Mooching and generosity. Privacy and friendship. Guile and candor. Motorcycles and literature. He weighed 270 pounds, but he held, read and loved books like a little old lady librarian.

It was this yin and yang, this dynamic tension, that kept me charmed enough to keep giving him cigarettes. Bert was a vortex of personal enigmas. I never knew whether I felt close to him from a distance or sensed a distant closeness.

Later, when I changed agencies and quit smoking, I would hire Bert for voice work. It was during those sessions, killing time, talking with him while the engineer worked, that I came to appreciate Bert as a charming curmudgeon—an acquired taste. A friend.

I had a book come out this fall, and I took a copy out to Bert. When he finished it, he was kind enough to send me a few thoughts in an email. It illustrates that dynamic tension and Bert’s grace and humor. I’ll share some of it with you now.

Dear Peter:

This should really be a handwritten note, But at the moment I must plead being a little too tired to do that. Sorry.

I've just finished (your book). I enjoyed it tremendously.

Like you, I believe that real life is composed of little things. Big things, the things we do that others take note of, will be as they will be, depending on opportunity, circumstance, drive and luck. But the things that make us human and precious and unique are the little things and our reaction to them.

The adroitness of your word choice and the care with which you assemble those words make them disappear behind the lovely images they evoke. This is good stuff Peter, wonderful, lucid, honest writing. Thank you for bringing it to me.…


It would have been a nice last note between old friends if it ended there, but we all know it would not have been Bert. There’s a post script:

P.S. (he writes) I couldn't help noticing that you didn't sign my copy, you prick! (Exclamation mark) (Or was I supposed to ask?)

And with that, human…precious… unique… my friend Bert race walked away without even bumming a cigarette.