As previously described in two earlier installments of FREEWAY FOLLIES, Krego was a large, mid-50s, loud, opinionated man who never held back in expressing his opinion on any subject. I met him on a fishing trip as we traveled from Newport Beach to Cabo San Lucas with two others, Berman and George. |
The butt of Krego's barbs on that trip was a gentle, soft-spoken, normally quiet, 25-year-old named Berman. We suspected Berman was gay, which was all that it took to get Krego going. Krego worked in slurs the way artists worked in oils or watercolors. I suspect he blurted out the words without knowing what he was saying. Frequently, descriptions like colored, beaner, dago, pollock, kraut, mick, queer, faggot, fag, etc. spewed forth when he described--well, almost anything. Example: "Where did you get those fag shoes?" "Nice beaner shirt." "There's enough grease on the burger for a wop to put in his hair," The stuff just issued forth without thought as to who was near or where he was. The guy wasn't a mean man, and he could be uncommonly generous with everyone regardless of race or sexual preference. His manner of speech was a paradox; or did it reveal true feelings? My opinion was that he grew up in an environment that encouraged that sort of thing without filters or even knowledge of what was being implied, but I could be wrong
At one point during the drive to Tijuana to catch a plane, Berman swerved into another lane because Krego blew cigar smoke in his face. A red Audi went around us and flipped Berman the bird using two fingers--pointer and middle.
"Probably queer," said Krego.
I informed Krego that was not necessarily so; that it was the English method for flipping one off.
As we entered San Diego, the consensus was to stop for a quick lunch at any convenient fast food joint just off the freeway. An IHOP appeared near an exit ramp. A bored hostess escorted us to a booth, and gave us some sticky menus. After placing our orders--sandwiches, no pancakes--Krego shook his head and started grumbling to himself about something.
While we waited for food, the conversation turned to the deep sea fishing adventures we anticipated in Cabo and La Paz. The guys were all charged up about catching marlin and sailfish, but I couldn't have cared less. I'd definitely throw in a line and make the attempt, but mainly I was interested in cruising around the sea and drinking beer. My primary goal was mellow relaxation--peace and quiet. The schedule was to fly from Tijuana to Cabo for three days, and stop at La Paz for two days on the way back. Our air routing was through La Paz in both directions anyway.
When the waitress delivered our food, Krego was still grousing. I didn't know or care what it was about so I kept quiet and attacked my turkey-on-wheat. George, however, was curious.
"What's your problem?" he asked.
"Ah, that REALLY pisses me off!" Krego said it loud enough that everyone in the area heard.
"That!" Krego pointed to the booth directly across from us at a mixed race couple. They could neither avoid seeing nor hearing him. Until then, the races of the couple didn't register with the rest of us. After all, this was Southern California where interracial dating had been commonplace since the 1960s. I dated across racial lines before marriage, and in high school my daughter did as well.
"Yeah, so?" George spoke, but we all stared at Krego with a vacuous so-what gaze. We were also embarrassed--big time! Anyone seated within voice-shot of our booth might make the unfair, if not natural, assumption that we shared Krego's attitude.
"The dumb ass probably isn't really white. Probably Eye-talian," Krego took a large bite of his hamburger and chewed noisily.
"Krego! Oh, my god!" said a shocked and mortified Berman.
I couldn't let it pass either. "We so-called white people happen to be mostly European-Americans, and Italy was located in Europe last time I looked."
"I don't give a damn, it still pisses me off!" said Krego loudly. Then with a challenging look to the couple, "What are you lookin' at?"
We completed the rest of our meal in uncomfortable silence--three of us anyway. I caught the eyes of the couple, tilted my head at Krego, and mouthed a silent "sorry". They looked back, but I couldn't read their gaze. They seemed neither benevolent nor forgiving, and I didn't blame them. They undoubtedly considered all four of us of the same ilk. Thanks, Krego.
As we sat in the waiting area of the Tijuana terminal, Krego griped about everyone speaking Spanish. "Dumb spicks," he said not knowing that was a disparaging remark for Puerto Ricans, not Mexicans. I wondered if he even knew it was disparaging, not that it would have stopped him. I even wondered if he knew Spanish, not English, was the language of the land. Like many Americans he expected the rest of the world to adapt to him.
"Yeah, what's the matter with these people?" George said winking at me.
"Proabaly Eye-talians," I said getting a laugh. Krego just gave me a steely-eyed glare.
About three months after our trip concluded, and we were back in Orange County, I moved my office and never saw George nor Berman again. However, I bumped into Krego about a year after that in Palm Springs. He had mellowed considerably. The racial and homophobic slurs were gone from his vocabulary, and he talked in a softer, more relaxed tone. I remarked about his newer, kinder, gentler personality.
"Yeah? Well, you know, sometimes as life happens you get a few lessons along the way. If you are willing to learn from those lessons, you can come out a better person," he said quietly. "Most of my life I haven't been very charitable to my fellowman. I said mean things--and meant them--and used less than nice terms describing people different from me. Sometimes I did it just to get a laugh. Other times...well, let's just say I've come to view the world through a different lens."
I was flabbergasted. "What happened--psychoanalysis; religious converstion?"
"No, none of those. You know why people really change?" Krego smiled and looked past me, but his countenance was thoughtful; something I'd never seen before.
"I'm not sure..."
"Trauma! Think about it. When does a habitually drunk driver stop?" He quickly answered his own question, "When he kills somebody! See, it takes gut-wrenching trauma to cause life-changing transformation."
I was amazed that this was the same man who went fishing with me in Mexico . "And you experienced some kind of life-changing trauma?"
"Yes and no. It was George who had the experience, but it was me who learned from it."
"George? That phoney--not that he fools anybody. Guy's an overbearing egotist. I think the only real value he figures he has is in others' opinion of him."
"Exactly!" Krego sat back in his lounge chair by the swimming pool, and again looked thoughtfully into space then back at me. There was a twinkle in his eye. "I saw a wasted life, a life searching and never finding; a frightened lonely little boy. I saw a bit of myself, though I acted out differently than George did."
I could tell there was a lot more to this so I said nothing. I simply looked at him and willed him to continue.
Krego sighed then rose and made us vodka tonics. After he sat down again, he looked at me kind of sideways. "Remember George's meek, little red-haired wife?"
"I met her once," I said. "They seemed mismatched; him flamboyant and outgoing, and her so plain and quiet. He kind of bullied her."
"I thought so too," Krego chuckled. "Turned out she had more spunk than we thought. Shortly after our fishing trip, she packed her bag, moved out, and sued for divorce. Got herself a crackerjack lawyer. It cost George his big ego-trip office. He ended up working out of his house."
"Wow! That must've been a blow--both things: his wife raking him over the coals, and (especially) losing his big aquarium. He loved that 500-gallon tank more than any human."
"That's not all," Krego continued, "His business that was so very successful began to dry up, and the false confidence he exuded went south as well. It was a downward spiral that he didn't know how to stop."
"So, what happened?"
"Well, he called me one afternoon to tell me he'd landed a huge account, something that would bring in a ton of money; wouldn't have to worry for a year. Said it was a good thing too--he had nothing else in the hopper. Anyway, he sounded like the same old confident George. Invited me to dinner that very night--his treat--at the Rusty Pelican in Newport."
"Did you go?"
"Oh, hell yes! Of course! We had a drink at the bar, and he received a phone call. When he hung up, he looked like death itself; and as you'll see, I mean that quite literally. He recovered quickly; gave me that fake grin--the one you can see right through--and tried to be very jovial through dinner. I knew something was off. I really knew it was off when he flashed his gold American Express, and started picking up dinner tabs for everyone around us as though he was made of money--or..." Krego looked me right in the eye, "That he was never going to have to worry about paying AMEX."
I thought I correctly perceived what happened. "His deal fall through?"
"It sure did. He told me just as we were about to get into our cars in the parking lot. When he shook my hand and looked into my eyes, it was the look of a man who'd made a fateful decision. It was the face of the grim reaper himself. He headed north on Jamboree, floored the Cadillac until the speedometer pegged, then sailed out over a ravine to his death. Pulled a LaVerne and Shirley..."
"I think you mean, Thelma and Louise."
"Whatever. Anyway, the guy became so hopeless that he committed suicide, and I think the heart of it was that he spent so much time building a facade that he couldn't bear to face people if they thought he was a failure. For me that was a traumatic event."
I couldn't say much, because although I was shocked, the paradox was such that it didn't surprise me. "The really sad thing is that the perception of other people may have differed by 180 degrees. They may have been sympathetic, helpful, come to his aid. He did it to himself, and screwed himself out of a character-building, growing experience--although anyone going through such turmoil might hit you over the head if you actually said that. Still, what a stupid way to die. I mean, think about it; what are the chances of even being born? Then you willingly throw your life away?"
"That's not the end," said Krego. "I had to arrange for his funeral because he had no family, and his ex hung up on me when I called to tell her the news. He had nothing left. I paid his funeral and burial expenses myself."
I just sat there looking at him.
"That's why maybe I seem different now," he concluded. "Life is too short to hate or treat your neighbors poorly. We need to take care of each other. I'll tell you something else--I've never felt more at peace."
At that moment, neither had I.
Copyright by Gene Myers. Read AFTER HOURS: ADVENTURES OF AN INTERNATIONAL BUSINESSMAN www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/AfterHours.html Also available on-line: www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com and www.borders.com
Coming in August 2010, SONGS FROM LATTYS GROVE
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