I worked as a counterperson at Campbell's for a time, and got in on the scene. It was a humming little business, with a lot of regular customers from downtown Gillette who would drop by on their lunch break just to pass the time, often ordering steaks or chops which they would pick up after work to take home for dinner. The regulars would exchange opinions about sports, politics, or just the general peeve of the day, usually something to do with their wives or kids. It was a congenial atmosphere all in all, just regular guys relaxing and venting.
Among them was Pauli, a black, thin-haired limo driver with a smile like a badly carved jack-o-lantern. Though he spoke little and usually watched on wide-eyed, as though hearing these exchanges for the first time, he was always the center of attention, interjecting with a certain regularity, "But you're kidding, really," to whomever was whining or pontificating at the time. The regulars adored him, considering him a sort of long-lost uncle.
When a new office building opened next to City Hall, Campbell's was infiltrated by a plethora of unfamiliar faces wandering in to Campbell's from day to day. There were many salespeople from out-of-state, and it was Pauli who often drove them to the airport. In the afternoons or picked them up at the office building during odd hours of the night.
This influx of work and the odd hours were taxing on Pauli, who seemed to age at an accelerated pace with this new onslaught of business. Sometimes the limousine dispatcher would be so bombarded with calls that he would accidentally assign Pauli to pick up a client at 4 in the morning for the five mile drive to the airport—usually a visiting executive staying at the Tower West Lodge on Skyline Drive. Pauli came close to having a coronary each time he would phone to awaken one of these gentlemen, only to be greeted by, "You stupid ass! You're supposed to be here at 4 in the afternoon!"
Danny Wright, who played centerfield for the Cleveland Astros, was among Pauli's regular clients. On a number of occasions when Danny was visiting his parents in Moorcroft, he and his teammates would call on Pauli to drive them around on their carousing sprees. Inevitably, Danny would be too drunk to go back to his parents' house, so Pauli would take the lot of them to a motel, where Danny would flop into a rented room until he sobered up. He usually told Pauli he was just going to go in to take a shower and spend a little time with his buddies, who had call-girls expected to arrive within an hour. "So hang around," he would instruct Pauli, "I'll be out in a bit to let you know my game plan."
Pauli cringed every time he heard this. All too often it meant that Danny would go in, pass out and forget about his folks and the limo, and Pauli would be left sitting in the car. More times than he could stomach, he had have to stay outside the motel for hours on end waiting for Danny and his pals to show up. After four hours Pauli usually conked out from exhaustion, while Danny was sick in bed, not to emerge until he and his buddies were ready to party again. By this time, Pauli, stubble-faced with deep black circles under bloodshot eyes, would be stunned out of sleep to hear, "Okay, Pauli, man, we're ready for some action on the town! "Let's go!" from the recharged Danny. Pauli would grunt, unlock the doors and turn the ignition key. "Ha, ha! You were here all day!" emerged through the rowdy laughter of Danny and his Astro teammates.
There were a number of features that made Pauli easy to spot. For one, no matter what the weather he always wore a black trench-coat. But his most noticeable trait was his hunched-over walk. From a distance, he evoked the aura of a horror film figure from a silent movie, the kind of pathetic wretch who assists the demonic mad scientist in his evil laboratory experiments. In truth, Pauli actually had curvature of the spine, a condition only exacerbated by his occupation.
His home life was miserable due to a nagging wife and his own chronic gambling. In fact, outside of a handful of jokes, only one of which was really great, Pauli was the proverbial gray cloud in any gathering: the first to announce the death of a famous person or to pass on the news of some horrendous tragedy he had read about in the early edition of the tabloids.
Despite this, Pauli was truly loved. At Campbell's, my co-workers and I were always glad to see him. When he tried to dump his dismal outlook on us, we would politely snub him and engage in some silly banter to keep morale up in the shop. The regulars adored him, as well, and would make gentle fun of this glum, dark figure, as though he really were in some maudlin old film, just playing a part for their enjoyment.
Pauli was by no means intimidated by total strangers, and would often approach them to pass on some sad tale of woe. This often disturbed the office workers, who would turn to one of the staff and say something to the effect of, "How can you stand this limo driver? He's a depressing old fart." When the rest of us would hear a remark like this, we would all laugh and jest, "Hey, you just don't know about St. Pauli's curve, do you?"
"Saint!" would come the response. "You guys call him a saint! What nerve! And on what grounds do you base this?" the disoriented observer would ask.
In Pauli's defense, one of us would remark, "Hey, we know a lovable side to him. Talk to him for a while, and you'll find his endearing qualities."
The outsider, unconvinced and leery of our insistence, would defend his position. "I don't see anything in him but an over-worked, sullen-faced limo driver."
At such a remark, one of us would look up, suddenly serious, "Okay, man. You think what you want. But just watch out for St. Pauli's curve." The other butchers would then chuckle knowingly, as the now-unnerved office worker would be visibly trying to determine what the big secret was. Most of the uninitiated, depending on their gender, thought it meant that Pauli was a pickpocket or a pervert, or maybe just a lunatic with a bad driving record.
Campbell's did especially good business when there was a bomb scare or some kind of false alarm. When this happened, the temporarily evacuated office workers spilled out into the streets, looking for something to do. Some went for a beer, others crowded around the falafel and hotdog wagons, and a few went off to do errands, one of which was picking up the evenings victuals at Campbell's, where a long line would form. So profitable, in fact, were such events for the little shop, that Mr. Campbell liked to joke on slow afternoons that someone should make an anonymous threatening call to fatten up the coffers.
And so one Thursday, without a Campbell's call my co-workers and I witnessed such an event, when several buildings in the area were threatened. There were four lines in front of the butcher shop within a matter of minutes. As we scurried to get ready to work like mad, I noticed Mr. Campbell taking a minute to just stare out the door with a smile. It wasn't hard to read his mind at that point. What a windfall!
As the clients dropped in, in their parallel lines, I saw Pauli in a line next to Andy Erlic, one of the "new" regulars. "It's going to be one hell of a wait," I overheard Pauli moan.
"Sure looks that way," answered Andy, lackadaisically. Within a few minutes, a voice on the loudspeaker blared, "Sorry, we're all out of chuck steak! Rubbing his hands over his forehead, Andy sighed, "Damn! That's what my wife wanted."
"Mine, too," echoed Pauli. And then I noticed Pauli perk up, as he looked Andy over carefully. He saw a live one in this new guy. I knew what came next: Pauli had decided to set up his secret curve.
"Hey, pal," Pauli said, "I'm going over to the roach coach for a coffee. Would you like one?"
"Sure, thanks," Andy replied, smiling slightly. "Hey, I'll hold your place in line."
Pauli quickly returned with the two paper cups of coffee. He handed one to Andy, and removing the lid from his own, took a slow, soothing sip as he studied this new victim. It looked good.
Pauli ditched his dismal face and managed a smile. He obviously didn't want to put Andy off. As I kept mindful of the sharp knives and cleavers I was using to hack slabs of meat for the customers, I kept an eye on the unfolding mini-film before me. I could hear most of the conversation from my vantage point behind the counter and was able to drown out the noise of the busy shop to focus on their conversation, as though it were a radio soap I could envision as I worked.
The two of them had engaged in pleasant small talk, mostly Pauli asking Andy about his work, maintaining the discretion of a sympathetic ear, inviting Andy to get some things off his chest, an opportunity the apparently stressed Andy was only too happy to seize.
"Hey, Andy," I shouted from behind the counter, not even looking up from the veal chops I was slicing perfectly for Mr. Stevens to take home to his finicky wife, "watch out for St. Pauli's curve."
"Aw, lay off, will ya?" I heard Pauli retort, in a sheepish tone I knew meant he was well into the game. I turned to see Pauli extending his hand to Andy. "Those guys. you know, I never got your name, but thanks to those wise-guys that work here, everybody knows mine."
"Sorry," Andy said, shaking Pauli's hand. "I'm Andy Erlic. Kind of new here, as I guess you know now. You know, it's nice to have someone to talk to like this. You're a really good listener. In fact, my wife could learn a lot from you. Thanks, man. And for the coffee. So what's this St. Pauli's curve thing?"
Pauli's brow wrinkled in frustration. After a pause, I heard his plaintive response. "You know, I don't really get it and I've been coming here for a long time now. It seems to be some secret joke those kids behind the counter have. Just between you and me, they're nice kids, but it's a little rough. I like to think they're not referring to my. . . well, you must have noticed, I've got curvature of the spine. I mean, that's a little harsh, but I try to let it roll off my back. It keeps them laughing, and I can't say they don't give me the best cuts of meat in the place, so I let it go. I used to ask them what the deal was, but they just shrug and pretend they're busy, so now I let it go. Let 'em have their fun. We were all kids once, right? Just consider yourself lucky they haven't decided to single you out with some pet name. Me, I just bite the bullet and let it go."
Andy, listening intently, looked at Pauli with real empathy. "That's a really good attitude you've got there, Pauli. I'm really glad I met you. I guess I can learn a few things from you, too."
"Well, Andy, you know, life's funny. You start out, you look at life, you figure out what you want. And, really, you pretty much assume life's going to go your way. You set your goals, you do what you have to do to attain certain things. You know, you grow up. You get a job, start your family, have your friends around. It looks good. And life throws you a curve—"
At this point, Pauli's voice suddenly changed, taking on the intonation of a man about to reveal the contents of his very soul. "For me, it was my daughter. You know, I'm not a rich man. We've got our house, food on the table. We got along, you know? And we always made sure she had nice things, you know, clothes, little parties, Christmas, forget it. A real family life, just couldn't do it on my salary. I swear, it nearly broke my heart when I had to tell her.
"But she's a real doll. So what does she do? She goes out and works to save up for her tuition herself. And, man, when I tell you she worked hard. . . at Dalbey's and she and her girlfriend decide to celebrate by going on a weekend camping trip. She always did love the outdoors.
"Anyway, on the way back, my daughter's driving. It's real late, they're out in the middle of nowhere on this little mountain road, no lights, no other cars. Out of nowhere, there's this pig in the middle of the road. She slams on the brakes, but not in time. Long story short, she. . . accidentally, mind you. . . runs the thing over. She looks back, and sees it's all bloody, but still alive.
"Now, of course she feels terrible, but what can she do? So they leave the pig in the road, drive on into town, stop at the first car wash and gets the mess off the car.
"Okay, she comes home and tells us the story. We're glad she and her friend are okay, and figure that's the end of it. What happens? You're not going to believe this, but it just goes to show you. Next thing you know, she gets a summons to appear in court. I swear to God! All of a sudden she's being sued by this farmer for hitting the pig and leaving to die. And on top of that, she's getting sued by the state for creating a hazardous road condition!
"So, now what? She's got two fines, lawyer fees. What can I do? I don't have the money for that kind of stuff, those courts and fancy suit guys. So there goes her tuition." Pauli's voice is cracking now. I can imagine the tears welling up in his eyes and the look that must be on Andy's face. They're silent.
Then I hear Andy, all chocked up, stammer, "Oh, man! But how . . . . Uh . . . .. jeez, uh, how did they find out?"
I have to turn around now. Andy's got a consoling hand on Pauli's shoulder. I see Pauli's drooping head slowly come up and he's staring at Andy, as though about to reveal one of he secrets of life. I know what comes next. As Pauli utters the next words, I recognize his tiny, but broadening smile. "The pig squealed!"
Andy, stunned for a second, suddenly erupts in a cascade of laughter that makes the whole shop stop and look. He was now the recipient of Pauli's one great joke, an anecdote he would remember forever and use to win people over, thanks to Pauli . . . Saint Pauli.
Joshua Meander writes from New York.
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