Driving the conversation: Here’s to better days for The Movie Mogul.

“Here’s to better days! All aboard!”

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

Saturday, October 14, 2017

“Here’s to better days.” I said that to The Movie Mogul. It seemed like the thing to do.

He was shocked, to say the truth. It wasn’t the startle reaction of interrupted thoughts, and I was sure he hadn’t recognized me. I think he was just surprised to hear words unladen with scorn.

He said, “Yeah, well, what are you going to do?” That’s Jewish – Yiddish? there is no name for this language – so you have to work it a little. The question itself means nothing. It’s a decoy phrase that actually means “What’s the use?” But the expression also implies a desire to change the subject – or to shut down the conversation entirely.

Like that would happen.

He was sitting in the little alcove behind the Choo Choo Train kiosk at The Arrowhead Mall in suburban Phoenix. I call it The Scroungy Lounge of Depressing Browns – brown carpet, brown loungers, brown tables – but mall management hasn’t come to me for signage suggestions.

And The Movie Mogul completely overwhelmed the space. He’s a big guy to begin with, and he has grown in time to become a man of appetites. He was wearing a pricey sweatsuit ensemble, but this distinguished him in no way from the other monied middle-aged men at the mall: How will people know how rich you are if you don’t overspend for overpriced misplaced pajamas? Anyway, if you didn’t know who he is, you’d never it guess it by looking at him, but that’s true wherever he is – except in his office or on a red carpet somewhere.

He’d been hanging around the mall for quite a while. I had seen him wolfing down a bagel at Chompie’s Deli when I came in at 10, and he had been stalking all around the place since then – typically-busy guy impatiently killing time. It was when he sat down behind my kiosk – huffing a little from his exertions – that I took my chance to speak up.

“What are you going to do?” I asked. There ain’t no question like the wrong question.

He tried to glare at me, but he couldn’t hold it. He slumped in on himself and looked down at the floor instead. His voice muffled and small, he said, “Not sure.”

And there ain’t no world like Willie’s world. I said, “Found out who your friends are, didn’t you?” That was cruel, but it’s true, alas: When the news broke last week about The Movie Mogul’s sexual predations over the years, every pretend friend he had ever had turned on him – all at once, like a school of fish. “I’m guessing random strangers feel themselves free to scold or punish you, too.”

He was looking at me with something like wonder or gratitude, but it shouldn’t be impressive to state the obvious.

I shrugged. “That much will pass. They’ll find someone new to pick on. Don’t tell me I’m the only person who gives a shit what you’re going through?”

His turn to shrug. “The only stranger.”

I shook my head – both ways, dismay and disagreement. “We’ve met. Earlier this year, in your office.”

He took a longer look at me, I expect mentally subtracting my Loco Engineer’s costumery. “That Trump movie? That didn’t go anywhere.”

I smiled at that. “The world can wait. That’s a plot that will thicken.”

He chuckled. “So this is what you do? You drive the train?”

There is a train-like thought progression that runs through the tunnels of almost everyone’s minds when they raise those questions: “Wow, this would be a pathetic job. And the pay must be lousy. But how rewarding…” All of those things are true, but if you follow the logic, you can see where it leads: “I could run away to the circus and still be home by dinner!” And I’m thinking that notion might have had a special allure for The Movie Mogul just at that moment.

I shrugged. If I needed for people to understand me, I’d need something I’ve never had. I said, “I’m the Loco Engineer. I drive the conversation.” I grinned so he would know I was playing with him.

And if you feel you owe the man some special enmity, I don’t. He did people dirt, and he’ll be made to pay for that. But he’s done me no wrong, and there are precisely two days in which he can do better with his life: Today and tomorrow – and neither one of those days is to be found in yesterday. If you want to see better – better anything, from anything – the starting place is always right here, right now.

But: Saturday is Saturday, so I had to drive the train. He was still there in the lounge when I got back. By the time I had the kiddies all cleared out, I saw what he had been waiting for: He had been joined by a smallish adult woman and a tinyish little girl, all of three years old.

Mom was dark, but the girlchild was darker – curly coffee-brown hair and skin almost as swarthy as The Movie Mogul’s. And his lap was clearly home to her, as she clambered all over him with an easy grace.

I was close enough to them that I could overhear their chatter. They had seen the new “My Little Pony” movie, and I can salute The Movie Mogul for passing on that extravaganza. Next stop: The Disney Store, just beyond the train kiosk.

The Movie Mogul stayed put for that, too. Being big makes you slow, and being slow makes you bigger.

I said, “Is that what brings you to town?”

He smiled, and I believed him. “Grand-daughter. Well, everything but the paperwork. Her name is Miriam, after my mother.”

I grinned. “‘Everything but the paperwork.’ The other undocumented immigrants. How’s your daughter taking all this?”

He smirked. “How do you think?”

“So of all the people in the world, so far as you know, that little girl in there is the only one who looks up to you right now? Would you say that’s true?”

Brutal, right? I will show you right now why no one should ever talk to me – and why everyone always does: “What will you do,” I asked, “if you lose her respect, too?”

And then he did glare at me, and I’d like to tell you that I glanced at the security camera over the kiosk as a planned move – a clever stratagem – but it was something closer to fear. Did I mention that The Movie Mogul’s a big guy?

But he didn’t hit me. He didn’t hug me, either – but he didn’t run off, which he easily could have done.

I said, “If you want to be a better man, be a different man. Buy a house in Arrowhead Lakes and take your grand-daughter fishing every afternoon. Teach her how to read, and then the two of you get an education together. Fatherhood makes males men, but you missed that train. Here’s your second chance – ‘everything but the paperwork.’”

He looked at me for a long time, much good may it do him: Don’t close on a closer, bub. I drive this train all day.

His daughter and grand-daughter had rejoined him by then, so I said, “Who wants to go for a train ride – on me?”

Little Miriam loved that idea of course, but The Movie Mogul tried to make excuses about his weight – but that’s what the coal tender, right behind the engine, is for.

When I had them loaded in, I said to the little girl, “Do you love your grandpa?”

She smiled shyly at her heart, saying, “I sure do.”

I nodded my confirmation. “That’s all anyone needs. When the whole world turns against you, it’s your family who turns toward you. Keep ’em close.” I make that speech to kids all the time, but I was looking right at The Movie Mogul just then.

He held my gaze, but who knows what that means? My plan is to hope for the best.

I got into the engine and sounded the “woo-woo” whistle. I said, “Here’s to better days! All aboard!”

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