What I had going for me, though, was a sort of youthful, innocent faith in connecting with other people. I don't know where I got it, but from way back I had it in my head that given enough time, given the right circumstances, given the proper environment, the walls of character armor could break down between people, that I could understand and be understood, that I could look straight into someone's eyes—no matter who it was—and in the moment when that person looked back, we could connect: feel our common humanness, which to me meant agreeing and commiserating at how hard every day was, how strange and lonely life was, how mysterious it was that we all suffered so much without admitting it to each other, and how nice and even beautiful it was to have this meeting of the eyes where we at least acknowledged that this was how it was. I really believed this.
I believed this even more when I was drunk. And I believed it more than ever on one Thursday night when I got together with some IRS co-workers for many pitchers of beer. One of the people who came along was my boss's boss, my branch chief, a guy I think I chose to test my theory of connecting on precisely because he was so unlike me, an ambitious government climber who lorded it over his workers and whose manner was guarded, phony and permanently sardonic. "Ah, here's a guy I can break down," I thought, given enough booze and enough sincere effort.
So I worked on him. We drank for hours, and after all the rest of my co-workers had peeled away, it was just him and me, and I was so drunk that the world narrowed to his face, that red-bearded face that could, I swear, burn down half a cigarette in one single desperate inhalation. And then it narrowed to one of his eyes, pale blue and bloodshot and ever-shifting to avoid mine, and then I told him to look at me, hey, look at me, and when he did, I told him about my faith that we could connect to anyone if we tried hard enough, even he and I, and then I asked him if he felt the connection with me, right here, right now, and he said to me:
"Not in a million years."
What happened after that, I don't remember. The next thing I knew I was lying in a bunk in a holding tank at a police station somewhere in Watts, with a bleeding head wound and a cop telling me I was allowed to make two phone calls, and that I needed to tell whoever I called that I'd been arrested for drunk driving and that I'd been in an accident on the 110, and that I was lucky I wasn't dead.
Which begins another story, but certainly the story of my faith in connection ended there, forever. For better or worse, I'm no longer the kind of person who has the confidence, or desperation, to believe that any of us can connect, that our loneliness can be bridged if we only want it enough. And thanks should go to my innocence, that branch chief whose name I forget but whose pale blue eye I never will, and many pitchers of beer.
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