Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Thanksgiving Blog

Now that Jennifer Grey is the champion on Dancing with the Stars and I don't have to rant and rave about the Palins, I thought I'd try pondering something a little lighter than usual.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

Thanksgiving retains its majestic ability to unite family and friends while enjoying the chance to break bread (and wishbones) together. Thanksgiving causes us to pause and take measure of the blessings we share and the people in our lives we share the blessings with. Religious dogma and overbearing commercialism are largely absent from the Thanksgiving celebration. For an entire day, I am in a wonderful, reflective, contented mood, eager to share my high spirits with my loved ones and my liked ones.

This year, the celebration started a day early. Peter Porta and I had lunch together and I'm still giggling 8 hours later.

I am thankful that I met Peter in February, 1979. I was a new associate at the Larkin, Hoffman law firm working in the corporate department. Peter and his partner, Gene Morescki, operated an Olivetti dealership, selling and maintaining office equipment. In 1979, "office equipment" consisted primarily of typewriters. I was sent by my boss to meet Peter and Geno at their company, Calc-Type Office Equipment, Inc., to review an important contract they had called about. The encounter, taking place merely 6 weeks after commencing my career in private practice, launched a relationship that, despite current geographic separation, has remained steadfast for nearly 32 years.

I know that there was some concern on the part of my clients when we first met. They had been in business together since 1973 and had prospered. Peter was in charge of the service department; Geno was in charge of sales. Peter is Danish, having immigrated to the U.S. in 1965 to work for Control Data. He barely spoke English at the time. Geno is Italian, from Springfield, Illinois. A suburb of Chicago as Geno tells it. I was not yet 27. And I was there to tell them how to run their business.

Peter set the ground rules early on. When an "uhm" creeped into my vocabulary, he interrupted me. "No 'uhms'. I'm not paying for 'uhms'." He did it in 1979. He did it at lunch today. To make sure I did not take myself too seriously, Peter let me know that he was sure I had acquired my law license from an offer on a matchbook cover. Today, I made the same observation about his Coast Guard certification to pilot watercraft for hire. It was a memory thread that took us back to the beginning.

Peter is very proud of his Danish heritage and loved the fact that he had a Jewish lawyer. He grew up in Copenhagen during World War II and often related the story of the Danes standing up to the German occupiers, refusing to turn over Danish Jews to the Nazis. When I brought Peter to a friend's shop to purchase a new camera, Peter started haggling over price. A bit of an embarrassment, I pulled Peter aside. "I'm trying to chew him down on the price," Peter explained to me. He was horrified when I explained to him that the expression was actually "Jew him down" and was a slur related to a common stereotype of Jewish business practices. He had no idea. English was a second (or third) language; religious tolerance was part of his core.

Besides his liberal religious views, Peter acquired other skills on the streets of Copenhagen as a child. He is a master at sleight of hand and would often entertain me, other bar comrades and good-looking waitresses with tricks he learned as a coping mechanism during the Occupation. Quarters magically disappeared no matter how closely you watched what you knew was coming. Cigarettes rolled across high tops ahead of Peter's extended fingers despite the lack of contact. I was reminded of his remarkable talent today at lunch when he asked me to guess which outstretched fist held the Viagra he now needs to keep his girlfriend happy. One fist was clenched completely; one fist had a thumb pointing straight up.

Peter has always been an incurable flirt. I am not sure if it was/is the heavy Danish accent, the Viking physique, the infectious smile or the irresistible combination of bravado and self-deprecation, but he ALWAYS could have gotten the girl. I watched the master as countless beauties were asked if they were looking for a husband (or Sugar Daddy). If "yes", perfect. "I'm a husband (or Sugar Daddy)!" Peter would proclaim. If he noticed a guy hanging out in a restaurant/bar with more than a couple of women, Peter would interrupt the festivities to advise him that he wasn't being fair. "Some guys don't have any women and you have (fill in the number). You need to learn to share."

There are many Peter Porta stories that bring a smile to my face. Perhaps the most legendary are his encounters with the police involving his driving. Peter loved fast, European cars. He typically drove a big Mercedes sedan. And he drove it regularly to his boat moored in Superior, Wisconsin, a few hours north of Minneapolis.

Examples of Peter's bravado with the police:

1. Peter gets pulled over as he's leaving Duluth on Interstate 35W. "Mr. Porta," explained the officer, "the 55 mile an hour speed limit is designed to save lives." Peter responded, "why don't you just make people walk, then nobody would die?" "And right there", Peter explains to anyone hearing the story, "I knew I was in trouble."

2. Peter gets pulled over for speeding. The officer notices the radar detector mounted on the windshield. "Why do you need that?", asks the officer. Peter (I'll try to do the transliteration of his English): "Waall, I'm a faux'n'er in your country 'n' I'm always gettin' lost. 'N' you guys ah always hiding behind billbods 'n' I cahn't find you. So I use dis detectah to find da police 'n' get help." The officer let him go without a ticket.

3. Peter gets pulled over for speeding. Officer: "Mr. Porta, do you know how fast you were going?" Peter: "This is a $40,000 Mercedes. They come with speedometers."

4. And my favorite. Peter was driving north on the freeway to Superior after work on a Friday evening. Cars were zooming by him but, nonetheless, Peter is pulled over for speeding. "Why are you picking on me?" Peter asked the officer. "Everyone is passing me!" The officer, who clearly had heard this question before, responded "Have you ever been fishing? You don't catch them all, do you?" Without missing a beat, Peter looked at the patrolman and told him, "No, but I throw back some of the ones I catch." The officer broke out in laughter and let Peter go without a ticket.

Peter lives in Johnson City, Tennessee now. He moved there from his first retirement home on Florida's Gulf Coast to get away from the hurricanes. At 78, he rides BMW motorcycles, touring the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachian Trail. He averages 4-5 years with each girlfriend before moving on to a new relationship that offers the physical passion his Viking blood needs to survive. It is likely significant that he remains friends with his old loves.

We sealed our own relationship permanently in 1982 when he watched his young Jewish attorney beat up on Olivetti Corporation during a business trip to Westchester County. After that, in Peter's mind, there was nothing I could not do. Olivetti no longer exists as an independent entity. Calc-Type is now C-T Technologies and continues to office out of the building Peter and Geno purchased along the forthcoming Interstate 394 in the early 1980's.

I'm not 27 anymore. I'm nearly 59. As I've expressed several times in earlier Prairie Pondering writings, I cherish the relationships I've been fortunate enough to establish over the years in so many different circumstances. The pure joy of reconnecting with Peter today reminds me of how lucky I am to have such a vibrant tapestry of friendships, experiences and opportunities.

Let's all enjoy Thanksgiving, 2010, and, for at least the day, focus on the wonders that abound in our lives, drawing well-being from all we have to be thankful for.


Anonymous said...

More Peter stories please.

Anonymous said...

Okay, here's my own Peter story. I work in a lab in Johnson City as a phlebotomist. My co-worker, who I refer to as my partner since we spend 7.5 hrs together in the most stressful lab within our company, and I were drawing blood as fast as we could since we were triple booked and as far behind as we have ever been since we both started working there. My partner is a beautiful woman who looks ten years younger than her true age so I never expect a patient to notice me unless it's some guy who talks about my photos on the wall but then it's about my photography skills and sometimes more but I've never been interested, until Peter. After making eye contact with him when I called his name, which I do with every patient, he sat in my chair and when I asked his date of birth, I'm not sure of what all was said but I found myself answering questions in front of my SUPERVISOR who was putting in lab orders that I wouldn't have answered if we had been alone. Something about a birthday party and him saying how about a party with just the two of us and I told him to be careful that I was a widow. We decided on white instead of red, sweet instead of dry and I said Sundial. He said something to the effect of him not being much to look at; I hadn't even noticed, he's captivating. He asked for a hug and I complied and it's crazy because it was so uncharacteristic of me especially in a work setting. I get hugged and told by my patients that they love me and a special bond is formed with those I see on a regular basis. But, who asks for a hug after asking if the two of us can have our own party? Does he always have that effect on people, I asked myself much later. My co-workers said it was his accent. I took much teasing because everyone was shocked. Looking back I don't know what in the world happened but I thank the day he was my patient. My husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2000 and when that happens the wife that cares also looses a part of herself. I opened the front door on April 1st, 2010 to ask him if he was ready for me to start the grill to find that he had passed doing some work on the walk way.
I had told my co-workers the week before that I was content with my life. I work through the week and most weekends I have my grandgirls. I hadn't felt like a woman in for so long and yet Peter made me miss that feeling with such an intensity that surprised me.
I realize it's probably what he does all the time and he has no ideal of the effect that he may have but for the first time in so many years he made me feel ALIVE so I'm going to date again, I liked that feeling he gave me.