I stopped by to visit an old friend in Chicago last Sunday, and by "old" I mean 96 years but with all his faculties intact, which makes him a natural wonder you could exhibit on the carnival circuit for 2 bucks a head, children under 10 admitted free with a parent: SEE MAN BORN ON DAY TITANIC WENT DOWN -- HE TALKS, HE MAKES SENSE.
The Wonder was sitting in a deep chair under an Einsteinean burst of white hair, nibbling blueberries, his walker handy and a bottle of J&B, when I arrived around noon. Strewn on the floor were newspapers the Wonder reads to keep close tabs on the Cubs and Barack Obama. I offered to show him how to read the paper online. "That'd be like trying to bounce a meatball," said his son, across the room. "You think Obama can do it?" the Wonder asked me. "It's in the bag," I said. He frowned. He's worried. Too good to be true. I got the idea that he was planning to hang on until November and find out for himself.
How does it feel to be 96? "Lousy!" says the guy who knows. "I'd like to check out." His legs are gone, his bowels are cranky, and all his old friends are dead. But he still has plenty to say, which is good if you're deaf and can't tune in to the conversation. You had better seize the floor, otherwise you'll turn into a potted palm. So he was recalling with relish the days of Prohibition when Capone and Bugs Moran ran Chicago and a cop wouldn't bother you if you slipped him a tenner and a Smith & Wesson was considered standard wearing apparel. That was the modus operandi. The old man loved to say "modus operandi" and drew out the syllables in a style suggestive of Edward G. Robinson. He had Robinson nailed.
As he yakked, I studied him to see what 96 is like since I'm thinking about going there myself and not stop along the way. All the folks who hang out in gyms ought to stop in at the Wonder's house and pay the 2 bucks and have a look. He'd tell them how much he loves cigars and Scotch, and that his only exercise was sex and carrying a suitcase. The irony is that when you're old you feast on your memories and if you spend too much time on exercise, you may get old and not have many.
He was talking about a con man named Titanic Thompson who in 1928 nailed the famous Arnold Rothstein in a rigged card game at the Park Central Hotel in New York to the tune of 300 grand. "Titanic Thompson was the leading card mechanic of his day," the old man said out of the corner of his mouth. "He knew how to shuffle a deck and change the weave." Rothstein was the guy who put the "organized" in organized crime and fixed the 1919 World Series. He was no novice. He realized he'd been snookered and refused to pay up, which was not sporting of him, so they shot him and on his deathbed he refused to rat on the killer. He told the cops, "My mudder did it." Meeting the old man, you're shaking the hand that shook hands with the man who knew the man who beat Arnold Rothstein at cards. There is a certain grandeur to that.
Grandeur -- ruined grandeur -- is what a 96-year-old has to offer. It's like coming across an old zeppelin crashed in the jungle. A grand old flying machine, the epitome of luxurious travel, a great silver blimp, and here it is in a swamp enfolded in vines and all the helium gone, but the grizzled old captain lives on in the grand salon. He declines to be rescued. There is still a year's worth of canned beef and biscuits and 50 bottles of a 1938 Margaux plus a case of Scotch and a hundred-year-old cognac. Call off the chopper, he is just fine and chooses to stay with his ship. He totters to the door and bids farewell to the search party and gives his benediction:
Every night when the sun goes down
I say a blessing on this town:
"Whether we last the night or no,
Life has always been touch and go.
So stick with your modus operandi.
Ingenuity! Guile! Art! Good luck. Good bye."
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)