My wife and I are in Bahar Dar on the shores of Lake Tana in western Ethiopia. It’s the early 1970s. I am here gathering information for articles I will write as the Africa man for an American newspaper. Last night at dinner just after the waiter offered us the Ethiopian national dish, wat and njera, I looked up and suddenly there, walking out of my past, was Matt Gazdak. He was crossing the dining room to say hello.
Matt hadn’t changed since I’d last seen him in 1960. He wore the light sharkskin suit, his shirt tailored at the waist, the collar highly starched, the tie knotted just so, the black shoes shining, and the rings sparkling on his fingers. Matthew Gazdak, entering my memory once again.
And suddenly we were back in Missouri, lunching together in the little café in Lee’s Summit outside Kansas City. Matt sat across from me, consulting the menu. And oozing from every pore of him – or so it seemed to me then – was the aura of what he was, a Man of the World from New York, suave, sensuous, sophisticated.
“What looks good?” I asked. I posed this query in abject deference. Matt awed me. Maybe seven years older than me – which meant he had reached beyond thirty – I saw in him all that I was not then nor ever would be: a man who moved with cool self-possession in a world to which I would never be admitted, a photographer’s world of sports cars and yachting, of nightly parties, of fire-and-ice women seeking his notice.
Matt had virility, male charisma. I sensed that when he snapped his fingers gooseflesh rose on every female in the room. When he beckoned, women sped to him like iron filings to a magnet.
Even his name intimidated me: its zing; its “Matt,” short, crisp, tough; its “Gazdak,” buzzing the first syllable, snapping-to in the second. It announced: “Here is a man. Electric things may happen.”
At that time I resembled Matt in only one way. I, too, wretchedly exuded what I was: tall, angular, gawky; inexperienced in the world and without confidence. Moreover, women felt no helpless attraction to me. I was doggedly – and even then I sensed futilely – pursuing only one girl, a person I had met at church. Matt Gazdak did not meet his women in church. I knew that. It underlined the differences between us.
Matt frowned at my question about the menu, conscious that the high-school-aged waitress was awedly watching from behind the counter her two city-slicker customers. When she turned her back, he leaned across the table. “I’m playing it safe,” he whispered in his Jersey accent. “Ham and eggs. I don’t want to get poisoned.”
And, indeed, when the waitress came to the table, Matt did order ham and eggs. But with flair, with style! His eyes and the tone of his voice said so much! They lit up in that high school girl an excited self-awareness; they heightened her about-to-bloom beauty. They also affected her concentration; she had to ask twice for my order, the more daring hamburger steak.
Her response to Matt, her giddiness and sense of danger, vaguely annoyed me. Why, I wondered, should the cautious ordering of ham and eggs have that effect on anyone?
Privately I thought Matt was playing it a little too safe. I had lived in the Midwest, had gone to college in a smaller town than this one and knew that we faced no danger of poison. That, in a way, was the trouble. I knew a little – perhaps too much – about the Midwest. I loved it. That made it difficult to do the job I’d been assigned.
Matt and i were public relations men for a large New York corporation. He was a photographer, an established member of the department. I was a writer, only a step or two beyond management trainee, fifteen months into my first real job after college and the army.
The corporate headquarters had sent us to Lee’s Summit to write and photograph a story about the groundbreaking for a new plant the company was building there. It was to manufacture transistors. Our article would introduce company personnel to Lee’s Summit and would appear in the nationally distributed house magazine, circulation 125,000.
It was a routine job for Matthew Gazdak. But not for me. It was my biggest opportunity to date.
Normally I was the second man on a two-man staff of the headquarters in-house newspaper. I was not certain how I’d been picked for the Lee’s Summit job. Ordinarily I wrote a little, edited some, fussed with layout for the in-house paper, and tried to brighten personals that were an inevitable and widely read section of the publication. Sometimes to amuse myself I doodled items on my own (“Albie Schweitzer of Comptrollers has resigned to help the sick and needy in Lambarene, Gabon.”) The Lee’s Summit assignment suggested the possibility of a better permanent position. I didn’t want to muff it.
But once on the ground I didn’t know where to start. I wandered the town for two days trying to absorb the atmosphere. I was supposed to portray it in ways that would make company employees happy to relocate there.
Atmosphere. The town had plenty of that: a past peopled by Jesse and Frank James, by Confederate guerilla Cole Younger and his brothers. I met an old gentleman who recalled to me how Cole Younger had once evaded the law by hiding under a woman’s hoopskirt, right there in Lee’s Summit. I talked with the local editor, called on Miss Hettie, a patrician maiden lady who said her house stood on the highest piece of ground between St. Louis and Omaha. It was a charming town and I came to like it.
Matt accompanied me on these wanderings. He dutifully photographed the editor, the old gentleman, and Miss Hettie in her garden. Then he broke loose and did the sort of thing he knew he was supposed to do. He located the now stuff: the Chamber of Commerce types, the real estate speculators, the tract homes going up on land denuded of trees. He photographed young faces, the sort that would make go-ahead engineers and foremen, especially the bachelor ones, want to work in Lee’s Summit.
Our last afternoon he posed the pretty waitress in the café doorway. She laughed while he blarneyed her; she giggled with excitement. He snapped her with a fresh, mile-wide grin on her face. I watched and envied his smoothness.
Afterwards I saw the editor again. He was more forthcoming on my second visit and not very enthusiastic about the plant. Lee’s Summit was a small place now, he said; everybody more or less knew everybody else. People had troubles, but they were manageable. The plant would change all this, he reckoned. Was it really progress, he wondered, to take away the individuality of a place?
It was a question I had been asking myself. Since I liked the town as it was, I wondered how I could write the kind of article the magazine expected.
That evening I took the rented car from the hotel in Kansas City. I drove back to Lee’s Summit, parked in the housing development, and stood in the middle of a newly asphalted street. I looked at the gimcrack houses, at the treeless yards and the unplanted lawns. Off against the sky, crowning the gentle rise, stood Miss Hettie’s house. I could just make out a figure – was it hers? – bending over the lilac hedges by the front gate. Then I looked again at the new houses, the sad, new houses with no lilacs.
I drove to the café. I thought I’d have a cup of coffee and maybe talk to the waitress, get a young person’s idea of what the new plant would mean to the town. But the place was closed. I wondered where the girl was, wondered if Matt had taken her out some place.
When I got back to Kansas City, I returned the car to the hotel. I went for a walk. I wandered through the night-empty streets of the city, looking at ads and darkened store windows, trying to think what I would write. Finally I came to a bus station and went in to have a cup of coffee.
As I sat at the counter, a voice called, “Hey, kid.” It was Matt, sitting at a window booth.
I went to join him. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Having dinner,” he said. There was a plate of ham and eggs in front of him. “I was just at the show,” he added, flicking his head toward the theater across the street. It was playing a film called Hercules.
“You saw that?” The surprise rang in my voice. The Matt Gazdaks of this world, with women longing to attend them, were not supposed to spend their evenings with Hercules.
He nodded.
“Any good?” I asked.
“It moved,” he said.
The waitress came up with my coffee. “You know this bozo?” she asked in that hearty manner with which waitresses make a man immediately half their friend, but no more.
“Sure,” I said. “We’re traveling together.”
“He’s the ham and eggs king of greater K.C.”
Matt looked a little sheepish.
“Why don’t you take him out?” she asked. “Give him a decent meal and show him this town. He’s been in here every night, hasn’t eaten anything but ham and eggs.”
Suddenly I realized that if Matt Gazdak had found a fire-and-ice woman in Kansas City, this was she.
“You know what’s going to happen?” the waitress continued. “You’ll go back wherever you came from – the East somewheres, huh? – and he’ll say nothing ever happens in K.C. But how’s he gonna know, huh?” She leaned companionably against Matt’s side of the booth.
“You look alive,” she told me. “Take him and show him the town.”
“I intend to,” I said. “I’ll just finish this first.”
After she had gone, I took a long time stirring my coffee. At last I said, “Have you really been eating ham and eggs in here every night?”
“Why not?” Matt asked. “When you find a winner, why change?” He looked at the posters of the over-muscled Hercules across the street. “I haven’t got time for ptomaine.”
After a moment he asked suddenly, “What’d you pay for dinner?” He sounded like a Gallup pollster, truly seeking information, for the company did not require us to turn in receipts with our expense reports. I told him. “That all?”
“I ate light,” I said. In fact, I was feeling guilty about spending $5.00 on a steak dinner the night before. I didn’t eat steak at home and wondered if I was exploiting the company by doing so on the trip.
“I’m charging $7.50 for this,” he said. That was about ten times the price of his meal. I said nothing.
“A day’s pay for a day’s work,” he remarked. “That’s okay with me.” This concept was an unofficial motto of the company, one the PR department emphasized regularly in the in-house publications.
“I’m doing more than a full day’s work here. So are you. Evans realizes that.” Evans was the editor who had sent us to cover the groundbreaking. “When you go out on a trip twice a month like I do, you ought to make a little change out of it. I moved to a cheaper room in the hotel,” he continued matter-of-factly. “Fourteen bucks a day for a lousy closet with a telephone.”
“Really,” I said. The company had reserved me an $18-a-day room that I considered splendid. “How much are you going to charge the company?” i asked.
“Twenty-two,” he said. “That’s the most expensive single they’ve got.”
We talked a while longer. Matt philosophized. He talked about photography. It was harder, he said, than writing. You had to focus all your attention all the time and then you either got it or you didn’t. It exhausted you. If you were good – and he was, he told me – you didn’t get paid what you were worth, not in a job like this. The engineers who ran the company just didn’t understand. He was honest, he said; otherwise the job wouldn’t interest him. At the same time he kept an open eye.
When we walked back to the hotel together. I felt larger, more sure of myself. Matt seemed as suave and worldly as ever, but somehow diminished.
The next morning was the groundbreaking ceremony. I left immediately after the luncheon and flew back to New York. Matt took a later plane.
I had a lot of trouble writing the article. Words just didn’t come to flesh out the theme of progress coming to Lee’s Summit, of a grateful population hailing the company for bringing it there.
Finally I wrote something that satisfied me. It merely tried to make the town sound attractive and stop there. I’m afraid it struck a wistful note.
The editor’s secretary read the piece and liked it. Her praise intoxicated me. Somebody on the magazine, I felt, knew the big secret: that the kid had talent.
I only saw the editor once. The story was on his desk. “Did you make enough out of this,” he asked, gesturing toward the expense report that lay beside it.
“What do you mean?” I asked a little stupidly.
He looked at me strangely. “Does this adequately reimburse you for the trip?”
“Sure,” I said. “That’s what I spent.”
A smile of disbelief began to play at the corners of his mouth. “Are you certain?”
A wave of cold flushed down my back. I wondered if I was queering things for Matt and others on the magazine. I felt green and inexperienced and nervous as a result. “Yes,” I repeated. “That’s what I spent.”
“Okay,” he said. “Thanks very much.”
Our conference was over. He had not mentioned the article.
When the story appeared, the photos showed what a pro Matt was. They carried the message. The little waitress smiled in friendly invitation. The old gentleman gave the town a sense of history and color. The groundbreaking shots and the pictures of the new houses (framed in flowering redbud that Matt and I held beside the lens) suggested beneficial transformation.
There were very few changes in the text. I was impressed at how little was altered to eliminate the wistfulness and replace it with the now-excitement of progress. Still, when I read the article in print, I knew there wasn’t going to be any place for me on the magazine.
That didn’t matter really. As things worked out, I left the company in less than three months.
I’ve lived a number of places since and I haven’t kept up with the people I knew at the company. I only see one of them these days.
That one is Matt Gazdak.
Every now and then I’ll be some place, as I am now in Bahar Dar, about to be served exotic food. I look up. And there is Matt walking toward me, sophisticated and self-possessed, exuding male charisma and raising gooseflesh on women.
And I always call out silently to his memory: “Matt! Matt, how are you? Come join us. This is my wife. We’re about to have wat and njera. The chef will gladly prepare you ham and eggs.”