|Age 40, in Vilnius, Lithuania|
Today's my 55th birthday. I was puzzling over which column to drag out of the vault—a guy should get a break on his birthday— when my former colleague, Kara Spak, posted something on Facebook about the column below, saying it made her want to work at the Sun-Times. I had just looked at it and decided to pass—a bit ominous, in light of later developments in my life—but figured, if she remembered it after 15 years, then it's probably worth revisiting. And heck, as creaky as I sometimes feel at 55, I think I'm doing better than the guy who wrote this.
We parked at the curb. People were streaming into the party. A fine, elegant, North Shore home. The big door opened. There was a flash of tuxedo. I froze in my tracks.
"This is black tie?" I said to my wife. "You didn't say it was black tie."
My tux was hanging in the closet at home. I was wearing black jeans and a gray golf shirt under a $3.99 Old Navy vest. Casual, yes. But it was a surprise birthday party for a friend. I figured pizza. Lowered lights. "Surprise!" Not this.
"Don't be so inhibited," my wife said, dragging me toward the door. "Be proud of yourself."
She did not add, "Stop cringing, you worm, and be a man," but that's the meaning I took. Head bowed, I shuffled toward the door, feeling very naked, fashionwise.
The tuxedos were, it turned out, on the help. The people taking coats at the door. It was that sort of party. A harpist played in the dining room. Fancy bartenders. Piles of shrimp. A singer at the piano.
It was the surprise birthday party for a friend. Her 40th birthday. Turning 40 is hard, and I can't imagine entering that bleak year in a more upbeat way than our friend did: surprised by her husband, surrounded by their friends and children, reveling in the trappings of material success.
I couldn't help but be reminded, of course, of my 40th birthday, last June. I knew the sad tale would find its way into print, sooner or later, but thought it would take years until the sting subsided. But six months seems to have done it. I regaled anyone I could corner with the story, until my wife made me stop.
My 40th birthday was spent working, in a bass boat, watching Gary Klein pull bass out of Lake Michigan. For some guys this would be heaven, and for the first few hours it was diverting. But the day ground on, the fish piled up, and I was very happy to reach shore.
Happier still to get home. Nobody was there. We still lived in the city, so I strolled on over to Friar Tuck's, the neighborhood saloon. Slumping against the bar, I raised a glass and toasted my birthday.
"On your birthday, you get a free drink," the bartender said. "What'll you have?" I said a shot of Jack Daniel's would do wonders. She disappeared for a moment—I should have known something was up—and returned with a big inflatable sheep, the product of some novelty shop, whose original purpose I shudder to imagine. There, balanced in the, ummm, anal cavity of the sheep, a shot glass filled with whiskey.
I looked around. Another bartender had a camera. The place grew quiet. The patrons turned to watch.
There comes a time when a man has to make a stand, to calculate his position in the universe and make a dramatic statement of the sophistication, grace, dignity and decorum he brings to his life.
I took the inflatable sheep in both hands and drank. The camera flashed. The photo, for all I know, decorates the bar to this day.
This sounds like a sad tale, and it may be. But I'll tell you, if I live to be 100, I'll never mark a birthday in such an apt fashion again. We get the birthdays we deserve. Our friend, with the surprise party—the harp and the singer and the shrimp and the household jammed with friends—was a perfect expression of the world she has carved out for herself. And my encounter with the sheep, well, let me tell you: The whole damn year has been like that.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 12, 2000