When I was eighteen in the summer of 1962, I had an important meeting with a childhood friend of my father. That friend was Mr. John Oliver Sharp, the hotelier. He owned several hotels and restaurants up the Eastern Seaboard even then. Sure, he’d been born into wealth. But, he was one of those guys who everyone knew was a master of the universe. Unlike the media-whore moguls today, he had class as well as money. He carried himself with a certain grace that is not seen today. It set him apart.
So, my Dad called Mr. Sharp to tell him about his smart and ambitious kid. It was all on the pretext of catching up, but it was mostly about getting me a leg up into the world of John Oliver Sharp. With my Dad’s help, I was to meet with Mr. Sharp and convince him to let me become an intern at one of his hotels, as a manager’s assistant. I was assured that I would have a good future under Mr.Sharp’s wing.
But, my meeting with him wouldn’t go quite as planned, to say the least. Scratch that. It would be a total disaster.
It was July, and I was very hot in my new suit. My Dad had insisted that I look the part of the ambitious high-school graduate looking to make something of himself. I supposed at the time that it was my father that wanted to make that impression rather than me wanting to do it for myself. The irony went unacknowledged. The truth is, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. The thought of finding a path through that twisted jungle was terrifying, bewildering, and exhausting to me. Being carried along by what I perceived as my father’s wishes was the path of least resistance, so I followed it.
I stood in my new suit, its conservative blue tailored lines not matching the contents therein, at the entrance of The Jacques, a French resturant just inside the lobby of the Monaco Hotel downtown. It was one of the key hotels under Mr. Sharp’s watchful care, and it would be there that I would meet the master of the house. As I entered, it was just after the lunch rush if there was such a thing in a place like that. The place was almost deserted, and pristine with linen and silver and glass. Somewhere, Percy Faith’s “Theme From A Summer Place” played. The Maitre D’ looked up at me. He was a handsome guy about thirty or so. He smiled, revealing a row of teeth that seemed to fit their pristine surroundings.
“Yes?” he said cordially.
“Yeah, uh,” I stumbled and cast my eyes down at my shoes, which I then realized I’d forgotten to shine. “I’m, uh, I’m here to meet Mr. Sharp?”
“You must be Randall, then.” he said congenially.
I nodded. “Yeah. That’s me.” I said.
“Come this way.”
The Maitre D’ led me to a table across the wide room. A few patrons were at the bar near the front. There was a few patrons in the dining room, too. None of them looked up from their lunches, or their low-voiced conversations as we passed. Finally, we came to a table near a glass wall that looked out onto a kind of cloister; stone pavers, green lawns, faux-Greek statues, and sprinklers catching the light, and spreading liquid rainbowed sunshine all around. It was a table for two although wide enough for four, with green linen napkins standing upright and folded like pyramids, two tall glasses, a thin vase with two carnations, and a pitcher of water serving to decorate it. And there was something else on the table to distinguish it from all of the others; a large bowl of candy.
“Here we are,” said the Maitre D’.
“Thanks. Um, what’s with the candy?” I asked, finding that my curiosity was much stronger than my nervousness in that moment.
“Ah, that’s Mr. Sharp’s favourite; Bassett’s Licorice Allsorts. He developed a taste for them while he studied in England, so now he ships it in. We like to put out a bowl of them on his table whenever he visits. It’s a courtesy we like to extend to him. They’re for you, too while you wait. Mr. Sharp will be along in a few minutes, I’m sure.”
“Sure thing. Uh, thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Randall.” Then he left.
I sat down, and stared out the window for a while as the sun reflected off of each perfectly formed blade of grass. Each micro-droplet of water from the sprinklers hung like a jewel on every verdant point and edge. But, that got dull. Everything gets dull when you’re eighteen. So, I turned away from the idyllic vision beyond my window, and my eye caught the bowl of licorice allsorts. I’d never seen licorice like that before. The licorice I knew was sold by the whip. And my Dad was kind of a health nut who disapproved of candy of any kind. Actually, he outlawed it in our house. It would rot my teeth and make me lethargic; that was the line he took.
So, looking down at that large bowl of colourful, almost arcanely exotic candy, I was fascinated. And I’d been invited to have some: “it’s for you, too”, said the Maitre D’. So, it couldn’t hurt. It might even help. I’d have at least one thing to talk to Mr. Sharp about to help break the ice. They were his favourite from his days in England. He probably would be disappointed if I didn’t try some.
So, I did.
I picked one of the candies up and I took a tiny bite. It was a multicoloured cube of pure sugar, with a hint of coconut, and the unmistakable bittersweetness of black licorice. I had never tasted anything like it before. After that first taste, I suppose my mind wandered. I thought about my leaving high school a month earlier, and about my future. I thought about my Dad and how important this meeting would be to him. I thought about a dozen things that were completely unrelated. A voice nattered on in my head, a voice full of youthful exhuberance, and doubt.
Then, I realized that I had been popping Licorice Allsorts into my mouth one by one the whole time. I was chain-eating licorice allsorts.
I stopped. I knew that I couldn’t eat the whole bowl myself. The Maitre D’ had said it; it was Mr. Sharp’s favourite. They put a bowl out for him as a kind of tribute; the boss, the owner of the hotel and restaurant they worked in, the key to their employment, their ability to pay the rent, to eat, to do anything. Who was I? Some awkward kid sent here by his Dad to gain an unfair advantage over a hundred other kids, and probably the same number of businessmen who’d kill to have a one-on-one with John Oliver Sharp.
So, I said to myself: no more licorice. But, I was popping another one into my mouth as I thought it. And then another. I couldn’t seem to help myself.
My mind wandered again. I thought about all of the places I’d never been. I thought about a girl I liked growing up; Marilyn Meeks. I thought about the way her sweater hugged the contours of her breasts, and the way her green eyes seemed to light up the world. But, Marilyn Meeks had become engaged to the class brain Gerard Wilkinson that summer, and they’d both be going to New York in the fall so that Gerard could go to medical school, and so Marilyn would have a more prestigious address to have babies in. I’d never see her again, never get her attention, never get to know her, talk to her, touch her, kiss her. I knew I’d never meet anyone who provoked me so pleasurably ever again. I was sure of it in the way that you’re sure of everything when you’re a kid.
I chewed and chewed and chewed all the while. The contents of the bowl dwindled.
I looked down at the bowl. I could see the gaps between the colourful bulk of the candy and the dead whiteness of the porcelain beneath. I rearranged the candy to cover up the bottom of the bowl, and succeeded. The bowl was full because you couldn’t see the bottom. That was right, wasn’t it? Yes, it definitely was. I decided to reward my ingenuity with another licorice allsort. I popped it into my mouth, and looked up and out the window again.
A fat bumblebee hit the window with a dull tap. He corrected his spiraling flight path and flew upward, dizzily into the limitless blue. Watching him disappear from sight, I felt something that felt a lot like envy. I wanted to be free, too, even if it meant bashing my head against a wall every once in a while. Suddenly, the idea of the path of least resistance wasn’t so attractive. I didn’t want to be left behind by life by living someone else’s version of how it should go. Suddenly, the whole idea of a future felt like something I could control if I wanted to. “This is what real ambition feels like,” I thought to myself, reaching for another licorice allsort, and wrapping my sticky, smeary lips around it.
I thought about getting out of town for good. That was what Marilyn and Gerard had done. I hated Gerard because he had what I didn’t. But, I realized in that moment that it didn’t matter what Gerard had or didn’t have. He’d got Marilyn because that was the kind of man she wanted to be with. Gerard being a know-it-all arrogant teacher-pleasing prick was still kind of problematic to me, I supposed. But, he had something I didn’t have up until then; he had confidence that wherever he went, he’d do fine. I couldn’t deny him that.
Suddenly, I knew that I had a goal to achieve that same kind of confidence, even if I hadn’t worked out all the details. In that moment, I let go of my thoughts about Marilyn Meeks, too. My expectations where she was concerned had never really been very realistic anyway, and I realized that I loved the idea of her rather than loving the person she really was, which was someone who wanted to be with a guy like Gerard. It was an epiphany! To celebrate, I slid another licorice allsort into my mouth. That luridly coloured candy made to delight children tasted just like adulthood, and well-adjusted adulthood at that. My hand fumbled into the bowl again to capture another one still. My fingers slid around the cool smooth surface of the bowl until it found the edges of the sugary, licoricey square.
It was the last one in the bowl.
A feeling of horror seemed to attach itself to the pit of my stomach just like a multi-layered cube of confectionary – or several. With a heavy sense of inevitability, I put the candy in my mouth, and chewed slowly. It was official: I’d overdone it. And there was another thought that came to me which was even more terrible; that something bad was going to come out of my having eaten every candy in that very large bowl. I wasn’t sure what that something would be. But, I knew that there was nothing I could do to avoid it, whatever it was.
The Maitre D’ came by the table. “Hello, Randall. Mr. Sharp is running late as I’m sure you can tell. He’s tied up in another meeting. He will be here in another …” he trailed off for an instant, looking at the empty bowl. ” … in another ten minutes. How are you doing here? I notice there’s no more candy.”
“Uh, yeah. Sorry about that. It’s really good.” I showed him a blackened, stained smile.
“Yes, I imagine it is. Let me see if I can get more … for the bowl.” he said, without returning a smile of his own.
He left again, and I knew that I’d transgressed the adult-world laws of propriety once again. It wasn’t my fault, I assured myself. Despite my earlier revelations about growing up, I was still enough of a kid to let myself off of the hook.
Then, something rumbled down below, and I knew I really was in trouble. My stomach roiled and churned, and I felt an unpleasant pressure beginning to build from somewhere down below. Through the dominating taste of sugary licorice, I tasted that indicative salty-metalic nausea that can cut through anything. How much candy had I eaten? How much was in that bowl? I looked down at its concave white emptiness, and noted to myself in an internal voice that sat somewhere outside of the churning, cramping nausea that I was experiencing that it really was a very large bowl. Maybe if I hadn’t been so nervous about the meeting, I might have noticed. But, it was too late by then.
I had another revelation; that hindsight isn’t worth a damn when you’re about to explode at both ends in a fancy restaurant owned by someone you’re trying to impress. I was just about to get up to find the gents, when as if on cue, Mr. Sharp appeared. Then, I couldn’t leave even though I desperately needed to. I had to be cordial instead.
John Oliver Sharp was well dressed, and well coifed, just like in every newspaper I’d seen him in. He looked at me and smiled broadly. And he looked at the empty bowl, and his smile faltered. Then, he looked back at me again, trying to bolster that smile again.
“Randall? Tom’s boy, isn’t it?” He extended his hand and smiled, turning his attention away from the empty candy bowl back to me and my smeary, guilty face that, I suppose now, had been getting more and more green.
Something gurgled inside of me. I stood up and smiled wanly. Something else gurgled and shifted. I took his hand and shook it, opening my mouth to tell him how thankful I was that he agreed to meet me. My intentions in that moment were sterling silver. I was going to tell him what an honour it was to meet someone of his stature. I was going to tell him that when I learned that he and my Dad had been childhood friends, I could barely believe it was true, but was glad that it was. I was going to say that I’d looked forward to this meeting for two weeks. I was going to say any number of things that I truly did feel at the time. All of those statements, had I made them, would have been absolutely true.
But instead of saying any or all of those things, I projectile puked all over him.
It was a deluge of multicoloured, sticky, cloying, sickeningly pungent oil slick liquid stink, mixed with the remnants of the bacon and eggs my mother had prepared for me that morning. Both of us stared at one another for what seemed an eternity, multicolored strands of goo oozing off of both of us. It’s hard to tell whether I wanted to stay in that moment, or to desperately escape from it. While in it, I didn’t have to face what might happen next. But while still in that moment, I’d have to imagine the full horror of what the next thing would be.
“I see you’ve had some of my Licorice allsorts,” he said, eventually.
Things were kind of a blur in my memory after that. There was a scream of disgust or two as I recall. And someone laughed themselves silly. Frank Sinatra sang “They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil…” over a radio somewhere. I remember that Mr. Sharp was pretty gracious about the whole thing. He got his people to help clean me up. When I was half-presentable in a clean busboy uniform and my suit was put into a plastic suit bag, they put me in a cab, and sent me home on his dime. I never saw him again, except in the papers and the news over the years. My encounter with him never made the headlines, luckily.
Besides my being completely mortified, there was no real harm done. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the biggest impact was that Mr.Sharp’s love of Bassett’s Licorice Allsorts was forever changed. My Dad wasn’t even all that mad when I told him what happened. He just laughed at me for the rest of his life about it, which I guess was his due. He’d tell the story as I’d told it to him at pretty much every family gathering until the year he died as if he were telling it for the first time. It was his party piece. The punchline was always the same: “Well, you know what they say; it takes ALL SORTS… (cue laughter)”. I laughed too. With some distance behind me, it was a pretty funny thing that happened and worth re-telling even that many times.
Maybe my Dad would have been more upset with me if I hadn’t decided to make a plan of my own pretty soon afterwards. I finally got off my butt and decided to travel that year, backpacking around Europe, then hitting Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, India, and then onto Japan for a while until applying for school when I was ready. Dad probably would have been much more bitter due to his ungrateful, unmotivated screw-up of a kid if I hadn’t got a publishing deal after graduating with honours at Columbia, becoming a journalist and later a travel writer. Maybe you’ve read some of my stuff, or maybe not. The point is, things turned out OK.
But, you know, maybe none of that would have mattered to my Dad anyway. I’d misjudged him all along. He wasn’t trying to run my life like I thought he was by setting up that ill-fated meeting with John Oliver Sharp. It was just his love for me that inspired him to get me in front of one of the most celebrated people he knew. The whole time, he just hoped for me what I eventually hoped for my own kids; that I’d get the help from him that he thought I needed in order to become the person I was meant to become. And he was right about the negative effects of eating candy too, even though if I’d listened to him about that, maybe my life would have taken me down a road that would have been harder to turn back from. Following the herd can be a lot like taking candy from a bowl one by one. The years fly by, and before you know it, your life is just a series of empty years.
I don’t touch sweet stuff these days. Maybe it’s because I’m forever put off by them since that day. Maybe I’m worried that I still like them too much for my own good. My wife, my kids, and my grandkids are sugar fans, though.
It does indeed take all sorts.