Boy, was Artie out of place in Fond du Lac.
He was a trim and tailored product of Manhattan, slightly built, handsome, 35 and single, with kind, dark eyes, a neat black moustache and a wry sense of humor.
Artie was a lithe little man and elegant– twitchy and high-strung– a raconteur, a gadfly… witty, urbane, sophisticated.
His custom made suits– European! — raised eyebrows in a town where a perfectly acceptable wool-poly blend retailed at Sears for under $100.00.
We started at Mercury Outboards on the same day, Artie and I. He was a trade show man, I was a young ad manager from Illinois. I liked him right away — how could you not like this meticulous man in tasseled loafers so comically out of place in the heartland? I called him Mr. Fancypants. He called me John Boy.
This was back when the recession had decimated the promotional agency business in the Northeast, sending scads of guys like Artie packing it across country, an Armani-clad Corps of Discovery in search of a steady paycheck.
Sadly, when dire economic circumstances cause one to uproot and transplant, outcomes are not always as hoped. And in fairness to Artie, no one could have conveyed to him the soul necessary to make a go of it in Fond du Lac. I’m talking soul of a depth, breadth and tensile strength beyond the capacity of most mortals.
Winters in Fond du Lac are cold enough to kill squirrels and send Jiffy Lube attendants back to night school.
Summers are short and feature frantic teenagers racing tricked-out firebirds and fluorescent Japanese crotch rockets up and down Main Street, disrupting traffic and frightening the elderly.
In autumn, busloads of Packers fans from Madison and Milwaukee breed resentment by stopping just long enough for a quick leak on their way to Green Bay.
In Spring… well, there is no Spring.
Then there are the locals– distrustful of foreigners, foreign things, new things, artsy-fartsy things and new artsy-fartsy foreign things.
And, of course, there’s the outboard motor business– peppered with swarthy men in racing jackets and polaroid sunglasses– an industry fueled by a rank mix of motor oil, testosterone and a dread fear of rising interest rates.
Artie just didn’t fit, you know?
He wasn’t into beer, bowling, polyester or polka… couldn’t handle deep-fried foods or demolition derbies… and was deathly afraid of insects.
He didn’t understand the lyrics, couldn’t hum the tune– and, to his credit, wasn’t the least bit interested in learning.
While we were all deer hunting or scraping barnacles off the hulls of our Starcrafts, Artie was camped out at a spa somewhere, packed in herbal mud with cucumbers on his eyelids, drinking highballs and trading yucks with masseuses named Rosalita, Simone and Günter.
Anyway, he finally ticked somebody off, and so one day a couple of big shots invited him to lunch over at the Cracker Barrel and fired him.
Afterward, as they approached our building, a security guard stepped out and said to Artie, “Sir, would you please wait here?”… and the other two kept walking and never looked back.
I ambled along a few minutes later, found Artie waiting for somebody to retrieve his personal belongings. He told me what had happened, said he hadn’t seen it coming. I told him I was sorry, that their methods were uncalled for, and that I thought he’d done a fine job, but was perhaps ill-suited to Fond du Lac.
We sat in my car with the heater running until they brought him his stuff.
He stayed in touch with some of us for a while, would call at Christmas from his apartment in New York City, chain smoking Salems and telling stories long into the night.
And then one year the phone calls stopped and anyone who tried to reach him heard a crackly recording on the far end of the line saying the number was no longer in service.
I hope Artie is still around. I hope he’s in his element, and I hope wherever he is it’s a good place… a place far warmer than Wisconsin.