CODY, Wy. — Even in the remote reaches of northwest Wyoming I am not immune from visits by fellow TAS contributors. For the past few summers I can count on two in particular to blow into Cody on the prairie breeze: Happy Jack Feder and Reid Collins.
Reid quits his baronial digs in an undisclosed location in Montana one day each summer and motors a few hours to Cody, a town he’s actually been personally familiar with since childhood family Yellowstone trips. He likes the Irma Hotel, “Buffalo Bill’s Hotel in the Rockies,” a century old, and displaying some of the Plainsman’s memorabilia, much Cody history, and, well, some of the most marginal food in town. And here we go to lunch.
Reid’s silver haired ex-Washington correspondent’s urbanity belies the fact that he is definitely a blue-plate-special kind of guy. It is as if the Irma cooks somehow know that he is in town, and they stock up on soggy meatloaf and pasty mashed potatoes for that day’s lunch special. I usually order a buffalo burger because the Irma kitchen does a fair job of not screwing them up.
So we sit in the shabbily genteel and ornate dining room looking at the elk antler chandeliers, the buffalo, moose and deer heads on the walls, and the wine-colored cherrywood bar that was a gift of Queen Victoria to Buffalo Bill. I tell Reid it was given in return for sexual favors, and being a great reporter he doesn’t believe this. He orders his lunch in his buttery newsman’s voice, flirting with the matronly waitress, who calls him “honey,” and he finds this charming. I don’t have the heart to tell him that in politically incorrect Wyoming all waitresses of a certain age call all their male customers “honey.”
The conversation over lunch is varied, but mostly consists of talking shop, specifically concerning the Inside-the-Beltway political-media world from which I am two thousand miles removed. I get the impression that Washington is a bit like Hell, in that it’s hot in summer, gray cold in winter, and no matter the season everybody hates everybody else. There’s howling shrieks and the gnashing of teeth and daily editorials in the Post. I tell Reid that like a Dantesque pilgrim I would like to visit, as long as I could leave in relatively short order.
Friends of mine pass our table and I introduce Reid as “Reid Collins: CBS News,” as if he’s signing off a broadcast. He is annoyed by this, but soon brightens when our waitress returns. “How’s the meatloaf, honey?” she asks. “Are you wantin’ coffee?”
HAPPY JACK FEDER CAME TO TOWN recently, and the dust has just settled. His latest entrepreneurial shtick (besides freelance writing and a screenplay-in-progress) is digital photography of Rocky Mountain scenery panoramas put onto elongated poster board (they’re actually very professionally done) and hustled to tourist town shops on consignment or personally at summertime craft fairs, music festivals, etc. He’s been on the road a lot lately. A Kerouackian Willy Loman driving a beater Toyota with almost as much mileage on it as Apollo 11.
Anyway, after one such fair in Big Sky, Montana, Happy Jack showed up in Cody late at night and found his way to the familiar oasis of my apartment on Alger Avenue. We had our usual bear-hug reunion (he lives in Helena, Montana, and I hadn’t seen him in a year), and he rolled out his inflatable mat and sleeping bag on the “living room” (I have what can best be described as a studio apartment. The living room is also the kitchen and bedroom, depending on where you’re standing. My kitchen table is also my desk. You get the idea) floor, and was soon snoring like a chainsaw in need of a timing adjustment.
Living at close quarters with Happy Jack for a few days is an adventure, kind of like summer camp sans poison ivy (there is none in Wyoming). When he shows up, he tends physically to take over, as duffel bag, knapsack, clothes and sleeping bag pile up in odd corners, of which there aren’t many. When this occurs, my domicile starts to morph into what I call “Camp Happy Jack.” And Camp Happy Jack is not for the faint of heart.
The floor is littered with laundry and reading matter: socks, underwear, newspapers, magazines, his screenplay-in-progress, and anything that I’ve written lately that I’ve shown him. I once chatted on the phone with his saintly wife Kathy about all this, and came away from the conversation with one quote from her that stuck in my mind: “Bill, I’ve been picking up his socks and underwear for 22 years.”
Happy Jack is a big guy and tends to be a bit heavy-handed: furniture is jostled, drinks are spilled, and when he opens the curtains the rod hooks are loosened from their moorings. He’s what my mother has always called “a bull in a china shop.”
On the first morning after his arrival, Happy Jack broke the toilet. He did this by simply flushing it. He came out of the bathroom resuming his train-of-thought monologue (I can’t recall what it was about), and despite it I could hear a rushing sound like a mountain stream coming from the bathroom.
“What’s that sound?” I asked.
I went into the bathroom. “What did you do to the toilet, Happy?”
I took the top of the tank off, and inside it was a noisy, storm-tossed sea. I swore an oath, as they used to say.
“What did you do, Happy?” I demanded.
“Nuthin’,” he said, exasperated. “I just flushed it.”
I’m not a plumber, so don’t ask me how I fixed it, but I did. A little blue rubber hose had popped out of a metal tube, and there was a loose clamp attached to the tube. Water was shooting out of the end of the wayward hose. I clamped the end of the hose to the end of the metal tube, thus directing the water back into the tube, and the storm-tossed sea was instantly becalmed. I did a test flush and everything worked correctly.
“Don’t touch my laptop,” I said, menacingly.
Later, I put a note on the bathroom door as a reminder. It read: “Happy, Flush Gently.”
THIS WAS ALSO A SUNDAY, and I’d gone out earlier to get the papers. I like to read the papers over breakfast on Sunday morning. If this is just another neurotic tic, it’s one I share with scores of millions of my fellow Americans. Happy Jack could care less, but if the papers happen to be lying around, he’ll read them. And talk about interesting news or commentary that catches his eye. It’s: “Listen to this,” and “Look at that,” and “Check it out.” Initially, I thought that if I kept passing him sections of the paper, he’d shut up and read, and I — in turn — could read in peace. No such luck.
He’s always losing things. His car keys, reading and sunglasses, and articles of clothing. This usually leads to the emptying of his knapsack and duffel bag onto the floor until the missing item is found. Sometimes he leaves things behind when he leaves. But the day does come when he does leave.
We have another bear hug by the car, and last minute farewells as he starts it. The Toyota rattles off down Alger Avenue and I stand on the lawn waving goodbye to my old friend. Then I go back inside and before I start the cleanup I lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling and heave a sigh of relief. Another summertime sojourn at Camp Happy Jack has concluded.
I cherish both these friends, and picking a favorite would be difficult. But three facts are clear: Reid never stays overnight, always buys lunch, and has never broken my toilet.
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