Peter Stone was a great writer of Broadway musicals, movies and television. He was also prickly, an un-diagnosed INTJ personality, and a good friend and mentor. Peter always told me I was more than an assistant. I was his associate. That distinction with a difference meant a great deal to me.
When Peter was working on — The Will Rogers Follies — we had a lunch routine we never broke: Tuna fish sandwiches on a roll with mustard, mayo, lettuce, tomato and provolone and a Martinelli’s apple cider to wash it all down. Our time to talk about life and art and living was in that break when we’d walk to and from the corner deli to pick up our lunch.
One day, when we were walking back to the theatre, a guy with a bottle of vodka was weaving in and out of the crowd before us. I looked nerdy. I was wearing my spectacles — we’d had a long rehearsal the night before and my eyes were too dry for my contact lenses — and I was nattily dressed in proper slacks and a nice trench coat. Stone was dressed in his usual uniform of the day: Khaki pants, white shirt and a Banana Republic fisherman’s coat with pockets everywhere. He cinched the belt around his coat with a knot.
Peter and I were engrossed in a conversation about dramatic structure when I was blindsided by the guy weaving in and out of the crowd. He bumped into me, dropped his bottle of vodka — and when it smashed on the sidewalk in glass shards — started yelling at me to pay him back for the bottle I broke.
Before I could respond, Stone took three dollars from his wallet and paid the guy and we were back to walking away as the guy yelled at us from behind that we still owed him money.
Stone then asked me, urgently, but in a hushed tone, if we should go back and beat up the guy. “Do you think we could both take him?” he asked me with that sort of sly, half-smile, that made his wry humor so funny to me and so misunderstood by his other collaborators. I answered him with a laugh.
When we returned to the theatre, we calmly ate our sandwiches in the lobby and one of the mothers of one of the children in the show came up to us. She said she was right behind us on the sidewalk and saw the whole incident. She said after we left, the guy laughed at us and went to his friend and told him how he conned us out of three dollars for a broken bottle of water that looked like vodka.
Stone was perplexed. He’s been conned and he didn’t like it. “Let’s go back and beat him up. We can take him.” Stone wasn’t kidding. His eyes were black and pitiless. He wanted blood.
The mother stopped him by touching his forearm with her umbrella. “No, don’t bother. It’s an old street short con. It’s pretty effective because they’ll take whatever they can get. The way you’re dressed,” she said looking at me, “the guy thought you were a tourist.”
“We can take him!” Stone cried!
“If it happens again,” the mother said, ignoring Stone’s reddening face, “Just say you’re sorry and then ask if he wants to find a policeman to settle on a fair price. The guy will run away faster than you could throw a first punch.”
Stone was gnawing on his tuna fish sandwich and stewing in the loss of three dollars and most of his manly bravado.
“Peter, it’s okay,” I said, “We can beat him up tomorrow. Today, we’ll plan. Tomorrow we act.”
Stone nodded and his fingers turned dusky as he gripped his Martinelli’s bottle within a millimeter of breaking.
The next day — and the rest of our lunch days together — were forever changed. Stone and I didn’t talk about life or art or living anymore. We walked to and fro in a stony silence as Peter viciously scanned the crowd hoping to eek out a mouldy wrong with a revenge that was never served cold.
i enjoy reading the memories of your mentor. did you know it was a con? would you have paid the guy?
Peter was a great friend. We stayed in touch for many years until his untimely death. I didn’t know it was a con, but I wasn’t planning on stopping and engaging the guy, either. I would’ve just continued on my way throughout the crowd. It was Stone who stopped and gave the guy the opportunity.
What a lousy thing to do to get three dollars, David. The loss of your great conversation must have been quite significant.
Right, Gordon. Three bucks never cost so much!