Thursday, February 28, 2008

William F. Buckley Jr.'s Fax Number

On Wednesday, William F. Buckley Jr., the wordy and witty champion of conservatism and the founder and editor of National Review for more than 50 years died at the age of 82. I have a story that includes him, albeit once or twice removed.

When I was living in California I owned a used furniture store for a while. Because I served free coffee I became acquainted with an eclectic and nutty mix of locals who would come in and find me a captive audience. One regular, who never bought a damn thing, was a 50-something man with a beard and a parrot on his shoulder. He always had a streak of parrot shit down his back which prevented me from taking his endless and entertaining stories about well-known people very seriously.

After some weeks of regular visits, he decided that the person I should be working for was William F. Buckley Jr. I'm not certain how he made this determination; my political views have been way left of center ever since I discovered sex (which was much later than most of my peers but well before the end of my college career). But alas, my politics are really another story.
The man with the parrot strongly urged me to send a letter to William F. Buckley Jr. and as he made his departure, scratched the necessary number on a scrap of paper, from memory. "That's his fax number. Tell him I sent you."

Of course I was working hard at being a good shop keeper and had little interest in sucking up to a man like William F. Buckley Jr. for a job. Every time the man with the parrot paid a visit to my shop, he would ask me if I had faxed his friend yet and every week I would go on about how much I appreciated the reference but had been far too busy to make use of it.

Some weeks later I got a call from the man with the parrot: he was in Santa Barbara and had a present for me. Would I keep the shop open until he made the 30 minute drive? I reluctantly agreed to wait. Eventually he came swinging through the door with his parrot on his shoulder and an object wrapped in newspaper. He did the unwrapping for me and revealed an old steel bladed butcher knife. At this point I was getting the creeps. Then he proceeded to show me how to use the knife should someone try to rob me or hurt me some evening while I was in the shop alone. He told me he was worried about my safety. "Go for the gut," he said, making a forward stab like some champion fencer, the parrot flapping his wings to keep balance. "It's soft and you can do a lot of damage without hitting any bones."

He instructed me to keep the knife on the shelf just below the register where it would be handy. I thanked him for his thoughtful gift, hoping that my real feelings were well masked.

Eventually I closed the store in California, first going to Alaska for a few months, then down to L.A. for a while, and eventually on to New York. All the years I've lived alone I've kept the butcher knife by my bed, both as an odd nightstand accessory and for a false sense of security. I don't know if I would be brave enough to use it should I have to. Once after September 11, I took it home with me to Pennsylvania on the train so that my Dad could sharpen it for me. Dad got a good laugh out of me carrying a 10 inch butcher knife in my purse on Amtrak.

While I still have the butcher knife, I've long since lost the scrap of paper with William F. Buckley Jr.'s fax number scratched on it. I've also lost my chance to see if it worked.