Wednesday, May 20, 1998

Too Close For Comfort

I'm sitting in the corner of the restaurant having lunch with my friend Mark when, all of a sudden, there's a tap on my shoulder. No voice, just a tap.

I turn and look up and there's a guy with slicked-back hair and a gold medallion hanging over his paunchy gut, looking at me with a goofy grin as he asks, "Hey, how ya doin'?" As I answer, "Oh, hanging in there," he rubs my shoulder in the way close friends do. Then he says, "Well, as long as you're above ground, there's nothing to complain about, right?"

While I ponder the complete banality of that remark, he rubs and pats my shoulder while he follows it up with, "You know, the universe can't deal you a bad hand, because you're better than that." I'm completely lost, and we're only half a minute into this baffling exchange.

Unable to work up the energy to even care what this guy is talking about, I blurt out, "So, how are you?" To which he replies, "Hey, you know me. I'm like s**t, I'm everywhere." He accompanies this with a you-know-what-I-mean shoulder shove. All I can muster in response is a single syllable: "Right."

Obviously feeling he has gotten his important message across, he tosses me a "You take it easy, now!" and winks as he walks away. I wait almost a full second before turning back to Mark and telling him, "I have absolutely no idea who that was."

Mark does a spit-take as he laughs, and then asks me, "You don't know that guy? You've never seen him before?" I tell him, "I may have met him somewhere, sometime, but no, I don't know when or where. That's why I didn't introduce you to him." Mark wonders aloud, "Why didn't he introduce himself, and what's with the shoulder rubbing? That seemed inappropriate."

Even if I did know this guy from some previous encounter, how presumptuous it was for him to assume I'd know who he was just by looking up at him. We're not talking about a poker buddy or some celebrity whose identity is immediately obvious. That blank look on my face meant he had to give me a name, a clue, something to help me place him in my mental rolodex.

Hi, Paul, I'm Jim Schmendrick. We met at the "Guess How Many Cheez Doodles Anna Nicole Smith Can Fit In Her Mouth" contest last year. Oh, yeah, Jim, good to see you again. Thanks for the help.

What about the wink? Who winks at anyone anymore? What is that supposed to signify, "I'm a little creepy, but I think I'm ultra-cool"? Yeah, you're about as cool as the guest star on the new Love Boat.

As for the touching, it's more than inappropriate. I have friends who I've known for years, and a handshake is just fine when we greet each other. For instance, Mark and I have been having lunches together for almost a decade, yet we've never thrown our arms around each other before sitting down to a bowl of mongolian barbecue. Sure, really old friends and relatives get a hug if we haven't seen each other for a very long while, but that's reserved for people we're close to; certainly not some casual acquaintance. There has to be more than a passing familiarity before you go past the handshake stage to the rubbing-and-patting-my-shoulder stage.

In the meantime, back off to arm's length and give me some room here, Paco. And leave those empty bromides where they belong, at Mr. Superficial's College Of Interpersonal Communication. That's the school where, on graduation day, Dean Hair-Gel gives you your diploma and gold medallion, plus a shoulder rub, a high-five, and a big old pat on the butt. Whoever that guy was at lunch today, he must have graduated summa cum laude.