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Friday, November 20, 2009

It's not easy being an authority

By Dick Hirsch

Drinkwater is one of those friends who likes to keep in touch by calling whenever he has a problem of some kind. He may or may not realize it, but when confronted with a situation that he finds somewhat baffling he makes contact, immediately making his problem your problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind the calls. Drinkwater has always been an engaging guy, good-natured, generous and well-informed, so it’s good to hear from him. My only wish is that he would someday call for no obvious reason. I have a pretty reliable memory, and I can’t recall ever having a telephone call or a meeting with him that didn’t involve some matter that was bothering him.

Fortunately, he doesn’t call that often. It just seems often. Drinkwater has a fairly wide and diversified circle of friends and acquaintances and has developed an accurate assessment of those areas in which he believes each of them possesses some special skill or expertise. That enables him to make a specific judgment, deciding which of the group might be the best source for a wise answer. On the one hand, it’s flattering to be considered well-informed on a particular topic, any topic.

“What hotel would you recommend in Billings?” he asked me one evening several years ago.

“Billings?” I said. What’s Billings?”

He explained that he was contemplating a trip to Montana, possibly involving an overnight stay in Billings. I had never been to Billings, I told him.

“Oh, sorry” he said. “I remember hearing you talk about Montana so I was sure you would have gone to Billings.” I suggested he do an Internet search for hotels and he immediately responded by asking which travel agency sites on the web I had found to be most helpful in placing reservations.

“I understand you can get a better price for hotel rooms if you call the hotel direct rather than calling the national toll-free number,” Drinkwater added. “Do you agree?”

On various occasions he has asked for recommendations on a place that repairs sewing machines, the best source for advice on the purchase of a digital camera or a new dining room set. (He was seeking something contemporary in walnut and I had no suggestion for him. He said he was shocked that I was uninformed since my late father-in-law had been in the furniture business.)

Whenever possible, I try to be of some assistance, but often I am stumped; my slate is as blank as his and I have no special knowledge or inside information. Drinkwater must realize that, but the intermittent calls and questions keep coming. What variety of apple is best for baking? When higher octane gasoline is recommended for certain cars, does it damage the engine to use regular? Is there a special restaurant for seafood in Boston? Is it worthwhile to replace the hard drive or should he buy a new computer?

Just the other day Drinkwater called “just to say hello,” and to report that he was buying a new car and picking it up later in the week. He had been driving his old car for several years and was selling it privately to a neighbor. As he spoke, I wondered whether he would eventually describe a problem of some sort. If not, it would have been a rare conversation with Drinkwater. He didn't disappoint; he sounded exasperated as he finally got to the point and recounted his problem.

“I can’t budge the damn screws holding the license plates,” he said. “They have been there for years and they’re all rusted. Any suggestions?”

I told him to squirt a few drops of oil on each and try to loosen them the following day.

As I later reflected on that question I decided it was probably the simplest question Drinkwater had ever posed. In the past he has asked about 401-K investments and withdrawals, the relative merits of cable versus fiber optic for TV reception, the life span of the batteries in hybrid cars, causes leading to the fall of the Roman Empire and any number of other issues of varying complexity. But how to remove rusted screws from a license plate holder? I concluded that either Drinkwater is a seriously troubled personality or else he has downgraded my areas of supposed expertise. He did call again a couple of days later with a related question:

“Do you have a hacksaw I can borrow?”



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