“You look like a rubber sheep,” my first wife said to me many years ago. I am congenitally unable to look neat, but this stopped me.
“How so?” I asked, playing for time.
“Well, look at you: You look like you’d slept in a swimming pool,” she said.
I couldn’t quarrel with that, but the comparison still eluded me. “But why a rubber sheep?” I asked.
“Not a rubber sheep, you nitwit,” she replied, “a rubbish heap."
This exchange came back to me last week as I traveled through Europe and remembered the last time I changed planes in Frankfurt on my way to talk to the media in Russia about organ donation — a subject that, improbably, has become my life’s work. As usual I had crammed all my belongings into one backpack to avoid checking anything, a load more fit for a camel than a compact man. One of the straps was longer than the other and the whole lumpy mess kept slipping off my shoulder.
It had been OK in Los Angeles, where the laid-back crowd took in an old man staggering under a burden almost as big as himself as part of the scene. But in Germany the businessmen standing in neat lines in smart and expensive overcoats looked away in distaste. I haven’t owned an overcoat since I came to California more than 30 years ago and had on a zip-up jacket better suited to crawling through undergrowth than mixing with the jet set. I slunk onto the plane and huddled in my seat.
Relief was at hand, however. In St. Petersburg I strolled past a planeload of fellow passengers waiting anxiously for their bags, afraid they might have been pilfered, lost or delayed, leaving them unable, or at least embarrassed, to go to the planned signing of a $100-million contract or the ambassador’s banquet. I had no such worries, the reward for all the indignities I had suffered, the strained back, the buckling knees.
It is this icing on the cake that always makes carting my baggage through endless airport corridors worthwhile. But this time the icing was thicker, pinker and more luscious than ever before.
As I came out of customs a television crew came toward me, cameraman, sound mixer and the delectable Ekaterina, interviewer and heart-throb. Out of the corner of my eye — I didn’t want to take the rest of my eyes off her — I saw the businessmen slink by, eyes fixed straight ahead, determined not to be caught peeping, and strangely diminished, despite their stylish coats and fur collars, while my image — crumpled shirt, baggy pants and scuffed shoes — was being shown from the Baltic to the furthest reaches of Siberia.
And I’m willing to bet a hundred rubles to one that not a single viewer had ever before seen a genuine, 24-karat, non-genetically modified rubber sheep.
REG GREEN’s website is nicholasgreen.org.