SOMETHING BETTER TO DO
In those days we were always returning home with the sunrise. I don’t know what we did; talked mostly, smoked
a little dope and talked. Laughed too. Laughed a lot. Sometimes a single word would set us off. It didn’t have
to be any particular kind of word and it didn’t really have to relate to anything. We’d be sitting around gazing
blankly at each other, listening to music (always listening to music), and someone would utter a word and we’d
all be snorting and rolling around on the floor holding our sides. That’s the way I remember it anyway. I'm sure
others have more dignified memories. Either way, we were a good-natured lot. No animals were harmed in the
making of this life.
So, one morning after such a night Ginger was on her way home alone. She was passing a lovely little house
with pristine white picket fencing all around and willow trees which overhung the sidewalk (I’m sure there were
flowers involved too), when a young black kid—post pubescent--came out of the lovely little cobblestone alley
and climbed on Ginger’s back. He clung to her like a rhesus monkey while he rubbed himself against her.
Ginger managed somehow to shrug him off and then she turned to face the kid.
She wasn’t furious, however she was perturbed by the kid’s strange animal-behavior. “Haven’t you got
anything better to do?” she asked her assailant somewhat peevishly.
The kid was surprised by Ginger’s reserve. (We’ve all been surprised by Ginger’s reserve at one time or
another.) He looked at her, mouth agog, not knowing precisely what to do next. For a moment it looked like he
was going to offer an apology. He paused. He thought. Then, he shrugged a goofy kind of shrug, turned and
ambled away, down the alley out of which he’d sprung. Ginger watched him for a bit then continued on her way
home to get some sleep.
I don’t remember precisely when this story came to me, but it wasn’t immediately; Ginger just didn’t feel it
required that sort of attention. Maybe a couple of days, maybe a week later, she mentioned it to Rick when
they were passing by the same lovely little alley one day, and Rick pointed the spot out to me sometime later
when we were going by that way. It was a particularly idyllic location for such an event. From Rick’s description,
I had already pictured it clearly (even the flowers). And, because I knew her, I could hear Ginger’s calm but
scolding manner—I could see her standing there with her hands on her hips as she looked the poor misguided
youth right straight directly and unflinchingly in the eye. Haven’t you got anything better to do? It was a good
Ginger was feminine in every way…a warm womanly makes-her-own-bread kind of creature. She was a
romantic but of the straight-forward cold-eye-on-reality sort. Of course, I don’t know what I’d do if someone
jumped out of an alley and climbed on my back and started dry-humping me as the rising sun filtered down on
me through a lovely leafy-green willow tree, in the languid residential morning streets of Richmond. That’s why
I admired Ginger. Her response was eloquent and dignified. Also, I think it allowed the kid the opportunity to re-
think his attitude concerning women, without embarrassing himself too much. Ginger handled the peculiar
event perfectly. I could not invent such a heroine.
I was sitting in a café, slumping in my chair, sighing, rolling my eyes heavenward in a saintly manner, exuding
the kind of dark anguish that only a healthy young good-looking, middle-class white boy reading Yeats can
exude, when an old middle-class white guy appeared before me in a porkpie hat. He touched the back of the
chair across from me, and said, “Mind if I sit down?” He waited a bit before adding, “I know you were hoping
one of them would be asking.” He cocked his head in the direction of a bevy of young beauties.
I shrugged. He sat.
“Just curious,” he said, “but what business are you in that allows you to hang around here all day looking
disheveled and miserable?”
“Student,” I said bitterly, “but, I’m really a writer.” I added quickly.
“What do you write?”
He snorted. “You must have the world by the tail! Why so miserable?”
“I just found out someone I really liked when I was a kid has died.” It was a lie. I had decided that morning that,
for that day at least, I would lie at least once to everyone I talked to. I wanted to see how that worked out for a
change; I’d failed catastrophically at honesty. I thought maybe being purposefully dishonest would be easier
than being myself.
We sat for a bit, saying nothing. What could I say? It was kind of awkward just sitting there, so, when the girl
brought his cappuccino I spoke.
“What business are you in that lets you sit around here all day drinking cappuccinos?”
“Don’t I look retired?”
I observed. “You do.”
“Well, mystery solved. You look like a miserable kid who’s lost his best friend—and you turn out to be just that.
I look like a perfectly content retired guy—and that is what I turn out to be.” We both laughed. “I was a welder
for forty years, now look at these paws; soft as a baby’s ass.” ‘Must be a matter of perspective,’ I thought
looking at the bulky yellowed leathery mitts he held up for my inspection.
“Say,” he said suddenly, “you recall a guy back in Wisconsin who built a 16 foot speedboat in his basement—
what we used to call a speedboat--?”
“I did hear a story like that. I thought it was an airplane…it was in his living room, wasn’t it?”
“Hell no. Goddamn it.” He slammed the table with one huge fist, rattling the cups. “I’d like to wring his
goddamned neck. That dumb bastard with the airplane was ten year later. I’m talking about a hand-crafted,
mahogany speedboat with a 130 horsepower Chrysler inboard. I’m talking about 1954, Goddamn it.” I cringed.
After all, I was only pretending to be a social creature.
“I was five years old at the time,” I explained meekly.
“Oh hell, it doesn’t matter anyway. You still managed to screw it up, didn’t you?”
“I’m sorry…” I didn’t know what I was apologizing for but I’d been brought up to apologize for any discomfort I
might cause any amiable stranger who sits down across from us uninvited, wearing a pork-pie hat.
“It was supposed to go like this:” he said, “You remember a guy who built a 16 foot speedboat in his basement
and couldn’t get it out? Then you laugh and say, ‘Yeah, what a dumb son-of-a-bitch!’ And I go, ‘That dumb
son-of-a-bitch was me.’ See, it’s a joke?”
“As much as anything is. Point is: I’m the guy who did that.”
I was kind of confused. Slim made more sense than this guy. I didn’t know what to say. So, I waited.
“You’re supposed to ask me why I did that. Goddamit, son,” he said with sympathetic passion, “conversation is
a craft.” He rattled the dishes again.
“Oh. OK. Why did you do that? Why did you build a 16 foot speedboat in your basement knowing you’d never
be able to get it out of there?”
“THAT,” he said, pointing at me and taking a sip of coffee, “is a very good question. He winked and said,
Thank you, by the way. Here,” he said, and after digging around in his wallet, removed a neatly folded old
newspaper clipping and tenderly unfolded it. “Take a look at this.”
I stared at the photograph of a young man in overalls grinning proudly beside a boat that, indeed, seemed to
be housed in a concrete block room. “Here, let me read it to you,” he said and I surrendered the clipping.
“Walter Dunbar—that’s me—just recently completed the work on this beautiful home-built 16 foot mahogany
inboard speedboat. The project took more than three years and cost over $3000.’ That was a chunk of cash
back then. ‘What’s special about Mr. Dunbar’s boat is that he constructed it in his basement, and the only way
to get it out and onto the water would be to dismantle the house. The good-natured Mr. Dunbar told this
reporter, ‘If the basement ever leaks, I’m ready.”
He began to laugh. “See? That’s me, the good-natured Mr. Dunbar. That’s me; that’s my boat. That’s the
“That’s crazy,” I said.
“Pinch yourself; you’re awake all right.”
“Why did you do that?” I was really interested.
“A man has to do something with his time,” he shrugged.
“Did you think you’d be able to get it out of there, when you started?”
“See, now you’re cookin’…Hell no,” he said smugly, “I don’t even like the water. But you have to understand
the times. Everybody had a boat in those days. If you didn’t have one, they thought you were a communist. So,
I wanted one, just like the next fellah, but I didn’t want it to be just like the next fellah’s. So, I designed it, built it
plank by plank, right there in the goddamned basement. Hell, I was on TV!”
“Yeah Art Linkletter himself interviewed me.”
“Yep, Art Linkletter himself…and DO NOT ask me who Art Linkletter is.”
“OK. So what happened to the boat?”
“Anther good question. Thank you again. See, now you’re learning.” He took a sip of coffee and waved at the
woman behind the counter to bring us both whatever we were having.
“It was a great idea, until we tried to sell the house. We found it pretty-goddamned-near impossible to find
anyone that thought it added much to the value. My God, I’d say, there’s a THREE THOUSAND DOLLAR hand-
crafted mahogany speedboat in your basement! But they couldn’t see it.”
“Sheep,” I snarled.
“Hell, I thought for sure someone would be glad to have the thing.”
“Conversation piece…” I offered.
“There you go,” he said. “You betcha. Somethin’ for the neighbors to talk about. But, it didn’t turn out that way.
In the end it was either disassemble my glorious boat or take a loss on the house. I couldn’t see myself taking
a crowbar to something I’d worked on for nearly four years, not to mention the 3000 smackers.” I waited.
“Eventually we dropped the price of the house. I guess the guy who bought it from us destroyed my boat. What
“That would be hard to live with,” I said.
The good-natured Walter Dunbar was laughing quietly and shaking his head. “Actually, now that I’m more
forgetful, I find that I’m also a lot more forgiving. For years I hated that bastard…guy who bought the house. I
felt like killing him. Truly, the arguments for and against were carefully weighed.” He sat and thought for a
while. “I was going to drive by there and take a peek into the basement, and if the boat was gone, I was going
to ring the bell and kill the guy on the spot.” He laughed.
“Look, I’ll give you a little free advice,” he said, “Don’t EVER build a boat in your basement.”
“OK, I won’t,” I said.
“Promise me,” he said, “You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble.”
“The guy who built that plane in his living room—you can forget about him too; he’s nothin’ more than a
goddamned copy cat. Stupid bastard named Harnett or something…What was that son-of-a-bitch’s name?
Harnett, Harnott? Harner? It doesn’t matter, I started it all in 1954, in Three Rivers.” Walter Dunbar raised his
cup to salute himself. I raised mine.
“This is wonderful. I’ve never met anyone like you before,” I said.
“Well, your luck is changing. Hell of a lot better than fiction, ain’t it? We get enough fiction from the boys in
Washington. What we need is more real life.” We both sat there for awhile.
The man was re-reading a twenty-year-old newspaper article about himself which he’d probably read a
thousand times before, and enjoying it. I was enjoying watching his enjoyment.
“Anybody ever invented a story like that and nobody’d believe it.” he said. "It’s too crazy for fiction. But it’s NOT
too crazy for real life is it?” He started to get up in order to leave. “What’d you say your name was, young
I paused for one second. “Walter,” I said.
“I think I can remember that one,” Walter Dunbar said. “Nice to meet you, Walter.”
He extended his hand. We shook.
So, now I was Walter.