Dale’s Quiz

Dale is in his 60s, a retiree. He hangs out in coffee shops and plays chess. Sometimes when he doesn’t have an opponent, he talks to me. He’s always fishing for some piece of information, but his questions are too vague for me to figure out what his angle is.

Dale asks me what I think about the stock market. “Are we bound for a recovery?”

“I don’t really know. I don’t follow it, I don’t understand it as well as I should. My brain doesn’t think that way.”

He prods a little more, his face never revealing what he thinks of my answers. “What do you think of the economy in general? Are people you know finding jobs?”

“I don’t know. I know someone who found a job recently that she was excited about. I don’t really have my finger on the pulse of things though. I can’t put together a world-view based on what I’ve seen.”

The quiz continues, “Aren’t you concerned that when you really get serious about looking for a job, you’re not going to find anything? I play chess with someone who works in computers. He’s been having a tough time lately – going from temp job to temp job – not able to find anything he’s really suited for.”

“I’m not worried. I don’t really know what I want to do, so that leaves a lot of options.” I’m only half-joking with my flippant answer.

Dale explains his position, “I put most of my money into real estate. I’m in a private group that invests in apartments. We have places all over – from Everett down to Kent. But the checks that have been coming in lately are a lot smaller than they’ve been in the past, some of them by half. Some aren’t sending checks at all, they’re not making money. Because of high vacancies, we’ve been making big concessions to renters. We’ve been waving first month’s rent, not charging for credit checks, and allowing month-to-month leases instead of requiring six months.”

I’m not sure how much I really empathize with his plight. “Rents have been so outrageous for so long, people are fed up and aren’t accepting those prices anymore. It seems like a backlash was inevitable,” I tell him.

“Hmm,” he says – again a blank slate. “I ask because I’m always trying to gather a lot of different perspectives. I don’t invest in the stock market myself; but I track it because it’s usually an indicator of other things.

“Things are kind of strange right now,” he went on. “Usually, in a market like the one we have today, people will take their money out of stocks and put them into CDs or real estate. That’s not happening now. I don’t think things are going to straighten out until investors back off from the stock market a little.”

“You think we’re still reacting to stocks irrationally?”

He doesn’t react even to this, though I’m at least asking a half-question this time – not just being difficult and non-committal. He changes the subject; “Did you call your mother today?” (It’s Mother’s Day.)

“No,” I answer.

“That’s kind of cold-hearted.”

“Did you call yours?”

He looks a little surprised, “Yes, I did, . . . That’s an unusual question to ask someone my age.”

“I know your mother’s still alive. You’ve mentioned visiting her.”

“Okay.” He explains, “I’ve been forgetting things lately, like I never remember your name . . .?”

“Jeff.”

“Right. I think I’m in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. It’s caused by aluminum, you know.”

I’m not sure where he’s going with this.

“Doctors have been studying the bodies of people who died with Alzheimer’s; and they usually have unusual amounts of aluminum in their brain stems.”

“Do you think you’ve been exposed to a lot of aluminum? Or are you just talking about soda cans and things like that, or industrial aluminum getting into the environment?”

“It probably comes from deodorant,” Dale explains. “There’s aluminum in most deodorants. I’ve started checking ingredients labels when I buy deodorant, making sure I’m getting a brand without aluminum; or I sometimes buy it at health food stores.”

As I make a mental note to inspect my deodorant’s ingredients label when I get home, I notice Robert outside. He’s carefully scanning the coffee shop, looking for me.

I wave. He focuses on me and strolls in. Dale’s face doesn’t betray any reaction to Robert’s appearance.

I introduce them, “Robert, this is Dale.” They shake hands.

“I was just over at the church. Services got out early, so I came over to see if you were here. The pastor is having me do another interview later with the camera man,” Robert tells us.

I explain to Dale, “He’s being interviewed for a documentary . . .” I hesitate, “or a news article?” I look to Robert for clarification. he just nods in agreement. “about the homeless,” I finish.

“And you’re homeless?” Dale asks Robert.

Robert nods, “Yes. They’re hoping that after they show this film, they can get funding for a building and take me and thirteen or fourteen others off the street.”

Dale doesn’t show any confusion about the chain of possibilities that Robert has described. “You should bring the camera over here to show them where you hang out. You could get me in the shot. I’d like to be on TV,” he says.

I say, “He’s trying to take the spotlight off of you Robert.”

Robert laughs politely. I give him some money to get lunch; he thanks me and heads away.

Dale looks back at me and says, “That was very generous. You’re not as cold-hearted as you look.”

I shrug my shoulders, “He’s got to eat somehow.”

“But there are programs for that – churches and soup kitchens. He’s just going to spend that money on wine.”

I shake my head, “No. He’s cleaner than you or me.”

“Oh, you know him pretty well?”

“The worst he might do is spend it on Hostess cupcakes.” (In fact I’m pretty sure that that’s exactly what he’ll spend it on.)

Dale half-shrugs. I can’t help imagining that he might think he’s just witnessed a clandestine drug deal, dressed up for his benefit. He leaves shortly afterward – he has an appointment to look at a new property.

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