Out on my bike, making my way up towards town along Cross Street, guy passes me on his bike with his seven or eight year old daughter on a tag-a-long behind him.
I'd heard them coming up. They were having a conversation. He was telling her about Mopeds. Nothing in what he was saying. The words were right. A father telling his little girl about a fad from when he was her age. But the tone was off. And when pulls past me and says first, "Passing on your left," and then "Good morning," the tone of that good morning is off too.
There's an edge, a coldness---a low growl under the words. I know this tone. It's a familiar sound down here. I know it but I don't know it. I can't explain it. I hear it from men just like this one, men in their thirties and early forties, close-shaved, short-haired, neat, gray-skinned under their tans, if they have tans. Something about them suggests both competence and desperation, money and anxiety. I think of them as business types, stockbrokers, corporate attorneys, number crunchers of various kinds, because I see in them the vestiges of the frat guys I knew in college who were business majors and pre-law. Not the beer-drinking louts. The driven guys. The smart, hard-working guys who never seemed able to relax and enjoy a conversation. They were always sizing you up, looking for an advantage, waiting for that moment to tell you what they knew, what they were planning, how they were going in the right direction and from the sounds of things you weren't.
If they'd had a motto, it would have been, Here's what I'd do better if I were you.
I don't know that the men I'm hearing are these guys half a lifetime on. I'm just saying they look like they could have been them.
Whoever they are, wherever I see them, whatever company they're in, they speak with that edge. They use that tone that's always slightly off, with their wives, with their kids, with their friends, with store clerks and waitresses, with strangers they're passing the time of day with, even when they're trying to be polite and friendly, as this guy was.
You don't see them everywhere. They're almost never at the beach. Hardly ever in a bookstore. If they're in the stands at the ball games they don't talk so I can't pick them out of the crowd by their voices. I never run into them on my late walks around town.
They're at the restaurants, usually for dinner, trying not to be brusque with their servers. Sometimes you'll meet up with one in the late afternoon, waiting with the kids outside of a store, growing impatient with their kids' impatience. Mostly, though, you see them in the early mornings. They'll be out for a run or a bike ride. They'll be hurrying back to wherever they're staying with a cardboard tray full of coffee and bagels. They'll be at the coffee shop, with a stroller, a dog, a sleepy-looking young teenager, looking not so much sleepy themselves as just drained---and when you meet up with them at these times they don't talk, not even to say good morning, they just nod. To the baristas behind the counter they grunt and hold up the paper cup they're about to fill from one of the self-serve carafes.
You don't have to hear them to recognize them though, because besides their reflexively challenging voices---challenged's the better word, the edge is defensive---they're identifiable by their looks of distraction. They're here but they're not here. Their eyes aren't on what's in front of them. They're thinking of other things, serious things, things they'd rather not have to be thinking about, but things that have to be thought about nonetheless because that's what guys like them do, think about hard and serious things.
I wish I knew what those things are.
Work? The office? Maybe other people they'd rather be with. The guys from work? A woman from work? Are they that uncomfortable, feeling stuck with their families for whole days on end? Are their lives so built around their jobs that they don't know how to relax, don't to how to talk to anyone who's not part of their work. In our service economy other people are our tools. I'm not saying they're objects. I'm saying that we can only get our work done by going through other people, which must infect our perception of people with a certain utilitarianism. If a person isn't being useful to us, why is he taking up our time? For some of us this becomes a habit that's hard to drop even with the spouse and kids.
I said I think of these men as business types because of the guys I used to know they remind me of. But they are a business type, not the business type. There's a lot of money down here, which means the town must be crawling with people who make it by the sackful and plenty of them must be lawyers, stockbrokers, numbers-crunchers of various types. Not all of them use this tone, wear that look. And a lot of them must be women and I never hear any women using the tone, wearing the look. Women here fall into two groups, those who are friendly and those who aren't. There aren't any who are trying to be friendly but can't manage it for whatever reason, like these guys.
I sometimes think it's just the case that they don't know how to relax. They can't leave work at the office.
But maybe it's not that they don't know how, it's that they don't dare.
Maybe it's that they're not allowed to.
I'm here on vacation. They're here because their families are on vacation.
They have a day or two off so they've come down to be with the family even though they feel they shouldn't. It's going to catch up with them somehow. They're going to pay for the time they've taken away from work. If they've got the whole week, it's an illusion that they've gotten away.
When this guy on his bike and his daughter get back to the house they're supposed to be vacationing in there'll be a package from FedEx or some email or a voice mail waiting, demanding his attention now.
Come to think of it, maybe I'm not observing a type at all.
Maybe I'm witnessing an effect.
An effect caused by a different type. A type of boss.