back to the Black Table

 A couple of Christmases ago, my mother, after years of not trusting me to cross those crowded Mattoon, Illinois, streets by myself, finally decided that her son was a grownup. Because Will now had a real job, one with a 401k plan and everything, it was time for him to look, act and feel like a productive member of the capitalist society.

So when I went home for Thanksgiving in 1998, my mom asked me what I wanted for Christmas. Nothing immediately came to mind - other than sex, drugs and debauchery, and I had little desire to ask my mother for any of those things - so I just muttered something about a Jake Plummer jersey and “whatever you want to give” and forgot about it.

Christmas arrived. I sifted through my dad’s traditional stocking stuffers of Pez, Life Savers and automatic weaponry, opened my sister’s yearly gift of Roger Ebert’s new book and came across a large rectangular package with a bow and a sticker that said, “To: Will. From: Santa.” Figuring it was just a particularly heavy load of socks, I haphazardly peeled it open. And there before me was a ridiculously expensive, combination-protected, manufacturer-insured leather briefcase.

Usually when I get a gift that I could care less about or just don’t want, I can rely on an insincere smile and a vapid thank-you without giving it a second thought. But in this case, well, not only was this an exorbitant gift that I would have no use for, but it was also one that came with a message: Our Corporate Son.

I told my mom that I wasn’t sure, as a writer/editor for The Sporting News, that it would be incredibly important, efficient or even halfway useful for me to have a briefcase.

Not only would it be a pain in the ass to carry everywhere, but my coworkers would just make fun of me. It’s hard to look properly disheveled and artless around sportswriters when you’re hauling around a briefcase. I mean, have you ever tried to open one of those things and not have half the room look at you when you click the notches up? Everyone keeps expecting you to say, “Yes, Mr. Bond, I’ve brought the money. ... Now, do you have the diamonds?”

I put it a little more politely to my mother - the term “pain in the ass” was not used, for example - but when I arrived back in St. Louis after the holidays, I aimlessly tossed the briefcase in my closet, underneath some old sweaters and beat-up movie posters and hoped that no colleagues would accidentally run across it while rummaging through my closet for, I dunno, raccoons or something. The last thing I wanted, especially as someone who had constantly extolled the virtues of not caring about money, was to come across as a yutz with a briefcase. I mean, I had no copy of The Wall Street Journal to put in there, no merger tips, no plans on how to foreclose on a small-town mom-and-pop business, no potential ideas on how to alienate and ignore my friends and family in the name of chasing elusive dreams of acquiring wealth at others’ expense. What in the world did my mom expect me to put in there?

The briefcase sat in my closet collecting dust - or, more accurately, collecting cat dung - until about March, when I woke up 15 minutes late for work, an impressive task when your shift starts at 4 p.m. I’d been working on presenting the idea for my daily baseball column at the time, and I had an woefully disorganized sampling of loose papers containing sample columns, statistical breakdowns and poems devoted to Willie McGee that had no folder to contain them. In a rush, I gathered all the papers in a garbled mess and headed out my door, whereupon I slipped on the top stair and dropped them all over the hallway. After yelling out various expletives and throwing my shoe against the wall, I remembered the briefcase.

There weren’t going to be that many people at work that night, and those that were there didn’t like me anyway, so I figured if there was ever a time that my briefcase might possibly be useful, it would be now. I sighed and went back inside, wiped off the briefcase and shoved my papers in there.

While at work, I printed out a funny column I wanted to show a friend, a listing of the times for the new Woody Allen movie at the local theater, a story about David Letterman and a couple pages of 40-man rosters for the Cardinals. On the way home, I stopped and bought a couple packs of cigarettes, the newest issue of The New Yorker and a stick of deodorant. All of these items went in my briefcase.

The next day, I brought the briefcase to work again. I’d picked up some photos on the way to work, so in they went as well. I’d just renewed the insurance on my car, and since I’m always afraid that a cop is going to freak out while I’m reaching for the glove box and shoot me in the head, I put my insurance information in the briefcase. I was officially hooked.

Since then, my briefcase has rarely left my side. I’ve taken it with me to concerts, bars, sporting events, even church. It’s my male purse. Anything and everything that a growing boy might possibly need will fit in my briefcase.

Scanning through it right now, I’ve got a baseball scorebook - in case a game unexpectedly breaks out - a vital map of Manhattan, travel receipts, a couple postcards, some catnip, Dexatrim, loose pens, some change, various random computer disks, Beck’s Mutations CD, a lint roller and a few unpaid parking tickets. All that’s missing are lipstick and tissues.

It’s difficult to imagine that I ever survived without it. Of course, the predicted chidings did happen - the most common “joke”: “Hey, Will, that’s not ticking, is it? You’re not going to blow up the office, are you?” - and people still look at me funny when I walk down the street carrying a briefcase while wearing a Kurt Cobain T-shirt. But the ribbing was never too bad because everyone who witnessed my conversion to the briefcase world already knew me. They understood that I wasn’t going to try to sell them insurance.

But - and, oh by the way, this is where all this has been leading - I had my first day at the new job Monday. Well, it wasn’t really a work day, just a lot of paperwork and an overview of how the e-mail accounts work, where the stick-em pads are, how many smoke breaks a day are acceptable, that type of stuff. Everyone was most accommodating, especially considering the new guy kept introducing himself as “Will, Mr. Leitch if you’re nasty” all afternoon.

Still, they kept looking at the briefcase, the way sixth-graders look at the mama’s boy who still has his mittens sewn onto his coat. Why does he have it? Does he think he works for the advertising department? Did his mom dress him for work? Who’s he trying to kid? He looks like he’s 12 years old. No briefcase is going to change that. And what’s with that hair, anyway? (The odds that I imagined all these questions is about, oh, even, but you never know.)

But there was no way that I would have showed up at a new job without my trusty sidekick right there with me. Besides, I had to have someplace to put all that paperwork. So as I shambled through the new offices - head down, trying not to make eye contact, hoping not to be a bother, making random jokes to try to ingratiate myself with my new coworkers, begging the work gods that these people won’t hate me - I realized that at the end of the day, I had only my pride, my spirit and my briefcase by my side.

Of course, nobody ever gives you a wedgie on the subway for having pride and spirit.



Life as a Loser runs every week. Join the Life as a Loser discussion group at: