I wonder if many people remember what punch cards were. I happen to know someone who has no idea what they were, and yet lives off of them.
My job these days is to raise money for Cornell University, Laboratory of Ornithology. We have 110,000 donors every year, but my job is to pay very special attention to about 100 of them. My friend, Alex, is one.
Alex is a 19-year-old young man who is the client of a good friend, who is one of the best attorneys in New York City. Alex became my friend’s client, because he wanted to disown his parents. Alex is sometimes sweet, considerate and soft-spoken. At other times, probably when he is off his meds, he is a bizarre bipolar mess. I think I may be Alex’s only good friend, but it is a challenge some days not to punch him in the head.
My job now is Major Gifts Officer. That means I make friends with wealthy patrons of the Lab and try to get them to give money, and more money every year. The key to being a successful Major Gifts Officer is to have empathy for many different kinds of people, and to build relationships. I am a very good major gifts officer.
There is a price to success in this career. I have donors who call me at 3 AM asking for a copy of the Financial Times from last February. I had a donor, now dead, who was so desperate to smoke a pipe at a hospital that he funded the construction of an entire ventilated room built for that purpose, and I had to figure our how that could be done. I now have Alex, who comes to most of our meetings drunk or stoned or both. But then he always apologizes a day or two later and says I am an angel for putting up with him. He is like a stray (billionaire) dog that I can’t seem to get to run away. Having no children myself, I also can’t seem to turn away from his warmth and weirdness.
My attorney friend introduced me to Alex by email, and I received a manic reply from him about his love of nature. I decided a good setting for our first meeting would be a hike in a state forest about halfway between his home and mine. He never showed up, but later apologized, asking for another meeting.
We met at a cafe, where he was a perfect gentleman who sipped a hot cocoa and bought me a bag of coffee beans that I had mentioned I liked. He talked about his brother, who was an Army officer, and showed me a tattoo he had gotten on his arm in my honor. It was something about freedom and had tiny images of birds flying up toward his shoulder. It was touching in a way, but it was also a little strange that he had gotten a tattoo for someone (me) he had never met.
However, he knew me well. He had researched me online and found more detail than I knew existed. He knew I preferred red over white wine and didn’t like beer, so he brought me a bottle of Cabernet Franc. He knew I had lived for a time in Turkey and greeted me with “Merhaba!” There is something both flattering and creepy about being so thoroughly researched.
The third meeting was at a shopping mall.
After not hearing from Alex for a couple months, I received a flurry of texts one morning culminating in “I really need to talk to you today – IN PERSON!” The original plan was to meet at a café for lunch, then he changed it to a hike in a state forest, as I had originally suggested for our first meeting. After I waited there 20 minutes, he texted me, “Where are you?” He was at the mall, and had completely forgotten our plans set just an hour before at the forest. He was wearing a blue t-shirt that said “THINK” with a big X hand-drawn over it in black marker. He also wore red plaid flannel pajama bottoms rolled up to his knees and moccasin slippers.
We sat on a bench in the mall hallway and talked for a while. When I suggested lunch, he said, “Yes! Wait here!” and bolted down the hall at a full run. He returned with two slices of cold pizza and a large bottle of warm Gatorade to share, which he said were from the night before and still in his car. The Gatorade turned out to be half vodka, so I politely declined after the first sip, because I needed to drive an hour back to the office and work in the afternoon. He insisted on one toast, assuring me he wouldn’t send me to jail for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor”. When I asked him how he gets his alcohol at age 19, he said, “Oh please, the only thing easier to get than alcohol as a teenager is weed. And meth. But I don’t do meth. I’m not that much of a loser.” He decided while we were there that he wants to get a job at American Eagle. I can’t even imagine how that would work, unless they keep him locked in a back office somewhere.
I have encouraged him many times to visit the Lab of Ornithology, but he doesn’t want to meet anyone here. He’s too shy. I invited him to come after hours when nobody is here, maybe an evening hike, and he seemed somewhat interested in that. “Can we look for birds with night vision goggles?” He now calls me “the bird man”.
I always enjoy meeting him, but he sometimes gets too uncomfortably personal. He’s extremely introverted, and is guarded about talking about himself or his family, but always has endless manically delivered personal questions about me. I did learn he has a new orange cat named Sir Jiggles about which he wrote a funny poem that he wants to set to music. He wanted to see all ~1000 of my cats’ photos on my phone, and made up a little fairy tale-like story about them and their secret lives as we scrolled through the pictures.
“This one wears too much lipstick,” he said.
“He’s a boy. A boy cat.”
“He’s a drag queen! I love drag queens! Do you watch RuPaul? Oh my god, that’s this cat’s favorite show, I can tell. Make sure you record it for him. Take him to a drag show at the cat drag bar. There must be several in Ithaca. What is your drag cat’s name?”
“That’s no good. That’s for ghosts. He must be fabulous. His name is Zsa Zsa Minogue!”
He was intrigued and even incredulous that I have a happy stable relationship with a “real-life normal person”, immediately asked to meet my partner, and invited himself over to our house for lunch Wednesday. I was noncommittal. When we said goodbye, he gave me a long hug and said, “Will you adopt me?”
He is not coming to my house for lunch.