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I had one of those Proustian moments recently. This was highly unusual as my sense-memory has been all but crippled by decades of abusing inhalants. I have had Ted Nugentian moments and a couple of Donkey Kongoloid moments, but it is a rare shining day when I am instantly wrecked beneath a memory wave of Proustian magnitude. And all I had to do was drink from a corporate water fountain.

Not parched but fond of free things, I drank from a water fountain set inside one of the hastily constructed walls of UnitCorp or whatever corporate offices you'd like me to pretend I was visiting. The water was clean, slightly cool, but the pressure terribly weak, requiring that I adjust my posture a bit to catch the water's peak (or "hot spot"). Having quenched my imagined thirst, I lifted my head and said, to no one in particular and in a voice that was both confidential and assured, "four."


(Sometimes separating a single word from its paragraph family instantly gives that word a sort of special import. In this case, it was just so I could write this paragraph explaining how to properly identify a lazy literary device that is often employed in place of actual ability or a writer's work ethic.)


The instant "four" escaped from my cool, moistened lips, I was yanked back to 1989 -- my last summer of play before I was ruined by the generally undelivered intellectual promise and generally over-delivered five dollar Rolling Rock buckets of college. I worked for the public library in my hometown as a page. (no, not that kind of page, silly! seriously, though. high five!!) This meant that I put books back on their shelves and spent a lot of time hiding in the non-fiction section, reading S.J. Perlman essays. I was a great friend to the librarians, though, and my glorious status led to me being recommended for a special summer assignment. I would be charged with traveling from playground to daycare center to child hospital to library, and read stories to children aged 4-9. I was even given permission to work with the partner of my choice. When Burl Ives stopped returning my phone calls, I gave up on him and asked my oldest friend, Simon, to join me. Thankfully, he did. (It saved me the trouble of lying to Spalding Gray, who pestered me incessantly about partnering up for this assignment. I couldn't stand his prattling, and there was no room in the van for his oversized desk, which he insisted on toting everywhere.)

It was an amazing summer. We read stories, made up jokes, and cheated our timesheets with equal relish. And no one could touch our "Little Rabbit Foo Foo" - and all through college, no one would touch my little rabbit Foo Foo. (ooh! I nailed that one!!) It was also an amazingly hot summer, and the van that took us from spot to spot was essentially a windowless, benchless steel oven. This meant that Simon and I were very thirsty very often. And, not being bright enough to pack our own water, we were always divining water from our next storytelling venue. We would race to each facility's nearest fountain and, after about a week of doing this, we agreed on a rigid system for rating water fountains on their merits. This is what happens when very close friends share something; a private vocabulary is mutually developed to more exclusively and therefore better understand the world around us.

Water fountains were rated according to the following criteria: Pressure, Temperature (put simply, cooler = better. No room for weirdo connoisseurs here.), Height and Convenience. (How close was it to the place we would designate as our napping or hiding spot when we discovered no children had shown up that day?) The fountains were rated on a 1-10 scale, which seemed most natural. Simon definitely leaned toward draconian; I was just generally happy to have something to drink, and even happier that I was being paid to review water fountains with my best friend.

I loved that first drink. One of us would depress the fountain's button (Or turn its handle - handles indicated an older fountain and were generally a regarded as a sign that this fountain was not going to get points in pressure or temperature. People truly lived like savages before the advent of stainless steel water fountains.) while the other witnessed gleefully and impatiently, already rushing to judgment. If the water burst forth in a handsome arc, one of us might respond with an affirmative nod. Then the tester would drink. Pause. Consider. And lift his head, declaring the fountain's worth.

This, of course, would never be good enough. We never initially trusted each other's assessment of any fountain. That made it a better game. Simon shocked me on more than one occasion with his intense elitism, while I'm certain I disappointed him with my pantywaist acceptance of what he surmised to be water dispersion mediocrity.

Summer felt just like summer in 1989, maybe for the last time in my memory. The joy of grabbing a smile from some of these children each day -- particularly the chronically ill, difficult to face children - was only surpassed by the joy I experienced from discovering a nine or a ten while Simon was napping beneath a tree or on an unused hospital gurney, and reporting it home.


Here I was more than ten years later, instinctively holding on to the games I played when I was a laugh-too-easily, play-too-much adolescent. It was nice, in a way, until I remembered how cool Simon and I thought we were that summer, and how fantastically uncool we must have seemed to the rest of the sentient world. I still feel terrible for ripping UnitCorp's water fountain out of its wall housing and stomping it into scrap metal so twisted that the War effort would have rejected it. I'm sure the Human Resources department of that company will understand that the value of helping me with a personal breakthrough far outweighs the value of one of their water fountains. Especially a lousy four.


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