Thursday, June 22, 2006

My Friend Charles ...

I have a list. A list of "memoir ideas," inspired by Sting, who thinks we should all write our memoirs, a list that I open from time to time when I'm stumped for an entry idea. Sure, I could write about the deep-fried bacon double Quarter Pounder that Marc IMed me about today, but I won't. You can see it for yourself. Let me know if your heart slows down when you read the post, too.

I hadn't mined the list for an idea since April, but tonight, I opened the list and my eyes immediately fell on the name Charles Barile.

I met Charles on the phone. I was working at the Tribune. He was a publicist. He was a very good publicist. Good phone voice. Charming as all get out. He'd call. He'd pitch. He'd send. He'd call again. Sometimes we'd bite. Sometimes we wouldn't. He kept calling, kept pitching. We became friends, me in Chicago, he in L.A. He had a sarcastic streak to bridge the distance. I liked our snappy banter, looked forward to his calls. We developed a routine. Whenever we'd talk, I'd ask, "How's the weather, Charles?" And he'd always reply, without missing a beat, a lilt in his voice, "Seventy-two degrees and sunny with a light breeze out of the west."

Another publicist friend invited me out to Pasadena one year during press tour. I was going as a friend, not a Tribunite. I called Charles to tell him I was coming out. We decided we'd have lunch before my return flight to Chicago. I called him from the Ritz the morning of. He suggested meeting at Musso & Frank in Hollywood. I suggested meeting downstairs. He demurred, had to "take a meeting at Paramount" that afternoon. Pasadena was out of his way. Oh, fine. It's not like it was a date or anything.

So I got in a cab and, $40 later, found myself and my luggage standing in front of Musso & Frank, the gate pulled across the entrance and locked. There was a note about it being closed for filming. I didn't put it past Charles to have set the whole thing up somehow.

I walked around the back and found no one. I walk around the front and found more of the same. And then I saw him walking down the street, suit jacket hooked over his shoulder on his index finger, crisp white shirt, pinstriped pants. And Ray-Bans. I kid you not. Ray-Bans set off by strawberry-blonde hair.

I'd never seen a picture of him, but I knew. I pointed to the gate. "The restaurant is closed, Charles," I said as he neared. "I blow $40 on a cab and the restaurant is closed?"

"I know, I know, I forgot," he said in his don't-give-me-any-shit-about-it voice, stopping in front of me. "It's Monday."

He took my luggage from me and tossed it in his trunk. We went and parked the car and changed the plan. Later, in the half-round booth, after we ordered and started talking about nothing in particular, he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. He was nothing if not unpredictable, that one.

"So, Charles," I said. "What's a guy with a last name like Barile doing with blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair?"

He replied, "My father used to say to me, 'Don't worry, Charles. You're Italian. Below the belt. Where it counts.' "

Oh. My. God. From any other man, in any other setting, I would have rolled my eyes and walked away. But from Charles, it was funny. It was campy. It was probably true.

Lunch was over. His meeting and my flight loomed. We walked back to his car. He drove me to a hotel to get a cab. He put my luggage in the next trunk and turned to me. Kissed me on the cheek again. Put his hands on my upper arms and leaned in and kissed me. On the mouth.

So maybe it was kind of a date.

He put me in the cab and told the driver where I was going. LAX. United. And we drove away.

I left the Tribune. He left the PR firm for another PR gig. We stayed in touch. The phone calls were always electric. The barbs flew. I was at my parents' house the night after we had our first serious conversation. It was very confessional on his part. I had earned his trust, I suppose. But the next night, at my parents' house, I don't remember why I was there, but I remember exactly where I was sitting and I can still hear the near-panic in his voice. "You can't tell anyone what I told you last night," he said. I reassured him that I never would. "Who would I tell, Charles?" It was personal. It was no one's business but his. And, I suppose, then, mine.

The phone calls would wax and wane. Christmas cards would arrive. One year, a gift. A double-CD of The Beatles, Live at the BBC and a card that read, "Happily dating myself with this item. Merry Christmas, Charles." I'd sent him a Robert Kennedy biography that year. He'd said he wanted it. He was a Kennedy fanatic.

He called me at home once, after not getting me at the office. "Are you sick?" he wanted to know. As a matter of fact, I was. And I was whiny. "Are you on the couch?" he asked. "Do you have 'Casablanca'? Then what are you complaining about?" Charles didn't believe in self-pity. Even after a break-up with a boy that left me more shaken than it should, I wasn't allowed to brood. I was in a conference room, sulking on the phone, defying his attempts to make me laugh. But he finally broke through. "I'm trying to be in a bad mood, Charles." He was having none of it.

We made plans to get together again in L.A. It had been six years since we'd seen each other. He plotted our alcoholic tour. And then I found out I had to travel for work. And he had to travel, too. We'd only be able to see each other on a Sunday night, a school night as it were, not a night for fun. We nixed our plans. "We'll do it another time," we said.

Three weeks later, he died.

He was on vacation. I never did find out what happened, officially, but he was scuba diving at the time.

L.A. Dave is the one who told me. He found out from a press release (fitting, huh?) and wanted me to hear it from a friend before I read it anywhere online.

I got in touch with the PR contact, Charles' colleague. We traded stories. Charles had an unnatural affinity for Jack Lord. Once, at a previous job, he called in the middle of a bad day. Our conversation was short. He called back and said, "Go to your fax machine right now." So I did. And I was greeted by a grinning cut-out picture of Jack Lord and text below it that read, "Hi, Beth. It's me, the Lord, and I'm ordering you to have a good day." It was framed, there, on my desk. Paul, on the phone, said, "That's on the bulletin board in his office." And I told him about the headshot I'd recently signed to him. Charles had instructed me to write, "To Charles, In commemoration of our successful campaign in the Sudan."

"That's hanging next to the Jack Lord picture," Paul said. "I can't believe I never put two and two together. I always meant to ask him, about the Jack Lord thing, 'Who's Beth?' You're the Beth."

"I'm the Beth."

Paul told me that every night at 6:30, he would wheel into Charles' office on his chair and they'd watch "The Simpsons." "If anyone needed anything," he said, "they just had to wait." He said he didn't think he'd be able to watch "The Simpsons" again. "Charles would hate that," I said.

I wrote a letter to his daughters, whom I'd never met. And I ended it saying, "He changed my life for the better. He'll always have a place in my heart. And even though we haven't had the chance to meet, I wanted you both to know that there's one more person out here who loves your dad."

I couldn't make it to L.A. for his memorial service. But I did buy a bottle of Absolut Mandarin (he drank it on the rocks) and poured myself a drink and made a toast to him and watched "Casablanca."

I still talk to him. And sometimes when someone asks me about the weather, I'll reply "Seventy-two degrees and sunny with a light breeze out of the west."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember when Charles died and how upset you were. I had a similar experience with someone I used to work with. It is strange and thrilling how certain people impact your life as we go along. Thanks for sharing and making us all think about Charles today and smile. :) And we never met him. ~Gretchen

8:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was with Charles on that fateful vacation. I still think of him often as well. Thus, the search of his name on Google and finding this blog.

Your writing brought him back.

7:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know you and randomly came across this entry in a Google search, but I want you to know how touching and beautiful it is.

Thanks for moving a total stranger. :)

6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is beautiful! I knew Charles as well and think of him often - I was lucky enough to meet his daughters and I know how much he loved them - he was quite a unique man and I am greatful to have known him -I so miss is sharp witt!
Jean M

12:14 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

This is a wonderful remembrance of Charles. I really enjoyed reading about how my old friend had developed. I knew Charles in his "formative" years in college and unfortunately never saw him afterward. He had flowing orange hair, did a great Groucho imitation, was fascinated by JFK even back then, and was obsessed with Frank Sinatra. He always had the quick quip so I loved the weather report and about his Italian heritage in the remembrance. Thank you for bringing back many great memories of one of the most memorable characters I ever met in my life.

2:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I took a pass on going down to San Felipe with Charles, his brother, his best friend, and a buddy who worked here named Jim. Man, I told them to leave the scuba gear behind, but Charles kept saying that they were going to find Jap gold from a sunken submarine with German insignia on it. Too funny. I miss my friend, and I miss the 4 O'clock smoking session that we always had.

5:44 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Yep, I miss him, too.

Even – or perhaps especially – his penchant for the improper.

5:48 PM  

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