Our friendship is six months new. Gary, an airline captain, lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, on the New York border. On his layovers, he explores whatever city his flight schedule has sent him. In June during my lunchtime walk in Boston, he introduced himself. I had meandered through the streets of the financial district finding the place that was least like my office, with its fluorescent lights, no windows and no air. Actually, there is air, lots of cold air. I become a human popsicle the moment I get into work each summer day. Overly productive air conditioners and the fact that I am not "office material" make me eager to escape at lunch and again at day's end. I want warm sun, blue sky, a breeze. And, I want to look out toward the horizon. I never take the same route. But every day I arrive at the harbor.
On this day, fourteen identical 67-foot sailboats docked there were being readied—cleaning and repairing of sails, reknotting of ropes, loading of food—for the final leg of the BT Global Challenge. It's considered to be the world's toughest yacht race because the sailors circumnavigate the world the wrong way—against prevailing tides and winds. I was watching a crew work on one boat when a voice to my right asked me about the boats. I turned my head and found myself looking up at some skinny guy wearing Topsiders who towers over me. I don't sail, I don't even swim. I hear myself spouting information about the race while another part of my mind is charmed that it collects useless information.
"The boats are headed to Britain, all crewing the same model racing boat so that no one has a technical advantage. One crew is made up of all disabled people."
A legless man pulled himself around the deck.
"The captain has had several bypass surgeries. I'd be too scared to be on his boat," I say.
We talk for several minutes. He tells me he is a commercial pilot. I tell him that I am a science writer who specializes in writing health and medicine articles and books for lay people. I've written about almost everything described in a consumer health encyclopedia, one that is heavy enough to put your back out when you grab it off a shelf. In my 15-year career, I've covered the range from "no need to worry" to "this could be fatal." Admittedly, sometimes I think that I have the symptoms I'm writing about except, of course, when the disease occurs only in men. Most of the time, my neurotic imagination doesn't get carried away. Gary pulled out two science magazines from his briefcase. One of them isn't even a popular magazine sold at newsstands. I was familiar with it. I had subscribed to it starting when I was nine years old.
"What kind of geek are you? No one but a geek would get that magazine."
Gary, who is 6-foot, two inches tall, looked down at me (I'm a foot shorter) and rolled his brown eyes. He laughed. He had been reading about mad cow disease—Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, a fatal brain affliction that humans get from infected cows and had taken hold in a few people in England. He had lived in Germany and Hong Kong and had traveled all over the world. The recent news about those infected Britons frightened him so much he had stopped eating meat. I thought that a bit extreme since only one case per 2 million occurred each year. Our conversation led to other science topics, and he offered to send another article he had read that he found intriguing. Sure. What the hell. I handed over my business card. He could send it to my office. That was the prudent thing to do.
A week later he called to go to lunch when he was on layover again. I was surprised to get his call. I hadn't expected to hear from him again.