January 1, 2015
It’s January. It’s cold out there. It’s time for a coat story.
Friends of ours recently invited my wife, Dorothea, and me to dinner at their New York City apartment. We hung our coats along with many others on one of several racks in the lobby, and after a lovely evening of fine food and stimulating conversation, we thanked our friends, collected our coats, the only ones remaining on the racks, and left for home.
I soon discovered that my hat and gloves were gone. This pleased me not at all. The gloves were very good quality and the hat had been lovingly knit by Dorothea. I phoned our friends about the missing items, and quickly learned doubly bad news: the doorman had found nothing and worse still, our friends were going on vacation the next morning and would be unable to inquire further until they returned. It wasn’t the end of the world, I tried to tell myself. Either the gloves and hat would show up or they wouldn’t.
As we were driving in our car the next day, Dorothea looked me over rather pointedly.
“This is not your coat,” she said.
“Of course, it’s my coat,” I answered. “It’s black, it’s made by Patagonia, it keeps me warm as always, and it fits me perfectly.”
Dorothea patiently repeated herself. “This is not your coat.”
“Ridiculous,” I sputtered, a bit peeved. “What on earth makes you think it’s not?”
Dorothea sighed. “It’s not your coat because your coat makes that irritating swish, swish, swish sound every time you brush against it, and this one doesn’t.”
Ever since I’d bought my very fine and I must say, very pricey parka, Dorothea with her sensitive ears had complained of the swish, swish, swish sound it made at close quarters. Her remarkable hearing forced me to examine the parka I was now wearing more closely. It looked like my parka. It felt like my parka. But when I began to rummage around in its pockets more actively, I came up with an airline receipt from somewhere in Florida to New York City with the name Robert Simon on it.
Dorothea was absolutely right. This was not my coat. I was wearing the coat of some guy named Robert Simon, and Robert Simon, whoever and wherever he was, was presumably walking around town wearing mine. Not only that. He had my hat and gloves!
As soon as we got home, I looked up Robert Simon in the phone book, but to my dismay there were many people with that name listed. This left me with a choice. Either I could patiently wait for my friends to return home in another week or I could grab the bull by the horns and go directly to their apartment building in search of my own coat.
Patience is not my strong suit. The very next day I went to the building and began explaining my situation to the doorman. He held up his hand and stopped me in mid-sentence. “Sir, I believe the gentlemen in this apartment over here may have valuable information for you.”
He led me to the door and rang the bell. The gentleman who answered did indeed have valuable information for me. Apparently his friend Robert Simon had called as soon as he realized he had taken the wrong coat by mistake. The gentleman wrote down Simon’s telephone numbers for me. “You realize, of course, who this is,” he asked, handing me the phone numbers. The Bob Simon in question, he explained, was the news correspondent featured week after week for many years on “Sixty Minutes,” the TV news program.
I looked Simon up on the internet and recognized his photo instantly. I’ve been a fan of “Sixty Minutes” for years and a great admirer of Simon’s intelligence and professionalism. For the next few days, we played phone tag with one another, and in the meantime, I went about my daily life with the dubious honor of wearing the coat of someone who is seen by millions of people on television.
Finally, Bob and I connected and arranged for the great coat exchange to take place in my apartment. We had a good laugh as we traded one black parka for another—mine thankfully accompanied by my gloves and hat, still intact. Over coffee, I learned that not only did I know him from television, but that he knew me from the concert stage. Bob had often heard the Guarneri Quartet perform.
Now, two guys were both once again in possession of their proper coats—a sweet story with a happy ending. But wading a little further into Simon’s life, I discovered a much darker coat story.
During the Gulf War, Robert Simon and three other news correspondents were captured, beaten, and held prisoner by Iraqi soldiers under the most terrifying and primitive circumstances. In his book about that time, Forty Days, Simon claimed that the windbreaker jacket his colleague had lent him a moment before he was captured, the coat that he hardly took off for the forty days and nights of severe cold that he was in captivity, had saved his life.
That story made me wonder whether forever after would Bob Simon be able to look at a coat the way most of us do? And was our coat swap merely amusing to him, or did it bring on memories of another kind of coat, one that had provided not only warmth for him but life itself?
Bob called recently to invite me to an Emerson String Quartet concert. Unfortunately, I was in Los Angeles on that day and couldn’t accept. I plan to reciprocate, however, by inviting him to a concert our Guarneri Quartet and Pamela Frank are giving in New York City next month. If he accepts, I’ll have someone stationed at the door to make very sure he doesn’t walk off with the wrong coat.
I’ve gotten kind of used to swish, swish, swish.
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