The Channel Blocker

Hi. How are you? My name is Simpson Tamara. What’s yours? I used to make my living as a personal physical fitness trainer, but these days, I put in long hours driving people around the city, in a sort of an inexpensive form of an Uber limo, the “gold standard” of ground transportation. I actually once looked into driving for Uber, but those guys were real slave drivers — they would have made me work even harder and longer, and, if that wasn’t bad enough, they would have charged me a stiff fee to rent the car. So, although I would have made more money with them, I didn’t think it was worth it.

My job as a personal trainer didn’t start out much differently. First, I needed to convince a gym to hire me and certify the hourly amount I could charge clients. Given my level of work experience, this amount was less than what other trainers earned, even though I had taken a class in training and knew as much about it as any one else. The only protection I had lay in the industry practice of “front loading” ten training sessions at a time, so I could get my hands on the money before the clients received my services. In the meantime, my wife was the sole source of support for our family of me and two kids, since she had a full-time job as a nurse.

One evening, I was assigned to a new client named Paul, who seemed pretty ordinary, but he must have felt I wasn’t doing what he expected, since he lost his temper and was pretty tough with me. I didn’t give it too much thought until he told me on our next session that he felt bad about it and that, if he was me, he would certainly understand it if I would take him outside and give him “a thorough dusting off.” I never agreed with him that he would have deserved it, but the more I thought about it, the more I sensed a lack of confidence in him, and I began to think about how I might be able to benefit from it.

When I was very young, my father deserted my mother and me, and I was placed in a foster home, where I learned some very important lessons. I learned not to trust anyone and that I would never be treated equally with other people. In that place, I learned how to figure out people’s weaknesses and tell them what they wanted to hear. The three most common answers I spoke were “Yes sir”, No sir”, and Thank you sir.” Soon after meeting Paul, I learned that I could put these lessons to better use than ever.

As I spoke with Paul during our exercise sessions, I applied my techniques to him and learned that, besides his lack of self-confidence (or maybe because of it), Paul could easily be manipulated by flattery. He had a Ph.D. in Finance, and in the early part of his career had been a university professor, so he liked to lecture to people. In the 1980’s, he had moved to Wall Street, and later, he had taken a job in something called “Derivatives.”. After he left the bank where he worked, he published a book about these matters called In My Mind’s Eye. As a sign of his growing trust in me, he gave me an autographed copy. I’ve looked at it, but I couldn’t really understand any of the technical parts. The one part that really caught my attention was a small section where his character’s friend and mentor tells him that when the bank pays him his next bonus he would be “a self-made millionaire”.  A Self-Made Millionaire! I just couldn’t get that phrase out of my mind.

I continued to act as Paul’s trainer, but I began to shift the focus of our relationship to more of a friendship, so I could learn more about him. It turned out there was a good reason for his lack of self-confidence and need for flattery. It seemed that he had had a series of strokes and could no longer remember things that healthy people take for granted. It was hard to believe, but this rich, accomplished man had been made into a lonely person by his illness. I applied my foster home skills to try to win his trust. Since we hadn’t yet decided on the terms for my payment, I told him matter-of-factly that my usual terms were for twenty front-loaded sessions and that we would meet three times every week, with two exercise sessions and one fast walking session each time. He didn’t object.

I guess I didn’t really appreciate how disabling Paul’s illness was, since I just kept thinking how much better his life must be, relative to mine, with all his money. I even told him once that I would trade places with him in a minute. In response, he looked me in the eye and told me that if I really understood what I was saying, I would never say it.

We settled into a routine where we would meet for sessions and I would make him work hard, either on all the exercise machines in the gym or on “power walks” outside in a park, where he would get covered with sweat. I really liked the position of power he put me in, where I, a high school dropout, could order around this successful Ph.D. Paul’s wife then arranged for one of her friends to train with me, but that woman only stayed for one session, so Paul was really my only client, but with twenty front-loaded sessions meeting three times a week, I thought it was doable. The other side of it was that Paul really regarded me as his only friend and felt that it was his responsibility to educate me by lecturing me about a number of topics. He used certain peculiar phrases, like he wouldn’t say he needed to think about some subject, but rather he needed to “noodle” it, or, if he needed to sign something, he would say he needed to “put his John Hancock on it”. Naturally, at every available opportunity, I would work such phrases into the conversation.

An important event in our relationship concerned my compensation since what Paul paid me was my only contribution to my family’s earnings. I told him that my position was so tenuous that I often needed to choose between putting food on the table and dealing with a medical emergency. He seemed quite affected by my slight exaggeration of the truth and said he would “bounce the idea off his wife”, who had veto power over such decisions. I told him I wanted to bump it from sixty-five dollars per session, or thirteen hundred dollars per twenty sessions, to eighty a session or sixteen hundred for twenty.  I wasn’t yet certain if I could trust him, so I told him I needed to be sure he “had my back” in this discussion with his wife.  I think they had a big fight over it, but Paul made good on his commitment to help me. As the last of the previous sessions was running out, I was making him power-walk around the park, and during a break, he said “ You’re soon going to need to get used to living at the White House address on Pennsylvania Avenue”. And sure enough, the next day he gave me sixteen hundred dollars in cash.

Some of the things Paul lectured me about were educational, if not necessarily useful. Once, while telling me how astonished his doctor was that his blood pressure was always at such a reasonable level, he explained to me about the different types of blood pressure medications. For a long time, there were no such remedies, so people suffering from stressful situations would just die early deaths. Then, after much research, scientists developed the beta blocker, which was effective for some people, but not others. Further research led to the most effective and most commonly prescribed one, the ace inhibitor, which Paul used for many years, until it started having a number of unpleasant side effects. At that time, the doctor switched him to a third type, the calcium channel blocker, which was almost as effective as the ace inhibitor, but lacked the side effects, so Paul could still tell his doctor that his secret weapon was not meditation, but medication.

Some of Paul’s other lectures I didn’t appreciate.   I happen to be black, and Paul was white, so our relationship always reminded me of my favorite movie, “The Bucket List”, which tells the story of a rich white guy and a poor black guy who are both dying of cancer. Paul was always telling me how intelligent he thought I was, and that I could become wealthy too, if I approached things the right way. He said I shouldn’t have the goal of becoming rich, but rather, I should find something that was my “calling”, something I was good at, that I liked doing, and that if I worked hard at it, the money would follow. Those who made the money a goal in itself rarely succeeded. Naturally, I kept my opinion about the stupidity of this idea to myself.

Another time I thought he was out of line was when we were talking about which historical figures had done the most to promote civil rights for black people. I said that it was Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, who would have done more if he hadn’t been assassinated. Paul didn’t agree, saying that although he was a great orator, King was “late to the party” and named A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as King’s predecessors, although I had never heard of them. As for Kennedy, Paul thought there was something unsavory about the whole Kennedy clan.

Paul’s wife was always getting them tickets to the opera, and I just assumed he was “just going along with the gag”, to use one of our expressions. The next day, I asked him how it had gone, and he answered that it had been “very powerful”, which made me wonder about him. Later, I asked him what he thought about male homosexuals, and he responded that he “wasn’t into that”, and he really didn’t appreciate how they had ruined the meaning of the perfectly good word, ‘’gay”.

A few times, Paul bought me dinner in fancy restaurants, and I would always order well-done steak, since it is my favorite dish, but I don’t usually get a chance to have it. Another time, I took Paul to a camera shop, and he offered to buy me one costing several thousand dollars, saying that maybe it would be my calling. The gesture made me feel so close to him that I could not help giving him a big hug.  Unfortunately, when I got it home, I found out that to really use it, I needed to also get an expensive lens, so on our next session, I steered him back to the camera store, where he spent another thousand dollars to buy me the lens. When were walking back, I said to Paul, “I love you.” He looked at me funny but didn’t say anything.

To nudge him along, I told him that I had recently reconnected with my father, and he had told me he loved me. Then I asked Paul if his father had ever told him that he loved him. Paul replied, “deeds, not words,” and told me to read chapter four of his book, about his father. I did, but by my reading, his father was a very cold and unaffectionate person, and I told him so.

Paul and his wife were going away for a two-week vacation, and I told him that another sixteen hundred dollar payment would be coming due. He asked me how many sessions we had left on the old installment, and taking account of his brain damage and the fact that he was so rich that he would never know the difference, I shaved ten sessions off the true number. When I called him after his return, he asked me to remind him how many sessions were left before he needed to pay the next installment, and I repeated the artificially lower number. He then told me that he would not be able to train with me anymore. I was shocked, but I said that was all right and that I wanted to continue to meet as friends, but he said that wouldn’t be possible, so I realized there was nothing I could do. I told him I loved him and said good-bye.

I realized by my not hustling for more clients, Paul may have thought I was lazy and putting too much responsibility for my welfare on him as his only client.   Also, I think his wife never liked me and probably thought that Paul and I didn’t have anything in common. Of course, Paul may have viewed me as his own private social experiment, to see if a white guy went out of his way to treat a suspicious black guy with friendship and respect, would that black guy respond less suspiciously to the world? For whatever reason, I guess Paul must have concluded that I had failed his test. The one suggestion that I did take seriously was that I needed to be more aggressive about pulling my weight in the workplace, so I quit my job as a trainer and took the job with the car service. When I later called Paul up to tell him about the change, he didn’t seem surprised or particularly happy for me, so I told him I loved him and said good-bye.

I haven’t heard from him since.