Goodnight, Jim O’Toole

“And then I thought of Jim O’Toole and I felt both strange and sad. When I took the cab to the airport in Cincinnati I got into a conversation with the driver and he said he’d played ball that summer against Jim O’Toole. He said O’Toole was pitching for the Ross Eversoles in the Kentucky Industrial League. He said O’Toole is all washed up. He doesn’t have his fastball anymore but his control seems better than when he was with Cincinnati. I had to laugh at that. O’Toole won’t be trying to sneak one over the corner on Willie Mays in the Kentucky Industrial League.
Jim O’Toole and I started out even in the spring. He wound up on the Ross Eversoles and I with a new lease on life. And as I daydreamed of being the Fireman of the Year in 1970 I wondered what the dreams of Jim O’Toole are like these days.”

– Jim Bouton, Ball Four

I’m filing this missive from the guilt-soaked excesses that come from privilege, resting in a four-room suite with a hot-tub spa waiting for me as I recline in an overstuffed chair in a complimentary terrycloth robe.

It’s more than I deserve and more than I can bear.

Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. As is often the case, I find myself providing sessions to throngs of waiting students as part of the annual winter convention circuit. It comes with a complimentary room, a nice meal with friends on someone else’s dime and an honorarium or something else.

This time, the convention coordinator didn’t need the giant suite the hotel threw in to sweeten the pot, so it went to me. I was stunned to the point of calling out “Is anyone home?” when I entered the room. It was freakishly large with a TV large enough to see from the street and a gift bag that included a “sleepy time” CD and vanilla lavender linen spray.

The night came to an end after a three-hour dinner with a medium-rare bison steak at one of the best restaurants in town in which a friend and I discussed the state of the economy and our field. Even with our grousing about the bankers who drove this recession further into the hearts of most Americans, we didn’t feel all that bad about each ordering a $9 dessert before waddling home through a snowstorm .

The problem this time comes from a man I’ll call Jim.

About six months ago, the Missus and the Midget were heading home from some place when they were stopped at a light and summarily rear-ended. The impact was severe enough that the Midget still tells us every so often that “The lady in car no pay attention!” It also crushed the entire front end of her car, making it a total loss. Fortunately for us, we had the truck and the tow hitch absorbed the majority of the impact. She bent the hitch, messed up the bumper a bit and scratched the hell out of the back end of the truck. Still, it was drivable and things could have been worse.

The driver of the car was an 18-year-old student at the U. She had no insurance, it was her dad’s car and we live in a state now where it’s not a crime to drive around uninsured. The uninsured motorist coverage on our car meant we’d pay more to file the claim than to fix the truck. After the fear subsided that my family might have been hurt, the next emotion was anger. I wanted the car fixed, the lady wasn’t returning phone calls and my insurance agent was and still is a lazy moron. The more I pressed the issue, the more the Missus told me to back off.

“If they don’t have insurance,” she reasoned, “they probably don’t have money to fix our car. Let it go. You can’t get blood from a stone.”

Still, I was in a mood and wanted satisfaction. I finally got the agent to pay attention to me. I picked up three estimates and told him to put on the full-court press until at least we HEARD from someone. I felt that this was someone dodging the problem. I’d seen these kids in my classes, often laughing about how they shirked some responsibility or how they were hiding something from their parents (usually a tattoo…). I told the agent that if this was her parents’ car, the parents should be dealing with this. Get the dad on the line and see if we can fix it.

Nothing came of it for months and I pretty much had resigned myself to the fact that I’d never hear from these people. I wish that had been the case.

Yesterday, I was lying on the couch with a sick Midget sleeping on me when the phone rang. The guy asked if I was the person involved in the accident with this lady. I said I was.

“I’ve got to call you back,” he said. “This phone is good for shit.”

Two more tries later, he finally found a way to keep the phone operational.

“This is Jim,” he said. “I’m her dad. I got these estimates and I don’t know what you want from me.”

“I want my truck fixed,” I said rather coldly.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “I got nothing for you.”

He lived in a town north of us that was supported almost entirely by a soon-to-be non-existent paper operation. He’d lost his job last year and was going to be foreclosed on as soon as the bank got around to it. His daughter was supporting herself with school loans and two jobs, both of which she had to quit after the accident when the car was totaled. He had 11 kids and his wife didn’t work because she had lost her job too. The reason he hadn’t called was because the phone had been shut off and he finally got enough money to get that up and running.

It was the recession in a nutshell. It was the worst of everything I could imagine and this guy was living it.

“You know,” he said. “I wish I could do something but you can’t get blood from a stone.”

He was right. The Missus was right. The Midget started to stir with a cough.

“Look,” I said quietly. “There’s no point in any of this. The truck still works and you don’t have any insurance. Just let it go. If you get a chance to help someone else out somewhere along the way, just do that and we’ll call it good.”

“I’ve got 11 kids, pal,” he mumbled. “There’s a long line.”

He never said thank you but he talked about some other random things that didn’t make much sense. His voice hung heavy with a mix of resignation and sadness. It was the sound of someone who knew that what was happening wasn’t good, but there was nothing he could do about it.

So here I sit in this expansive room, a drawn jet-tub waiting with an ice bucket and drinks chilling nearby, trying to make sense of how I got this lucky and how he managed to make it through today.

The set up here is beyond my wildest dreams but it’s something that’s more than a little hard to enjoy. I wish I could let Jim have the room for a night, have him enjoy the big-screen TV and the giant tub and say, “I wish I could do more.” I wish his 11 kids could have bison steaks and elk burgers and whatever else is likely not on their Wal-Mart dinner menu. I wish I hadn’t pushed so hard to get what I thought I deserved.

The first night in any hotel, I usually have a restless night and a short, dreamless sleep. Tonight will likely be the same, although the reasons, I imagine, will be much different.

I wonder how Jim is sleeping tonight. I wonder about his dreams.

I hope he has at least one good one. He deserves that and more.

7 thoughts on “Goodnight, Jim O’Toole

  1. Thanks, Doc.
    Thanks for reminding me to appreciate my own luck and remember that a hell of a lot of other people, through no cause of their making, are standing hip-deep in economic shit.
    Beautifully written, too.

  2. Doc,
    the fault here is not yours.
    I don’t know the circs around the wreck. I’m sorry for the dad, but the responsibility was on the driver here.
    Yeah, he lent her the car. But in the long run his woes are not what you should be dwelling on.
    Of course, she’s paying indirectly; if she lost the car, and both her jobs, she’s not apt to finish school either.
    Since your insurance agent is a lazy moron, you should consider changing not just agents but companies, also.
    And for once in your life enjoy the perqs you ought to be accustomed to for being a teacher, eh?

  3. Yeah, pansypoo. I think if someone had told me they had no money and 11 kids, the first thing blurted out of my mouth would have been, “What’s the matter, buddy, never heard of condoms?” But I’m not a terrifically politic person and never have been. (To paraphrase Margaret Sanger, “Tell Jim to sleep on the roof.”)
    I’ve also been dead broke, more broke than that guy almost certainly, and still had debts to pay off. That student loan money comes out of my bank account every month whether I like it or not and whether the money’s there or not. If it ain’t there, my rent cheque bounces and I wind up paying overdraft fees. Being poor sucks rocks, but it’s also not an automatic “Get Out of Debt Free” card.

  4. You know, family planning is about more than abortion and condoms. It’s about what you can responsibly afford to do, and how large a burden on society it’s fair for you to be.
    I just can’t wrap my head around anyone who thinks having 11 kids is in any way fair, respectful, or beneficial to the kids OR society.

  5. i think anyone who lives in a state with optional auto insurance and isn’t screaming bloody murder and writing letters and placing large signs around demanding that it be made mandatory is nuts.
    you have insurance because you have something you could lose if you got sued. do you really want to be driving on the same roads as a bunch of people who have nothing to lose and so don’t bother to insure against a serious injury they might cause you?
    pretty scary, if you ask me.

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