My winsome little engineer — I think I am rather beyond husbands and boy friends now; I just have tradesmen — enjoys a good detour into a cheese-and-wine shop, and today we happened into a dandy little local place: just two sweaty muscleheads straight from a max-out on the bench press, looking for things like cranberry Stilton and Albarino (“notes of apricot, hazelnut and mineral”). Almost randomly, the lad snapped up a bottle of white port. It’s all about pairings, these days, and the card on the rack suggested floral chocolates and preserved fruits, and I thought of Richard.

It was 1972 and the only way a teen-aged undergraduate in the humanities could get around the Northeastern Atlantic was on the bus or train, and on some Trailways heading out of the New York Port Authority — maybe they still have that waiting area signed “Women And Children Only” — I found myself sitting next to Richard. Richard was from East Brunswick, New Jersey, and according to his own gently inflected narrative, he liked poetry and sitting in Central Park. He lived with his mother, and when she had friends and family in and could spare him, he enjoyed taking the bus into New York City, buying a bottle of white port and mixing it with lemon juice, and sitting in the park, sipping his toddy and reading Yeats, Tennyson, Barker.

“You know the song, don’t you?” he asked. “W-P-L-J?” I didn’t. In the dark back of the bus approaching East Brunswick, amber and neon sliding across our hands and faces, he sang me the hook line.

They don’t bother you much, he said, if you’re quiet. They don’t try to move you along.

It’s still and close in the seats of an intercity bus; you are in the world but not of it, and I think he quoted a few lines of Idylls of the King, but I can’t be sure, because I had a Victorian class that semester or the one before. I remember what an ugly plaid the bus seats were. He got off at East Brunswick, and I went on to Washington, and the last thing I remember of him was smoky light crossing what he had for a hairline, and the warmth of his voice. It was really good talking to you, he said. You stay well.

The engineer and I had a little of the white port with some poncey chocolate. I remember someone back in the day saying that — at that time, anyway — East Brunswick was the arsehole of Creation.

I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

I am sure Richard knew that one word for word. On nights like this I wonder what happened to him.


9 thoughts on “WPLJ

  1. Trust me, I’ve never done it (not even out of curiosity after that encounter). I figure the very cheapest white port, the kind sold on the same shelf as Thunderbird, needs something to cut the sweetness before it’s drinkable, and I can picture that recipe being passed down to high school kids by the old homeless drunkards they get to buy liquor for them.

    I never saw or heard of white port of any other kind until a few years ago when a client gave me a gift and said “try it with chocolate.” She was right; more or less like an ice wine. Nice, for dessert.

  2. White port is very common …… speaking as one who spends quite a lot of time in Portugal ……. not as in ‘common’ but as in ‘commonplace’. Incidentally most Portuguese wine leaves a lot to be desired ……. much to my disappointment …… oh well

    • They are interesting wines. I’ve enjoyed a couple of their red wines, but I must admit I don’t reach for them at the store very often.

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