I first met Uncle Joe in the park. I spotted him as I rounded a bend by the pond, looking for a place to eat my lunch. Washington Park, Indianapolis. As I grew nearer, I saw he was popping some treats into his mouth, plucking them from a paper bag.
He seemed content, with just a hint of a smile dancing about the corners of his mouth. I stood back, behind a tree, and counted. He threw every fifth treat to waiting pigeons. In fact, the birds seemed to count with him. They would scatter diffidently as the man ate four treats, then turn their heads and seemingly gather 'round for the fifth.
He was round. Everywhere. His head, barely covered with a thinning, comb-over coif, was a perfect sphere. A short-sleeved white shirt from another era. Bulbous arms protruded. Wrists, hands, fingers: all chubby in their separate cylinders. Impossibly high-waisted dun-brown pants from days gone by. Cuffed. Wide, small feet in sturdy shoes. Suspenders and a belt. Maybe sixties, maybe older.
The man, the birds, the treats, the orbs. I walked near him.
"Yessir," he said as I came within five feet.
"Pardon me?" I said.
"Yessir. Fine day. Birds know it."
"They count to five."
"Yessir. You picked up on that. Very observant. Yessir."
I told him my name.
He said, "Uncle Joe here. That's what everyone calls me. Yessir."
Before I could ask him, he slid slightly on the bench, pointing to the vacant space next to him.
"Good a place as any," he said. "Yessir."
I sat for a minute. I forgot about the sub in my bag from Jockamo's.
He said, "What brings you here?"
I shrugged and said, "Lunch."
I went on, "I work at ComesTron, on Keystone. Assistant brand manager."
"Is that right? And why do you tell me this? I would rather know more about you than your job."
I gave him the rundown: Born in Cincy, Moeller High, Xavier undergrad, Purdue MBA. He seemed unimpressed.
He said, "There's more to life than what you did, or even what you do. Think about that. Yessir."
With that, he rose chubbily and left, the pigeons in his wake, jousting for every fifth bit.
I sprinted through my sub. I had a one-o'clock meeting.
About a week later, a happened to take lunch in the park again. There I found "Uncle Joe" or whoever he was. He sat in the same spot, snacking again. No pigeons this time.
"Yessir," he said.
I sat down, as if pushed.
Uncle Joe said, "Okay, since you seem so interested in what you do, tell me about it."
No problem. "I am part of a really exciting project. You see, I am part of the Sound Dawg Move Forward Team. We sell dog food. Pretty soon, we're launching a whole new line: Puppy Chow Fun. It's the world's first dog food with a pan-Asian, sustainable flair. There's a pun there, because Chow Fun--"
"Yessir. I know that Chow Fun is a Chinese dish with broad noodles. As opposed to Mei Fun, which has thinner ones. Been around, you know? Yessir. But what is your task?"
"Well, I am positioning the brand, working on strategy, tag lines, audience appeal."
"Aren't dogs the audience?"
I had no comeback. Uncle Joe offered me a treat. I accepted. It wasn't candy, nor a savory bit. It seemed to have a vegetable taste, with the kick of spice. Delicious.
I asked, "What are these? What are they called?"
He said, "A snack."
We sat silently for a while. Finally, my companion said, "Gotta go."
The pressure was palpable at work. Launch dates had been set, but the PCF overall branding platform had yet to be established. My team was responsible for this.
I didn't return to the park for a while. When I did, Uncle Joe was plopped right where I expected him. Feeding the birds. We exchanged "Yessirs." It just seemed right.
He began,"I did some research. Your ComesTron really doesn't manufacture anything. They sub all that out to firms in Mexico. You work in a big building with hundreds of other people, all deciding what to do with this stuff once it's made, right?"
"I guess so."
He took a snack. He said, "So, lemme guess. You go to meetings all day. You shuffle papers around. Read reports."
I sighed, "That's about right."
Uncle Joe sighed too, "But the reason you're not happy at work is that you don't actually make anything. You sit and Think Big Thoughts. In the end, who benefits? Dogs? Do you really think they care about Asian food? Aren't there hundreds of dog foods on the market? Isn't there a whole aisle of pet food at Kroger?"
"Yeah, but we are making new inroads in ramping up the Diversity Dog category! Why 56% of the--"
"Bah. Numbers. 'Diversity Dog!' Did you ever make something yourself? Something you're proud of? Something that helped people?"
"Well, I used to play gigs on the trumpet. I played in the band at XU. But you can't make a living doing it."
"Really? Who says that? I'll bet your music reached many people. Hell, there's music everywhere. In cars, on TV, radio. Even in elevators. Someone had to make that music. So someone gets paid for it? And what do you get now? A salary, a Swedish car?"
"Actually, I have a BMW. But it's only a 3-series, and it's a 2009."
"Wonderful. Does it get you from here to there better than a cheaper Ford? Here, look at this."
He handed me a small object.
I said, "It looks like a spice of some sort. But there's no smell to it."
"Correct. It's actually a nutmeg. Or rather a nutmeg replica. I carved it out of walnut. Yessir. You see, I'm from Connecticut, which used to be called the Nutmeg State, before stuffy politicians thought the term archaic. The 'nutmeg' came from crafty Yankee peddlers who used to carve these same objects. Nutmeg was the most expensive spice in the world then and in very scarce supply.
"So these peddlers were like you. They figured out how to market something special, exotic even. Except unlike you, they actually made it. Then they figured out a need for something that didn't actually exist. Like your Fun for Pup whatever. I make these treats, too." He handed me one.
I said, "These are remarkable. Where can I get some?"
Uncle Joe said, "You can't. They are my creation. I made my fortune selling the recipe to a company like yours. All the money up front. Yessir.
"And I predicted what would happen. The company couldn't even figure out what to call this stuff, much less how to sell it. So they buried it, satisfied that no one could steal it from them. This way, I was only one who benefited. A terrible business, even though it gave me security."
This time, Uncle Joe got up abruptly. He left without a "Yessir."
That afternoon at work, my group got called on the carpet. We were told that the mothership was mothballing the Puppy Chow Fun project. All of our jobs were in jeopardy. Buyouts were available.
I left the office right after the meeting. I went back to the park. Uncle Joe was not at his bench. Instead, I found a bag of treats, a small wooden nutmeg and a compact disc on the bench. The music was Chet Baker in New York. A little-known trumpet player. On the paper bag was a note. It said:
"GO MAKE SOMETHING."
I returned to my car and drove to my condo in Beech Grove. I packed my clothes and possessions. Everything else was rented.
Then I drove to Cincinnati.