After meeting Ed and Carol Meyers in Washington, D.C., I was back on the train, heading to New York City to meet Richard Kaplan. I was determined to get my money’s worth from my Amtrak Rail Pass! And, I needed to meet the man on the other end of this message in a bottle I found two years earlier.
Riding the train to New York, anything seemed possible. I’ve always wondered at how trains, which are confined to rails, offer this feeling of freedom. Maybe it’s the way they run through territory we don’t see from the interstates; maybe it’s the fact that you can walk around on trains, stop by the cafe, the scenic lounge car, or the on-board restaurant. On this particular trip, the freedom I felt was the result of hurtling toward complete strangers whose cast-away messages I’d found on desolate beaches. A simple gesture–the casual tossing of a bottle into the sea–is enough to make me travel cross-country to meet the sender.
As luck would have it, my friends Arielle and Devin lived in Mineola, NY, which is on Long Island and, it turned out, only a few minutes’ drive from where Richard Kaplan lived. Small world! Arielle and Devin let me stay on their couch:
And they fed me:
And once, Devin got something from the fridge. I think it’s beer!:
Anyway, Richard called me the evening of May 8th. I had given him Arielle and Devin’s address so we could meet, and he was outside their building when he called.
“Come on down!” he said, “I’m double-parked!”
I hopped off the couch, grabbed my camera, and flew down the stairs. I didn’t even make eye contact with Richard before opening the door of his car.
“So, I just jump right in?” I said.
“Yeah, hop in!” he said.
I must have seemed pretty backwards to him—truth be told, I didn’t even know what it meant to be “double-parked” since I’d never lived in a place like New York, where there simply aren’t enough parking spaces to go around.
At first I thought he meant this:
But when I saw him I realized he meant this:
The first thing I noticed about Richard was his energy. He has so much energy, merely being in his presence makes you wake up a bit. You can hear it in his voice, you can see it in the way he uses his hands to tell a story.
We drove around for about five minutes looking for a diner. At one point, we passed a luncheonette, and he said, “You don’t have those where you come from!” which was true. Richard was looking for a place called The Galaxy, but we ended up at Carle Place Diner:
Inside the diner, Richard ordered a Tuna melt, and I got a burger—which, by the way, was delicious.
It didn’t take us long to figure out what we had in common: a love for traveling. He told me about working for airlines after getting out of the Army. Working for the airlines, he could—and did—go everywhere!
Richard—like my dad, and like Ed Meyers—had been drafted and sent to Vietnam. He had the good fortune of having a later draft number, and he managed to find a position where he could use his hands for typing instead of shooting.
Once, he wrote to me about this:
“Tell your Dad I was with the 23rd Artillery Group in Phu Loi from May 1968 to April 1969,” Richard wrote. “Since I worked in military intelligence (an oxymoron), I never saw a minute of action. I worked in a beautiful air-conditioned office, had a house maid, swimming pool, theatre and state of the art PX. I never realized just how lucky I was until I heard the horror stories from guys who were in the infantry and the like.”
After he got out of the Army, Richard flew all over the world. He’s a man who loves individual freedom, and I think the freedom of flight must have appealed to him quite a bit after taking orders in the Army. Working for airlines, he would stay in South Africa, London–you name it, chances are he’s been there.
This is also how he came to meet Diane, the woman he would raise a family with.
Sweet picture, right? Well, I like this next one, which I snagged from Richard’s facebook page:
“We met while working for the airlines and took full advantage of the flight benefits,” Richard told me. “We really got to see a lot of the world.”
Once, he and Diane visited South Africa, where they stayed with friends in a mansion complete with servants. Diane was disturbed by the presence of the servants, but they adjusted out of necessity—as Richard said, it’s best not to stir up trouble in foreign lands. We discussed that young man who got cained in Singapore for doing graffiti there in the 90s.
Even after the airline days, Richard and Diane continued to travel. One day last year, Richard messaged me on facebook:
“We just booked a trip to Egypt. It’s a 10 day trip with 6 days cruising on the Nile. I’ll drop a bottle off the boat. Who knows where it’ll end up.”
As we sat in the diner, he told me all these stories with his hands, and he’s got these rings—big rings—and a gold watch. It’s mesmerizing when he waves his hands to tell a story.
Somehow, we ended up also discussing race. Richard told me about what it was like to be a kid in his generation. Traveling through Washington, D.C., and through Georgia, he saw “white only” and “black only” signs, which made me think about both how much and how little has changed.
At this point, I started having trouble keeping up with all the ground we’d covered. We had talked about: diners, luncheonettes (and their absence from my hometown), travel, Richard’s time in Vietnam, his time working with airlines, the history of racism in 20th century America—oh, and by the way, Richard is an actor—and now, now he worked in the freight industry. My head was spinning!
Yes, you read that right—Richard acts. When I called him that first time in 2007, he was acting in a play called “Killjoy”. Here’s the flier he sent me:
And he’s acting again now–more on this in a minute.
Anyway, when we finished eating, Richard paid the bill—which I was incredibly grateful for—and we had our picture taken:
Since then, Richard and I have stayed in touch. We’re Facebook friends, in fact, and I always enjoy when he IMs me to tell me about traveling with his wife, or, more recently, about biking 20 miles with her for the Tour D’Queens (a mass bike ride put on by Transportation Alternatives, a group dedicated to raising awareness about bicycling in NYC). He looks ready to roll here:
Last year, he messaged me to tell me about how he and his wife were traveling to Dubai. I love this photo of Richard standing barefoot in the desert:
It’s funny to look back at the message Richard sent: a business card. No extra writing, no funny stories about his travels, no energy. But meeting him was the exact opposite. Forget about the cold efficiency of a business-card-as-message: this man is pure energy! His energy rubbed off on me, and I couldn’t sleep for hours when I got back to Arielle and Devin’s.
Once, I asked Richard more about the other bottles he’d mentioned sending, which led to a discussion of what inspires him to send the bottles in the first place.
“I actually have four bottles out in the ocean,” he wrote me. “We went on a cruise to Bermuda during the summer and I tossed a bottle over. We were warned not to do that, but I have a problem following orders. I guess that’s why I hated the Army so much.”
Another time, he said:
“I like throwing bottles off cruise ships because it’s a forbidden act. Getting away with it makes me happy.”
You’ll see this energy, too, if you check out his next show, which is called “Sidekick”. It’s being put on July 29th/30th and August 5th/6th by the Ivy Lane Players at the Levittown library in Levittown on Long Island. “It’s a 25-minute monologue,” Richard tells me, “written by Jim Beaver who wrote Deadwood for HBO.”
If you go, tell him I said Hi. And hey, leave your business card with him—you never know when a simple gesture like that could lead to something more!