'Are you doing anything tomorrow morning,' my wife asks, 'around half past ten?'
'Not particularly - why?'
'We're going somewhere.'
'Is there any point in my asking where?'
'It's one of your surprises?'
Three hours later, Danny Trejo pops into my head for no particular reason. I recall how Bess mentioned some event at which he'd be speaking, although that was a couple of weeks ago. She said the tickets cost a bomb. I'd looked at the publicity and was unable to work out what the event was in aid of, which rang alarm bells and seemed to suggest something a bit culty; so I forgot about the thing because we wouldn't be going.
'Is it Danny Trejo?'
Danny Trejo is an actor whose face you will almost certainly recognise even if the name is unfamiliar. He's the voice of Enrique in King of the Hill but otherwise tends to play bad guys. His formative years were spent in and out of prison, involved with drugs and all manner of gang activity until, at the age of eighteen - or at least I think that's how old he said he was - he took the twelve-step program and cleaned himself up; following which he took to helping others kick whatever habits they had. One day, running to the aid of some kid on a film set, he was spotted by a director who thought he had an interesting look about him and who subsequently hired him as an actor, leading to a string of appearances as bad guy number one, inmate number one, chollo number one, and so on; and even though the tickets cost a bomb, we're going to see him speak.
Next day, we turn up at the hotel and are directed to the function room. It's filled with circular tables all laid out for dinner just like at the Oscars, and there's a podium up front with screens on either side. I realise that the cost of the tickets is probably going to determine what sort of people turn up for this thing, and sure enough Alamo Heights is well represented. The event is put on by Alpha Home, a local drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre. I've never really had any problem with drugs or alcohol, excepting possibly tobacco which I kicked when I moved to America, so I'm out of my depth. I am naturally ill at ease around both conspicuous displays of wealth and anything with even the faintest tang of a motivational poster, but then anything which helps people beat an addiction has to be good, so whatever prejudices I may have brought with me probably don't count for much.
We are at table thirty-three. Each place is already set with salad, cutlery, a glass of iced tea, and alternating plates of cheesecake and chocolate gateau. We sit, then realise we are the only people apart from hotel and event staff. Somehow we have crashed the place, although no-one seems to mind. The doors officially open after another ten minutes and guests flow in. They're all very well-dressed, or at least more formally dressed than I am. I pick croutons from my salad and crunch them because I'm already hungry.
We are joined by a woman named Leonora and her friend, who both sit next to Bess; then some guy takes the chair next to mine, and then another woman is sat next to him.
'I read about this in the newspaper,' the man tells me. 'Danny Trejo is a great guy.'
'The San Antonio Express News?' I ask.
'Yes.' He asks what I do, and I tell him I'm a writer just for the fun of it, prompting the usual questions which I answer with the usual excuses.
Leonora tells my wife that she herself works for a homeless charity, dispensing legal advice and aid to those without a roof over their heads. She was once homeless and an addict.
'That's what his mother does,' Bess says, pointing to me.
I make a few calculations and realise that I suppose it is what my mother does, although her legal advice is dispensed to members of the immigrant, unemployed, or similarly inconvenienced community. I try to describe this, but realise I probably sound a bit mad. The word immigrant has come to serve mostly as a pejorative, and I'm keen to make it clear that I have nothing in common with anyone who would use it in that sense. I'm probably trying too hard.
Leonora appears a little concerned but I suppose it's the accent. It always seems to throw people.
The man on my left is talking to the woman. They've both been through recovery and they both play golf. He is describing how he had to give up the golf because he's not very good at it and he gets angry. Now he asks my wife what she does.
'I'm a programmer. I work with computers.'
He begins to ask her about facebook. He doesn't understand it or how it is able to make money.
'Advertising,' Bess and I respond in unison.
He gets out his phone and scrolls down, still puzzled.
'Like that one,' I say, pointing at something headed suggested post. I'm not sure why I'm having this conversation.
The room is full but for a few empty seats here and there, leaving salad and cheesecake which will presumably go uneaten, and there's a woman on the microphone. After a few moments I realise her accent is English. I guess that it might be Lancashire. She explains some of what Alpha Home does, tells us a little about the raffle and the silent auction by which further money will be raised on top of whatever has come in from ticket sales, and then I realise that we have somehow segued into prayer without my noticing. Heads are bowed and eventually we all murmur a dutiful amen.
More significantly, bread rolls have arrived and people at other tables are eating the salad. I decide to be mother and convey the basket around those sat at our table, and then we all eat. Coffee turns up but somehow I miss it, then breaded chicken and spaghetti served by event staff carrying those plates with the metal lids designed to keep food hot. It's hotel food but the timing is right so it's pretty good, although a glass of wine would have been nice.
The speaker comes over, apparently doing the rounds of all the tables. She is from Manchester. I tell her London for the sake of keeping it short, inviting some remark about Mancunians being down to earth, something about accents, posh Londoners blah blah - it's clearly supposed to be jovial, and once again I am reminded how little I value these infrequent encounters with persons from the old country, generally speaking.
Danny Trejo comes before us just as I've begun to wonder how long this whole thing will last. It resembled some efficiently bland corporate function in the publicity, and thus far there hasn't been much to assuage my feeling a little bad about how much my wife spent on the tickets.
I notice a coffee pot unattended on an adjacent table so I nab it, doing that walk with the knees half-bent so as not to draw attention to myself. Danny Trejo speaks for about an hour, details of his life story as apply to the cause, a tale which by his own admission is interesting to everyone except me. He's funny and amiable, and it doesn't sound scripted. He's one of those people with natural charm and a gift for telling a story. The hour slips past quite quickly. I eat my cheesecake, then Leonora passes me another from one of the vacant settings.
We are invited to ask questions, and a few people pipe up with enquiries about Danny's views on this or that aspect of dependency or recovery. The final question concerns the legalisation of marijuana delivered in a tone suggesting that the person who has asked believes it to be a bad thing along with all that other stuff by which Satan tries to corrupt our kids. It's a wearyingly loaded enquiry offered in expectation of one very specific and unequivocal answer.
Danny Trejo suggests that those who enjoy marijuana will probably be in favour of its legalisation, and those who don't enjoy marijuana probably won't be in favour of its legalisation; then he kind of blows it for me by suggesting dope to be the thin end of a wedge leading almost inevitably to heroin and prison. I've known a ton of people with heavy weed habits, and not one of them graduated to anything else or ended up in prison. Personally, I can't even stand the smell of the stuff, but if people want to smoke it then they'll smoke it legally or otherwise, so I suppose they may as well do so without having to obtain it through illegal means; but then what do I care?
The event draws to a close with an autographed t-shirt auctioned for a thousand dollars, and our Mancunian hostess tells us that a total of about one-hundred thousand has been raised during the previous ninety minutes. We shuffle off in the direction of Danny Trejo, but he's a little guy and is buried under a mountain of selfie hunters.
Later, I find online reviews of Alpha Home to be mixed. One former employee regards it as a massive money-making scam, but other reviews seem favourable, and I notice with pleasure that no holistic mumbo-jumbo is involved; which suggests to me that it is almost certainly on the level, and is therefore probably a good thing.