Thursday, June 23, 2005 | The folks always told me I had potential.
“You have the potential of 10 people,” they said. I flinched, because the more potential you have, the guiltier you are bound to feel.
I shouldered my potential and plowed off through fields of mediocrity toward their goals. I reached one or two of them, but fell short of many others, like all-state quarterback, valedictorian, mayor, president and Pope.
So I remained mostly a person of potential, and naturally I felt bad about it. “My,” the folks would sigh, “the things that boy could do if he’d put his mind to it.”
Then one day I was assigned to interview a man who could do anything.
I gulped. “You sure I’m the guy to do this interview?” I said.
“Boy, you ought to win the Pulitzer Prize with this one,” grunted the editor, and off I went.
This unusual man was named Smith. He lived in a huge mansion on sprawling, manicured grounds. There was no one else around, save for a couple of gardeners and the butler, who answered the door. Classics of art crowded the walls, in the style of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Renoir and Matisse.
Smith, in a royal blue silk smoking jacket, looked like Robert Redford, but with Paul Newman’s blue eyes. He seemed glad to see me.
“Fix you a drink?” he said.
“Martini,” I said and was about to say more, but Smith cut me off.
“Vodka up, with one olive,” he said.
“How’d you know that?” I said.
He shrugged, flipped a glass and bottles in the air and 10 seconds later handed me a drink.
“Amazing,” I said. He just looked surprised. We tried to chat, but his phone kept ringing. Each time his reply was swift and sure. To his broker: “OK, buy a block of Amalgamated and sell the Consolidated.” To the governor: “Tighten spending by 3.1 percent.” To the prince: “Tell the queen to take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” To the Vatican: “Yes, Your Holiness, I can be there by Monday noon.”
“We are looking for a man like you in San Diego,” I said.
He sighed. “As they are in Seattle, Denver, Pittsburgh, Miami, Dallas and New York.”
“I think you should be president,” I said.
“So does my mother,” Smith said. “But I just don’t have the time.”
The huge house was oppressively quiet. “You’re not married?” I said.
Smith smiled. “Who could stand to live with me?”
“Don’t you ever have company? Friends over?”
“You can ask your guests to lose at bridge only for so long,” he said.
I wondered if he had hobbies.
“I loved golf,” he said. “There’s a course right here on the property. But it’s no fun playing alone.”
“No one will golf with you either?”
He stood and motioned me to follow. He doffed the smoking jacket and took a windbreaker from the coat tree by the door. He picked up the coat tree and carried it outside to the first tee. The butler, Hobson, handed him a ball, which he teed up and with the coat tree drove it 375 yards down the fairway to the green. It rolled dead three feet from the cup.
“Shoot,” he said. “I missed! I’m out of practice. Maxwell! Hoe, please.” Maxwell, one of the gardeners, handed Smith his hoe. With it Smith ripped another ball toward the green. It bounced onto the green and hit the first ball, knocking it into the hole.
“The course record is 18,” he sighed, flipping the hoe back to Maxwell.
“Is there anything you can’t do?” I asked, a little desperately.
“Well, I can’t keep my hands still,” he said. True enough, his hands were always busy. While we talked he doodled with pencil and pad. “May I see?” I said. He turned the pad to me and showed me a dazzling miniature of Picasso’s “Guernica.”
I looked up, amazed, at the Rembrandts and Van Goghs. “All Smiths?” I said.
“It beats watching TV,” he shrugged.
“Surely a man of your infinite ability will have some advice for the rest of us,” I said.
Smith studied his “Guernica” critically for a moment, then wadded it up, flicked it into a wastebasket 45 feet away, and said, “Be thankful you’ve got potential.”
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at