My first office as an investment adviser was upstairs in the old Lisbon-Paoli Hotel building. Doctor Harold Robinson was one of my first clients. He bounded through the door in his characteristic style with a sly smile on his face and asked how business was going. The fact was that business was slow, very slow, but I didn’t want to say that so I replied that things were going pretty well.
He said something about a small investment he wanted to make. We went through the usual questions, how much, how long, what for, and so on. At some point in the discussion, he took a new pair of socks out of a paper sack and set them on my desk. That’s when he noticed my illustrated copy of The Way of Life by Lao Tzu.
He picked it up and thumbed through the pages. The original Chinese was on one side with the English translation on the other.
He proceeded to tell me that his parents had been missionaries in China, that he lived there as a young boy, and that he could read and write Chinese. After studying the poems very carefully, he said he didn’t like the translations. I thought he meant the English translations but he was speaking of the Chinese. He asked for a piece of paper and a pen and began translating the English version of one of the poems into Chinese.
“There,” he said more to himself than to me. “That looks much better.”
I looked over what he had written although I didn’t know which poem it referred to and would have been unable to judge which translation was better anyway. While I was distracted by the interesting Chinese characters, he took off his shoes and set them on top of the desk. Then he took off his old socks and placed them neatly on the desk as well. He unwrapped the new socks and slipped them on. Then he put his shoes back on and stood up.
“Well, I’ve got to go. It’s been good talking with you,” he said as he walked toward the door.
After he was gone, I realized he’d left the dirty socks on the desk. I wasn’t sure whether or not to keep them. They looked pretty far gone so I decided the throw them away. He also left his translation of Lao Tzu’s poem which I kept with the book.
Neither of us mentioned that meeting the next time I saw him walking quickly along the street with his head down stumbling a bit as he was prone to do. I think he had Parkinson’s disease or something like it.
Doctor Robinson was well known for his eccentric ways. When treating my father-in-law for a heart attack, he suggested they smoke a joint together. Then he gave my father-in-law a couple of worry stones. He told him to keep them in his pocket and to rub them around in his hand whenever he felt stressed. As far as I know, they worked. My father-in-law lived for several years even though his heart had been severely damaged by the attack.
In fact, my father-in-law outlived his wife. She died of cardiomyopathy at fifty-three. When we realized she was ill, we took her to Doctor Robinson. He had the well-deserved reputation of being the best heart doctor on the coast in spite of his unconventional methods. Unfortunately, nothing could be done. He predicted that she had only about six months to live. She died almost exactly six months to the day.
Like so many who lived on the Mendocino coast, I admired Doctor Robinson for his great sense of humor and for his perfect combination of brilliance and eccentricity. He never did make the investment he spoke of, not with me in any case. He was quite the joker. He relished any opportunity to tell a joke especially about growing old.
“You know, three things happen when you grow old.” He smiled as he spoke. His eyes were glassed over as if his thoughts were somewhere far away. “First, you lose your sex drive.” He laughed when he said it. “Second, you lose your memory.” He looked right at me with that sly smile he had on the day he left his socks in my office. “And, the third thing … oh shit, I can’t remember the third thing!”
Every so often I take out his Chinese translation to hold and look at. I think of it as my personal worry stone.