I didn't recognize David McMillan when I saw him walking the tiger on upper Wisconsin Avenue yesterday. He looked so healthy.
And I was paying more attention to Bombay, who weighs 500 pounds, and sauntered past Brenner's Photo and the Friendly Lunchroom with that disjointed big-cat grace, as if separate brains controlled each leg. And then he yawned, unfurling a tongue that looked like the flag in a war against vegetarians.
"I was just walking down the street when I see this big cat there," said Andre Adams, 19, and just passing by. "Don't they know they gon' scare people?"
The last time I saw David, a mad dog had bitten him in New Delhi and then he got hepatitis along with the rabes shots. But then, all the Western down-and-outers in India in 1969 had either hepatitis or dysentery. I had dysentery, and $75 to get me 4,000 miles to Germany.
I found a bus in New Delhi that was going my way -- an old 14-seat Mercedes which had been losing passengers since Australia, replacing them with people like me, and San Francisco Phil who wore dark glasses with lenses the size of dimes, and never moved; and David and his brother Brian.
The real problem was Brian. We were used to eating nothing but oranges and flat bread: used to the dust, the spring heat as we headed for the Khyber Pass; and to the knowledge that the Mercedes would make it, if at all, on nothing but instinct, heading home to Germany like a wounded elephant staggering toward the graveyard. The problem was Brian's sense of humor.
At the mouth of the Khyber Pass, for instance, Australian Gary, who owned the bus, parked outside the last roadside tea house before we entered no-man's land. The sky over the mountains was still a flame blue, but here in the valley a Transylvanian gloom had lowered. Inside the tea house the Moslems were unrolling their prayer rugs for sunset obeisances.
Australian Gary turned around in his seat: "You don't go through the Khyber Pass in the dark."
"Why not," David asked. Brian would have complained, too, but he was inside the tea house, "having a look about," he'd said in a Liverpool accent that sounded like he was pronouncing his vowels through a damp pillow.
"Bandits," Australian Gary said. "They shoot anything that moves after dark."
Frisco Phil and I were all for spending the night, but David and a scruffy collection of Britishers prevailed, with mutterings about "the wog."
But Brian was missing. Gary ran back into the tea house, then came sprinting out with eyes that implied he might be wearing a kris between his shoulder blades when he turned around.
"David!" he said. "Get Brian out of there!"
David strode in as Gary whispered desperately that Brian had maybe doomed us all by joining the rifle-toting mountain tribesmen in their prayers, kneeling, bowing and screaming with laughter.
"But it was so funny!" he kept explaining back on the bus.
David had flunked a reality test or two himself. One night, in a campsite in northern Pakistan, with a steady spattering of gunfire in the hills we all turned around to see a dozen or so locals hunkered around one man holding a Winchester Model 70 bolt-action rifle. They smiled, but they didn't talk, and after a while it was an evil combination.
"Hey, where's that air pistol?" Brian cried suddenly, rushing into the bus to look for it. "We'll wave it about, scare them a bit, eh?"
I turned to Frisco Phil: "Where's David?"
"He just went to bed."
"Bed? With them over there?"
"He said he was tired."
So yesterday, after David got through walking the tiger on Wisconsin Avenue, I asked him about that night, and he shrugged. "It's when they've got guns and you can't see them that you're scared."
Back in its cage, now, in the studios of WTTG, where David was promoting a circus appearance at the Capital Centre starting Christmas day, Bombay yawned again -- a sound like Frank Nelson used to make on the Jack Benny show when he'd give his roller-coaster inflection to: "Yeeessssss?"
"You ever get hurt by these things?" I said. (David has 19 tigers in an act he usually books at amusement parks.) David shook his head. I pointed to a four-inch scar like a zipper down his right cheek.
"I thought you meant hurt ," he said. "Actually, they never hurt you, they just kill you. There's nothing to be afraid of.
"People get this thing, they talk about the moment of truth and all, but really it gets to be boring. It does. You have a routine. You stick to it. When you don't, the cats get nervous."
What he's scared of is his pet macaw. "I don't go near it. Take your finger off with one bite."
Good old David. He looked healthier but he hadn't changed. Suddenly -- and as usual -- it was Brian I was worried about. They'd run off to join the circus as teen-agers, and I had the feeling that only David, in their world travels, had stood between him and death at the hands of some barefoot policeman, some jellaba-ed orange vendor.
"He's in Los Angeles."
"What's he doing?"
"Nothing," David said, smiling. He doesn't smile very often, though watching Bombay inhale a wad of hamburger the size of a baby's head will provoke him to bare a quick grin.
"Nothing," I said. "That's good."