Paul Belz Writings
ESSAYS, NOVELS, AND COMPILATIONS
A personal essay by Paul H. Belz
The dream recurs whenever another person disappointingly vanishes from his life.
In the dream he is a frail toddler splashing in the shallow pool at the immense suburban swim club, a new life-experience he’s sharing with dozens of playmates from his city neighborhood. All are closely monitored by faceless moms whose rambunctious charges are having great fun playing “catchers,” “keep away” or just reveling in the law of physics they unwittingly demonstrate when hands collide forcefully with water. As with many animal species, this childhood play is also establishing a social pecking order that will permanently influence the participants’ lives.
Abruptly his closest buddies vanish. They soon reappear as teenagers, alternately on an undulating giant water slide and a swinging rope, the latter arching high and far over the murky green, deep-water section of the former marble quarry, dropping their bodies, their relationships and their enjoyment of life into a new, more exhilarating dimension. The spindly, unathletic toddler resumes his fun with a new group of toddlers in the shallow pool. The cycle repeats until the doctor awakens in a sweat.
From a distance there doesn’t appear to be anything missing from this board–certified urologist’s life. Harold sleeps in a pricy suburban apartment on the expensive north side of town, surrounded by universities, hospitals, trendy restaurants, and a mall that’s a trophy by national real estate standards. The diminutive doctor commutes to his two offices in a late–model luxury car and performs surgery at several prominent area hospitals.
Widely recognized in the community, Harold cannot travel anywhere locally without being recognized and greeted amiably by acquaintances. That magnetism—along with his surgeon’s stature—induced an invitation to serve on the board-of-directors of a local university, in which capacity he tirelessly champions the school’s performing arts department.
International travel broadens a medical resume that boasts trips to teach laser surgery in China, Israel, Mexico, and several South American nations. Harold frequently writes papers that are accepted for presentation at medical conventions and he’s collaborating with two partners to incubate a business that will internationally market inexpensive, embarrassment-free home tests for prostate and colon cancer. His medical career is well-served by a gregarious personality which has never succumbed to the major vices of alcohol, tobacco, drugs, greed, gambling and sexual promiscuity. With no extravagant hobbies, Harold has built a substantial financial nest egg. To find a flaw in this enviable life portrait it is revealing to revisit a childhood drama.
The tiny Scottish terrier barked furiously in defense of his young master as the pair was confronted by the neighborhood bully, an aggressive, eighty pound German Shepherd, whose owners regularly allowed it to run loose, spawning apprehension throughout the Druid Hill Park section of Baltimore.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s when Harold was raised, unattended dogs such as this would often form packs, posing a life-threatening danger to neighborhood animals and children. Such packs ultimately killed enough of the nearby Baltimore Zoo’s animal collection to necessitate construction of its first perimeter fence in the late 1950s.
The snarling Shepherd, which would be the alpha male in most dog packs, had fangs bared and tail slicing the air metronome-like in anticipation as it confronted the trembling pair, awaiting either a challenge or flight as its cue to attack. Harold’s fearless terrier brought few assets and an insurmountable liability to this confrontation. It was blind.
But Harold came prepared this day, armed with steely resolve from past confrontations in which the Shepherd had injured the little terrier “Caesar.” The arsenal now included more than determination.
Harold raised a thirty-six ounce, Willie Mays model baseball bat and rained blows on the Shepherd until it was as lifeless as the bloody white ash Louisville Slugger soon lying beside it on the sidewalk.
Ironically the weapon would have been useless for its designed purpose; far too heavy for frail Harold to swing at a fastball. More ominously, had the adrenalin-driven Harold not stunned the dog on his initial two-handed stroke, the gruesome consequences would have far exceeded any Little League disappointment.
As police arrived, the testimony of a sympathetic witness short-circuited the possibility of charges against the young boy, and a trembling Caesar went on to enjoy peaceful walks for the balance of his nineteen-year life.
Harold has never been able to replace what the little dog provided; deep unwavering friendship, a constant companion, and emotional fulfillment. Friendly acquaintances come easily to a gregarious doctor. Intimacy in all of its formats—family, friend, lover—has perniciously eluded him.
Family-life was lonely for the Jewish city boy with no siblings, strict, aloof parents, and a society which overtly shunned Jews and blacks. The pervasive bigotry-oriented tribulations of school life for Jews in the 1950s and 1960s were exacerbated when he attended a Catholic college (where Jews were rare and not welcomed by fellow students) and a black medical school (where whites of any religious persuasion were unwelcome). Harold possessed neither athletic ability nor the American paradigm of good looks to compensate for this penchant for plunging into hostile demographic seas.
His outgoing personality, ability to deflect bigotry, and a tenacious focus on studies allowed him to persevere while assuming that adulthood, the maturation of his contemporaries, and a doctor’s stature would ultimately be generative of the friends and lovers that others enjoyed but had been maddingly elusive to him.
Howard University’s College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., conferred his degree in June of 1969 and by August he was licensed to practice medicine. Surely deep and fulfilling relationships would develop during the residencies he would complete in three states in pediatrics, general surgery, internal medicine, and urology; but that wish proved illusory and the relationship drought persisted. Urology became the career choice and Harold resettled in Baltimore, where board certification followed and the romantic dream of enhancing and saving lives exited the cocoon of preparation and metamorphosed into a beautiful reality.
The focus, energy and determination that launched a successful medical career could now be partially channeled toward the goals of a wife, children, and personal fulfillment. But he never achieved the transcendentalists’ ability to find fulfillment from within, was uninspired by organized religion, and remained unable to sustain friendships and romances long enough to enkindle spiritual intimacy. When his dad died, an already strained relationship with his mother withered to little more than ritualistic formalities.
When someone cares, it is easier to speak, it is easier to listen, it is easier to play, it is easier to work. When someone cares it is easier to laugh. Harold’s face reflected this verity. The wife and children he ached for were still missing as age fifty appeared like a ghostly ship on the horizon and silently passed as if he were just another buoy marking the channel of time.
Harold first caught my attention in 1996. He was walking the third level of the mall with a brisk stride, leading a conspicuous group I was to label in my imagination the “posse.” Always setting the pace—race track handicappers label horses with that trait “rabbits”—he seemed to be leading the group somewhere with a purpose. There was a poetry to how they walked so fast and seamlessly maintained conversations among four or five people while deftly weaving around obstacles such as shoppers, benches, pillars, and flower pots.
What I truly marveled at, however, was the number of women who kept dropping in and out of his group. I surmised from afar that he was either the greatest lover in town or a gynecologist giving free consultations to other mallwalkers.
About five feet six inches tall, angular and anorexic looking—surely no more than a hundred and five pounds—he rarely smiled, a trait that complemented a wardrobe defying categorization, other than nondescript and frugal. He regularly wore a braided belt which orbited his waist once and kept circling until the end finally rested in a loop at the small of his back. The doctor’s tiny waist appeared to be engulfed in the coils of a boa constrictor. And there was that high pitched voice that reverberated throughout the mall and sliced through crowd noise like garlic in a spicy recipe. I always heard him before I saw him. The few times I spied him alone, there was an urgency in his stride and on his deeply lined, narrow face that lingered until he either found an acquaintance or imposed himself on a stranger. One day I became a chosen stranger.
It was an evening in February of 1997. I was walking alone one moment, and the next that distinctive nasally voice was beside me, apparition-like, propelling a conversation as matter-of-factly as if we were two brothers on a shopping trip rendezvoused after separate errands. A split-second decision to acquiesce rather than announce my preference to walk alone gave me firsthand access to his fascinating story.
I soon learned from a few of the endless string of mall personalities he introduced that I had been chosen by a legend; an “Iron Man” to rival Cal Ripken; the composite Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretsky, and Michael Jordan of the mallwalking set. He was liked, disdained, respected or pitied by various mall denizens. The word love never entered conversations with or about Harold.
There was no such collective ambivalence about his walking addiction.
The legend begins with the enormous number of miles he walks. With a body that hasn’t an ounce of extraneous fat, and a stride faster than that of any other local mallwalking devotee, his regimen is pursued seven days a week, encompassing two nonstop hours in the morning, an hour in the evening and neighborhood walks whenever his surgery and office schedules permit. When every area mall closes on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day, he drives forty minutes to the only public building available with extensive indoor walkways, the airport.
A few who dislike him are dubious that he is a doctor at all, citing the prohibitive number of hours of the working day he spends walking. Others simply accept him as he is, enjoy him, and joke that he will ultimately die by keeling over during a walk. Admirers point out that absent a family or membership in a golf or health club to siphon away time, an ambitious walking regimen does not preclude a robust medical practice. Efficiency is his secret. I’ve completed walks with him at ten a.m. when he was due to assist in surgery a few blocks away at eleven a.m.
But walking mileage alone does not create a legend. It may test credibility to posit that skill and technique can be major elements of mallwalking, but I came to believe that premise during one Friday evening walk with the doctor.
The mall was teeming with people and the crowd had a frenetic demeanor. Visualize a New York cab driver maneuvering through a Manhattan rush hour. Now transpose that image to Harold winding his way through the mall’s pedestrian equivalent of rush hour and then take to heart every stunt man’s caveat “don’t try this at home.”
Harold’s magical collection of high-speed spins, reverse turns, and pivots carried him so artfully through the mob not a single head turned in irritation during a performance that made me envision the mall’s precocious cockroaches scurrying to his Web-page for technique tips. I, on the other hand, was like an elephant accompanying a leopard on its hunt and was fortunate to elude shock trauma treatment that night. I had witnessed raw mallwalking skill.
Later that evening I watched the world amateur ice skating championships on television—twenty minutes of spirals, spins and spills being my endurance limit—and in combination with the mall experience it triggered a strange confection of a dream as I slept that night.
Mallwalking had become a major spectator sport and Harold was competing for the world championship in a huge arena before forty-thousand adoring fans, including Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Michael Jordan, and Hollywood’s inveterate sports fans, Spike Lee and Jack Nicholson.
The bespectacled, osteoporosis-plagued Harold was doing cartwheels around curves, levitating over obstacles, and back-flipping between separated conversational partners, and like the ice skaters who push the competitive envelope by attempting quadruple Salchows, he won the gold medal by sustaining simultaneous conversations with a record eight people in spite of multiple obstacles imposing a steady succession of scatterings on the group. The National Anthem was playing as I awakened.
If accumulated mileage and Olympian-level technique are the supporting elements of his legend, the pièce de résistance is personality. His eccentric yet magnetic persona has carved a role for him as a leader among mallwalking regulars, and, as with any leader, his subjects are ambivalent. Some of his relationships become festering sores while others are blossoming flowers, making his mall following a microcosm of all social arenas including sports, politics, and business.
There is tragic irony in Harold’s mall role. He often introduces two people, then reaps a harvest of pain as he ultimately alienates both, watching their friendship deepen while they distance themselves from him. It’s the pain of Moses viewing the Promised Land but never entering it.
When he was part of the Oakland Athletics’ baseball powerhouse, superstar Reggie Jackson immodestly referred to himself as “the straw that stirs the drink” on the team. Harold is cast in that role for mallwalkers. He takes initiative and makes relationships happen for himself and others, but is plagued with nebulous blend-inhibitors which relegate him to the societal equivalent of coffee grounds or wine sediment, always around but at the end of the day, quite disposable. “Integral but unblended” could be his epitaph. He’s merely a catalyst looking for love, but matchmaking alone isn’t a love-generating quality.
Most people don’t have personalities that can justify sweeping generalizations such as “good” or “bad.” Circumstances interject enough ambiguities into life that a personality can only be evaluated long-term, after trends become obvious and initially-observed behavior is viewed in a larger context. A first impression of someone as being thoroughly obnoxious may ameliorate over time to a more innocuous view as an endearingly eccentric curmudgeon. The personality hasn’t changed, you’ve just discovered more about the individual.
Nevertheless, to understand the enigma of Harold it is a useful starting point to partition his personality into the good, the benign, and the bad.
His good traits make it apparent why he becomes a focal point in a crowd. He is viscerally gregarious, enjoying people from any background, in any environment. A small percentage of people are fearless of rejection, initiating contact with strangers, and using an impenetrable emotional shield to deflect the insults inherent with social risk-taking. Harold is one such person.
He seeks the company of others relentlessly, introducing himself and launching conversations while assuming the world is delighted to bask in his unsolicited companionship. There is no ritualistic dance of good manners such as an exchange of warm smiles, hellos, or eye contact to signal a mutual desire for companionship, Harold simply joins you and lets you decide whether to insult him or acquiesce.
Most of his selected targets acquiesce and either enjoy or tolerate him—if only for the initial meeting—and along the way he introduces them to others, as though he’s a gracious host and mall visitors are guests in his home. Such assertive behavior is an essential component of leadership. In addition, I perceive him to be generous, empathetic, reliable, thoughtful, imaginative, honest, magnanimous, and a good, conscientious doctor.
His benign traits are those which bring color to his persona, fascinating and drawing people to him with eccentricities balancing precariously on the fence between humor and irritation.
Heading the list, of course, is his walking compulsion, which boasts a prominent place in the gossip dispensary of mall-dwellers who love trading yarns about where they’ve recently spied Harold on a mid-day or evening stroll and expounding on the nerdiness of the clothes he was wearing.
The Harold-lore also features his penchant for disastrous blind dates, like the refined woman who once accompanied him to a classy restaurant with two other doctors and their spouses. She began the date as a sophisticated paragon of decorum until, Jekyll and Hyde-like, her vocabulary disintegrated into a steady salvo of obscenities, each one an arrow piercing Harold’s heart, the very antithesis of those he craved from Cupid’s quiver. Sadly, only the date’s particulars—not the ending—are atypical.
Then there’s his Holy Grail-like search for a restaurant with the perfect food, prices, ambiance, service, and consistency. If Ripley’s Believe It or Not ever adds a record for exiting restaurants after ordering but prior to paying the bill, Harold will have no credible challengers. His empirical knowledge of Baltimore area restaurants is encyclopedic and his assessments often germinate before the grand openings. He sometimes lunches with the CEO and/or the nutritionist of a local hospital in a long-running crusade to enhance the healthiness of its cafeteria offerings.
Prehistoric man instinctively sought the enhanced safety of groups. While that’s no longer a survival imperative, some of us are evolutionary throwbacks in that we are as uncomfortable alone as a zebra separated from its herd or a minnow out of its school. On a scale of one to ten, Harold’s gregariousness scores a perfect ten but his introspectiveness a mere two. When left alone he will compulsively scour the mall for a companion.
How is it possible for such a gregarious doctor to possess all of these good and colorful traits yet stumble in despair and desperation over the last hurdle toward platonic and romantic intimacy, thereby denying him the family he craves with such intensity that he reflexively asks new acquaintances for introductions to age-appropriate, marriage-eligible women?
Enlightenment, if not a definitive answer, is found in the story of Harold’s relationships with Les and Chris, which begins to illustrate traits in Harold that go beyond the benign to that third category I’ve noted—the incontrovertibly bad.
Les is a lifetime New Yorker who retired from Manhattan’s pressure-cooker existence to the somnolent suburbs of Baltimore—which may have been precedent–setting—rationalizing that the location placed him in a well-to-do area, with low crime (a market research blunder), easy access to Washington and New York, proximity to relatives, and close to the renowned Johns Hopkins medical facilities. A recovering heart-bypass patient, he needed a stress-free environment and assumed he had found one as he and his wife Barbara settled into an apartment complex contiguous to the mall—until the first harrowing trip into its circular high-rise parking garage.
Concluding a pleasant, blue-sky-framed, day-long outing, the car slowly wound its way up a one-way section of the facility until a white Volvo sedan careened toward Les the wrong-way, averting a collision by a few inches as brakes screamed. The subsequent confrontation introduced Les to Harold and revealed that they were across-the-hall neighbors, both mid-fiftyish. Les, ordered by his heart doctor to walk the mall for safe and regular exercise, soon found that in addition to being a reckless driver, Harold was a compulsive mallwalker.
Quickly recruited into Harold’s walking posse, Les delighted in circulating the parking garage anecdote—with each recital adding apocryphal embellishments—while teasingly lamenting that his first acquaintance in Baltimore turned out to be a dysfunctional urologist. The two nevertheless grew closer, socializing away from the mall at plays, musical productions and restaurants, often accompanied by Les’s wife Barbara and other acquaintances.
Then the doctor’s social malignancy began to assert itself—consistent with its long history. Harold nagged that Les walked too slowly; the opinionated couple disagreed on many topics; Harold considered Les a dull conversationalist; Les resented a conversational leitmotif that was decidedly urology-oriented.
Meanwhile Harold discovered Chris. He was a younger, healthier, high-speed walker who animatedly interacted with countless mall visitors and workers. He was a great listener and asked probing, perceptive questions about Harold’s medical practice. Informed on every imaginable topic, he took no offense at Harold’s combative and strongly opinionated nature and was adept at converting the doctor’s crucibles of polemics from one-way streets into dual-lane highways. Some people have a knack—Chris among them—for making any companion feel like the smartest, most important person in the universe. He was always exuberant and light-hearted but he walked all four floors, devoting merely a few laps per day to the third level, which was the posse’s exclusive walking terrain. Harold began concocting reasons to drop out of the posse—getting iced tea became a favorite—to intercept Chris on another floor, neglecting or ignoring Les in the process.
Chris was unfailingly gracious and friendly with Harold but he wanted no walking partnership, preferring to stop or walk at various paces on all four floors in order to nurture a larger network of relationships. He also enjoyed walking alone at times, simply to meditate or observe mall life. Above all, he wished to avoid creating expectations of walking with the same people at the same place at the same time every day, which was Harold’s modus operandi.
Harold began to pinpoint common denominators in Chris’s variable schedule and stalked him in order to walk together. This became obvious to the posse and unsettling to Chris, who was soon feeling pursued. Harold effusively complemented Chris when they were together and issued a steady stream of social invitations: fly-fishing trips, lunch, the theater, historical sites, and even an intriguing offer to observe him performing surgery. Chris, cognizant that the physical law of inertia has an emotional counterpart and trepidant about fueling a runaway locomotive, never accepted an invitation.
He did exchange reading material with Harold, initially giving him a biography written by a doctor who suffered head trauma in a bicycle accident, instantly destroying her promising career as a surgeon. Harold found the book’s message of courage and friendship, in the face of painful rehabilitation, so inspiring that he bought copies for several colleagues. The book quickly assumed an ominous relevance.
Less than a month after reading the book in early 1999, following a routine checkup Harold was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus and abruptly underwent five-hour life-threatening surgery. His recuperation confined him to the hospital’s new rehabilitation wing for over a month.
The cancer had not spread but the removal of part of his esophagus meant that eating-related muscles had to be retrained while scar tissue and potential infections were monitored at the new junction of the stomach and esophagus. His weight dropped precipitously to ninety-four pounds and he was fed intravenously for weeks.
During that period, Harold gained a perspective on life that would unlock the key to intimacy that had eluded him for a lifetime.
Having no close friends without a financial stake in him or family beyond his elderly mother—who reacted to crises by closing up in turtle-like fashion—Harold found a willing angel in Les who filled an important void by agreeing to care for his apartment and process the mail. Beyond that, Les compassionately visited the hospital each day to cheer the convalescing doctor, even hosting a birthday party one morning in the hospital room.
The camera pointed at this relationship was still focusing, and until Harold’s medical crisis temporarily abated, it would be impossible to get a crystalline view of whether Les’ benevolence was a mission of mercy or evidence of a more enduring friendship. Whichever eventuality emerged, clearly this odd couple was a scriptwriter’s mother lode of material.
In conspicuous contrast to Les, Chris never called or visited—he had previously sent many unheeded signals that a friendship was not desired. Perhaps this indifference would amplify that message sufficiently. Ironically the perspicacity so vital for Harold’s professional life, with its concomitant dispassionate judgment, was conspicuously missing from his personal life.
For years, Harold had repelled people by overzealously making them reluctant targets for intimacy, not comprehending that friends aren’t really made, they’re recognized—and often they’re proximate but emotionally invisible. People devalue what they already have and overprice others’ possessions.
I know native Baltimoreans who have never visited Fort McHenry but would love to ride a San Francisco cable car. I also know San Franciscans who have never ridden a cable car but would enjoy seeing the birthplace of the National Anthem.
What one has never seems as attractive as what one wants and can’t have. He had repelled Chris by suffocating him with attention and in the process, initially distanced himself from the one who truly wished to be his friend in spite of their frequent squabbles.
Les had not been repelled like Chris or most of the women at the mall. The stream of new female acquaintances seemed endless, but each soon avoided or barely tolerated Harold because his opinions also conferred judgments—accompanied by a withering scowl rather than a softening smile—on those disagreeing with him.
When his advice was accepted, its good intentions were usually buried in a tsunami of officiousness. He wouldn’t merely recommend a doctor for a second opinion, he would badger someone to change doctors. He wouldn’t settle for lending a sympathetic ear to a mallwalking anorexic, he would splash guilt on her, like a car speeding through a puddle as you stand on the curb. He wouldn’t just criticize the Au Bon Pain’s bagels, he would impede a long line while subjecting a disbelieving cashier to a pedagogic diatribe on better production techniques.
The mall once hosted a “clash of titans,” an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, when Harold’s officiousness crashed head-on with that of an a women’s liberation author who regularly patrolled the fourth level purveying unsolicited advice in scattershot fashion, like a priest shaking his censer to spew incense in every direction. The debate that placed the two forever in backstabbing mode was over the merits of the city of San Francisco, she extolling, he excoriating.
The most egregious example of Harold’s officiousness began when one regular walker, Emily, made an attempt to bring friendship into his life by arranging a lunch meeting with her brother, who was visiting from Toronto.
She described her brother as one of the world’s weirdest men—brilliant but weird. He boasted a Ph.D. in biochemistry and practiced environmental law in Toronto but didn’t own a car and had no driver’s license. His girlfriend transported him when necessary. The irony in his life was that this champion of the environment polluted his body by eating junk food almost exclusively. The fastidious-eating urologist never ingested junk food so, predictably, the brokered lunch floundered when dietary judgments rained down monsoon-like.
Additionally, Harold loved his work to the extent that he was blinded to the fact that lunch companions have a minimal capacity to endure conversations focusing on the latest stool tests, enhancements in surgery techniques to repair erectile dysfunction or the minutiae of laser-facilitated incontinence repairs. As the disenchanted pair exited the restaurant prematurely, what fellow lunch patrons heard included no terms of endearment.
Undaunted, upon Emily’s reciprocal visit to her brother in Toronto, Harold, who frequently travels there, insisted on giving her a list of “must visit” restaurants where he purported to know and possess clout with the chefs. He dutifully called nightly to ensure that she and her brother had visited each restaurant and enjoyed the experience. None of the chefs knew—or confessed to knowing—Harold.
Emily’s brother is still exacting “payback” from her for bringing the peripatetic surgeon into his life.
This signature officiousness, coupled with a judgmental nature, suffocating efforts to win reluctant friends, and a predilection to launch into detailed descriptions of urology procedures at inopportune times—most walkers work-out immediately prior or subsequent to breakfast—continually repels or prevents people from growing closer after their initial attraction to him.
The great eighteenth century English writer Samuel Johnson admonished: “The fountain of content must spring up in the mind; and he who has so little knowledge of human nature as to see his happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts, and multiply the griefs which he proposes to remove.” Nothing is more illustrative of this maxim than Harold’s relationship with Les and Chris.
John Milton phrased the lesson more succinctly in Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” During his hospital stay, Harold came to realize that the answer to happiness is not found in gaining everything you desire or molding everyone around you but in reconfiguring your own heart so that your appreciation of what you already have occupies eighty-percent of its space and your desire for more only twenty-percent. Obtaining power requires the opposite configuration, which is why one can possess joy or power but not both.
Disraeli’s wisdom teaches that: “the greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your treasures, but to reveal to him his own.” No acquaintance ever filled that role for Harold, but the specter of death provided the apropos insight for him.
He came to understand that Les was an overlooked treasure and Chris merely a metaphor for mans’ restive nature, insatiable desire, and astigmatic judgment. He executed a will which left a million dollars to the fine arts department of the university he served as a board member and avid patron; they in turn named their concert hall for him.
Harold had that long-recurring swimming quarry dream again the night he was released from the hospital—without a good prognosis.
He awakened just as a shadowy figure was plummeting—cannonball style—into the deep water of the old marble quarry, having released the rope used by so many to exit his life for over half a century.
Sitting up in a cold sweat, Harold realized that he was that shadowy figure.
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