Pavlov’s man is my friend. We worked together for several years in an office in Seattle, Washington. In fact, we started there on the same day. He got the big corner office, and I got the office next door. His office came equipped with a large saltwater fish tank and four fish. I only recall four of them: A fairly large fish with a beaked mouth named Pavlov, a blowfish named Yoda, and a smaller red-and-black striped fish that kept well out of Pavlov’s way. My friend told me Yoda and the striped fish were new, as Pavlov had eaten his former tank mates. Yoda didn’t have to worry about Pavlov; all he had to do to put him off was blow himself up into a large, spiky ball, and Pavlov left him alone. But not the small red-and-black fish. In spite of the fact that Pavlov saw him as his next meal, he was faster and more streamlined and would dart out of Pavlov’s way in time to avoid one of his sneak attacks. His usual procedure was to follow Pavlov around the tank, positioned just behind his tail and out of his line of vision. The fourth fish, which didn’t have a name, was a small, gray nondescript-looking fish that lasted about a week before ending up in Pavlov’s stomach.
When my friend inherited this quartet, his job was to feed them each morning to keep them happy and to keep Pavlov and his appetite away from his tank mates. Not that Yoda had to worry, but since Pavlov was twice his size and had a sharp-looking, parrotlike beak, it was best not to take any chances. So when my friend walked into his office each morning, he took off his coat, put his briefcase down, and went down the hall to the kitchen for the packet of dried brine shrimp kept in the refrigerator. By the time he walked back into his office, the fish were waiting for him, and the minute he opened the feeding slot on top of the tank and began pouring in the shrimp, they attacked, Pavlov and Yoda getting the lion’s share. Of course, as they were getting their share, the little red-and-black fish darted about, eating what they missed, which was quite a lot.
Before I go much farther, let me explain how my friend came to be known as “Pavlov’s Man.” It happened this way. One morning the telephone rang as he walked into his office, so instead of going to the kitchen for the brine shrimp, he answered the call and spent the next fifteen minutes or so talking. Shortly after beginning his conversation, he heard a metallic “tic-tic-tic” that persisted as he talked. Annoyed, he cast his eyes around the room and discovered the source of the tic-tic-ticking sound. Pavlov, hungry, was at the top of the tank hitting its metal cover with his beak: “tic, tic, tic, tic!” My friend excused himself, took the caller’s number, hung up the receiver, ran down to the kitchen to get the brine shrimp, and fed Pavlov and his friends.
From then on this same scene repeated itself each morning: the minute my friend entered his office, Pavlov began his “tic-tic-tic” reminder, sending my friend down the hall for the brine shrimp. It didn’t take long before everyone in the office knew about Pavlov and my friend. And that is how my friend became known as “Pavlov’s Man.” “There goes Pavlov’s Man,” people would say as he walked past. One day when we were sitting at lunch with two of our coworkers, he suddenly got up and began walking toward the kitchen.
“Where are you going?” I asked, stopping him in his tracks.
He sat back down as suddenly as he had gotten up.
“You must have heard that woman over there clicking her knife on her plate,” I said.
He looked appalled. “Jim, I think I’ve been trained by a fish to respond to whenever I hear that sound. I’ve become like one of Pavlov’s dogs. I’m Pavlov’s man.”
And he was. Even five years later he gets to his feet whenever he hears a tic-tic-ticking sound. Pavlov? He’s been dead for years.