OBSIDIAN

You remember the name of the town, don't you? [Zihuatanejo]

Passing Through

Guy died yesterday. On the golf course. On the fucking golf course. Jesus. Phillip Seymour Hoffman died in what most us assumed was mid-career. Of course the reaper is amused by such presumption. My father saw it coming from a distance. My mother died suddenly. Where did they go? Really. Where? Roger said he was going back to where he came from. The body had ceased to be useful and now he was casting it aside and going back. David Foster Wallace, Leann, Lee Bishop. The demons we’d all suspected were in pursuit finally ran Robin Williams down. They say you can never really know a public person. Shit, you can never really know an intimate. But really what is there to know? The differences, the variations, end up meaning nothing.

‘And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?’

Heard from a guy I used to know. A thousand years ago. Out of the blue, that’s the way it always is. Just a ‘how you doing? How you been? sort of thing. Nothing special really, except the name and the freight it was carrying. The name belongs to a nineteen year old kid. Stuck in time. Can’t see the name without seeing that kid. White hair would be an outrage. Couple of things, first forty years is a long fucking time. Shit, forty? Coming up on fifty. Lotta water under the bridge. Lotta water under my bridge. Lotta water under his. Funny how we didn’t stay in touch. I think about that part of it sometimes. Not just this guy but most of the guys from those years. Funny. When you run into somebody you haven’t seen in a while, you know, someone you’ve lost track of for, say, three or four years, someone invariably says, ‘What have you been doing?’ but with this guy, and other guys who’ve looked me up, the fifty years seems to make that a silly question. The question becomes ‘Did you have a good life?’ But let’s face it, we’re in the home stretch here and any casual inquiry is going to call up some unpleasantness, death, illness, divorce, an estranged child, a bankruptcy, some goddam thing. Life’s like that, fifty years will include some cruelty. It’s almost enough to just hear from them, to know they’re still of this earth, still have their faculties, and can confirm I did, indeed, pass through that time with them.

“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”

Raymond Carver

Overly familiar things.

Destined to be my shortest post ever. Pet peeves. Any reference to the Atlantic Ocean being ‘The Pond’. Dated, over-used (and how!) and trite. Vast majority of people who use it are too young or too uninformed to appreciate a time when it was actually kind of an amusing allusion. ‘Deja Vu all over again’. Give it a rest. Give it a fucking rest. ‘At this point in time’. Redundant, ill-considered. ‘At this point’ suffices or, in the alternative, ‘At this time’, equally apt. Not both. (It turns out I yammered on too long for this to be my shortest post ever. Turns out ‘As though it were yesterday’ which immediately precedes this snippet, is shorter. My only excuse is that ‘As though it were yesterday’ is actually a scrap from a much longer piece that is incubating and likely to see the light of day in a week or so.)

As though it were yesterday

I remember the funeral. Black and white and grey. The drum. The horses and the caisson. The sound of the horses on the pavement. And the little kid saluting. And the drum. And the adults moving along at a good clip to keep up with the caisson. Jackie’s veil blowing. And the drum.

Not a great hand but a good one

I wish I could say I knew him well but I did not. Our nodding acquaintance could brighten an afternoon walk if we encountered one another unexpectedly and, if our paths crossed in close enough proximity, we might even call out by name. But this, it turned out, was his nature, to put the other fellow at ease, to accept an easy familiarity quite beyond the actual shape of your relationship. Of course, by the time we became acquainted, he had long since established himself as a writer and a commentator and, in fact, in a funny, circular kind of a way, it was the trouble this created for him in the city that made it possible for me to come to know him in the first place. Truth be told, I had sought him out.

This was several years ago, nearly ten now that I think of it, I knew I wanted to meet him but also knew it would be nearly impossible in the city where he was already under siege. I heard he was a private man who kept to a small circle of friends and to the same neighborhood into which he had moved after the first book came out all those years ago. I heard he rarely did book signings and besides a book signing wouldn’t really serve my purpose and even rarer would he make an appearance at a party, even those which were ostensibly being given in his honor. No, if an actual meeting were to be orchestrated, it would have to be outside the city, or at least outside this city.

Bill, my serial neighbor, he of the frequent flyer miles, said he knew him but after a brief conversation it became apparent what he really meant was that he had once been in the same room with him and had, in fact, not even worked his way through the receiving line for a casual handshake but had rather maintained his focus on the free booze and a lady from Argentina. But he did say he’d heard he had a house up on the lake, the big lake, and that he’d go there in the late summer to clear his mind and do some writing. I listened to this with an air of polite interest. My interest, fascination even, in him, didn’t need to be broadcast.

I drove up in November, before Thanksgiving and well after I imagined he would have returned to the city. This first time I planned to just drive up to get a look at the village, see the size of the place, what it looked like, perhaps stop for a meal, maybe even get a room for a day or two.

It was a three and a half hour drive and about an hour out of the city I realized I hadn’t even confirmed he had a place at the lake and if he did if he used it the way Bill had described. I decided to continue on regardless, that if it turned out Bill was wrong which the more I thought about it seemed likely, I could take a room for the week-end and plan my next move, if there was going to be a next move.

Why I wanted to meet him escapes me. It seemed an amusing thing, I guess, to meet and know someone so difficult to meet and know. Maybe that was the whole of it. I’m certainly not given to celebrity worship, have never asked for an autograph even in those instances where I’ve found myself in a position to do so with little effort, wouldn’t cross the street to get a better look at an actor or politician and except for my first wife, who I stalked shamelessly, have never gone out of my way to meet anyone, ever. But I drove up in the gloom of an overcast November conspiring to meet someone solely because they were a public person and were someone whose writing I admired.

In those days I was still driving the hand-me-down Jeep wagon, the one with the grey primer, jury-rigged tail lights and the aversion to thin air. When I stopped in Montclair for gas and found the air crisp and cold I expected the worst. She coughed dramatically when I restarted her and swooned temporarily when I tried to pull back out onto the road but then she settled down and we made the run up to the big lake without incident.

The village is on the eastern shore and from the road skirting the south shore, with the late afternoon sun slanting in, seems to float magically above the water. I could imagine generations of children coming up for vacation seeing it from here, in this way for the first time, and the sheer anticipation welling up and laughing out loud.

I had a hot roast beef sandwich at Markey’s, a place more blue collar than quaint, inquired about a room for the night and bought a hat that said, ‘I ate at Markey’s so…’ and on the back, ‘if I stumble and fall, it’s probably ptomaine’. The lady who handed me my hat, pointed across the parking lot and said I wouldn’t have any trouble getting a room this time of year, before the skiers and snow bunnies and well after the summer crowds. I said, ‘So then everybody’s pretty much gone back to the city?’ as though making idle conversation but really hoping for some glimmer of people who might still be around. ‘Yeah, I guess…pretty much,’ she said dully, making change and smiling that ‘ya’ll-come-back-real-soon’ smile.

I walked across the road and through the low grass to the boat dock and stood looking across the water, squinting into the evening sun and wondered if he had ever stood here, in this place, watching the sun go down and if he were close enough to walk back to his place or if he’d turned and gone over to Markey’s for a hot roast beef sandwich.

I took a cabin on the high side of the parking lot for thirty-five dollars. I backed the wagon into the space between me and the number four cabin so that come morning if her arthritis was acting up I could get a rolling start and pop the clutch to bring her around. The sheets, crisp and cold, smelled clean, the two wool blankets heavy in a reassuring kind of way and as I lay in the dark I could make out a tiny shaft of light coming in from under an eave and lighting the far wall and an enormous cobweb above the Formica table. I decided to stay through the week-end, to go see Eddie at the gas station in the morning and give him another seventy bucks and drive back to the city late Monday morning. At three AM, I sat up and wrote the line, ‘Under their feet lay the bones of dead men, on the horizon they could see the big cats.’ It was the first line of Mastodon. I don’t know where it came from.

In the morning, I pulled on an extra sweat shirt and my brand new baseball cap and noticed that even in the cabin I could see my breath. I knew the Jeep was going to be unhappy. I walked over to Markey’s, somewhere up to the left, in the trees, a dog was barking, the sound coming down through the trees in that unique echo reserved for pine forests, out on the lake I could hear an outboard motor and voices, fishermen, I guess, talking and then some laughter. I considered how one might go about looking for someone, a stranger, in a small village without seeming to be looking for them. It meant, among other things, I couldn’t mention his name, couldn’t ask for directions, couldn’t even intimate that I was vaguely aware of some semi-famous author living hereabouts. In fact, any inquiry whatsoever would sound an alarm, so I was left with some aimless wandering. Pleasant enough in these surroundings but again I started to calculate what would be the odds of finding him, or anyone for that matter, with aimless wandering. The waitress, Doreen her name tag said, brought me a cup of coffee. I surveyed the room. Not counting the cook, Doreen or the youngish girl at the register, six men and two women, retirees I thought, plus a handyman, a guy in mechanics overalls and a young couple wearing plaid jackets and Sorels.

Next I strolled over to the gas station. Eddie wasn’t on duty. Charles W. was apparently the morning man. I told him I wanted to extend for a couple of days and started fishing around in my pockets for money. ‘I’ll tell Eddie,’ he said as if to save me the trouble of coming up with the cash. ‘Can’t I give it to you?’ ‘Naw, Eddie handles that,’ he said looking up at the cabins. Involuntarily my eyes followed his. The Jeep wagon with the grey primer and the jury rigged tail lights sat among perhaps a dozen cabins. There were no other cars, no movement, no sign of any other cabin dwellers. ‘It’s not like we’re gonna throw you out,’ Charles W. said smiling.

I went back to the cabin and spent an hour or two jotting down some thoughts. I wondered how he might look in real life, older, taller than I expected, friendly, taciturn, distracted…would I even recognize him?

As the morning warmed up, I coaxed the Jeep awake and drove down to Exeter Mills which is about twelve miles and consists of a motel made to look like a log cabin, a gas station (two pumps) and a chicken take-out. And a boarded up sno-cone stand which probably does a brisk business during the summer months. But Exeter Mills is more about the surrounding summer camps, there are few houses. I decided to circle the lake. What does he drive? Surely he buys groceries. I wondered if he was a regular at Markey’s. Maybe he doesn’t cook, maybe he’s strictly a Markey’s regular but just as surely, he has likely gone back to the city by now.

I stopped at Privet’s Landing, a small, sandy beach where the kids can hang out and give their counselors a break but in November crowded with drift wood and a square wooden platform which, in July, would be anchored out in the lake, ‘Privet’s’ in big block letters painted on all four sides. The trees on the far side of the lake seemed to come right down to the water, I could just make out a car or truck moving along the road and then I could pick out the village, little more than a couple of white flecks in the dark of the tree line and a faint plume of smoke.

I spent the rest of the week-end getting to know Doreen and Eddie and Charles W. Saturday night, I had the spaghetti, slightly over-cooked and spicy, and talked with Berg, the cook, a refugee of the youth camps who had trouble cooking for fewer than a hundred. I decided to come back in the spring, maybe get a realtor to show me around, make some light conversation. Yeah, maybe get a realtor.

I got back to the city late Monday afternoon and went to bed. The Markey’s hat ended up on the door knob of the coat closet.

So it goes. Poo-tee-weet.

NRA convention just ended here in Houston. Usual, predictable silliness. Palin spoke, shrill, drawn, playing the victim card and the entitlement card and the paranoid card…Perry spoke, pretty much the same shit…Ted Nugent spoke, I think, but failed to make any headlines down here and since I didn’t actually read any of the (mostly) front page articles about the convention, limiting myself to just the headlines, ledes and the occasional caption, I’m not absolutely sure what his appearance amounted to. I feel better not knowing. Couple of things occur to me though. First, they had a vendor showing his wares who is marketing a life-sized mannequin of President Obama that ‘bleeds’ when shot. Big seller. The same company has a model called ‘the ex’ which can be ordered with various colors of hair to approximate what your ex-wife might look like when viewed through the sight of a high powered rifle or assault weapon. ‘She’ also ‘bleeds’. Also a big seller. I can’t make this stuff up. I see where a thirteen year old boy in Florida shot his six year old sister (last night, I think) with a handgun he found while he and she were alone in their home. Of course, last week we had the five year old boy who shot and killed his two year old sister with his own rifle, a gift apparently, which had been left leaning in a corner of the living room of their trailer-home in Kentucky or Ohio. No one ‘knew’ the gun was loaded. Some guy in Virginia, Kokesh is the name, I think, a radio personality with a large reactionary following is organizing a march into Washington, DC with a thousand interested listeners all carrying loaded rifles. I’m not clear on the point they’re trying to make. Carrying a loaded rifle is legal in Virginia but not in Washington DC. Circle July 4th on this one. I think it has something to do with the effort in several states to round up firearms that are currently in the possession of people who may have originally bought them legally but who would now no longer be allowed to have them, you know, like they’re now felons or crazy or their ex-wife is so afraid of them that she’s managed to get a restraining order on em. So now if they were to apply through the FBI database to purchase a firearm, they’d be rejected. So this guy thinks this is evidence of the coming police state, hence, the march. The connection’s still a bit fuzzy for me.* Got an email a couple of weeks back from a guy I knew in the service. I get a lot of these emails. Mostly jokes or naked women. Sometimes jokes with naked women. But also sometimes political, invariably right wing and Fox News dumb. Sometimes I hit reply all and gently point out I’m a life-long Liberal Democrat which means I get taken off distribution for a while but somehow I end up back on it. Sometimes I take the time to point out the glaring fallacy of whatever they’ve sent but mostly I’m too lazy to do that. Anyways, recently I got one that was a call to arms over proposed legislation that would deny 2nd Amendment rights to veterans who had been diagnosed with extreme PTSD (the small print indicated the restriction would only apply as long as the patient was under a physician’s care and on medication, this didn’t seem to mollify my former compatriots). There you have it, if you’re crazy enough to require a locked ward and meds, you ought to still have access to your local firearms dealer. I miss Stanley Kubrick. And this is what I think they may turn out to have seen all along and we didn’t…we want their guns, all of em,.. no exceptions…we want to disarm them. I didn’t see it. I always thought what we were doing was trying to come up with some common-sense accommodation so that the needless gun violence might be reduced while preserving the right of rational citizens to own a gun. That’s what I thought but now am beginning to see there is apparently no rational gun ownership. They think any modification of the second amendment is infringement, that they should be able to own slaves, shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, that women should never have been given the vote. Maybe they were right all along and we just couldn’t see it. I think they may be right, I want their guns, all of em, every fucking one of them.

[My heading here belongs, of course, to Kurt Vonnegut. I thank him.]

(July 10th update) *July 4 has come and gone and no march. Seems as though Kokesh called it off (from a jail cell, I believe). So, anyways, no march. But now this knucklehead sneaks into DC and video tapes himself loading a shotgun with enough background showing to prove to his followers he was really in DC (in Freedom Plaza, a couple of blocks east of the White House) and if he can’t have his little march, he can still show those pointy heads what he’s made of. He states publicly this is/was an act of deliberate civil disobedience. And, in a ‘what-did-you-expect’ moment, last night (July 10), Kokesh was arrested at his home in northern Virginia for what are being described as ‘guns and drug’ violations. The warrant was served by the Parks Police, who have authority over the National Monuments and local gun laws in DC. They were accompanied by a twenty member SWAT team complete with armored vehicle and night vision goggles and ‘two low-flying helicopters’. And in wholly predictable knuckheaded fashion Kokesh and his followers are whining about the ‘official over-reaction’. Perhaps if Mr. Kokesh is found guilty of a felony he won’t have to worry about his Second Amendment rights anymore. Felons can’t own firearms.

(July 29th update) A Washington, D.C. Superior Court judge ordered Adam Kokesh held until trial calling him ‘dangerous’ during a Monday hearing. Further, Magistrate Judge Frederick Sullivan told Kokesh’s attorney, “I consider your client a very dangerous man,” and continued, “you don’t make a political statement with a gun.” The police confiscated multiple firearms, mushrooms and marijuana from his Virginia home.

So it goes. Poo-Tee-Weet.

The Beautiful Mouth

The trouble with this place is its expectations. I should have seen this coming. Plain as the nose on your face, as they say. I had intended to use this as a place to collect my thoughts, cogitate, plant fragments and revisit them until they forced themselves on me or were found out and deleted. That was the idea. But, of course, the posting of them became the point, the expectation, unfinished work need not apply. By the time I’d been back and jiggered and rewritten and come to an understanding, it was already ‘out there’, no one would see it in its Sunday clothes. Now I’m back to chasing fragments, back to disorganized piles on my desk, disconnected things rattling around in my head. Sent myself an email last week. A thousand word email. Poor man’s Word. Hit reply, rewrote it and sent it back to myself, twelve hundred words. This is what this place was supposed to be. Funny.

Marcel Dalio

November 16, 2005

Sunday, November the 20th is the anniversary of Marcel Dalio’s death in 1983. It was the end of a serendipitous life. You know him. He was a citizen of the world. Born Israel Moshe Blauschild, in Paris, in 1900, he became a much sought-after character actor. His lovely animated face with its great expressive eyes became familiar across Europe. He appeared in Jean Renoir’s idiosyncratic Rules of the Game (1939) and Grand Illusion (1937), arguably the greatest of all films. And true to his Frenchman’s heart, he married the very young, breathtaking beauty Madeleine Lebeau. He worked with von Stroheim and Pierre Chenal. He had it all.

But then the Germans crushed Poland, swept across Belgium and pressed on toward Paris. He waited until the last possible moment and finally, with the sound of artillery clearly audible, with Madeleine, fled in a borrowed car to Orleans and then, in a freight train, to Bordeaux and finally to Portugal. In Lisbon, they bribed a crooked immigration official and were surreptitiously given two visas for Chile. But on arriving in Mexico City, it was discovered the visas were rank forgeries. Facing deportation, Marcel and Madeleine found themselves making application for political asylum with virtually every country in the western hemisphere. Weeks passed until Canada finally issued them temporary visas, and they left for Montreal.

Meanwhile, France had fallen and, in the process of subjugating the country, the Germans had found some publicity stills of Dalio. A series of posters were produced and were then displayed throughout the city with the caption ‘a typical Jew’ so that citizens could more easily report anyone suspected of unrepentant Jewishness. The madness continued. The Curtain Rises (1938), a popular film, was ordered re-edited so that Dalio’s scenes could be deleted and re-shot with another, non-Jewish, actor.

After a short time, friends in the film industry arranged for them to arrive in Hollywood. Nearly broke, Marcel was immediately put to work in a string of largely forgettable films. Madeleine, a budding actress in her own right, was ironically cast in Hold Back the Dawn (1941), a vehicle for Charles Boyer with a plot driven by the efforts of an émigré (Boyer) desperately trying to cross into the United States from Mexico. But the real irony was waiting at Warner Brothers.

In early 1942, Jack L. Warner was driving production of a film based on a one act play, ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s’ but had no screenplay. What he had was a mishmash of treatments loosely based on the play and two previous movies. But he had a projected release date and a commitment to his distributors to have a movie for that time slot and little else. Warner Brothers started to wing it.

Shooting started without a screenplay and little plot. Principal players were cast and a director hired but casting calls for supporting roles and bit players continued, and sometime in the early spring Marcel Dalio and Madeleine Lebeau were cast as, respectively, a croupier and a romantic entanglement for the male lead. Veteran screen-writers were hired to produce a running screenplay, sometimes delivering pages of dialogue one day, for scenes to be shot the following day. No one knew exactly where the plot would go or how the story would turn out. No one was sure of the ending. And, of course, perhaps inevitably, they produced a classic, perhaps the finest, American movie.

They produced a screenplay of multiple genres, rich with characterizations, perfectly in tune with the unfolding events in Europe and loaded with talent from top to bottom. Oh, and they changed the title to Casablanca (1942).

It is so well known, that many lines of long-memorized dialogue have passed into the slang idiom. ‘We’ll always have Paris’, ‘I was misinformed’, ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’, ‘ I am shocked! Shocked! To find that there’s gambling going on in here!’, ‘Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’, ‘Oh he’s just like any other man, only more so’, ‘I don’t mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one’, ‘Round up the usual suspects’, and, of course, the oft quoted, apocryphal, ‘Play it again, Sam’.

Madeleine Lebeau plays Yvonne, the jilted lover of Humphrey Bogart, who is seen drowning her sorrows at the bar early in the film and who later, to get back at Rick and looking for solace takes up with a German officer finding only self-hatred. She is luminous.

And when Claude Rains delivers the signature line, ‘I’m shocked! Shocked! To find that there’s gambling going on in here!’ the croupier, Emil, played by Marcel Dalio, approaches from the roulette table and says simply, ‘Your winnings, sir.’ It is a delicious moment ripe with scripted irony, one among many in this film, but one made all the more so, knowing where Dalio came from and what he and his wife had endured to arrive at that line.

Alas, they separated and divorced the next year, both going on to long successful careers. Dalio never remarried.

Late in his career Dalio was approached by Mike Nichols who was looking for a vaguely familiar face to deliver a long and worldly, near-monologue in Catch-22 (1970). Faced with a hopelessly idealistic young American pilot, Dalio, as simply ‘old man in whore house’, in tight close-up, delivers a discourse on practical people faced with impractical circumstances, of the virtues of expedience in the face of amorality . Using his wonderful plastic features, now beginning to sag, in a voice full of melancholy, the old man reassures the young man that regardless of what ‘grand themes’ may be afoot in the world, in the end, little matters but survival.

Michael Ryerson

2005

Butch

I saw the settlement yesterday. Knew when I saw it, I’d have to write something about it. In some way the end of a long torturous road, yet, of course, in another more frightening way, not really the end at all.

He moved into the old neighborhood while I was overseas and by the time I came back, he’d become one of the boys. ‘You have to meet him. He’s cool,’ they said. He was easy to know, the Blarney Stone comes to mind, though with a low key thoughtfulness that suggested substance rather than simple hot air.

He moved into the house just south of my old family home, one of those grotesque Ponti-moderns that were so popular back in the kitsch swept ‘50’s, pastel stucco with the rock-and-pebble roof, concrete slab floors and huge windows grouped in fours in every room.

They came into town from Denver, him and a feisty, sometimes salty wife, and three young boys. Their door was pretty much always open. We played bridge, argued politics, sports and fast cars, Mailer, Vidal, Buckley, Walter Alston and Carroll Shelby. We watched Dick Cavett, Steve Allen and The Firing Line at his house. He subscribed to Time and Newsweek and Foreign Affairs. He recommended Atlas Shrugged and The Once and Future King, I suggested he read Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22. He held forth on ‘big business’, banking, aerospace and engineering with the casual air that passes for competence and besides he was supporting a family while the rest of us were screwing around in school or maybe just screwing around, so what did we know? He said he was a Republican

He had access to a persistent stream of well paying, part-time, temporary jobs and we all took advantage of this, week-ends, evenings, spring break, summers, whenever. He would call from time to time with one goofy job or another, cleaning offices all night at some enormous complex, driving an RV around a test rack strewn with speed bumps and artificial potholes out in Gardena, making engineering changes to schematic drawings over at Atomics International. This was during our student radical days but, of course, even anarchists gotta eat.

He moved on up the corporate ladder or, rather, he moved on up a series of corporate ladders, it being a dog-eat-dog world and he finding himself in one palace revolt after another. He had some hard times.

Right about here, I wandered away for a few years and when I wandered back I had a young wife and few prospects. And sadly, when my sense of irony and snappy patter got me crossways with a distant corporate employer, I found myself talking to him in Houston and he was telling me to, ‘come on down, it’s a boomtown here.’ And so we went, the two of us and an eighty-five pound mongrel dog named Yossarian and pretty much everything we owned, stuffed into and strapped on top of, a rattling Volkswagen.

He had been sent to Houston, temporarily they said, to reel in a renegade branch office, placate the customers and lay the groundwork for a return to profitability. The assignment brought with it a corporate apartment, a generous expense account and a white Cadillac two-door. His wife, with the boys, had refused to relocate with him, so he found himself with time on his hands and few witnesses. A combination that, predictably, would lead to mischief.

He was creative, ‘too smart for his own good’ my mother would have said, and at that he would have laughed that good-natured laugh of chastened recognition. And he’d have gone right on doing what he was doing. He had become the master of the business lunch, box seats and long expensive dinners. The customers knew they were being conned but his charm and his numbers were too good to pass up. The office righted itself.

He dated a series of bright young women who, each in her own way, looked great in the front seat of a white Coupe de Ville. He enjoyed telling the old stories and, of course, to them they were new stories. And they knew they were being conned, too. But likewise his stories and his numbers were too good to pass up.

The divorce papers arrived the middle of the second year.

I moved from one staff assignment to another, filling in as he launched new lines of business, moving ever further from the traditional model, and as his ‘deals’ became more creative he was seen less and less in the office and his corporate reporting became sporadic and uneven, sounding an alarm in Los Angeles. Soon they were coming to Houston once again to reel in a renegade office. He was out and I was on my way to Los Angeles and an office on the twelfth floor. He found shelter across town at the number one competitor, with a nice increase and a Mercedes Benz. We didn’t speak again for ten years.

In those years, I harbored a resentment born of the belief he had ignored plentiful, normal, garden-variety business in exchange for overly leveraged deals that generated irresistible margins reflected in artfully written balance sheets, acting on his early pronouncements of realpolitik, doing the things a man must do in business, politics and war as if von Clausewitz or SunTzu were in the next room. What had been little more than bridge table banter in the early years had come to pass. There were lawsuits and counter-suits and settlements and new business relationships. But I wasn’t part of any of that. In fact, I had changed careers altogether, severing my connection to the companies and the industries with which he would be doing business. Had I thought about it, the likelihood we would ever see each other again would have seemed remote. But I didn’t think about it.

The Los Angeles metropolitan area stretches from Redlands on the east to Chatsworth on the west, a distance of approximately ninety miles (if you were to drive those ninety miles you would never be outside ‘the city’, never clear of the developed urban mass), and from San Fernando in the north to San Juan Capistrano in the south, a distance of approximately seventy-five miles (and again, if you were to drive this axis, this seventy-five miles, you would likewise never be clear of ‘the city’), even allowing for rural enclaves, it is perhaps five thousand square miles and home to seventeen million people. At the best of times, say seven-am on a Sunday morning, it still requires nearly two hours to cross. On a Friday evening, it is impassable. And if you were to set off to find a specific person using only your eyes and your ears, you might spend a hundred lifetimes, or a thousand, and never once catch the barest glimpse of their silhouette passing into a building or the sound of their voice on a breeze. Only a nineteenth century novelist would dare suggest such a thing. Yeah, a nineteenth century novelist or real life. In late 1988, Kafka was waiting in my parking lot. Chekhov was with him.

I crossed the traffic lane toward my car in the early evening as I always did, the soft summer breeze whispering barbeque and an hour or two of cheesy television before bed, when a voice called out and I turned to see a somewhat heavier, yet more prosperous looking ex-co-worker I hadn’t thought of nor spoken to in ten years. He had friends in suits. They were all dressed in that vaguely flashy manner of upmarket salesmen meant to convey money and virility without drawing too much attention to expanding waistlines. They were in town to, you guessed it, reel in another renegade office for another too big corporation being run by men who had reached the limits described by the Peter Principle. This particular renegade office, unbeknownst to me, was located on the second floor of my building. The meeting had been pure chance.

We met for lunch. Three of them, one of me. Ten years had taken the edge off the anger, dulled the resentment. I suppose I could blame what followed on the business cycle but the truth is I was weak and they were strong. I went back.

The business had changed, they said. The traditional model was dead. Where we had been driven by providing specific goods and services we were now providing numbers and reporting, employee classifications and insurance models not possible for the primary employer but all too easily possible for the stand-in employer. But still, even in the new world, someone had to run the front office and so I was busy and gainfully employed once again. And he was free to be creative. I would like to say it was obvious what he was doing and that I was onto him but self interest carries with it a kind of myopia and you are allowed to go on regardless of what should have been apparent. In the end it blew up in a spasm of suits and counter-suits (been here before?) and once again he landed on his feet and once again there was scant room in the lifeboat.

That should have been it. But life has a rule which might be stated thusly: You may not proceed until you have learned my lessons. Our paths would cross twice more.

These were my travelling years. I was responsible for operations from New Jersey to sunny Southern California. I was flying a couple hundred thousand miles a year. With frequent flier miles like this, I was typically upgraded to the front of the plane, better drinks, more smiles, higher grade of BS and a sense of entitlement all around.

One morning in Los Angeles, I was later than usual, maybe the last to board, but with the upgrade I knew I had a seat waiting for me. I stepped on the plane, exchanged greetings with the stewardess, looked at the overhead bin and glanced instinctively at my aisle seat. The guy next to the window looked up. Yep. Kafka. In my ear, I could hear Life laughing at me. Stowing my small bag in the overhead, I considered the options and finding none,  decided a three hour flight posed a Zen challenge. I would chose civility and a kind of jocularity which stopped just short of friendliness. He was, after all, a remarkably easy guy to talk to and, lord knows, we had plenty of history. I would baffle him with cordial disconnectedness.

We talked mostly about the old days, the old gang, the days before the rancor. We talked as if there was no rancor, no interim, nothing between us and the good old days of bridge and the Dodgers, fast cars and the silliness of Ayn Rand. It was easy to do. The time for explanations had long since passed. It was as though we were looking across an enormous canyon and discussing the lovely landscape on the far side all the while ignoring the yawning void. His charm and his stories were intact although there was a sadness about him. Yeah, a sadness. I was being conned and I knew it. And he knew I knew it. When we landed in Houston, we didn’t leave the plane together. As I went up the ramp, he was engaged in a heated exchange with the stewardess about a wine stain on his tan ultra suede sports coat. He was charmless.

Fifteen years passed. His name came up only rarely, perhaps less than once a year. I heard very little and what little I did hear it seemed was more of the same. New businesses, more lawsuits, more ‘creativity’. And then, for about five years, nothing. Until last year, in January, at a trade show in Las Vegas, my wife and I were just leaving a nearly deserted coffee shop following breakfast. As we passed through the lobby area, there were three people standing, in conversation, two men and a woman. I hardly noticed them. One of the men reached out and stopped me, extending his hand as if to shake mine and said, ‘Michael Ryerson, what are you doing?’ It was him, one last time. And the tone told me the ‘hail fellow, well met’ salutation was as much for his friends as it was for me. In his tone and body language he was telling them this was a serendipitous meeting and held the possibility of goods things, indeed. I answered factually, in a flat dry tone to warn him off, as if it mattered, but he would not be dissuaded, he pressed on, ‘No, I mean, what are you doing?’ with a special emphasis on ‘doing’ as though there was an important distinction being missed. His friends, who he had introduced as his ‘new’ wife and a long-time ‘consultant’, whatever the hell that meant, were leaning forward so as to not miss a scintilla of this most important exchange. ‘When are you leaving? We’ve got to get together for breakfast or better, dinner, how about we take you both out to dinner?’ (at this I could feel my wife pull back) ‘We’ve got big things happening, I’d love to have you look at them and give me your feedback,’ again the friends leaned closer, momentous forces were at work, ‘if not here then when are you getting back into Houston? We can have dinner in Houston. Here take my card, call me or I’ll call you, okay?’ I should have put the kibosh on it right then but sometimes my breeding takes over (not often, but sometimes) and I just couldn’t carve him up in front of his ‘new’ wife and long-time ‘consultant’. I nodded and smiled and left. The next day, a Saturday morning, he reached me in my office. For a moment, I let him talk, just let him rattle on and marveled at the gift, the casual, good-naturedness, glib but not too glib, perfect pitch, just perfect, I listened to his rhythm and intonations, what a frigging master! A nod at some kind of apology for those ‘difficulties’ all those years ago and what good are grudges anyway, bygones be bygones, and then on to more important things, big doings, and then when can we get together? And then I put a stop to it, explaining I could have said as much in Las Vegas but wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his ‘new’ wife and business associate but we aren’t going to have lunch, I won’t waste your time or mine, there isn’t anything you could say that could move me, I’m happy, my wife is happy and we’re, thankfully, in a good spot and I wouldn’t do anything that might jeopardize that in the least. There was a long pause, I could hear him breathing. He isn’t used to this, having someone cut him off, this was new ground for him. And then finally, ‘Okaaay…’ drawn out as if to say, ‘You’re making a mistake, you haven’t even heard my ‘deal’ yet’, drawn out as if to give me one last chance to capitulate. I closed with ‘Good luck and take care of yourself’ and meant it.

In April, someone sent me a copy of the federal complaint. It ran to twenty pages, named him as an individual along with fourteen corporate entities (companies he owed) and totaled $113,000,000.00 before penalties and interest. The date on the complaint was the previous November. In other words, when we saw each other in that Las Vegas coffee shop and subsequently, when he called me in my office, he was sitting on a one hundred million dollar federal indictment.

Yesterday, someone sent me a copy of the settlement.

The mills of the gods may grind slow but they grind exceedingly small. The government began swallowing his assets. First they took everything he owned and everything he would ever own; his savings, his cars, his house and everything in it. Then they took  his future earnings. They saddled him with a thirteen million dollar personal judgement. He may not now own a business of any kind, nor can he be employed where he might exercise any control or influence over employee salaries or wages, withholding tax monies, insurance premiums or retirement funds. The mills of the gods.

I’m not sure why but this all reminds me of a comment J. Paul Getty once made about his wealth, he said, ‘I didn’t really think I was rich until I found there were people willing to lend me a million dollars.’ Two sides of the same coin, I guess.

Michael Ryerson

Additional dialogue. During the two and a half years since I posted ‘Butch’, I fell into the habit of daydreaming, from time to time, what his life must have become following that judgment. His job skills were squarely in the sights of the prohibitions named in the judgment and therefore off-limits to him. What could he do? At his age (approaching mid-seventies), starting over was an unlikely option but with this judgment retirement seemed even less likely. So what? A job? Doing what? Social Security and the kindness of what few friends (if any) he still had? A room in one of his son’s houses? He had not been, generally speaking, a doting father so this would be a particularly bitter accommodation. But still this seemed possible, maybe even probable. He had spent his entire adulthood sowing this desolation. Every once in a while, maybe once a quarter, I would Google his name just to keep track of him. Curiosity, pure and simple and yet oddly mesmerizing. But there were no tracks. He ceased to exist as of the judgment. The entries became familiar with little-to-no variation, some people with the same name appeared; a musician, a jazz saxophonist; some guy in Wisconsin who’d died in 1843; some news stories and documents from the federal case, some old publicity for several of his companies, some stuff about his ex-wives. Always the same. After a year or so, I could scan through it all quickly, checking things off as I went. Until yesterday.

Piss Off

So they’ve got a photograph of four Marines taking a leak on some dead guys? And this is news? I am shocked! Shocked! That there’s gambling going on in here! Oh, the humanity! So let me get this straight, just what the fuck do people think happens when you set these things in motion? When the tough talk is the applause line and looks so good in the paper, when sending someone else’s kid halfway around the world sounds like a good idea. Just what do people think are the natural consequences of an unthinking foreign policy that brandishes the lives of nineteen year olds like so many poker chips? Couple of guys get locked up, rolling around on the ground or trading gunshots or punches and one of them’s got to die. Just that simple. And if you’re lucky, you’ve got a couple of friends who’ll pitch in and help you kill this cocksucker, yeah, two or three against one, maybe four or five against one. This ain’t junior high school. There is no fair about it. The Marquis of Queensbury was a pussy. And when the sun comes up, if you’re still alive, you’ll find corpses with two, three hundred bullet holes in them and body parts and you’ll walk around collecting the bigger pieces, like some fucking jigsaw puzzle, and try to come up with a body count considering you’ve got damned few whole bodies. You’ll dig a pit and you’ll gather up the little pieces using your entrenching tool like a serving spoon, pieces of brain or muscle or snot, fingertips, a scalp maybe, and you’ll dump them in the pit so you won’t start getting sick in a week or so as the rot sets in. Yeah, you’ll do all these things and it’ll piss you off that you’re doing them and it’ll piss you off that some prick came in here to kill you and if you’ve got to take a leak, well, you’ll take it right on one of these guys and you don’t owe anybody a goddamned apology.

 

Michael Ryerson

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