by Michael Ryerson
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.
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.