[ fiction - october 03 ]
Mary thought that she knew everything about her friend Pavel. They had been close for years, almost forever, it seemed. He was handsome, brilliant, generous considerate, destined for success and gay. She knew his tastes and all of his habits. But, such confidence in one's knowledge about someone else can easily be jarred by a very small and seemingly banal discovery that in a second will deconstruct your entire established perception of that friend and leave you totally unnerved. This is what happened when Mary opened the freezer door in Pavel's apartment and discovered 15 pounds of Starbucks coffee.
"Fifteen pounds of Starbucks Coffee? What do you do with this?" Mary asked. "I understand the frozen peas, the frozen corn, shell steaks, large shrimp, prepared lobster Newburg from your mother, but not 150 dollars' worth of coffee. You wouldn't drink that much coffee in a year - are you going crazy?"
Mary Margaret had come over to pick up the manuscript of Tyranny, Pavel's first novel, which she was to proofread and edit. This was two years ago. Since then, Tyranny has made a small fortune, giving Pavel the money and fame for which Mary knew that he was destined. But the story of coffee is now, not later.
"Three pounds of coffee are for you; now just take a package so that I can make us some", Pavel told her calmly. "This gift is so you don't fall asleep working on my book. The other bags are reserved for friends on the wagon. I like Starbucks and it's really not so expensive. It's very strong. You use less to get more. I got us cookies from San Ambrose to have with our coffee." They are extravagant. You pay more. You eat more because they are so good." Now Mary continued hunting for more surprises around the large airy eat-in kitchen while Pavel busied himself making coffee.
"You have so many books," Mary said, as she went through his pile of new acquisitions on the kitchen table singling out an elaborate book, "Using colors from your garden in cooking and living. What are you doing with this book? You don't have a garden.
"Just a present from a friend; maybe soon I'll have a garden. "Sit down and have some coffee. We've got proofreading and editing to discuss." It was a spectacular fall day and Pavel wanted to get out of the house, soon. He had chores to do.
Pavel was lucky to have a rent-controlled apartment on East 76th Street in one of New York's best neighborhoods. It occupied the entire top floor with its two bedrooms, two fireplaces and a small, set back roof terrace. So, for little money, he occupied digs with style only a few doors from the Hotel Carlyle.
They concluded their business in that wonderful flat, gossiped for another half hour about mutual friends, their careers, love affairs, marriages and divorces. Finally at noon Mary Margaret left Pavel's elegant bachelor quarters, manuscript in hand. He knew that she would get right to work because she has no dates on Saturday nights, owing to the fact that she only got involved with married men. This availability was an asset for Pavel, not great for Mary.
Humming Autumn leaves, Pavel walked south through Central Park towards 57th Street. He was going to loaf and shop.
Today Pavel is famous, because of Tyranny. It is a serious and comical story of a wilful, obnoxious dog who negotiates a lifestyle for himself that is superior to and more comfortable than that of his mistress. There is nothing to like about the dog, the hero of the book. The lesson to be learned is that dogs, like wilful and obnoxious people, travel extremely far in the world, sometimes to the point of becoming dictators.
At Rizzoli, Giorgio, Pavel's regular salesman, greeted him warmly. "Since these were gifts and you have no receipts, we can only give you a store credit on the books you want to return. This is what we always do, isn't it?" They smiled.
Pavel put his hand on Giorgio's shoulder to reassure him the usual arrangement was fine. Rizzoli was one of Pavel's favorite shops even though it didn't discount the books. It occupies a building of five narrow floors on 57th Street. Its tight floor space and heavy wood and marble installation give it the feeling of a jewelry store rather than a bookshop, like Cartier's for example.
Giorgio, the only son of an Italian-Argentine father and German-Jewish mother, had always been especially kind to him whenever Pavel came to buy or return books. Giorgio was living in New York and working at Rizzoli's before starting a residency at Mt Sinai Hospital. He enjoyed selling books, newspapers and music in many languages to many people. Pavel, however, was his favorite customer even though Giorgio treated everyone well, even people he didn't like, a sign of real class.
Pavel went upstairs to pick out some music telling Giorgio that when he comes down he might buy a couple of Italian silk New York Subway ties, one for his father and one for himself. Isn't it wonderful that bookstores sell such a variety of merchandise nowadays, he thought? "Bene," said Giorgio, "We'll do the exchange when you come down. I'll be here."
Ceremoniously Pavel ascended the white marble staircase to the fifth floor music department to find a disc of Emmeline, a little-known but contemporary opera based on actual events in 19th century New England. It had a somewhat classic storyline. Emmeline, at 12, gives up her daughter, who is actually her son, but how is she to know, and marries him years later suffering severe consequences, as one would in New England. The boxed set was only $50. Emmeline is the kind of opera that might be more performed in the future than it is today. Pavel might like that for his book, but the present was more important at the moment. Time, in any case would be the ultimate arbiter.
On his way down the steps, Pavel stopped on the second floor, picked up a copy of Ulysses, opened it to the last page with the wonderful soliloquy of Molly Bloom, the one he always wanted to memorize:
O that awful deep down torrent O and the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda Gardens yes and all the query little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and a jessemine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a flower of the mountain yes when I put the Rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put arms around him down to me so they could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I say yes I will Yes.
YES, he mused, continuing his descent to the main floor, is a much better word than NO.
Giorgio, very good salesmen, sensed Pavel's inclination to spend. He had neatly arranged several ties for Pavel's approval. They joked that they were dressed almost exactly alike - khaki slacks, blue blazers, and white Oxford shirts. Giorgio wore a bow tie, Pavel an open neck, his long neck being a strong point. They were also the same height and build - tall and angular. Giorgio's eyes were blue, Pavel's green; Giorgio had hair black, Pavel blond. Their suntans on that day were the same shade, bronze with a touch of carotene - out of the same tube, no doubt. Giorgio politely inquired about Pavel's writing and said that he hoped that it would not be long before Tyranny would be flying off the shelves. He would push it. So Pavel bought three ties instead of two. Before leaving, Pavel promised to return to the store to see Giorgio before he started at the hospital. With his Rizzoli shopping bag in hand Pavel was off to his next Saturday chore - Saks Fifth Avenue.
"Do you accept store credits at the restaurant?" Pavel asked at the Information Desk at Saks Fifth Avenue. The answer was no.
He had a credit at Saks of $1,250 for books he had returned to the store. Saks, contrary to popular knowledge, sells books. They are about table settings, dressing for dinner, dressing for dates, and general grooming, and are scattered all over the store as accessories. Lunch with credits was not possible, but a bottle of Monsieur Balmain Cologne was. Its beautiful lemony scent made Pavel happy. The next stop was Barnes and Noble, where he bought two boxes of Godiva chocolates and three pounds of coffee to replace that which he had given to Mary.
As the reader already knows, Pavel paid for the cologne, coffee, and chocolates with store credits. He was a shopper, with refined taste and a propensity to have nice things of quality and to also give these things to friends. He had also been a poor writer until Tyranny was published. So the credits from returning books became his currency in all of the best shops, theaters, and restaurants in New York. Through ingenious use of his bartering techniques, Pavel enjoyed a $240,000 per annum lifestyle while he earned only $40,000.00 per annum of hard cash. It in a curious way, it all evolved from coffee.
Some books originally came from publishers for Pavel to review for small journals and neighborhood papers. Those are the books that reviewers sell at places like the Stand for 10 cents on the dollar. This was an unacceptable and unattractive prospect. Pavel, being a big spirit, preferred, instead, to read them or give them to friends, libraries and hospitals. But when his mother gave him a handsome coffee table book on Cimabui, one he already owned, he decided to return it to Barnes & Noble, where it had been purchased, with the purpose of exchanging it for a certain cookbook. Alas, the cookbook was not in stock. But while the store credit for Cimabui was being written up, Pavel noticed Starbucks coffee in one-pound bags. He also saw boxes of Godiva chocolates for sale in the shop. "If I used my credit for coffee," he thought, "I wouldn't have to put out badly needed cash at the grocery store." He stopped the credit and took the coffee. That first year he "bought" $500 worth of coffee and $1,000 worth of chocolate with his review books. He bought gifts of books, chocolates and coffee. When invited to dinner, he arrived armed not only with goodies for the parents, but also books for the kids. Pavel's reputation as a very generous guest grew. He was also a wonderful conversationalist. This combination made him a must at many dinner parties.
In time he became more extravagant, needing more books than were sent to him .He became aggressive with publishers to get more and more books.
139 East 76th Street
New York, NY 10022
To Whom It May Concern:
In connection with the attached letter, I am interested in having a copy of each of the following books that you are scheduled to publish:
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Irish Manor Houses by Kathleen Cunningham
If there are any other books you think might be of interest to our readers, I shall be glad to look at them. I look forward to hearing from you.
New York Correspondent
Bobby Burns Review
To Whom It May Concern:
This is to inform you that Pavel Stone is the New York correspondent for the Bobby Burns Review. He is responsible for sending us information about publications that he deems suitable for review in our journal. Please extend him every courtesy.
Pavel's range of interest and profitability expanded to include large, oversized and expensive books inspiring him to write:
Mr Malcolm Knoll
Elite Architectural Publications
400 Madison Avenue
New York, NY
Dear Mr Knoll,
I am compiling a compendium of books that will act as a source for those desiring to build an architectural section in their home or institutional library. I hope that we will be ready for publication before next Christmas.
Our criteria for selection are as follows:
Quality of photography
Accuracy of information
Overall quality of production and materials
Availability through most booksellers
Please forward to me any of your books that you might want included in this reference source. I look forward to hearing from you.
Valid queries were few and far between. The best books were not obtained for justifiable reasons. In fact, most of the journals for which he wrote were nonexistent. Pavel now favored very costly architectural and decorative coffee table books because of their high list prices. He pushed for these. They didn't flow in automatically as did the $25 books. One had to work, be persistent and work hard.
Quickly, Pavel was on many and varied lists. Solicitous publicists, seeking new blood, started calling. Meals were offered in addition to coffee and candy into the mix.
"This is Allison," a voice rising at the end of her sentence says. "I'm the publicist for Litchfield and Sullivan. The author will be in town next week. Would you like to interview him? If you are too busy, we could have lunch, anyway. Perhaps the week following."
Lunch was tempting. But was it going too far, getting greedy? Perhaps! But, if Pavel refused, Allison, who is probably not paid well, would have to buy her own sandwich and eat it at her desk, instead of using company funds for a proper lunch. So, Pavel accepted the invitation, in the spirit of helping Allison and himself. These perks - lunches, dinners, travel, and the opportunity to meet interesting people, like Pavel - were part of her pay and he could not deprive her of that.
Depending on the restaurant, a good lunch for two people might cost plus or minus $100, with wine. Therefore, Pavel figured, if he had a lunch once a week or even 40 lunches a year, that was worth $4,000. It was also fun. Publicists are nothing if not publicly pleasant. In fact, Pavel met his agent, then a publicist, at such a lunch.
Pavel loved music, but until he started book trading could not afford to own an extensive collection of discs. But now, most bookshops sell music, so he was now able to trade books for CDs. He wrote requests to record companies, and is now the proud owner of over 800 discs including two different versions of the Fauré Requiem, every Nina Simone record ever made, and four versions of the entire Ring Cycle. All that a friend had to do was to drop a hint and the gift of a recording appeared.
Busy people like Pavel need vacations.
Mr Craig Wently
Cruises of the Very Very Wealthy
Dear Mr Wently,
We are preparing the first issue of Cruising for Fun, a limited edition magazine that will be sent to only 5,000 carefully selected subscribers. The magazine will be assembled in the first class manner. The photography will be "art quality." Our articles will be of immeasurable public relations value. I enclose a format. We would like to consider covering your cruise from Nice to Turkey in our first edition.
That year Pavel sailed first class from Nice to Istanbul. Unfortunately the funding never came through for Cruising for Fun and it could not be published. However, he did, something positive for his host.
He wrote a very detailed critique of every aspect of the cruise. There was an creative element to the cuisine, but he found the wine list boring and deficient. Therefore, he offered some cogent suggestions for unusual and not very expensive wines to add to their list. In the housekeeping area, Pavel strongly suggested that the air-conditioning filters be changed on a regular basis. Dirty filters affected the quality of the air, making the whole system function less effectively and in the end, the system costs more money to operate. The soaps contained perfumes to which large numbers of people are allergic. He suggested some hypoallergenic ones. Pavel, being very diplomatic, made sure to praise the sincerity and hospitality of the crew and all of their employees to the sky etc, etc, etc.
Flattering excerpts from his critique were used in advertisements for the line. They were attributed to Pavel Stone, independent critic. The shipping line used his critical comments as if to make corrections to the wine list and air filters accordingly. Thus fraud transformed itself into an advisory relationship. Pavel was invited on more cruises.
On one trip to Alaska, Pavel socialized with some Wall Street people from Lehman Brothers. They inspired him to become more business-like. He became enamored with arbitrage, and created his own style. Money, as he understood it, is not the only great currency. Pavel made his market in, what else, BOOKS. He bought art books at closeout sales. This is one of the few instances where using actual cash was justified, because the potential profit was so large. He would acquire 20 coffee table art books for $20 each, knowing that The Metropolitan Museum Shop, The Guggenheim Museum Store, and other venues were still selling them for $100 each. Then he started his arduous returns that turned $400, the cost of 20 books into $2,000 of store credits. Museum stores sell books, furniture, clothes, electrical appliances and various decorative ornaments and gift certificates. It is to these shops he had to thank for various luxuries, like his favorite Eames lounge chair that he used for reading.
It is not hard to see that Pavel has a theatrical side. Therefore, he figured that he should be able to review theater. So, he went to work doing this and was soon attending previews for critics. When he could not arrange those nights reserved for the critics, he managed to be invited on the full price nights. There were always two tickets for the best seats. Within one year he saw 38 shows and wrote one review. Sometimes he didn't even have to call for tickets. Agents would call him. Once a small theater company held the curtain for 10 minutes until he arrived. Pavel always invited friends to the theater. They, in turn, would invite him for dinner afterwards.
While practicing this petty larceny, Pavel was much more in demand than when he lived as a straightforward "thrift and industry" person. Of course, the irony is that this lifestyle of big and little comforts and luxuries was actually the ultimate in thrift and industry.
Pavel did, however, have a conscience as well as a good heart.. To mitigate his guilt, he routinely sent chocolates to the book publicists and books to the theater people. When he felt guilty, he thought of great artists like Beethoven (who sold rights to the same music multiple times) and the wretched Wagner, who bled his patrons for the princely luxuries that were his entitlement. Pavel was diplomatic but firm and always discreet when claiming his due.
"These were given to me as a gift," he would say when returning a book, or "My house guest in New York didn't know that I have this book in my London flat," he would explain. Sometimes a clerk would object. "This book looks as if it had been read before," he or she would say.
"I don't like this author. I'm sorry," was his response, strongly delivered. There the discussion ended there, the return accepted. When buying 20 copies of the same books he commented, "I am doing advance Christmas shopping. Everyone is getting the same gift this year.
Pavel regularly bought 460-count bed linens from Takashimaya for $350. Antique silk kimono bow-ties were exchanged for such items as Art of Southeast Asia ($190). With the return of cookbooks, Cuisinarts and the most expensive olive oils were bartered with William Sonoma. Price meant nothing. Pavel had the best of everything.
Going back to the day two years ago that Mary Margaret rummaged through his freezer, Pavel had bartered for over $350 worth of ties, books, cologne, and coffee. This did not include the theater tickets for that night that were worth $150.All told, this totaled up to $500 worth of tax-free pleasure for just one day. A person in the 50 per cent bracket would have to earn $1,000 to enjoy the same pleasures. On an average week, benefits totaled $1,500 to $2,000, the equivalent of $150,000 to $200,000 per annum of taxable income. Add this to his hard-earned $40,000 per annum and we arrive at a quarter-million dollar lifestyle, as mentioned earlier.
Later that same afternoon two years ago, Pavel arrived back home about three o'clock. The sun was beaming into the living room, where he sipped Moroccan mint tea and ate more cookies. He thought of the great Bellini picture in the Frick Collection of Saint Francis on a hill overlooking Florence and of his own fantasy of being a monk, with all of that wonderful peace and contentment that this life implies. Then he started to doubt that he could write another book after Tyranny. His love of books had deteriorated into equations of how many pounds of coffee, chocolates and silk ties they were worth in the marketplace. Perhaps, he thought, he should give up this routine and stick just be a serious writer living in genteel poverty .He would pay cash for everything.
But, maybe, as bad as it was, Tyranny would be a success. He then visualized himself as a rich man. Of course, money does funny things to people. The world is filled with people like Leona Helmsley and Dick Chaney who never have enough. They remain greedy. "Would I?" he thought.
The phone rang, interrupting these reveries. It was four o'clock. Pavel's theater date called to cancel. The date was not going to the theater, so Pavel was not going to dinner. Should he invite Mary Margaret? No. He couldn't. She had to work on Tyranny. Another thought arrived, spontaneously. Pavel called Rizzoli and invited Giorgio to the theater, and then added "How about a later dinner?" After all, Giorgio was a poor medical student; he couldn't expect him to pay. When Giorgio simply and without hesitation said, "Yes." Pavel thought again of Molly Bloom. Yes.
This was in line with his earlier thoughts. "I provide tickets. I also buy dinner? How would it feel to buy dinner and a show? What was the tradeoff? Romance, perhaps! It had been lacking in Pavel's life, having been replaced by his obsession for acquisition. He sighed. Perhaps the reward for his new virtue would be sex or other goodies as they were listed in the personal ads; which Pavel read occasionally for amusement - "long walks in the country, travel, classical music and perhaps more."
And so there was more. Pavel and Giorgio spent that night together on new silk sheets. Their quality was not wasted on Giorgio. No luxury was. He appreciated the finer things in life even more than Pavel. When January came and they were still together. Giorgio moved into 76th Street and started his work at Mount Sinai. Pavel received a large advance on Tyranny and over time did stop his scams, but Giorgio, feeling bad that he had very little money, took up the responsibility for the enterprise and contributed greatly to their trove of luxuries.
He became the correspondent for Bobby Burns and other publications as well. After having great success, he arranged a "honeymoon" cruise during Easter break. He had talent. Pavel now took to spending money lots of money on dinners, but if time permits, Giorgio has told him, he wants to start a restaurant review. Pavel is now writing a historical romance novel about Unka Eliza Winkfield, an American Indian Princess who marries an English settler. Mary has moved to Santa Fe and Pavel, feeling that sort of need that criminals have to boast of their crimes, confessed to her in a letter concluding:
"I am going to buy a country house where I will cook using the colors from my garden and will get a little sports car with a complimentary color to the house. At home, now, we still have fancy foods, sleep on silk sheets, wear sweaters from Bergdorf and furnish our home from The Museum of Modern Art Store, thanks to Giorgio. We lavish our friends and family with thoughtful gifts. Giorgio runs the business tightly so that when he buys expensive shirts and ties, we share. Luckily we wear the same size. We understand that quality goods last longer and are more enjoyable than cheap ones. If you would like a cup of coffee, we now have a freezer full of Swiss water-filtered. There are three pounds waiting for you when you come back to New York for a visit. It's fabulous. I know that you'll enjoy it."