THERE’S A SKELETON IN MY CLOSET…. And Her Name is Nancy

| February 23, 2013 | Comments (0)

 

NANCY LANGHORNE, LADY ASTOR

Painted by John Singer Sargent when she was 29 years old.

 

There’s an old saying – I’m not sure where  it comes from although it sounds vaguely Shakespearean – that “Everybody loves  a Lord.” The validity of this little shibboleth seems to be holding its own in our distinctly egalitarian 21st century. Proletarian tabloids adoringly  follow Kate and William’s every move and the wildly popular third season of “Downton Abbey” has just concluded with reports in the American media that there is a stampede in the US labor market for English servants, particularly of the butler and lady’s maid variety.

Closer to home, an old friend and fellow journalist has just penned a paean to the late Matthew Crawley, who until his untimely death in a car accident in the final minutes of this season’s last episode, was the putative heir to Downton Abbey, the Yorkshire estate where this  many-facetted tale unfolds, each segment bringing us spine-tingling plot twists, from an evilly-conceived miscarriage to a homosexual rape attempt, all done, mind you, “in the English way”, so as not to disturb His Lordship or frighten the horses. In her elegant elegy, my friend extolls the virtues of the true “gentleman” whom she felt Crawley epitomized, bemoaning the vanished virtues of that now lost world. (Let us overlook Matthew’s cad-like dumping of Lady Edith for her more comely and fetchingly wild-natured sister, Lady Mary.)

With so much  buzz of aristocray in the air, I have begun to hear the rattle of a skeleton in my family closet. That skeleton is my cousin (daughter of my great-grandmother’s sister), Nancy Langhorne, who later became Lady Astor.

Cousin Nancy’s story is an interesting one. From shabby-genteel Danville, Virginia, poor as a country church-mouse, but beautiful and very clever, she went to England and did the opposite of the other American ladies – the so-called Dollar Duchesses  who landed in Britain with tons of money seeking a titled English gentleman. She managed to snare one of the England’s richest titled noblemen, Viscount Waldorf Astor, living a life that was both outrageous and admirable.

Eligible American women  have,  to this day, been a sought-after commodity in the English establishment. Lions of British politics such as Churchill and MacMillan had American mothers;  Labour party leader, Lord Anthony Wedgwood Benn, 2d Viscount Stansgate (who later “democratized” himself into Tony Benn) has a Yankee spouse.  In addition to  the welcome American bucks they bring to ease the load of paying those pesky, high British taxes,  marital liaisons with  well-heeled American females are popular with high-born Brits since women from across The Pond are seen as possessing  a certain daring and pizzazz that fits in well with the free-for-all atmosphere of British politics, one of the rare areas of English life, beside the screaming tabloids, where maddening restraint and reserve are not the ruling  behavioral standard. Although they wouldn’t dare act that way themselves, a “what the hell, tell-it-like-it is”  attitude seems to be much admired by the posh set in London.

And Nancy Astor was, if anything, “a tell-it-like-it- is” lady. As the first female member of the British House of Commons – she was elected and served from Plymouth for twenty-five years until 1945 – she threw whoppers left and right in her public pronouncements. Asked in Parliament by Winston Churchill what disguise he should wear to a masquerade ball, the Prohibitionist Astor replied, “Why don’t you come sober, Prime Minister !”  When the going got tough as it often did in British politics, Lady Astor bared her knuckles, saying, “I’m a Virginian. We shoot to kill !”

Leader of the glittering Cliveden Set, named after the Astor’s palatial country seat, Cousin Nancy presided over a coterie of  influence and high culture that included George Bernard Shaw and Maurice Collis. Later her world stumbled into controversy when it appeared that she  supported appeasing  Nazi Germany.  But who didn’t in those confused times ? She also made a trip (with Shaw) to the Soviet Union and attempted to corner Stalin with the question , “Why did you kill all those people?”

To the end, an unrepentant Southerner and, above all, a Virginian – she was buried wrapped in a Confederate flag – Cousin Nancy may have been outrageous and, at times, poltically incorrect, but her influence on feminism and women’s liberation was legendary, if unrecognized.

Whether Downton or Cliveden, fictitious or real life,  characters like Matthew and Cousin Nancy will never cease to fascinate, and in their own quaint way, surrounded by clipped lawns and servants,  maybe even inspire us.

Well, on second thought, these high-fallutin’ goings-on wouldn’t impress everybody; my plain-talking Mother for one.  When she heard the “gentry” nattering about those grand ole times down on the plantation and how pretty Miz Nancy looked at the ball, she would roll her eyes and in her inimitable New Orleans accent  inform us, ” Darlin’, you know what  all that fancy stuff and a dime will get ya ? A phone call !” RIP, Big Mama. Good thing you and Cousin Nancy never met cuz for sure the fur would fly if ya had.

 

 

 

Add a Comment

A GRAPEFRUIT CHARIOT AND A RICE STRAW DOLL – Has A Surfeit of “Stuff” Stifled Childish Creativity?

| October 31, 2012 | Comments (0)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Dear Readers, As some of you who regularly peruse my site may have noticed, I’ve been missing in action for over a month. My absence was caused by travel to the Pacific Northwest where I visited Vancouver, British Columbia and its sister city south of the border, Seattle. More later on my trip and the impression those two young urban siblings created. Now I must deal with the higher meaning of  a carved grapefruit !)

Hurrying through a maze of glass doors on my way to the gym locker room where I was bound for my first post-vacation workout, flab and short breath in abundance, I passed the early childhood care center, a glassed-in room that housed half a dozen pre-toddlers, infants that were on the verge of walking, small creatures under 12 months of age it seemed, who were engaged in a variety of postures and activities from crawling to drooling. Several sat, Buddha-like, staring contemplatively into space.

What struck me most, aside from their excruciating cuteness and unspoiled natures, yet to be pummeled by our society’s sound bytes of materialism and A-type personality onslaughts, was the enormous number of toys that surrounded them. Piles and piles  – mountains – of mostly plastic, garishly-colored things that leered and grabbed out at these babies in a meaningless glut of over-supply.  I watched as the caretaker, a young woman who seemed overwhelmed and a bit dis-interested in her tiny charges, for want of anything better to do – why wasn’t she singing them a song or dancing with them ? – thrusting these rather boring toys at the babies causing mixed reactions of fright and boredom.

As I waved through the glass at these future leaders and basket cases, my mind panned back to images that had registered in my brain over the decades. I recalled growing up in semi-poverty on the Eastern Shore of Maryland on a bare little subsistence farm where there were NO toys. What we had  were gardens, fields planted in corn and tomatoes and a variety of barnyard animals, principally chickens. My toys were the odd rooster feather, a collection of pebbles that I built into a mini-mountain eight inches high, crowned by a stray bottle top, and an ancient coconut, cracked and dry, that sat in the entrance hall of the farmhouse.

Despite the lack of toys, scooters, tricycles and other expensive children’s baubles, I can say that my early childhood  was happy and my juvenile mind very active. Looking back, it seems to me that the very paucity of items to amuse and entertain me is what caused my imagination to take flight. Barely old enough to walk, as I sat in my grandmother’s vegetable patch among farm implements, a fistful of seeds in my small hand, I fantasized as I looked up to the sky, imagining myself the creator of all things, king of the garden, the maker of vegetables that would grow and feed us. It seemed that everything I touched or looked at became a magical object.

There was no television or cinema where I lived when I was young. We did have a radio that worked sometime and a crank-up Victrola that played  mournful Word War I ballads – “There’s A Long, Long Trail A-Winding” – on scratchy 78 rpm disks. The radio, when it did manage to broadcast, was a thing of wonder to me. Voices, music and sound effects – those creaking doors, that hollow, echoing laughter to signal the arrival of the villain in a dark tale – thrown out into the dim, kerosene-lit room where we sat rapt, thrilled and frighened me causing my mind to take flight to unknown realms never before visited or dreamt about.

Years later I recall a stark, black-and-white British film, “Room At The Top” starring the indomitable Simone Signoret and Lawrence Harvey. In one  scene, Harvey,  now prosperous and upwardly mobile, about to marry the rich boss’s daughter, returns to his old neighborhood,  a forlorn slum  still haunted by bombed-out structures from the war. As he stumbles over building debris, he comes upon a small child, a snotty-nosed, mal-nourished little girl  of four or five playing happily in the rubble. Looking up at Harvey, she smiles and points to a sliver of crab grass pushing up between two battered bricks, telling him, “Look at my garden ! Isn’t it beautiful ?” The life-saving force of imagination is powerful and protects us from the ugliness of the world. Or it used to. With no imagination left to exercise, flooded as they are by “stuff” and gadgetry, turning them into passive recipients of unnecessry technology,  are today’s youth trapped,  the prisoners of electronic devices reducing them to unimaginative, listless zombies ?

I recall, during my years in the so-called Third World, coming across  children in villages amusing themselves by such simple actions as pulling a sweet potato tied to a string, pretending they were steeds and the potato a gilded coach bearing a royal princess to her palace. When I asked the bare-footed farm children where the royal princess was, I was shown a tiny doll made of rags stuffed with rice straw. Her eyes were rice seeds and her crown  a coconut palm twisted and cut into a tiara fit for the most royal of processions.

Several days ago walking through the fruit market in our South Bronx neighborhood, my partner spotted a mountain of gigantic grapefruit for sale and bought the largest one he could find, laughing and telling me, “When I get home, I’ll show you what we used to do with the grapefruit we grew in my village !”

Later that evening when I entered our kitchen I saw that the plump grapefruit had been carved into a coach fit for a king or in this case, a Buddha. My partner had been busy while I took a siesta upstairs. He had transformed the fruit into a conveyance anybody would be proud to ride in: in this case, the Happy God, Hotei, who was comfortably ensconced in his coach riding to a fabulous destination.

I thought of those YMCA tots, innundated under a flood of toys in their day-care center. Would their tiny imaginations ever develop in such a way that, one day, they could carve a godly coach from a grapefruit ? Sadly, somehow I think not…

 

 

Add a Comment

PARIS IN THE BAD OLE DAYS…I Wish I Were Back There Now !

| September 9, 2012 | Comments (0)

 

My introduction to the Paris I came to know and love  happened in the Spring of 1968 aboard a propeller-driven Icelandic Arlines flight. In those days the cheapest way to get to Europe from the US was to board one of Icelandic’s trusty DC-6’s that droned from New York City to Rekyavik, leaving Kennedy Airport in the morning and arriving in the far North around midnight where it was still light. Back in those primitive days of air travel, one was compelled to overnight in Iceland before changing planes to fly on to the Continent. My memory of Iceland  is rather a blur – a small, colorless capital dotted with smoked-filled bars pulsating with acrid Nordic body odor and slurred sounds of a guttural, ancient language. Inebriation was in the air, but it was a rather cozy, friendly kind of drunkness, not threatening; unlike the mean, class-conscious intoxication found in English working-class pubs.

My travel mates on the flight into Rekyavik were not the characters with whom I would have chosen to share cramped,  spartan seating where elbows clashed and knees bumped into the seat before you or the person next to you. To my left was an obese. middle-aged man who spilled over his arm rest onto me  and whose deep, breathless gulps of air made him sound like a marathon-runner who had just reached the finish-line even though he had been sedentary for three hours. Mr. McGill was desperately afraid of flying and hence wanted, indeed, needed to talk non-stop to his fellow passengers on any topic that came to his mind. His Burmese cats and their idiosyncratic toilet habits, how he missed his late wife’s snoring; his love of blue and white china. To minimize my own input into the compulsory conversation I found myself, willy-nilly, falling into with this needy gentleman, I posed open-ended questions to him, hoping his long answers would minimize the amount of talking I would have to engage in, allowing me to surreptitiously fall asleep, keeping him satisfied with an occasional nod as I jerked awake.

That tactic did not work, I  soon found out. When I asked Mr. McGill “How was Rome?” after he told me he had traveled to Europe on a package tour with his late wife three years before, his reply was to the point and all too short: “Oh,  by golly, Rome ! We was thar on a Tuesday and that’s whar  Beulah and I saw that yaller dawg ! I always used to tell Beulah: ‘Honey imagine flyin’ half way ’round the world and seein’ that yaller dog in Rome, Italy!  I coulda stayed in Pocomoke and seed that critter right in our back yard cuz the Fire Station next door’s gotta yaller dawg and  he pees on my tires every cuss-ed day!’ ”

Later Mr. McGill did fall into a hoped-for monologue when he confided the reason for his current trip from Iowa to Europe. He was going to the Netherlands to buy Delft china and to Amsterdam to collect his daughter who lived in a commune and  had become a hippy. “She smokes rope or dope or some such thang, I dunno know what, whatever they call the stuff !”, Mr. McGill whispered to me in a shout. Whereupon the poor man lapsed into a crying jag, between heaving sobs asking himself, “What did I do wrong ? I thought I raised her right ! I gave her everything under the sun she wanted and now look what she does, suckin’ on reefers and Gawd knows what else ! Why Beulah’d turn over in her grave if she knew.”

Leaving Mr. McGill to commune with Beulah over the tragedy of their wayward daughter, I turned to my right, my gaze falling on a swarthy young man who had been silently reading  ever since we were airborne. Even when the flight attendant had passed asking if we wanted this and that, he had waved her off without uttering a word. Not knowing if he was anti-social or merely absorbed in what he was reading, I threw out :”Good book?”, half expecting to be greeted with silence or a don’t-bother-me look.

Quite to my surprise his face lit up. With a sly smile, he hissed, “I didn’t want to bother you since I see you’ve been deeply engaged in conversation with our fellow passenger.” We both rolled our eyes entering into a conspiracy of silence concerning the loquacious Mr. McGill. Pro-offering a huge hand, my seat mate uttered the single word, “Tsoneff” by way of introduction. While to my left,  Mr. McGill continued to weepingly perorate on the sins and shame of his only daughter, I listened as best I could to Tsoneff, who speaking in  rather a nerdy mumble, informed me that he was on his way to Israel to join a kibbutz.

An hour later my ears full of the joys of Israeli socialism and the wonders of collective living offered by kibbutz life, I was ready for a serious break from fellow-traveler chatter. In a flash of inspiration, I prevailed on Tsoneff to switch seats with me, confiding that I had a serious bladder problem and thus needed to be on the aisle for frequent comfort runs to the loo. My ruse worked. By the time the plane tipped its wings descending to Rekyavik, my two seat mates had become thick as thieves and Tsoneff had convinced Mr. McGill that he should join him for a new life in the kibbutz. The clincher was Tsoneff’s saying in the kibbutz everybody was so busy they didn’t have time to get into trouble. Just the place for Mr. McGill’s pot-puffing  off-spring !

But the end of the flight was not the end of my short friendship with Tsoneff.  Part of the Icelandic package to Europe was free overnight accomodation in a modest hotel allowing passengers to rest up before  early morning flights to their Continental destinations the following day. It turned out I had been assigned to share a room with Tsoneff. We made our way to town, me with my back pack and Tsoneff with several bags including a rather large black steamer trunk. Little did  I know it, but that trunk held the secret to my future in Paris.

I spent a sleepless night, Tosneff being a non-stop, serial talker hopping from one topic to the next.  As I stared at the ceiling, in a monologue  my roommate solved the problems of the world, then launched into several ideas for inventions that would change mankind and turn him, and anybody who cared to back him financially, into a philanthropic millionaire.

By dawn I found myself in a dopey, jet-lagged state of sleeplessness. Which must have been why I agreed to Tsoneff’s outrageous request. Pointing to the evil-looking black steamer trunk, Tsoneff told me that he had to deliver that item to his friend, Laurent, in Paris but that since he, Tsoneff, was going straight on to Telaviv and not stopping in Paris, he wanted ME to take charge of  the bulky cargo and bring it safely to Monsieur Laurent d’Aumalle in the rue Reynouard, Paris  16eme.

We never specifically discussed the contents of the trunk or why it had to be delivered to Monsieur  Laurent or what Tsoneff’s relation was to Laurent, but when Tsoneff opened the lid to show me what the box contained, an unspeakably foul odor filled the room, the funk of ten thousands years, to quote Michael Jackson’s song, “Thriller.”  I implored Tsoneff  to “Close it ! Close it !” and, uttering a demonic chuckle,  he let the lid drop with a thud. Tsoneff said not to worry and that my favor would pay off handsomely since Laurent was a really interesting person and  well-connected in Paris; he had the feeling Laurent and I would become good friends, and we did.

My decision to accomodate Tsoneff was not as hapless and sleep-deprived as it  seemed. Although I knew Paris from previous visits and had made some local contacts there, the trail had gone cold. I actually had a French girl friend, a lovely medical student whose father’s pharmacy stood in the shadow of Notre Dame. We had met four years earlier on Bastille Day and danced the night away on Ile Saint Louis, a magic evening, the moment when France cast its spell on me. We had stayed in touch over the years and miles while I spent two years in Vietnam and roamed the world. My return to Paris that Spring was to be, in Isabelle’s eyes I suppose, the return of a conquering hero, the brave warrior who would sweep her off her feet taking her  to the altar and  a life lived happily ever after.

But it was not to be; for whatever reason – I know the reason now, but I didn’t know it then – my heart was just not in it. Far from being excited, I was frightened. Rather than confront Isabelle with complicated explanations and tears, I chose to just fade away. I simply stopped communicating with her; I sent her no more poems or  records with my favorite love songs. No more phone calls over  static-filled long distance lines when I would have to repeat three times, “I love you and miss you!” Better to just disappear in thin air, I decided. Words were too difficult, inadequate. Perhaps, I hoped, Isabelle would think I had been killed in battle in Vietnam. A rather romantic end to our relationship and certainly for me, an easy way out. (Little was I to know, as I breathed a sigh of guilty relief, having made the decision to simply vaporize, that a year later in 1969, I would meet Isabelle by chance as I spilled out of my Paris office  onto a fashionable 16eme arrondisement street  walking to lunch with a clutch of chattering colleagues. I must say, the French know how to handle even the stickiest of social situations. Without blinking an eye, Isabelle smiled, embraced me and introduced me to her new husband, a fellow doctor. All so quick and lovely, a chapter in one’s life closing like a silently sliding door on the Paris subway !)

And so, needing new friends and a Paris point of reference, I was all too ready to deliver  what came to be known as “la malle puante de Tsoneff.”  (Tsoneff’s smelly trunk.) Laurent’s voice on the phone was decidedly upper-class French as was his appearance when we met later in the day. Although only twenty years-old at the time, Laurent, with his battered tweed suit and thinning hair, resembled nothing so much as an absent-minded professor. His most striking feature was his lips, full and very red as though painted with lip gloss which they were not. Juxtaposed to his pale, gaunt face those ruby lips gave him an appearance that  was vampirish and sensual. He was a mesmerizing, brilliant person and although still a student at university, it was obvious that he knew more than the professors who taught him. Laurent regaled me with  details about his “little business” which consisted of textbooks he had written that were more cogent and clear than the wordy tomes that were the school’s required reading which nobody bothered with. Those students who bought Laurent’s “crib” texts passed their tests with flying colors. Those who didn’t, failed their exams and were put back !

As payment for my trunk delivery, I was invited to dine at Laurent’s family’s palatial apartment in  the rue Reynouard. When I asked to use the bathroom before we began the meal, I was led down an endless, high-ceiling-ed corridor of polished oak, passing dozens of  elegant brass-knobbed doors that must have  opened onto libraries, salons, boudoirs and balconies. I was thanked profusely for delivering the trunk, but nothing was ever said about its contents, why it was to be deposited Chez les d’Aumalles or what the relation between Tsoneff and the d’Aumalles was. Their only point in common seemed to be Israel which they both admired and frequently talked about, Tsoneff being Jewish and Laurent being a half-Jew from his mother’s side. I identified with them in this regard, being a “halfie”, although an atheistic one, myself.

My rapport with the d’Aumalle family was immediate and complete and I became a regular fixture at their table. I  especially liked Laurent’s parents whom I came to love as my own mother and father. His mother, Francoise, would prepare elaborate meals, but she was no cook and  there was usually a disaster when the food  arrived at table, her specialty being meat burned beyond  recognition. With the meat singed to inedibility and vegetables mangled to mush, there was plenty to laugh about as we pretended to eat. I knew I had become a member of the family when I felt comfortable enough to joke about  Francoise’s cooking, saying what she made was a blessing because none of us would ever get fat eating her food! We all had a good laugh over my “insult-compliment.” It felt good to be part of a French family.

I spent lots of time with Laurent. We walked the streets of the old quarters of Paris, visited his school and he gave me driving lessons in his tin can Renault. (I never did manage to pass the rigorous French driver’s license test.  I either drove too fast or too slow for the inspecteurs.) Laurent was an abstemious person interested in neither drink nor food; our routine was rather spartan, sitting talking for hours nursing a cup of tea at a sidewalk cafe while I longed to consume carafes of wine and mountains of cheese.

Laurent’s field was international finance. He ended up writing books on arcane topics like the movement of currencies against each other and the behavior of exchange rates. I always told him that he would end up a multi-millionaire, but wealth, probably because his family already had a lot of it, did not seem to interest him and he ended up in academia,  becoming the dean of a famous school on the east coast of the United States. When I googled his name and looked at the photo of a dignified, portly professor staring at me with great wisdom and seriousness, I wondered what it would be like to meet him again. I wondered what his English was like – we had always spoken French – and what we would have to talk about – he was world-famous and had married and had children. He advised heads of state and addressed august gatherings on topics of great import. I wondered if he would remember that we almost kissed once, sitting together on my narrow bed in my incredibly tiny studio apartment. I had no sofa or chairs and guests were compelled to sit on my mattress. How I longed to brush his ruby-red lips with my mouth. But I never did.

I lived in the tiniest of cramped spaces, and although the accomodation was spartan it did have that accessory essential to French life, a bidet. My experiments in using the bidet were disastrous. Aside from  flooding the bathroom when I turned it on, I almost put my eye out when its powerful jet of water shot up,  connecting with my eyeball. I decided the best use for the bidet was as a wash basin for my dirty socks and underwear. Everything has its purpose; the challenge is finding it!

Because my apartment was so small, I spent much of my time living on the streets, indulging in my favorite of all passtimes, whiling away time at outdoor cafes. Museums were fine and La Comedie Francaise enthralling, but it was street life as seen from the comfortable perch of a nice cafe that really spoke to me. My favorite haunts were in the Latin Quarter on Boulevard Saint Germain at either Cafe de Flore or Les Deux Magots. Ensconced at a cozy table with a drink or a coffee, I could watch the world go by for hours and hours.

One winter afternoon, bundled up in double sweaters, I sat outside at Deux Magots drinking hot mulled wine  as the first fingers of dusk crept up the Boulevard. In front of me was the ancient Eglise Saint Germain, built 800 years ago; in the immediate distance to my right was Le Drugstore, the chic collection point for those who had come to see and be seen – would-be actors and models, prostitutes; thin, intense Sorbonne students with their long hair and Gaulois hanging from their lips, putative Communists in velvet capes.

At the curb I noticed a waifish figure tying a thin rope to the lamp post. He painstakingly knotted the chord into several tight lumps, then proceeded to cross Boulevard Saint Germain where he performed the same ritual at another lamp post. Soon there was a tight rope stretching from one side of the Boulevard to the other at an elevation of ten feet or so. I watched, fascinated, as the young man climbed the pole with spider-like ease. Then with the daintest of footsteps he mounted the thin rope and proceeded to walk across it with effortless grace, reaching my side of the street in less than a minute. He repeated his act several times before jumping down to the street landing just inches from my table. Bowing to a thunderous round of applause and a shower of coins thrown his way he smiled at me and I gestured to him offering him a seat at my table. Thus began my friendship with Philippe Petit, then a nineteen year-old circus performer later to become the world famous aerialist who daringly walked on a wire between the two World Trade Towers. Paris was full of surprises and delights.

I also fondly recall the Parisian “dejeuner”, those simple but delicious weekday lunches that became a mid-day ritual, so different from the American habit of “grabbbing” a sandwich and eating alone, hastily feeding one’s face at a lonely desk without the warmth of companionship and conversation in a cheerful restaurant. In  those simpler days in Paris, small Mom and Pop restaurants – bistros and cafes – abounded and served home-cooked  three-course lunches presided over by “le patron” who, Gaulois dangling from his lips, would proudly offer up  soupe a l’oignon, boeuf bourguignon,  tartes de pommes and other hardy fare for a modest tariff, the price being further reduced if one presented a “ticket restaurant” when paying the bill. “Tickets restaurant” were one of many subsidies that form part of French life making one’s existence more affordable and somehow  causing one to be grateful to France for a happy, full stomach. “On est bien en France, la douce France (Life is good in France, sweet France) ” one could sometime hear murmured.

We all have to pay our rent, even in Paris. And so I was compelled to find work in the City of Light. My search for a job led me to the Atlantic Institute, an eccentric little place located on rue de Longchamps in the toniest of tony Paris neighborhoods. The Atlantic Institute was not concerned with oceanographic matters as my mother mistakenly decided it was. L’Institut Atlantique was a boutique think tank, a research organization, that organized conferences and commissioned famous people to write papers on weighty matters of great import to the future of mankind.  I recall that “Whither Europe?” was a hot topic on which the Institute held forth, producing several monographs on the subject, broken down into various categories  deploring the current state of European agricultural policy (or lack thereof) and the perilous condition of defense preparedness of the Atlantic Alliance in face of the Soviet threat.  The concerns and pursuits of the Institute were of a definite “Cold Warrior” nature with more than a tinge of American imperialism thrown in for good measure since funding for the Institute was mostly from American sources, the Ford Foundation being the main cash cow providing us with a generous budget. And therein lay the  downfall of my reputation at the Institute !

No  expense was spared in launching the organization’s activities. Conferences were held in jet-set locations like Cascais, Portugal with five-star accomodations catering to the participants every need. In Paris the Institute’s fund-raising luncheons were famous for their elegance and luxury. I remember, in particular, one affair held at the exclusive Cercle Interallie near the Arc de Triomphe where each diner had their own personal sommelier  who would  discreetely whisper the orgin and vintage of the wines as he poured them : “Saint-Lager 1948.” “Mouton Rothschild 1952.”

The Institute was always headed by a retired American ambassador, the Directorship being a gentle sinecure for easing these gentlemen (for sure there were no ladies !) from the world of international diplomacy to the pastures of  more leisure pursuits. Michelin-starred meals and conferences by the sea were not a bad  “boot camp” for these hardy savants preparing them for that next and final phase of their august lives which might include penning a misty-eyed memoir detailing how they were “present at the Creation.”

Having grown up in a diplomatic milieu, I was sure I would thrive at the Institute and get on famously with its current Director, His Excellency Ambassador John Tuthill. Alas, it was not to be. We crossed paths disastrously on my first assignment. I was tasked with the job of organizing a conference that dealt with some weighty issue of international relations; what it was I cannot for the life of me remember now. My first concern was to insure that the gathering featured interesting, well-known speakers whose positions on world issues was well known through their publications and work. I proceeded, massaging the international phone lines and came up with a stellar collection of participants.

The icing on the cake came in the form of David Halberstam who accepted my invitation to be keynote speaker at the conference. Halberstam was a famous journalist who had exposed the Vietnam War for the disaster it was in his best-selling “Making of a Quagmire” written in 1964. The publication of his book represented a watershed in the history of the American War in Vietnam and how it was viewed by the public. At the time of the conference Halberstam’s fame had peaked with the publication of another book which was to win him the Pulitzer Prize. “The Best and Brightest” examined the American government’s decision-making establishment, analyzing the flaws of the “brilliant” men (yes, again, women were  not yet in the picture!) whose policies brought the US to disaster in Southeast Asia.

With more than a bit of excitement, I rushed into Ambassador Tuthill’s office to tell him the good news, that we had managed somehow to nab Halberstam as the star of our conference. What luck ! This gathering would garner headlines for us ! I burbled. The good ambassador’s reaction was not what I had bargained for.  Instead of praise, I was subjected to a furious tongue-lashing. Didn’t I realize that our meal ticket was paid by the Ford Foundation and was I so thick-headed not to realize that, in his latest book, Halberstam had dared criticize key officers in the Ford Foundation, the likes of the Bundy brothers and other sacrosanct lions of the American establishment who were linked to the Ford Foundation?

My rejoinder that I thought our conference was to host experts giving a variety of informed views on issues of importance  and that the success of conferences depended on attracting articulate, famous people, did not resonate with the good Director. So much for American-backed institutions promoting freedom of speech and opinion ! He ordered me forthwith to DIS-INVITE  Halberstam ! I slunk from his office and made the most difficult phone call of my young life.

The lesson I learned from that unfortunate experience and from other events that unfolded during my year in Paris was:  trust and believe in nothing with full fervor and commitment. Everybody has feet of clay. In my evolving world-view, I had become a died-in-the wool cynic. Perhaps the worldly French and the atmosphere of Paris helped me along in this regard. 1969 was the year of my coming of age, the time when I came to realize that nothing was really as it appeared to be. Laurent and his family commiserated with me, saying I was not the only person in the world who had experienced disappointment with their fellow beings. They confided their experiences in Paris during the war as Jews; what it had been like to have neighbors turn against you for no reason other than race.

My time in Paris had been precious for many reasons. The sheer joy of living in what was truly the City of Light with its worldly delights and physical beauty. The privilege of living among the French who were an “old” people, a civilization that had seen and done it all, carrying with them in their attitudes and gestures a charming world-weariness that is an essential part of wisdom.

Neither the d’Aumalles nor I ever heard again from Tsoneff. And I have no idea what became of his malodorous trunk, resting for so many years in their elegant rooms  on rue Reynouard. Laurent’s parents passed away and their children scattered to the far corners of the globe. Would I find “la malle puante” in some flea market on the outskirts of Paris ? Would it contain secrets that would unlock the riddles and mystery of life ?

I’m booking a flight to Paris next week. Maybe I’ll find out !

 

Add a Comment

SPRING CLEANING IN AUGUST…Away With You, Dusty Motes !

| August 29, 2012 | Comments (0)

Balayette.jpg

(My notebook is filling up with bits and pieces, “motes” of thought, not significant enough in themselves for a single article, but still – to me – interesting and  sufficiently thought-provoking  to warrant an appearance on these pages. So let’s sweep away these items and bring them to light before they become forgotten cobwebs, too hoary and remote to be of interest to anybody!)

I start with a topic that is both repulsive and frightening; also perhaps “normal” and all in the nature of things, as Dr. Freud might say. I refer to inappropriate touching between parents and children, specifically fathers touching daughters in what I feel is a decidedly WRONG manner.

We read and we are told that humans, like other animals, are sexual beings with attractions and repulsions that start at birth or even before then. And it all begins in the family, it seems; children are attracted to their parents in innocent, but decidedly sexual ways. Daughters – and sometime sons – to fathers; sons and daughters to their mothers. And vice versa. From the perspective of the parent, these urges or attractions are controlled or suppressed in the name of decency and morality. Call it what you will, the “no fly zones” of human inter-action, the taboo territory where one should never tread.

And yet. People will be people, won’t they. I hope it will not be considered disrespectful or mean-spirited if I tell that you my mother hit on me when I was a teenager and she was a middle-aged, neglected spouse. This sad behavior is a rather recognized and not uncommon phenomenon and is reported on by no less than the composer Stephen Sondheim in his biography where he details such behavior towards himself by his mother, “Foxy” Sondheim also a neglected wife. In my case it all started under the guise of dancing lessons. My mother was quite a dancer in her day and, learning that I was somewhat of a wall flower at high school proms (the fact that I wasn’t really interested in dancing with girls, but wanted desperately to dance with the captain of the baseball team had not, at that time, crossed her radar screen, or mine either for that matter!), she suggested that I needed some lessons in Fox-trot, Jitter Bug and the Charleston. Mother was a flapper till the day she died having been born in 1908, reaching her young prime at the peak of the Jazz Age in the late 20’s. Nothing pleased her more than to get out on the dance floor and shake a leg, to be young again.

Not having yet reached that fatal, nihilistic stage of adolescence where I was interested in NOTHING – that happened soon enough, around fifteen as I recall – I eagerly accepted mother’s offer to dance – or prance as she liked to call it. We cleared the floor of carpets and cranked up the Victrola. I took to  the Jitter Bug and the Charleston like a duck to water. The Fox-trot was another matter. It involved “close dancing” which I found off-putting in the extreme, probably one of the manifestations of that shyness syndrome that grips some homely adolescents who wouldn’t be caught nude in the high school locker room and who wait till everybody has gone home before entering the communal showers after a sports event. In any case, I found sudden, forced physical intimacy with a person of the opposite sex more than I could cope with.

Strangely, this reticence on my part seemed to spur my mother to more aggressive behavior. She insisted that we dance with our bodies pressed tightly against each other. “You can’t dance well with your partner, you can’t glide across the floor and look good unless your two bodies are one!”, she told me, breathing rapidly, dragging me close to her. “Yuck !” I replied and pulled away. Thus ended the dance lessons  with my mother in tears  telling me I didn’t love her and my running out of the house, hot-boxing a Camel cigarette as I nervously tried to forget what had just happened. No mention was ever made again of our dance lessons by either of us.

As an introvert who was never accepted into the group as I was growing up – think of that sociology  textbook diagram illustrating the concept of “ostracization” that shows a cluster of little circles in one corner  and a single, lone little square all by itself in an opposing corner; that was me, the little square – I spent my time observing, not interacting; thus, by life-long habit of watching rather than participating, I tend to see more than most people see and certainly notice what others are doing in a way that is undetectable to them. I have developed a technique for watching people without their knowing they are being observed. People with my skill see a lot.

For example, on a crowded subway recently I watched as a youngish, stockbroker father – he must have been such a person with his three-piece suit, his power briefcase and his Wall Street Journal – cradled his three-year old daughter in his arms as they entered the subway at Grand Central Station. As the train pulled away from the station, the father began kissing his daughter. Nice and normal enough, you’d say. But wait, this man was kissing this infant on the lips with full open-mouth kisses. As I watched this untoward display of affection, I noticed that nobody else on the train seemed to be giving the slightest attention to this strange parent-child “bonding.” The repulsive smooching continued and increased in intensity. Being no stranger to “sucking face” myself (but not with my daughter; I don’t have one), it was obvious to me that what was going was very sexual and that the father was reaching an advanced a state of arousal, his tongue busy with eager thrusts into the tiny, young mouth.

I wondered if this man was actually aware of what he was doing and I struggled with myself, having a hard time not tapping him on the shoulder and asking WHAT was going on. “It takes a village” and all that, we are responsible for the behavior of our fellow humans, but I was not about to challenge somebody bigger, stronger and younger than myself. And what if he were a lawyer !! This twisted display of affection continued without surcease until the train pulled into 86th Street with father and daughter exiting the train. Ten minutes non-stop smooching. Was what I saw “normal” ? Was it “sick” ? Am I sick for watching them and drawing the conclusions I drew? Who is to say. But I think what I think…so THERE! I just KNOW in my bones that what I was witnessing was WRONG ! But what can one do? Nothing !

Not long after that strange subway ride I happened to be on the cross-town bus when I witnessed an even more shocking example of father-daughter lust, at least lust on the part of the parent. Again, a youngish father and a two to three year-old daughter. This time comforting pats on the bottom became insistent kneading of the child’s genital area by the father’s hand. It continued and continued. The father was obviously aroused. Who was to know ? Who was watching besides me ? Nobody, I would venture to say. It could well be that these fathers are unware of what they are doing, are unconscious, if you will, of the actions they are engaging in. But I doubt it. I think this is a dirty little secret that will forever remain a secret since three-year-olds cannot articulate verbally or mentally what is being done to them by a person they love very much who “protects” them. I think this problem is bigger than we realize. Abuse that will forever remain silent and perhaps even unrecognized by the perpetrator, the father.

But who knows ? With America’s culture of tiny tiara tot beauty queens, those pathetic five year-old Jon Benet Ramsey sex objects, who is to say that father-daughter petting is not the new normal ?

Heavy stuff what I have just written. We need a break so I will entertain you with a funny story told me by my late friend Sal; Salvatore to be more formal to the dearly departed gentleman. First, a word or two about Sal, who was a beautiful human being and a brilliant song writer. At my request, Sal wrote a duet for me and my songbird friend, Laura for a recording we were undertaking. The song was about an old retired couple rocking and grumbling on the porch of their retirement home.  The title of the song is: “Has It Been Good For You?” The words go something like this:

He –  Decades ago when we first met,

She – I scarcely remember HOW!

He – Who would have guessed we’d be here, sitting together now!

How life flies by when you’re having fun.

She -Though it always hasn’t been the case !

He –  We’ve had more of our share of the good years,

The rest I know time will erase !

Together – Sitting and watching  a fire that’s dwindlng,

And, Oh! what a lovely glow !

We’re fresh out of kindling, wouldn’t ya know !

The fire won’t last much longer, but it’s still warm enough for two.

A good fire, a great life, my darling !

Has it been good for you?

Laura and I sang this song with feeling and to great effect and it brought tears to the eyes of everybody who heard it. Or at least tears welled up in MY eyes.

Sal was also a great raconteur. He could regale you about his Sicilian family back in the old country, there were stories about growing up during Prohibition. You name it, he told it. One of the best tales involved his kid brother Joey. Joey, like Sal, was a burly, barrel-chested working-class Wop who worked in construction. Laid bricks, drank beer, went bowling with the guys every Friday night. But unlike his siblings and every other red-blooded Italian male over thirty, Joey was not married. Joey’s mother, Ma to her six sons, began showing signs of concern that her bambino was still single. Joey shrugged off his mother’s niggling, re-assuring her, “Ma, it’ll happen when it happens, don’t worry !”

But something else was  happening with  Joey. Beneath his bullish brick-layer, tattooed hide, Joey was beginning to realize that deep down inside he was really a WOMAN. In  1940’s working-class Italian-American Connecticut Joey’s epiphany was unusual to say the least. At 5 foot ten inches and weighing nearly 200 pounds, with weight-lifter biceps and a neck thick as a buffalo, it was hard even with the  most concerted stretch of the imagination to visualize Joey as a girl.

Undaunted, Joey began to cross-dress on select occasions for a  chosen few friends. Everybody was surprised at the result. Who would have thought this Italian stallion could morph into a lady-like apparition, his ham-handed fists curling into graceful gestures as he swayed across the room in a purple velvet floor-length skirt and billowing white silk blouse ! Joey had wisely chosen a floor-length garment to cover his massive hairy calves and football player’s thighs. The result was pleasing to everybody especially Joey.  Even those who did not share Joey’s enthusiasm for his “transition” bit their tongues and remained silent because Joey was the toughest guy in the neighborhood. Numerous broken noses and black eyes over the years had shown that it did not pay to cross Joey.

Joey was pleased with his new persona, but something was still missing. He needed to share the joy of being a woman with the person closest to him in his life, his mother. His plan to bring the news to his mother was well-thought out and simple. Over dinner when they were alone Joey would tell her that he was no longer a man. To ease the shock to his uneducated, Sicilian peasant mother, he would NOT dress in velvet and silk this first time; he would just tell her. Let it sink in, then see what happened. He would even speak in Sicilian so she would feel more comfortable. But he would tell her his new name that night.  For Joey had become Michelle.

Dinner went well and after he had cleared the dishes for her they sat at the kitchen table with the radio playing and the clock ticking. At what he judged to be the right moment, Joey cleared his throat and announced, “Ma, I wanna tella ya somethin’ important ! Ya lissen good, Ma, CAPISCE !” “OK, Bambino mio, Ima lissen !” “Ma, Ima transvestite !” “I canna hear ya good, my boy! You say you WHAT?!?” “Ima TRANSVESTITE !” ” WHAT ! You gotta da problem widda you  clothes-a ? You vest is too tight ? OK ! No problem, I take it to Giuseppe da tailor domani, va bene ? He have it ready for mass on Sunday for sure. I give-a him dollah extra quick work!”

“No Ma, you don’t understand ! Non capisce niente ! Ima girl and my name is MICHELLE ! Ima Michelle now. Ima not you Joey anymore Ima Michelle !”

“Oh, OK ! I understand. You change-a you name ? OK, va bene ! No problem. I like-a dat new name, MITCHELL.  Isa betta dan Joey. Okay ! Mitchell ! Isa real Americano name dat one !”

“But Ma…isa not Mitchell, isa Michelle.”

“OK, benissimo. Mitchell. I like-a!”

“But Ma…..”

 

 

Add a Comment

DANCING MONKEYS, A HAAD YAI WHORE HOUSE, GRUMBLING MEMSAHIBS – A Development Warrior Remembers

| August 18, 2012 | Comments (0)

Luis Maria Gomez was, as Cole Porter might have described him, an Argentine with means. While I’m not sure just how wealthy  he was, Senor Gomez was a man of means in the broadest sense of the word. He was larger than life – tall, loud, macho and full of street smarts – and I don’t know of an encounter where Luis Maria did not have the last word.

Most of all, Gomez was a straight-talker, that rarest of species seldom found in the halls of the United Nations where we both worked. Surrounded by multinational functionaries mouthing pious platitudes, Louis Maria  stood out and was something of a hero to me when I joined the UN ‘s army of development  warriors back in the early 1970s.

My fondest and most indelible memory of Luis Maria took place on the eve of my departure for what promised to be a challenging field  assignment to a least-developed, landlocked country in Asia. As was the custom in those days, a suitably solemn send-off party had been  organized and a select group of colleagues summoned to the lounge next to Gomez’s spacious office to wish me luck and bid me farewell.

The air thick with bonhomie, some of it sincere, some of it two-faced, the party wound to a climax with “remarks” by colleagues, fond reminiscences and cautiously optimistic advice about going off to a “hardship” posting; as I recall through the mist of successive decades, what was said was mostly well-meaning, hortatory hot air offered by associates relieved that they were remaining in their cushy New York Headquarters sinecures, not venturing into the heat, dust, malaria and other perils that lurked in the Third World, waiting to embrace me in their deadly grip. Least eager to return to the developing world for an assignment were the elite citizens of the Third World who were glad to get out of their own worn-torn, improverished lands even though they bravely and sometimes chauvinistically displayed their country’s national flags prominently  on the walls of their offices.

Ceremoniously glancing at his wrist watch, Gomez’s personal assistant cleared his throat presaging the arrival in the room of the Great Man himself. When an appropriate silence had settled on the lounge, Gomez strode into the space, eyed us individually, smiled and then focused his gaze on me. Eschewing the microphone that had been senselessly installed in an intimate room where such amplification was superfluous, Gomez broke into a broad grin saying, “I guess everything’s already been said that needs to be said, so I won’t waste your time when you could be drinking and having fun. All I want to say to Oglesby, who is about to leave us, is three words: DON’T FUCK UP !”

As the  room broke up into giggles and titters, some of the more austere, humorless Third-World types wondering what their reaction should be in face of their boss uttering such vulgar advice, I found myself grateful for what Luis Maria had said, knowing that such a “speech” required no rejoinder and that I would be spared giving a boring response to the remarks that had been made. With its candor and brevity and what I later came to regard as a rare touch of wisdom, Gomez’s trio of farewell words shocked me into realizing that I was not going on some kind of sacred mission. That I was only flesh and blood and that I would be  dealing with situations and people who, despite their strange languages and unusual customs, were, at their core, just like me.

The assignment that faced me proved to be an enjoyable posting, but not without its nettlesome aspects. What bothered me was not the dirt, the dust, the lack of  “mod cons” or the loneliness – I had been a solitary person most of my life and felt little need for constant human companionship; rather it was the abrasive, idiosyncratic, egotistical  quality of some of my expatriate colleagues who were unsuited for life in a foreign land.  I found that many of this  motley collection of foreigners took their frustrations out on the submissive host country locals who were entrapped by a culture of compliance and  the grip of debilitating poverty disempowering them in face of the “we know what’s good for you” expatriates.

One of my pet peeves came to be the wives of the UN specialists who were assigned to work on a variety of projects as experts – agriculture, public health, education and other sectors of national advancement. Cast in the role of housewives with no housework to do since they all had servants, and  with no professional office jobs available to them  since  host country unemployment was rife and, in any case,  work permits were  non-existent for foreigners,  some of the UN wives were a constant bother. While most of them were lovely people and noble helpmates to their families, a good number were mal-contented gossips who engaged in nefarious activities; but how could you blame them? Idleness breeds the Devil’s work. The boredom of bridge parties and three-hour lunches took its toll. Extra-marital trysts were common as were bouts of depression, cocktail hours were often advanced and began during lunch; dissension was rife among these idle camp-followers.  And the mood of these memsahibs had direct impact on the morale and hence the  professional effectiveness of their husbands, the experts.  An unhappy wife often meant a project manager who was not working at his peak. How could he when he came home to a carping nag or an inebriated pile on the sofa ?

Stepping in where I had no business meddling, I attempted at first to help these hapless women and tried to place several of the foreign spouses in jobs in the UN system. It never worked out. The jobs I could find for them were always volunteer and without pay. Eager at first to put on a nice dress and come to an office, the glow soon wore off when the reality of being “slave labor” sunk in. They told me they didn’t want to work for “nothing”, ignoring their own initial pleas to me that they would do anything just to get out of the house and be back in the real world doing something meaningful. I soon found myself getting grief from the wives whom I had tried to help. Somehow they interpreted my trying to help them as a guarantee that they would be getting paying jobs. Pure fantasy on their part, but tell them that ! From the host country side, I found myself being accused of neo-colonialism, trying to foist foreigners into jobs that locals should be filling. The fact that these wives were working for free and that they were highly skilled made no difference. Nobody ended up happy and I bore the brunt of criticism and discontent from all sides.

And then there were the do-gooders. One morning a group of irate wives invaded my office accusing me of promoting cruelty to animals ! I had been active in helping the local staff association organize a programe to raise scholarship money for needy students. One of the group’s activities involved a talent show that featured dancing monkeys. The monkeys were owned and had been trained by a local gentleman who was a professional dancer himself. He had ingeniously taught these little primates to dance the intricate steps that humans performed and had clothed them in tiny brocade costumes and  little tiaras.  Accompanied by a band of local musicians, the show was a roaring success and earned lots of money for the scholarship fund. But the foreign wives were NOT pleased. To execute their dance steps the monkeys had been leashed and were guided by their human master with the tug of ropes tied to their arms and necks. While I could detect no cruelty on the part of their owner and no visible discomfort on the part of the monkeys, the wives insisted that the monkeys performing and being tied up was exploitation and was unacceptable. They told me that I MUST do something or they would go to the Chief of Mission and complain. When I told them “Be my guest !” they stormed out of my office and made a formal complaint to the boss. Later that day I was reprimanded and given a lecture on cruelty to animals. The talent show ended and the scholarship fund did not achieve it goals.

Equally grating was the pettiness of some of my colleagues, the international staff, who because of their hopes of ingratiating themselves to the boss or driven by small-mindedness, sometimes engaged in acts that made my life miserable. Once I was designated Officer-in-Charge during the  absence of the boss and the deputy chief of mission.  Stepping into this temporary position meant that I was often placed in a representational role visa-a-vis the host government. This meant trips to the government Secretariat building, a ponderous colonial pile not unlike a medieval fortress. Getting into the Secretariat was a whole process in itself. Papers had to be presented at the gate, security guards had to inspect the entering vehicle and its passengers, and on and on. Very time-consuming

One morning I was running late for an appointment with a Director-General in the Secretariat. Being punctual for appointment with high government officials was de rigueur; being late would not do. Knowing that the entrance formalities and inspections were waived when a diplomatic car flying a flag entered the grounds of the building, I instructed the driver to unfurl the flag and we sailed through the massive gates and I ended up being nicely on time for my meeting.

Several weeks later when the boss had returned from abroad, I was called into his office for a stern chatisement. Didn’t I know that I was NOT the Chief of Mission and that I had NO right to fly the flag of the United Nations when I traveled in a UN car ! My attempts at explaining my action only got me in deeper hot water and I ended up apologizing for something that I thought had been perfectly justifiable. It turned out that a colleague with whom I had had a disagreement some days earlier – a simple matter of not seeing eye-to-eye on a detail of work – had held a grudge against me and thought that ratting on me about the flag flying on the car would be a good way to settle his score. I have many faults, for sure, but pettiness is not one of them. I laughed to myself after that stupid incident and wondered, thinking of Luis Maria Gomez’s final words to me,  if I had “fucked-up”. I guess there are fuck-ups and then there are fuck-ups. But it seemed sad to me, working as we were in a poor country trying to lift the population out of misery, that we were often  too consumed by picayune-ish  personal pre-occupations that added nothing to what we were trying to accomplish and detracted greatly from our being on the personal level, decent human beings.

Another pet peeve of mine was foreign “experts” who had what I termed “fear of the bush,” those brave, highly-paid souls who, despite their job descriptions which called for them to go to the field to perform their work, preferred to remain in the more comfortable climes of the capital. I recall one case in particular that involved a blustery, Colonel Blimp kind of Englishman who was Team Leader of an agricultural research project. The project was based in an arid, up-country location, a real nowhere’s-ville, its objective being to build up a research station that experimented with new crops appropriate for farmers in the area. It was obvious to me that the Team Leader needed to be based AT the research station.

As the officer assigned to back-stop this project, I came to realize that its Team Leader, Geoffrey Hadden-Dinkworth, had comfortably established himself with a comely Eurasian mistress in a flat in my building and  had no intention of moving to Yezin, the remote station to which he was assigned. During a briefing  with the boss when Hadden-Dinkworth outlined the marvelous things he planned to do for the research station,  innocently and rather facetiously, I asked when he planned to RELOCATE  to the research station. Caught off-guard and totally unprepared for my unexpected question, Hadden-Dinkworth’s liverish face turned an even deeper shade of purple. Taking in a deep breath and drawing his potbelly in as far as it would allow him, Hadden-Dinkworth  sputtered that he could not see the sense of my question and how would where he slept have any bearing on what he accomplished in his job ? The boss, also British, but more  a quiet-spoken study in English understatement than his blimpish countryman, murmured, “But ofcourse Dr. Hadden-Dinkworth will be going to Yezin. Why only yesterday I spoke with his colleagues at the research station and they are eagerly awating his arrival!” Crushed, Hadden-Dinkworth slunk from the briefing like nothing so much as a  deflated party balloon. Predictably, he lasted at Yezin a few months and was soon replaced by an Indian scientist who made a great success of the job.

My work was not all that unpleasant; in fact working in the so-called Third-World was a delight to me and I am only sorry that I am not there now, although my home in the South Bronx is Third-World in many ways, thank God ! Howling, drunken memsahibs  and grousing Colonel Blimps aside, my life as a “development warrior” was an adventure of the first order. I never forgot what Luis Maria told me and I think I avoided fucking up…except once !

I had been assigned as coordinator for a meeting of project managers to be held in Haad Yai, South Thailand, that part of the country bordering Malaysia that is more Muslim than Buddhist, in rubber plantaton country.  Haad Yai is also infamous for its gambling tables and  bawdy houses of ill-repute that cater to the pleasure-seeking trade from across the border in puritanical Malaysia.

We had worked hard on preparations for the confab and the evening before the meeting,  feeling I needed to blow off some steam, I went into Haad Yai looking for a good time. I ended up in a “maison de tolerance”, the most famous red light establishment in town. The night passed in a wild blur. There were shrieks as clients  went streaking down corridors, people hanging over the balcony dared each other to jump. By five o’clock in the morning, I was ready to leave, but alas ! somebody had stolen my clothes ! How could I go back to the project in a towel without a shred of clothing on my back ?

Somehow I managed to borrow some money, buy a tee-shirt and a pair of pants. My shoes had disappeared and I ended up wearing rubber flip-flops back to the office. Quite a  sight.  The meeting was about to open as I walked bleary-eyed into the conference, clad in a fresh change of clothes hastily pulled out of my back pack. Luis Maria might say that I had fucked-up, but I would add: just barely and nobody was the wiser, except my boss who had to pay back the loan I had gotten from the whore house.

When people tell me that working in development is boring, I beg to differ. Just don’t get caught with your clothes off !

 

 

 

Add a Comment

Page 2 of 2212345...1020...Last »