Crossing a Caste Line
Since I was being virtuous most of the time, I thought I could occasionally indulge in a little sin. The sin consisted in skipping the cocktail lounge and going off with Janey MacLachlan for a salad and a medium-sized Tab at a gyro parlor on the outskirts of Stockport.
Since Janey was only a secretary, I was also crossing and defying a caste line. Not only that, her spectacular figure and often flaunted sexuality forced some of our more conservative brokers to confront elements in their personalities which they would sooner have left alone. However, secretaries were allowed much more leeway than brokers. Janey was also the only one in the office who fully understood the computer software.
Janey knew as well as I did that it was virtually part of my job to go to the lounge with the boys, and she took pleasure in helping me sneak off unnoticed. I think she also knew that it would be held against me if I were seen with her. It was certainly she who had originally suggested that we take separate cars and meet at a place where the others would never appear. In fact, we were safe in any establishment that didn't have a liquor license.
This particular place was run by an extended family whose daughters gave birth at fourteen or so, and whose sons hung around planning burglaries. There was, despite the overall degeneracy, a cheerful happy atmosphere. Janey traded jibes with the proprietors, who may have thought that she was a prostitute. As an obvious businesswoman, I suppose that I may have been taken for Janey's madam.
We managed one of our little escapes on the next Monday after work. Janey stuck to Tab out of anxiety, quite unnecessary, for her figure. I was hungry, but wasn't sure what they might put into their gyros. After ordering a salad and spanakopeta, I said to Janey,
"I'm celebrating today. I've just paid off the last of my debts from college."
"I thought you came from a rich family."
"My father was a stockbroker who did very well until soon after my sixteenth birthday. He then sold short just before the market took a surge."
"Did he get wiped out?"
"He lost a lot, but he still had his job. That is, until he hopped out of a sixteenth story window above Sixth Avenue. He landed on a bus, which should have provided some cushioning, but it wasn't enough. He came right through the roof and landed among some high school kids."
Janey is quite empathetic, and she seemed really taken aback. She then asked,
"Did he have good insurance?"
"It wasn't suicide-proof. He also neglected to cover his shorts before he jumped. By the time someone did, the estate was in negative numbers."
"What did your mother do?"
"She got drunk. She then called me at my boarding school. She started cursing Daddy and used a number of obscene phrases that I hadn't heard. I just figured that she'd caught him having another affair. She became totally incoherent after that. She apparently passed out with the phone still off the hook."
"So she didn't even tell you that your father was dead?"
"No. She was already in the psychiatric ward by the time that the headmistress filled me in on that detail."
"You're amazingly cool about it. I would've been reduced to a gibbering idiot."
"I was pretty well destroyed. But that was a long time ago. I learned gradually that the best thing was to be offhand and ironic about the whole thing."
"I guess you had to leave the school."
"No. They liked me and found scholarships for me. I had been the sort of kid who has a big smile for the teacher, and then whispers something perverse about her to the girl at the next desk. I cut out the perversity real fast. It's amazing how being dependent on other people for money changes your personality."
"Did you also get a scholarship to Vassar?"
"Yeah, and I worked summers and borrowed from relatives I didn't like. I had to be nice to them, too."
"So, now that you're all paid off, you can go back to being yourself."
It was a joke and we laughed, but I wasn't sure that the world was ready for the real me.
I was hardly back at my apartment when the phone rang. It was a friend of a friend, a Mr. Brad Herbstreit. He was temporarily based in a nearby town, and he wished to take me out to dinner. I quickly responded,
"I'm busy most nights, but I'm just about to go out for a pizza. You're welcome to join me."
He accepted immediately, and I was happy to be able to get a look at him without committing myself to the sort of full- dress date that might be embarrassing or worse.
The only thing I really knew about my visitor was that he was far enough away to allow time for a quick shower and a replenishment of make-up. I then put on some light running pants of low-tech cotton and a gray sweatshirt emblazoned with the words, 'Minnie Mouse.' Beneath it there's the corresponding picture in pink. In these days when everyone wears a label, ranging from Harvard's "Veritas" to "I slept with JFK" or "Love a priest," it's necessary to transmit the right message. The pants, while non-verbal, are clingy enough to reveal the buttocks, thus transmitting, not a message, but information.
Brad appeared in due course, fairly tall and very thin, neither handsome nor ugly. Before I could say hardly anything, he spoke confidentially,
"I'm afraid I have bad news about Mickey."
He then whispered into my ear,
"He's in jail on a morals charge. Who woulda believed it?"
"I don't believe it! He's being framed. Go raise bail for him while I call his lawyer."
Brad had been comforting me with a hand on my shoulder, but I was pushing him out the door. In the confusion, I ended by being locked out. That was a little embarrassing. However, I'm agile, and, once he had boosted me up to the roof of a shed in the garden, I was able to climb in the bedroom window of my second-floor apartment. When we started out the second time, he said,
"Aren't you worried about having a window it's so easy to climb through?"
"Not much. This is the sort of town where the police follow any car they don't recognize at night. We must have ten times as many police per capita as New York City."
"When I go home tonight, I'll drive around and look sneaky to see what happens."
"Muss up your hair, and park suspiciously in front of one of the big houses. On second thought, don't. I don't want to be woken up to get you out of trouble, probably sacrificing my own credibility in the process."
"So you're regarded as a highly respectable young lady in Stockport?"
"I certainly am. A model citizeness, in fact."
We ended up having a good time at a pizza place just outside town. Brad turned out to be a bit of an intellectual, having once taught English in a small college, but he didn't overdo it. When we got back, I told him I was going for a run. I then started to do my stretches, thus completely heading off a situation where he might expect to be invited up for coffee. He smiled and shook hands, in a way which was both ceremonious and humorous. It was just the right touch. When I got back from my short run, only occasionally burping up pizza, I called the friend who had sent him.
We quickly got down to cases. Brad had gone out with Jackie very briefly, and then, no hard feelings on either side, with a friend of hers. This latter coupling had lasted several years.
The good things Jackie had to say about Brad only confirmed what I already knew. He was, not only intelligent, but good company. She had more trouble pinning down the bad side, but she gave me an example. Brad had discovered that, if he got dressed up as a priest, he could often negotiate discounts on records and books, implying, but never quite stating, that they would go to a library. On one occasion, having been refused a discount, he had managed to steal the book outright.
"We used to think the priest act was funny, but I wouldn't be surprised if he still did it. It doesn't seem right for a man of thirty-five."
Perhaps to make up for telling stories, she then had some more good things to say about Brad, suggesting that it wasn't his fault that his relationship with her friend had ended. However, as the conversation passed the hour mark, there was something else about Brad. He had never been able to keep a job. Jackie said,
"The real trouble is that his father was principal of a junior high school. I guess he was rather awful in a petty way, and Brad's still rebelling."
"I bet, wherever Brad works, he finds the person most like a junior high principal and quarrels with him."
"Probably so. It's usually a boss, and so Brad gets fired."
It's my experience in many years of dating that, however promising a man may be, there's always something damning. In the present case, it was revealed that, despite all the charm and intelligence in the world, the man had never, in emotional terms, got beyond junior high school.
There were some mitigating circumstances. Brad was now a college representative for a textbook publisher, in effect a travelling salesman who tries to get professors to adopt the texts published by his company. As such, he might see too little of his bosses to pick fights with them. Moreover, salesmen are allowed a good deal of latitude as long as they sell. Brad didn't look like a salesman, but he could be all the more effective for that very reason. On the other hand, the fact that he might not be fired from his present job was less than a total recommendation. He would probably get bored, or get tired of travelling, and quit.
My insight, helped by Jackie, was working as well as ever. The picture it presented was irrefutably clear and distinct. The only trouble is that, when it comes to action, I often make the same mistakes as do women who lack the insight.
I wasn't surprised when Brad called the next night. I expected him to ask me out to dinner, and was prepared to be evasive. I might have known that there would be a gimmick. He said,
"I wondered if you'd like to help me celebrate my little dog's birthday Saturday night."
"How would we do that?"
"By taking her out to dinner. If we can't find a restaurant that will seat her, we have dinner and take an extra one out to her afterwards. She's quite happy to eat it in the parking lot."
Despite my previous resolve, I laughed and accepted.
In the meantime, I began to make progress on James Heston's portfolio. The easiest part consisted in the stocks and bonds, where a pattern emerged. Heston loved trains, airplanes, ships, and even busses. He had Burlington Northern, Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Southern, TWA, Pan Am, Delta, several Japanese shipbuilders, and Greyhound. Any responsible consultant would have advised selling most of the airlines. The railways, some of them pretty solid, represented much too large a proportion of the total. It looked as if he also had too much Greyhound. If it had been anyone else, I would simply have called him with my recommendations. Heston, however, might not wish to part with his toys. Indeed, his mention of a winery in his original call might have been part of an abortive move to buy yet another sort of toy.
Bret Halvorson had said to me, soon after I joined the office,
"There's a principle of salesmanship which applies as much to stockbroking as to anything else. Don't criticize what the customer already has, particularly if he loves it. Instead, make him want even more what you have to sell."
The application in this case was difficult. Heston gave no appearance of wanting anything very much, and he was certainly not the sort of moderately rich man who dreams of great wealth. Nor, for that matter, was he the sort who's constantly afraid of losing his money, and who can be frightened into action. The best strategy was to find companies that made equally interesting toys which happened to be better investments.
It took a couple of days, but I found something that seemed suitable. The Southern California Edison Company generates power in the usual ways, with coal, oil, and nukes. What's unusual is its image. It generates a very small proportion of its power with exotic means. There's an impressive field of solar collectors in the desert. The company also taps geothermal energy with massive pipes coming out of hillsides. Best of all, there are enormous windmills. Each has a three-bladed propellor, of the sort used on private airplanes, but magnified to rise hundreds of feet above the desert. According to the company literature, one of them can be moved with a touch of the hand. Even a moderate breeze will set it spinning with a force that would surely slice any latter-day Don Quijote into strips a few inches thick.
None of this is as economic as burning coal, but the gadgetry does work. Most important, such a display of benevolent technology disarms a good many of the environmentalists who swarm over California, and who would otherwise attack the company and all its works. Needless to say, the company's annual reports feature large glossy pictures of the windmills and solar collectors, but none of the stinky coal-fired plants or of the sinister nukes. I set an annual report aside to show Heston. Someone who liked sailboats would surely have a weakness for windmills. If we could sell his worst stocks and replace them with a great block of SoCal Edison, his portfolio would be much improved. It was then late on a Friday afternoon, and I resolved to call Heston on Monday morning.
The date with Brad passed pleasantly. He really did have a little dog who travelled with him in his car as he went around New England, and she was quite appealing, not least in her joyful repast in the parking lot of a rather good restuarant. A large woman in beige, on her way into the restaurant with her husband, stopped and snapped,
"This is no place to feed your dog."
"It's terrible, isn't it? It's a case of species discrimination. They refused to serve her inside."
The woman's reaction was amusing, but I did realize that, wherever Brad went, he would create minor controversies. On the other hand, he was always interesting, and he was most attentive to me. He also showed a definite sexual interest in me, but stopped well short of pushiness. It was again an old story. He could be described either as showing sensitivity to women or, alternatively, as knowing how to get what he wanted out of them.
On the next morning, a Sunday, I had brunch in a fashionable little place on a wharf overlooking Stockport harbor. It's called, not surprisingly, 'The Boathouse.' The food runs to anchovy quiches and caviar omelettes, with corresponding prices. The atmosphere is that of a large living room in a vacation cottage. There are tables and padded benches scattered seemingly at random, and there are sets of chess, Go, and Monopoly for those so inclined. Along one side of the room, there's a rather un-bar looking bar at which one can obtain exotic liquers in addition to the staples. It's possible to settle in there for hours, and, apart from the considerable comforts of the establishment, it was, and remains, the perfect place for a young stockbrokess to be seen.
I soon noticed the entrance of a man, undeniably nautical, who nevertheless looked absolutely wrong for the Boathouse. In dirty jeans and a tattered dark blue shirt, he actually wore his hat in the restaurant, a greasy-looking fishing cap with a long visor. He also had a curly black beard which frizzed up to the cap and did little to improve his appearance.
Affronting the well-bred atmosphere even further, the man went to the bar and sprawled on one seat with his back against the wall and flung a long leg over the next two. In addition to occupying much more than his fair share of space, he grasped his beer in a way that was aggressive, perhaps even combative. With a nose in the shape of a curved beak, he could have passed for Blackbeard the Pirate indulging in a tot of rum.
When the man spoke to the bartender, it was in a nasal voice with a peculiar penetrating quality that I could easily hear some distance away. What he said was,
"We'll never get any tourists here unless we have places where they can stay and feed the kids for less'n a million dollars a day."
It wasn't a very piratical thought, at least until one started imagining someone like Captain Teach or Captain Morgan in a modern real estate office. Still, whatever sort of piracy might be involved, this man spoke with an undeniable tone of rationality and persuasiveness. One felt that he would adopt violent methods only in the last resort.
From Blackbeard's further remarks, it appeared that he ran a cruise boat whose paying passengers thought their fares entitled them to chat with him at whatever length they desired. He evidently disagreed, and said,
"I don't want to be friends with these rich people. I'm only interested in fast passages."
Given his present display of loquaciousness, it was hard to imagine that he ever found it difficult to talk with anyone. On the other hand, he was now in a relaxed mood and posture. His hard lean body obviously had a lot of spring to it, and there might well be times when he would prefer action to talk.
I was still listening to the conversation when, to my considerable surprise, James Heston ambled into the room and went up to Blackbeard. It soon struck me that the latter must be the man who sailed Heston's boat, the one called Hiram.
I was curious to see how someone else dealt with Heston. Hiram quickly took his leg down and stood up, but didn't touch his cap. His fog-horn of a voice let go a greeting which was friendly, but not quite jovial. The two men stood a few feet apart, about the same height, but Hiram not nearly as heavy. Heston was much the way he was with me, full of little gestures and motions, but not saying anything I could hear some thirty feet away. Hiram had business to discuss. There were many options as to the maintenance and employment of the boat which he laid out. Heston seemed to follow with attention, but without comment. At the end of each of his speeches, Hiram would say,
"It's all up to you."
Except that it really wasn't. Hiram was stating the questions in such a way that one of Heston's characteristic responses, a nod and murmur, would constitute approval of the course Hiram advocated. If Heston didn't agree, he would simply look puzzled and remain silent. In that case, Hiram would put his proposition into different words, or modify it slightly. Eventually, Heston would nod and murmur. The minute he did, Hiram would say loudly,
"All right, I'll do it then!"
After the conclusion of the business part of the meeting, they sat on adjacant stools. Hiram, perhaps under the impression that he was whispering, quieted down enough so that one couldn't hear him across the room. Heston began to wag his big head, and it looked uncommonly as if the two were having an old-fashioned gossip.
From my position next to a window, I scanned the harbor for Heston's boat. It was early in the year for most of the yachts to be out, but there were a dozen or so scattered around the harbor. It's obligatory for any upwardly mobile young person in Stockport to be able to make certain discriminations among sailboats. I can tell a sloop from a schooner, and, although I often can't tell ketches from yawls, I can tell either from either a sloop or a schooner. Most of the boats were sloops, and didn't look large enough to carry many passengers very far, much less a supply of stones. There were a couple of larger craft, ketch-yawls, which might have served, but it was difficult to reconcile their immaculate appearance with that of Hiram.
I then happened to glance over at the old part of the harbor, where there are some decaying wooden wharves. Tied up to one of them was a boat which did entirely fit Hiram. It was much larger than the others, perhaps sixty or seventy feet, and had a single tall mast. It was entirely wooden, rather low in the water, and had square yards on its mast. It was either very old or a modern replica of an old boat. On the wharf just above its deck was a derrick surrounded by clutter of all kinds. Included among the cases and crates were some large slabs, and it dawned on me what Heston had meant. The boat carried slabs of granite from the nearby quarries.
My natural instinct would have been to leave Heston and Hiram alone, but it's a principle of all salesmanship above the level of shop clerk to implant and nourish in the mind of the customer the idea that one operates on the same social level that he does himself. I was in a place where it was correct for me to be, and I was dressed as I should be. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.
I approached Heston as modestly as possible, on the side away from Hiram. It was Hiram who noticed me first and directed Heston's attention. The latter, surprised and disconcerted, nevertheless rose quickly. Hiram didn't look accustomed to rising for ladies, but he followed Heston's example. He did not, however, go so far as to remove his cap.
Heston was a man who, despite an appearance of maximum disorganization, really managed social situations rather well. Without any fuss, he introduced me to Hiram, actually remembering my name, and moved us to a table. He then got a waitress much quicker than I could have, and asked what I would like. I had already eaten, but he assured me in half sentences that a little smoked salmon and hot chocolate would do me no harm at all. Hiram, more used to Heston than I, was clearly amused by the turn events had taken. He was also quick on the uptake. Realizing that Heston would have given me at best a confusing picture of his own role, and that of the boat, he explained it to me in that voice which now, across the table, was less loud, less nasal, and more resonant.
"We're building a summer home for Mr. Heston on an island off the coast of Maine, something that's really nothing more than a rock sticking out of the ocean. We're making it out of granite from the quarries here. To carry the stone, we've got a replica of an old Connecticut stone sloop that you can see over there. She's got an enlarged cabin, and we also take passengers."
"Do you sail it all by yourself?"
"No, she's too big for that. I have a little guy from Thailand, an ex-fisherman, who helps. Then there's a Vietnamese woman who cooks and does a lot else. Tiny as she is, she can steer when it comes on to blow and Dai and I have to go aloft to take in sail."
Heston and Hiram were a funny pair. The former, an obvious gentleman, seldom managed a whole sentence. The latter, an obvious non-gentleman, was much more articulate. In fact, his way of uttering words made me wonder if he had once been an actor. Curious about the multinational crew, I asked Hiram about it. He answered,
"A Thai fisherman's a special sort of thing. He's a fisherman part of the time, and a pirate the rest. Sometimes he's a full-time pirate who calls himself a fisherman."
"Those must have been the sort of folks who murdered so many Vietnamese boat people."
"Yeah, I imagine Dai did some of that. He seems to have captured Gwin instead of killing her. She might have started as his virtual slave, but she's much smarter than he is. Now, he's practically her slave. I'm sure it was her idea that he represent himself as a Vietnamese refugee and come to America."
"Then you hired them together when they got here?"
"Yeah. I was in Vietnam and speak some of the language, so it didn't take me long to realize that Dai was faking being Gwin's brother. But I don't care. He may be dumb, but he's a good seaman and he takes orders. You couldn't find Americans who'd be willing to sail a boat like that after the glamour wears off."
I discovered only gradually how dangerous the replicas of old ships are. The originals had routinely had men swept off their decks and yards, and it wasn't uncommon for the ships themselves to be lost with all hands. Nowadys, when many of the old skills of seamanship have been lost, it's even worse.
Heston, I think, never realized how likely the sloop and Hiram were to end up on the bottom, sunk by their cargo of stone. He really knew no more about ships and the sea than he did about trains, airplanes, or busses. Or, for that matter, stocks and bonds. He simply lived in blissful ignorance on all counts.
Both Heston and Hiram wanted me to see the boat, and, having eaten, we drove around the harbor in Heston's car. His driving was a good deal more self-assured than one might have supposed, and a couple of corners were taken rather briskly. When we got out and approached the sloop, Hiram said,
"She's mostly a working boat, and there's a certain amount of dirt and grease around."
I promised to keep it in mind as I hopped down on to the large flat deck.
The hatches were open, and I could see that a number of slabs of stone had already been loaded. The mast rose high and almost perpendicular to the deck. If one looked straight up, one saw the main yard, stretching out well beyond the sides of the boat, and then three yards of decreasing size above it. The sails were rolled tightly against the yards with what looked like compulsive tidiness. Apart from the welter of ropes, the whole affair looked like a piece of abstract art, the kind where everything is subordinated to the geometry, and only the simplest shapes are used.
As we poked around the deck, going from one nautical smell to another, it was hard to believe that the boat, chafed and bruised everywhere, was only ten years old. In the interests of authenticity, there were no internal combustion engines on board. There was electricity for the passengers, but the batteries had to be charged by operating a treadmill just forward of the mast which was connected to a generator. I tried it out briefly, and found it rather fun.
The cabin, located aft, was more spacious than the one the original would have had. As boats went, there was quite comfortable accomodation for the five passengers and crew. Finally, behind the large spoked steering wheel, there was a rowboat hanging over the stern on davits. It didn't look as if it could hold all eight people, but Hiram pointed out another boat lashed upside down on top of the cabin. Above us, as we stood by the wheel, the ropes and tackle on the massive main boom made slight creaking noises in response to the almost imperceptible movements of the sloop.
It seemed to me that the mast was the most interesting thing about the boat, and, feeling energetic, I asked if I could climb it. Hiram replied,
"Go ahead. I'll go up with you, just to make sure you don't fall."
It was easy at first. The ratlines between the shrouds weren't as taut as the rungs of a ladder, but I quickly got near the top of the lower mast. The shrouds and ratlines then went out to the edge of a wooden platform right above my head. I was canted a little backwards and had to reach above the platform, where I couldn't see, for a hand-hold. After groping for a minute, I found it and mounted on the top. Hiram joined me and said,
"That was very good. Most people can't do that."
"I did gymnastics for a while, and got used to twisting in odd ways."
We then went up past the lower and upper topsail yards, and then out along the highest yard. Hiram explained,
"This is the t'gallant yard. A full-rigged ship would carry a royal yard above it, but this is enough for us, sometimes too much."
It was a little yard, and I felt my usual exhilaration from heights, at least as long as I have something to hold on to. The slight motion of the boat was magnified at this height, and I could feel the foot-rope under my feet sway slightly. Seeing Heston looking up, I said to Hiram,
"I hope he isn't worried about me."
"Probably not much. You look pretty secure as you move around up here. Maybe we'd better go down just the same, though."
Going down over the top, I had to fish for a foot-hold, which was harder, but I again managed it. When I hopped from the bulwark down beside Heston, he appeared to be amazed at my exploit.
Hiram had some work to do aboard, and we took our leave of him. From first to last, he had been friendly, but not in the manner of Brad, where one knew that each step would be succeeded by one which moved a tiny bit closer, both physically and psychologically.
Heston took me back to my car, driving more slowly this time. When we were half-way there, he asked me pleasantly whether I worked or had a career. He wasn't joking, nor did he seem in the least senile. He hadn't, I thought, changed in relevant ways in thirty years.
Heston had recognized me and introduced me to Hiram by name, so he couldn't have me totally confused with some other person. Probably, he simply couldn't remember where he had met me. On this assumption, I pretended to misunderstand his question and replied,
"Oh yes, Mr. Heston, I've been working hard on your portfolio. I've found some stocks to recommend to you."
If that didn't tip him off, nothing would. The car did lurch noticeably, but we didn't hit anything. I could imagine him later saying to Hiram,
"Damme, Hiram, that little gal at lunch turned out to be my stockbroker. Gave me a turn when I realized it."
Recovering himself, Heston thanked me rather effusively for my trouble, and promised to come around the next morning. He then asked me where I was from originally. This question was easier to handle, and we chatted on, even after we had stopped near my rather regrettable Toyota. It would have been better if Heston hadn't realized which car I was driving, but the second I made a move to get out of his car, he was around to hold the door. He then held the door of my car for me, giving me a paternal pat on the shoulder as I got in.