Me and My Talking Raven

“Where some of the Neighbourhood were quarrelling, a Raven from the Top of a Tree very articulately and unaccountably cry’d out, Read the Third of Colossians and the Fifteenth!”

The Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England, Cotton Mather

Boston is a tough town for a writer.  The last national magazine with headquarters here, The Atlantic Monthly, decamped for the more powerful hub of Washington, D.C. a long time ago, leaving us with a bunch of “quarterlies,” the derisive term used by A.J. Leibling to refer to the kind of rags that are read mainly if not exclusively by the contributors and their mothers.  In the realm of daily journalism, “a low-grade competition persists,” again to quote Leibling, but lately I’ve been shut out of that market too.  I’ve tried the weekly papers as well, and was lucky enough to find a place for my taboo-busting essay “How to Tell Your Teenaged Son From a Dead Rodent” in a suburban broadsheet that services our town’s area code, only to be told by the editor that he had no budget to actually pay freelance writers.  “You understand how it is,” he said casually with an insouciant air that recalled no one so much as Maurice Chevalier, as if he and I shared a common bond as worldly boulevardiers, bon vivants, raconteurs and crème brulees.


“Mon plaisir!  I could not accept a single sou from you!”

“Mais oui!” I said with enthusiasm.  “Compensation would only spoil the joy of writing for me!”  We parted friends, a necessity for all writers stiffed by editors–you want to stay on their good side so that they’ll take your next submission for nothing.

I was feeling pretty low so I decided to walk to work for a change–I didn’t feel like being jostled by people checking for granola between their teeth in the windows of the subway car.  As I made my way across the Public Garden, a lovely spot of green in the spring and summer but a dismal, grassless tundra in the winter, populated largely by drug dealers and tai chi practitioners except for people passing through, I spied the new statuary in the renamed Edgar Allan Poe Square and decided to take a look.


The Public Garden, when it’s pretty.

The thing struck me as further evidence, if one needed it, of the decline and fall of the once proud art form of sculpture.  Look at the Laocoon, fashioned by three Greek sculptors sometime between 27 B.C. and 68 A.D.  Now look at the statues going up around the country honoring retired baseball players and still active college football coaches.  The thing, as the lawyers say, speaks for itself.


Laocoon, Nick Saban: I rest my case.

“Why don’t you stop living in the past?” I heard a voice say from somewhere, as Sister Rosetta Tharpe would put it, up above my head.

I turned and looked in the bare ruined choir of an elm tree’s branches and saw–a raven, very much like the raven who kept saying “Nevermore” to Poe.  What’s the old Winston Churchill gag?  A fanatic is someone who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.  I was tempted to give him the old raised-eyebrow “Excuse me?” but since he’d succeeded in enunciating a coherent, eight-word sentence instead of just “Nevermore,” I figured he might be worth talking to.

“What’s wrong with living in the past if the past is better?” I asked, laying emphasis on the last word just so he’d know where I was coming from.


Sister Rosetta Tharpe, looking up above her head.

“It means you’re a romantic,” he said.

“Since when can ravens talk?” I asked, not quite ready to engage with a bird on the fields of rhetoric.

“If you would spend more time on cheezburger.com and less reading hidebound New England witch-burners like Cotton Mather you would know that Corvids . . .”

“Crows, magpies and ravens?”

“Correct–have powers of mimicry comparable to parrots.”

You could have knocked me over with the feather of a parakeet.  “So Poe’s ‘The Raven’ . . .”

“Isn’t fiction.”


Statue of Edgar Allan Poe and a raven . . . coming out of his suitcase?

That put the matter in a whole new light.  “In that case, what’s wrong with being a romantic?  Poe was one.”

The raven scoffed.  “You’re comparing yourself to Poe?”

“Well, we both lived in Boston, and published poetry.”

“He’s done a good deal better than you,” quoth the raven.

“He was an unsuccessful newspaper writer.”

“I’ll grant you that one,” the raven said, recalling my undistinguished days as cub reporter on the Sedalia Democrat-Capital and the Worcester News-Recorder.  “Why do so many newspapers have hyphens?”

“I don’t know, maybe they think it makes them sound like British royalty.  Lastly, I’m not a big fan of the Transcendentalists and the genteel tradition of Boston writers–neither was Poe.”

“Didn’t you read The Song of Hiawatha in 8th grade English class?”

“With Miss Doretta Waite?  Sure I did.  Who could forget its stirring opening: ‘By the shores of Gitchee Gumee . . .'”

“Yeah, that’s a great line,” the raven said, waxing rhapsodic for a moment, a far-away look in his beady eyes.  “It’s the rest of the poem that’s utterly forgettable.”

The black bird hopped down from his perch and took a seat on a bench.  “Do you have any yogurt-covered raisins?” he asked half-apologetically.  My guess is he’s a little embarrassed to be classed with the general run of panhandlers you see in Boston.  Some are careerists, occupying the same high-revenue street corners for decades at a time while the world revolves slowly around them.  You have to figure somebody gave them a $5 bill somewhere along the way, maybe on their first few days on the job during the early 80s when Reagan was president, thinking he forced them into it, and they never looked back.  That’s the way Bostonians are:  a big heart often rules a teensy-tiny brain.


“Hail alma mater, hats off to thee!  Ever you’ll find us, something something something.”

“As a matter of fact I do,” I said, as I pulled a cellophane bag out of my coat pocket and offered it to him.  “Knock yourself out.”

We sat there sharing the remains of the $3.29 “healthy” snack, gazing out over a scene not too different from what Poe could take in from the same spot two centuries before.  “If he hated Boston so much, why did he come back?” I asked.

“I think he learned to hate it after he came back,” the bird replied.

“So I probably shouldn’t move back into the city now that we’re empty-nesters?”

“I’m an empty-nester, too,” he said.  “It wouldn’t improve your writing any, that’s for sure.”

“I never could get anything written when I lived downtown,” I said, nodding my head to agree with him.  “Too many distractions.”

“Um-hmm.”

“It was only when I moved to the suburbs that I became productive.”

“Like your buddy Flaubert sez . . .” the bird began.

“To be stupid, selfish and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost?”

“No, ‘Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.'”


Flaubert

“I thought that was Richie Allen,” I said.

“Did you know he’s up for the Baseball Hall of Fame this year?” the bird asked.

“He fell one vote short,” I said, breaking the bad news to another fan of the man who said “I’ll play first base, third base–anywhere but Philadelphia.”

“Too bad.  Like Poe, he’s got the establishment against him.”

“Yeah, but Poe prevailed.  See that pond over there?” I asked, pointing to a big concrete oval on the Boston Common that’s set up for ice skating.

“The Frog Pond, right?”


Richie Allen

“On the nosey,” I said.  “‘Frog-Pondians’ was Poe’s term for Bostonians who thought art had to have a moral.”

“Did those people . . . reproduce?” the bird asked delicately, avoiding a word that would be Banned in Boston in case any descendant of the Watch and Ward Society was listening.

“Yes,” I said.  “Their descendants now write for The Boston Globe.”

At the Pink Ladies Taxi Stand

            Pink taxis with female drivers that serve only women customers are catching on in cities from Moscow to Dubai. 

                                                  Associated Press

I was sitting in the pink taxi line at Logan Airport, hopin’ for one decent fare before the end of my shift.  All I’d had all night so far was two nuns–how come they always travel in pairs?–and a professor of women’s studies who tipped me a used copy of The Second Sex by Simone de Boovoir, which I needed like a fish needs a bicycle, to quote an old feminist gag.

I took a puff on my Lady Cubana cigar and looked down the line.  I was third, and for fares there was an old lady with a knitting bag, a woman in Birkenstock sandals eating sunflower seeds from a paper bag she’d brought on the flight, and–bingo!–a professional woman in a Talbots suit–accessorized with a little string of pearls–a laptop case and a four-wheeled suitcase.  I’d say an MBA on a business trip–paydirt!

I jumped out of the cab when my turn came and helped her with her suitcase.

“Where to?” I asked.

“I’m staying at The Taj,” she said in a frosty tone.  You couldn’ta melted butter in her mouth, I thought to myself.  Maybe Promise Ultra Fat Free Margarine, but that’s about it.

We settled in for the drive, and I started in with my patter.  If you want to get a good tip, you got to connect with your passenger, you know?

“Did you watch that WNBA game tonight there?” I asked, looking at her in my rear-view.

“I’m afraid not,” she said.  She was tapping away at her BlackBerry.

“I really think the Chicago Sky have a chance, you know?” I asked.  It was a rhetorical question–she didn’t have to answer.  It was just a conversation starter.  “It’d be their first playoff win–ever.”

“I don’t follow basketball,” she said, and not too graciously I might add.  I decided to mess with her a bit.

“They say that the Detroit Shock is named after Toxic Shock Syndrome.  You believe that?”

She finally looked up at me.  “I’m sure I wouldn’t know,” she said.

“That’s a joke, lady.”

“I see,” she said.  Maybe her cat just died, who knows.

“You know what really frosts my panty hose?” I said, trying to change the subject.  “We hardly got any women politicians here in Boston, you know what I’m sayin’?”

“I thought this was supposed to be a progressive city,” she said.  I’d finally broken through the brittle carapace dat da modern woman has to put on to survive in the cut-throat, dog-eat-dog world of business.

“We got two out of thirteen seats on the City Council,” I said.  “We’re half the population, we oughtta have half the seats, right?”

She looked out the window.  I thought I saw a smirk on her face, as if she was thinkin’, she made it on her own, every other woman ought to, too.  Cheese Louise–I used two homonyms in one thought there.  Must be the fish I been eatin’.

“How ’bout da Boston Militia, huh?” I said, trying to yank her out of her self-absorbed reverie.  Let me tell you, you get a gal who’s lost in a self-absorbed reverie, first thing she don’t think about is your tip.

“Who are the Boston Militia?” she asked.

“Only the 2014 Women’s Football Alliance Champions!” I said, showing a little civic pride.

“Fascinating,” she said, but I could tell she wasn’t.  She started rifling through some papers in her briefcase.  You can’t win with some of these dames.

I was just about at the end of my rope, when an inspiration occurred to me.  “Who you think’s gonna go next on Grey’s Anatomy?” I said, and I watched the mirror for her reaction.

She looked up, and I knew I had her.

“What do you know?” she asked breathlessly, or as breathless as you can get and still talk.

“I dunno, I hear Izzie’s gonna disappear for five non-consecutive episodes.  And Mer– she’s outta there pretty soon too.”

“No way!”

“Way.  I read it in Michael Ausiello’s spoiler column.”

“Where can I get that?”

“EW.com,” I said, allowing myself a moment of smug self-satisfaction.  You come to Boston, you’re gonna getta knowledgeable cabbie, y’know?

We pulled up in front of The Taj.  It’s a hotel as big as the Ritz, as F. Scott Fitzgerald might say.  ‘Cause that’s what it used to be–The Ritz.

“Well here we are,” I said.  I popped the trunk, hopped out, and handed off her bag to the doorman.

“Thanks for the information,” she said, finally cracking a smile.  “How much do I owe you?”

“Let’s see.  The fare’s $19.75,” I began.

“All right,” she said, and started to fish some bills out of her wallet.

“Hold on–there’s a $2.25 airport charge, and the toll for the tunnel is $5.25, so that comes to–let’s see–$27.25.”

She looked down into her wallet again.  “I’m sorry,” she said, “all I have is a twenty and a ten.”

A lousy $2.25 tip.  I felt like flippin’ it right back at her–but I can’t afford to.

“Why you chintzy, cheap yuppie bi . . .”

“Wait,” she said as she dug down into the little pocket coin pouch on the outside of her purse.  “Here–I found another quarter!” she said as she turned and headed into the hotel.  “Buh-bye!”

I was ready to explode, and I did.  “Yeah, that’s right–save your money, so next time you can afford a frost job dat don’t make you look like a skank waitress in a biker bar!”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Boston Baroques.”

I Fall in Love Too Fast

That’s my problem, he thought to himself as he turned off the music to his headphones. He had been listening to Chet Baker and in a moment his state of mind had turned from mellow moodiness to irritation. The romantic background that the sounds had provided on his morning walk to work now struck him as . . . inappropriate. He needed to get his mind in a frame to be alert, even anxious, not placid and pacific. He dealt with money, and no one wanted a complacent, dreamy-eyed romantic making investment decisions.

baker

But it was true, he thought. He fell in love too easily. Until he learned to do otherwise, he would lack the focus he’d need to close the deal with someone really nice, someone he’d want to settle down with.

Take his first week at work. He’d been smitten with a brown-haired go-getter who walked the same diagonal he did over to Winter Street, then down Summer Street to the financial district. She came out of her apartment building a few minutes behind him; he’d see her down the block. She carried an insulated mug with ducks on it, and by the time they’d crossed over Beacon Street she would already be steaming ahead of him. He had tried to slow down at first to see if she’d break stride to his gait, but she wouldn’t. She was obviously into her career and didn’t have time for a dalliance, not even one that would be so convenient. They lived on the same block and worked in the same building.

boston1

Maybe there was some sort of taboo about dating someone you’d run into too much if you broke up, he’d thought by way of way of trying to understand the folkways of the bluestocking tribe. When he decided to give up on her he found it was quite easy because he happened to strike up—or almost strike up—a conversation with another woman.

Brown hair pulled back with a head band, pretty, a few inches shorter than the first one, but tall enough so that he wouldn’t have to worry about a son being too short. His sister had dated a real cool, good-looking guy in college who had an air of sadness about him when there was a lull in the action, all because he was so short. He didn’t think of himself was shallow—it wasn’t like he was buying a horse for breeding purposes—but it was something you had to consider before you got involved with somebody.

It had been a Wednesday, both the papers had a food section that day—restaurant reviews, recipes, that sort of thing. The gap-toothed news hawker who stood at the mouth of Winter Street would yell out “Foozection! Foozection!” as you passed by him that morning each week.

He’d been walking alongside the second woman and when the man shouted out his garbled cry she broke out laughing. He turned to look at her and she said “Did that man just say booze and sex?”

boston

He had laughed too—the woman had quite an imagination, or sense of humor if she’d deliberately contorted the words into something funny.

“No, he said ‘Food section.’ It’s Wednesday, the newspapers have food sections on Wednesday.”

“Ohh,” she’d said. “I get it.” He had turned his head back down Winter towards the water, where rays of sun were pouring up the street from the Atlantic. By the time he’d turned his head back to smile at her she was already two steps ahead of him. He didn’t know if she was unhappy that he hadn’t tried harder to carry on a conversation, but he hadn’t anything in mind to say to her. It was too late now, he thought; she’d think he was weird if he accelerated to catch up with her—wouldn’t she?

From that day on he tried to time his walk to arrive when she had come up out of the Park Street station, especially on Wednesday. Maybe they would recreate the first encounter and they’d look at each other in recognition and laugh. Then it would be easy to think of something say—“Say, I’ve heard that one before” or “Isn’t this where we came in?” if he was going to try and pull off something really witty. But she never showed up again and, rather than staking out the intersection from the coffee shop with the window that looked out on the brick pavement, he’d fallen in love—again—too fast.

boston3

This time it was a sales clerk at the women’s clothing store where he was buying his sister a birthday present. It was a sweater, it wasn’t really her style, but the store was just around the corner from his office so it was convenient, even if it wasn’t right. He was like a drunk who looks for his car keys under the street light, he was thinking to himself when another clerk came up from behind him singing a song she’d obviously made up for the occasion. “It’s a great big beautiful world,” she began, “full of great, big beautiful girls.”

“Why are you singing that?” the first woman asked, losing her commercial composure.

“I don’t know,” the singer said. “Just popped into my mind when a six 6 tried to squeeze into a size 2.”

They kept their voices low, like two school girls passing notes in the back of a classroom. He was in love with them both, but especially the one who’d come up with the sarcastic sales jingle. Now there was a woman you’d want to spend the rest of your life with, he thought. Someone so witty, there’d never be a dull moment.

boston4

“Would you like me to gift wrap this for you?” the first woman asked, and before he had a chance to answer her, the second woman had returned to the sales floor to re-shelve two pairs of now-stretched pants, humming her little song.

“Uh, yeah, it’s for my sister,” he said nervously, as if he needed an excuse.

“Well, you’re a good brother,” the woman said. She was heavier than her friend the spontaneous songstress, who had just stepped out of his life, probably forever.

Artichokes

Tim was the dean who Marci worked for, and Vicki was his wife. Marci loved them both; she considered them the model of what she wanted to be when she grew up, although she didn’t put it that way. I did, which didn’t endear me to Marci.

beacon

They had an apartment on Beacon Street with a view of the river to the north and a southern exposure, so you got light in the winter and moving water in the summer. All we had at first was the apartment that had the bedroom in the basement and the living room that looked south onto the Common; then the next year, when we were both making more money we got a bigger place that faced north. That was where we were living when Tim and Vicki invited us.

It was a Friday night after work when we went over. Marci was nervous, I could tell; she put on a scarf even though it was still warm out, late summer. She spent a lot of time looking at herself in the hall mirror. “Aren’t you going to be hot in that?” I asked—we had four or five blocks to walk.

“I think it looks good,” she answered as she fussed with it. “Tim and Vicki have a very easy sense of style,” she said. I guess we—or at least I—didn’t.

beacon1

It was noisy on Beacon as we walked down to their place, a lot of traffic and the wind blowing off the river rustled the leaves in the trees. It made our conversation seem hurried and breathless because we talked so loud. “So they’re married, right?” I asked.

“I don’t suppose I really know,” Marci said with a careless air. As if to suggest that I was hung up on that sort of thing.

“Is he the main dean, or one of the teen deans?”

She shot me a look. “He’s an assistant dean, but he’ll probably be the head dean once Paul retires,” she said, referring to the older guy who never seemed to be there when I’d go to pick her up.

We found their place and rang the bell and they buzzed us in. It was three flights up, so Vicki had plenty of time to watch us coming up the stairs. Marci was out of breath by the time we reached their landing; I would have been, except I paced myself and kept breathing the whole time.

artichokes

“So nice to meet you,” Vicki said as she extended a hand to me. I was glad she didn’t try to kiss me first time. I could never figure that out, how Marci’s crowd wanted to play kissy face when they barely knew you. I suppose it had something to do with the culture, they all seemed to want to be known for being open and free. I didn’t see the point; for a crowd so into being natural, it was awfully artificial.

“Come in,” she said and we walked down the narrow hallway to the kitchen, where Tim was opening a bottle of white wine. He had a little Van Dyke beard and a smile that was either wry or smug, I couldn’t tell which.

We went through the pleasantries all around. Tim asked me if I wanted a glass of wine and I said I’d rather have a beer if he had any, which drew another look from Marci. Just trying to be honest and not affected, I thought to myself; wasn’t that the way I was supposed to be?

We went into the living room and Tim brought in a tray with artichokes for each of us on little plates, along with a bowl of melted butter. He presented them to us with ceremony, and of course Marci had to ooh and ah with delight and admiration that he was such a wiz in the kitchen.

“Do you like artichokes?” Vicki asked me and I couldn’t be too enthusiastic. Marci used to make a dip out of them which was awful, but which she thought was sophisticated, just the sort of thing she should be serving to the people she wanted to be friends with. I hesitated a moment, teetering between disgust and diplomacy, and finally said “They’re okay.”

That wasn’t good enough for Marci, who gave me a little cough that said we wouldn’t be having sex tonight. That was fine with me, I figured I wouldn’t be in the mood when we were done anyway.

Everybody peeled off a leaf so I did the same, then they dipped them in the butter, then they turned the leaves upside down and pulled them down against their lower jaws. I tried to follow them, but I didn’t know what I was doing and took a bite off the end of the thing.

“No, you just scrape it against your teeth, the good part comes off very easily,” Vicki said. She was just trying to be nice, but she was sort of rubbing it in. I tried another and it was pretty easy once she’d explained it, although not that obvious. “Seems like an awful lot of work for not much food,” I said, trying to be jovial, I guess.  Marci was looking at me the whole time like she’d just discovered I had leprosy, and was apologizing silently to Tim and Vicki for having brought me into their home.

We sat and talked for awhile—I noticed the others gave up on the outer leaves after a while and just went for the hearts. Marci asked Tim about some paper he was writing, how education schools weren’t attracting the brightest students. He said it was a real problem but it seemed to me it didn’t exactly reflect well on him; he’s the dean saying the students who come to his program aren’t that bright. I thought he wasn’t too bright to have missed the irony.

artichoke2

Then Vicki started to focus on Marci–where had she gone to college, what she wanted to do, how she’d ended up applying for the job in Tim’s office. I don’t think she was probing into whether Marci wanted to have an affair with Tim–the two of them seemed genuinely happy with each other–but Vicki was older than us; she had lines on her face and was heavier than Marci, so maybe there was some jealousy there.

Then it was time for the men to joust; Tim asked me what I did and I said I was a typesetter on the night shift at a financial printer, trying to save up the money for law school. He kinda snorted at that—it seemed instinctual, not personal; the contempt of the academic for somebody who might possibly have an interest in making some money. Or maybe it was just that I worked with my fingers and not my brain, I don’t know. I looked around the place and figured there was some trust fund money somewhere in the background, they couldn’t pull off a Beacon Street condo with a water view on his salary.

Everybody had another glass of wine while I nursed my beer. The hors d’oeuvres part of the night was pretty much over, the tray now piled high with artichoke leaves. I started to get up to take the mess into the kitchen, trying to be polite, but Vicki stopped me and said “Here, let me take that, you sit and talk to Tim.”

“No, I’ve got to check on the frittata,” he said and started to get up from his lotus position on the floor. Once he was on his feet we heard a crash and I thought maybe Vicki had dropped something in the kitchen, but we realized it was noise from the street coming in the open window.

“What was that?” Marci asked.

“Sounds like a car accident,” Tim said without much concern. “We get a lot of them. People try to beat the light on Beacon, but you have cars crossing to get to Storrow Drive.”

accident

We heard a woman cry. Vicki was in the kitchen, but Tim just kept going.

“Don’t you think we should go check on them?” Marci asked.

“The people on the first floor always do,” Tim said. “Come—let us eat.”

In High-Culture Boston, Opera Liquidator is Always Busy

BOSTON.  This city, which at one point could claim to be the Hub of the Universe and not provoke laughter, boasts a world-class symphony orchestra, art museum and ballet company, but can’t seem to get off the schneid when it comes to type of highbrow culture: opera.

“I don’t know what it is,” says Sam Resnoni, an auctioneer who formerly specialized in selling off restaurant fixtures.  “Opera just don’t do well here.”

opera

And so Resnoni switched a few years ago to become the first–and still the only–full-time liquidator of opera props, costumes and sets in the country.  “It was gettin’ so everybody and his brother was into restaurant fixtures,” he says with a tone of relief in his voice.  “The competition was so fierce I had to move to Worcester and do railroad car diners to survive.”

All that changed in 1990 when Boston’s last major-league opera company gave up the ghost.  “You know they say the opera ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings?” Resnomi says as he adjusts a publicity photo of Sarah Caldwell on his wall.  “Well, she sung.”
Worcester
Miss Worcester Diner:  Try the paprika home fries!

 

After Resnomi made what he calls “a pretty penny” buying and re-selling elephants and spears from Verdi’s Aida and Viking helmets from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, he never looked back.  “Every couple a years some young”–he hesitates as he chooses le mot juste–“a-feeshee-a-nado will take a run at Boston, and no sooner has Mimi died of her coughing fit in La Boheme than I’m back in business selling her muff–which ain’t what you think it is.”

Caldwell
Sarah Caldwell, real-life fat lady: At least she tried.

Culture mavens have often speculated as to why Boston is the graveyard of opera companies, with no one theory prevailing to date.  “The field is so crowded!” says Aimee van der Pol, an attache to the mayor who came up with the slogan “Culture so thick, you can hit it with a stick!” to promote the local arts scene.  “Maybe if the women would lose some weight.”

Whatever Happened to Fred Moss?

            We were in one of the conference rooms, the one that looked out over the water towards the airport.  There was a break in the closing—we were waiting for the title guy to get on record with the mortgage—so Scofield the banker and I were sitting around waiting.

“Murck Industries has been a customer of the bank for twenty years,” he said with an air of satisfaction.  I figured that meant it had been handed to him, that he hadn’t gone out and found it on his own, so he wasn’t flattering himself, although I’m not sure he cared.  To him it was all about being part of a fine old institution like Boston Merchants Bank, one that had started by financing the China trade and had survived now for two hundred years.

“Who had it before you?” I asked.  I was interested in financial genealogy.

“Fred Moss,” he said, as if the sanctity of this name entitled him to claim a lineage back to St. Peter.  I knew a little about Moss.  He’d been a star from what I could tell going through old files; he’d brought in a lot of new business, gotten into the option pool, then when the bank’s stock took off in the eighties he’d cashed in.  Made a bundle of money and went out and started his own bank, over in Cambridge.  He was a gentlemen of the old school, and he liked the idea that he’d be on the ground floor, not in a high-rise, looking out over Harvard Square, where people could see him when they passed by.

Scofield could have been his son, what with the club tie and the ruddy face and the herringbone suit and the Roman numeral at the end of his name, but Moss carried himself differently.  The men of his generation—they’d graduated from college before things got crazy in the sixties.  They were more reserved than the young guys who came after them.  They were a little less—exuberant, I’d guess you’d say.  They’d gone straight from prep school to a dorm, then married life without ever having given a thought to social experimentation.  What a younger man might mock or rebel against in our time had been as natural as waking up, as easy as falling out of bed to them.

I knew we had done some work for Moss’s new bank—BayState, they were the first to get fancy with their orthography–but I gathered that it had tailed off.  Every now and then we’d rewrite the papers for one of their loans, but no more; what we got came our way by inertia.

And as I got around town over the first few years of my professional life I learned that other, newer firms—upstarts, my boss John would call them, if he condescended to speak of them at all—were getting the business from BayState.  To be perfectly frank, coarser men, the type who would pound a table in a business meeting, their voices raised to a shout.  That wasn’t John’s style, and it wasn’t the way I was taught.  He told me you should never lose your temper, it wouldn’t reflect well on the client, and it meant that you’d let your emotions overpower your reason.

“Whatever happened to Mr. Moss?” I asked, trying to be sly and Scofield—not the brightest bulb on the scoreboard—letting me get away with it.

“Oh, he’s still active.  He’s sort of the elder statesman of the bank.  His name alone brings in tons of customers.  He took a year off after that big trial.”

“Which one was that?”

“The Scilardi Construction case.  It took a lot out of him.”

I didn’t know the whole story, but I knew that what had been a garden-variety business transaction, the kind that John and Fred had done by the hundreds of over the course of their careers together, had turned sour.  It had been sent to the “workout” department of the bank, where troubled loans were rewritten or collected or liquidated.  Then to everyone’s surprise, it had gone to trial.

“Why was that?” I asked.

“I guess it’s no fun having to testify.  He was supposedly on the stand for two full days.”

“Wow.  That does sound tough.”

Scofield looked at me as if I were a simpleton.  “That’s why we have lawyers.  Or why we’re supposed to have lawyers.”

There was an edge in his tone, as if I were somehow implicated in whatever Moss had had to endure.  “Did we represent the bank?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Some guy named Bart.  I guess you were a smaller firm back then, didn’t have that many horses.  The way I heard it, he was known to be a tough guy, but I guess he didn’t come off that way when he represented Fred.”

“Oh.”  The fellow he was talking about had left shortly after I arrived.  He looked like he had street smarts, which is a charitable way of saying he didn’t seem to have a whole lot of the other kind.  “So what happened?”

“Well, the bank probably should have settled it, discretion’s the better part of valor and all that.  But I don’t know, John had taken a dislike to this guy Scilardi and sort of egged Fred on.  Told him his bank was brand new, he shouldn’t get reputation as somebody who would settle.  Pretty soon other borrowers would hear about it and would try to walk all over him.”

I could just hear John saying that.  He was a beady-eyed little guy, probably got pushed around a lot when he was a kid and decided he’d take it out on the world when he became a lawyer.

“And it backfired?”

“They use it as a case study for the new recruits in credit.  You look at how much you could get if you stretched out the term of the loan in exchange for some new collateral.   You look at the liquidation value of the assets at each decision point—do you let the guy hang on or do you pull the plug?”

That was Scofield, mixing his metaphors and not giving a shit.  Probably skated through four years as a legacy, then got a job through his dad’s connections.  I was guessing, and maybe I resented the way he seemed to be blaming me for the downfall of his mentor, but I suspected I was right.

“Anyway, you could see from the reports they give you that a little forbearance would have gone a long way,” he continued.  “I don’t know if things were slow around here or what, but John persuaded Fred to sue the guy.  I’m sure it helped your bottom line that year.”

I felt a little disloyal listening to this without objection, and a little nervous too.  John was out of the office, but one of his first lieutenants—the lawyers ten years or so ahead of me—could have heard us with the door open; there was an office on either side, plus a copy machine right across the hall.

“Well, you can still settle once you start a lawsuit.  Ultimately it’s up to the client . . .”

“Fred thought John was Oliver Wendell Holmes or something.  He’d never been through a tough case, he’d always prided himself on choosing his borrowers carefully, and he’d succeeded.  He figured John knew what he was talking about—which he didn’t.”

I got up and went outside to ask my secretary if the fellow had called from the registry.  She said no, and I stepped back in, this time closing the door behind me.

I sat down again and tried to think of something to do to distract Scofield, but he was off again.  Apparently animus against lawyers flows in a vein that, once tapped, bleeds profusely.

“Anyway, there were some incriminating comments in the bank’s files about Scilardi.  Somebody at one point had commented that he was a rough Italian, it wasn’t clear how he maintained his profit margins.  In addition to his construction company he had a business that made wallets—a lot of low-wage workers out in Worcester.  And then he went out and bought a racehorse that he kept down in Kentucky.  Nothing really offensive, you know, but there was a suggestion that everything wasn’t on the up-and-up.  And Fred had written in the margin ‘Money launder?  Org crime?’”

I let out a little involuntary snort.  You wouldn’t expect men like Fred and John to commit something like that to paper, although it was certainly something you might hear behind closed elevator doors.  Maybe Moss thought his telegraphic style was enough to shield him from harm.

“So what happened?”

“Well, Scilardi’s lawyer was a real s.o.b.  He made a lowball offer and let it just hang out there.  At John’s recommendation, Fred didn’t even respond.  They were going to teach the bastard a lesson.”

“How much was at stake?”

“That’s the sad part.  With interest, around a million dollars.  They could have written it off and shareholders wouldn’t have even noticed.  But they were gonna win, by God!”

I didn’t want to hear what I knew came next, but I settled in for the ride, the way you do with a roller coaster making its way up the incline.

“Who went first?”

“The bank.  They put the note into evidence, they thought it would be like shooting fish in a barrel.  Without any water in it.”

“That didn’t take long, right?”

“Less than half the first day.  Then the defendant got his chance.”

“And how did that go?”

“You ever been to one of those festivals in the North End?  Where they walk St. Rocco through the streets and everybody sticks a dollar bill on him and hopes their dying Aunt Theresa will be cured of cancer?”

“Yes, I was over there for dinner one time while one was going on.”

“Well, it was like that.  Everybody and his brother and his dog got up and testified about what a great guy Gennaro Scilardi was, how he never did anybody any harm.”

“And what did our side do?”

“Well, this guy Bart’s gets up every now and then and complains, how much more do we have to listen to, you know?  But the judge says ‘Let it all in.’”

“But eventually . . .”

“They called Fred as a witness.”

“Why?”

“Beats the hell out of me.  He brought the business in, but anybody could have responded.  Ask your guy Bart, wherever he is today.”

“Doesn’t sound good.”

“It wasn’t.  Scilardi’s lawyer dragged him through the mud and back, then stomped on him.  He said ‘Is this your note here?’  Moss admitted it was his handwriting.  The lawyer said “It looks like it says “Money laundering, organized crime.”  Is that what you thought of Mr. Scilardi, that he was a member of La Cosa Nostra?’”

“Did Bart object?”

“I don’t know.  I guess it was a business record, they couldn’t keep it out.  That’s why they teach us now to be very careful what you write for the file.”

I could imagine how John took all this.  His old friend and good client, being grilled like a hot dog.  His half-assed litigator not doing such a great job, but probably as good as anybody could under the circumstances.  Him seething each night as he got reports from the front.

“So–the upshot?”

“By the end Scilardi’s lawyer had reduced Fred to a wet dishrag.  He admitted that he had no basis for believing Scilardi was involved in organized crime.  He tried to salvage the money laundering comment, saying he didn’t know how about the other businesses, but it was too late.”

“Too late why?”

“The jury—this was before banks got people to waive their right to a jury trial—three were old guys from the North End.  The kind of guys who hang around the courthouse, and actually enjoy being called for jury duty.  Italians, a chip on their shoulder.  They went to work on the others, about how unfair it was, couldn’t you see the guy was a family man, all the good he did for the community, his church.”

I didn’t say anything, and neither did Scofield for awhile.  From all I’d ever heard Fred was a fine and decent man, and his whole career, an unbroken string of successes, had come down to something he’d scribbled in the margin of what the bankers back then called “dope,” their impressions of the character of a customer from the regular visits they were supposed to make, to protect the bank and its depositors and shareholders.  He was doing his duty as the senior officer reviewing the reports of one of his men in the field, and he’d crossed a line he probably didn’t even know was there, like a soldier wandering into enemy territory in the dark.

“You know how it ended, I assume,” Scofield continued after an uncharacteristic moment of reflection.  “Million dollar verdict against what was a little start-up bank, a gentlemen’s club for Fred and his friends going all the way back to prep school—boyhood, even.”

“I don’t suppose insurance covered it?”

“No, it wasn’t that kind of claim.”  He exhaled a little sigh of wonder; I figured he was thinking of the kind of trouble he himself could get into, him with his rather less circumspect manners than Fred Moss.  Then he continued.  “The bank appealed, of course.  They, uh, brought in a bigger firm to handle it, and the verdict was overturned.”

“They all were, or pretty much all of them back in the days when people suddenly started suing their banks,” I added.

“Right,” Scofield said.  “’Stop me before I borrow again,’ or something like that.  Never made much sense.  But Fred had been dragged through the mud, and that’s when he went into semi-retirement.  He brought in somebody from one of the big banks in Boston to run things, and he stepped back to a sort of . . . ceremonial role.  They offered Scilardi $300,000 to settle in order to avoid another trial, and they took it.  I’m sure his lawyer had had enough—a hundred grand was a good payday to him, and probably about what his two years on the case was worth.”  He said this last part with a sneer.

We’d been looking out the window all that time and so were surprised when a voice boomed out “Scofield!”  It was John at the door, playing the role of the hale-fellow-well-met to the younger banker who was technically his client, even though the two decades that separated them in age meant this was an institutional formality, a vestige of a relationship that had started with John’s father.  “How are you?” John continued as he strode across the room.  Scofield stood up and the two shook hands.

“Everything in order?” John asked me after the two had exchanged pleasantries.

“We’re just waiting to hear that they’re on record,” I said.

“It’s gone very smoothly,” Scofield said.

“Good, good,” John said.  “Well, I’ll leave you two young Turks to the battle.  Good to see you, Scofield.  We should get a lunch on the calendar once you two have wrapped this thing up.”

“Sure, John.  That would be good.”

“I’ll have my girl call your girl.”

And with that John turned and with a “Nice to see you,” left us alone again.

Scofield gave me a look and a smile.  “A gentleman of the old school, huh?”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Ice Cubes for the Hell Ship and Other Legal Fictions.”

The Summer of the Sharks

This is the summer I did not swim in the ocean; there
are too many seals now, wards of the state,
and the sharks have come to feed on them, and man, 

as in John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark. The beasts
could appear in Boston Harbor before long.  So much for paddle
boarding, the fashion of last year–glad I didn’t buy the gear.

On Beacon Hill, a troubled black woman defaced
Saint-Gaudens’ bas relief of the 54th Massachusetts
Voluntary Infantry, because, she said, it was not correct;

Robert Gould Shaw, the white Colonel who led the black
soldiers south, did not ride a horse out of town, according to
her.  On line, no one remembered the poem by Robert Lowell,

just a movie.  Copley and Lowell came of the same blood,
or so they think, one Henry Spencer, Esq. of Badby,
Northamptonshire, England, their common forebear.

I suggested to a fellow with some clout a while back that
the famous sculpture should be moved from Beacon Street
to the Common, where people could view it without cars rushing behind

their backs; no, he said, it should remain a fishbone in the
throat of the Irish solons under the Golden Dome on Beacon Hill,
a rebuke for all the wrongs they’d done to descendants of the 54th.

I gather Lowell didn’t think much of the red-faced Hibernians
who displaced the right sort of people–his–on the City Council.
The cars with their fins in his poem are gone, but the sharks return.