Sunday, April 27, 2014

Keeping My Balance

Here on the tightrope, where a single step,
Forward or back, demands a perfect sense
Of balance and awareness, how I wish
The world would stop trying to knock me off—
Just stop—stop throwing things at me, as if
I was the object of some Hit Me game—
Hit Me and win a prize; Hit Me and watch
Me fall—as if I'm up here to supply
What the world wants from every tightrope walker:
Not expertise, but failure; not success
But just the right kind of undone endeavor. 

If there’s a trick to doing this well, then
The trick is not to lean into the wind
Of the world’s snort so much that I tip over,
And not to be so flattered by the world's
Approval that I fall the other way.
Eyes front, arms out; keep my feet supple and
Ignore the catcalls—they’re as worthless as
The world’s applause: one means I gave them what
They wanted, and the other means the same.

If I take one to heart, that means the other
Can undermine my equilibrium—
So I must never listen to the jeers
Or yearn to hear the clapping of acclaim.
Both of them are the world’s way of proclaiming
“We get to say whether you’re good or not,”
And neither one can guide me as I step
Into thin air and make this tightrope mine.

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Questions Shakespeare gets asked all the time

INTERVIEWER:  Did you write all the plays yourself?   


INTERVIEWER:  Can you prove it? 

SHAKESPEARE:  I could have, if the Globe hadn’t burned down in 1613 and destroyed all the accounts.   

INTERVIEWER:  So you can’t prove it. 

SHAKESPEARE:  I could show you the house they bought.  Except that got torn down after I died. 

INTERVIEWER:  So you can’t prove it. 

SHAKESPEARE:  Next question?
INTERVIEWER:  What exactly is the correct spelling of your name?
SHAKESPEARE:  What is this “spelling” of which you speak?  I lived in an age when a man like Christopher Marlowe could be called Marley, Morley and Merlin, and everybody would still know you were talking about that hot-tempered kid from Canterbury.
INTERVIEWER:  Who was the Dark Lady of the Sonnets? 

SHAKESPEARE:  Her name was Audrey. I put her in As You Like It, gave her a wooer named Will, and played the part myself.  Got some big laughs in 1599, let me tell you.  But it started to go stale in 1600, so I rewrote it. 

INTERVIEWER:  Really?  What did you replace it with? 

SHAKESPEARE:  I can’t remember.  But it got a laugh.  And then when it didn't, I rewrote it again.  Like a lot of the topical stuff, I had to rewrite it whenever it fell flat.  The final version was in the master copy of the script that burned up in the Globe fire. 

INTERVIEWER:  Did you do a lot of rewrites? 

SHAKESPEARE:  All the time. And I got paid for every one.  Except Macbeth.  That's why it's cursed. 

INTERVIEWER:  So what about that second-best bed? 

SHAKESPEARE:  You should have seen the third-best bed. 

INTERVIEWER:  Are you a Catholic? 

SHAKESPEARE:  Is anybody, really?  Especially in America.  

INTERVIEWER:  So you are not Catholic? 

SHAKESPEARE:  I was Church of England from my birth to my dying day, because it was against the law to openly be anything else. 

INTERVIEWER:  And in private? 

SHAKESPEARE:  We didn’t have privacy back then.  Not the way you have it here. 

INTERVIEWER:  Are you gay? 

SHAKESPEARE:  How can I be gay?  I had one more child than Oscar Wilde. 

INTERVIEWER:  What’s the best biography you’ve ever read about yourself? 

SHAKESPEARE:  That’s the thing.  There hasn’t ever been a biography written about me—only novels using my plays as a scaffolding upon which to hang my life. 

INTERVIEWER:  So what's the best one of those? 

SHAKESPEARE: They're all crap.

INTERVIEWER:  What about the worst one? 

SHAKESPEARE:  Oh that would have to be anything by Harold Bloom.  I can particularly un-recommend his last three exercises in fiction: Shakespeare Had Nothing To Do With Theatre!, Hamlet Is A God Damn Poem, Not A Play!, and Didn’t You Hear Me? I Said ‘Shakespeare was Not A Fucking Actor!’ Okay? 

INTERVIEWER:  If you had to write your own epitaph, what would it be? 

SHAKESPEARE:  I did write my own epitaph:


INTERVIEWER:  Oh, yeah, right, sorry.  Okay, uh—well if you had to do something a little more, uhm— 

SHAKESPEARE:  “Entertaining?”  “Clever?” 

INTERVIEWER:  Twitterish. 

SHAKESPEARE:  You mean as if I were some kind of twit? 

INTERVIEWER:  No—something snappy and clever that can be repeated endlessly by people who are incapable of being either clever or snappy. 

SHAKESPEARE:  Ah; okay.  Hmm. How’s this? 

Here lies the corpse of Billy Shakes,
A guy who always got the breaks:
Kit Marlowe knifed before his time,
Bob Greene a stroke while in his prime,
Tom Nashe the plague, Tom Kyd the rack.
This is the way you raise a hack
From last place to the top position—
Just murder all the competition. 

INTERVIEWER:  One final question.  What are you working on now? 

SHAKESPEARE:  A lawsuit to retrieve back royalties dating from1900.


Happy 450th birthday, Mr. S.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Politics and Translations

You won’t find the word “colonialism” anywhere in the New York Times’ appreciation by Michiko Kakutani of Gabriel Garcia Márquez.  You will find the word “febrile,” however, because Kakutani dearly loves to throw in at least one word per review that people haven’t spoken aloud since Samuel Johnson was editing Shakespeare.  (Febrile means feverish, by the way; and—coincidence?--Kakutani used it in her 1988 review of Love In The Time Of Cholera.)   

Another word you won’t find is “translations” or “translators.”  Seriously—if you didn’t know any better, you’d have to assume from this article that English was Garcia Márquez’s natural language.  To praise an author for “a voice with the sinuous rhythms of Faulkner and Joyce, the metaphorical reach of Kafka, the dreamlike imagery of Borges,” and yet not once mentioning that this voice is being spoken by an interpreter?  To me, that’s (well) kind of colonial, isn’t it?

Plus I think she gets it wrong. I have no idea what Garcia Márquez’s voice sounds like in its native tongue, but in translation, he has the best poker face in fiction. And to me there are only three modern writers at that particular table: Garcia Márquez, Kurt Vonnegut, and Haruki Murakami. With maybe Borges sitting in every now and then for the odd hand, but he’s a miniaturist a heart, while the other three do murals.   And the fact that three out of those four need to be translated into English for people like me to read them deserves, I think, some kind of acknowledgement when you’re talking about an author whose Spanish has been translated into thirty-seven different languages.

Speaking of Vonnegut, there’s a case to be made for comparing Hundred Years of Solitude to Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut uses science fiction the way Garcia Márquez uses magic and the fantastic—as a prism to shine an unexpected light on history, as a distancing device that offers a potentially forgiving point of view on a completely unforgivable event, and as the soothing sugar to sweeten his subversive pill.  And what is that pill?  In both authors, I think, it's nothing less than a call for a revolution in the way we live.  If that isn't political, I don't know what is.

So yeah, this whole "appreciation" peeved me on a number of levels.  Not the least of which was all that admiring talk about magic realism, as if it’s actually the substance of Garcia Márquez, and not the style which he used. To me, magic realism is not the drug; it’s the delivery method. To get that wrong? Well, to paraphrase Garcia Márquez’s Nobel address, this is the kind of review that insists on measuring an author with the yardstick that a reviewer uses for herself. And to paraphrase me, that yardstick's missing about a foot and a half.

Two more quotes from this article that annoyed me.  First, this lovely sentence about what might be called the Márqueziverse: 

“It is, at once, a state of mind, a mythologized version of Latin America and a reimagining of the author’s boyhood town through the prism of memory and nostalgia.”

Take out the word "Latin" and it could be a description of Mark Twain’s Mississippi.  And if you keep in mind that "nostalgia" is remembering the snake but not its fangs, then it's not an accurate description either.

And then there’s this:

"In the end, it’s not politics, but time and memory and love that stand at the heart of Mr. García Márquez’s work."

Sorry, Michiko. They all stand side by side—and if anything, in this man's work, time and memory and love all stand under the shadow of politics, and are doing their magical and realistic damnedest to shed their own light, so they can make that shadow vanish, even for just a moment.  That's why Garcia Márquez is not just a great writer, but a revolutionary one.

(For an article on Garcia Márquez’s two English translators, go here.)

Friday, April 18, 2014

One Of The Twelve Harbors - Part 5

Jan was shaking her head in disbelief.  “The mummified body of Jesus Christ . . .”
“I made exactly the same deduction,” I said; and then I added, as kindly as possible: “And I was just as wrong as you are.”
Lower lip quivering, Jan stared at me like I'd just told her that Santa Claus was a myth, the Tooth Fairy was a lie, and Broadway plays only got produced if they starred a Hollywood actor.  “It’s not Jesus Christ?”
“It’s not Jesus Christ.”
“Jesus Christ!”  she said angrily, waving her hands.  “Okay; okay.  It’s a body but it’s not Christ’s body.  So it’s Mary’s, right?”
I shook my head.  “Nope.”
“But what about all the twelves?  The twelve coins, the twelve harbors?”
“Twelve letters in his name, when you spell it out with hieroglyphics.  Well, eleven, actually.”  I held up my coin.  “Plus the designation.  He was the third of that name.”
“The third of what name?”
I looked at the author.  “You want to do the honors?”
She shook her head.  “It’s your story.”
“But you know who it is, right?”
She nodded.  “I know who it is.”
“Will you please tell me please?” Jan cried.
“Okay, okay.”  And I leaned over and whispered three words in her ear. 

You might have read in the Monday papers that there was a minor tremor centered around Bank Street Sunday night, coming in at 2.5 on the Richter scale.  It wasn’t an earthquake.  It was the sound of Jan's jaw hitting the floor at exactly 10:44 PM. 

One minute later, at 10:45, a tall thin guy in black came into the room. He had a thick gray moustache and snow white hair, and he carried a tiny J. Arthur Rank gong in one hand and a small silver hammer in the other.  The Ferryman.  He tapped the gong with the hammer once.  As the tiny bong echoed in the room, he said, “Coins?”
We each held up our obol.
“This way,” he said, and led us to the end of a line of men and women that led into the kitchen, positioning us by our coins so that the author stood in front of Jan, and I stood behind her. 
On line ahead of us, I noticed a local baseball player going into his retirement year, a local governor trying to get out from under a scandal, a TV actor who had just opened on Broadway, and a talk show host who had just signed a new contract.
“Well,” said Jan, squaring her shoulders, “they’re all in good company.”
The talk show host turned around and grinned at her. The author giggled. The Ferryman said “Ssshhh!” like a substitute teacher trying to assert his authority over a class of juvenile delinquents.   

And then the line started moving.  Into the kitchen.  Down a flight of stairs in the back to the keg cellar.  And then through a doorway behind the kegs to a twelve-step stairway that wound clockwise down to a dimly lit corridor, with whitewashed bricks on one side and a blank wooden wall on the other. 
“Look at those bricks,” I whispered to Jan.  I reached out and let my fingers trail across them as we walked.  “They’ve got to be early Nineteenth Century, maybe even late Eighteenth.  This room’s been down here since George Washington had his own teeth.”
At the end of the corridor was a doorway.  We walked through it into a wide low-ceilinged room with a pool table near one wall and a bocce court near the other.  In the center of the wall by the bocce court was a stone archway around a wooden double door.  The Ferryman pulled the doors open.  Less than five seconds later, the smell of incense was everywhere, triggering in me, at least, the memories of about a dozen family funeral masses at once. 
We walked through the archway into a small cathedral.  The ceiling had constellations on it, like Grand Central Station, which were all contained within the wide blue waves of Ôkeanos, the river that surrounds the universe.  There were paintings along each wall, six on the left and six on the right, like a secular version of the Stations of the Cross.  On the floor was a purple carpet; at the end of the carpet were two small pews in front of a red curtain, one pew on the left and one on the right.  We walked on that royal carpet up to the pews, where the Ferryman sat us in order by coin inscription, first letter of the name first, Roman numeral III last. 
A low deep gong sounded from our left.  A perfect piece of misdirection, because we all automatically glanced to our left as the red curtain dropped to the floor.  The first thing we saw was a small podium against the left-hand wall, on which was a book the size of an old Oxford English Dictionary: the guest book.  We quickly turned to look in front of us, and saw everything at once—a kneeler in front of an altar rail—twelve white bowls on the altar rail, each with a candle behind it—a recessed alcove draped in white, and in the center of the alcove a raised platform. 
On that platform, lying upon an ornately-carved ivory pallet and enclosed entirely in glass, was the body of a man.  A small man.  Sunken desiccated features.  Strands of colorless hair that once were golden. A jewel-encrusted diadem on his head.  Arms crossed over a gold chest plate.  A white tunic that glowed like it was radioactive, which made me think there was a black light shining on it from somewhere.
Jan leaned over to me and whispered: “What happened to his nose?”  Because of course his nose was missing.  But then, it had been missing since Cleopatra died. 
“Octavian Caesar knocked it off by mistake,” I whispered back.
“How do you knock off a nose by mistake?”
“You reach down to take the original crown off, and your hand slips.  And your hand slips because you're a total schlemiel.”
“So that’s not the original crown.”
“That’s not the original tunic either.”
“It looks like Lord & Taylor,” said the author.
“Ssshhh!” said the Ferryman. 

One by one they went up to the altar: the baseball player, the governor, the talk show host, the author, Jan.  One by one an obol was dropped in a white bowl.  A candle was lit.  A wish was made, or thanks were given, or prayers were offered up.  For strength, for courage, for success; to endure, to achieve, to win a battle. One by one each person recited the words that were printed in front of each candle:  “Kye Amy Kye Iskandros.”  And one by one each person walked over to the podium and signed the guest book, while the next person went up to the altar.

Jan said later that she made a wish for her daughter, and I totally believe it, because that’s the kind of person she is.  Me, I wasn’t that unselfish.  When it came my turn, I dropped my obol into its bowl, lit the final candle, and thought about the two plays I was working on, and the novel I was having a hard time writing, and the seemingly endless list of ideas which would probably outlive me.  And then I thought of all the things this man had done in the last thirteen years of his all-too short life, the places he'd seen, the battles he'd fought and won.  And I asked for the one thing he never got, the thing he continues to conquer even now.  I asked for time. 
And when I said “Kye Amy Kye Iskandros,” I really tried to say it like I meant it. 

“What does that Amy thing mean?” Jan asked later as I was walking her home.
“It's bad ancient Greek for ‘And I too am Iskander,’ which is what the Persians and the Afghanis and the Egyptians and pretty much everybody but the Greeks called him.  The story goes that when Darius was defeated at the Battle of Issus, he didn’t just abandon his camp, he abandoned his family as well—mother, wife, sons, daughters.  Next morning, the Queen mother, whose name was, crap, I forget what her name was; anyway, she was told that the general who defeated her son wanted to see her, and into her tent walked two men, one small and fair-haired and slim, one tall and dark-haired and built like a wrestler.  Naturally she knelt down in front of the wrestler.  Who wouldn’t?  He looked like a god.  But he wasn’t the general—he was the general’s best friend.  The general was the small slim guy.  And when the Queen apologized, he brushed it off by saying,  ‘No harm done; for he, too, is Iskander.’ ”

“Kye Amy Kye Iskandros.”  I too can change the world.


*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Somewhere in one of the oldest bars in Manhattan there is a woman ordering a bowl of French Canadian bean soup.  Perhaps a friend told her to do it; more likely it was a business associate, or a financial adviser, or someone in the court of the King of New York.  If she is lucky, she is one of the first twelve people that night to order the dish, and when it is delivered to her table she will spoon out a silver coin that has a curious design on one side and a crown or a horse on the other.  And then she will wait, wait till it is almost dawn in the still-living city of Alexandria, when she and eleven other people will descend to the sub-basement of this bar and light a candle and make a wish in front of the man who founded that city: Alexandros III of Macedon, commonly known as Aléxandros ho Mégas—Alexander the Great—Basileus of Macedon, pupil of Aristotle, Hegemon of the Hellenic League, sworn brother of Hephaestion, Shahanshah of Persia, tamer of Bucephalus, Pharaoh of Egypt, Lord of Asia, and self-proclaimed God of the world—whose embalmed and mummified body is even now, as it always will be, safely resting in one of its twelve harbors.


Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Thursday, April 17, 2014

One Of The Twelve Harbors - Part 4

Her name was Dominica, but she went by Sunday.  Back in the 90’s she’d been part of an all-girl group out of Boston called The Necco Wafers, who had a top-ten hit with “(Let Me Be Your) Candy Girl,” b/w  “Forever Yours.”  Now she was the Monday and Tuesday night bartender at the upstairs Naughty Pine, a fill-in waitress on the crappy shifts that none of the other staff wanted, and one of the top ten pot distributors in the East Village.  Me, I was crazy about her, because when I was a wiseass she was a wiseass right back, and that is the kiss of death for me.  And it was the same for her—which is why she told me right up front that she didn’t date regulars, and I told her right back that I didn’t date staff, and everything was fine until New Year’s Eve of 2000, when a bottle of tequila in the upstairs bar turned the two of us into carnal hypocrites.

Fast forward to April of 2001.  Sunday is working Sunday mornings downstairs for the entire month, so I do the gentlemanly thing and show up for lunch to keep her company and watch golf with Sal the bartender and the usual Sunday downstairs crew of old guys whose skin is so leathery you can strike a match off it.

Sunday April 1st.  I walk in around 11:45 and catch the middle of a conversation between Sal and Johnny the Chip, an old British guy who does odd carpenter jobs around the place for free drinks. As I open the door, I hear Johnny saying, “Because there have always been twelve.  Twelve moons, twelve harbors.”  “But there are thirteen moons,” Sal says, and he turns to me and goes, “Matt, how many new moons in a calendar year?” and I say, “Thirteen, there’s one about every twenty days.”  “See?” says Sal to Johnny.  “Thirteen moons.  So there should be thirteen—”  “Yeah, yeah,” Johnny says, cutting Sal off before he can finish, and it’s only later that I realize he’s doing it because I’m not supposed to know what they’re talking about.  Sal knows it too.  He grumbles under his breath as he starts building me a Guinness.  “Addition,” he says and shakes his head.  “Yeah,” I say, “it’s the new subatomic physics.”
Sunday April 8th.  I’m having a steak with rice by the service area, so I can chat with Sunday while she goes back and forth to her customers.   At exactly two PM this guy in a suit walks in like he owns the place, sits down in front of the taps, says “Hello?” three times before Sal decides to notice him, and then barks out four words: “French Canadian bean soup.”  Sal rolls his eyes and sighs and beckons for the guy to lean forward.  I don’t hear what they say, but the guy isn’t happy.  “I have to stay here for the rest of the day?” he says in that loud voice certain guys use when they want to tell the world that nobody tells them what to do.  “The rules," Sal says in a very calm voice, "are the rules."  And then they talk for another minute before the guy raises his arms over his head and says, very loudly, “Fine.  Fine.  We’ll do it your way,” and he stalks over to Booth 103 and sits down.  “Give him a special,” Sal says to Sunday, and I say, “A Dutch Schultz special?” because I know the phrase "French Canadian bean soup" from Schultz’s last words.  Sal gives me his “Thank God there’s somebody else here with a brain” look, and says another line from the last words, “A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim.”  “I dashed a couple of Kims once,” I say, and for the next hour or so we discuss old girlfriends, The Illuminatus Trilogy, and Kim Novak movies.
Sunday April 22nd.  It's a week after Easter.  Sunday’s pulling a double, so I come in around 7.  It’s moderately crowded.  There’s a couple of empty stools at the bar, but the four perfume counter tables by the front door are packed solid, and the reason why shows up five minutes after I get my Guinness—Famous Movie Actor, with Famous Movie Actress Girlfriend, swan in together to cheers and applause because he’s just opened in an Off-Broadway play that’s gotten rave reviews from the snob press and she’s about to start filming a movie about one of her heroines. 

“I saw that play,” said Jan.  “It should have been titled One Hundred Percent Garden Fertilizer.” 

  Sunday’s working the perfume counters tonight, and she’s good, so Famous Actor Boy barely sits down before she’s right there asking him what he’d like to drink.   “You were in that group, weren’t you?” he says, which is one of those things that always pisses Sunday off, but like I say she's good, she says yes,  and they start talking music, which pisses off Famous Actress Girlfriend, who stands up, says “Order me a dirty martini,” and stalks off to the little chiquitas room. 
“Fiery,” says Sunday. 
“Quick, before she gets back,” says Actor Boy.  “I want a bowl of French Canadian bean soup.”
Sunday nods and makes a note in her amnesia pad.  “We had one left about ten minutes ago; let me check with the kitchen to see if it's still there.”
“There’s something extra in it for you if there is,” Actor Boy says with a smile.  He puts his index fingers a foot apart.  “A friend of mine who's this big.  How’d you like to see someone who's this big?”
Sunday cocks the leg, puts the right hand on the hip, and looks Actor Boy up and down before staring him right in the face.  “I’m already looking at someone who's this big,” she says, measuring his height and putting her left hand a couple of inches over her head; and still looking right at him, she says:  “And since he's a c__t, I should probably tell you I don’t do same sex.”  Whereupon she makes a smooth and perfect pirouette and heads for the service bar.
Meanwhile I’ve heard every word and I can’t believe a syllable of it, although I’m furiously writing it all down in my notebook so I can send it to Page Six as a blind item.  As she walks by me, Sunday leans in and says, “Fuck him—you’re getting his bowl of soup.”  Then, because she knows Famous Actor Boy is staring at her ass, she does a lingerie-model runway sashay to the far end of the bar and confers with Sal, who turns around and points to me, and then shrugs at her.  Sunday gives him a “There you go” spread of the hands, and swivel-hips her way back to Actor Boy to tell him he’s out of luck.
I don’t hear what they say because Sal is putting a fresh Guinness in front of me along with a bowl of what looks like vegetarian chili.  He measures me for a moment, comes to a decision, and says:  “There's a good chance that little Marlon Brando over there is probably gonna try and buy this from you, because he’s that kind of asshole.  Don’t let him do it.  And don't tell anyone you're family.  We're not supposed to let family know about this.  And whatever you do, don't choke on the coin.”  
“It was a silver coin with the Roman numeral III on one side and a horse on the other,” I said.  “The very same one I got tonight.”
“You mean the actual same coin?” said the author.
“There are only twelve of them in the world,”  I said with a nod.
“And did he?” said Jan.  “Did Actor Boy try to buy it from you?”
I shook my head.  “No, but he did try and get Sunday fired.  Sal just laughed at him.  Me, I just ate my soup, drank a ton of Guinness, and listened to Sal for the next four hours while he told me everything he knew about the body that was currently in the Naughty Pine’s sub-basement.”
“And I know whose body it is,” said Jan.

The author and I glanced at each other.  We both knew what was coming.
“It’s obvious,” Jan continued.
“It is, kind of, isn’t it,” I said.
“Twelve coins?”
“Twelve coins.”
“And twelve harbors?”
“Twelve harbors.”
“Just like twelve apostles?” Jan said with a grin.
I grinned back at her.  “That’s exactly what I thought.  You add it all up and there’s only one answer.  The summer treasure has to be the mummified corpse of—”
“Jesus Christ!”


Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

One Of The Twelve Harbors - Part 3

Jan dipped her spoon into the bowl.  “Can we eat this?”
“Sure; it’s pretty good actually. Just don’t swallow the coin by mistake.”
“The coin?” said Jan. “What coin?”
I swirled my spoon around till I heard a clink, and then scooped it out to reveal a silver coin about the size of a half dollar.  “This one,” I said.
“What the hell kind of coin is that?”
“It’s an obol.  The kind people used to put in the mouth of a dead man before they buried him, so he’d be able to pay the ferryman who was taking him to the afterlife.”
I dropped the coin onto my napkin and wiped it clean. There was a horse on one side and a Roman numeral III on the other.  “Man, I always get this,” I complained.  “What’s on yours?”
Jan had scooped her coin out of the bowl and was frowning at it.  “It looks like a crown, and . . . sorry, I don’t know what the hell this is on the other side.”
She handed it to me.  “That’s a folded piece of cloth,” I said.  “Which is the letter S in Egyptian hieroglyphics.”
“You know Egyptian hieroglyphics?  Wait, of course you know Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Uhm, how do you know Egyptian hieroglyphics again?”
I gave her a shrug and a sheepish grin.  “I never went to college.”
“You taught yourself Egyptian hieroglyphics?”
“I’ve had a lot of boring-ass day jobs.”
“And I have,” said a voice behind me, “what looks like either a snake or some kind of dominatrix whip thing.”
I turned around. Standing behind me was the author, holding her own obol.  I peered at it and nodded.
“It's a lasso,” I said.  “Standing for the letter O.”
The author pulled out the chair I'd been sitting in before I moved, eased herself down onto it like it was the driver's seat of a limo, and crossed her legs.  “Mind if I join you?” she asked sweetly.
Jan and I both cracked up.  “I think we have to keep you,” Jan said.
 After we traded introductions, the author looked at me and asked, “So who found the buried treasure of Dutch Schultz?”
“Bugsy Siegel.  Who was just as crazy as Schultz was. He took the treasure with him to Las Vegas, and kept it under lock and key in the Flamingo.  When he was killed in 1947, the Mob had it shipped back to Manhattan.  Which is when Meyer Lansky set up the twelve harbors, so that the treasure would never be in one place for more than a month.   After a year, the order and location of the harbors would totally change, to make sure there was no pattern to it.  And since the original list of potential harbors numbered over 50 bars and restaurants, the treasure could theoretically move around for over four years without ever once being in the same place twice.”
“Fifty bars and restaurants?” Jan asked.
“All of which paid protection money to the Mob.”
“So who decides where this year’s twelve harbors are going to be?”
“Beats me,” I said.
“The King of New York,” said the author.
I pulled out my Moleskin and started writing a note.  “New York has a king?” I asked.
The author nodded.  “He's elected every year before Mardi Gras, like King Felix III in Mobile.  The election takes place at a party on Twelfth Night in the Morgan Library, with a guest list made up of people chosen by last year’s King.”
“Who was the first King?” I asked, scribbling away.
“Boss Tweed,” said the author.
I nodded; made sense.  Then I raised an index finger.  “So how does the King of New York tell everybody what the harbor calendar is?”
“No idea,” said the author.  “I heard about this from my publisher, so somebody in the office must have gotten the information somehow.”
“It has to be word of mouth,” said Jan.  “It’s the safest thing ever.  If it isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist.”
“Which doesn’t explain the guest book,” I said.
“There’s a guest book?”
“Yup.  Dating from 1947. Rumor has it that the first signature is Frank Sinatra’s.”
“Wow,” said the author.  “So Sinatra saw the, uh, treasure?”
Jan looked at the author, looked at her coin, leaned back against the booth, dropped her eyelids to half mast, and gave me a feline smile.  “Don’t you mean the, uh, body?” she asked.   “The embalmed dead body?” 

I slow-clapped four times.  “Advantage: Harding,” I said.  “How did you figure it out?”
“Oh, y’know,” she said casually, “time difference to Egypt; dawn in Alexandria; hieroglyphics.  And a coin that’s only placed on a dead person’s tongue?  We’re going to be seeing an Egyptian mummy at eleven o’clock, aren’t we?”
I smiled.  “Not quite.  We’re going to see something that was found in Egypt.”
“But it is a dead body?”
“It is indeed a dead body.  Summer house?  The first word is a corruption of soma, the Greek word for corpse.”
“And this is where Napoleon comes in,” the author announced with a delighted grin.  She leaned forward.  “My publisher said Napoleon found it near the Sphinx when he invaded Egypt.  And then he sold it to Thomas Jefferson as part of the Louisiana Purchase.  And then the British tried to steal it back during the War of 1812, and actually burned down the White House because they couldn’t find it.  And they couldn’t find it because it was in New York, in a house owned by a woman named Eliza Something Or Other, last name begins with a J.”
I felt a shiver go up my spine from tailbone to neckbone.  “Eliza Jumel?  Eliza Bowen Jumel?”
“That’s it,” said the author.  “Who is she?”
“She’s the woman Aaron Burr married in 1833.  One of the richest women in New York. It was a love match—Burr loved money, and that's what he married her for.  Well crap.  Now I want to go visit her house again.”
“It’s still around?”
“Oh yeah.  It's the Morris-Jumel Mansion near Coogan’s Bluff. Oldest surviving house in the borough of Manhattan.  So when did John Jacob Astor get the treasure?  Because I heard that Astor was the one who had it when John Wilkes Booth saw it.”
“I just heard that when this Eliza woman died, the treasure—okay, the body—went to Cornelius Vanderbilt; and when Vanderbilt died, it went to JP Morgan.”
"And you heard all this from?” Jan asked.
“My publisher."
Jan turned to me.  “And you heard all this from?”
“A harbormaster," I said.  "Do you remember a bar called The Naughty Pine?”
“That was down in the Village, right?”
“Yup.  On Bleecker Street.  I was one of the upstairs regulars.  It was at the Naughty Pine that I had my first bowl of French Canadian bean soup.  All because I slept with a bartender, and a famous movie actor was an asshole.”
“Ooh—ooh—which famous actor?” Jan asked.  “Do I know him?”
I said his name.
“That asshole!” Jan said with feeling.  “What did he do—what did he do?  Tell me—tell me!”  And then she grabbed my forearm and dug her nails in like fishhooks and went, “Waitaminnit, waitaminnit—YOU ACTUALLY SLEPT WITH ONE OF YOUR BARTENDERS?!?”  



Part 1
Part 2

Part 4

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

One Of The Twelve Harbors - Part 2

In February of 1901, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and the Kid’s paramour Etta Place spent two weeks in New York City before sailing off to Bolivia.  One of the first things they did when they arrived was look up an old friend of theirs, Jonah Hatfield, who was living on Irving Place under the name of JB Canfield.  They asked for Canfield’s help in robbing JP Morgan’s jewel collection.  When Canfield refused, Cassidy and the Kid threatened to reveal his true identity to the police, which would have exposed Canfield to seven outstanding warrants for murder in Arizona and Colorado under his Hatfield name.  Canfield reluctantly agreed to the robbery plan, as long as he could call in a safecracker he knew to help them.   
The safecracker was Ralph D. Spencer, alias Jimmy Valentine, whom O. Henry later used as a character in his 1903 short story “A Retrieved Reformation.”  Spencer was posing as a painter and wooing Morgan’s daughter Anne Tracy Morgan in order to gain access to the so-called “summer house,” a four-story brownstone near Morgan’s residence on 219 Madison Avenue which was rumored to contain a treasure so valuable that it was worth more than five billion dollars in 1901 money.
“Nothing’s worth that much,” said the Sundance Kid when Spencer told them about it.
“And even if it was,” said Cassidy, “if we steal something that valuable, how are we going to turn it into cash?”
Etta Place rolled her eyes.  “We sell it,” she said.
“Sell it to who?”
“Who else? We sell it back to Morgan.”
“For five billion dollars?”
“For a hundred thousand in gold,” said Spencer.  “Twenty thousand each.”  

The robbery—or rather the kidnapping, as it’s called in Canfield's unpublished memoirs—was committed on February 14, 1901.  Six days later, with $60,000 in gold between them, Butch, Etta and the Kid sailed to Bolivia.  Canfield used his split to invest in the fledgling motion picture industry, helping to finance Edwin Porter’s Great Train Robbery (filmed in Millbank, New Jersey) and Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Company, before finally moving to Hollywood in 1912.
As for Ralph Spencer, he disappeared on February 19th, supposedly resurfacing a month later in Buffalo under the name John Yeager.  In an interesting side note, Anne Morgan used Spencer’s betrayal as an excuse to promise her father that she would never again for the rest of her life put her trust in a man’s avowals of love.  Since Morgan never married, and within two years was living near Versailles with two equally-unmarried female friends, one can easily believe Canfield’s remark that “the lady’s vow was clearly made to close the door to parental expectations and leave the window open for her own proclivities.”   Canfield also passes on a story he heard a few years later, which says that in 1908, when Butch and the Kid were surrounded by the Bolivian army in San Vicente, they weren’t killed but taken prisoner, and a telegram was sent to JP Morgan giving him that information.  Morgan immediately booked passage to Bolivia, where he confronted the two men and was present when they were executed. 

“That’s fucked up,” Jan said.
“People that rich are always fucked up,” I said.
“So what happened to the summer house treasure?”
“Morgan had it stored in a special vault in the Morgan bank offices at 23 Wall Street.  And there it stayed until the Wall Street Bombing of 1920.  100 pounds of dynamite sent 500 pounds of cast iron slugs into God knows how many people, killing about 40 of them.  Supposed to have been planned by anarchists, but it was really a gigantic diversion to cover the fact that Lucky Luciano was stealing the summer house treasure from the Morgan building vaults and hiding it away about, oh, ten blocks from here.”
“You’re kidding—where?”
“The sub-basement of what is now Cucina Di Pesce on East 4th, which was one of Luciano’s casinos back in the 20’s.”
“And Morgan never got it back?”
“Morgan was dead by then. And only a handful of his associates knew about the treasure. Unfortunately, more than a handful of Luciano’s associates knew about it.  And one of them was Dutch Schultz."
“Who’s Dutch Schultz?”
“Dustin Hoffman in Billy Bathgate.”
“I love you too.  Schultz was a crazy-ass gangster who didn't get along with the Italians or the Irish.  Somewhere between 1928 and 1930, he stole the summer house treasure from Luciano; and after keeping it hidden, he buried it in upstate New York in August of 1935, along with approximately 7 million dollars in cash, in a specially-made airtight waterproof safe.” 
“Why did he do that?”
“Thomas Dewey was coming after him for income tax evasion.  So Schultz hid a bunch of money in various bank accounts, buried the treasure and a ton of cash where no one but him would find it, and then went to the Five Families and asked them to sanction a hit on Dewey.  When they said no, he went ahead and made plans to do it anyway.  Which the Mob knew he was going to do, so they shot him before he could do it.  He didn’t die immediately.  It took him about 20 hours, during which he famously babbled a string of sometimes nonsensical last words, which contained several clues to the location of his safe.  Including,”  I said, as our waitress approached the table with two white bowls, “a map reference hidden in a simple four-word phrase.”
I leaned back and gave the waitress room to place the bowls in front of us, and then spread my hands. 
“French Canadian bean soup,” I said. 


Part 1

Part 3

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Monday, April 14, 2014

One Of The Twelve Harbors - Part 1

I was having a drink at the White Horse with my friend Jan last night, and we were trading stories about our crazy families when I noticed the woman sitting two tables away.  “See her?” I said.  “She’s got a book coming out on Tuesday.  I think she’ll be at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in the next couple of weeks.”
Jan gave her the once over.  “Why is she dressed like she’s going to the opera?”
“Maybe she just came from the opera.  Speaking of which, I can now add ‘operetta’ to my annual report card.  Did I tell you I saw Ruddigore last week?”
“Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore?”
I nodded and took a sip of beer.  As I did, a waitress approached the author and asked, “What can I get you?”
“I didn’t see it on the menu,” the author said, “but I’d really love a cup of French Canadian bean soup.”
At which point I choked on my Guinness.

“You okay?” asked Jan.
I nodded while I waved my hands and coughed up a lung into my napkin, and risked a glance at the author.  She was looking at me warily, like I was a book reviewer with a grudge.
“I’ll be damned,” I said, when I could finally talk.
“This we know,” said Jan.  “Any particular reason tonight?”
There are certain disadvantages to having a dumb phone. “Do me a favor and look up the time difference between here and Egypt,” I said.
“Okay,” Jan drawled, and started working her iPhone.  “Six hours.”
“Cool.  Now what time is dawn on Monday morning in Alexandria?”
“Dawn . . .  Monday morning . . .  Alexandria . . .  Dawn or sunrise?”
“About five-oh-nine AM.”
“Excellent.  What are you doing at eleven-oh-nine PM tonight?”
“You mean about ninety minutes from now?  I don’t know—watching Big Bang Theory reruns with my daughter?”
I shook my head.  “No, my dear, you are going to do what John Wilkes Booth did two weeks before he shot Lincoln.”

It was Jan’s turn to look at me warily.  “Is this a Players Club thing?”
I guffawed.  “Hah—they wish,” I said.  “No, it’s also what William Walker did before he invaded Nicaragua.  And what Cornelius Vanderbilt did before he made sure Walker failed.”
Jan gave me an “And that would be . . . ?” look.
I smiled and waved our waitress over.  “Uhm, we’d like another round, and also some food, I think.  Chicken tenders for me, French fries for her, and, uhm, I didn’t see it on the menu, but if you have any left, we’d like two bowls of French Canadian bean soup.”
It was the author’s turn to choke on her beer, but to her credit, she did it delicately and with flair.
“I think we’re almost out,” said the waitress.  “Let me check the kitchen.”
She turned away and almost bumped into the author’s waitress, who was delivering a small white bowl to the author’s table.  They had a brief whispered conversation, and then our waitress turned back to me.
“You’re in luck,” she said, “we have two left.”
“Excellent; thank you,” I said, and off she went.  “We’re really lucky,” I said to Jan, “there are always only twelve bowls a night.”
“One for each harbor,” I said in my best Isn’t-It-Obvious voice.
“No, Matthew—why are you ordering us soup that isn’t on the menu?”
“Because that’s the only way we’ll get to see it.”
“See what?”
“The thing that made Lucky Luciano lucky.”

Jan heaved a sigh so deep it could have been a subway tunnel.  “So this is one of those crazy Manhattan things.”
“Jan, this is better than any crazy Manhattan thing you’ve ever done.”
“And are you gonna tell me about it before we do it, or is the surprise part of the surprise?”
“No.  No it’s not.  You won’t appreciate it unless you know what it really is.  And I really shouldn’t be telling you here, of all places, especially tonight.”
“Then we’ll go somewhere else.”
“No, we have to stay here.  It could start any time after we get our soup.”
“Because we’re the last two?”
“Because nobody’s ever on fucking time in this city. Scooch over,” I said. 
We were in a booth near the Men’s Room, with me on a chair and Jan against the wall.  I got up from the chair and squeezed in next to her. The author was studiously avoiding looking in our direction, which made it all the more obvious that she was hanging on every word I spoke.
“Voices low,” I said.  “If you have any questions, whisper them.”
“This better be good, Wells.”
“Oh honey, you have no idea.”
“So—Lucky Luciano.”
“Actually that part of the story starts earlier.  In 1901, to be exact.  You’ve seen Butch Cassidy, right?”  Jan nodded.  “You know that he and the Sundance Kid came to New York before they sailed to Bolivia, right?  Do you know why?”
“Because New York is where the ship sailed from?”
“Because they needed money.  And money to them meant robbing something.”
“Like a bank?”
“Like a banker.  They robbed JP Morgan of the one thing he could not do without.”
“Unmarked tens and twenties?”
“No,” I said.  “The thing that made him lucky.”



Part 2

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells