A friend in need
I have found that most Americans think of Scandinavia as a region of four countries made up of the same people. Most Americans think that the difference between Finland and Denmark is like the difference between Los Angeles and Long Beach – not enough to spend time thinking about it. Clearly their ignorance is based on lack of information.
The Danes hate the Swedes; the Norwegians hate the Danes, the Swedes
hate the Norwegians, and nobody understands the Finns. Or cares.
After all, Finland is a country where the primary form of recreation is dancing the tango (!!!), yet it has a suicide rate just below that of the local lemming community. Even within each of the Scandinavian countries there are serious differences, and that is where my story begins.
Norway has been a monarchy for centuries, and even though there is now a democratically-elected parliament, there is an anti-monarchist movement that continues to believe that the institution is an anachronism that simply has to go.
Before I dropped out of the university in Bergen, I was part of a student anti-monarchist organization and when I came to the United States I continued to stay in touch with my former colleagues.
I should add that, like many student protest organizations, the Norwegian Anti-Monarchist Movement, or NAMM, was not that serious and was certainly no threat to the monarchy of Norway. I remember that when I was at the university, we used to spend most of our time sitting around drinking beer and smoking Turkish hashish, and telling sordid, bawdy jokes about the king and his family.
We composed an inflammatory pamphlet or two along with a few half-hearted demonstrations hardly drew flies and certainly drew less attention. But we thought that, in some way, what we were doing was important, and we managed to maintain an inconsistently consistent persistence about our point of view.
I guess that is why, when I got to New York, I continued to stay in touch with my friends from NAMM who, if the truth be told, were my only friends at school. And that is why I would send a few dollars back to Bergen from time to time to help support the activities of my friends in NAMM.
And, when I say a “few dollars”, I mean fifty dollars here, a hundred dollars there, since there was never a lot of money in the dishwashing business. It all seemed completely innocent and somewhat noble and righteous.
So you can imagine my surprise when two FBI agents were waiting for me at Ilse’s apartment when I came home from work at two o’clock in the morning. Waiting for me!
It turns out that some of my erstwhile friends with NAMM had turned their infatuation with Turkish hashish into a commercial enterprise, selling the potent product in more than a few neighborhoods in Bergen. And, not being satisfied with being minor league drug dealers, they had also accessed the Internet and gotten instructions for constructing a rather primitive pipe bomb which they managed to explode under a Carlsberg (the irony of it all, a Danish beer!!) beer truck in the vicinity of the king’s palace in Oslo.
The FBI agents questioned me through the rest of the night, first at Ilse’s and then at their headquarters in lower Manhattan. I was allowed to go with the very dire warning that I was in a lot of trouble and that I should consult a lawyer as it was very likely that I was going to be questioned again in the near future.
I remember as it were yesterday. I dressed for work at the Water Club that late afternoon feeling absolutely adrift and in a haze. I had been stupid and I had been betrayed by stupid, stupid friends, a really great combination in life. Now every hope and dream of mine was sitting on a tiny bubble of hope that sat in the FBI offices. A place where hopes go to die. I knew that I needed to consult a lawyer and had no idea where to turn.
In retrospect, I imagine I could have asked my employer, Mr. O’Keefe to recommend someone. And maybe I should have. But something told me that it would have marked me forever in his eyes.
No boss wants to hear that a trusted employee is in trouble with the FBI. Just like no boss likes to loan money to his employees or hear about their marital problems. This problem was my problem and it was just too much of a problem to take to my boss.
As I finished dressing for work that evening and came out of the employee’s locker room and into the restaurant area of the Water Club, I spied Paul Taylor at the bar, waiting for his date as it turned out. As soon as I saw him, it was like an inspiration and a revelation. When people speak about an “epiphany”, I now know what they mean, because on that early afternoon, seeing Paul Taylor was my epiphany.
I immediately realized that Paul was not only a lawyer, but he was devoid of obvious pretensions. He was not like a number of people who felt that owning a Platinum American Express Card gave them the right to look down their noses at other people and to act in any way they felt. I don’t know how I knew that. I just did.
Maybe it was in the way that he remembered the names of the waiters and the bartenders, or maybe it was in the solicitous but sincere way in which he treated his guests, male or female. All I know is that all of my intuitive, lifesaving radar told me to talk to Paul Taylor. Now!
In the twenty minutes before his date arrived I was able to tell Paul my entire sad and sordid story. To his everlasting credit, he showed little or no reaction, but clearly understood the gravity of my situation.
He gave me his card, told me to call him the following afternoon to arrange an appointment to see him before the end of the week. Needless to say, at 12:01 p.m. the next day, I called his office and was given an appointment at 4:30 that day, which would give me just enough time to get to my job in a timely fashion since Paul’s office was at 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, not exactly a stone’s throw away from the Water Club. But, of course, I had no choice but to be there.
Just like magic
To make a very long story very short, by the time I had gotten to his office, Paul had called one of his ubiquitous classmates from college (Dartmouth) or law school (Harvard), who in this instance worked for the FBI. As Paul put it, “Once I explained to him that you were a Norwegian knucklehead who posed no danger to the security or safety of the United States, it was a pretty simple conversation.”
There was no plea bargaining, because there were never any charges. It was as if the entire nightmare had never happened and Paul Taylor was Mandrake the Magician. I mean it when I say that, from that moment on, I was eternally grateful to Paul, and he certainly has had my full faith, support and loyalty ever since.
The best part is that, aside from not charging me a fee for an invaluable service, Paul has literally never mentioned this episode again. Ever. It was like it had never happened. And for that I am thankful as well.
There are too many people who want to lord their good deeds over you until you are sorry that they ever helped you in the first place. That was not the way with Paul Taylor. I simply consider it my good fortune that he has considered me a friend, then, and in all the years since.
And it has been through Paul Taylor that I learned about The Pride. After my NAMM episode, I could not help but be more attentive to him when he came to the Water Club. Of course he never had to wait for a table again. There were the other courtesies, the best tables with the best views, the complimentary cocktails and bottles of wines and champagne. As far as I was concerned, that was the best that I could do to make sure that Paul knew that I had a good memory.
A few years later it was Paul who suggested that we meet privately. By then I couldn’t help but notice that he had a regular crowd of extremely impressive friends, most of whom were black, and all of whom seemed to have something to do with Wall Street, corporate America or the practice of law.
When I came by his office that spring afternoon, I simply couldn’t imagine what the purpose of the meeting could be. I only knew that a summons from Paul Taylor, my American savior, was reason enough for me. I will confess, however, that there was this nagging, gnawing feeling that perhaps my idiot friends in Bergen had been acting up again. I whispered a long forgotten, brief prayer to St. Ursula, the patron saint of Norway, in the elevator on my way up to his office.
You could have knocked me over with a feather when Paul told me that he, and several of his friends, were interested in starting a first class restaurant and wanted to know if I was interested in managing it!
He told me the names of his colleagues, one of which was his ex-wife. He mentioned some numbers regarding the financing of the restaurant. And it was clear that these were big league players. And, as much as I loved Buzzy O’Keefe, I said yes on the spot.
Neither Paul nor I used the term The Pride that day, or at any point since. Indeed, I can’t remember where I first heard it with reference to the coterie of accomplished black men and women in business in New York City. All I know is that as soon as I heard it, it seemed to fit. Lions and lionesses, aspiring to majesty and dominion in the hostile jungle called corporate America and Wall Street.
And, as soon as I heard the term, “The Pride”, I knew instinctively that Paul Taylor and his partners in Dorothy’s By the Sea were all charter members that I had been privileged to have a front row seat to be able to watch all of the inner workings and comings and goings of a truly unique group of Americans.
When I was a young man in Bergen and Oslo, there was no one and no thing in Norway that could have prepared me for what I have learned because of my relationship with The Pride.
Get me to the church on time
At some point, long ago in my professional development, I decided to be early for every appointment and function that I planned to attend – at least ten to fifteen minutes. Aside from the fact that it means that I am almost never late for anything, it has provided an interesting advantage, one that I never expected at the outset.
Many of my friends and colleagues have told me that this particular habit is an overreaction to the legend/myth/supposition that black people are always late. Every black person knows the term “CP Time” and most have come to despise it.
As I have told my friends, my habit arose from my reading a biography of Lyndon Johnson by the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro. In it, he refers to the fact that Johnson always arrived early to meetings in order to achieve a strategic advantage over whomever it was that he was meeting. This bit of logic struck me the right way and I thought that I would try it. And, believe me, it has worked.
Also, as I have told my friends, the truth is that almost every culture believes that lateness is a group characteristic. When I was in Tel Aviv I was introduced to the concept of “JP Time” (Jewish People’s Time). And when I was in Tokyo, references to “JP Time” (Japanese People’s Time) by my Japanese law firm hosts truly flew in the face of the myths and legends regarding Japanese efficiency and reliability. I know that many of my Italian friends use the term “IPT” (Italian People’s Time”) and are amused to find out that black people have a similar phrase. Clearly we all need a little help trying to be on time.
Being able to get to functions like Winner’s funeral before the rest of the lemmings gives me an opportunity to observe – who’s in attendance, who is with whom, who is trying to align with whom – that kind of thing. I know that this has a certain voyeuresque aspect to it, but we all observe other in one way or another, being early simply provides me with my own peculiar perch. Kind of like sitting in the catbird seat, as the old Yankee broadcaster Red Barber was known to say on occasion.
As the car pulled up to the Riverside Church, I could not help but notice, standing like some mute, granite sentinel, Grant’s Tomb. This final resting place of the alcoholic warrior, the frightfully, almost poetically corrupt president and his absolutely anonymous wife is a huge, silent, stone commitment by humanity to the belief that there may be something more to life than life itself. At least that’s my guess.
There has always been a lot of that going around, of course. We call them pyramids, burial grounds, burial mounds, skyscrapers, multi-use sports arenas. We all want to be remembered.
I know that I want my son to not only know me, but to remember me. Not just as a good father but as someone who is there for him on an absolute and unconditional basis. In this life and in all the lives to come.
And then I was in front of the Riverside Church, its massive doors facing the nearly frozen Hudson River. The service was scheduled to begin at ten, and it was just turning on nine. A few dozen people huddled in front of the church, speaking in low, almost frozen tones. While I saw the faces of a number of people that I knew, I didn’t feel compelled to meet and greet just yet. I had come extra early for a reason – and funerals have really come to bother me anyway.
That morning I figured that a walk across the small park across the street from the church would give me the assurance that I could maintain my composure. It would also give me time to think about Joel’s e-mail note and to rethink a strategy that was already starting to take form in my mind. And it would also give me time to think about Samantha.
Taking that stroll down memory lane…
Samantha Gideon was the lady of my life at that time, all other amorous experiences and fun frolics. I would guess that if I were to have described our relationship at the time, I would not have objected to the use of the word “serious”. In retrospect, if she hadn’t died, there is every reason for me to believe that she would have been the mother of the little boy that is sleeping upstairs from my home office right now. Of course life is full of those elusive “might have beens” and “could have beens”, when, of course, all that really matters is what is.
On that January morning, there was no way that I could see that far into the future. I just knew that I missed her. She was a singer, and quite a good one. She was just not fortunate enough to have experienced the life-changing serendipity that would get her the stratospheric recording contract that would let her talent carry her to deserved stardom.
She did have a contract with one of the major cruise lines. So I am reasonably certain that she had been singing “Guantanamera” and “Impossible Dream” and “The Greatest Love” for the umpteenth time the night before.
She was way beyond adamant that I not use any of my contacts, friends and relationships in the music business to try and help her.
I had once tried to surreptitiously arrange for her to have an audition and she found out. Even though the audition represented the chance of a lifetime for her, it was almost the end of our relationship – right there on the spot. She wanted to do it her way. Which meant no help from me.
On one level I understood her desire and need for independence. On the other hand, this was something about Samantha that I never really understood. After all, from my perspective I had (and have) helped people who have meant so much less to me. I have helped them because I could.
What’s more, I know that Samantha could not have possibly believed the mythology that anybody actually made it “on their own”. I always thought that if I was simply an acquaintance, someone else in her life, Samantha would have permitted me to help her, and her life would have been so much different. Although I guess she would still be dead right now.
Instead, to the day she died, she stubbornly clung to the notion that she had to succeed without my help, assistance or participation. The only thing she would accept from me was my support. And that she had. The fact that she never let me be a contributing factor to her success is one of the few regrets that I carry in this life.
And so, I was walking away from the church, headed west towards the river, alone with my thoughts – thoughts about Samantha – thoughts about Winner. Thoughts about warm sheets that had cooled too soon that morning, thoughts about…..
“Paul! I knew I would see you here.”