Archive for October 2010

Working the City – 1,2,3,4

October 18, 2010

It’s an older, inner city neighborhood. The closest shopping area is eight blocks away. The grocery store building at the corner of my block is empty. I’m sitting on money. I’ve been saving it for an eventual move to the country. Yet, as I walk past the ‘For Rent’ sign in the store’s window, I’m attracted to the possibilities. I call the listed number. Within an hour, a sharply dressed older man arrives on the scene in a vintage, maroon Cadillac. He’s asking questions. What’s my plan? Do I have first and last months rent? Utilities deposits? I flash the cash. He gives me three copies of the lease and says I have thirty days to seek a lawyer’s advice before deciding. I scan through the lease and sign all three copies. He takes two copies and hands me the keys.

I clean the store, repair the walk-in cooler, wash the big glass windows in front. Then, early the next morning, I drive my pickup truck to the commercial produce terminal. Wholesale suppliers refuse me, saying my purchases are too small. However, at the end of the loading dock I find a supplier selling smaller quantities of expensive, high quality produce. He welcomes my business. Fresh items arrive early every morning by air freight, mostly from California. I can purchase older produce at reduced prices.

People in the neighborhood are delighted when I open the store with a wide selection of fruits and vegetables. They’re attracted to my unusual assortment of sweet and juicy melons with pink, orange, yellow, and green soft textured interior fruit, each with a unique flavor. They love my bright red tomatoes, gigantic orange carrots, pearly white onions, shades of green lettuce and cabbage. Grapes, apples, pears, and bananas. I’m sold out by the end of the day.

Even at moderate profit margins, I quickly accumulate enough money for a used deli counter with a working compressor allowing me to keep meats, cheeses, and other foods cool while on display behind glass. A stainless steel slicing machine comes with the deli counter. I sell pre-made sandwiches. Customers can buy a variety of ingredients and make their own. I collect an assortment of used kitchen tables with chairs and place them around the front area of the store where the big glass windows allow natural lighting throughout the day.

My shopping trips expand to include bakery, beverage, and condiment products along with the fresh produce, dried fruits, nuts, cheeses, and meats. I hire people from the neighborhood, a woman to make sandwiches, another woman to work the counter, and a man to work the front of the store dealing with customers and security while cleaning tables and taking out the garbage.

Everything’s going smoothly during the lunch rush when a tall man wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and tie walks into the store. He’s the city’s health inspector, looking for trouble. I hold my breath while he sniffs around. He gives me a list of violations to correct and tells me I’m doing a great job. I offer him a sandwich and a beverage but he says he’d rather pay for it to avoid a misunderstanding. We sit at a table to talk. He does most of the talking. He’s a treasure chest of food business knowledge. I ask why he still works for the city. He shrugs and looks out the window like that’s not a proper question.

_______
II

City departments are overwhelmed by job cuts and, in the absence of adequate police protection, the few remaining inspectors rarely venture into the neighborhoods. My store’s liquor license effectively allows me to market beer, wine, and distilled spirits in whatever manner I choose. The legal minimum age remains a priority concern for me and my employees, nonetheless.

The local gang leader pressures me for protection money. I’m able to involve him in a business scheme, giving me the confidence I need to make further investments in the neighborhood.

An empty industrial building six blocks from the store is in excellent condition. It has an attached four story warehouse and a paved parking lot surrounded by a ten foot high fence. I cut a deal with the property management agency. In the absence of other alternatives, they’re eager to work with me and my phased development plan.

Using unemployed workers from the neighborhood, including several master carpenters, I partition the main floor of the warehouse building into a mini-mall of separate stores. When the right time comes, I’ll go city wide with advertising. Until then, I stay under the radar. I don’t want inspectors coming around, going by the book.

I use the second floor of the warehouse building to support the first floor’s business activities. The third floor goes to the local gang leader who runs security operations. The forth floor is a private club with high stakes gambling.

In the large industrial bay, with its four stories high ceiling and one long wall consisting almost completely of big glass windows, I create an area for private parties with a bar, a stage, and a dance floor.

My job is easy. I’m the boss. Although the gang leader who runs security likes to think he’s the boss. He’s controlling crime and violence in the neighborhood, creating a safe environment for business, so I don’t mind humoring him.

_______
III

Pau Patro, that’s the local gang leader’s name. He now runs security operations for all my business activities. I couldn’t operate in the neighborhood without him. He’s young, strong, and ambitious. He reminds me of a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He of the lean and hungry look who doesn’t sleep at night. Referring to Brutus, I believe. Machiavelli’s political treatise, The Prince, also comes to mind. My greatest need is stability. Pau’s violent and sometimes cruel actions are predicated on acquiring necessary ends by any means. His methods are justified as the best way to acquire, maintain, and protect neighborhood stability.

There’s another new stadium downtown, along with casino, theater, and hotel renovations. The city’s looking good in mainstream corporate media. However, many neighborhood leaders throughout the city are lobbying for political independence, saying their specific needs are being ignored. They want to break the city up into separate villages with their own taxes and public services.

My neighborhood is a microcosm of the city. Business is good for some, nonexistent for others. Personally, I’m riding a wave of success. But I don’t want to ignore the needs of others. Referring back to Machiavellian theory, I don’t want to be hated by the neighborhood residents. They can hate Pau, not me. I share the wealth. I create jobs, business, and profits for others.

I bend the rules, yes, when they get in my way. But I bend them for others as well. I’m not Robin Hood, no, but I consciously funnel wealth from the rich to the poor. I started doing it for myself, of course, but once I learned how, a spiritual awareness came with it. There are forces at play beyond my understanding, and yet one simple rule to guide me and never bend. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Pau laughs when I tell him that.

_______
IX

Pau walks into my second floor office without knocking. He doesn’t ask if I’m busy.

I’m fascinated by his boldness even as I resent his presumption.

His presence intimidates me. He’s an archetype. An attractive warrior god. Tall, thick, muscular. Large head, dark eyes, wide set. Light olive skin. Thick dark curly hair, salon cut to collar length. His features defy specific ethnic classification. Although he’s definitely Mediterranean.

He slides a big stuffed chair across the room towards my desk, and says: “Who’s this Machiavelli cat you keep talking about?”

“Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli,” I reply, “is an Italian philosopher, writer, and civil servant from the fifteenth or sixteenth century. He wrote one book about how to apply power in the art of war. He wrote another book about how to apply it in politics. He remains famous for that last book because his methods still apply. You seem to know them instinctively.”

Pau smiles. Remains silent. I look away.

He surrounds me, suffocates me, with his presence.

“You think you can run this operation better than me, Pau? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”

He hesitates, makes me wait, thinking about what I just said.

“I’m telling you I can handle the dance hall and casino operations. Have them cooking every night with private parties. Keep it under control. No cops, no city inspectors. I’m telling you I can do that.”

Our eyes meet. His smile forces me to smile.

“We can’t do it all at once,” I say: “Until we’re sure how it’s going to work, let’s move slowly. Along with alcohol, our drug sales will skyrocket.”

“I can handle it,” he says, pulling a fat joint from his pocket: “Here, try this. It’s excellent pot. I think you’ll like it.”

I take the joint, and say: “I need to get more work done first. I’ll smoke it later. But the drugs I’m worried about are heroin, cocaine, speed, ecstasy. Suppliers of those drugs will zero in on us. I don’t feel comfortable with that. I don’t want to get involved in a city wide drug war.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got it covered,” Pau insists. He leaves the big stuffed chair next to my desk. He doesn’t close the door behind him.

With an energized awareness from toking on the joint in my office, I enter the expansive industrial bay area of the building where an overhead matrix of lights floods the dance floor, bar, and stage area with bubbles of randomly changing color and brightness while dancers move hypnotically to erotic rhythms. Male and female prostitutes are available for hire but the price of admission to this Sodom and Gomorrah excludes the casual shopper.

Pau calls my name, invites me to his table. An attractive woman sitting with him looks in my direction as I approach. Pau wraps an arm across my shoulders, and says: “Laura, I’d like you to meet Brian. He’s the real boss around here.”

Laura! Fair skin, auburn hair. Oval face, well proportioned. Greenish eyes, lined and tinted. Glossy red lips. She’s beautiful. I’m hoping she’s not a prostitute.

“Laura needs a job, Brian. I thought you could use her. You said you were looking for an assistant, didn’t you?”

She reaches out to me. I take her hand, and reply: “Yes. Yes, I did say that. I’m very happy to meet you, Laura.”

We dance. She presses her body lightly against mine. Our eyes meet. She smiles.

I’m feeling paranoid. Maybe it’s the pot. Maybe not.

Advertisements

Love Connection – II

October 1, 2010

Norma Jean remained active in my memory. Her eyes, her facial expressions, her voice, her touch, her embrace, her scent lingered in my neural pathways like a parallel universe. I wanted to see her again but my only connection would be through Alphonso and his only interest in me was business, a very risky business. And then there was Earl to consider.

I checked with a friend in the music industry, and he said: “Yeah, I know Norma Jean. She’s a sweetheart. But you do not want to mess with her. She’s got a boyfriend, a very big dude, and he can get nasty.” He gave me the address of the studio and I drove by hoping to see her going in or out. I didn’t notice Alphonso until he beeped his horn.

“What are you doing down here?” he said, then, without waiting for an answer, he added: “Meet me at the crib. We need to talk.”

A big shipment of powder cocaine had arrived in the city, he said, and he could get it to me at kilo weight for a very good price, if I put the money up front. I told him, even if I could cover the money, I couldn’t handle the product at kilo weight. I’d need to involve someone else who could. And that would be tricky. But, if he was interested in working with me, I could move it in smaller quantities. Which would give me a good excuse to come around and possibly visit with Norma Jean.

I felt tempted to use my line of credit from Sonny for a really large purchase but that would require a commitment to the drug business which I wasn’t prepared to make. My parole status had changed, I no longer reported for drug testing, but even a small infraction could sent me back to prison. A major bust would send me back for the rest of my life, I feared. Playing it safe by delivering no more than a few ounces of powder cocaine at a time to an assortment of trusted friends would be enough to keep me afloat. And, to account for my income, I still had my day job at the factory stacking freshly stamped gas tank panels.

I finally caught up with Norma Jean at a crowded nightclub in a downtown hotel. She put her arms around me, and whispered: “Be an angel, get me high. Can you do that? I’m performing here tonight. I’m terrified.” When I nodded affirmatively, she took my hand and led me through the hotel lobby to an elevator. “I’ve got a room on the fifth floor,” she said as the elevator door opened.

A woman was sitting in the room, a black woman, older, heavy set, attractive, well dressed. “Who are you,” she said in a husky voice when she saw me enter.

“He’s the one I was telling you about,” Norma Jean responded.

“Oh,” the woman said, leaning back in her chair, giving me the same look I had received from Earl.

I handed Norma Jean a glass bottle filled with finely chopped and fluffed pearly flakes of cocaine hydrochloride salt ready for consumption, and said: “Be careful with this stuff. A match head in each nostril is all you need. No big lines.”

“I know,” she said: “This is the best coke ever. I’m getting too fond of it. I need to ease off before going on tour.”

“Uh-huh,” the older woman interjected.

Norma Jean shot the woman a quick glance, then, turning back to me, she said: “Can you leave me some?”

“Yeah,” I said: “I can leave the bottle. I’ll pick it up later. Take as much as you want. Offer some to your friend.” When the woman responded with a blank stare, I said: “Where’s Earl?”

“Don’t worry about Earl,” Norma Jean replied: “I’ll take care of him.”

The older woman stood, and said: “How you gonna take care of Earl when you can’t even take care of yourself?” Then she turned to me, and said: “Mister, you better take that bottle with you.”

I dumped a small pile onto Norma Jean’s tooting tray, a mirror from her purse. That’s all she would need, anyway, I reasoned, and the older woman probably saved me from a mess of trouble.

While walking through the hotel lobby on my way back to the club, I ran into Alphonso. “Glad you made it, Brian,” he said: “This is a big night for Norma Jean. With recording industry executives, booking agents, and media critics in the audience, she’ll need all the support she can get. I’d ask you to our table but there’s no place for you.”

Showroom tables were either taken or reserved. I worked my way through the standing room only crowd until I had access to the bar and a clear view of the stage. A stack of electric keyboards were on one side. Electric bass, drums, and rhythm guitar in the middle. Horns and reeds on the other side. I recognized many of the musicians, all top notch pros from around town.

The band played a credible rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,’ as Norma Jean took the stage. She had three female singers standing behind her on one side and two male singers standing behind her on the other, backing her up as she sang the original lyrics with the traditional melody. Then she began to stretch the harmonic structure while inventing rhythms with a musical insight Ellington would admire. She sang original verse bordering on rap with quick riffs from trumpet, trombone, tenor saxophone, and clarinet punctuated her phraseology.

The words were difficult to follow because of the reverberation between two different speaker systems serving the showroom and the bar area where I stood, plus I just didn’t understand what she was singing about. That changed as she abruptly morphed into the next number, an electrifying rendition of ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New,’ a 1970s hit by the Stylistics.

A male singer joined Norma Jean at center stage and she gave the impression there really was something going on between them, judging from her facial expressions, her body language, and the sincere joy expressed in her singing. I remembered holding her in my arms as she sang like that to me. I felt surprisingly jealous. And I wondered how Earl felt.

Love Connection

October 1, 2010

Powder cocaine supplies had dried up in the white community due to a series of major busts by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The only cocaine available was crack, a form in which cocaine could not be snorted or injected but required smoking. And the main source of crack was in the black community.

A friend hooked me up with her most trustworthy connection.

“His name is Alphonso,” she said: “Don’t call him Fonzie.”

We waited inside a busy downtown jazz club. When he arrived, she introduced us and then departed. I fronted him money for what I considered a relatively small purchase, playing it safe until I knew him better.

He returned a short time later, and said: “Everything’s cool. Finish your drink. Let’s go to the crib.”

The apartment opened into a hallway that went back past the front room to the kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms. Walls and ceilings in the large front room were painted flat black. It was low budget yet theatrically decorated with an assortment of shaded lamps directing beams of light at various angles downward onto brightly colored furniture creating a shimmering visual mosaic.

Alphonso sat on a white leatherette vinyl couch, and said: “You are some kind of crazy motherfucker, Brian, do you know that? For coming down here with this kind of money. People will kill you for far less. What are you doing with all this dope? Flipping it wholesale? I could break it up and sell it in small units for top dollar, tonight. Make you some real money, splitting the profits.”

The front door buzzer sounded before I could reply.

“I got some people coming up,” he said: “Don’t nobody need to know what you and me got going here. It’s party time. Understand? That’s it.”

“Yeah, I understand,” I said, looking into his waiting eyes, acknowledging his control of the situation.

A tall, heavyset black man wearing black pants, suit coat, and tee shirt, stopped at the opening to the front room, and said: “What’s this white boy doing in here?”

An attractive young black woman in a bright green dress entered the room without hesitating, and said: “You got something against white boys, Earl?”

Earl followed Alphonso down the hallway to a back bedroom, saying: “I didn’t know you deal with no white boys.”

The young woman in the green dress extended her hand, and said: “Hi, I’m Norma Jean.” She looked young and fresh, early twenties at the most. Yet she seemed fearless and self confident as she took my hand and smiled. Then she turned to the radio, she said: “What music do you like?”

I nodded my approval as a dreamy love song featuring passionate voices and lush orchestration filled the room with its acoustical presence at low volume.

“Drink?” she said, hitting a switch, illuminating a wet bar I hadn’t noticed in the back corner of the room: “Alphonso stocks Tanqueray’s London Dry exclusively. You should hear his Tony Sinclair. Better than Rodney Mason. How do you take your gin? Poured over ice, a jigger of tonic, a wedge of lime, that’s how I do mine.”

While mixing our drinks, she sang along with the radio music, and her voice sounded professionally trained. When I asked, she said: “Oh yes, I’ve been singing all my life, in church and in music school. I’m working on a studio album right now and rehearsing for a tour. We’re almost ready to book.”

“You talking that crazy shit again,” Earl said as he entered the room from the hallway.

Norma Jean laughed, and said: “Earl ain’t got no music and he don’t respect nobody else’s music. But he’s my man and I love him. I’m going to need his muscle on the road.”

“You’re going to get my muscle up your ass if you don’t stop talking shit.”

“He’s been promising that for days. I’m still waiting.”

Earl sank into an extra large spherical poof chair with his back, arms, and head supported and his big feet extending out into the room. Closing his eyes, he said: “This is some good shit, Al.”

Alphonso looked at me, and said: “You smoke pot? Wanna try this?”

“I do,” Norma Jean said, singing the words.

The marijuana made me paranoid. Earl was staring at me. What’s going on here? Where’s the crack? Or my money?

Alphonso read the expression on my face, and said: “Earl’s my bodyguard. He’s armed and dangerous. We’re going out on the town to spread that crack around. We ain’t doing it here. I got more people coming. They’ll be here soon. Relax, enjoy yourself. It’s party time, remember?”

Norma Jean played a battery operated keyboard in perfect unison with the music on the radio, humming along and shaking her head in time. After a second gin highball cocktail, my paranoia dissolved along with my inhibitions. Four, five, six, I’m not sure how many people arrived next and went into the back bedroom with Alphonso. But right behind them, two black men, one black woman, and three white women arrived and entered the front room. They all seemed surprised to see me there. Norma Jean fixed drinks for everybody, making conversation like she was the regular hostess.

When a tray filled with small rocks and crumbs of crack cocaine arrived from the back room, everyone except me had a glass pipe in hand. Norma Jean sat down beside me with a lit rock sizzling in a glass tube. “Here, open your mouth,” she said, holding her eyes on me while she filled her lungs with a long toke on the pipe. Then, leaning over, she kiss me, and emptied her lungs into mine. As the cocaine reached my brain in a rush of erotic pleasure I started to wrap my arms around her. But then I noticed Earl watching with an unamused expression on his face and I held back.

Shortly afterward, Alphonso entered the front room, and said: “I’m going out. Wait here.”

Earl and some other people went with him.

Norma Jean filled my lungs with another kiss and this time I put my arms around her and returned the kiss.

“Let’s dance,” she said, pushing herself away and then reaching back to take my hand.

Two other couples were already slow dancing to a soulful lament while a rotating globe chandelier reflected ballroom lights swirling in the otherwise darkened space. Norma Jean fit perfectly into my arms and I wanted to make love to her. But then she began to sing, seriously sing. I had never held a woman singing like that in my arms before, I realized, and I began to sing in return, hesitantly at first, yet she inspired and encouraged me to sing expressively with emotional force. It wasn’t sex, no, but something very similar. And I could still face both Alphonso and Earl when they returned, knowing I hadn’t abused their trust, technically speaking.