Mar 2, 2009

The landlord arrives to plug up the air vents, which stream cigarette smoke from the downstairs tenant like stacks on the Lusitania. Afterward, the landlord wants a word: the word is he wants to raise the rent. After all, it's been a year and a half. I ask him if that's such a good idea, under the circumstances, with rents going down in many parts of the city. I also tell him that my wife is already looking for a new place and that if we move he will sorely miss the tremendous subsidy we've been putting into the backyard garden. "Well, you're getting something out of it," he says. Of course, I say, but the long term benefit is to you. No?"

He agrees. And we both pause to mark an agreement. I don't mention that I am keeping his secret, which is that he rents a small room off the garage illegally.

He moves into the kitchen. I invite him to sit down, have some tea. He sits down. Water will do.

We've talked two or three times before. We have hardly any relationship. Out of nowhere he unearths a piece of his life story. He is second generation Chinese. He has spent 30 years in real estate. He knows all the tricks in selling houses. He should have made more money over the years but for one reason or another he hasn't. He is defensive about appearing rich, and insists that even by the new Obama guidelines he is not rich. He concedes he makes more than $250,000 a year (from his many properties) but he owes more than $250,000 in expenses. The new stimulus will only cover properties up to $350,000; but in San Francisco, a special dispensation allows the limit to go up to $417,000. But what property could you find for that amount in San Francisco. So you see, he tells me, I am not a rich man. I'm just like you. He elaborates, he draws a portrait of a man who is anything but what he seems.

"You know about my wife, right?" he asks.

I don't.

He goes on to tell her story, how for years she has been fighting a brain tumor and thank god for the moment it's in remission. But you can't imagine, he says.

I can't.

The rain is coming down; the whole word seems like it's coming down. "You know," he says. "Sometimes lately I even consider...."

He doesn't finish. What is it you consider, I say.

"Suicide.... Suicide. Oh of course I would never do it. Absolutely no way But this is where I am. Even that thought. You see. That's how bad it is."

He stands up abruptly. We shake hands. He leaves. Ten minutes later he returns, to say that he recently received a ticket because we had left the garbage cans in plain view. What do you mean, I ask. I look down the street. By every house you can see the blue, black and green plastic cans. No, he says they are finally pressing an old city ordinance. All cans must be out of view.

And so this is what the city has come to. And what of the landlord. He wants to kill himself, he wants to raise the rent, he wants the garbage cans out of sight. His wife has a brain tumor. In which order should these things be listed to suggest who this man really is....

Later in the evening I receive a note from a good friend. "Right now I am depleting my already depressed "retirement accounts" -- by summer I will probably be homeless. Just to make sure you understand how serious the situation has become." He goes on to talk about how precarious his job is, how he's become a moth on his boss's palm and his boss has no interest in moths.

"To tell you the honest truth, if I lose that outlet, I'll become suicidal."

Suicide thoughts are on the wind. They're blowing every which way. And here we are, not even at the hard part yet.

Mar 1, 2009

At the end of a personal era, in the late 1970s, in early May perhaps, I took the elevator up to what seemed like the 500th floor of the AIG building, down at 70 Pine, all of lower Manhattan at your feet. The city was the starlight room of the world then, and the brag was still true that 'til you fought in the garden you ain't fought; but of course at the same time, the city was lowlit, a Plato's Retreat, with its gritty Jersey crowd and older women leading braces of younger men to private rooms — a city of people fucking you left and right, and you doing the same to them.

Of all the financial companies, Citibank was known for that. That's where you went to work if you enjoyed using a shiv and getting one in return.

All the while, the city's middle class was leaving; as it always seems to be. The economy was in shambles. MBAs unable to get on Wall Street took banking jobs on Water Street. Everyone got pushed down a notch. If you had an MA but not an MBA you might well end up in Insurance, which was then low caste finance and the wild west of careers.

Natalie Cole lived downstairs in our apartment building, which was on 94th and Riverside Drive. That was the edge of the known world in some respects, for some people. You paid a lot of money to ride the elevator, clinking and clanking, up and down with pimps and addicts and forensics in general. Nevertheless, the neighborhoood had tremendous charm: The year before, on July 4th the Tall Ships dropped anchor out the window, in the Hudson River. It was hot as bejesus and I kept rolling to Martha and the Vandellas singing Heat Wave, which had come out 15 years earlier, in September, 1963, the year I went off to boarding school and this personal era began.

The startle of that day in 1977 or 8, that day in May, was that you might not be able to write off a two martini lunch. That was bad news for people, including my friend, Bill G. who at nearly every lunch would have five double vodkas and tonic. I saw it day after day. Or else two litres of Saki. And then would go back to his office, sell $5 million in reinsurance, and dream up some new risk to sell. His claim to fame was Ransom insurance.

I'd just returned from a prolonged business trip to Saudi Arabia and London. I was working as a Casualty underwriter for American International Underwriters, the international arm of the American International Group (AIG), which in those days was all Hank Greenberg, all the time. He was the business primate of the moment, the matinee masshia of insurance and reinsurance.

The trip had not gone well. Bad right from the start. the plan was for my boss and I to go to Athens, meet an business contact and I would go on to Saudi Arabia to secure more business. We flew out of New York on March 15, passing through Rome the next day, the day Aldo Moro was kidnapped.

The next day, we were in Athens, having lunch below the Acropolis with a Palestinian insurance broker. This was six days after what has since been called the Coastal Road Massacre in which a woman lead a band of Palestinian terrorists in a small boat to Tel Aviv, highjacked a bus and got into a shootout with police. Thirty-eight people were killed, a dozen were children.

Over lunch I was in the delicate position of balancing the Palestinian and my boss, a Jew from New Jersey. Art was in the Hank Greenberg mold and although less refined, every bit as creative, energetic, street smart and determined. He made it clear that his ethnicity was to be secret and he also made clear how much he despised Arabs.

Inevitably, the conversation at lunch turned to the bus massacre. The Palestinian was defensive; he offered the standard defense, a history of victimhood, an argument I knew very well — the argument arc of Sykes-Picot, the McMahon Correspondence, Deir Yassin, the killing of Count Bernadette. I knew all the arguments. I was a sympathizer.

"You agree with me, don't you?" he said at one point. "I can tell you agree with me." I went back to my plate, trying to ease fish flesh off the bone.

Finally I shook my head. "No, I don't agree, you can't justify a massacre with history. Perhaps, understand it but you can't justify it, even your history...."

I tried to be forthright, and not to sound disingenuously diplomatic, but the Palestinian frowned.

"I thought you knew something about our culture, but clearly you don't." He went on and on about how I was like all Americans, how they think they know about the Palestinian cause but they don't.

In the cab afterward, my boss was furious. "Why did you get into an argument with this man?" he asked. "You idiot."

The next day he returned to New York. I and another person from AIU, went on to Riyadh and Jeddah. At each stop, casualty business was promised, tea was provided, and the backgammon was endless as you waited to be seen by someone from the royal family. After that I spent a month in Croydon, England, that blandest of financial capitals. I oversaw how the middle east operation was running. There were problems. The business, mostly in Saudi Arabia, had been built on uncertain and unreliable agreements, high commissions, and never a clear understanding of what the profits and losses were. Now that business was tight

I returned to New York and one day had lunch with an executive at the parent company, AIG. I gave an appraisal of what the Saudi business was and what it might be. After lunch I followed the man up to his office, on the 500th floor, with New York at your feet, with David Rockerfeller's office just across the sky, a few blocks away.

It was the middle of the afternoon; even with tinted windows the sun off the city made you squint. The man went behind his desk to retrieve some documents he wanted me to look at. He also wanted to hear more of my report. But after a moment he suddenly turned reflective. He asked how interested I was in the insurance business. I answered properly, diplomatically. I tried to err on the side of diplomacy, no matter how it came out, no matter how disingenuous I might sound.

But once again I misjudged. "I would have thought you were too smart for this," he said and added, "How old are you anyway?"

I told him. He paused for a long while and then explained how 20 years earlier he'd gotten caught up in the allure of Hank Greenberg's famous promise to make anyone that joined him at the AIG a millionaire. And now this man was a millionaire.

He paused again and then brushed his eyes with his pocket linen. At first, I thought perhaps he was having some sort of allergic reaction. Then I realized he was weeping.

"I'll tell you this," he went on. "I mean I don't know you. Who the hell are you? I don't know what you want. But if you've got anything else you'd rather do in your life, I would suggest you do it."

He wiped his eyes, and then looking out at the grandeur of lower Manhatten he added, "You don't want to spend your life here doing this....Nothing good will come of it."

I left his office and several months later left AIG. His advice turned out to be the right encouragement at the right moment.

But I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to stay on and all these years later be in a company that symbolizes such power run amok, such brilliance squandered, such greed run to ground. Who would you be? What role would you have played? What would you tell the young man coming up?