Wednesday, October 3, 2012

THE BEST OF DAYS by Peter Nolan Smith

Once a month Oilcan flew out of Logan to JFK for a weekly meeting at his investment firm's main office. Traffic from the airport on the Grand Central was lighter than the previous month, which he considered another sign of the faltering economy. No wait at the Midtown Tunnel's tollbooths was yet another signal of the weakening recovery as well as the drive to 57th Street and Madison Avenue taking five minutes less than in 2008.

The town car stopped before the gleaming skyscraper housing the firm's headquarters. Oilcan almost tipped the driver $5, instead he handed him a $10. Things were bad, but not that bad. Oilcan changed this optimistic assessment upon entering the lobby.

Only one guard manned the welcome desk.

Last month there had been three. Companies across America were cutting staff and not just from the bottom. He stepped into the elevator. It hadn't been cleaned this week and he held his breath on the brief trip to the 17th floor.

A firm believer in maintaining a good facade Oilcan stepped out of the elevator with the intention of exuding the confidence of a man who just penned a deal with a billionaire, then almost stopped in his tracks upon seeing the brokers' glum faces.

"What's up?" Oilcan asked a sweating salesman.

"Market's tanking again."

"How bad?" It wasn't even 10am. There was no shouting from the trading pit and this was a crew that never shut up.

"Bad." The trader shook his head. The stock market had entered a dimension where every vector pointed down and the staff wore the misery of the last months like cheap oleo on Wonder Bread in a homeless shelter.

"Bad is good." Oilcan stood up straight, knowing it was one thing to be defeated and another to look it. He strode to his corner suite, as if it was still in 2005. No one else bothered to join his parade.

"Good morning." His secretary greeted him without mentioning his name.

"Why the sad face? Everything is going to be fine." Oilcan handed his Brooks Brothers briefcase to Josie. He could smell a massacre was at hand and locked his office door before calling his boss.

"What's up?" Oilcan looked out the window on East 57th Street. Only a few pedestrians were on the sidewalk and the lights atop the taxis indicated none of them had passengers.

"Nothing special." His boss was a master of deception.

"Nothing special. Everyone in the office looks like someone strangled their puppy. Who's getting axed?" Oilcan's figures were down 10% from 2008, which was 200% better than the other earners in his firm.

"We're shaking of the tree to get rid of some dead wood. Not you. I promise." His boss spoke about the advantage of a leaner executive staff and the opportunities presenting by the current challenges.

Oilcan thanked him for his honesty and thirty seconds later was on the phone with a VP of Sales for a Swiss Bank. They offered him a new position with a lesser guarantee, but his salary was based on sales, which suited him just fine.

"Whatever you kill, you get to keep." The VP of Sales used that expression, because every autumn he hunted moose in Northern Ontario.

"That's the way I like it." Oilcan had once accompanied the Swiss VP to the near-frozen wasteland. The banker had missed every shot. Finally Oilcan paid the guide to shoot at the same time as the banker. One dead moose and ever since then the Swiss banker had considered Earl good luck.

He hung up and asked Josie for a list of his calls.

"None of them are happy calls."

"This isn't a happy time of year." Oilcan shut the door and scanned the calls.

Everyone wanted cash out their investments. None of them were getting a cent in 2008. The last two months had exposed the wealth of the nation to be a scam. One number stuck out in the list. It was his cousin. Earl was working at the Plaza Hotel selling diamonds. Earl checked his calendar. Tonight was an open date and he dialed the Diamantaire of the Plaza. He could use a break.

"You open for dinner tonight?" Earl knew the answer. His cousin had no plans other than to return to Thailand.


"Your choice. Money's no object." Losing your job was one thing. Not eating at a good restaurant was another.

"Le Bernadin is 4 star. My friend is the maitre de, so we don't need reservations."

"I'll meet you at 6."

"Come to the diamond store. You know where the Plaza is."

"Of course." He had been avoiding the Plaza, because his cousin wanted him to buy his wife an anniversary present. They had been married almost 30 years. Last year they had been contemplating a gala event for a hundred. Now the plans were for a quiet dinner together.

Tonight he could celebrate the anniversary of his bachelor party. His cousin would be his best man for the one-on-one stag and he eagerly said, "I'll see you then."

The rest of the day was punctuated by security escorting several people from the office. Survivors wagered bets on who would be next to go in this round of 'musical chairs'. The bloodletting didn't stop until the market closed with a slight rally. over for this day. Oilcan ended the day in the black.

"Good day. Good to have you here." His boss bumped his fist on the way out. "Care to go to Philippe's for drinks?"

"No thanks. I'm going to meet my cousin." Philippe's meant footing a bill for Opus 1 wine. Each bottle cost $700. His cousin was a cheaper date and he didn't need to be in a restaurant packed with shouting investment bankers. The volume of their conversation increased according to their desperation.

"Your mysterious cousin." His boss asked to meet James Steele on several occasions. Oilcan knew that it was better for those twains to never run into each other. His cousin didn't know how to keep his mouth shut about anything.

"I'll see you tomorrow bright and early."

A light rain accompanied Oilcan the two blocks to the Plaza. Few stores were crowded with shoppers. FAO Schwartz was the exception, however he noted those exiting the world-famous toy store on 5th Avenue were carrying smaller packages than previous years. The rain drops got heavier as he passed the dry fountain before the hotel. The doorman greet him with a tipped cap.

"Going to see Mr. Steele?"

"Who else?" Oilcan cuffed the doorman $5 for this greeting. Some gestures remained sacred in a world without wealth.

Oilcan passed through the outer lobby and turned right at the Palm Court in the direction of the Oak Bar. He would call his cousin from the bar. Trader Vic's and the Oyster Bar had been evicted from the newly-renovated Plaza, leaving the Oak Bar as the only destination for anyone visiting the hotel. Several tourists peered inside the Oak Bar as if someone famous was at the bar. Earl recognized no one, which was good, since he didn't want to speak to anyone from work.

At the bar Orlando took his order and Oilcan phoned his cousin. He could tell Derek was disappointed that he wasn't coming down to his shop. No one really wanted to buy diamonds in this economy. Beer seemed to be selling better than martinis at the bar, but even Budweiser was taking a hit this winter.

Three bankers in the corner were drinking heavier than normal. A man and his wife were fighting over the bill. She had never paid before. Five British tourists were drinking beer as if England had won the World Cup. Oilcan drank half his beer in one go. Two seconds later he ordered another for James, who joined him at the bar.

"How's work?" James drank half his glass to catch up with Oilcan. They signaled Umberto for two more Stellas.

"It's been a tough year, but don't worry, we're going to have a super dinner tonight. When can we leave?"

"I don't think yet." Derek looked out the window. The drizzle had intensified to a downpour.

"What's the food like here?" Oilcan examined his cousin. He had gained weight since his return from Thailand last summer. His hair was grayer too.

"Life's been tough this year." James confessed without any guilt. "Same for everyone, but last year was worst. Always is if you start it with an arrest in a foreign country."

"But that's all over?" Oilcan had heard the story about James getting caught in Thailand for copyright infringement. He was lucky not to be in jail.

"Yeah, I'm still persona grata. Let's finish these and get a table." Oilcan settled the bar bill and they were escorted to the dining room by a fashionable blonde. He heeded the sommelier's suggestion for a Bourgogne and the two men drank two bottles throughout dinner. The chef came up with dessert. Crepes Suzettes on the house. The bill came to $900. Mostly for the wine. After calling his wife at the coat check, they went outside to 59th Street.

The rain hadn't let up.

"Where to?"

"I have a big sale tomorrow." James was bailing on him.

"And what about going for a massage?" Oilcan was sure that his cousin hadn't had sex in months. "It's on me."

"No, I don't like those old hookers."

"What about a strip club?"

"Don't like Russians, but I'll tell you something. A friend of mine called today with a tip."

"A tip?" Oilcan remembered that JP Morgan said, "When your taxi driver gives you a tip, it's time to get out of the stock market."

"Yes, the market is really going to tank all week long."

"And?" He wasn't in the mood to hear more bad news.

"Then it's going to nosedive to 6000."

"Who's your informant?"

"We did drugs together in the 80s. Of course this information can't help me and probably can't help you, but at least you'll be prepared if it comes true."

"To be honest it doesn't matter. The whole world is fucked right now. So what's the use?" Oilcan was feeling tired. Everything he knew was valueless. The meal in his stomach felt like dust. The wine burned his esophagus. This crisis was killing him and his cousin sensed his loss.

"Okay, strippers. But only for a few hours."

"That's more like it." Oilcan could forget today in the arms of a stripper. And tomorrow he could forget until then, because today was the best of days.

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