Sunday, August 17, 2008

Turtle Bay 1998

     “I’m an American,” he said flatly.
     Her voice insisted: “You’re Armenian, Grigor.”
     “Born and bred in the good old U.S. of A.”
     “Not bred,” she said. “You weren’t bred that way.”
     “For God’s sake, I need the money.” He said it rashly.
     “I’ll send you money.”
     “Absolutely not. What would you think of me?”
     “How much do you need?”
     “Nothing. I’m not exactly starving here. Doing pretty well, in fact.”
     “Don’t do it.” Her voice was less insistent now, but it wasn’t pleading. She wouldn’t beg her son. Greg stood up and walked to the window and stared out into the night. “It’s just another job,” he said.
     “Just don’t do it,” the insistence back again.
     “ It isn’t permanent. Couple months, is all.”
     She fell silent. He adopted a different tone, lonesome and false. “I’ll be home for Christmas,” he crooned. When that didn’t elicit a response, he stage-whispered: “I’ll bring you something nice.” Finally, in the voice he used at home, at her table, “Can you give me a hint what you’d like? Something just for you, now, not the house.”
     “Not with blood money, you won’t buy me any presents,” she said, but he could tell that she wasn’t angry and her cross words were tinged with sadness. He wanted to end the conversation but he didn’t want to leave it on this note.
     “C’mon, Mom, it’s a job. I’m not betraying anything here. This is America. This is New York. In New York, people from all over the world . . .”
     It was no use and he left it hanging. “I’ll let you get back to your show,” he said. “I love you.” She didn’t respond. “Bye,” he said.

     Greg put the handset on the sill and opened the window and was assaulted by the noise of the city. Manhattan was bejeweled at night and his view was unobstructed up the East Side, the New York of a Woody Allen film, except Gershwin couldn’t be heard above the din from below and beyond. The incessant noise, and the dirt blown in by the wind off the East River. The dirt and the noise and the smells, they constituted his first impression of New York and it remained with him even after four years. But he liked the city all the same.
     He looked down and across and into the home and the life of a family he watched at night from time to time. A heavyset man was sprawled on a stuffed chair, his features blinking on and off erratically in the TV glow. A small child stood next to him, pawing at his shirtsleeve for attention that wasn’t forthcoming. He seemed transfixed by whatever he was watching. Or he was asleep, Greg couldn’t tell without his binoculars. The mother was a stationary shadow against a lighted curtain in what Greg assumed was the bathroom because the window was always curtained. He had seen her in the living room often, heavyset herself, talking to the husband or getting the child ready for bed, the kid plump too, or just watching television. The TV was on every night. They were deep-seated viewers, Greg chuckled to himself, and not very interesting to watch. Jimmy Stewart would have been bored out of his skull.
     Greg had known full well that his mother would object and that he’d take the job anyway. He wanted to let her have her say before accepting. Simple courtesy, and a salve for his conscience. He went to his desk and booted his laptop. He emailed a reply to Donaghy. Will do. Lunch tomorrow, 12:30 at the Dog. GS, he initialed it, unnecessarily because his email utility added his business card: Gregory Shugar. Have Laptop, Will Travel. No, actually it read: Web Publishing Consultant. But he was something of a hired gun and he had toyed with the Paladin motto before rejecting it as entirely unprofessional and probably beyond the ken of most people he would email. Who else watched TV Land? Deep-seated, indeed.
     Greg had given Donaghy no alternative but to meet him at the White Dog at 12:30. Greg was in the driver’s seat in their business relationship. Donaghy needed him more than he needed Donaghy, even though Donaghy paid the bills. Greg had an arrangement that was not at all unusual in his business. He was a consultant to a consultant, and as he emerged from the subway with the Saturday shoppers on lower Broadway he felt good about the arrangement and the job at hand and his decision to take it even though he knew he’d get shit from his mom. He felt good about the arrangement because he liked Timmy Donaghy and Donaghy always paid for lunch. Donaghy was at the bar.
     “A bus stops and two Italian men get on,” Donaghy said. “They seat themselves, and engage in animated conversation.”
     “Stop,” Greg said.
     Donaghy went on. “The lady sitting behind them ignores their conversation at first, but her attention is galvanized when she hears one of the men . . . ”
     “Stop,” Greg said again.
     Donaghy didn’t stop. “. . . say, ‘Emma come first. Den I come. Two asses, dey come together. I come again. Two asses, dey come together again. I come again and pee twice. Then I come once-a-more.’”
     Greg rolled his eyes. Donaghy continued in a falsetto. “‘You foul-mouthed swine,’ retorted the lady indignantly. ‘In this country we don't talk about our sex lives in public!’”
     Greg had it figured out by now but let Donaghy deliver the punchline. “‘Hey, coola down lady,’ said the man. ‘Imma just tellin my friend howa to spella Mississippi.’”
     “Dumb, Timmy.” Greg was grinning out of fondness for his employer as he said this. “You spend too much fucking time reading stupid email jokes.”
     “You don’t get it,” Donaghy said with a serious face. “An admittedly dumb joke like that takes on new meaning with that crap going on in Washington. These days we do talk about our sex lives in public.”
     “Making fun of Italians in public ain’t PC.” Greg pointedly scanned the barroom. At the tables the seats were stuffed in equal proportion with patrons and shopping bags.
     “I wasn’t making fun of Italians in public,” Donaghy said. “I only make fun of Eye-talians in private.”
     “Italians haven’t talked like that since Chico Marx.”
     “Chico Marx wasn’t Italian.”
     Greg sipped from his beer and lit a cigarette. Donaghy stubbed one out and lit another. They ate at the bar so they could smoke in peace. The two of them constituted a conspiracy of smokers in a city that pilloried addicts of all sorts. Greg ordered his usual burger and Donaghy, watching his weight, ordered a salad. “Speak,” Greg said.
     “Looks like a six-month gig to me,” Donaghy said. “They want soup-to-nuts. They have a site now but they know it sucks and they’ve come to understand like the rest of the world is coming to understand that a good site is important to your image. And they do have an image problem, you know.”
     “What’s their image problem?”
     “Greeks hate their guts.”
     “That all?” What Greg was thinking was, Greeks aren’t the only ones. But he didn’t expect Donaghy to know that and Donaghy didn’t disappoint him.
     “That’s enough in this city. Where they gonna eat, Greeks own all the restaurants?”
     “They only own the restaurants you frequent, Mr. Donaghy, the diners that serve prunes.”
     “Whatever. Fact is, the Turks feel they have an image problem and they want to improve it. They want a site that brags about their culture, does the tourist thing, lets people contact them, and so on and so forth. What they got now is press releases, speeches, propaganda.”
     “They want to tart it up a little? That won’t take six months.”
     “They want more. They want us to do a template for all their sites, every embassy and consulate and tourist office all over the world. Tie them all together. Give them a uniform look and feel. Let people apply for visas and stuff, download the applications. They want to sell things.”
     “Turkish taffy?” Greg couldn’t imagine what a country might sell online.
     “Whatever. They know you can sell things and they want to do it. They want the works. They’re putting cash into this, real dollars.”
     “You said tie all their sites together. Extranet?”
     “That’s what they really want but they don’t know the word and we have to teach it to them.”
     Greg was doubtful that Turkey would expose itself to security issues presented by giving outsiders direct network access. Donaghy was getting ahead of his client as he tended to do in his enthusiasm for taking innocent inquiries and turning them into gold-plated proposals. He bit into his hamburger and the grease dripped out onto his fingers. He resisted licking them and instead wiped them on his napkin.
     “I’m game,” Greg said. “How do we get started? When can I meet with some people, find out what it is they really want?”
     “I told you what they really want.”
     “You told me what you’d like them to want. You’re an excellent salesman, Timmy. Please, never change. But I have to execute your promises and I want to talk with the client before sketching out a plan that everyone will be happy with. They want an extranet, why don’t they do this in Turkey? Why did they pick you out of the phonebook?”
     “First, Turkey lacks the skill set. Second, I went after them. Guy at Burson-Marsteller mentioned they needed help to a lawyer friend, who told Hammy at NYNMA. Who called me, since we did that work for the Nigerians. You know how this goes.”
     “I get it. Nigerians and Turks, same difference.” Greg bit into the pickle. “You went in over the transom?”
     “More or less. I purposely ran into their PR woman at a trade show they had going on at the Marriott in Times Square. We got to talking and next thing I know I’m sitting there in the lounge with this thick-necked dude from the consulate and after a few rounds I naturally got the business.”
     “You only think you have the business.”
     “I’m fairly certain. They have to sign off on the plan you’re gonna do, of course.”
     “The plan without an extranet.”
     “Maybe you’re right, not an extranet. Make it complicated and they’ll have second thoughts. However this guy, Bozlak, he was pretty specific about wanting a first-rate site and about tying all their sites together. He’s been reading the papers, I guess, buying into the hype.”
     “Well, we’ll nail it down. What’s his position, Boslak?”
     “Bozlak with a Z. That was spelled on his badge that he wore, one of those crossed foreign Zs, which is why I remember. Osman Bozlak. Osman with an S. Mr. Bozlak to you.”
     “What’s his position?” Greg asked again.
     “Some kind of trade official with a mumbo-jumbo diplomatic title. The woman, Ms. Salman to you, introduced him but I didn’t quite get what she said or she said it so fast and so low that I wasn’t supposed to get it.”
     “Does he have the authority to hire you? What did you make of him?”
     “Seemed very fit, is what I made of him. Good, strong American handshake for a fella who stays out late partying all the time, chatting up importers. Works out, that guy, I’d put money on it. Very alert to his surroundings, too, eyes darting around the lounge we were in the whole time we’re talking. Accent you could cut with a knife. Not the polished type you meet at trade shows.”
     “The type you meet in dark alleys—probably a spy.” Greg was half serious. He didn’t discount the possibility.
     “Sure,” Donaghy said. “Every diplomat does spy duty when he’s not tearing up parking tickets. Part of the job description, report on what you hear and see, friend or foe it doesn’t matter.”
     “We’ll nail it down, what they want. Let me know when and where we’ll meet.”
     “I’ll get back to you. Figure on the tail-end of next week.”
     “Now let’s talk turkey,” Greg said. Donaghy smiled. “I’ll give you Boston and two, five bucks.”
     “Tie I win.”
     “Tie you lose.”
     “That’s Boston and one, then. The way the Yanks are playing . . .”
     “It’s in Fenway. Whaddya want from me?”
     “Tie I win.”
     “You got it.”
     “You’re taking advantage of me,” Donaghy said. “You know I’m soft for the Sox.” He signed for the tab and both men slid off their barstools. “Thanks for lunch,” Greg said. “You go on. I need to wash my hands.”
     “Gotta pick up some groceries. Where will you be next week?”
     “Just email me,” Greg said and he threaded the crowd toward the men’s room.

     At 33 Gregory Shugar didn’t know where he was, let alone where he would be. His life was on automatic pilot to a destination that he never charted and couldn’t fathom even if he put the effort into it, which he resolutely didn’t. Cruelly, he thought, his mother told him he still didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. He moved from one job to the next and was thankful that Donaghy kept them coming often enough to pay the rent. He would take an assignment and dive into his work night and day. His personal life was nonexistent. Between gigs he was a loner in a strangely lonely city, wandering the streets, haunting public spaces and hanging out in one or two bars when he wasn’t at home riveted to his computer, surfing the Web like the news junkie he was, or zoning out on television, passively imbibing old sitcoms and older movies. It wasn’t what he had intended when he graduated USC, a film major with dreams of Hollywood fame and fortune. He had certainly never guessed he’d be living close to the edge in New York. Lucas and Spielberg were his role models, not Scorsese or Lumet. He was a Californian, after all.
     He fell into his profession instead of choosing it. An electronic-game company needed somebody to write storyboards and he needed the money. He was good at it, and prospered modestly from stock options. He learned the technical side of the business as authoring tools became simple enough for his nontechnical mind. He didn’t consider himself a techie but he knew more than he would have thought possible the first time he watched a developer write code. Then it was all very mysterious to him, a priestly art. Now it was a matter of clicking and dragging and filling in blanks in plain English.
     The marriage lasted a little less than two years. No progeny, which made the breakup infinitely easier. That’s when he went east for good, to escape the associations, to start over. Previous generations of Americans went west to start over. Californians were reversing this pattern as the Millennium loomed. As he drove east in 1994 he had been struck by the number of U-Hauls with California plates struggling up steep grades on I-70, latter-day Joads but assuredly better-fixed, cashing in their inflated California home equity for ranchettes on the Front Range in Colorado, the new Golden State.
     That was his second drive east. His first, in 1990, was an extended vacation and, it was apparent now, a scouting expedition. But then it was meant to be a head-clearing drive, some downtime to concentrate on how he really felt about Lisa, who had taken to praising coworkers with the balls to make commitments. That time it was late summer and the interstate was packed with military convoys, all heading in his direction but destined for short-lived glory farther east. The 7th Cavalry with running lights, riding out of Ft. Riley to the rescue of American oil interests in Kuwait.
     In the end he felt it was his mother who made the actual decision. She liked Lisa and early on in their relationship his mother treated their eventual marriage as a foregone conclusion. But he knew that blaming Mom was a refuge for scoundrels and only sons. Besides, Lisa was hard not to like. Even now he bore no ill-feelings toward her. It didn’t work out, that’s all. Still, the memories lingered and he had a vague sense of guilt. For the most part he determined not to think about it.
     Unlucky in love, in New York he was unlucky in work. The Internet was beginning to explode and in succession he got involved in two startups that consecutively went bust after burning their seed money. A third startup was rolled up into a larger company that already had a very talented and articulate woman in his position. He met Donaghy at a beer party sponsored by the New Media Association, which he had joined in order to network with people who wore black. Donaghy persuaded him that he could make a wonderful living as a free agent. Of course he saw through Donaghy right away: no overhead, no FICA, no benefits. But Donaghy was on to something. It was a new economy, Donaghy said, and Fast Company was the name of the magazine he showed Greg to prove it. It was an economy, the magazine said, that was predicated on a mobile knowledge-based workforce that rejected career ladders and organizational charts and instead went with the flow, the flow of money. In this economy a technology professional would be foolish to sign an employment contract. In six months another company would be knocking on the door, upping the base salary and promising IPO riches. “Resist the temptation,” Donaghy had said at the time. “Don’t sign anything if it doesn’t leave you with an out.”
     So Greg went with the flow. Or rather, he postponed making a decision where he would go and what he would do. In the meantime, Donaghy kept him busy. He was grateful and resentful at the same time.

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