"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dining with the Devil - My Neighbor, Mr. B.L. Zebbub

I love cities.  I presently live on the 20th floor of a new glass hi-rise building in the Chelsea district of New York City.  I have a view out over the Hudson River to New Jersey.  Below me is the High Line, the transformation of the old New York Central right-of-way into a landscaped promenade.  My neighbors on lower floors are at eye-level with the pedestrians walking from Gansevoort north to 30th Street.  Some of them find the proximity of the High Line intrusive and close their blinds at peak hours.  Others find tourist-ogling amusing; and still others parade around naked, enjoying the thrill of anonymous and guiltless flashing.

Before settling in New York, I have lived in Bombay, Delhi, Paris, San Francisco, and London and thrived on the excitement and energy of these cities.  I left New Brunswick, Connecticut many years ago and have not looked back since.  Living anywhere but a city would be a death sentence.  I could never survive without the activity, the choice, the diversity, the edge, the colors and lights, the insistent sound, and the intent, purposeful movement. 

I have never lost my sense of the city nor have I ever had any desire to retreat into my comfortable haven on the 20th floor.  I could have the best food in New York delivered to my door.  I have an account with Bernardin, Jean-Georges, Per Se, and Del Posto, my favorite and whose Tortello Puzzone with Taleggio Dolce & Black Truffle Butter is sublime.  I know Eric personally, and he is delighted to prepare anything I want.  On one rare evening when I decided to eat in, he delivered the Lobster with Fairytale Eggplant, Sweet 100 Tomatoes & Garlic Clove himself.

I prefer to go out. The slip of the elevator and the compression of the descent, the perfumed lobby clicking with Manolo Blahniks on the polished marble, the scent of fresh roses and lilies, the sunlight reflected and filtered through canted skylights; the high twirl of the airtight revolving doors, and the hit of cold, traffic, heat, and energy are always speed boosts, psychedelic primers, are aphrodisiacs.

I choose my walk and my neighborhood according to my mood.  The Hudson River Park walk when I feel expansive, happy to be by the river, smelling its funky diesel, creosote, harbor smell instead of looking down on it; DUMBO or Williamsburg when I want hipsterville, the far Lower East Side when I want Chinese.  Upper Fifth Avenue for old money; SOHO for new; and Times Square for good, old-fashioned glitz. 

Last month a new tenant moved in next door – a Mr. B.L. Zebubb, a Bangladeshi from Dhaka, a city where I spent many months negotiating legal agreements with the Central Bank on behalf of Chase Manhattan.  I always liked Dhaka.  It had the feel of an Indian provincial capital like Lucknow or Patna – hot, crowded, dense, but lacking any cosmopolitan flair.  I stayed in a simple hotel in Banani, a quiet residential enclave not far from Ataturk Road, a major thoroughfare leading into town and out to the airport.  In Dhaka, like in New York, I was never content to stay within the the pleasant confines of the old-world, upscale colony.  I had the same feeling of release and anticipation as I left the perimeter of Banani and joined the ragged, loud, whirligig of the city.

Mr. Zebub looked and sounded only faintly Bangladeshi.  He was lighter-skinned than most and spoke with a pukka British accent, but wore a trimmed mustache and goatee.  He wore Western dress, elegant Armani suits and soft Italian leather shoes; but on occasion wore the stern but equally elegant and tailored long Nehru coats with silver buttons and a high, clerical collar.  He was vague about his profession and suggested only some kind of high-end personal service; an investment counselor perhaps, or an accountant.  Our relationship at first was cordial but quickly progressed to something more substantial.  Mr. Zebbub, like me, was interested in theatre and in particular the philosophy which underlay the works – Shakespeare’s Machiavellian cast and his pre-Nietzchean dalliance with ‘Beyond Good and Evil’; Marlowe’s total abjuration of morality; Arthur Miller’s contrary attempt to confirm the existence of moral choices; and the existentialism of Sartre and Camus in NO EXIT and THE STRANGER.

The more I got to know Mr. Zebbub, the more I was intrigued by his point of view which was little different from mine.  There was no such thing as good or evil he contended.  The longer the historical perspective, the more the concept of positive or negative consequences of individual action faded.  Only action was left; and the celebration of the force of will freed from the constraints of morality was euphoric.

“Have you ever committed what you would consider an evil act?”, he asked me over tea one afternoon.

“Evil?”, I asked.  “What kind of evil?  How evil? Richard III?”

“Not at all”, he replied. Richard was only murdering to secure the throne.  He was no different from a thousand kings before and after  him who had slaughtered their way to power.”

“What about the ‘princes in the tower’” I asked.  “They were innocent and their pathetic murder was certainly not necessary.  A moral man would have stopped before having their throats cut.”

“Not necessarily”, Mr. Zebbub replied.  “Richard wanted to eliminate all pretenders to the throne. He even set forth his ambitious plan in Act I – first his brothers, then his wife, and then the princes.”

“So if there is a logical reason for action – a motive – than the act can never be evil”.

”True enough.”

“So Iago is the only evil villain in Shakespeare?”

“Yes.  He delighted in the destruction of Othello – the slow, painful disassembling of a man.  The best part of is evil machinations was that he knew that Othello would eventually realize his tragic mistake in killing Desdemona and that his pain, suffering, guilt, and torment would be intolerable. And he had nothing whatsoever to gain from this infliction of pain and torture.”

Mr. Zebubb was a remarkably young 50.  Not only was a trim and fit, but showed absolutely no sign of aging or of age itself.  No age spots, no thinning hair, no thickening waist. His eyes were black and clear, his teeth white and perfect.  He moved gracefully but was strong.  If it hadn’t been for his black coat and leggings and tightly trimmed beard, he might have been a swimmer, or rower, or even a golfer.

He was unmarried, and never had been.  He was vague about his past, although nothing about him, his apartment, his demeanor suggested anything but probity.  He was supremely confident, although it was difficult to say why.  He never insisted on a point, never resorted to theatrics or cleverness to prove a point, never seemed hurried or insistent, never leaned over the table, eager to speak.  There was an unflappability about him, a calm, and an almost unsettling indifference.  He was likeable but more because of his intellect than his personality which was removed and distant.  He was never cold, smiled eagerly and warmly shook my hand when we met; but there never seemed to be any passion in him.  The better I got to know him, the less he seemed like a Bangladeshi.  He looked South Asian, but he could also have been Afghan, Persian, or Egyptian.  He had a cosmopolitan air of someone who had lived well in the same world capitals as I had.

“You must have lived in London for some time”, I said. “Your English is pukka”.

“Indeed I did; but then again I have lived a long time in many places.  New York is not my last stop”.

“Your business keeps you on the move?”, I probed.

“You could say that”, he replied politely.

Our friendship – if you could call it that – continued for a number of months.  We met frequently in the elevator and in the halls and had tea in the afternoon and once or twice had dinner at home.  Mr. Zebbub disliked eating out as much as I liked it.  Only once did he agree to join me for dinner, and I reserved at Boulud Sud, Daniel’s best new restaurant ever.  While he enjoyed the dinner he was reserved if not slightly indifferent about the many dishes selected especially by the chef.  While I shut my eyes and let the first exquisite bite of the impossibly creamy, herbed risotto, the grilled pompano, and the blackberries a la crème Chantilly, my companion ate almost mechanically.  His manners were perfect, and there was something ritual about his eating.  There was no pleasure in it.  He showed no gusto, no delight.  He was perfectly methodical.  He – almost delicately and perfectly – raised his fork to his mouth, replaced it gently on his plate and touched his napkin to his mouth.  I don’t want him to seem precious, pretentious, or silly.  He ate in as controlled a manner as he did everything else; but I never felt a primness or reticence.  It was simply an uncanny indifference and control.

“What about Arthur Miller?”, I began over coffee. “He writes about depravity, and the father in All My Sons certainly committed an evil act, condemning many soldiers to die because of his greed”.

“The play is about resolution”, Mr. Zebbub replied. “Keller’s act was immoral but not evil.  It was a human failing, a breakdown in his moral code, a product of his family and his impoverished history.  He couldn’t help himself.  His actions were inevitable.  Evil actions are those which have no explanation, no reason, no productive outcome.  They are simply carried out for the pleasure of seeing their destructive, antisocial, amoral results”

This was the first time I had ever seen anything resembling engagement on the part of Mr. Zebubb. The subject seemed more than just academic.

“Hitler? Mao? Pol Pot?.  They consigned millions to their death unnecessarily.  Were the gulags necessary? Or the Chinese famine? Or the great march to the Cambodian countryside?”.

“In their minds their actions were justified.  Shakespeare, remember, wrote about absolute power and the insistent, indefatigable pursuit of it.  Richard III would never have stopped his insatiable marauding.  Shakespeare admired Christopher Marlowe, you recall, and it took him Titus Andronicus to expunge the influence of Tamburlaine.  Shakespeare understood that the wars of Tamburlaine and Genghis Khan were exhilarating.  The thrill of absolute certainty wielded in a bloody sword was thrilling.  You must admit that you did not look dispassionately on the films of B-52 bombers dropping hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs on Vietnam. Each massive explosion, one after another in a precise line of flight, was an exquisite expression of pure, unalloyed power.  Each blast was evil, although the bombing itself was excused from that characterization because of its strategic importance.”

The only times that I saw Mr. Zebub at all uncomfortable or out of sorts was when we travelled to and from the restaurant.  He was clearly irritated by the crowds, the noisy taxi, the traffic, and what to me gave New York its vitality – visual chaos.  He never complained, nor even raised an eyebrow at the horns, the jaywalkers, or the shouts; but his distaste was evident.  The feeling was mutual, it seemed, for as we walked the short distance back to our building, passers-by gave him more berth than most contact-averse New Yorkers.  Residents out walking their dogs apologized profusely when the animals showed their teeth, growled and strained at the leash, then whined and turned tail when Mr. Zebbub looked at him. 

“Have you ever committed an evil act?”, he asked me later.

“Me?”, I said, surprised but pleased that at least the conversation was getting more personal.

“We all have evil thoughts, and some of us act upon them.”

I immediately dismissed the question, but out of deference to him – there was always something behind his questions – I thought about it.  While I had never been evil, I had once or twice stepped on some borderline between understandable immoral action and deliberate, destructive purpose.  These acts had few consequences, no larger social repercussions.  They involved spreading lies for no other reason than to see a classmate suffer; piling on abuse and humiliation to an already-beaten colleague; but never anything more serious. 

“Have you never spread lies and made innuendoes about someone and watched them grow, take hold, eventually encircle him, perhaps even neuter his self-confidence?”

It was as though Zebubb had read my mind, anticipated my response; but of all the so-called evil things that I might have considered or done, how did he select the very one that had stayed with me all these years?

“Don’t be ashamed”, he said.  “We have all done things which we regret.  The regret is the evil, not the act.  We are alive only to feel alive, to exhilarate in action, to defy norms and values, to become willful individuals"

“You sound like Nietzsche”, I replied.

“Ah, Nietzsche”, he said, nodding his head.  “He understood, and I was very proud of him”.

This was an unusual turn of phrase – ‘proud of him’ - as though Zebbub had some paternal interest in the man; as though he, strange as it may seem, was responsible.

I saw less of Mr. Zebbub over the next few months.  He had to travel, and when I asked if I could look after his apartment for him while he was gone, he said no, it was not necessary.

“I have never had any problems like that, and I doubt I ever will”

I enjoyed the Fall.  New York is a special, even happier place in October when the first chill sets in, when the light is lower, but more brilliant in color.  People breathe deeper, they are more animated.  The enervation of August is long gone and forgotten and the cold winds that blow up the tunnel streets of the Upper West Side things of the distant future.  Spring in New York – or any city for that matter – never can be anything like Spring in the country when there are flowering trees and bushes, grass, meadows, and forests.  The city experiences a modest, demure Spring.  There are flowers in flowerboxes on fire escapes on the Lower East Side or in large planters down the Park Avenue median island; and Central Park has its bowers and small fields; but it is nothing like the country.  Fall, on the other hand, is New York’s season.  The light reflected off the high glass walled buildings of Midtown has color and range.  The shadows of lower buildings by the rivers are longer and massive – they add an architectural dimension to the buildings they never have in Summer.

Mr. Zebbub’s pointed remarks and uncanny guess about my guilty past stayed on my mind.  Perhaps he was right.  My actions, as adolescent as they might have been – the responses of an immature teenager – were still uncalled for and unnecessary.  I had repented, reformed, and done the penance of many guilt-driven Our Fathers; but I had to admit that my interest in Marlowe, Nietzsche, the unbridled characters of Shakespeare might not be so academic after all.  Zebbub was right.  I never could explain the very exhilaration that he had so accurately described – the wonder at the release of pure, destructive power.  Even Hinduism, a religion always thought of as that of Gandhi, om shanti om, satyagraha and peaceful acceptance, was one that celebrated the fiery, total destruction of the world by Kali.  My willful disassembling of Tim Edwards and Bruce Evers went unnoticed by everyone except me; and yet, if I am honest, an exhilarating expression of power, will, and I suppose evil.

I love New York and cities in general because of their explosive possibilities.  There will always be a ragged, unpredictable edge to New York.  Every high-siren careening police car, every unstoppable fire truck, every screech and squeal of the subway, every crazed rant in Union Square said “Watch out.  Something’s going to happen”.  I couldn’t wait for ‘it’ to happen, for that tearing of the social fabric, for that explosive craziness, or the totally unexpected.

For the very same reasons, I hated the suburbs because they were so devoid of potential, so monochrome, so predictable, and so ugly.  One painful, unforgettable year, I lived in a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, DC.  It was, I was told, as close to country living as possible – it was on a small, man-made lake – but was only 20 minutes from the White House.  I could have quiet, peaceful living in a shaded, wooded but near-in refuge from the city, but could also pop in to a museum whenever I wanted.  I had my doubts, but I was much younger then, and my work was only a few minutes away. 

Although I needed only to drive to and from work and make occasional forays for food and wine, the trips were always an ordeal.  The unremitting ugliness of the malls, the strip developments along the major roads, the hot tarmac, cement, and airless heat of this cultural desert were enervating, dispiriting, and depressing.  Far from a peaceful refuge, Lake Branford was purgatory.  The martini barges puttering back and forth with vacuously smiling drinkers, the plastic kayaks wobbling from side to side because of the uneven and un-athletic strokes of fat, lakeside residents, the cheery yells of children and screeches from overly-concerned mothers on Beach 3 put me in a dark funk.  I stayed only until my contract ended, then moved to Bombay.

Mr. Zebbub began to tell me more about his business.  He ran a loosely-affiliated network of associates, all of whom shared his vision and in their own ways, helped to promote his cause.  When pressed to be more specific, he always demurred, but indirectly referred to the commitment of his people.  He never had resignations, nor had to let people go. 

“I look at it like an advocacy organization, no different from AARP, the Environmental Defense Fund, or the Tea Party.  I recruit people who believe what I do, and are willing to spread our ideas”

“Like an evangelist”, I said.  “A Pat Robertson or Jimmy Swaggart”

“Hardly”, he replied with as close to a grimace as I had ever seen on his face.  “Although in some ways you are right.  You have read enough of Milton, if not the Bible, to know that religion has two very different realms.  Satan was a very compelling and heroic character according to Milton.  So perhaps, yes, you are right.  In a way you certainly can call what we do a religion.”

We never talked much more about his business, but we did about his ideas and philosophy. 

“Let us not discuss how we got here”, he began one day.  “I am not interested in what the ignorant call Creation, or divine intervention in an otherwise random universe; but the quality of life that we have, through no enterprise of our own, inherited. It of course is meaningless and pointless, but how few of us use that directionless, fundamentally amoral universe to our own ends.  Freedom is a term that has been corrupted and made venal and soporific.  The Enlightenment did not invent the concept.  It has always existed in those who have been brutally honest about their ambition, their guiltless pursuit of desire, and their total disregard of convention except when they supported their claims.”

“Supermen”, I replied. Zebbub nodded and smiled.

“You have wealth, privilege, and leisure.  You can do more.”

Mr. Zebbub had no other friends as far as I could see or hear.  His apartment was always totally quiet.  I never heard his door open or close, nor hear female voices.  For as long as I knew him, he was for all intents and purposes celibate and monastic.  His apartment, other than two powerful and disturbing canvasses by Anselm Kiefer, was bare.  He had no computer and no books.  His furniture was spare, functional, and striking.  He had two Mies van der Rohe chairs in the middle of his large, marble-floored living room, a vase of unusual, twisted and almost malign-looking dark, brooding plants, and nothing else.  I could never take my eyes off of the Kiefer paintings.  These were as dark, brooding, threatening quality to them suggesting holocaust, apocalypse, desolation, evil.  The apartment, so dominated by the paintings, the austere white walls and floor, the two single black and steel chairs, and the tall, straight, stern and Puritanical B.L. Zebbub, was uncomfortable, and alien.  I felt ill at ease there.

“You seem bothered by something”, he said.  “Is it my apartment?”

Again I was surprised and troubled at his uncanny perception.  I had let on nothing, and years of good training and upbringing concealed any social dislike or discomfort.

“You don’t have to explain”, he said.  “But I know you are very much at home with the Kiefers.  He has a unique vision, don’t you think?  He gave me these paintings.  He is one of my associates, and he wanted to thank me for my generosity.  Of course it was nothing of the sort.  He and I both knew that we were kindred spirits on the same path”

Winter was a drab, sunless affair with just enough snow and cold to make the city dirty, drab, and lifeless.  Zebbub’s apartment was even more somber and uninviting, especially because he never turned on any light until the last natural light had faded.  I did not exactly avoid him during the winter, but sought him out less.  There was something disturbing about him, or at least in what he said, or from the almost frightening image he cast in his spare, monochrome room.

Spring came early, and I was as enthusiastic as I always am at the end of winter.  I have the resources to be able to flee the cold whenever I want, but in the last year I stayed in New York.  Perhaps it was Mr. Zebbub who willed it, I smiled.

I had known him for almost a year when he said to me, “I have a proposition to make”.  He wanted me to be his associate.  I would receive no pay, and in return for absolute fealty and loyalty, he would be my protector and benefactor. I thanked him for thinking of me, but demurred, saying that I was quite well off and could certainly manage on my own.  Our friendship would continue, but anything more formal was not what I wanted.

“But you are getting older”, he said.  I notice that you are not entirely well”

How did he know?  My recent blood tests were “a bit troubling’, my doctor had said; but I refused to retake the tests, preferring not to know any bad news.  Troubling did not mean a death sentence.

There was something foreboding and disquieting in what Zebbub had said, not only for the again uncanny accuracy of his observation, but the strange intimation that he could do something about it.

“Why don’t you come to a meeting of my associates”, he said.  “Perhaps they will change your mind”.

We met at the New York Athletic Club which Mr. Zebbub had rented.  He managed to reserve the entire club for us for two days – an unheard of feat in ambitious, status-conscious New York.  Not only had he arranged the accommodations, but he had food catered from the best restaurants, including some of my favorites.  It was all very impressive.

The associates were all confident, assured, and successful men (there were no women) who were happy, outgoing, and a pleasure to be with.  They all talked of Zebbub in almost reverential tones, how he was a remarkable man and how his vision and mission had changed their lives.  In our discussions – most of them informal and over drinks or coffee – I found that they shared most of the same views and ideas as Mr. Zebbub, but were far more open in their admiration for Genghis Khan, Tamburlaine, and 20th Century despotic rulers than I ever heard from him.  They all explained to me that they had no admiration for what Stalin, Hitler, or Mao did, just that they did it; and set an example of unbridled will and freedom.  These men were exaggerated but notable examples of a freedom from morality and lifeless social mores.  Thousands, hundreds of thousands of lesser examples of such expression could be found.

I was fascinated by the associates.  They were not idealistic dreamers who railed against the status quo, they did not want to emulate the “epater la bourgeoisie” of Baudelaire and Rimbaud.  They were no reformers, had no social goals, no claim to any religious legitimacy.  They wanted – and this was initially hard for me to grasp – a greater expression of evil in the world.  Not for the sake of evil, they said, but for the sake of the violent, brutal, and complete expression of will which was the only valid, life-affirming expression of our aggressive, demanding, and soulless human nature.

More time passed.  Mr. Zebbub did not invite me to any more meetings of his associates. He knew that I was thinking about it, that I was attracted, already involved, and perhaps committed but did not want to agree just yet.

“What would I have to do?”, I finally asked him. I was indeed getting older, and I feared that whatever was eating away at my insides would soon gnaw through to the core.

“Nothing”, he replied.  “Just be yourself and talk to others, just as you have talked to me.  And of course be unfailingly loyal to me.”

“Of course.”

“I only ask that you show your loyalty through a small sacrifice.  A bit like Lent for old-fashioned Christian believers.  Give something up for me.  Something you never thought you could do without, and choose the exact opposite – something which has always been bitter, distasteful, and repugnant.”

Five years later I was still living by Lake Branford in Falls Church, Virginia, but this time happily.  Whatever cancer was starting to invade my organs has gone completely – no doctor can explain its disappearance – and I have slowly but surely gained adherents to Mr. Zebbub’s mission.  I by no means have the potent, seductive charisma that he has, but I have weaned many suburban burghers away from the church.  I do track their actions.  I have never expected true, unalloyed expressions of will and a violent rejection of good or principle; but quiet evil, and an admission – not to me but to themselves – that their unholy, unforgiveable, and perhaps unrecognized mental cruelty, deceit, and dishonesty is not at all reprehensible but brilliant and good.

It is now thirty years since I met Mr. Zebbub.  I still look 50 and am as energetic as someone far younger.  He never reneged on his promise, nor did I; and as long as I continue to respect our contract, I am sure I will lead a happy life for another 50.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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