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

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–Characters

“This is an intelligence test”, said Bart H., handing us a paper and pencil. “See how long you can take to draw a straight line from one side of the paper to the other”

Bart had a theory that linked frontal lobes with intelligence – the bigger the better – and he had worked out a series of tests which would test for the size of frontal lobes and thus for intelligence; and this was one of them.  Bart, of course, knew he had large frontal lobes.  His forehead was very prominent (although not beetle-browed as he was quick to point out) and he had a receding hairline, so when he explained his theory, you knew he was talking about himself.

As you can imagine, most of us gave up on the straight line after five minutes, barely moving Bart’s intelligence meter past Cretin.  In any case he had it all wrong - big lobes and performance on this test were signs of stupidity.  Bart, however, was undeterred.  “I have taken two hours to draw the line”, he said, “and I could have gone on for much longer”.

He had another test which was in the form of a game – a game without rules which, if you played it well (he knew what the rules were), you had big lobes and you were intelligent.

“Your move”, Bart would begin sitting across the table which had the usual stray spoons, cigarettes, glasses; and if this were a good expatriate household, plenty of kitschy knick-knacks, Indian do-dads, cheap Siva knock-offs, and stray jewelry.   The game was to move any of the items on the table to any position; and successive moves would build on the previous one.  If you had two good players gradually an architectural space would emerge – gardens (leaves ripped off plants) and miniature multi-storied structures.  Pieces of Rajasthani mirror-work became windows, wooden matches became footbridges over moats of whisky in olive trays.  The best were multi-storied, multi-colored wonders, each level rising more precariously than before.  A game between two good players always ended with some kind of display on top – a delicately perched light filament tower, a flag of colored paper, a coke bottle top spinning on a matchstick. 

Regardless of Bart’s theories, the game was cool, and on one of my vacation trips to Paris I played it.  I was invited to dinner by a French friend whose living room table was perfect for the game.  It had as much clutter as the expat version, but the clutter was crystal, Egyptian colored glass perfume bottles, fluted single-rose vases, elegant antique jewelry.  I picked the guest whom I thought would be the most worthy opponent.  The construction was magnificent – the late evening sunlight caught the colored glass, perched high on Venetian snuff boxes. 

We built reefs, drawbridges, and cantilevered porches.  The structure got higher and higher, and we both knew that, with most pieces used and useable space narrowing at the top, the final move was soon to come.  We both eyed the prize, a Baccarat crystal tiny teacup, made for a precious 19th Century dollhouse.   When the time came, I took the cup and balanced it on the airiest of pedestals, thin twigs from a bonsai fir.  My hand was unsteady, my vision doubling from the absinthe and Pernod.  As I went to place the jewel, my hand grazed the gold Siennese earrings, which, hooked to the goose-feather quill, which was placed in the top of a Cartier pen; and the entire, articulated, delicate structure came crashing down, splintering glass and crystal, spilling whisky, ruining the table, the carpet, and the dinner.  “You win”, said my opponent.

I am not sure what happened to Bart after India.  Rumor had it that he was accepted into a PhD program to study brains somewhere in the Northwest; but few of us believed it.  Although his interest might have been some grounds for entry, his ideas were so cockamamie that we doubted any university would take him seriously.

Bart wasn’t the only eccentric in our group of about twenty Americans, administrating feeding programs in India.  There was Winston C., who had fallen so in love with Chile on his first overseas assignment, that he spoke to his wife and children only in Spanish (they were pure gringo like him); and was such a linguistic-cultural fantasist that he spoke to his German shepherd only in German, albeit a Hollywood version (raus, schnell). He made mate the traditional Chilean way, mashing the tea leaves down with a silver pestle in a traditional gourd, and affected a macho demeanor – a kind of a strut or swagger.  He was an eccentric and a total jerk.  His wife craved any kind of normal attention, and was a hungry and desperate lover.

Michael L, raised Dobermans in the compound of his house – the best expat house in all of India we agreed, cantilevered out over the Arabian Sea, a garden filled with jasmine, frangipani, and belladona, a planter’s verandah of teak and mahogany; a stable of servants to cook, serve, and garden.  The dogs, however, were Michael’s business.  Indians hated and feared dogs (I can only imagine the terror in the hearts of the servants as they entered the compound, lean and mean Dobermans slathering, barking, and foaming at their entrance), so he did all the work of feeding, grooming, and training.  He sold the Dobermans to other expats all over India who wanted dogs but did not want the hassle of importing them.   “No shiatsus ”, he would say to the disappointed wives of American diplomats.  “No small dogs. Just Dobermans”.

I worked the Bombay port and oversaw the importation of American surplus food destined for India’s children; so I could help Michael with the formalities of importing dogs from Australia.  Michael always talked of his dogs, smelled like dog, and we thought wanted to be more like the Dobermans he raised.  He was short, fat, and ugly; so the lean, muscular, confident, and aggressive dogs could very well have been his role model.

Barry S. ran a Free Love Inn, as he called it.  Anything goes chez Barry.  His dinners were legendary – great food, open bar, hash brownies, great looking women, wild, wet, and uninhibited sex.  I have always respected the Indians of that era, tolerating behavior which was as far from the norm or even the edges of the norm in their country as could be imagined.  Never did any of us ever worry about buying dope in the public market, dropping acid, carrying on and cavorting like satyrs.  Never were were censured, investigated, pressured.  The organization for which we worked had the same tolerant attitude, a live-and-let-live philosophy that was as far from the regimented, politically correct, and temperate times of today as you could imagine.

The grandest character of all was Lawrence G., a dandy from Philadelphia who shared nothing with the rest of us Sixties pseudo-hippies, adventurers, and secular missionaries, his colleagues.  He was cut from a Nicky Nork cloth – lots of silk suits and gold jewelry, aftershave, razor cuts, and an even tan.  He affected an Elegant Tough Guy persona – suave, smooth, with a whisper of violence;  and a Rudolph Valentino Ladies Man faux intimacy.  The programs in the Indian state where he was the Administrator were always the best, not because of his management acumen, professional commitment, or technical savvy; but because of his personal relationships with the women who ran the state.  In India caste always trumps sex (viz. Indira Gandhi who was elected because she was of the celestial class of Kashmiri Brahmins, not because of progressive politics), and the weight of a Communist government added to the female rolls of senior bureaucrats and politicians.

“Oh, Lawrence, what are you wearing today?”, said Shrimati Ghosh, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Social Welfare and in-charge of our feeding programs.

“Today is a mix-and-match day, Dr. Ghosh”, said Lawrence.  I am wearing an Armani silk, double-breasted, thinly pinstriped suit; a St. Laurent cream vellum shirt and light blue silk tie; and soft, kid glove  leather Santorini loafers (to give a slightly informal flair to my ensemble)”

“You forgot the accessories, Lawrence”, Dr. Ghosh went on.

“Ah yes, the accessories. Today I am wearing my Venetian hand-engraved gold cufflinks, a Versace silk foulard, and a hand-tooled Florentine leather belt.”

Of course we could only hear Lawrence’s side of the conversation, but enough of us had been with him during these calls, that it was not hard to decode the other side.

I admit I succumbed to the Lawrence G. allure, and when I visited Paris during my stay in India, I bought some stylish French clothes; but the road to success was not exactly an easy one.  I went into a well-known men’s store off the Rue de Rivoli, and said that I was looking for a sports jacket and pants to match.  I picked two or three jackets that I liked and tried them on.  Each one grabbed under the arms, was at least two inches short in the sleeves, and roomy around the middle.  The clerk shook his head, rolled his eyes, and went back to the racks for larger sizes.  They too pulled and grabbed, were too short in length, too full in girth.  He tried a third time, different couturier, different style, but with the same result.  With a Gallic shrug and shake of his head he said, “Perhaps Monsieur would be better served at an American clothing store, where they offer….”.  Here he hesitated, obviously carefully choosing his words. “…something more suited to the size…”  Again he hesitated. “….of your shoulders and arms”. 

It didn’t take much to decode and decipher his meaning: “In France we don’t make clothes for apes.  If you want a good fit, go to the Bronx Zoo”.

“Don’t be offended”, said my wife who had grown up in France. “The French are that way”; and as an added justification, “…They act that way with each other”. 

With her help, I kept my patience, bought a reasonably well-tailored jacket and pants, and a pair of shoes to match.  Here, there was no question of Gallic diffidence or couture arrogance.  Americans’ feet are simply bigger; but I wanted to look French, and, like most women, jammed my feet into stylish shoes at least two sizes too small.

I think I wore the outfit once back in India.  I was not squiring any Indian officials, nor did any of my father’s bella figura wear off on me; so it was back to kurta and chappals (although my sitar guru convinced me that I had to buy the new terelene pastel-colored kurtas with silver button studs).  I thought I was hot shit at Embassy parties where Sears shirts, high-water pants, and cordovans were the de rigeur fashion.

I still have the kurtas and silver studs, and whenever I see a young blond guy with a big forehead and receding hairline, I always think of Bart. H.

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