It started at the coffee shop. I’d just polished off a triple-foam latherccino and salmon salad sandwich à la mode when, rushing out the door, I inadvertently dropped some paper into the recycling bin reserved for sandalwood. Remonstration was immediate, and came from a snarling man loitering nearby who’d witnessed the miscue in toto. I was already on edge. Earlier my salmon salad, surly as they come, had tried to make an upriver run for it mid-nosh, and I’d lost several of my better lures. So I turned on the fellow. “Who’re you, pal, the trash police?” And that’s when he showed me his badge.
The ride downtown seemed to last an eternity, and I was sweating bullets inside the garbage bag. But at least I had company. The peach pit was pleasant enough and the used floss was fine, too, though she mostly kept to herself. At the station a bunch of other undercover trash officers were standing around, shooting the breeze with their pistols. The floss sneered: “Guess that’s how they get their kicks.”
My lawyer arrived and sprung into action, winning over the trash cops with balloon animals. My lawyer’s a clown, you see, but don’t hold it against him. He’s the best in the business. The kazoo business, that is, or should I say what’s left of it. Within no time I was free to go and feeling swell, then less swell once I remembered what Gigglestein bills for helium.
I finally caught a cab but the driver was a banana, so I had to hoof it to the nearest subway stop and take the express train uptown. What time was it? My watch said 10:45, but you can never trust a talking watch. I was supposed to present to the Philharmonic at eleven, and they don’t allow late entry.
I transferred without incident and was mounting the stairs at 66th when I sensed an unusual lightness to my gait. A quick self-frisk confirmed my worst fear after giant squids (Architeuthis): I’d left my satchel brimming with baton samples on the train. I imagined some junky finding my batons and, craving a quick fix, flipping them for simple maintenance work. But this was no time for fanciful flights. I needed batons and I needed them yesterday!
Seven minutes hence I was hiding in the mezzanine, fashioning substitute baton samples from a handful of pilfered toothpicks and some freshly masticated Doublemint. Needless to say the results did not dazzle, and at my presentation the third bassoonist wasted no time showing me the door and then pushing me out the window. To add insult to injury, Maestro looked down and taunted my tennis elbow.
I was scheduled to lunch with Pierson at one o’clock but the defenestration hadn’t done my appearance any favors, and I doubted they’d let me in the Zsa Zsa Club with torn trousers and boutineer all adroop. The sun’s position indicated there wasn’t time for a sartorial tune-up and so I hailed the next available conveyance, telling the mahout, “Zsa Zsa Club my good man, and don’t step on anything!”
I arrived at the Zsa Zsa in record time but was awarded no medal. As expected, the maître d’food was unimpressed by the state of my livery, and before showing me to Pierson’s table politely yet firmly suggested I’d be more comfortable in one of the club’s crested burqas. I finally found Pierson, jolly as ever, holding forth to a breadbasket and puffing away on his bubble pipe.
“Still wasting your life in that baton racket?” Pierson paused to refill his bowl with soapy water. “If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times, there’s no future in batons, what with the Lithuanians turning them out ten thousand a day. Cufflinks, my man. Cufflinks are where the real money’s at!”
He had a point, did Pierson, but usually covered it with sombreros. And also, what he said was true. Just two years prior he was barely making ends meet in the corner trade, and before that he’d spent his days hawking used clipboard springs on the Bowery. Now look at him, a cufflink kingpin, holding down a table at the Zsa Zsa Club and enjoying six-martini brunches and Steak Diane dinners on the regular.
“So look,” he said from behind a wall of bubbles. “You remember Meyer? Grew up outside Philadelphia in a tree house?”
“Meyer’s putting together a crew, a few guys with nothing to lose and the world to gain. Got your name written all over it.”
I liked where this was going but smelled trouble, and sure enough my burqa was on fire. Pierson flung a carafe of cab franc on the vestment and kept going. “Well how ’bout it? Should I tell Meyer you’re in?”
I stared through the smoke into my clam concassé, searching for answers. I knew Meyer’s pedigree. He was mixed up in all manner of skullduggery, and he’d done serious time upstate after the feds got wise to his operation smuggling black-market pomegranates in legitimate fruit hats. It was a seedy enterprise, and Meyer himself may or may not have ordered several cleanses.
But I also knew this could be the break I’d long sought, a chance to escape the soul-crushing province of baton peddling and make a real name for myself. Meyer always played by his own rules and I admired him for it, except when we sparred in fencing class.
Sitting there at the Zsa Zsa in a charred loaner burqa, engulfed in bubbles, I realized I was facing the most important decision of my entire life.
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