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Author Archive: "Pope Brock"

Shoes for Industry

I've been fired twice. It's not like getting dumped. Getting fired, in my experience at least, is both more trivial and more shocking. The first time it happened at a health-food restaurant where I worked as a waiter. The cook and I got into a tiff over something, to the point where he picked up a cleaver and threatened me with it. The owner said that anyone who could provoke a man to do that didn't belong in a restaurant. The second time I was working as an actor in summer stock. I had the lead until suddenly I didn't. I must have been really bad because not only did I lose the part, I was told to leave town.

I haven't had a lot of other jobs, so the number of times I've been canned, expressed as a percentage, is huge. Mostly I've gone through life as a freelance writer which, as anyone who has tried it knows, is lunacy. I did have one job early on as a staff writer at a men's magazine in New York. They started me out doing featurettes on high-end clothing ...

Riding With the Fat Man, Part Two

Bill Graham's purpose was rarely to put horse-killers in jail. His job was to get them to drop their bogus insurance claims, and at this he was close to 100% successful. Dousing these crooks with a splash of vile publicity, the greediest and slimiest especially, was his own idea, something he threw in for free, and to which he brought an extraordinary store of ingenuity and glee:

"They were having a damn livestock show, and this thug was there. Over on the north side of the hall was the speaker's box, with all the pbx lines and main trunk lines running into it and a switch box. I had this jack mike that would fit right in with that assembly. So when there was a lull — they'd been running around with their horses, showing them off — I come up with this LADIES AND GENTLEMEN and of course you have to do it quick because you can't give these sons a bitches up in the booth a chance to think about where it's coming from WE GOT A SPECIAL AWARD FOR what was that sumbitch's name COME ...

Riding with the Fat Man

Some time back I rode around the Southwest with an insurance-fraud investigator named Bill Graham. If Reader's Digest were the kind of magazine that liked to glorify the fat and profane, I might have written him up as the most unforgettable character I ever met, but as it was I just wound up with more stories than I knew what to do with.

"L'audace! Toujours l'audace!" he cried as his cobalt-blue muscle car shot through the west Texas night.

A cracker-barrel Southerner, Graham looked like every speeder's nightmare of a Dixie sheriff, complete with big badge, mouse-colored fedora and shades. His nose had been pounded to pudding, and he had a five-inch crescent-shaped scar on his forehead. The marks on his hand came from the time, he said, when he'd had to go to the hospital to have his fist removed from somebody's mouth. There was a long scar on his stomach too, with a story attached. In a restaurant south of the border, while he was looking into some tractor-trailer thefts, two hefty Mexicans


Buddha Hits the Boardwalk

The recent announcement that Donald Trump's Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City is undergoing a $250 million renovation is being greeted with — well, not much of anything, really. I mean, you don't care one way or the other.

As it happens, though, I met an interesting person there once, back when Trump's "Seventeen Acres of Pure Pleasure" was about to open for the first time. His name was Pema Wangyal, and he was a sacred painter from Tibet.

"This is Brahma!" he cried, pointing at a floating emperor with four faces and four arms who was riding a flying goose in the Buffet Room. "A very magical Hindu god!"

Wangyal had a thick ponytail and an unruffled attitude; he was calm even when he was hollering. There was a lot of hammering and hubbub just then because opening day was approaching, and the room was still a mess, but fortunately the murals were almost finished. Wangyal pointed out panels of sloe-eyed kings and lovers, ministers and hawks, flocks of pelicans ("a symbol of fertility"). These were replications, he explained, of 16th and 17th century designs of the Raiput, or southern Indian, style...

I interrupted to ask the obvious question: Didn't he find it strange to be working in a casino?

Having once meditated for five months on the interdependence of cause and effect, he replied, very little surprised him. "Besides, I visualize everything as not strange," he said. "I visualize it as beautiful. Transform everything into heaven — that's Buddhist teaching. If I say ugly, ugly, that's going to bang in my mind. After two days, I'll drop my brush and take off."

A buzzsaw started up. Eeeennnnnhh. "You hear that?" Wangyal inquired, unnecessarily. "I visualize that as a beautiful instrument."

Chasing Babies

"If the end is right, it justifies the beans."
— Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

Last week reports of prospective parents thrown into turmoil by the new Guatemalan adoption scandals took me back. In the early 1990s I was in Romania when the gold rush for orphans was under way following the fall of the indescribably crazy Nicolae Ceascescu. I'd been sent there by a celebrity magazine to do a light profile of a tennis star, and I did, but the free-for-all for babies was overwhelming Bucharest , and I've remembered it vividly ever since.

It all centered around the Hotel Triumf, a sinister mass of brick resembling a 19th-century mental hospital. Till recently it had been a guesthouse for B-list Communist bureaucrats, and the staff was just now taking its first stab at catering to customers Western-style. The notion of what that involved was still imperfect. Guests routinely had to bribe the desk clerk to check in or out, or the maid to get soap and towels. Nevertheless the place was thronged, the Triumf having become unofficial headquarters for many of the Westerners pouring into the country to adopt a child. In the lobby — painted a queasy institutional green, dotted with palmettos and, it was widely assumed, agents of the secret police — Americans and Europeans could be found each day cooing over infants not officially theirs yet or haggling with lawyers and translators. Other adopters, many of them single women, filled the dining room with babies attached to their shoulders, but racked with fear like everyone else that their paperwork wouldn't go through. Some hadn't found a child yet at all. They were depressed and jealous. Like Rick's Cafe in Casablanca, the Triumf was the place where plans were hatched, deals were struck and rumors mongered, and where everyone asked, as if anyone knew, What's going on?

TV images had lured these hopeful parents in the first place: appalling scenes of 100,000 to 150,000 Romanian children thrown on the slag heap of state institutions. But instead of sweeping in and scooping up a child or two, adopters found that orphanages not already strip-mined of their youngest and healthiest were either closed tight now or demanding big bribes. (Who could blame them? The country was desperately poor, worse off than ever, and children were its one marketable commodity. ) And that's when things really got out of hand. Determined not to leave empty-handed, adopters began casting about for babies elsewhere, fanning out across the whole country. Soon more children were being "identified" outside of orphanages and maternity hospitals than in them, and the black market was launched in earnest. I remember one day when I was at the Triumf, two Irish sisters were hanging around the lobby waiting for a Romanian mother to give birth to the baby they had dibs on. Then came news of a murder-suicide — a husband killing his wife and then himself — and that sent a Canadian woman sprinting north to see the newborn they had left behind.

An adoption agent let me tag along one day with her new clients — a young American couple, Patrick and Ellen — when they went out to scout prospects. We wound up in the town of Ploiesti, an hour north of Bucharest, standing in the crepuscular little rotunda of the courthouse. It was filled with a great hubbub of petitioners and hangers-on; the agent, Sonya, was being pressed upon by a number of eager faces, both because she was giving out cigarettes and because she was known to be involved in adoptions.

In the midst of this surge of people, gabbling and holding up babies in the brown light, one proud mother was making moues at her chubby infant, pinching its cheeks, then thrusting it forward with both hands: See how adorable? Others, including a ferocious-looking man in a squashed hat, were waving Polaroids of other offspring.

Sonya conferred with one mother in a bright kerchief and purple skirt, who cradled a baby swaddled in felt. The woman pointed to its highly valued blue eyes and blonde hair. Behind Sonya stood the client couple from South Carolina. She turned back to them.

"What do you think?" Sonya asked.

"I'd want to see it unwrapped," said Ellen. "To make sure it has its arms and legs."

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