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December 04, 2023

Here Anyway

By Patrick Sweeney

Workaholic pallor is junkie pallor with just a hint of fervent red blended into the cheeks, so we highly functioning addicts learn to be judicious with rouge.

We are legion, massing on no borders. It was never that tough to blend in. Both worlds are equally real for us, assuming steady income. When you're compartmentalizing your lives, there's not much incentive for seeking each other out and forming high profile cliques with shared secrets, so when you pick it up in someone's gait or glance, pretty sure you've flagged a fellow dragon chaser -- you start a file on them. Rather, you exercise the option only if they seem useful. And highly functioning. No team loyalty to worry about, just contingency plans.

The job was easy enough. A corporate hierarchy is plodding and easily spooked. It tends to lumber about in a state of near panic, meeting every flinch halfway. "I've been working on some different angles for the X account/I believe the Y project is being sloppily handled/There'll be a lot of wasted effort if we don't call those governance guys in for a meeting posthaste!"

State your message slowly as if concerned that the listener may not comprehend. Then do a close paraphrase of the whole spiel injecting rapid delivery of a few new but not necessarily consequential thoughts. Garbled is fine. They really don't want to piss you off.

So, overlings and underlings end up eating out of your hand, provided you've brought along enough pellets for them all. It cuts into the dominatrix trade, but they’re stretched. Practice a steady, withering gaze, have a reserve of vicious quips, get cheekbone implants if you think you need to be devastating, stay on the cutting edge of conservative fashion and you've got yourself a sinecure. There may well be some who see through you, but they’re the noncombatants and to be left alone if you can help it.

At regular intervals, I would get everyone scurrying, shut my door and take the embossed business card out of my wallet's secret fold. The receptionist at the other end would direct me to my sales rep, a Mr. Darryl Nackers. I would place an order for paper stock noting rag content, finish, weight, and embossing.

We would schedule delivery by Myanmar time. Loading dock 9a.m. was actually my place 8 p.m. Darryl -- no substitute -- would open the door I'd left ajar and find me wheelchair bound in the curtained foyer with a crochet afghan in my lap, wraparound shades, sucked in cheeks, hair askew, robin's egg blue highlighter poised over the racing form, and a cloud of horehound lozenge mist from a clapper-rigged vaporizer. I fancied that I passed for an elderly invalid in the dim light.

Darryl, as elaborately disguised as I, in a “safe-African” crew sweater, poplin club pants and round wire rim glasses, would place a package on the table, decline a lozenge in a charming Scouse Liverpool accent, then take cash and a tip or two on the dogs. Darryl probably didn't gamble but he was gracious to a fault and confident that I was too disengaged to follow up on his next visit. It sufficed for him that I had some no-doubt aspergery betting system to keep me flush.

There had to be easier ways, though relatively few if it’s specifically for opium. Some of the tonier neighborhoods have gewgaw shops that move a quality-controlled product while hazarding few inquiries about the terra cotta vases, stained glass headgear, bamboo chandeliers and three-legged pastel chairs crowding the display window.

The small minority there who could field those questions were reliably obtuse about the sideline that paid the rent. These are the uptown version of the Brooklyn reggae music stores with no more than 25 albums on display. They'd operated inviolate for decades, probably still do.

If you ever spend enough time in New York, sniff one of them out. My most indiscreet habit by far was going in with my wraparound shades to conceal the twinkle and posing as a serious collector with precisely the wrong staff members. The help had tremendous reserves of poise, until I was through with them.

I never purchased their product because, while official law enforcement would never pose a threat of catching on, I couldn't shake the scenario of a halfway alert bad cop recognizing a front while on a spontaneous shopping expedition with the wife, hitting them up for protection, then trolling the avenues for more business.

Just their problem until the cop’s equation flips and there is occasion to force a plea bargain so the shop owners end up turning over some of the smaller fry, which for establishments on Madison Ave 60s-80s would include me. And I leave Chinatown to Jake Gittes. Darryl and I were just fine, thank you. Never mind that his glasses were non-prescription. So were mine.

Opium is my life’s blood. Smoking only. Get a little nugget of hash into the mix if I have safe access then pour a glass of sipping claret or a decent pinot. Somehow mixed nuts have become part of the tradition. Then I’m golden. Given this context, everything else makes perfect sense, adequate sense anyway.

Getting over on everyone had been a potent enough ego boost and has certainly satisfied something in me, but the keen edge required for it kept gouging at my languid opium dreams. I knew there had to be a far easier way and I stayed on alert for it.

So, I was in the office one day reading, for whatever reason, some decades-stale but still getting into print drivel about how the savvy investor should stop thinking about the downside of third and fourth world ventures, viewing all but the most gravely dysfunctional nations as "emerging markets" and "developing economies".

It finally occurred to me that the fruit of my reasonably astute investments would stake me lavishly in any of the many countries where opium is as plentiful as potatoes. Maybe I could even “manage” the local office if we didn’t have one yet. Globalization was always a crapshoot, but I would certainly give it my all, yessirree.

I set the office’s head librarian onto the urgent task of harvesting profiles on the living standards, political stability, agriculture, infrastructure, pollution, tourism etc. of a dozen or so provocative nations and an extra handful to obscure common characteristics.

I spoke very slowly with the requisite creepy eye contact. She balked, venturing as to the impracticality of anything less than a team collecting the amount of material I'd requested. I countered that my work habits weren't for everybody, but I wouldn't be impeded by a pack of sluggish 9-5ers.

We both knew it was really no skin off her ass, more like managing my expectations. Moreover, corporate libraries had been a prestige luxury for the decades since the advent of the internet and this was a chance to prove her worth. I had an e-mail with half a dozen URLs for economic profile clearinghouses when I got back from lunch. I responded with a nice line or two that she could excerpt at year-end review. A caustic prick can turn gracious without much exertion.

I researched the migratory patterns of nomadic European and American hipsters. Yes, someone maps it in real time. They've reached saturation almost everywhere fast. Somehow no experts were warning about a brain drain. I didn't want to end up settling into a place that was ripe for a crackdown, but their absence was also a bad sign.

I quizzed Darryl about the variety of growing regions, having let slip that my fixed income was not keeping up with New York expenses and he quickly marshaled impressive resources to help me out. He had no trouble delivering a fair assortment of local products, in fact, he filled the bottom tray of a Whitman's sampler box with neatly-wrapped black pebbles.

That allowed me to concentrate on the few regions missing from his survey. Poppies are indigenous to Southwest Asia -- trouble spots pretty much without exception -- and Southeastern Europe, especially Turkey, the former Yugoslavia and Albania. Political turmoil, corruption, religious strife and human trafficking complicated most of those nations.

Croatia looked pretty good, though. Carpeted with fields of both wild and cultivated scarlet and orange poppies, it had nice distracting booms underway in tourism, viticulture and aquaculture. Poppies are their national symbol of freedom. There is very little formal cultivation and that is diverted exclusively into baked goods; popular poppyseed cakes, strudels and one ferocious-looking cheesecake.

It still had a fascist puppet government’s WWII Nazi collaboration to live down and the post- civil war reconciliation and reconstruction to complete. If I avoided the spring break and cruise ship circuits but found some base still convenient to shipping and an airport, that could work. Extra points for easy Slovenia and Venezia access.

The peninsula of Istria seemed best situated, though its dominant city, Pula, came off like party central for Ryanair hellions. The nearby peninsular city of Rovinj was reportedly much quieter with a robust port and its own ferry to Venice. Getting its share of cruise ships, but nothing like Pula or the wretchedly overrun Dubrovnik. I was assured that the latter should not be missed but that a little research to ensure working around the day trippers was essential.

I learned that a proposal for emerging market development automatically triggered high-level HR involvement. No surprise that it qualified as a suspicious activity. As if use of the sealed corner office weren’t placing the conversation sufficiently in confidence, the VP HR leaned in on her elbows, “Put a little business savvy into someone with more imagination than morals -- no reflection on you, of course -- then give them long-distance supervision for representing us in a new territory and you can get all sort of illicit activities going on under the cover of the JPT logo.”

I smiled, recalling that the informal acronym for my world-straddling employer was Just Passing Through, “True, I’ve always wanted to be a warlord in a Jackie Chan movie.”

“Well, around here we don’t undertake anything unconventional without the executive board’s approval.”

I was being watched for a response. I fancied that the mirror behind her was two-way. Funny how someone with a repertoire of studied moves could come up empty. Of course, that she was looking so intently suggested that they had nothing on me. I shook my head bewilderedly and hooted, “Fair enough.”

It turned out one of our larger subsidiaries had a Zagreb office, fundamentally insurance brokerage and specialty lines. I could enjoy considerable, if not complete, autonomy to pursue a broad range of trade and financial service opportunities. Synergy with Zagreb would be encouraged but nothing firm at the outset. My first stop in Croatia would be a few-day courtesy call there. I left the New York office with a contract broadly confirming the terms of my sabbatical project and setting out procedures for authorizing any JPT commitments.

Darryl had hooked me up with the flexible term sublet circuit, a whole parallel universe of musicians and actors needing temporary digs or rent subsidies as they patched together itinerant careers. I could keep my lease and make a small profit. This had been preceded by Darryl dropping by without his glasses and me having a miraculous leap out of my wheelchair. And by some very judicious disclosures about some of the squirrely facts behind our squirrely facades. Minimal good faith gestures for lowering guards now that we were probably parting ways.

Rovinj’s old city boasts broad stretches of marble streets fundamentally limited to pedestrian traffic. A charming area to do business in, but likely a disincentive to Zagreb’s time-is-money crew. This was shaping up to be largely free-form and open-ended paid leave but theoretically also an investment with something to show at the end.

I flew into Zagreb to meet with my affiliates (Venice could wait), keeping my schedule there tight. I was refusing no offers to share the sights. Museum of Broken Relationships, why not? Good place to forge ours.

Zagreb proved every bit as much a walking city as Rovinj would be, a network of parks and plazas centered on Jelacic Square. Art Park was a nice nocturnal hipster hang, a welcome Berlin/Brooklyn spore. Tiresome schtick back home but somehow beguiling here, I suppose because there was the off chance that it wasn't some developer's handiwork.

My hosts were warm and vigorous, gradually shedding formality. Keeping their territorial pissing to their little patch of specialty, they were keenest on the logistics of my office doubling as an insurance brokerage satellite and I would do all within my power to help them realize that goal.

Darryl had hooked me up with a very courtly friend of a friend who ran an old curiosity shop in Zagreb. We did a modest transaction -- sweet hash too -- on my way out of the capital. He skyped me in with a trusted Rovinj associate and that’s the last I ever saw of Zagreb.

The highway to Rovinj was all turns. Evidently trains would be no better. I had language tapes prattling along above the rental Prius’s silence. A really tough listen and even worse on paper. The civil war had divided the already singular Serbo-Croatian language into four varieties: Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin.

An initially artificial distinction for essentially just dialects of the same language, the linguistic rift has seen far greater differentiation in recent years. All of them are now hurtling away from each other as if dissolution were some urgent mission. The prospect of mastering the evolving vocabularies of a moving target got me thinking that seeking out English speakers would be easy enough and far preferable.

My first venture into the old town took me sharply uphill to St. Euphemia church, which offered a terrific vantage even before the ascent to the freely accessible campanile. Boat-ringed barrier islands abounded, some seemingly close enough to swim to, and the gaps between the red roofs directly below were teeming with lively commerce. I quickly abandoned the tower, though, because there were some pretty infectious doings on the church grounds.

A wedding reception was underway on the rear plaza and the expansive lawn spread out below it. I had no intention of crashing it but felt compelled to lurk. The clearly soused wedding party was getting increasingly improbable photographs taken on the plaza against various backdrops with an enthusiastic audience cheering them on.

The core several members ended up teetering on a low wall maybe 30 feet of stone-inlaid cliff above where the buffet tables were set up in the garden. This was evidently a tradition and entailed a champagne toast, with the bottle chasing evasive glasses and much of the contents getting sloshed onto the grass.

Folks were wobbly but steadying each other -- there was even a little bit of soft shoe action from some of the more daring. They then cohered into a single purpose and got a spazzy wave going back and forth and back again while the crowd responded with hoots, yelps and clanging. I felt a rush course through me like nothing I'd experienced in years. Like opium before it became my status quo. No idea how, but I wanted in on this.

The principles fully sated the photographers before returning to safer footing. I’ve seen far worse omens. Celebrants neither embraced me nor shooed me away. All the better. I wouldn't ruin my invisibility by scamming a free lunch.

A stairway materialized, providing a shortcut to the narrow streets below. Climbing and flowering plants framed the homes and storefronts. Mobiles laden with tcotchkes and pegboards of framed landscapes and nudes also proliferated. Nice enough to power through, probably a fair mosey while high, though few items tempted me. The vibe improved when the streets finally broadened.

The marble-paved plazas resembled smooth sheets of glassine brick. There’s a translucence that suggested amber and had me scanning for imbedded coins or insects. Marble streets appear the length of southern Europe from the Alentejo to Athens, but Croatia in general and Rovinj in particular are where the effect most stuns. Always slick-looking as if freshly hosed down. It took a while to trust the traction, especially as the road descended.

Real estate rates weren’t all that harsh. The old city was crawling with artists, artisans and sundry creative types who typically had a duplex flat with studio or shop at street level. It seemed a viable model.

I’d booked a hotel room for the night and was overdue to check in. Retrieving the car from St. Euphemia’s proved a slog as there wasn’t enough tourism to warrant a funicular or shuttle bus. The desk clerk, betraying no knowledge of English or sign language, fished my driver’s license and a credit card from my wallet and sighed through filling out the requisite forms. I was too drained to go off on him.

He handed me a key card and said, “You park”, pointing to the rear parking lot. There was an abundance of signage featuring tow truck images and the translating app on my cell phone’s camera brought up Kabbalistic incantations. I opted for an inconvenient distance and nestled between a couple of sleek Neveras in case there was strict zoning for electric cars. A new desk clerk wished me a “Pleasant stay, sir.” I was unconscious before I could even inventory my room and the sun was up a fair while before it pried my eyes open.

I strolled the marble circuit searching for realtors and got cards from ostensibly English-speaking agents at the two that had some English text in their windows.

Both had engaged me outside the threshold of their establishments, something that would have come off as pushy in New York, but somehow went with the balmy day and pedestrian walkways. One would join me later at a nearby café.

Along the rim of the old fortifications was somewhat of a restaurant row. Sky-blue double doors were propped open onto an expanse of muslin-cloth tables backed by a common esplanade, which in turn framed the descent to seaside slate slabs strewn with sunbathers, more mermaids than manatees. All the vantages were so uniform. Zoning perhaps?

My table was perched on a patio just outside the foot traffic but with a scent wafting over from the sea-lapped sunning rocks. Once I sat, I was famished and pointed to the shiniest picture as soon as the menu was proffered.

I’ve no idea how pasticada had stayed out of the global foodie spotlight. I’m not supposed to have much of a palate anymore on opium but spoon-tender beef stewed forever in secret recipe after overnight marination in some other proprietary blend was bliss. Go clean maybe? Naw… Still, I felt Rick Steves-giddy and I’d had no opium since Zagreb. The main course was followed by an amuse, a little pillow of crab ravioli gnarly with fat shavings of Istrian truffles! Cookbook maybe?

With the espresso arrived my prospective realtor, Grgur. No sweat, pronounced phonetically. “Use Gregory if you must.”

He warmed to my proposal for combining accommodation with branch office in a duplex and, once my story was fleshed out, proclaimed it the only sensible course. If the office had to expand, it could go elsewhere, and the duplex would be all mine. We agreed that I was plenty liquid enough to buy a righteous place rather than screw around with a rental. He was voluble but seemed to struggle a bit for the proper English on the tax benefits of each option.

The day was still young, optimal time for scoping some now sun-drenched west-facing flats. All were spacious with high ceilings and -- at very least -- interesting furnishings. So many items like drafting tables, easels, ornate secretary desks and -- of course -- Apple laptops straddled the art and business worlds as if there were no gulf. It occurred to me that showcasing a different artist’s work in the office every month or two would raise our profile. How unwelcome could random foot traffic be?

The third and last of the batch combined an opulent railroad flat upstairs with a daffily composed downstairs workspace bridging 18th and 21st centuries. I took some pictures of this one and pitched it hard to the home office over the next two days. Their questions about day-to-day interactions seemed offhand, like ticking off boxes in a script, almost as if my input would not be craved. And that was perfectly fine. This hardass was best kept at a comfortable distance.

They were hesitant about buying, even if the flat would cost less than a Manhattan broom closet. I’d anticipated that and volunteered to buy the entire space and be their landlord. They were fine with monthly payments that would cover mortgage, utilities, and telecom plus a little something for my trouble.

Moreover, office supplies and a range of sundries would be routinely compensated without receipts. On day four, Grgur and I met up with his notary and sealed the deal over two bottles of a luscious Istrian red and multiple shots of a house-made fig brandy that would take some acclimating for me.

While I’d long gravitated towards Baudelaire’s holy trinity of hashish, wine and opium, I’d lately been reading -- avidly -- about opium-infused wines. They’re considered a health tonic in many circles, even a sexual stimulant. Non-addicts are said to switch on and off with aplomb.

And they were supposed to taste okay, even when made with plonk. The alkaloids have a bitterness that needs to be offset by the drink and a stronger alcohol speeds infusion so fortified wines and assertive spirits, such as ginger brandy are favored. I would bet fig brandy too.

Others go for the French cooking approach -- use a wine you enjoy drinking. Maybe I’d try ‘em all and start an anonymous blog to chronicle the experiment. I could lead with my established morning routine of dissolving a few grains into strong coffee for a transportive jolt. Suddenly, a new home and a prospective hobby.

The place was so fully furnished that few urgent purchases were required. Telecom had to be to spec and would take a while. It was odd that the pantry still had a fair sampling of canned goods, olive oil, tea bags, aluminum foil and dry pasta. Almost like one of those rental villas where guests pay it forward for the next tenant to get a running start. A rope of garlic bulbs dangled above the hanging utensils and the lone block of pecorino cheese in the refrigerator smelled great. I found some wine kicking around and a jar of dried mushrooms then threw together an inaugural supper, possibly my tastiest meal ever. I fired up my first proper Rovinj bowl, more pleasure than craving despite the long lag, then drifted off while channel surfing.

I woke to a horrible clanging that I attributed to the pipes as I’d never heard the spiral iron staircase swiftly mounted in anger. I sandwiched my head between two pillows and drifted off just in time for the cane prod between the ribs, “Uscirne, pronto!” [get out, hurry]

I wasn't quite out of deep slumber and that Italian phrase's echoes of hanging out on Mulberry Street before I knew better knocked me back a few rungs. Another familiar sound, quieter but much closer, rousted me. A stiletto whistled from a cane tip retracted, then shot out again. It was wielded by an aging patrician who looked like he’d dispatched plenty of varmints.

“What the fuck!”




He'd also figured out that I don’t wear jammies and he backed off to let me throw something on. This Paolo guy is Venetian gentry, Mestre-based, and he’s owned this pied-a-terre for decades. His English was not vastly better than my Italian, but I gathered that there were other duped “owners” before me and that the perps have never been caught. Now he would have to visit the locksmith again, better yet try a new one this time.

He got coffee underway then called the police and delivered his weary spiel in a halting blend of languages. The gendarmes, both English-speaking, came round after I’d gotten a gracious lowdown on the local restaurants and common tourist cons from Paolo. They brought us to the original realtor who had no knowledge of Grgur or his notary.

Admittedly, Grgur had been sitting just outside the doorway, but he was on a stone bench with a ceramic cup of coffee and a laptop opened onto the establishment’s website. Pretty shabby job of pest control if he was not part of their operation.

At the station, I was shown a tall stack of glossies but recognized only a busboy from the pasticada joint who I didn’t see deserving to be brought into this. The cops were keeping a fat folder on this scam but my case had brought them no closer to detecting a pattern.

The investigation was already running out of steam. They were offering to lay out my options over a cup of coffee and Paolo was happy to store my possessions till I’d gotten resettled. Meanwhile, I was out 170k and the local branch launch would be put on hold. The electronics installation is much too customized to be performed on a rental. Push came to shove, I could buy another place easily enough, but I was feeling pretty scorched.

Good time to lash out, “I think you’re way too cozy with this. Even Paolo knows the drill. Common scam and you shrug it off. It never even occurred to you that the locksmith is involved? Maybe getting your beaks just a bit moist, eh?”

“I must admit that this particular parasite has a role in maintaining our ecology. It controls a more dangerous parasite. Your drugs are stashed behind the fireplace mantle, and we could put you away for them if so inclined.

"We keep even our goats away from this shit. And absolutely our children. You think we -- and your sidewalk realtors -- couldn’t spot it on you? Those who played you inventoried your finances and left you with far more than adequate funds to get by. They always do. They are gentlemen.

"We kept tabs on you since you arrived here and if you hadn’t been duped with Paolo’s place, we could have had you on zoning violation for non-artisanal commerce in this district. No way you were going to have a soft landing.

"True, opium use will be informally tolerated here for the foreseeable future, but it won’t be getting out that we’re a destination for foreign degenerates, with or without MBAs. After Hitler, Stalin, and Milosevic, some dope-addled mover and shaker comes along brimming with ideas to exploit our resources and spice up our reputation and we aren't going to step in? You have no idea how commonplace you are. Colonel Kurtz having a genteel little frolic in the 'emerging market'.”

“Don’t we all benefit if I can bump the volume of trade between our nations, get a little wine exporting underway? You’ve barely touched the New York market.”

“Someone legitimate is taking care of that. You, you’re here to be a failure nestled in a lovely cloud of opium dreams. There are some nice Soviet-era flats in the newer part of town where you can live out your days on an ample American pension and the assets your Grgur left you.

"You'll do fine but it won't be mistaken for thriving. We cultivate our foreign investment with no taint, and you no longer have JPT and the NYPD to contend with. You can arrange with our consulate in New York for either selling your co-op or keeping the sublet going. They have a fair hourly rate. You'll be learning about a variety of fees for our many services. All are highly regulated, though not many specialists know where in the regulations to bone up on the Janqui Tax. You’ll have a balcony and decent wifi with a full-service greenmarket just over a block away. And don't be such an incurious slacker, learn the language! At least for the greenmarket.

"Incidentally, you see Grgur on the street -- and you're bound to -- you nod and smile. Don't come running to us. He may even prove a good friend to have. And, as you've no doubt gathered, Paulo is golden provided you don't mess with him. I'd say you're nicely networked on balance.

"You’re bound to sniff out a community of your own kind. You will take their cue and not congregate too openly. The monitoring of undesirables is not as aggressive as it used to be, but you are a criminal class. Just keep your nose clean and blow the stink away from your neighbors when you light up.

"Oh, and the Zagreb office sends their love but regrets to inform you that the delivery from New York has been re-routed to them and that the plan for a Rovinj office has been extremely postponed. Staffing freeze.”

I had been giving him my full attention, but I had a splendid view of St. Euphemia through the window over his shoulder and I was marveling at how the winding marble promenades below it resembled the diagonal threads of a fat white screw from this angle, albeit scarred by a few wayward alleys. Once it stops boring, a screw securely fastens. Maybe fit for downhill skateboarding at odd hours. Still, a fairly insipid start for this new chapter. Well, I was here anyway. I would get settled fast, cultivate invisibility, and get cracking on that now-very anonymous blog.

Article © Patrick Sweeney. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-09-25
Image(s) are public domain.
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