Arriving home from an evening out a few weeks ago, I sat down at the computer for one last check of email, Facebook, Twitter, all the disparate and convergent paths of communication. I discovered an email that made me cry out. (How soon, already, in resemblance to a long-form letter of lore seems an email to a Facebook message, a tweet, an IM, a Like.)
“Is this you?” it read. “My wonderful friend that I moved from Virginia to NY to work with? You fell off the face of the earth after I moved back to Virginia.”
I read the words in the wonder of life coming back to me. It was B, after twenty-five years. From so many corners these years, the threads of my life fall at my feet. It took only minutes to write back and say, yes, I am the friend. (“Wonderful” has had its dissenters.)
Increasingly, this happens. From all the distant skies, the birds are calling in flight, waiting for a cry of return. Are you still there? Where? How can I find you?
B had been my assistant – not my number two, but my right arm – when I was an executive in the air courier business. She was the first hire I made after my boss was fired and I was told the same morning that I was now promoted to take his place. I could rely on her for anything, she performed every job meticulously, and she gave me the loyalty, through all the battles of corporate warfare, of a true friend. To have had a B in your life is to have at least once been lucky.
In the 1970s and early 80s, the air courier business, in the excitement and the startup creation, was a little like Silicon Valley two decades later, except the field was not high profile, the billions were millions, and only relatively few became modestly wealthy, or in a handful of cases, more. But there was the exotic allure of international travel and shipping; the compelling attraction of solving, often by the seats of pants already in motion, varied logistical problems, and the hordes of young people in their twenties, mostly male, who rose quickly through the ranks, often to leave to helm their own new companies. Fedex, still Federal Express, had not yet turned a profit. DHL was steeped in the mysteriousness of its origins and ownership.
Part of the excitement was that we were all making it up as we went along. Today, expedited delivery and inventory control logistics are highly professionalized and mathematically systematized activities. In the Seventies, we were cowboys. Today, we have fax machines, email, word-processed documents, uploads, downloads, attachments, imaging. Then, we had telephones and telex machines. If it needed to go somewhere, it went there physically. A contract to a guy fishing in the Alaska wildnerness? A solar panel to Dusseldorf (lost for a month in a warehouse in Marseille)? A rock star’s (male) hairspray to Marrakesh? Sure, we’ll do it. (How are we doing it?)
That first Friday as head of what was then an international department, I told a major client we could get him Sunday delivery in Trinidad. Sunday. In Trinidad. And we didn’t have an agent in Trinidad. But I wasn’t going to mark my first week in charge by telling a major customer no. I didn’t leave the office Friday night or all day Saturday. The phone bill alone lost us money on the job, but I found an agent in Port-of-Spain who understood the demanding nature of American business and who had close contacts in customs. Package delivered. I was on my way. I was 26.
But to where?
I had never wanted to be in business. That wasn’t me. Me, just two or three years earlier – dropped-out of college twice, kicked-out finally – was unemployed and boarding dogs in my Manhattan apartment for extra money. I would walk the city streets, sit in the parks and sink into the hours, vibrating, I felt in my stillness, with the quick atomic motion of the world at rest. If, along the way, in some required contact of daily life, man or woman spoke to me, what came back in return, pressed though the vise of my inwardness, was a croak in the guise of a voice. Once, on a late fall day, I entered the St. Marks Cinema in the East Village and sat through a triple bill of Last Year at Marienbad, La Strada, and La guerre est finie. I emerged six and a half hours later into a chill, melancholy night, driven so deeply into interiority I thought I might never speak again.
Now I was sitting executively behind a wall on a restaurant patio in Las Mercedes, eating my first rabbit and first turtle soup, talking to the man whose company was about to become our new agent in Caracas, and I’m telling him I’m glad he’s lived in the U.S. and understands the demands of American business, and it’s great that his son is going to West Point, but I’ve heard this before, and if six months from now the promised second morning deliveries start becoming afternoon and third morning, I’m going to have to terminate the agreement. (And I did.)
I had flown in a couple of nights before with a dozen boxes or so of medical brochures. They needed on-board accompaniment, I had an idea, and the company president said, sure, go find us a better agent. I had booked a hotel on the coast, in La Guaira, not that far from the airport, thinking the companies I needed to visit would be headquartered in that area, but as it transpired I had to travel by taxi multiple times through the northern mountains that separate Caracas from the coast. The humidity was so thick I changed perspiration-soaked clothes three or four times a day, and during the slow climbs up the mountain highway, stuck interminably behind huge lorries freighted with timber and the same carga larga sign behind them all, I could peer closely through the huge needles of moisture that seemed to hang suspended in the air, study the tin shacks that climbed the mountain sides to the top, housing the city’s poor. They are there still today, home to the Chavezistas. No wonder, I thought, nothing gets delivered on time. It’s an effort to move. Here, sit down. Have a cool drink. Let’s talk a little. It’ll still be there when we’re done.
It is curious how feeling the body more closely, the atmosphere pressing on it, leads to a sharper awareness of its opposite, the formless self the body contains. What was I doing there? Who was I fooling? Everyone, clearly, but myself. I had arrived at National Airport, outside of D.C., for my connecting flight to Miami, only to discover – B. still handling customers and not yet taking care of me – that I had forgotten my passport. On a morning flight the next day, I managed to make the same flight to Caracas. No one needed to know. When I counted up the boxes in the hotel lobby, the cab driver already gone, I found them one short. Now I walked along the coastal highway – he worked the airport and the airport hotels – surely I would see him going one way, returning the other. Come night, I hired another taxi to take me back to the airport. I scanned the line of cabs. I saw him. He saw me. Yes, yes. He had looked for me. He didn’t know my name, my room.
Executive? I couldn’t make a courier delivery without fucking up. But no one had needed to know in either case. If you are only an imposter to yourself, you are in on your own secret. But it was my secret and I did know it, and the sense of otherness enveloping me was only greater, as it so often is, for the foreign locale and my skin crawling with the press of the world upon it. I had to get out, had to walk, to feel space around me, a breeze, any kind of breeze. All around in the darkness along the coastal road, the side streets, I saw figures, caught the tail of furtive movements. I began to conceive the story I would write when home again. A foreigner – always a foreigner – mistaken for someone else. I needed a circumstance to represent this profound dislocation of identity I felt – a first time homosexual encounter, I imagined, anonymous figures in the dark, a Columbian, in fact, mistaking an unspeaking American, beating him in the shadows, kicking him, spitting out in his contemptuous dismissal, “Venizolano,” the title I gave the story.
Home again, my car gave out. I went to the man who now would be called the head of Human Resources, JD, a huge, rolling, born-again Christian, deeply southern, deeply country, a former good ‘ole boy with a broad blast of white hair and heart wide enough to make every up and-coming young male, every tender female in the company his ward. He took me to the president, who listened.
“Oh, what the hell,” he said, “Give him a car.”
JD told me to find what I wanted on any lot, come back and tell him, and he would work out the lease. Most of the other young directors of operations and VPs of sales were driving Gran Prix’s. That wasn’t what I wanted. Short of an Alfa Romeo, I wanted a 280ZX. The thing was, the Grand Prix, in 1979 dollars, went for eight thousand dollars. The ZX was twelve.
I reported back to JD.
“Boy!” he bellowed and drawled in a diphthong that had at least three syllables to it – “Boyahhhuh! You got to be SHITTIN’ me! You picked out a twelve thousand dollar car?!”
I was already well into feeling my savoir faire, but I stammered before JD.
“You GOT to be shittin’ me!”
But he hadn’t given me any limit.
Now he gave me the car.
All the young peacocks were stylin’ as they’d say twenty years later. London Fog. Fedoras. Cigars. I went for three piece suits, a brown Borsalino, my ZX. By the time we moved what was now an international division up to New York, near JFK – B. and my number two coming with me – I was living the high life, working endless hours, playing the rest, tooling around town: wine after wine at dinner, taking the measure of every vodka and brandy at The Odeon. CW, ten years my senior, who had bought in as a third, minority owner to lend his international expertise, was now the chief executive of a independent international subsidiary, while I was the chief operating officer. He and I spent late nights at his favorite riverside haunts on the Queens side, bent noses and soaring tenors at tableside. Every Friday we picked an Italian restaurant on the Island for an extended lunch: a couple of cocktails, a bottle or two of wine – the Borolo’s not big enough; let’s try an Inferno – and we’d saunter into the office cool as two guys who didn’t know they were walking distilleries not pulling it off. In the meantime we were expanding around the world, our own offices in Australia, Brazil, joint ventures in England and France.
In 1980, a still young HBO raised our profile even higher. While NBC would broadcast the big name matches from Wimbledon, as usual, HBO would carry the secondary matches.
Each morning, we flew videotape of the previous day’s matches from London to New York. There was only one way to make the time constraints, though: the Concorde, with an on board courier. This was much too big to let anyone else handle. I set it up myself. And just to be sure there were no kinks in the system, you understand, I made myself the first courier. I enjoyed a few days of Wimbledon (but saw the classic McEnroe loss to Borg from my Murray Hill living room) and flew the Concorde home, with a 9 a.m. London departure, a 9:30 a.m. arrival at JFK, a car to rush the tape to Manhattan, and a full day at the office.
On the plane, it was poached Scotch salmon, champagne, cigars, and brandy from take off to landing. My seatmate perused his leather bound portfolio of Rolls Royces with me. Somewhere in flight, we approached twice the speed of sound. I stared hard out the window. Instead of the usual cruising altitude somewhere in the thirty thousands of feet, we were soaring at fifty-seven thousand. The atmosphere, very rarified, was darkening. The earth was curving. I was very high.
Just short of a year later, B., not much of a New York girl, decided to return to Virginia and soon look for work elsewhere. I wrote a letter of reference intended to ensure employment through any future life. A day that I always knew was coming began to approach in my mind. Then I was made an offer.
My counterpart for the parent company, younger brother of one of the two original owners, was leaving the company. They wanted me to take his place. In the hierarchy of the company, there would be the three owners, and then there would be me. Of course there was much more money. The probable future was clear. It was Friday afternoon.
I spent the weekend at home. I had a long talk with my brother. If I accepted the promotion, it was very likely that by forty, if not before, I would be a wealthy man. I would be a very unhappy, wealthy man. I was struck that I even contemplated it. The brooding young man who had taken a customer service job with another company for $150 a week just three and a half years earlier would not have thought about it for a moment. For a weekend, however, the twenty-nine year old did. Because it had been a hell of a ride. It had enabled me, in fact, not long before, to leverage a real estate investment into a four thousand percent profit in two years. So I had options.
On Monday morning, I walked into CW’s office, and I resigned.
I had felt as if the company were mine. Operationally, I had created it, hired all the people who hired all the people. I felt responsible. I signed a short-term consulting contract and agreed to conduct the search for my successor. They continued to woo me for the other position. During those final three months, in addition to offers of more money still, I was being invited to a lot of power breakfasts with colleagues from Virginia, all the others in my cadre of up and comers who had made it to director of operations and VP of sales. Jay liked the night life, everyone knew, so there were many late nights and restaurants and bars. At the last breakfast, I emerged from the hotel lobby with one of those VPs, my age, tall and JFK Jr. handsome. We paused as he lit our cigars.
“Jay,” he said. “Aren’t you gonna miss this?”
He expected, as they all did, that the missing would move me.
I gazed down the street at the U.N. and the East River beyond.
“Sure,” I said.
We never discussed what “this” was.
Then I was gone.
Within a few years, original two owners putting the company up for sale, CW bought rights to the international subsidiary’s name, moved to London, and created a worldwide network of independent expediters. It exists today. For fun, he opened a London wine bar. The parent company was sold to Airborne Express, where for twenty years, under its own name, it provided specialized courier service. A few years ago, DHL acquired it. Earlier, I had reason to learn that a decade after I left, no one had any idea who I was or knew who the people were that created the company.
Then B. wrote me. We started to catch up on twenty-five years. She wanted to know why I had disappeared. She got married, I said. A married woman with children in Virginia. A single man hundreds of miles away. Different lives.
“I know,” she said.
But she wasn’t completely satisfied, and it wasn’t the whole truth. The whole truth is that I leave all my lives behind, one imposter after another, working my way, I keep thinking, to the real me.
I remembered when we last saw each other. I visited soon after her first daughter was born. And I knew that soon after my return to New York I had received a card from B. It’s in one of the boxes that contain the memorabilia of all those lives. I haven’t seen it in years, but I know what it says. It says that I have to visit often, because B. couldn’t imagine her daughter growing up without knowing me.
She is older now than B. was when I met her.
Searching my memory, I thought I had to have been at B.’s wedding. There was no way I would not have been. Yet I had no recollection at all. The next morning, as if still, after so many years, anticipating my needs, I received an email from B. with two attachments: photos from her wedding.
In the first, one of those table shots, behind those in seats, three people stand. In the middle is B., her silken veil of waist-length hair a kind of talisman of her innocence and beauty. On one side of her is her new husband. On the other side is me. Once again, somehow, the imposter leads my life. I do not recall the moment. I do not remember the day. Yet that is my own self standing there, in one of those three pieces suits, taller and leaner than I remember anymore ever having been, already losing my hair, but still only balding, not yet bald. The hair that is there, and my beard, that I have worn since I was seventeen years old, is so dark it seems to have been inked in. I was once that young. I thought I was still.
Staring and staring, I don’t know what to make of a self I left behind, on a day I have forgotten, and I am reminded of poem I wrote as my mother disappeared into Alzheimer’s.
At that, we both turn to Katherine Hepburn, sixty years ago
and taut as a bowstring, wonder if the stars remember
every escapade and kiss, or if sometimes in the darkness
they sit and only stare
at some actor on the screen.
The second photograph shows a lineup of young men. I am among them, reaching forward, perilously balanced on one leg as I stretch my arm for something.
“What are we doing there?” I wrote and asked.
Lined up for the tossing of her garter apparently.
“Guess who caught it,” B. wrote.
That seems, in all the remembering, to be the question for me now. Or the beginning of many questions, the many questions that have preoccupied me in the weeks since B. first wrote: all the questions about the life that was, and was before, the life that is, and the life to come, and all of them beginning with “who.”
5 thoughts on “Who”
You forgot one thing…. MUAH!
Beautiful writing. I now see how you can be a professor of english.
What a great triple feature…my favorite triple feature: Duck Soup, Horsefeathers and A Night At the Opera
Jay, this is so beautifully written. I’m moved, in fact, especially by those last few paragraphs.
The questions are always there.