Chapter Five - A Change Could Do You Good


. . . With the business sold and his bank account flush with cash, Vance felt no pressure to report to work, no need to punch a clock, no obligations, no real sense of purpose. He was adrift . . . not uncomfortable but a bit bored . . . wondering what to do next.
. . . He fell into a pattern of sidewalk breakfasts, a cup of coffee and croissant at a neighborhood spot on Columbus with striped umbrellas and green Parisian tables.


. . He took a long time to read the papers . . .bought the Times and the Daily News both, and for the first time in his life he actually read the papers cover to cover.
. . . For years he had merely passed his eyes over the headlines and read a paragraph or two out of occasional stories. They had little to do with his own life, cast little light on any questions he was exploring or any doubts he held.
It struck him as ironic that every story seemed more important to him suddenly - each robbery, scandal, political intrigue - now that he had plenty of time but little sense of purpose.
. . . The daily news came into focus like a river of humanity swept along on some flood tide. He would have impatiently ignored the flood in days past, intent on the stock market, the global headlines and his own path to some office building.
. . . But suddenly he was free to observe, question and wonder at the bobbing heads, the bloated cows, the wooden dressers floating past.
. . . The daily passage of human failures and disasters suddenly struck him as fascinating, and the detachment bred into him by the nation’s leading schools began to erode, to slip away and escape him. He could actually find himself caring about the mother and her five children who faced sure death from a tenement fire. He read the story avidly until he could be sure they had been rescued by some courageous fire fighter who was overcome, not by smoke, but by wonder at his own personal miracle.
He found himself wanting to meet the hero as well as the mother and the five children.
. . . “Who are these people?”
. . . He wondered how it felt to pull off something that heroic . . . to save six lives from an inferno.
. . . “It’s my job,” the firefighter had said proudly, reminding Vance of all those who had disappeared in the rubble of the World Trade Center, especially those who returned to help others down.
. . . And Vance took to watching the pedestrians surging along Columbus like the river of humanity portrayed in his newspapers.
. . . “Who are these people?”
. . . There were stories attached to each haggard waif. And there were stories shadowing each perfectly coifed executive man and woman striding confidently down the Avenue with briefcase in hand and mobile phone at ear lobe.
. . . He wanted to scratch the surface, tap them on their shoulders, ask them to sit with him, suspend their dashing down the street to spend a few hours unburdening their souls and stories.
. . . “Tell me everything,” he began, one morning, having waylaid one battered older woman he first noticed pushing a lopsided, rusting shopping cart full of plastic bags.
. . . What was the price of breakfast these days? She had long lost any sense of dignity but she did have her limits. What did this man want from her?
. . . Wasn’t suffering through his unvarnished pity a big enough price to pay for a lousy piece of pastry?
. . . She eyed him suspiciously while wolfing down the pastry and coffee he had ordered for her.
. . . “Where are you from?” he asked, searching for a simple beginning, not realizing the depth of his question. Was she someone’s grandmother, he wondered? Out on the street . . . pretty much unwashed and mildewed, she had been cast aside like an empty cigarette pack.
. . . “Jane,” she smiled, tilting her head sideways, holding her remaining piece of cherry Danish close by. “I’m Jane. Up and down. Here and there.”
Some concentrated chewing (gumming?), then, “Up and down. Back and forth. Here and there. Up and down.”
. . . Another mouth full, some swallowing, then “I’m Jane. Yes sir, that’s me. Just plain old Jane.”
. . . Her face momentarily clouded over as if she were remembering some long ago morning, or some piece of identify, perhaps a story from better years.
. . . And then she was fully back in the present and stuffing the final chunk of pastry into her mouth, hungry and impatient.
. . . “Gotta go now,” she announced, glancing down at her wrist for a nonexistent watch, mumbling through her pastry, remembering manners. “Hurry down town. Find Silvia before lunch.”
. . . “Silvia?” he was curious. “Who’s Silvia?”
. . . But his question turned her face dark and stormy. “None of your god damned business, Mister!”
. . . She shoved back from the table, insulted, lurching to her uncertain feet. Her green bistro chair tumbled backward with a loud scraping sound onto the cement sidewalk grabbing the attention of all the other sidewalk diners, even though they pretended not to notice, burying themselves immediately in newspapers or cell phones.
. . . Not noticing things was an essential survival skill for New Yorkers - especially those with money, power and a layer of comfort. Noticing unpleasant things allowed noise and static to penetrate that veneer of comfort - interrupt the symphony that privileged folks were hoping to create out of urban realities that offered little harmony or melody.
. . . Long before they reached college, most of these people learned all kinds of strategies to dilute unpleasantness - to look the other way, focus on diversions, see no evil, hear no crying, notice no tears. Suffering was a fact of urban life to be wiped away and ignored by selective viewing.
. . . When they had been rushed as small children through certain neighborhoods on the way to the movies, their parents had taught them to lock car doors and roll up windows on the hottest of summer days. They learned to stare straight ahead and avoid eye contact.
. . . “Just in case,” explained Mum or Dad with weighty expressions that were never explained. But they knew. They understood. The world and the people outside the car were dangerous and to be avoided at any cost.
. . . Eventually they learned to look without seeing, to walk by, to relish the sounds of silence. They became oblivious to the sour, the disappointing and the disheartening aspects of life.
. . . The frequent fliers among this group bought expensive earphones that promised to cancel irritating noises like the roaring of jet engines and the wailing of babies. They carried a collection of CDs so they could enjoy whatever symphonic or soul music they relished. They could play their own music while the world spun silently outside some place.
. . . On this morning, the dozen neighbors at the sidewalk cafe used every possible tactic to ignore Jane lurching to her feet and cursing at Vance.
Her words came out with a vehemence that almost knocked him off his chair.
“Who the hell do you think you are, anyway, prying, asking questions, wanting to know my secrets, steal them from me? I ain’t tellin you nothin.”
Before he knew it, his Jane Doe was hurtling back down the sidewalk with the rest of the river surging past him, intent, he supposed, on meeting Silvia. A friend? A daughter? A former boss? A drug dealer?
. . . He almost rose to follow her, to explain and apologize, but he was frozen in place, crippled by her sudden rage. He found his breathing had become difficult, his heart pounding with the violence of her words.
. . . As he tried to restore some sense of calm, his attention shifted back to the river of people. His breathing slowed and the morning regained some of its lost charm.
. . . Here he was, after all, with several million dollars stashed away, relaxing over breakfast with no real pressure. He could coast along, seize the day or let it pass.
. . . He found himself noting the large percentage of corporate women weaving through the morning flow. They each sported conservative suits, extravagant leather portfolios and a single slash of boldly feminine color and style - something around the neck or stuck in their hair.
. . . Could he convince one of these Fortune 500 women to halt and sit with him, turn off the mobile phone long enough to disconnect from a day’s schedule and reflect for an hour or two?
. . . He knew it was a long shot . . . a one in a hundred type of thing . . . but he reached out a hand toward the next beauty rushing past.
“Valerie!” he gushed, as if he knew her well, as if they had been lovers or even better as if they had been clients or prospects or done deals together.
But he had the wrong name and wrong tone, it seemed, for she slowed only momentarily, as if to see if he were someone important. Then she noticed his sweats and wrote him off as some creep.
. . . “Creep!” she muttered, as she swept on downtown with mobile phone pressed on her ear like a permanent fixture.
. . . He was not easily dissuaded. Years of corporate sales and marketing had refined his skills with this particular class of people so that he felt sure it was only a matter of time and technique before he would convince one of these women to join him.
. . . He worked through a dozen different lines and routines with twenty dazzling women, but each time they waved him off with some sign of disgust.
. . . Each time they stopped only long enough to size him up, notice the sweat clothes and check his eyes for encouraging signs of power or promise. You could never be sure in Manhattan, from sweat pants alone, whether someone was a major player. But the eyes never lied. If they had seen some killer instinct, a gleam of intensity, a hint of ferocity, one or two of them might have halted, curious and a bit hungry. They might have known that the big leaps in life usually arrive in just such bizarre envelopes, the slightly crazy, random rewards life deals like an inside straight in poker.
. . . They had all read about Howard Hughes and knew that eccentrics could offer escape from the hohumdrum of normal upward mobility. But years of using noise canceling headphones left them ill prepared to separate the promising eccentric from the derelict.
. . . Vance lacked the edge and the look. He had spent too many years hiding his scent, his signature, and his aura. He seemed too innocent and bland to be worth a pause. A decade earlier he had hooked Nicole on a sidewalk without even trying. He hadn’t even been trolling like he had for striped bass as a child growing up on Long Island Sound. Now he was incapable of hooking anything with a business suit. They glanced at him with obvious pity and distaste.
. . . “Probably laid off a few months back. One of those dot-com disaster stories. No, too old for that. Probably middle management and over the hill. Out to pasture.”
. . . Their looks of disdain had little effect on him. After a lifetime of corporate climbing and struggle, he’d seen it all before. He’d tasted those same looks across conference tables even when suited and tied.
. . . He just didn’t have the look of a contender. No one took him very seriously, and that had been just fine with him. They doubted his ability to close, his willingness to go for the kill. They knew that drive and hunger were the main traits separating any of them from the herd of other upwardly mobile execs.
Whether male or female, they sometimes glanced furtively into mirrors or shop windows to check out various expressions to certify that they passed the test of sincerity.
. . . A look of compassion and concern was high on the list. But it had to be convincing.
. . . “I’d do anything to please you,” was a special look and way of standing or listening that was reserved for bosses who were headed for the stars. . . . . . . . . . . “Anything. Anything at all. Murder. Theft. Espionage.”
. . . Of course, they didn’t have to do all those things. They simply had to appear totally committed and totally willing.
. . . Then there was “Trust me.”
. . . “Totally.”
. . . And “Don’t even think about it!” - reserved for peers who might be considering sabotage, blocking or deception.
. . . All the time these other folks had been practicing and honing these expressions and poses, Vance had been trying to erase his own natural abilities in that department. He came fully equipped from prep school and college with all the right expressions - these glances and postures - but chose to unlearn them.
. . . He once considered writing a satirical handbook, “Glancing for Success,” to parody the body language and aural strategies wielded by his competitors, but he wondered if he could make it clear that it was just a joke.
. . . On this particular morning, he fully understood the irony of his situation. He knew that he could quickly snag one of these women if he just shifted into a more arrogant stance, if he would replace the gentle smile with something harder and edgy.
. . . But something held him back from such tactics. He shifted to non-verbal strategies. He simply attempted eye contact with each executive woman who passed his table.
. . . Anyone who has visited New York City knows that most men and women avoid eye contact with strangers. Eye contact is viewed as dangerous - as invitational, possibly flirtatious and definitely a risk. Noise cancellation is required.
. . . Vance was not at all surprised by the discomfort caused by his glances. One after another, these women increased speed and averted eyes. Eye contact was a taboo. He knew that. And it gave him perverse pleasure to see them sprinting away.
. . . But soon after 9 AM, just as the sidewalk flow had slowed, one woman actually caught his eyes, put on her brakes, glanced over her shoulder, then checked out his eyes one more time.
. . . “Charlie?” she asked, acting as if they had once been friends or clients or something.
. . . She was different from the others, not corporate, he was sure. Wrong clothes, wrong look, and . . . she had stopped.
. . . He rose almost gallantly to his feet to offer her the empty chair that had earlier held Jane’s hungry body. He slipped into old prep school courting behaviors, without even knowing it.
. . . “No. It’s Vance,” he corrected her, knowing that she was making up the line just as he had done earlier in the morning. They were strangers, he was sure.
Seeming very tall but drab in her old coat. He knew that she was quite different from the other women who had rushed past.
. . . She took the chair he offered gladly, pulled it in close to him and smiled as if they had known each other for years.
. . . “How have you been?” he asked her, playing along and enjoying the way she leaned in close to him. “I was expecting you.”
. . . “I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you,” she purred, genuinely warming to this complete stranger.
. . . And he suddenly recognized her. She was this ultimately famous woman - a star of some kind - whose face often appeared on the covers of magazines. She was frequently invited to talk shows. She was the constant subject of speculation, gossip and bewilderment. He could not quite remember her niche, but he knew she was an icon, a celebrity of the highest ranking.
. . . She was dressed badly for the part, he realized, almost as if she were disguised and on the run.
. . . He’d never met her before, never spoken with her, but Vance sensed that she needed him that morning.
. . . She had made some mostly futile efforts to conceal her identity, he saw. She had bundled most of her red hair into a scarf and had donned dark glasses to shield her eyes. But she was a head turner under wraps. She’d become one of those mega stars who might stand out in any mob even if she turned into a toad and tried hiding beneath ferns and toadstools.
. . . “I need your help,” she whispered, leaning even closer. “I need to get off the street and out of sight. Can you take me some place safe?”
. . . He saw no fear in her eyes but the urgency of her tone brought him to his feet.
. . . “I’m paid up here,” he said, “and my place is just around the corner.”
. . . “Perfect,” she smiled, taking his arm. “Just in time.”