The Daily

First Person

Part 1: Nathaniel Rich’s Trousers

June 13, 2011 | by

The Van Cleef & Arpels exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

I was standing shirtless in a black-and-white houndstooth blazer and wing tips with no socks at the corner of Marengo and Saint Charles watching the trolley cars rattle by. I still had my cell phone and was trying to think whom to call with a gentle heart and moral imagination in this occult, steaming city. I had a number. I dialed.

“Hello?”

“Hello. Is this Nathaniel Rich?”

A hesitation.

“Yes?”

I hurried to explain who I was and how I’d obtained his cell-phone number.

“Well, to tell you the truth, I’m in a bit of an odd situation. I have to meet someone in an hour or so, and I don’t have any pants. Or shorts. What I’m trying to say is, frankly, I’m not sure how to explain it, but, to cut to the chase, all I have is a towel. That’s what I’m wearing right now.”

It was a blue terry-cloth towel that I’d taken from the B&B when they threw me out. They’d held the rest of my clothes hostage until we settled a dispute about the bill. Fortunately it was a short walk from the house to Saint Charles where I thought, given that this was New Orleans, a cab might dare pick up a seminaked man with his wallet in one hand and his cell phone in the other.

It was about a nine-block walk to Nathaniel’s duplex. Happily, it was a warm, clear day, cloudless sky and all. The birds were singing in the pink bougainvillea and the calm palm trees. I tucked the towel snugly around my hips, put my phone and my wallet in the pockets of my blazer, and stepped gingerly—feigning boldness—across Saint Charles.

 

I’D LOST MY BLUE JEANS and T-shirt thanks to a tall, slender, lonely-looking man sneaking about the Van Cleef & Arpels exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. At first I thought he was a thief, because while pretending to be texting on his phone he was obviously taking photos of the pieces on display. We admired the invisible-setting, leaf-shaped, ruby-and-diamond earrings; the magnificent two-hundred-carat emerald-and-baguette-diamond choker; the phoenix pin with a cabochon-cut Kashmir sapphire for a belly and a huge canary briolette diamond dangling from its beak; the jewel and enamel macaw, with its pink-, yellow-, and blue-sapphire feathers and onyx mandible; the spectacular diamond bangles and cuffs; the gold necklaces that look like they were sewn, not hand-fabricated, with their priceless ancient jade beads. He lingered at the exhibit for over an hour, and I wandered about while trying to stay out of his eyeshot, but the security guard took no notice of either of us. I decided to follow him.

He walked through the garden in back, then a long distance along Central Park, and then across many blocks into the city. I am not from New York and was often disoriented, but kept sight of him. Given his height, his square black hat, with its soft lilac band around the base, was easy to spot in a crowd. At last he entered a bar I had been in before, back in my drinking days: the Noho Star, on Lafayette. He sat at the bar, cracked a hard-boiled egg, put a spoonful of mustard on it, and ordered a whiskey. I took a table on the other side of the restaurant near the bathroom where I could see him, but he was facing away from me. He was waiting for someone. He made a telephone call. After perhaps half an hour she arrived: petite, Asian, perhaps sixty, reeking of filthy lucre. She, too, had a black hat, though hers was enormous and damp from the light rain that had started outside. She removed her hat, and I saw she had a glorious diamond pin in her knotted, glossy black hair (I was once in the jewelry business). It was not a tryst. He showed her pictures on his camera. At one photo she grew excited. He took a notepad from his pocket—not a notepad like a writer would use, but a kind of miniature sketchpad—and began to draw with a large charcoal pencil. She nodded avidly. They talked for perhaps five minutes. He seemed to offer her a drink, which she declined. Then she took her hat, shook it on the floor—outdoors the sun had appeared once more—and left. He jotted for a few more minutes, folded the notebook in his pocket, and ordered another drink. When he turned in his chair I immediately recognized the expression on his face. It was the quiet, victorious, postcoital smile of a man who has just closed a sale.

Then I understood. The Cooper-Hewitt exhibition was like chum in the water for the shark-toothed, fusiform women who collect vintage Van Cleef & Arpels. I’m down on my luck at the moment thanks to an unexpected divorce and a more general unluckiness when it comes to money matters—“that old perplexity / an empty purse”—and this odd, unexpected jeweler (who was clearly counterfeiting a piece for his customer) had given me an idea. There would be no stray VCA at a bargain price in New York right now precisely because of the exhibition. I went by A La Vieille Russie just to be sure, and the chubby, polite man who showed me a piece or two there—Edward?—including a lovely two-carat cushion-cut platinum ring with the stone set unexpectedly across the finger and sapphire tapers down the sides (asking an outrageous seventy-seven thousand dollars) confirmed my expectation. Edward, too, had been to see the VCA show at the Cooper-Hewitt. “Fantastic, isn’t it?’ he said. “I’ve sold four pieces since the show opened. If you’re seriously interested in the ring, I wouldn’t wait long.” Weak, Edward, I thought.

Now I’m the first to admit that I’ve never been a sharp-eared man when it comes to financial opportunity (when it knocks, it tends to knock me down), but this was an insistent door buzzer. I called an old friend in Dallas. He said, “I have three pieces I can sell you.” We talked about the possibility of a short-term consignment. He was cautious and evasive. Then he said, “I could maybe give you one piece on the arm, if you fly here to pick it up and leave me your passport. I’m not shipping you anything.” Thanks for your trust, old buddy. “But if you want to do a quick flip with a real margin, you know where to go—New Orleans. They’ve got the old stuff, and every retailer there is starving. I bet there’s twenty pieces of deco VCA in the cases around the quarter if you go hunting for it. Half of them won’t even know what they’ve got, if the hallmark’s been worn out.” This friend of mine knows his business—he was a hustler before he started consigning to Neiman Marcus and Harry Winston—and I knew if he didn’t already have five million sitting in the bank he’d be on the next plane to NOLA himself. I booked a room in a cheap bed-and-breakfast in the garden district—I was lucky, this was just a few days before Jazz Fest and the city was quiet—and called around to make appointments to see “something interesting and antique for a twenty-year wedding anniversary.” I had to be vague or the jewelers would start calling one another to pull in heavy pieces to show, and soon the whole town would know a whale or a dealer was coming and that would kill any bargains.

 

SO HERE I AM, a forty-three-year-old philosophy professor lying on a four-poster bed with the Marengo Street sun insisting its way through the lace curtains, calling each of my credit cards to see what the available balances are and hitting # repeatedly to talk to a representative to try to get a temporary increase. I e-mail my agent so that she can tell me there’s no money hanging out there to collect (we have seven thousand dollars coming from Korean rights, but I’ll be lucky to get the check by next year’s Mardi Gras). I call my brother, and he wires five thousand to my checking account, which increases that balance to $5,812. (He does not sound optimistic about my VCA speculation and is not interested in partnering any pieces, regardless of what I find: “People are selling faster than I can buy right here in Calgary, bud.” A beat. “Just get me back the five k if you can,” he adds with the resigned tone of an older brother who has already made ten or fifteen loans that are yet to be repaid.) Then, options exhausted, but with perhaps enough credit to make two deals (my first appointment is in an hour and a half, and the 1910 seed-pearl choker he’d described to me on the phone sounds like it must be VCA because of the invisible-set emeralds in the toucan clasp), I take off my clothes, fill the quaint (original or Korean imitation?) claw-footed tub with hot water, and—here’s where things go terribly wrong—place my phone carefully on a hand towel on the sink next to the tub, turn the volume up, and, thinking of my divorce, play Cee Lo Green:

Then, getting into the groove (perhaps feeling a bit forlorn)—and adding more hot water to the tub—I find Akon and Lonely Island:

I have a bad habit of listening to songs I enjoy repeatedly, especially when alone, so I play both a few more times. I keep adding hot water to the tub, draining the cooling water as necessary.

There is a knock on the door.

“I’m busy!” I shout over the music. “I don’t need anything!” (My hostess had been oddly solicitous when I checked in: I think since this divorce business has been underway my ordinary anxiety has been more transparent than it usually is and undoubtedly ought to be.)

“Mr. Martin! Mr. Martin! I need to speak with you immediately!”

I turn off the water. I wrap a blue towel around my waist and, with Cee Lo cheerfully hollering “Fuck you and uh / fuck her too!” in the background, I crack the door.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave, Mr. Martin. Would you please turn off that offensive music.”

An argument ensues. The cheerful, kindly, tanned, helpful, and informative Southerner turns out to be an old-fashioned “Baylor Bears” Baptist (my own alma mater) and, more relevantly, a dangerous crazy person. The guest in the next room has also had her sensibilities offended by the happy obscenities being played (okay, over and over again) on my (after all, not very loud: it’s not like I had a speaker) cell phone. I have to pay the full three-night minimum before departing. Now that doesn’t seem fair, since I’m being given the boot. “Don’t make me call the cops. I know those fellas.” “I need some time to think this through.” “I’m afraid you have to leave right now.” “I don’t have your money.” “You’re not going anywhere until I get paid.” Et cetera. I grab my blazer and wallet, slip on my shoes, pick up my cell phone—Cee Lo, thank goodness, has sung his peace—and march for the front door. “Your things stay here until I get my money!” the innkeeper is shouting after me, while I hustle onto the porch and out into the garden. She stands on the porch and literally shakes her fist at me, shouting something about money, as I proceed, dripping, up the quiet, hot street. My only hope now—my only hope for me, I mean, that is if you know what I mean—is to get to that appointment and buy a great piece of jewelry for a quarter what it will bring in New York. I can’t help but think of Kafka’s country doctor trying to retrieve his fur coat trailing from the back of the gig. “Betrayed! Betrayed! A false alarm on the night bell once answered—it cannot be made good, not ever.” But first things first. I need to find a pair of pants.

Up next: “The Pearl Choker.”

Clancy Martin is the author of How to Sell and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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