Friday, February 29, 2008
My Luncheon with Uncle Nick
Leaving Denver International Airport, I drove west on I-70, took the Morrison exit and sped south into the foothills. Nervous, I reached into my brand new sports jacket and felt the reassuring presence of the map and security card my father had given me. These two items would open the door to the business career I craved.
The map, a few simple lines scribbled on the back of an envelope, guided me to an unmarked private road that led through a wasteland of brush and boulders to where Uncle Nick's estate lay smack against a vertical bluff at the back of a canyon. I drove in, parked, and walked up to the ornate wrought-iron gate emblazoned with the initials N and K in golden filigree. After swiping my card over the security panel bolted beneath the K, I stepped back and struck a pose of confidence and poise. A well-modulated British voice sounded from a small speaker at the bottom of the panel, saying: "Good morning, sir. Kindly say the letters and numbers on the back of your card."
"N X K 6 6 5," I recited.
"Very good, sir." The gate opened. I walked through and enjoyed an unobstructed view of the stupendous villa that Uncle Nick had designed for himself. The villa demonstrated the wonders that could be created by combining a mountain of Italian marble, antique statuary shipped in by the truck load, and an indifference to accepted taste. The place bristled with colonnades and niches haphazardly adorned with statues of early Christian saints and Roman Caesars – off to the right, St. John was cheek by jowl with Nero. The villa abutted the sheer bluff behind it in a precise seam, the soft uniform white of the marble contrasting with the mottled tans and yellows of the bluff. Fountains right and left spurted lilac water, which added a languorous Mediterranean fragrance to the dry Colorado air.
Ahead, the villa's great silver-white door opened. A giant of a man in formal butler's attire filled the doorway. He beckoned. I approached and, without thinking, reached out to shake hands. He ignored my hand, looked down at me with a hint of a smile, and said with quiet reserve, "Please come into the waiting room, sir." I followed him. The waiting room was roughly the size of a YMCA gymnasium. Our footsteps, my quick staccato steps and his long thudding strides, echoed off the marble walls in syncopated rhythm. "Wait here, please, and I shall announce your arrival."
Apart from its immense dimensions, the waiting room was devoid of interest. It reminded me of an empty art museum. Instead of furniture, there were twelve great marble slabs scattered throughout the room to serve as benches. I counted seventeen thick marble columns. The uniform whiteness was broken only by the colors of a movie poster mounted on the far wall. The poster was a past advertisement for a dreary period film that had dashed through the art theaters on its way to DVD two years ago. In the foreground, a pretty young blonde wearing all of the ruffles and flounces of upper-class Victorian England was sopping up her tears with a lace handkerchief. Behind her, offering consolation, was another woman, older and dressed in Hollywood's idea of servant garb – subdued in color but artfully defining bosom and hip.
I sat on a marble bench and took a deep breath to help steady my nerves. I needed to focus on my strategy for impressing Uncle Nick enough to get a job offer. My graduation as a Bachelor of Arts in Business was a scant six weeks away; it was time to trade on family connections.
The groundwork for the strategy had begun with a Google search, which yielded a general overview of Uncle Nick's public life. Initially dubbed the Pickle King by the Wall Street Journal, Uncle Nick gained notoriety for cornering the South American cucumber market early in his career. However, when riots erupted in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, led by the so-called Gherkinistas, the authorities stepped in and forced Uncle Nick to unwind his positions. Countless Google hits documented the string of the high-profile commodity deals that followed : talc, cranberry juice, boar bristles for hair brushes, and so forth. All of this on-line information was helpful as background, but I expected the real pay dirt to come from my father.
At first, my father was a reluctant oracle. "Look, Nick and I exchange phone calls on our birthdays and that's quite enough for me. He's no longer the brother I grew up with," my father had said. "But if you're sure that you want to do this, I'll try to arrange a meeting. Get yourself fully prepared and don't waste his time. Nothing makes him madder than having to repeat himself – so get things right on the first try. As far as making your pitch goes, you should understand that Nick considers himself a colossus among men. Think of him as combining the ruthlessness of a Bill Gates with the megalomania of an Orson Welles. Nick feels absolutely no connection with humanity in general, and very little connection with family. Being his nephew may swing you one visit; but if you can't convince him that you will increase his wealth, you'll be out on your ear."
Now, as I sat on the bench mentally rehearsing my talking points about arbitrage, commodity backwardization, and dynamic hedging, a voice behind me boomed, "Hey, kid! Welcome to Colorado!"
I shot to my feet and turned to see Uncle Nick coming toward me like a charging rhino. Or, rather, like a charging Spanish olive, given his maroon tie and well-tailored green suit that fell somewhere in size between XXXL and a petite circus tent. "Hi, Uncle Nick! It's good to see you!" I said heartily and shook his hand. So far, so good. I had carefully practiced my Hi-Uncle-Nick-It's-Good-to-See-You line and a dozen other lines of small talk. I was ready to make a real knockout of a first impression.
"How's your dad?"
"Fine, sir. He sends his best wishes."
"We've very different people, your dad and I. But still I love him like, um ..."
"A brother, sir?" I offered.
"Yeah, that's it. Like a brother. Well, look at you. All grown up and a business major. I always assumed that you'd turn out to be artsy like your dad. You know, to this day it boggles my mind why he chose to be a music composer. What is music? Vibrations in the air." Uncle Nick whipped a plump hand through the air by way of emphasis. "How do you create wealth with vibrations in the air? And does he still drive that crummy old Volvo?"
"Yes, he does." I saw an opening to inject my prepared lines. "But I'm much more practical than my father. I've worked my way through school to prepare for a business career. My passion is commodity trading. I have some ideas that I would like to discuss with you, sir. In my view –"
"Great, kid," he interrupted. "We'll talk business over lunch. Right now, I'd like to show you around the place. But first, what's your guess about the price of marble over the next five years?"
I had no idea. But surely Uncle Nick must think that it was going up if he had bought so much of it. I responded, "Well, I would expect the price of marble to generally rise with inflation."
"Generally rise? Why, it's going through the roof! I expect to make a mint selling this dump. Then I'll rebuild using the next up-and-coming commodity. Chromium, I'm guessing. What a flashy house that will be! This is how a business man thinks, kid. The average Joe buys a house made of cheap pine 2x4s, plywood, and drywall. Worthless junk," said Uncle Nick.
The conversation was straying off track. I didn't want Uncle Nick to lecture me like a schoolboy; I needed to connect with him man to man. I said, "Uncle Nick, tell me about the poster there. Is that one of your favorite movies?'
"Who has time for movies? The poster is in honor of an actress I'm seeing. If you're guessing the blonde babe, you're wrong. She's a rising star and still too pricey. The older one is the bargain. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar two years ago. Fortunately, she lost, so she comes at a discount. She's flying in tonight. A limo will pick her up at the airport, take her to my doctor for some precautionary blood tests – you can't be too careful nowadays – and drop her off here for a night on the town. Kid, the same advice applies to everything in life: Rent a depreciating asset, never buy. All right, come along. We'll look at the main part of the house. You can see the two wings and the outdoor stuff after lunch."
Okay, Uncle Nick might be an obese monster with ferocious appetites, but he had a vitality that I found fascinating. And for a man of his weight, he was remarkably spry. I nearly had to trot to keep up. With Uncle Nick gesturing with both arms and shouting out commentary and descriptions like a maniacal tour guide, we rushed through the villa. We rushed through offices stacked to the ceiling with file cabinets, rushed through a room outfitted as a plush corporate boardroom, rushed through an inner courtyard arrayed with a dazzling host of flowers and palms like a Moorish garden, and rushed through some sort of pleasure room with a mahogany bar, heaps of jet-black throw pillows, and a red velvet carpet with a two-inch pile that felt like walking on meringue. Finally, we arrived at a broad metal wall at the back of the villa. The metal was the same silver-white color as the villa's front door. Palladium, Uncle Nick said. In the center of the wall was a great disk, resembling a door to a bank vault. Uncle Nick pulled the handle; there was a sudden rush of air escaping; and the door swung open. We entered, stepping out onto a catwalk.
Before us, in a vast cavern hewn out of the rock, were two gigantic tanks supported by elaborate scaffolding. The tanks' tops, instrumented with lights and gauges, were at eye level but the bottoms were lost from sight hundreds of feet below in the nether shadows. The tanks had the size and proportions of two submarines stood on their noses.
"Wheatberries are in the right tank; olive oil is in the left," said Uncle Nick with an expansive sweep of his arm. "This is true wealth. The average working man has no idea about true wealth. He's an ignoramus. He slaves his life away for his little dollars, which shrink in value year by year. Anyone that stupid deserves to be exploited. They're our natural prey, kid," Uncle Nick threw back his head and laughed. "I feast on the blood of the working man."
"Why did you build your own tanks, Uncle Nick? Surely you could rent silos."
"When the economy goes belly up in a year or so, the government will likely confiscate all commercially traded commodities and ration them out. I will have these hidden stores, for sale to the highest bidder. I had these tanks specially fabricated by the same Dusseldorf concern that built old Saddam Hussein's underground bunker in Baghdad."
Uncle Nick wheeled around, got in my face, and shouted, "Of course, Germans! Who do you think would be in Dusseldorf? Mexicans?" His eyes were narrow slits of rage.
Rattled, I retreated a step and grabbed the catwalk railing for support. "Sorry, Uncle Nick."
No words were spoken as we left the cavern. Uncle Nick slammed the door and shoved the handle back in place. "All right, we may as well go to lunch. Jeeves should have it ready," he muttered.
Desperate for a way to relieve the tension, I ventured, "How did you find a butler named Jeeves, Uncle Nick?"
Uncle Nick grunted. "You don't find a butler named Jeeves; you build one. I already had a bodyguard. The promise of a raise persuaded him to change his name and take elocution lessons. And now I have a classy butler named Jeeves who holds the North American record for the bench press. And since he also does some light duty as a cook, my personnel costs have been cut to the bone. It's really sweet." To my relief, all this talk of saving money was brightening Uncle Nick's mood. "I don't need a chef right now," he continued, "because I did my serious eating three years ago when food prices were temporarily depressed. Now I subsist on one light lunch a day and am slowly working off the cheap calories I stored up in the past. Here we are, kid."
The dining room looked like a royal ballroom. Place settings had been arranged for us at the very end of a grand table as long as a bowling lane. As we sat down, Jeeves appeared with a silver pot. In his huge hands, it seemed little larger than a cereal bowl. Using a silver fork, he lifted green pasta from the pot and filled our plates.
"Spinach pasta?" I asked.
Uncle Nick replied, "No, in fact it's Jeeves's own creation."
Jeeves gave a polite bow of acknowledgment and said, "To be fair, sir, I was merely acting on a comment you made after the last currency devaluation. You noted that dollar bills were now worth less than spaghetti, pound for pound."
"Your creation, Jeeves. But you can credit me with an assist," said Uncle Nick, clearly pleased by the butler's reply. Uncle Nick turned back to me and said, "Jeeves stirs up a thick paste using shredded one-dollar bills as the chief ingredient, rolls the paste flat, bakes it, and then cuts it into ribbons. What was your name for this dish, Jeeves?"
"Federal Reserve Fettuccine, sir."
"Ah, yes," said Uncle Nick. "Now we need to choose the sauce. Are you a vegetarian, kid?"
"No, sir. I like meat. Meat is fine with me," I said firmly, looking Uncle Nick square in the eye. It was time to sell him on the idea of hiring me, and I needed to exude decisiveness. And I wasn't going to let any crazy pasta throw me off my game.
"Glad to hear it. Jeeves, bring us the sauce with the basil."
"Very good, sir."
Jeeves returned with a silver pitcher and poured out bright pools of sauce on our pasta. The contrast of the deep red sauce and the green pasta was striking. I took a taste. Beneath the flavor of the basil, the sauce was salty and oddly familiar, although I didn't detect any flavor of tomatoes. "Interesting sauce, Uncle Nick. What's in it?"
Instantly Uncle Nick was back in a state of squinty-eyed rage. He slapped the table with both palms and roared, "Jeeves!" Powerful hands grabbed my shoulders and yanked me out of my chair. My fork went flying. The next thing I knew, I was frog-marched out of the villa and thrown onto the sidewalk. Uncle Nick yelled from the doorway: "I already answered that question!" The door slammed shut.
I struggled to my feet. My ear ached; my chin was deeply scraped and throbbing; and my new sports jacket was soiled with red stains. I could not tell if the stains were sauce or blood.
Proverbs 23:1-3 When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony. Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive.