IN THE WORKS

FROM EPSTEIN’S PANCAKE

BEGIN on a warm late-summer afternoon in a small old-fashioned Manhattan tailor shop circa the ‘88 presidential campaign. Me looking at an attaché case, about to buy it, not sure exactly why. I knew some of the reasons, though. I’d never seen anything like it, and it was a quirky access to power. And it would be easy to sell if I wasn’t comfortable with it; I knew several traders who’d love to own it just to show off. It was a good investment. At a lower price I might have bought it just because it was a really excellent case – solid, old-fashioned black leather, really well-made. A little oversized, so you could use it for an overnight bag, and heavy, with the classic hardwood frame. Tan peccary interior, everything included – calculator, battery shaver, Pelikan writing set. Security via large brass combination lock. A tight ship.

It was the end of the Reagan Years. With Black Monday, my job was gone, followed by my second wife. My money was gone too, and I was investing in something different here. New York is attitude, and this piece of luggage had attitude. It demanded respect. Not a thousand dollars worth, but that’s what I paid for it when I saw what it was. In the false bottom of this banker-faced artifact was a small, dull green pistol with a remote firing mechanism and suppressor, set in diagonally, corner-to-corner. It fired with a remote trigger, and would be just right if you decided to gut someone in the middle of a disagreement. Not something I’d ever thought of doing, but living in a city full of guns affects your thinking. In Vietnam I’d seen that people kill each other and get used to it. It’s a crowded world, and with Darwin staring us in the eye and Malthusian hordes about to overwhelm us, we find a way to feel all right about it.

Bottom line, I was used to guns. In rural New England where I grew up, rifles and shotguns were part of life. A solid, pious little world where human life was held in serious regard. Hardcore Christian – ‘kill not, that you may look down on those who do.’ I suppose my father thought that way too, until he married a French girl who’d been running around for the Resistance with a Sten gun while he was pushing paper on a troop ship. He was the last of a long line of teachers and preachers from which I escaped somehow. Checked out in his old Pontiac not long after she died. One-car accident on an off-camber curve he’d been driving for years.

The pistol was a strange item, small and light, mostly composites, by a Swiss company, Michaud-Coubert. A tiny plate in the butt stated its provenance. There were two loads: a Teflon cop-killer and a mercury load that turns into a big lead flower more deadly than the poppy. Along with the gun in the false bottom were ammo, a micro-cassette and a currency compartment. Corner-to-corner metal braces aligned with the barrel to fudge x-rays. Trigger and safety fore and aft in the handle, with a little brass initial plate to let you know which end was which.

Where do you get such a thing? I got it from my tailor, Fred, a graying retired Spanish anarchist whom I’d known for years, who beat me at chess in eleven moves the first time we played. We met in Central Park, both of us on bikes, and he stayed with me for three laps on his old green Bianchi, which gave me something to think about. Born Federico in northern Spain, Fred had a long, lined, face, eyes like olives, neat graying hair, and a very flat stomach for a man in his late fifties. A quiet, civil man who respected good manners, and one of these people who seem to take up no space. After years in the same second-floor shop, the place still looked as if he’d just moved in. Long pipes hung from the ceiling and garments hung from the pipes. Little wood counter with an old cash register at the door, chess table with two chairs in a corner, espresso machine on a shelf, everything where it belonged. His tailoring was the same. When Fred fitted a jacket, you looked rich and forgot you were wearing it. Joanna, my second wife, snubbed him, then became wary of him. Once she suggested that he could probably make himself invisible and fly. No fool, Joanna.

 

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