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Author’s Note: The following is a collection of five short stories about “The Thin Man,” which were written over the past few months. This post completes his Singapore chapter, which sees him wash ashore after an extended period on a submarine, take a corporate espionage gig out of necessity, and land on his feet although he probably doesn’t deserve to. The Thin Man is my protagonist. I don’t want to say hero. He is a kind of avatar of my own character if I had no ties to the material, social, or familial world. They say “write what you know.” I’ve spent a lot of time at industry events, in hotels, and in bars, so that’s what I’ve written about. All of the original pieces as well as Andrea pieces (my heroine) are over at kyotokibbitzer.com. I hope you like the work.

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Dedication:

For Eyes. Long may you bat baby


Part I:

Here comes a regular
Paul Westerberg
It’s predicted to rain on landing/ I predict we’ll have a drink
Paul Westerberg

Once upon a time in the lost city of Atlantis, a thin man rolled up looking a little the worse for wear. This was probably only to be expected; after all he had been sequestered on a submarine for a period of 22 years, or was it 27. After that long at sea, who can really tell?

It was approaching Halloween, and the proverbial Spooky Lady’s Sideshow was in full effect. The barmaids were called Eyes and Baby, their real names we presume. Or was she Baby Blue? In any case, the thin man and Eyes made eyes, in an innocent way, at least so the story is told.

Groggy as the thin man was, he had had a specialized role down then on the sub. You see, he was a bit of a mechanic, a card shark. Now, a card shark can work clean as well, and the thin man worked clean down there on the ocean floor. He saved his best moves for away games, just like Mike McD in that film Rounders. That’s an oldie but a goodie!

In one corner of the bar stood a pool table, where, of course, the nine ball is always on. The thin man could play a bit, although Eyes sized him up quick. A game was proposed, a game for two players.

But of course no game is really ever between two players alone. Baby Blue was watching—tough to tell her rooting interest. And the bar as a whole, the field so to speak, was tuning in to the frequencies of the game as the regulars made small talk and the travelers weak-tea passes at the local girls. Local girls are no push-over; sometimes folks get the wrong idea on that end. Certainly Eyes and Baby Blue could take care of themselves.

The game began; the thin man potted a few easy balls. Eyes surged back, she’d been around more than she looked. She was an expert at drinking what the punter was drinking. That’s a key part of the art of the barmaid, an underrated profession at the best of times.

The game was nine ball, what else? Eight ball is for rookies, a southerners game. The thin man hailed from the north and he knew a thing or two about sequencing. It goes with the territory of an undersea mechanic, after all.

The thin man was beginning to feel a bit ill–the combination of sea legs, Eyes’ Eyes, a cheeky Cognac or two, and the unfortunate wafts of burning tires from the docks (it all goes down on the docks, as is told). He carries on nonetheless, and takes a two ball lead when Eyes surges back, tying it up with only the 9 ball to go. It’s a touch and go situation. The skeletons muse over the action with as much interest as they can muster from beyond the great blue veil. The couple on the rail stops sniffing whatever they are sniffing, and ask the thin man to join them for a round. No time for that nonsense. Sea legs and beady cat eyes aside, the game is the game.

A couple of desultory shots bounce about as the players size each other up. Baby blue leans in; the skeletons whisper sweet somethings, even the bartender sneaks a peek. Everyone is getting paid, except the thin man. He is just there for the action.

Eyes edges the nine right up to the pocket, leaving the thin man a clean shot. He leans in from the left and drops it, silky smooth like. Baby claps and Eyes bats. Game over, though the thin man knows that Eyes could have had him the whole time. She was just being hospitable. A good host for a weary traveler.

Elevator music plays soft in the bar as a dandy and a courtesan dilly and dally. Jack and Jill went up a hill. It’s an old story.

The thin man has a date with a pretty lady later, not exactly a lead, more of an assignation. Promises are promises though; the clock on Eyes and crew is ticking, regretfully. The thin man always did like the locals; heck, it’s part of the travelers creed. After all, everybody is local somewhere. Time to extricate himself. See her around.

The thin man bids his goodbyes and staggers out into the night. His coat and his hat are still in his possession, all he needs really to get through the night. He picks up a walking stick from the side of the road and issues a thanks to the one who left it in place. This will help him with the uphills; the downhills he has always managed fine. The spirits are about and the air filled with magic and mystery. The thin man tugs on his cap, keeping his head down. Others may prefer to waste away with Margaritas and Mojitos in the lazy afternoon, however the thin man has a new assignment. Kicks off at 8 AM sharp. Time to get a move on.  He pretty lady is lost in the night.  Gotta cede that one, not for the first time.

He had to leave most of his belongings on board ship, and he carries only the stick and the clothes he has on him. A beggar man approached him earlier and the thin man was able to make a wee bargain, a pot of soup and coffee for the beggar in exchange for his pockmarked and moth-eater coat. Anything is better than nothing, muses the thin man. Another traveler’s rule.

Without an inn for the night, the thin man has but one option, a local church. After all, churches are supposed to offer food and shelter to the poor man, and the thin man, underwater respiration skills aside, has rolled into town pretty destitute. An old man opens the church door. A place for the night, the thin man asks? Nothing like that, however we do have a cellar, says the gatekeeper. That will do fine, replies the thin man.

The cellar turns out to be a taxidermist studio, with eagles and bison on the walls. It is what is is; the thin man muses, and falls into a deep dreamless sleep.

Upon waking, the room is transformed. No more heads of the dead, instead he awakes in a cloister with pure light steaming in through the window. The clarion call of church bells, the Nine Taylors if you will, ring out across the square. Not a bad deal, thinks the thin man. A peal is better than a deal after all.

Part II:

The cry of a peacock, flies buzz in my head/ ceiling fan’s broken, there’s a heat in my bed/ street band playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Bob Dylan

Dateline Singapore: Late Fall During the 200th Anniversary of the End of the Great War:

This little country, such an unlikely success story, such a strange winding of forces. The Thin Man has been on land for two weeks and his sea legs have mostly subsided. His stomach is still in limbo; years of gruel below the waves have seen to that.

Now there is nothing more that the Thin Man wanted after washing up here earlier in the season then a long weekend. Say, five years. Five years in the hammock, five years frolicing with the lovely ladies at the bar with the occasional flyer over in Macau. Five years out of the swim of modern capitalism, if you can even call it that. Five years clean. That was the dream. Twelve days in and the Thin Man was looking for work, the money gone in a haze of long days and longer nights. Wine, women, song, and a speedboat ride or two will add up quick. C’est La Vie partner. That’s what comes from burning holes up to heaven, in the words of the bard.

The Thin Man is a gamer, and is constitutionally unable to categorize situations as problems. No problemo senor, no worries mate. Instead, he has a few issues. The first being, he is barely employable. It turns out that a few decades on the ocean floor running the house game prepares him for casino work, underground games, and giving blood. That’s about it; he wants no part of card games and giving blood makes him nauseous. Also, he has a limited quantity. So, he asked around, kept his ear to the wind. A shipmate turned him onto a broker of services of sorts, the kind of individual who specializes in assisting upstanding institutions with their shining mission statements and their CSR campaigns navigate the grey areas of competition and market position. The broker, like all of his kind, couldn’t give a shit who he was pimping as long as he got his 8% commision. It was he that took the Thin Man’s data points and turned them into a resume which accentuated the high stakes, low reference point nature of his previous work. A bite came back within 36 hours. The broker knew his lane, apparently.

The man from Company X introduced himself as Alejandro, and Alejandro came bearing work. “What sort of work,” asked the Thin Man. Alejandro’s smile was thin as a razor. “The best kind, the kind where you get in and out.”

“I deal cards,” replied the Thin Man, “I’m not a safecracker.

Alejandro’s smile widened fractionally. “Of course not. We are a respectable company with a 400 year history. This work is simple. The company is in negotiations around a merger with Green Group Ltd. They are playing hardball and we need to know their real intentions.”

“Basically you want to know if they are bluffing?”

“Precisely. And who better than an operator such as yourself to find this out?”

“And what do I have to go on?”

“The Green Group will be having a party at the Swissotel downtown tomorrow night. There will be 200 guests. You will infiltrate the party and get the lowdown. That is what you British say yes, the lowdown.”

The Thin Man was not British but it didn’t matter. “Yes, that’s right. OK, book me a room on the club floor. I’ll need a new suit, a haircut, and a cell phone. How’s $500 a day for expenses and $20,000 for the job?”

Alejandro eyed him carefully. “What about the broker?”

“That’s your end,” said the Thin Man. My end is $20,000.”

“Deal. Don’t fuck up.”

“I don’t intend to.” And with that the conversation was over. The Thin Man had acquitted himself well, but only by the grace of god. Several things were running through his mind:

i) was $20,000 a lot or a little for a one-night stint of corporate espionage? Alejandro had bit right away so perhaps he was underselling his services. Or, Company X was desperate;

ii) 200 people at the party and the Thin Man knew not a one of them. He’d have to research, chose a few likely targets. Two weeks of carousing and there wasn’t a lot of research energy to spare. He’d need to make minimal and efficient moves;

iii) he had no bank account. His severance had been paid in cash and he did not intend to stay in Singapore forever, however appealing the locale. He’d need to get legal sooner rather than later. The very thought fatigued him, so he grabbed the Handy phone the hotel provided and headed to the bar.

Dateline Singapore, that evening, around 17:07.

Well apart from the things that I touched/ nothing got broke all that much/ and apart from the things that I took/ nothing got stolen babe, and look.
Matthew Houck

The Alligator Pear is the poolside bar at the Swissotel, and the Thin Man figures tomorrow’s party will be at held around the pool. Thus, this visit is classified as reconnasaince. This visit is billable, baby. A single couple lingers over a menu across the way. “What’ll it be?” asks the bartender? “Do you have any eggnog” asks the Thin Man, more out of habit than preference. The bartender gives him a sideways look, as if he is not sure who the joke is on. “No sir, I am afraid we only serve eggnog during the Christmas week. How about one of our signature Manhattans?”

Manhattans, they taste like mouthwash.

“Sure a double Manhattan. And pop an egg in it would you?” This time the bartender doesn’t even blink. “Of course, sir. One Manhattan with a raw egg.” The drink is served and the Thin Man knocks it back straight. It is as disgusting as an adult beverage can be. “Perfection,” says the Thin Man. “I’ll take a double martini with a sprig of Rosemary please.” As the barkeep makes his second drink the Thin Man turns to survey the space. Despite knowing no one and nothing about tomorrow evening’s party, he has a few advantages. First, event spaces are inherently permeable. More on this later. Second, he has nothing to lose. Nothing whatsoever. The $20,000 is what you call a titular payment. Hypothetical. His sainted mother has long passed; his poor dear widowed sister may as well exist in a different century. The Costa Rican chick who claimed he’d knocked her up in ’04 was probably still out there, but he had no confidence in her presentation of events. He was only on shore for 48 hours and months under water tends to take a few miles off a guy’s fastball. She was sweet, but it was probably a hustle. So like I say, nothing to lose, and therefore easy to underestimate. That’s what the Thin Man is counting on. He’d better; the bastard’s precious little else.

The martini is served and the Thin Man takes a deep drink. Three men approach the bar, lanyards around their neck, ties beginning to come undone, voices high. The Green Group, thinks the Thin Man, excellent. He takes a deep breath and turns his head slightly to the right, cementing his presence in their field of vision without being at all threatening or intrusive. “Can you fuckin’ believe Bill?” asks one of the men. Pulling up sick on a day like this, the company going to shit?” “I think he’s faking,” says the second man, a lifer in his early 50s. “He’s always been weak like that. Looking to cover his ass.” “Fucking wanker, if you ask me,” replies the first man. “Pussy.”

The Thin Man looks up at the men and smiles. He sympathises. He will be their good friend tonight. Corporate espionage, he decides, is like everything else. It’s just a matter of intention.

Read the rest of this entry »

9ballMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at craftfollowsconcept.com

A hotel room is a prison

that changes from town to town
a bed four walls and a window
a clean and scratchy towel

A hotel room is a prison
that always waits for me
a prison with a wake-up call
and an in-house laundry

Mark Sandman

For the second installment of our series on business hotels I intend to re-interpret the standard business hotel experience as described in my earlier post through the lens of ReSearch’s “J.G. Ballard: Conversations,” which I have been reading over the past few weeks. Ballard probably needs no introduction to the literate public, but for those who have yet to fall until his influence, he is the author of “Empire of the Sun” and “Crash” who wrote dozens of fantastic semi-Sci Fi short stories in the late 1950s and through the 1960s including “Prima Belladonna,” Thirteen to Centaurus,” and “The Terminal Beach.”

Ballard novels, in my opinion, are not as uniformly satisfying as his short stories; at novel length his “obsessions,” beach resorts, empty swimming pools, gated communities, plastic surgery, car crashes, the interplay of sexuality and technology, tend to wear a little thin. In “Conversations,” Ballard offers the following defense of his insularity and thematic repetition: “I think the values of bourgeois society by and large have triumphed. We’re living in a world where people at the age of 22 and 23 are thinking about their mortgages. It is a fact, and there’s nothing much on can do about it, except cultivate one’s obsessions and one’s own imagination” (144), but this approach works better in his short stories (which Ballard has not written for nearly two decades now), where his limited set of concerns are reflected and replayed through a panoply of settings and situations such that he resembles a virtuoso musician building off of certain stable base elements to create endless riffs and improvisations.

As a boy, Ballard was, famously, incarcerated in a Japanese prison camp in Shanghai, and this formative experience feeds both his autobiographical “Empire of the Sun” and his short stories. But instead of literal prisons with externally imposed walls and limitations, Ballard’s characters seem over and over again to be immured within prisons of their own creation. Story after story features some variation on one of two related themes; scientists careening off on private quests that eventually destroy them or people seemingly sequestered or restrained who turn out to be acting in psychic complicity with their imprisonment. Ballard himself admits to the centrality of the prison experience in “Conversations” when Mark Pauline asks him “Writing Empire of the Sun hasn’t helped you forget those horrible years in the camp” and Ballard responds “But I’ve been writing about it all the time–I just wrote about it in disguise” (138).

The ReSearch publications are the premiere American versions of Ballard’s work, overseen by one V. Vale, who, to all appearances, is a full-fledged Ballard maniac. The volume which I am reading at present is mostly a record of Vale’s telephone conversations with Ballard and other Ballardians including the composer Graeme Revell and Ballard’s archivist, David Pringle. After reading the transcripts of these conversations over the course of the past week it became clear to me that Ballard has a lot to say about that particular semi-reality fugue state described in my earlier post. As noted above, Ballard has a special fascination with self-imposed psychic incarceration: “I have a nightmare vision of a gated community of extremely expensive houses inside a larger gated community. It’s bizarre” (72). This post takes up the dual themes of self-immurement and the mind-meld that occurs between the individual and their media systems. These two themes may not seem to be obviously related, but after reading through 300 pages of Ballard on the telephone, all of his particular obsessions do indeed seem intertwined, and connected with time spent in business hotels.

i) Ballard on why Surrealism no longer obtains: “Classical surrealism, beginning after the First World War, made a very clear distinction between the outer world of reality {…} and the inner world of imagination {…} But after the Second World War, particularly as the media landscape developed enormously–thanks to television, mass advertising and the whole consumer goods landscape–the distinction between our reality and inner fantasy began to break down {…} This means that it’s very difficult to maintain the dichotomy, that contrast that the Surrealists required {…} As I’ve said before, in the last 20 years if you stop somebody in the street and ask the time, you might look at a watch with Mickey Mouse on the dial {…} It cuts the ground from under classical Surrealism” (166).

When viewing CNN International, a personal obsession that I feel no urge to see in my own home, where I own no TV, but cannot resist when in its presence in a hotel setting, seems to me to exist somewhere between the ‘real’ world and the interiority of my own mind. Read the rest of this entry »

best00code46Matthew Thomas, Tokyo

Note: This post was originally published at craftfollowsconcept.com

The TV was turned to CNN, which was focused on violence somewhere.  I could not tell where.  The experts in their suits and hairsprayed hair presented the conflict as if conflict was inevitable.  They agreed it was happening now and could be prevented, but at the same time at the conclusion of the piece they smiled politely and signed off as if the violence was also occurring in a land so distant it might as well be the past.

Emily Maloney

The post below is based on my own experiences staying in a variety of hotels while on business throughout 2008, and takes up the effect of CNN International on the psyche of the business traveler as well as providing a sort of psychograph of the business hotel experience.

Three features of business hotels that bear mention:

i) Like airports, all business hotels share a single ethos, an un-pindownable character that feels, wherever one happens to be geographically speaking, of a piece.

ii) The effect of the television offerings, in particular CNN International, on the business traveler, is one of overwhelming relaxation, bordering on complacency and even numbness.

iii) As a corollary to i), it is far easier to enumerate how business hotels resemble one another than to lay out any salient differences. Oddly, minor local variations only seem to further reinforce a central sameness.

Checking into an 11th floor room at a classic example of the species, for instance the Numzau Tokyu Hotel, half an hour south of Tokyo, Japan, one is affected at once by that strangely pleasant fugue state, a state of mind almost exactly halfway between bliss and malaise, attendant on “business” hotels. Once inside of a business hotel, especially those neither top-of-the-line nor down-and-out, one is confronted with a kind of disembodied space which seems at once connected to a global network of similar hotels–this accomplished largely through the simultaneously soothing and hypnotizing effect of CNN International–and disconnected from the local environment–one feels sucked in to global weirdness through a combination of the flat, post-political window of CNN International, the persistent low hum of the air conditioner, and the anodyne staleness, almost spartan, quality of the decor. Oddly, any “artwork” or decorative flourishes that a hotel room may have only serve to further this sense of featurelessness; the art in question being almost exclusively of the most banal nature–bland seascapes, abstracts denuded of all edge or verve, and those odd non-paintings that, try as you might, you forget the very subject seconds after exiting your room.

One has to remind oneself that being on a business trip means that there is work to be done–the TV, the slight high, which even the most weary traveler may not be entirely immune from, which results from contact with the bowing attendants, the men in black, the cute, blushing young lady who carries your bag, the knowledge that your company is footing the bill–all this lulls you into a kind of sleep of the spirit. Turning on the TV, you feels that you could spend years, lifetimes staring at CNN’s Larry King Live, their post-racial female anchors who bring that special Code 46 feel of the non-overt future, and the exquisitely paralyzing “World Weather,” before awakening in another age, the Rip Van Winkle of the travel world. When CNN finally wears out its welcome, my choices of pay channels open up the fascinating worlds of…Golf (the Golf Channel), silicone starlets (the Playboy Channel), intimate acts in close-up (the “adult channel”), and, most fittingly, drama set in outer space (the Battlstar Galatica channel). This profile of options, Golf, softcore, hardcore, and outer space, the result, presumably, of reams of data on the tastes of business travelers like me, the mobile working male, I want to find depressing, but the menu has something beautifully efficient about it. Not wanting to get sucked into the anesthesizing vortex of any of these choices, I have to force myself to rise from the supine contemplation of the only-vaguely Chinese news anchor to pick up Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality.

My senses are momentarily quickened by report of an attack on a hotel in Pakistan: a horrific assault which has taken place at a Marriott in Islamabad. Oddly, the reality of this event quickly fades, and what Richard Todd calls the “non-ness” of the Marriott up the road (“The Thing Itself, 101), strangely, becomes the non-ness of violence–the attack in Islamabad conveys, through the lens of the CNN International, not exactly shock, but a continuing and deepening sense of global weirdness only slightly tinged by fear resting on the realization that as a business traveler in exactly this kind of hotel, I am the target. Oddly, this realization is not as disturbing as it ought to be: the fugue state is such that I am more in, more of, Islamabad than Numazu, but not wholly there either–I am poised somewhere between Islamabad and Battlestar Galactica, cavorting with post-racial android news anchors who bring me news of a planet this 11th floor, air-conditioned bubble of a non-space has left far behind.

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