On the Eventfulness of Pre-Eventified Incidents

Yeah, I met Lou Reed and Patty Smith

It didn’t make me feel different

Conor Oberst

I visited China a number of years ago with a highly ranked member of my university structure and a flunky. My own participation was last-minute as I was filling in for someone else. I guess in a way I was a flunky too. Certainly it was the big man’s show from start to finish.

We visited a number of schools and also met with a business guy who was working very hard to transact with our group something so complex that I never even began to grasp the shape of it despite sitting in multiple meetings around the matter.

The trip was interesting for a number of reasons. The big man barely spoke to me for the first few days despite spending all day together. The schedule was brutal. I was reading Jung On Art on my phone as I was enrolled in on online course I never finished. Jung On Art is great and spends a lot of time on the surrealist painter Yves Tanguy. Finally the big man took a long look at me and said (in Japanese) “you read a lot, don’t you?” I confirmed this, and after that he spoke to me a little more.

The flunky was an archetype of the species. He handled the schedule, made the trains run on time. He did nothing else and deferred to the big man on absolutely every non-schedule related matter. My own strongest contribution to the proceedings was occupying the attention of a friend of the business man during an excruciatingly protracted whisky drinking session so that the business guy and the big man could talk turkey. I am not a great whisky drinker for some reason and making sensible small talk for three or four hours over whisky took a truly heroic effort.

The business guy had a kind of a house in a kind of a hotel, it was hard to say. A full staff was on hand to serve us a full course Chinese meal with white and red wine. This was before the whisky. It was a scene, all the way.

Anyway, all of that is context. I want to write about a specific incident that occurred when we visited one school. The principal who received us knew the big man and we were received by a group of about eight people. We got the school tour. Now, school tours are an occupational hazard in my line of work, and I have trained myself to be a durable recipient. But I don’t really like them. We went through the formalities, which predictably took forever. I daydreamed about Yves Tanguy and bed.

Toward the end of the tour we reached a wall with the school name or emblem on it. Here, the principal paused and asked the big man to write some Chinese characters on some poster board. This was to mark his visit, to consecrate it in a sense. The whole group fanned out into a kind of semi-circle and the big man went through a series of highly performative grimaces to index his deep thought. Or maybe he just didn’t know what to write. I certainly wouldn’t have. Finally he took the pen and with the pomposity of a South American dictator wrote a few characters. The message, to my recollection, was underwhelmingly anodyne. Basic. Or maybe it was gnomic and brilliant. In either case the audience made appropriately awed sounds. I murmured my own supposed appreciation–the role of the acolyte was there to be filled after all. The poster board was then displayed with a flourish on the wall.

At first blush I found the entire episode both deeply interesting and deeply narcissistic. However, the big man was invited to contribute some characters and he did so, so in that sense fair enough. Let’s zoom out a little before rushing to judgment.

You know how some restaurants and bars will have signed pictures of famous people that visited on their walls? Mickey Mantle, Bob Hope, Stallone, whatever. In these cases the visit of the celebrity was an event in the life of the establishment. It merited consecration across time. I understand this. But the big man was not a celebrity in any real sense. He was a university bureaucrat with a taste for acting like a big shot.

But maybe I’m seeing this all wrong. Because there was actually a hint of the classical in the occasion. A host had received an honored guest. The honored guest was asked to bestow words of wisdom and afforded space to do so. The whole performance was approached with apparent complete sincerity by all involved. I was probably the only one not acting in good faith. My feelings at the time were the same as they are now; on the one hand the whole thing was super pompous, on the other hand it had an old-world ceremony that I am not exactly against. An event should be eventful–my little motto–may at times create an unrealistically high bar for situations to rise to. Still, I have a nagging feeling that this visit was not of a sufficiently high caliber or general import to require consecration in kanji.

You know how in the old days a person would take a letter of introduction with them when visiting a new country and would receive an audience on the basis of this kind of letter? That’s probably an almost entirely lost art. When you presented someone with a letter of introduction, as I imagine it, you were then received. Your visit was authorized and elevated into a thing, an event. The eventification of aspects of life is important, even vital, however maybe we are going about the equation backwards. I go to see a lot of live music and at the end of the show the band will often gather at a table to sign merchandise and such. The opportunity to meet the band, if offered, is cool–I’m all behind it. However I myself often skip these lines, even if I love the band. This is because the chance to meet the band and have an experience of doing so is a built-in aspect of the entire evening and therefore pre-eventified so to speak. It’s still cool, but I’m not sure pre-eventified events are best positioned to be eventful. The true event takes place without being pre-planned. The true event emerges and cannot be structured. Most of the time when I see a supposed event transpire, an opening ceremony of some event for example that has been obviously rehearsed, I can barely suppress a yawn. In the immortal words of The Replacements, “color me impressed.”

The epigraph for this piece is from Conor Obrest’s 2016 song “Next of Kin.” It’s a jaded coda to a meeting that we might have supposed would have been eventful, and also a wry recognition that whatever happens to us we are always left with ourselves again. I saw a man sign a poster board. It didn’t make me feel different.

On the Centrality of the No Helmet Law

Once upon a time I was in graduate school. I studied history, which was an error. I should have studied anthropology. It doesn’t matter–it was a long time ago. I was in my 20s, and there were quite a few older students in the department. These “adult” learners were invariably interesting, having backstories and life experiences far richer than my own. One of these older students was Gary.

Gary was probably in his mid-late 40s at the time I knew him and he was a biker. Black leather jacket, boots, the whole deal. Gary was a live and let live kind of character, not the sort to get too worked up about pretty much anything. Except one topic. Helmet laws. Gary hated helmet laws. Hated them to the core of his being. On this topic and this topic alone he would become immediately vitriolic. A biker’s right to ride without a helmet was, to Gary, the very essence of freedom. It was the whole point of being an American. Gary was up to speed on the state of helmet laws pending helmet legislation all over the country. This was in 1999, and George W. Bush was running for president. What did Gary think about Bush? Well, he’d say, when Bush was governor of Texas he didn’t support efforts to pass a helmet law. Therefore, he’s a good dude. That’s it, I would ask? That’s all you need to know? That’s all I need to know, he said. Gary was a true single issue voter.

I marveled at the clarity, the pointillistic precision, of his politics. Would life be better or worse if approached in this manner, I wondered. For the most part it seemed life would be immeasurably better. To know what matters and have that thing be so easy to quantify and discern must free one’s mind up in so many ways. The truth was I envied Gary’s outlook.

Later that year Gary’s brother, also a biker, died in a motorcycle accident on a New Mexico mountain. It was a sad day for the department and for Gary. His brother was a biker and a cop, and I happened to walk past the church where the funeral was being held. There were dudes in Hell’s Angels jackets and cops in dress uniform side by side. Gary came by the graduate student office a day or two later. Yeah, he said, a funeral like that is the only time you’ll see bikers and cops side by side. He talked about his brother and how much he loved his motorcycle. I offered my condolences, but then curiosity got the better of me, as per usual.

“Gary, I have to ask, was your brother wearing a helmet?”

“Of course not. He died like he lived, free.”

“Does the accident make you think any differently about helmet laws?”

“If anything, it makes me more opposed to them. The right to ride without a helmet is what makes a biker a biker. Without that, we have nothing. My brother would feel the same.”

So there you had it.

This was 20 years ago, and I still think about Gary and his views a lot. The Kinks tell us that it’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola. Gary felt that is was a mixed up muddled up shook up world except helmet laws were the devil’s doing. My own life since meeting Gary has involved navigating one grey area, after another, after another. I still envy his moral clarity.

The Thin Man in Singapore Part V: Alice’s Birthday and a Guardian Angel

You clean yourself to meet/ a man who isn’t me/ you’re putting on a shirt/ a shirt I’ll never see/ ’cause you’re too smart to remember/ you’re too smart/ lucky you

The National

Dateline Singapore: November 3rd, 13:06

The phone rings, jarring the thin man out of sleep. “Where the/ what the/ who the…” Images in shards–his grandmother’s house and he is six, sun streaming through a late afternoon window. He rolls over. No by god, a bed, an adult body within. He picks up the phone. “Uh huh?”

“It’s Alejandro. Your passport will be ready tomorrow morning and you’re on an Emirates flight to Rome via Dubai tomorrow at 9 PM. In the meantime Alice is having a birthday party and you’re invited.”


“Miller’s secretary. You might have heard the rumors, but she’s a cool cat and it’ll be fun. 17:00 at Chijmes. Be there.”

“Seriously? I don’t know Alice and, I’d rather just rest up you know.”

“Not an option. You’re not invited, more required. From Miller directly. Buck up man and see you at 5.”

Holy Jesus, another evening. The thin man rises, splashes cold water on his face and when this doesn’t do the trick, fills the sink with cold water and plunges his face into the water, eyes wide open. He exhales; water goes everywhere. He dabs at it with a hand towel. Breakfast is long over–lunch is a maybe. 20 minutes later he has showered and shaved and limps downstairs.

“Lunch is still open?”

The man’s smile masks a scowl. Rolling into a buffet that closes at 14:00 at 13:46 is no way to endear yourself to staff. He takes a seat by the window, wanders the buffet. Two bowls of mushroom soup, two watermelon juices, a roll with butter, salmon sashimi and an Americano. Vague feelings of humanity follow.

On his phone the thin man peruses “The Essentials of Casino Game Design” as he eats. This is more out of habit than interest–he has no desire to re-enter the gambling demi-monde. Reflex is a bitch though. The waiter circles, pressing his point from 5 feet away. “I got you babe,” thinks the thin man. He makes marginal eye contact, figures he has another 20 minutes give or take. He resolves to relax into the spacetime as fully as possible before the waiter pulls rank. He has no desire to make trouble but at the same time, a customer is a customer and soup is soup. A game for two players. Eventually, he makes his move before the waiter is forced to make his.

“On my room please, 727,” he says, with studied nonchalance. Everything takes all afternoon.

The thin man has a number of flaws but he does clean up well. That’s a skill, a blessing, a bonus. Re-showered, shaved, and an app-assisted breathing exercise later, he shows at Chijmes on time and on point. Miller himself greets him with a slap on the back.

“Mr. Bishop, your work is appreciated. Much appreciated. I heard that you will be staying with the firm. Rome is beautiful this time of year. You are a lucky man.”

“It is my pleasure to be of service.” The thin man is not serious, yet not unserious. The work is the work and he has no other. “Anyway, happy birthday to Alice hey?”

“Hehe, haha. Alice, yes,” salivates Miller.

Another day, another passport thinks the thin man. Several people he doesn’t know are there. The crew moves to an outdoor restaurant; the usual wrangling over orders ensues and Long Island Ice Teas appear. There is no drink more perfectly positioned to cause trouble than a Long Island Ice Tea. The thin man downs two before the Nachos arrive. A waitress circles. “White or red,” she asks. “Both please” replies the thin man. It’s early and he has no intention of sticking with this group after dinner. Why not make the most of the moment.

The food is a B at best, but the drinks are loaded. The sun shines in the late evening. The usual Singapore rain squall has not appeared today. 6 PM, the magical hour, and the thin man begins to fade into the perfect liminality that only occurs between drinks three and four.

Titters from Alice. Winks from Alejandro. Miller sits straight up, what a spine. The thin man is bored. Time passes; the sun sets.

“One more?” asks Miller.

“How about the hotel bar?”asks the thin man. The sooner near home the better. Miller covers the bill and tracks are made.

The thin man and crew enter the bar and the mood is boisterous. The thin man feels as thin as paper. He needs an ally. As his party makes its way to a table, he approaches the barmaid. Her tag identifies her as “May.” Always approach service workers with kindness and respect–they get so little of it so it goes a long way.

“Good evening May. My friends and I are looking to enjoy the bar tonight. Only, I have been on the road for weeks and I’m a little tired.” He slips her a $50 bill. “I know bars don’t love to serve water, but if you could keep an eye on me and refill my water glass I’d be in your debt.”

May looks him up and down.

“No problem. Rely on me.”

The thin man makes it to the booth where Company X holds court. Miller and Alice’s hands dance a protracted duet. Alejandro sits a foot away, just keeping an eye on things.

A round of drinks, another. May keeps her end of things and the thin man hydrates, for a while. A woman called Marta had introduced herself at dinner and slides into the booth next to the thin man.

“How do you know Alice?” she asks.

“I don’t.”

“Oh. I have a bet with Jeffrey over there. He thinks you are on his team.”

“On his team?”

“You know,” she drops into a stage whisper, “Jeffrey likes men.”

“I see. I don’t have a team,” replies the thin man. “I’m a free agent.”

“Not so fast,” interjects Alejandro, who seems to register everything that is said at the table. “You are on our team. You have a contract.”

“A contract? I haven’t seen anything like that. And besides I don’t see how that would be possible. Text is dead, or that’s what I’ve heard.”

“Don’t mind him,” says Alejandro, “he likes being heavily humorous.”

Marta doesn’t seem to mind. Somehow her arms and legs are entangled with the Thin Man’s. How does that even happen? he thinks. He’s lost the touch he never had, but matters seems to be progressing anyway. Amazing. He hears Jeffrey calling for champagne. Now, even from deep in a haze the thin man knows that ordering a bottle of champagne in a hotel bar is not exactly value for money. A commotion is taking place across the bar. Men from the Green Group are hassling the bar staff, something has gone wrong with an order they allege. The Thin Man swivels his head around to take a look and his mind recedes into fantasy:

Shut your traps and stop hassling the waiter! We’re trying to enjoy a birthday! And if I have to tell you again, we’re gonna take it outside and I’m gonna show you what it’s like! You understand me? Now, shut your mouths or I’ll shut’em for ya, and if you think I’m kidding, just try me. Try me. Because I would love it!

He glances at the bar, catches May’s eye. She shakes her head imperceptibly, reading his mind. Absurd ideas of accosting the group and defending her honor recede. He breathes a sigh of relief.

A second bottle of champagne arrives, a third. We are at the stage of the evening where petty arguments break out all of the sudden, and are as quickly forgotten. The thin man, Marta and the sofa seem to have merged into a single entity. This is pleasant.

He snaps back into consciousness. The party seems to have thinned out. Miller and Alice are gone. Alejandro gets up to leave and Jeffrey waives off his efforts to pay. It’s true Alejandro drank only club soda. A steady hand, this guy. He leans over to the thin man, lets him know his passport will arrive in the morning.

“We’ll be in touch.”

“Oh good.” It’s all he can think of to say. He sees 120 Singapore dollars on the table, begins to calculate. The bill will be a lot higher than that. What’s happened here is he has fallen prey to the cruel economics of party leaving whereby early leavers underestimate their impact on the total bill. Marta is warm but the future is cold. It’ll be him and Jeffrey splitting the bill.

“Maybe we should call it an evening,” he says. He draws himself to his feet, a mighty effort, and approaches May. “What do we owe?”

“It’s all taken care of,” she says.

“Miller paid on his way out?”

She shakes her head, whispers in his ear, “your bill was charged to the Green Group. They probably won’t know the difference and if they do, they check out the day after tomorrow so…” May places her index finger on thin man’s lips and presses gently. He goggles, is in love.

“You are an angel,” he says.

“Shhh, silly. You’ll get me in trouble.”

He circles back to the table. “The bill is paid,” he tells Marta and Jeffrey. “Leave the cash as a tip.” They don’t bat an eye–too far gone to care. “I told you he isn’t on your team,” says Marta. “I win the bet.”

“It’s too early to tell,” says Jeffrey.

The thin man gives Marta a kiss goodnight. “I’ve got to fly tomorrow.”

“I know.” Theirs was an encounter based in a specific locale, a specific moment. Some encounters are like that.

Dateline Singapore: November 4th, 10:00

Ah the Sabbath. The thin man had managed to set his alarm for 10:30 but it’s not needed. The phone rings at 10 AM, and the receptionist tells him he’s been cleared for a late check out of 17:00. How did that happen? She doesn’t know. “It says right here sir.” 11 hours before the flight. What would a human do with 11 hours, he thinks? He takes a swim, showers, eats mushroom soup and indulges in a few slices of roast beef this time. He remembers a much loved song:

I’m so sorry but the motorcade will have to go around me this time/ ’cause God is on my side

That’s attitude. He tries to summon 1/10th of that mood, says a little prayer to his angels. On the way back to room 727 a maid smiles at him. “You must be the British gentleman,” she says.

“Oh, why is that?”

“Because your room, it’s so neat and clean.”

British rooms are neat and clean? That’s news to the thin man. Am I British, he wonders? The reason his room is clean is because there’s next to nothing in it.

“Thank you. Have a wonderful day.”

“You too sir.” There is nothing that he has ever done in his life to deserve such respect, he feels. Life is good.

Under his door there is a manila envelope. Inside is a passport in the name of Jack Bishop and $3000. There is also an index card with a phone number. At the bottom of the card he reads “May.” Life is good? Hell, god is good man. The thin man smiles and packs his valise. 8 hours later he is airborne en route to Rome.

to be continued…

Dedication: For Mint.

The Thin Man in Singapore Part IV: Marcus

Dateline The Alligator Pear: November 2nd, 16:25

The thin man met the accountants for an early drink at the Alligator Pear as promised. They drank Mojitos, a ridiculous drink that is invariably watered down. The thin man had a vodka and soda, a safe choice ahead of what could be a long night.

The mood of the men swung between giddy and glum. One of them was on some kind of app, choosing an escort for later on. The men advised him on his choice with the surgical precision of serious professionals. The thin man hoped that he could be as precise in his own operation tonight.

“Did you folks get wristbands yet?” a waiter in his early 20s asked. They hadn’t, so they did. Yes, the event security is poor, but to be fair they all looked the part of party goers. And so they were. All going to the party.

The party must have been paid for weeks ago because all the stops were turned out. A full bar, lobster tails, sushi, fondue, steak tartare, champagne. Sometimes the best way to look prosperous is to look prosperous. The guests were high in no time. The future was unwritten, terrifying. All they had was tonight.

Nursing his second vodka and soda, the thin man scoped out the scene. Anderson was not present, nor was Rink. The highest ranking Green Grouper seemed to be a regional vice-president called Lewis. It was he that gave the toast, “to a glorious future, the Green Group!” Salut. Lewis was in his early 40s, too young and too on the spot. The thin man needed someone older, someone with less to lose.

Outside on the pool deck a group of three men had lit up cigars. This was surely against regulations, however a payment must have passed under the table, either that or tonight was one of those nights were regulations just weren’t in effect. Regulations are like that, even in Singapore. They are human created and human maintained. Or, in this case, not.

Cigar smokers, mused the thin man. Cigar smokers tend toward the genial and the venial. Toward the cynical and the amoral. Toward the reckless and the egotistical. In that moment, he loved cigar smokers. Cigar smokers were excellent. The only issue was he might have to have one too.

He approaches the group a little gingerly. The move here is a little different than cozying up to the accountants. There he wanted to be taken in as a peer and fit in. Here, his role is of the acolyte, the younger man. Now which one is our mark? Individual one appears in his mid-sixties, and sports a brown jacket that is at least three years past its prime. His feet are shuffling an alcoholics’ shuffle. No thank you. Individual two is in his 50s dressed in a tux. Hair slicked back with pomade, a little glassy eyed. A greaser who got lucky. No.

The third man, however, is of a different type. Also in his 60s, he wears a pale red sweater over a tieless pink shirt. He is handsome for his age, white hair adding a touch of distinction. He is slightly overweight but in a way that suggests ease not sloth. The thin man cages a cigar from the brown jacket, lights it, and stares into the middle distance. A few puffs later he casually turns to the man in the red sweater.

“Jack,” he says, “quite a view eh?”

“Marcus,” says the man, “view of the end of the world if you ask me.”

“The company? The rumors?”

“Rumors? Boy, ain’t no rumors about it. We’ve got a ringside seat on the Titanic.” His laugh is actually merry. The thin man is elated, an emotion he subsumes into wide-eyed curiosity. He wills himself to look 10 years younger, like we said, an acolyte.

“I heard Rink is making his move by Monday,” says the thin man. He has heard no such thing, it just makes sense in context.

“Made his move already. Anderson is bleeding like a stuck pig. Rink will announce the coup on Monday at the latest. The wires may have it before then.”

The thin man is getting warm. He turns gently to face Marcus, cutting off communication lines with the other men. Drink in his right, he stretchres his left arm out part way as if he is about to put his arm around the older man. But not quite. It’s all in the mechanics. Marcus takes a few steps away from the edge of the pool and toward a padded bench for two.

“Can I get you another drink, sir?” asks the thin man.

“You sit with me boy,” says Marcus. “Drinks are his job.” He gestures to the young waiter. “Two Gibsons, and make ’em strong.” At they sit the Thin Man channels “boy.”

“So Rink will really pull it off eh? That should get us right back on track.” Fishing.

“Balls boy. Back on track! Anderson siphoned so much money out of the company that Rink will have to go hat in hand to Company X. Won’t have a choice.”

“Oh, the merger? I forgot about that. Well, we should get a good price right? I mean, our fundamentals are still strong.”

“Fundamentals? Boy what have you been smoking? Anyway, Rink doesn’t want to lead Green Group any more than I do. He’ll sell and take a pretty title, head off to the desert on his dune buggy.”

“At a good price, of course.”

“Phah, he’d like 60% on the dollar and would die for 51%.”

“I see. And what would he take?”

“45%. Lot of whores out there on the dunes boy. Rink’s no dummy.”

“Naturally. And what will you do sir, once the ship has sailed?

“Fuck off to Venice and blow the lot. Or, stick around and see how things develop.” Marcus leans in close to the thin man. “Do pass that on to your paymasters, will you? Marcus is ready to play ball. Marcus knows where the bodies are buried and where the light shines.” He puts his arm around the thin man, paternally which just the slightest touch of menace. “Take care of old Marcus, eh kid?”

The man knew, or guessed. The thin man draws a breathe to recalibrate. “I’ll see what I can do.” And he meant it.

Dateline The Street Outside the Swissotel: November 2nd, 16:25

It was still early-ish and the thin man had what he needed. He decided to phone Alejandro, and made sure to exit the hotel and walk around the corner before he placed the call. Alejandro picked up on the second ring. The thin man filled him in on the basics. Alejandro told him to come to the office, gave an address. It was a 10 minute taxi ride. The taxi driver was an ex-policeman. “I drive for my enjoyment and because it gets me out of the house,” he explained. I could drive a taxi, thought the thin man, there are plenty of worse ways to earn a living.

Alejandro met him at the door and escorted him through building security. The security guard asked for the thin man for ID and Alejandro shook his head vigorously. His whole being shook with indignation.

“We are going to the 14th floor,” he hissed with equal parts insistence and menace. “The 14th floor.” The guard recognized a losing hand when he saw one and waved them through.

“That reminds me, said the thin man,”I need a passport. The company can take care of that yes?”

“Sure,” said Alejandro. “As long as you’re willing to take a job overseas we can provide identification. Are you still Jack Bishop?


“OK Mr. Bishop. Let’s go make the report and see where else you might be of use in this little world of ours.”

On the 14th floor the team was waiting, 11 people strong. The man in the middle crossed the room and shook the thin man’s hand. “I’m Mr. Miller, Head of Operations for the region,” he said. “I hear you have some news for us?”

“Yes. Anderson’s a dead duck. Rink will have control by early next week. He’ll take a haircut on the shares and a sinecure. You’re good to go.”

“How much of a haircut?” asked Miller?

“Offer him 41%,” replied the thin man. It’s a brutal lowball, and the thin man felt great saying it.

A man in a yellow jacket piped up from the left corner. “41% is nothing. We’ll risk poisoning the negotiations entirely with such a number. Where is your information from?”

“The information is sound.”

“Who did you have to deep throat then,” asked the man in yellow.

“I’m sorry, who are you?”

“I’m director of security. It’s my job to assess risk.”

Standing in a fucking room on the 14th floor. The ocean is a great place to watch movies, and the thin man had seen his share. He turned to Miller. “I came here because Alejandro asked me to. He asked me for a favor.” He pointed to the security man. “I said, the real favor, follow my advice and fire his fuckin’ ass because a loser is a loser.”

You could hear a pin drop. “41% percent,” repeated the thin man. “Thank you for this opportunity. And, there is a man called Marcus, as in Aurelius. He’s an asset.” He was bone tired as he turned to walk out the door.

Alejandro tagged behind. “Well done, well done. Miller is pleased.” Alejandro possessed the eternal skill of reading the boss’ moods from micro-inflections, a true corporate survival skill.

“Thanks,” said the thin man. “When is the earliest I could get that passport?”

“Day or two. Let me get into it.” The black market economy is a marvel of efficiency, thought the Thin Man. To live outside the law you must be honest. “And you’ll be available for international work?”

“I’m available.”

“Then we are all good.”

“See you on the dunes partner,” said the thin man. Alejandro’s look was quizzical.

“Sorry, inside joke.”

“Yeah, inside to you and you alone.”

“See you around,” said the thin man. What he meant was, “it’s funny to me,” but he didn’t want to push it. He staggered back home in a second taxi, making no eye contact until he was safely ensconced in his room. He managed to take his shoes off, and didn’t even text Desiree before he passed out.

to be continued…

The Thin Man in Singapore, Part III: The Drinking Accountants

The elevator was a padded cell/ for the socially insane/ and the chronically unwell/ up three flights of stairs/ to the girl I knew/ she wore skin on skin/ with amphetamine/ on the hair of her lip/ the key doesn’t fit the lock no more.


Dateline The Alligator Pear: November 1st, 17:08

Groups of male drinkers are highly permeable. Groups of female drinkers are also basically permeable, however, for various reasons that you will be aware of, somewhat less so than their more devolved counterparts. With these truisms in mind, the thin man prepared his cover.

He selects the largest of the group, ruddy complexion running to seed through a noxious combination of hotel living, corporate ineptitude, and nature, and opens with the most anodyne possible comment. “That’s a tough one,” he says extending his hand. “I’m Jack from marketing, over from London. You wouldn’t believe what happened to me today.”

The men give him a quick once over. This is more than enough. “You wouldn’t believe what happened to US today” says the big man. “Jesus what a day.” He sits down and “Jack” is established. Just like that.

Three hours later and the thin man has learned the following:

i) “Bill” is Bill Wetherington, Head of Accounting for the Green Group Asia. Aristocratic name, upper-middle class title, garden variety courage.

ii) The drinkers are also in accounting.

iii) Green Group is under internal pressure based on intensifying rumors of shady financial action at the very top. The current CEO, Anderson, is being challenged by a new board member, Rink. The rumors are rampant yet unproven, and the three men know relatively little about what is going on.

iv) Bill’s absence means that the men have no one to take their cue from re their stance on the firm’s political climate. Predictably they have been drinking for days. They are easy marks, too easy, but they don’t know enough. The thin man will have to attend the party tomorrow and scout an insider.

v) The men drank whisky alternated with beers and the occasional shot, tequila or vodka, which always came with roars of achievement and slaps on the back. The thin man gave himself to the role; he slapped back.

Eventually one of the men did circle back to Jack’s role in the firm. The thin man kept it vague, of course, claiming to be a kind of internal consultant and using a lot of words. A small amount of information communicated verbosely is a sure recipe for boredom and soon enough the men moved back to their own woes. It was a quarter after midnight when the thin man had heard enough and he bid them goodnight. By this time they were fast friends, and had agreed to meet for a pre-event drink the best day. The event space is pre-permeated; the reception folks don’t stand a chance.

Dateline The Thin Man’s Room: November 2nd, 0:32

Now we have a little confession to make. While the thin man may appear the picture of competence in the events depicted above, competence is a) relative; and b) often pretty narrow. He can ply information from drinkers in a company on the brink, sure, and this is a skill that pays. And while his severance pay was still running some women were around the general lifespace. Which was all good. However while the thin man may spend his days in a blur of undirected motion, he does have specific tastes in certain matters. The thin man, for instance, likes women to tell him what to do from a distance. More precisely he enjoys instruction from a non-copresent muse.

On the ship he and the crew didn’t always have the ability to live entirely on the internet as the modern human is wont to do, however since washing ashore in Singapore the thin man has established contact with some women he has never met. Of course there are plenty of guys who pay for the privilege of being under the thumb of a woman, there is apparently a whole industry around it. Good for them. That particular industry is a bit on the overt side though, and the thin man is not of it. He may, however, be quasi-adjacent. In any case after a shower the thin man texts Desiree.

What he wants here is, basically, for Desiree, who is 23 half French and half Romanian, to give him feedback in the form of some word, action, or idea to integrate into his espionage performance. A whisperer stage right, who can introduce the element, the thrilling frisson, of the random. A stylist, a sequencer, a psychically co-present muse. Desiree plays this role only moderately well; she is studying to be a dancer, goes to auditions, and generally alternates between attention and absence. Are you familiar, dear reader, with the interplay of attention and absence? I thought as much.

Anyway, tonight Desiree comes through. Fear, she says, fear is the operating mood of the Green Group employees. Young she may be, but she is smart our Desiree. Ingratiating oneself with the fearful is easy she says. And she is right, if the instability runs all the way to the top so will the fear. He just has to find the right mark and he’ll get what he needs. The idea of pocketing the $20,000 is appealing, 100%. He thanks her and tries to keep her on but she is done. Oh well, you get what you get. Some form of sleep and wake up as Jack. No problemo senor.

to be continued…

The Thin Man in Singapore Part II: The Ask

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

Dateline Singapore: October 30th, 8:02

The thin man woke at the 1887 happy to be alive and went on down to breakfast as instructed. He picked out his guy immediately. The broker was perfectly of his type, his suit barely disguising, indeed almost accentuating, the hustler inside. The thin man ordered orange juice and eggs, the broker drank coffee. He had probably already eaten.

The broker, like all of his kind, couldn’t give a shit who he was pimping as long as he got his 8% commision. He took the thin man’s data points and promised to turn them into a resume that would emphasize the high stakes, low reference point nature of his previous work. “I’ll get something going,” said the broker.

Dateline Singapore: November 1st, 11:43

The thin man stayed on at the 1889, hoping that the bill was paid for a few days at least. On Wednesday the phone rang, and the man on the other end introduced himself as Alejandro from Company X. The broker knew his lane, apparently.

“I have work for you,” Alejandro said.

“What sort of work?” asked the thin man.

“The best kind, the kind where you get in and out.” The thin man could hear Alejandro’s razor thin smile through the phone.

“I deal cards,” replied the thin man, “I’m not a safecracker.

“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 about 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 starting today. 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?”

“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 knows not a one of them. He’ll have to research, chose a few likely targets, although after five weeks of carousing there wasn’t a lot of research energy left around. He’ll need to make minimal and efficient moves;

iii) he has no bank account. His severance was paid in cash and he does not intend to stay in Singapore forever, however appealing the locale. He’ll need to get legal sooner rather than later.

Dateline Singapore: Around 17:07

The thin man is up for the job, however like we said he could use a little up front information. So he checks out of the 1887, which thankfully is all paid up, and grabs a taxi to the Swissotel where he checks in, showers, and scopes out the premises. 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 classifiable as reconnaissance–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 widowed sister could be anywhere. 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 on the 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 in any way 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.

to be continued…

Dedication: For salarymen everywhere. I sympathise.

The Thin Man in Singapore Part I: Washing Ashore

It’s predicted to rain on landing/ I predict we’ll have a drink

Paul Westerberg

Dateline Singapore: Late October

This little country, such an unlikely success story, such a strange winding of forces. The thin man has been on land for five weeks after his latest gig on a the submarine, and though his stomach is still in limbo his sea legs have mostly subsided.

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. The occasional speedboat ride, a flyer or two 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. Five weeks on land though and the thin man is 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.

Still, the thin man has a few dollars in his pocket as he walks into a bar just outside of Chinatown. Halloween is approaching, and the proverbial Spooky Lady’s Sideshow is in full effect. The barmaids are Eyes and Baby, or is she Baby Blue? In any case, the thin man and Eyes make eyes, in an innocent way, so the story is told.

The thin man orders a Cognac and ambles over to the pool table where the nine ball is always on. Eyes sizes him up quick, guessed he could play a bit. A game is proposed, a game for two players.

But of course no game is really ever between two players alone. Baby’s watching—tough to tell her rooting interest. And, after Eyes breaks and a few balls fall, the bar as a whole starts tuning in to the frequencies of the game as the regulars make 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. The thin man always did like the locals; heck, it’s part of the travelers’ creed. After all, everybody is a local somewhere. Certainly Eyes and Baby could take care of themselves.

Eyes missed and the thin man was able to sink a few easy balls before 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 is nine ball, what else? Eight ball is for rookies, a southerners game. The thin man hailed from the north; he knew a thing or two about sequencing. You see, the thin man had had a bit of a specialized role onboard the cruise ship where he had worked as a dealer in the casino. As a result, he also possessed some of the skills of a card shark, a mechanic. Sequencing goes with the territory of a mechanic, after all.

Mid-game and the thin man is beginning to fade a bit–the combination of Eyes’ eyes, and a cheeky Cognac or three is taking its toll. Eyes sinks the 8 and only the 9 ball is left. 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. Cheeky Cognacs and beady cat eyes aside, a game is a game.

A couple of desultory shots bounce about as the players size each other up. Baby 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.

The game over, the thin man’s thoughts turned to more practical considerations. He needs a place to stay, and though the nine ball had brought them all together, he didn’t think Eyes or Baby would necessarily take him in. He’d probably need to establish himself as a bit of a regular first before having a shot at any of that action. But the thin man is a gamer, constitutionally unable to categorize situations as problems. No problemo senor, no worries mate. He does, however, have a few issues, the first being he is unemployed and pretty much out of cash. So, he had asked around, kept his ear to the wind. A fellow traveler there on the sub had 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. He has the number for this broker in his pocket, and asks to use the bar phone to give him a call.

The broker picks up right away, saying “yeah, your buddy mentioned you might be looking for a little work. I think I can put something together.”

“That’s good,” says the thin man. “Any chance of a hotel for the night in the meantime?”

“Sure, said the broker. Head over to the 1887 in Chinatown. They’ll have a room in your name. What is it, by the way?”

“Let’s go with ‘Jack Bishop.'”

“That’ll work. I’ll meet you at breakfast at 8.”

The 1887 sounds incredible, thinks the thin man. Rock n’ roll.

to be continued…

Dedication: For Eyes. Long may you bat baby.