The Defeat of the Israeli Army or, Watercolor Boy Learns the Art of Business—Albeit, Taught from the Grave.

As I said in my post about My Fore (Four) Fathers, talking about Leon, my biological father, that he could pick winners, being a winner to the max himself. He had developed his own version of Venture Capital, picking out people who had worked for him and then setting them up in distributing businesses akin to his own business of selling auto parts: electrical supply, paint, hardware, etc. Someone would come to work for him who showed “smarts” and ambition and he would arrange loans, give advice, be a valued consigliere. He would work out a ten-year program with them and then they would buy him out. When I had finished grad school, I noticed his dress had gone from plain blue suits, black shoes to designer-wear, flashy, in an Armani slickness. He and my mother were suddenly jetting off to here and there. The auto-parts store had always given him a good living, but this was a BIG bump up, “What happened,” I asked?” “All my orchards have born fruit, I’ve been paid out by all those I supported.” 

He sure could pick winners. Not just in business, but he was uncanny in his ability to beam in on some superior quality in a person. After he passed I got a call from his friend Mohammed Kieta, a Nigerian African-antiquities dealer, Leon had met at an Art&Design fair. They had lunch whenever Mohammad was in town. After Leon passed, I got a call, “Thees eees Mohammed, ahm loooking’ fo’ yo’ fathah.” “Oh hi, Mohammad,” (we’d met a couple of times). “I’m so sorry to tell you, Leon passed a couple of months ago.” At the other end came the saddest ululating, cry, then he clicked off. With my brother and me we had an Oedipally fraught time and it wasn’t ’til I hit 30 that I received some of the goodness of his “beaming appreciation,”(always, though via a 3rd party). At 75, my age, as I write this, he sat my brother and me down and went over his estate plan, basically to enter the “pool” like an olympic diver, nary a splash.

I don’t know if it was basic restlessness, or grief at my mother’s death, or a slight stroke (which he later died from) but he suddenly began investing in a whole new cadre—tanning salons, beauty spas, advertising! for pity’s sakes. Was it some weird glamour? He got involved with a leasing agent who was promising superior returns (ROI) without the capriciousness that equity investments in shares could bring—that wiggly ol’ stock market could be a heartbreak! Leon told me he’d responded to an ad in the newspaper for businesses seeking capital in the form of equipment leases. The leasing agent, Jim, promised 20% and MORE! Guaranteed! All loans were guaranteed by the equipment itself. What could possibly go wrong? “You could always sell the equipment if the venture went south, sometimes for a profit.” These were folks who couldn’t get capital from standard lenders. Then Leon passed. Suddenly, my brother and I were left to start our lives as repo men, left to pick up the pieces if we wanted anything for ourselves. Leon had done a giant cannon ball. Ker—Splash! This is the story of one of those retrievals. <><><><><><><><>

Leon had loaned a bunch of dough to an ad agency to buy slick furniture, computer equipment, office cubicles, cameras, etc. It’s a better to look good than feel good kind of business. They were behind on their payments, and in default, and it was time to gather what I could. Yuk! That meant a trip to South Florida, a place I’d grown to hate. The advert firm was in one of those South Florida strip malls, but they had really gussied up the place, with MY money! It looked pretty slick, not exactly lipstick on a pig, but it was in a strip mall, exactly not Madison Avenue. I was there to sell what I could…ship what I wanted back to my new printmaking/gallery business in CA. It was a sad thing for the ad folks, they were going belly-up, but you know, that was MY money they were playing with. Some of the furniture was very nice Italian stuff, that I could put on a truck. Computers were useful now that part of the printmaking world had gone digital—on the truck it would go. I didn’t feel too bad, they were Ad Men after all—think of Mad Men the TV series, these were cynical, “how do I get over on that one or this one,” types. Basically, bull shit slingers and The Repo man was here—my father was teaching me the Art of business from the grave. (It should be noted here though, the advertising world augmented some real culture-shifting moments—click these links to see… “Think Small” ads for VW or the “I’d like to buy the world a coke” or the Macintosh Super Bowl ad. But this ad shop in a strip mall was hardly shifting the culture. That’s what wanted to do with my new business.)

Next door to the ad agency in the strip mall was a stripped-down operation of cold-callers selling trips on cruise ships, rows of particle board desks and phones. Concrete walls and floors. The desks were manned by a group of Israelis on the phone all day selling 6-night 7-day trips around the Caribbean—hey! It was a business. The guys at the desks were all from the Israeli Army headed by their former commander Colonel something-or-other, but that office was noisy!— Italians, Israelis and Chinese have cornered the market on loud talking; some say hell isn’t just hot, it’s LOUD and in that hard-wall bare-bones room it was a cacophony of shout-talkers. They knew the ad guys were having a distressed sale. The cubicle partitions would be a great boon to their operation, Colonel Morad, I’ll call him, would turn up as a caricature in one of Sascha Baron Cohen’s send-ups, fooling Dick Cheney no less. I wanted $40,000 for the cubes. They were worth $60K on the open market. The shipping back to California alone would wipe out any residual capital, the Colonel knew that.

Dick Cheney and Sacha Baron Cohen as Colonel Morad in a still from WHO IS AMERICA? (season 1, episode 2) – Photo Credit: SHOWTIME. Cohen got Cheney to autograph his exclusive anti-terror water-boarding kit. Hilarious.

I went next door to get to know the Colonel. Man, he really needed those partitions. (The din!! 10 Israelies all shout-talking at once could have drowned out a 747). We went to lunch, where he told me how he had married an American girl, retired from the army, and was settling down to a life in the Holy Land when he walked out of a deli with his daughter and had to step over a human head—the splattering of a terror bombing, blood everywhere (before the Wall). Israel was a battlefield and no place, he thought to raise a family; a little time in Florida to let things calm down. His Yankee wife gave him a passport to the land of peace and prosperity. So here he was making a business with men he had commanded in battle. Guys with no necks, shtarkers in Yiddish—tough guys. They all looked like this Morad character, in that noise chamber, selling pleasure cruises to the Jews of South Florida, mostly to widows hoping, hoping, “So! You’re not married?” is the punchline of that joke. The sales crew had the hook of talking up the Hebrew Army on the march, from the true cred of the last best place for Jews on Planet Earth. It was working. He really wanted those partitions, top quality for his men.

Back when touring the ad agency with Leon I had gone into one of those cubicles where designers worked away on some pretty envy-making equipment and saw a proof of an illustration advertising the Beavis and Butthead show on MTV. MTV was a big client. “Oh cool, my kid would love that.” He took it off the wall for me. “Eli will love this.” Everything was computer-driven, everything state-of-the-art. The illustration was a dye-sublimation proof, a very cool way to see what the computer was showing you, hard-copy, waxy dye sublimed onto the paper in a heat process. Brilliant colors, way before IRIS printers and the current ink-jet fully-archival prints in use today. (This print will be pointed toward destiny like in Chekov’s famous aphorism—mention a gun in act one and it has to go off in act three. Stay tuned for that one.)

Fancy Italian Chair still in use 24 years later.

Anyway, Leon was strutting his stuff at the ad shop, the folks all properly differential to the money-man, Leon loving it, but man, I could see trouble, this operation was a true bull-shit parlor; sure, they had landed a couple of top notch clients, and after our visit, in the car I told Leon what I thought. He just gave me the look, “don’t worry it’s all guaranteed by the equipment.” I kept my mouth shut, and now here we are a couple of years down the road, Leon gone and I’m left holding that bag full of bull shit.

Back in the Israeli palace of noise, the Colonel and I step outside to the parking lot to be able to hear where we meet the landlord for both businesses. And here I digress, to give an exploration of the semiotics of the hand shake: There is of course, the notorious wet-fish, bested by the wet-air handshake that I received meeting Andy Warhol in Art school days, the ham-hand big fist, the bone crusher, the hated half-hand—fingers-only reeking of ambivalence, the German pumping the well dry. The landlord gave me the “grab & pull,” pulling me off-balance in more ways than one. He’s staring me down, giving me the stink-eye, informing me anything left in the ad shop will be his if it’s not cleared out. I have 8 days to clear out. He’s a “big macher” a hybrid English-Yiddish term for big shot. He’s brought me the lease to show the fine print. Yep, the goods are his if I’m not out by Monday next. He’s buddy-buddy with the Colonel, the ad guys are all goyem and thus not high on his list. The Colonel and I had arrived at a price for negotiating, he says he’ll give $30K for the cubicles, I say I want $40K; we’ve been discussing…The landlord steps in, “How about $10?” I was feeling lower than dog shit on a hot Florida sidewalk. Who am I? The spin-drifter, Watercolor Boy, who’d spent the previous 2 decades quietly making pictures. But I did want something in the world of business, my “Land of Yes” idea was what I thought the world needed…I needed some capital to make it happen…The landlord comes back the next day, “How’ bout I give you NOTHING! They’ll be mine anyway. Well, on second thought, since I’m feeling generous and you are a landsman (member of the tribe, a fellow Jew) we’ll throw you a bone. How ’bout I give you a grand and we’ll call it done, landsman?” Practically laughing in my face. No, he was laughing in my face. Oh, Watercolor Boy…

I call the leasing agent, “know anyone?…etc. etc.” Those office cubes were bulky, heavy, deep purple with black trim—nice, but who wants ’em? They are the six-foot kind, ideal for privacy, but sheesh, in California they are a dime a dozen with all the collapsing dot-com schemes, and besides it would cost a bundle to move them across country…I got a preliminary price of 20-grand just to transport, then what? Oh! Leon, what were you thinking, funding these skells? He wasn’t, he was having fun throwing money away, playing the Great One; the ad guys were really deferential to him. —Hey! Leon! I’ve been doing that for free! I was ramping my own business up, an Art making business, a little hubristic on the higher value, but it was playing to the truth and beauty…timeless stuff…stuff for the soul, not the bottom line….The agent calls back, he’s got a list of possibles. Possibles. Oy! “Sorry about your troubles, those ad guys seemed like they were winners…” (In your dreams, buddy… a winner on what stage?)…I start calling… “I’ve got a group of some really top-notch cubicles, perfect for what you’re looking for…” no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no no…my list is almost done…and then “YES! Just what I was looking for.” My Beatrice, oh goddess of light guiding me out of this underworld, I’m in love. She’s in the brand new on-line veterinary pharmaceuticals business, all call-in stuff, she needs me, I need her, a heaven of desire. I meet her at the ad shop. She loves, loves them. “I need them out by Saturday.” She can do that, she has “guys.” She has a big truck. “I’ll need a cashier’s check for $40,000.” She can do that. Did I say, in LOVE? MY truck bound for California is coming on Saturday too.

Both trucks are there right on schedule, her guys load-up and even help load-up my stuff. It’s SATURDAY, it’s Shabbos, so the Jews next door are all off for the day. This is like some Mission Impossible moment…cue the music…dun dun…dun dun dundun dun. She hands over the check! Sunday comes and the The Colonel and crew come to clean my clock, and guess what time it is? It’s Shock & Awe time baby! and time to say thanks, Leon, thanks for teaching me business. That spin-drifty Watercolor Boy, in from the crunchy-granola West Coast has graduated; Leon is teaching me from the grave. The ad joint is EMPTY, echoey empty, Leon’s ghost is giving me top marks. The Colonel and his crew can only gawk. The landlord won’t meet my eyes, but the Colonel says, (in that great Israeli accent Sascha Baron Cohen uses), “How do you say in English? You win some, you lose some…that’s business…”

Now I need to get home, I had no reservation not knowing my duration, it’s spring break time, airports jammed. I call Leon’s pal at Delta, from before his dalliance with those lamest folks—the hot-tub spa-istas, the beauty salon-a-ramas, the ad-men—when he was still picking winners (OMG tanning beds…in Florida?) OY. A couple of years prior to his adventure into lame-o-land, still with his sharp wits—when he was an excellent people collector, he told me this story: At the airport picking up Shirlee (Mom), the place was thronged with some East-Coast-snowbirds-grounded in a bad storm clogging things to a packed embarkation lounge of ugly. People were having fits, there was beaucoup yelling, things were getting grotesque. The counter-folks fearing violence called in their fixer, the manager of Delta operations. The guy waded in with a fist-full of vouchers and free-food slips. He had a coach’s whistle which he blew—loudly! (He had been a high school coach before managing Delta). Things settled at once. After the din subsided, he and Leon had a side-bar. Yes, he had been a High School coach, yes, he liked dealing with people, yes, he liked golf, was a scratch golfer in fact. “Would you like to play Loxahatchee?” A famous Jack Nicklaus-designed course; very private, Leon’s club. “C’mon up sometime.” He did, and Leon gave him a voucher for the top-of-the-line golf shoes for HE’d won in a tourney. Leon really could pick’em. From then on, anytime Leon needed tickets, his new pal at Delta would provide; no 14-day pre-booking, just pay lowest fare, but always a first-class bump up if available, last minute his speciality. So, I had the guy’s number, called and they’d hold my flight for a couple of minutes, and I raced to the airport and was hustled to the gate by a speed walking, waiting attendant, got on, sweaty, happy. My business-class seat was waiting. Like I said, Leon sure could pick winners. I flew home feeling like one of Leon’s winners: I brought back with me as well, a giant-sized box of YES! The Land of YES could become a reality.

One thought on “The Defeat of the Israeli Army or, Watercolor Boy Learns the Art of Business—Albeit, Taught from the Grave.

  1. Pingback: The Fire. – 90:ojime

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