Loud Men Talking at a Starbucks Boiler Room Table

On the morning of February 3, 2015, ten aspiring entrepreneurs, all men, ranging in age from their mid-thirties to their mid-fifties (“I’ve been in this business for forty years. There is nothing you can say that will hurt me,” said the oldest man), gathered at a Brooklyn Starbucks to discuss their great plans. They took up the entirety of a long table constructed of affordable wood and talked extremely loud.

The men confused this common space for a boiler room. They seized one stool, a precious seat in a crowded place, because some arcane section in the business plan required that one of their sparsely packed backpacks could not rest on the floor. After all, these men were not riff raff. They were meant to be tycoons.

These men believed themselves to be paragons of originality, altogether different from other captains of industry. Yet not a single man at the table sported a suit, much less a tie or a shirt selected with an iota of care. Indeed, the men had not bothered to dress well at all. They regularly looked down at their laptops and often made references to “being on the same page.” They swapped such invaluable tips on how to send an Excel document to other colleagues by email and the best way to swallow a cough drop.

They were the team. They meant business, even though it often took ten minutes to set up a five minute meeting. They were going to kill.

What follows is an actual transcript of their conversation. It is presented here as a litmus test, a way to determine whether the men who are talking loudly in your Starbucks are, indeed, on the same page:

“Let me do my damn job!”

“I want you to do your damn job.”

“I have to do my damn job!”

“Relax. I want you to do your damn job. We’ll get you cold-calling tomorrow. Now about this guy…”


“He’s a good guy. But he’s very predictable.”

“Not like us.”

“No. But if he talks about salmon, you talk about salmon. If he talks about brisket, you talk about brisket.”


“And you’ll be able to do your damn job. Because you’re an original.”

“Alright, so let’s say Friday. We’re going to say 8:30. Now what time is the meeting?”

“Let’s be realistic. He’s on a train. You’re on a train. Let’s say it’s a 4:00 drop dead time on Friday.”

“Well, I should think we should have the meeting a little bit earlier.”

“We had a 4:30 cutoff on Friday. Realistically…”

“Listen. 2:00.”

“I don’t care. I’ll come home at 7.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“We’re getting snowed in.”

“Let’s say we do a 4:30. We can concentrate on the meeting.”

“Is that okay with everybody?”

“Okay. 8:30 we meet, 4:30 we eat.”

“Nice rhyme.”


“Alright. So the next thing that we got throw at us. The Brooklyn Initiative. The theme is pretty much handling the scheduling on that, which is fine by me. Now here’s the thing with that. What day is it? February 3rd? What day do we got?”

“Not March.”

“We sat down with them and put together a strategy.”

“The Brooklyn Initiative.”

“Yes. These guys are conversating. The way I see it, they get compensated.”

“They get compensated?”

“In forty or so accounts.”

“We have the list.”

“The problem is that the person in charge of this Initiative wants more, which is pretty much impossible from a logistics standpoint. It’s going to be intricate changes. Impossible. So I’m going to make the Wednesday meeting with one of you guys.”

“Here’s the deal, guys. These guys are seasonal businessmen. I mean, it’s criminal. With that said, there’s not a lot of business out there. But those guys have about a twenty to twenty-two week season. So here’s the deal. Their owners start coming back in March. Whatever it is. By April, they’re back. These guys want to start. These guys gotta start putting their deals together.”


“Right. Swinging. But the moral to the story is — well, this is…”

“That puts it through to the end of April.”


“They’re going to start fluffing their pillows at the end of March.”

“I think we have four to five weeks with them tops.”

“Here’s more on that note. Thank you for opening that door for me. Because I’m going to walk through it. I need to make out the items that we’re going to sell.”

“We got beat up on Friday for saying that. I’ve seen the invoices.”

“So take ’em. This is all I suggest to you. Because the veterans of this table know about planning. No plan has failed.”

“An extra pair of eyes never hurts.”

TOP JIMMY: Gore Vidal

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The great Jimmy Beck, a fantastic literary enthusiast who has made guest appearances at The Old Hag and Maud Newton, has offered the first in what I hope will be a semi-regular series that I’ve tentatively entitled “TOP JIMMY,” whereby the great Beck observes literary figures at bookstores and readings, and weighs in. His first subject is Gore Vidal.]

BECK: If you were to read a transcript of Gore Vidal?s remarks at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, NC on Friday afternoon and use this alone as the basis for your impression, you?d probably come away thinking, ?Jeez, what a grumpy old bastard.? And sure, Vidal is full of bile and righteous indignation about the Bush administration.

gorevidal.jpgBut he?s also a lively conversationalist and a true raconteur. His comments were leavened with humor: ?These guys [Bush and Cheney] have turned me into creationists?Darwin was wrong!? And of course, it?s hard to imagine anyone else who knows so much about US history. His faculties remain undiminished by the fact he?ll turn 80 this year or that he now walks haltingly with the aid of a cane (he recently had knee surgery). He speaks in a deep baritone and, while regaling the packed house with his inexhaustible supply of anecdotes, treated us to spot-on imitations of JFK, Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR, Orson Welles and W (natch).

Not surprisingly, most of his remarks — and the questions directed at him — were political in nature. The sympathetic lefty audience looked to him to answer questions along the lines of ?What the hell has happened to us as a nation over the last few years?? — a subject Vidal was happy to expound upon at length.

He was in town to assist with a revival of his play, The March to the Sea, a Civil War drama being performed at Duke University (that?s ?DuPont? for all you Tom Wolfe fans).

On the media:
Having just read the New York Times, Vidal said that Paul Krugman was the only reason to even pick up the paper anymore. ?The media is totally corrupt from top to bottom and paid for by the same interests that bought and paid for this administration.?

On Iraq:
?[The administration] seems to feel [it?s] watching a bad movie or a video game. Something?s gone wrong in the American psyche.?

On funny business during the US election:
?[Rep. John] Conyers [D-MI] went to Ohio during the election and has got a lot of material, but we may not get to hear about it. Silence at Appomattox, as it were.?

On Freedom and Democracy:
?We had freedom once, but never democracy. But if you go to an airport today, you know you?re not terribly free.?

On why we vote against our own self-interests:
?That?s the American way.? He went on to blame the media, saying that if a lie gets repeated often enough people will believe it. Here?s where he invoked Welles and War of the Worlds. ?I asked [Welles] once if he realized the ramifications of what he was doing [by broadcasting a fictional invasion from Mars]?? Welles said, ?No I didn?t. I didn?t realize people were that crazy.??

On the prospect of another constitutional convention:
The professional liberals (or professional cowards as I call them) worry about what the bad guys will get hold of [if we have another convention]. Well, they?re getting hold of it anyway. Jefferson thought there should be a convention every 30 years. He said, ?You can?t expect a boy to wear a man?s jacket.??

On the US?s role in the world:
?We are part of the concert of nations. We should play the oboe. Or the triangle.?

On the right wing media?s treatment of Hillary Clinton:
?Suddenly she was a lesbian who murdered her male lover [Vince Foster]. If I were writing that script, I would have at least said ?female lover.??

On John Kerry:
Vidal described Kerry in the 1950s as being ?ruthlessly on the make? for Janet Auchincloss, Jackie?s younger half-sister (and a relative of Vidal?s). Vidal said that Kerry wanted nothing more than to become a relation of JFK?s. He then brought up Kerry?s statement that he would have voted for the war even had he known there were no WMDs, which Vidal referred to sarcastically as ?very statesmanlike.?

On prospective leaders for the Democrats to lead them out of the desert:
?I don?t think you can look to individuals.? One notable exception in history: Lincoln.

On Ronald Reagan:
?The most crashing bore. But a very nice man. He always read all of the jokes in Reader?s Digest.?

On reasons for optimism:
?We have a great capacity to change our minds?look at Prohibition. And as we grow more broke, China will outdo us. Once we cease being imperial, we?ll be calling the troops home.?

On the book of his he wishes more people would read:
?Inventing a Nation. It?s Madison, Washington and Jefferson in their own words.?

On the internet and the emergence of blogs:
?The internet gave us Howard Dean. He not only raised money, he fueled people [to become politically active]. At the big march against the war, I spoke to 100,000 people on Hollywood Boulevard. Of course, the L.A. Times called it ?a scanty crowd.??

On television:
?I don?t watch the programming. I just watch the commercials.? He then launched into a perfect infomercial voice. Returning to the subject later: ?We know the attention span has snapped.?

On religion:
He talked about how religion was not much of a force in American life in the 1940s and said that TV evangelists had a lot to do with changing that. Here he did his best 700 Club TV preacher impersonation?priceless. He also called for revocation of religious organizations? tax-exempt status, calling it ?a vast source of revenue.?

On southern cuisine:
?You?ve got the best smoked ham, grits and gravy. I asked for a ham sandwich the other day and you can?t get one?or you get the rubberized kind.? I asked my mother once what the 19th century was like. She said, ?Well, the food was awfully good.??

On what he?s reading now:
?The History of the Peloponnesian War, and again and again, The Federalist Papers.?

On what kind of gay novel he would write today (versus The City and the Pillar in 1948):
?A pretty dour one.? He then said he rejected the terms of the question. ?There?s no such thing as a gay person. There?s only sex, which is a continuum. ?Homosexual? is an adjective to describe actions, not people. Neither Latin nor Greek has a word for it?it?s just sex.?

On reviews:
?I remember the review of my first novel (Williwaw, 1946). It said, ?Mr. Vidal has posed the problem but offers no solution.? Well, [the book] was a tragedy, for God?s sake. What am I supposed to say? That Sophocles wanted me to end it this way??

On the fate of literary fiction:
?Fiction? Well there?s always The Wall Street Journal.? Rimshot. ?Fiction has dropped to where poetry was when I started. I don?t know if the written word can ever come back. I tell ambitious writers to go and read Montaigne.?

(Thanks, Jimmy Beck!)

Storming the Gates

The event is free and open to the public. It happens every year at the San Francisco Main Library. The Northern California Book Awards. Timed early enough to keep the happy hour crowd away. The library shuts its doors at eight. Get out and go home to your books. And buy some on the way.

This is an awards ceremony, but you won’t find spouses, friends or family. This is a tableau vivant. Support your local indie bookstore. Support your local gunfighters.

Walk in, away from the dying sun. You don’t even have to stroll past security. Just hang a right and gambol down the steps into a murky contemporary world of yellows and browns. Is that why they built the Koret Auditorium? The great irony about this basement hall, which seats 235 people, is that it has no windows.

There is a table of hors d’oeurves in the center of an adjacent room. A civilized din escapes the reception. Eat eat. This is legitimate gatecrashing. Drink drink. Refine your mind with some free wine. But don’t you dare take any of it with you into the Koret. It’s not allowed. This is, after all, a library.

Stand on the side as the crowd spills on. The authors smile and nod their heads. The readers gush, hoping an aw shucks will secure an acquaintance. But it’s not to be. Distance is valued. A good way to fend off the potential nutjobs and filter the unimportant and the unpublished. Telegenic cadences have been perfected on book tours, as has the well-timed bon mot. Nothing too daring, nothing alienating or iconoclastic at all.

There they are, the scribes forming circles, socializing with the occasional stragglers. If you can’t recognize them from their author photos, then there’s always the name tags. Not much that a stranger can say except, “I loved your book,” which is exactly what I tell Ms. Packer. That’s enough for most people, but, from what I can see, not enough for a few middle-aged couples looking for a diversion. The old ladies effusing enthusiasm for regional royalty aren’t noticing the rote nods, the feigned interest, the Dale Carnegie technique. It looks like winning and influencing, this listening seen from afar as a half-assed gesture. And why not? The obvious goal is to sell books.

One writer recalls my name (before I introduce myself) and pictures of presidents posted in a recent blog entry. This little place? I don’t know the ritual. Is this some indication that literary blogs have influence or is this just a way to ensure additional leverage? It reminds me of Bill Clinton noting several personal details just before talking with someone, and winning fans. But I think it’s an unintentional way of telling me that this is exactly the impression we dilettantes are conveying to the authors. After all, what can any of us possibly infer beyond the text? What is there to say? I tell her that I’ve ordered her book (“Your order has shipped” read an email that morning). I ask if she’s nervous. She says she’s had some wine. Presumably to make the trundling across the room more bearable. Understandable.

These writers hope to retreat to their ateliers. Rebecca Solnit, who wins the nonfiction award for River of Shadows, addresses this solitude and thanks “the book people.” Again, understandable. Who wants to do PR? But it’s all part of the biz. Beneath a library prioritizing technological glitz over books, there isn’t a soul under thirty, save me just barely. The room is populated by authors and their followers. Fervent readers, silent hustlers selling books. Even the catering crew’s kept behind a swinging door, save for carefully timed replenishment of viands. I joke to my friend about the guy with the Minor Threat T-shirt and torn jeans who’s not there. Fortunately, I spot a few folks in leather jackets. My people? Hell if I know.

They come. All sorts. Whoever spilled in from the street. Whoever will play the game. Whoever remains naive enough to believe that this is a genuine celebration of literature, a call and response for local awareness, the bridge between the masses and the glitterati.

See one prominent novelist’s cute lime green skirt flutter as she hits the stage. Marvel over their Miss America smiles, their poise, their diction, even the austere ceremonial rituals. Is this what literature’s about? All the nominees saunter in front of a crowd as the titles are riffled out, then disappear into a room, white fluorescent light dappling the tops of their heads. When the winner is announced, she emerges to read something within three minutes. Since there are only seven awards, the timing’s just right.

They read. And the words stand alone. But while Tobias Wolff offers a nice Southern drawl, even he has to point out where he’s quoting within his text. Solnit has to specify when she’s quoting Edison and when “that’s me.” I have to wonder if the art of reading has been lost.

There is one very sweet moment. Peggy Rathmann wins the Children’s Literature Award for The Day the Babies Crawled Away. She’s genuinely surprised and honored. Her mouth forms into an adorable O. She shows the audience two pages that she’s illustrated and then reads the accompanying text, which isn’t much. She’s off the stage in less than a minute and a half.

The other grand moment is hearing Phillip Levine, honored for lifetime achievement. He is self-deprecating when he gets his award. He thanks the NCIBA for considering Fresno as part of Northern California, “which suggests that they’ve never been there.” But it’s Levine’s poem, about spending his days in a library while on the clock, that gets me picking up one of his books after the awards are over.

There’s no way to know how nervous these folks are, or how vexed they must be to have their work judged by their deportment. I wonder if there’s a better way to generate interest or to get people reading. I wonder if there’s a better way to celebrate authors. I’d like to think so. This business of readings and awards ceremonies boils down to the same image-laden, personality-driven nonsense. So why pretend?

But I’m more than willing to concede that it’s probably me.