Only in America

by Alan Swyer

Knowing not a soul, a self-conscious and somewhat uncertain newcomer to San Francisco was attempting to get his bearings at a fund raiser for Save The Whales when a dapper patrician eyed him strangely from across the room.

“Don’t I know you?” the prosperous-looking figure asked as he headed his way.

Though his immediate instinct was to bolt, the new arrival did his best to keep his cool.

“Not to my knowledge.”

“I’m almost certain. From the East Coast, right?”

“Y-yes,” was the response from someone who suddenly feared he’d been made.

“Did we row crew together at Yale?”

“I think you’ve got another person in mind.”

“Then we must have crossed paths at some point,” he said, extending a hand. “Kingsley Warren.”

“W-Whitney St. Clair.”

“Well, good to see you again, dear boy.”

As Kingsley ambled off to interact with others, the putative Whitney St. Clair breathed a sigh of relief, all too vividly aware that not long before he had been a small-time New Jersey scammer named Mickey Rose, supplementing what he made peddling electronics that had eluded customs at Port Newark, plus high-fashion leather jackets and raincoats that fell off trucks, by taking bets and hawking tickets for Giants, Jets, Yankees, and Knicks games.

The metamorphosis began in a way that could never have been either anticipated or planned. In serious debt to the wrong kind of people – loan sharks Frank Timoni and Roy Perrone – Mickey was spending every waking hour hustling and scuffling in search of funds when he discovered his business partner and childhood friend Danny Igoe hanging from a beam in the garage the two of them used for storage.

Ready to go on the lam, Mickey instead found himself cornered by Feds, led by a bruiser named Barnes and a wiry guy named Lopes, who pressured him for information. Torn between giving them what they wanted or going the omerta route of silence, Mickey spontaneously decided to take a radically different approach.

“Why settle?” he demanded. When asked to elaborate, Mickey played big shot by casually mentioning a Who’s-Who of organized crime figures in New Jersey.

Seeing jaws drop, Mickey continued like a poker champ with four aces. “What’s in it for the home team?” he asked, affirming the need for a quid pro quo.

Though in truth he had never so much as set eyes on Johnny Amato, Jake “the Snake” DiCosimo, Angelo Scalese, or any other of the capos mentioned, he found himself rewarded with an offer to enter the Witness Relocation Plan.

Expected to be humble and appreciative, Mickey instead used his new-found leverage to even greater advantage. First he nixed locations he dismissed as “Armpit, Arkansas” and “Frostbite, Alaska.” Next came a refusal to accept identities such as Stan Borowiek, Jose Hernandez, or Wardell Jones.

Aware that at some point he would be forced, as his mother often warned, “To pay the piper,” Mickey nonetheless continued to make demands. Flown to San Francisco, where, despite his new preppy moniker of Whitney St. Clair, he found himself lodged in a nearly windowless dump, then told that he had a choice of working either as a towel man at a car wash or as a dishwasher at a burrito joint, Mickey balked.

Polishing his diction, then spending the cash advance given to him on what previously would have been a totally out-of-character Brooks Brothers wardrobe, Mickey… err, umm, Whitney… became a man with a mission. Having long claimed that given a break he could have been a success in the legit world, he set out to make up for lost time.

His plan? To infiltrate the world of old money. His means? The realm of do-gooders and philanthropists.

Thanks to searches on the internet, he devised a schedule in which the Save The Whales event would be followed by gatherings for groups like Greenpeace, Wildlife Warriors, and the Nature Conservancy, plus Ducks Unlimited and even the American Tortoise Rescue.

With no sense whatsoever where these forays might possibly lead, the man re-dubbed Whitney – after spending considerable time in front of his bathroom mirror practicing introducing himself as Whitney St. Clair – was at last willing to trust his instincts that rubbing elbows with environmentally engaged wealth might provide the proper kind of opportunity.

“I figured out who you are!” Kingsley Warren bellowed proudly from halfway across the room as Whitney entered an Earthjustice meeting three days later.

Once again fighting the urge to flee, the ex-Jerseyite tried not to flinch as the patrician strode toward him.

“We crossed paths at the Olympic trials,” Kingsley proclaimed.

“Anything’s possible.”

“Except, perhaps, the two of us as ballerinas. If you don’t mind my asking, what are you up to these days?”

“A little of this and a little of that.”

“Coy, I see. Very admirable in an age of shameless self-promotion. Any experience in marketing?”

“A bit.”

“Which probably means you’re a whiz. Got plans once this is over?”

“Nothing that can’t be rearranged.”

“Then I’d love to pick your brain.”

Two hours later, at a private club that would have certainly been off-limits to a guy like Mickey Rose, Whitney St. Clair, with a brandy snifter in hand, sat across from Kingsley Warren.

brandy snifter

“I hate to impose,” the patrician began. “But any ideas on how to wake up a company that deals in yachts and accessories?”

“Zero in on the landlubbers,” Mickey replied, sensing what seemed to be a longed-for opening.

“To lure them out to sea?”

“To get them to live vicariously.”

“I like that. Listen –”

“Yes?”

“At risk of being pushy, any chance of luring you by the office one of these days?”

A week filled with multiple emails and phone conversations, instead of merely popping by Warren Enterprises, the intrepid Whitney St. Clair found himself in a conference room addressing not merely Kingsley, but several staffers as well.

“Participation in a sport has never been a prerequisite for the public to enjoy its styles,” he began, trying his best to mask his nervousness. “How many kids wearing baggies and listening to the Beach Boys were ever on a surfboard? Or wearing LeBron sneakers play ball? Or sporting cowboy boots actually ride?”

“So true,” said Kingsley.

“The economy today, for want of a better word, sucks,” Whitney continued, gathering steam. “Which means that the shop girl unable to afford a vacation buys a Gucci bag to feel a little better about herself. The computer programmer who can’t buy a new car treats himself to a pair of Tony Lamas to feel like somebody. And the two-bit hood who’s in trouble forks out for a Brooks Brothers suit to start life anew.”

One of Kingsley’s minions, an arrogant Yalie named Trowbridge, raised his hand in protest.

“At risk of sounding impudent,” he stated, “without a mission, all this sounds like a mashup of patter and gobbledygook.”

Sounding impudent?” questioned Kingsley. “I call it being impudent.”

“The mission is simple,” Whitney then stated after the vote of confidence. “To allow the downtrodden of America – and maybe even the world – to feel at times like the skipper of a boat. A Hemingwayesque figure ready to face the elements in a bold and romantic way, thanks to Warren Nautical Wear.”

“Amen!” said Kingsley.

Two weeks later, having spent considerable time as unofficial overseer, mentor, and idea man for the reawakening taking place at Warren Enterprises, Whitney accepted a dinner invitation at Gary Danko’s, which Kingsley termed his favorite restaurant outside of Paris.

Danko's

“I feel extremely ill-at-ease,” Kingsley stated, sipping Pernod while the two of them waited for their appetizers.

“I thought you were pleased.”

“That’s the understatement of the year. The business has virtually risen from the dead. And I, I’m proud to announce, once again feel alive.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“That you, my friend, are getting nothing out of it.”

“Except satisfaction.”

“Which in this world of ours is far from sufficient. The way I’ve been singing your praises, I expect one of my yachting brethren to swoop in and offer you the moon and the stars. If, that is, they haven’t done so already. So tell me honestly, what would it take to get you to work for me on an official basis?”

“Do I look eager to work for someone else?”

“Then what if –”

“Yes?”

“I ask you to be my partner.”

“What kind of fucking bullshit is this?” screamed Eddie Hong, the Bay Area FBI agent assigned to monitor Whitney St. Clair as he held up an announcement in the Chronicle about Kingsley’s new partner. “The whole premise is no hustles, no scams, nothing the least bit fugazi!”

“Seems to me you should be proud,” Mickey replied.

“What in hell for?”

“Because I’m the American Dream.”

“Gimme that in English!”

“I’m the poster child for the land of opportunity.”

“And our warning about a low profile?”

“For Chrissake, you’ve read my file. Who’s going to believe that some Joe from Jersey who gets seasick stepping over a puddle could be partnered in a WASPy yachting company?”

“Still –”

Still my ass! What you should be doing is making sure that any background check on Whitney St. Clair is covered every way possible. And I don’t mean just some casual search on Google.”

Despite the fact that he could never quite shake the constant fear and trembling at 3 AM that his days as Whitney St. Clair might be numbered, the weeks that followed were a rollercoaster ride the likes of which the guy formerly known as Mickey Rose would never have even dared imagine.

For openers, a swanky apartment on Nob Hill. Next, the beginnings of a romance not with a waitress or a bar maid, but with an environmentally-conscious attorney friend of Kingsley’s named Julie Graham.

Though he knew he was flirting not just with a woman, but also with potential disaster, by adding boy-girl dynamics to his new life, there was something about Julie – above and beyond her breeding and bearing – that he found irresistible.

More than anyone he had ever known, Julie believed in – and worked for – the greater good. Instead of simply going to movies or clubs together, she introduced the escapee from New Jersey to a world he had never before encountered – volunteer work – which led to surprisingly rewarding involvements with the city’s Midnight Mission and an inner city school.

Most significant of all was the thrill the newcomer to San Francisco derived from work that was challenging, exhilarating, and proof that he was indeed more than just a scammer.

Seeing the advertising campaign he brainstormed for the expanded line of nautical wear come to life was a treat. Preparing the social media blast was even more so.

For the first time in his life, he was in a position where creativity mattered more than cunning, craftiness, or criminality.

And when a couple of the ideas he came up with started going viral, he felt like he was in heaven.

Only once did the rising star on the San Francisco scene reveal a less proper side of himself. That was when a one-time beau of Julie’s, an inebriated 6’4″ ex-Stanford rugby player named Rory Pierce, spotted them late one night while they were stepping out of a Chinese restaurant.

“Beat it, chump!” Pierce yelled menacingly. “Get lost right now!”

“Or?”

“Your fucking ass is grass!”

Despite Julie’s efforts to defuse the situation, Pierce shoved Whitney once, twice, then a third time.

“That’s enough,” Whitney said, his attempt at forbearance starting to fray.

When Pierce, with a war cry, began throwing punches wildly, Whitney calmly popped the bully in the nose with a left jab that drew blood, then followed with a right cross that sent the much bigger and stronger man crashing into a row of garbage cans.

“Nice moves for an environmentally-conscious marketing whiz,” Julie said moments later once she and Whitney were walking away.

“I got lucky,” Mickey said with a shrug.

Despite the hope that the inevitable would not occur until some time in the distant future, an early morning call from Barnes and Lopes in New Jersey provided a wake-up both literally and figuratively.

Chastened, Whitney dressed and headed to work, where he was promptly intercepted by Kingsley.

“Can we talk?” Kingsley asked.

“I was just going to pop in on you. What’s on your mind?”

“What do you know about Organized Crime?”

“Organized w-w-what?” Whitney gasped.

“I’ve been asked to put together a Citizens Commission to deal with it locally, and I’d like your help.”

Before Whitney could answer, Kingsley’s assistant came running over to inform him that a Congressman named Rudy Hernandez was on the line, wanting to speak with him.

“What was it you wanted to tell me?” Kingsley asked Whitney before striding away.

“That I need to go back east for a couple of days.”

“Safe travels. We’ll talk more once you’re back.”

At noon that same day, Julie Graham was pleasantly surprised when Whitney stopped by her office.

“Could this be the impromptu lunch invitation that can get me out of this madhouse?” she asked.

“I’m not who you think I am,” Whitney replied awkwardly.

“I figured.”

So caught up in what he was trying to express that he missed Julie’s words, Whitney continued. “First of all, my name’s not really Whitney St. Clair.”

“That’s what I suspected.”

“And I –”

Suddenly Julie’s words hit home.

“What did you say?” he asked.

“Give me credit for some intuition and powers of observation.”

“B-but you said nothing.”

“How much trouble are you in?”

“I used to be in the rackets,” Whitney said with a shrug.

“And?”

“Now I’ve got to go East and face the U.S. Attorney.”

“Does Kingsley know?”

Mickey shook his head.

“He’d probably be amused,” Julie stated.

“But some folks in Jersey might not. And a couple of guys out here might find themselves dead.”

“Namely?”

“Whitney St. Clair and Mickey Rose.”

“Both of whom, if my assumption is right, happen to be you.”

“Unfortunately. But why didn’t you speak up?”

“And risk scaring you away? What difference does it make if your name is Whitney, Mickey, or even Hubert, though I’m glad it’s not. It’s still you I care about.”

Two mornings later, as a black SUV approached the blighted New Jersey city known as Newark, FBI agent Barnes whipped out a burlap sack with eyeholes.

“Time to put this over your head,” he said to Whitney.

“What am I, a sack of potatoes?”

“Wanna live, smartass?” Lopes interjected.

Unhappily, Whitney did as told.

Ten minutes later, they pulled up in front of the Federal Building, where cops rushed the SUV with guns drawn, while members of the media surged forward armed with cameras, and passers-by gawked.

With a phalanx of armed cops serving as a flying wedge, Barnes and Lopes led their masked man up the steps.

Late the following afternoon, Julie Graham was just about to leave her office when in stepped someone she was delighted to see again.

“So, Whitney, or Mickey?” Julie asked after giving him a hug and a kiss.

“Not Hubert?”

“Not today. But tell me.”

“They asked if I was prepared to name names.”

“And?”

“I said I was prepared to name the kind of names they never heard before.”

“And they bit?”

“At least for now,” Whitney said with a shrug.

“That probably means until they call the Grand Jury. And fortunately, the law moves ever so slowly. So maybe the guys in question will get eaten by sea monsters –”

“Or die in an avalanche –”

“Or get terminal indigestion. And in the meantime, maybe things will take care of themselves.”

“Do you know something I don’t know?”

“Me?”

With the local media very much in attendance, Kingsley stood in front of the Warren Building the next day morning at 10 AM, addressing an audience of movers-and-shakers from the San Francisco business community – among them, Whitney.

“With Organized Crime making inroads in local industry, shipping, and even banking,” Kingsley announced, “it’s time for Free Enterprise to show what it’s made of.”

Kingsley paused as his words received applause, plus cries of “Hear! Hear!”

“The business world is no place for hustlers or scoundrels masquerading as legitimate businessmen,” he continued, causing Whitney to resist the urge to cringe. “Today is the day that the Citizen’s Commission On Organized Crime gives formal notice to racketeers and mobsters. But to do so we need a Chairperson: someone who can serve as both spokesman and leader.”

“What about you?” a City Councilman named Joe Garcia asked.

“With no false modesty, I think there’s someone far better suited – someone with more charisma, more energy, and far more resourcefulness. I’m speaking, of course, of my dear friend and partner Whitney St. Clair.”

As the loudest applause of the day rang out, Mickey… err, umm… Whitney nearly choked.

But with people patting him on the back and shaking his hand – plus flashbulbs popping and TV cameras rolling – there was no way he could run. So all he could do was muster a smile when Julie Graham gave him a kiss that was captured by TV cameras and smart phones.

An hour later, with the crowd having finally dispersed, Julie Graham stepped into Whitney’s office to find him sitting with his face buried in his hands.

“Resting?” she asked.

“Trying to figure out where in hell I can hide.”

“What if I tell you everything’s fine?”

“Why not peachy while you’re at it? Or priceless? Or even perfect?”

“Maybe not perfect. But close.”

“Tell that to the guys who killed my partner.”

“What if I tell you they’re behind bars.”

“What did you say?” he asked, suddenly agape.

“Timoni and Perrone are under arrest.”

“But how?”

“Thanks to the help of a private eye named Eddie Gault.”

“How did he get into the picture?”

“Through Kingsley.”

“Who, if I’m not mistaken, must have been tipped off by a certain Julie Graham.”

“Well –”

“You’re amazing!”

“No,” Julie said. “Simply infatuated, or enamored, or maybe even in love.”

“But what about the Feds? And the Grand Jury?”

“In case you forgot, your partner in Warren Enterprises has considerable influence with, among others, a Congressman named Rudy Hernandez.”

Mickey Rose– aka Whitney St. Clair– let out a sigh. “What a country!”

“Not just this, but your whole story. Which, if I say so myself, is only beginning.”

“Only in America,” said the ex-Jerseyite.

“Only in America.” said Julie as well.

 

********

Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, and boxing.  His fiction has appeared in Ireland, England, and in several American publications. His previous story at NEW POP LIT was “Magic.” 

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