Jagged Sophistication: The Grifters

CaryGrantRandolphScottScene: Manhattan, 1931

I had the good fortune to meet David at the Plaza’s Oak Room—though at the time, my definition of “good fortune” was somewhat flexible. And we didn’t in fact meet at the Oak Bar; to be entirely accurate, we met at the urinals in the mens room of the Oak Room. 

On my night off from the Stork, I found myself without plans and with almost the same amount in cash. Eyeing my meager funds, I took myself uptown to the Plaza Hotel, reasoning that a cup of coffee didn’t cost much and I might as well enjoy it in the lap of luxury—at least until a more profitable lap could be found.

Settling down in a plush armchair, I leaned back and lit a cigarette before surveying the all-male crowd. Freed from their offices and wives, they were a cheery bunch. There was much back-slapping, much camaraderie, and the glinting self-confidence of well-appointed men in possession of funds, family, and fun. Not much for me; at least, not this early in the evening.

Having nursed a single cup for as long as it—and the waiter—could stand it, I had finally given up my spot in a corner and wandered over to use the facilities. While standing at the urinal, I noticed a man out of my left eye sloppily sidle up next to me. Just because I was obeying the rules of Prohibition didn’t mean that every man there was. And though I never minded a quick examination, I was acutely conscious of the attendant standing behind us.

“See something you like?” I asked with a touch more acid than I would have employed had we been alone. David lifted his head somewhere to my chest level, and looked up at me with a grin.

“I might at that,” he said with what would have amounted to a leer if he still retained all of his muscle control.

I gave him a tight grin and then finished what I’d come to do, buttoned my trousers, and stiffed the attendant. “He’ll get you,” I said, nodding my head in David’s direction. The attendant looked at me with absolutely nothing in his eyes. I shrugged and walked through the door.

On the other side, I stopped at a telephone booth and sat down inside, leaving the door open and lighting a cigarette. David came out fairly quickly, looking in both directions before spotting me.

“Those things work better if you lift up the receiver.”

“Oh, I don’t need to make a call. I was just resting my weary bones. Standing so long takes it out of me. I’m not what I once was.”

“All the better,” David said. “I’m David Brandewith.”

“Peter van Lawrence.”

We shook hands once, then David traced his index finger along my palm.

He looked around him with what was clearly a herculean effort at discretion, then leaned in close. “I live not far from here,” he whispered, and I could catch the reek of a few nips from what was no doubt a monogrammed silver flask. “Want to come over to my digs and have a real drink?”

I shrugged—I was a big one for shrugging that night—and stubbed out my cigarette against the booth’s wall. “I don’t have anything else to do.”

David wasn’t joking, not about the proximity of his apartment or the genuineness of his alcohol. He lived just a few short blocks east and one or two longer blocks north. Not so far as you’d miss the view of Central Park, but enough to dodge the poor who’d clog Fifth Avenue in an effort to reach something green on the weekends and nice summer nights.

In his apartment, David threw open the doors to the terrace and strode over to a serious-looking bar. “What’s your poison?” he asked.

“A gin and tonic, if they’re in stock.”

“ ‘If they’re in stock!’ What do you think this is, kid?” he asked before dumping some gin, much less tonic, and a slice of lemon that appeared magically with the rest of its siblings on a silver plate from somewhere. Maybe he carried the whole shebang in his pocket, I didn’t know. What I would eventually learn about David is that he was an absolute fiend for perfection. The best wasn’t quite enough for him unless he knew that the best was also at least somewhat exclusive. A lemon isn’t exactly exclusive, but when one has been drawn and quartered at some point in the near past and available to be whipped out at the exact moment? That was the sort of thing that put the zest in living for David. In the time that I knew him, the only thing in his life that didn’t approach that level of gracious living which only requires a staff of a dozen was me—and I think in some perverse way that was the power that I held over him.

That first night, though, all that was evident of David is that he had a gorgeous apartment, quality bootleg gin, and a family that never came into the city. They were very much in evidence, however—neatly and exquisitely framed in a group portrait on the mantel, his wife looking thin and grim, his children looking somewhat forlorn, and David grinning obliviously. A classic Westchester family, I was beginning to realize.

“Cheers,” David said as he settled next to me on a couch that looked far more uncomfortable than it was. David’s apartment was all leather and dark wood, an overly zealous attempt at masculinity that is meant to put visitors at ease but is always vaguely suspect. We clinked glasses and then he stared at me over the rim of his straight rye.

“You don’t seem the type for the Oak Room,” he said finally.

“I just go for the urinals. I love all that cracked ice.”

He laughed at that and moved closer.

“Do you go to many urinals?”

I pretended to think.

“A few times a day, I suppose. Don’t you?”

David stared blankly at my face for a beat then caught the joke before it had quite finished its sail over his head.

“Ha! ‘Don’t you’! You’re a regular vaudevillian, kid.” He took another slug of rye, and I followed suit with my gin. At least it was good gin. By the time I came up for air, David’s glass was on the table in front of us and his hand was on my upper thigh. Now it was my turn to look at him over the rim of my glass.

“You’re a pretty fast operator.”

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it kid?”

“I was under the impression that this is what you wanted.” His hand moved up.

“I’d say we’re both right.”

It’s not that I ever expected to be taken to a bedroom, not with the men whose bedrooms were always so near. But every now and then, an actual bed would have been a treat.

Afterwards, David found his wallet in his coat pocket and fished out a few bills onto the table next to our glasses. I lit a cigarette from a silver box and looked back and forth from them to him.

“Thanks, kid,” David said, leaning back against a chair with his eyes closed.

“There must be some mistake,” I said. “This isn’t quite what I had in mind.” David laughed nastily.

“You didn’t seem to mind a few minutes ago.”

I let that one pass.

“I meant the cash. You can keep it.”

David opened one eye and looked at me.

“Not enough?” He opened his mouth to say more but I interrupted him.

“You should stop while you’re behind. It’s not the amount I object to; it’s the existence of that neat little stack.” I put out my cigarette and summoned my dignity. It took a moment, since my clothes were still on the floor. I pointed to the table. “That is not why I came to your apartment.”

“Why then?”

I tried to look innocent. “A drink?” David laughed and sat up.

“Kid, you tickle me. So you’re not on the make?” I shook my head. David looked sheepish. “Sorry, kid. I’m not used to that.”

“Maybe I should go,” I said, and began gathering my clothes. David scrambled up.

“Look, no offense, right? I misjudged the situation.” I looked at him, holding my clothes in a tasteful position. David finished the last of his rye and picked up his wallet again. He replaced the money and fished out a business card.

“I like you. And if you’re really not on the make, we should do this again sometime. Jesus, the number of guys like you I run into.” He shook his head sorrowfully as I began reassembling my outfit.

“Let me make it up to you. Lunch tomorrow. The Cloud Club. Say 1 p.m.?” I nodded once and smiled. “That’s the spirit, kid!” He slapped my ass and strode to the bar. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Don’t be late,” he said over his shoulder.

I picked up his business card and finished pulling on my clothes. I let myself out with David still at the bar, wondering, no doubt, how to replace a single slice of lemon without effort.

In the hallway of his apartment building, I finished tying my tie. I would have snatched up that cash in a heartbeat normally. But I was tired. Tired of sitting alone in bars watching men get rich just talking over one another while I tried to gauge the amount of a time it would take before what was left of my coffee became too cold to drink. Tired of having no plans. Tired, in fact, of being broke in Manhattan. I hadn’t moved from the middle of nowhere to starve and pay for the privilege of it. David seemed like an ideal way to avoid that fate. And if I was using him, then wasn’t he using me just as much? Wasn’t that the whole point of Manhattan? To use one another as much as possible without tipping over into villainy?

Of course, I was only 19. I still had a lot to learn about that particular tipping point.


One thought on “Jagged Sophistication: The Grifters

  1. […] you get your feelings hurt? Did someone bring up something tawdry from your past? None of that matters here, not really. Not if you have someone watching out for you. I could turn […]

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