In the space of two paragraphs, Spike’s coffee shop was invaded by nearly a dozen loud business-suit types. Half the tables were already in use. Partial use, he thought to himself. Eight quiet bodies, minding their own business, reading or people-watching as the crazies of downtown LA staggered by. They’d probably chosen this building to live in because of the coffee shop. Didn’t even have to cross the street for the full Fauxbucks experience. That had been Spike’s reasoning when he moved downtown from out in the east (read “smoggiest”) end of the San Fernando Valley.
It wasn’t really Spike’s coffee shop, other than that’s what he called it: “Why don’t we meet at my coffee shop?” But he’d sat there most mornings the past nine months, enough mornings to recognize all seven of the other faces in the pre-business-suit-invasion moments.
Now those faces were putting on sham smiles. Yes, of course, please, share my table, crowded isn’t it, yes they make an excellent nonfat soy latte; newspaper meaningfully rustled and raised enough to indicate intent without overt rudeness.
At least Camelhair Coat Dude wasn’t wearing a wool pinstripe like the two matching goofs who’d snagged a table by the door. Took Spike a moment to realize what the guy was asking; do you mind if I sit here? By then, he’d sat, and the question, and Spike’s understanding, were moot.
“You guys escaping from something, or are they extra strict about coffee breaks at Pinstripe, Buttondown, and Oxford?”
Camelhair snapped out a “ha!” that startled the elderly gent, Morris, was it Morris, like the cat in the commercials? Anyway, nice old coot at the next table, who spilled a smidge of his decaf when Camelhair laughed.
“I should start a company and call it that. These folks would probably all apply for positions. No, it’s a wealth-management seminar. Morning break between presenters.”
Sweet merciful heavens. Wealth management. Spike could hear the organizer’s brain working. “Let me tell you how to manage your wealth: start by giving me some of it.” He was working on his cynicism. Reducing it, not getting better at it. So he didn’t blurt the first thing that came into his head. Not anymore.
“Does that mean you have wealth to manage?” Spike knew an unconventional truth: feign interest, and people often become interesting.
Camelhair was shaking his head. “Not really. I mean, the house in San Bernardino might be considered an asset, but it’d be about 90% the bank’s asset, know what I mean? But you can’t wait till you have money to learn how to manage it, or you’ll never have it, right?”
“Makes sense. What are you going to do with it once you have it?”
“What does anyone do with money? Spend it. Enjoy life. Nicer car, bigger house somewhere besides LA. Travel. Nice restaurants. Generally upgraded life, know what I mean?”
“I hear you. So, make lots of money and buy more stuff. How long’s that gonna take? I mean, do you have a plan mapped out or something?”
“That’s what this seminar is for. Where to invest, legally cutting corners on taxes, even a workshop later about some computer software to make sure your pricing is always in the sweet spot.”
Pricing. Uh-oh. Please, Camelhair, don’t be trying to sell me anything. “Pricing for what? Is this some kind of pyramid thing, where you’re gonna sell Mr. Organizer’s products?”
Camelhair barked another “ha!” Morris the Decaf Drinker’s cup rattled against the table.
“As if. No, I’ll be selling my own services. If you want to be rich, nine to five or six won’t cut it. I’m already running my own business evenings and weekends.”
An entrepreneur. Interesting. See? Act interested, people get interesting.
“What do you do?”
“Bank teller at 1st National.”
Employee mindset. That’s okay. Hard to unlearn 150 years of corporate thinking.
“No, I mean, your business, the evenings and weekends thing.”
“I make stuff.” That’s what it sounded like to Spike, but Camelhair had muttered it into the knot of his silk tie so he wasn’t certain.
Nod. One nod.
He reached inside the camelhair coat and tossed a little notepad on the table. Spike put his fingertips on the soft leather cover. Picked it up. Flexed the cover open and closed, peeked at what looked like hand-stitched binding.
It was a simple pocket notebook.
It was a work of exquisite beauty.
“You made this?” Earlier thoughts of corporate pyramid schemes didn’t mesh with this handmade gem.
Nod. One nod.
Speak up, Camelhair. You’re an artist. Own it, dude.
“It’s nice. No, sorry, it’s fantastic. Marvelous. Hand-stitched binding?”
That got a response. Leaning forward, Camelhair spoke to Spike instead of the knot of his tie. “Yeah. The detail work is relaxing. You know about bookbinding?”
“Only what I’ve read. Interesting stuff.”
“Here, let me show you.” Camelhair took the little 3×5 notebook from Spike. “Cover comes off like this.” He slipped it off. “Thin cardboard cover on the notebook. Not only is the cover reusable, who wants to buy a leather notebook and use it for two weeks, but the notebook takes up less space if you store a bunch of them.”
“Can I see that?”
The stitching was nice and tight. He knew a bit more about bookbinding than he’d let on, and Spike could tell this was good work. Experienced.
He laid it on the table. “You make other sizes?”
“Any size you want. I mean, right now, just these 3x5s. People want those smaller ones they can buy them anywhere. This is better in the long run. They make storage boxes and stuff like that for these standard sizes. Everyone uses 3×5 cards. I mean, you can store a couple dozen of these in a recipe box, you want to.”
“That’s good. Unusual size, but still standard.” This guy is as different from those dweebs by the door as his coat is from their pinstripes. Feign interest, find interesting.
“What’s this seminar cost?”
As he slipped the notebook cover onto the pages and put it in his pocket, Camelhair looked around at his summerweight-wool compatriots. Some had already left. More were gulping their last gulps.
Ouch. Spike’s non-rent expenses for a month weren’t much more than that. Not owning a car made life cheap. A bit slower, but cheap.
More pinstripes pushed out the coffee shop door but Camelhair’s manners kept him from rushing off. “So, what do you do?”
You should have asked earlier, Camelhair, so you’d know not to take the guy in the black turtleneck seriously.
At least Camelhair didn’t smirk. “Struggling writer, eh?”
“Well, writing’s a struggle, sure, but if you mean financially, I do okay.”
“What kind of car do you drive?” Pure California. Straight for the throat. You are your car.
“Don’t have one.”
“Because I don’t need one. Work from home, walk to anyplace I need to go, rent one if I want to take a road trip.”
The smirk slid off Camelhair’s mug and his eyes widened a skosh. “I guess that makes sense.”
“Does to me. Tell me, once you have all that stuff, the bigger house, faster car, three more camelhair coats, is that what it’s about?”
He must practice that snapped-out laugh. He was good at it. “Course not. It’s about being my own man. Spending my time the way I want.”
“I get that. Totally. Owning your time is as good as having money, right?”
The suspicious look on Camelhair’s face was priceless. Here’s this guy paying two large for a pyramid scheme and he’s wary of common sense because the guy giving it isn’t wearing a tie.
“Well, that’s how I measure wealth. I mean, sure, I wouldn’t object to a nice car, house overlooking the ocean, stuff like that. But I don’t need those things. Nice to haves. Not needs. What I need is not having some joker hovering over my shoulder or chewing my backside because I’m not cranking enough widgets to make his year-end bonus.”
When Spike was on a roll, he didn’t need an interested audience. Just an audience. But Camelhair seemed interested.
“Don’t get me wrong, I work as hard as the next guy, when I’m working. I’ve pulled all-nighters. I work weekends when I feel like it. And that’s the point: I feel like it, because I love what I’m doing, and I do what I love.”
His chai was probably dead cold. Didn’t matter. One reason Spike drank chai was the temp didn’t matter. Slurp. Gulp. Roll.
“How long’s it gonna take you to have enough wealth for it to be worth managing, so you can manage it into all that stuff that’s gonna let you be your own man? Twenty years? Thirty? If it ever happens at all, Mr. Banker?”
Watch the banking digs. Dial back from ‘rant’ to ‘passion’, eh pal?
“Look at you. You’ve got real talent. A business ready for you to turn it into something. Probably have a big savings account for ‘just in case’, right?”
Camelhair nodded. Vigorously. More than one nod, for sure.
“So help me out here, I’m sorry, what’s your name?”
“Spike. Anyway, help me out here, Alec: why you gonna wait thirty years and play the financial lottery and hope someday you can be your own man? Whyn’cha do it right now?”
Spike flopped back. Maybe Camelhair was different enough from the Pinstripe Brigade to get what he was saying. Maybe not. It had been interesting, either way. Act interested and sometimes it turns interesting.
“Cost-benefit analysis of owning a car versus renting one when you need it is pretty easy to do.”
Spike could hear the finely-tuned German-engineered luxury gears in Camelhair’s head meshing as he let out his mental clutch.
Camelhair; that is, Alec, took out his exquisite little leather-covered notebook.
The last of the pinstripes hustled across the street to the hotel and their wealth-meaning-money seminar.
Spike’s coffee shop was quiet again.
Quiet enough to hear Alec Camelhair’s expensive pen crossing the luxurious linen pages of his notebook.