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NOT ALL ROADS LEAD TO THE BANKS


There's a funny cartoon circulating here in Vermont of a man standing on his front step sighing with relief now that is was warm. In the next panel, he is surrounded by a cloud of fiercely-hungry mosquitoes. Alas, it has a nasty truth to it -- no sooner are you going out without a bulky coat on for the very first time in many cold and shivery months than you are assailed by these enormous Aedes stripe-tailed blood-suckers, chomping away on your wrists or your neck before you can get in the car. This is low-land country where I live, with many standing pools of water from the last heavy rains of April for the beasts to spawn in. No fish to eat them up, no birds interested enough to make a meal, and certainly no frogs to dine on these delicacies, since their bogs are plenty sufficient with wild edible life. I'm reminded of that scene in The African Queen when Bogie and Kate are descended upon by a riverbank habitat of similar vampires and Bogey is protective enough to fling a tarp over his shipmate and head out to the middle of the river again. Oh dear, one thinks, I've felt those bites. Of course, I was also aware that a screen full of the bugs was placed over the camera and made to seem as if the principals were being attacked. Nice trick, John Huston. But it made me squirm each time I saw the film.

Speaking of nasty mosquitoes, I received a notice that a certain "Sophia" was writing to me on Messenger. I went to Messenger, since I don't have a cell phone, and was about to push the green button to read the message, when someone was kind enough to write that this same Sophie was wired to invade your computer and go through all your files. I almost got bit, as they say. But I was cautious since I didn't know anyone of that name, not recently at least. But the point is, the blood-hungry predators are always out there, ready to pounce on the unwary. We're back in the jungle, I guess, and we need to look over our shoulder at the sound of any footsteps.

Maybe that's why the cashier at our supermarket holds up any bill above a ten-spot to a certain light to look for a hidden marker that says it's not counterfeit. Wow. It was my twenty I gave her, and I might have been dragged off to some dimly lit office to await the arrival of some trench coated T-Men to interrogate me. But it was a real bill, and she smiled and seemed to forget the incident the moment the change was given. But we're all Alices in this new world, and have to decide if we should follow the instruction, "Eat me," or pass up the possible adventure it may offer us. Poor Odysseus was forewarned about Circe's cocktail passed out to other shipmates which turned them into pigs. He remained standing and still human and it stunned Circe. She eventually lifted her spell on the men and all was well. But of course if the liquor had been laced with ransom ware, well, that would have required Homer to add another book to his epic.

We're hard-wired for treachery and deceit. They're nothing new. The internet has not invented any new forms of evil for us to contend with; they're old, as old as the market place, and all that such gatherings imply about people trying to make a quick buck off you. If you travel around in Europe and the Middle East, as I have done much of my adult life, you will notice that most markets set up their stalls in front of a church or temple. That's where the people are on week-ends. The word for temple in Latin is fane, and the market that stands before it is profane. And that word has come down to us as meaning anything other than the sacred, the dark side of human maneuvering and sleight-of-hand. Henry Adams observed once that all roads led to the church in medieval life. That was the glue of community, the "Virgin" bringing the believers to the heart of the town. But since the 18th century, the center of town shifted to business, to the banks, where the profanation of life is perpetrated. He called that "the dynamo" of modernity. The city flings its inhabitants away from any sense of belonging by the great centrifugal force of money. Even so, a casual observation of architecture in the modern city suggests the various financial monuments still resemble churches with their towers and steeple-like tops. The ghost of ancient social unity is reflected in these subliminal images of transcendence, even though the affairs of such buildings are anything but otherworldly. I have often found such vast structures attract the homeless, the beggars, the social pariahs who have no jobs or reason to be downtown except to cadge a few coins from passersby, mainly tourists.

My father, the law-giver of my childhood, once asked me if I would like to accompany. him on an errand. We were in Paris, France for the first time in my life and I was eager to go anywhere, just to pull this great city into my eyes and imprint my soul with its sounds, its odors, its brightly-lit cafes. We were on a busy street on the Left Bank when a man stopped him and asked if we would like to exchange some money for franc notes. It was 1955, and my father was, if anything, a very cautious man. But he liked a deal and a chance to make some money, even on a very small scale. We were motioned to the lobby of a building where the man, slender and good-looking, kept gazing out to the street before he showed my father a wad of French notes. My father counted the money carefully and gave it back to him, nodded agreement and took out a hundred dollar bill. The man nodded and gazed once more out to the street where it had started to rain. Then he said he needed to go. He took out the money from his pocket and handed it to my dad, who promptly gave him his American money, which he pocketed instantly and took off out the door into the crowd.

My father stood there somewhat bewildered at how quickly the transaction was made. I was twelve and my eyes were glued to the scene, but I saw nothing shifty about the deal. But when my father opened the wad, he found the equivalent of about ten dollars' worth of French money. He had been rooked, and he was in shock. But he was an innvestigator for the government and knew his way around the French authorities. He knew what he had done was illegal but it wasn't enough money to get him in trouble. So we climbed a bunch of stairs in an old building and walked down long corridors to a French detective's office and told him the story. The man looked like a burned-out version of Jean Gabin, who mostly played gangster roles in French movies of the '40s. The detective scolded him but in a friendly sort of way, took down some details of what the man looked like, etc., and said he would try to find the culprit. Nothing came of it. He didn't say a word to my mother when we got back. I guess he meant for me to do the same.

But the lesson of this encounter was profound. My own father, who doubted pretty much everything he ever heard, and would question the facts over and over, had been taken. By a man half his age, who had been raised during the second World War and knew how to scavenge for money, and had tricked him with perfect mastery. It was a stunning piece of magic. It told me that no matter how skeptical you might be, how well trained in the world of deceit, you were easy prey to a person who could smile and stare into your eyes with complete frankness and rob you blind. He had profaned the temple, which lay across the river on its own island -- you know the one, Notre Dame, which I could see from where we stood in the rain after the incident. War had broken the city, cracked its character, marred the youth who had grown up under the Nazi occupation, and who now preyed on Americans looking for an easy way to cheat the law against making black market money swaps. Oh well. Hadn't my dad liberated Paris when he was in uniform a few years back? Didn't matter. Life is life.

But then, on a bus recently, my wife had found a pair of expensive prescription sunglasses on the seat next to us. She told the attendant who advised her to go to our ferry and see if the person was also headed for Martha's Vineyard. There she was on the lower deck, not at all aware she had left her glasses behind. A nice old lady, about sixty-five or so, whose eyes grew big when my wife handed her the glasses and said she had found them on the bus. The woman gushed her thanks and was astounded to witness such selfless honesty from a stranger. She put them in her purse and looked away, perhaps embarrassed by her feelings, or wondering if she should fish out a few bucks by way of thanks. I'm grateful she didn't. But it was a strike for honesty, for keeping the temple safe for another day. Rest in peace, Henry Adams, not all roads lead to the banks.


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