Just recently, a friend of mine I hadn’t seen in two years, invited me to have drinks with him at the Compass Rose, a tiny bar inside the Saint Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Although he was stopping at the Fairmont Hotel, he preferred this bar which he considered an old hangout with pleasant memories. He told me he was on his way to Peru and I looked forward to hearing the story that went with the trip.
I arrived at the stroke of five to see George Fortescue Amberson seated on the upper platform drinking something blue and looking like an advertisement for the mature male. He wore a smartly cut, 2-button, navy blazer with pewter buttons beneath which he wore a white, 3-button pullover shirt, grey slacks, and a pair of penny loafers with Indian Head nickels inserted into each flap.
“George,” I said smiling and shook his hand.
“Glen. You are looking better than usual. Good for you,” he replied in a faintly mocking tone but based on an entirely accurate assessment.
At 59, George remained in strenuously good shape (he exercised daily), ate well, but carefully (maintaining his 180 lb. weight on a 6’ 2” frame), still had most of his teeth (though occasionally whitened) and almost all of his hair, thick and grey and exceedingly well-cut (and never tinted).
“What is that blue concoction in your glass? Have you deserted your single malt scotches and small-batch bourbons?” I asked.
“Certainly not. I feel compelled to at least sample whatever is the current rage in popular cocktails, no matter what shade of blue.”
I assumed that my friend was currently enjoying a rare, successful phase (I looked forward to him picking up the tab), since there had been times when he had to sleep in my guest room or farther back in time, on my sofa, because he couldn’t afford the price of a cheap hotel room or a fast food meal. I even had to send bail money once, and on another occasion answered his request to wire him some emergency cash, but within the last decade, he paid for his hotel rooms, ate at the restaurant of his choice, had reimbursed me whatever money I had lent him and appeared to have maintained his aplomb and a bankroll.
We had bonded while both of us attended UCLA, became bridge partners, and played and won some big bridge tournaments. He had flunked out of school during his junior year because he played money bridge all day in the student union, missing most of his classes, while he slept with all the best-looking co-eds in the evenings. After my graduation, he invited me to join him to play bridge on the tournament circuit, competing in regular sanctioned bridge tournaments by the ACBL (American Contract Bridge League) and playing money bridge against all the suckers he could find for us. Instead, I attended graduate school and earned my MA in English while George earned vast sums of money as a dealer in Las Vegas, working the special, after-hour games for the management.
“So what is this Peruvian scheme?” I asked italicizing scheme using my best vocal resources.
“Well, he began,” since the Fairmont Hotel union workers and management have vetoed the idea of converting part of the hotel into condominiums, I am transferring the money I had in a special escrow account to partially fund the conversion, to building a retirement community in Peru. You wouldn’t believe the number of retired persons, both Americans, and Europeans, who retire in places like Panama, Belize, Mexico, and other Central and South American countries every year. Haven’t you received unsolicited e-mails regarding retirement in Panama or buying your dream home in Ecuador?”
I confessed that I had.
“Did you ever investigate them?” he asked, assuming an upright position and a straightening of the body signaling to me the beginning of a pitch.
“No,” I replied. “I expect to remain in my 1230 sq. foot Russian Hill two-bedroom, two-bath condominium (including a deeded parking space) in the Park Place building until I die. In the meantime, now that I own it outright and pay only a modest monthly HOA fee plus utilities, I plan to continue taking two or three vacations a year and use my spare bed for visiting friends just passing through town,” I concluded as a matter of factly as possible and with the hope of deflecting any pitch from my friend.
“Well, he began,” I suppose my older friends, like you, who operate in an entirely different generation than I, simply don’t see the long view.”
“Oh, stop,” I laughed. “I am of the same generation as you, even though I am two years older. Only two years George. When you hit sixty on your next birthday, I shall remain sixty-one for five months and we shall be like two planets briefly in a closer orbit.” I couldn’t help smiling as I signaled to the server to order myself a drink.
“Please, bring me a shot of lemon-infused vodka on the rocks with a mineral water chaser,” I asked rather abruptly “and check with my friend to see what he wants now that he has drained all the blue from his glass.”
“Glen, I do believe you thought I was going to ask you for money.”
“With apologies to G.B. Shaw,” I said, “not a brass farthing.”
“Bring me a 20-year-old McCallan on the rocks,” George asked the server without looking at him. “Well, I had considered allowing you to invest for your future…”
I began laughing at his insurance mode presentation.
“Until I realized that you have no financial vision. How much of a loss did your 401k and other retirement accounts suffer from the 2008/9 housing and banking debacle?
“About 26%,” I answered truthfully. And it’s recovered almost 20% of the loss…”
“But,” George interrupted, “you haven’t grown those accounts past what they were in 2008. And you can’t be making anything on your CDs at the current interest rates. These new retirement communities are practically selling out while they are still on the drawing boards because these countries are offering retirees no taxes, top medical for cheap rates at the assigned hospitals, drug costs for the same as veterans pay here in the U.S., and safe neighborhoods. Peru is the next Panama for retirees.”
“No thanks, George. No thanks. Save your breath for others.”
“You remain so stubborn, I can hardly believe it. You are so settled.”
“Believe it, George. In a year, after I hit sixty-two, I shall apply for my social security. It will pay out a lot less than if I had waited until sixty-six, but the amount will cover my HOA monthly fees and utilities with more than a few dollars to spare. I have enough in my 401k and other retirement accounts and CDs to keep me at my current, modest financial level until I am eighty-five or so.”
“And then I shall take the Socrates remedy. Whatever money I gave you would be gone tomorrow forever and I would live with sour regrets and never welcome you to my home again.”
“I am positively scandalized,” George said as he suppressed a smile, but was still unable to stifle a chuckle. “My bes…”, then he corrected himself, “My oldest friend has no faith in me.”
“Not faith George. Trust. I have faith that you will continue to beguile other people, but I trust you no further than I could throw you from that expensive chair in which you sit so comfortably ensconced … well, try to throw you, across this room.”
He ignored my comment with interest and suddenly, changing the subject said, “I made a six o’clock reservation for dinner for us across the street from this hotel on the Post Street side at Morton’s, a steakhouse that the San Francisco Span food critic rated as three and a half stars. The other two newspapers, the one that chronicles the news during the day and the one that examines the news more closely at night, didn’t even include it in their weekend round-up. I hope you are in the mood for a good steak.”
At six o’clock we walked across the street to the steakhouse, were immediately seated for such an early reservation, and ordered identical dinners: wedges of iceberg lettuce with bleu cheese dressing, a New York steak, medium with baked potato, and broccoli and cauliflower sauté. Neither of us ordered the chocolate soufflé for dessert that the waiter had recommended to us at the beginning of the meal.
George switched from single malt scotch to small-batch bourbons as I moved from fruit-infused vodkas to straight mineral water. Quite suddenly, George tapped his knife to the lip of his water glass. Several people looked over at our table expecting to hear an announcement.
“I have a favor to ask you.”
“Oh hell, here it comes,” I thought to myself.
“I want you to be the executor of my estate. Now, please, this will cost you nothing. I guarantee there will be no costs to you. Not a penny. There is no one else I can trust and I hope you will consent right now. Please.”
I felt touched. I choked up. After a few seconds of silence, I consented.
“I will have my attorney send you the necessary information. Of course, I don’t expect you to ever have to do this since I am a younger person and in perfect health. But if a bus should hit me…”
“Or some disgruntled client should shoot you,” I predicted.
He smiled at me, signaled for the server, received and paid for the bill with a wad of cash he took from a money clip, and put me in a taxi. He gave the taxi driver twenty-five dollars, far too much for an eight-block ride, and a modest tip, and punching me affectionately on my right shoulder, said goodnight.
That was the last time I saw or heard from George Amberson.
About three years later I received a registered letter from a San Francisco law firm signed by one of its estate attorneys informing me that as the named executor of George Amberson’s estate, I needed to meet with him ASAP. I suddenly felt the unpleasant thrill of apprehension. In the letter the attorney had written a note, enclosing his cell and home numbers in his handwriting, imploring me to call him on his cell or at his home.
I looked at the letter, stunned by its inescapable meaning. I called the attorney, who asked me if I could meet with him tomorrow at 2 p.m. I agreed. I knew of the firm, a worldwide, full-service law firm in San Francisco, with offices in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, and Dubai, and Googled the attorney’s name to learn that he was a senior partner in the firm.
The next afternoon I met with him in a large corner office on one of the top floors of the Spear Street Tower with a voluptuous view of the Bay Bridge from the windows.
He shook my hand and offered me a seat.
“My client and your friend, George Amberson, died six days ago from lymphoma. He was living in a penthouse apartment in Lima, Peru. As soon as the medical authorities contacted me I sent the registered letter to you following his instructions. Your job as the named executor of his estate, Glen Hanson, should you choose to accept the responsibility, will be to administer the 35-million-dollar trust he set up for a group of Central and South American orphanages. I mean that the annual sum sent to the variously named orphanages is deposited in a dedicated account rather than in a general fund where one might not be able to follow the money. You will have the authority and the money to hire any assistance you need. Mainly, Mr. Amberson wanted you to confirm that the orphanages received the yearly stipends and that the money would be spent on the orphans, etc. For this, the trust will pay you 125k per year. Your job will be to monitor the supervisors and the orphanages, etc., confirming they receive the money and spend it appropriately.”
He handed me a notebook.
“That notebook includes contact information and the spending guidelines you will need and examples: no new automobiles for the directors of the orphanages, no fake trips expensed against the money, no self-paid annual bonuses, etc. It’s all there. It’s a matter of hiring honest accountants to review the books for you, etc.”
“I admit that I am flabbergasted.”
“Didn’t you know that George was an orphan?”
“No. We never discussed our families and I confess I thought of George as a mountebank, except for those periods he worked in Vegas as a dealer.”
“In 33 days from tomorrow, the trust will commence. In the notebook, I have listed the names of contacts for a dozen orphanages that will receive the money and the name of the bank, etc. which will send the money. If you decide not to accept this responsibility, my law firm will replace you, but of course, that will cost three times what the trust is paying you. Signing this affidavit accepting the job and witnessed by me and notarized by my secretary will put all this in motion.”
I read the affidavit. I signed it and watched it notarized. The secretary made several copies and gave me two.
“That’s all, so to speak. Just meet me here in 33 days, that will be May 25, at 2 p.m. and we shall send you a reminder notice, phone call, and e-mail, and we shall officially hand over everything to you. See you then Mr. Hanson.”
“Wait! Did George ever tell you why he chose me?”
The attorney asked his secretary to leave.
“Yes, he did. He told me that you were the biggest fucking fuddy-duddy he knew and was sure your bourgeois lifestyle, confirmed by his last visit with you, would ensure 100% compliance to his request.”
For a moment I sat… speechless. And then, “Oh yes, of course, I know just what he meant,” I replied smiling as I left the office. As I rode the elevator down to the street level I thought to myself, “I have been played. Played!”
Nevertheless, when I reached home I felt a pleasant rush of exhilaration. I sat down at my desk, signed onto the web, and bought expensive season tickets to both the San Francisco Symphony and the coming Reindeer Ballet season. Then I called a travel agency to book myself a first-class, round-trip plane ticket to Maui and a three-week reservation at the Grand Wailea Hotel, in a deluxe room with an ocean view.
Although it was only a few minutes past three in the afternoon, I mixed myself a Tanqueray and soda on the rocks with a twist.
“Bottoms up, George,” I said, and took a sip as I walked to my bedroom and began to pack my bag.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Hindsight is from my unpublished collection, ‘Portraiture: A San Francisco Story Cycle.’