The Runaway Kid’s Street Philosophy


From The Runaway Kid
David Arthur Walters

“To fear the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom; She is created with the faithful in the Womb. She made among men an eternal foundation, and among their descendants She will be trusted. To fear the Lord is Wisdom’s full measure; She satisfies men with Her fruits. She fills their whole house with desirable goods, and their storehouses with Her produce. The fear of the Lord is the crown of Wisdom, making peace and perfect health to flourish.” Ecclesiasticus, or The Wisdom of Jesus The Son of Sirach–
The basics of my philosophy, if I may be so vain to call it that, occurred to me as a teenage punk on the streets of Chicago.

I ran away from home for good in February 1959, barely thirteen years of age, bound and determined never to return again. I was a registered missing person, never found despite the efforts of my father.

I was given a ride to Chicago by a man who was transporting illegal fireworks in a stolen car. I told him I was going to Springfield. That was the name of the town I had seen in a movie about a wonderful romance. I thought for sure, if only I could go to that town, a girl like Tammy would love me there, we would work the tobacco fields and live very happily for sure. When we crossed the Mississippi he said it was where Huckleberry Finn hung out. I recall ‘Chantilly Lace’ was playing on the car radio. The singer, Buddy Holly, had just been killed in a plane crash along with the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. We arrived in Springfield, Illinois, and it dawned on me, “This is not the place,” so I continued on with him.

The nice car thief offered to drive me on to Chicago where he was to unload his contraband. Why not? I had read about Chicago when I was studying how to be a juvenile delinquent in books about teenage gangs.  When we arrived in Chicago, he gave me a coin, and said, “Take the El to the Loop.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about. I thought he meant I should take an “elevator.” I had only been in one or two elevators in my life. Still, his instructions didn’t make much sense, because elevators go up and down, not around town, but why would he try to fool me?

I walked around shivering in the bitter cold without a coat until I got up the nerve to ask someone, “Where is the El?”

“It’s one of those trains overhead!”

“Where is the Loop?”

“Go four blocks that way to the stop, take the train on the other side of the tracks and you’ll get there.”

I didn’t have the slightest idea of what the Loop was or why I was going to it except that is where the nice car thief had said I should go.

I went into a department store to warm up on the way to the train stop, as it was bitter cold and I had the shakes. Gee, what a coincidence! There, right in front of my face, were some nice warm coats. I put on a big overcoat and walked out of the store. I had never been a thief before although I had admired juvenile delinquents in books and movies. What else could I do? Besides, the thief I had met was really a nice guy.

A security guard came running after me. My experience watching ‘The Untouchables’ came in handy: I wheeled around, put my hand in the coat, and yelled, ‘Back off, buster, or I’ll blow your (expletive deleted) head off!’

He believed me. With my talent, I should have taken up an acting career right away, working my way up from two-bit hoods to the starring role of Al Capone. Little did I know that I would wind up hanging out in pool halls and bowling alleys with two old coots who had been soldiers for Capone’s outfit.

I ran around the block, scrambled up to the El platform and jumped on the train to the Loop. That is where I learned my basic philosophy. I shall gradually tell you about some of the incidents it was founded on. Suffice it to say right off the bat that the conditions in my school were brutal.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve learned a lot in libraries. I slept in the doorway of the library my first night in the Loop, and went in to warm up when it opened. I loved to read, and so I was convincing when I lied about my education credentials. I suppose I could have gotten a G.E.D. and went on to college instead of being satisfied with an elementary school education. But academia does not make people wise or even smart. If you think a degree makes you somebody special you have failed.

No, I didn’t learn my philosophy hanging out in classes with rich snots. My early philosophy was not fancy or sophisticated. It certainly was not advanced. “Metaphysics is a lot of nonsense about common sense,” I thought when I read Heidegger, “a way for educated morons to waste time.”

If ordinary people understand what is being said by a popular philosopher, then philosophers call the philosophy mediocre, especially if it is eclectic, a combination of things people know already, but I did not care what philosophers thought about my philosophy.

That being said, here is the simple doctrine that got me through the early years of my life:

“If you don’t love people you’ll get the shit kicked out of you. They still might kick your ass, but you’ll be better off.”

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Next: the Runaway Kid describes his meeting with Sam Giancana on Rush Street, where he applies for a job as a Hit Man Trainee.

Can Miami Beach Fire Rescue save Miami-Dade Ethics Commission?



Unearthed Fire Department Case Illuminates Nature of County Ethics Commission

28 November 2014

By David Arthur Walters THE MIAMI MIRROR

David Weston provided the Miami Mirror with hitherto unpublished Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust investigative report number K08-116, in the matter of gifts provided to fire department regulators by an auto show promoter. The dismissive report, dated 4 May 2009, illuminates the institutional blindness of the ethics commission’s investigative staff, especially in respect to the suspicious behavior of officials of the City of Miami Beach.

Weston, who has an engineering degree, was a consulting fire inspector or non-classified employee with the city’s fire department. He was terminated because he persistently complained that the city was failing to collect millions of dollars in fees, a claim that was deemed credible by law enforcement. Some of his claims have more recently been proven true by the Miami Herald even though Jimmy Morales, Esq., the city manager hired on April Fools Day 2013 to curb corruption, did exactly what he promised not to do, and brushed Weston’s allegations under the rug by referring it to the Human Resources Department, whose lawyer peremptorily dismissed the allegations.

Weston, characterizing certain city departments as racketeering operations, has persisted with his investigations and whistle blowing since his termination on the pretext that his investment in a boat docking business in which a private inspector also had an interest violated ethics code. A rumor was circulated among city employees that portrayed him as the leader of a corruption ring, and he says that he was treated at an initial meeting with law enforcement as if he were a criminal for blowing the whistle, yet not one iota of evidence has surfaced that he himself was corrupted in any way; quite to the contrary.

Weston is affluent, and his wife is a lawyer, yet he has thus far declined to bring a defamation suit against the city for refusing to purge his file of its allegedly false and malicious content because, he says, he believes defamation lawsuits are unproductive, he desires to remain on the good side of the government as a private inspector, and he has faith that government on the whole can be reformed with his help to that side.

Sylvia Batista, the author of K08-116, interviewed Weston, and her report mentions that “Weston was forced to resign from his City job on 3/21/08 ostensibly for committing an ethics violation involving his ownership of a business devoted to managing inspections and expediting permits. Weston recalled that in reality he was fired in retaliation for having come forward with information that led to an investigation by the FDLE (Special Agent White) and Miami-Dade County Police Department Public Corruption Bureau (Agent Alex Baldor). The information provided by Weston leading to the investigations involved permit fees not being properly assessed and collected by the City on very large and valuable properties.”

She did not mention in the report, concluded in mid 2009, that the county ethics commission for which she worked had cleared Weston of the ethics charges in a 2 September 2008 letter, in re File RQO 08-36, signed by Executive Director Robert Myers and sent to Weston, with a copy to Jean Olin, special counsel to the City of Miami Beach. In 2013 I provided City Attorney Jose Smith, who was appointed in 2006, with an opportunity to answer Weston’s allegations about the involvement of his legal department in Weston’s wrongful termination. Smith, who would resign in 2014, categorically denied any involvement of his office whatsoever. On 13 March 2013, he reported to the city commission that David Weston was not forced out of employment with the city, that he “was terminated from employment for violating provisions of the Miami Beach Code Article VII Standard of Conduct and several provisions of the Miami-Dade County, Conflict of Interest and Code of Ethics ordinance.”

Batista’s investigative report asserted that information had been received that Sonia Machen, then fire marshal for the city’s fire department, had commanded a firefighter to pick up free tickets to an auto show, to be distributed to fire department employees, contrary to county and city policy prohibiting conflicts of interest. Conflicts of interest tempt officials to use their offices for personal gain, which is the simple definition of public corruption.

Theoretically, if regulators with the fire department did not receive free tickets for themselves, family, and friends, they might over-regulate or wrongly regulate such events. Even worse, firefighters might drag their feet if the premises caught on fire. Of course, ethical fire inspectors and fighters are incorruptible; still it is best not to put temptation in the way and then rely on the consciences of the others; bribes of all kinds including tickets to auto shows should be absolutely prohibited.

A firefighter by the name of Renato Sejas, who happened to be the special events coordinator for the convention center where the annual South Florida Auto Show was to be held, testified that he had encountered the event’s promoter, who asked him if he needed tickets. He replied that the fire department’s no-gift policy, re-published in 2007 by Sonia Machen, fire marshal, prevented him from accepting tickets. Then Machen asked him if he had gotten tickets for the year. He said he told her that he did not understand how tickets could wind up at the fire department, and asked her if she still wanted the tickets. Yes, she wanted him to get the tickets. He asked how many she wanted. Two-hundred would do, she answered, so he got 200 tickets, valued at $2,000, from the promoter, and delivered them to Fire Chief Yuhr, putting them on his desk, saying, according to Chief Yuhr, something like “I don’t agree,” or “I don’t think anybody should accept tickets.” Yuhr said he kept 20 of the tickets for himself and doled out the rest.

The “zero-tolerance” no-gift policy Machen promulgated by email in 2007 was presumably based on the Miami-Dade County Conflict of Interest and Code of Ethics Ordinance Section 2-11.1 (g), which states that no person “shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself or others except as may be specifically permitted by other ordinances and resolutions previously ordained or adopted or hereafter to be ordained or adopted by the Board of County Commissioners.”

The no-gift policy had already been established in a 13 August 2003 interoffice memorandum to all personnel signed by then Fire Chief Floyd Jordan:

“To maintain a high level of public trust an promote confident in our integrity and objectivity in Life Safety, Fire and Code Enforcement, the following directive shall be effective immediately: No member or employee of the Miami Beach Fire Department shall solicit or accept any gift, including money, services, loans, travel, entertainment, hospitality, or alcoholic beverages, which can be reasonably inferred or intended to influence, or reward for any official action taken by an Department employee, in their capacity as Firefighter, Fire Inspector, or Supervisor….”

A separate, 10,000 essay might be drafted elsewhere and entitled ‘The Nature of Reasonable Inference and Intention, and their relation to Prosecutorial Discretion.’ Suffice it to say here that whether or not a proposition is reasonable or not depends on critical scrutiny by the crowd that includes wits as well as dimwits, and not on a single investigator’s conclusion tucked away, out of sight, in a cabinet somewhere pending execution of a document destruction policy.

Sonia Machen told the investigator that she did not intend her no-gifts policy to apply to gifts distributed to employees by the city or their own department, as opposed to being received directly from event promoters. It stands to “reason” that a gift from your employer is not a gift from someone else even though your employer is the intermediary for the gift.

The ethics investigator apparently did not examine a copy of Machen’s 2007 email reiterating the policy. Machen admitted that the policy needed to be clarified in that respect. She explained to the investigator that the fire department received complimentary tickets each year for the auto show as well as for the home show, and, until very recently, for the boat show. The tickets are then distributed amongst fire rescue employees, including regulatory personnel from her department. The distribution of show tickets “has been done for years” in the fire department, she said, which receives 200 complimentary tickets every year and distributes them to its employees.

The lease agreement with the promoters of the show provided that the city was to get 400 tickets. The ethics investigator assumed those tickets were an ethical inducement for it to enter into a contract, not a bribe to the city at large or to the officials to whom the tickets were distributed. The issue, as she saw it, was that the 200 tickets provided for the fire department were over and above the 400 given to the city, so, in the future, tickets for the fire department should be included in the lease agreement. Still, the 200 this year could not be counted as bribes because they were given to the firemen’s boss and not to the firemen as individuals.

That rationale allowed the ethics investigator to dismiss inquiry number K08-116, apparently the 116th K file for the year 2008, and the ethics commission to file it away or brush it under the rug with other K files out of sight of the public instead of publishing it on its the website with C files, which are similar it in the formal sense that an investigation has been conducted and the suspicions dismissed for lack of probable cause.

Incidentally, one might wonder why the city, instead of including tickets in the contract, would not simply buy the tickets and hand them out to employees with their pay checks as bonuses, which is one way free tickets had been previously distributed. Well, the value of the tickets would probably be taxable to the employee. Perhaps a whistleblower might seek advice from the Internal Revenue Service as to whether the tickets to all events in the past years should have been reported as compensation to employees, and, if so, if income taxes should have been withheld and forked over by the city, or paid by the recipients.

By the way, what was the real value of the tickets? How much do people actually pay on the average to see automobiles advertised? The promoter told Batista that he did not know of the no-gift policy, and that the face value of the tickets was $10, but tickets discounted from that amount had been distributed around town. Who knows? Maybe they were worth a dollar. The fire department used to allow employees to accept gifts less than $25, but that amount had since been changed to zero.

Governments may or may not provide for the acceptance of gifts up to certain limits, and may or may not allow gifts of nominal value or trivial gifts to be accepted—would a fire department inspector sell his soul for a coffee mug? For example, take the recently published rules of just a few governments that mention tickets in their rules:

In Connecticut, if you are a public employee you may not accept gifts from entities you do business with or regulate except token items worth $10 or less aggregating $50 or less from a single source. Gifts between supervisors and subordinates must be less than $100.

If employed by New Jersey, you may not accept any gift whatsoever from anyone related to your official duties except gifts of trivial or nominal value offered to the public in general or gifts from supervisors or subordinates. State employees may not attend events in their public capacity unless a legitimate state purpose is served, and attendance must be approved beforehand by the Ethics Liaison Officer.

If you work for New York City, you may not accept gifts aggregating $50 or more from anyone that does or intends to do business with the city. Exceptions include tickets to functions encouraged by city policy, or where your agency has provided written approval on the grounds that your attendance would be in the interests of the city.

As for Washington State, you may not accept gifts when it could be reasonably expected that it would influence your official behavior. Unsolicited gifts of nominal value may be accepted such as flowers, plaques, and refreshments where your attendance is required, etc.

If you work for Maryland, you may not solicit or accept gifts, including gifts to sporting events, meals and alcoholic drinks, with certain exceptions such as gifts of nominal value such as coffee mugs, and, if you are a high official, you may accept tickets to a charitable, cultural or political event. Tickets with a value exceeding $20 must be reported on the recipient’s finance disclosure statement.

In Ohio you may accept gifts of nominal value such as coffee mugs, t-shirts and mouse pads from anyone, but you may not accept gifts of substantial value such as tickets to sporting events from entities doing business with or regulated by your agency.

The City of Miami Beach may want to prohibit all employees from accepting tickets not only from entities that contract with the city but from the city itself unless those tickets are paid for by the employee or included as compensation in payroll reports.

Although the particular issue here at hand is as old as Rome, it illustrates the methods enjoyed by ethics investigators, who are themselves public officials, to excuse what appears to be the unethical conduct of public officials, and even to make sure that inquiries about their conduct never become an published formal finding of no probable cause or a formal complaint filed with the Ethics Commission.

One principle often employed is that IF it is customary for public officials violate an ethics ordinance because no one has complained about it before, THEN they should not be prosecuted when someone finally complains. That is, custom trumps the law; a law unenforced is no law at all. When you get away with wrong long enough, wrong seems right. In a similar way, monumentally absurd Supreme Court decisions are allowed to stand unchallenged for so long that lawyers are leery of challenging them.

As we have seen in her investigation of Machen et al, the ethics investigator seemed to believe that the ordained prohibition should be ignored because it had been the venerable custom to ignore it. However, since the practice looked bad, and condoning it outright would look bad, she suggested strictly adhering to the workaround already worked out to sanction the venerable practice with a disguise: make sure the tickets for the firemen are included in the document leasing the city’s convention center to the promoter.

Another example, one that includes obeisance to tradition, is the opinion of ethics commission advocate Michael Murawski, Esq. in his published investigative report on the Club Madonna Affair. Leroy Griffith, the totally nude club’s owner, said that city officials, most of them lawyers, tried to extort him out of $30,000 to pay the legal fees of Jane Gross, whom he had sued for defamation, she being the wife of a sitting commissioner who opposed his application for a liquor license. Murawski leaned on the venerable tradition that wrongdoing by officials was usually not prosecuted by the commission when done under the advice of attorneys. After all, how would someone know that an act was wrong if the city attorney, the authority on the subject who was himself a defendant, said the act was legal?

I myself was asked at an ethics commission meeting, would I not rely on the advice of an attorney in ethical matters? I certainly would not, and not because I thought an attorney could not get me acquitted if I was charged with an offense, but because I believe sophistries have rendered all too many lawyers institutionally blind to the Good, and that every individual must look for his integrity or integration with the Good in his conscience after perusing the great classical conversation on ethics. Conservative authority does not like skeptics very much although the progress of civilization, if freedom is the ground of being, depends on skepticism outrunning dogmatism in the long run.

The reader may recall a similar case because it received a great deal of fanfare in the press, a 2011 case of allegedly criminal ticketing. There, 26 items of greater value than the 200 items in the Machen case were questioned because the city tried to get them into a contract.

According to a 20 October 2011 report by the Miami Herald, the Florida State Attorney’s office declined to bring criminal charges against Miami Beach City Manager Jorge Gonzalez and his right-hand assistant Hilda Fernandez for demanding 26 tickets to every New World Center event plus $10,000 in tickets to the symphony’s gala fundraising event in return for making a $15 million reimbursement grant. The demand was reportedly made by Mr. Fernandez upon Neisen Kasdin, the New World Symphony’s chairman, who subsequently initiated the complaint. He declined to discuss the closing of the investigation with the Herald, stating that the issue had been worked out with the city. Chief Assistant State Attorney Jose J. Arrojo’s memo stated that a law prohibiting officials from “soliciting or demanding any gift” may have been violated, but he declined to prosecute the case because proof of criminal intent would be improbable given the fact that a longstanding city policy of obtaining tickets for distribution had been condoned in 1992 by the Florida Commission on Ethics, and that the City of Miami Beach had resolved a year later that such tickets were for distribution to the needy.

No doubt needy voters, not to mention wealthy voters, appreciated the expensive tickets to the annual wine and food festival. Hell would have frozen over before I received a ticket from the city manager. A recommendation was made to distribute such tickets randomly via blind drawings.

Apparently, the rulings of county and state ethics commissions, resolutions by city commissions, arbitrary opinions of state attorneys, and the institutional blindness of state governors and attorney generals who refer complaints about the negligence of the former right back to the former, trump criminal laws in the State of Florida, especially in South Florida.

Whatever the laws are, they might not be enforced for one reason or the other. Indeed, residents have long known that the violation of some laws is virtually traditional in Miami Beach, where ordinances are even passed to please people, the commissioners publicly patting themselves on the back with press releases, knowing very well that the ordinances they pass will never be enforced, wherefore disobedience will become a long tradition….

Another principle followed when the truth is outed is to caution officials to avoid similar appearances of impropriety in the future. Appearances of impropriety are best avoided because it reduces the probability that officials might be caught committing improper deeds. Of course illusive casuistry can make seemingly obvious appearances of impropriety appear quite proper. That is why lawyers have been called magicians.

Since the ethics report on the 200 extra tickets Machen wanted for the fire department was not published by the Ethics Commission, its advice was limited to the officials involved instead of warning all county officials, as is done in public Ethics Instruction, as well as to inform the public of what conduct is expected of public officials, and what the appearances of misconduct might be so they can notice it and file complaints accordingly.

According to David Weston, the Machen report was exceedingly difficult to for him obtain even though he was one of the persons interviewed on the matter. Rhonda Sibilia, the communications director for the county ethics commission, informed me that such reports are not posted on her commission’s website because there are too many of them. However, she said, they are available to the public as public records on request.

It follows that whosoever requests particular reports would have to know of their existence beforehand; otherwise, the proceedings of the public inquisitors would never see the light of day.

Mr. Weston was privileged to receive his copy as a PDF free of charge; therefore, since our editor is flat broke, we have asked Mr. Weston to obtain all the so-called K Reports for the last five years in PDF format with optical character recognition facilitated, and turn them over to the Press. That would help analysts illuminate the collective unconscious factor buried in ethics commission files, the submerged basis from which arise the conscious apex: i.e. the proceedings and judgments it deems worthy of being known on its website.

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Isak Dinesen’s Immortal Story – Was It About Me?


I Thought It Was About Me

Recounted by David Arthur Walters


In the year 2005 I encountered Isak Dinesen’s book of five fateful stories, Anecdotes of Destiny, in the 3-for-$2 cardboard boxes at Kafka’s Kafé on South Beach, a block away from my favorite hotel, Al Capone’s old hideout, the Clay Hotel. Selecting it from the haphazard collection in the cheap-books boxes was a gesture to the memory of my dear father. He loved her stories, highly recommending them to me in my youth.

After I read the ‘The Immortal Story’ in the small volume, I regretted choosing Dinesen’s book instead of the dog-eared biographical sketches of saints, or the collection of famous short stories including Kafka’s Metamorphosis. I recalled that I, like Kafka, could not stand life at my fated home. Unlike him, I ran away at an early age and never returned – even so, like snails, we take the carapace with us. I had read about Kafka’s absurd cockroach-like bug a dozen times, so I passed over Metamorphosis, even though the Absurd is relevant to my reverse metaphorical metamorphosis, from bookworm to man.

Not that I thought Dinesen’s immortal novella was poorly written – quite to the contrary. Yet her description of greedy Mr. Clay’s Jewish accountant, Elishama Levinsky, caused me to wince and reflect morbidly at length on my career as a bookkeeper and accountant, an occupation I took up when broke because Mary Anne in New Zealand said I would always have a job if I did so. To that extent I thought the author’s account was about me, wherefore I took keen interest in it. Heretofore I had thought of myself as an eccentric man, unique and undoubtedly original in many respects. Mind you that I am a frustrated book writer inasmuch as bookkeeping frustrates my utter transition from king’s scribe to scribbling on my own account.

Now a novella is usually a moral tale. ‘The Immortal Story’ certainly pricked my conscience, and I felt destined to discover why that was so. For the life of me, the moral of the story was a mystery to me upon first reading. If only I could solve it, I felt, my chances for good fortune might be considerably improved. At least I would know my destiny and my fate – may writing seal my fate.

Since Dinesen was preoccupied with myths and symbols, I wondered, first of all, what meaning the substance, clay, might have in this everlasting myth? Jesus applied clay to the eyes of a blind man and he was healed: “He put a paste in my eyes, I washed, and I can see.” Perhaps the Mr. Clay will provide us with some insight into the fundamental nature of human commerce. Man of course is made of clay. As Isaiah said to Yahweh, “For you hid your face from us, and gave us up to the power of our sins. And yet, Yahweh, you are our Father. we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand.” Pots that serve their potter contain his treasures, valuables precious and useful to him. Could Mr. Clay, the mean old miser, be hoarding riches for the Lord? Clay can be pliable or brittle. Jeremiah lets us know that the House of Israel can be knocked down and built up again by the potter if he is displeased with its shape. Are we merely the Lord’s toys? According to Job, such maxims and retorts are “proverbs of ash, your retorts, retorts of clay.” Furthermore, on the subjected of unfired clay, “What then of those who live in houses of clay. who are founded on dust? They are crushed as easily as a moth, one day is enough to grind these to powder.”

Dinesen gives us scant description of the rich nabob. Mr. Clay is apparently clay fire-hardened in the forge of commerce.  He was the foremost nabob of Canton, quite naturally a mean man despite his prodigious means – in sum, one million guineas on hand. “A million pounds, that million pounds is me myself. It is my days and years, it is my brain and my heart, it is my life,” he once proclaimed. He was a miser, an iron-hard man when not a stony figure. He was single and he liked to be alone. He once said that being stranded on a desert island must be a good thing: “a highly pleasant thing, I should say, to be all by yourself on an island, where nobody can possibly intrude on you.” He had deliberately ruined his partner – a genteel Frenchman who had been weakened by “unlucky speculations” – leaving the partner on the streets to commit suicide. The partner’s family disappeared from sight – Mr. Clay took over their fine house. He was about seventy years of age and suffering from a painful condition when we pick up the story. The old stone-man’s successful career as a nabob made him feel omnipotent, to the extent of wanting – at the ripe old age of seventy and lacking an heir for his fortune – to make an old-sailor’s tale, the Immortal Story, come true. And he did just that, and the truth was the death of him, so that the story, which spelled out his fate, might be true for others.

Could Mr. Clay be, besides a clay pot, a philosopher’s stone or a touchstone? Might he be a stone that, when stricken by the magic wand, would flow forth fortune in golden terms?

“For I will pour out water on the thirsty soil, streams on the dry ground. I will pour my spirit on your descendants, my blessing on your children. They shall grow like grass where there is plenty of water, like poplars by running streams,” quoth Isaiah.

As for Elishama Levinsky, only El knows why Dinesen named him Elishama, meaning the voice crying out in the wilderness “whom El hears” (elishama). We find several Elishamas in scripture, but Elishama, scribe to King Jehoiakim, is the most likely source for the namesake given Mr. Clay’s bookkeeper.

In 1975, 250 clay seals were found about 44 miles southwest of Jerusalem. among them were the seals of four biblical figures. “Elishama, Servant of the king”, was formally inscribed on one clay seal. Jeremiah’s famous first scroll, listing all the evils Yahweh had in mind for wayward Jews if they did not repent forthwith, was deposited in Elishama’s office in the royal palace for safekeeping, after it had been read aloud to the people in the Temple. The king was duly informed. the scroll was retrieved from Elishama’s office and read to the king, who, in turn, burned each section of the scroll after it was read. Wherefore Yahweh caused Jeremiah to dictate a similar scroll to Baruch, adding to the original threats a statement that King David’s throne would be vacated, and King Jehoiakim’s corpse would be tossed out into the heat of the day and chill of the night, and all the disasters listed in the destroyed scroll would be brought down on the entire people of Judah. Fair enough.

Elishama Levinsky had washed up by chance in Canton, bleached out, without ambition nor desire nor fear for the loss of anything except security and solitude. Mr. Clay had employed him for seven years. Elishama was known by the other accountants in his office as Ellis Lewis, a name he had assumed not because he was on the run like other expatriates around Canton, but rather to cover up the crimes committed against him during his peregrinations as a proverbially persecuted Jew. He had fled Poland with other Jews after the 1848 Pogrom. He was, wrote Dinesen, “a lost and lonely child, wholly in the hands of chance, who had lived through sufferings in Frankfurt, Amsterdam, London, and Lisbon.” An old man who had died during the flight from Poland had given young Elishama a piece of paper upon which had been written in Hebrew several prophecies of Isaiah. The child carried it in a red bag hanging from his neck for some years. By chance an Italian bookkeeper in London took Elishama in, taught him double-entry bookkeeping and how to read and write words.

The heroine of the story, Virginie, the daughter of the French partner whom Mr. Clay had ruined, referred to Elishama as “a small rat.” Quite naturally Elishama had his redeeming qualities, if we want to call them that. For instance, his early experience with horse-trading caused him to sympathize with women. he was the perfect  person to negotiate the purchase of a woman in order to make the immortal story come true for Mr. Clay. As for other animals, he also liked birds because they reminded him of women. But the  possession of goods was not Elishama’s reason for being. He derived a great deal of comfort from the contemplation of the concept of the numerical series, but he treasured more than anything his solitude.

“One passion he had, if passion it may be called – a fanatical craving for security and for being left alone. In its nature this feeling was akin to homesickness or to the instinct of the homing pigeon. His soul was concentrated upon this one request: that he might enter his closet and shut his door, with the certainty that here no one could possibly follow or disturb him.”

His dark room was modestly furnished, with a table, a chest, two chairs, and the sofa upon which he slept – only the sofa was his, such was his despite for possessions:

“Elishama, who despised the goods of this world, passed his time from morning tell night amongst greedy and covetous people, and had done so all his life. This to him was as it should be. He understood to a nicety the feelings of his surroundings, and he approved of them. For out of those feelings came, in the end, his closet with the door to it, If the world’s desperate struggle for gold and power were ever to cease, it was not certain that his room or this door would remain. So he used his talents to fan and stir up the fire of ambition and greed in people around him. He particularly fanned the fire of Mr. Clay’s ambition and greed, and watched it with an attentive eye.”

Mr. Clay liked to have Elishama read the trader’s old account books in the evenings before bedtime to distract him and help him fall asleep. One evening, Mr. Clay, bored with the historical transactions of his enterprise, asked his accountant if he had heard anything about the existence of another sort of account, an accounting besides financial accounting, accounts of human events and experiences. in a word, stories. Did Elishama know any stories? No, replied Elishama. But upon further consideration of his client’s needs, or rather his client’s greed and his need to fan it to retain his accounting position, he recited the prophetic verses of Isaiah that he had carried out of Poland in the red bag around his neck.

In sum, sufferings of one order or another are pleasantly relieved by the Lord in the end. “And sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Mr. Clay was a realistic man. He did not like the prophecies because they appertained to something that did not exist. to wit, the future. At which point he proceeded to tell Elishama the one true story he did know, the immortal story, believed to originate somewhere very near the Cape of Storms and Good Hope.  Elishama interrupted him, and proposed that he finish the story for Mr. Clay, for Elishama had also heard the tall tale, a tale told by every hopeful sailor in every port of call, a story that accounts for, in particular form, the universal wish for the relief of privation. In sum, a sailor is picked up by a childless rich man in a carriage and given a 5-guinea gold piece to come home with him, have dinner, and sleep with a beautiful woman in a luxuriously appointed bedroom. As a consequence of the mating, the rich man might have an heir to his fortune.

Of course the story is untrue, explained Elishama, much to his patron’s chagrin: It is a matter of wishful thinking. We have a tendency to vividly imagine the things we are deprived of and to concoct stories about the satisfactions expected. For instance, financial schemes take advantage of our cravings and invariably promise more than they actually pay.

Wishful thinking did not suit Mr. Clay’s disposition. after all, he was virtually King of Canton, an empire as far as he was concerned.

“The story shall become reality,” Mr. Clay proclaimed, and he persuaded Elishama to make it so. And to what end? “I have not troubled to look for a hand into which I might like to deliver my possessions,” said he, “for I know that no such hand exists in the world. But it has, in the end, occurred to me that it might give me pleasure to leave them in a hand which of I self cause caused to exist.”

His possessions, he thought, would be the only part of him surviving his demise. His accountant was to spare no expense in arranging for the affair’s accoutrements: the gold piece, the bedroom setting, and, among other things, the most expensive item of all, the fateful woman. She would be, by some twist of fate, the very daughter of the partner ruined by Mr. Clay. Of course he would play the part of the rich old man, venture out in the carriage and pick up a lucky sailor off the streets.

As far as Elishama was concerned, greed for the things of this world is madness. Mr. Clay “had always been mad,” in his opinion. Yes, Elishama believed that “the old man was undoubtedly mad” in his desire to make every sailor’s dream, of being paid in gold for a night with a beautiful woman, come true, not to mention the miser’s proverbial wish for an heir to preserve his fortune. However, wrote Dinesen,  Elishama “was not sure whether, to a man with one foot in the grave, the pursuit of a story was not a sounder undertaking than the pursuit of profit. Elishama at any time would side with the individual against the world, since, however mad the individual might be, the world in general was sure to be still more hopelessly and wickedly idiotic.”  Of course one must die when the story comes true, just as it would for Mr. Clay.

During the telling of this immortal tale, the superstitious reader, by virtue of déjà vu and universal vanity, gets the distinct impression that he is a participant in the perennial plot. Indeed, the ancient doctrine of eternal recurrence of all plots comes to mind. In this case, the keeper of many books might conclude that Mr. Clay, at the moment of truth (death) is at once born again to relive the story of his life again, and then again ad infinitum. Likewise for the rest of the stereotypical characters, whose different times of birth and death require an infinite number of parallel universes to coincide, that the immortal story may be told again and again to the end of all times. Finally, we realize that the immortal story, notwithstanding modern copyright laws, is repeated with impunity. in fact it must be repeated, for it is sort of a law unto itself.

You are so vain, I told myself, that you thought the story was about you, and in fact it was about me. I did not get the drift at first, but it eventually dawned on me that I am not the eccentric character I thought I was, for there are an infinite number of characters just like me. So many captains of ships bring sailors from deserted islands into virgin ports, each sailor bearing a big pink shell he picked up there, which he leaves with the bookkeeper of the rich man who dies when the immortal story comes true. When the accountant puts his ear to the pink shell, it jumbles the story into roaring surf, advising all who fight riptide and undertow in vain, “To thine own story be true.” Of course the rare accountant who loves to write must render a full account of it, and after the story is told, nary a sound shall remain for the conch to jumble. Only the Voice of the Silence remains for that particular cast of characters. and only by listening to that voice may they know themselves.

I recalled the pink conch offered to me in Negril, Jamaica, far from Dinesen’s Africa. My current isolation resembles a deserted island, and I have high hopes that the captain will sail into port any day now. I often visit a marina in my neighborhood and imagine myself in possession of a luxury yacht with a bosomy blonde as my first mate – a German maiden will do very well if a noble Frenchwoman cannot fit the bill of lading. When Dinesen’s sailor was stranded on a desert island, he dreamed of having the ark he would inevitably inherit. it was not a big ship, but rather a sloop, “not more than five lastages long.” Someday soon I may fulfill the Delphic injunction, and know myself.