Friday, May 01, 2009

Welcome Back, "Painter"

Robertson’s reputation for n***ardliness was almost legendary in the 21201 Zip code. Levar Bacon, elevenses shift-supervisor at the Eutaw Street Starbucks (and, incidentally, waxraker of one of Baltimore’s most critically acclaimed tam-tam and treble combos, Soul Source Provider) for the better part of the late oughties, served coffee to Robertson no fewer than eight hundred and ninety-six times and received a tip on not a single one of these occasions. “Sooner expect free food at a Chinese restaurant than a pobo [=‘pourboire’] from that muffuckin vixen,” Bacon bitterly averred to Suzy Quattro. Marcia Vickstrom, who manned the till at nearby Java Joe’s, one of Robertson’s favorite weekday lunchtime haunts, seconded Bacon’s appraisal to Burrows. “He would always buy these Snapples—never anything with them, mind you—that with tax cost $1.90, and he’d always, always wait to get the dime back. I could have understood it if it’d been fitty [sic] cents, or even a quarter. But a dime, for Chrissakes [sic?]? It was like he was rubbing it in, you know, by getting the thing on the menu that came closest to a round two dollars. I mean, with a $2.26 total you can at least fall back on the excuse that you need the quarters for laundry money.” But the galley-slaves of “the Industry” (as it’s known in “the Industry”) in the ’10, ’11, and ’18 codes tell a story of a very different Robertson, a consistently adequate and occasionally borderline generous tipper who was known to leave amounts of 20, 21, and even upwards of 22 percent of the tax-augmented total of his check. “You could always count on Doug to splivvy it past the dooce [=‘tip at least 20 percent’],” according to Jeff Stuckenschmidt’s report of an interview with Molly Sugden, barmaid-cum-waitress at Robertson’s regular Saturday-night Nacho-quarry, the Unamundo, who then leaned over to opine, sotto voce, in Stuckenschmidt’s ear: “Them gentlemen wot is members of the tribe [i.e., of onanists] always tip well; it’s on account ov orl the extra lolly they got, wot they ain’t got to spend on no lady friend.”

Several hypotheses may be tendered in explanation of this wildly schizoid, and apparently geographically targeted, tipping policy. Stuckenschmidt, who happened to know not only Sugden, but also Quattro (albeit not Bacon), and thereby became aware of the policy, attributed it, in a letter to Boulanger, to that “internecine (or possibly merely civil) war that raged within him [i.e., Robertson] throughout his life, and eventually destroyed him [still Robertson, I’m afraid],” between the two ethnic heritages to which Robertson owed equally exacting fealty—the Caledonian and the Pan-Mediterranean: “The indurate penuriousness of the Scots, of course, requires no comment. Less well-known, perhaps, is a certain quality equally widespread among the Mediterranean races and answering to the moniker of abbondanza, a term that is perhaps best—albeit still unconscionably crudely—rendered in English as ‘spending lots of money for absolutely no reason (no, not even a dubious or smirkworthy one like impressing someone or getting into her pantalones).’” As to the Zipcodial bifurcation of the two tendencies, Stuckenschmidt urged Boulanger “[j]ust [to] do the cartography: He was tightfisted in the southern part of town, and spendthrifty in the northern part. It’s a classic Oedipal scenario transposed into the ethnic register. He was avenging himself on his Scots ancestors by tipping well in that part of the city nearest to their latitude, and on his Mediterranean ones by not tipping at all in the part that was nearest to theirs.”

A letter from Burrows to Karoli suggests a different Robertsonian modus tippendi: “Do you remember that shirt Doug used to wear pretty much every other time we saw him, that borderline poncey black 55/45 cotton-rayon one that he always called his ‘favorite shirt’? Well get this: I met this guy on the 61 the other day…his name was ‘Nadia’ or ‘Elliott Carter’ or ‘Stravinsky’ or something like that [Burrows is presumably alluding to Boulanger] and it turned out we had in common the fact that we both had known Doug. Anyway, to make a long story short, we ended up talking about his various peccadilloes, quirks, eccentricities, et cet., and I happened to mention the famous ‘favorite shirt,’ and get this: this Copland [sic] fellow had never seen him wearing it. Can you believe that? I for one am outraged. I mean, what kind of game was he playing, living a double life, and throwing you and me for two separate loops like that?” In “the Industry” (not the Industry alluded to earlier, but rather my Industry, the literary-biographical one) this feint is known as “pulling an Orwell” in wry homage to Eric Blair’s “practice of dividing friends into groups and then keeping the groups apart.” [1] Whether Burrows was right to assume that this was what Robertson had been up to must doubtless remain a matter for not-improbably fruitless conjecture. Certainly, it can be said of Robertson, as of Orwell, that, mutatis mutandis, “few of the many people he knew were invited to his North London flat,” [2] but then even fewer seem to have so much as hinted at a desire to see it.

An unsent letter addressed to an unknown correspondent and found in Robertson’s papers amid a stack of unused prescriptions for various anticarminatives may clinch the question. Here is the text in its entirety: “You know, I am deeply in love with a certain beautiful girl. I asked her to marry me once but she turned me down but I still love her more than anything in the world and every minute I can spend with her is pure heaven; but I don’t want to be a bore. Please, if you see her, tell her that I hope that her adamantine imperviousness to my voice mail messages is not owing in part or whole to my not having tipped the barman at the [Sedulous] Ape when we picked up a bottle of Big Red Truck there last week en route to the Fürst [von Last]’s Candlemas-cum-Groundhog Day party; and that if it is, she ought not to take this omission as a prognostic of future bêtises superficially resembling it, but arising in less marginal (and therefore necessarily more potentially embarrassing) genres of date-situation. In a very blunt word, she need harbor no fear of my stiffing the waiter at Petit Louis or the Charleston. Jimmy himself—that, exclusive of “himself,” is the name of the barman—will vouch for my, I was going to say, my munificence, but I don’t know what counts as munificent tipping nowadays; well, at any rate, he will concede that I have tipped him each and every time these last fourteen years I have availed myself of his titularly eponymous services—that is to say, on each and every occasion on-stroke-in which he served me a drink that I consumed in situ. It is only when the barman doffs his apron and arm-garter and dons the visor and rubber thimble [?!] of the sales clerk that he becomes ineligible, according to my lights, for a gratuity—but in such garb he is always thus ineligible. I no more think of tipping the package-goods vending barman than I do the cashier at my local Safeways [sic] or J. C. Penney [for shame!]. In the untippable category are likewise included Starbucks-style café baristas, sub-shop lard-slingers (except in any supernumerary capacity as busers), and lion tamers [?!??!!!]. I am sensible that there is a certain arbitrariness to the distinction—for does it not cost the barista more effort to prepare an espresso than the barman to uncap a beer bottle? [3]—but so there also is, as Dr. Johnson reminds us,[4] to the possibly morally weightier one between edible and non-edible animals; and if bounds are not placed to this practice, there is no telling to which domains of life it might not spread. Having grown inured to tipping the carryout-dispensing barman we shall effortlessly acquire the habit of tipping the drycleaner, the apartment-building front-desk receptionist, and the postal clerk; and thence it will be an easy transition to a society of universal graft on the former-Soviet bloc model, where no business of any sort may be transacted absent a promise of on-the-spot remuneration. I should also like to assure this selfsame beautiful girl, lest she should have been led to assume otherwise by rumors of my incorrigible misanthropy, that I am not inclined to attribute the aforementioned epandrance to any particularly vicious streak in human nature (e.g., envy), but at worst to a reflexive and borderline mechanical tendency to mimesis. And yet, for all of its intrinsic benignity, this tendency is all too often productive of the most malign effects. Take color photocopying, for instance. A mere five years ago only the top brass of the Fortune 500 could afford it even for one-off interoffice communications; now no mass-circulated retirement-party flyer at the most downmarket enterprise is thought to look properly ‘professional’ absent its four square inches of Polaroid-quality photographic clip art, and we have every reason to fear that this expectation will spread downwards and outwards, to the point, some five or ten years hence, when one will be obliged to fart in color (and Lord knows that no one will be more legitimately entitled to resent this obligation than I).”

[1] John Rodden. The Politics of Literary Reputation. The Making and Claiming of ‘St. George’ Orwell (New York [1a]: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 135.

[1a] [sic], i.e., not Oxford.

[2] Ibid.

[3] On the other hand, as Robertson exasperatingly omits to point out, the preparation of an espresso costs the barista much less effort than the preparation of, say, a martini costs the barman.

[4] Sc., in A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland: "It is not very easy to fix the principles upon which mankind have agreed to eat some animals, and reject others; and as the principle is not evident, it is not uniform. That which is selected as delicate in one country, is by its neighbours abhorred as loathsome. The Neapolitans lately refused to eat potatoes in a famine. An Englishman is not easily persuaded to dine on snails with an Italian, on frogs with a Frenchman,or on horseflesh with a Tartar. The vulgar inhabitants of Sky, I know not whether of the other islands, have not only eels, but pork and bacon in abhorrence, and accordingly I never saw a hog in the Hebrides, except one at Dunvegan."

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