Excerpt from Earth Tycoon
I met the high-waisted chairman of Lativa’s central bank on an utterly frozen winter afternoon in the dimly-lit capital city of Riga. The matter that my client was eager to resolve was the acquisition of a banking license for a well-nigh hobbled but promising bank with only one branch and little apparent peril from the recent unpleasantness surrounding the shock of facts that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There was a palpable sense of Russia’s remnant shadow hanging over the palatial bank building, most notably in the confessions revealed in the spiritual imprint of sickle-shaped stains protruding out of the edges of the current symbols of power that hung on the buildings’ interior walls. The chairman was no celebrity in the field of central banking, but youth was a clear advantage in terms of the current challenges he was facing, unlike his predecessor who, I imagined, had the energies like the violence underlying a hulking glacier sliding on its own melt. I was curious about the sweet attitude of the chairman’s young assistant, as I thought her attitude favored the delicate machinery of central banking, and perhaps, with her modest manner and sharp eyes that beamed over a cluttered desk, she knew where the precarities lay, for souls like ours, when formerly state assets are sold.
The UNESCO-listed old city center of Riga is a special place. Its roots stretch back to medieval times, as evidenced by the circular urban design of her cobbled streets and the out-of-proportion windows and doors of her oldest structures (poor nutrition produced smaller humans 400 years ago). Time is meted out in cycles of development as you walk outward from the city center. Successive occupiers of the city built in the style of the era and now those expressions of period architecture fan out in layers, with increasing levels of opulence timestamping the building facades’ parallel path along a bumpy progression through higher trade and widening cultural exchange. The outermost ring of development, ramparts of the Soviet era, is a brutalist reproduction of Vladivostok’s finest architectural specimens. Beyond this gulf of time and proletariat urban food gardens, the city’s outskirts abut timbered hills and a tilled earth landscape where, in windless conditions, you can earwitness a taunting isolation in the cry of trains as they peel from the seaport towards the frozen horizon, incising the unfathomable rural stillness with a lonely scry. I love how the wild beauty of alien landscapes can restructure our sense of time, giving attention to the moment, and open corridors for memories. My Southern exposure makes me permanently naive about things, so I compensate with curiosity, especially with topics concerning war, as captured through the art and craft of war correspondents.
Thirst took hold after my meeting at the banker’s office. The burning cold meant I had to find refuge within a few blocks of walking distance, and in stepping out I put the chain of events into motion and a chronicle of events that I am relating to you now. There were throngs of desperate, shrunken streetwalkers knuckled over against the stabbing arctic winds, their footfalls crunching on feathery ice. The city was a canvas that sparkled like a frosted toy village. Natural light was fading from Cherenkov blue to the color of lunar ash before swallowing to ink black. In the South, we’d say darken, adding a syllable to acknowledge the mystery contained in the dark.
An iron frame lamp attached to the entrance of a subterranean pub guided me to what looked like a rustic but adequate place to corral for a few hours and indulge my immoderate taste for fatty Slavic foods. Below Riga’s surface, I learned, in the interior warm places where old Soviet propaganda posters arc across mantelpieces, there exists a dreamy, abundant flow of humanity. In the stairwell, wall stones, mouse grey and scored with ancient conflict, glistened in the dank sweat of the place and suggested to me deeper shadows ahead. Inside the pub, a TV of recent Chinese vintage flickered MTV. The uneven walls and the ceiling’s ancient timber lattices formed a cellar atmosphere, tinged with the smells of mold and spilled beer and spider legs. The morosity of the day was suddenly intruded on by a plot twist, when, normally, this story might have reached its conclusion by being folding into the forgotten sameness that business travelers experience in the gap hours between eventful meetings and departing flights in foreign cities. Sometimes I forget what city I’m in and what I set out to escape in remote places, away from civilized confinement.
Amid the smoky blur, a clutch of people grouped around a table in the back corner of the otherwise empty pub. A well-tailored man with an American accent poured words into the group, and from the focus of attention and fixated eyes of his listeners there unfolded the sounds of some kind of salvific plan being inhaled. The penetrance of his words ignited my curiosity about the obvious grandeur of the subject.
His eyes hurled wildly around the table. I wondered about the subject that so occupied the concentration of this dapper missile of commerce. How could I relate to this voltage that was too vivid to explain? Emotional triggers barbed his rant in what looked like a choreographed inculcation of ultra-knowledge, spiked with insider psychographic jargon that went way beyond logic and more than adequately masked other purposes that I could not as yet discern. His evidently hot appetites (that no doubt ranged between prosperous and preposterous) clashed against the tiny margin of economic security that was evident among his audience’s gypsy-rags clothing, a fact made clear by the Pakistan-made shoes and only two layers of winter garments to salve the newly refrigerated hearts from winter’s wounds. The rain was coming down. They were like children attracted to the whizz of frying bacon. He took evident pleasure in this emotional combat and his store of values, his medium of exchange. In the beginning there was the Word, I thought, as the doorgunner reveled in the heat of the action.
Putting together the pieces of a grand narrative, I speculated that behind this plot of coming armies was a barrage of angular tactical directives and, for these recruits, to coin this niche meant the promise of a pilgrimaged grubstake piece of priestly liberty that would someday yield all the outward and visible signs of success like the fashion-infused stylishness of his seamless automaticity, breezy confidence and world-making language.
I thought how feeble was my call to action in the office of the central bank (a total absence of novelty!) compared to this evangelist of the foundational principles of true, true freedom: consumer choice. His movements suggested concrete action, and the harvesting of opportunity contained something close to magic. The cold-skinned faces of the bar staff, heads cocked in a innocent communist palsy, drifted just outside the outer ring of commerce man’s gravitational force. The transition from economic heterodoxy to embiggening freedom had left them self-helpless and silent, out of rhythm with the startling communion.
I pieced the bothersome puzzle together: decapitated stone heads were rolling off formerly-distinguished star gazers, and with the guardianship of souls thus released, demand for products (and identities) was surging. He unloaded in visually-rich hand movements the vital need to show Latvians a delineated world of free market thinking, the end of heavy times — and you, the chosen ones, will carry streetward with this calling, with this parturition, to replace the Latvian SSR’s squalor. His aim was the spine of society. The pilgrims’ eyes reflected the rawness of the newly-found insertion of permanent want. Uncoiling his legs, the man stood and placed his hand on the table with exaggerated slowness, followed by a spasmic table slam and a throaty suggestion that any future hand-banging high moment would indicate a tribal passage of membership and destiny — and a personal sytlist. It presumably would also contain wads of cash for a purpose admirably achieved. He was molding assassins with envy. The surprising aim of this topic of conversation was marketing — and the jewel being offered was U.S. cigarettes.
The next day I got another glimpse of commerce man’s swagger while I was visiting the U.S. embassy in Riga. He was there, no doubt, to discover the most tax-advantaged import scheme that had been negotiated through bilateral arrangement by the U.S. trustees of freedom and choice, a prize for Latvia’s introduction to industrial consumerism. The richest part of this experience came when I learned, a few years later, in a chance encounter with the former station chief for Moscow, that the Company had investigated Jelgava Bank for reasons he could not disclose, but more relevant to me, and my brief executive position at the bank, was the unnaturally shortened life of the Lativian banking executive who had preceded me. He was the first executive to guide the bank through privatization. It is both ridiculous and true that the cause of his death was forced decapitation. Deader than snake shit, we’d say, in his zeal to prevent his enemies from getting ahead.