Tuesday, October 25, 2005


In Which I Am On Serious Business...


His name, I swear to God, was Alan Gembola. I know I make up a lot of names on this blog, but this one is not. At least one of my regular readers was there and he can vouch for that much, should vouching be required.

Alan was my height. He wore a cashmere sweater vest and a very shiny shirt with a narrow tie. His hair was thin, but poofed up in a dramatic perm. He had blue/green eyes. I remember his eyes, because he had a flaw in one of his irises--a tiny sliver of brown in the perfect turquoise.

I thought this was an ironic detail, considering the man was a professional diamond seller.

When I was buzzed into his store on Wabash, under the El tracks, he strode over to me, open hand stretched way up high but already arcing down towards me for the shake, the march of the salesman.

"Alan Gembola, graduate gemologist," he said, handing me his card with a magic-trick flick of his fingers. And from there, he practically never shut up. He spoke in the clipped, hyper-attenuated manner of someone who'd had a little too much espresso--espresso laced with Ritalin--that morning. But his speech had a strange, wonderful, hypnotic cadence to it too. I tried to figure out who he reminded me of and only later was I able to place my finger on it. He sounded as though he had stepped whole and breathing from a David Mamet play. He entered stage left and spoke his opening lines:

ALAN (clasping MM's hand, looking him up and down): "What are we here for? What are we here for? Don't tell me, because I can guess. I can guess. You're--I can tell, it's you, not your friend (looks at MM, points at friend). You're a serious man here to do serious business. You're here...

(pauses, theatrically closes eyes, like a psychic picking up vibes)

ALAN (eyes snap open): You need a ring. You're shopping for a ring. No! Not a ring. Not a ring. I correct myself. Rings are a dime a dozen. Rings are meaningless. You, my friend, you, you're shopping for a diamond. That is a different thing. That is a different matter. That is not a purchase, my friend. That is a quest. Undertaken for her. For the woman. That is a search. And what's the search? What is it? I'll tell you. It's the search for purity. And beauty, always beauty. Purity and beauty.

(ALAN sweeps hand behind him, showing the dozen glass cases, each of them glittering with stones, each of them manned by a gemologist. Some are engaged in hunched, quiet discussions with other men there on serious business. Some are staring into the distance.)

ALAN: Let's find it together.

And so it went from there. We sat at a glass case and together regarded an empty square of velvet. Alan rummaged behind him and produced a creased pamphlet.

"MM, you know what this is? You know this? This is the document. This is the document that explains the 4 Cs. You know this?"

I nodded. I'd seen the document several times now and knew more than I wanted to about cut, color, clarity and carat weight.

Alan nodded. "Of course you do. Children need to be taught this. This is knowledge men have. Children do not come here. You do not come to my place of business without knowing what you know. You were sent here by someone, by a friend. May I ask who?"

I gave him the name of my old grad school advisor, who knew, it seemed, every secret place to shop for the best of everything in Chicago. When I told him I was in the market for engagement rings, this is where he sent me. "It doesn't look like much on the outside, but they're honest, and they'll do on-site IGI certification. And the prices can't be beat...if you're willing to haggle," my old advisor had said.

Alan nodded. "I know this name. And I know he wouldn't send a child to me. Children do not come here. Men come here. On serious business." He tossed the creased pamphlet behind him. "You have the knowledge, MM. But do you have the understanding? Understanding is the door to the truth, my friend. And truth is beauty. Do you want to see beauty? Are you ready to see beauty? I have it. I will show it to you. Tell me you're ready and I will show it to you."

I nodded and Alan immediately fished a wad of keys out of his pocket and disappeared into a back room. I turned to look at my best friend and we giggled like children, not the like the men on serious business that we were.

Alan returned bearing a metal tray filled with small pieces of folded paper.

"Here's beauty, my friend," he said, and began opening the folds of paper, one at a time.

I looked at some truly stunning pieces of pure carbon, gazing at each through the loupe he loaned me. As I did, Alan rattled off information about fluorescence, table percentage, symmetry and other details that more or less went in one ear and out the other.

If I thought I had spent some serious coin on Her Lovely Self's birthday, that had been nothing compared to the money I was about to spend--and indeed had been spending since we started dating. Weekend getaways, dinners, movies, concerts.

I'm not complaining, mind. Her Lovely Self and I had grown closer in 18 months than I would have thought possible. We weren't just inseparable. We finished each other's sentence. As you already know from previous installments, we had even adopted each other's pet phrases, like "abso-friggin-lutely" and "Quick question for you..." So any money I had spent on our relationship was money I was only too glad to spend. But it was still money spent. And it wasn't too long into our relationship that I realized I needed to start socking away money for something else, such as an engagement ring.

Since the beginning of the year I had accepted every freelance opportunity that came my way--including the loathsome business stories I hated doing--saving as much cash as I could. I had moved out of my old apartment and found cheaper digs, with a roommate, further in the city. Her Lovely Self thought I had done this to be closer to her apartment and all the places we enjoyed frequenting. And while that had been a nice side benefit, the truth was I needed to save every cent I could. I was on a mission. A mission that had brought me to this dark shop under the El tracks.

Where serious business was conducted.

After looking at about a dozen examples, I kept coming back to a particular stone. A marquise cut diamond that caught the light like no other I had seen. It was virtually colorless and glowed so brightly I half expected it to give off heat when I waved my hand over it. It was a little bit bigger than I had been looking for--it was no doorknob, for sure, but it wasn't going to be mistaken for a record-player needle either.

"You like it," Alan said. "It's not a question. It's a statement of fact. And the fact is, it's a good stone, my friend. It's the size you want, I think it's where you want to be in terms of all the other markers we discussed." He paused. "But is it beautiful, to you, MM? Is it a thing of beauty? What is beauty to you? Does it speak to you? Because if it doesn't then it is not beauty. It is not the truth. It is a lie. It is ugly, my friend. And I will never let you walk out of here with an ugly lie."

"So...how much?" I asked, looking up from the loupe.

Alan stepped back, spread his arms and was silent for so long I thought maybe he had had a seizure. Finally he spoke. "This is it. This is the hardest part of my job, MM. This is the part I hate, I'm telling you. Do you want to know why? You want to ask me why? Ask me why. Ask me: 'Alan, why is this the hardest part of a job you love?' Ask me. Go. Ask me."

He waited.

Finally I said: "Alan, why do you hate this part of the job?"

He leaned in. "I'm glad you asked. And now I'll tell you. I hate this because you came here for truth. You came here for beauty. And how do you put a price on beauty? How do you add a dollar sign to it? This--" he gestured at the stone. "Is one of nature's purest moments of...purity. The forces that shaped it gave no thought to money when it was formed. And now I must. I must, MM. And this is a serious business. But I hate to do it. I have no stomach for it. It makes my soul hurt." And he hunched over, heading hanging, permed hair wilting slightly.

Then, he looked up at me. "I figure $2,000, my friend."

I sucked on my teeth for a bit and looked down at the rock to which he had so quickly assigned his price.

"Really?" I asked. "Doesn't look like a $2,000 stone to me."

Alan sat down before me and scribbled the figure on a piece of paper. "That is the price, MM. That is the price of beauty. That is the truth. Men come here knowing this. They come here on serious business. They know what to expect. Did this surprise you? Are you surprised? I'll be disappointed but you should tell me if this comes as a surprise to you."

I shrugged. "I just need to see a smaller number on that piece of paper."

Alan wiggled his pen between his fingers. "You have a number in mind, MM? Because, what? I should negotiate with myself now? I should talk to myself? No. Men talk to one another. They forge agreements. Talk to me, MM. Give me a number. Whatever it is, I'll write it down."

As my friend stood by, silent as a stone, I gave Alan a number and he promptly wrote it down.

"That's not a good number," he said instantly. "I wrote it down. I said I would. But I have to tell you what I have to tell you. And I'm sorry to tell you this, but I can't go back to my boss--" he pointed to an open door behind him that led to a darkened room (I imagined Harvey Keitel or Joe Mantegna sitting back there, smoking a cigar, watching everything through a bank of fuzzy black-and-white security monitors, interrupting this activity to occasionally issue statements wherein every other word was "fuck.") "--I cannot go to him with this number. I would lose my job, MM. Do you understand? I would lose my job because I would be wasting his time, my time, your time, with this number. So you understand me when I tell you this is not a good number." His hand was a blur on the paper.

"This is a better number. Not a great number. Better for you than for me, my friend. But it might not cost me my job if I went to my boss--" again he gestured to the door "--with it."

We sat silently for a time, looking at each other. Somewhere, I remember hearing someone once say that in a negotiation, the first person to speak loses.

Finally, Alan spoke, "Well, MM? What shall we do? Shall I speak to my boss? Shall I?"

"Yes, you shall," I said, not able to stop myself.

My friend wandered about the shop while Alan put the diamond-filled papers back in their tray and retreated to the darkened confines of the back office with my particular stone in his hand. I was almost certain that no one--not Harvey nor Joe nor anybody--was back there, just Alan, leaning against a wall, counting "One Mississippi, Two Mississippi..." My uncle always said diamond sellers, horse traders and car dealers were all of a kind and there were certain tactics of negotiation that were more successful with them than others.

Presently, Alan returned, looking reflexively over his shoulder at the doorway. He was still clutching the piece of paper. More numbers were written on it.

"Okay, okay," he said, arranging himself at the table. He set the diamond back down between us. "Okay." He laid the piece of paper down and walked me through the numbers. "We have over a thousand settings, gold settings, nice settings, some custom settings. We have settings, is what I'm saying. Anywhere else, you pay for that, the ring, the time to set the stone, everything. For you, today, we eat that, MM. That's on us. An engagement gift and God bless." He crossed off the number that represented the price of the ring. He pointed to another number. "Here's the tax, no way around that. Tax is tax. That and death. These are certain things. That's tax." Finally, he moved his thumb and uncovered the final number. "That's what my boss will let me do."

I shook my head. Alan sighed, exasperated.

"What should we do, MM? This is as far as we can go with this stone. You want we should look at others? We can start over. Tabbela Rayza. You know that, MM? That's Greek for carte blanche. It means we start over. Should we start over?"

I fought the urge to correct his last statement in so many ways. Instead I stood up and fished in my pocket. I'd seen my uncle do this buying trucks, but had never attempted it myself.

In my hand, I had a small roll of 100-dollar bills, representing the entire contents of my bank account, my total freelance output of the last several months. Plus the last of my vintage football cards and a small run of really nice old Spider-Man comics, all converted to this little bundle of green.

Bringing the roll out was like saying "E.F. Hutton" in that room. Everyone who wasn't hunkered down at a table watched as I counted off the bills, placing them on the velvet. When I got to the last bill, it made a decent stack, although the total was less than the split-the-difference number Alan's "boss" had okayed, and even a little less than my original counter-offer. But it was cash, not the credit everyone applied to their purchases.

Alan looked at the bills, then at me. His face was blank, a true tabula rasa.

"I'm here on serious business," I said. "Quick question for you Alan... You want to tell your boss you couldn't get the price he wanted? Or..." I fished around in my other pocket until I found a crumpled dollar bill and a handful of change. I tossed these on the table too. "Or do you want to tell him you just got some guy to give you every cent he has for one of your stones? Which, by the way, is the truth. Which sounds better to you, Alan?"

He looked at the cash, then at me, face still impassive. "The truth sounds good," he said. "Every cent you've got. I like that." He stuck out his hand and we shook.

"You just bought a nice stone, MM," he said, finally smiling.

I raised my eyebrow. "You forgot to check with your boss."

Alan winked at me. I saw a flash of the flawed iris. "Ah. We'll tell him later."

As we did up the receipt, I thought of one last thing. Her Lovely Self and I were going to my best friend's wedding in New England over Memorial Day weekend. My plan had been to propose to Her Lovely Self afterwards, on a day that we went hiking on my family's land.

"Hey," I said suddenly. "Can you ship this somewhere?"

"Anywhere in the world," Alan said. "But we'll have to figure different sales tax. And some states carry a luxury tax--"

"Ship it to my parents in New Hampshire," I said.

Alan looked at me. "Why you want to do that?" he asked.

"No sales tax in New Hampshire. The man just shaved $200 off his bill."

We both looked up. Standing in the darkened doorway was a stout man in black glasses, holding an unlit cigar. He didn't look like Harvey Keitel or Joe Mantegna, but I knew in a heartbeat he was the boss. So there was one after all. He waddled over, personally tore off the receipt and handed it to me, along with the difference in the final total, which I had saved on the sales tax. Then he and Alan saw us to the door.

And just like that I had bought an engagement ring...

That was excellent. Gawddamn, son. I want to tell stories like you do.


To whom do I sell my soul?

Oh, and the fact that I finally made it into the top 10 of comments. :) BEen trying for that for months!

Keep 'em coming. Seems I Can't go off to bed before checking MM and his latest yarn.

MM I wish you had 40 hours in a day so you could spend more time writing your blog. Waiting for one story a day kills me! But the wait is definately worth it, I love your stories!
Gawd that WAs like a play. I actualy went back and read Alan's part aloud (and fast).

Been exactly where you were, buying a big item like that. And you are SO right. Sometimes, nothing works better than counting out cash on the table. Money talks and BS walks.

And to think at first I was SO pissed that you were interupting your story with something that happened a month earlier. This was the best part so far! --McD
This is unbelievable.

Just when I think you're going to run out of stories to tell or ways to tell them, you come out of nowhere and blow my face off.

Maybe one day I'll have a blog like yours... Until then, I'll have to suffice by reading yours.
Hahahaha! I laughed out loud so many times reading this. Alan is just so...ostentatious. It was great.

I was glad to see you didn't spend $10,000 or something ridiculous on the engagement ring. Somehow, given the buildup, I was afraid you just might have gone insane. (Plus, it sounds like I got a ring in the same league as the one HLS did, which in my book means I made out well ;>)
This is by far the best blog that I Have read yet.

Your the man.

You da man, MM! I've been fortunate and never had to haggle on a used car yet...and never bought a ring yet either. I do admire you for saving and paying cash, something I haven't done enough of for big purchases.
It is because of you that I never get any work done until half an hour after I get to work. :) I am gonna show this story to Michael...maybe it will inspire him. ;)
I'm never sure what impresses me more... your ability to draw readers in to your stories with your flawless writing ability or the fact that you are able to remember these stories from 13 years past with such accuracy and attention to detail.
Careful...You keep telling stories this riveting and my crush might grow into a full blown obsession...and that's where the hubby would definitely draw the line! :-)
You need to writing a novel!
Good Lord, MM. I hope you are magnificently recompensed for your paid efforts. The stuff you're giving away for free is amazingly good. I haven't enjoyed reading anyone, as much as I am enjoying your stuff, in a very long time. I come away from your site extremely humbled concerning my own efforts.
There is no greater testament of a man's love for a woman than to sit for hours on end enduring the rehearsed banter of jewelers. It's worse than buying a car - you're more emotionally involved, and with an engagement ring, you're trying to show your love for her; with a car, you're trying to show others what a bad-ass you are. THAT's pressure. Never quite understood the engagement ring thing though. I think men should get "engagement Superbowl tickets". It's only fair.

Envy your haggling talents, though. I suck at it. Roll over like a possum, I do.
I hate haggling, but I think I did ok with my car. I'm adding the count-out-the-money move to the stack of things I learned from that buying experience.

Good for you for getting your price!
You read about our disdain for a certain jeweler in the diamond district and commented about this experience. It cracks me up because I can see my husband going through the same thing as you encounted with Alan.

Favorite part - when you drop the BS and say to Alan "Quick question for you....."

That's love!
Shannon's right, MM - you've got to write yourself a book, my dear! And anonymous wasn't the only one reading Alan's dialogue aloud - his character came screaming off this screen - excellent.
His name could not have been Alan Gembola; there is only one (1) Alan Gembola in the United States - & I'm it!

Alan Gembola
Southern California
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