I spotted the wooden zebras on a high shelf in an antiques warehouse in Bombay last year and dragged my wife over from the hotel to eyeball them. She was unimpressed. But when I got back to the States I thought of Rajesh, the fine-boned young man who had climbed the dusty shelves to hand them down to me. His elegance and confidence appealed to me, and I wrote to see if I could buy the zebras after all. Rajesh faxed me back on a narrow slip of paper meant to economize on long distance rates. “Hope this fax finds you in Good Health,” he began. “2 Pc’s Wdn Painted Zebra, Rs. 1500 Each. Rs. 3000.” The rupee was nearing 40 then; two zebras, $75.
We faxed back and forth all last spring, and I relished the old world spirit of negotiation. Rajesh had good block-letter penmanship and he signed everything, “Thanking you and Assuring You of Our Best Attention At All Times. With Kind Regards.” Or he would say, “Awaiting For Your Favourable Reply.” I wanted two other items: a painting of a maharajah on glass and a spiked iron ball I’d seen lying in the dust. Plus there was shipping to figure out. Finally, I sent a check for $589 to a bank in Bombay.
I didn’t let my wife in on the arrangements because I understood that I’d become obsessive in the way that my mother, a collector who once wrote a book called Second Hand Super Shopper , could be obsessive about objects. More important, I feared that my wife would mine the comedy in the situation. I told her that getting the stuff was a matter of personal growth: After years of running from my mother’s materialism, I’d come to the adult understanding that I’d actually inherited her great eye. That the endless days I’d spent as a kid sitting outside church sales or guarding boxes of loot at flea markets or reading estimates at scrimshaw auctions had had an effect. I was trying to recover that part of myself, see if I had any future as a “picker,” one of the shabbily dressed guys with ponytails who stand around at the back of country auctions and merely nod at the auctioneer as the bidding passes $20,000 on a piece of ceramic slipware they’ll resell that week.
I told my wife I’d sell the Indian pieces, then write an article for a shelter magazine about my trades. Boomers love antiques. I’d tell the reader what I paid and what I got. And answer the question, Do I have an eye?
My wife accepted all that, but she pressed me to know how much I’d spent, all told, with shipping. I lied. My wife is much more shrewd and grounded than I am, she is at once more crafty and sensitive, and she likes to say that I am naïve. The zebra plan fell under the heading of luftmensch , which is Yiddish for dreamer, flake. Sometimes I’m a luftmensch about money. For instance, five years ago I lied to my wife about how much of our money I’d put into a small health care stock on a tip from a friend. The stock inched up and I felt fine. Then in two days it went from 13 to 3 and on the second morning when I got my friend on the phone, he said, “Didn’t you get my e-mail yesterday?”
“I haven’t checked. What did it say?”
“Flee! Flee! Flee!”
A few minutes later, my wife came into my office, eyes red and swollen. We had lost nearly $30,000 on paper, and the crisis threw her back on type: She held a Spode teacup brimming with vodka and sat formally on the couch. “This is exactly what Iris Murdoch always writes about,” she said as tears ran down over her lips into the cup. “When people’s egos interfere with their understanding of reality. You have an ego need to believe you’re a big deal and that [the tipster] likes you. You don’t understand that we’re not rich, and you shouldn’t care about his opinion.”
My wife and I cut a new deal right then. (Did I have any choice?) She took over the investments, meanwhile she started a money club with other women. It was a Beardstown Ladies deal but in Manhattan, with a bunch of high-flying women. My wife had written an article for Harper’s Bazaar about the fact that almost all women end up financially on their own. The article said women had a responsibility to learn about money. The fund had a feminist name, “Monetta,” from the Latin root of “money” and also an honorific to the goddess Juno.
The hip Junoites put in $2,500 each and met once a month to research stocks and gossip. No Boyz Allowed, though they did invite men in to give talks. And they’ve done well. Though, like the Beardstown ladies, I had the feeling they stretched their winnings with hamburger-helper accounting procedures. My wife and some other ladies from the club went on a TV show and when experts asked her what was in the Monetta portfolio, she listed a bunch of stocks that had gone up 200 percent. The experts were impressed. Still, she was doing fine for our retirement account, and frankly I was happy not to look at the Business section.
Anyway, last fall Rajesh sent me the bill of lading, and a month later I got a call saying the Danish ship had arrived. I went down to Port Newark a few days later. It was a delirious and hellish day. I drove from one coastal armpit to another, first to Customs then the overseas warehouse, then sat on a loading dock waiting for lunch hour to end. There was $200 more in shipping Rajesh hadn’t told me about, plus $8 for an extra day of storage. They used a forklift to wedge the wooden crate in my wagon. But it cut off my rear view so completely that I had to pull over on the side of I-80 and tear the crate apart with a crowbar. The wadded, shredded newspapers and burlap they use in India to pack artifacts flew out over the shoulder. The spiked cast-iron ball cut my hand. I was bleeding on top of everything else. I wondered how crazy I was.
I put the zebras in the living room, but my wife and I were embarrassed by them. We like primitives (who doesn’t these days?), but only if they’re slightly perverse. The zebras looked childish, almost cute. Friends ignored the zebras or smiled patronizingly at them. I said they were from a palace in Rajasthan. Rajesh had told me that. But then he said everything was from a palace in Rajasthan. As for the painting on glass ($350), my wife said it was charmless.
When I showed her the spiked iron ball ($100) in the half-light of the basement, she said, “This is the one fabulous thing you got.” So a few days later, I hung it in a bay window, then lay on the couch admiring its intensity, counting the spikes, imagining how it looked back in the palace in Rajasthan.
When my wife got home from work, she said she was going to move out. The ball had too much negative energy, dangling over the fax machine. A friend saw it and cringed. He said it had S-and-M sexual energy. I put it back in the basement.
We went through the winter with the zebras and, now and then, my wife would mock my plan to transform myself. “How is your eye?” she’d say. Or, “When are you going to sell your objets ?” I said I had to photograph them before I sold. I did that, then I sent a letter to a friend with a big job at a shelter magazine, setting out my “third world picker” idea. She didn’t respond. I called her up and she didn’t get back to me.
Then at a cocktail party I met a woman who I learned had a connection at Elle Décor and I buttonholed her a little desperately. (Generally, I observe club code, that it’s vulgar to talk shoptalk at a party.) She smiled politely and suggested someone I might call.
I felt punctured. I suppose this is the inevitable state of a middle-aged luftmensch before he settles into bitterness or eccentric, entitled full-blown candylandism. But by now I was sick of my picker fantasy, sick of the zebras staring at me doe-eyed, and in mid-May I threw the zebras in the front and back seat and drove them to an upstate auction house well known among dealers, Cold Spring Galleries, in Beacon. I took the spiked ball, too. It rolled around in the back and I imagined a freak accident taking my head off.
Then when I was at the gallery I noticed some old gilt frames and decided I needed them. My mother used to have boxes of frames in storage. Probably still does.
The auction staff said the frames would come up in the first hour or two, so I went back on the night of May 24 to try and get them. It was standing room only. I stood at the side next to a giant torn oil painting of a hermitage. A lot of dealers were up from the city, and the prices were healthy. A 19th-century tortoise-shell-framed mirror went for $3,600, a bronze Tiffany lamp base missing its hanging glass prisms went for $5,200. There was a breathless 90’s feeling about the night. Neil, the Harley-Davidsonish auctioneer, kept saying, “Whoever has their Mercedes S.U.V. parked in the back, you’re blocking our van and we’re going to tow you.”
I was determined to flee before the mace or the zebras came up. But at 8:30, the frames still hadn’t shown, and two burly guys walked out on stage carrying zebras. My first indication that something was up were the red stickers on the label, indicating sealed bids. Neil announced, “Carved wooden zebras,” and it sounded like American folk art. Then he tried to start the bidding at $500, and could. He had a bidder on the phone, another across the room from me. I watched in stupefaction. The bidding stopped at $1,100. An hour later, I bagged the frames, for less than I expected.
As for my homecoming-the offhand shrug, the weary deadpan rehearsed in the rearview mirror, the thunderclap postponed till my wife had pressed me, pressed me , for news-I can only describe it as divine, an unadulterated triumph of the solar-plexus-irradiating sort I have experienced maybe once or twice in eight years of marriage, but which the luftmensch fully expects to experience many, many times again, as soon as he gets back from India. She asked about the hateful iron ball, and I was able to say, honestly, that I did not see it sell. The next day I learned, by phone, that it had fetched $25.