Or How To Raise Quick Cash

Haresh Shah


I am between the bookends. My first year of living in Santa Barbara, California. Or more precisely in Goleta, twelve miles (17.2 km) north along the Pacific Coast off the UCSB campus. I am jobless and slumming, actually writing my novel The Lost Identity, and yet surviving with a certain style with four hundred some dollars a month I collect form the unemployment benefits. I kick in an extra hundred from my savings in order not having to struggle too much, almost half of the total goes towards the rent. I have rented a decent apartment because I like the feeling of space. It’s a spacious two bedroom apartment with an ample terrace outside the large glass sliding doors overlooking San Ynez mountain range. I am only a walking distance from the Pacific shore and the ocean front Enchanted Forest.

Subsidized on and off with freelance contributions to the German Playboy and Oui, I also have beginner’s luck in selling three short stories between German Lui and Playboy. But all in all, I live on a tight budget devoid of any frivolous expenses. Even my beautiful Buick languishes under the gentle protection of the car port most of the time. My friend and Goleta guru, Mark (Stevens) has required me to buy a swift and shiny brand new ten speed Azuki, which I have equipped with a rubber banded back career to comfortably transport my groceries and books. The bike also helps me stay fit as I spend at least an hour every day sprinting along the ocean front and shed about thirty pounds along the way.

Just like in Munich, my apartment in Goleta becomes the center for all of us to come together, cook, party and hangout at the neighborhood’s cheap student joints, among them, the popular McGill’s – the Mexican restaurant where you can have a 12” (26.2 cm) succulent flauta stuffed with chicken, avocados, lettuce, tomatoes, all blended together in his most delicious (secret?) sauce served with refried beans and Mexican rice. We would share a pitcher or two of the dark Dos Equis beer – all for about five dollars or less a throw.

Thanks to Ann (Stevens) and Guusje (Sellier) and my own culinary repertoire, we cook a lot at home and I still can feel the taste of Guusje’s Nasi Goreng and Ann’s fresh fish fried with onions, served with brown rice and soy sauce. At times we would get lucky and one of Mark and Ann’s diving buddies would show up with the tender-most abalone steaks, which Ann would prepare with her delicate touch without turning them into chewy white rubber. And we would make do with beer and cheap but good wines from Two Guys, settling for semi-sweet German Liebfraumilsch, and when we could afford it, a bottle of California Cab or a Zin. And sometime even treat ourselves to a good cigar. All in all, I could say, I manage to live well on the cheap. The life, if not Munich affluent, is as exciting and full of fun.

On and off I would have visitors from all over as I usually do. Among them, Raimund Le Viseur – the first editor-in-chief of the German Playboy. His then girlfriend and now wife, Inge Grams too worked with us in Munich – the couple I remember as donning what looked like very expensive matching long fur coats – swaying as they walked. Now a freelance journalist, Raimund, or as we all called him Levi is on an assignment in the USA, following the first lady Betty Ford and her entourage covering their campaign trail of 1976 Presidential Election. Levi calls me from L.A. wondering if we could meet up and have dinner together.

I drive a hundred miles (160 km) to Los Angeles to Beverly Wilshire in Hollywood. He is traveling with two photographers. Steve from Sygma and Ron from UPI. Even though Levi and I were never that close, away from Munich we’re delighted to see each other and catch up. Talking with him makes me homesick for Munich. What blows me away is Levi pulling out photos of their newly born son. Unbelievable!! Or like the Germans would say, nicht zu glauben. Because I remember clearly the lunch I’ve had with Levi and Inge at Zur Kanne in Munich, about three years earlier and them telling me that they could never imagine themselves being parents. Levi hated the idea of anyone ever calling him father. Absolutely not. And here he is, as incredibly delighted as can be, drooling over the wallet size photos of Inge and their little boy.

I join Levi and the photographers in the hotel’s Blvd Lounge where we have a couple of drinks before going out for dinner. Levi proudly tells us that he has reserved a table for us at the Hollywood’s most exclusive celebrity hangout, Levi remembers it to be  Rodeo, only a stone’s throw away from the hotel. Just like Hollywood’s Star Walk, the Bistro is a must, a pilgrimage if you may. I have been to L.A. several times by then and curiously enough have never even heard of the place. Then again, I had never heard of Beverly Wilshire either. Little did I know, fifteen years later I would end up in one of their larger rooms and would have a pleasure of being dwarfed and lost atop Beverly Wilshire’s California King bed. One of the Playboy preferred hotels when traveling to Los Angeles on business.

Levi tells us, the restaurant is frequented by all the top A-list stars such as Jack Nicolson and Candice Bergan, Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas and over the years, their cliental included luminaries of the years past. The stars of Hollywood’s golden era as well as the movers and shakers big producers and the directors – in short the crème de la crème of who’s who of the tinsel town. He also tells us how difficult it was to acquire a table. Instead of relying on the concierge, earlier he personally walked over to the restaurant and was told the place was fully booked and there was no chance of us getting a table that evening. He had to plead with the maître d’ to please give us a special consideration – especially because he was there all the way from Germany and even invoked the name of Playboy in vain. Mentioned big name German publications such as Der Spiegel and Stern. All of it went over maître d’s head until Levi decided to persuade him the old fashioned way, by peeling out ten dollar bill from his billfold.

‘Well, I don’t know. But let’s see what I can do. I can’t guarantee a good table, but we’ll try to somehow squeeze you guys in.’ Maître d’ tells him, smug and patronizing as can be.

We’re all excited and are looking forward to running into some of the big ones. So we stride over to the restaurant. Standing in front of us is the maître d, now dressed in his tail coat, middle aged and bald. Behind him the place is completely empty. Not even a stray bird fluttering.

‘You’re in luck. They haven’t showed up yet. Kind of early for the Hollywood set. I have blocked the best table for you.’ And he escorts us to a booth in what I would say a quite desirable spot with view to the entire restaurant and that of the front entrance. Deflated, Levi looks at the maître d’, who is apologetic but is sheepish in the way he looks back at him, as if saying: what d’ ya want? This is Hollywood! They exchange knowing looks and then we settle to a bottle of Mondavi Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon and turn the evening into our own private little party.

As I look around, the place is reminiscent of Chicago’s Gene & Georgetti’s – one of the city’s oldest steak houses and it boasts the patronage of Frank Sinatra, Lauren Bacall and Bob Hope. Not far from the Union Station, I was told during one of my earlier visits there that on their coast-to-coast – New York-Los Angeles-New York train rides, they would avail themselves of Gene & Georgetti’s hospitality and their exquisite steaks during the train’s longer stop over in Chicago. Mementos of their visits are visible on the walls all over the restaurant, mostly in the form of framed 8” x 10” (17.6 x 22 cms) prints. Similarly, the walls of The Bistro too are crowded with multitude of celebrities past and present, most of them living in their own backyard.

We don’t see even a single star walking in and out to dazzle us, neither do we see many more guests through the evening. But we make believe as if all those photos of the celebrities from the past and the present that cover all four walls of the restaurant and are looking down at us from the wall behind the high backed rounded leather-upholstered-in-the-period-burgundy-red, are there with us in flesh and blood and we’re indeed rubbing shoulders with them. I am sandwiched between Marilyn Monroe and Katherine Hepburn happily babbling away. Similarly, Levi, Steve and Ron are surrounded by Cary Grant, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall and Spencer Tracy. Groucho Marx and Charlie Chaplin. Elizabeth Taylor, Dean Martin, Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly too are peering over us from not too far. Making us feel we’re the real stars and we are happy to share the table and the space with them.

To be fair, the food is quite good. It’s been a while since I have been treated to such a nice meal in a good restaurant with wine and all. Something no longer within my budget. But tonight, I am with the people with expense accounts and am relaxed in the knowledge that one of them is certain to pick up the tab. Wrong! The bill with the tip comes to an even $80.-. The three slap on the table $20.- bills each. I would be lucky if I had half that much in cash in my pocket. I had left home with a twenty dollar bill and some change, ten of which I spent on filling up my Buick. It’s turning into an expensive evening for someone on the dole, struggling to make ends meet with his unemployment benefits and whatever extra he manages to make by doing freelance stuff. The wheels in my head are wheezing frantically. But I don’t let any of what I am thinking show on my face. Without missing a beat, I slide out my Amex from the wallet I am holding and throw it on the table like tossing a dice while swiftly swiping the three twenty dollar bills off as from the gaming table. I come out of the restaurant feeling flush, my pocket stuffed with hot cash!

‘Not a bad way to raise some quick interest free cash,’ comments Steve – the man from Sygma.

© Haresh Shah

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks



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No business school or a bestseller can teach you how to succeed in business as much as what you learn on the job and from the people you work with. And if you happen to be as lucky as I was to have had the kind of bosses I did, they could become your ultimate gurus and pass on the secret mantra to guide you for the rest of your life.