BASIL THE GREEK
By Mark Halpern
I’d prepared meticulously – beyond any possible need – and waited at the little Starbucks tucked behind the escalator that carries dark-suited bankers and whatnot up from the station. A young woman dressed wrists to ankles in mauve knitwear, shapely by Japanese standards, lounges on the only couch – technically, a loveseat – but when she tilts her head into her iPhone my stare returns streetwards. Time passes. Then, “My dear friend!” And my dear friend is soon bear-hugging me, his cheek so close I encounter the dense black-grey stubble that probably reemerges 30 minutes after his morning shave. Now, striding towards the office tower like a legatus legionis returning triumphantly to Rome, he glances backward before reaching the row of uniformed, immaculate receptionists. The woman in mauve holds his business card, her free hand waving with shy excitement. “Once again I’ve been bad,” he says. “Or, depending on your perspective, I’ve been good.”
As our details are taken and recorded, he counts out his remaining store of cards, the English-and-Japanese version. On this his name appears as Basil, as it does even on the Greek version, and as it does on the British passport issued during his pre-lawyering years at Cambridge studying how Epíkouros/Epicurus influenced Rome and thence the West, though even back then Basil was doing deals on the side. Never Vasilios; always Basil. Here, Basil-san. “This meeting’s just for show.” The elevator doors close. “At this stage, everything is for show.”
Sooner or later, something would happen to my advantage – at minimum I’d see a good show. Basil quizzed me about what finance buzzwords are most impressive these days in Tokyo. There wasn’t time to ask why he’d wanted me here.
“It’s all for the game, Danny. You know me by now.”
That I know him cannot explain our friendship. Just watch, and you’ll know him. As when he performs a flourish while moving aside to let some salaryman carrying two thin file folders get off at the 37th floor. Basil will perform according to his true nature. His pride, no less than his principles, dictates that it be so.
Among those principles: We need less the help of our friends than the confidence of their help when needed. Still, in my case, Basil’s help tends toward the hyperactive. “There’s an acquaintance who’ll need your professional assistance.” “There’s a woman you should meet.” “There’s some lint on your jacket.” That Basil knows best goes without saying. But why treat my well being as a burning imperative?
What does he get in return, when my committed friendship is already a given? I do seem to calm him. Basil claims that around me he most approximates the Epicurean “life of happy tranquility.” The evidence: While visiting Japan he smokes only two packs a day. And what of his fresh anger over the Church Fathers’ millennia-old slandering of his hero? Few other corporate-commercial lawyers sympathize in their hearts. And so, around me Basil becomes more protector than combatant, more interpreter than plotter. And, just a little, more explainer than doer.
Yet explaining is doing; the help of a friend includes the teaching of life skills. At my age, who else would see the need? Still, it’s the relentless logic of if not now, when? “Every day must count. Every minute. My time is my only valuable possession.” And, indeed, it is logic as much as anything that drives Basil. Optimism, too. He would not play his great games but for confidence in winning the next round. Yes, I know Basil – though he knows me better.
I’d not have attracted his notice were I not living in Tokyo, nor were I lacking the peculiar credibility attached to running a “registered foreign-law solicitor office” – even one as humble as mine. So here I am, riding upward with a mentor who is a decade younger than I. He mentions the mauve-clad woman. “Danny,” he says, “you’ve got to be a multi-tasker: You’ve got to salivate and talk sweetly at the same time. To taste the motivation at the very moment you bring to bear your skills. How else can you get what you want?”
The 45th floor. We are two; they are seven. They occupy an entire side of the oblong conference table – the side nearer the door, the side signifying humility and restraint. But they sit in a modernistic manner presumed comprehensible to Westerners, with the Executive Director at the centre and others emanating outward by seniority. Now they scramble to shake our hands in the prescribed order.
Basil bows and says his first yoroshiku onegai shimasu, which I’d explained goes with hello or goodbye or anytime in between. Few foreigners, and fewer Japanese, even pretend to know its meaning. But it will reinforce a sense of we’re-in-this-togetherness – unless vocalized with detectable sarcasm, of which today there is none. These money men hear Basil’s grandiloquence. He talks of Japan and Greece, of ancient parallels, and of modern contours that let the two countries snap together within a jigsaw puzzle of global commerce. The undercurrent is Basil’s will, which these men, our targets, either feel or not. He offers no specific business proposal. Seizing an opportunity does not require that.
Basil has used the buzzwords, prettied up with my own Japanesque politesse. Today was simply aisatsu, greetings. He’s assured everyone that they already speak Greek: Dynamism, Strategy, Harmony, Sympathy. He’s proclaimed unworthiness of more of their time, after compelling them to acknowledge, even if silently, the chance for splendourous achievement. It’s time to go.
At dinner Basil’s eyes glisten at photos of my university-age children. “A blessing, your daughter.” He scrolls back, reexamining her red-brown hair down to her shoulders, her onyx bead necklace looped over twice, her cream blouse against her mother’s black satin jacket. My daughter stands before our house, holding my hand. Basil sees an archetype – the girl-woman bonded in all directions to family, predestined to be nurturing. Did this emanate from a sister, a fairytale, a dream? Basil married early and briefly. His grown son, Alexandros, as well-loved as my own children, is all career and adventure. He might not produce grandchildren.
“I’ll never have a daughter. No more children.” He orders another tokkuri of heated sake. He drinks with his left hand and refills with his right. “The likelihood I’ll die alone can only grow. It’s no tragedy.” His fist bangs the table, but nothing spills from his overturned o-choko, which was again empty. Then, subdued, “Perhaps I’m almost ready to die.” Basil, however, will not let sad thoughts linger. I want to know why he really came. So far, it’s just, “I love Japan and I needed the air miles.”
But his cell rings. “Nai?… nai … nai … Tell them ‘Basil will make it happen,’ those exact words … nai …entáxei.” Muting the phone, he thanks me politely for my indulgence. Then his voice grows into a shuddering vibrancy. His eyes are clear. He sizzles deeply. I stay back from the lines friendship doesn’t reach.
Basil will return to his hotel room for work. This might be jet lag; I do not know. He says he’ll sleep the next day on the plane. Perhaps, but I ask about the stewardesses. Basil assembles himself into order and replies crisply that he’s efficient in all things.
Six weeks later a German client’s business has brought him back. We breakfast early at the Imperial Hotel. Even here he’s received as Basil-san – I finally realize that local pronunciation would render his impossibly-long surname into even more syllables. Basil heads to the Japanese side of the buffet, opting for astringent good health, while perpetrating a horrific pun involving Greece and greasy. I indulge on the Western side. “Eat, drink and be merry,” I say, “for tomorrow …”
“Tomorrow? Danny, tomorrow you shall live!” It is a command and a commitment. “Live fully, as you haven’t done since embarking on your challenging marriage.” Then, with unnatural abruptness, he turns to business. Basil’s Japan project is, I finally learn, a start-up fund for dramatic European bio-tech advances with specific practical applications in Japan, to attract investors here. Details are told too rapidly. I’d never had any sense that he understood science. My skepticism howls, but I smother it. More details. I nod and look serious. Then his peroration. “Our project will be big. Big. Real money. Freedom. For us both.” Basil means for me.
He himself need not work for money, nor for the respect of others. And freedom is not a phenomenon he celebrates, but one he asserts – by voluntarily chaining himself to his work. It’s not my place to say that if he did otherwise, sorrow would expand like a sour miasma into a vacuum. That would imply he lacks the self-sufficiency to freely set his life’s course – not Sisyphus, but not free enough.
I, in contrast, have proved my ability to live in a vacuum. But I know it is wrong. So I sign on, promising hours and hours for elegant documentation of a project in which I do not believe. I believe in Basil, and need to keep occupied. I will help my friend and surrender to him some of my will. Besides, it’s not impossible the project will succeed.
His client is arriving. “You surely don’t want to hear us jabber away in German.” I thank Basil for the meal and he thanks me for sharing it: To eat and drink without a friend is to devour like the lion and the wolf. I don’t remind him how he boasts of being an animal. I demur, just as when I see him working like a robot and refrain from quoting Epicurus back at him. Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance. I take my leave, content to have promised assiduous devotion to what seems a lottery ticket.
What holds me back with Basil is what has held me back from climbing out of the narrow, twisted groove I slipped into 23 years ago: Risk aversion, low self-confidence, laziness. It was these frailties that tripped me into that groove in the first place, when I met and married a superficially perfect Japanese woman, followed her to Tokyo, quickly produced a child, and soon produced another.
Laziness lets me tolerate the prolongation of my failure. And that I have my own firm shields my failure from view. Moreover, people in my profession – Basil excluded – are not primed to notice my particular frailties. Lawyers will, rather, spot my honesty, capacity for logic, obsession with careful language, and tendency towards kindness. At big law firms, or perhaps anywhere, such traits cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, they are not universally valued.
Why persist in comparing myself to other lawyers? That mixed bag of hucksters, aggressors, punctilioids, intellectuals, workhorses, powerhouses and geeks cannot possibly comprise an appropriate reference group. I want to say I have no choice, that I’m locked into a paradox, that around here it’s only lawyers who are – occasionally – free from a delusionally-high regard for lawyers per se. Ordinary Japanese play into my weak hand, seeing lawyers as the cream of the cream of the cream. Especially ordinary Japanese of my generation, who remember graduates of top universities cramming for years and still facing a bar exam pass rate of 1.5%. Ordinary Japanese, moreover, conceive of law as a noble calling. They seem to take pleasure in doing so.
All of that, each distinct assertion, is true. But it’s bullshit. The logic is specious – something I cannot abide. My second choice would be to say nothing at all. But a nagging moral imperative to learn from experience obligates me to speak truly: Lawyers form an attractive category because they epitomize my failure.
I started at a white shoe firm – regional, not Wall Street – and quit. I quit when young, when my role was limited, when I could impress based on certain talents, and when youthful ambition still overrode my weaknesses. But I struggled to sleep nights and not lose weight. I would walk down the hallway without showing fear, just long enough to reach some empty place where I could wipe the cold sweat from my neck with no one watching. Meanwhile, time was creeping toward the Executive Committee’s decision on my admission to the lowest tier of partnership. I lacked the guts to succeed, as I still do. Basil the Greek wants to save me. Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not. But my soul has design flaws.
At my firm, it was “up or out.” You made partner or you were a purposeless lump of flesh. So I concentrated on cleverness, and then departed forthwith, gracefully and forever. Fleeing my chestnut-stained office before disaster struck, afraid of the excrement that must otherwise soon hit the fan and be thence disbursed in shreds via the central ventilation system. And what cleverness! Hypnotizing the sophists with cosmopolitan encyclopaedism and pyrotechnics of euphemism. Dialogue unto agony. All kudos to me – I too could speak Greek. That is how I shall remember it.
Basil and I worked the next day through. His thoughts bold colours, Basil painted a beauteous portrait of marketing; the possibility a technology might fail was mere detail. I busied myself with accuracy. Three hours in one fashionable café and four hours in another, during which he bestowed business cards on ten or twelve women. I gave a card to one young woman whose attraction faltered the moment she left my field of vision. “She wants you,” said Basil. “See how good this project is!” I felt weakness, both in succumbing to her transitory allure and in my lack of desire to follow through.
The project’s words and numbers would be sexy and gripping. Downside risks would be fine-tuned so they might be clasped to the conservative hearts of Japanese investors, upside prospects so as to swell their capacity to suspend pessimism. For Basil and me, the upside prospects included billing at startling hourly rates – but only if money came in to pay our invoices. And if the technologies had real worth, wealth would abound.
The critical success factor was Basil. He’d lure in major players with promises of early profit-taking that did not overly depend on the whims of science. He’d tell them that Tekhnologia is a god for our times. Then, quoting Epicurus by name, he’d say, It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself. At the meetings, Basil’s suit shimmers more than the other dark blues and greys in attendance, and his fluffed pocket handkerchief seems to glow vividly. My role is competence and respectability, which I deliver like the parsimonious warmth from a small space heater dropped into the corner of a large room.
Alone together, Basil denies that he is any kind of great spirit. He admits the plainly obvious, that others fall into orbit around him, and delights in that tendency among women. “But a great spirit,” he says, “a bona fide hero, of any era, will not treat other people as merely instrumental.” This Basil claims to do always, regardless how much he respects some individuals. As to the extravagant number of orbiting women, his respect seems a matter of whim. But he freely grants respect to the men, provided what propelled them towards Basil was neither greed nor desire for access to the superabundance of women. He values “purity of heart.”
My childhood daydreams were of esteem gained through righteousness and accomplishment. The daydreams persist, but their scale diminishes year by year. And as childhood reached its end, I came to understand that any chance for glory depended on tapping into the dreams of someone who had greatness to spare.
Basil started visiting frequently. But his attention was often captured by unrelated matters, and the Japanese men lingering around grew more varied. Occasionally, some dressed too expensively would show up with others dressed too cheaply, suggesting categories of enterprise to be avoided. Still, Basil invited me along to meetings and I went. When alone, he’d speak with determination about our big project, but I saw little evidence of forward motion. Some of our targeted technologies abandoned us; others withered.
Yet Basil kept generating dramatic ideas. This, I first suspected, was aimed at preserving my own commitment. Next, I saw it as drawn-out brainstorming. Finally, I understood it as his validation – to us both – that though our project would fail, he’d not abandon it lightly. So even as his proposals grew outlandish, I trotted on alongside. It was enough to know that Basil would treat me fairly.
As our prospects dipped, he spent more money on meals and entertainments, and more time redirecting women towards me. This could not be from guilt. As a cognitive experience, guilt must be expelled; as an emotion, it must be resisted. The intensification of wine, women and song was, for him, the widening of an alternate path to my happiness.
But then he flew away, and an email soon arrived declaring our project over.
I now saw the project as ten months of ridiculousness. Yet every moment we’d spent together had been intense, and, suddenly, whatever this had called out from me was freed. I re-read Basil’s brief email and was stunned into calmness. Hopes and fears dissipated into passive memory. Awake the next morning, I felt capacity for action, but would not pursue the few women who remained in proximity following Basil’s retreat. Rather, it is towards observation and reflection that my energy has been principally deployed, though I still cannot say whether this is deliberate.
Basil the Greek busied himself in other realms. Two months pass before his return, whereupon he invites me to celebrate the end of a phase. One grand evening succeeds another. I let myself shimmer, and the women come to orbit more like true heavenly bodies – in elliptical patterns, as we studied in school, with me as one of two distinct focal points. But I cherish reason. It is reason that will guide my action. I will do nothing – not at this time – that may imperil the stability of my imperfect life.
Basil’s next project stays in the West; he’ll visit less often. I shall know he is my friend, but it is I who will incite my vigourous engagement with the world. Still, the clients he’s sent my way bring added income and I can retire in a few years. By then, my children will support themselves and I may cast off all that is not required.
Why is Tokyo – the centre of culinary virtue – so bereft of good Greek food? But a new restaurant has opened and here we are. When the owner approaches, I use Greek words learned from “my dear friend Vasilios” – whom I kick under the table. When we’re left alone, he says that Alexandros will visit Japan. I will introduce him to my daughter; it is their lives, but it is also ours. I wish to offer Basil advice, but am only bold enough to say that he must definitely keep prodding his friends towards happiness.
I mention the erstwhile financiers of our failed project, but Basil allows no sympathy. None will be allotted to persons who can hear and see, and can live with ease, but nonetheless refuse to learn. Philanthropy means love of mankind, but does not dictate that all mankind may claim the soft feelings of sympathy. No such claim can be supported merely by the wasting of time and money at Basil’s hands. I smile and say, If you wish to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.
“Danny,” says Basil, the curled fingers of his left hand pressing into his cheek’s thick stubble as his entire jet-lagged countenance rests on his palm, all held aloft by an elbow balanced on the table just so, “you are one in ten million.”
“A slight exaggeration,” I reply.
About the Author:
Mark Halpern has lived since 1993 in Tokyo, where he runs his own law firm and writes stories about foreigners in Japan. He was born in America, grew up mostly in Canada, and has spent substantial time in the UK and France. As for Japan, Mark has, like some of his stories’ characters, found a way to be both an outsider and an insider.