I liked him. Now God knows, you're not supposed to like someone who was on a first name basis with Mobutu, had Charlie Taylor's Cote d'Ivoire cell phone number in his PDA, and was on a first name basis with every dictator, diamond smuggler, murderer, and gangbanger from Namibia to Mauritania, but there really wasn't any way not to like the guy: short, mean-spirited, Texan, and probably gay, he had a McGovern for '72 sticker on the back of his 98 Dodge Ram which he imported, by Container Boat, into Romania: the most incongruous use of a vehicle I've ever seen, since only one street was wide enough for the damn thing - Unity Boulevard, built by Ceaucescu on the ruins of other people's houses as the center for the New Socialist Man in 1988.
Speaking of Ceaucescu, Richard knew the guy too. In fact, when the conversation turned to the role of the secret police in modern Romanian society, he leaned over to me and whispered, in that peculiar, effeminate twang he had, I was here in '79. I met the big guy. Then, still driving with only one hand, he put on a cassette of Ebenezer someone-or-other singing Fire Fire Fire. "You heah this?" he asked me? "Twi Calypso. Have to go to Sierra Leone to get it. Dahmn! Just lis'en to that guitar!"
Now I am well aware that the possession of a refined aesthetic sense, however delightful, is no compensation for a history of dining with dictators - and I did not forget to be morally repelled. But hey, I liked the guy. Everybody did. Mobutu liked him too, and probably for the same reason.
We were buying an oil rig company together from the Romanian Privatization Agency; three hundred low-paid drillers and fourteen rusty oil rigs. "We're gonna make so much money," the little muscular fellow drawled, "that's its gonna make you sick!" All morning long, we were at meetings - promising this many contracts to the company's managers here, promising this much money to the Romanian privatization agency there. At night, I dropped him off at the Lebada hotel. Big, nice hotel on the lakefront outside of town. Quiet, civilized, nationalized - a couple of times too. It started out at the palace of Prince Gheorghe Ghica, built with peasant labor grabbed in corvee. During the regal dictatorship, the prince had to flee the country and the King gave the palace as a gift to the Romanian Orthodox Church, which promptly turned some of the most valuable land in the country into a monastery; from their perch on the lake they could look over the main road as legionnaires marched along the road to the Russia to do battle for Hitler and bless the young troops as they passed. When Ana Pauker took the express train from Moscow to manage Communist Romania, she personally nationalized the property and turned it into a Tuberculosis Sanitorium. In the communist days, there was of course only one real treatment for TB - they threw away the key. Finally, the same Privatization Agency we were going to buy the oil rig company from sold the TB Sanitarium to a shady, unknown Limited Partnership from the Caymans and soon wide-boys with purple suits and Mercedes were all over the place, turning it into a hotel. Fifteen generations of exploiters, divided into four seperate social organizations with the goal of stepping on the neck of society.
The hotel, as you can imagine, was gorgeous. Gypsy bands, good food and wine, and a giant 300 foot staircase arising into the hotel from the foot of the Pantelimon lake. It was at the foot of the staircase that Richard had the stroke. At first, we didn't realize what it was, his arm was just trembling and it was difficult for him to talk. I thought, in fact, that he was throwing up. Finally, with great difficulty, he sat down, narrowly missing slipping down the staircase and breaking his head on the foot of the lake. Everyone gathered around him to find out what was wrong, starting with me, jumping out of the taxi, instantly in command. A gaggle of waiters arguing amongst themselves. One of them, more medically aware than the others - a stroke, he's having a stroke.
There were no real ambulances in Bucharest back then, just station wagons that had to pass for ambulances as best they could. We got one to come there, an hour quicker than usual, howling and screaming on the phone that an American was dying in the Hotel parking lot, and went with him in it to the Colentina hospital Neurological Emergency Room.
Bucharest then had one thing in common with Bucharest now: the Doctors are brilliant, the equipment non-existent. My buisiness partner, who had watched me befriend good old Richard with mounting disgust, mumbled morosely as they took him into an examination room, "He got what he deserved, the crooked bastard. People like him helped create places like this. Now he's gonna die in one."
Only one light bulb in the entire hall; its few rays vanished into the gloominess of the ward. The other patients were there; you could hear them moaning and begging for water behind locked padded doors; every now and then a bored looking assistant, who seemed something like a cross between a peasant and a lunatic, would open the door with a dirty cistern of some kind of water and go in with the water splashing on the floor. He would come out with the empty cistern smiling malevolently like a man who felt stronger than he did before thanks to his ability to look upon death. There was only one doctor, an older woman, in a robe and fuzzy blue slippers; the slippers seemed like the only color in the entire hall. The hall ended abruptly in a muddy curtain where the wall was broken open because of construction; other than the small space near the space heater occupied by the doctor, the entire hallway was beastly cold. The examination room had blood spots on the wall, stacks of IV Bottles stacked on the floor, mud and cockroaches crawling all around. Richard looked around him, absolutely terrified, unable to say anything at all, barely able to move. "Leave him," my partner said, "we brought him to the hospital, let's go." He hated the man, the way you hate a Nazi.
I might have done it; hell, I know when to be morally affronted, and the guy had done nothing but affront me all day with stories of dictators paid and kept in power; just then the assistant leaned over Richard's bench and began mumbling the Orthodox prayer for the dead. "GET HIM OUT!" Richard managed to yell with the good half of his mouth, "GET THAT BASTARD OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW!".
I ignored the screaming - even an angel of mercy can only do so much - and ambled over to the doctor who was scribbling little squiggles in a little book. "How's he gonna do", I asked.
She rattled off, all matter of fact, "Your friend is having a series of strokes. We know how to diagonise it and we know just what to do. He needs a lot of Heparin, intravenous, now. If he doesn't get it within six hours, he'll either spend the rest of his life as a cripple or die. If he's important," (said with a weary sigh) "get him an air ambulance out of the country, and the sooner you get it the more of a use of his body and mind he'll have. "
There really wouldn't be any point going through the next three hours in any detail with you - Richard's terrified eyes as we moved him from place to place trying to find him some Heparin somewhere in a hospital in Bucharest, anyone we could beg it from or bribe. My partner, who performed in the end of the day kept asking me: was it fair that this Bastard, rich and important that he was, use his ill gotten money to bribe away Medicine from people he helped to keep down. "First do no harm," I kept saying him, which I think is the beginning of the Hippocratic Oath, though I'm far from a Doctor myself. I was on the cell phone all night long 'till an ambulance came to take him to the Swiss, and although he'll be bribing no more dicators, he'll be able to retire and peacefully live out his life.
In a rare moment of lucidity, before they put him on the plane, he said to me, tears in his eyes, that he thanked me for helping him and that he knew God would forgive me for every lie I ever told up to that date. I know a man can smile, and smile, and smile and be a villain, but can any of you tell me: is there such a thing as a villain with the power to bless?