Which Came First, the Screw or the Lily?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

It’s fitting that the snow is falling outside today, as it reminds me of the lesson I learned from the screw and the lily.

The Screw & The Lily

The Screw & The Lily

It was winter 1999, and Dave Churchman had convinced me (with not much hesitation on my part as you’ll see in a moment) to take on the Executive Director’s position at the local AmCham office in Baku, Azerbaijan.

That I was excited to do it was beside the point at that time- I needed to make some money to pay back-taxes that my bookkeeper was supposedly paying. I had gotten a call in September from a friend, a local lawyer who helped set up my business, saying that the bank had closed my account because the taxes had not been paid. “Nyet, Nyet! That’s absurd,” I told him in my best Russian. “I have the paperwork to prove it.” I took him the papers and he confirmed that his signature had been forged and that the taxes had indeed not been filed.

That was how I came to be working at the newspaper with John Boit. Until it folded, in its second month, leaving us both wondering what we were going to do… which is how we got to the Wharf on that particular day, having decided that a drink would help us think better… doesn’t iced tea always help?

At any rate, I had taxes to re-pay, salaries due and a cat to feed. My second job at the University provided me with a small apartment but any money I earned from my business services office went to pay salaries for teachers and, presumably, taxes. I got a third job editing at the newspaper so that I could re-pay the taxes. (Welcome to embezzlement 101- I later discovered that my accounts receivable had been siphoned off to buy a visa to America, secretly being “arranged” at a hefty fee on the street, outside the Embassy knowledge or control.)

So, on that day when Dave asked me to step into his “office” as it was, I took a look at the figure he wrote on the bar napkin and thought I had been delivered. I could be an honest woman again. And it seemed it might be that way until… the Swindle.

The first thing I had to do in my new capacity as the Executive Director was to oversee the build out of the new AmCham office. The Board had agreed to a fine plan to take this group to the next level- you know, the one that called for this “high powered Oil Guy”. Well he would apparently need a nice office from which to court new influential members. And, it just so happened, there was an architect-designer in town who just fit the bill.

Now, stop and think about this for a moment… here we are in Azerbaijan, not exactly a household name yet with those in America. And yet we have an architect-designer from the states who happens to have the perfect solution to the need of the hour? I have to say I was more that a bit skeptical. But of course, you remember Dave’s famous line, “You won’t have to do a thang, darlin’.”

The Board had approved Brian’s plan and he had been advanced $13,000 to buy supplies in Europe… Keep in mind that this $13,000 “advance” was 10x the annual salary of a professor, or 86x more than my secretary made per month! Yeah, that’s what I said too!

The office was supposed to be done in September, then November, then by year end. It wouldn’t have been much of a problem except that we had planned a gala grand opening kick off party for the new office, and had invited the President of Azerbaijan, along with the Prime Minister, several key figures, the US Ambassador and dozens of guests and media types. This thing had to be done by New Year’s at the latest.

Now a swindle wouldn’t be good without some drama, so that even though you know the train is coming- you can see the lights approaching- you have too many other details to distract you to really focus on how big it’s going to be. And this turned out to be a doozy- a Louisiana businessman overseeing a sweetheart deal with a shady architect. What could be better?

On the night before the grand opening, after many assurances that we were almost there, I finally got to see the office when one of the workers left the door unlocked by mistake. 24 hours to go and what I saw was breathtaking- and not in a good way! Sheets of plastic, bare studs on the ‘focus wall’ (which needed to be padded and covered in a cocoa colored suede fabric as a background for custom made chrome lettering), the fabric for the chairs was stacked in the corner (not on the chairs) and wires hung from everywhere… What the ??? (OMG hadn’t been coined yet, but that would have been next!) I gasped, then got angry, then called Dave.

He had a few choice words of his own and then finally tried to reach Brian on his cell phone. It seems Brian was making a heroic sacrifice by flying to Europe himself, to personally pick up the fabric for the wall. But he assured us that we would have the opening as scheduled.

Where had all the money gone? What had they been paying him for all this time? Life Lesson: When someone tells you “You won’t have to do a thang” start making a back-up plan just in case!

We got all the workers back over to the office and everyone worked all night, some tucking fabric over the chairs, some assembling the furniture, others fixing the lights- of which there were many. In an office that was the size of a good bedroom, perhaps 12’x20′, there were 16 lights of various sizes and kinds wired up throughout. We had downspots over the conference table, uplights for the eventual lettering, focus lights for a piece of art (which someone later came to repossess off the wall) and these upturned crescent shaped “dentist” light things at each desk. Plus, the building had fluorescent lighting overhead as well. There was something Freudian about all those lights- a guy with so much to hide, wiring in that many lights?

The rest of the swindle details emerged fully over the next few months, and kept the Wharf buzzing for weeks, but this brings us to the screw and the lily.

Given all the drama of the last 24 hours, I could hardly look at this guy and yet, like a true diva to the end, he still could not admit that he had done anything but look out for the “image of the chamber by making a real statement with this office”- ughh… The Prime Minister was on his way, I went in to take one look at what we had to present for the ribbon cutting, not knowing what to expect- and there was Brian, standing on the table, wedging a 3 inch screw into a can light (literally taped to the ceiling) to hold it at the right angle so the light would shine on the art piece we “bought” but were about to lose… how poetic. We had stapled fabric on the chairs, missing window coverings, lettering held up with straight pins and all he could see was the angle of the light.

I had bought a bouquet of carnations from a street vendor on the way in, thinking they would look nice in the vase on the table. But Brian had removed these to the wet bar (yes, a wet bar!) and had carefully placed 5 calla lilies in the vase and laid a sixth one- just so- across the table in front of the vase, and had focused (screwed?) a solitary spotlight on the lone lily.

Which came first, the lily or the screw I really don’t know. But I smiled when we entered the office for the first time after the ribbon was cut. My secretary whispered to me that she had seen the lily “the one that fell out of the vase”, and had been sure to put it back. I had to laugh… poetic justice indeed.

After all the drama of the months leading up to the opening, after the security surrounding the Prime Minister and others, the Board finally had a chance to relax and enjoy the uniquely un-finished product. I grabbed my digital camera and rounded up the Board members for what is now a most historic photo, the first one posted here… and as far as I know, the screw is still in that light fixture. Isn’t that fitting, after all?

One thought on “Which Came First, the Screw or the Lily?

  1. Pingback: Expat Living: What Does Extortion Look Like Where You Live? | Life Lessons

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