tagFirst TimeUp For Auction

Up For Auction

bykvingibson©

Errol Tarken returned to work on September 14, 2001, three days after Terrorists leveled the World Trade Towers. Power was disrupted for most of lower Manhattan and public transportation routes were redirected, making it nearly impossible for most businesses to open. When Errol finally got to the century old auction house where he worked, he found the Curator's Library in darkness. Never, in his five year career with the brokerage firm, had he seen the chamber appear so ominous. A faint red glow, cast by exit signs, reflected strangely against the room's enormous crystal chandeliers. Assistant Curator Tarken, who regularly worked alone in the firm's cavernous warehouse spaces, could not have felt more uneasy. He rushed to his office, retrieving drafts for upcoming auction catalogs and packets of descriptive research, then hurried downstairs. The building was practically deserted and seemed especially empty in the aftermath of lower Manhattan turmoil.

Tarken hesitated when he spotted a shadowy figure leaning against a corridor wall, leading towards the darkened Receiving Department. At first glance, he thought an intruder had entered the building. Alerting Security was foremost in his thoughts. Studying the profile as he slowly approached, Tarken spotted a company identification badge, dangling from a neck lanyard.

"Good Morning, Sir," a stressed young man uttered in weary tone. "Are the Curators working today?"

Errol stopped, abruptly. Clearly that young man was familiar with the staff and knew that Errol was a curator. Still, Errol had never seen such a sloppy employee working at the auction house. A closer inspection revealed he was wearing cargo style Kakis and a light blue Oxford button down, the firm's designated uniform for male hourly workers. Errol noticed the stark contrast between the clean-cut, handsome young man pictured on the employee badge and the unkempt lad standing before him in severely wrinkled clothes. A whiff of perspiration suggested the fellow may have slept in his clothes—perhaps for days.

"I don't think too many people will be working today," Errol predicted, "I'm just picking up some notes so I can do my work from home."

"You're lucky you can do that," came a sullen reply from behind a melancholy gaze.

Errol nodded, empathetically as he inched away. Then, suddenly he stopped, turned and read the name ADAM from his co-worker's badge. Errol wondered if he were standing in Adam's shoes, would anybody offer to help. He assumed the crisis had prevented the guy from getting home. There was probably nowhere else for him to go. Feeling obligated to do something, Errol offered, "Hey, Adam? I've got running water at my apartment. Do you want to come back and get cleaned up?"

Errol lived in a sixth floor, West Side, studio set in a distinctive pre-war brownstone. It was an unconventional space featuring an original fireplace, a galley kitchenette and a laundry in the bathroom. High ceilings and original dark woodwork offered the perfect setting for the Art Curator to showcase bold French Rococo design. Deep shades of red, gold and black dominated the reproduction furnishings and period patterned drapes. Walls were lined with framed Caravaggio oils, while bronze and ceramic sculpture filled every available niche. A stately Grandfather's clock stood wedged behind the entry door, facing the leaded crystal windows framed atop an ornate, drop-leaf, Secretary Desk. If this collection were authentic, the ensemble would have been priceless. The position of Auction House Curator demands a particular talent for spotting forgeries and imitations. Every piece in Errol's apartment is fake, yet they are very convincing renditions.

Adam was awestruck from the moment Errol unlocked the apartment. "You live here? This is really nice. I never would have thought an apartment could look like this!" In closer quarters, Adam smelled worse. Errol hurried to point out the stacked laundry unit, offer some soap, towels and even a fresh toothbrush; before giving his co-worker the benefit of bathroom privacy. From outside the bathroom, Errol heard the familiar gyrations of his washing machine accompanied by a prolonged rush of water from his shower head. Using the time to study his work notes, Errol became so deeply absorbed in research that he hadn't heard Adam open the bathroom door. "I guess it's OK if I just hang out in a towel," Adam suggested, sheepishly. The auction house curator, tearing himself from a state of total concentration, cringed at the sight of buff contoured youth, standing as patient as a surfer on the sand. "Oh, um, no!" Errol spotted spiked damp hair. "Sorry!" Errol cleared his throat noticing toned narrow biceps. "I didn't," his words dissolved when a pair of small tight nipples peered in his direction. "I mean... I totally forgot your things were in the wash." Nervously galloping from his ergonomic swivel chair, Errol rushed towards an open, modular closet unit, housing his neatly organized wardrobe.

The young man stood calmly clad in a bath towel with his toes touching the gold fringe of a vibrant Persian carpet, while Errol frantically unfurled a pair of blue tartan flannel sleep pants. Tripping over his own words, Errol was made visibly uncomfortable by the sight of a half-naked man, posed in his living room. Feeling guilty for not foreseeing this problem, Errol panicked and hastened to offer a remedy. "Here!" he announced, "you can wear these." Things worsened when Adam released his waist towel and stepped, one leg at time, into the drawstring, loungewear bottoms. Errol gasped, for an instant his young co-worker was standing completely in the nude. Overwhelmed at the motions unfolding before him, it felt like an eternity before the elastic waist band was safely positioned by Adam's navel. Errol's pulse raced as he likened the shocking live image of boyish genitals to the sculpted statuary of Michael Angelo. Struggling to erase the impression from his mind, the auction house Curator found himself staring intrusively into the center of the milky white hairless surface of Adam's bare chest. "Oh, no!" Errol muttered, forcing his eyes away from anything that looked like skin, bothered and consumed by an unrelenting emotional sensation. The man who made a living crafting specific, vivid, enticing descriptions of powerfully emotive artifacts, was paralyzed to understand this daunting erotic response. With his legs limbering like marshmallow, just reaching to select a fresh, folded T-shirt nearly caused him to topple. Unable to endure another second watching Adam wiggling to cover his narrow torso, Errol purposely propelled himself towards the kitchen counter. Anxious and practically hyperventilating, the apartment dweller steadied himself against the side of a full-length wall cabinet. Partially obscured from view, Errol became statuesque as he tried to understand what just happened.

Still traumatized by his unpredicted behavior, Errol labored to make some much needed coffee. Once anchored in the arm chairs flanking the darkened fireplace, Adam seemed starving as he devoured a second granola bar. Conversation proved elusive as both men were distracted by entirely different concerns. Errol thought the World Trade Center tragedy would be a safe, solid talk topic. Adam's reaction indicated otherwise. He seemed genuinely stressed. Although, not nearly as stressed as his host dealing with the post shower drama. Merely mentioning the terrorist attacks disturbed Adam, as if he'd suffered a profound personal loss. Silence was an awkward choice but it was better than upsetting an invited guest.

"Can I tell you something that I can never tell anyone at work?"

Errol, known for his steadfast adherence to company policy, was stymied by the question but equally curious about the nature of an apparent secret. Since he had already seen the guy intimately naked, it seemed like a comparatively mild request to share something in confidence. Errol nodded, assuring Adam that their conversation would never be repeated at work. Shamefully, the Warehouse worker looked down towards his toenails. "I don't actually have in an apartment. My parents divorced when I was midway through my freshmen year at a community college. They stopped paying my tuition and I got kicked out of the dorm. When I got hired for the warehouse job, I had a weird gig helping to clean out a vacant office building behind the World Trade Center. Guys without last names paid me in cash. As long as I helped clear the junk out of the building and nobody ever found out I was working there, they let me spend nights in a storage closet." Errol listened in horror. He knew the young man was facing hardships but this experience sounded absolutely reckless. "There was a garden hose attached to the hot water spigot in the slop sink. I got really good at crouching in that big sink and washing myself off," Adam affirmed. "I even had a washing machine," he boasted before his expression dampened into a discouraged grimace. Touching a tear forming at the edge of his left eye, Adam sobbed, "All my stuff, even my clothes, were destroyed when debris from the plane crash toppled the old building. I really screwed up. I have no idea what to do."

"What about your family?"

"They ditched me! I think my Mom still living out her dreams with a massage therapist in Fort Walton Beach. Dad took a job somewhere in Canada but never gave me his phone number." While Errol had enjoyed a privileged upbringing, he also had a keen understanding of becoming disenfranchised from his own parents. After graduating from a private liberal arts college, the bank chairman's son served a miserable summer internship deep in the ranks of his Dad's bank. He worked with scores of simple morons who complained constantly while doing their rudimentary tasks. The bank abhorred creativity while demanding conformity. When Errol refused to be defined by a mind-numbing, low paying career, his angered parents responded with an ultimatum. Their rebellious only child was quickly ostracized and later disinherited. Errol needn't probe further to understand Adam's predicament.

With the exception of sleeping in a vacant office building, Errol could relate to the daunting uncertainties of a young man, suddenly made homeless. Unlike Adam, the future curator followed his appreciation for the arts, answering a classified advertisement to be a live-in houseboy for SOHO gallery proprietor. He cleaned, cooked and did whatever personal favors his boss required in exchange for a bed. On weekends, he felt less like an indentured servant when offering flutes of Pinot Greggio to invited guests at exclusive gallery events. Suited in tuxedo pants and a black bow tie, mingling with affluent art buyers felt like the ultimate weekend reward. When the houseboy matured, his polish and sophistication supplanted unbridled innocence. Before being replaced by younger talent, his boss finagled a way for the dedicated art lover to understudy for an auction house curator. Getting paid for admiring great artwork would never happen at a bank.

Errol saw little point explaining the ugly details of his previous life. Adam was a bright kid who'd made a bad choice. He needed a friend, more than he needed a lecture. While Errol would have let Adam stay at his apartment for as long as necessary, there was something about himself that he needed to explain. Adam listened attentively. "There are many things I would never tell anyone at work. We all have personal lives and sometimes we have no good reason for sharing any of that stuff. It's private." Adam felt a great measure of relief when he realized that Errol really did understand. It was comforting to hear somebody put it into rational perspective. Somehow, Adam didn't find his secret quite so shameful.

Errol had simply been thinking aloud - rationalizing - while reaching to disclose something else. Gesturing up to the wall paintings, Errol admitted, "Renaissance era curators spend lots of time studying male nudes. As much as possible, we have to put ourselves into the artist's mindset in order to do our jobs. Some curators work from a completely abstract perspective while others become consumed in ways that could seem vulgar and perverted; nobody ever really knows what goes on inside our heads. If they did, I would get fired!"

Adam smiled. "It's like in school, when they make guys shower together. None of us knew what other guys were thinking about. I guess, if we did, we might get freaked."

"Listen, if you want to sleep here tonight, I think you deserve to know something about the man who is sleeping on the adjacent daybed."

With mirrored expressions of uncertainty the two men were locked in silence. Adam's left knee quivered rhythmically. Errol paused, worried that he may have already shared too much. Immersed in a whirlwind of private thoughts, Adam couldn't figure out how to ask and Errol wasn't certain what more he should tell. Neither man liked the unnatural quiet of that prolonged moment, yet neither uttered a syllable. They studied one another in their periphery, mutually absorbed by a quandary of indecision, consumed by their own reluctance to speak. Suddenly, both men flinched as the startling sound of a harsh buzzer, indicating the end of a laundry drying cycle, nearly caused Adam to tumble off his chair. Welcoming the interruption, Errol blurted, "Your clothes, they're dry!"

For the next thirteen years the men continued to share the same apartment. Errol was promoted to Managing Curator for Renaissance Art while Adam expanded his warehouse role, becoming a technical expert for the firm's prized inventory control system. They vowed to keep their work life separate from their home life, never divulging the living arrangement to co-workers. Keeping their distance and acting somewhat formal was an effective way to avoid speculation among the notoriously observant staff. Keeping the living arrangement secret was a choice more so than a requirement. Still, perception and gossip had consequences within the unusual ranks of their workplace.

One afternoon in May 2014, Errol was summoned to an unscheduled meeting in the firm's Acquisitions Office. The Acquisitions Office was a mysterious locked section of the fourth floor and the only part of the building Errol had never seen. Practically everyone at the auction brokerage was part of the sales organization: curators vetted the artifacts, auctioneers hawked the merchandise and warehouse workers moved the goods. By contrast, nobody really knew what happened in the Acquisitions Office enclave. Considering that most of the brokered goods were consigned from their owners, nothing was ever being acquired. Popular rumors fueled the conspiracy theory that the Acquisitions Office was a front for mercenaries staging heists at European museums. That notion gained traction when a former navy intelligence officer, recruited to define corporate security protocols, began managing Acquisitions. Suspicions escalated when that same manager was elevated to esteemed and powerful role of Corporate Treasurer. Briskly moving towards the sealed doors of the Acquisitions Office, Errol carried a lined yellow notepad trying to imagine the purpose of his meeting. He thought of many things, none of them were good.

A sign on the rear wall of the entry vestibule read: POSITIVELY NO ADMITTANCE. A serious security guard, wearing a medium grey dress suit, was prepared for Errol's arrival. At a firm that brokered some of most valuable artifacts in the world, Errol expected the Acquisitions Office to be as well appointed as an executive auctioneer's office suite or the firm's prized Curator's Library. Instead, it looked rather shabby. Plain dull walls, worn Berber carpet and cheap laminate desks made a poor first impression. The space was devoid of technology. Desk phones were nearly old enough to become artifacts themselves. There was even a typewriter set on a free-standing table with paper that suggested it was still being used.

Errol was led into a narrow room at the extreme rear corner of the space. Exposed Cinderblock walls made it look like a janitor's closet. A lone figure turned away from the window as Errol stepped behind a short, badly scuffed rectangular conference table. "Mr. Mushbreuger," Errol acknowledged, recognizing the firm's Corporate Treasurer, "you asked to see me, Sir?"

"Call me Herb, I retired from the Navy because too many people called me sir." His greeting was punctuated by a painful handshake, released without breaking any bones. With a controlled push, the door latched closed but did not slam. "Sit," the Treasurer commanded, as if speaking to his Bull Mastiff dog. Herb remained standing, taking the last gulp from a small can of tomato juice before tossing the container into a beige plastic bin, labeled: OFFICE PAPER ONLY. "I called you back here because this is the only spot in the whole damned building where we can have a truly private conversation." That was an unsettling statement coming from a man hired to bolster corporate security. Herb was known for brief meetings that stayed on topic. This was no different. "What would you think about joining Acquisitions?"

Errol was blindsided by the question. He'd never thought about joining the Acquisitions Office. Remembering the organization's unwritten postulate, when senior management offers you a job, there is only one answer, Errol chose his words carefully. "I'm a Managing Curator. I've always been part of the sales side of the house. I've assisted auctioneers in preparation for one day taking the gavel."

"You don't want be an auctioneer," Herb insisted, "They're all a bunch of condescending egomaniacs who take full credit for successful sales and blame others when they come up short. They're charming entertainers who read from prepared scripts as if they are speaking from expertise. They tempt their audience with scarcity, making the winning bidders feel triumphant and the losers feel inadequate. You don't want to compromise your integrity to become anything like them."

Errol listened in horror. In the space of seconds, the auction house Treasurer had decimated the most valuable staff at the firm: Auctioneers! "I don't understand," Errol protested, "the auction staff is the reason we're in business."

"Well, that is a common misconception," Herb explained, "consider the notion of an online auction where bids are tabulated by an application program. They sell everything from antiques to commercial real estate and they do it all without a guy in a rented tuxedo, holding a wooden hammer. Those days are coming to our business, faster than you think. I know that executive auctioneers presently earn more money than anyone else in this building and seem like they are indispensable. We will all witness that aspect of our industry change for good. Just look at Wall Street. Traders used to gather in auction pits and shout their bids, now it's almost entirely automated."

Errol stiffened as he listened in agony to a frightening perspective. "I suppose I don't really have a choice but to take whatever job is being offered."

"Not true," Herb reassured, "Contrary to what you might hear whispered in the third floor hallways, we do make job offers, not ultimatums. Nobody is downstairs cleaning out your desk and security guards are not waiting to see if you to see if you should be escorted out the back door. That would be foolish."

Errol wished he'd chosen different words. He was upset and confused and a bit fearful. While he wanted to be more open-minded, pre-conceived notions had taken control. "Look, I don't want to sound disgruntled but I don't even know what the Acquisitions Office does."

"Well, I can assure you that your new job would not include repelling down the walls of Mediterranean Castles, waiting to board stealth helicopters with stolen paintings. If that's what you're worried about."

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