The writings of  Richard Kluger

National Anthem

Excerpt (pages 150-154)


Half of Xanadu City


AT TWO IN THE AFTERNOON the following day, I return to The Bottom of the Barrel, where I am warmly hailed by Shag’s retainers for the exemplary aptitude I displayed the night before in taking a punch and falling down. Shag himself is popeyed with joy at the sight of me and, pumping my hand with lavish zeal, says through teeth clenching a cigar, “You got lots more in the cojones department than I ever figured.”

I take neither inventory nor umbrage but thank him for the esteem implicit in this manliest encomium and follow him to his booth at the rear, where all the newspapers are spread open to the stories of the robbery. The Daily News account, headlined “CPW PIRATE HEFTS $40OG TREASURE CHEST,” is the most extensive, reporting that neighbors summoned police to the Lifeline apartment just after midnight by which time the masked thief, “remarkably well-spoken, according to the victims,” had long since vanished, bearing gems valued at $275,000, a seventeenth-century masterpiece by “Carravagio” (sic) said to be worth an estimated $100,000, and about $25,000 in cash.

“That’s big-time, baby,” says Shag, and promptly offers to sell me half of The Bottom of the Barrel. “There’s no rush – take about two minutes to decide. If it takes longer, you’re not the guy I want in with me.”

I do not bat an eyelash. “But why,” I ask, “should a big-time robber become a tavern keeper?”

“That’s what all big-time robbers become. It’s like an annuity when they stop robbing. No self-respecting robber wants to wind up running a toy store or a delicatessen, right?”

There is something very persuasive about Shag Shaughnessy’s spontaneity. “Yes,” I say, “but how do I know you are not trying to bilk me? If your tavern is doing well, why do you want to sell me half? If it is not doing well, why should I want to buy in?”




Shag signals for two beers. Then he says, “Good, I like your candor – you come right out with it. Those are perfectly fair questions – very astute, very pertinent. Clearly you are a man I will be able to work with in absolute harmony. And that’s the only arrangement that makes any sense. Who needs a partner he’s going to argue with all day? Who needs a guy who pussyfoots around for an hour before he comes out with what’s eating him? Not me, I’ll tell you that. Now, what about the name – do you think we should change it? I like to change it every once in a while. It keeps us out of a rut. Besides which it’s great fun. We make long lists of new names and poll all the customers. Then we call it what I want to call it. Right now I’m thinking we ought to call it something vaguely psychedelic – nothing blatant, of course, because that would suggest we’re just following a fad, which I am against. It just ought to suggest a very bright, sort of shimmering image, you know? Something like, uh, Xanadu City.” He pauses to swallow beer. “How’s that grab you?”

“My questions,” I say.

“What questions?”

“The astute, pertinent ones.”

“Right – what about them?”

“You haven’t answered them. And my two minutes are nearly up.”

“Oh – I thought they were rhetorical.”

“Well, not entirely.”

“What? You mean you actually think I’d try to get you to buy half of a lemon?”

“I didn’t say that. I was just after some particulars.”

“But that’s petty. It’s character that counts in a partnership.”

“Granted – but I thought it might be nice to know exactly what I’m being asked to buy.”

“Hold it, Smiley. You’re not being asked to buy. You’re being invited.”


“As to this ‘exactly’ business, I can’t really help you. What you’re buying is a franchise – and most of that is good will. I’ve never offered to let anyone buy half of that before.”

“Why am I the lucky first?”

“Partly because you’ve got some loose money.”




“That’s what I figured.”

“But that’s only part if it. The main thing is it’s more laughs when you’re in with someone else. I get tired of talking to myself all day.”

“I can understand that.”

“Then it’s all settled.”

“But you haven’t answered my questions yet.”

“They don’t matter.”


“Because I’m going to blackmail you if you say no.”

“You wouldn’t do that.”

“Try me.”

“But that’s not a nice thing to do.”

“I know. But I’m desperate.”

“The place is that much in the hole?”

“Oh, no, the place is fine. It’s boredom I’m desperate from.”

“Then why don’t you sell the place and buy a yacht or something?”

“I have a yacht – or at least a very substantial cabin cruiser.”

“So go sail it to Singapore.”

“That’s a drag. Besides, I crave New York’s air pollution.”

“How much do you want me to pay?”

“Whatever you think’s fair.”

“What do you gross?”

“About half what we will when we fix the place up with your dough.”

“That’s not responsive to the question.”

“Okay, the bar pulls about a hundred and ten thou a year, the kitchen between fifteen and twenty, the juke between six and seven. What’s that come to? Say about a hundred twenty-five, a hundred thirty. I take away about twenty a year. If we can jack the gross up to two hundred, the take should be between forty or fifty – plus all the booze you can handle.”

I nod. “Okay, I’ll pay ten thousand for a half interest.”

“I was thinking of about fifty.”

“Okay, twenty – provided you keep running the place.”

“But you’ve got to show up every day for at least an hour.”

“Sold. And Xanadu City is fine with me.”




Delighted, he tosses the rest of his beer in my face and says rollickingly, “That’s to baptize the deal.” So I throw mine in his and we perform a wet and manly hug. Still dripping, we agree there will be no papers, no lawyers, no anything – just our sacred words.

“And when will I get the money?” he asks.

“When Action comes through.”

“Has he got the stuff?”

“No, I’m supposed to see him here tomorrow. He wants it to cool for a day.”

“So where is it?”

“I’m not going to tell any blackmailing bastard a thing like that.”

“I was bluffing, schmuck.”

“Okay, it’s in a locker at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.”

“Including the painting?”

“Yeah, I took the frame off and rolled the canvas up in linen.”

“You rolled it? Didn’t the paint crack?”

“Remember Bobby Butterfield from college?”

“The faggot?”

“The very one. Well, it turns out he’s an associate curator at the Met – we worked the whole thing out this morning.”

“What whole thing?”

“He came over to look at it. He says everyone knows the Lifeline Collection and there’s no question that it’s quite genuine. And he showed me how to roll it up so I wouldn’t ruin it.”

“Why did he do that?”

“I promised to let him play with my body when the deal goes through.”

“What deal?”

“Oh, well, I’m going to let the museum buy the painting from me at half price. Of course museums don’t generally buy stolen paintings, so we had to work out something ingenious. What we’re doing is that I’m going to send Bobby an anonymous note asking the museum to get Lifeline’s permission to keep the painting as a donation from him, and if he says yes I will mail it to the museum, and Bobby, in strictest confidence, will get me the fifty thousand. If Lifeline or the museum says no, the note says the painting will be destroyed in forty-eight hours.”

“Suppose they don’t go for it?”

“Why shouldn’t they go for it? Lifeline’ll get a big fat tax deduction, the museum’ll have a major new acquisition for half what they’d have to pay at an auction, Bobby’ll be a hero – and I’ll have my fifty thou under the table.”

“Suppose Bobby doesn’t come through with the money?”

“Then I won’t let him play with me.”

“Suppose he pays, plays, and rats on you later?”

“I’ll say he took a cut.”



©2017 Richard Kluger