I’m smoking a thirteen-dollar Maduro in an expensive cigar store in a rich town. Normally I don’t spend so much on pricey smokes but I like this place. And they have leather chairs you can sink into and forget your troubles until the last ash falls.
“I can’t believe that guy fucked me,” the old man sitting next to me says. “I can’t believe how he fucked me.”
I look up from my book. The man’s not talking to me. He’s talking to a casually dressed guy sitting on the other side of the room. And when I say casual I mean he’s dressed down in duds that cost more than I make in a month. Hell, the wristwatch peeking out from under his grey cashmere sweater is greater than my net worth.
“Unbelievable,” he says. “That’s not right.”
“And I’ve been friends with his father for years. The least he could’ve done was call me.”
“But he never did,” the old man says. “Even if he called me with some bullshit that would have been better than nothing.”
“Sorry,” the man across the room says, running his fingers though his sandy hair. “I feel for you.”
“And you know what the son said to me? He said, ‘Don’t take it personally. It’s only business.’”
I dog ear my paperback and listen to the men talk. I’m not a regular patron but they know who I am. And even though I’m the poorest guy in the room they don’t seem to hold it against me.
“Figures,” the sandy haired guy says. “Someone on the Street once told me that cash always came before friendship.”
“Listen,” the old man says, “I’ve always tried to get myself the best deal. But I never deliberately went out of my way to screw some one.” Judging from the elderly gent’s expensive topcoat and Italian shoes he probably got himself a boatload of good deals over the years.
“Shame about his old man,” his friend says. “That’s gotta hurt.”
“A guy I’ve known almost forty years. That’s all gone now. Finished.”
The old man takes a long draw on his cigar and blows a wistful cloud towards the ceiling. I watch as the tumbling smoke gets sucked up into the air filter and dies. “Don’t take it personally?” he says to no one in particular. “What is that?”
“It’s always personal,” I say.
“Huh?” the old man says, shifting his cool blue eyes onto me.
“I’ve been fired several times,” I say. “And I’ve fired people. It was always personal. That’s because business is between people and everything between people is personal.”
“You’re right!” the sandy haired man almost shouts. “When I got fired or laid off it was personal. When some one screwed me on a deal it was personal. You can’t tell me it isn’t.”
“And yet,” I say, “These very same guys will tell you, ‘Business is all about relationships.’ You can’t have it both ways.”
The sandy haired man falls silent while old man continues puffing on his cigar. In the back of the store the compressor in the vending machine switches on with a labored thump. I take a pull on my Maduro and let the smoke fly to its doom.
The sandy haired man breaks the quiet. “A guy I once knew told me that cash always comes before friendship. How can people be like that?”
“That’s no way to live,” the old man says. “Materialism is the root of all sadness.”
“You’re right,” the sandy haired man says. “It is.”
I would usually be amused by wealthy people saying such a thing – but I’ve learned the rich can have wisdom too. Sometimes when they’ve finished their climb to the top they discover the summit isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
After a while the old man says goodbye and walks out the door, resignation lacquering his face like nicotine. The sandy haired man soon follows him and I’m alone with my book at last. As my cigar dwindles down to a stub I read about a violent man traveling down lonely roads in search of one last good kiss. I’ve read the book before. He’ll never find it. I know that hurts because a girl once ran me off the same road. When I wrecked myself she said it wasn’t personal either. She didn’t know what she was saying. Probably never will.
It’s always personal.