Due to the animated discussion of distribution models and dealer profits, I’ll resurrect The Autobiography Of BS© - just for this one time. As all the other stories, the story is true. Even the name wasn’t changed. Harry is still alive and well. I just did make sure.
It was a Friday. At the tender age of 23, I served as the editor-in-chief of a small German weekly, and I hated hectic Fridays when we had to put the new issue to bed.
My friend Harry was on the phone.
“I need your help. Urgent financial matters.”
That was a new one. One problem Harry did not have was financials. The name of Harry’s deceased father was on a large German publishing house. Dad had wisely written into his will that Harry should be kept far, far away from the business, in exchange for undisclosed sums. Harry would never get over the outrageous fact that his dad hadn’t found him worthy of managing a huge publishing house. Harry settled into a bohemian lifestyle and did what he did best: Write.
His trick was to look poor. “Otherwise everybody will hit me up for money.” And suddenly HE claims to have financial problems?
“Can’t that wait until Monday? I have to put the magazine to bed.”
“It’s urgent. I need you now. Huge problems with my bank. Can’t explain it over the phone. Just come.”
Sounded ominous enough. I quickly looked over the proofs and handed the rest to my deputy, with the warning that he would be a head shorter by Monday if he messed it up.
Half an hour later, I was at Harry’s place.
“So what’s the problem?”
“You know, I moved to that new part of town, and the old bank where I lived is too far away and inconvenient. I opened an account at the bank down at the corner.”
“And now the money must go from the old bank to the new bank.”
“Are you nuts? You are calling me away from work on a friggen Friday for THAT? You write a bank transfer slip, and it’s done.”
“Too complicated. Can’t trust those banks. We go to the old bank, withdraw the money. Then we put it in the new bank. Oh, and on the way back, we buy the van. We need money to pay for the van.”
“A van? What do you need a van for?”
Harry explained that the other day, he had been turned down by a hotel. Supposedly, they were fully booked. Truth be told, this was the early 70s, and both Harry and I looked like the guys in Murilee’s inaugurational story a TTAC. Compared to us, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers looked well groomed. The receptionist at the fivestar where Harry had intended to bed down for the night probably thought that the scion of one of Germany’s most highly respected publishing houses couldn’t possibly LOOK LIKE THAT, and denied him a room.
“And what do you need the van for?”
“Next time I won’t get a room, I’ll sleep in it.”
“You have totally lost it. Guess how many suites you can book for the price of a van.”
“I want a van. A Ford Transit.”
“Nah, I just throw two mattresses in the back. It’s just in case. Usually, I get a room.”
For the umpteenth time, I understood the wisdom of his passed away father to keep Harry away from the levers of a large corporation.
We piled in a taxi and drove to the bank. Walked up to the cashier, where Harry announced:
“I want to make a withdrawal.”
The cashier looked at the two fabulous furry freak bothers and put on his best condescending grin.
Then he punched a few keys. He looked at the screen. He took off his glasses and cleaned them. He looked again. His face froze.
“Sir, do I understand you right that you intend to withdraw the full balance in your account in CASH?”
“That’s what I said.”
“Can’t we help you with a better investment? With this kind of money we can give you prefer …”
“I want the cash. We don’t have all day. We have other business to complete.”
“Certainly, Sir. Of course, Sir. Just a minute, Sir.”
The cashier rummaged in his drawer. Mumbled something unintelligible. Then he went to a small vault in the cashier’s cage. Mumbled something unintelligible. Then he announced “just a moment, gentlemen” and went to the back. He returned with two guards who carried a case.
“I guess you won’t mind larger denominations, Sir?”
“Just give me the money,” Harry grouched. He was in a foul mood, he hadn’t had a drink since lunchtime.
Harry handed the cashier two canvass bags and the cashier filled them. I didn’t want to know how much it was, and to this day, I don’t. The bags were big.
“Will the gentlemen need more assistance? The guards can escort you to your automobile.”
“No thanks, we take a taxi.”
Next stop was the largest Ford dealer in Frankfurt. With the banking matters behind us, this was my part, I was the alleged car expert.
“We want to buy a Ford Transit.”
The receptionist gave us a good long “gauge the customer” look, wrinkled her nose and said:
They found a salesman. He gave us an indignant look and spread out brochures.
“What do you have here?”
“This is the finest utility vehicle in its class.”
“I mean, what do you have on the lot?”
“You can order anything from these brochures. Ford will custom make the van to your specifications.”
“We want to take one home. Today. What do you have in stock?”
He was shocked. He called around. Finally, we stood in front of three Transits.
Harry pointed at a white one and said: “That one.”
I then started the usual price negotiation. I dropped “we pay cash” into the conversation (which was ignored,) and received the customary 5 percent discount.
“Ok. So how do we pay for it?”
“We can offer you attractive financing options.”
“Didn’t I say we pay cash?”
“Look, I already gave you a 5 percent discount.”
“It’s a cash transaction.”
“O.k., 6 percent, anything more and I get fired.”
“We’ll take it. But we are paying in cash. So where …”
“Gentlemen, this was my best offer.”
“We will pay cash.”
“You are making this very hard on me. I need to talk to my manager.
Off he went.
He came back with the manager in tow. The manager explained that 6 percent is the most his dealership can do without going bankrupt, but taken into account that this was a floor model:
“Great, we’ll take it.”
Harry signed on the bottom line.
“Now, as I said, we’ll be paying in cash.”
“Gentlemen, please!!!! Any further discounts are absolutely out of the question !!!”
“Let me rephrase that: How would you like to get paid?”
“As I said, there is very attractive financing …”
“WE ARE PAYING IN CASH !!!!!!”
“O.k., o.k., I get it, no problem. Just transfer the money. Or write a check.”
“WE ARE PAYING IN CASH !!!!!!”
“No need to get excited. We’ll work something out.”
I grabbed one of the canvass bags, opened it and let him have a look inside.
His expensively tanned complexion turned waxen.
“You mean, you want to, I mean, pay WITH THAT?”
“We’ve been saying this for hours.”
“We are not set up for this.”
“I recommend to change that.”
Frantic calls ensued. Finally a skinny old bookkeeper appeared, carrying a cashbox usually used for petty cash.
I reached in the bag and counted out the money in large Deutschmark bills. No Euros in 1972. The bookkeeper fingered them, they passed muster.
“Ok, where’s the van?”
“We need to get it ready. Come back Monday.”
“We want it now. We paid …”
“… I know, I know. Come back in a few hours.”
While someone checked the air and the fluids, someone else probably ran a background check and found out that one of the furry freak brothers was indeed the scion of a famous German family, while the other one remained a mystery.
Just two years later, when the Red Army Faction got going in earnest, we probably would have been arrested on the spot.
PS: As for Harry, he had his revenge. He is one of the most sought-after translators of the trickiest English literature into German, from Flann O’Brien to Hemmingway. He did more than 100 books, “nine this year.” He also plays a perennial role in Germany’s perennial soap “Lindenstrasse.” Playing a homeless bum, he’s more famous than the publishing company that was swallowed by an even bigger one.