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Death to Bromeliads (1992)

Eric Eschenbach, CEO of Plantopia, Inc. called an emergency meeting of his VP of Research, his manufacturing engineer, his technical advisor from Ohio State, and his general business analyst. Rafi happened to be the latter. As Rafi returned to his office after a run at Edgewater Park, he flipped open his Plantopia file, kicked off his shoes, and took a copy of a patent filing out of the file.  “Semipermeable container to protect cut flowers.”  OK, this is Patent Number 3,896,437. Probably about 1981. I remember – they got the science wrong, but the idea was right. That’s why Plantopia has a product. I’ll check the math on semipermeable membranes before the meeting.

Rafi had converted his quick mind and broad interests into a business career. Another sabra had managed to get him in front of a rich family by securing an invitation to a paddleball tournament. Rafi didn’t play paddleball; he had never heard of the game. But he was a solid Class B racquetball player, and he had picked up squash well enough to compete at the 13th Street Racquet Club. As a personnel recruiter, a job that any high school graduate could do, Rafi was the poorest member of the club by far. If he had better manners, he would have been able to get connected at a higher level to the business community in Cleveland. But he had five racquets, but four of them were broken due to his bad competitive disposition.

Given the opportunity to play paddleball with rich people, Rafi had practiced sitting on his temper. Literally. The 13th Street Club had a performance coach who used mindfulness meditation to control the internal game. Rafi signed up – and spent more time in a seated position, breathing, than he did playing against the coach. The coach acknowledged that the rich folk wouldn’t tolerate him sitting on his racquet (or paddle)  and breathing between points. In fact, by his fourth session, Rafi was practicing intelligent banter between points, win or lose.  When he got to the private club, he knew what to do.

“Rafi, I want you to meet Steve Longstreth. He’s looking to start a venture capital business of some sort. He’s also a pretty good paddleballer. Give him a go.”

Rafi exchanged pleasantries with the gold-haired twentysomething who looked like a model from GQ. Rafi’s white Lacoste polo shirt still had the creases from having been purchased earlier that day. Longstreth’s monogrammed polo was pressed, for heaven’s sake. Rafi’s socks showed the concern that evidenced their random selection from the sock drawer. Longstreth’s were again, monogrammed, and just as crisp as his shirt. Both men were wearing clean, well-fitting white shorts, but Longstreth’s looked better, naturally.

Five points into the match, the casual dialogue between points began. Rafi knew to let Longstreth initiate the conversation.

“You said you’re a composer. You can’t actually make a living doing that, can you?”
“No. I do it because my life is better that way. I make a living in personnel.”
“I have a friend who’s a headhunter. I’ll introduce you.”

Another few points in, Rafi starts.

“My friend says you’re in venture capital. What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to find funding for startups. I get a percentage of the investment if it works.”
“Even if the company goes bust?”
“Yep, Some firms keep on consulting to the venture capital company or the startup after the placement.”

Rafi was on serve, so he stopped the action for a moment.

“Do you do that?”
“No, I don’t think I’m credible as an analyst.”
“What kinds of projects would you do, if you could?”
“I’ve got a client with a waterjet cutting tool that’s really good with aerospace polymers. If I could only find out how much linear cut is available in the market, I could set a figure for the total available market for their machine.”
“I can do that – it’s a math problem. And an information problem.”
“Let’s finish the game. We’ll go to the bar, grab a drink, and talk.”

Rafi worked for Steve for three years until Steve closed down his office. Then Rafi picked up enough of Steve’s circle of friends as clients to open his Superior Avenue office. His prospects brightened when he started living with Margie, because they set their financial plan based on a low average of their two incomes, so they had saved some money for times when Rafi would not have business. The current client, Eric Eschenbach, was a childhood friend of Steve’s, so it was easy to convert Plantopia into a client. Now Rafi felt the cold industrial wood floor on the soles of his feet and thought back to the Kibbutz, where he would spend his free time as a child in the greenhouse.

Little Rafi in the khaki shorts, uniform shirt unbuttoned if on, barefoot in class or in the greenhouse. Little Rafi wandering through rows of U-shaped cucumbers, “desert-sweet” tomatoes, and hybrid tea roses. Little Rafi slipping a metal chip into the greenhouse lock so he could slip out of the dorm later and experiment with the controls, read the logs, or just daydream. Little Rafi with an incredible crush on his teacher. Little Rafi leaving the cafeteria without breakfast in order to take the bouquet of roses he had cut for her the previous night. Little Rafi learning to play the violin because he couldn’t drag a piano through the greenhouse doors – and he wanted to experiment on the growth rates of flowers and vegetables in response to music.

Now the client had grabbed a Plantopia package containing a bromeliad, a kind of jungle plant that uses its roots only to hold on to branches in the canopy and high understory, with a brilliant cactuslike efflorescence in the middle of waxy leaves. Noticing in fury that he could see three tiny insects called thrips inside the HD-PE plastic housing with the neoprene back and that the gas permeability was off enough to cause fogging on the display plastic, Eric punched through the semipermeable neoprene backing. He ripped out the unwitting bromeliad and its three unlucky thrips and choked the plant in his right fist as he drop kicked the package from a left hand drop. Then he dismembered the plant, leaf by leaf, until all the leaves were down and only the efflorescence remained. He squeezed the efflorescence like a wrist grip and smashed what was left of it on the window to the production facility and ground its every last drop of pigment into the plate glass. Now barefoot Rafi, all grown up, gazed over at the lab he had built in his shared office, at the packaged bromeliads and orchids sitting in gas-controlled Plexiglas boxes.

Now I don’t produce bouquets of puppy-love. Now I grow orchids in plastic. Greenhouses. Greenhouses. Who would have ever thought, Orkney the Orchid, that you need your own greenhouse where no boy can take of his shirt and tread barefoot?

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About Ronald FIschman

I am a public school teacher who had a prior career as a cantor, opera singer, and composer. My greatest notoriety comes from my settings of Dylan Thomas's "Vision and Prayer" and Percy Byssshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" for singers and large instrumental ensemble. My first poetry collection, "Generations," honors the roles of son, husband, and father, and is available at Amazon.com.

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