The Grifter

Before the Olympics, back in town after a stint abroad, I used the last of my money for a month’s rent on a one-bedroom in the West End. I’d be sharing with a Persian transsexual named Linda, legal name Mahmoud. She had long blond hair, the most curious cheek implants, and a tattoo of a mermaid on her forearm. Linda slept in the living room, which was filled with plastic baby dolls and teddy bears; the real mystery was how the woman got by, as she spoke hardly any English.

Within a week, fortune smiled and I conned my way into a job as hotel night auditor, the graveyard shift at a five-diamond Relais & Châteaux establishment where the penthouse suite ran to over two thousand a sleep.

“Well,” said a young lady of my acquaintance. “You’ve landed with your bum in the butter.”

“I don’t get paid for a fortnight. Lend me a hundred?”

She knew me too well.

The hotel had its perks: a new black suit tailored at Dunn’s, bottles of Harvey’s Bristol Cream that went astray from service carts, and a staff meal at 3 in the morning, anything I wanted from the cooler in the restaurant: prosciutto-wrapped spot prawns, Bleu Bénédictin from L’Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac spread on Raincoast Crisps, venison or beef Bourguignon followed by a chocolate mousse, all washed down with Kopi Luwak coffee. I’d park Ferraris and Bentleys underground in the dead of night and watch elegant escorts wait at the elevator bank for the bell. Every morning at 6 I’d wake Christopher Plummer for that day’s shoot. I shook Bret “The Hitman” Hart’s hand while drunken lawyers caroused in the lounge after hours.

They were vampire hours I was keeping, though, bad for the internal chronometer. After my shift, I’d wind up at another hotel off Beatty, posing as a guest at the morning buffet. I’d have flapjacks and eggs, or fruit and yogurt with orange juice. In the papers I’d scan the listings for art openings and could often find one or two for the night. The price of admission everywhere was the same: my three-button suit and an air of confidence. A cellphone was an indispensable prop. If anyone grew suspicious, I’d feign long-distance conversations with brokers in Shanghai and Frankfurt.

When it rained I’d borrow a cane umbrella from the Pan Pacific or the library’s lost-and-found. Lunches saw me at UBC Robson Square, home of business seminars and catered ham sandwiches. At snack time, I might graze awhile at the Urban Fare deli in Yaletown. Come happy hour I’d drink (bad) free Shiraz at the old Pacific Palisades and look at worse paintings, and in the evening head to an avant-garde opening at a white shoebox on South Granville for tolerable sushi and several decent glasses of white. I never took anything that wasn’t offered, never stole outright. It was all a matter of keeping my eyes open, foraging in the heart of the metropolis.

At home, Linda and I got along famously. I taught her English and she showed me pictures from an album of herself with her girlfriends. They’d be in Malaysia or Turkey, shopping or tanning on the beach. One afternoon she pointed to the photograph of a beautiful young woman in an evening dress.

“Sad,” Linda said. “The government kill her. They cut off her head.”

At the end of the month I was back on my feet, money in the bank, so I quit the hotel for more honest work. While perusing the classifieds my eye caught a colour photograph and I solved the mystery of Linda’s employment. It was an advertisement for the services of a young lady in a bikini, outcalls only. She looked awfully familiar, but I wasn’t certain until I noticed the mermaid on her forearm. Everybody has to hustle.

The young lady of my acquaintance asked me over that night for a picnic supper. The following morning I was invited to stay as long as I liked. When I took her up on the offer, she laughed.

“Bum in the butter.”