The Return of Francois Egalite
As a kid, I had an overactive imagination and a short attention span. I was chastised as a ” daisy gazer” by baseball coaches and as “lacking social responsibility ” by my spinster teacher Miss Austin whose last boyfriend was in the Polk administration which in my opinion, was about as socially irresponsible as a person could get. With regularity, I was marched off to see the principal, Miss Pratt, for infractions ranging from insubordination and inattentiveness to telling whopping half-truths such as my father was an operative for the CIA. He was, after all, in advertising which involved propaganda and the subliminal manipulation of the masses. I was certain he was writing pro bono vignettes for Radio Free America on the side.
I was a junior version of James Thurber’s Walter Mitty. fantasizing and daydreaming my day away. I was the short man dreaming of slam-dunking a basketball – the flat footed Clydesdale gazing into the mud puddle wishing he were Man O War. I invented alter egos and super heroes. I lived their lives vicariously until my mind and body stretched to afford me my own adventures. However, I never stopped filling in the empty cracks and dimly lit spaces of my prosaic routine with dashing figures and adventurers. Over time, life slowly carved its hard lines on my face. My idealistic penchant for undisputed resolution and redemption slowly rusted under the constant corrosive exposure to society’s moral ambiguity and materialism. My imagination faltered and my adolescent propensity to dream was lost like an old blanket or stuffed toy.
Years later, I find myself once again seeking to escape from a slate gray world where people play by different sets of rules, bad deeds go unpunished and the guy with the most expensive attorney gets off. I long for a black and white corner of the universe where there are distinguishable good and bad guys who wear different color uniforms and work for agencies with names like “Control” and “Chaos”. We need a hero riding a white horse who is just a second faster on the draw and a system where bad guys always get nailed just before they are boarding their United flight to Buenos Aires with the employee pension funds.
I find myself once again conjuring up an imaginary protagonist – Francois Egalite, a master businessman and international man of intrigue. He is Louis Jourdain, Hercules Poirot and James Bond rolled into one. The French have flair and Egalite is no exception. He races cars in Monaco, seduces starlets like Audrey Tautou and Sophie Marceau, and wears a signature silk cravat.
Egalitie is the perfect cover name for a hero who saves governments, captures evil industrialists and is able to actually spell “vichyssoise.” Egalite has contempt for inequity as it is at its core – the antithesis of his surname. He is a champion of the exploited, the under-represented and the sartorially challenged. He is the ultimate good guy. After saving yet another magnificent buxom heiress from the harem of a petro-authoritarian sheik or protecting a French farmer with twelve children from losing his land to a corrupt agricultural monopoly, Egalite always melts into the cool shadows simply leaving a calling card with his trademark fleur d’ lis insignia and the rearranged French national motto of – “Liberté, Fraternité and…Egalité!” We need Francois Egalite to come out of retirement from his hillside chateau in Biarritz, where he paints plein air ocean scenes and lives with his Serbian scientist girlfriend Chloe and his Samoyed husky, Ca Va.
In the world of Egalite, guys who bilk investors of $ 50B don’t sit at home under house arrest watching Rachel Ray make Mexican flan, they are kidnapped under the nose of the Feds, fitted with cement tennis shoes and asked where all the loot is stashed. Once the information is extracted, the evil Ponzi schemer is asked by Egalite to recover a euro that he has just tossed into the East River. (Splash!) Egalite is last seen leaning over the bridge, yelling at a dissolving swirl of bubbles with his hand to his ear, “Pardon, Bernard? What is it you say? You cannot swing? Swine?”
I conjure up Egalite as I read another depressing headline. The Metro North jolts noisily across the Harlem River into a restless city of insomniacs and shattered financiers. New York seems a giant restless leg – twitching and tapping its anxious limb while furtively looking for signs and signals as to what clouds might be next on the horizon line. I walk up Park Avenue, another cardboard cut out in a London Fog overcoat lugging an ancient, scuffed Tumi handbag. Steam rises out of grates as workmen wrapped in odd mummy-like mufflers, bark at one another with great plumes of frozen air.
My mind drifts. And I am Francois Egalite, corporate whistle blower and a member of the Free Market League of. Consumer Advocates. Like Kwai Chang Caine, from the old TV show “Kung Fu”, I am a restless wanderer, moving from company to company, trying to escape my past but inevitably drawn into a web of corruption and malfeasance. With each new position, I think this time it will be different, only to have the dog dirt hit the fan. One week, I discover the nice HR manager with whom I share a lunch bench each day is secretly skimming cash by using child laborers in Romania. Next month, it is a megalomaniacal CEO who is timing his stock options. Next month, it could be a CFO whose cooked books rival The Barefoot Contessa.
The revelations usually come to me from a frightened middle manager as we graze on left-over C Suite sandwiches abandoned like soup kitchen handouts in our microscopic lunchroom. My new friend is from accounting and confides her concern over the strike price of the CEOs options. I get that old sinking feeling that a Pandora’s box is about to be opened. It is my curse and my raison d’être – to root out corruption. I smile as I think about the time Egalite tied the hands of a corrupt inside trading Controller with his own Hermes tie. How ironic!
In the end, Egalite protects the little guy but always has to move on – a tragic corporate drifter – like Richard Kimball in “The Fugitive” or Dr. David Banner in “The Incredible Hulk”. In his case, he is not so much running from anything but instead just trying to clean up American business so he might return home to Chloe and Ca Va. It is now time for Egalite to return. For now there are white-collar criminals to catch, forensic accounting to find hidden Swiss bank accounts and jobs to save.
A taxi honks at me and I jolt to reality as I loiter in the street. I look up to realize I have walked past my office by 12 blocks. I am standing in front of a Hermes store.
Mon Dieu, this must be a sign.