THIS will sound odd, obscene even, but the fact is that I owe an enormous debt to terrorism, the United Nations and the corrupt-o-crats who orbit that green-marble and glass monolith overlooking New York’s East River. It is quite the story, and the only sad thing about it is that Julia Gillard might have drawn a little wisdom from my windfall before she and her posse of glad-handers rolled into Gotham last week in pursuit of a seat on the Security Council.
All she had to do was ask and I would have told her just what sort of people she was courting and why, if the bid goes the same way as Australia’s hopelessly innocent, gold-plated lobbying to secure soccer’s World Cup, she should not feel too bad about presiding over yet another failed initiative. Indeed, if the seat is won by rivals Finland or Luxemburg, she might even appreciate that the apparent setback is actually a blessed and merciful escape.
To get an inkling of why, turn back the clock to 1995, when an ad for a large two-bedroom apartment with Empire State views appeared in the real estate columns of The New York Times. The $225,000 asking price seemed cheap, but why not have a look, my then-wife insisted? If it was a scam, well both of us had lived in the Big Apple long enough to catch and know the scent of grifters, so we could simply walk away. The agent was called, an appointment to inspect arranged, and the next day we met in the lobby of a handsome Fifties red-brick building in an enclave known as Tudor City, located between First and Second avenues in Midtown. The neighbourhood was a peach, boasting two private parks, no through traffic, antique street lights, a short walk to Grand Central and, directly across the street, the UN’s imposing HQ.
“So what’s wrong with the joint,” was the first question I put to the agent, “why so cheap?”
“Well,” she began, “there has been a little trouble with the FBI…”
As we rode the elevator to the tenth floor, she mentioned a series of recent raids that had made front-page news. A number of Muslims of the fulminating variety had been arrested for planning to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel, World Trade Center, George Washington Bridge, the Jewish Museum and sundry other landmarks at which Allah had taken grave offence, according to his terrestrial mouthpieces. Key to the scheme were the diplomatic licence plates with which the bomb-laden vans were to be equipped – plates allowing the drivers to park anywhere they liked, without fear of fines or City Hall’s fleets of predatory tow trucks. These plates were obtained via sympathetic co-religionists attached to the Sudanese UN Mission.
“Well this is the Sudanese Mission,” explained the agent as we paused before an apartment door that still bore the impact marks of an FBI SWAT team’s battering ram. It further emerged that the apartment building’s body corporate – the co-op board, in New Yorkese – wanted the alleged diplomats living somewhere else and soon. Just before we were admitted by a large, middle-aged African gentleman with a disconcertingly squeaky voice, the agent urged us “to look through the smell, see the potential”. It seemed several previous apartment hunters had managed to penetrate no more than a few metres before being driven back by the premises’ stink, which was eye-wateringly foul.
The ceilings were smoke stained, which residents of neighbouring apartments subsequently explained as a consequence of the diplomats’ taste for indoor barbecues, gatherings which had drawn the Fire Brigade on a number of occasions. The tub in the second bathroom, epicentre of that cloying, sweet and sickly stench, was splattered with a mysterious brownish gunk. This turned out to be the blood of chickens and goats put to the knife. It also helped to explain the legions of cockroaches which, like the then-owners, enjoyed a diplomatic immunity from eviction.
To cut a long story short, we swallowed hard, did some rough calculations about what it would cost to clean and renovate, and a couple of days later wrote a cheque for the full amount. Even allowing for the recent decline in Manhattan property values, the apartment is today worth around $1 million, so we made out like bandits in the long term*.
And we also gained quite an education, starting on the day we closed the deal and were made privy to the ethical standards that prevail among some of those who work at the UN. By hint and broad suggestion, one of the diplomats let it be known that we could get the apartment at an even better price if his palm were to be greased with a little brown-bagged baksheesh. We played the transaction with a straight bat and, on our first day of residence, a hallway neighbour all but threw his arms around us by way of welcome. “Just promise me you won’t be killing chickens and throwing feathers out the window,” he said.
Over the years that followed, proximity to the UN broadened our education in corruption. We learned, for example, that the co-op board would not permit any further diplomats to move into the building. Diplomatic immunity meant they could do pretty much as they pleased without risk of prosecution. Nor did the Big Apple’s newspapers encourage a sanguine view of the local UN community. Every few months there would be another story of a diplomat or family member arrested for offences that ranged from fraud to rape and assault.
Then there was the day a procession of international envoys, their relatives and brothers-in-law (family connections play a vital role in landing lucrative tax-free, permanent residency gigs at the UN) were observed streaming across First Avenue, some laden with oil paintings, others carrying furniture, kitchen equipment and boxes of booze. The union representing kitchen workers had called a strike, leaving the members lounge unguarded and unlocked. The diplomats made like locusts, descended en masse and stole everything that was not nailed down. Why break with the habits of a lifetime?
On-street parking? Finding a spot was no easy chore for most, but no problem for the diplomats, who left their vehicles anywhere they damn well pleased. This must have come in very handy when representatives of the world’s oppressed joined the regular throngs outside the nearby Israeli Consulate, on Second Avenue and 43rd Street, to denounce the Zionist Entity and urge that the world give those wicked Jews a dose of what was good for them. The favoured prescriptions always seemed to be mushroom clouds and, in a nod to history, more efficient crematoria.
There were lessons to be learned further afield as well, most notably when the Oil for Food scandal came to light in the months leading up to the Second Gulf War. The UN bureaucrat responsible for administering the program was on a salary of no more than $100,000, which in blue-chip Manhattan is enough to lead a modest middle-class life, but nothing more flash than that. Somehow, he had acquired the cash for a very plush weekend home in the ritzy Hamptons, on Long Island. It seemed a foreman’s job in the Peace Factory came with certain discrete advantages.
If only Gillard had sought my counsel, all the many millions of dollars squandered on the effort to install Australia as one of the foremost among equals at the UN might have been saved.
Then again, perhaps not.
Given that the UN is a spigot of innovative ideas for emptying the pockets of, well, everyone, not just the rich, and the paucity of proof that it has ever achieved anything worthwhile, Gillard would probably have been unmoved.
After all, those with similar interests do have a tendency to find each other.
*Easy come, easy go. My ex-wife kept the apartment, as well as the family dog, in our divorce settlement.
Roger Franklin lived and worked in New York City and Washington from 1980 to 2006. He is the editor of Quadrant Online