Past episodes Reader's Guide to the Nostrum Universe Nostrum Correspondence Corner
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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
"They are, beyond a doubt, beautiful women."
"How nice of you to say so, Tom. But you don't act as if they're beautiful women."
Tom Starbuck's eyes return to the screen of his laptop computer. "I already have a beautiful woman at home. And her two children."
"I'm not asking you to be unfaithful," Proscenio (the "Whale") Vitelli says. "I am simply suggesting that there is more to being a connoisseur than knowing quality. Being a connoisseur requires, at least to some extent, acting on that quality. Appreciating that quality."
"You can do the appreciating for both of us, Proscenio."
"I guess I'll have to."
Starbuck is sitting at a table beside Don Vitelli's indoor swimming pool. As usual, Starbuck is wearing a conservative business suit. There are beads of sweat on the top of his bald but healthily tanned head. He is using his laptop to read electronic versions of reports submitted by various of the Vitelli family's business managers. Don Vitelli is in the pool, floating his prodigious girth on a double-sized inflatable raft at the edge near Starbuck's table. Across from them, at the shallow end of the pool, two women in their twenties -- the women Starbuck agreed were beautiful, beyond a doubt -- are playing an aggressive game of one-on-one water volleyball over an imaginary net.
"I do love this concept of tankinis," Don Vitelli says as one of the women makes a successful spike.
Starbuck allows himself another quick glance in their direction. "Very… modest," he mutters.
"That wasn't exactly what I meant," the don says.
"I didn't think so."
There is no one else in the pool area. When Don Vitelli is entertaining members of the opposite sex, which he does on frequent occasions, the pool is off-limits to his army of personal factotums. Even Starbuck waits for a invitation to these sessions; it would not do for him to interrupt his boss during certain aspects of these events, and he is only here now for a short visit to provide a measure of backup to an impending meeting. When the meeting ends, Starbuck will return to his office.
"Do you realize that we make more money on rap music than any other category?" Starbuck remarks, frowning over a spreadsheet from one of the Vitellis' music holdings.
"They sell that many records?"
"It's not that. It's just that the records are so cheap to produce. All you need is a couple of punks with a drum machine and a rhyming dictionary and you've got a megahit. No production costs."
"And it keeps them off the streets," Don Vitelli adds.
"Well, not really," Starbuck says. "Most of them never were on the streets. This group here, for instance. Mobsta NtroP and MC Square. Two guys that look like they'd mug your grandmother for a quarter. In reality they were a couple of accounting students from an L.A. community college. We gave them some baggy clothes and a little attitude, and six months later they've got a number three single on the charts. Incredible."
"Tom, I know that a lot of these rappers are actually real gangsters, and that they spend half their time trying to whack each other. I mean, I know that there are gangsters in the music business; I'm a gangster myself, after all, and I'm in the music business."
"Proscenio, you are a legitimate businessman. I have the paperwork to prove it."
"And that's why I pay you the big bucks, Tommy my boy."
There is a knock on the door at the end of the room. Starbuck rises and walks over, talks to whoever is there, then returns to Don Vitelli.
"She's here," the lawyer says.
"Send her in," Proscenio replies. "But get rid of them first."
Starbuck nods and goes over to the two volleyball-playing women in the tankinis. He says something to them and they immediately pop out of the water and head off in the opposite direction from the main door. A moment later they have disappeared from the room.
"They're going to bring you back some lunch," Starbuck calls out to the Whale, whose raft is now floating toward the middle of the pool.
"I like lunch," the Whale says mindlessly.
Starbuck returns to the main door, opens it, and ushers in a small, thick, gray-haired woman in black. Her arrival adds a distinct hint of BenGay to the haze of chlorine already in the room.
"Maria," the don says, welcoming her. "It's good to see you again."
"Padrone," the woman says, bowing her head slightly. "Thank-a you for seeing me."
"You know my door is always open to you, Maria," the don says in Italian.
"Thank you, Don Vitelli," Grandma Buglaroni responds, grateful to be able to conduct the rest of the conversation in her native language. Five decades of life in America have not been enough to iron the wrinkles of the old country from her tongue.
"So how have you been, Maria?" the don asks as Starbuck leads her to a canvas chair next to the pool.
"Physically, they haven't carried me toes-up out of the house yet, so I can't complain."
"You'll outlive all of us, Maria."
"But mentally," she goes on, "I am not so good."
The don suppresses a sigh. Maria Buglaroni would not visit him if she didn't want something. Don Vitelli doesn't mind distributing largesse, which is one of the greatest responsibilities of a padrone, but he does occasionally tire of distributing it to the same people again and again.
"It is about my grandson. Hamlet."
"The actor!" the don says, catching the sight of Starbuck's raised right eyebrow. Starbuck is now back at his table with his computer, but he is not working on it, and is instead paying attention to the conversation.
"His acting career was not a long one," Grandma Buglaroni says. "But thanks to you, Don Proscenio, he got a chance, a good chance, to prove himself." She shrugs. "But I guess he proved that he is not cut out to be a Hugh Cary."
The don furrows his brow at the mention of the former governor.
"The Grant brothers," Starbuck cues him. "The actors."
The Don thinks. Hugh Cary. Grant. "Oh. Right."
"An actor's life isn't easy," Grandma continues. "Acting all day, and all night."
"Definitely," the don agrees.
"Not a good life for a boy, maybe. Hamlet should stay a student. A scholar."
"I saw your grandson act," the don says. "As an actor, he is a better scholar."
Grandma raises her hands, palms up. "So we all want him to go back to doing what he does best, which is studying to be a great man, a scholar. Except to be a scholar, you have to go to a university." She turns to Starbuck. "You are a scholar. You went to a university."
"Oh, yes," the consigliere says.
"But it is not easy to get into a university," Grandma says. "I read all about this. To get into Harvard, being a genius isn't good enough anymore. You've got to have an edge."
"Your grandson wants to go to Harvard?" the don asks.
"Where else should he go but the best?" Grandma says. "And isn't Harvard the best?"
"If worse comes to worse," Starbuck says, "he could always settle for Yale."
"My boy will not settle for nothing. He is going to Harvard!"
This announcement is met with an uncomfortable silence.
"I can't get him into Harvard, Maria," the don finally says. "Not even Yale. There are limits to what I can do."
"I know that, Don Proscenio. And that is not what I'm asking. But you can help him get that edge that will make the difference."
"The edge between Harvard and Yale," Starbuck says.
"Exactly!" Grandma Buglaroni says. "And that edge is debate."
"Debate," Starbuck echoes.
"Debate," Grandma repeats.
"That's right," Don Vitelli says. "I'd forgotten. Your grandson is a great debater. That's good. It's, well, something he can fall back on now that his acting career is over."
"But that is the problem, Don Vitelli. The debate team at Nighten Day, they are going out of business."
"Out of business?"
She draws a finger across her throat. "They are killing them at the school board. No more money. Zero. They are going out of business at the end of this week."
"That's too bad," the Whale says. "Debate is a good thing." He looks at Starbuck. "I guess."
Starbuck returns his inquisitive look.
"You say this is their last week, Maria?" the don asks.
"Their last tournament is in Massachusetts. They go up Friday, they come home Saturday, and it's all over. The end of debate. And the end of Hamlet's edge for getting into Harvard." The woman rises from her chair. "Can you help my boy, Don Vitelli?" She lowers herself to her knees and switches to English. "Help-a my boy, Don Vitelli."
Starbuck comes over and guides her to her feet.
"I don't know what I can do," Vitelli says. "But I'll give it a try. I'd like to know more about debating though. What do you think, Tom?"
"We should know more about it," he agrees.
The don nods. "We will do what we can, Maria."
"Thank-a you, Don Proscenio," she says with arms outstretched. "Thank-a you."
Starbuck escorts her to the door, patting her softly on the back as she disappears.
"She's right about one thing," the consigliere says, returning to his chair. "You gotta have a gimmick to get into college these days. I mean, to get in where you want to go. Everybody wants to go to the best places. Why would they pick one kid over another? They gotta have a gimmick."
"You think the Buglaroni kid is smart enough to get into Harvard?"
"From the little bit I saw of him, he'd be lucky to get into CCNY."
"I thought they had to take everybody."
"My point exactly."
"Would you mind going up there this weekend, Tom? To Massachusetts, I mean. To check this whole thing out."
Starbuck thinks for a moment. "I've got some people I should see in Boston. I ought to be able to work something out."
"I appreciate it, Tom." The don looks around. "So where are the hookers with my lunch?" he asks.
"I'll go see to it," Starbuck says, as always solicitous to his boss's every whim.
Will Buglaroni get into Harvard?
Will Yale ever recover their loss?
Will Giuliani get into art school?
Will the tankini stay popular?
Will the don and the hoo-- Nope, sorry, this is a family story.
Find out nothing in our next episode, a tribute to Sumner Redstone entitled: "Viacom Dios, My Darling."
Go to the next episode due Oct 13, 1999.