Arthur is never without his cigar, and the last time I saw him, it did him in. He was describing a smashing business success when the ash decided to fall on his tie in the middle of the financing. It was an unforgettable comic moment.
So when I saw him the other day, crossing M Street at 19th with a cigar in his mouth, I had to march up and ask: "How's your financing these days, big boy?"
He replied with a pungent phrase that I won't repeat so you can have your breakfast in peace. Then he startled me by declaring that he was putting together a huge real estate deal "that will prove once and for all that there's a future for builders of new homes in Washington."
"I only wish that were true, Arthur," I said. "The city can use the vitality, and the money. But I've talked to a lot of real estate people for a lot of years, and they say if you're not in Montgomery or Fairfax County, you're dead."
"Nineteen-seventies thinking!" Arthur said, loud enough to turn a few heads waiting beneath the DONT WALK sign. "I'm not talking about Heavenly Acres, with the big back yards and the Georgian columns a million miles out in Virginia. I'm talking about tearing down some old industrial properties, like warehouses and old storefronts, and building town houses. Good town houses. In Northeast, probably. For young couples or singles. For the people who want to live in the city but can't afford to now."
"But there are plenty of good town houses in the suburbs right this minute that are going begging," I pointed out. "And if young couples can't afford those, how are they going to afford essentially the same house in the city?"
"They'll afford it because they'll want to live in the city so badly that they'll find a way," Arthur said. "What I've got going for me is rush hour."
I took off my jacket. This was obviously going to last a while. "What does rush hour have to do with it?" I asked him.
"People are going so crazy with rush hour that even Arlington and Bethesda and Hyattsville, the close-in suburbs, don't look so good any more. No matter what time of day you're going to work or coming home, you're talking about a half hour commute -- more if some guy has a flat. To recapture half of that full hour you waste every day would be worth it to you, wouldn't it?"
"It would be to me," I told him. "I hate commuting with a passion you haven't seen since the clinch scene in 'From Here to Eternity.' But even if you give me a place that's 15 minutes closer to my job than a place in the suburbs, it's still going to cost a mint. I might love the idea, but I won't love the payment book."
Arthur took a long, slurpy puff on his cigar. The ash stayed put.
"It's going to cost about three-quarters of what the comparable house in the suburbs is costing now," Arthur said. "The reason is that I'm going to be able to assemble the land for very little money.
"It isn't the house that costs in the suburbs, it's the land," Arthur explained, waving the cigar like a baton for emphasis. "Those zoning lawyers kill you out there. But in Northeast, you find an abandoned dairy that some old banker's estate has been trying to get rid of for years. They're so glad to see you that they hold the door for you."
"But Northeast isn't a glamour neighborhood."
"Neither was Capitol Hill 30 years ago," Arthur said. "Neither was Georgetown 75 years ago. Foggy Bottom was a swamp 100 years ago.
"What I'm looking for are people who aren't fooled by all the talk about glamour and about how crime has killed the city. They know it pays to be careful if you live in the city, but being careful and running scared are two different things.
"You'll want to live in Northeast if you're living in a new house, with all the comforts, and there's shopping nearby, and there's a place to park. And I'm going to give you all that, plus a Metro stop, and good restaurants, and two and a half hours a week that you didn't have before. Can't miss. I'm so sure of it that I'm going to give you a cigar."
"Arthur," I said, "every time I talk about financing, I'll think of you."
Arthur repeated the pungent phrase and crossed against the light.