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When lady luck smiles....


In nineteen hundred and seventy I found myself in Quito, Ecuador, with the frightening realization that I had less than one hundred US dollars to my name. Arriving from Columbia by road, I had checked into a five dollar a day pension, in the city’s colonial centre. Counting those few dollars over and over and rifling through my few possessions in the vain hope of finding some forgotten banknote or traveler’s cheque, did little to ease the seriousness of my situation.  

It was in desperation that I pinned my future on two pieces of advice which, from my past experience, had inevitably worked. One of these; probably the only piece of advice from my mother which I had ever heeded was that, it does not matter how old your clothes are, if your trousers are pressed and your shoes shined, people will take you for a gentleman. The second piece of advice, made up to suit my own purposes suggested that when down and out, head for the best hotel in town and splurge on one drink at the bar.

Borrowing an antique iron, heated with hot ashes, from the manager of the pension, I smoothed out the creases from my one and only suit and, outside on the street, invested a couple of coins in a shoeshine from one of the numerous street children who pestered me into submission.

Being that Buenos dias and Gracias were the sum total of my Spanish, my only choice was to find an international hotel where English would be spoken. There were two of these; the Hotel Quito and the Hotel Colon. I chose the Colon as it was in walking distance, on the opposite side of the Parque Alemeda  to my pension. This dry and scruffy, eucalyptus lined park, separated the old town from the new and the wealthy citizens from their less fortunate counterparts.  I was later to learn that in this same park the residents of Quito, not too many years before, had lynched and burned the one of their more unlovable presidents.

As luck would have it – a phrase I have used repeatedly throughout my life because lady luck has always been a close companion of mine - I was unknowingly heading into an exciting new and almost unbelievable era of my life.

I did not realize at the time that Ecuador was enjoying an oil boom. While the boom lasted, the Hotel Colon would become a favourite watering hole for the British and American, oil field workers. They worked shifts of fourteen days in the eastern jungle region of the country, the Oriente,  followed by seven days R and R in Quito, where there was little in the way of entertainment apart from four other of Gringo bars and the whorehouses. The lounge bar of the Colon opened at eleven in the morning until midnight and there was a discotheque in the hotel basement when it closed. With an average wage of around two hundred dollars per day, the oil men could afford to drink and drink they certainly did - with a vengeance. It was into this milieu that I ventured that day, forty-nine years ago.

I seated myself at the round bar and ordered the cheapest drink - a beer. It was late afternoon and the lounge bar was crowded and noisy. Not a word of Spanish was to be heard. English was the language, although American accents dominated. Everyone seemed to know each other and the barmen and waiters were hard pressed to keep up with the orders. I had not even finished my beer, before another arrived in front of me. Someone had bought the entire bar a drink. Not to be out done, someone else did the same and so it continued. I was more than a little nervous, knowing there was no way I could reciprocate. But feeling no pain and with my confidence moumting with every drink, I got into conversation with an affable Scotsman, named Brian. He appeared well known to all and was buying drinks for those nearest to him at the bar and I was one of the lucky ones. To save later embarrassment I refused a further offer, explaining my precarious financial situation. He rejected this excuse on the grounds that he had been many times in the same boat and insisted I stayed and drank at his expense.

A lot of alcohol later, a drunken voice at the bar was urging everyone to move on and get some action at the ‘Wildcatter’. Brian invited me along. I declined but he insisted, informing me that he owned this ‘Wildcatter Club’ and, not to worry, I would be his guest for the evening.

I wish I could describe my first impressions of the club and the remainder of the evening but the only thing I remembered when I awoke the following day, surprisingly in my hotel bed, was a promise to return there that same evening.

It turned out that this Brian MacDowell was a partner in the club with two Americans; the Rich brothers. They were reputed to be the heirs to a fortune their father had made with his invention of Simonize wax car polish. As they spent the majority of their time in the States, it was Brian who ran and managed the club.

During our initial meeting in the Colon and, as happens when men drink too much and talk too much, I must have made a good first impression on Brian, because when we met later that second day, he kindly offered me a spare room on the first floor of the club. I hung around for a few days, sightseeing and observing how the club operated. It was certainly the smartest place in town, frequented by both Gringos  - this was not the derogatory name for foreigners that it is in other Latin American countries - and those locals who could afford to eat and drink there. As could be expected in any bar where there is a mix of nationalities there were occasional problems. Generally these were caused by the wilder, hard drinking, element of the international community known as oil-field-trash but they were quickly banished to the bars where occasional  punch-up’s were not objected to but rather enhanced the reputations of the pugilists and the bar.

 Although I was enjoying myself immensely and living free, I was still somewhat concerned about my future. This was temporally resolved when I realized that there was an ulterior motive to Brian’s generosity other than just sympathy. Believing that he had arranged for a friend to manage the club in his absence, he had signed a contract, for fourteen days, as a chef, aboard a luxury yacht in the nearby Galapagos Islands. Unfortunately, this friend, a hell raising Irishman, had run afoul of the law and had been physically deposited across the Columbian border. Brian’s way out of this predicament was to offer me the job. 

Ignoring my protests that, although spending a lot of my life propping bars up, I had never in my life worked behind one, he convinced me I did not have to do anything except look like a manager. Spanish was not a problem as the staff knew sufficient English to take an order and that was that. I had a job for two weeks, a roof over my head, free food and drink.

Brian’s return to Quito coincided with the arrival of Frank Rich from Chicago. Believing my job to be finished I was preparing to leave but, unbeknown to myself, Brian, prior to accepting the chef’s job, had already decided to sell his share of the club and move to Australia, where he had a chance of taking over a bar in Perth. Frank was now desperate for a manager and Brian did me one last big favour. Apart from praising (falsely, I thought)my work in his absence, he informed Frank that I maybe could be persuaded to stay but it would take a good inducement. He craftily suggested I be given a twenty-five percent share in the club. In his desperation and to my utter amazement Frank accepted. I had been in the country exactly one month.

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