Character and Fitness is a semi-autobiographical novel about an unemployed social justice lawyer and his nurse girlfriend living in a shitty apartment complex behind a strip mall in suburban Philadelphia, the birthplace of our democracy. The novel explores the alienation and estrangement that working class, thinking people feel in America. The characters inhabiting this novel are trying to make their lives about something more than simply making money, which makes them strangers in a strange land. This month’s installment begins with Chapter 9.
I start to look up some property stuff for Nancy, but it’s like pulling teeth. In the words of Bartleby The Scrivener, I would prefer not to do a title search. Or to read codes and statutes with regard to land ownership. The whole thing is a construct anyway. A bunch of English aristocrats needed a way to lock up their pile of rocks, so now the world is cut up into a kindergarten death match: This is mine! I get to do what I want with it! Leave me alone! If the Native Americans had pulled off the upset 400 years ago, then there wouldn’t even be a property class in law school. We’d have a totally different conception of ownership. Our basic relationship to the world would be changed. Not that I romanticize Native Americans—they were as flawed as we ever were—but that the whole structure of everything comes down to a few flimsy notions of some guys who didn’t play well with others is mindboggling. A permutation here or there and the very soul of man takes on a new shape. It can be horrifying to think of the ways in which things could so easily be different. This world we live in now is as manufactured and fabricated as the plastic packaging wrapped around a high definition big screen TV.
But god help the man who doesn’t buy into it. For as you pop the bubble wrap, the bubble wrap is popping you.
I need to write a follow up email to the Civil Rights Guild, show Ms. Harr my advocacy skills by effectively advocating for my own position. Allude to myself as a transformational figure, but still down home enough to play 3rd base on the softball team. I’ve got a gut feeling that I’m one of the final two or three. If the interview had taken me out of contention, then they would have let me know right away. I pull up my email and start writing, but it isn’t coming out right. The tone is too needy and desperate. I need to be more aloof. Absolutely love to work with you, but if not, then we tried our best. See you next year at the art fundraiser and cocktail party, if I happen to be in DC… On to other exciting options and opportunities for us both! This is a tone in which the great and good excel because they really do have other options and opportunities. But I don’t have squat. There is zero guarantee that I’ll ever get a chance like this again. I’ve gotten one good job interview in eight months. If I were to write an honest email from the heart, they’d probably take out a restraining order on me. I beg you! I’ll do anything! Just give me a goddamned chance! Pleeeease! And so the tone must be perfect. Maybe whiskey will help.
I close the computer and go into the living room. Rachel is in the kitchen in her black scrubs making herself dinner for work. I feel the usual guilt about not carrying my own weight. A lazy bum who hasn’t helped out in months. Accordingly, I pour a large whiskey, lie down on the couch and turn on the TV.
“So how’s the Camus going?” I yell back.
“I’m off him now,” she says from the kitchen. “I’m trying to read Germinal. I have a dog named Zola and I’ve never even read him.”
“He’s big on class consciousness” I say. “He knew the deal.”
“It’s not about class, it’s about money,” she says, chopping something. “But either way, do me a favor…”
“Try not to end up being the bitter jobless guy that lies around on the couch all day with his hands down his pants drinking whiskey and bitching about class consciousness.”
“They got their boot in my back, baby!”
“You never had a chance.”
“It’s so true,” I say, taking a sip of whiskey and resting the cup on my chest. “They took it all from me.”
“Have you heard anything yet from the Civil Rights Guild?”
“No, but thanks for bringing it up when I was just starting to relax.”
“I’ll notch that up to you being nervous,” she says.
“And let’s not forget jealous…”
“Of who or what this time?”
“And who’s Ben Mendelsohn?”
“This jerk who won this huge case,” I say, switching it to ESPN. “There were pictures of him all over the alumni newsletter, big article.”
“What kind of case?”
“A good case,” I say. “A great case. A goddamned heroic case. They were going to deport all these people and he helped saved them from certain death blah blah blah…I doubt it was even him. Remember the Patriot Act protest I did?”
“Back when you were cool?”
“Yeah,” I say. “He told me that he supported it, but couldn’t take part because he didn’t want to jeopardize his future…Pure organizational man. They’re the new breed of happy camper. All of their motivations come out of well-adjusted ambition.”
“And their ambition is to hold down good men like you…”
“Goddamned right,” I say. “Anyway, as part of his fancy law firm’s pro bono program, he got them to pay for him to work at a legal aid office in Brooklyn. So, picture this: you’re a committed social justice lawyer that’s been slaving away for peanuts and now you’ve got to train a guy who’s making a $150 thousand dollars a year.”
“Sounds like having to train the scabs that are going to replace us if we go on strike…”
“You think that’s going to happen?” I ask, turning my head back toward the kitchen.
“I don’t know…there’s a vote next month,” she says. “I really hope not. It’s not good for anybody. Bad for the patients. Bad for us.”
“Would you ever cross?”
“Even if you were going down?”
“The reason I’d be going down is because scabs crossed the line and kept the strike going,” she says. “If no scabs ever crossed the line, then we wouldn’t even need to strike.”
“I’m sure you guys have your union lawyers, but if you need anything…”
“Actually, I was thinking about calling Ben Mendelsohn. He sounds pretty good.”
“Oh, very fucking funny.”
“You know, Nealy, I know things have been hard, but you’re giving in to bitch mode a lot these days.”
“I know, I know,” I say. “It’s just that some guys just know how to navigate life.”
“No, some guys just know how to navigate success,” she says.
“What’s the difference,” I say.
“There’s a HUGE difference between life and success,” she says.
“Yeah, especially in my life.”
I hear her laugh in the kitchen.
“Look,” I say. “You can’t deny that life without success is pain.”
“I can deny that all day long,” she says.
“Then you’d be wrong all day long. You need success to be happy. Happiness equals success.”
“Are you crazy?” she says. “Some of the so-called most successful people in the world are sitting alone right now in their huge houses drowning out the emptiness of their lives with overpriced alcohol and 14 different kinds of anti-depressants…Happiness has nothing to do with success. Success is nothing but a bill of goods that we’ve been sold.”
“Well, woopty doo!”
“It’s like we can’t be happy,” she says in a whiny voice while chopping something. “Until we get this house, buy this car, lose ten pounds, buy these boots…Don’t say it!”
“Please, Rachel,” I say calmly. “I am not the kind of man who is going to call you to task for buying $95 boots while children in Africa are starving. Sure, that money could have fed a whole village of refugees for an entire month, but you have a right to be happy. You go, girl.”
“They did look hot at Nancy’s, didn’t they?” I can hear her laughing.
“Any luck with her space?”
“I looked up some stuff,” I say. “But I really just need to focus on real life for a while.”
“In contrast to what? Fake life?”
“I mean my life, okay?”
“That isn’t your life?”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t,” she says. “You gave a beautiful talk at that space that really meant something to people.”
“How could it mean something to people if there weren’t even any people there?”
“I was there,” she says. “It meant something to me.”
“Well, I am truly glad,” I say sincerely.
“How many people did you need for you to feel like it was a success?”
“Oh, I don’t know, 20 or 30 thousand with a VIP section where maybe 150 to 200 would be allowed to come back and worship me for a couple hours,” I say. “I know your moves, Rachel. Don’t try and jam me up…My ideas about success are my ideas about success.”
“Yeah, you’ve transcended, Neal. It’s obvious.”
“The lone wolf walks alone,” I say. A commercial comes on and I switch it to PBS where there is yet another documentary about Tibet. Do we not have problems in Newark? Houston? Kansas City? Who the hell doesn’t want to go volunteer in Tibet? Does that even actually qualify as an altruistic thing to do—or just the vacation of a lifetime? “Hey, look,” I say. “Maybe in the next life the Dalai Lama will be your boyfriend. He’s a transcendent kind of guy. Plus, he’s un-attached, get it?” Genius. Total genius.
“What are talking about?” she says. “I can’t stand the Dalai Lama.”
“Look at way those monks are falling down around him crying,” she says like it personally offends her. “No enlightened person would ever allow people to do that. And do you know who he stays with when he comes to America?”
“Richard Gere,” she says. “A man who’s spent his life glorifying fame, money, and materialism…(chop chop chop)…Makes movies pushing designer clothes, happy prostitutes and sports cars…(chop chop chop)…Does commercials for expensive cologne, crap and credit cards…(chop chop chop)…”
“Yeah, he’s a winner.”
“And then promotes himself as the poster boy for Buddhist humility and non-attachment,” and can hear the knife slam down on counter. “And who’s his main pal? The Dalai Lama…The Dalai Lama’s people are being oppressed and he’s out hanging in LA with Richard Gere. Now that’s a real man of enlightenment. That’s a man who knows more than the rest of us. I’m so done with this need to worship prophets.”
“Profits with a PH or profits with an F?”
“Same thing! It’s like let this guy tell me who I am so I don’t have to take responsibility for myself.”
“Come on, these monks don’t worship profits.”
“They worship profits.”
“How do they worship profits?”
“The worship spiritual profits.”
“Is that actually a bad thing?”
“No more worship of any kind,” she says. “We need to get off worship and just get back to respect.”
“You know, I have to admit that I’m turned on by the fact that I’m probably with the only woman on the planet who has a beef against the Dalai Lama. Anything against Gandhi?”
“Beat his wife.”
“Martin Luther King?”
“Vamped on fame.”
“Owned slaves,” she says. “Look, it’s not about fame, money, so-called great men and their success, but about regular people doing meaningful things, okay?”
“You got me. I’m down.”
“Okay, then, so stop saying what you’ve been doing doesn’t matter.”
“Well, I don’t know about that…”
“Ask Nancy or Joe,” she says. “I think they’d say what you’ve been doing matters a lot.”
“I’m not so sure about Joe,” I say. “That guy can be a real asshole sometimes. I was at Target on Tuesday night and he was saying all this…’
“I got to go to work, baby. Give me a kiss.”
“No! Stay with me tonight. Call in sick. Let’s just hang out, have sex, listen to music. I’m lonely without you. I miss cuddling.”
She comes over in her black scrubs and gives me a kiss on the nose with her necklace dangling over me. “I wish I could, baby” she says. “But must get to the land of broken toys.”
“Fine, go save babies,” I say, picking up the remote. “I’ll hold down the fort around here, have my own little TV party…”
“You’re going to have a TV party tonight?”
We sing the old Black Flag tune together: “We’ve got nuthin’ better to do…”
“Bye, I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
The door closes behind her and I switch it to an Angelina Jolie movie. For being this allegedly deep humanitarian, she really makes some dumb Hollywood bullshit. I go over to one of the financial channels. I know we’re the ones getting screwed at the end of the day, but I secretly love it when Wall Street takes one in the gut. I can see the pain and anguish on their splotchy faces. In a world where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the powerful get away with everything: it can be a healthy form of cathartic entertainment. I switch it over to the news, but it’s too frustratingly depressing. The constant stream of tragedy is one thing, but the ocean of stupid questions is another: would you agree that genocide is bad? Ah, I see. And pedophiles? Ah, yes. And genocidal pedophiles? Ah, very good. One last question, sir, do you believe that ice cream should continue to remain delicious? Ah, fascinating…Another in-depth report on the State of Our Union, Bob. Back to you! I switch it to another channel, Slackers is on. Good movie. At least it was sincere, trying to find something. Looking back, we weren’t the worst generation ever to walk the planet, but the one thing we never seemed to get clear on, is that even when you’re intentionally doing nothing, you’re still just doing nothing.
I get a text on my cell phone. It’s Majerus again reminding me of the party tonight. I delete it. I’m not up to it. I’m in the tank over here. I don’t want to be around successful people with fat bank accounts and big lives. I’m not the Buddha. And I don’t think even the Buddha could handle it. The thing that people forget about the Buddha is that he was incredibly successful. The A-list of the A-list, one of the top two or three most famous and revered human beings of all time. There must have been something really driving him, like an emotional scar or serious need to prove that he could make it. A dad who never loved him. A girl in high school who blew him off. Otherwise, he would have lived a nice life with his family, volunteered in the community and taught kindergarten. You’ve really got to have serious issues to want to be seen as the wisest and most evolved person that ever lived.
I should write him back, though. It’s not like I’m getting invited to a lot of rooftop parties these days. Also need to finish that email to the Civil Rights Guild. See if I can do it without them taking out a restraining order against me. I push myself up off the couch. I haven’t been a very admirable guy lately. I’ve been lazy with myself. I’ve been weak and whiny. Indulging my self-pity. Bitching and moaning. I haven’t been nearly good enough to Rachel. But we’re so close. I can feel it. One good email away from getting in the game. I can do this work. I can go down to Louisiana and fight that case tomorrow. I’ve got the skills. I’ve got the experience. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me! I sit down in front of the computer. Someday this is all going to be a memory. We’ll tell the story about the closet that we turned into an office, the Johnny Cash picture, the piss stains on the carpet and how we used to throw Zola the ball against the back wall. All the rejections, frustrations, hours and hours spent alone will seem like the last bit of dues that I had to pay before finally taking that step up. The last good ass kicking before we got it together and learned to defend ourselves. There will always be ups and downs, but after this stretch the bottom won’t drop out so easily anymore. I can see us in a Mexican restaurant in a couple years, drinking margaritas and talking about that time we talked at the bus stop or that crazy night we had Nancy over for dinner. Ten years from now this will be one of the great memories of our relationship, a trial that we went through only to come out stronger on the other end. I log into my email…The smooth times are forgotten, but the rough times stick with you. We never talk about the bus ride from Oaxaca to the beach, but still tell tales of Coatzacoalcos and that time I had to sleep with a knife…
I didn’t get it.
No, I didn’t get it.
If I had gotten it, she would have called me. I knew it. I felt it with her. There was that moment when we were talking about my father. A judgment happened there. I should have handled it differently. I should have played it safe. I should have given her whatever she wanted me to say. But what was I supposed to say? I don’t even know what I was supposed to say? I’m such a loser. I’m such an idiot. I knew deep down that it wasn’t going to work out for me. I’m not going to get a break like that. They don’t want a guy like me. Did I actually think that I was going to be working there every day? Did I actually think that I was going to get a job at the Civil Rights Guild? Me?
I open the email, see the words we regret and delete it…I don’t even know why I tried. It was a waste of time. Nothing but more bullshit. All I did was get our hopes up. I don’t know how I can even tell Rachel. She’s put so much faith in me and I’ve done nothing but let her down. I just wanted to make her proud of me, give her some good news, make her feel like she picked the right guy. Not some drain, not some leech, not some pathetic asshole that’s going to bring her down….Why couldn’t I have gotten it? Just one break…Just once…I am so tired of this shithole. I’m sick of this stupid, ugly place. I needed this to happen so bad. It would have put everything in a different light. It would have made it seem like we made the right choices. It would have made it seem like I made the right choices. Like I knew what I was doing. Like I was a man with a purpose instead of just a punk who never grew up. Now it’s back to zero, nothing. Where’s that email from Majerus? I need to get out of here and get drunk. I can’t be in this closet anymore. If they can’t see what I bring to the table, then fuck them. I write down the address, run back into the bedroom and put on a black t-shirt, jeans and my old motorcycle boots that I haven’t worn since Mardi Gras in New Orleans. If a Goldstein and Locke party is the window that god cracks open after slamming both doors on my balls, then fine, count me in. I’m on board. I make sure all the trash is put away so that Zola doesn’t get into it, throw her a bone and then stop….There is a voice in my head telling me to call Rachel. She would want me to let her know. We work through things as a team. We’re there for each other. We deal with these things together. But I can’t. I know it’s bad, but I can’t deal with having to tell her yet. I am embarrassed by this, okay? I feel fucking ashamed. I don’t want to have to tell her about one more failure. One more rejection. One more disappointment. Not right now. I just need to move. One of the sad things about going through pain with a person you love, is that that person becomes a part of that pain in a way that is unavoidable.
I break out of the apartment, run past the dumpster, down the dirt path behind the Target, through the shoppers, then cut past the Starbucks where I see Nancy but don’t stop or wave because I don’t want to hear another word about protest and resistance, then up past the California Pizza Kitchen where a ballooned family is eating cake and around more dumpsters to the bus stop along the highway where all the cars are spewing and the answer to the question whither goest thou America in thy shiny automobile is anywhere we can to escape the emptiness of our dying dream. I stand along the highway, feeling sorry for myself and not caring. I know the world’s got problems, but I’ve got problems of my own. There’s no bus, but I see a taxi coming. What’s 30 more dollars when you’re already down 85 thousand? I get in and tell him to head for downtown. As we drive toward the city, I can’t help but find it funny that our search for whatever we’ve been searching for has brought us here to Philadelphia, birthplace of our democracy. A place where real Americans come, put on hats, and pretend like they’re Thomas Jefferson...My god, if Jefferson were alive today, they would brand him a liberal fag for questioning authority, label him a radical extremist for his views on government. If Tom Paine were alive now, Jesus Christ, they’d call him a terrorist and throw him in jail. If John Adams were here? Vilified and excoriated for not believing in god. Benjamin Rush? A socialist for advocating public health. Daniel Shays? A domestic terror cell with ties to Al Qaeda. Benjamin Franklin? An anti-establishment hippie freak. This country is as far away from being what it was supposed to be as you could get. We exit off the freeway into the downtown nightlife: rows of franchise restaurants, cheesy facades and cookie-cutter bars. Everything has been co-opted. Bought out. The same company that owns the A-list lounge with apple martinis owns the rocker bar with shots of Jack. The angry music in one place is produced by the same corporation that makes cotton candy dance tunes in another. It’s all an illusion. All of it. The only thing that’s real is what’s going into the cash register.
The cab stops and I pay with my credit card, the speed of the transaction making it easy not to feel guilty for taking a taxi. I get out, go up to the door and push the buzzer. A sing-song voice on the other end: Who IS it?”
I’m immediately buzzed in. It feels good to be wanted. It’s a great building: an old factory that they’ve remodeled in a contemporary design. High-gloss floors and ceilings, industrial chic with modern comforts. They’ve even done some green with eco-friendly lighting. I can easily see Rachel and I living here. I step into the elevator and the doors close. In the quiet, I start to think about what just happened back at the apartment. There is no walking away from a rejection like that unchanged. It marks me forever now: a moment in my personal history where I desperately wanted something, but wasn’t given it. I can feel it in my throat, the act of swallowing it, living with it, having it become a part of me. Yesterday might have been some other guy’s day, but today the shit landed on me. But enough. There’s nothing I can do about it but go forward. And drink heavily.
I get out of the elevator and can hear the party on the roof. I start to walk up the stairs, my mood lightening with every step. I open the door to the roof and there are 30 or 40 good-looking, well-dressed people drinking cocktails with the city shimmering in the background like in one of those cool vodka commercials you see on TV. There’s a light breeze. They’ve got The Police going—Don’t Stand So Close To Me. Right here, right now: I couldn’t ask for a better scene.
“NEAL!” Chris Majerus is playing bartender behind a table in the corner, wearing a little bow tie and everything. “You came to me!”
“Thanks for the invite, brother!” I yell out to him.
I squeeze through several happy, chatting people and make my way over to the bar. He’s already got two whiskeys poured for us. He hands me mine. “To The People’s Champion! Joe Frazier!” We knock them back down. “We are honored to have the People’s Champion here with us TONIGHT!”
“This is a great roof, man,” I say. “You weren’t kidding!”
“Hit me again.”
He pours us two more and we shoot them down. I can feel the warm glow rise in my chest. A very much-needed distance from the day’s events. It was the right move to come here. Enough festering. It’s turning me into something that I’m not: bitter and lame.
“I didn’t think you were going to make it,” he says.
“No way, man. I needed this.”
A dark-haired brunette comes up to the bar, pours herself a glass of red wine, pauses for a moment, then slowly walks away. Attractive. Slightly Rachel-esque, if Rachel were a corporate lawyer. Yeah, that one’s hard to picture.
“Dude,” he whispers excitedly
“I banged a Victoria’s Secret model last week.”
“In Manhattan at my loft in TriBeCa,” he says. “Right by the windows…I was watching a boat on the Hudson while I was banging her.”
“It’s good to see a Jersey boy living the dream.”
“You still with that one girl?”
“You meet her?”
“Yeah, she came to law school that one time to watch you in moot court. Hot, but sort of dark and intense?”
“Yeah, that be her…We’re still together.”
“You’re a better man than I,” he says, taking a swig.
“Shit, you don’t believe that for a second.”
“I do believe that.”
“I tell you what,” I say, pouring myself another whiskey. “From where I’m standing, it looks you’re doing pretty good.”
“You really think so?”
“I know so.”
“I’ll put it to you this way,” he says as three blondes walk up to the bar. “There are a lot of friggin’ options out there…”
“Christopherrrrr,” says one with exceedingly large, gold hoop earrings. “Will you pleeese make me us those yummy shots again? They were so gooood.”
“I’ll let you focus,” I say.
“I’m gonna come find you,” he says. “We gotta talk tonight.”
“You got it.”
I mill around the rooftop. Everyone is happy, having fun. People doing well. People enjoying nice things. People at ease with the fact that money is nice. That having a nice place to live is nice. That good booze is good. That good parties are good. That good views are great. That great views are better. And that being successful and getting recognition is a lot better than being frustrated and ignored. I’ve never even told Rachel this, but one of the best nights I ever had was in New Orleans with a lawyer from BP. I had just won a trial that afternoon and Rachel had to go to work. I was drinking at a bar in the French Quarter when he overheard me talking about it and came over and bought me drink. He had been a public defender for three years before his brother-in-law got him a job at the oil company. He was completely open about it, joking that he had sold out like a two dollar whore. Pure Southern boy. Hilarious. We hit three or four places, he paid for everything, ended up at the casino doing karaoke together. Journey, Wheel in the Sky. He was a big fat guy, happy as all hell. At some point during the night I asked him why he sold out and he said: Life is too short to be uncomfortable. One of the most honest things I’ve ever heard.
It’s Buckley from the sports bar, guy I met briefly from Goldstein and Locke. Based on the Che Guevara reference, I’m assuming that he asked Majerus who I am. Evidently, something stuck in his craw. Maybe his parents were hippies and he always resented them for making him drink soy milk and listen to Cat Stevens.
“How’s the revolution?”
“Fine, how are you, Scott?”
“I’m good. G&L is good. It’s all good.”
“Good to hear.”
He sways back and forth, drunk as shit. I’d love to think that he’s trying to silence the howlings of his conscience that come from being a rich corporate lawyer in a world scorched by selfishness and greed, but he probably just didn’t eat enough bread with dinner. Conscience is just something we wish other people had, when they’re better off than we are.
“I see you have your drink,” he winks. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell….”
“The sloshialist party,” he slightly slurs. “You do not need to be concerned that I will tell the sloshialist party that you’re consuming G&L alcohol.”
“You better not, they’ll throw me out.”
“Don’t worry,” he puts his hand on my shoulder. “I have your back…”
A woman walks between us and he hones in on her panty lines like a laser. “Mucho talento…Mucho talento at la fiesta….Mucho talento indeed.”
“Your Spanish is incredible.”
“Si, meeshter seenor. I go cleaning the bathrooms now, meeshter senor. I go washing the deeshes now, meester seenor.”
“Como mierda, cabron.”
“Este gringo fresa, qué putas dice? No hay quien le entienda. Sólo a verga se le sale el disque indio. No jodas, no sabes lo que decis.”
“You’re a cool dude,” I say. “And thanks for stopping by.”
“Nachoooo, can I borrow some sweats…”
I actually like that movie, but the really funny thing is that come Monday he’ll be charging $500 an hour to give legal advice while I’ll be sitting in my closet in pajamas and sending out resumes…I walk over to the edge of the roof and look out over the city. I could jump right now, but then who would tell my story? I try not think about it, but I can’t not think about it. If they would have said yes, then everything would be different right now. It would be one of the most exciting times of our lives. I would have gone to Rachel’s work and told her face-to-face instead of coming here. Told her to give notice on the hospital steps, then gone home and probably just stayed up all night, listening to music, playing with Zola and being proud of myself for getting it done.
I take a hard drink of my G&L whiskey.
“Are you an attorney? You don’t look like an attorney…Do you have a cigarette?”
I turn around. It’s almost too easy, but she really does look like one of the blondes on Fox News. “Sure.” I take out my smokes. Light hers, then mine.
She points over at a building. “I’m staying in that penthouse right…there.”
“Is that G&L place, too?” Trying to be relatable.
“No no,” and flips her hair. “I’m at Skudden and Mckenzie. Everyone here is an attorney,” she fingers her hair. “You don’t look like an attorney. Where did you go to school?”
“Why is it important?”
“It’s how you find your firm!”
“But I didn’t go to a firm.”
“You’re not really an attorney…”
“No, I’m a…”
“Guess where I went?”
“I don’t know.”
“No way, Columbia!” she says. “And now I’m at Skudden and Mackenzie.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I’m in distressed assets,” she says. “A damsel in distreshed assets.”
“You know what my ex-boyfriend called me?”
“Promise you can keep a secret?”
“Ivy league Superpussy.”
I start laughing.
“Don’t laugh, tattoo boy.”
“Don’t laugh, tattoo boy. You’re bad.”
This is one of those encounters where you know damn well that your partner would not be pleased, which is why couples need to go out alone every so often. For entertainment’s sake, and, let’s be honest, a little touch of self-esteem.
“So why are you here?” she asks.
“I clean up after everyone leaves.”
“You do not.”
“Are you really a lawyer?”
“No, I’m not.”
“But you are,” she says.
“How do you know?”
“Because you look like one…” And runs her hand from my shoulder down to my elbow. “Your tattoos are really intereshting…Are you going to get me a drink?”
Majerus appears with two drinks in his hands. “Come on, man. It’s time for talks…” And whispers in my ear: “Do you want to bring her?”
I laugh to myself thinking about this one:
So what did you do last night?
Well, while my life partner and soul mate was saving dying children in the city hospital, I was hooking up with a Fox News blonde in the bathroom. What about you?
“Let’s go, man…It was nice meeting you,” I say to her.
She looks disappointed, does the whole pouty lips thing. Too bad. I found my comrade a long time ago at a bar in the East Village. She didn’t talk about what law school she went to or what Wall Street firm she joined.
We cut through the party and go back downstairs to the loft, passing through a living room with leather couches and a plasma screen mounted on the on the wall like a piece of art, then into a bathroom that’s about the same size as our living room and ten times as stylish. It’s like a page out of Esquire magazine: shaving cream, razor, exfoliate, all the good products. Smells like it, too. I lean up against the counter as he breaks out the bindle. Last time I did blow was with Rachel in New York. One of those nights where we rolled from place-to-place, flowing through the late night madness of one of the greatest cities on earth. We ended up in a Russian diner at dawn, sharing pancakes, drinking herbal tea and overanalyzing the fascist implications of Lawrence Welk.
“Go ahead and knock that off,” he says, hands me a rolled up bill.
I snort the line and immediately feel the voltage surge through my head. “Thanks, man. I needed that. Big time.” I am aware of acting like a guy on coke when I do cocaine, but the cocaine makes it so it doesn’t matter. It is the cause of and solution to itself.
He bends over and does his. “So, what’s up?” he says, coming back up with a white booger in his nose. “I mean really what’s up? You were like one of the sharpest guys in law school. Seriously, I know how gay that sounds, but I always thought you would end up, I don’t know, getting prostitution legalized or something…”
“I appreciate that, Chris.”
“It’s just good to reconnect.”
We hug it out, shake hands, then hug it out again. Two lawyers doing blow in the bathroom on a Friday night: an American legal tradition.
“Now talk to me,” he says. “You can’t bullshit a bartender. Talk to me. We went to school together, we’re alumnusses, now come on.”
I think back over the day’s events: there’s no pretending anymore. “I’m unemployed, straight up, man. I’m not going to hide it from you. Can’t do it anymore. Can’t live a lie. I went down to New Orleans, busted my ass, sacrificed to do it, and now look where I’m at? Nowhere. That’s the answer. Nowhere. I can’t get a job. I’m sitting in a fucking closet all day. Me and my woman are always fighting about the credit cards, student loan companies crawling up my ass—it’s been miserable.” I shake my head. “Fucking miserable.”
“Listen, Neal. Zero bullshit.” He puts his hand on my shoulder. “Seriously. You’re too sharp for that. Seriously. We need to get you up to the office in New York.”
“I don’t even have words for that,” I say. “They way you’ve been a friend. I don’t even know what to say.”
“Say you’ll do it,” he says. “And it’s done.”
“I might be the People’s Champion, but you’re Muhammad Ali. The Greatest of All Times.”
“Fuckin’ A. I appreciate that. Now give me a hug.”
We hug it out again. Beautiful.
“So that’s it, we’re on?”
“Oh, man..How can I say this with the lowest possible pride. The lowest of all possible prides. Negative pride. Anti-pride. It’s just not my thing. And every syllable in that sentence…is of the lowest possible anti-pride.”
“But it is your thing. It is your thing,” he takes a drink of whiskey. “It’s the blonde in the bar.”
“The blonde in the bar?”
“I don’t really go for the blondes,” he says. “What can I say, I’m Italian, they don’t do it for me…But back in Jersey this smoking blonde walked into the bar and my pal was like So, I guess you don’t like her, huh? I guess she’s not your type? And I looked at him like he was an idiot—because he was an idiot—and said what do you mean she’s not my type? Of course she’s my type! Whose type isn’t she?”
“Oh, but see, for me, I really like black-haired Jewish women that have a dark yet comically-twisted way of seeing life…”
“Of course, but whatever…The point is that everybody likes a beautiful woman.”
“Come on, man. They do.”
“Yeah, sure. I’m not some emasculated punk. But look, Majerus, you’re a good man, my good man, but even if G&L was my type, they wouldn’t want me around…It’s like a Park Avenue law firm and I’m like a social justice guy.”
“I want you around. I want you around. I need people on my team who’ll make me look good,” he says. “Hey, I made Junior Partner.”
“You made JP!”
“White collar criminal defense division!” he says.
“Jersey’s in the house, bitches!” I yell.
We hug it out, shake hands, then hug it out again.
“Hey, you ever been to Fibbar Mcgees?” I ask.
“No, TGI Friday’s.”
“Yeah, me too. It’s classier.”
“You want another one?”
“To your success,” I say. “It truly makes me so happy.”
He lays us out two lines on the counter and we suck them down again. I can feel it running down the back of my throat…
“Now, I want you to listen to me like you never listened before,” he says. “JP is one thing, where I’m at is another. Repeat: JP is one thing, where I’m at is another…And where I’m at, is on the interview committee. Did you get that? Interview committee. And who came up to me the week after I ran into you at the bar? My boss came up to me…And what did my boss say to me when he came up to me? He said, Christopher, we need more like you. And you know what I told him?”
“I know a guy.”
“I said that I know a guy like me who might be looking to make a move.”
“And you know what he told me?”
“Bring him in for an interview.”
“I talked you up to them, they want you,” he says, picking his nose. “They said bring him in for an interview. And who’s on the interview committee?”
“That’s right,” he says. “And my boss runs it and told me he didn’t want anything to do with it, so I’m the man now.”
“Wow. You’re the only one?”
“Couple other guys. One’s a total fag, the other guy’s big time.”
“And there’s an opening?”
“We’re building the criminal defense division, all the Wall Street guys need it now,” he says, turning on the sink and splashing cold water on his face. “You’d make the firm look good. You’d make me look good. You’re a front lines guy with experience. You’re a winner. What are you, 16-0?”
“Look, way I see it,” he dries off his face with a plush towel. “Is that if you can get blacks off in the South, then you got to be able to get investment bankers off in New York.”
“That’s a good point.”
“And don’t even ask how much it pays.”
”How much does it pay?”
“Base is 210, then with year end bonus, you’d be making like 230, easy.”
“$230 thousand dollars a year?”
“I told you not to ask.”
My mind spins out at what $230 thousand dollars a year could do for our lives…
“Look, Neal,” he says. “What my boss told me was to get talent. Bring in talent. They need guys like us, guys who can into court and take care of business. Goldstein and Locke could use a guy like Neal de la Vega…”
“Princeton could use a guy like Joel!”
“Risky Business! Love that movie…So we’re doing it.”
“Listen, Chris, I really have to thank you. I mean it. I really do. No one has shown any interest in me in months. But like I said, I just don’t think it’s for me. And I say that with the lowest possible pride. Really zero pride. Anti-pride.”
He takes a key, dips it into the bindle and does a bump. “You’re really going to spend the rest of your life drinking bad coffee and defending drunk driver’s in some PD’s office? I mean, come on, Neal. You’re better than that. Life’s too short. ”
He dips the key back in, then holds it up under my nose. It burns going up this time and I have to fight off a sneeze. “Hey,” I say, sniffing. “Let’s not go down that road.”
“I don’t want to say it.”
“Look, I don’t want to sound like a self-righteous prick here or anything, but there’s a difference to me between defending poor people who were sentenced to prison before they were born and rich assholes with every fucking possible option in the world but who still decide to fuck everyone over…”
He smiles coyly and puts his hand back on my shoulder. “Listen, Neal, I hear you, but it’s time to get real. There’re always going to be poor people in the world getting fucked over. It’s the way it’s always been, and the way it always will be. Either you can waste your time trying to fight it or you can be smart and take care of yourself and the people you care about. Be realistic. You know it, I know it. We come from the same place.”
“It would be nice to pay off my student loans.”
“Paid them off six months ago.”
“I was down a 110 thousand, now I’m up 90. And the only reason I don’t have more in the bank, is because I’m renting that place in TriBeCa.”
“I do miss the city.”
“Yeah, get back to the city where you belong,” he says, sipping his whiskey. “And look, you can do whatever you want with your money, give it to the Peace Corps or whatever.”
“Yeah, that’s a good point.”
“And it’s just an interview,” he says. “If you don’t like it, walk away, but don’t be an idiot and not explore the option.”
“Yeah, it would give me something to focus on.”
“An excuse to get up to New York.”
“See some old friends..”
“When would it be?”
“Next Wednesday, 11 am.” He sips his drink.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you have to have more time to set it up or something?”
“I don’t know…A job like that…”
“Job like what?”
“A job that pays $230 thousand dollars a year,” I say. “Just seems like a really big deal.”
“Neal, Neal, Neal,” he says calmly. “You don’t get it, Neal. This isn’t some Puerto Rican rights clinic in Queens where they can’t afford toilet paper for the friggin’ bathroom...Our clients wipe their ass with $230 thousand dollars a year. It’s nothing to them. It’s what they spend on their fucking daughter’s 16th birthday party. You don’t know what wealth is, man. You have no clue about the levels that exist out there. You’re talking about people who pay more in taxes in one year than most people make in their entire lives. 230 grand to them is like going to get a slice of pizza is to me and you. It’s not even on their radar screen.”
I nod my head. “Yeah, I know…”
“So, are we going to do this?” he says. “Picture it, man. White collar criminal defense. Big time litigation. Real lawyers. It’s where you belong.”
“I always wanted to get into federal court…”
“That’s all we do, fucking SEC…”
“We have an in-house publicist.”
“You see this guy Ben Mendelsohn?”
“Nothing, man,” I say. “You got another line?”
“You know I do.”
“Let’s do it.”
JASON FLORES-WILLIAMS is a lawyer in New Mexico.