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. Tune in every month for another installment.
There is a papier mache, Day of the Dead skull hanging on the rearview mirror: black and red with star-fire eyes, big shiny teeth and flower designs swaying back and forth to the rhythm of the car. We bought it together in Mexico City and I think she put it there to remind me that I’m going to die some day, so that while alive, I need to live in accordance with who I really am. But who am I really? Twenty-five years ago I thought that getting in a fight at a Black Flag show was the most authentic thing I could ever do. Fifteen years ago I thought that drinking two bottles of wine and insulting everyone at the bourgeois dinner party was authentic. Ten years ago I would have argued that it was inauthentic to think too much about outward appearances, but spent nearly two days on the Internet researching what color arrangement of suit, tie and shirt convey power and competence in a job interview.
I have to stop at yet another toll booth. The cost of tolls between Philly and New York is ridiculous. They need to be giving out martinis on this drive, for what they charge.
What if my dad hadn’t gone to prison? I was a straight A student before they sent him away. I played football and was the class president two years in a row. I used to sit in his study and talk business with him. If my father hadn’t gone go to prison, I might already be a corporate lawyer. One permutation, and I’m already a junior mid-level associate sitting in a board room next to CEO’s in a Brooks Brothers suit. Or maybe I’m one of the guys getting busted on Wall Street and being represented by Goldstein and Locke? Or it could have easily gone the other way…My first love was a new age hippie chick. We used to get stoned, do arts and craft, cook organic food and chant together before we went to bed. Her mom got breast cancer and she had to move back across the country to take care of her. If her mom hadn’t gotten sick, then I could be wearing a crystal around my neck right now, burning sandalwood incense and chanting: hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare...
I can see the outline of Manhattan across the marshes of northern New Jersey. I was 19 when I first saw New York. I came in on a Greyhound from Albuquerque. First thing I did after dropping my backpack off at a hostel in Hell’s Kitchen—sorry, Clinton—was go wandering around midtown Manhattan. I wanted to see those buildings. I wanted to see what the power brokers looked like. I will never forget this woman coming out of work on Fifth Avenue. She was tall, black hair, designer-cut dress, but with Air Jordans. It was the Jordans that got me. She looked so sleek, so in control. I was supposed to be this anti-capitalist punk, but couldn’t stop staring at the all-pro woman in the red and black shoes.
I come around the bend and there it is: Manhattan, the competition that dreamed it was an island. A city that runs on money and exclusivity, which is to say another town I’m not really not supposed to like, but I’ve always loved it. Even where it’s become sanitized and boring it’s still more interesting than almost any place else. When I was a kid in Albuquerque, I would watch Saturday Night Live and dream about living here. Even David Letterman. All of my fantasies about adult success tale place in New York City.
I drive through the tunnel, roll down my window and feel the buzz. I love nature, but no mountains ever hit me like crossing over Fifth Avenue. This was built by man. And for all the underlying darkness, it’s still a good-looking piece of property. I take a left on Park Avenue, drive along the double-sided boulevard for several blocks, take a quick right and then turn into a garage reserved for Goldstein and Locke. I pull slowly into a space along the concrete wall, the initial rush of hitting the city replaced by a concrete sense of where I am. It’s quiet down here, could be anywhere in corporate America. Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, Audis: the kinds of cars driven by people who have reached amicable terms with what we call success. I turn off the car.
I don’t know what I’m doing here, but here I am. I didn’t go to law school to be a corporate tool. I didn’t study the Constitution so that I could defend investment bankers and insurance companies. But what am I supposed to do? Keep sitting in a closet until someone recognizes that I have value? Go further into debt and keep living off my girlfriend? I wanted to help people, not take advantage of them. But it looks like it’s either them or me. Is that it: them or me? Is that what this all comes down to: a zero sum game? A choice between them or me?
I look in the rearview mirror, tighten my tie, grab my briefcase from the back seat and get out of the car. No matter what the implications: I’m going to do well in this interview. I’m not going to feed the myth that social justice lawyers—or really anyone who fights the good fight—somehow can’t cut it at this level. I never met an ain’t righter who couldn’t have chosen to do something else.
I walk into the lobby. Where the institutional money flows, people tend to look very serious. Stern faces and stiff shoulders, dark suits and leather shoes. I get to the front desk. The wooden décor might be 1805, but the computers and security are 2105. The guard seems more CIA than rent-a-cop. As he takes my ID, I can’t help but squeeze a fart through my suit. Too much coffee on the drive up. Or perhaps a silent-but-deadly protest against The Man. I move my briefcase around to osmotically disperse. He completes the four-way FBI background check, then hands me my day pass. I get into the elevator and study my warped reflection in the golden brass doors. The face is distorted, eyes hidden, chin elongated…How many others have stared at their weird reflections as they rode up to the 34th floor? What thoughts crossed their minds as they went up to Goldstein and Locke to sign one of those deals that no one really understands. The one thing that you’ve almost got to be a lawyer to see clearly, is that the rich and powerful businessmen who get in these elevators and ride up to the 34th floor aren’t interested in playing by the rules, but in writing them. They aren’t concerned with making their activities fit within the law, but with bending the law to fit within their activities…Rich and powerful businessmen don’t pay rich and powerful lawyers $650 dollars an hour so that they can take their chances on the so-called free market, but so that they can control the market before they even get into it.
I get off the elevator…A trim woman in her 50’s greets me immediately, an action that, while welcoming to me, no doubt precludes penetration of any unwanted visitors to the inner sanctum. Far from the fresh-out-of-school eye candy often hired to impress clients, she’s been around a while, and probably knows more than the senior partners about how things work.
“Neal, hello,” she says. “I’m Anamaria…How was your trip?”
“Good, thank you.”
“You found our parking without any problem?”
“No, it was easy.”
“Wonderful, if you’ll walk with me…” She could be French, Italian, Argentinean: any range of international possibilities. I follow her through a conference room and then past a visitors lounge with a plasma screen—real-time Dow ticker running across the bottom—then down another hall where the rich mahogany walls of Goldstein and Locke give over to the earthy brick of…You’ve got to be shittin’ me…They’ve got their own Starbucks…Well, actually, Dean and Deluca. “This our cafe,” she says. “We find it’s much easier for our attorneys to come here for their four o’ clock coffee…And we all need that four o’ clock coffee, right?”
There’s a magazine rack with legal journals and newspapers from around the globe. I didn’t even know that there was a German version of Esquire…I don’t like admitting it, but I would probably hang out in this café even if I didn’t work here. They’ve got free Wi-Fi. She goes over to the counter, swipes a card and tells me that I can have whatever I’d like. This is a nice way to be treated. I feel attracted to a blueberry muffin, but the crumb factor is way too high. Coffee is risky with regard to the spill factor, but I get a small one to be polite.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Thank you, Neal, for taking the time to meet with us.”
I follow her down a windowed corridor that looks out over the city from the 34th floor. Either real or imagined, the skyline nearly punches me with its options and possibilities. It’s a different city up here and my brain scrambles to find the negative in it, but it’s not forthcoming. I think of the dumpsters and cigarette butts outside our apartment and it occurs to me that one would almost have to psychotic not to be intrigued by life on this level.
“I love coming here to watch the oranges and reds envelop the city at sunset,” she says. “It’s one of my absolutely favorite things about working at Goldstein and Locke…”
“It’s beautiful,” I say.
“I love the old water towers,” she says.
“Me, too.” I say. “I’ve always noticed those.”
“If you’ll follow me…” We walk down the hall, turn the corner and come to a set of double doors. “This is our exercise facility, our gym,” she says. “It’s available to all of our associates. Again, we find it’s just easier, more convenient…” She swipes her access card and the door clicks open. There are free weights, treadmills, state-of-the-art machines and more plasma screen TVs. One of the things I’ve really been missing in my life is going to a gym on a regular basis. I’ve gotten out of shape. “It’s important to the partners that our associates keep a balance,” she says, waving to a healthy-looking woman with long black hair running on one of the treadmills. I think back to the all-pro woman in the Air Jordans. “Sari is one of our rising stars,” Anamaria whispers to me. “Recently second-chaired a trial for us…Won a fantastic outcome for one of our most important clients.”
I am surprised by a twinge of jealousy. I would like to be described as a rising star. I want to achieve fantastic outcomes. I want to be in somewhere. I follow her back down the windowed corridor, jet flying over the skyline as the Empire State Building rises into the blue-grey sky. “We’ve recently remodeled our offices, but for purposes of confidentiality, we only allow access to members of the firm. You understand.”
Another surprising twinge of jealousy. I would like to have access. I’m tired of sitting on the sidelines, not having a role to play. I’m tired of being a tourist. There comes a time when you almost don’t even care what it is anymore, you just want to be a part of something.
And as though reading my mind, or maybe playing me like a fiddle, she says: “But I imagine that you’ll be seeing what our new offices look like soon enough…”
And despite being aware of any manipulations that may or may not be going on, I still feel flattered. “Thank you, Anamaria.” We are much simpler creatures than we want to believe. All it takes is a little smile and a pat on the back. Me? You think I’m special?
She leads me back to the conference room, but stop a few feet from the door as though at the limits of her jurisdiction. There’s something Old World about it, respectful. Another thing I’m not supposed to like is formality, but when you order that expensive bottle of wine, you want the waiter to do the whole presentation. She takes out a mobile device and politely informs them that Mr. de la Vega is ready, then turns to me and says: “Forgive me, but there’s just something that I have to tell you, Neal.”
“My husband is from New Orleans and we have a real connection to the city. Our daughter is beginning at Tulane next year and we were actually married close to Jackson Square,” she says. “So, I just have to say that leaving New York to go down after the hurricane and doing the work that you did was just very, very good of you. Very, very good….Goldstein and Locke is a wonderful law firm, Neal. I wish you the very best. Should you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.”
I must have sent 400 resumes out in the last eight months and no one has ever said that to me. “I appreciate you saying that…”
“Best of luck again,” she says. “You would be a real addition to G&L.”
I go into the meeting room. There’s a coffee cart with sodas and teas. I pour myself a little more coffee, then go over to the window and stare down at the rush of life on Park Avenue. I can see myself down there, the successful attorney on his cell phone, in the middle of his New York life, connected to a world of opportunities. I would finally be the other guy. The guy you look at and say: wow, I wish I was him. Where’s he going tonight? What’s he up to? I can see myself meeting Rachel for lunch down the street at Grand Central Station. I always wanted to go to that one fancy Italian restaurant. I can see us sitting there, slightly above the crowd, having a glass of red wine. We’d still have our cool style. We’d still be alternative people. Even more alternative because we’d finally be able to afford it. I’d be making $230 thousand dollars a year, what is that per month, 19 thousand? Add Rachel’s income and we’d be making about 22 thousand a month, minus taxes, so say about 14 thousand…We could get a great apartment on Tompkins Square, steps away from that old tree where I first told her the story of the run from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. They have that great dog park now. Our weeks would be full and then on Saturday mornings we’d wake up with our coffees and take Zola across the street. Could you imagine it? We could have a nice place again, in an actual neighborhood, with an actual park. It’s hard for me to even believe it. Sometimes it’s felt like we turned a corner and that there wasn’t any coming back. But here we are. It’s all right here for the taking. I can do this. I can bring it home. Right here, right now. We are one interview away…
The door opens and I turn around.
“Great view, right?”
“Mr. Majerus, good to see you.”
“Mr. de la Vega, meet David Hill and Todd Phillips.”
I read about them in the G&L materials that Anamaria sent me. David Hill is one of the only black partners in the firm. An impressive man. Came out of Newark, went to Harvard. Todd Phillips is the other guy. We sit down across from each other. Majerus on the left, Hill in the middle, and Phillips on the right. I open my briefcase and take out three copies of the appellate brief that I wrote for that 19-year-old doing life at Angola. It’s more than 100 pages and makes for a really good prop. “Gentlemen, this is an example of some of the work that I did in post-Katrina New Orleans,” I say. “But in the interest of full disclosure, I wrote the brief and can barely make it through the thing myself, so…” Admittedly lame, but it brings laughter. We’re off to the right start.
“Neal, so you know,” Majerus says. “Steven Katz was called into court on an emergency motion, so it’ll just be the three of us doing the interview today.” I detect a wink and remember him telling me that his boss wanted nothing to with the interview process.
“Thanks for letting me know, Chris,” I say.
I feel my attention pulled toward Phillips who seems like he really wants to say something. “Mind if I begin?” he asks.
David Hill quietly nods his head; Chris Majerus discretely rolls his eyes.
“So yes,” Phillips says. “I was talking with John Choate on the phone this morning…By the way, David, he said to say hello.”
David Hill nods his head again.
“Really, really interesting issue where an auteur—intellectual property is one of my boutique interests—granted a written license to a publisher who interestingly enough publishes one of my favorite magazines and so shall remain nameless. Ha ha. Anyhow, to get the basic parameters on this you may want to reread Tasini versus New York Times…Ironically, I was considering submitting some of my own work to them as I happen to be something of a writer myself…”
Phillips is one of those lawyers who’s so frustrated with his life that he’s sunk to using an interview to talk about himself. This sad phenomenon is more common in the legal profession than almost any other field because the practice of law can be so killingly, soul-crushingly boring. This holds true especially in law firms where some of these middle-of-the road guys will never step foot into court and are doomed to spend their entire lives buried under legal documents. If I thought for one second that this was my fate, I wouldn’t be here. I simply couldn’t do it, as in kill myself by the end of the first day, if I made it that long.
“And take my word for it,” Phillips says. “Because I know…This is a high-profile client with international holdings and with whom I have a long-standing and unique relationship, due to mutual friends in London and, speaking of which, David, we really need to do a conference call with Stuart because, frankly, I don’t know what’s going on over there…’”
David Hill quietly nods his head.
Majerus rolls his eyes.
“And so through various channels—and a lot of work and research on my part—we’ve come to learn that they’re going to be indicted…”
Somehow, he’s managed to wrap it all up into an interview question. I almost have to give him credit. “On what grounds is about to be indicted?” I ask.
“16(b),” Majerus interjects, making sure that I hear it.
“Insider trading. Pre-indictment?”
“That’s right,” says David Hill.
“And so, yes, how would you proceed?” asks Phillips with gravitas.
What he wants to know is what I would do with a case that’s under criminal investigation before the government officially indicts the defendant. This is where most corporate, white-collar crimes are settled. “I would focus on negotiating with the feds,” I say. “Because once the indictment is issued, then the damage has been done. We’re talking 16(b), so this is a publicly-traded corporation. The last thing our client can afford is the FBI, under the supervision of the SEC, coming down to corporate headquarters, removing computers and hard drives, then sending out a press release about it to MSNBC, right? Their reputation will take a severe hit, stock prices go down, and the shareholders will not be pleased…”
“What if the indictment has been issued?” Majerus asks.
“Then our main concern is forfeiture and seizure of assets,” I say, making eye contact with David Hill. “If the government is allowed to freeze corporate bank accounts, credit cards, property and equipment—assets critical to our client’s ability to generate profit—then we’re starting the first quarter down 55 to nothing…”
“That actually reminds me of a really, really interesting issue,” says Phillips. “I was working with a client several years ago…”
I didn’t have to go to law school to learn about forfeiture laws. After my father went to prison, the sheriff’s department would come to our apartment and see if there was anything more that they could take from us. Whatever they claimed was bought by proceeds of the crime—a bicycle, the microwave—was fair game. There are generations of Americans now who only know sheriff’s deputies as the men with guns who come and take things and sometimes throw families out of their homes. And, oh yeah, serves them with notices from Sallie Mae when their student loans go into default.
“…but that’s neither here nor there, no, the relevant piece here is that he had a twin brother who was the CEO of a corporation registered in Delaware but whose personal domicile—and quite a domicile it is, ha—is listed in London. So, as you can imagine…”
I’ve spent much of my life building up to this moment. The great showdown with the mythic East Coast establishment. Seabiscuit versus War Admiral, and all that…But after nearly two decades of build up, I get to the table and sitting across from me is a guy that I did coke with last week, a black man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and a miserable twat who probably keeps a copy of On The Road under his bed.
“…and so hereceived a notice of seizure when the actual intended target of the forfeiture action was his twin. Ha! And then so I, of course, had to generate a motion…”
There’s a knock on the door, thank god…
“Alan!” says Majerus. “Thanks for coming by.” Majerus turns to me, his Jersey accent nowhere in evidence. “Wonderful development…Neal, I was hoping for you to meet Alan…Alan handles some of our most important clients and is one of the top environmental lawyers in the country.”
Now this is a promising development, something that I could take home to Rachel, if it ever came to that. All law firms have at least a few attorneys focused on the pro bono, public interest side of things and to say that I could end up working with a top environmental lawyer after a few years of compromise, could count for a lot. “It’s a real pleasure to meet you, Alan,” I say, standing up. He looks like an older version of Rachel’s brother, Daniel.
“Nice meeting you, Neal,” he says. “I’ve heard good things from our mutual friend here,” and gestures toward Majerus. “Wanted to stop by, say hello.”
“What kind of cases are you working on?” I need to make the most of this meeting. I need to make an impression. “I have a real interest in environmental law, worked in the clinic for a year back in law school.”
“Can’t go into specifics, of course….”
“Recently handled a case out of Newark,” he says, casually. “Residents alleged that a certain company was using water-adjacent lots in their neighborhood as a depository for chemical waste.”
“Alan got the class-action dismissed,” interjects Phillips. “It’s really, really interesting, I actually knew the mayor from back at Yale…”
This is funny, in a nihilistic kind of way. When I hear the words top environmental lawyer, then I automatically think of somebody who’s out there trying to protect the environment. But this is a corporate law firm, the bizarro world, so that top environmental lawyer means a person who defends the corporations that are polluting the environment. We’re on the other side now: all that matters is who can afford to pay. In this case, the plaintiff was the Newark residents whose neighborhood was being used as a toxic dumping ground. The defendant was the corporation that was doing the dumping. It’s very hard for inner-city people to get enough resources together to file a class action law suit against a corporation, so it must have been devastating when Alan here got the case dismissed. So much for having one to bring back home to Rachel.
Alan’s phone buzzes. “Got to go guys,” he says, turning to David Hill. “Robert is here, we’ll be up in my office.”
David Hill quietly nods his head.
“Neal, good meeting you.”
“Great meeting you, Alan,” I say. “I look forward to hearing more about the work you do.” Now that’s a first: I just ass-kissed a guy who enables companies to save money by dumping their toxic waste in poor neighborhoods, aka environmental racism.
“And so this really, really interesting…As I mentioned, I went to Yale...”
David Hill leans forward, calmly clears his throat and Phillips immediately becomes silent. Majerus also seems to become more solemn.
“Neal,” says David Hill. “I’ve seen your resume and actually read that brief,” he points over to it. “I’m confident that you have the skills to do well here. Anyone who can work in the Bronx, Newark and New Orleans can handle anything that we have to throw at them at G&L.”
“Thank you, David.”
“So your abilities aren’t in question for me,” he says. “But from what I’ve read about you it seems like you’ve always been committed to working for the underdog.” He studies me for a moment. “So, my question is, why would you want to come work for a corporate law firm on Park Avenue?”
I stare at him for a moment, assessing the purpose, motivations and implications of his question, and then proceed to the expected bullshit, as far as I can tell. “I want to work with real lawyers. I’ve done my time in the minor leagues, paid my dues, and now it’s time for me to take that step up. I’m proud of my experience, but that road only goes so far and, frankly, I want to do top-tier litigation. I want to test my skills, learn from the best, see if I’m as good as I think I am…Accordingly, when Mr. Majerus here mentioned that there might be an opening, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m currently looking at several options, but if given the chance to come to what I believe is one of the best law firms in America, then I guarantee that I would prove to be an asset to this firm. I tell you this: I am ready to commit myself 110 percent to the mission here at Goldstein and Locke.”
David Hill leans back and nods his head. I have shown him the will to bullshit required to be a successful corporate defense lawyer. For let’s be clear: the federal government doesn’t indict the vice president of an international investment bank with billions of dollars in holdings and its fingers in almost every sector of the economy unless the guy basically raped the system for all its worth. And even then. This is a prestigious and important position in which the most critical component is the ability to lie through one’s fucking teeth.
“Very good,” says David Hill. “Very good.”
“It’s an honor, David, to even be considered for this firm.”
You know, that wasn’t so bad. No angst. No soul-cracking. I always thought that when I went down sell-out road, there would be psychological hell to pay. But in reality—come on, Neal, be realistic—we never say what we think or even really think what we think, so bullshit comes naturally and with very few side effects. I hardly feel anything at all, other than like a hypocrite, which again is no big deal. “And with the pro bono department and resources that are here at G&L,” I say with a smile. “There’s actually a chance of winning some of these long-shot public interest cases, which would be a new experience for me altogether.”
Another round of laughter, although Majerus makes sure to lean over to David Hill and whisper: “He’s actually 17-0.”
Phillips overhears this: “So, this is really, really interesting...”
He goes on for a while, but eventually Majerus finds a way to politely cut him off by tangentially tying it into something about the Rules of Evidence, which ultimately ends up being a softball question for me on criminal procedure. “Well, the first thing I’d do is file a motion to suppress…” We go back and forth like this for another 20 minutes or so, until David Hill announces that he has to go upstairs and meet with Alan. We all stand up and shake hands, the feeling in the room being that I could start here tomorrow. I have no illusions about the fairness of corporate culture, but unlike some parts of the nonprofit world, the focus tends to be less on pedigree and more on one’s ability to get the job done. David Hill and I wave goodbye to one another as Majerus and I walk down the hall toward the elevator.
“Shit, that couldn’t have gone better, man!” he says, Jersey accent making a big return.
“You think so?” I push the elevator button.
“Hill liked you and he never likes anybody…He’s a total hard ass,” he says. “You hit it out of the friggin’ park. You made me look good.”
“I hope so, Chris.”
“Hey man,” I say. “There’s something I want to tell you…”
“I’ve had a pretty hard time these last few months,” I say. “A lot of people have stopped returning my emails, sort of written me off…But then I run into you and you go to bat for me like this…You went above and beyond the call, man. I owe you one.”
“No way, man,” he says. “We’re even.”
“Look,” he says. “I didn’t go to law school for social justice or whatever, but if all I wanted to do was talk about S-Corps and LLC’s, then I just would have gone to business school. Why do the extra year? But then we got The People’s Champion, Joe Frazier, standing up in class, yelling about the Patriot Act, keeping the faith. You made it interesting, Neal.”
The elevator door opens and I step in. “Thanks, Chris.”
“You were wrong about everything,” he smiles. “But you made it interesting.”
I pull out my cell phone to call Rachel, but she’ll still be asleep. This might not be so bad for once, as I’m not really sure how to report this one. The quality of my performance exists in indirect proportion to the goodness of the implications. The better I did, the worse it is. I can see her getting really excited for a moment, and then getting really depressed. And how to explain my answer to David Hill’s question? And yes, honey, that’s when I told them that I wanted to work with real lawyers and take that step up…I quickly put the phone back in my pocket. Yeah, better to cross this bridge if and when we come to it.
I get back to the car and loosen my tie. I’m happy for how I did, but it doesn’t feel like some great personal achievement. First, it wasn’t exactly a Ph.D. defense with questions flying at me from all sides. Second, there are probably 3,000 resumes down in the human resources slush pile right now that are better than mine, but won’t be read because they didn’t run into a guy from law school at a sports bar. I know this because I’m usually one of those 3,000 resumes. The role of sheer luck in this life can’t be overstated.
I turn on the car and start driving through the East Side, making my way over to FDR Drive for the straight shot downtown…Okay, assuming that they offer it to me, then let’s get down to it: she wouldn’t like it, but she wouldn’t leave. There would be some heavy fighting, maybe a few casualties, perhaps even a threat to separate, but she’s not going to go her own way because I took a job after doing everything that I could to find good work for eight months. If I had other options, then that would be a different story. Say the Civil Rights Guild offered me that job and then I still went to G&L, then there’d be serious issues. But I don’t have other options and let’s face it, a beautiful apartment on Tompkins Square Park would do a lot to make things right. It wouldn’t be long before we started to find excuses for me to take the job—pee stains on the carpet—and then found justifications—do it for a while until you find something else—and then finally convinced ourselves of the pleasing obviousness of its common sense. He was unemployed, Goldstein and Locke was the only thing that came along, so OF COURSE we had to take it. Have you seen our new rug? Pass the chardonnay…
I switch lanes and get off on the Grand Street Exit. A little early for the Lower East Side, but haven’t been down here since we left for New Orleans and want to see the old neighborhood. Oh look, we went to a party in that loft right there…Okay, so assuming that they offer it to me, what points would she bring up, what arguments would she make? There’d be the thing about our version of success versus their version of success. I’d play it straight on that one, say that I’m burnt out on our version, want some of the comfortable things in life. You can’t argue with emotional truth. What else would she come with? Oh yeah, state-of-the-world argument. World needs fighters, not sell outs. We’re going down. We can’t contribute to the destruction of the planet or further exploitation of the poor and disenfranchised, etc. Counter? Did my tour of duty. Fought the good fight long and hard, contributed to society, we’ll still live consciously and give money to worthy causes, which may be more effective than volunteering. What does Greenpeace want? Another volunteer, or $10 thousand? Oh yeah, that’s gold. I wish I had a pen so that I could write that down. Remember: The Greenpeace volunteer versus 10 thousand dollars argument. She would, umh, I dunno, maybe make a generalized appeal toward morality, but then again that’s not really her thing…Hard to picture her going too far down that road, too much religion in it. Let me see…What’s the main point she’ll hit? Where’s the hardest punch coming from? Got to anticipate, otherwise I’ll get blindsided and knocked out. She did it to me before on the issue of gay marriage. Wasn’t against it, just couldn’t see the point, until she started talking about denying people their humanity. Abandoned ship on that one, but not before getting pummeled for 20 minutes. Let’s see. Where will it come from…Well, of course. No question. Complicity. Not taking part in things that hurt other people or the planet unless we absolutely have to….Just the cornerstone of our fucking relationship, Neal!
I try and think of a good counter to that one, but there is none. There’s no way around it. Not for argument’s sake, not for any sake. I would be knowingly complicit in things that I was once against. It would be a matter of accepting it and that’s all. Bottom line: it was either them or me, and I chose me. I pull into a parking space on Delancey Street, grab my briefcase and get out of the car. I used to get my knish at a bakery on the corner, but now it’s a designer hand bag store. Things change. Times change. It’s what they do. One of the first songs that I can even remember hearing is The Times They Are A Changin’ by Bob Dylan. He probably sang it right up the street in a café in the West Village. The loser now will be later to win. Now you can’t rent an apartment in the West Village unless you’ve got serious money. No losers there anymore. Only winners. The times change, just not the way we want them to. Last I heard, Dylan had sold that song to a Canadian Bank and was doing Victoria’s Secret commercials.
I cross the street to an old brown tenement squeezed between new silver live-work lofts…My old buddy Tom has organized this building, led protests, even got arrested for dropping a water balloon on the landlord’s limo that bounced off and exploded on his suit. Alright, he was gunning for his suit to begin with, but the landlord has been trying to kick everyone out for years. There are seniors in this building who have lived here since the 60’s, families with no other place to go. The landlord is a moneybag with properties all over the city. I hit the buzzer….A minute goes by and I hit it again.
“Counselorrrrrrrrrr! It’s Tom doing De Niro in Cape Fear.
“What’s going on!”
“You asshole, get up here!” and hits the buzzer.
We met shortly after 9-11. I was at a direct action meeting that was bogged down in the usual Life of Brian, People’s Front of Judea stuff—a post-capitalist society would be anti-systemic! No, a post-capitalist society would be non-hierarchal!—so went outside for a smoke. Tom was already there and gave me a light. We started talking and the conversation flowed to a bar on the corner where we hunkered down with whiskeys, pens and cocktail napkins…We came up with a protest and the next week we were in Midtown Manhattan in front of the Carlyle Group—a war profiteer—reading sections from Common Sense and raising all sorts of quality hell. One of the things that no one ever brings up about civil disobedience is how much goddamn fun it is. It’s like turning society into your own amusement park, but where the distraction is actually meaningful.
“Counselorrrrrrrr!” he yells from the sixth floor.
“The law is on its way!” I yell from the third floor. He was always one of the good ones. Fun to party with, great conversation—a real artist-activist in the best sense. A perfect way to come back to New York.
“Hurry yer ass up!”
I get to the sixth floor and he throws his arms around me in a sloppy way so it feels like he’s leaning on me as much as hugging me. I don’t want to be, but I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the smell of vodka.
“Get in here!”
By no stretch of the imagination am I a neat person, but his apartment is disgusting. There are M&M wrappers all over the floor, the sink is clogged with dirty dishes, ashtrays overflowing, two fist-sized holes in the wall and a putrid alcohol smell that he’s tried to mask with cheap cologne.
“You asshole,” he says. “What do you want?”
I glance at my watch. It’s only a quarter after two and he’s drunk on his ass. I’m torn between wanting to say something about it and going with the flow. “Whatever you got,” I say. Hopefully we do a drink, then get out of here and go for one of our patented long walks up through Manhattan.
“Attaboy…” and walks over to a shelf where there’s a liter of vodka about half way gone. He pours two and holds up his glass in a toast. “To Neal de la Vega! Neal of the people”
We clink glasses and drink, making brief and awkward eye contact. He was a always a lean handsome guy with kind of a James Dean thing going, but now he has a tell-tale gut and his face is puffy. Rachel noticed his drinking a couple times, but outside of a few rough nights where I wasn’t exactly an angel myself, I always thought that he kept it together. We sit down across from each other, an ashtray with a mountain of cigarette butts in between us. “I don’t know what you’ve heard,” he slurs. “But don’t worry about this drinking thing.”
“I haven’t heard anything.”
“But you don’t have to worry about it,” he says, lighting a smoke.
“Well, I do have to say…” looking around the apartment. “Unless post-apocalyptic dumpster chicis the new thing here in New York—and it could be because I ain’t so cool anymore—then this doesn’t exactly look so hot, brother.”
“Nealavega!” He drinks the rest of his vodka… “Uhhhhh.” He gets up, walks over to the counter, brings the bottle back over to the table and refills himself. The whole thing has a repetitive feel to it, like he’s on auto-pilot.
“So what’s going on with the building?” I ask him.
“You know the gig…”
“I’ve been away...”
“Ah, well, you know….”
“Hey, weren’t you going to city council with it or something?”
“They don’t give a shit. No one gives a shit” He pounds half his vodka, then pours himself another.
“Hey, what’s going on, man?”
“I thought we were going out tonight?” I sent him a couple emails and everything seemed okay, but now that I think about it, they were all just one and two word responses. “The big return. Reunion. Time to celebrate.”
“Yeah, do it right,” he says. “Celebrate.”
“What are you talking about, man?”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m good…Gooood.” He refills my vodka over the top so that it spills out on the table.
“What’s going on with you, man?”
“Yeah, but you keep going like this,” I say. “And you’re not going to make it.”
“I’m alright…” He drinks his vodka. “Don’t worry about the drinking thing. I don’t know what you heard…”
“I haven’t heard anything,” I say, getting up. “But come on, Tom. Let’s go get some lunch at that Russian diner we used to hit on Avenue A…My treat. We’ll even take a cab up there, then walk back down. It’s a nice day, man. Think of all the girls we’ll see.”
“ I don’t know.”
“What don’t you know?”
“It’s all fucked up.”
“What’s all fucked up?”
“It’s all fucked up.”
He’s starts to nod off. “Hey, Tom. Tom.” I snap my fingers. “What are you on?”
He opens his eyes. “Seroquel…They got me on Seroquel…”
“Should you be drinking on that?” I say, sitting back down. I realize these are all stupid questions, but the last thing I expected was to be in the throes of some kind of alcoholic nightmare. Especially with Tom. As hard as it is to imagine, this is a sharp, witty and charming guy. “Tom,” I repeat. “Should you be drinking on that?”
“Where is it?”
“I don’t need it right now…I already took it.”
“I know, but where is it? I can ask Rachel about it.”
“Where’s Rachel? Lucky bastard.”
“Yeah, I’m lucky.”
. “Yer a good guy, Nealavega…”
“I’m your friend, man.”
“I’m all fucked up…”
I catch a glimpse of the old Tom in his eyes. “So then what’s happening, man? Do we need to go to a doctor or something? Tell me what’s going on? Talk to me. Tell me how I can help…”
“It’s all bullshit…Fuckin' bullshit.”
“I’m a complete loser,” I say. “You know that. You can talk to me about anything.”
“I’m in so much pain, Neal. So much pain. They got me on Seroquel…”
“Yeah, I know, you said,” I say. “Are you supposed to drink on that?”
“Everybody says that something should be done...”
“And you’ve always done it, man. What about your painting? What’s going on with that?” I lean in almost yelling, trying to get through the haze. “Anything new? What’s going on with that?”
“I had a gallery, but they closed three months ago.”
Sometimes he manages a coherent sentence, which makes me wonder how much of it is for attention and how much of it is real. But then again, that’s kind of a distinction without a difference when it comes to addiction. It’s all real. It’s all for attention. Something is wrong. With everything. “What happened? You had a gallery?”
“Dead and gone…” he sings. “Dead and gone…Old Tommy is dead and gone.” He reaches out for his vodka and misses it, knocking about half out on the table.
“Come on, man,” I say to him. “If you were sitting where I’m sitting…”
“Yeah, I know.”
He starts to nod off again, then lifts his head up like rag doll. “Nealavega...Old Nealavega…Counselorrr!”
I get up and walk around the table. The second I touch him, he goes limp, like he’s gotten used to people babysitting him. I help get him up and we stumble over to his futon where he collapses—lying there smirking like a helpless child. I’ve been around people with problems and I probably even have my own, but this suicide by alcohol stuff is something that I don’t get. If you’re going to do it, just do it. This is not a good way to go. I walk back over to the table, sit back down and light a smoke. I can’t believe that this is Tom. The guy was an influence on me—my cool radical friend who pushed me into new directions. I had this whole conversation planned in my head about how if I got the job at Goldstein and Locke, then I could pay him to start the magazine we always talked about, Democracy. And then maybe, just maybe, there was something inside of me that wanted him to rip into me for even thinking about going to work for a corporate law firm, so that after a long night of walking and talking, we would end up back at his pad at 4 a.m. with me saying: You’re right, Tom. I can’t do it. I can’t be a part of it. That’s why I came here. That’s why I came to see you.
I get up and check the cabinets to see if he has any good drugs like valium, but can only find the Seroquel. It says right on the label that you’re not supposed to consume alcohol on it. I can’t just walk out on him, so take my drink and sit down in a chair in front of the TV, the one semi-clean area of the apartment. I pick up the remote off the floor and turn it on: there’s a man sitting in a homeless shelter next to his son after losing his house. Too depressing, especially with Captain Vodka here snoring away behind me, so switch it…Piles of trash, rotting food, computers, toasters, plastics...switch it…life on death row…switch it…murder in the inner city…switch it...eight soldiers killed…switch it...sex slaves…switch it….natural disasters and extinction…switch it…drug addiction…switch it…Greenland ice shelf…switch it…pop star with gold teeth riding jet ski…switch it…political corruption…switch it…fast food and obesity…Okay, now here we go. The people in law school used to eat this one up. Forget landmark civil rights litigation, it was the prime-time legal shows that got everybody going. You could sit in the cafeteria for three years and never hear one word about the Bill of Rights or the Constitution, but know everything there was to know about who was wearing what and banging who on Law and Order, Boston Legal and even rerunsof Ally McBeal. Here, the fat cat partner is having sex with a hot blonde associate. The other partner claims that it’s highly unethical, but we all know that he’s just jealous. The two partners argue in the plush halls of the prestigious firm, then storm away slamming the doors to their luxurious offices with cans of Diet Coke placed prominently in the foreground. I take off my fake patent leather shoes and put my feet up on the table. Cut to an “I lost 40 pounds” commercial for the Jenny Craig weight loss program and then to one for McDonalds—Big Mac, fries and a coke—and end it with one for men’s erectile dysfunction, those special moments…Our show returns with the hot blonde tricking the estranged partners into meeting her at a swanky cocktail lounge. They each thought that they were going there to get laid, so aren’t happy about being duped, but in the end they realize that they have to settle their differences for the good of the firm. There’s a titillating moment where it looks like they all might have a ménage, but then they each get back in their BMWs and drive away, off into their respective upscale lives…Cut to a commercial for BMW. Attractive, sophisticated couple driving along the coast of something like Big Sur, gently handling the curves of life as the ocean rolls beneath them, light mist kissing the green forest of our dreams. Damn, it’s like they’re floating above the fray, the rest of us down here in the gutter scratching each other’s eyes out…If I get this job, then I’m going to get a BMW. And a large coke. We return to our law show where there’s now a sulky liberal associate deeply upset about some injustice going on in the world. The fat cat senior partner—same one that’s banging the blonde—sits him down in his office and calmly explains that he understands his passion—hell, even admires it—but that it’s a critical time for the firm and he needs him to focus on the big trial coming up. The sulky liberal associate becomes angry, says that all the firm cares about is making money…A look of manly rage comes over the fat cat partner. He grabs the associate by the lapels, points out the designer watch on his thin liberal wrists—can of Diet Coke on the bookshelf behind them—and says how the hell do you think we pay for all of this! How in the hell do you think built it! He advises him in no uncertain terms to stop worrying about the spotted owl in Indonesia or whatever the hell, and start worrying about his mortgage, his car payment, and that pretty little wifeof his back home. The sulky liberal associate walks out of the office with his tail between his legs as the fat cat partner leans back chair and lights up a cigar…
I look over at Tom. He’s still lying there with that silly look on his face, sleeping like a baby. I don’t know what to do. There are obviously bigger concerns here than whether or not I get to have my party night, but I didn’t make any other plans. And I had counted on this as a place to stay. I have other friends here, but they’re all 40 now and require at least three week’s notice before they can go out and be spontaneous. I turn off the TV, get up and go over to him. He’s breathing normally, just zonked out. I give him a little shove to see if he’ll wake up. “Hey, Tom. Tom!” But there’s nothing. All he does is snore and roll the other way.
I sit next to him for a few minutes, hoping for some kind of miracle rally, but it’s not going to happen. For the last three years I’ve been thinking about my glorious return to New York. There were moments in New Orleans where it got me through the day. I may have blown that gig at Sotheby’s, but I’d have my well-earned night on the town. I pictured walking into the bar, seeing friends and having them buy me a drink for going down South and doing what needed to be done. What might have been sacrificed professionally would be made up socially. But in the final calculus, I couldn’t even get a good night out of it. Poor, poor pitiful me. I pull pen and paper from my briefcase and write him a note saying that I love him, that I’m worried about him, and that I’m completely pissed at him for screwing up our night. I add a P.S. saying that I’m not really mad and that I’ll call him tomorrow. If I leave right now, I’ll be able to beat the traffic back to Philly. I pick up a trash bag to take down with me to the garbage, and close the door behind me.