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.
The wind from the highway blows the hair across her face like flailing ribbons of black satin reminding me of the freedom we once had. There was a night in Mexico three years ago. We were camping on a beach and listening to a battery-powered radio. A random song of youth came on, Surrender by Cheap Trick. She got out of the tent and started dancing in the sand, her long arms flowing through the moonlight, ocean breeze blowing her hair. She was free, alive, untouchable—a woman worlding in the world. I watch as she pulls out a cigarette shaped one-hitter from her red thrift store purse, checks around to make sure no one is watching, pulls a lighter out of her sock, smiles and says she never loses it that way, then in one swift motion bends down next to Zola who’s wearing a black and white French maid’s costume, lights it while keeping the leash in her hand, then exchanges it in her purse for a real cigarette that’s lit by the time she comes up. She says, “I only smoke pot because it makes me like smoking cigarettes…” and giggles like a girl. “Listen, brother, the history of the world is the struggle of whatever whatever whatever—come with us to the march.”
“I’m crazy? When I went to your schools, your churches, your institutional learning facilities…” She grabs onto my tie with her cigarette-hand, looks me in the eye and with almost unnerving sincerity sings the Doggynale: “Stand up all doggies of oppression for the tyrants fear your bites, don’t cling so hard to your possessions, for you have nothing if you have no doggy rights!”
It is such things that burn a woman’s name onto your heart.
“Who you going with again?”
“Nurse with blind Pomeranian,” she says, taking a drag. “She’s picking me up in thirty minutes in front of Target. Hey, on the way down here it was so funny…Zola kept trying to climb up on the one of those weirded-out red concrete balls. Every time she would almost get to the top, she would slide back down. It was like the doggy version of the Myth of Sisyphus…”
We come together in a long, shut-out-the-world kiss. A dreamy one that takes us back to soft afternoons in Tompkins Square Park. It was our Saturday place. We would sit in the park for hours, sometimes on a bench, sometimes under a tree: reading, sharing cigs, sneaking a swallow from a bottle of wine every so often and telling the separate stories that would become our one story…A bus pulls up and I turn around, first one to come in 20 minutes and it’s out of service.
“So how’s the Camus going?”
“Don’t wait for the apocalypse,” she says. “It happens every day.”
“Didn’t you think that was how life was going to be?” I ask.
“Like really deep and heavy, an apocalyptic struggle for meaning, life at the crossroads, wanderer above the sea of fog, the struggle for truth and all of that…”
“As opposed to what?”
“A meandering beat down of dorky uncertainty.”
“Just depends on how you look at it,” she says, taking a drag.
“What do you mean?”
“Right now you can either be an unemployed dork standing at the bus stop on the way to a temp-job interview, or you can be a person trying to maintain your humanity in the face of some seriously difficult shit.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “You hear that phone call this morning?”
“Yeah, who the fuck was that at 7 a.m.?”
“Collections agency,” I say. “They say that we owe them $42 from a cable bill from two years ago. I don’t even want to say it.”
“Where’s the meaning in that?”
“I didn’t say there was any meaning in anything,” she says. “I said that it’s up to you if you want to see it there.”
“Sorry but I can’t see any meaning in a $42 fucking collections bill, same as I can’t see any in a temp-job interview.”
“So, we should just make up a bunch of stuff about reality? Why don’t we just join a religion? It’s already all there for us, save the time.” An 18-wheeler blows by in the nearest lane, almost pushing us back with its force. Zola barks at it to protect us and Rachel bends down to give her a kiss. “I’m really enjoying this conversation by the way.”
“So am I, because I’m about to kick your ass, lawyer boy,” and takes a drag of her smoke. “Okay, a baby’s born with half a heart, we torture her on machines for nine days, then she dies. There’s no meaning there. Happens all the time.”
“But I have a choice. I can either say the work I’m doing is meaningless, who cares this is useless, a waste of time and I give up. OR, I can see it meaningful. I can see what I do as important, I can see that my choice to stay in that room with Baby Myra and give her every bit of comfort and love that I can as ragingly critical to the fate of the world, even if it isn’t…But it kinda sorta was, at least for Baby Myra, because she was only here nine days.”
“You look hot.”
“And to a 100 million years, what’s the difference between 9 days, 9 weeks, 9 months, 9 years, 90 years or even 900 years. It’s the choice to care that matters, which is why I get so angry when you don’t turn off the lights!”
“You’re not going to get back on that again?”
She crosses her arms and winks.
“I made sure all the lights were turned off before I left this morning.”
“I know you did,” she says. “You did a get job.”
“It’s not your job to tell me that it’s a good job,” I say. “I care about it as much as you do.”
“I know you do,” he says, taking a drag. “What do you want to do about that collections thing?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember not paying it. Can you remember not paying it?”
“I can’t remember not paying it,” she says. “I do remember something like them saying that they owed us $7?”
“Did we get a check for $7?”
“I don’t know. Who cares.”
“Yeah, really,” I say. “I guess the question is whether or not it’s worth three hours on the phone trying to figure out whether we owe them $42?”
“No, I don’t think so,” she says.” I don’t think there’s any way to even remotely make that meaningful.”
“Wait, I thought we could make anything meaningful as long as we chose to care or something like that.”
“No,” she says. “I take it back. Unless you want to do it, then it’s incredibly meaningful and a great opportunity to practice your new skills.”
“No, I think we’ll just send them a check,” I say. “I have enough to practice on.”
“Are you really sure you want to do this work?”
“We need the money.”
“Well, maybe I feel like I should be bringing in some money.”
“But what if it’s IBM 1938?”
“I sincerely doubt it.”
“It’s like you’ve got Hitler, right, obvious douche…”
Here we go.
“…And then the death camp guy who killed half my family—douche—then the IBM punch card guy who made it easier for them to kill half my family—douche—then the manager of the IBM office in New York who knew about them killing half my family but wasn’t directly involved in it so didn’t feel like he had to say anything—douche—and then the assistant manager who didn’t know about it because he was so overwhelmed by work and life and that to me is where it really gets interesting…”
“You are so stoned.”
“I know, it’s great. Can I ask you a question?”
“I was sitting there having my coffee this morning, staring at the Goya above the table, and it hit me—do I really love Goya, or is it that I want to be perceived as a person who loves Goya? Why do I have to go around advertising it to everyone? Why is it important for me to be identified with Goya? Why can’t I just keep it to myself? It’s like why do I need to wear the Goya logo, you know….What marketing campaign have I bought into? Is it Goya that I love, or is that I’ve shopped around, tried on different artists, checked out how Goya looks in the mirror at Bloomies, then like a Prada handbag, decided that carrying Goya as My Favorite Painter perfectly accessorizes with my idea of what this thing is called Rachel…Do you think it’s Goya that I love, or am I in love with being seen as a person who loves Goya?”
“I just think you really love Goya.”
“Good! I just wanted to be sure. Come with us to the dog parade.”
“I have to try and make something happen…”
Another bus pulls up, I turn around, and this time it’s mine.
“You sure?” she asks.
“They probably won’t even have anything. These temp agencies are notorious for calling you in and wasting your time.”
“So come waste your time at the Doggy Parade,” she says. “The dogs of the world need you. All you have to lose is your chains. Or collar. Chain collar.”
I look down at Zola in her French maid’s costume, then back up at Rachel in a matching black and white lace shirt and dark red lipstick. And even though I’m not exactly thrilled about going to ask for a temp job, it’s good to see the rest of the family getting out and having some fun. Makes it easier.
“Have a great time,” I say.
“I want you to tell me the story you haven’t told me in forever,” she says, walking backwards.
“What story is that?” The bus doors open and the people get in line.
“Tiananmen Square. I need to hear it.”
“But you’ve heard it already.”
“So what? I’ve heard all your stories already!”
I watch her and Zola disappear as I pay my fair, then make my way to the back of the bus, sit in the corner seat above the motor and then stare out at the lack of scenery as we roll out onto the highway. We bought the Goya the day that I got into law school. There was such an honestly good vibe in the air. No shadows hanging behind our steps, things really were as they were. After several years of struggling, we were finally putting it all together, building a life that we could live with, carving out a little room that we could call our own. The adult world as advertised was always such bullshit, but we were finding a way to navigate it without getting too turned around. We would have enough comfort, enough decent options, and still be able to see ourselves when we looked in each other’s eyes. As we walked along Central Park after the museum, our little Goya print sticking proudly out of our bag, I remember feeling like there was a real chance that we could be happy in the way that other people seemed like they were happy. Little did I know that there was no such thing.
“Hey fuck dat, I was sitting there!”
“You wunt there!”
“I said it’s mine!”
“Who the fuck is you?!”
“Fuck who is you?!”
“You ain’t shit!”
Two geniuses are arguing over a seat at the front of the bus. One black, one white, so it’s excitingly multicultural. There are empty seats all around, but these men of courage and principle must have that, and only that, plastic chair. In a world of compromise where so many have lost their values, these men of integrity continue to live by a code. In a world that finds itself increasingly given over to darkness, these men seek the light. These are defenders of the faith. Men of convictions and beliefs. Warriors from a better and simpler time.
“You ain’t shit, bitch.”
“You ain’t shit!”
“Fuck you, motherfucka!”
They get right up in each other’s faces so it looks like they’re about to kiss, which is probably what this is really all about. The poor people closest to these jerks are cringing, hugging their children in next to them, covering their ears so that they don’t hear all the bad words and the screaming. I grab the strap hook and start to get up. I’m not a brave man, but I don’t like seeing kids scared to death, either. Thankfully, the bus driver holds up the phone and threatens to pull over and call the police. A little yank of the chain does the trick and the two idiots back off, mumbling something about respect. I sit back down and stare out at the cars going by.
In one way or another, I’ve spent most of my life going to bat for guys like that. Honestly, I haven’t liked most of them. If you treat people like shit from day one, then they usually turn out to be shitty people. In the entire time I’ve been a lawyer, maybe three or four recognized that I was there by choice. Most of them thought that I was just a flunky, otherwise I’d be out there driving a BMW and making a lot of money. But I stood by them because it’s not right the way that some people are treated like trash. It’s not right the way that some people are treated like less than human beings. And though I know that things will probably always be this way, and that the fight is probably useless, I still have to try and stand with my fellow man. Even if half the time, I don’t even really like him.
I get off the bus and step into a sea of blank and tired faces. There are parts of Philly that are unique, but the downtowns in mid-sized American cities are all the same everywhere. Run down, aging, vacancy signs every three or four buildings. Outside of the power centers and tourist cities, there’s an air of decline. I get some change out of my pocket and go over to get a newspaper. The story is about how Wall Street had a big day yesterday. There were evidently billions made and it won’t be long, they say, before it trickles down to the rest of us. This country has two economies now: the one we hear about and the one that’s real.
The building looks like a grey file cabinet from the 1950’s. I think about smoking a cigarette in the alcove by the door, but it’ll make me stink for the interview. I go into the lobby and take the elevator up to the fourth floor. Brown institutional carpet, beige walls, beige furniture: the East German collection, circa 1975. All the offices appear empty, save for a traffic school and Freedom Solutions at the end of the hall. There is a sign-in sheet, but no receptionist. I make eye contact with another poor schlub who, like me, is wondering why he ever even went to law school. I shrug my shoulders like what am I supposed to do and he shrugs his shoulders back, but with a hand motion that says I should probably sign in. I watch myself do it, as though somebody else’s hand is writing my own name. This isn’t me—this isn’t anyone. People only come into buildings like this and apply for work like this because something is forcing them to do it. Take coercion out of the economy and the whole house of cards would come tumbling down..I sit down against the wall in a wobbly chair and pick up one of the golf magazines: glossy photos of dreamy resort vacations, five-star chardonnay lunches, attractive couples playing golf, kissing, and toasting to the good life. I squinch up my eyes really hard and imagine all of their heads exploding…
“Mr. de la Vega.?”
Okay, focus. “Yes, hello…”
“Welcome to Freedom Solutions,” he say. “Come back to my office and let’s get you started.”
He’s an older, middle-aged man in grey slacks with leather boots that zip up on the side, much like Charlton Heston in the film Soylent Green, which I recently caught on TV for the first time about three weeks ago and was impressed by its anti-corporate and environmental themes. I immediately, of course, begin to make fun of the guy for working here and apparently believing in it to some degree, but stop and force myself to remember that he’s being gripped by the same forces that I am. This isn’t his dream in life. I know that. When they asked him what he wanted to be in the second grade, he didn’t say cog at a temp agency. He’s got a heart and a life, same as me. Yet, it’s so much easier and rewarding to see yourself as the soulful rebel and the other guy as a cog-like turd. All we can do, I guess, is try our best. If empathy were easy, then the companies that make Buddha statues would have to lay off their employees and perhaps even file for bankruptcy.
I sit down in his office: no pictures, no books, in fact nothing indicating that an actual living person occupies this space for most of his day, year, life. The furniture is rented and the edge of his desk peeling so that I can see the pressed wood underneath the faux mahogany.
“And how are we today?”
“Good, thank you.”
He sits down behind his desk and picks up my resume. He has a lusterless complexion with dark bags under his eyes, like a guy who’s been playing the slots in Vegas for too long. I want to reach out to him, say let’s you and me get the hell out of here, go for a beer, talk about this joke that’s been played on us. But one of the sad things that comes with getting older, is that after having been the wild child who was always willing to pump a little energy into the room, or take the risk of saying the thing that wasn’t being said, or take a shot at digging the humanity of a drone-like situation: you just give up and stop doing it. Some of it is the mellowness of age, but the greater part of it is that you just get tired of taking the heat and so retreat inside yourself. Eventually, you see who you once were in terms of immaturity, do the whole minor regret thing and promise to go along with the plan in a smarter way. And then someday when you are old and grey and full of sleep, you realize with a sigh that it was all as boring and controlled as you ever thought it would be and that the memories that put a smile on your face were the ones where you threw yourself out there and raised a little hell.
“Your resume is impressive.”
“Thank you. The one thing that it doesn’t mention is that I’ve written numerous appeals…Felonies and even a capital case.”
“You’ve worked with transcripts?”
“Yes, absolutely. The first appeal I ever wrote was a double trial where there were 14 volumes of transcripts and hundreds of evidentiary…”
“Good, because we provide lawyers for document review.”
With those two words, document review, any illusion of even somewhat meaningful work is burned off. This is stuff that law firms can’t even get their first year associates to do: people who spend 80 hours a week writing memos about footnotes in the Uniform Commercial Code. I smile, nod my head and say: “I’m always looking for new challenges and opportunities.”
“We see a lot of this,” he says. “Lawyers who started out as public defenders, now looking to move in a new direction, take a step up.”
“Outstanding, so let me go ahead and tell you about what we do here at Freedom Solutions,” and leans back in his chair, master of the universe. “And for the record, we don’t think of our clients as clients, but as partners…”
He launches into the canned spiel out of Section 14 of the Freedom Solutions Handbook and I do the trick of going to my happy place, which makes it easier for me to sit here with a dumb smile on my face as he yammers on and on…I had just taken the bar exam, that weird time where you don’t know if you’ve passed it so can’t start working as a lawyer. Rachel and I were drinking beer on the roof of our apartment in New York, dreaming about how fun it would be just to take off and go wander Mexico for as long as our money would hold out. The more buzzed we got, the more serious the talk, until Rachel pulled out her phone and called Greyhound. We made a bet: if we could get to the border for less than a hundred bucks a piece, then we would do it no matter what. NYC to El Paso, yearly special; 79 dollars one way. She got some part-time nurses to take over her shifts, told her boss that she wanted her vacation and we were literally gone 48 hours later. Took the bus to El Paso, crossed over at Juarez, went down to Chihuahua, then Torreon, then Mexico City where we got lost in those markets for a week, then on to Oaxaca, then Chiapas and Palenque—unbelievable—then back up again along the eastern coast. There was this nightmarish oil town that we got stuck in, Coatzacoalcos, that was literally like a hell on earth. There were flames shooting out from the refineries, water catching on fire and the smell of oil was everywhere—in our clothes, toothpaste, a thin sheen coated our skin. There was nothing in the town but bars and whorehouses. Everyone knew that we were the only Americans in town. People were checking us out, tailing us from behind, looking to make their move. The streets weren’t safe and there wasn’t a bus out till the next afternoon, so we had to get a room in the best place we could find, which by any standard was a total shithole. There was a sign on the door in Spanish that said no shooting up heroin or wiping your boots with the sheets. The lock on the door was flimsy at best. I had this long knife that I bought in Mexico City for protection. I kept it right by my hand, and then tied a string from the door to my hand, so that if anybody tried to break in I’d be ready to rock. We had sex in that position. I felt like a pirate. It was absolutely one of the best times we ever had…
“…and needless to say, Freedom Solutions has integral relationships with some the most prestigious law firms in the area.” He waits for me to be impressed. “Our legal support professionals work across the gamut of the spectrum with most of our current business in the area of bankruptcy. We have a long-standing relationship with Morgen, Buckley and Freibach, specialists in the bankruptcy field…”
It’s not the ideal, but show me a man who hasn’t compromised and I’ll show you a man living in a single-person tent in Southern New Mexico. Unless you’re willing to completely drop out and drink your own shower water, then you are going to do work that doesn’t fit within your ethical dream of a better world. I don’t want to be a cog in the machine of corporate bankruptcy—who the hell does?—but I’ve got to pay my credit card bills and student loans. Even Nancy has to work at Starbucks.
“That said,” he says. “We just this morning placed twelve of our legal support staff with MB and F, so we can’t move you over there, or I’d be on the phone right now with Dick Rogers; used to be my boss’ boss, great guy.”
The only thing worse than being willing to compromise, is being willing to compromise and then not get the gig.
“But never fear, for there is good news,” he says. “Ten new openings came in an hour ago. Wednesday start: 8 am. Immediate staffing. They’re telling us to send people yesterday.”
And despite the fact that I rather have my teeth pulled, I can’t help but feel a real rush at the prospect of employment. There would be money coming in, a reason not to drink that third glass of wine every night…I picture calling Rachel at the doggy parade after I get out of here and telling her that I’m taking us out to dinner tonight. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to take charge like that, call the shots on something extra that required a little cash. I sit up tall and straight, like Zola gets when she knows that there’s a treat coming her way.
“And it’s 29, not 27…”
“Not 27, but 29. Standard hourly for document review is 27, but this is 29. Interested?”
“110 percent interested. How do we move forward?”
“That extra two dollars is big.”
“And between you and me and these four walls,” he says. “They’ve started two new projects, big time bankruptcy litigation…”and leaves that out there for a bit. “Big time, so you’re looking at having work for the next four or five months.”
Good enough for me. I could do this every day, then come home and spend every night looking for a real job. And when I get one, we’ll be in good shape with first and last month’s rent.
“I want you to know, sir, that I am available to work all hours, any time, any place, and can start immediately.” I think of Bickle in Taxi Driver. I can work any time, any where…Any time, any where. “I’m very enthusiastic. I really do appreciate this opportunity.”
“That’s the kind of attitude we like at Freedom Solutions. Keep it up and there’ll always be work for you here,” he says, already starting to pack up my file. “They’re going to want to meet, just part of the process, so let’s go ahead and get you down to Schmidt and Sandler this afternoon…”
“Which firm did you say?”
“Schmidt and Sandler.”
“Schmidt and Sandler?”
“Schmidt and Sandler, this afternoon. They’re right downtown.”
“Yeah, I know,” I say.
I’ve been reading about Schmidt and Sandler in the law journals. They’ve recently handled several high-profile bankruptcies where management walked away with millions in bonuses, while the employees had their pensions cut by 65 and 70 percent. One of their lead lawyers—after killing the employee retirement fund at an airline—just took a job with Goldman Sachs. “Schmidt and Sandler are the pension guys, right?”
“Absolutely,” he says. “They’re the best of the best. Won awards, been recognized by the ABA, have more superlawyers than any firm in the state…Between you and me, a lot of our people who started with Freedom Solutions have ended up going to Schmidt and Sandler full-time.”
I say this in the most humble way I can: “The work sounds great and I’m excited for this opportunity, but is there anything else out there at all?”
He looks confused. “I’m sorry?”
“I’m ready to get to work, but…,” and I try to find the right words to say it. “But I’m just not sure that Schmidt and Sandler is the right fit, that’s all. Where else? I’m ready to go this afternoon, start tomorrow morning.”
“The right fit?”
“No, sir,” I say. “It sounds great, but they just might not be the right fit.”
“What do you mean?”
“I would prefer not…” And stop myself before pulling a Bartleby. “Most respectfully, sir, I just don’t think that I can do the work.”
He seems to stop for a moment and ask himself whether I’m saying that I can’t do the work because I don’t have the skills, or won’t do the work because I don’t think it’s right, but then shrugs it off as a distinction without a difference. If I’m not going to take the job and get him his commission, then someone else will.
“There’s nothing else currently available,” he says.
“There’s really nothing at all?”
“Schmidt and Sandler, that’s what we have.”
“I’m available for anything else,” I say. “I’m ready to go. Can work almost any time, any place.”
I have a strong urge to say yes and take the position. Shut up, take the work and act like I don’t know what work my work would be doing. But I do know and it does matter. I know what I would be doing. I know what I would be contributing to. I would be stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. I can argue against myself in a hundred different ways: they chose to work there, they should have saved more money, they should have had their eyes open, they should have protected themselves, they should have advanced themselves, worked harder, gone to school at night and started their own business or even the old law school bullshit about how they can just go hire their own team of lawyers because that’s the way the system works. I could go into court tomorrow and make those workers look like a bunch of leeches who are doing nothing but sucking the system dry. Un-American, against freedom and free enterprise, looking for a handout, bitter about their lives so now all they have left to do is bitch, moan and file lawsuits against the real entrepreneurs who make America great. I would point at them in court and say, Sorry, but sometimes companies go bankrupt. It’s called capitalism. If you want socialism, move to North Korea, see how much you like it over there.
But I can’t do it to those people. I can’t do it. My life might be in the tank, but that doesn’t give me the right to stick a knife in another guy’s back. Every part of me wants to walk out of here with some good news, but I can’t do it to them. Not as long as I have options left. If I was on the streets or had kids it would be a different story, but I can take it for a little while longer. A bit longer. Maybe a bit longer. Maybe.
“There’s really nothing else, sir?” I ask him. “Not even something that pays 27?”
“Okay, sir,” I say, getting up. “Thank you for the consideration.”
He shrugs his shoulders like he could care less. I’m nothing but a meaningless extra. A weird little fringe player who’s easily substituted for…As I leave the office, I can already see him picking up another stack of resumes.
I walk back past the DUI traffic school, get into the elevator and push the button for the lobby. I’m an idiot. I regret it already. I should be walking out of there with work When you’re unemployed and somebody offers you 29 dollars an hour, you fucking take it. You take whatever you can get until something better comes along. No matter what I did today, those people are still going to lose their pensions. It’s just that some other lawyer is going to get paid for it. No matter what I do ever, the working class is always going to get screwed--it’s just that other guy is going to make the money from it. And who even uses the term working class anymore? It’s not 1922, this isn’t a college seminar in Marx. Tell people in this country that they’re working class and they’ll punch you in the face. There is no working class in America: we’re all just a bunch of rich people who have happened to be broke for six generations.
I go through the lobby and outside onto the sidewalk. I’m turned around, bumping against shoulders, catching angry looks. At one point, I would have seen walking the wrong way on the sidewalk as a cool metaphor—man out of step with society—but no longer get any meaning out of romanticized, anti-establishment, college boy bullshit. My life isn’t a punk rock album cover. I’m 39-years old. I haven’t worked in almost a year. Real big man, living off his girlfriend for his principles. I should just go back up there and beg him for it? But then what will I be doing? Knowingly taking part in the destruction of other people’s dreams? Willfully taking part in the taking of other people’s dignity and everything they’ve worked for? Helping represent executives who have stolen from the employees who trusted them? For $29 an hour? Is that that what it takes to buy me? I can hear my cell phone ringing. It’s probably Rachel…Thank god I have a partner who will understand. Hell, she’ll probably make a special dinner for it, throw in some unusual sex. I dig around my coat pocket, but can’t find my phone before it goes to voice mail. I duck into a little alley behind a building, then wait for a minute for it to buzz, then check the phone. It’s my mother. The message is broken up, which makes her sound even more upset than she is. She’s an editor of a newspaper back in New Mexico. They’ve had a round of layoffs, let people go who had been on staff for more than 20 years. She still has her job, but there will be another round of cuts if the newspaper can’t turn it around. And what newspapers are turning it around these days? I call her back but it goes directly to voice mail, so I leave a long message saying how sorry I am for her and her colleagues, the community that needs the paper and mostly for the fact that I, her son, am a complete loser who can’t do anything more than leave phone messages.
I need a drink.
There’s a sports bar across the street and I take off for it, almost getting hit by a bus along the way. I go downstairs where there are little football helmets strung around like Christmas lights, posters of chicks in bikinis and a spin-the-wheel-for-a-shot-of-Jaeger-thing above the bar. It’s right at five, so it’s not quite packed, maybe 40 or 50 guys in ties. I sit down on a stool in the middle and order a Jameson, most of the people around me all staring up at the baseball game on TV. I take a good slug and let my gaze wander into the mirror. Still handsome enough, but there are dark circles under my eyes, wrinkles on my forehead and my nose looks bigger than it used to be. I’ve still got a semi-angular face, but it’s softened a little bit. Definitely some sag there. Yeah, for sure. If I squinch my chin in, it goes double wrinkles much easier than it used to. I’m not completely out of my prime, but I’m definitely not in it, either. I drink my whiskey and stare at myself in the mirror…Sure, I’ve had my moments, but I never was able to really put it all together. I might have made some noise here and there, scored a few small-time wins for the team, but nothing real, nothing permanent, nothing serious. It was always amateur hour with me. Dog and pony show. I think my biggest problem was that I overrated my own intelligence. Thought of myself as a top five percenter, when I was really more of a 30-percent guy. Enough to be above average, witty at times, but not a whiz kid and definitely not an all-star winner. No way. Not even close. Even at the top of my game, I still only got third place. There was a Boys Club basketball league in Albuquerque where I had been totally dominating all season, but then we got to the playoff and I just…
“NEAL DE LA VEGA! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE!”
You’ve got to be shittin’ me...
“NEAL DE LA VEGA!! THE PEOPLE’S CHAMPION!! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT’S YOU!”
I turn around on my chair. I know this guy.
“THE PEOPLE’S CHAMPION! JOE FRAZIER!
Of all the people to run into from law school…Well, actually, he’s probably not the worst guy. Yeah, definitely not the worst.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN PHILLY?”
We got drunk together once after a constitutional law exam. He’s a Jersey guy. Ran a bar for five or six years before going to law school…Chris…That’s right…Chris Majerus. “Chris, how are you?”
“This is friggin’ nuts,” he puts his arm around me. “We’ve got Neal de la Vega—the man, the myth—sitting at a bar here in Philly. Nuts to the max…What am I getting you? “Whiskey? You want a single malt, right. STEVE,” he yells out. “Two Glenlivets…” and turns back to me. “So there I am in my loft in TriBeCa….” he lets that hang for a while. “Reading the alumni newsletter…” the drinks come. “Thanks, Steve. Put it on my tab….And what do I see? A picture of Neal de la Vega in New Orleans. And what are you doing? Defending poor people. And you know what? I wasn’t even surprised.” He holds up his drink: “To The People’s Champion, Joe Frazier! One of the craziest bastards ever to come out of our humble law school!”
We clink glasses and drink.
“Good to see you, Chris.”
“So guess what I’m doing? You won’t believe it.”
He’s a stocky Greek-type, put on ten or fifteen pounds since I last saw him, but still handsome in his way. “I don’t know, let’s hear it.”
“You won’t believe me if I told you.”
“So, tell me.”
“You’re not going to believe me when I tell you….Steve, two more.”
I make a mental note to sip this one. When you’re in an unemployed state of mind, three drinks can turn into eight right quick. And as I have learned the hard way, a bad hangover when you’re out of work can turn into a bitter four-day depression.
The bartender brings the drink over and, despite myself, I’m happy to have somebody to hang with.
“The work you did post-Katrina,” he says. “Took a man to go down there.”
“Thanks, Chris. And despite warning myself to keep it cool, I slug down more than half of it. Numbness is nice in a world gone mad.
“So, you’re not going to believe where I’m at…”
“So tell me already.”
“As I’ll ever be…”
“I told you.”
“Goldstein and Locke, man. The real deal. It’s everything they say it is and more.”
“Wow, Chris,” I say, taking down the rest of my drink and ordering another one. “Good for you.”
No matter who you are or why you decided to go, there are certain things in law school that are shoved down your throat. And number one amongst them is: law firm life. You could be an animal rights lawyer with a side interest in leftist critical theory, but still know everything there is to know about law firms. They are the lifeblood, the air we breathe. You are going to know which firms are the most prestigious, which ones have the highest salaries and bonuses, which has the most perks, best bathrooms, parking, Yankees season tickets, VIP skyboxes, expense accounts, Friday night summertime boat rides and Christmas parties at the Met. Law firm chatter is the inescapable white noise that fills the halls of American law schools. It’s not about Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, it’s about LLC formation, contract rescission, shareholder derivatives and landing a gig with the most prestigious, big-time, high-paying law firm that you possibly can. And of the most high-paying and prestigious, Goldstein and Locke is right there at the top. White shoe, magic circle, whatever you want to call it…If your goal is to work for a New York corporate law firm that represents some of largest financial institutions in the world, then Goldstein and Locke is your dream.
“I bet you’re wondering how I got in, right?”
“Yeah, I thought you had to be like Barack Obama to get in there.” My impression was that you either had to be a George W. Bush-type legacy or a top one percenter from one of the top five schools.
“Alright now,” he says, pulling his stool in next to me so that our shoulders are almost touching. “Remember how I told I used to run my father’s bar in Jersey?”
“Yeah. How’s he doing?”
“He’s in remission, so we’re good for now,” and knocks on the wood bar. “To you, pop, love you. So anyway, one of my waitresses—totally hot—was banging this big-time New York lawyer. The guy would come down to the bar every so often and get loose. He’s not going to run into anybody he knows in Elizabeth, you know what I mean…”
“So anyway, one night this guy is friggin’ ripped, going off about how he hates his life, can’t stand being a lawyer, should have been a fireman, the whole nine….Dana, the waitress, peels him off the bar at 3 a.m. and they go out into the parking lot and get into his Mercedes. I’m standing there doing the register and next thing you know, BEEYOOOP… I look outside see the red lights flashing. I’m like, oh shit. I knew everything there was to know about this guy because he’s sat at my bar for like days on end going off about all his horrible problems. Lucky me, right? That’s why I couldn’t wait to get out of it…Anyway, first, he’s married with three kids, doesn’t get along with his wife, tells her that he’s going on trips to DC and Philly like Spitzer…Second, he’s a partner at some big-time law firm called Goldstein and Locke and has some kind of issue with it or whatever. Honestly, I didn’t even know what he was talking about…Third, and this is of special relevance with regard to the current matter, your honor, I’m guessing that he’s got blow on him because the whole time he was talking to me he kept going to the bathroom every half hour and has a big white coke booger in his nose. Call me crazy.”
“Yeah, so this is it, right? He’s going down. It’s over. Wife, kids, job, career, everything down the toilet…Probably even gets disbarred. So, I go outside to see what’s going on, thinking that at the very least I can vouch for the guy, try and help him out…And that’s where it happened…”
“I’m walking toward the squad car where they’ve got him spread eagle on the hood like he’s on Cops—and I see Jimmy Galasso and Carmine Johnson—two guys I grew up playing football with at Sacred Heart.”
“What the fuck? Are you kidding me? You knew the cops?”
“I shit you not. It was unbelievable. I went back inside, grabbed my Phil Simms autographed football and we ran some of our old plays out in the parking lot. I still talk to those guys today. Anyway, that was it. Finished. No problem. I told them that I knew the guy, he was a friend, don’t worry about it, said that I’d give him a ride home and that was the end of that.”
“Unreal.” I can’t believe it.”
“Yeah, it was friggin’ nuts. Anyway, make long story short, five years later I’m graduating from law school and looking for a job…I think back to the night in the parking lot and say to myself, what the hell, give it a shot…I drop him a line and whether he thought he owed me or had to bribe me or whatever, last thing he did before he retired to Connecticut with his wife was get me an interview at G&L. Went in there and knocked it out of the park. Made them hire me.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” I say, patting him on the shoulder. “Congratulations, Majerus.” And even though I’ve got big problems with the kind of work that law firms like Goldstein and Locke do, it still makes me happy to see a Jersey boy moving up in the world. “Good work, Majerus. You cracked it.”
“Thanks, buddy. You want another one?”
Before I can answer him, a tall blonde guy in an expensive suit comes up and stands beside him. He seems slightly drunk, but with an uptight, arrogant air. He immediately reminds me of the kind of guys that I used to see getting grilled on 60 Minutes, or the one guy defending something really vile on the MacNeil-Lehrer Report. I can tell from the look on his face that he doesn’t at all like this bar.
“I’m going back to the townhouse.”
“That’s fine,” Majerus says in a suddenly non-Jersey accent. “This is Neal, a dear friend of mine from law school. Neal, this is Scott Buckley, a colleague of mine at Goldstein and Locke.”
“Pleasure,” he says, without shaking my hand.
“You, too.” I say.
I can’t help but notice that Majerus seems to have some power here, like Buckley thought that he should let him know before just taking off. Or that Buckley is even here at all, in a bar that only a guy from Jersey could love, speaks to the fact that Majerus must be in a good position over at Goldstein and Locke. As they make plans to meet later, I think about the fact that no matter who’s up and who’s down—as long as there’s an up and down—somebody’s got to go to a bar that they don’t want to after work. But what’s the alternative? A non-hierarchical and totally egalitarian society? Has that ever even existed on the face of the earth? Huh, tell me, has it, punk? Goddamnit, I should have just shut up and taken that job.
“Yeah, good meeting you, Scott.”
After he disappears up the stairs, Majerus turns to me. “You should see that guy when he gets drunk,” he says. “Friggin’ blotto.”..But he’s one of the sharper guys at G&L.”
“So, do you like it over there?” I ask him.
“Ah, I’m a corporate tool,” he says, like being a corporate tool doesn’t bother him in the least. “But guess how much I make…”
Even though I started this conversation, I hate this conversation, which is the relationship that most people have to this conversation. “I really couldn’t guess, Chris.”
“Come on,” he says. “Take a shot.”
I try and be polite. “$180 thousand a year.”
He almost punches me, like I’ve just offended him. “Come on, I’m about to make Junior Partner.”
“Okay,” I say “250.”
He sighs. “Try again.”
“You got it… And when I make JP – and it’s a lock—then I’m looking at 410, plus year end, so like around 460 or 470.”
It’s almost impossible not to be impressed when you hear that someone is making that kind of money. It’s in the American DNA. Like fame, you may think the person is a reality show moron, but you’re still going to tell somebody later that you saw him. “Sounds like they’re treating you pretty good, man.”
“Absolutely,” he says. “I live in TriBeCA and go to work on Park Avenue, what more can you say?”
“But what are you doing down here?” I ask him.
“Doing on a fraud case,” he says. “G&L bought this townhouse across from where Thomas Jefferson used to live and converted it to lofts, so why take the train back every night? And between you and me,” he says, leaning in. “We had a suhweet party on the roof last weekend. We’re probably having another one in a couple weeks and you got to come.”
“But what are we doing talking about me,” he says, finishing his whiskey. “What the hell are you doing here? I read about you down in New Orleans doing all this kind of crazy stuff and then next thing you know I’m running into in a bar in Philly! The People’s Champion! Joe Frazier! Because I got to tell you—and I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass—I always thought that you would end up arguing in front of the Supreme Court or something, fighting for constitutional rights, something really big like that...”