StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

The Other Woman

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on April 6, 2010

Naturally, I change a lot of surface details in my blog posts to protect the identities of people and places. This post is no exception.

Demona met us for dinner at Pastis in the Meatpacking District. She shouted to us from outside the open window on Little West 12th Street and we got up out of our chairs at the table as she came running across the cobblestone intersection on three-inch heels. Her bosom bounced under her tight white tank top as she clicked across the floor to hug Julius and me. She was clearly taking advantage of the fine weather we’ve been having, but was also wise enough to wear a brown suede bolero jacket against the chill slipping in from the Hudson.

From the minute she sat down, Demona was literally springing up and down in her seat about being back in New York after so many months in Memphis. Like lots of other New Yorkers, she’d tried living in a smaller city but was shocked to find she wasn’t living in New York anymore. “I’m dying down there,” she told us after ordering a pomegranate martini and taking a quick gander at all the Georgina Chapman, Louis Vuitton and Manolo Blahnik strutting down the tiles. She screamed, “There’s nothing like this in Memphis. I gotta get out! I gotta get out!,” but between the West Village streets, the chattering tables and the Serge Gainsbourg serenades, there was already so much cacophony that nobody but us noticed her loudness.

Last time Demona was in town was the week of Thanksgiving. She was visiting her parents all the way up in Mohawk Valley but came down to the city twice. One night, she was hustling out of Brother Jimmy’s BBQ at Grand Central Station with bags from Macy’s, Saks, and Bendel in her hands. She had just a few minutes to catch her train as she brushed past a tall, middle-aged man with pure white hair. “Excuse me,” he said with the kind of extra-strength Brooklyn accent that’s all but extinct these days, “Could I talk to you a second?”

Rush or no rush, Demona hadn’t met a man in months and it’d been years since someone this debonair had crossed her path. She knew better than to use this fleeting instant to chase down a train. She stopped and let the bags grow heavy on her arms as the man looked down, laughed and looked back up with a tomato red face and said, “I don’t normally do this, but…I saw you in Brother Jimmy’s and I thought, ‘That lady’s so beautiful, I just have to know her name.’ Can you tell it to me?”

Demona told him it and he introduced himself as Tony. He asked if she wanted to have a drink at the Oyster Bar & Restaurant. Demona accepted and Tony helped with her bags. She’d already eaten ribs at Brother Jimmy’s and he’d had hot wings, so they ordered nothing else but the finest bottle of Veuve Cliquot.

Tony told her he’s originally from Bensonhurst, which is also where Demona was born, but now he lives in Jersey. He’s divorced with two daughters, who live with their mother. One of them is dying of a rare disease. He choked back tears as he told Demona that the little girl is his little angel “here on earth” and will be “from the hereafter.” Demona gave her most supportive shoulder and ran her fingers through his hair at the bar.

Tony admitted he’d never considered black women before, but when he saw Demona, he knew he had to spread his net. Demona marveled at the providential sleight of hand at work at this least expected hour, but a small window of wisdom opened and she opted not to withhold the truth. She let Tony know that she lives in Memphis. Tony said he could bear that for now, but would stop at nothing to bring her back to where she belongs.

Demona caught the last train to Mohawk Valley. Tony had carried her bags and helped her board. There was no tension at their first kiss, which took place right before the doors closed and the wheels started turning. The kiss was slow and long and they went for it at the same time. She was glad he didn’t ask her back to his place. This way they weren’t rushing it and she didn’t have to explain anything to her parents, who still worry about her even though she’s over 40.

In fact, Demona’s mother had called her cell phone a couple hours earlier, wondering why she wasn’t home. Demona had told her mother she was talking to a handsome man she’d just met and her mother got off the line. After all, Demona is an only child, had never married and had never blessed her parents with a single grandchild. Now her childbearing years were running out and her mother wouldn’t stand in the way of a better fate, even if she found out that Tony is Italian.

Demona had gone back to Tennessee in a heap, yet Tony’s adoring emails awaited Demona from the moment she landed in Memphis International Airport. So did his text messages, containing pics of him beaming with an easy smile. The minute she got to her job at the Peckerwood Hotel, she uploaded his handsomest headshot as her new screensaver.

In Tony’s IMs, he spared no hyperbole in remarking on her “smokin’est gorgeousness” and she spared no restraint in asking him to rescue her from her admin job at the Peckerwood. “The other secretaries here idolize Sarah Palin, omg!,” she wrote him, “Buggin’ every minute. SOS!” He replied, “Wow! We GOTTA get you home then!,” and she was relieved to find he was a democrat. But Tony had also expressed his relief that he enjoys his job as chief foreman at the AHM Fabricated Metal Factory, and that he’s glad he’s respected as a union leader, although he admitted that his life would be a whole lot sweeter if he had someone to share it with.

At Pastis, we ordered hors d’oeuvres. Demona reminded us that she couldn’t help us eat oysters on the half shell since she’s allergic to shellfish and, for good measure, she cracked her old hors d’oeuvres joke: “Horse-derves! You know I don’t eat horses!” She got an arugula salad instead and I wondered how she could stand picking the lemon slice out of the lettuce with her new white acrylic nails, which she must have paid a fortune for. She also had her hair done up to something that looked like a nest of preening ravens and her face was powdered and painted into something that I was surprised she’d want to risk getting arugula or oil on. We surmised that she’d been done up for Tony, so I asked what she’d been up to that afternoon.

At first, she giggled and cheered, “Drinking!” She then broke into a robust cackle. In fact, she hadn’t been out with Tony before meeting us. She’d gotten together with her old schoolmate Roger from Bluefield State College. They hit every bar from Lennox Hill to Gramercy Park. Ultimately they wound up at the Fat Cat Bar on Christopher Street. Demona also said Roger lives at 21st and 8th Ave, so we asked if he’s gay. She said, “No, he’s married.” Then she chortled some more and said, “And so is Tony!”

Julius and I put our oysters down. “Oh shit!” I said.

Demona turned back to her arugula salad and said, “We’ll see how it goes.”

I said, “See how it goes?”

She ordered another pomegranate martini and took a deep breath. We knew we were in for a long one, so Julius got another Chardonnay and I ordered another Stella Artois. “How do I explain?” Demona began, “Alright. So his emails started leveling off. And I thought, ‘Unh-uh, boyfriend. If I have to hunt you down and nail you to the floor, I’m not letting you get away.’ But I played it cool and gave it time. Until three days went by with no email.”

Demona took another sip of her drink and we joined her in sipping ours. She looked out on to Gansevoort and saw all the skimpy outfits and all the bleach blondes with their arms wrapped in the crooks of their GQ big-shot boyfriends’ arms. She continued, “And so I called Tony. I said, ‘You haven’t called. Or emailed.’ He said, ‘Sorry, babe. I’ve been working through some heavy problems.’ I said, ‘Is it your daughter?’ He said, ‘It’s my wife.’ I said, ‘You mean, your ex-wife?’ He was quiet and said, ‘No, I mean my wife.’”

It turns out, after Tony’s first marriage ended in some unexplained disaster, Tony remarried. This time, he decided he was done with Italian girls and found a Jewish woman who liked the good life as much as he did. His first wife remarried, so she was off his alimony dole. Now Tony and his new wife could build up an all-new New Jersey kingdom. She had money and now so did he, so they stocked the house with designer furnishings, state-of-the-art appliances and even a pool in back. But once Tony and his new wife got done remodeling, they found that the only thing they liked doing together was fighting. Sparks only flew when someone would kick over the newest widescreen TV and smash the stereo.

Spreading out her well-groomed nails in a fan before us, Demona said, “But they’re not sleeping together anymore.”

“Are they separated?” I asked.

“Not yet,” Demona responded, “They’re still figuring it out. You know, they aren’t sleeping together, but he was trying to hang in there with her. He told me that, before he met me, he didn’t even masturbate. It’s like he was punishing himself for his marriage going wrong.”

“And after you?” Julius asked.

“Oh!,” she replied, “Since me, he’s even rubbing himself in the factory parking lot!”

“No,” Julius said, “I mean, now that he’s with you, did he say he’s moving out?”

Demona looked down and her eyes looked drowsy, “He says, it’s hard. He likes his lifestyle. If he leaves her, she’ll get everything. He’d have to start over and pay alimony.”

“Okay, Demona,” I said, “Tough love time: a man who loves you will cut his losses. If he’s not willing to do that, then…”

Demona nodded, “Yeah. Well, she knows about me.”

Julius’ mouth went slack, “She does?” Julius and I both drank up at the same time.

Demona said, “Yeah. Tony and I were out last night. She called his cell phone. He put his arm around me and told her, ‘Look, I’m out with Demona now. I can’t talk.’”

I said, “So you saw him last night?”

Demona said, “Oh, yeah. He took me to Balthazar.”

“Oh!,” Julius said, “I love Balthazar. How was it?”

Demona was obviously lightheaded as she swayed from side to side, “It was deee-vinnne. Just perfect. The perfect prelude to a perfect night.”

“Which ended where?,” I asked.

Demona cooed, “Back at my hotel in Times Square.”

“Oooh,” I said, “So you had him for breakfast too.”

She laughed, “No. He left in the middle of the night. He woke me up and kissed me. He’s such a good kisser. Mmmm! But, Kyle, when he walked out and closed the door…I can’t tell you how it felt. I felt like he was closing the door on me.”

A long pause ensued. The waiter came. With all the talking going on, we hadn’t even had time to look at the menu, so we just ordered quickly lest we lose our thread. I ordered a seared tuna nicoise, Julius went with the skate au beurre noire and Demona decided she’d have the same. Julius also ordered us a bottle of Corsica Rouge. The waiter collected our menus. Our eyes turned right back to Demona, whose eyes were right back on the flashy mobs on Gansevoort.

“God, I miss New York,” Demona said, “I’ve been looking for jobs up here. I’ll take anything. I have to get my security deposit back on my apartment in Memphis, though, so I’ll have to wait a couple months. But, you know, I can’t take the fake southern chawm. I want the direct hit, New York-style. The kind where you know where you stand, straight-out.”

“Do you know where you stand with Tony?” I asked.

She said, “Oh, you always know where you stand with Tony. You always know where you stand with Tony. He’s a real guinea, you know?” Julius and I laughed despite ourselves. We never thought Demona would use an ethnic slur. But she said it again and again in describing Tony. “He is!,” she insisted, “He’ll be like (Al Pacino voice), ‘Don’ you fuckin’ fuck wid me or I’ll fuck you!”

I said, “Well, alright, he talks like a straight shooter, but is he one? I mean, how long did he go before mentioning his wife?”

Demona said, “Yeah, well, okay. But he’s straight up about where we are. I mean, for now.” She laughed, “He said to me, ‘If you see anyone else, I’ll kill you!’”

Our smiles dropped. I cocked my head, “He said that?”

Demona shrugged her shoulders, “Yeah.”

Julius asked, “Do you think he meant it?”

She leaned forward and finished off her martini, “Of course he meant it! I mean, I don’t think he’d do it, but I think he meant it. That’s the kind of guy he is. You know, the don’t-fuck-with-me type.”

“Wait,” I said, “He can screw around on you and his wife but he’ll kill you if you see anybody else? Sorry, not equitable.”

“Right,” Demona said, “But I’m not seeing anybody else. And I’m not going to see anybody else. I mean, have you seen the guys in Memphis?”

The waiter came by. Julius tasted the wine and liked it and the waiter filled our glasses. We toasted to “True Love,” something Demona knew she hadn’t clinched with Tony, at least not yet.

Demona said, “I think he’s still getting used to the idea of being with a black woman too. I mean, y’know, he’s from Bensonhurst. They used to call blacks n*%gers. Now he’s stepping out of all that. You guys have to meet him.”

“What would he think of us?,” I asked.

She said, “Probably the same thing at first. He might be a little put-off but, y’know, he’s stepping out of the old-’hood mentality. I mean, he married a Jewish woman, right? And I told him about you guys, and he said you sound great. I think he’s glad I’m out with you two and not with guys who’ll get me drinking for some other kind of good time.”

The food came and we all dug in. As she ate, she said, “I don’t know. It’s a mess.”

“Do you want to be in a mess?” I asked.

“It depends,” she said with a burst of quasi-optimism, “If I see he’s getting out of it.”

“Is he taking any steps toward divorce?” I asked.

She said, “Yes!”

Julius brightened, “Oh, he is? Good!”

She said, “Yep! I gave him the name of a divorce attorney in Jersey City and he says he’s going to call her. But now his wife is trying to crawl back in the sack with him.”

I told Julius to fill my glass back up. Julius asked, “Would you marry him? I mean, it’d be his third time.”

“Yeah, I would!” she cheered, “I mean, third time, so what? Plus, I want a baby while I still can.”

“Well,” I said, “Ever think about doing it on your own? I mean, I have a friend who wasn’t meeting the right guy. I suggested she turn to women of course, but she just couldn’t. But man or no man, what she wanted most from life was to be a mother. So she went to a clinic. She said the clinic dug up everything they could on the sperm donors, right down to their SAT scores. And they have child-raising support groups for single moms and she made friends with the other single moms and now they’re a tight pack. Around the time her daughter turned two, she met a guy and married him a year later. I think she attracted him because she wasn’t desperate anymore. She found the love she wanted in her daughter and just kept attracting love from there.”

Demona considered this and sipped her wine. She said, “That’s wonderful. But…I’m old-fashioned. I mean, I’m happy for your friend. But, for me, I want to meet the right man, get married and have my baby. Just like my mother did. But time’s a-wasting. Time’s a-wasting.”

Julius and I couldn’t argue with that. Demona asked us, “Do you guys want to have kids?”

I shook my head with abandon, “No! We have two cats and that is quite enough for us. We would like to get married, though. But we can’t…unlike Tony.”

Demona said, “Well, what if you went to D.C. or Connecticut?”

I said, “Well, we could.”

Julius said, “But it’s the federal recognition that’s important.”

Demona said, “Why?”

I said, “Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which Clinton signed into law after getting too many blowjobs from Monica Lewinski.”

“Under DOMA,” Julius continued, “Kyle and I can’t file taxes jointly. Not only that but, if something were to happen to me, Kyle is in my will. But unlike with a married couple, anything he’d inherit from me would be subject to estate taxes.”

I said, “That’s why I think the gay community is fighting the battle wrong. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’m of course 100% in favor of gay marriage. But I think it would be more strategic for us to fight for civil unions. We’d be separate, true, but at least we’d start becoming semi-equal. Then, after we secure all the rights, we can work on the word marriage. We don’t have to hit a grand slam all at once. But if we start by trying to get conservative America to include us in their concept of marriage, they’ll only delight in marginalizing us more. So, I think we should redraft our strategy and go for civil unions first.”

Demona chewed on her skate au beurre noire and looked to the ceiling and nodded, “I see what you’re saying. See, to me, marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Suddenly I no longer cared whether she messed up her makeup and nails in her food. I dropped my fork in my nicoise salad bowl, folded my hands and leaned forward, “What?”

Trying to make her point out to be more complex than it is, she started diagramming it on the table with her two index fingers, “See, there’s unions, right? That’s where two men, let’s say, or two women, can – and, and, and should! – get all the rights, right? And then there’s marriage. Okay? Marriage. That’s between a man and a woman.”

I said, “Don’t expect me to nod. I find that discriminatory.”

She held up her palms, “No, I’m just saying that’s how I was raised.”

Julius said, “Well, yeah. That’s how we were all raised. But is that what you think now?”

She nodded, “Yes, I…I do.”

“Okay, so what people like Tony and his wife have,” I said, “That, that’s the real thing? That’s sacred? And what Julius and I have, well, that’s just a union, but we should have the same rights?”

“See, that’s the myth of ‘separate but equal,’” Julius said.

Demona said, “But, Kyle, didn’t you just say that you should go for civil unions first?”

I said, “Yeah, first. I mean, most of society would agree that we should have tax protections and rights to hospital visits, but not that we should have marriage rights. And, frankly, as long as I personally have the same rights, I don’t mind if asshole conservatives say I’m not married. But I don’t want to be eating across from someone who’s telling me that.”

Demona backpedaled and said, “Well, I hope you two get married and are very happy together.”

We thanked her and finished dinner. We didn’t have dessert.

Instead we went to Smalls jazz club on 10th Street. We were meeting my friends Ian and Jonathan there. Ian was only going to be in town until the next day, just like Demona. He and Laurie have a two-year-old son, so they moved to Pittsburgh where they could get a bigger house for a lot less. He and Laurie never married but they can any time they want.

By the time we got there, Smalls was crammed to the gills with jazz lovers. I listen to a lot of Miles Davis but, other than him, I don’t know jazz too well. I’m going to start listening to more jazz, though, after hearing the sublime sounds of Thelonious Monk coming off the saxophone, drums, bass and piano at Smalls. It sounded every bit as smooth as Kind of Blue.

We’d managed to get barstools. Demona didn’t want to sit, though. She says she never sits in bars for some reason, even though she wears heels. She insisted that I take the barstool I saved for her, so I took it.

The crowd was laid-low and spellbound by the saxophone. Julius sat on the stool behind mine and wrapped his arms around me. A pretty brunette to my left looked at us. She smiled at me as if to say, “Don’t worry. If there’s ever a referendum, you got my vote.”

At the song’s crescendo, Demona started hugging us goodbye. She clicked Send on a text message and told us, “My ride’s here.” She never said who her ride was, but we knew he only had so much time.

When Julius and I got home, I put on a disc from the Nina Simone collection. In Demona’s honor, I played “The Other Woman”:

The other woman finds time to manicure her nails
The other woman is perfect where her rival fails
And she’s never seen with pin curls in her hair

The other woman enchants her clothes with French perfume
The other woman keeps fresh cut flowers in each room
There are never toys that are scattered everywhere

And when her baby comes to call
He’ll find her waiting like a lonesome queen
Cos when she’s by his side
It’s such a change from old routine

But the other woman will always cry herself to sleep
The other woman will never have his love to keep
And as the years go by the other woman

Will spend her life alone

Saturday Night’s Dinner Party: Guests and Conversations

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 21, 2008
Julius and Kyle @ Millennium Park, Chicago - June 2008

Julius and Kyle @ Millennium Park, Chicago - June 2008

I just noticed I haven’t posted a pic of Julius yet. So, there’s Julius (left, in t-shirt) and there’s me (right, in red long-sleeved shirt). We went to Chicago last month for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. We stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel on Delaware from Friday, June 6 to Sunday, June 8.

On Saturday, June 7, we met my friend Dubi Kaufmann for fajitas at a place called Zapitista at 1307 S. Wabash near his apartment in the South Loop. Then, he took us for our first-ever visit to Millennium Park, which was built about a year after I left Chicago. The world-famous Bean sculpture was pretty magnificent, if expensive. The gardens were ravishing – and I’m no gardener like Julius. He wanted Dubi to take our picture by the lilacs. It’s a good shot – and a lot of the buildings in the background weren’t there when I was still a Chicagoan.

Third Street, Brooklyn

Third Street, Brooklyn

But, fast forward to July 19, 2008 on Third Street in Brooklyn. Julius was recently in Madrid, where he met some Spanish TV personality, who is friends with his friend Jose Maria. Anyway, this Spanish celebrity had been appointed the Spanish Ambassador to the United Nations or something, and he was going to be in New York with his partner to accept the title. As a favor to Jose Maria, Julius planned a lavish dinner party for Saturday at our house in this guy’s honor – but, when Julius called the new Spanish ambassador on Thursday to give him our address, he casually mentioned to Julius that they couldn’t make the party! Guess they found something better to do or something.

Luckily, the remaining company more than made up for their absence. Julius’ friend Rolando Niella, a writer and new media specialist from Paraguay, was there. He brought two friends, Caesar and Teresa, both news journalists from Paraguay, and their 16-year-old son, Camillo, who drank Coke while all of us mature adults slurred our words over the five or six courses of wine that were served. This teenager is writing an historical novel about one of the chief personages in 19th Century Paraguayan politics! He told me the hardest thing about writing his novel is sticking to historical fact when he’d rather let his version of the story run its course. Did I mention this kid is 16? Hearing him lament his limitations as a writer, I thought, “I need a drink!”

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Across from him sat Alejandro Varderi, another writer I’d never met before, who is writing a historical novel about his homeland, Venezuela. Varderi is a Professor of Modern Languages at CUNY and the author of several books of literary, art and film criticism, including one on Almodovar called, Un Canibal en Madrid. His new book is a novel about a century of life in a Venezuelan family. Lest this sound too much like One Hundred Years of Solitude, bear in mind that Julius and lots of other Caribbeans and South Americans I’ve known read One Hundred Years of Solitude and said, “That’s my family!” Seems to me everyone in those parts has that same kind of story. Marquez just got to the international presses with it first.

Blurry pic of Marquez

Blurry pic of Marquez

(I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez so much, I even named my Tuxedo cat after him. Above is a blurry picture of Marquez, who was better behaved than he’s ever been during a dinner party, although he did start putting his paws on the table legs once he saw the caterers come in with plates of cod. (And, in this picture, which Mike Levine took while I was out of town, Marquez was standing on a table where he knew he shouldn’t have been standing. Still, I’d never give him up for the world.))

Naturally, my best friend Mike Levine was also there, along with a stunning woman named Nishanti, who has this bad-ass Dharma wheel tattooed on her right arm. Damn, I wish I’d thought of that.

Anna Maria Carasso, a friend and colleague of Julius’ at Citigroup, pulled no punches in handing out laughs at the table – though a lot of them were in Spanish and I can only hope she wasn’t busting on the Old Spice I decided to wear at the last minute.

Morgan Library

Morgan Library

My friend Nadine Slowik came with her husband Brian. She just got a new job as Director of Membership at the Morgan Library & Museum! They had this kick-ass Dylan show a couple years ago. She’ll be in a good place.

Manhattan Skyline

Manhattan Skyline

When dinner was over, we went out on to the deck to bask in the glow of the Manhattan skyline, drink cognac and smoke cigars in front of Camillo, the minor, who continued sipping Coke. It was there that grown men slow-danced together right before his very own impressionable eyes. Then, gay and straight alike, busted into some hardcore salsa and flamenco moves.

We played:

Buena Vista Social Club

Buena Vista Social Club

Music from the Buena Vista Social Club, which sent Camillo’s folks into raptures that I would have killed to have seen my folks in at his age.

I then crooned track after track from the glorious Nina Simone. I underscored for everyone how the lyrics to the last part of “Mississippi Goddamn” still apply today, especially in the midst the Iraq War. A moment of silence followed as I turned my air mic over to Nina, who howled out the words better than I ever could. (I won’t reiterate them here. They might scare away my blog audience. Look ’em up on your own!)

New York in the Seventies

New York in the Seventies

Earlier that day, Julius and I were listening to NPR and the radio announcer talked about New York in the Late Seventies. The city had just come out of bankruptcy. There were muggers on every corner and half block. Open sex in subway cars. People pushing drugs on card tables they set up in front of their homes. Bath houses were in full-swing (as was AIDS soon after). Since then, crime has dropped 400%. Almost all of the porn shops in Times Square – which was just about all Times Square had at the time – have been swept away. New York has lost its Seventies Edge. But, then again, it is safer and it’s still mind-boggling.

Nadine and Brian are both from Detroit, which, in its epic poverty and disinvestment, is a throwback to Manhattan’s disco days. Nadine talked about how, in the mid-to-late Seventies, she and her sister used to go to these gay discos in metro Detroit. There was this one chick there who used to be out on the floor wearing leg-warmers and doing all these ballet moves, the exact opposite of what everyone else was doing. Nadine used to look at her, shrug her shoulders and go back to doing the Hustle. Years later, Nadine read a Detroit Free Press article where this young woman was remembered. She was none other than Madonna Ciccone, only a few years before she’d show up on the streets of New York with no contacts, just $35 and the dream of being a famous dancer.

Madonna at Dunkin' Donuts (Upper Lefthand Corner)

Madonna at Dunkin' Donuts (Upper Lefthand Corner)

This led to a discussion about a recent L Magazine article on how Madonna worked at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Times Square, shortly before she joined the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Brian said, “She worked there for a day.” I wasn’t sure if that was true. He said that, by her own admission, she had a string of jobs that she’d get fired from after just one day of work, mostly for talking back to customers. Apropos of the Dunkin’ Donuts regime, Brian said, “I don’t think she could conform to the costume they made her wear.”

This led to a discussion of how easy it is to lose a job in New York, even when you’re not mouthing off to customers or bosses. Even when you’re not doing one damn thing wrong. We’ve both known (and been) wonderfully competent New Yorkers, who have an iron work ethic, show up early, work late and always do their best. But so many New York employers fire people almost for sport. It’s true. It’s not at all unusual to meet highly successful people in this city who have been fired from way more jobs than they care to admit. I don’t know of any other city where this happens so routinely.

It’s hard to keep your chin up through it all. You might even start viewing yourself as Henry Chinaski from Charles Bukowski’s Factotum, a writer who can never manage to hold down a job and succumbs to the bottle on skid row. But that’s yet another reason why it’s so important not to view oneself through the world’s eyes.

And Brian’s right. Madonna couldn’t conform to that Dunkin’ Donuts costume. And she was willing to starve and strive harder than anyone to banish all such uniforms from her closets for life. (She probably has other kinds of uniforms in those closets, but I’m sure she has a good time in them.)

Tao Te Ching

Tao Te Ching

See, but Madonna’s life history contradicts a lot of the ideas in Tao Te Ching, a book of wisdom that I adore but that I question as an American, raised in a nation of Darwinian success stories. For example, the Tao Te Ching states:

Therefore, the sage puts his own person last, and yet is found in the foremost place; he treats his person as if it were foreign to him, and yet that person is preserved.


All streams flow to the sea because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power.

That sounds great. But, after Julius and I heard that NPR broadcast about New York in the Seventies, we were in a cab and I was meditating on the power-mongers in New York when, all of a sudden, “Lucky Star” came on the cab radio. (I’ve never been a fan of Madonna’s music, but I’ve always admired her moxie.) I turned to Julius and said, “It seems to me that Madonna could never have gotten anywhere if she hadn’t been such a career egomaniac.”

He agreed, “The only way most people achieve at that level is to be extremely self-focused.” But ancient Asian traditions keep saying that such power has a tendency to evaporate just when one needs it most. Yet Madonna has sustained hers.

Still, according to Lao Tsu, those who practice a less egotistical way of life remain “preserved.” But have you seen Madonna lately? She’s 50 and she looks a lot more preserved than most 30-year-olds I know. Asian philosophy also extols the practice of wei wu wei, which means “do all without doing,” or, doing everything in a calm, natural, inspired manner in order to arrive at success. But wasn’t Madonna’s style to kick down all the doors until she hit the right ones?

I’m not one of those chic cynics who advocates selfishness. I’m just trying to see how ancient Asian edicts jibe with who I see sitting on top these days.

Sociopath Next Door

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

Then Brian and I discussed certain types of bosses that many people encounter again and again in New York. (Note: there are good bosses in New York too. Brian has one now. We weren’t talking about the nice ones that night, though.) I am the foremost advocate for life sentences for abusive bosses. How do these people manage to retain positions that nicer and more effective people lose? Why don’t they ever have their comeuppance? Is there any such thing as karma? Even as a Buddhist, I sometimes have my doubts. I have seen murderous professionals sit pretty all the way to retirement, laughing over the trail of career-corpses they’ve left in their wake. And now the American public is glorifying Anne Slowey from Elle magazine for her ruthlessness on the reality show Stylista.

In her terrifying study of everyday psychopathology, The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout gives several examples of bosses who deliberately set their employees up for failure just to secure their own perch and have some fun on a boring day. She says that one out of every 25 people in America is born without a conscience.

I’m still trying to square Stout’s convincing argument with my Buddhist practice. Does everyone have Buddha nature, as the Buddha pronounced? Do even sociopaths have Buddha nature? Wouldn’t that be the same as saying they have a conscience and inherent goodness?

Yet, even in the face of all this adversity, in New York or elsewhere, we must remember a little story about Winston Churchill. He was the keynote speaker at a commencement ceremony at a prestigious boys school in England. Everyone was expecting him to give one of his legendary speeches. Instead, he marched up to the podium and said, “Never give up. Never, never, never give up!” Then he sat back down. Thus concluded his speech.

And thus concluded the evening – at about 3:30 in the morning. Throw 12 or more people together on Third Street, you’ll always find something to write about. But this blog is a mere sketch. I’m sure I’ll be processing the bounty of that evening for years to come.