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Bright Lights, Big City

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Back in the mid 90's, I dropped out of a famous East Coast school. I don’t like to namedrop, but it’s one of those places that charges you just to send you an admissions form. Not that I needed one, not really, thanks to the number one rule of elite educational institutions in the U.S. of A: Legacies are always welcome.

Don’t get me wrong, school was a grand time—it was just the classes that were total shit. One night I was drinking with my buddy Skeeter telling him how I was going to drop out and try to write a novel, and he said that sounded like a solid plan and if I’d be willing to get a haircut and wear a tie he could get me a job as an assistant or something to his uncle Kemp. Skeeter’s real name, I should mention, was Thurston Livingston and his uncle, Kemper Livingston, was a pretty big deal at the time in the energy trading game. You remember that tape that surfaced years ago with the two energy traders laughing about how the rolling blackouts in California were going to make them a fortune? One of them worked for Kemp.

My folks were so relieved the splurged for a new work wardrobe from Brooks Brothers and J Press—we’re talking tassel loafers, blue blazers, tan slacks, striped ties. Part of me wanted to dunk my own head in a toilet, but another part of me stood in front of the full length mirror at my new place in the Village (Hey, I still kept it real.) and thought “Shit, dude, you look fresh to death” every morning before I scurried off to catch the trains that would eventually deposit me near Kemper Livingstson’s building in Central Park East.  Kemp and I would then sit in the back of his town car and plan out the day as the driver dealt with the nonstop tsuris of traffic.

It was a Tuesday afternoon in mid May… okay, okay I’m bullshitting you here my memory isn’t that amazing. It was definitely mid-week though and hot as a motherfucker and I was self-conscious because I’d sweat a little in the short walk from the sushi joint where we’d grabbed lunch back to Kemp’s office building and I was afraid this hot little intern from Smith I’d been hitting on all week was going to think I was a stinkmonster.

I was telling her a story about getting a handjob from a Vassar girl and she said “Yeah, Vassies are sluuuuuttttty…” and giggled and Kemp strode past and said “Hey, guy, we’ve got a funeral to go to.” Then he sniffed the air, hard, and said “And splash on some Creed Green Irish Tweed or something, you smell like Patrick Ewing in the third quarter” and the girl from Smith laughed uproariously and I blushed.  Kemp winked at me, to show her I was still his buddy—Kemp was always cool like that—and I hurried after him.

In the back of his town car, Kemp spieled on the guy whose funeral we were attending. “Schuyler’s his name. Sherman Schuyler, and we met back at Exeter although our families go back much further than that. The Schuylers and Livingstons were already carving up Manhattan back when Hamilton shot Burr…”

“Burr shot Hamilton, Kemp…”

“Did he? Well, as you like it. Anyhow, Hamilton actually married into the Schuyler family, that inveterate fucking social climber. That was only because the Livingstons wouldn’t have him, though. His ancestry was a little… exotic.”

Kemp often made comments that made me a little uncomfortable, and I usually responded with silence—privilege in a nutshell, y’all. Kemp looked a little bummed I didn’t laugh at his joke. It was the 90's so rich old white dudes were starting to feel a little ashamed of their crypto-racism though not ashamed enough to knock it off or anything. Kemper cleared his throat and talked, “So Sherm and I always seemed to be at each other’s throats.  Same teams, mind you, same sides. Same schools, y’know? Same friends, similar goals, vacations at the same spots. We were just always in competition. Always driving each other. Both went up to New Haven after school, both in the same club there. Both got MBAs—mine at Harvard his at Princeton because that’s where hi family had always gone. Out of business school I took a job at Pierce and Pierce and he went to JP Morgan…” at this point I remember Kemp seemed to notice the car was slowing down and approaching the curb beside an ancient Episcopal church and he shrugged elaborately and said, “…What I am trying to say, lad, is that Sherm and I were of a kind and even though I always loathed the little cocksucker here I am to pay my respects.”

The funeral was a flux. We sang some hymns. Shook some hands. Listened to some eulogies. Kemp offered a running commentary on the various friends and co-workers and classmates who strutted up to the podium to eulogize the dead Schuyler, “Closet case.” “Embezzler.” “We made him eat a vase full of live crickets to get into The Club at Yale.” “Used to pay a girl with spiky hair in a rock band to tie him up and flay him with his own belt.” “Showed up some drunk for a Chem final at New Haven he wet himself…” The funeral ended, the body was carted off, and Kemp winked at me mysteriously and said “We’re not quite done here yet. We have a kind of gala later, so keep your evening open” and then got into the back of his car and left me to find my own way home.

I could tell you about the restaurant I went to that night with the hardbody but I’d just be bragging, and trying your patience. At around ten, though, the hardbody and I were in my bedroom and I had just flipped her over and was admiring my own biceps in the mirror behind my bed when there was a ruckus at my door. It was Kemp, sounding drunk, yelling “Get a move on lad! Get a move on! Time to put in some overtime!”

The secretary I had been getting ready to fuck looked at me in awe and said “Is that…” and I tossed her my AmEx and said “Get yourself home darling. I guess duty calls.”

It was the first time I’d ever seen Kemp’s brownstone in the city. During the long car ride from my place to Kemp’s we sat in the back of his town car and he regaled me with a long spiel about the Protestant work ethic in America and the Will to Power and the notion of rightly understood self-interest and it all felt very business schoolish but underneath it all there was a strange, almost tribal metaphysic. Kemp talked about the mystical nature of emerging markets and he gabbed about how analysts were the soothsayers and lawyers were the priests deciding who did and didn’t have access to the holiest of holies and he talked louder and faster and by the time we were breezing through his foyer on our way to the dining room in his brownstone I was beginning to wonder how many lines Kemp had done that night with his scotch and sodas.

I was taken aback to see that the table was set for only two. Two plates. Two chairs. Two table settings. Two glasses of wine (no bottle visible, it was clearly going to be a short night). “Sit, my boy, sit,” said Kemp magnanimously, “but don’t expect me to pull your chair out for you. Never do that for whores or assistants,” and he laughed and patted me on the back and sat down. The plates were bone white and we each had a piece of steak tartare and a small mound of spinach. Sighing contentedly, Kemp rubbed his hands together and said “Tonight, we dine in honor of poor Schuyler, who can be with us only in spirit.”

He spoke casually of my prospects at his firm and the price of custom shirts in Hong Kong and a memorable trip he’d taken to Amsterdam during his own undergrad days and showed extravagantly bad table manners forking pieces of steak tartare messily into his mouth and letting the juice drip down his chin and when I remarked that I’d never had anything quite like the meat he remarked absently, “It’s Schuyler’s heart, old sport, it’s Schuyler’s heart. Another of our old family traditions. Nothing has tasted so sweet since my own father’s funeral…”

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