I woke up on Saturday morning, clicked on my stereo, and listened to Wilco sing along to the percussion of the frozen rain against my window, my phone rang.
My college friend, Ross Appleman. “Hey Ross, what’s up?”
“Well, you know my wedding is next weekend…”
I remembered The invitation had appeared in my real mailbox a few months before, when I was still in the throes of Jenny-centric bliss, and it had caused me a bit of consternation: do I bring Jenny to this or not? I had to call Ross and ask him what the rules were on that sort of thing. “A year minimum,” he had said at the time. Jenny and I never crossed that threshold, and she had saved me an embarrassed explanation by dumping me before I had a chance to tell her that I was going to a wedding without her.
“Yeah Ross, I know.”
“When are you coming in?”
“Cool. You can come to the bachelor party. We’re meeting up at my place at around six. Seeya then.”
We hung up at the same time.
Gerald came in for the first time on Monday at ten-thirty in the morning, well past the work-rush, but long enough before lunch that he was able to snag a seat. He ordered a large caffe latte with a shot of hazelnut, picked up one of the newspapers that we keep lying around near the counter for the customers to read, and sat down. I noticed him because he wasn’t typical for our midmornings, and I’d finally gotten used to sleeping alone, which had been weird for the first couple of weeks. I had nightmares.
He didn’t have a ratted sweater and didn’t carry a canvas shoulder bag, so he wasn’t a literature grad student. He didn’t have a beard and whip out a stack of papers for marking, so he wasn’t a professor. He wasn’t young enough to be an undergrad, or bleary-eyed enough to be a bartender or waiter caffeining up before his shift. He was a normal looking guy who would have fit right in during one of our rush times. Put a set of crisp khakis and a blue button down on him on him, add a leather briefcase, and he’d be one with the morning people. Take some of the gel out of his hair and unbutton the top two of that blue shirt, and he’d be an early-evening guy, meeting someone for coffee to discuss a stock disbursement plan or a buyout. Instead, he sat down near the fireplace in his relatively new blue jeans and untucked work shirt, every now and then running his hands through his hair, staring at a newspaper without ever flipping the pages.
I forgot about him for a while, talking to Jason about the relative merits of Winona Ryder versus Shannen Doherty. Winona won because Jason’s whole argument was that Shannen had been in Mallrats, while Winona had never done a Kevin Smith movie. I countered that by pointing out that while I had been growing up, one of the more popular local bands had been called the Winona Ryders. It was impossible to make a lewd phrase out of Shannen’s name. I handed out a couple of job applications and made a few drinks. Gerald came back up to the counter after about forty-five minutes.
“Hey, can I get a refill?” he said.
“On a caffe latte, no.” I said. “Straight coffee refills are fifty cents if you’ve already bought a cup.”
“Can I get a fifty-cent cup of coffee in my latte cup?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“Great,” he said, and pushed two quarters across the counter. I took his cup, rinsed out the leftover espresso grounds in the bottom and filled it to the top with coffee. In theory, I should have only gone about halfway—the refillable cups are our glass for-here ones, and they only hold about eight ounces—but the guy looked as if he needed something of a pickup.
“Here you go,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said, fishing out a dollar from his pocket and putting it in the tip jar. He sat back down and started to flip through the paper for real. It was quiet in Jon’s place, the cold air from outside sweeping in every few minutes when somebody entered. I walked over to the tables near the fireplace and wiped them off with a rag.
“Hey,” the guy said. “Is this all of the paper?”
“I think so,” I said. “Sometimes people forget and walk off with a section, though. What are you looking for?”
“The classifieds,” he said.
“Let me take a look around,” I said. I left my rag on one of the tables and did a quick walk-around of the tables and the people. Nobody had a copy of the Globe, or a section, or anything.
“Sorry,” I told him when I got back. “You’re out of luck.”
“In more ways than one,” he said.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Laid off,” he said. “Got to find something new.”
“Good luck,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll probably come in earlier tomorrow to see if I can catch the Globe before someone steals part of it.”
“I’m Pete,” I said. “I’m usually here.”
“Gerald,” he said.
He came in the next day and the day after that. By his fourth day, his clothes had degenerated; the clean-pressed khakis had morphed into a loose pair of faded blue jeans with ratted cuffs, and his button-down shirt became a hoodie that said “Henshaw Track and Field” in tattered letters on the front. He ordered lattes the first two days, and then switched to coffee with plenty of room for cream. Once, he asked Adrian to pour out a couple of inches to leave enough room. That time, we didn’t have enough cream in the dispenser for him, and he brought it up to re-fill. I was pretty busy and told him to come around behind the counter and fill it out of the jug in the rear fridge. He hesitated before opening up the hinged part of the counter and coming back, as if the behind-counter space was somehow threatening.
Gerald became part of our regular crew for the rest of the week; he’d come in and get his coffee, and we’d charge him, and he would always sit near the fireplace, in the warmest spot in Jon’s Place. I like having regulars, and Gerald looked like he was going to be a good one.
Roger Ebert has a feature in his books called “Roger’s Little Movie Rules.” One of the things he came up with is the concept of the Meet Cute, the best example of which comes from Reality Bites. The Meet Cute happens when Winona Ryder and Jeanine Garafolo are driving down the street smoking and listening to Squeeze in Winona’s crappy convertible, Ben Stiller is driving next to them in his new soft-top BMW, Winona flicks her butt into Ben’s car by accident, his papers catch fire and he crashes into her. Yeah, right.
When I got together with Jenny it wasn’t a Meet Cute. It was at the Jon’s Place end of year party. We held it in February because everyone was lazy and didn’t want to deal with another party at the end of the year when everyone is sick of getting loaded on cheap eggnog. Technically, Jenny shouldn’t have been invited because she had started to work in early January, after the end-of-year party was supposed to have taken place. I made a point of asking her if she was coming several times because I liked the earring in her upper lobe and the way that her voice was just a tad too deep for her height.
Jason had volunteered his place as a venue, which was great because it was a newer Cambridge apartment with a huge picture window view of Inman Street with its bare spiderlike trees and row of new cars that parked in front of the meters and had to vacate every day before eight o’clock. You couldn’t afford that kind of place on a manager’s salary; Jason dealt part-time, making most of his profits on Friday and Saturday nights outside the big Euro clubs on Lansdowne Street. Adrian and I showed up early to help set up and square Jason for the money he’d spent beforehand on booze. Our yearly tip money more than covered it—several bottles of generic liquor, mixers (Coke, OJ, cranberry, Tom Collins in a plastic bottle) and a pony keg of Newcastle Brown.
I had gone through six cuba libres and a couple of plastic pints of beer and was feeling great, head not spinning but still happy that I was sitting on a couch watching Adrian and Jason freestyle rap about the intricacies of cleaning up:
The gunk on the floor, it smells real bad
If I trip and fall I’ll be really sad.
They rhymed with the total ineptitude that can only ever be approached by drunk white guys. I laughed so hard I nearly peed my pants, so I got up and headed for the bathroom. Jason’s bathroom was clean and white, but it had one of those mirrors that extended behind the toilet, so you were forced to watch yourself as you did your business. I chose to close my eyes; I think it’s weird to watch yourself draining the vein.
As I walked out, I nearly ran into Jenny, and I mumbled an apology. We then did the you-go-this-way-I’ll-go-the-same-way dance that you do when you’re trying to get by someone. After two feints we laughed a little bit, then she threw her arms around me and kissed me right there in the hallway with Adrian and Jason beat boxing in the background and Jane’s Addiction wailing over Basie’s stereo. Later on, when I asked her why she’d done it, she said she saw a move coming in my eyes and wanted to head it off at the pass. I don’t know what she saw, because I wasn’t planning on making a move then. Sure, I may have thought about doing It later after several more drinks, but definitely not there in front of everyone where she could have laughed at me and told everyone what I’d tried.
Jenny was the third girl I’d really dated in Boston. I moved to town right after school, without much ambition beyond the thought that it was a neat city that I’d never been to; surely I could find something. So I got an apartment in a house in Allston for the summer with four other people my age and started temping. I won’t deny that it was a good summer. Rent was cheap, my roommates were still in college and under twenty-one and they loved me because I could buy beer. After four weeks of temping, I took a full-time job with one of the MIT-rooted software companies—TeraMax Systems. It was one of those places that was growing so fast it would make your head spin. They put me in a room with three empty cubicles and told me to choose one. Three days later, the other two had occupants, as well.
Girl #1 was a summer person, working for three months as an unpaid intern before going back to Pennsylvania for business school. Katie liked me at the beginning because of music. I’d brought in some Elvis and she walked by my cubicle during “Blue Suede Shoes.” She asked if that was Elvis and I said that it was. She came by to say hi every day after that, and after a couple of weeks she asked me if I wanted to have a drink with her and one of the other summer girls, whose name I’ve forgotten, at the Twenty-First Amendment, a dark bar near the Statehouse where all the politicians gathered to drink off their hard days of telling the public what to do. The three of us walked across the Longfellow Bridge to bar, stopping at the top to watch the sea of boat sails that inundate the river every summer afternoon. We had drinks, her friend left, we had more drinks, and I ended up at her $2000/month sublet on Beacon Hill for the night.
It was all wrong from the start; she did like Elvis, but that was where it stopped. She wanted to spend her weekends out of the city, down at the Cape or going to see the Dave Mathews Band at Great Woods in the suburbs or dancing on Lansdowne Street with the other summer people from her office. I didn’t want to do those things—well, to be precise, I wouldn’t mind going to the Cape once in a while or dressing up and getting down, although I draw the line at the Dave Mathews Band. But neither of us had a car, and it’s just not too fun to go down to the Cape on the Bus and stay in one place, on one beach without any way to get anywhere, and I had no desire to put on swanky black clothing every week and battle the crowds at the clubs on Lansdowne Street. If you’re out clubbing, you’re out to pick someone up; I don’t get why you’d bother if you’ve already got someone.
She dropped me after a month, when we’d run out of things to talk about and I bailed on an evening of after-work drinks to go see a couple of ska bands at the Middle East. I invited her to go, and she said she’d rather sit and talk with her friends than stand around listening to music she didn’t like. I replied that I’d rather listen to music that I like than the garbagey Matchbox 20 stuff they always played at the downtown after-work-drinks places she liked to frequent. She told me not to call her and I of course I did, not because I really wanted to hang out with her but because I missed the sex part and her apartment, which wasn’t infested with late-teenage college students and their bags of weed and empty 40s. So
I called her and the conversation went like this:
Katie: Oh, hey.
Me: (Pause, trying to think of something to say, coming up with) So how’s it going?
Katie: Fine. I went to the Cape this weekend with Mark.
Me: Oh. I was going to ask (then I paused again, trying to figure out what exactly I was going to ask her. I didn’t care about her work. I couldn’t think of anything that I would want to ask her to do, and I thought about pretending the phone had died and then running out to get a copy of the Phoenix to see what was going on that she might be interested in doing, but I didn’t do that, so I paused)
Me: Oh, you know, just wanting to know how it’s going.
Katie: Fine. Like I said.
Me: Oh, okay. Good. Bye.
And that was it. She stopped coming down to my floor and we didn’t see each other after that, except for one more time. I was over on Boston Common in plastic flip-flops that I’d purchased form the Family Dollar, and I remember being pretty happy about the noise they were making: Schhfloop, schhfloop is what they sounded like. I looked over at the grass to my right and saw what looked like her lying with her head on a guy’s stomach. She was asleep and he was toying with her hair, which was in a French braid. Then she wasn’t asleep anymore and sat up, brushing back a few strands that had fallen from behind her ear. I noticed that her blouse was unbuttoned three buttons down from the top, giving a flash of that center-chest area that all of us find so fascinating because of what it implies. She looked in my direction and stopped for a second, and I could see her hand coming up as if to wave hi, but then the hand stopped probably because I was wearing aviator sunglasses that I didn’t own when I’d been sleeping with her. So she stopped in mid hand-raise and turned to the guy who she’d had her head on, whose name was probably Mark, and talked to him. I’d like to say that I’m not totally sure that it was her: maybe 85% sure. I can’t be sure because there’s a part of me that thinks that there’s no way that anyone that you’ve woken up with, seen naked, and been inside of can ever not recognize you, even if you’re a hundred feet away and behind aviator sunglasses.
I worked at TeraMax for nearly two years, and got promoted twice, finally ending up as a Senior Applications Delivery Specialist. After that first summer, I moved across the river to Cambridge to a three-bedroom place around the corner from where I live now—my roommates were management consultants who traveled all the time, and I never saw them. It was fun; I woke up every morning at eight-thirty, showered, and picked up a bagel at Jon’s Place before catching a bus down to Kendall Square and work. I would show up every day at about half past nine, my bagel half-eaten, and I’d sit and check the news and my email and a few other ridiculous websites, and then I’d get to work. I was the modern equivalent of a paper-shuffler; people would send me documents and I would look over them and send them on to some other people. The only difference was that there was no paper involved—the company CEO was very into being completely paperless, and the printers recorded activity by user. If you went over your allotment, you had to write up a report and submit it to a manager. That was the only really weird thing about the place. My cube mates were older than me, and we’d have a good time arguing about who got to play what music when.
Things started to go sour at around the end of 1999. I came to work late one morning (the bus had been delayed by a three-car pileup at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Main Street) and the other two cubicles were empty, and my manager was sitting in my chair. His name was Gary.
“Hi, Pete,” he said.
“Gary,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Quite a bit,” he said. He was looking over my right shoulder, at my feet, at his own shoes. Everywhere but my face. “They’re doing a lot of departmental switching upstairs, and your position is going to be affected.”
“Okay,” I said. “Do I have to move to another floor or something?”
“No,” he said.
“Oh, good,” I said. “Sorry I’m late; there was a big accident and I had to hoof it from the intersection of Mass and Main.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “See, your position has been affected.”
“What do I have to do?” I asked.
He turned around. “Well, I’m going to need you to separate your personal items from your company items and put your personal things in a box.”
He stood up and walked to the door, not touching me on his way past.
“Security will be by to escort you on your way out. They should be here in a couple of minutes.”
“What?” I said. He was gone.
The security guys came by about five minutes later. I had filled a medium-sized box and my shoulder bag with my stuff—mostly music, some pictures, knick-knacks, and a box of pens that were technically the company’s but what the hell. The guards were obviously rented for the day—big men in ill-fitting clothing who were desperately trying to cultivate a Rambo vibe. They walked with me down the two flights of stairs to the ground level and closed the door behind me as I went out. It was a cold early-December day, clear, crisp and dry enough to split your lips.
I took the bus back up to Central Square. The accident had been cleared; nothing was left now but a couple of bicycle cops jawing at each other amidst the twinkling of thousands of pieces of broken glass. I zoned out and missed my stop, getting off at the next one. Jon’s Place was on my way home, and I decided to stop in for a cup of coffee; I rarely drank the stuff at that point but I felt like a hot drink would do me some good.
Jon himself was working behind the counter, regaling the whole shop with an offbeat tale of how he had survived a tiger attack in Malaysia. I still remembered what I ordered: a latte with vanilla and caramel.
“Good choice for a good day,” he said.
“Not so good,” I said.
“I just lost my job.”
“You want a new one?”
And so I was hired. Originally, I was just going to work at Jon’s Place in the gaps, and phase it out as I got a new job. I had it all figured out. I put together a resume and started to send it out, going to the Cambridge Public Library virtually every day to search the online job boards and check my email. I interviewed with a few companies and headhunters in the space between working for Jon; he had had a couple of people quit the day I walked in, and I filled in on most of their hours, working nearly sixty hours a week for a month. It got hard to schedule job interviews in the cracks between work, and after a while Jon promoted me and I gave up looking for full-time work. I moved to the place I now share with Barry, saving nearly $200 per month in rent in the process. And I’ve been here, foaming milk and grinding beans, ever since.
I poured myself a glass of water and decided that it was a good night to go Out, which is different than just going out. The latter means that you’re headed to the grocery store, going for coffee, hanging out during the daytime on the Common, throwing a Frisbee, doing whatever. Going Out involves more prep—you gotta have friends, a place to gather, a reason to go somewhere. It’s not sufficient to just meet at the pub down the street for a couple of beers and some laughs—that’s out instead of Out. Going Out usually involves a phone conversation that goes along these lines:
Person 1: Hey, you want to go Out tonight?
Person 2: Depends, what’s going on?
Person 1: Well, [insert name of cool local band/internationally famous DJ] is [playing/spinning] over at [name of club] tonight. [He/they] was just written up in [name of local alternative weekly] a couple of weeks ago…
Person 2: Hm….that sounds pretty cool. I was planning on hanging with [Persons 3 through n] tonight, and I think they’d be down. You want to meet up at [name of trendy bar where bike messengers and other scions of urban hipness hang out] first?
Person 1: Sure. Nine o’clock?
Person 2: Seeya then.
I made that phone call. Fill in the blanks above as follows:
Person 1 = me
Person 2 = Adrian
Local band/internationally famous DJ = DJ X-Stats, a guy from Japan who was written up everywhere once DJ Spooky said that he was the best thing to come out of his country since small cars. I’m not even going to try to explain that. Have you ever seen Japanese video games? The whole country is cracked.
Local alternative weekly = The Boston Phoenix.
Dance Club = Vishnu, a place over on Lansdowne Street.
Person 3 = Emily, a friend of Adrian’s whom I’d met once or twice. She was taller than me.
Person 4 = Linus, a guy I didn’t know
Person 5 = Brianna, a name I’d heard mentioned but not recently. Frankly, the name Brianna scares me. It makes me think of the Hamptons and the Eggs and the Gatsbys and old money.
Trendy Bar = Planter’s in the South End. I’d never been there.
I was glad that I’d spent an extra twenty minutes figuring out what to wear as soon as I walked in the door of Planter’s—it wasn’t a dress-up place, but if you weren’t dressed up in the wrong way, people look at you weird. I liked it right away; walls covered in Elvis album covers and old James Dean t-shirts, an old TV hung overhead playing the Cartoon Network on mute, assorted other tasteful kitsch everywhere. Adrian was at the rear end of the bar with three others. I recognized Emily and relaxed; nights can be tough if you have one friend in a group, but two means that you’re rarely going to have to horn in on a conversation with only new people if your one friend is ordering or having sex or whatever.
“Hey Pete,” said Adrian,
“Pete, meet Linus and Brianna,”
I shook their hands, wary. Linus was a little below my height, Brianna was slightly taller, and they were standing close to each other. She was good-looking in the way that all girls who are taller than average and grow their hair below their shoulders are, and she dressed well, in black pants tapering to flat-heel boots, revealing the bottom of a zipper on each boot side.
“You work with Ade?” asked Linus. He blinked at me behind horn-rimmed glasses, an accoutrement which usually causes me to recoil. All the indie-rock snobs wear them, and have been since 1993 when every Pavement fan in the universe got a pair. Didn’t anyone ever figure out that they’re ugly as hell? Plus they’re heavy; I had a fling once in college with an indie chick who wore glasses like that; she would take them off before going to bed, leaving two reddened dimples on each side of her nose that were always there in the morning. I wear contact lenses—it’s much easier and not wearing glasses will never go out of style. So I was a little skeptical of Linus.
“Yeah, we’ve been pretty much running Jon’s Place for a while now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Jon doesn’t come around much, and we’re the two most senior guys, so that’s it. There’s another guy who manages, also, kinda.”
I was concentrating on the distance between Linus and Brianna—maybe five inches separated her hips from his beltline; definitely a familiar distance, but not necessarily boyfriend-girlfriend close. The bar wasn’t that crowded, so there was no need for them to be standing so close, and I was trying to pick up on aching I-want-you vibes going from Linus to Brianna, but my radar appeared to be down. It’s not like I was going to go after Brianna if they weren’t girlfriend-boyfriend, but she was good looking in that tall way, and I needed to work on my flirting skills, I think. Plus, it’s always a good idea to know where you stand.
“What do you do?” I asked Linus. I hate that question; I don’t really believe that the manner in which you spend your days has any bearing on you as a person or what you really like. But, it’s a question that you’re supposed to ask anyone who you meet, so I asked it.
“I’ve been working on this idea I’ve had for a while, but I really can’t tell you about it.”
“Well, I’d have to get you to sign an NDA.” He grinned at me.
“Oh, I see. I’m going to get a drink.” It always bothers me that people in the technology industry think that they’re harboring some great secret, that if they let it go the entire world is going to jump in before they go ahead and make their millions. I’ve been there, done that, and think that nondisclosure agreements are the geek’s way to generate penis envy. I work in a coffee shop. I really don’t care about your grand plan to increase throughput or create a new model for having people talk to each other online. I make people happy by making their coffee, and I think in some ways that what I’m doing is far more useful to the world then the combined productivity of everyone in Silicon Valley.
The bartender was one of those guys who make me jealous. He was so put together—small points of tattoos coming down just below the sleeves of his T-shirt( a vintage Guns N’ Roses ’88 Appetite Tour shirt, no less), three rings adorning his fingers, cords under his arms that turned into well-defined lines when he gripped the taps, a half-inch dyed goatee sprouting below his chin. I waited for a minute or so while he poured a Sierra Nevada with one hand and shook an orangey thing into an ice-choked highball glass with the other. I ordered a gin and tonic, my favorite all-purpose cocktail—not too snotty, not too lowbrow, fits in anywhere. I elbowed my way back to the conversation; Planter’s was getting crowded with scenesters: dressed-down investment bankers, bike messengers in wear-anywhere SPD shoes, Euro folks with greased hair on their way to the new hot place in town, and a smattering of everyone else.
Adrian was holding court, as usual. He’s a great guy to hang out with because he knows a little bit about everything and enjoys learning more, so when people hang with him they get the feeling that he’s instantly their best friend. It gets him into trouble, like the time this straight guy named Mike got a nonsexual crush on Ade and called him every day for two weeks to talk about the intricacies of copper-only pipe fitting.
Tonight, Ade was working on Linus, which added more mystery to my Linus/Brianna conundrum. Was Linus his object d’ lust tonight, was he Ade’s friend, or was he Brianna’s boyfriend and Ade was trying to make her comfortable by making him comfortable because he knew nobody and Brianna and Ade went way back? The possibilities were endless, and easily solved by talking to Adrian, but I couldn’t do that because he was talking to Linus. My head was beginning to hurt.
“I don’t think Frank Miller really had it quite right back then,” said Linus. I listened on the sidelines as Adrian quite ably defended Batman: The Dark Knight Returns over Watchmen as turning-point of the comic book industry in the mid 1980s. He was pretty good about it, too, although he forgot to throw out some of the obvious symbolism of Carrie as the new Robin. Why did I care? Adrian had likely never read the book, but had listened to me argue a fanzine weenie into submission at Jon’s Place a few weeks before about this exact same subject. I would have joined in, but Ade seemed to have it well in hand, and I didn’t want to cramp his style if he was going after Linus.
I flipped around to Emily and Brianna. I knew Emily, but not too well; she’d come around to Jon’s Place once or twice when Adrian and I were working together; she’d seemed fairly interested in Adrian right away, but had been lucky enough to come by on one of the days when he’d sworn off women forever. I had no idea that they’d stayed in touch. She was of a height with Brianna, and they were arguing.
“Sharon Stone,” said Emily.
“Gina Gershon,” said Brianna.
“Huh?” I said.
“We’re talking about tough chicks who we’d like to get with,” said Emily. I deflated. Brianna was gay. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I had any intention of getting with her (although I wouldn’t have minded), because you can’t really expect that sort of thing to pop up during a night Out with friends, but it’s just nice to know that there’s potential. Somehow it’s easier to have a good conversation if you think that sex might ensue.
“Gina is the mack-daddy tough chick ever,” said Brianna.
“How about Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2?” I offered. “She was tough as nails.”
“Already touched on her,” said Emily. “She was tough, but marrying James Cameron and not making him shelve Titanic turns her into a complete wimp.”
“See, it’s Gina!” said Brianna, sipping on a vaguely orange highball filled with ice cubes. “I’m not really into most chicks, but I’d jump her in a second.”
“True,” said Emily. “I don’t know that many people, male or female, that don’t want her.”
Wow! Brianna wasn’t gay, which meant that…well…I still didn’t know whether or not Linus was her boyfriend. I tried looking on the bright side, which was that there was an outside chance that Brianna was available and interested, because I’m always looking for people who are available and might be interested. Even when I was dating Jenny I never stopped, and any guy who tells you that he’s not scoping availability at any given time is a lying bastard; we always think that there’s something just a little bit better around the corner. I bet guys are the same at their golden wedding anniversary: glad they’ve stuck it out for that long, but damned if the neighbor’s sister isn’t cute and likes the same Jane Russell movies….
“So what do you do?” asked. Lame, but I couldn’t really think of anything else to say, and So, are you gay? is just a bit too transparent.
“I half-manage this coffee shop in Cambridge,” I said. It’s not the most impressive opener, but my guess was that Brianna would pick up on the ironic coolness of my job. I was right.
“I freelance,” she said.
“Writing, design?” I asked.
“No, I’m a lawyer,” she said. Minus one point.
“What kind?” I took another sip. This conversation was heading down a direction that I didn’t necessarily want it to go.
“Environmental law, social justice. I work as an outside council to a lot of the organizations that sue big corporations for dumping toxic waste everywhere. Sometimes I freelance for the corporations, too.”
Arghh. I had thought she had potential, but then she dropped this bomb on me. There are several dozen levels of evil, and lawyers tend to be at the top of my Hierarchy of Evil—how can you justify making most of your money off of the pain and tribulations of others? But this…Brianna must have somehow missed most of the idealism that those of us who came of age in the early ‘90s still have.
“I saw that look on your face,” she said with a smile. “You think I’m evil, right?”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Well, yeah. How do you sleep at night?”
“I was a serious activist in college and then I worked for a small grassroots network right out of law school. I did that for a year, living with four roommates in a two-bedroom place in Washington, eating nothing but organic macaroni and cheese every evening, and making about eighteen thousand dollars a year. I charge the companies through the nose to negotiate settlements, which are easy to get because I know all the filers, and the filers trust me. So I defend the big guys maybe two days a week, and do public-interest stuff with the rest of my time.
“Are you a good lawyer?”
“Good enough to get the lawsuits over quickly, so the environmental organizations who file them don’t go bankrupt from long trials. I convince the corporations that it’ll be in their best interest to settle, and it’s always in the best interest of the plaintiff to settle; everybody wins. I get to screw the man and help the little guy, and nobody’s the wiser.”
“Don’t you worry about getting caught?” I said.
She snorted. “The companies I work for are so big that they lose track of skyscrapers.
They’ll never catch me.”
“What about you?” she said. “How do you keep yourself alive?
“Coffee,” I said. She threw her head back, flipping her hair like a girl in a shampoo commercial, and laughed hard.
“Seriously,” I said. “I manage a coffeehouse over in Cambridge.”
“Cool!” she said. “Which one?”
“A Starbucks,” I said, testing. Her face fell—one point for Brianna.
“Just kidding,” I said with a grin. “It’s called Jon’s Place.”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I know it—between Harvard and Central Squares, right? Oh.”
Her face had fallen, taken a precipitous dive off of the happy cliff, to the land of Concerned Worry. She took a drink, looked down, stirred her drink again, then looked up.
“You guys are in trouble,” she said.
“You’re in trouble. You’re going to get bought out by Starbucks.”
I laughed right back at her. “No way,” I said. “Jon would never sell, and…”
She stopped me by putting her hand on my shoulder. Her eyes were wide.
“I’m really sorry, Pete. You seem like a nice guy and all, but you have to believe me on this one. Start looking for a new job. Even if your owner would never sell to save his own mother’s life, he’ll sell. They’ll start sending inspectors, lawyers, commissioners, everyone. You guys are going to be so rattled up with city fines that he’ll have to sell to cover his costs. You’ll close down, they’ll fire all of you, and if you’re lucky you’ll get rehired four months later after they finish remodeling everything. I just finished not doing some work for a guy who used to own a place down in Roxbury. They drove him out of business in three months.”
I took another drink, and noticed that my hands were shaking. I finished off the glass.
“We’re an institution,” I said. “There’s no way they’ll close us down.”
Brianna shook her head sadly.
“You can fight if you want,” she said. “But they always win.”