An unruly pile of spiral-bound notebooks, final exam schedules, and dried-up highlighters were scattered across my sky-blue comforter as I stared intently at the ad in the Village Voice
. A large, cartoonish picture of a mustached bartender enthusiastically shaking a martini smiled broadly back at me.
I was sitting in my cramped Columbia University dorm room in Hartley-Wallach Hall chasing that ethereal dream of finding an apartment south of 14th Street that was both spacious and cheap. But instead of finding the last rent-controlled one-bedroom on the tree-lined West Village sanctuary of Bank Street, I found Martini Mike.
For weeks prior, I'd been strolling around Columbia's Morningside Campus in a daze, transfixed by the frenzy of activity raging inside the Lerner Student Center. Every time I walked by the Career Services office, I saw professionally dressed seniors milling around, waiting to be interviewed by whatever top banking, law, or consulting firms happened to be recruiting that day. The firms themselves were easy to identify on account of the brightly colored banners strung outside the building: COLUMBIA WELCOME DELOITTE AND TOUCHE! COLUMBIA WELCOMES ACCENTURE! COLUMBIA WELCOMES WHITE & CASE! Whenever possible, instead of taking College Walk to travel to and from class, I'd take Broadway or Amsterdam and cut across 114th Street just to avoid the spectacle of eager job-seekers.
"Hey, Cass," Jocelyn Van Der Wal had called out to me only the day before as I hurried to my fiction thesis tutorial. One of the many willowy blond heiresses in my class, Jocelyn had been primed for a career in investment banking since birth. She had beauty, brains, ambition, and it didn't hurt that her father was the CEO of Lehman Brothers. "How are you?"
"I'm okay," I said, adjusting my heavy backpack. And then inevitably, "How are you?"
"Fabulous!" she bubbled. "Just finished my third-round interview with Lehman. I think it went well, but I don't know. I'm really nervous."
It was hard to sympathize with a girl waiting on pins and needles when her dad was the reigning monarch of the financial world.
My roommate Alexis, another investment banking prodigy, was at the moment in a final round of interviews at Morgan Stanley. I, on the other hand, was still in my pajamas at two o'clock in the afternoon on a beautiful spring day, eating Healthy Choice microwave popcorn and flipping dejectedly through the paper. I couldn't leave the security of my dorm room, afraid of the questions that lurked outside: "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" or "Have you found a job yet, Cassie?" I was graduating with a BA in creative writing with a concentration in comparative literature. That and a $2 MetroCard could get me on the subway.
Still, my friends and professors innocently laid their expectations on thick. They came at me from all sides.
"So have you decided yet?" Alexis had asked the previous Monday. She was staring at her reflection in the mirror, expertly applying Nars eyeshadow.
"When I figure it out, you'll be the first to know," I said testily.
"Well, I think you should take the job at Us Weekly
. Then we could get into all those parties and meet celebrities!" she suggested brightly.
I sat wearily on my lofted twin bed and yanked on the black, pointy-toed Coach boots that had cost me two weeks' salary at my work study job at the law library. I'd been agonizing for months over what to do after graduation. The only job I'd been offered, an editorial assistant position at Us Weekly
, paid a whopping $22,000 a year. Alexis had trouble getting her head around the fact that my parents, unlike hers, weren't able to supplement my income.
After summer internships at New York
magazine and Glamour
, there was one thing I did know for certain: I wasn't cut out for an "office" job in corporate America. The fluorescent lights and sterile air seemed to suck all the creativity right out of me. Plus, I knew that in any entry-level magazine position, 90 percent of the work I'd do would involve mindless tasks such as copy-editing two-hundred-word sidebars entitled "QUIZ: Are you stalking him? Ten questions to help you figure out if you're a Bunny Boiler." Though I desperately wanted a career as a writer, serving as a cog in Wenner Media's machine seemed like a Groundhog Day
-type nightmare where every day was eerily similar: wake up, brush teeth, grab green tea, ride subway to work, sit behind desk for eight to twelve hours, ride subway home, order take-out, collapse into bed. Repeat.
Expectations were running high in my family as well. My parents couldn't help but notice the stacks of dog-eared journals, diaries, and salt-and-pepper notebooks that lined my shelves, busting at the seams with my evolving insights and outlines for novels and plays, and they tried their best to support my fervor for writing. They attended all the plays I wrote and directed in high school, but never failed to remind me of the paltry wages and high probability of unemployment that came with the turf.
For their part, my parents weren't in any sort of financial position to help me out. Unlike many of my college friends who'd grown up "in the city" and attended tony private schools like Spence or Horace Mann, my family had no connection to the names Tisch, Rockefeller, Steinberg, Hearst, Trump, or Vanderbilt. I would be leaving school with approximately $40,000 in student loans, even though my parents had taken out a second mortgage to finance my education. The irony of it all was that my friends who needed money the least were the ones who were entering the highest-paying careers. Take Alexis--she had an untapped trust fund in the high seven figures, her parents still paid for her every bill and whim, and she was entering a field where year-end bonuses were enough to put a down payment on a five-bedroom home in Westchester County.
During junior year, I'd started writing screenplays, and had submitted one of my shorts to a contest at NYU, where--to my utter joy and amazement--it had been selected for production. It was a thirty-minute screenplay I'd scratched out spur-of-the-moment on the train home to Albany for Christmas break, about a demoralized hooker in Lower Manhattan. A few nights prior I'd been leaving a Christmas party thrown by Alexis's father's law firm at Capitale, a swanky nightclub housed in a 1930s bank building designed by Stanford White. Balancing on my borrowed D&G spiky heels and trying to hail a cab in the dark underworld of Grand Street and the Bowery, I noticed a young girl about my age saunter up Pretty Woman
-style in six-inch platforms with clear plastic heels to a black Lincoln Town Car that had pulled up to bid on her services for the evening. Fleetingly catching the unmistakable look of vulnerability in her eyes, I'd said a silent prayer that the presumably wealthy stockbroker in the backseat was a Richard Gere of sorts who would rescue her from the "oldest profession on earth." In my screenplay, the man in the Lincoln didn't turn out to be your stereotypical Wall Street prototype, but a best-selling novelist. Compelled by my heroine's plight, he takes her in and uses her as the inspiration for a Pulitzer Prize-winning epic based on her life story. My next mission was to develop the existing script feature-length version entitled Glass Slipper
. That, and to have Focus Films produce it (but I'd settle for Miramax--just so long as Harvey Weinstein didn't plug polished Gwyneth into the roll of my working-girl heroine).
So here I was, months later, on the eve of commencement, with only a few days left before my release into the real world, desperately in need of a savior of my own. I had no job that would support me, no money, and no trust fund that would activate upon graduation.
The raunchy ads for strippers, phone sex operators, and call girls splashed all over the back of the Voice practically devoured Martini Mike's ad, and if it wasn't for the strategically placed dollar signs scattered throughout the type, I might have missed it. I read it a second time, then a third, thinking I'd heard somewhere that Bruce Willis had been working as a bartender in New York when he'd been discovered by a high-powered agent. . . .
Graduation was on a Thursday, and on Wednesday night my mom and dad arrived in the city to take me out for a precommencement dinner. My mother had a habit of reading Zagat like most people read the newspaper, and after weeks of careful study, she'd decided we should dine at the Gotham Bar and Grill, an elegant restaurant in the Village.
"Are you sure?" I'd asked her when she told me she'd made the reservation. "It's pretty expensive."
"Of course I'm sure," she responded. "It's not every day your daughter graduates summa cum laude from one of the best universities in the country. We're so proud of you, Cassie." What was left unsaid was that my dad would likely have to work overtime at the Albany Fire Department and pick up extra shifts at Joe's Plumbing, where he moonlighted on his days off, just to pay for the appetizers.
"Do you have a reservation, miss?" asked the model-cum-hostess when I arrived.
"Yes, actually, but I'm early," I said, unconsciously straightening my shoulders in hopes of mimicking her ramrod-straight posture. "I'll just wait at the bar."
I carefully picked my way through the well-heeled crowd. "Rum and coke, please," I said to the gray-haired bartender, who was wearing a neatly pressed black tuxedo and mixing cocktails with the precision of a chemist.
For the first time in all my years as a bar patron, I took an interest in how everything was set up and watched him carefully. At the moment, he was mixing a frothy, fruity, multi-ingredient drink I couldn't identify, but overall, his job looked pretty easy. And as the Bacardi settled warmly in my stomach, my fears about the future dissolved--nothing like two ounces of hard liquor to make the specter of telling your parents that you were abandoning a corporate career path with benefits and a 401K in favor of slinging drinks a lot less daunting.
My stomach growled as waiters bustled past with steaming plates of grilled lobster tail and Kobe beef. I glanced at my watch--still ten minutes until my family was due to arrive. When the bartender turned his back to me, I reached across the bar and snuck a couple of cherries out of the fruit tray conveniently placed right in front of me.
"Times that tough?" asked a man who'd materialized on the bar stool next to me even though every other stool was vacant. As he reached into his pocket to retrieve his BlackBerry, the course tweed of his Paul Stuart blazer grazed my bare arm.
I smiled, mildly embarrassed.
"I bet Sam'll overlook it this time," he said with a wink, nodding toward the bartender.
"Yeah, but only because she's so pretty." Sam grinned at me. Then he shrugged. "It's not like they're a big commodity anyway. We only use them for manhattans and the occasional Shirley Temple." I took mental note of this bartending wisdom, and turned back to my rum and Coke.
"I'm Dan Finton," the man on the stool continued.
"Cassie Ellis," I said, accepting his outstretched hand.
As I took in the crisp white button-down shirt and argyle pullover vest, he reminded me of Indiana Jones's alter ego--the straightlaced college professor, with the smoldering good looks underneath. Take off that tweed blazer, and he could be perfectly capable of trekking through the desert and rescuing both the Holy Grail and the damsel in distress.
"Hey, Dan, wanna see a menu?" Sam asked.
Dan nodded imperiously, and Sam returned a moment later with a wineglass the size of a fishbowl and placed it in front of him along with an elaborate, leather-bound menu. He then presented him with a bottle of red wine (which, from the looks of the ornately scripted label, was really expensive) and opened it expertly. He poured a small amount of wine into the glass, and I watched out of the corner of my eye as Dan, in one motion, grabbed the glass, swirled its contents, then leaned forward to breathe in the aroma deeply. He took a small sip and seemed to chew it in his mouth for a few seconds.
"It's less tannic than the '97 Qupe Bien Nacido Reserve, and I like the warm chocolate overtones," he mused sybaritically. "Still, it's a touch too angular." Sam finished filling the glass as Dan studied the menu. I concentrated on my own drink and listened curiously to what he would select.
"I'll start with the fois gras, and then I'll have the rack of lamb--very rare," he said.
I'd never had fois gras before, but I vaguely remembered hearing it had something to do with geese and liver, and that was enough to deter me from ever trying it. And while I couldn't get enough of the burgers at Corner Bistro--a famous West Village dive with a line that frequently stretched out the door--I never could wrap my mind around eating lamb because, well, all I could picture was a furry little lamb frolicking happily in a field.
As I stirred the narrow red straw around in my rum and Coke, I caught Dan stealing glances at me and became strangely self-conscious. I sucked in my imagined beer gut, ran a hand through my long, dark hair, and again forcefully straightened my posture--shoulders back, chin up.
"So, Cassie, what do you do?" Dan asked, squaring his shoulders so he faced me directly.
"Actually, I'm a bartender," I said, trying on my new profession for size, and leaving out the fact that I still had to go to Martini Mike's and earn my certificate of mixology. Not to mention that, at this point, my drink-mixing skills were limited to a college repertoire of vodka tonics, Jack and Cokes, and the occasional screwdriver made with OJ procured from the corner deli. Throw in Jell-O shots, Milwaukee's Best (Beast), and that was just about the extent of my drinking knowledge. But Dan's ears perked up.
"I'm actually in the bar business as well," he said. "I own a bar downtown called Finton's--it's kind of an upscale Irish pub."
I shifted uncomfortably on my stool, certain that given his line of work he could sense I was lying. I buried my face in my glass and felt the blood rush upward and imbue my ears with a dark purple hue.
"You should come down and check the place out sometime," he volunteered.
"Um, okay," I said, as he proffered his business card.
"I'm actually looking to fill a couple of bartending positions," he went on thoughtfully, raising an eyebrow. "If you ever need a job, give me a call."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Perfect Manhattan by Leanne Shear and Tracey Toomey. Copyright © 2005 by Leanne Shear. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.