Jong-Fast: THE SOCIAL CLIMBER'S HANDBOOK
June 2, 2008
Dow closes down 134.50 points to 12,503.82S&P closes down 14.71 points to 1,395.67
Daisy Greenbaum looked over at her husband, Dick, master of the universe. He was wearing one of those white strips on the bridge of his nose. He had a black mask on his eyesthat read british airways across it. Tucked neatly in his mouth was a custom-made mouth guard so he didn’t grind his teeth, and looking at him across their California king-sized bed Daisy might have thought for a slip of a second (before she banished that thought away, like all her other vaguely communist urges) that this was a man on whom making money had taken its toll.
“I love you.”
Dick kept snoring.
“I love you.”
Through his mouth guard Dick Greenbaum squeezed out the words: “I have to be at work in approximately seven hours and twenty-two minutes and eleven seconds. Go to sleep.”
“I can’t sleep.”
Dick opened one eye, but only slightly. “Take something.”
“I said I love you.”
Dick sat up with a start. He took off his eye mask and opened his eyes. “We are about to be faced with the biggest economic crisis of our lifetime. Next month you may see breadlines, a true unemployment rate of 22.1 percent. Never mind. I need to go to bed.”
“You didn’t say anything when I told you that I . . .”
“Imagine a world with no credit, no lending, imagine a world where you go into the Prada store on Madison and there is nothing on the shelves, and don’t get me started on your precious Starbucks. Okay, now I need to be there in seven hours and twenty-one minutes”—he looked down at his expensive self-winding watch—“and thirty seconds, okay?”
In her infinite sadness, it seemed to Daisy Greenbaum that the loneliest time of the year on Manhattan’s Upper East Side was the week between when the private schools let out and the social families packed up their Denalis and headed for the beach. The third week of June was the demarcation line: once it was crossed over, all of the apartments on Park Avenue would be dark, except for the flicker of the occasional husband enjoying a quiet tryst with a secretary or a nubile young associate.
Daisy Greenbaum hated summer. And perhaps this could have been traced back to a lifetime of summers spent at Camp Shane (or, as she called it, Camp Shame), a “loving, accepting, nurturing weight- loss invitational,” which was known by people occupying the real world as “fatty camp.”
Or maybe it was her hatred of sand, of heat, of sun, of wearing less clothing, of shedding her cavernous sweaters and her enormous winter coat. And maybe the rest of the world tacitly agreed. Summer was a time of mourning, a time to muse on various losses (real and imagined), a time when different layers of rarefied folks plunged through different layers of loss, all narrated by the constant zombifying hum of giant air conditioners. Loss affected everyone in every section of every gentrified neighborhood—the bookish Upper West Siders mourned the loss of their shrinks in August, the Brooklyn hipsters mourned the loss of their parents’ ramshackle summer cottages on Fire island, the barely-getting-by working parents mourned the death of the school year. Yes, summer was the bleakest time of the year, and this summer was to be the last golden summer of the Dow at thirteen thousand.
Daisy was standing, feet on the cold white tile, in her gray linen pajamas (Daisy had seven identical pairs, all ironed by Nina, the long-suffering housekeeper, on Tuesdays, which was the day that Easton, the fancy twin, went riding in Manhasset and Avery, the funky twin, went to her acting class in the West Village). Daisy stared at herself in her enormous bathroom mirror. It was six a.m. and the sun was bright, or as bright as it could be, considering that she lived on the second floor. She squinted at herself. She didn’t look like all the other mummies of the yummy variety. She had white skin that had never seen the inside of a tanning booth (spray or otherwise). She had regular features (her grandmother had always complimented her on her nonethnic nose, and she knew what this meant), pretty and appropriately sized for her slightly equine face, which was just slightly too long to be beautiful. Every time she looked in the mirror she remembered that she had been what had seemed (to her at the time) grotesquely fat in her youth. As a result she had never considered herself a pretty girl; hence she had developed a somewhat charming personality.
Having a good personality had served her—she had married up (her husband had found her amusing), and she wasn’t fat anymore, though she wasn’t exactly thin; she was Banana Republic thin. Not truly thin, not thin like the other ladies on Park Avenue with their exposed vertebrae and their sharp, bony hips, but thin. Her Polish DNA, from her zaftig great-granny from the shtetl, would guarantee that she would never be Prada thin. But she didn’t really care, and besides, she was funny. Maybe not laugh-out-loud funny, but ironic. And she was smart. Maybe not Ivy League smart, but Brandeis smart, which was still smarter than 99.99 percent of the yummy mummies on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. And she was striking, with enormous blue eyes, which made her look like a model from the Eastern Bloc. A fat model from the Eastern Bloc.
She tweezed at a few stray chin hairs with her green metal twee?zers. Soon Dick and the girls would be up, shattering the exquisite silence of morning. Soon she’d be burning waffles, and fighting with the extremely expensive espresso machine, and spilling orange juice on the floor. But for that slip of a second she was the last woman on earth, alone in the silence, alone enough to think. Daisy Greenbaum’s brain was permanently awash in a sea of minutiae, constantly focused on trivialities, like who was the better dry cleaner and who made the best saddles. But Daisy had a secret, and it cut through the minutiae like a great white shark. Daisy knew what she was capable of. Daisy knew the animal that lurked inside of her, the one who could not be calmed by a million yoga lessons. She stared at her own eyes until the blue faded into itself, until her face faded into the mirror, until everything around her was smooth and blurry.
But there was trouble in the world of unfathomable wealth; Dick had passed down the edict—no more spending, no more car services, no Hampton house this summer, no more shopping, no more three-hundred-dollar dresses for the girls, no more trips to the Breakers, no more dinners at Per Se. Daisy looked back at her long face. She wasn’t one of those airheaded trophy wives. She knew that one of two things had happened—one was that Dick had fucked up something big in whatever it was he did (she wasn’t totally sure what he did, something with debt, something called credit default swaps), and the other was that what he had told her about the crumbling of the equities markets was actually true (but she couldn’t quite wrap her head around this story).
After all, it was June 2008 and Barneys was still packed with ladies vying to buy thousand-dollar-a-pair lizard-skin platforms, condos and co-ops were still flying off the shelves, waiting lists for various gotta-have-it accessories were still snaking around the block, the culture of scarcity and panic among the wealthy was still going strong (not enough preschool spots, not enough Hampton houses, not enough Mandarin-speaking nannies, oh my). But some small men in large offices who worked for monstrous investment banks saw the writing on the wall, and the writing was recession, depression, end-of-the-world bad. One of these men was Dick Greenbaum, Daisy’s small and vaguely simian husband.
Every night since March 14, when Morgan and the Fed had provided a twenty-eight-day emergency loan to Bear Stearns, he had suffered from some variation on the same nightmare. Somehow the collapse of Bear Stearns had made Dick realize that the whole system was intrinsically flawed. He wasn’t stupid and he had known the system was truly fucked for a long time, but he kept thinking the debt wouldn’t catch up with the bets. He thought it could keep going like this for years. But the crash of Bear was the death knell for the American economy. He saw it all very clearly. And in this clarity he realized his life was a house (or an apartment, as the case may be) of derivatives, and these derivatives (he was pretty sure) might well take down the American economy. And so suddenly he was panicked about the lack of derivatives regulation—where were the necessary derivatives clearinghouses? Who the hell was keeping track of all the little pieces of paper that were representing trillions of dollars of debt? It was as if one day Dick woke up and realized that bad math was going to eat up the entire world and that he somehow had to stop it.
The worst dream, the one that haunted him, the one that made him wonder what it was that he was doing on this earth, was this dream (it was a recurring dream but it always sort of went like this)—it started with him sitting there in his favorite brown pinstripe suit (the one that made him look five feet eight instead of five feet six, and tan instead of jaundiced) enjoying his strawberries and his champagne. Then a stewardess came out in her little blue frock. Usually in the dream it was one of two secretaries, neither of whom were in real life stewardesses: one was Maggie, the thick-calved Irish girl, but in some of the dreams it was Candice, the plucky-but-not-great-looking single mom. Everything would be going along just fine when all of a sudden there would be a popping sound, like someone making popcorn, and then the window next to him would pop open and then things would start getting sucked into the ether. Everything that was on the polished mahogany coffee table in front of him would go flying into the air. He would try to grab all these papers, all his careful, thoughtful documentation of his theorems. But it would be too late, the paper would melt through his hands and then he would wake up covered in sweat and gasping for breath. Sometimes Daisy would notice and volunteer a few semisoothing sentences (none of which really hit the right note with Dick), and sometimes she would pretend not to see him dripping in his own sweat, laboring to catch his breath.
Excerpted from The Social Climber's Handbook by Molly Jong-Fast. Copyright © 2011 by Molly Jong-Fast. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.