There is something about Tribeca at five a.m. that is preternaturally romantic, Jeannie thought as she made a left onto Warren from Broadway, the ca-thunk of her Frye boots on the broken sidewalk echoing in the ethereal quiet, her fringed suede jacket protecting her against the cool morning air. An ellipse of lavender light sat like a halo over the city, the heavens above it cobalt blue. The streets were almost empty, hushed, except for a lone taxi and a van double-parked up the block. In less than an hour the morning rush would descend, but until then, this city of millions was at peace, dreamy and mysterious. And it was all hers. The cobblestone streets, the narrow alleys, the tree-lined squares, and the red brick buildings made her imagine ardent young lovers in their beds, made her aware of her own heart, full of possibility and desire.
She took this walk, rain or shine, five days a week, through the streets she loved. Only blocks from Ground Zero, this part of town was complex: historically rich, seedy, and chic, with ninety-nine-cent stores, designer furnishings, and trendy restaurants sharing a sidewalk. Its tragic, horrific past united the community, making it feel like a village, separate and apart from the rest of the city.
By the time Jeannie reached the corner of Hudson and Franklin, the pre-workday hubbub was under way. She waved to Bill, who was unlocking the hefty padlock on the security gate at Ideal Dry Cleaners; to Tranh, who was sweeping the doorway at Jin Market; to her buddy Jonas at the counter of Socrates Coffee Shop. She bid a "Good morning!" to Esther, the tranny who religiously walked her two miniature white poodles, Marilyn and Marlene, up and down North Moore every morning at the same hour. She gave a buck to Stuart, the homeless guy who lived in the alley off Beach. These were the things she did every morning, the things that made this huge city feel like a quaint small town to her.
After her show, the long walk felt necessary, restorative. Tonight was a case in point. All those callers, all those complaints about all those idiots who behaved as if they never had a mother to teach them anything. And she certainly knew, as well as anybody, the effect of having a mother and then not having a mother. You have someone monitoring your deeds and then you don't, and you're on your own.
But something was going on in this beloved town of hers. Even with the crime rate down, rudeness was at an all-time high. Tonight she'd heard just a few examples: the woman getting a manicure who asked a young woman to lower the volume on her iPod-and then she was unjustly asked to leave the salon; the man who wouldn't give a pregnant lady his seat on the bus because it was her choice to get pregnant, and not his responsibility; the woman at the gym on the elliptical who'd cover her timer with a towel and repeatedly set it to zero, hoping nobody noticed that she'd far exceeded her thirty-minute limit; the guy talking on his cell phone while at the urinal in the office bathroom.
It was as if, like in those cartoons she saw as a kid, every person had a little angel whispering in one ear and a mini devil in the other, vying for control: be good, be bad, do right, do wrong, be considerate, be selfish, throw the wrapper in the garbage, just throw it in the street.
Someday, somehow, she swore to herself, she was going to devise a method to help the people with louder devils. Somewhere, someplace, her faith in the potential goodness of people, even when they're caught with their dick in one hand and their cell phone in the other, would be transforming.
A girl can dream, Jeannie thought as she entered her apartment building.
"Morning, Tony." She smiled at her night doorman, who had rushed from his perch at the desk to open the door. He had been sorting newspapers, getting ready to pass the baton to the morning guy. She could hear the radio that sat on the desk.
"Morning, Miss Sterling. Good show last night. Can't believe those people."
"You're telling me," she said, rolling her eyes.
He looked up at the sky. "But it's going to be some kind of day, isn't it?"
That was an understatement.
There's No Place Like Home
In her apartment, after throwing her bag on the kitchen counter, her keys too, Jeannie got herself a bottle of water from the fridge and sat at her dining-room table with the morning paper. This table was where she did her best thinking, sitting on the rigid old chair that was at the right of the table's head, where she could look out the windows at the Hudson River and beyond.
This view-the river before her, the endless sky, even that strange land called New Jersey way over there-was the reason she lived in this apartment. As far west as Manhattan would allow, as high as the building's limits, with walls of glass on three sides, Jeannie lived above and apart from the world below. It had cost her a minor fortune to buy this place, and thanks to her success at WBUZ she could afford it. But it had cost her in other ways too. It had become her refuge, her hideout, an excuse to stay inside. Once she was home, she sometimes had to force herself to go back out into the world.
After hours of dealing with the ethically challenged, with her crazy upside-down, inside-out lifestyle that usually included dinner twice a day-once in the morning when she got home from work, and once in the evening before she went to work-she relied on TiVo for her entertainment, which consisted of Law and Order, Law and Order, and Law and Order. She had to admit she enjoyed Regis and Kelly, except when Kelly wasn't on, and she never missed Ellen De- Generes, believing that if there were any justice in the world, she would someday host The Tonight Show. This life of leftovers and TiVo and talk shows was the plight of the girl who works the night shift.
Not that her apartment was any more perfect than the world below. Her building was a knockoff of the Meier glass towers a few blocks uptown with their multimillion-dollar apartments. And like other designer knockoffs, this building looked like the original, until, upon closer inspection, you found its fabric flimsy, its stitching frayed at the edges. During storms, wind and water would seep in through the crevices of the metal beams that held the window panels in place. Then the bleached wood floors would stain, the corners of the ceilings would drip, and this so-called magnificent ode to modernism would become nothing more than any other shoddy postwar construction that plagued the city. And Jeannie would sit on her sofa wrapped in her favorite blue mohair throw, trying desperately to find protection against the storm outside.
Living the life transparent had other problems. The light that spilled in enlivened Jeannie's spirit, but she slept during the day, a detail she'd forgotten in her excitement when she first saw the apartment and made an offer right on the spot. So she had to work hard to keep the light out. It seemed a crime to shade the windows, so she wore a horribly froufrou, lavender silk ruffle-edged eye mask when she slept. And when that wasn't enough-on those glorious blue-skied New York City days when the sunlight's reflection bounced from one window to another and another, all the way from New Jersey and back, she would put up a temporary curtain, actually a thick wool blanket held in place by two small nails, making her chic modern apartment look a lot like the disheveled house she grew up in.
Not to mention that she couldn't just walk around naked. She got up from the table and made her way down the hall to her bedroom to strip from her jeans and sweater and put on her yoga pants and tank. She was on the seventeenth floor, so she couldn't be seen from the street below, and to the west was the river, but to the north and to the south were two other buildings with walls of glass just like hers. She didn't mind her neighbor to the north, another thirty-something woman who worked days like a normal person, but the one to the south was a potbellied movie or music guy, which she knew from his balding head and ponytail, as well as the bashes he threw that were sometimes still going on when Jeannie got home in the morning. Who knew that trying to live an open, sunlit, elegant lifestyle would be so fraught with concerns.
She was hungry and not ready for sleep, so she went to the fridge and got last Friday's leftovers from Gigino. It was only Tuesday, so they still had to be good. She opened the cardboard top, which had become soft and wet, stained red with tomato sauce, and stuck her nose close to the meatball. Not bad. She poured it into a bowl and heated it in the microwave.
Now, sitting high above the city of her dreams, the buzz of the TV in her ears, eating a reheated four-day-old meatball, she couldn't bullshit herself that her life was perfect. But she did have her priorities straight. She was as comfortable as she could be, given her upbringing, with her success. It wasn't NPR, but AM radio had its good points, like listeners and a steady paycheck. She lived well but not extravagantly, she donated a good portion of her income to those less fortunate than she, and on some days she even allowed herself to enjoy her most recent splurge, a Marc Jacobs bag.
And she was in it for all the right reasons. She truly believed the world would be a better place if people weren't so rude, if they'd say "excuse me" when they bumped into you, or stop talking in the movies, or stop spitting in public, or refrain from unwrapping candy in the theater. And she dreamed of that glorious day when people would turn down the volume on their iPods so that you couldn't hear them even when standing twenty feet away. On a noisy street corner. With a fire truck's siren blaring.
She was committed to making the world a more livable place, one annoying person at a time.
But love eluded her, and her longing was overwhelming. She had had her relationships, her affairs, her flings, her dates and one-night stands. She'd been pursued, propositioned, and proposed to, but not once had she really been in love. She couldn't help but wonder if it was her own failing. Perhaps it was her upbringing. Though she couldn't pinpoint a moment when her mother had said anything specific, maybe she'd learned through osmosis, the silent legacy of the heart, what her mother felt-that love was a fallacy, that it simply didn't exist. Or how her father saw it-that love is overrated and that there's more to life, like having fun. Perhaps it was simply a matter of luck, or the lack of it.
Something happened to her when she observed couples laughing, touching, whispering intimately into each other's ears, their breath hot in each other's hair. Just last week at the black-tie fund-raiser for the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, she had been wearing her Stella McCartney dress and her Jimmy Choo stilettos and feeling great in general, though her feet hurt like hell. She was at a table with a bunch of media types: a couple of dowdy female book editors from Random House, a self-important political blogger for The Huffington Post, and the funny, flamboyant editor of Elle Decor. There was also an older couple representing the foundation. Both doctors, the woman lovely, her white hair short, her diamond earrings flashing under the lights; the man bald, with a warm, open face. Something he said made his wife laugh and she threw back her head, fully enjoying the moment, her husband looking at her, laughing with her. Then, completely unconsciously, he raised his hand and took a speck of something from her hair. Not a word was exchanged. But with this one gesture, Jeannie became acutely aware of what she was missing.
Her disappointment was like realizing a flashing light in a glorious night sky is not a comet nor a shooting star but just a jet bringing people from Topeka. Somewhere a comet was careening through a universe, but not Jeannie's.
She got up and put her plate in the sink and the empty bottle of water in the recycle bin, and got ready for sleep. In her bedroom the light was streaming in, so she got up on her desk chair and covered the window with the throw that had been on the chair, hanging it from the nails above the window that remained there for this very purpose. She climbed under her covers, placed the lavender mask over her eyes, and fell asleep with thoughts of installing a blackout shade and what to do about people who litter and whether she'd ever meet a man who would gently, lovingly, remove a foreign object from her hair.
S T E R L I N G B E H A V I O R
LUCE: Quiet, people. Ten seconds. Stand by. Five seconds. Three, two, one. And we're live.
JEANNIE: Good evening, fellow insomniacs! You're tuned to Sterling Behavior on WBUZ, 660 on your AM dial, the number-one latelate- night talk show in the tri-state area and home of yours truly, Jeannie Sterling. Tonight I have an important issue on my mind. One that leads people to irrational behavior, and even to . . . violence. And that explosive issue is . . . bad driving. My question to you, dear listeners, is this: are bad drivers bad drivers because of their sense of entitlement, or are they just bad drivers? We're going to a commercial break but don't go away or to sleep. We've got some wrongs to right and we'll be right back.
Better Late Than Never
"What happened? You cut it way too close tonight," said Luce, as she handed Jeannie a bottle of water.
Jeannie was still trying to catch her breath, having just made it to the studio about three minutes before her show was to air. She took a swig of the water, propped the bottle next to her mike, and pulled her long, wildly uncontrollable hair into a ponytail so it wouldn't get caught in the headphones, as it did so frequently.
"This guy, you wouldn't believe-"
Luce rolled her eyes and smiled. "Why do I have the feeling we're about to hear all about it?" With her index finger, she pointed to the mike, nodded, and said, "Three, two, one, and we're back."
S T E R L I N G B E H A V I O R
JEANNIE: You will not believe what happened to me tonight. It's about ten thirty and there I am, standing at the corner of Hudson and Beach, trying to hail a taxi. It's almost pitch black, the moon hidden by clouds, barely a streetlamp, and I'm all alone.
LUCE: I love that area, where you live. All those old factories converted into apartments, all those super-cool bars and shops. Too hip for me.
JEANNIE: Everything west of Park and south of Sixty-sixth is too hip for you. Now where was I?
LUCE: You were setting the scene. It's late, it's dark, you're alone-
JEANNIE: Yeah, okay, so there I am, waiting and waiting on a dark corner for a cab to take me to my show here at WBUZ Radio near City Hall-where are all the cabs anyway? As a cabbie once said, "We're just like cops: you can never find one when you need one." So I've been waiting for maybe ten minutes now, and I have to be at the station by eleven thirty at the absolute latest to prepare for my one-to-four-a.m. gig talking to you, my loyal listeners, and I'm getting nervous and swearing to myself to make them pay for a car service. Don't you think that a girl who works the night shift-you listening, Harry?-deserves to be picked up so she's not standing alone on a dangerous corner in New York City?
LUCE: Yeah, Harry. And the same goes for her producer-slashsidekick.
JEANNIE: But back to the dark and dangerous street. All of a sudden I see what looks like a tank coming right at me. The noise, the speed, it scares the you-know-what out of me, and it's barreling down the street, splashing water out of the puddles left over from yesterday's shower-fallout from Hurricane Igor, which blasted the Caribbean last week. By the way, thousands of you devoted listeners donated food and clothing for those people whose lives were left in rubble. Now that's Sterling Behavior.
So now I see it's a Hummer, a military vehicle for god's sake, so huge, where you sit so high you can probably see Baghdad from its front seat, a car that should not be on the road-it's so big and gets maybe nine miles per gallon, and it's storming up the street with the speed and force of an entire army. The driver, naturally, is talking on his cell phone. While driving. Not only is that against the law in the state of New York, which is reason enough not to do it, it's also distracting and dangerous and wrong. I swear, someday I'm going to give out tickets for social infractions.
LUCE: You didn't do anything foolish, did you?
JEANNIE: Well, I have to confess, even yours truly makes mistakes.
LUCE: Uh-oh. What did you-
JEANNIE: What did I do, you ask? Something very mature and productive.
Turkey in a Hummer
"You turkey!" Jeannie yelled. "Shame on you!" Now that really got him, she thought, wanting to smack herself. What a self-righteous, idiotic thing for her to have done. But she just couldn't help it. At least she didn't call him a pig, her word of preference when it came to rude drivers like those who cut off pedestrians in crosswalks. Why couldn't New York adopt some of the principles of California? There the pedestrian is always given the right of way. This was just one of the ways New York differed from her home state, that and-oh, about everything else.
But when the Hummer screeched to a stop, "Oh no," was all Jeannie could say. It was dark and it was late and she was alone, and she knew from experience that trying to talk to people like this was futile and sometimes dangerous. It was one thing to talk from the secure world of the radio studio. Hell, there she could say anything she wanted. But the real world is a scary place.
The door flung open and the man stuck his head out, looking back at Jeannie.
Oh my god, he's gorgeous.
"All I really want to dooooo-ooo-ooo," he sang, loudly and badly, "is, baby, be friends with you."
And he's a moron. Though he gets one point for choosing Dylan to bastardize.
And then, as he got out of his car-if one could call it that-he spoke into his cell phone. "Marshall, I've just been called a turkey. Yeah! Right here on the street. A woman." She couldn't help but notice him look her up and down. "Not bad." And he paused again. "No, it's not Thanksgiving. No, I am not wearing a feather boa." He then closed his phone and put it in his pocket. "Did you call me a turkey?"
Oh shit, Jeannie thought to herself, her chest contracting, making her an inch shorter, which was nothing in comparison to how small she felt for acting like a baby. She watched him coming toward her. Look at this guy. Look at how he walks, she thought. Slowly, knowing exactly where he's going, knowing you'd wait forever, if you had to, until he got there.
She felt a familiar internal argument coming on. On one hand, she couldn't stand men like this. They were arrogant and ignorant and lacked good values, and their ethics were up their asses. Not only did he drive this gigantic tank, he was probably some stockbroker who insider-traded his way into parties in the Hamptons. On the other hand, she wanted men like this to think she was hot. And smart. But they made her long legs seem not long enough, her hair too wild, and her smile too broad. She could never live up to their standard of beauty, of femininity. A man like this would never appreciate her. And on the other hand- though of course, there was no other hand-she fantasized about meeting a man like this who was everything: brilliant and compassionate, as well as exciting, sexy, powerful, and masculine. Why couldn't she meet a man like that? Hell, besides the fact that he probably didn't exist, she couldn't meet men at all. How long had it been since she'd even gone out on a date with potential boyfriend material? Here she was, living in the most exciting city in the world, with a good job, an apartment to covet, and her college loans paid off, but she couldn't meet someone wonderful.
Of course, working the night shift didn't help. Who has time? Who else eats dinner at six a.m.? Who else sleeps from eight a.m. to two p.m. like a vampire and then walks around like a zombie? Only other vampires and zombies, and they seemed monstrous to her.
She looked up at the sky and noticed how the moon was finding its way through the clouds, streaking those surrounding it with a silver whitewash. And she looked again at the man coming her way, then at the black streets sleek and glassy with water. And she felt that old familiar tug of contradiction, of feeling insecure and yet powerful, of wanting to be loved for her mind, but desired as a sex object. How could one moment on a corner with a stranger raise in her a bucketful of doubts, as if it were pulled from a deep well forty feet below?
As he got closer, Jeannie told herself to stay focused. Don't look him in the eyes, don't let those shoulders, that hair, his legs, distract you. Don't be shallow, for god's sake! See the whole person for who he really is, see his values, see his priorities, and not just someone you'd love to take home and make love to all night. But that was exactly where her head went. To getting to her apartment door, him pushing her in, slamming the door shut, her taking off his jacket, his hands first on her face, pulling it toward him, now on her breasts, hers on his belt, his lips on her neck, on her lips, his tongue deep in her mouth as he pushed her against the wall, lifting her up, her legs wrapping around him, the wall as her buttress, pulling him tight against her, his hand pulling aside her panties, hers on his chest, his broad back, his ass, and then him inside her. Oh my god.
Nobody said being ethical was easy. But nobody said being ethical meant you couldn't have a vivid imagination.
S T E R L I N G B E H A V I O R
LUCE: You're kidding. Turkey?
JEANNIE: Ugly but true.
LUCE: The only time I've heard you use that word is when you're ordering it on a roll with mustard.
JEANNIE: Yeah, I know, but . . .
LUCE: So why not something a little edgier? Like-
JEANNIE: Numbnuts? Your bad word of preference? I was trying to be nice! It's a word from my childhood.
LUCE: Well, at least you said something. As you always say-
JEANNIE: Personal responsibility can change the world? But there's being responsible and being an idiot.
LUCE: Speaking of which, can we get back to the guy in the Hummer?
JEANNIE: Okay, so where was I?
LUCE: You had just called the Hummer driver a turkey.
JEANNIE: So the door opens and out steps a man in a tux. The tie's loose, unfolded and hanging around his neck, his hair in his eyes, his eyes dark and shiny and deep. Mmmmm. He is, and I say this to make a point, to-die-for handsome. He resembles Cary Grant because of the tux, and Hugh Grant because he's caddishly adorable, and General Grant because of his Hummer. And I know I'm in trouble. I mean, he's yummy, except for the General Grant part.
And even though he is definitely middle aged, he is a turkey who could ruffle my feathers any day. Or cook my goose. Or lay my egg. You know what I mean.
But here's something we women all know that cannot be reiterated too often: men have the capacity to be both cute and jerks. We must resist temptation and keep our eye on the ethical ball, so to speak. Look, here's a guy who drives an environmentally irresponsible car; he's just come from a party, so it is possible he's driving it under the influence (and you know, loyal listeners, how I feel about drunk drivers: lock 'em up and throw away the key); he drives while talking on his cell phone; and he has no respect for women. So what happens next? We'll find out right after this commercial break. And then I want to hear from you. I'll be taking calls, right, Luce?
LUCE: At 777-246-3800. You're listening to Sterling Behavior on WBUZ, 660 on your AM dial, home of Jeannie Sterling, ethical avenger. Don't go away or to sleep. Not yet. We've got some wrongs to right and we'll be right back.
Late Night Talking
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Atria
- ISBN-10: 0743288246
- ISBN-13: 9780743288248