I promised to write about resentment, greed, lust, and mayhem when I got to New York. Who did I promise? Not my readers, because I don't have any yet. I promised myself and the shadows of literary agents and book doctors and editors who have told me over the years that I write nicely, but who wants nice? No more Ms. Nice Guy.
Mayhem and lust will have to wait, but I can write about resentment and greed right now. I am fighting my way through a snowstorm at three o'clock on a Friday afternoon. I'm a freelance court reporter on my way to a deposition in a courthouse near City Hall. Not Superior Court. Oh, no. Nothing that dignified. It's a crummy little case in a crummy building, and I am stumbling my way toward it through the first serious snowfall of the season.
I'm lost because I've just moved to New York. I got off at the wrong subway station and now I'm facing into the white, swirling wind, pulling my stenotype machine in its rolling case behind me with one hand and carrying my laptop with the other. I picture my grandparents and great-grandparents heading out in a Kansas blizzard to round up the cattle. I'm made of stern stuff. Good stock. I can plow through this storm.
I slip and fall in the gutter. Never mind my coat, even my skin and bones. Get that computer out of the drift. And hurry. The job begins at 3:00. I still have to find the building, and then the room.
What freelance reporter wants a job on a Friday afternoon in a snowstorm? None that I know.
Why was I assigned this job?
Because I'm new. They barely know I'm here. Correction. They know I'm here for the half-hour jobs on the Lower East Side on a Friday afternoon in a snowstorm. They don't know I'm here for the day-long jobs in midtown near the office where I could pick up my steno machine and languidly cross Madison Avenue to rise swiftly and silently in a carpeted elevator whose walls are inlaid with thin plates of marble quarried in Italy and be ushered into a luxurious conference room with a view of Central Park while I help myself to coffee, tea, and bagels, and where paralegals politely inquire if I need business cards, legal caption, more croissants.
No. I'm slogging through a white-out toward a building whose precise location I may not know but whose decor I can already predict.
Sure enough. When I do finally enter the lobby I think I'm in a bus station. Over in the corner is a depressing food counter tended by a man who looks like he belongs in the jail which most probably is very near here. I search for something to make me really miserable. Something cold. The ice-cream case has a sign: Do not eat. All right. I won't eat the case. But what about the ice cream inside? The prisoner tells me the refrigeration unit is broken and that poisonous liquid is right now leaking out all over the Eskimo pies. I thank him and head for the nasty elevators which have no carpeting or Italian marble.
The attorney looks shabby. The conference room has a copier where sluggish staff members shuffle in and out to run off the copies they haven't done the first four days of the week. I can barely hear the witness, who has emphysema. In spite of her bad health, she's a feisty little lady fighting eviction by, I presume, a mean and greedy landlord whom she maligns between spirited squirts of her inhaler.
Notice how comfortably I slip into the "hate the landlord" mode. See? I can write about evil. I promised not to write nicely about nice things, and here, just when I need him, is a greedy villain. Even though I've just moved to New York, I'm familiar with the scenario. The witness has lived in her rent-controlled apartment for fifty years. She pays $400 a month for a space that could fetch $2500 on the open market. The landlord wants to get rid of her. This being America, he can't just throw her out. So he sues her for breaking the rules. He says she lives somewhere else, most of the year.
It turns out the lady does own a house on Long Island. (These unexpected twists explain why I never get tired of court reporting.) First the landlord's attorney persuades me that the house is an expensive, year-around home. Then the witness convinces me it's a shack. Furthermore she says she was in the hospital three times last year so why would she live in an unheated dump far from her beloved Manhattan apartment? As proof, she is struck with a coughing fit and has to grab for the red plastic inhaler that rests prominently in the center of the table.
Later, outside, I see her light up a cigarette.
How can I write about greed when I'm not quite sure who is greedy and who is not?
© Marlene Lee
Marlene is a writer in New York City who subsidizes her habit by working as a court reporter. She has written several novels and is currently working on another. She is an optimist.
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