Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Playing the Angles

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Playing the Angles

Article excerpt

My cousin Barry Vishniak's heyday in New York was the eighties. He was at home with the filth and corruption, high prices, dirty subway cars, and unlimited girls girls girls on 42nd Street. Back then, Ed Koch was mayor, Reagan was in the White House, and the high percentage of mental patients babbling and screaming on Manhattan streets made Barry feel saner, more secure. By the time I got there, New York was Giuliani-ized, Disney-fled. The Upper West Side, where Barry once lived, had become no different from Scarsdale. "That's why I moved to Jersey City," he told me as we walked up Broadway one warm afternoon in March, 1997. "I can't take how clean everything is anymore, and the smugness. The fuckin' YUPPIE smugness." He opened the door to Zabar's, and a rush of people spilled out the door, as if they'd been trapped in there for days. Barry wanted to whet his appetite, to inhale a little nova lox and sample fifteen different kinds of olives.

"Remember that night, back in '82?" he asked me, referring to when I'd come to New York as a teenager to interview at Barnard and he took me out for my first ever sushi dinner. I assured him I did, for he had, just as he was doing now, insisted on walking into Zabar's beforehand, to work up an appetite, the way two Irishmen might start their evening at the local pub. As he wandered up and down the aisles, pushing and shoving his way from cheese to candy to fish, I thought about that night and the bet he'd insisted on making with me: whoever ate and drank the most got twenty dollars. Not exactly fair, as I'd never had saki before, or much alcohol at all for that matter. At one point, I got up to go to the ladies' room and walked into a brick wall. Within moments a big welt formed on my forehead. In the cab on the way back to his apartment, I had to puke into Barry's ski cap.

"You still owe me twenty bucks from that night," he said. "I won fair and square."

"I overslept and missed my interview," I reminded him. "I almost didn't get into college because of you. Not to mention all the coke you were snorting beforehand gave you an unfair advantage." The coke part had only dawned on me years later. Back then, age seventeen, I thought he was just very energetic and prone to colds.

He shrugged. "A bet's a bet, kiddo," he said, as we exited the deli. "Everyone in New York learns to play the angles eventually. Except the suckers and the tourists."

"Uhuh," I said.

"So what are you up to tonight?"

It occurred to me that he might be expecting an invitation to dinner-I was on my way to meet some coworkers in Soho-but something stopped me from asking. I was no longer seventeen. Back then, it had been enough to me that he lived in Manhattan, slept two hours a night, and spent money like it was not his own, which was more or less the truth-he was a stockbroker. He had no boss or budget-two words which ruled our parents' lives-and all I wanted then was to be just that free. On my rare visits, I trailed after him from club to cab to restaurant, studying his tastes, hanging on his every word and gesture.

Those days felt long gone. Barry, once trim and dark-complected, with the charisma that came from tremendous drive and unlimited uppers, was now a short, balding man with an enormous belly, smelly cigars, tattered shirts, and a still unnamed profession. There was a slightly wild look in his eye, deep pouches of exhaustion on his face, a constant sniffle. I had only been at Hoffman and Hoffman a few months and was, at that moment, going to meet the other publicists in my department. People in Armani suits who drank Cosmopolitans and carried their Dunhills in small silver cigarette cases. How would they react to an evening with cousin Barry? Not well, I suspected.

On the other hand, Barry had just hooked me up with Jack Fingerhut, the real estate king, who, for a mere $2800 above first month's and security, had gotten me a rent-stabilized studio. …

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