Greg, my best friend from law school, was throwing a holiday party slash housewarming in his newly purchased East Village condo. We had gone to Princeton together too, as undergraduates, but had never crossed paths until our 1L year at Columbia.
A choir of conversation poured out into the hallway as Greg opened his front door, yelling his greeting over the friendly din. He took the bottle of wine from my hand without looking at it, as he led me through his foyer, down the hallway, past two bedrooms, and into the living room. Twelve-foot high floor-to-ceiling windows surrounded the elegantly lit space, providing a panoramic view of the entire city south of 14th Street. Greg handed me a glass of scotch, from where I wasn’t sure.
“Your favorite,” he said with a wink and smile before turning to tend to his other guests. He had always been the consummate social butterfly.
Most of Greg’s guests were from the hedge fund where he was working. He had eschewed the law for a more lucrative career in finance. His guests were friendly enough, but the blanket of shared experience that bound them together as a social unit was too strong for a stranger like me to pierce. Every time I made any conversational headway, it was quickly crippled by an inside joke or reference. In any case, I was content drinking by myself and enjoying the view. It was a familiar feeling. I felt like a ten-year-old again, wandering aimlessly around my own house that was full of handsomely-dressed strangers, my father’s friends, attracting brief moments of their attention and feigned adoration before having to find ways to entertain myself.
I was on my third or fourth glass of scotch and was convinced that Greg had replaced his bottle of 18-year-old Macallan’s with J&B, “The World’s Party Whiskey.” Cheap bastard.
I felt lightheaded and the room was beginning to spin. The banter of the fifty-plus guests began to converge into a singular mass of deafening white noise.
“I was having lunch at Gramercy Tavern today, and you won’t believe who I saw there.”
“Yea, I just got back from Bali a few days ago. It was fun for, like, five seconds, but I don’t think I could’ve handled another day on the beach.”
“Did you see Amy’s new Prorsum trench? I’m so jealous, my regular Burberry one looks so pedestrian in comparison.”
I was beginning to sweat. It felt as if the flame from the pit fireplace was licking at my skin. My sport coat began to feel oppressive. I slid open Greg’s balcony door and stepped out into the cold February air. It was refreshing for a change. The balcony was enormous, obscenely so. Roughly the size of my studio apartment in Queens. And the view of the urban cosmos, beautiful from inside Greg’s condo, was breathtaking from his unlit balcony. Each star, each illuminated window, represented at least one human life.
“Do you realize we are staring, quite literally, from our ivory tower at two monuments of poverty.” I turned to where the voice was originating on my left, not realizing that I wasn’t alone. He was leaning against the glass railing facing the east side, his back to me. I followed his gaze towards two towering housing projects several blocks away, deep in Alphabet City.
“Well, literally, this is a tower of glass and steel.” I replied drunkenly.
The voice turned suddenly, “I’m sorry, I thought Greg was still standing there.”
“Luke,” I stuck out my hand in introduction.
“Yes, Greg’s friend from law school, right? We’ve met a few times. I’m Albert. I work at the fund with him.”
“Oh, geez man, I’m sorry. He has so many friends, I have trouble keeping track.”
“It’s fine, he is quite social.” Albert gave a smirk before continuing, “Your father’s a partner at Monroe & Greeley, right? Richard Adelman? He’s pretty famous in finance circles. Are you at the firm with him?”
“Legal Aid actually,” I replied.
“It’s not so bad.”
“No, no, that’s not what I meant,” Albert said quickly, “I really admire the work that Legal Aid does.”
I chuckled, “I’m just giving you a hard time.”
“I think you may be the only person here not in finance though. Aren’t you supposed to hate people like us?” He smirked again.
“Nah, my father always told me, ‘We live in a city of kings, built by kings.’ If it wasn’t for finance, this city wouldn’t exist.”
“You sound skeptical,” he said. “And what about them?” He turned his head towards the housing projects. “Isn’t this their city too?”
For a moment, I thought I recognized the tone in Albert’s voice. That of doubt and uncertainty.
We stood next to each other, staring over the balcony’s edge. From eighteen floors up, the honking horns and police sirens and all the auditory debris of the city sounded like nothing more than a distant backdrop to Greg’s soiree, another accessory for his condo.
For a little while, that was the only noise on the balcony before Albert continued, “Why Legal Aid? With your dad’s reputation, you were probably guaranteed an Associate position with Monroe & Greeley. And Greg said you were one of the smartest students at Columbia.”
I’d been asked that question many times before. “I don’t know,” I said, “I guess I was just sick of feeling like a visitor in my own home.”
The lights in the housing projects were flickering off. It was getting late. I decided that it was time to leave.
Written by: Sam Chow
Photograph by: Jane Silvia Park