My people, Your people

journalism

THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – May 5, 1999

My People, Your People

Being the boss in fin-de-siècle Manhattan.

MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE that happens every day, and children
aside, George Mactier loves coming to work, the arrival and the settling
in, the wakeful, hopeful testingone- two-three-four sameness of that first
hour. He all but marches through the reception area and down the corridor
that bisects the open space, his hair still wet, his eleven-year-old Armani
overcoat unbuttoned and flapping, and makes the ritual, heartfelt exchanges
of hellos with Daisy the receptionist, with the story editors Paul and Phoebe,
with Jerry the line producer, with the odd writer or production designer,
with Iris Randall, his assistant. He likes seeing Iris make the fresh pots
of freshly ground, freshly roasted coffee, and his “in” baskets
filling tidily with fresh Nielsen packets, fresh Daily Varietys and Hollywood
Reporters, fresh network memos, fresh drafts of scripts. He gets a little
high on the sense of readiness, even if that readiness is almost always also
the imminence of frenzy, of third-act “NARCS” scenes that weren’t
ever fresh and aren’t working now, of MBC executives quibbling knowingly
and meaninglessly about “beats” and “arcs” and “laying
pipe” in scripts that they haven’t read, of sulky guest stars,
incremental ticks in the ratings, negotiations with the network standards-and-practices
woman (she didn’t want a character’s sevenyear- old to call him
a “bunghole,” and she didn’t want the star to refer to
Pat Robertson as a “born-again Nazi”), of leased camera cranes
that won’t swivel or a fake-bullet squib that burns an actor. The beginning
of the workday, from the moment he steps into the lobby until the 10 A.M.
phone call with Emily Kalman, his Los Angeles partner, is a consistently
fine, bright swath of life: organized, purposeful, optimistic. George takes
pleasure in the anticipation of familiar problems. All problems are either
soluble, in which case he promptly solves them, or insoluble, which is rare,
and these he ignores.

Ever since “NARCS” went on the air, in October, five months
ago, its average Nielsen rating has been 7.2, higher than that of any otherMBCprogram.
(George figures that he receives a seventh of a cent each week for each person
who watches each episode of his show, a calculation that makes his sixteen-thousand-sevenhundred-
and-fifty-seven-dollar weekly salary—sixteen thousand seven hundred
and fifty-seven dollars!—feel not so arbitrary and extreme and vertiginous.
Just a few years ago, his salary at ABC News was sixteen thousand dollars
a month, and his first job paid sixteen thousand dollars a year.) This past
Saturday night, the “NARCS” rating was down to 6.9. When the
pilot was picked up by Harold Mose, MBC’s founder and chairman, last
May, George and Emily vowed never to obsess over ratings, certainly not the
overnights. But of course they can’t help themselves. And their success
has made them stew more.

Iris pokes her head in. “George!” she says. “Your ten
o’clock with Emily!” For Iris, every long-distance call demands
emotion, as if it were a special occasion. She’s in her forties, only
a few years older than George, but she’s wired like a woman of his
mother’s generation, always overexcited and killingly sincere.

“Hi ya, Emily.”

“It’s Becky, George. Go ahead, Emily, George is on.” “Good
morning.” She’s on a speaker phone.

“Emily, the next time I get the assistant when it’s supposed
to be you, I hang up.And if you stay on the speaker phone, I’m hanging
up right now.”He’s kidding, sort of, and she knows it, sort of.

“So—nasty overnights.”

THE “NARCS” production meetings take place at a long, cheap,
paintsplattered table right on the new soundstage in the basement of the
MBC building. George likes the glamorously unglamorous industrial space,
the Masonite slabs covering wood beams and tons of sand (to keep the floor
level and vibration-free), the trusses and lights overhead, the cozy pool
of light at the center of the dark factory cavern. Down here below the line,
George is the master among his trusty craftsmen. The questions and answers
are precise and straightforward. The chain of command is clear. The belowthe-
line production staffers, unlike the writers, convey by their very demeanor
a kind of proletarian deference: George is the boss, the showrunner, the
auteur. Lizzie, his wife, who runs a software company in Chelsea, says she
dislikes the sense of always scaring her employees a little, but George finds
it pleasurable. He tries never to abuse it, but he figures that that combination
of eager friendliness and fear, as if he were walking around with a live
grenade, is just old-fashioned respect.

“Really excellent sound, the footsteps crunching on the cocaine,
on Saturday night’s show,” George says to Fred, the sound designer
and Foley artist, whose job it is to enhance natural noises—to intensify
audio reality, sweeten it.

“You liked it? Cool.”

“George, we’ll use a little person, and not a real child, for
the smuggler’s kid, right?” the director asks. “I got a
time problem with kids.”

“As long as he looks like a kid,” George says. “I mean,
we’re going to be pretty close.”

“Just his body is in the shot, not his head,” the director
says. “It’s the head with the body that makes little people look
like little people.”

“In that next scene,” one of the prop guys says, sounding excited
and proud, “when the bad guy gets sliced to ribbons in the sugar-cane
harvester? We’re getting a yard of actual bioengineered skin called
Apligraf, the    stuff surgeons use. It even feels real.”

There are a few smiling “Ewww”s around the table. “Nice,” George
says. And the production meeting proceeds, calm and orderly, with each department
head posing problems and offering solutions as they move through the script
scene by scene during the next hour. George makes dozens of choices that
will aggregate the look and sound and feel of the episode. He doesn’t
have to do, he must only decide. It’s grand.

At MBC, the Fifty-ninth Floor, or Fifty-nine, or (as Timothy Featherstone,
the head of programming, calls it) Five-Nine, is a proper noun. It is the
floor where Harold Mose and all his senior New York executives have offices.
Depending on context and vocal inflection, “Fifty-nine” can be
portentous, menacing, flip, or contemptuous.

The Fifty-ninth Floor wants to lose the question mark in “The Janeane
Garofalo Show?” as soon as possible.

Fifty-nine wants to try selling coffeebreak sponsorships company-wide.

No, she’s too skinny for daytime talk. Fifty-nine wants a “Day-O!” host
more than thirty pounds and fewer than fifty pounds overweight.

The Fifty-ninth Floor just doesn’t understand why “Mr. McCourt” is
cleared on only sixty-one per cent of the affiliates.

News will definitely have to get a sign-off from Fifty-nine to start announcing
exit-poll numbers at eight Eastern Time.

Just today, Laura Welles, Featherstone’s deputy, said to George on
the phone, “I’m frankly amazed Fifty-nine is cool with you going
so urban.” In the entertainment business, “urban” is the
euphemism for “black.” George and Emily have decided, starting
with the March 4th show, to lay bits of rap into the “NARCS” soundtrack—what
the show’s musical director calls their Spackle of Sound, a maximum
of six seconds at a stretch, three times per episode. A week of audience
testing in Omaha determined that was optimal: any less and the younger, rapfriendly
audience segments didn’t respond, any more than eighteen seconds an
hour and the anti-rap audience majority became, as the research firm described
it, “assertively intolerant.” Testing over the last month had
discovered a substantial audience segment, mostly whites in their thirties,
who found the rap interludes on “NARCS” “energizing” and “stylish.” The
research firm called this middle group the Hip Urban Ambivalents, or H.U.A.s.
It is all such a delicate balance— fascinatingly so, for George, like
constituency politics, like trying to keep soccer moms and Social Security
recipients all voting Democratic, or Christian fundamentalists and libertarians
in the G.O.P. No, not like politics, he realized last month, the day after
the New Hampshire primary: getting an audience for a TV show is politics—what
America has now in lieu of real politics.

“Iris,” George says as he and Emily leave his office and head
for Fifty-nine, “we’ll be . . .”

“I know,” she says, in her perpetual stage whisper. “Fifty-nine.” From
Iris’s mouth, “Fifty-nine” sounds like “the principal’s
office” or “the oncologist.”

Emily has come straight from the airport. George carries the notes, as
he always does when they go to meetings together. That way she doesn’t
have to be the girl. They are about to present their new program, “Reality,” to
Mose. It will consist of three linked prime-time installments each week.
The Friday hour will be a straight newsmagazine show, but the two weekly
half-hours, to be aired Tuesdays and Thursdays, will be semifictionalized
depictions of the anchors’ and the correspondents’ lives, and
of the making of that week’s news program.

“Hi,” George says, smiling big at Featherstone’s receptionist.

“We’re here to see Timothy.”

There are two basic show-businessexecutive personality types, George has
discovered—the Merry Chatterer (most talent agents, almost all TV executives)
and the Inscrutable Hard- Ass (self-made C.E.O.s, insecure talent agents).
Merry Chatterers can be silly, but what’s the point of show business
if it doesn’t occasionally transmute work into a fiesta? George finds
even insincere Hollywood gaiety pleasurable if it is energetic enough. Some
Inscrutable Hard-Asses are brilliant, but every one is dead set on appearing
to be brilliant—if you doubt that their still waters run deep, well,
they might drown you just to prove the point. George’s preferred executive
type is an old-fashioned mogul hybrid, the Merry Hard-Ass, who is surprisingly
rare. Merry Hard-Asses are scary but fun, often physically large men; one
half-expects them to shout “Fi! Fi! Fo! Fum!” when they rumble
in for meetings.

Timothy Featherstone is pure Merry Chatterer. “Yabba dabba doo!” he
says to George and Emily, instead of hello. “Long time no see, Emmy
Lou!” He kisses Emily on both cheeks. “Let me take you into my
la-bor-a-tory,” he says as he leads them into a conference room.

The walls are covered in magnesium panels, expensively riveted. A line
of TV screens in the walls wraps all the way around the room like a belt.

“Well,” Featherstone says as they sit, “let me open my
kimono and give you  dudes the four-one-one du jour—we’re
prepared to give ‘Reality’ a thirty-nineweek commitment. Rock
solid.”

They had asked for only thirteen weeks.

“Thirty-nine?” Emily says to Featherstone. “At one point
six million a week?”

“D’accord, darlin’.”

“No speaking French. That’s why I left Canada.” It’s
Mose, striding through the door. Featherstone swivels his chair and bolts
upright. George and Emily stand. Greetings are exchanged.

George always notices the aroma of Harold Mose. Why hasn’t Ralph
Lauren bottled this fragrance? (Maybe he has.) It must be the daily haircut
plus fresh flowers plus cashmere plus BMW leather plus the executive-jet
oxygen mix plus a dash of citrus. That is, Mose smells luscious. He smells
rich.

“Your little pilot was perfect for my attention span,” Mose
says. “Can we make the actual show fifteen minutes a week?” George
and Emily grin. They had produced a fifteen-minute “minipilot” for
the show—a five-minute newscast and ten minutes of behind-thescenes
fiction. “I expect that Timothy has badly misrepresented the program
to me,” he continues, in his happy-gangster tenor. Are there Canadian
gangsters? “So. Is this a mutant news program that all people of substance
and seriousness will despise or a bizarre entertainment program that half
the audience won’t understand even if they watch it, which they won’t?” He
plucks the lime slice from his Pellegrino and bites the flesh.

“Well,” George says, “a lot of people in news are going
to go nuts, unquestionably. The op-ed pages and the journalism professors
will kill us.”

Featherstone glances anxiously at Mose.

“Oh, dear,” Mose says, pulling the lime from his mouth. “Oh
gosh. Oh my. And the downside is?” It takes Featherstone a second to
realize he should chuckle, and he does.

“When the noise clears,” Emily says, “this is smart,
tough, good TV. Firstclass news. First-class drama.”

“Dramedy,” Featherstone amends, then turns to Mose. “Dramedy,
Harold. That’s my top-line note. ‘Murphy Brown’ when it
had an eighteen-pointsix rating. ‘Larry Sanders’ with heart,
and a high-Q star. We want the halfhours zoomy.”

“And why the two half-hours?” Mose asks.

“So we can roll with events,” George says, “evolve the
story lines during the week. As news unfolds, we adjust the tenor.”

“Maintain the arc, Harold,” Featherstone says.

“If the week starts off fun and games,” George continues, “a
story like Clinton in Sausalito with his English actresses, but then, you
know, a bunch of people are massacred in Mexico on Wednesday, we can adjust
the trajectory before the Friday program.We need a middle episode to make
the transition from the docudrama of the Tuesday show—”

“Docudramedy,” Featherstone says.

“—to the straight news hour on Friday. We can’t just
go slam bang from ‘Murphy Brown’ to ‘60 Minutes.’ ”

Mose frowns. “I don’t know about ‘Reality.’ ”

George and Emily exchange a panicky glance. He’s already changed
his mind?

“It’s so . . . arty. Like a scriptwriter’s idea for the
name of a news magazine.” “Fantastic note,” Featherstone
says.

“You have a problem with ‘Reality,’ Harold?” George
asks, wanting the end to come quickly now that he knows he’s doomed.

“I do,” Mose says. “But what about ‘Real Time’?
Is that a horrible name for this show?”

It’s only the name Mose doesn’t like.

“Sure! That’s fine. It’s superb,” George says.

“Yessss!” Featherstone says, clenching a fist, pumping his
arm. “He shoots, he scores!”

Being the boss, Lizzie finds, consists of two main tasks. “Finding
the signal in the noise” is the first. It means the same thing as “separating
the wheat from the chaff.” She used to call it “torching through
the bullshit” until Bruce Helms, the chief technology officer at Lizzie’s
software company, provided the more felicitous metaphor. To be the boss also
requires making snap judgments and making them confidently— big, consequential
snap decisions, dozens of all kinds, every day. It is all improvisation.

Two-color packaging for the game is fine. As long as it doesn’t look
too much like we can’t afford four colors. The idea with Warps is to
look elegant and semi-old-fashioned— like black-and-white movies in
the eighties and magazine covers in the nineties.

Ask Bruce, but Softimage is obviously the preference. Because Microsoft
owns them.

How about two weeks paid, four unpaid ? Because it ’s a policy for
paternity leave, and they don’t have to nurse the fucking kid is why.

Why does he want to know how realistic the digital fur will be? (What
digital fur?)  

We absolutely do, too, have N.E.C.’s permission to use Power VR in
advertising. Then double-check, but don’t let N.E.C. know.

Tell him Tony said a year ago—no, two years ago—that he’d
pay for fireproofing the I-beams.

No, Fox has an option on TV rights to Warps, nobody has novelization
rights. That ’s different—the novel is called “Chocolate-Chip Cookie-Dough
Haagen Dazs,” but Douglas Coupland didn’t base it on the ice
cream. I ’m pretty sure.

Please ask him to stop playing that same awful “Massive Attack” CD.
I think it’s making people stupider.

Duh. No.

Stall them; we ’ll only get more if we wait.

Tell them Warps will be to Time Commando as “The Simpsons” is
to “The Flintstones.” Or “Men in Black ” is to “Godzilla.” More “prestigious”?
O.K., as James Joyce is to Gertrude Stein.

Say I ’ll call back. No.Tell them Madeline will call back.

Sometimes Lizzie very much likes being boss.Not, of course, enduring the
parent-and-child-like grousing about salaries and expense accounts and window
sightlines and the relative square footage of cubicles. Or firing incompetent
salespeople who happen to be single mothers, or being deposed by former employees’ attorneys
in order to deny on the record that one is a Satanist violator of the Americans
with Disabilities Act. Not the irreducible third of the job that is the stupid,
draining, thankless equivalent of buying Pampers, phoning exterminators,
writing tuition checks, sending back screen doors that are a sixteenth of
an inch too wide, of telling a whining fourteen-year-old she may not go to
a midnight Golden Gloves match in Brooklyn. Lizzie likes being boss because
at last she’s a member of a cool club that she likes, president of
the club, a club custom-made by her for her. As a girl, Lizzie’s popularity
hovered around six or seven on a one-to-ten scale. (In fifth grade, right
after she learned decimals, she actually gave herself weekly popularity rankings
in her diary, and graphed them.) But club after club had failed to satisfy.
She  has come to accept her particular Catch-22, a variation on the
Groucho Marx line: the sorts of people who join clubs are not, by and large,
the sorts of people with whom Lizzie wants to be clubmates. So now she has
reverseengineered her way to contentment. She has her own nineteen-thousandsquare-
foot clubhouse in a loft in Chelsea, where she does her best to keep everyone
busy and interested, but she gets to decide who joins, who stays, and what
the rules and projects are. The vicissitudes of popularity and democracy
have been transcended, the thing has a fucking point, she can swear as much
as she wants, and there aren’t any mothers or faculty sponsors overlooking,
organizing, patronizing, clucking. Except her.

Lizzie needs to hire someone to open a Fine Technologies office on the
West Coast, probably in Seattle, because it’s halfway to Asia, where
business is picking up again, because the rest of the industry is there,
and because of Microsoft, with whom she has been talking about selling a
piece of the company. She has interviewed people for two weeks. Out in Seattle
or San Jose, she knows, she could have seen half a dozen qualified people
the first day. In New York, the candidates are adagency- account jerks looking
for any way out, the hustler marketing partners from bankrupt Web-site design
shops, bullshitters (uninteresting bullshitters), and losers. George doesn’t
like it when she uses the term “loser,” and neither does she,
really—it’s too categorically harsh, too lacking in nuance. But
in her world the losers seem to be multiplying. Partly this is a classic
Ponzi-scheme latecomer phenomenon, where the logic of a mania finally requires
a big crowd of failed contenders—the thirty-eightyear- olds who decided
in 1997 that this on-line Web thing looked like it was going to be big. And
partly it’s the fact that there have always been a lot of losers in
the computer business who were given the benefit of the doubt during most
of the nineties, when dozens of former losers were getting rich or looking
brilliant, or both.

She heads toward the back of the loft for her daily midmorning encounter
with Bruce Helms, who dresses every day in identical charcoal-gray Brooks
Brothers suits and white button-down shirts. He isn’t a square; he’s
a thirtyone- year-old blues devotee and former morphine addict. He dresses
like a square, a perfect 1965 square, not exactly in a spirit of parody but
as a function of a deep native sense of decorum, expressed . . . was it ironically? “No,
um—allusively,” Bruce said, embarrassed, during Lizzie’s
one conversation with him about his clothes. Lizzie plops onto his bright-green
Astro-Turfcovered armchair, the only piece of upholstered furniture at Fine
Technologies, and leans back.

“Man,” she says, shaking her head,

“I don’t know, finding anyone here who can do the Seattle job
is a nightmare.”

“I hope you didn’t hire the Mormon.”

“Shush. They’ll arrest us for discrimination. That’s
creed.”

“And race. Ultra-whiteness. So interview out there. The job is vice-president
for Microsoft, right?” As he speaks, his right hand remains on his
mouse, and only between sentences does he glance away from his twenty-five-inch
monitor and look at Lizzie. His speaking manner, almost monotonic but essentially
sunny, is the way people their age and younger tend to talk.Whateverese,
she calls it, and it reminds her of Huckleberry Hound’s voice, or,
as George once said, Eeyore on antidepressants. Bruce finally lifts his hand
from the mouse and swivels to face Lizzie. “Why would that hypothetical
person still be in New York?” he asks.

“You’re in New York. I’m in New York.”

“You’re here because of George and the kids. I’m here
because my act would seem too much like an act out there. And because we
don’t want to live in a company town.We like being fish a little bit
out of water.” “Yeah, well,” she says, “sometimes
I think I could get used to being a fish in water. You know?”

Lizzie swings her legs down off the arm of the chair and as she sits forward
both feet fly, thwack, onto the grubby yellow-pine floor. Her stomp is a
halfconscious device, allowing her to change the subject instantly to the
business of the day. It’s a kind of segueless conversational shorthand
among colleagues in twitchy new businesses, the kind of cheerful-hysterical
brusquerie endemic to the digital Northwest but still uncommon in New York
and nonexistent in old Hollywood.

But before she can ask how far behind   schedule the designers
and programmers are on Warps, Alexi shouts from across the loft. “Lizzie!
Important call! Moorhead, the Microsoft talk-to guy.” Lizzie has agreed
in principle to sell twenty per cent of Fine Technologies to Microsoft, plus
warrants giving them the right to buy another twenty per cent. Warrants .
. . The deal made her feel as if she had finally crossed to some other side.
During her time working for the foundation, she used to look down on her
business-school classmates who had gone straight to Wall Street and into
M. & A., the jerks who couldn’t let a conversation pass without
mentioning rollups and debt tranches and mezzanine rounds and secondaries
and warrants.

“Hello, this is Lizzie Zimbalist.”

“Ms. Zimbalist, this is Howard Moorhead, in Redmond. How are you
today?”

The carefully fondled “Ms.” and the stranger unction make Lizzie
recoil. “Sorry I kept you waiting. I was just in a meeting about Warps.
Our game.”

“That’s super. I know our people down at WebTV are very anxious
to hear about your deliverability issues on that? I’m sure we’ll
all be excited to see the product?” Like many men raised in the South,
Moorhead turns his sentences up at the end, transforming statements into
acknowledgment-seeking quasi-questions. Growing up in Los Angeles in the
seventies, Lizzie trained herself out of the same verbal tic in sixth grade. “And
your Mr. Haft seemed to think our proposed time frame on the warrant expirations
is no problem? 2005 is acceptable to you?”

Lizzie still cannot quite take years like 2005 seriously, even now, two
months into the new century. Plans and deals involving dates in the aughts
and the teens inflame her chronic, secret sense of work as a big make-believe
game, dress-up Monopoly. Sure, Moorhead, she thinks, as long as you pay me
in fresh, crisp twenty-million-dollar bills— the bright-pink ones.

“Sure,” she says. “2005 sounds fine.”

“Ms. Zimbalist, I did want to let you know that based on the data
you’ve supplied we’ve done some new calculations? Of the projected
earnings multiples for your out years?

“Uh-huh.”

“And we think right now we’re looking at a somewhat adjusted
acquisition benchmark number for our investment?”

A pause. “What are you saying?”

“Well, we’re now prepared to offer two point nine million dollars
for tenper- cent equity in the company.”

Lizzie stares for an extra, calming beat at the photograph on her desk,
all three kids laughing by the Neva River last summer in St. Petersburg,
Max and Sarah holding hands with Louisa, airborne and blurry, between them.
Sarah still had long hair.

“For ten per cent of the company?” “Exactly,” Moorhead
says, his smile audible, as if Lizzie had just agreed to the new terms. “Exactly
right.” “Two point nine million dollars? You are fucking kidding
me.”

For three full seconds, Moorhead says nothing.

“Ms. Zimbalist,” he finally manages, “I, I, that type
of language—”

“Two point nine means a valuation for this company of twenty-nine
million. In every discussion I’ve had with Microsoft, the valuation
ballpark has been forty million. Two point nine is bullshit.” Lizzie
is almost screaming. She curses often, but she seldom screams.

“I do not appreciate that type of language, Ms. Zimbalist.”

This jerk, this geek—not even a geek, this oily lawyer—is upset!
About a girl swearing! She needed to get off the phone before she was overcome.
Her language!

“And I don’t appreciate the bait-andswitch. You and Lance Haft
can try to resolve the numbers. Goodbye.” She bangs the phone down
on its cradle. “Fuck.”

Bruce pokes his head in, smiling, with Alexi hovering avidly just behind.

She shoots to her feet, sending the Aeron chair wheeling into her CD tower,
which totters. Two disks (Morcheeba and Stravinsky’s “Apollon
Musagete”) fall to the floor, and Lizzie steps on them, cracking the
plastic cases— “Shit!”—as she comes out from behind
her particle-board desk. “I do not believe those duplicitous shits.Two
point nine million. Christ. And my language. My language! Give me a fucking
break.” She sighs so violently she roars.

Alexi points to the phone. “It’s Louisa,” he says, enunciating
extra crisply, “on Line 3.”

“Hello, my baby duck!” Lizzie says, with her free hand tucking
her reddishbrown hair behind her extremely red ears. Bruce and Alexi wander
off. “Yes, it is Mommy, LuLu. I am not a robot mommy. It’s Mommy.” Her
brain is still hot. “No, I am not an alien. O.K. . . . Who’s
there? Ahtch? Ahtch who?”

LIZZIE leaves the office a few minutes after six. It is the first time
this winter she has left before dark. It has been a lousy day, ten hours
at work without even a whiff of science. The   whiffs of science
were what drew her into this business in the first place. But today she has
accomplished nothing. She has signed expense accounts, extended supplier
contracts, agreed to pay nine hundred and forty dollars a month extra to
insure her employees against carpal-tunnel syndrome (which she secretly considers
a half-phony fad disability) and screamed about hypothetical seven- and eight-figure
sums of money to a man in Redmond whom she has never met. Today has been
one of those days when she feels like America’s most overeducated,
overinvested postal clerk. She has done nothing gratifying or important,
even though she’s exhausted, as tired as if she had spent the day overseeing
the invention of a disposable solar-powered twenty-fivecent supercomputer
the size of a cricket.

Arriving at home, she tosses her leather backpack on the kitchen table,
and the scrape of the metal Prada tag across the zinc surface scares the
cat off its window seat. “Where is everybody?” Lizzie asks the
cat.

She scans the mail and culls out the bills. Do other people receive real
letters? The only personal correspondence George and Lizzie get regularly
is invitations (one here to a black-tie “Remember the 1980s” party
at the Frick to raise money for T-1 Internet hookups for the fifty poorest
schools in New York) and those quasi-celebrity chain letters (most recently
from Angela Janeway, soliciting ten dollars for Mexican clinics—copies
of which also had been sent by Danny Goldberg to Courtney Love, to Pete Hamill
by Ken Kesey, to Bianca Jagger by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., by Mort Zuckerman
to Tony Blair, by Patricia Duff to Harold Mose, and by a hundred other quasi-celebrities
to five hundred other quasi-celebrities who are all pleased, in the name
of a good cause, to make you aware that they know one another). Nowadays
even thank-you notes and invitations have addresses laser-printed on an adhesive
label.

Louisa, sounding like a dropped piece of luggage, comes tumbling down the
three flights of stairs. During the brief pause at each landing Lizzie can
hear the slow, even footsteps of Rafaela, the new babysitter.

“Hello, baby duck!” Lizzie says as Louisa finally stands before
her.

The six-year-old, zipped into a brightyellow snowsuit, looks past her mother,  bows
her head, frowns, and says, “Hello, Missus.”

“What?” Lizzie says, startled, smiling, staring at LuLu, who
runs out to the tiny back yard.

Rafaela arrives in the kitchen.

“Hi, Rafaela.”

“Hello, Missus,” she says, not quite making eye contact, following
Louisa outdoors. She turns. “Missus, the store don’t have whole-wheat
Cheerios you want. Store brand only.”

“The children will survive, Rafaela. That’s fine.”

“O.K.,” Rafaela says, and pulls the back door shut.

With Margaret, the previous babysitter, who was from St. Kitts, George
and Lizzie had enjoyed the Anglo- Caribbean bits Louisa and Max picked up—saying “straightaway” instead
of “immediately,” pronouncing the first syllable of “radiator” with
a broad “a.” Max had required heavy persuasion to stop referring
to black people as “colored,” even though Margaret continued
to do so. Now LuLu would need to be told why she shouldn’t call her
mother

“Missus,” even though Rafaela did.

“Mommy?” comes a voice from all the way upstairs.

“Hello, Sarah.”

“Hi,” Sarah yells down. “Max and I already had dinner.
Can you get firm tofu next time? I’m using one of your old lighters
for a scene in my history documentary.” Sarah is making a video about
civil rights in Alabama in 1964.

“I THINK I queered my Microsoft deal. I say ‘fuck’ too
much. According to some sexist asshole in Seattle.” George smiles.
Lizzie stands up.

“I need a big drink,” she says. “The kids have eaten.We
don’t have anything for dinner. You want to order sushi from Hiroshima
Boy?”

They had Martinis on their first date, twelve years ago. She was twenty-four
and he was just thirty-two, and drinking Martinis was still, for people their
age, a self-conscious, tongue-in-cheek act, playing grownup. They’d
met at a Dukakis fund-raiser on East Thirteenth Street, and left together
for a drink at a noir-inouter- space-themed bar in the East Village called
Blue Velveteen. The olives were plastic. Sometime after their second Martini,
Lizzie had told a Kitty Dukakis joke that made George laugh so suddenly he
sprayed gin out his nose all over Lizzie’s baby, Sarah, sleeping next
to him on the tatty velvet banquette.

Twelve years later, the Martinis in Manhattan are sipped without olives
or irony. But Martinis for two remains a romantic ritual.

“So who did you say ‘fuck’ to that you shouldn’t
have?”

“Oh, this asshole from Microsoft. They’re suddenly offering
two point nine million for ten per cent. They’re trying to gyp us.”

“Jesus, three million for a tenth of the company is a gyp? It’s
still free money, isn’t it? ‘Gyp’ is a racist slur, by
the way.”

Lizzie was often charmed by her husband’s vagueness about business.
But not right now.

“We have earnings, George!”

“So go public.”

“Why should I go public? The company doesn’t need the capital.
And we don’t need the money.We can’t find any stuff for this
place that we like enough to buy anyway,” she says, gesturing toward
the dark, naked dining room and the dark, naked room with books and a piano
but no name.

“You know, it’s funny. My mother used to say to my dad, after
he’d bought some fancy wind-powered composting unit or something, Perry,
you just can’t spend money fast enough.We’ve actually reached
the point now where we can’t spend it fast enough. Literally.” He
repositions himself on the Biedermeier sofa. “This thing is really
not comfortable, you know.” Lizzie sips her Martini, and puts her glass
on the red-andyellow coffee table that looks like scuffed, circa-1960 Formica
but is in fact 1924 Le Corbusier, the single really expensive object they
own.

For several long minutes, they sit in silence, both looking out the eight-foothigh
back windows as Louisa dances in the back yard with her shoulders up around
her ears and her arms turned inside out. She is doing one of her impromptu
rap performances for Rafaela.

“So I can’t believe they really bought ‘Reality.’ That’s
so excellent.”

“I know. It’s crazy.” He’s still smiling.

“It’s going to be a bitch to do. Three shows a week.”

“Mose gets it?” she asks.

“The show? I think so. Yeah. He wants to call it ‘Real Time.’ ”

“Is he smart?”

“I can’t tell for sure. This afternoon   he said, ‘You
know “The Network for the New Century”? I want all of us to mean
it.’ I don’t know if he’s brilliant, or just unafraid of
sounding superficial.”

“What’s the difference? At his level. That’s what makes
a good leader. Not being afraid of sounding superficial. Really believing
your own bullshit. ‘Men believe in the truth of all that is seen to
be strongly believed in.’ ”

“My little Nietzsche.”

He stands, grabbing both of Lizzie’s hands with his right, and as
he slides her off the couch, which they’d reupholstered in black leather,
her jeans squeak. “I’m fat as a pig,” she says.

DOWN in the basement, the furnace ignites. “We have liftoff,” George
does not say, as he often does when they’re alone together and hear
that sound—the muffled bang, the deep rumble resolving into a continuous,
quiet thunder. It reminds him of the space launches he never missed as a
kid. Lizzie, born a year after the J.F.K. assassination, doesn’t remember
watching a space launch live until her senior year in college, the one after
Challenger exploded.

George is lying in bed naked, watching his wife, to whom he has just made
love. Lizzie sits on the floor next to the wall, her panties back on, legs
and arms both crossed in front of her, smoking a Marlboro Light and staring
out the window. She has opened it a crack, two inches—just enough to
lean down and blow smoke out. She is back up to four cigarettes a day. She
hides her smoking from the children.

“How many are you up to?” he asks, propped up on his right
side.

“A couple a day.”

“You know, if we lived out in Kirkland or Palo Alto or somewhere
like that you wouldn’t be able to smoke anywhere.”

She smiles. “Another reason to move. Protect me from myself.” From
upstairs, where Sarah is now in digital postproduction on her school project,
George and Lizzie hear John Lennon singing “Imagine.” “Her
video,” Lizzie says, nodding upward.

“I thought it was set in 1964? ‘Imagine’ is from like
1974.”

Lizzie shrugs.

Then they hear Max logging off his computer. “Goodbye!” says
the America Online voice, as chipper as ever. ©