AUGUST 7, 2018
THIS IS PART XIV of LARB’s serialization of Seth Greenland’s forthcoming novel The Hazards of Good Fortune. Greenland’s novel follows Jay Gladstone from his basketball-loving youth to his life as a real estate developer, civic leader, philanthropist, and NBA team owner, and then to it all spiraling out of control.
A film and TV writer, playwright, and author of four previous novels, Greenland was the original host of The LARB Radio Hour and serves on LARB’s board of directors. The Hazards of Good Fortune will be published in book form by Europa Editions on August 21, 2018.
To start with installment one, click here.
On the ride to the game, Jay sat in the back and scrolled through his phone as Boris drove with Dequan next to him in the passenger seat. Coverage had expanded exponentially, and the story was now the lead item on every sports, news, and entertainment website he visited. Whatever the demographic, the gist was identical. From the Wall Street Journal (Team Owner Caught Up In Scandal) to ESPN.com (Gladstone a Racist?) to TMZ (Blue Stones: Owner Watches Wife Have Sex With Star), all of it was ghastly. Boris kept a first-aid kit in the car and Jay popped antacid pills for the entire ride. Stupified and infuriated, Jay nonetheless knew enough to take the long view. For the first time, he was happy that Herman Doomer had insisted on a public relations consultant. Scandals erupted with clocklike regularity, their intensity amplified by the hothouse of the Internet; and soon enough they were replaced by other scandals in an ever-shifting pattern of outrage. Now was his turn to bear the coruscating effect, and as the lights of Sanitary Solutions Arena blazed in the distance just east of the New Jersey Turnpike he heard Bingo’s voice telling him there was nothing to do but “march forth.”
The game was sold out and the organization planned to give free T-shirts with Dag’s picture on them to every fan in attendance. Jay’s phone had been blowing up all day, and there were so many texts that he stopped reading them. Now he could talk to the sportswriters, greet the fans, and show he wasn’t cowering in a cave. Yes, Tackman had wanted him to keep a low profile at the game, but Jay knew he could draw on the energy of the high rollers in the expensive seats before repairing to his skybox.
The ritual Jay followed before each home game consisted of a visit with Church Scott in the coach’s office adjacent to the locker room where they would discuss team business, then the customary scotch and a pregame nosh with whomever his guests were that night in the Executive Club on the loge level, and few minutes before tip-off the group would head to the owner’s seats, Jay glad-handing season ticket holders along the way. But tonight, the usual routine allowed for too many variables. To permit the contact Jay typically enjoyed before a game seemed unwise.
The first indication that this would not be an ordinary night was the scene in front of the arena. It was an hour before game time when the SUV swung into the parking lot. The first detail Jay noticed was that next to the usual line of fans streaming into the building was a multiracial cluster of protesters chanting and waving placards: SELL THE TEAM, JAY, NEW OWNER WANTED: BIGOTS NEED NOT APPLY, and (oddly) ZIONISM IS RACISM. Demonstrators brandished large posters of Dag wearing the team uniform, his body lithe and unbroken. He repressed the urge to tell Boris to make a U-turn and take him to Canada.
The leader of the protests was Imam Ibrahim Muhammad, who stood on a crate and held a bullhorn to his mouth as he chanted, Hey, hey, ho, ho, Jay Gladstone has to go, a call echoed volubly by the protestors, who shook their signs and pumped their fists. There was someone who looked familiar standing next to him. Trey Maxwell. What was he doing with that troublemaker? Television crews recorded the action; fans filmed it on their phones. Jay considered getting out right there and talking to the crowd, confronting that rabble-rousing imam in full view of the media and directly making his case, but that felt excessively risky, not to say physically dangerous. Tackman had advised against unmediated personal contact with the public.
He had another idea.
Boris let Jay and his bodyguard out at the players’ entrance. Jay was not comfortable with the proximity to the players and staff that a locker room visit would entail, so he arranged for Church Scott to meet him in the security office. Boris had alerted the staff that the boss would be attending the game and additional precautions had been taken. In a cinderblock room, deep in the bowels of the arena, the black chief of security waited. A chesty ex-Marine named Bo McCants, he was matter-of-fact by nature, so Jay did not read into the flatness of his greeting. Skipping any pleasantries, he briefed Jay on the arrangement for the game. McCants reported that he had mustered an additional thirty men, ten of whom were to be stationed directly behind the owner’s seats, the rest to be deployed around the court. Jay informed McCants he would be seated in a skybox once the game started and the security chief assured him the necessary adjustments would be made. If McCants was judging him, Jay could not tell; the security chief had bloodlessly imparted the information. Jay had the disconcerting sensation that he should apologize. But for what?
As McCants finished his briefing, Church Scott swept in. He seemed harried and did not offer his usual handshake. The affability with which he glazed every off-court encounter was absent. Again, Jay felt like apologizing. Was every encounter with a black person going to make him feel this way? They discussed Dag’s condition (unchanged) and the night’s opponent before Jay dropped the following bombshell:
“I’m going to say a few words from center court before the game.”
He knew Tackman would have ordered him not to but the P.R. maven surely was unaware of the deep connection Jay had with the team’s fans.
“Just a few remarks,” he said, ignoring the surprise on Church Scott’s face. “In light of recent events, I’d like to show the flag, talk about D’Angelo”—not Dag, the entire name more respectful—“let the fans know there’s a steady hand on the tiller.”
Church’s brow furrowed. During his years as a point guard in the league, a cerebral style of play was his signature. With a safecracker’s patience, he probed a defense until he uncovered a weakness and would rarely execute an ill-considered move. Church asked Jay if he was entirely certain he wanted to get in front of eighteen thousand people tonight.
“There’s a lot of residual goodwill toward me in this building.”
“Well, the fans are one thing,” the coach said. “But listen, I have to tell you something.” Jay readied himself to absorb whatever blow was in the offing. “We’ve got a situation brewing in the locker room.”
“What kind of situation?”
“The players are talking about boycotting the game.”
The news flabbergasted Jay. His relationship with the roster had always been terrific, from the stars to the scrubs on the end of the bench. He was never less than polite, encouraging, and concerned when it came to the players. Boycotting the game would be bad for the league and a disaster for Jay. It felt personal. Dequan was standing several feet away with his back to them, his frame filling the doorway. Jay wondered if he was listening to the conversation.
“Why would they do that?”
“The guys all heard those words,” the coach said. He was tactful enough not to say: And saw the tape. “They didn’t like it.”
This response seemed like an overreaction. The players knew him. Perhaps not well, but he believed they sensed the man he was. “Should I talk to them?”
“Nooooooo,” Church said. The feeble laugh that issued from his lips revealed discomfort with that notion. “I think I moved them off the idea for one night.” The relief Jay felt caused oxygen to rush from his lungs. “You want to make a speech to the folks out there tonight, hey, you’re the boss. I’m just a dumb ex-ballplayer. Maybe you know something I don’t.”
Jay had idolized men like Church Scott since boyhood. He still retained a fan’s respect for the greatest of them and the coach was championship caliber. Jay was not above being flattered by Church’s assessment and this reinvigorated him.
“I want you to introduce me,” Jay said.
“I can’t do that,” Church said.
“Yes, you can. Everyone respects you.”
“I’ll lose the locker room.”
It had never occurred to Jay that the coach would turn down a request like this. Theirs was a collegial relationship, one of mutual respect. Church routinely sought Jay’s counsel in business matters and reciprocated by tutoring Jay in the intricacies of elite basketball. He considered Church a friend.
“You need to set an example for them,” Jay said. Them. Players, coaches, fans who might sit in judgment. “You’re the leader.”
“I’m a black man, Jay,” he said, unnecessarily. “Most of the guys on the team are, too. They’re wondering what’s in your heart right now.”
“You can tell them what’s in my heart.”
“I can’t tell them because I don’t know.”
Church’s words were hurtful and Jay was unsure how to respond. They had worked together for five years and if Church Scott could say something like that, to his face no less, what was the wider world going to think? Was what he had done so bad? The man had walked in on his wife in flagrante and in his understandable disorientation he had asked a question. It was not as if he had used an epithet. Was he to be drawn and quartered for a single ambiguous sentence?
Jay whispered: “I’m telling you what’s in my heart, Church. You know me.”
He couldn’t say I’m not a racist to a black man. That meant it was already too late.
Church nodded. “Okay,” he said. “All right.” What he did not say was I believe you. He patted Jay on the shoulder and told him, “I’m praying on this,” and then was gone with an encouraging clap on the back from Dequan as he left. Was the bodyguard endorsing the coach’s position? Did the back clap portend some further palace revolt? Jay could not be bothered with that right now. Wherever Dequan’s sympathy lay, there was enough security in the arena tonight.
He pondered his encounter with Church.
Praying on this?
In his most dire hour, he requested a simple favor, a small gesture of friendship, and Church denied it. Stabbed in the back by his most trusted basketball lieutenant, Jay’s first inclination was to fire him immediately and order the lead assistant to take over, but his business success did not derive from acting impulsively, and he instantly recognized the kind of reactive, negative thinking he abhorred. He would wait until the end of the season before relieving Church Scott of his duties.
Boris had been biding his time nearby and now approached.
“Are you sure you want put yourself in front of eighteen thousand people?”
“Goddammit, Boris,” Jay growled. “Don’t second guess me.” From Boris’s alarmed expression, he knew he needed to get his emotions under control. Jay glanced toward Dequan and McCants, and was pleased to see both of them peering at a bank of security monitors, neither paying attention to him. He didn’t want anyone to think he was agitated. He asked Boris to please notify the appropriate people that he intended to say a few words after the national anthem.
Rather than go out before the game, Jay thought it best to remain in the tunnel that led to the court until right before the announcer introduced him. The fans focused on the players doing their warm-ups, whomever the team had arranged to warble the night’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and their phones.
With Dequan next to him surveying the arena—however much sympathy the bodyguard may have harbored for Church Scott, at least he had not abandoned his post—Jay watched from the shadows as “We Takin’ Over” by DJ Khaled blared while a co-ed group of bouncy team employees buzzed around the court wielding bazookas that blasted tightly rolled T-shirts emblazoned with Dag’s face into the outstretched hands of the jacked-up fans. The squads finished their pregame stretching and shooting and lined up along opposite foul lines facing one another for the national anthem. A Navy color guard marched out bearing the flag. And then—
The home team stripped off their warm-up jackets and were revealed to be wearing black T-shirts over their regulation league-approved jerseys. The sight of the T-shirts, their symbolism unmistakable, elicited whoops of approval from several fans and a smattering of applause. This display on the part of the players was a violation of league rules and a direct rebuke to Jay, who was dismayed when he saw it. Did Church know this was going to happen and choose not to warn him? At least they’re out there and prepared to play the game, he told himself. The boycott bullet dodged.
An obscure female R&B singer belted the national anthem. As she sang, “Land of the freeeeeeeeee,” extending the note in the glass-shattering manner those tapped to sing this song will often do, and the fans began to cheer and applaud in anticipation of its end, Jay felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked over and saw the nervously smiling face of Major House, who greeted him in a voice several decibels too loud. They had arranged to meet in the skybox. Why was he in the tunnel right before Jay was going out on the court?
“I bought a pair of tickets for the game,” the Mayor said. “It’s better that way right now.”
“Why?” He instantly knew why.
“I don’t have a problem with you, Jay. You know that. But Newark’s a black city.”
“Newark was a black city when you were my guest last time.”
“I can’t be sitting next to you at a game right now.”
“Now is when I could use you.”
“Hey, you know I’m your friend,” he said and clapped Jay on the back. “We’ll talk on the phone Monday. I’ll even come to the office if you want. But not tonight.”
Mayor House lingered as if he wanted to make sure that Jay was all right with being abandoned like this by a putative ally just before tip-off, because who would understand the consideration of practical matters if not Jay Gladstone.
“Et tu, Major?” Jay said.
“Et tu? Come on, man, I’m up for re-election in the fall.”
Jay wondered if the mayor had conferred with Church Scott. They were friendly, and he would not have been surprised to hear the two of them had coordinated their response. A voice on the P.A. system crackled, and in his rapidly spinning mind, Jay heard every third word: Tonight. Team. Special. Before Jay could ask the mayor if he was colluding with the coach, the public-address announcer intoned, “Please welcome Jay Gladstone,” and he squared his shoulders and propelled himself past the politician—Why am I doing this? Don’t do this. Let’s do this!—out of the shadows, and on to the blindingly bright basketball court.
The powerful lights bounced off the polished hardwood and into Jay’s retinas. Multiple levels of yellow, orange, green, and blue seats extending several hundred feet up blurred into one pulsating organism that gave forth scattered boos, several catcalls he could not make out, and some anemic cheering. None of it was encouraging. The brilliant illumination created a bell jar effect and what lay outside the lighted area was not readily discernible.
Like something from a dream, Jay absorbed thousands of smiling D’Angelo Maxwells observing him from the T-shirts sported by every fan. Although the picture appeared hallucinatory, it was not a trick of perception. There were over eighteen thousand images of Dag’s face, and an ocean of Dag’s eyes locked in on him.
The teams had repaired to their benches to await the buzzer that would summon the starters to the court for the opening tip. The color guard had retreated. The bazooka-wielding T-shirt crew kneeled under one of the baskets. At the center of the court, a team lackey handed a cordless microphone to Jay. The sounds died down, and Jay gazed up to the nosebleed seats. He had a brief and comforting memory of the Knicks-Bullets playoff game he had seen from that vantage point as a teenager nearly forty years earlier.
In a steady voice, he began, “Thank you all for coming tonight.”
From near the rafters, someone yelled, “WHERE’S YOUR WIFE?”
Scattered laughter. The outburst could have been worse, and Jay was relieved to hear someone else shout, “LET HIM TALK, ASSHOLE!” followed by more laughs. Should he have listened to Tackman’s advice? Not tonight. Jay knew what he was doing, had addressed unpredictable groups before. Were his knees trembling? He steadied himself. While he waited for the murmur to die down, he glanced over to the bench and saw Church in his seat, elbows on knees, looking at the floor. His gaze shifted to the Miami bench where every player was staring at him, waiting to see what he would say. Were they staring or scowling? It was hard to tell.
“As you all know,” Jay continued, his voice steady as it resonated to the upper deck, “D’Angelo Maxwell is in the hospital so I’d like to begin with a moment of silent prayer for him.” As Jay said this, he again looked over at Church Scott, who was shaking his head, in either disdain or admiration. Which was it? It didn’t matter. Jay congratulated himself on the courage of the move. It had come to him spontaneously, and he had acted on it in front of the crowd, all of whom must know what had occurred between Dag and Nicole. No one could miss the magnanimity of the gesture. Certainly, Bobby Tackman would approve.
As the arena quieted, Jay waited, every receptor quivering, the warmth of the lights on his face, the pungent smell of sweat on the court, the lingering taste of the antacid tablets, the otherworldly stillness. He would have prayed if he had not been considering what to say next. Jay remembered his appearance in front of the Planning Commission. He did not compose a word of it beforehand and had delivered a first-rate soliloquy. He knew how to wing it.
After what seemed like a respectable amount of time had passed (five seconds), he resumed, “I wanted to talk to you tonight so that I could apologize. The accident was a dreadful thing, but I want to say here in public in front of the team’s fans that it was an accident. An accident for which I take full responsibility.” That was the key point to hit, he knew. Americans want to hear that whoever caused a scandal took “responsibility” for it. They dispensed a public lashing and then everyone could “move on.” Jay knew the Stations of the Contrition Cross, had seen them traversed by countless others that the shame machine trained its sights on. He would not say anything about moving on tonight, though. The contract was implied.
“And by taking responsibility . . . ”
An object landed on the court near Jay’s feet. From high up, a fan had hurled a tightly rolled T-shirt. It skimmed past him. The arena remained strangely hushed. Not sure what to do but wanting to convey amiability, Jay leaned down, picked up the T-shirt and tossed it back in the stands.
“Someone else might want this,” he said.
A fan shouted from the upper deck, “Racist!” the harsh intonation screaming like a missile before detonating on the floor. Jay tensed. Another T-shirt hit the court, then three more. Two sailed over his head, tossed from behind him. He could not throw them all back.
“I like your passion,” Jay said, a projectile striking his leg. “But it’s not true. So by taking responsibility—”
Boos began to roll in from the upper decks, boos gathering force in the lower bowl, boos coming from behind him and from either side, rising in volume and combining with wild voices emerging from hundreds of throats, all swelling into a crescendo of contempt. Fans rose in their seats yelling, gesticulating, and Dag Maxwell T-shirts began to rain down on the court from all directions, filling the noisy air like snowballs, some arcing gracefully toward their target, others shooting at Jay with laser-like precision. What collective insanity had broken loose? He wasn’t a bad actor—he was good!—and this was atonement of the first order! He apologized! He took responsibility!
As one T-shirt struck him in the back and another glanced off his shoulder, Jay reflexively held his hand up to protect his recently broken nose. A phalanx of security charged in his direction.
“ANY FAN CAUGHT THROWING AN OBJECT ON THE COURT WILL BE EJECTED. PLEASE DO NOT THROW OBJECTS. YOU WILL BE EJECTED IMMEDIATELY.”
But the T-shirts continued to land on the court near Jay along with drink cups, team hats, and anything else that could be hurled through the air. Bellows of indignation, howling imprecations, curses of all kinds unleashed. Distorted faces and cruel laughter added to the sensory overload. Security men waded in, trying to stop fans from contributing to the chaos.
Dequan sprinted toward him. A T-shirt struck the bodyguard in the face, and he tripped over a guard who had fallen while chasing a fan. Dequan picked himself up and, pushing other members of the security detail out of the way, found Jay. Several guards chased other fans that had dashed on to the court wielding T-shirts, arms cocked, attempting to get a better shot at the petrified owner. On the sidelines, players and coaches stood frozen and watched the action unfold like a video game.
Cutting through the roar of the unhinged mob, an authoritative voice: “THIS IS THE MAYOR OF NEWARK.” There was a brief lull in the mayhem, mischief-makers calibrating their reaction to this attempted assertion of control. “ALL FANS RETURN TO YOUR SEATS IMMEDIATELY.” But just as quickly, the noise level climbed, bedlam resumed, and although the mayor continued to assert his authority—“YOU ARE BRINGING SHAME ON THE CITY OF NEWARK! RETURN TO YOUR SEATS!”—the fans ignored him.
Dequan threw an arm around Jay and, shoving people out of their path, guided him toward the tunnel. When they were twenty feet from the entrance Jay felt a blow to his head as if someone had punched him. He wheeled and saw that one of the T-shirt bazooka marksmen had scored a direct hit with the weapon. Several security men wrestled him to the floor as he hooted in celebration. Dequan hustled Jay into the mouth of the tunnel. Through the din, he heard the agitated voice of his erstwhile ally continue to implore, “THIS IS THE MAYOR OF NEWARK, RETURN TO YOUR DAMN SEATS!”
Relieved the T-shirt had not further damaged his already broken nose but undone by the riot his presence caused, he waited with Boris in the security office until Bo McCants determined it was safe to leave the building. Jay was shaking, short of breath. It took several minutes for his pulse to slow, and he thought he might be having a coronary. Huddled in the claustrophobic room, he tried to get his bearings. Blood roared in his ears. There was the strange sensation of thinking he might begin to cry. It seemed as if the entire building had lost its collective mind. Where was the residual goodwill he had anticipated? Where was the collective memory of his generosity? Bo McCants stood at the door peering up and down the corridor. What was he waiting for? Finally—how long had they been stuck there?—he indicated that the time had come to move out.
A close formation of security guards surrounded Jay and escorted him toward the exit. They emerged from the building, and he was relieved to see only a smattering of people outside. The outdoor protest had ended, and in the brisk evening air, the scene appeared like any other game night. As a safety precaution, an additional detail of security men piled into a van and tailed the SUV as it ferried Jay into the city.
When Bo McCants’s squad finally restored order at Sanitary Solutions Arena, over a hundred fans were ejected from the building. Police made twenty-seven arrests for disorderly conduct and public drunkenness. Jay was watching the local feed of the game with Boris on the large screen television in his apartment and, in what felt like an afterthought, saw the home team beat the Miami Heat 107-105, thereby qualifying for the NBA playoffs. Boris offered his congratulations, but Jay was not in a festive mood.
In the postgame wrap-up, rather than simply celebrate the twin accomplishments of knocking off a formidable foe and making it to the postseason, the announcers chose to discuss the melee that had occurred earlier.
The white play-by-play man, a career New York broadcaster named Al Klinger, declared, “The fans’ behavior tonight was outrageous. Jay Gladstone’s a decent guy.”
Pro basketball games are usually broadcast by duos: The play-by-play announcer who describes the action as it’s occurring and the “color” man who provides insights and analysis. The color man is often a former player and often, although not always, African-American, rendering the term “color man” unfortunate. Al Klinger’s partner was Kenny Jamison, a former Chicago Bull. He was black. To Klinger’s remark, Kenny Jamison responded, “You’re so sure he’s a decent guy?”
Jay sat wrapped in a bathrobe, a bowl of low-fat mint chip ice cream on his lap, and watched this unfold.
“I think he’s a decent guy,” the white announcer said. “You don’t?” Jay could see Al suddenly wondering whether he should have asked his broadcast partner this particular question.
The pause that ensued while Kenny Jamison thought about what he might say was agonizing. Kenny Jamison was an employee of the home team. Kenny Jamison, technically speaking, worked for Jay Gladstone.
“You want my honest opinion?”
Kenny Jamison’s employer, sitting in front of the television high in the Manhattan sky, paused the spoonful of ice cream that was halfway to his mouth, unsure how much he wanted to know the man’s honest opinion.
Kenny Jamison: “I think it’s complicated.”
Complicated? String theory was complicated! Deciphering ancient runes was complicated! Jay Gladstone had uttered a few words that could have been interpreted by well-meaning people multiple ways and then publicly apologized! What was complicated about that?
Jay turned off the television. He did not want to hear that the quality of his character was “complicated.” If he could fire Church Scott when the playoffs were over, could he fire Kenny Jamison, too? Of course not. He couldn’t just get rid of everyone, make them take loyalty oaths, swear fealty to him.
“How is it possible that I have no black friends?”
“What about Church?”
“He’s in an impossible position.”
“Don’t defend him, Boris.” Jay’s tone did not invite a response.
Boris leaned back on the sofa, stretched his arms over his head. Jay put the ice cream down. It had lost its taste.
“Someone needs to start a business,” Boris said. “Black friends for white liberals. Reduces black unemployment, erases white guilt. All credit cards accepted.”
There was no laughter from Jay.
The men did not talk for the next several minutes, just remained together, each brooding about how dire the situation had become. Boris asked if Jay would be all right alone in the apartment. Upon receiving an affirmative response, he departed.
In bed, Jay wondered about the effects of the night’s events. It was hard to believe only hours earlier he had stood at the center of a basketball court and been subjected to the jeers of the mob, many of whom could not confine their abuse to the verbal realm and had either hurled objects or tried to attack him physically. It was bizarre. Jay had from his earliest years fantasized what it was like to be on the court with the full attention of the crowd. But in his fantasy, he was much younger and wearing a basketball uniform, and the crowd he envisioned was an adoring one cheering his achievements. Reversal of the image from worship to denigration disrupted the circuitry. He knew there would be a backlash from what had happened with Dag, but he had not expected this. The model citizen who had led a sober life as an executive, civic leader, and—until recently—family man was now the target of free-ranging scorn that seemed to have come unstuck from its original cause and taken on a life of its own. But perhaps something positive might come from it, he reflected. Being the victim of public shaming on such a scale might create sympathy and reverse the trend that seemed to be taking hold. Or, would what had occurred only reinforce his role as a villain, validate the feelings of those inclined to be cruel, and permit them to give their disgust free rein?
And when would Dag emerge from the coma? Were that to happen, Jay could at least temporarily decrease the rate and frequency of his self-flagellation.
Late Saturday evening while Jay was watching the post-game broadcast with Boris, Imani Mayfield sat down at her dorm room desk, opened her laptop, and began to type. As a scholar and, in her view, a fair-minded woman, she took great pains to find the right tone. She wanted to condemn, but not destroy. Jay Gladstone’s daughter was one of her closest friends. Should she mention that? No, it was irrelevant. But there would be no ad hominem attack. It took several drafts, and in the end, she was satisfied. The next morning everyone affiliated with Tate College, including the trustees (one of whom was Jay Gladstone), woke up to find the following email waiting for them:
From: Imani Mayfield, Tate College, ’12
To: All members of the Tate College community
This email contains upsetting material so if you have been a victim of racism consider this a trigger warning.
I am writing to you as a student at Tate College and a progressive woman of color. Tate College has a long history of tolerance. It is a nexus of competing ideas and an incubator of challenging thought. But even at a place like Tate, some ideas are so unacceptable that their expression must be banned. As you may already know, Jay Gladstone has been invited to address the class of 2012 at our graduation in May. As a student, this was not a decision I approved of, but I believe in the free exchange of ideas, and despite his controversial record as a New York City landlord, I did not raise my voice in protest. Now circumstances have changed, and today I respectfully call on all members of the college community, students, faculty, and staff, to join me in demanding the immediate withdrawal of this invitation.
Some of you may not be aware of the recent events that have led me to take this step: Gladstone was heard on a tape making a racially charged comment. If you haven’t heard about the incident and want to read about it yourself to provide some context you can find stories on the Internet here: www.nytimes.com, here: www.espn.com, or here: www.gawker.com, and on lots of other sites. Here is what he said:
“Why does everyone in this family want to have sex with black people?”
I’m sorry to have to drop that in the middle of your computer screen, or your smartphone, or whatever device you’re reading this on but that’s how it is. With or without context, the comment is deeply hurtful and racist. If you don’t know, Gladstone’s wife was having sexual relations with one of his black male employees, and he caught them. I’m a human being. I feel for Jay Gladstone. But that does not diminish the harmfulness of what he said. While I wish my eyes could unsee his words, my eyes cannot unsee them. I will, however, offer an interpretation because this is the basis for my demand to withdraw the invitation to speak at graduation. Jay Gladstone’s objectification of the black body has a long, ugly, and dangerous history in America. Since our ancestors arrived on these shores in chains, white folk, to put it mildly, have had a complex relationship with people of color. Make no mistake: Black bodies built this nation. Black bodies are worshipped in this nation. Black bodies are feared in this nation. Black bodies are rendered abstract, decoupled from their personhood, and sexualized. Jay Gladstone, through his hateful words, invokes the antebellum magnolias-in-the-moonlight slave-owning landscape of Mandingo, a depraved world of delicate white folk whose respectability and decorum are vanquished by untamed black sexuality and the people of color who pay for that depravity with their lives. That original sin from which this nation is still recovering grew out of the white supremacist vision of men like Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and Jay Gladstone is their heir. As a personification of white male privilege, he declares himself unfit to be a speaker on this campus.
Please join me in calling the office of President Chapin at (845) 456-7395 or contacting him at Pres.Chapin@Tatecollege.edu and letting the man know that people like Jay Gladstone are not welcome at a place like Tate. The college must rescind the invitation to speak.
One love, Imani Mayfield
Jay blearily perused the email with his morning coffee, stomach migrating incrementally downward as he read. By the time he reached the end, he was wide-awake. Then he reread it. He was wounded and outraged. Although Imani’s words were upsetting, they were to be expected considering the source. She had a score to settle with Jay. Her characterization of him was wildly off base, but enemies had caricatured him before, and as a landlord he was accustomed to being vilified. No one ever compared me to Thomas Jefferson, he reflected. If my mother weren’t senile, she’d be thrilled. He expected this entreaty to ignite a prairie fire at the college that would burn until it consumed him. Had Aviva signed off on her friend’s email? Had she co-written the thing? It had certainly been a bold stroke. Not only would the opportunity to speak there probably be denied as a result of what Imani had done, but his very presence at his daughter’s graduation would also now be unwelcome. This situation horrified him. As sour as it was between them, Aviva was his only child, and he intended to watch her graduate from college.
It occurred to Jay that in the wake of her friend’s missive Aviva might call or send him an email using Imani’s to buttress her case. But he did not hear from her. After last night’s events, the shift in his circumstances was unmistakable. He could endow a new science or humanities center, underwrite chairs in every department; none of it mattered now. Aviva’s friend had checkmated him.
The banks of the Hudson around Schuylkill are densely forested. Although the well-heeled have, since the 19th century, erected palaces along the swiftly flowing river, great swaths of the land remain undeveloped. Hickory, hemlock, and black birch soar over the primeval landscape, much of which continues to be unchanged from the time of the Algonquin. Over two centuries earlier, these woods were filled with British soldiers under the command of General Cornwallis attempting to rout the ragtag revolutionary troops led by the upstart George Washington. America was born, and the crack of martial gunfire was now heard only in the context of video games. More recently, for circumscribed periods each year, licensed sportsmen draped in orange reflective gear tracked through the area hoisting rifles and obliterating deer. But it was not hunting season, and as the sun winked above the treetops melting the frost that had formed overnight on the fallen branches and old leaves that carpeted the ground, four soldiers swarmed through the woods cradling weapons.
Aviva, Imani, and Noah were participating in an acting exercise devised by Axel that he had dubbed “full environmental immersion” and it consisted of the performer enacting the part he or she was playing in the actual context where the action depicted on stage occurred or, failing that, in the closest manageable approximation. In theory, this would allow the performer to draw on sense memories—the peaty smell of the woods, the crack of a twig snapping underfoot—acquired in the course of the exercise and use them to create a deeper, more evocative portrayal. Axel modeled this particular one on the military training devised by Field Marshall Cinque to prepare his followers in the Symbionese Liberation Army for taking over television studios, or power plants, or kidnapping heiresses. Their sneakers didn’t make a sound as they stole through the woods.
They had gone out early to avoid running into anyone. Axel drove them in his truck and parked in front of an unoccupied summer home on a dirt road off the two-lane highway that ran parallel to the river about a mile from the east bank. After a brief safety lecture, he distributed the guns and they hiked into the woods.
Axel had attended a gun show and purchased two .22 caliber handguns and a pair of military rifles. Aviva and Imani cradled the rifles and the young men each gripped a pistol. Axel was comfortable with a weapon and handled it like he would any tool. But the others were not as relaxed at first and arranged themselves in poses inspired by films and television shows, taking care not to point the barrels at one another. Axel reprimanded them and reminded everyone that art and politics were serious business, and if anyone wanted to goof around, they could go home.
“This isn’t like that bullshit in the West Bank,” he said to Aviva. “This shit is real.”
“How was that bullshit?” Noah said. “The IDF could’ve fucked her up.”
“Yeah, but did they? No, they did not.” Axel said. “They didn’t even bother to show up. You guys had no firearms, there was no confrontation. It was all a big nothing.”
“At least we were there,” Aviva said as they continued to make their way along the path.
Axel just snorted.
To the east, a roiling bank of indigo clouds appeared over the hills. The sun vanished and cast the toy soldiers in shadow. In the darkening woods, Axel ran them through a series of drills, dashing, crouching, maneuvering on their stomachs, drawing their weapons, aiming, pretending to fire. When Aviva stumbled and fell, he asked if she was all right. He showed Imani how to take her gun apart and put it back together. But when Noah questioned why they were doing a particular thing, Axel ordered him to shut up. Since what they were engaged in was essentially a form of play, Noah accepted his lesser role but expected Axel to not act like a dick. When their legs got tangled as they ran through a clearing, Axel shoved Noah, who went sprawling and cursed his friend.
“You could get us killed,” Axel said.
“Dude, it’s a game,” Noah replied as he got up and brushed leaves off his clothes. A stray leaf stuck to his head and Imani plucked it off.
Aviva believed she had acquired all the sense memories necessary for her performance after fifteen minutes but did not want to complain and be labeled a lightweight. It felt silly to be running around the woods waving guns as if they were Sandinistas or members of FARC. Only Axel seemed to be taking it seriously.
When they had been training for nearly an hour, Noah asked why Axel had loaded the guns if he didn’t want anyone to shoot.
“Because people need to feel what it’s like to hold power in their hands.”
“I want to shoot,” Aviva said.
Axel said: “So shoot.”
Noah looked at Axel in surprise and asked why he was going to allow Aviva to fire her gun while he (Noah) was not permitted.
“Because Patty sprays her weapon, fool.”
Axel had always dictated the terms of their friendship. He led a wilder life, read more, agonized more. He was on his own in the world while Noah would graduate from college in a little over a month free to pursue his destiny with a manageable level of student debt. Because of this disparity, Noah didn’t mind being patronized by him when they were alone, but it was unacceptable in the presence of Aviva and Imani.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Axel said.
Noah was pointing the pistol at him.
“Just seeing what power feels like.”
“Put the gun down, fool.” Noah kept pointing it at him. He narrowed an eye. Was he aiming? “I said put the motherfucking gun down. Lay it on the ground and step away from it.” Noah did neither. Aviva watched them, unable to believe what she was seeing. These guys had been friends since freshman year. What damage was programmed into their DNA that made the threat of violence the wordless language of their gender?
“Drop the gun, Jewboy,” Imani said. She was leveling her rifle at Noah’s half black, half-Jewish dreadhead.
It started to drizzle.
Aviva stared at them in mute disbelief. She had never heard her friend use that word in conversation. Axel told Imani not to worry; he would handle this. She did not obey.
“Lower your weapon,” Axel told her. He was oddly relaxed.
Imani looked at him as if he had asked her to whistle. “What? Why?”
“Just stand down, girl. I got this.”
The intensity of the rain increased. To Aviva’s relief, Imani tentatively lowered the barrel of the rifle. The situation was getting too weird. Axel addressed Noah: “How do you like the way power feels?”
“I like it, white boy,” Noah said. “Let me see you drop your weapon.”
“Why do you want me to do that?”
Noah said: “Drop the motherfucker.”
When Axel’s pistol landed on the moist forest floor, it barely made a sound. Aviva saw Imani catch Axel’s eye with a look that asked if he wanted her to aim her gun at Noah again, but with a faint shake of his head, he indicated no. Rain angled down their faces.
Noah ordered Axel to step away from the gun. “And Imani, don’t point that fucking thing at me.”
Axel backed away from the gun on the ground. Aviva rushed forward and grabbed it.
Axel asked her: “Are you with him?”
“You’re both acting like idiots,” Aviva said. “Quit fucking around, Noah.”
Ignoring Aviva, Noah said to Axel: “You’re not a revolutionary, dude. You just play. What have you ever done? That story you tell about liberating the pig farm? Couldn’t find it anywhere on the Internet. How do you explain that? An army of liberated pigs wandering the hills of Oregon and no mention anywhere? You’re full of shit.”
Aviva looked from one boy to the other, guns dangling at her side. Axel glanced toward the guns and then looked at Noah. Ten feet separated them. Then, he slowly walked toward the barrel of Noah’s weapon.
“Shoot me,” Axel said. “See what it feels like.”
Noah had been holding the pistol perpendicular to the ground. Now he shifted his arm, and the angle changed to forty-five degrees.
Aviva could see his hand was trembling. Axel was five feet away.
She said: “Put the gun down, Noah.”
He ignored her. Axel took another step. Aviva could not comprehend what she was seeing: Two blood-engorged rams butting heads in some parody of natural selection.
“I’m warning you, man,” Noah said, but when Axel grabbed the gun from his hand, he did not resist. He seemed relieved and smiled stupidly. He said, “I was just playing,” and gave a nervous laugh. But distress seized his features when Axel in one lightning motion pressed the barrel against Noah’s temple.
A current of terror shot through Aviva, paralyzing her.
“Axel, what the fuck,” Imani screamed.
“Never give up your weapon,” Axel hissed. Noah closed his eyes, quaking.
Axel pulled the trigger and—nothing.
For a moment, no one said anything. Axel stepped away.
“You m-m-motherfucker,” Noah stammered. The air had flown from his narrow body.
Aviva shoved Axel hard. “You’re such an asshole!”
Axel did not respond to her admonishment. Instead, he jammed the pistol into his belt and said, “You think I’d give any of you clowns a loaded weapon?” Then he tilted his head back and uncorked a whoop of laughter that rose to the treetops where it frightened the starlings roosting in the branches.
It was still raining when they marched out of the woods. Axel kept apologizing. Noah didn’t want to hear it at first, but Axel called him an outlaw and a bad motherfucker, said he could shoot all he wanted, and they could even go to a gun range across the river that afternoon.
The bass and drum of thunder grumbled, and lightning strobe-lit the landscape.
“Follow me,” Noah said and ran across the street toward a white Colonial with green shutters. Aviva and Imani looked at each other and trailed him, Axel in the rear. Noah appeared to have recovered from what happened earlier. Behind the house, a set of concrete steps led to the back door. Noah climbed the steps. The door had nine rectangular windowpanes. Aviva thought he was going to punch one of them out to let them in.
“Noah, don’t,” she said.
“Don’t what?” There was a key under the doormat. “Do you want to stand out here and get soaked?”
Aviva considered his question. It was breaking and entering.
He inserted the key in the door, turned the knob, and stepped inside.
“This place is the shit,” Imani said from the dining room.
“Who lives here?” Aviva asked. Having overcome her trepidation, she was looking around the kitchen.
“Some white-collar criminal,” Noah said.
Aviva looked alarmed. “So, he could show up any minute?”
“He’s only here in the summer,” Noah assured her. “I did a little sleuthing. He works mostly in London.”
Rain pelted the windows. Noah found a glass, filled it with water from the tap, and drank. He lit a joint while Axel rummaged through the cabinets. Noah offered Aviva the joint, but she declined. Axel took a hit.
Overhead Aviva could hear the faint sound of Imani’s footsteps. They had stopped sleeping together. Aviva had told her she had been shouldering a lot of conflicting emotions and wanted to handle it alone. Imani had accepted this, said she had never really believed Aviva was gay and asked if Aviva was breaking up with her so she could fuck Axel. At the time Aviva wasn’t sure if that was true, but after what had happened with the guns, she did not want to be Axel’s lover.
Now she watched him searching for the sell-by date on a can of peaches. He had grown wilder from when they first met. She still found him charismatic, but now his behavior evoked the kind of guy who, just to be provocative, might hold a gun to a woman’s head while he was inside her. His fearlessness appealed, but the less assertive Noah was more like someone she could see herself with as an adult. That was the thing: None of them seemed like adults, not Imani, or Noah, or Axel. Aviva didn’t seem like one to herself, and she was about to graduate from college. What she felt more than anything was puzzlement. Upset by the situation with her father, uncertain in her sexuality, and now the passive participant in a crime. It was disorienting to be standing in a house she had broken into. It was wrong, she knew, but the lawlessness excited her.
Axel opened the can of peaches. Imani entered the kitchen waving her phone and asked if any of them had seen the email she had blasted to everyone with a Tate College account. No one had checked his or her in-box that morning. Imani took a hit from the joint Noah offered. Then she read:
“I am writing to you as a student at Tate College and a progressive woman of color—”
Imani savored the text, relishing her performance, emphasizing words like toxic, and depraved, and magnolias. No one looked at Aviva, who tried to hide the shame lacerating her. The reading seemed to go on for a long time.
When Imani finished, Noah said, “That’s brilliant.”
“The writing’s impressive,” was Axel’s comment.
Imani informed them that she had done a great deal of reading on the subject.
“How come you didn’t show it to me before you sent it?” Aviva wanted to know.
Imani said, “I knew you might have a problem with it.”
Aviva thought about defending her father. She had not spoken up on his behalf to anyone since the scandal occurred. What had he done, really, other than say a few words in a challenging situation that had become a Rorschach blot for whoever heard them? But people chose what team they were on, and she knew hers. Or at least she thought she did. These were her people, restless, empathic, champions of the downtrodden. But they didn’t know her father as she did. It was one thing for her to criticize him, but it was entirely different when the world seemed bent on destroying the man. Jay Gladstone may have been an oblivious plutocrat, but he was hardly a personification of racist evil. He supported her endeavors, donated enormous sums to the right causes. Yet the terrible condition of the world was the result of the people that were in charge, and he was one of them.
It was difficult for her to choose whom to betray.
“My father might be a lot of things,” Aviva said, “but he’s not a racist.”
“Why did he say that shit?” Noah asked.
“He was in a wonky situation and blurted out some words,” Aviva said. “It sounds bad but now the whole world is on his ass, and it’s not fair.”
“The man’s a stone racist,” Imani said.
“Whether or not he’s racist,” Noah said, “he supports an economic system that continues to benefit from the exploitation of people of color, so yeah.”
“He is not racist,” Aviva repeated. To Imani: “You were in his house, and you sincerely believe my father is racist?”
“Hey, I get that he can’t help it. He’s a creature of the system.”
“That is such bullshit,” Aviva said. “He’s a human being.”
“You forget that he threw me out.”
“Not because you’re black.”
“Because you were rude.”
“Well, you can take the girl out of Westchester,” Imani said.
The women faced off. The degree of anger between them was new. Axel had been drinking peach juice from the can. He burped. “Hey, don’t forget you two are on the same side. The empire wants us to destroy each other.”
Aviva and Imani took Axel’s interjection as an excuse to stand down.
“I defended you,” Aviva said.
“Whatever,” Imani said. Then: “Okay, I may have been a little rude.”
Conflict temporarily defused.
Noah was looking at his phone. “There’s a blast from the college president. Your dad’s out. He’s not speaking at commencement. It says he voluntarily withdrew.”
The effects of the abuse her friends heaped on her father compromised the relief Aviva felt at this news. That he had not been sufficiently moved by his own daughter’s request, yet had capitulated as a result of Imani’s efforts was beyond Aviva’s capacity to understand.
“I’m almost sorry the situation got resolved,” Noah said. “It would’ve been fun to protest.”
“Could’ve occupied the president’s office,” Imani said.
“Kidnapped him,” Noah said.
“The college president?” Axel asked.
“Why not?” Noah said. “It’d be an epic prank, like something from the sixties.”
“The American left is dead,” Axel said, beating a favorite drum.
“You can still do it,” Imani said. A deft ironist, her tone was indeterminate.
Noah said, “We can grab him at his house, get him over here, and keep him prisoner for just, like, a day. If we wore balaclavas, he’d never know it was us, and he’d be blindfolded anyway.”
“Okay, that’s stupid,” Imani said, clarifying her position.
“You sound like you’ve thought about this,” Aviva said.
“All we need is duct tape, rope, and a blanket,” Noah said.
Was he serious? Aviva had no idea.
Axel slapped his palm on the counter. “You know who we should kidnap? Aviva’s dad.”
“That’s even more stupid,” Aviva said.
“No, listen,” Axel said. “When the SLA kidnapped Patty Hearst they got her father to donate, like, millions of dollars’ worth of food to poor people in the Bay Area. What if we did that?”
“What, like, fake kidnap Aviva?” Noah said.
Aviva nearly shouted: “No one is fake kidnapping me!” They were all looking at her, and she experienced the creeping sensation that these friends, all of whom were from another social world, might suddenly determine she was a class enemy and turn on her. “How high are you guys?”
“Kushed out,” Noah said, laughing.
“You could always fake kidnap me,” Imani said. “For ransom, you might get a corn dog.”
Aviva did not appreciate the stab at humor.
“No, no, no,” Noah said. “We kidnap Aviva’s dad, we hold him here, we make one of those hostage videos and get him to denounce racism.”
Aviva said, “That’s so beyond dumb, I don’t even—”
“Why?” Imani asked.
“Well, first of all,” Aviva said, “it’s a major crime. Let’s start with that. Then he’s supposed to write a check and end world hunger?”
“Dude is a billionaire,” Axel pointed out. On his tongue, it sounded like “child molester.”
“He could do it,” Noah said.
Aviva thought about her father’s multiple homes, the enormity of the wealth he controlled, and she considered the toxicity of their last encounter. But kidnapping? Audacious, definitely, and exceedingly simpleminded.
“You guys should do it,” she said. “I’ll visit you in jail.”
Noah began to giggle from the weed. He shook, doubled over as he envisioned the hilarity of this group of pranksters in jail. They waited for him to finish.
“Please do,” he said with a long sigh as he regained control of his thin body.
“We can’t do it without you,” Axel said to Aviva. When she asked why they needed her help, he said: “Because he’ll never press charges if you’re part of it.”
Aviva thought about her father and how he had mucked up her life by leaving her mother, by being unnecessarily wealthy, and—in her view—wanting her to be something other than what she was. Now, as a result of his increasingly baroque public difficulties, the problem had only intensified. She resented him for never being able to accept his imperfect, oversensitive, yearning daughter. That fate had bound them together was cruel. She was exhausted from being tarred with the Gladstone brush. Could she never escape this imposed identity? Children separated from parents, it was the natural order; and yet was there ever a real escape from the DNA bequeathed in the form of physical characteristics, psychological traits, all of the visible and invisible qualities that bind families? She was dying to break away, but the mystifying love Aviva felt for her father made the situation intractable.
“I’m not kidnapping my father.”
“What about a bomb?” Axel said. They looked at him skeptically. Somehow, this seemed on a different order of magnitude from kidnapping. “You know, like the Weathermen.”
Noah asked, “Who do you want to bomb?”
Axel reacted like it was a dim-witted question. “Well, we could destroy President Chapin’s house for inviting Aviva’s dad in the first place, or we could bomb Aviva’s dad’s house.”
“Which one?” Imani asked.
Axel and Noah laughed. Aviva did not.
“You want to blow up my father?”
Axel said of course not, there was no way he wanted to blow anyone up, but some property destruction would make a statement. Aviva asked what that might be. His response: “Against racism.”
“How would anyone know that?”
“We take a name like the People’s Army Against Racism, call the media from one of those phones drug dealers use, and we’re the reincarnation of Baader-Meinhof.”
Noah asked, “Do you know how to build a bomb?”
“We liberated that pig farm in Oregon with bombs.”
“The one I couldn’t find any mention of on the Internet.”
“You don’t believe me?”
Aviva’s eyes darted back and forth. She hoped they wouldn’t point guns at each other again.
Noah said, “Axel, I’m only saying that if it happened—”
“If it happened, what? There are things the government suppresses, Noah. Information they don’t want you to know.”
All the testosterone had become tiresome. But there was something about exploding a bomb that was a declaration, as long as no one got hurt. Aviva thought about the house in Bedford, where she had lived full-time until her parents’ divorce. The basketball court that her father built for her despite her indifference to the game. The horses she had no interest in riding. Walking to the swimming pool, her uneven gait serving as a reminder with each step she took that she did not conform to his idea of perfection. To blow a hole in all of it would be—would be what? She caught herself. A bomb? It was ludicrous. Playacting. Posturing. Aviva listened as her friends continued their gabbing, confident the dialogue would exhaust itself.
They talked about explosives, the variety, their relative ease of assembly, whether people would be sympathetic to their cause if they blew something up, had bombs ever been an efficient way to blah blah blah. Aviva pretended to be excited by the idea of direct action but had no intention of following through. After listening to the conversation, Imani tempered her eagerness. Noah implied he didn’t believe the others were up to it anyway so what were they even talking about, but Axel’s desire for a dramatic gesture seemed to grow.
The downpour had stopped. In the western sky, sunlight spilled from a fissure in the clouds. When they left the house after an hour, the one thing they agreed on was that if racism was going to be defeated, something must be done.
Late Sunday afternoon, Jay received a phone call from the commissioner of the league. A man both affable and indomitable, he had ruled his fiefdom smoothly for several decades, navigating a middle path between the owners and players that led both groups to feel he was secretly in the pocket of the other. He was sickened by what happened at Sanitary Solutions Arena the previous evening and expressed his desire for those who created the disturbance to be prosecuted and banned from further attendance at games. The commissioner asked: Are you doing okay, Jay? The commissioner remarked: No one should have to endure this. The commissioner wondered: Would you mind coming to the league offices first thing on Monday morning to talk about damage control?
At last, Jay thought, someone not just piling on but looking for ways to ameliorate the situation. He went to bed that night despondent over what he had done to Dag, disappointed that he had not heard from Aviva in the wake of his withdrawal from the commencement, but secure in his alliance with the man who governed professional basketball.
Because the disturbance at the Miami game occurred too late in the day to make the Sunday morning papers, the Monday editions made up for it with extensive accounts of the mayhem. GLADSTONE BOMBARDMENT! shrieked the New York Post above a picture of Jay beneath a barrage of flying T-shirts. The New York Times reported: Fans Express Rage Toward Owner Prior to Victory. A columnist for the Daily News opined: While what Gladstone said was undeniably racist, it would behoove the fans to express themselves in a more civilized way.
Undeniably racist? Jay nearly choked when he read that. His family foundation handed out Gladstone Scholarships to black kids like candy and now his “racism” was undeniable? Today he was having lunch with Bobby Tackman at his club. He hoped Tackman had some idea how to unwind the narrative that had taken hold.
It was with this in mind that Jay rode the elevator to the League offices. He had informed Dequan he did not need a bodyguard today. In the elevator with him were a man and a woman, both in business dress. Neither acknowledged his presence. Jay was the first to get off, and when the door closed behind him, he imagined the two strangers were bonding over their ride with New York’s latest public enemy and saying disparaging things about him. The receptionist, a young black woman he recognized from a recent visit, offered a terse greeting. He suspected she was sitting in judgment.
She alerted the commissioner’s office to Jay’s arrival. Jay waited for the woman to wave him back, but she told him to take a seat. “They’ll let me know when they’re ready for you.” The head of the league was going to keep him waiting. That had never happened. He sank into a couch and pulled out his phone to see if there was any news from the Planning Commission about the Sapphire. His chief operating officer had told him they expected to get the approval to break ground in the fall, but there was still no word. The elevator doors opened, and two league attorneys emerged. Trim and athletic, they glanced at Jay but said nothing. The receptionist buzzed them in. Jay continued to wait. A minute later the elevator door opened again, and a middle-aged black man emerged. Jay recognized him as a veteran referee, someone he had watched call many games from his courtside seats. The man walked to the receptionist’s desk, gave his name, and sat down in the waiting area across from Jay where he picked up a magazine and began to leaf through it. Jay waited to see whether the ref would express sympathy about what had happened to him at Sanitary Solutions Arena, or even deign to greet him. When he did neither, Jay said, “How are you?” The man looked up from the magazine and grunted a greeting but said nothing. Their respective places on the social food chain would have ordinarily demanded obeisance on the part of the game official toward the owner, but recent events had jumbled that equation. The receptionist called the referee’s name and said he could go back. Ten more minutes crawled by before she told Jay they were ready for him.
“Sorry we made you wait,” the commissioner said.
They were in the conference room seated at a large oval table surrounded by twelve chairs. Jay sat on one side of the table, the commissioner across from him flanked by the deputy commissioner, a bald white man in his forties, and the chief counsel, a white woman with a brunette bob, also in her forties. Though they were both highly competent professionals, Jay considered them cogs in the league machine. The commissioner had held his position for nearly a quarter of a century. An avuncular man, he had a tanned face with prominent features and an impressive head of graying hair. He looked well-rested. With a forefinger, he pushed his gold-framed glasses back on the bridge of his nose.
“Saturday night was regrettable.” His voice a purr.
“Terrifying,” Jay said.
“It must have been. How are you feeling?”
“I’ve been better.” He hoped the smidgen of pathos in his voice would engender compassion that he could use to his advantage. The deputy commissioner and the chief counsel made sympathetic noises. Jay ignored them. He noticed that the chief counsel had a manila folder in front of her.
The Commissioner: “What about D’Angelo?”
“I have the best doctors in the world monitoring his condition.”
Jay hoped that the commissioner had a plan to extract him from the thicket in which he found himself. The two had always enjoyed good relations, chatted at league meetings, had played several rounds of golf together at league-sponsored charity events. Jay even invited the commissioner to go horseback riding with him—“Jews ride horses?” the commissioner (who was Jewish) had asked with mock surprise—and although he had not yet taken Jay up on his offer, the leader of the NBA had made it clear that it was only a matter of time before they saddled up together. So, the two men were friendly, if not exactly friends. Jay had heard that the commissioner’s parents spoke Yiddish at home, and since the entire world seemed to be in the process of retreating to the ethnic categories from which they issued, he was not above trying to connect on a tribal level.
“Honestly, this whole megilla feels like a lot of tsuris for bupkis.”
From the blank stares of the lieutenants and the Commissioner’s phlegmatic expression, Jay realized he had overreached. He wanted to pluck the ill-timed Yiddish out of the air and cram it back down his throat. All of a sudden, he was channeling a Catskills tummler? From what hidden closet had Jay pulled the Jew-face?
“Let me cut right to the chase,” the commissioner said. “I talked with Church Scott last night, and he told me about the potential for a player boycott.”
“The players are young men,” Jay said. “They’re emotional.”
“The playoffs start this weekend,” the commissioner reminded him.
“I know,” Jay said. “We qualified.” A smile creased his face. The lieutenants offered congratulations. He nodded in acknowledgment.
“Church informed me that if you don’t sell the team, the players aren’t going to suit up.”
Before Jay could respond, the general counsel said, “Here’s how it would work: You put the team in a temporary trust—”
Jay interrupted her: “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m not selling the team.”
“Just a minute,” the commissioner said. “Hear us out. Ultimately, it’s your decision, of course.”
Jay thought about getting up and leaving but realized a display of petulance would accomplish nothing. He needed the league on his side. He angled his head at the general counsel to indicate she should continue.
“Once the team is in a trust, the league will take over the day-to-day operations. It’s what we did with the New Orleans franchise, so there’s already a precedent for this.”
“Then I sell the team to the highest bidder?”
“We already have someone in mind,” the commissioner said. “He’s Russian, and I think we can get you one point five billion, maybe a little more. You paid eight hundred million a few years ago, so you’d make half a billion dollars. That’s a lot of rubles.” The commissioner laughed, as did his accomplices. All of them looked at Jay as if he should pick up the cue and laugh with them. Ruble was a funny word in this context and at least worth a chuckle, wasn’t it?
“I’m never going to agree to that,” Jay said. “You can’t force me to sell. I’ll tie you up in court for years.”
The commissioner did not immediately respond. The others didn’t dare speak. To Jay, this was a kangaroo court and he was not going to submit. He waited.
The commissioner assumed an expression of strained patience. “The playoffs are the most important part of our season,” he pointed out. “Your league partners need your team on the court. We have a television deal that I intend to honor.”
“I know all about the television deal,” Jay said. “I helped negotiate it.”
“Then you know we have to play the games,” the deputy commissioner said.
Jay looked at him askance: “You’re allowed to talk?” Jay meant it jocularly, but the edge in his voice made it read like the insult it was.
“Occasionally,” the deputy said, glancing at his boss who did not react.
“I’m going to talk to Church, and then I’ll talk to the players,” Jay said. “I’ll take care of it. My team is going to be on the court this weekend.”
“I hope you’re right,” the commissioner said. “But Jay, don’t take it the wrong way because it’s not personal, but if we don’t resolve this by the end of the week, the league is prepared to go to federal court to get an injunction forcing you to at least temporarily surrender control of the franchise.”
The general counsel opened her folder, removed a document, and slid it across the table. “This is a brief outline of what we have in mind,” she said. “You should let your attorney take a look at it.”
Jay ignored the document. “I always had great respect for you,” he said to the commissioner. “Because you had the spine to stand up to the players and the owners. But the mob starts braying, and you’re prepared to sell me down the river?”
The commissioner and his team stared at him. No one said anything. The deputy commissioner ended the standoff when he said:
“You realize that selling someone down the river refers to slavery, right?”
Jay exhaled in exasperation. Would his torments never cease?
“It hadn’t occurred to me.”
The deputy said, “I would advise you not to use that image if you’re going to be doing interviews.”
Jay wanted to smack him.
The general counsel raised her hand to her mouth to hide that she was smiling. Jay noticed her reaction. “Yes, this is hilarious,” he said. “A man’s life is being destroyed.”
Her grin vanished.
Jay pushed away from the table and got out of his chair. He wanted to calibrate his words with the greatest precision:
“This is a travesty. You are dictatorially adjudicating this matter without the due process that I’m entitled to, and I’m not going to let you do it.”
As he stalked out of the room, the commissioner implored, “Try to understand our position,” but Jay was no longer listening.
The Fifth Avenue sidewalk panorama looked like it did every weekday morning: men and women in business attire hustling to offices, tourists examining guidebooks and craning their necks, people charging in all directions. Yet to Jay, it seemed different because his relationship to all of it had changed. He wore a baseball cap and sunglasses, and no one paid attention to him. Telling Dequan his bodyguard services were not required today looked like the right idea. That would’ve attracted more notice. From the sidewalk, Jay called Church Scott. His call went to voice mail, and he left a message saying he intended to come to the team’s practice facility today to talk with the players. If he could speak to them directly, he knew they would see reason. They were young athletes. From what he knew, most of them were not political. He would appeal to them on a human level, talk about his philanthropy, his lifelong love of basketball. They would see reason.
He pulled the brim of his cap lower and began walking to the Paladin Club for his lunch with Bobby Tackman.
Five minutes later his phone vibrated. Church Scott was returning his call. The players were in open rebellion, Church reported. There were ten black men and two white men on the active roster, and every one of them was in agreement. The players had made it clear that as long as Jay Gladstone owned the team, they would refuse to take the court. Jay tried to hide his incredulity. They were professionals. They had contracts. How could these young men be so completely unreasonable? When Jay asked if it would be helpful for him to address the team, Church said, “No, no, no, that would only inflame the situation. If they hear you’re coming to practice, they’ll all get in their cars and go home.”
“They won’t even listen?”
“Not now,” Church said.
Jay asked when he thought that might change. Church told him not to hold his breath.
The city howled in his ears. He hung up and quickened his pace.
Jay was early to his lunch appointment, and while he waited for the crisis specialist to appear, he found an obscure corner of the club in which to sit and phoned Herman Doomer. When he reported what had occurred at the league offices Doomer was not surprised. “We’re living a different climate today,” the lawyer said. “People are unforgiving.” In no mood for a philosophical disquisition, Jay asked what kind of legal challenge they could mount. “If the league files an injunction against you, we can challenge it, but it’s a steep climb. The judge will weigh the interests of all the other owners against yours, and it’s hard to see how we can get a favorable ruling given the imminence of the playoffs.” Jay cursed under his breath. “That might be the least bad piece of news I’m going to give you on this phone call,” Doomer said.
“What are you talking about?”
“I heard from Christine Lupo’s office today. They’re going to charge you with a hate crime.”
What the lawyer told him was incomprehensible.
“A hate crime? Herman, it was an accident.”
“Those words cast the whole business in a racial light, unfortunately. Maybe we can get them to drop it eventually, but it’s going to be part of a larger negotiation.”
“This has no basis in reality. It’s illogical!”
“Not from their point of view. The more the DA’s office piles on, the thinking goes, the greater chance that we’ll negotiate to avoid a trial.”
“I am not negotiating.”
Doomer agreed that they should try and resolve the situation with the league and preserve Jay’s ownership position. The attorney asked if he wanted to proceed with the attempt to temporarily remove Franklin from the business but Jay balked at taking that step. There were too many other things to address this week. Dealing with Franklin could wait.
Jay had not been to his club since the accident. He absently picked at his poached salmon as he withstood the gale force of Bobby Tackman’s storm: “What did you think would happen when you stepped out on that court in front of all those people after you ran over their hero with your car? Why did you hire me if you’re going to go off half-baked and do whatever you want? I nearly called you that night and resigned. The clients I’m able to benefit are the ones who listen.”
Tackman had not touched his tuna melt.
After the meeting at the league office, Jay’s insides were in an uproar. He had said hello to the club manager upon his arrival, and Jean-Pierre looked at him strangely, as if he wanted to say something but could not quite bring himself to do it. None of the other diners had called out to him as he made his way to the table—Jay believed they wanted to give him privacy. Now, this onslaught from the garrulous consultant was intensifying his already foul mood. Wasn’t it his job to be the dispassionate one? As Tackman continued to enumerate the ways the misadventure at the arena had made his job infinitely more challenging, Jay fought the urge to sack him on the spot. But he had dug a China-sized hole and the man’s services were required for him to climb out of it, so instead he listened and stewed.
Tackman had concluded that Anderson Cooper offered the best platform from which to embark on what he referred to as “your apology tour.” He was friendly with the popular television host and thought Cooper’s ability to apprehend events in a nuanced manner would render him at least somewhat sensitive to Jay’s plight.
“What if he asks me about the accident?”
“I spoke with your lawyer about this. It’s his opinion that you insist what happened was entirely unintentional, and that on the advice of counsel you cannot say anything else. But you want the interviewer to ask the question. You can emphasize that it was an accident, one which you deeply regret, and will haunt you until—choose your time frame.”
“Forever works. And once you’ve got that out of the way, what you want to do is apologize to everyone, to Dag and Dag’s family, the basketball community, the black community, and this is the most important apology of all: To everyone I have hurt.”
“To everyone I have hurt?”
“Do you have a problem with that? It’s essential.”
For someone whose guiding principle was simply to be a moral actor, the idea of apologizing to “everyone I have hurt” was unspeakable. In a religious studies class, Jay had learned about the Jains, a group in India whose members swept the path in front of them with a broom as they walked so as not to harm any form of life with their feet. While Jay knew he was no Jain, the idea that he had hurt people on a scale this apology would imply was an assault on his core identity. Yet there it was. His version of accepting responsibility had resulted in a barrage of projectiles aimed in his direction. He had no choice but to trust Tackman, who, taking a break from his peroration, was finally forking a bite of the tuna melt into his mouth.
“You have to understand, Jay, we’re living in a different time.” Tackman took a sip of his tomato juice and grew thoughtful. “No one cares about the tragedies of kings. Those days are gone. Now, it’s all about who’s the most aggrieved, who can whine the loudest. Heaven forbid someone like you has a complaint. It’s not allowed. No one is interested in your story anymore. It’s the Time of the Victim, and you are in no shape or form a victim. You know what else you’re not? A protagonist. You, old chum, are the villain in this tale. Our job is to make you the protagonist.”
Jay knew this, but to hear it spoken aloud was unnerving.
“You go on CNN Wednesday, the first playoff game is Sunday, right? If the interview goes well, I think you’ll get a reprieve from the league. Maybe you don’t have to sell the team.”
The idea that going on television with Anderson Cooper might lead to a “reprieve”—and whatever form it took had to be better than what was happening now—lightened the crushing weight Jay felt. He surveyed the bustling dining room. Well-dressed men and women having lunch, they talked, they gestured, their voices rising in a pleasing din. Jean-Pierre greeted the diners. A waiter circulated with a dessert cart. An ordinary day, one in which Jay would have table-hopped. There was a network head having lunch with the president of a prominent advertising agency. And wasn’t that the woman who ran the Rockefeller Foundation? He would say hello on the way out, shake some hands, pat a few backs. Surely these people, his people, knew what had happened to him at Sanitary Solutions Arena. Surely, they would want to offer their sympathy.
Jay was only able to finish half his lunch. He signaled for the waiter to remove his plate.
“I’ve withdrawn from speaking at the Tate College commencement.”
Tackman finished chewing what was in his mouth, took a drink of water. “Giving a speech at a liberal arts college was a terrible idea. Frankly, I don’t know what you were thinking.”
While they drank coffee, Tackman mentioned that he was still working on arranging an invitation for Jay to speak at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. The minister was open to the idea, but apparently several of the deacons were opposed. In the meantime, Jay should keep a low profile and not do anything in public that might draw attention.
Managed seclusion. This time Jay would listen.
“If you do well with Anderson, maybe you won’t have to do anything else.”
That did not sound likely. Penance involved more than getting your passport back into polite society stamped during a television appearance with Anderson Cooper. But he appreciated any words of encouragement. He signed the bill and walked Tackman out of the dining room, intending to return and greet several acquaintances. But while he stood with his guest at the coat check stand, Jean-Pierre pulled him aside. Jay expected some buck-up-we’re-all-behind-you words from the club’s manager and jauntily waved to the departing Tackman.
“Several members have spoken to me, Mr. Gladstone,” Jean-Pierre began. “Please understand this is not my personal opinion.” The club manager paused. This task was causing him considerable discomfort. The pause got a little longer.
“What is it?”
“They believe that perhaps it is best for you to not come to the club now.”
Jay’s mind raced as he tried to figure out who could be behind this. As far as he knew, he had no enemies at the club. Members of several other real estate families belonged, but they were friendly rivals. It battered his already wounded psyche to learn that hidden antagonists now threatened the one place he considered a refuge from what had befallen him. He had been a member for over thirty years.
“Who said this?”
“I can’t say. You understand.”
“No, Jean-Pierre, I don’t understand at all.” Jay tried to keep his voice from rising. A man Jay knew walked toward the dining room without acknowledging him. “I’m being blackballed?”
“Not blackballed, Mr. Gladstone. But we have African-American members.”
“That’s who’s complaining? I’ll talk to them.”
“No, please,” Jean-Pierre said. “The African-American members are not complaining. The people who have brought this to my attention are white. Please understand my position. A club is a friendly place. The executive committee is meeting to discuss it tonight.”
Jay thanked Jean-Pierre for notifying him and said he would think about whether to stay away but knew he only said that to save face. When this whole tornado subsided, he would return and quietly find out who was conspiring against him. He chose to forgo the dining room handshakes and schmoozing and walk to the office. Perhaps there would be news on the fate of the Sapphire.
As Jay walked east he began to experience an oddly claustrophobic sensation. There were too many people on the sidewalks. The sky he glimpsed between buildings looked like bars of cobalt. The temperature had dropped, and the wind had picked up. Wearing the baseball cap and sunglasses, Jay nestled into his coat as he walked to the office and tried to shake off the feeling. He had appeared on the local news several times talking to field correspondents and had been on Charlie Rose with two other real estate magnates to discuss urban development. He keenly anticipated the chance to make his case later in the week.
When he rounded the corner, and began walking south on Park Avenue, he saw the demonstrators in front of the building. Imam Ibrahim Muhammad was leading a group of about forty of them chanting: Hey, hey, ho, ho, we’ll be here till Gladstone goes!
They were a mixture of black, white, and Latino, men and women, mostly young. Several bored-looking police officers stood to the side and watched. Sawhorses had been placed on the sidewalk to circumscribe the movements of the group, who paraded in a circle with the imam in the center shouting into a bullhorn. Reflexively, Jay retraced his steps around the corner and paused at the side of the building where he would be out of sight.
It was an ordinary day on Park Avenue. Workers tended the flowerbeds in the median in front of the building. Well-dressed pedestrians ambled along the sidewalks. Jay was not sure he should try to run the hostile gauntlet without Dequan at his side. He already knew the speed with which people’s condemnation could manifest in physical violence. He heard Tackman’s voice telling him to keep a low profile and not do anything public. Was this public, the space in front of an office building his family owned? Unfortunately, he concluded, it was. As people passed him on the sidewalk, he faced the building and looked at his phone, so it wouldn’t appear to anyone who glanced in his direction that he was just standing there.
The crackle of the bullhorn, the shouts of the pack, bored into his skull. His hand reflexively traveled to his nose. These people could attack and get him on the ground before the police restored order. Who knew what harm they could do? He needed to reach his office if for no other reason than to be in an environment with people who were on his side.
The protestors maintained their rhythmic chant. Pedestrians walked past the hubbub, most of them barely glancing at it, another obstacle to be navigated in the course of a city day. Jay realized he could not remain where he was. He either had to force his way into the building or gain access through a service entrance. He could not bear the thought of sneaking into a property his family owned, but neither could he see barreling through the demonstrators to get to the lobby.
Cautiously, Jay stepped around the corner to reassess the scene. As the imam led the chant, he thrust his fist into the air. To Jay, it felt like each thrust was punching him. Boom! To the body! Boom! To the chops! His nose still delicate, Jay had no appetite for confrontation. Once again, he thought about what had occurred at the arena, turned around, and began walking north on Park Avenue.
“Gladstone!” a voice shouted. Someone had spotted him. Another: “That’s him!”
Jay glanced over his shoulder to see several of the demonstrators had broken from the circle and were running in his direction chased by a collection of slow-footed cops. Jay broke into what he hoped would be a run, but it had been years, and he instantly felt his left hamstring scream in protest. In seconds, they caught up. Several demonstrators encircled him, shouting insults. They were black, and white, and both genders, and although none of them laid a hand on him, their anger was blistering. Jay turned this way and that but they had blocked his egress. Sweat broke out on his forehead.
He shouted: “What do you people want?”
A white man wearing a knit Rastafarian hat said, “You people?”
“Racist motherfucker,” from a black woman in oversized sunglasses.
The cops shoved the demonstrators away from Jay. A Latino officer whose name tag read Ortiz asked Jay if he was all right. Jay nodded and requested an escort into the building.
Officer Ortiz rode up in the elevator with Jay to make sure he got to the office safely.
“Is that protest lawful?” Jay asked.
“Some judge gave them a permit,” Ortiz said. On a Monday morning? That judge, Jay reflected, must want to destroy me.
Jay’s effort to reach Mayor Bloomberg resulted in an exchange with a deputy. “The permit,” he carped, “was probably issued by some rogue judge, and I want it revoked.” The deputy assured him he would look into it. This did not satisfy Jay who insisted that his friend “Mike” call him back as soon as possible and to punctuate his displeasure slammed the phone into the cradle. He then retreated to the couch and assumed the prone position Bebe found him in a few minutes later.
“Maybe you shouldn’t come into work for a few days,” Bebe suggested.
“I should let this goddamn imam chase me away?”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
To be pursued by a mob up Park Avenue and have to be once again rescued had taken a baleful toll. He glanced at the model of the Sapphire, its exquisite geometry a reliable source of serenity. Today it seemed nothing more than a meaningless agglomeration of cardboard, wood, and paste. There had still been no word from the Planning Commission, further curdling his mood. But he didn’t want Bebe to see him in this condition, so he roused himself, sat up, and briefed her on his meeting with the commissioner and the upcoming television interview. He predicted they would shortly receive the approval for the Sapphire. He asked about their mother, who he had not seen since the Seder. Jay’s relationship with his sister comforted him and helped to render the chaos manageable. When it was just the two of them alone, high in their steel tower, the world was more logical, pliant, and forgiving. Still, what she said next surprised him:
“I’m going to that fundraiser Franklin is hosting for Christine Lupo tonight.”
“He invited me, too, but it might be problematic if I went,” Jay said, which made his sister laugh.
“I’m going so I can size up your adversary.”
“Can you believe that conniving worm is holding an event for her in his home?”
“In fairness, he was cultivating her before.”
“Don’t defend him.
“I’m going to see if I can get her to drop the indictment.”
Now it was Jay’s turn to laugh. Bebe promised to share her impressions of Christine Lupo the next day.
Alone at his desk, Jay turned on his computer. A casual perusal of the Internet was all Jay needed to understand the degree to which he had damaged himself. Only right-wing sites defended him. There he was a “victim,” a “hero,” a “sacrificial lamb.” He ventured into one comments section and was treated to the usual invective, which he read out of sheer perversity but quickly fled when it seemed as if the level of vitriol that bleached the screen would cause his eyes to melt. Hundreds of ordinary citizens had somehow accessed his private email, and although a few people offered words of support, waves of animosity drowned out their voices. The cumulative effect left him physically weakened. Jay returned to the sofa where he curled up on his side, drew his knees up, and waited for the pounding in his head to subside.
Mayor Bloomberg did not return Jay’s phone call but several hours later the protesters dispersed and Jay, accompanied once again by security guards, was able to leave the building without incident. A car service brought him to his apartment, and again there was a crowd carrying signs in front. Jay slumped in his seat. Rather than get out, Jay told the driver to cruise slowly past. These people were not there to protest his attitudes or his right to exist. The Service Employees International Union was on strike.
Jay was on the ropes and Gus Breeze, the union leader whose corruption he had threatened to expose, had decided to take advantage of the opportunity and pummel him. Breeze was daring Jay to call him out.
He told the driver to take him to Bedford.
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events,
real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2018 by Seth Greenland
First Publication 2018 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction
in whole or in part in any form.
Seth Greenland is the author of five novels. His latest, The Hazards of Good Fortune (Europa Editions), will be published in 2018. His play Jungle Rot won the Kennedy Center/American Express Fund For New American Plays Award and the American Theater Critics Association Award. He was a writer-producer on the Emmy-nominated HBO series Big Love.