Showtime on Riverside
As soon as I heard that shrill voice braying and careening over my shoulder, I knew who it was. Bonita Woolsey, Esq., the Corporation Counsel of the City of New York. In her role as the de facto Attorney General of the City of New York, she had a lot to say about which lawyers would write the legal opinions verifying the validity and probity of the billions of dollars of bonds that the City of New York sold every year. These were legal opinions that generated huge fees for the firms fortunate to be selected by the esteemed Ms. Woolsey.
And so, she was definitely someone with whom I had to speak. And, in the bizarre nature of my personal universe, she was also someone that I definitely could not stand. It was nothing specific. It was just something incredibly visceral and undeniable.
“Ms. Woolsey. Its always a pleasure. It’s been much too long since we have had lunch or breakfast or drinks. How is life in City Hall treating you these days?”
“Mayor Dinkins has me on 24 hour standby, or that’s what it seems like. I thought that being a partner at Shearman & Sterling was hard work, but this job is eternal.” Bonita smiled through teeth that would make an orthodontist retire to a monastery on a desert island, taking a vow of eternal silence upon entry.
I had to marvel at how, in one sentence, she managed to make sure that I remembered that she had been the first black partner at one of the top law firms in America, that she held a very, very important job in the biggest city in America, and that she was a confidante of the first black mayor of New York City.
Bonita Woolsey was one of those people that you could stand being around for about……ten nanoseconds. After that she seemed to be the manifestation of all annoyances. There was her braying laugh, her phony veneer barely covering the nudity of her hypocrisy and her unbridled ambition. And probably worst of all was her clear disdain for everyone and everything she surveyed. She was possessed of the unshakable belief that Bonita Woolsey was the undeniable center of the only universe that counted – hers.
What I remember most about her that morning was her…….teeth. After all, I had to be cordial, my business, and that of some of my best clients, was connected to the peremptory whims of the esteemed Ms. Woolsey. I have always felt that I could stand the company of anyone if business was involved.
So I was prepared to converse with Bonita and to make sure that at the end of our conversation I had done everything to make sure that my business interests were unimpeded and unscathed. But her teeth! My God!
All of her front teeth seemed to wander in boldly independent directions making her smile seem something straight out of a Salvador Dali painting, perhaps during his Mescaline Period. But on this particular morning there was, could it be? Something was clearly stuck between two of her front teeth.
Was it this morning’s whole wheat toast or, heaven forbid, last night’s collard greens? There was no way of knowing, and that was information that I simply never wanted to know. There is such a thing as too much information.
This was a living, breathing, braying illustration.
But her particle-ridden smile was hypnotic, and as we chatted, I felt myself trying to resist staring. It was like trying not to look at a hairy mole that resembled Mount Everest or a scar in the shape of a palm tree or a tattoo of the image of the Virgin Mary on someone’s neck.
“If it was going to be an easy job Bonita, Mayor Dinkins never would have needed to choose you.” I felt my eyes wander toothward.
I simply had to find a distraction. Anything would suffice. I could feel the precipice of disaster approaching, beckoning, begging me to make the jump into the abyss of mockery and perdition. It was simply too early in the day for this kind of bullshit.
“Flattery will get you everywhere Mr. Taylor. But to tell the truth, the private sector never seemed more appealing. When Mayor Dinkins gets reelected this year, I have promised him one more year and then I’m back at S&S, unless a better offer comes along.”
“That’s understandable Bonita. You have certainly served your time.” I remember thinking, why is she telling me this? And then I found out.
“I know that our conversations are always off the record, but this is really and truly off the record, O.K.?”
“Bonita, my lips will be sealed for eternity.” A few more cars were pulling up to let off passengers in front of the church. The press was starting to stake out their positions for their television cameras and still photographers.
The sun was bright and it was still frightfully cold. I continued my silent, subliminal prayer for someone, anyone, to rescue me from the impending risk of embarrassment and professional doom. No one came.
“Frankly Paul, I am seriously thinking of going back into the practice of law. Of course my former partners at S & S will have been back in a heartbeat. But I think that I am ready for new challenges.”
“You have already overcome so many challenges Bonita (I suddenly, and with horror, realized that a subtle insult might be perceived and prayed that it would fly below her radar. It did), what mountains are left for you to conquer?”
I must confess that at this particular moment I had not a clue that this conversation was about to take a more than serious turn. After all, I was just making conversation and trying to stay occupied until the doors of the church opened. I was also trying not to stare at Bonita’s many and multi-angled teeth.
“Let me get right to the point Paul. We can talk about this later. But I want you to think about us being partners. With your experience and my contacts we would be quite a team. I think “formidable” would be a good word, don’t you? I can make money at S & S, but I don’t kid myself, I can be there for one hundred years and I will only be a partner in name only. To tell you the truth, I don’t know if that is what I want any more. What I do want is a chance to find out how good I can really be. I know that this is something out of left field for you, and that we have to make time to talk about this. But think about it for now, will you?”
“Here comes Mayor Dinkins now, I have to go. Speak to you soon. Ciao!”
Bonita turned on her stiletto heel and I was truly one stunned buffalo soldier left in her wake. I was reminded of the expression from some old Stepin Fetchit-type film character, “Well slap my face and call me stupid!” And frankly, I could have not been more shocked if Bonita had done just that.
There was no way that I could even begin to fashion a response to her non-proposal. Although, I must confess that even that at that moment, despite my having something less than warm and fuzzy feelings for Bonita, the practical aspects of our alignment, as she so succinctly pointed out, had some real advantages. Of course, Winner Tomlinson’s memorial service was neither the time nor place for such discussions.
But given the flow of events in the near future, it was a discussion that I did not forget. But at that moment, it was time to go into the church.
Now about that church….
The Riverside Church is a colossal monument to God built by the colossal fortune of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. John D., Jr. was the eldest male heir of the greatest businessman and possibly the most rapacious entrepreneur in American history.
We will never really know if he built Riverside Church to atone for his father’s many sins. It may be that he felt that it was more important to fulfill an edifice complex, a construction/building disorder that was clearly transmitted genetically in its full glory to his son, Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York State a few decades later. Or maybe John D., Jr. just liked Gothic cathedrals. Or maybe he just felt like it.
It stands like some granite sentinel across Riverside Drive from Grant’s tomb. Indeed, the Riverside Church is a huge, silent stone commitment to the belief that there may be something more to life than life itself.
As I entered the church that morning, I couldn’t help but think about medieval times in Europe when huge cathedrals were built as part of a socio-political effort on the part of the powerful to keep the powerless occupied. After all, idle hands are the workshop of the devil and political dissidents. Revolutionaries and dissidents of varying pedigrees and radically differing degrees of success have been known to also show up when there is some of that nasty idleness lying around.
The royalty of a particular era would get together with the reigning religious leaders to declare the need for the construction of a monument to God and His everlasting glory. The church would openly and actively support such an initiative from the pulpit. In turn it would support the taxation and control over society by the State that royalty would have to impose in order to finance and complete such a project.
Since a project like the construction of a gothic church literally took centuries, this meant that generations of the poor and powerless would be employed as poorly paid, but busy, masons, carpenters, stone cutters, glaziers and bricklayers.
While the Riverside Church did not take generations to complete, there is no doubt in my mind that John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his inherited fortune represented a part of America that could be called royalty. After all, he was the son of the same John D. Rockefeller who engaged in price-gouging and shockingly monopolistic strategies that strangled any hint of competition. And he was the son of the same John D. Rockefeller who employed the rather interesting labor relations tactic of having his employees shoot and kill striking workers (along with their wives and children) at one of his silver mines.
John D. Rockefeller probably never felt the need to receive approbation from anyone. On the other hand, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had the luxury of reflection and contemplation. He did not need to build a fortune. His task was to institutionalize it, nurture it, and humanize it. And maybe, at the end of it all, maybe that’s what building the Riverside Church was really all about. Only John D. Jr. himself knows, and he is certainly not telling anyone anything anymore.