In 2006 I went to a party on East 26th Street in New York City.
I lived in Washington Heights, running an after-school program at the Y and renting a room for $600 a month. I had friends from college living in the east twenties, and took the A train down to go with them to the apartment of a guy they had known at school.
I went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, where you couldn’t throw a pencil without hitting someone’s monogram. The spread included Chaz, who at eighteen sat on a wall outside the dorm daily eating a banana and reading the Wall Street Journal; a fraternity known as The Castle because it was; and, regrettably, Ivanka Trump. Being a scholarship kid from Philly, it was jarring for me to see guys wearing pink pants without fear of getting beat up. I found friends who I clicked with. But no matter how you tried to avoid it, if you were hanging in Penn circles you were always going to come across somebody you wouldn’t normally choose to be around.
The end result was that during my first year in New York I unfortunately sometimes ended up at parties where a guy in white linen pants would say, “I work hard, but I play hard, too.” Someone else once introduced himself with, “I’m from California, I make a lot of money, and I have a pottery wheel in my living room.”
Another time a guy leaned toward my seven dollar necklace and gestured with his drink. He said, “What’s the inlay on that?”
I said, “What the fuck did you just say?”
He said, “Is that mother of pearl?”
I said, “It’s fake.”
He nodded appraisingly. “Oh, it’s costume.”
The most significant birdcall was when someone introduced themselves as an “i-banker”. This was short for “investment banker”, I learned, and tipped you off that you were in the presence of a New York Finance Bro and you should walk away now and go get a pepperoni slice on the corner. They’re open twenty-four hours; it’s great.
Our party host Dylan was, in fact, an i-banker for one of Wall Street’s biggest financial institutions. It was the only bank that had someone face jail time for their role in the subprime mortgage crisis that caused the Great Recession; the ruling judge called it “a small piece of an overall evil climate within the bank and with many other banks." Along with selling toxic mortgage-backed securities (refresher course: 3.8 million foreclosures; fun fact: a disproportionate level of subprime mortgages received by U.S. minority groups resulted in a disproportionate level of foreclosures, widening the black-wealth gap for the next generation), this company pleaded guilty in helping wealthy customers evade taxes, and for numerous violations of research analyst conflict of interest rules.
I’m not saying the entry-level recruits we came across were important enough to be involved in anything greasy. The point is, they were proud to be devoted to a culture whose purpose was to help the rich get richer, legality and morality be damned. Money was their religion, their language, and their status symbol. I can name three or four guys I met who worked in finance who were nice guys, good guys. I probably met a hundred that weren’t.
Years later, when I saw The Wolf of Wall Street and watched Leonardo DiCaprio’s character tossing thousands of dollars off his boat just because he could, I suddenly remembered a banker dude I met pulling fistfuls of bills out of his wallet in a diner at midnight, throwing them in the air like confetti and stumbling out. In 2006, I didn’t know anything about financial corruption, but on pure observation I could conclude that the majority of these guys were assholes.
But. I was twenty-three and had just moved to New York. If I was invited to a party, I went.
So I walked with my friends Beck and Jen to Dylan’s apartment. I’d met Dylan a couple times in college, and had never seen him without a baseball cap. It was bizarre greeting a hatless Dylan in his grownup apartment that he shared with a coworker. They had cleared the living room for the party, pushing black leather furniture to the side to display an open field of parquet wood floor. Next to the giant TV, an Ikea floor lamp was in the corner with the cord hanging out for anyone to trip over. Some bottles of booze and red Solo cups were out in the kitchen. There were no snacks, and the lighting was photo-shoot level.
We said hi to another college friend, Eric, and he told us that Joey Weinberg, who always got drunk enough to provide a night of entertainment, was on the way. There was a sprinkling of Finance Bros from Dylan’s workplace in the room, along with some New York Marketing Girls gripping cocktails and Zara clutch bags in tight bootcut jeans, cowl neck tanks in bright silks, and sparkly eyeshadow.
I ended up in a small circle that included one of Dylan’s banking coworkers who had clearly already had a lot to drink.
A joke was happening about how old somebody was. I said something about how the drunk guy clearly wasn’t that old -- some type of banter, a compliment. Drunk Guy misunderstood. He thrust his chin toward me and sneered.
“You’re not very good looking,” he said. “You’re out of shape.”
I just stared at him. Maybe my mouth fell open, I don’t know. “Not good looking,” he repeated. “Out of shape.”
Fact check: I was not out of shape (to be fair, my standards may have differed slightly from the Marketing Girls), and I am very good looking. Regardless. Polite party conversation shouldn’t stray further from talking about your job or discovering you have Mike Keutmann from Poughkeepsie in common. Hadn’t he read Bridget Jones’s Diary, which details clear instructions on how to mingle?
I was so stunned that I took a couple steps back and walked away. I found Beck and Jen and my brain started to process what had just happened. Did this nerd wearing a button-down on a Saturday night really just say that to me?
-- Yes. He did. I digested the reality. I thought for a second, made my decision, walked over to where the guy was standing with his friends, and punched him in the side of the head.
He stumbled backwards, falling halfway down at the impact, his eyes frozen wide like a moose stunned in the Alaskan wild. I consciously hadn’t gone for the nose. I knew a nose punch hurts like nothing else and could result in a lot of blood. Blood is messy, and I was a guest. But I didn’t contemplate the natural result of a punch delivered incorrectly against a skull, and I knew immediately that my hand was broken.
The state of my hand didn’t matter right now, though. I spat out “Whatever!”, middle-school playground style, and threw my other arm up and out in the universal “come at me bro” gesture that he probably thought was a stock exchange floor hand signal.
I turned around and met the eyes of a room full of Finance Bros and Marketing Girls shocked into silence. All the air went out of the room in the equivalent of the dog food prom scene in Never Been Kissed (music screeching to halt; last straw for Drew Barrymore). I walked casually up to my friends, holding my injured hand at waist level to pretend I wasn’t in pain. It was starting to creep over me, like I’d been snakebit, and I could feel my eyes getting wild and darting around as I tried to make my body act completely relaxed.
“Oh my God Martha!” Jen said. Beck’s mouth was hanging open.
“Do you want to go…” I started quietly, then looked around. Strangers were still staring. I leaned in to Jen’s ear and murmured, “to the emergency room? Like, not yet. In a bit.”
Beck rummaged a bag of peas from the freezer and I laid it on my hand, trying to keep it out of sight behind my back. After Eric went over and demanded that he apologize to me, Drunk Guy stumbled toward us. “Sorry,” he sneered in the same tone you would say, “Asshole,” wobbling to his left like a Russian doll. “Whatever,” I snapped, turning away, and he went back to his side of the room, plummeting midway and barely catching himself on the leather couch.
Somehow, the party continued, and more guests arrived. I made sure not to leave until I’d stood around in a laid-back manner for long enough to prove that Drunk Guy hadn’t won. As Jen and I were heading out the door, Joey Weinberg arrived. He was already staggering. Beck told us that minutes after we left, he fell into the radiator, hit his head and bled all over the floor. After I had been so careful, too.
I spent the night on Jen and Beck’s couch, struggled to dress myself in the morning, and walked over to the NYU hospital emergency room where I had to tell one hospital staffer after another how I got my injury.
The doctor, a man in his sixties, gave me a disgusted look. He said, “Why would you do a thing like that?” Sorry, doctor. I guess you grew up settling all your disagreements with a Scrabble match, and when someone challenged a word, you consulted the dictionary with no jabs exchanged. I get it!
The second doctor was a tall and gawky redhead in his residency. He told me that I had broken the fifth metacarpal on my left hand. It was known as a boxer’s fracture. He said I’d need a cast for six weeks, and thoroughly explained the process as he wrapped the plaster cast and described the dissolution and hardening method of the chemicals. When he finished, he dismissed me with a smile and said, “Be careful out there.”
I met Jen down the street for a dinner of sweet potato fries before I went home. “Do you think I could sue that guy for what he said to me?” I mused. “Um, it’s definitely more like he could sue you,” Jen said.
I took the subway to my apartment on 200th Street, and faced life with a cast on my dominant hand. I’d never broken a bone before. I fixed a plastic bag to the cast with a rubber band to shower, and found it impossible to tie my hair back. At work, I told my boss I had injured my hand in an accidental taxi door slam, but this would certainly not hold me back from doing my job.
I typed with one finger on my left hand. I tried using my right hand to write; it took forever and was a kindergarten scrawl, but it was my only option. I got through my first day back at work.
That night, I was at home in my apartment and got a call on my T-Mobile flip phone from a number I didn’t recognize. A trembling voice on the other end said, “Martha?”
“Yeah?” I said, holding the phone awkwardly with my right hand.
“This is Jim. Um, the guy who said some pretty terrible things to you the other night?”
Oh ho ho.
I straightened up. Started pacing. “Yeah?”
“I got your number from Dylan,” he started nervously. “Um, my friends told me what I said to you, and I don’t remember any of it, and I am so sorry. And I heard you broke your hand, and I’m so sorry that that happened, and I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching the past few days…"
I stopped walking.
"...and I realized if I got that drunk that I could do something like that, and not remember it, that I must have a problem, and I’m going to do something about it. And you, you um, probably never want to see me again, but maybe you could take down my number and we could meet up and you could see that I’m not such a bad guy.”
“Well,” I said, “I would take down your number, but I have a cast on my hand and I can’t write right now.”
“I’m so sorry about that,” he said. I let it sit.
Finally I said, “Why don’t you text me your number and we’ll see.”
“Okay, I will. Thank you.”
I snapped the phone shut. What the heck?
A text popped up immediately. It was Jim, thanking me for talking and repeating his offer to meet up. I wrote back. It took balls to call, sure we could meet up sometime. There. I’d reassured him that I wasn’t interested in taking the battle any further. No way were we going to ever meet up. That was that.
A few days later, he texted again. I’m free on Sunday. Do you want to meet at Starbucks?
What was this? Was it revenge? Would he have legions of investment bankers ready to attack with briefcases? Or was this going to be the best how-we-met story ever, to be featured in the New York Times? Was he so tortured by the idea of someone knowing he was an asshole that he felt the need to clear his name across all five boroughs?
I called Beck for backup. She agreed to go with me, and on Sunday, we met Jim in the Starbucks on 29th street. He was there already, with a table for three. Beck and I got coffees and joined him.
My cast was poking out visibly from my jacket sleeve, and I immediately referenced it with a joke. Jim looked so guilty, and so nervous, that I felt bad for him. Beck was the perfect partner when it came to talking to people, so the two of us moved things along with cheerful getting-to-know-you conversation, and Jim started to relax. We found out that Jim was from Canada, that he had a girlfriend, and that he preferred his cappuccino bone dry (air slice for emphasis). I told him about my job at the after school program. We chatted for about an hour. When it was time to wrap up, I looked him in the eye and said, “I’m sorry I hit you.” He said, “I’m sorry I said those things.”
We left. Back in the apartment, Beck and I found Jim on Facebook and friended him.
After my cast came off, my left hand was forever missing its baby knuckle, but otherwise it recovered beautifully, with just a twinge here and there when rain was in the forecast. When my birthday rolled around that year, I planned to host a party at a bar, and sent out a Facebook invite. Just to make him uncomfortable, I included Jim on the invitation.
He wrote back:
Thank you very much for inviting me to your birthday. Unfortunately I am tied up on Saturday and won’t be able to attend.
How’s everything going? Are you still working for the Y? Things are going well on my end. Work is fine, but a bit slow. Trying to make the most out of the summer, even though I can’t stand to go outside with the humidity.
Stay in touch,
I lived in New York for three more years, and every year I invited Jim to my birthday. Just so he would never forget what had happened.
By the way, Beck did a painting that reinterpreted Joey Weinberg’s bloody fall into the radiator. She titled it “The Accident”.