I was hanging out at David’s apartment near NYU one Friday evening, trying to motivate ourselves to stop watching Adult Swim and venture outside when Spencer showed up. Spencer is a former classmate of David’s. He is also, apparently, a drug addict.
Upon arrival he marched into the apartment and straight to the bathroom. Spencer stayed in there for a long time, while David fumed at the closed bathroom door.
“You can’t just show up at someone’s apartment,” he said. “You can’t just ring my doorbell. This isn’t the suburbs.”
When Spencer finally emerged from the bathroom, looking only marginally worse for the wear, he invited David and me to his friend’s 23rd birthday party. I was like, “Yeah, that’s cool, I like parties.” By which I meant: I like events where too many directionless twentysomethings pile into recently condemned walk-ups and drink cheap vodka without mixers because no one remembered to buy orange juice.
This, unfortunately, turned out not to be that kind of party.
I wised up to this fact as soon as we reached the birthday boy’s building. Upon arrival, I noticed a few key details. Like the fact that one wall of the lobby had cascades of water flowing down it, as though we were at a fancy French restaurant. Oh, and the doorman was wearing wingtips. Also, we were in Times Square.
I began to feel suspiciously poor. Having recently graduated from college, I had relocated to Brooklyn from suburban Massachusetts and worked as an assistant at a publishing company, where I made $30,000 a year. I was considered, among most of my friends, to have an impressively profitable career.
The doorman let us up to the apartment on the 41st floor. Windows covered one entire wall of this space, the bright lights of Manhattan shining through. I sized up the other party guests. Mostly they wore suit jackets and ties. And I don’t mean second-hand jean jackets. I mean actual suit jackets, as though they owned matching suit pants, which they could throw on at any moment should they suddenly be required to attend a financial convention. Meanwhile, I was, as usual, dressed to impress in a snazzy Chuck Taylor sneakers-cum-rainbow hearts hoodie ensemble.
When I asked David who the hell these people were, he explained that he knew them from prep school. Many of them went on to attend Princeton together; and, now that they were I-bankers, they enjoyed getting together and reminiscing about their carefree college days of yore. I-bankers unnerve me because they work like 105 hours a week. Most people I know don’t work at all.
These particular I-bankers seemed very welcoming, though, and they tried to make me feel at home. “What do you do?” the host asked me.
“Well, I write stories,” I replied.
“Ah,” he said. “And what direction do you see that industry going in?”
I stared at him blankly, muttered, “Dunno,” and scrambled to think of something tactful to discuss. Alas, I am not a tactful person, and the only thing I wanted to say was, “Why is there a pile of AmEx Platinum cards on your kitchen counter?”
Seriously. There was. Now, one American Express card lying about, I could understand. What if you should need to charge a new flat-screen television? It’s bound to happen sooner or later, and when it does, you’re going to want to have your corporate card handy. But six AmEx cards all together seem extreme, unless the host was planning on handing them out as party favors.
I don’t know, maybe every guest had tossed his card in there as a “let’s see who has the highest credit limit” type of party game. Like pin the tail on the donkey! Or seven minutes in heaven! I considered “upping the ante” by throwing down my Citibank ATM card, but I refrained.
I looked around for the people I had come with, hoping for moral support. Unfortunately, Spencer had once again disappeared into a bathroom, and David was holding court in a discussion about NYU law school admissions. I resigned myself to a harmless conversation about advertising accounts with one of the Princeton boys’ trophy girlfriends.
The next night, I attended yet another 23rd birthday party. This one was in a Williamsburg apartment where the ratio of electronic keyboards to chairs was 3:1. None of the guests noticed the lack of furniture; we all just lay in the visible dirt coating the floor and ate slices of bright orange cheddar from a Kraft “cheese platter.” No one displayed a single credit card. I felt at home.
That night, I realized everyone I know has at least a little bit of money and engages in at least a little bit of conspicuous consumption. The question, really, is whether they want to spend that money on a nice apartment, organic food and office-appropriate outfits—or whether they want to say, “Fuck it,” and blow it all on some awesome music-mixing software. To me the answer’s just so obvious. But I guess that’s why they say it takes all types.
Leila Sales works in children’s book publishing. Her hobby is receiving text messages from strangers, which you can read all about at theleilatexts.blogspot.com.