Mugger: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE


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Between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. last week, two indignities, although minor, were visited upon me during a short visit to the Upper East Side. I was in town for an annual physical and some assorted business matters and I settled in comfortably at the Pierre—a splendid hotel that hasn’t yet joined the Four Seasons, Peninsula and The Mark in charging an eye-popping rate-card grand a night for a single room—and found time for a bowl of chicken noodle soup at the Viand before reporting for duty at my doctor’s office a few blocks south on Madison.


Although a moderate smoker, I’m apparently not at death’s door, which is always pleasant to hear, and if bending over and accepting a gloved finger to check on the prostate isn’t exactly an ideal way to pass 15 seconds, the appointment went well and I enjoyed talking with Dr. John about our respective families, politics and sports. Our two-hour meeting concluded with his requisite advice to eliminate Merit Lights from my daily regimen, suggesting either acupuncture or the new Chantix tablets—I’ve had no luck with the patch or nicotine gum—and he shrugged with the acceptance that we’d be having the same conversation next year.


Later that evening I joined two of my brothers at Primavera, the First Avenue Italian institution that for over 25 has been one of my favorite restaurants in the city—although, truth be told, I’d always preferred the nearby and more intimate Café Trevi, which has unfortunately bit the dust—and deviated from my fairly ascetic diet and chowed down on baked clams, pasta with truffles and a veal chop the size of a PETA activist’s left arm. We nattered on about the continuing tech explosion in Hyderabad; disgraced plaintiff lawyer William Lerach, who, on his way to the pokey, not coincidentally sounds just like John Edwards when moralizing about “obscene” golden parachutes for CEO’s (such as Merrill Lynch’s Stan O’Neal) who’ve suffered, unwittingly or not, career reversals during this past year’s subprime disaster; and the certain defeat of Mitt Romney should Republicans be dumb enough to hand him the presidential nomination a few months from now.


Dinner came to a close and as the driver pulled up to my hotel, he good-naturedly remarked about the animated ribbing among the three of us, and somehow came to the daft conclusion—at least to me—that I was the second oldest of the five Smith brothers. As the caboose in my parents’ litter, this took me aback and made me wonder if the raccoon circles around my eyes, far too many hours spent in the late 1980s and early ’90s at Puffy’s and Milano’s, and not quite bountiful head of brown and gray hair had given that impression. Anyway, we shook hands and said goodnight, I had one last cigarette outside and then retreated to my room and quite rapidly fell asleep while reading Andrew Sullivan’s gooey valentine to Barack Obama in the current Atlantic. 


If you rise with the roosters (or barreling trucks) as I do, one of the singular pleasures of living in the city is strolling a block or two an hour after the bars close and picking up the papers at a nearby bodega and taking five or 10 minutes to marvel at the bustle of another day’s beginnings. While living in Tribeca, I used to make the 30-second trek to Morgan’s, order a coffee and cup of ice and sit on the stoop as delivery men loaded the store with bread, produce and batches of not-quite pristine flowers. And so I bounded out of the Pierre, a bit disheveled in all honesty, and walked over to Lexington and repeated this old routine. As I returned to the hotel, with the tabs and New York Sun in hand (the Times and Journal had been delivered to my room), I noticed that the complimentary coffee-set up had been assembled in my brief absence, and so I poured a cup and was heading to the elevator when a security guard tapped me on the shoulder.


“Excuse me, sir,” he said calmly, “but I must ask if you’re a registered guest of the Pierre.” In most respects, I’m a regular Joe and have no beef with the homeless, especially in inclement weather and always deposit a buck into the cup of a downtrodden gent or lady, but the query from this enforcer briefly—very briefly—left me a bit perturbed. “Yes, in fact here’s the key for my temporary lodgings,” I replied, “and please excuse my lack of coat and tie.” Okay, that was a little snippy, but really, although I had yet to shower and was wearing a leather jacket and beat-up work boots, my appearance didn’t remotely approximate that of the late Charles Bukowski.


Nevertheless, I brushed this aside, went upstairs and received quite a jolt upon looking at The Sun’s front page and seeing a story that Eliot Spitzer had plans to swell the state’s coffers by requiring New York residents to pay sales taxes on Internet purchases, specifically Amazon. Hadn’t Congress just passed another moratorium on online taxes? I read further, worried that Spitzer’s grubby gambit would spread to states throughout the country.


As it happened, the approval ratings-impaired Governor backed off this harebrained scheme later in the day, but the conclusion from an accompanying Sun editorial that morning made the simple sort of sense that had eluded Spitzer. “What’s needed are more tax cuts,” the writer said, “not tax increases. That would put more money in the pockets of individual New Yorkers, rather than in the hands of the politicians in Albany, who, for all their fabled dysfunctionality, somehow always seem to be able to figure out a way to squeeze more money out of the taxpayers.” 


Yes, indeed. And that’s just one more reason to hope that Americans next fall realize that four years—at the least—of Hillary, Obama or Edwards, tax-hikers all, would make Spitzer’s ill-considered legal larceny seem like peanuts.     


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