Free At Last (2008)
Oh, how awkward to whip out my imitation-cowhide wallet and find only a Sunoco receipt where the Benjamins are supposed to be! The check stares at me scornfully from the restaurant table, and my companions' laughs are as hollow as my billfold, so I slip outside to seek salvation behind the glowing "ATM" sign at a corner deli. But there is none on the first corner, or on the next, and soon I am wandering darkened blocks wondering if I'll ever get my after-dinner mint.
Then, I see them—standing there in the middle of the street, in suits as white as a lacrosse team, are two men I never expected to see in white suits. "The ghosts of former mayor Giuliani and onetime Voice owner Leonard Stern!" I cry. "What are you doing here?"
"We're very, very concerned about the amount of money you've been spending, Jarrett," says Rudy.
"But Mr. Mayor, New York City's so expensive! I have a $95 bill waiting for me back there, and all we had was coffee," I whine. "What am I supposed to do?"
Rudy shakes his head. "Foolish boy, don't you remember? I'm the man who, in a blatant pander, made the Staten Island Ferry free instead of an exorbitant 50 cents!"
"And I," says Stern, "am the man who made The Village Voice free—there for the taking on every corner, next to the Real Estate Guide and the course lists for the Learning Center!"
Rudy puts his hand on my shoulder, and I feel like Bernie Kerik often must have felt. "Son, we can make this city absolutely free for you. You need never pay for anything again—on one condition," he says. "You have to be our friend."
I nod. The two figures in white stand on either side and embrace me in an uncomfortably long hug. Then they are gone. Mysteriously, the 45-minute cab ride from Chelsea to the North Bronx ends with the meter at $0.00, and as I open my apartment door, all the lights are on, the air conditioner is at full blast, and the cat is wearing a tuxedo. I go to bed.
I awake the next morning believing the whole thing had been a dream. But the Financial Times on the doorstep and the refrigerator full of overpriced organic stuff from Whole Foods convince me that I have, in fact, entered the ranks of the filthy rich. The rent, power, and phone bills stacked on my desk have vanished. I rush outside to begin not spending money.
My life upgrade really hits home at the newsstand. No, Ahmed, that'll be a large coffee, please! Then I realize that if everything is free, there'll be no need to work anymore, so I'll have plenty of time to read all the magazines I can carry and can finally get caught up on all I never knew about hip-hop, American history, home decor, and handguns. It's a tough load to drag down the steps to the subway, but that's because Bride magazine has a special issue.
Seated on the D train, I am flipping through the massive pile of glossy print when two teenagers walk into the car. It turns out that they aren't raising money for a basketball team, but to "put some money in our pockets and stay out of trouble." I remember that once upon a time I needed money in my pockets too, so I buy the kids out (for free, of course), then distribute the Starbursts and peanut M&M's around the train. The crowd applauds vigorously; even the passenger with the severe peanut allergy begins breathing on her own after a moment. I wonder if I can bribe the motorman to drive faster. Never mind—mass transit is for the little people. At the next stop I rush up the stairs, hail a cab, and start to not spend some serious money.
First stop, Broadway in the Eighties. I've always been jealous of all those people you see lingering at outdoor tables on weekdays, so I stop at 13 of these outfits and have a Bloody Mary or a $13 danish as I sit watching the working stiffs go by. I also buy a small, annoying dog to complete the picture of upscale leisure. Then I get into a cab and race to Central Park, stop one of the bikers on a $700, 36-speed beauty, wearing a gaudy, full-body Lycra suit, and buy the whole ensemble from him so I can tool around the park at mid-morning and shout at pedestrians, "On the right!"
As it is getting on toward lunchtime, I run over to the Empire State Building, pay zilch for the elevator ride to the top, and order takeout from a French place that normally doesn't deliver but has to make an exception because, literally, money is no object for me. After a large midday meal, there's nothing like sipping a mammoth, fruity-colored cocktail in the cool, dark confines of an upscale bar like the Campbell Apartment at Grand Central, or puffing on an absurdly priced cigar while riding in a costly carriage around the park.
What do you say about the $75 steak I have for dinner? That it goes great with a $300 bottle of wine! But it also slows the blood a tad, and as the sun begins to fade I start to tire of this rash of expenditure. It's the time of day when my budget usually affords an excuse for me to go home (at least on those occasions when "I'm lactose intolerant!" doesn't cut it). There is no such escape this time. I rub my eyes and grit my teeth. Was I going to quit and let capitalism down? No way! There is an I in "insatiable"!
I race home in a rented Jaguar to change out of my Lycra bike suit, which has begun to chafe. You can take the boy out of the Salvation Army, but you can't take the thrift store out of the boy: None of the new clothes I purchased matched. I can't find my normal clothes under the avalanche of fancy pants. I collapse on the pile of $100 casual shirts, and in a minute am snoring freely.
The best part about not having to pay for stuff in the city, I've since learned, is that you notice all the stuff that never cost anything in the first place, like walking through Chinatown or following container ships up the Hudson from Riverside Park or being stuck in traffic on the BQE and realizing there's a fantastic view outside the passenger window. Sure, it's wonderful not to worry whether the Rent Guidelines Board is going to break our bank. But where the money—or the lack of any need for it—comes in handy is for the extras, like better seats from which to boo the Yankees, microbrew at the bar instead of Bud, and Indian takeout instead of leftovers.
And of course, there's the small, annoying dog. With one of those terrors at your feet, no one messes with you.
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