“Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.” — Unknown
Wilbur glanced down at her watch. 12:13. Usually, she hated when people were late and, under normal circumstances, this would have gone beyond the point of what she’d tolerate. Hell, make her wait more than 5 or 6 minutes and you were ensuring you’d be receiving a series of irate texts inquiring sharply as to “WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU??????!!???” and threatening “If you’re not here in 30 seconds I’m leaving.” But today she was practically willing Tom to continue making her wait under the bodega awning. Just another minute. Just one more minute.
She took a long drag off her cigarette. Almost immediately, Phil popped into her head, as he often did these days. “What are you doing,” he’d say, in a way that told you he was irritated but irritated because he cared. “That shit will kill you.” She’d let him convince her to give it up years back, citing evidence about what it would do to her singing voice, and hadn’t even ever used the emergency stash at the bottom of her vanity, even despite all that had gone down these last 18 months. But now she needed one. Just a few puffs and she could be transported, if only for a moment, from this nightmare.
“Hey,” someone shouted, snapping her out of her thoughts. There was Tom, on the corner. She watched him trot over, hitting a puddle that bounced back at him, spotting his khakis that were too long by a couple inches. Tom was awkward, and not like the people she was generally drawn to, even just as friends but he’d always had her back and all that that entailed. Like telling her the truth, no matter how bad it was, so she’d at least prepare herself if she was in for a fall.
“Why are we meeting here,” he asked her, nodding his head toward the White Castle across the way, clearly amused by how far they were from her digs on Fifth.
“Because nobody knows me on 103rd and 1st she said,” probably rightfully assuming that people had short memories. “Now level with me.”
“It’s bad,” he said, having learned long ago that she wasn’t one for small talk.
“How bad,” she pressed. “Like, it’s going to be an uphill battle bad, because Phil wil put in th—”
“No Wilbs. It’s not a matter of putting in the hours. They’re going to shut it down, basically. The whole thing.”
“Tomorrow. They’re announcing tomorrow.”
She reached out to steady herself, as her knees had gone weak.
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” she said turning on her heels. “I’ll let you know when I do. Tom– thanks.”
If you’d asked her two years ago what she would have done upon hearing Phil was about to lose everything, there would have been no question. Hightail it the fuck out of there, advice she used to give the girls at Bottom’s Up. And it wasn’t like she hadn’t spent the last year and a half with it on the tip of her tongue. “Borrowing” money from a gated fund was one thing– since becoming part of this world she’d realized that people here were a lot like those back home in that they weren’t afraid to play it hard and fast with the rules. But LightSquared was quite another.
A “walkie fucking talkie deal?!” she shrieked when she first heard the plan. She had a right mind to use a nail gun to nail Little Phil to the wall but instead simply stormed out of the family office, prepared to pack up her things and be gone by morning and never look back. But, of course, something stopped her. The same thing that stopped her from saying yes when, at an industry garden party in May, “Steven” sidled up to her at the bar and with one finger on the small of her back whispered, “I’m buying a baseball team, you know. How’d you like to sing the National Anthem at the World Series?” The same thing that stopped her from following up on the text she got from Bill, the hedge manager she’d met at a wedding last winter, reminding her of “amazing little spread” he had upstate, “the perfect place to pen some soulful tracks.” The same thing that stopped her from responding to Mike Mayo’s presumptuous offer to include her in his attempt to expand his bestial appetite throughout the animal kingdom.
Lisa and Phil.
She’d been working at Bottom’s Up near the South Street Seaport for about six months when she told Boris, the owner who was a pig in every sense of the word, that she’d had enough. Bottom’s Up, located under a bridge where seagulls regularly congregated, leaving their shit on the doorstep, was the kind of place that, if you ran into a friend from childhood there, you’d pretend you were someone else and they’d instantly assume you were “down and out.” Wilbur had taken the job because she needed the money and because Boris had made her a promise– keep the customers happy and she could play a couple tunes on the piano that sat unused next to Stage 3, when things were slow. He’d been putting her off for months and she was done. “If I don’t get to play tonight, you can say good-bye to your biggest money-maker,” she said with such a tone that not even the pasties could detract from how serious she was.
“Fine,” Boris said without even looking up at her from his expense report. “But you better not forget that you’re here first and foremost to shake your rump.”
February 14, 2007. They weren’t swingers, per se, but it was tradition for Phil and Lisa to do something special and outside the box on Valentine’s Day. Wilbur had been performing for three nights and they took two seats up front just as she hit the crescendo of “Luck Be A Lady.” She recognized him, of course. Anyone who read the Journal on their break would have. But it was Lisa who caught Wilbur’s eye. Dressed in gold sandals and a makeshift gladiator outfit fashioned from cut up Hefty bags she was, in a word, breathtaking.
Throughout the rest of the set they would clap their hands and sing along. Lisa would twirl around the table and raise the roof when appropriate. Phil would yell “woo woo” and “play another one!” They would request songs that Wilbur didn’t even know but gave her best shot, like “If I Were A Rich Man” and “She’s Like The Wind.” They dumped $10,000 into her tip jar so Boris couldn’t start in on how she wasn’t bringing in her share of lap dances. They did this every night, for an entire month. And in those four short weeks, they became closer than anyone could have ever imagined.
It was during one of Wilbur’s breaks, while the three of them were drinking Tall Boys out of brown paper bags behind Bottom’s Up, that Lisa broached the subject.
“We want you to come live with us,” she squealed gleefully. Wilbur dropped her beer.
“What? What are you talking about, live with you?”
“Live with us! We have a whole wing you can live in and a baby grand you can play and we can do this every night but at our house and it will be great!”
“I…I don’t..I don’t kn–”
“What’s there to think about,” Phil asked warmly. “You already feel like family to us.”
“Come on Wilbies, don’t be a stick in the mud,” Lisa pouted. “We can invite all our friends over if you want to play for a packed house some nights or we can just keep it intimate on others. A private concert just three of us. Or if you’re not feeling up to it, you don’t have to perform at all. We can sit on the floor of my closet bar and get drunk, we can share clothes, we can prank call James Franco, we can do whatever you want. Say yes and we’ll make you happier than you thought possible.”
“On one condition,” Phil interjected. “You quit this nasty habit,” he said yanking the cigarette from her lips. “If not for yourself than at least for your pipes.”
And so Wilbur went. And, truth be told, while she never forgot who she was, she became accustomed to a certain kind of lifestyle. Fresh fruit for breakfast, served in bed if she wanted it. Dining with the ladies who lunch. Dinner at Per Se or on her chaise if she couldn’t bring herself to get dressed. Summer became a verb. Bergdorf’s shoe salon became her second home, the Falcone family account there her best friend. Anything she wanted was hers. The indigenous people she met on the trip to that island who gave the best massage she’d ever had? Phil had them moved to NYC to be at her beck and call. The alpacas she wanted just to have something soft to touch? Hers. Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner on a Sunday for karaoke? She didn’t have to ask twice. The cast of Glee flown in and given 5 minutes of face-time with her, just so she could tell them they were garbage (“inadequate,” “bush league,” and “worthless” were the exact words)? Done. Muumuus spun from silk when she put on weight and a dialing wand to ring up her man servant. It was all hers and promptly. She’d always been something of a prima donna but it was different now, when the money was actually available to meet her demands.
Of course, it wasn’t like there was nothing in it for Lisa and Phil. Not by a long shot. The concert she put on in their living room, for his 50th birthday? Ask people about it and they’ll tell you, it brought down the fucking house. The burlesque show she put together for Harbinger’s investor day a few years ago? Epic would not describe it. Swizz Beatz? SHE was the one who found him. Lisa’s outfits? Wilbur helped her pick out each and every one. The Highline donation, that garnered so much good press? Her idea. And all of this LightSquared business would’ve gone south a lot sooner if not for her blowing a couple of air traffic controllers and members of the coast guard brass, to shut them up about the whole GPS interference business.
And now it had all gone to shit. What was she supposed to do? Start all over with another hedge fund manager? Go back to Bottom’s Up, where she swore she’d never return? Run a three-card monte game in the RBS parking lot? See if that guy Paulson was hiring a new investor relations girl? It was all too grim to think about. She was angry. She was confused. She didn’t know how to proceed. Walking home in the rain, though, she did decide one thing– she’d give them at one last Valetine’s Day Special and go to bed. Tomorrow, she’d know what to do. For now she needed to pick something up some new whips and tassels at Agent Provocateur. Before that, though, she needed another cigarette to help compose herself before going inside.
Her head a cauldron of emotions, she fumbled with and then dropped her last one perilously close to the edge of a grate. Reaching down to pick it up, she noticed a discarded copy of the day’s WSJ in her periphery, and her eyes casually fluttered across the headlines until they caught on something. As lightning crashed above, it suddenly dawned on her: the idea that would save them all.