Thursday, June 4, 2009

I Can See My House From Here

How did Bernie Madoff sleep at night? To this question there is no fathomable response. Where did Bernie sleep at night? Well, I know the answer to that one.

How could it possibly have taken me so long? The polished brass. The granite steps. The forest-green awning. The white 133. The traffic-chopper overview of the wrap-around terrace. How many times did I sit and stare dumbly at the television screen, like so many millions of others, before it finally came to me?

In another decade, in another life, that was my apartment.

There’s no other way to state it other than simply: From 1980 to 1982, my address was 133 East 64th Street. And when the elevator door glided shut, the top button took me home.

Like most of the world, I watched the Bernard Madoff saga unfold with giddy detachment in the closing weeks of 2008 and the opening ones of 2009. I had money in the market, and I had backpedaling investment people handling it for me. However they were pleased to report that my portfolio had no connection to Madoff. Thus I was free to gawk at the cut-and-pasted society matrons interviewed on the local news who had lost everything (except their need to be on television), secure in the knowledge that we had nothing in common.

Only when the media began camping outside the Ponzi schemer’s swank East Side building to update their perp-walk footage did the recollective waves begin washing over me. Was it...could it a second...oh my sweet Jesus.

Bernie Madoff and his victims will be forever connected. Some will recover and some won’t. None, however, can claim a connection as bizarrely intimate as mine. We shared an apartment, he and I.

I am a storyteller, both by nature and profession. I have occasionally been accused of over-editing when I work in print and over-embellishing the rest of the time. I will admit to neither. However, I cannot deny that this Madoff connection is a gift of the highest order. Having long ago forsaken the gritty vitality of New York for sylvan suburbia, I find myself in a constant, private struggle to maintain the perspective and self-importance that can only come with a Manhattan upbringing.

For many years my sordid tales of subway rides to school in the Bronx (I usually leave out the fact that the Bronx I knew was Riverdale), “cookie men” lurking in the shrubbery of in Central Park, and underage drinking at various adult watering holes were terrific conversation-starters and, occasionally, handy conversation-enders. They gave me a kind of street cred in a world of cul-de-sacs. But like certain body parts I have noticed lately, these connections to the city were beginning to age and wither.

Thanks to this one degree of separation, I now have new currency. Fifty billion in new currency, as a matter of fact. More, I’m guessing, than some of the countries I’ve written books about. The real beauty of my Madoff connection, I am finding, is that I can dust off all the old stories from my years at 133 East 64th which are suddenly riveting in the retelling. Not they weren’t good to begin with—believe me, you can’t live in a place like that at age 20, as I did, without seeing, hearing, and doing things that you will never see, hear or do again. But now these tales have acquired a richness of context that I never could have imagined.

Try beginning an anecdote with When I was living in Bernie Madoff’s penthouse apartment... and you can practically hear the necks crane and the eyes widen. It makes me think about the man who owned Mount Vernon before the Washingtons moved in. How much mileage did he get out of the opener When I was living in George Washington’s house...? The fact that our claims to fame require a little deck-reshuffling matters little. How many people can utter those words and mean them?

Let’s take this baby for a spin. I first made out with the woman who would become (and, astonishingly, remain) my wife on a terrace in New York. Wow, great story. How many guys can say that? A million? Now the retelling: When I was living in Bernie Madoff’s penthouse apartment... I first kissed the woman who would become my wife on that wrap-around terrace they keep showing on TV. Bernie really changed the plantings. And I’m not sure I like the window treatments he chose. Of course, we probably had more sculpture and fewer paintings in the living room. Whoa—back up a second. Are you saying you owned that media monument to the swindling excesses of the most hated man in America? Actually, yes. That is exactly what I’m saying. Do I have your attention now? Are you riveted? Well then let me tell you another story...

Our family took up residence at 133 in 1980. I was away at college, a junior at Duke University. My mother had remarried for the fourth time and moved from the West Side apartment we had occupied for the better part of two decades. I was given an address and a giggled warning by my sister, who was still in high school: “You’re not going to believe this place.”

It’s worth mentioning here that we were hardly children of poverty. I grew up on 67th Street; our duplex apartment overlooked Tavern on the Green from five stories up. My grandparents had 10 rooms on Central Park West, a floor above Carly Simon and James Taylor (whose painters set the building, and with it most of our family heirlooms, ablaze). When my mother and new stepfather decided to relocate, he voted for one of the towers in the San Remo. Impressive, yes, but the seller was the family of a school friend so I’d been there and done that. Mom had her sights set on the other side of the park, and so it was that they came to purchase the pad at 133.

I tooled into town in my beloved Blue-Devil-blue 1966 VW bus, pulled up in front of the building and, being unfamiliar with the East Side parking drill, asked the doorman where I was likely to find a legal parking spot. From his pained smile it struck me that I might as well have asked him to split the atom. When I reappeared bag-in-hand and identified myself, he gave me a respectful nod and a floor number to punch in.

The elevator was old and impeccably upkept. The wood had a deep, buttery grain, the push-buttons poked out of a polished brass plate, and the well-oiled gate accordioned silently across the threshold before it initiated its smooth, steady ascent. When I arrived at 16, the gate slid aside to offer a door with a small window. I pushed it open expecting to find a typical apartment-building hallway landing. Instead I stepped right into the living space. Okay, I thought. It’s one of those apartments.

It was unreal. No, it was surreal. The elevator emptied directly into a sunlit entry foyer, from which descended a spiral staircase. To the right was a perfectly enormous living room, to the left a dining room through which one accessed the kitchen and maid’s quarters. Around almost all of which wrapped a glorious tiled terrace with views to the east, west and south. The only part of the apartment’s top floor that did not have a terrace was the small section behind the kitchen that accessed the service elevator, which was shared by the mirroring penthouse occupying the building’s north side. More on this later.

Down the stairs on 15 were the living quarters. A master bed and bath, and two more bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. There also was an extra room, which my stepfather used to write a book condemning the legal profession. Funny story about that. His assistant on this project was a recent NYU Law School grad named Steve. After the book (title: The Case Against the Lawyers) was published and Steve was interviewing for positions with New York law firms, this was the only problematic entry on his otherwise sparkling resume. As he described it to me years later, I could practically picture those interviewers, the blood draining slowly from their faces.

My new stepfather was something of a game-changer. He liked to use his money, and the considerable power that came with it to move the cause of social responsibility forward. In the 1960s he had bought himself a congressional seat, hoping to change Washington from the inside. That didn’t work out, although he left office in a blaze of glory. Amid the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, he walked to the podium and nominated Channing Phillips for president. Phillips was an African-American minister and civil rights leader. I believe he was the first black person nominated for president by a major political party, predating the more well-known Shirley Chisholm by four years.

Needless to say, when a cause needed money, it sent its marquee fundraisers to the 16th floor at 133. Among the more engaging regulars were Ralph Nader, Mark Green, and Christopher Reeve, hot off the success of Superman. All arrived hat-in-hand and departed check-in-pocket. The penthouse parade also included my mother’s media pals, collected from the better part of three decades as a magazine writer and editor. One particularly memorable night featured a three-way sparring match between Art Buchwald, Russell Baker and Jules Pfeiffer. It wasn’t a $50 billion dollar night, but it was mighty close.

Living in such rarefied surrounding, I was never entirely comfortable. However, it would be a lie to say I was ever uncomfortable. Like any 20-year-old I was inclined to kick around in my underwear (or less) when I knew no one was in the apartment. The problem, of course, was that damn elevator door, which could swing open at any moment. In the two years we lived at 133 I recall exposing myself to a messenger, one of my mother’s elderly friends, and—I swear this is true—the Maytag repairman. If Jesse White was to be believed, the odds against this were astronomical.

I did manage to stay dressed for Shirley, the housekeeper, who was a package deal with the new step dad, having tagged along as he moved from apartment to apartment, pre-us. Shirley kept things orderly and made life comfortable around 133. Her talent was anticipating her boss’s every whim. She seemed to know him better than he knew himself at times. In light of this, and in retrospect, her indifference to the rest of us should have been a tip-off.

Indeed, the marriage began to unravel after a year or so. We discovered this because he was an obsessive list-maker. One day my mother came across a scrap of paper that included a handful of to-do items, all of them mundane but for one: Call lawyer about Helen. After confirming what he was up to, we decided to keep this discovery to ourselves. So as the clock wound down on marriage number five, I indulged myself in the occasional evil pleasure.

The one I remember most vividly, and most regret, was watching Shirley gape in horror one Monday morning at a wildly expensive sculpture that had been uncrated in the living room that weekend. The piece resembled a garden tool stood on end. The artist had labored to imbue it with a glorious patina, which had only grown more lovely with age. Shirley shook her head and returned minutes later donning rubber gloves, with a bottle of Noxon in her left hand and a knot of steel wool in the other. I looked up from my New York Post occasionally to keep track of her progress.

Having been raised on—and often at—The New York Times (my father and grandfather worked there as editors from the 1920s to the 1990s) I had begun reading the Post out of adolescent belligerence and also respect to media baroness Dorothy Schiff, the occupant of the building’s other penthouse. I knew from childhood dinner-table chatter that Mrs. Schiff was a power broker of the highest order. As publisher of the Post she had gotten Nelson Rockefeller elected governor, and derailed the presidential ambitions of Henry Wallace. By the time I became her neighbor she was more of a socialite, having sold to Rupert Murdoch. I was nonetheless impressed by the continued inclusion of Mrs. Schiff’s name on the masthead. This is the kind of building 133 was and, presumably, still is.

Until the Madoff scandal broke, I was easily the most ill-fitting occupant of the south penthouse. I officially earned this honor on a sunny spring day in 1981. I had taken a job downtown at the Harvard Club as the evening manager, where my chief responsibility was to prevent the older members from losing their shirts to the backgammon pros who used to breeze through the club at night and play for big stakes. I didn’t have to report to work until 4:00 p.m. so I usually slept late. Often the house was empty by the time I wandered upstairs to the kitchen. On this particular day the only fruit in the house was a bunch of bananas. I’m not a fan of bananas, so I sat and stared at them, trying to will myself into consuming one.

Instead, my thoughts turned to an item I had acquired in a college card game: a gorilla suit. With nothing particularly pressing on my schedule, I dug out the costume and pulled it on. It was the real magilla—hands, feet, full-head mask—hot as hell but loads of fun to gallop around campus with on Saturday nights. Much like the proverbial tree in the forest with no one there to hear it fall, a gorilla suit worn in an empty apartment might as well not be worn at all. So I went gallivanting around the terrace, banana in hand, secure in the knowledge that someone in the city would see me.

A few days later, wanting more of a good thing, I scaled the iron ladder that led to the apartment roof. Once atop the roof I noticed another ladder that led to the top of the old wooden water tower that supplied the building. Having no fear of heights, and now fully committed to this adventure, I climbed to the top of the water tower and began menacing imaginary biplanes with my banana. This generated the response I was hoping for. One or two blocks uptown, across Lexington, I heard whistles, cheers, and the clank of metal on metal. Hunter College was undergoing a massive building project, and the construction workers lunching on the girders were applauding my King Kong impression. I was a star!

In the eyes of the working Joes I can only imagine what I was. In today’s world of video-camera-phones, there is not doubt in mind that this performance would have earned me megastar status on You Tube. I made a couple of return engagements over the next week, until I was either too hot or too bored. I forget which. What I remember about my last climb up the water tower was peering down into the north penthouse, where matronly Mrs. Schiff was watching my every move. Oh yes, I remember, that’s why I stopped the monkey business.

I waited like a condemned prisoner for the call to come from our neighbor but it never did. Years later, I became friendly with her granddaughter, who had a good laugh when she heard the story. Apparently there was some concern within the family at that time that grandma was losing her mind. Something about a gorilla on the roof?

For me it was a cherished moment of performance art, which was all the rage back in the’80s. Years earlier I had been part of a performance art show in SoHo in a Mercer Street loft. I loved the doing of things, with or without an audience. Had I stuck with it who knows, I might be famous today. Two of the guys I went to high school with ended up starting the Blue Man group. My own blue-face career ended when I graduated from Duke.

My greatest performance at 133 came on December 31st of ’81. It may also have been the worst thing ever done in that apartment before the Madoffs moved in. My sister and I decided to stay home and celebrate what we correctly guessed would be our final New Year’s Eve in such luxurious surroundings. Our mother had signed a suicidal pre-nuptial agreement and she was about to be downscaled to either a one-bedroom apartment in a prime neighborhood or a three-bedroom apartment in a less-than-prime neighborhood. If you knew our mother you wouldn’t bother to ask which she chose. My sister and I would soon be on our own.

Anyway, there was a refrigerator in the maid’s room stocked entirely with steak and champagne. That sentence is worth repeating. There was a refrigerator in the maid’s room stocked entirely with steak and champagne. Of all the excesses and vulgarities with which we had so easily become accustomed to living we agreed that this was in many ways the worst. I forget our exact reasoning, but after knocking back a couple of bottles we decided to do something that only the worst kind of rich kids would do.

It was a bitterly cold night and as we were shivering on the terrace we noticed a homeless man huddled on the corner of 64th and Lex. We raced back to the fridge, grabbed as many champagne bottles as we could carry and tried to bean him by shaking the bottles and launching the corks over the edge. Trust me, it’s a funnier story to tell than to read, but try as I might (and I do) I recognize that the cosmic debt I accrued that night may never be repaid.

So where does that leave Bernard Madoff? He is now the worst person who ever occupied that apartment.

Where does that leave me? Off the hook, I hope.

And with many more stories to tell.