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Just shy of 9:00 A.M., his underarms already brackish, Lucas emerged from the Chambers Street subway and joined the throng of pedestrians converging on One World Trade. For a month now, he’d been making this trip alongside the tourists and suits, the Truthers and Staten Island émigrés. He loved the commute, August heat be damned. In fact, he couldn’t believe his luck. To be here, finally, in New York, working inside that gleaming scepter of polished glass. The building’s spire pierced the impossible blue, seemed to stab straight through the sun. It reminded Lucas of a batter at the plate, pointing to the outfield.
A cynical person would have been embarrassed by such grandiose thoughts. But Lucas couldn’t help himself. Though only a fact-checker—an invertebrate on the media food chain—he thrilled to enter One World Trade’s echoing lobby each morning. He loved how the tap of his ID commanded the security bar to swing down and simultaneously summon the elevator. He rarely shared the car with anyone else. Everyone in this elevator bank worked in magazines, which meant they didn’t arrive until at least 10:00 A.M. But Lucas hadn’t yet adjusted to these so-called media hours. By 10, it felt as though half the day had already shriveled in the heat. And Lucas couldn’t afford any missteps. Too many people back home believed it was only a matter of time before he skulked back below the Mason-Dixon. They eagerly awaited his contrite return to the old life, the one he’d lived so well until he ruined everything and went to New York: that “polluted, sweaty cesspool of liberalism.” These were his grandmother’s exact words.
“People sweat in Charlotte,” Lucas had argued. “But they don’t smell!” his grandmother retorted. “Unless you’re rich, New York is like a slum. It’s like India.”
Lucas’s grandmother had never been to New York or India. But that was beside the point. In dropping out of law school after a year and breaking up with his (wealthy, pedigreed) fiancée six months shy of their wedding, he’d dashed the hopes and expectations of his family. Never mind that Mel had dumped him. Everyone, including Mel herself, believed that Lucas should have done more to salvage the situation. Instead, like a coward, he’d run away—and to Yankeedom of all places!—turning his back on the people, the very culture, that had raised him.
With the exception of his older brother, Sam, Lucas hadn’t spoken to his family once since arriving in Manhattan a month ago. But so what? This was the place he’d longed to be, and he was working at Empire Magazine, the place he’d always wanted to work. So what if he inhabited a poorly ventilated box and only made thirty-three thousand pre-tax dollars a year?
The elevator doors slid open at the twenty-ninth floor and Lucas stepped out.
Painted opposite the elevator bank in massive black letters, the word was the visual equivalent of a bullhorn or a punch in the face. And why shouldn’t the empire—as everyone called their floor—intimidate? The magazine was a fifty-year-old New York City institution headquartered in Manhattan’s newest bastion of hopefulness and pride.
Heading toward his desk, Lucas walked past the glass-walled offices of the magazine’s editors—its ruling class—their large windows overlooking Lower Manhattan and the East River. He passed the cubicle banks, dense as Iron Block buildings, where the proletariat—the staff writers, designers, marketers, and other assorted minions—produced the bimonthly publication. He was well into the suburbs of the empire by now, approaching the outpost of interns. And then, finally, the cluster of fact-checkers. How absurd that the fact-checkers should have less desirable real estate than the interns, but so it went. These were the exurbs, backed against a windowless wall, unwarmed by the sun. Lucas knew he shouldn’t complain. He’d only been at Empire for a month. His career, he reminded himself, would take persistence and time. And yet his initial leap of faith had catapulted him so far, so fast. Should he not continue to bound with the same speed?
Lucas sat down at his tidy desk. His colleagues’ workspaces were cluttered with papers, on which they’d scribbled and typed the minutiae—the facts—of the upcoming issue. But Lucas let nothing pile up, literally or figuratively. He’d come to New York to unburden himself. And yet in so doing, he now had a year’s worth of law-school debt to worry about. To make matters worse, his work frequently reminded him of his penury. Just now, for example, he was fact-checking a story about a celebrity chef whose restaurant featured a “gold menu.” For a few thousand dollars, you could have a gold-flecked Kobe burger or a margarita with a gold-dusted salt rim. It was amazing to think how less than a decade ago the same people who paid bank for gold-baked branzino had been crying on the floor of the stock exchange.
Lucas tried to work, but before long he was checking his ex’s Facebook page. Just two months after their breakup and Mel was already “in a relationship.” The new suitor’s page was private, so Lucas had limited material: height and build (tall, sturdy), clothing (khakis, popped collar, baseball hat), and name (Cal Braden). In short, a lacrosse-playing frat bro. If New York had its Masters of the Universe, then Dixie had its Kings of Douchery. It was obvious from these photographs that Cal Braden couldn’t wait to give a pretty southern girl a big rock, and a big house, and a big brood of children styled head to toe in Vineyard Vines. Lucas didn’t want any of that. And yet some deeply embedded muscle strained with the discovery that Mel had exchanged him for this newer, preppier model. Oh, and she’d untagged herself from all of Lucas’s photos. They’d been together for six years—four at college and two afterward—and it was like he never existed.
* * *
“Jesus, Luke. It’s been a month already. You’ve got to quit sucking up to the boss. You’re making the rest of us look bad.”
Lucas quickly minimized Facebook and swiveled around. Franklin, short and snub-nosed, his hair spiked like porcupine quills, stood there drinking a Venti iced coffee, the plastic still sweating from the heat.
“What time is it?”
“Ten thirty.” Franklin pulled his Jack Spade messenger bag over his head.
Had he really been looking at pictures of Mel for an hour?
“How many times do I have to tell you, Luke: Nobody knows we’re back here.”
If nobody knows we’re back here, Lucas thought, then I’m not making you look bad. Still, Lucas was convinced that his colleagues would eventually come to respect his work ethic. That Luke, they’d say. He hustles. At some point, the brass would take notice. Otherwise, Lucas would succumb to the same fate as Franklin, who was still checking facts three whole years after arriving at Empire. How could someone languish like that? If Lucas had been smart enough to flee Charlotte immediately after college, he’d surely be an editor by now.
Then again, he’d just wasted an hour on Facebook. His self-loathing felt like a cement block. Somebody might as well push him into the East River.
“What’re you working on?” Franklin leaned over the cubicle wall.
“The Best Restaurants package.”
Franklin frowned. “Empire must be in trouble or we wouldn’t be covering this shit. Every single issue of Washingtonian is the Best Restaurants issue. And every issue of Boston magazine is ‘Best of Boston,’ which is funny, because everything in Boston is the worst.”
Lucas disagreed. There was still plenty of actual culture in Empire—political analysis and at least three meaty features each month. The magazine held the same world of promise that had captivated him back in college when he happened to pick up a copy at Barnes & Noble. He’d started subscribing, to the confusion of his dorm mates and later to Mel, who never understood why he cared about some recent scandal involving the mayor’s daughter, or the city’s gentrification battles, or the rise of sketchy Chinatown bathhouses. Nobody back home understood how the glossy pages transported Lucas into a world equally full of glamour and grit, of modernity and history, of culture from the subterranean to the heavenly. Everything you wanted to talk about, and see and experience, was captured within Empire.
“How long before they had you checking big features?” Lucas asked now.
“So precocious, this kid!” Franklin snickered. “It’s adorable.”
Franklin could make all the fun he wanted. A year from now, he’d still be stuck in the exurbs, checking the veracity of other people’s stories. But not me, Lucas thought. I’ll be writing them. He closed Facebook and got to work on his thousand-dollar hamburgers.
Copyright © 2018 by Jennifer Miller and Jason Feifer