He was finely attired, suit finely tailored, tie of the finest silk. Genuine leather shoes, newly polished. gleamed in the incandescent lighting of the red carpet. Perfectly coifed, he remembered his barber’s admonishment before he had left the shop earlier that morning for a good-luck cut and shave. “Boy, don’t do anything stupid, and remember, very few things in life are done well when you’re in a hurry.” He smiled again at the double entendre and took another sip of his drink.
This was high profile, dress to impress, the kind of time and place he had been preparing for all of his life. Millions of dollars won and lost over a few words, a sideways glance, the right thing said and done. This wasn’t Vegas or Atlantic City, this was a spot between points, richer than both of those, where gaudy lights and the laughter of backwoods simpletons and urban hipsters spoiled the atmosphere of danger and interfered with the smell of money. Of legitimate money. Of money charmed out of the pockets and paychecks of Joe Everyman and Josephine Everywoman by huge advertising campaigns. Hey, beats taxes.
He moved amongst movers and shakers, the invisible man. He smiled at drunk white women who laughed too loud at crappy jokes. He smiled at old white men who were mostly concerned with giving their wealth to worthy sons or keeping it from unworthy ones. He smiled at the minorities, the women, some of whom dismissed him as yet another token, some of whom fixed their internal radar on him - who was he? who did he know? - and deemed him a threat. He seemed friendly, amiable, and non-threatening, but the fact remained was that he was a black guy, and no amount of perfectly cut suit and air of ease would really hide that.
He was prepared, though. He had made sure that he would be. He had started too low in the pecking order, but he had seen what it took. He had watched some approach the sun fast, all aglow with energy and stick-to-it-tiveness, only to burn to a crisp. He had watched some approach with the same caution he had employed, only to live out their own Icarus-style execution: not finding out until too late that the wax on their wings was melting and they were heading right into a furnace they could not pull themselves away from.
He was different. He was sure of it.
He had refilled his drink when a white guy, slightly inebriated, noticed him amidst the background and decided to amble over. After all, he liked everyone! And who was this guy, anyway? He hadn’t come with a chick, hadn’t involved himself too long with anyone so he could be pegged to a particular benefactor. All the black guys who ran things were old as hell, and they seemed to shy away from attention from anyone who wasn’t female or as old as they were.
Two minutes later, he stumbled away from the encounter not knowing more than his addled brain could process. The black guy was cool, he thought. Seemed cool, laughed at his lame joke, agreed that there were many “dimepieces” in the room that night. The black dude had appropriately furrowed his brow when told of the uncertain job prospects at his ad agency, of the bitch in HR at that PR firm that didn’t like go-getters. He left as the black dude excused himself to get another drink, did he want one? Naw, bro, I’m cool.
The black guy laughed to himself. Good Lord, he thought. There are schools all over this great country that churn kids like that out like it was nothing. If he’d have shown up here tipsy off that sauce, a brother who came through his own school, the Hard Knocks one, would have deposited him in the parking lot with less effort than he used to take out the trash. He couldn’t let this whole thing end that way.
But he had to get into the swing of things, talk to some of these people, be of them, get into their heads: yep, integrate. He turned the smile to its brightest level, known to appease some, put on guard more, and to render the weaker sex, well, weak. He stepped to the first small group he could find; a haughty-looking, tall sister, a very, very old (and rich) white man, and a middle aged white woman, speaking very briskly of hedge funds and the stupid poor people and their subprime mortgages. He dropped into the conversation quickly and easily. The sister imperceptibly moved away from him, the white couple (as he found they were) moved closer. He spoke calmly and with knowledge that couldn’t be faked, and listened with rapt attention the Reaganomic values the older man expoused and laughed politely when the woman, clearly more liberal in her economic policy, meekly rebutted.
They spoke for almost half an hour, an eternity at a party like this, where the point was to meet and speak to as many people as possible, in the hopes that someone would remember someone else’s name months later after a totally inconsequential meeting tonight. People peeked into their conversation, but could not supplant the black guy.
He had to excuse himself at last - nature was calling, and does not take no for an answer - and was gently held by the arm by the old man. “Young man,” he began, “we never caught your name or where you’re working.”
The young man smiled, showing off perfect teeth. “I just got into town,” he said. “Kind of doing the consultant role.” The old man nodded; a mind for hire.
“Oh, my name? Call me Grant.”