Ulysses: The Safety of Fifth Avenue

Table of Contents here.

June 16, 2022 – Hopper emerged from Chelsea with a sense of relief. Even as a grown man, he harbored bad memories from his youth, all of which seemed to have emanated from Chelsea. Not Tribeca, not Alphabet City, not the Upper West Side, not Murray Hill. Just Chelsea. There had been Dilly’s birthday party in Clement Clarke Moore Park where balloons were taped to his clothes and other teenagers threw darts at the balloons while chasing him. There was Boody’s party on West 26th Street where he had been held down while his head was shaved. There was Maggy’s party where had been stripped naked, bound and gagged, and left on the sidewalk outside the old Chelsea Hotel. He witnessed a total stranger jump out of the third-story window of Katey’s apartment in London Terrace. To this day he was hesitant to drink anything between Seventh Avenue and Ninth Avenue that did not involve him cracking open the bottle.

He strode into the Flatiron District as one exits a Halloween haunted house, with a mixture of relief and pleasure.  Once he was on Fifth Avenue, he felt safe. Fifth Avenue was the one street where nothing bad ever happened to him.

While walking north after crossing 21st Street, he passed a man and woman he recognized, the literary agents Leo and Molly. During the summer of 2005, they had employed him as a college intern in their small-but-influential agency across the street from the Flatiron Building. Molly was his mother’s agent for books. Molly had also negotiated Hopper’s first book deal with Lola seven years later, helping turn his doctoral dissertation into one of the top 100 nonfiction titles sold on Amazon.

Leo wore a blue and orange mask adorned with the word “Amazins.” He was a tall man whose hair had turned white in his twenties. He shambled with a slight stoop. He dressed only in blue suits, blue button-down Oxford shirts, black dress shoes, and one of three New York Mets neckties he owned. “It’s one less decision I have to make in the morning,” he said to Hopper, explaining his limited wardrobe. Molly hovered around five feet in height. Her kinky hair was colored bright orange. She favored short skirts and revealing tops. She dedicated her life to five-inch heels, “which I wear even to bed,” she claimed in a profile in New York magazine. Hopper remembered that, after she broke her foot stumbling on a subway grate, she wore flat shoes to the office the next day but was back in heels two days after suffering the injury. In the magazine profile, she defended her refusal to wear a mask: “Why should I cover up my money maker?”

Though Hopper was the intern that summer, they made him fire three people, including the 30-year-old woman who was his actual supervisor. “You can use my office while Molly and I are out to lunch,” Leo instructed him. “Just tell her that we don’t think it’s working out, hand her the last paycheck, and collect her keys. Keep it simple but remember to get the keys.” All of them cried – two wailed — and asked for explanations. Hopper did not want them to feel bad about being fired so he invented the story he used in each firing that Leo was being pressured by his older brother to hire a nephew or niece to replace them.

Leo and Molly were having an animated conversation. Hopper parsed out the words “percentages,” “reputational risk,” and “upside.” He was glad they could not recognize him behind his mask. His mother told him that they still considered ways to seek revenge against him after he had left their agency for ICM. “I need some distance from my mother’s dealings,” he told them. Leo and Molly were not literary types. They did not read books, not even those written by their clients. They were dealmakers. They considered business, pleasure, and family as the same thing. Behind his mask, Hopper smiled. Though he was not one to cling to the past, Hopper still felt a calming reassurance that some things and people did not change.

Before the pandemic, Hopper’s mother began commuting between New York and Los Angeles to work on movies. Molly and Leo got of cut of everything she wrote: books, movies, and TV. “The only writing they don’t profit from is when I sign your birthday card,” she told Hopper. “Because of them, this is going to be the prime money-making period in my life. Your little book is also going to help.”

His mother had been hired by Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine to adapt Hopper’s first book, “Children of Monsters,” for a feature film. The subtext of Hopper’s book focused on how the three Tilley-Blandin children had survived being raised by a couple of narcissists focused on their own success. Hopper’s parents either forgave him in their own minds or chose to overlook his portrayal of them because the book had been a critical and commercial success.

Hopper believed that his parents had agreed between themselves to use the phrase “My son, the bestselling author” whenever discussing or introducing him. Hopper had heard these five words uttered in the same adoring tone hundreds of times. Now his mother got to add, “I’m adapting my son’s bestselling book for the screen.”

The film was to carry the title “The Living Canvases.” Greta Gerwig had agreed to direct. Edward Norton was to play the character of Hopper’s father and Charlize Theron his mother. Unknown actors would portray teenage versions of Hopper, Olympia, and Silver. The pandemic complicated production schedules. The movie had been set to shoot in New Zealand, then Vancouver, then southern California, and then, thanks to Olympia, the whole project was placed in turnaround. Maybe the film would be made, maybe not. Hopper chose to worry about the issues in his life over which he had control. He had been paid for the rights to the movie and he had infinitesimally small creative control in the project. He had a contractual obligation to consult with the producers, but since he was not being asked to consult, he was free to focus on his next book and he was fine with that.

His phone started to play “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus, the ringtone he assigned to his ex-wife Ingrid.

Of all days, he thought to himself.

Ingrid had quit her medical practice last year.

“The pandemic squeezed the medicine out of me,” she told her partners the day after Christmas.

“I want to follow my dream,” she told Hopper on New Year’s Eve.

When they were married, Hopper had given Ingrid classes at Kendall College’s Culinary Arts Program as a Christmas present. Ingrid thrived, had continued with the program, and earned a degree. Hopper and Ingrid’s dinner table was in high demand among his colleagues at the University of Chicago and her peers in the Chicago Medical Society.

Ingrid was opening a restaurant today in Chicago.

Tonight, the residents of the West Loop neighborhood would be graced by Duck Duck Gray Duck, Ingrid’s high-concept Minnesota-themed restaurant. Her customers would be served varieties of Hotdish that was a staple of her childhood in Minnetonka, using ingredients and recipes from Korean, Somali, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Scandinavian, Ojibwe, and Hmong traditions.

On this day, when she was opening her restaurant, the owner and head chef of Duck Duck Gray Duck seemed to be distracted by a movie she had not yet even seen.

“Don’t worry. Our children are fine,” Ingrid said when he answered her call. “My mother is in town watching them.”

“Thanks for the update.”

“The premiere of Olympia’s movie is tonight,” Ingrid stated.

Hopper did not respond.

“Aren’t you excited?” she asked.

“Am I supposed to be excited?” Hopper answered. “Olympia’s movie is the whole reason my movie got shitcanned.”

“That is a gross mischaracterization, mister,” she said. “Your movie project, which, by the way, you could not care less about according to you, got hit by COVID bad luck.”

“Whatever,” he said. “Why are you calling me? Isn’t your restaurant opening tonight?”

“That’s why I’m calling, silly.”

“Did something happen with the restaurant?” he asked. Hopper, Olympia, Silver and their mother were minor investors. Most of the funding came from Ingrid’s sister Heidi and the estate of her late sister Birgit, in whose apartment near Gracie Mansion he was going to sleep tonight.

“Of course something happened,” she said. “So far, we’ve had to call a plumber and an electrician. A waiter quit an hour ago, followed 10 minutes later by a sous chef. The Health Department inspector is here and taking a lot of notes. I have the exterminator on call. This is shaping up to be the worst day of my life, but everything’s going to be fine. It has to be. I called you because I want to think about anything other than the goddammed restaurant right now. Can you at least distract me with Hollywood gossip?”

“Sorry, Olympia didn’t tell me anything. I don’t think I will know anything about the movie premiere until tomorrow,” Hopper said. He paused, then continued. “However, you’ll love this. I am having lunch with Lola in a few minutes to talk about my next book.”

“Sweet Jesus, that’s delicious news! I want you to tell me everything about it later. I just hope you have lunch in a public place,” Ingrid said, “where there will be witnesses.”

Continue to Chapter 6 here.

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