Friday, November 9, 2007

Fresh Meat

At exactly 7:58 that evening, Nan McFarlane stepped into the General Manager’s box on the Parterre level of the Metropolitan Opera House. The company’s guest that night was a young tycoon who had made a small fortune for himself in the computer industry. As the Met’s Director of Development, Nan had a special project in mind which she just knew Fred Howlett’s corporation would be eager to underwrite. And whatever amount of money Nan McFarlane decided to coax from a potential donor, she usually got.

Like many professional fundraisers, Nan had an uncanny talent for socializing with people who were much richer than she could ever hope to be. Her clothing, though stark and simple, had an understated elegance. Her long, blond hair and lean jogger’s body (complemented by an exquisite set of high cheekbones) could weaken the defenses of the mightiest CEO.

If Nan’s friends and colleagues jokingly referred to her as the most expensive lunch in Manhattan, it was partly because in recent years her physical beauty, social skills, and superior intelligence had been honed into a financially devastating weapon. Armed with enough facts and figures about the Metropolitan Opera to make anyone’s head reel, Nan was particularly good at buttering up the nouveau riches in the Met’s audience (those middle-aged people who had made their fortunes in real estate, oil, the stock market, or cocaine but still took pride in the idea that they had "enquiring minds").

It didn’t take more than a few seconds for Nan to size up tonight’s prospective donor. Although, as he sat in the company box, Fred Howlett was meticulously dressed for success, during his college years he had probably been the kind of good-natured fraternity jock who got through school by paying his classmates to write term papers for him while he was out getting drunk. Nan was even willing to give Howlett the benefit of the doubt. Occasionally, the well-heeled grunt might have read the CliffsNotes to some of Shakespeare’s plays.

Howlett’s wife (who was dressed in a backless gold lame gown with her dark hair swept into a bun) looked like the kind of Jewish-American princess who, once upon a time, had pursued a completely useless degree in art history. Nan guessed that by now the woman had matured into a spoiled suburban housewife whose intellect was being fed by a steady diet of All My Children and Hollywood Squares.

Whether or not the little lady also sold real estate didn’t matter much to Nan. Howlett’s business was booming and both he and his corporation had money to burn.

The kind of money which the Met desperately needed.

The kind of money which Nan wanted.

The kind of money which could buy the Howletts access (if not to New York’s old-line society, then at least to today’s in crowd of Yuppie ass-kissers who liked to claim that they lived near Manhattan in order to take advantage of its cultural attractions but, in all truth, hadn’t the slightest desire to step foot in Lincoln Center for any purpose other than networking and name-dropping).

Middle-aged businessmen like Fred Howlett were easy prey for Nan McFarlane. She could pump up their egos by making them feel cultured, wealthy, sexy, and important.

She could give them the impression that they were participating in a noble American cause by sponsoring some minor project at the Met.

She could get them to write large checks.

At the same time, she could give their wives an excuse to go shopping for new clothes. And if Nan understood one thing about nouveau riche heterosexual couples from suburbia, it was that these people all craved an opportunity to tell their friends that they had sat in the General Manager’s box at the Metropolitan Opera House and gone backstage to meet superstars like Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo.

Of course, there was a price to pay for such petty snobbery – a price which usually ran into six figures. But that’s what tax deductions are all about, Nan reminded herself, as she leaned forward to shake hands with Mr. Howlett and purred "It’s so nice to have you as our guest tonight. Drew Gelfand is all tied up backstage, but I’m sure he’ll be stopping by during intermission to say hello. Did you or your wife have any questions about tonight’s cast? I mean, I just know you two have been to the opera so many times that there’s absolutely no need for me to tell you the story of La Gioconda."

What Nan really knew was that the Howletts (who had had several drinks with their very expensive meal) were not stupid enough to reveal their total ignorance by asking her for a plot synopsis. After listening to the couple rave about their dinner and thank her profusely for inviting them to the Met, Nan settled back in her chair and waited for the performance to begin.

As the house lights dimmed and the Met’s magnificent crystal chandeliers slowly rose toward the ceiling, she discreetly gave Cheryl Howlett the once-over. Not a bad-looking woman, Nan thought. I wonder what it would take to punch her buttons?

Next: Midnight Draws Near

No comments: