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"I love you for listening!" Ritz signed off the air as she did every evening. She quickly scooped up the papers she had scattered on the desk in front of her and stuffed them into her white crocodile Gucci bag.
"Um, Ritz, you have a couple of faxes here that I think you should look at," said Jamie, nervously handing the papers over to Ritz. Jamie was the newest intern in a string to work on the Ritz Harper Excursion--one of the most popular radio shows in the country, syndicated from flagship station WHOT in New York City. Jamie had outlasted the ten before her by a month and counting.
"Do you want me to pick up your clothes from the cleaners?" she asked.
"Thanks, I'll get them myself. I have some time to kill and the fresh air will do me some good. Chas, are you coming?"
"Uh-uh. I have to clean up some of the mess you made today, Miss Thing," he said with his usual hint of attitude and humor. "But wait up, I'll walk you downstairs."
Jamie left to prepare for the next day's show. Chas grabbed his mink-lined shearling and Ritz slung her white fur over her slim frame. Winter white, head to toe. It was a typical Ritz outfit. If she didn't have a fly fur or some other extravagant accessory, she simply was not dressed.
She and Chas waited at the bank of elevators and rode the thirty-nine floors down to the lobby without stopping, like an express train. At this time of night, there were very few people left in the building.
At the lobby level, Ritz let her four-inch Jimmy Choos clop on the marble floor. She loved the sound heels made on marble, like a regal Clydesdale on a cobblestone road. She also loved the way stylish heels made her feel. Ritz, who had big doe eyes, dark sumptuous Godiva chocolate skin, a chiseled jaw, and Robin Givens-esque dimples, didn't always look or feel stylish. She just started wearing heels regularly a few years back--thanks to Chas--but had mastered them to the point where she could practically run a forty-yard dash in anything under five inches.
"So what do you and Tray-Tray have planned for tonight?" Chas asked.
"Nothing special, just some girl talk," Ritz said. "We have a lot of catching up to do. It's been almost a year."
"I know! Homegirl just packed up and never looked back," Chas said. "I miss her. She would have enjoyed the past few months of this ride, chile."
"I know. I know," Ritz said. "I'm just glad she's here for the next event. I'm a little nervous about my first real television gig. With her behind-the-scenes knowledge, she'll be a huge help."
"Don't worry about a thing, Ritzy! Papa Chas has it all worked out," he said, glancing at his watch as Ritz headed for the revolving doors. Chas, whose given name was Charles Bradley and would never be known as Chuck or Charlie, always took care of things for Ritz.
"Give Tracee a huge sloppy kiss for me on the lips!"
Ritz shot Chas a look. "Now you went too far with that one."
"Can't blame a brother for trying!" he said and playfully pushed her toward the door.
"Bye! I'll call you later."
"Be safe, sweetie."
THIRTY-SIXTH STREET AND MADISON AVENUE, MANHATTAN
Ritz Harper checked her frosty Franck Muller watch. It was eight minutes past seven. She had some time to kill before picking up her best friend, Tracee, at the airport. It was a crisp thirty degrees. Ritz loved the winter because it gave her a chance to luxuriate in the many kinds of furs--from chinchilla to mink, fox to ermine.
She decided to take the scenic route to her car and stop by the cleaners before heading to Newark Airport. By then, rush-hour traffic through Midtown and along the New Jersey Turnpike would be clear.
New York City, usually known for its bustle--the city that never sleeps--had a few pockets that were completely dead. After Ritz left her studio on Thirty-fourth and Park, street traffic amounted to just a few passersby. There wasn't the usual horn-blowing, anxious-to-get-nowhere car traffic that was found on the far West or East Side of town.
The Morgan Library stood out on the north side of Thirty-sixth. Its awesome white stone structure--barren, abandoned for nearly four years--was a couple of years from re-opening. There were metal and wood scaffolds and orange construction barricades surrounding it. The construction crew cleared out a little after five-thirty. The apartment buildings across the street seemed like mini abandoned museums themselves. Many of the residents were either in for the night or out partying. The street was quiet. The only illumination came from a dull streetlight near Park Avenue on Thirty-sixth.
Ritz loved this neighborhood. Ever since she began working in the city five years ago, she imagined living on the Upper East Side and on nice days walking down Park Avenue before her shift, catching lunch at the Four Seasons, even shopping at the expensive stores and of course, being hounded by adoring fans wanting her autograph. It was a fantasy that Ritz had had since she was a little girl. It was a fantasy that she was now living out. But the reality didn't quite live up to the fantasy. Ritz didn't realize how much she loved her privacy and how shocked she would be to have people come up to her while she was eating or strolling the streets and ask for an autograph. Some were much more rude than she could have imagined, but for the most part, Ritz enjoyed the fame. She loved connecting with her people--who in some ways had become her family.
By the time Ritz left the glass and steel building that housed her studio and headed northwest toward the cleaners, about a dozen people stopped to speak, wave, or get an autograph.
"Heyyyyy, Ritz!" a very loud young woman squealed from across Park Avenue, jarring Ritz out of her thoughts. Ritz was growing to understand that her relationship with her audience was so intimate that people felt totally comfortable with her--as if they really knew her.
A portly woman in her mid-forties yelled out, "Ritz, you go! I listen everyday!" Ritz smiled and waved. On her walk up Thirty-fifth toward Madison, a woman in her early twenties, who was walking with two friends, asked for an autograph. "Sorry, sweetie, no time," Ritz said. "I have to run. But I love ya!" Ritz picked up her pace as she passed the Community Church of New York.
For every block and wave and hello, a beige Nissan followed Ritz.
A couple more fans greeted her and someone in a black Jeep Cherokee beeped his horn and yelled out, "Will you marry me?!" as he made a right onto Madison, past Ritz, who gave a bright smile.
"I imagined this," she said to herself remembering the fantasies of adoring fans, autograph hounds, and paparazzi. "But I never imagined this." For four years Ritz had languished in abject obscurity on WHOT doing nights. She was good, that's why she kept her position. But she wasn't quite good enough to break out. One night Ritz did something different, and it changed her life. This was the night her fate shifted--her career literally exploded. She and her camp referred to it as "the Bomb Drop." The Bomb Drop also disintegrated the career of the nation's most respected and famous newswoman and changed the face not just of Ritz's career but of radio itself. The gloves came off and everyone became fair game. Stations like WHOT, which previously were committed to playing the hottest music in the country, started looking for "personalities" instead of "announcers." They wanted jocks like Ritz who could be bigger than the music. Ritz was an "overnight" sensation--four years in the making.
"This ain't no fifteen minutes of fame, baby," she would say. "This is for keeps!"
That's why she enjoyed the days that she drove into the city--which were becoming fewer and fewer. Usually the station would send a car to pick up or drop Ritz off. She had so many appearances to make during the week that they didn't want her to worry about catching a cab. She was treated like a queen. But some of the perks kept her from the thing she enjoyed most--interacting with her people.
Ritz was rarely alone anymore. Chas--her producer and the mastermind who turned her into a real diva and took her radio game to the next level--usually escorted her to her car after the show. He parked in the same garage, and during their "wind-down" walk, they would discuss the day's show and plan for the next day.
The February air was crisp and cold. Ritz pulled her white, calf-length mink tighter. She was known for her furs. She had even rocked a midriff fox in the dead of summer for an MTV Award red carpet. Ritz adjusted her Gucci frames carefully, keeping her weave in place. Sun or no sun, Ritz always had her frames on. She liked her new look, which Chas had urged her to make. She was about twenty pounds thinner, and had new hair and a new attitude. She even bought a brand-new Aston Martin V12 Vanquish--a gift to herself with her first bonus check for coming in first place in the afternoon drive time in the last Arbitron ratings book. Chas had finally convinced the once-frugal Ritz that if she was going to be a star, she had to have the "tricks of the trade."
"You have to look like a star and live like a star," Chas told her. "You have to have star shit!"
Ritz's first thought after adding the car, one of the final pieces to her reconstruction, was "Wait until Tracee sees me!" Tracee was not only Ritz's best friend, she was the one person who was truly happy about Ritz's success. There was no jealousy, no cattiness, no phoniness with Tracee--just sheer friendship and sheer joy. That was a rarity for Ritz, who had very few female friends--and very few friends, period.
"She is going to fall out when she sees this Vanquish!" said Ritz, who was with Tracee when she bought her Lexus convertible two years before. The two of them drove around Manhattan with the top down, heat blasting. It was last year this time. They were shivering and screaming with laughter the whole time. Ritz had so much to share with Tracee, who seemed so distant lately--and it had nothing to do with the twelve hundred-plus miles she'd moved away. So much had changed. Ritz had changed, too.
Ritz smiled and tingled with excitement thinking about reconnecting with her friend. She was so caught up in her own thoughts that she never noticed the beige Nissan that was still trailing her. Ritz didn't see the Nissan slow down as she stopped for the light, crossing the street between Thirty-fifth and Thirty-sixth. She didn't spot it as it waited midblock while Ritz ran into the cleaners on Thirty-sixth and Madison. Her only reason for taking this route was to make sure her pink gown was ready. She was making her debut on Monday on her very own red carpet, hosting the Grammys for E! She'd had to have the dress taken in to make sure it fit like a snake's skin. She couldn't wait to get Tracee's feedback on the dress. And if didn't fit, she had all day Saturday to find an emergency tailor to fix it.
Ritz was mentally going over her checklist of things to do. She even had activities mapped out for Tracee even though Tracee hated planned activities. There would be a day at the spa at the Hilton in Short Hills. Ritz could afford the Ritz, the Peninsula, Bliss, or any upscale spa, but she wanted to stay close to home. The Hilton also held special memories for Ritz and Tracee. Before Tracee moved, the two would meet there at least once a month for a massage.
"You have to take care of yourself," Tracee would say. "You have to beat all of that stress out of your body."
The Hilton in Short Hills was affordable and close to Ritz's home. Traipsing off to New York on the weekend would be counterproductive to the stress relief she was seeking. Tracee would usually stay over, and they would either watch a DVD and eat popcorn or plot their next move. The two shared their dreams--Ritz of taking over radio and Tracee of taking over the music business.
Two years later, Ritz had fulfilled most of her dreams, and Tracee had done a one-eighty from hers.
It was during one of their girls-out weekends when Tracee confided in Ritz that she was tired of the hustle.
"I just believe God has other plans for me, Ritzy," she would say. "I feel like every day I stay in this game, I am losing part of my soul. I just feel it draining away, like it's being siphoned off. I can't do it anymore."
One month later she was packing up and moving off to Florida.
"Damn, girl, you could have at least moved to South Beach or some fly-ass place like that," Ritz said. "Ain't nobody in Winter Garden but some old-ass retired people who can't drive. What the fuck?"
"That's exactly what I wanted--minus the bad driving," Tracee said. "Peace and quiet."
Ritz missed her friend. She spent five hours a day, five days a week, talking to millions over the airwaves. But talking to Tracee was something that nothing could replace. She couldn't wait to wear her out at her favorite mall--The Mall at Short Hills, directly across the street from the Hilton spa. She could finally let her hair down and tell someone how scared she was at everything that was happening to her.
Ritz had developed an on-air style that titillated, thrilled, and pissed people off all at the same time. And it was contagious. Even those who hated her--and the list was growing--could not turn the dial when she was on. It had been less than six months since she debuted in the afternoon drive spot on WHOT, but Ritz's audience and her salary had tripled. Ritz Harper was the undisputed queen of the radio.
Privately, Ritz was quite different--not at all confident and self-assured. Some nights, after hosting a sold-out party or being seen on television in an interview, Ritz would go home to a beautiful, huge home with all the amenities, put on her flannel pajamas, curl into a ball, and cry. Despite everything she had, she felt very alone, and was very lonely. The irony of talking for a living was that Ritz didn't really have anyone to talk to. Chas was cool and he was like having a close girlfriend. But he wasn't. Tracee was the only one who really understood--who had been there before Ritz was the Ritz Harper. When she was simply Ritgina (a combination of the name of her father, Ritchie, whom she never knew, and her mother, Gina) Harper.