The following is an excerpt from You Don’t Have To Live Like This, a novel by Benjamin Markovits which is now available for pre-order. Markovits’s profile of LeBron James, which was written for Port magazine but was ultimately spiked by Nike, has previously appeared on Deadspin.


Ten years out of Yale, with an extra degree from Oxford, and all Greg Marnier has to show for it is a rambling academic career that has landed him in the middle of Wales. At his college reunion, jetlagged and drunk, he runs into an old friend who offers him an extraordinary way out.

Advertisement

Robert James, wealthy and influential, a success story of the dot com bubble, wants to become a political player. His plan: to buy up several abandoned neighborhoods in Detroit—the poster child for urban decline—and build a new America from their boarded-up ruins. For a small investment, Marnier can transform himself into a 21st century pioneer.

But the realities of life on America’s urban frontier soon become apparent. For every hopeful misfit who’s come for a fresh start there’s a native Detroiter whose patch is being swallowed up by the new colonials. Marnier finds himself caught in the middle of everyone else’s battles—partly because he’s the only one talking to both sides.

He gets a job subbing at a local high school and invites one of the teachers there, Gloria Lambert, to join him at one of Robert James’s political fundraisers. Obama is supposed to be there, and along the way Marny (as his friends call him) realizes that he has his own issues about race to work through. This is their first date.


Around 5:00 pm Gloria wanted to go home. She had seen the president, she had stood in the room with him, it was enough. It was our first date and I didn’t know what my report card would look like. Maybe a B and not for effort either. Somehow there had been too many people, people she didn’t know and I had let them take her away from me. Partly because I liked seeing her talking without me, getting along, standing short and straight in her green wool dress. She had a good face, very dark-skinned, somehow bright black, and made eye contact and reacted naturally in conversation. Although I couldn’t actually tell if she liked them much—my friends, I mean. Sometimes I didn’t know if I liked them myself.

Advertisement

I went to find Robert and say thank you, goodbye. The whole thing was really his show. He had taken off his jacket and loosened his tie. As if to say, my work is done, like some hotshot trader after a hard day on the Floor. Waiters were bringing leftover food to the kitchen, and Robert started picking at it, standing around with the chef and some of the president’s entourage. Obama was there, too, trying to get a game of three-on-three together. “Where there’s a backboard there’s a ball.” He meant the Roof King backboard over the garage door. The snow had stopped, the evening was clearing up, Obama offered to do a little shoveling himself. He hadn’t done a thing all day but eat small portions of food, the kind of food you can hold in one hand while you talk a lot of crap. “Come on,” he said.

The impression he made on me was very strong, his fame and his restlessness, which was partly physical and partly in the way he talked—he interrupted himself and made little appeals to people around him, not just people he knew but also one of the waiters, a six-foot white guy who used to play point guard for Aquinas College in Grand Rapids. “Sam wants a game,” Obama said, “Sam’s up for it, Sam wants to work off some of that gut you get in your 20s, when you work too hard and the rest of the time sit around on your butt.”

Advertisement

“Come on,” he said again. “Who’s in? I need some names.”

Robert gave him a queer look. His shirt was unbuttoned at the top, his sleeves were rolled up. He kept himself in good shape. “The ball needs pumping up,” he said.

“So pump up the ball.”

Advertisement

Obama started pointing at each of us.

“You in?...What’s your name? Introduce me.”

“Marny’s more of a squash player.”

Advertisement

Advertisement

“I’ll guard him then,” Obama said.

About 20 minutes later, I found myself scraping a snow shovel up and down the concrete drive. We took it in turns. Robert had loaned me a college sweatshirt, to pull over my undershirt, but I was still wearing slacks and leather-soled shoes. Then Obama took the shovel off my hands and pushed the last crumbs of snow into the pileups on either side of the drive.

“How far is East Lansing from here?” he asked. “About two hours?”

Advertisement

“A little less. An hour and a half,” Sam said.

“Robert, Robert James,” Obama called. “Did you invite Magic Johnson to this thing?”

“I’m not sure.”

Advertisement

Advertisement

“This is his kind of basketball weather. He told me once, he used to practice his jumpshot with mittens on.”


Robert gave him a queer look. His shirt was unbuttoned at the top, his sleeves were rolled up. He kept himself in good shape. “The ball needs pumping up,” he said.

“So pump up the ball.”


Then there was a ball bouncing among the six of us, middle-aged men, in dark pants and dress-shoes, breathing smoke, as we shuffled around passing and shooting and chasing the ball under the garage lights. About ten security guys stood along the spear-topped iron fence, watching us, and the house itself was lit up like a Christmas tree. People crowded into the window-frames to get a look, champagne flute in hand. Not what you see at the usual political fundraiser; for this, they might have paid more than $5000 a plate. But the court felt private enough.

“I’m about as warm as I’m gonna get,” Obama said. “Come on, Reggie. Let’s get it on.” Reggie was his assistant, one of those friendly-faced black guys, about six and a half feet tall, and bald as a cantaloupe. About a foot taller than Bill Russo, who played, too; some of the money was going to his reelection campaign. Robert and Bill and I were at Yale together, it was all very cozy. So that when Robert started buying up real estate in Detroit, he had connections on the inside. To set up what he called the Groupon Model for Regeneration—using the internet to get a critical mass, everybody moving in at the same time. Regeneration or gentrification, it depended on who he was talking to. Part of what I liked about Gloria is that she wasn’t part of that crowd. She was a real Detroiter. I mean, she actually grew up there.

Advertisement

Bill kept a set of workout clothes at Robert’s house and was the only one of us in rubber soles—he had on his wrestling shoes and started grabbing people by the waist and pushing. I liked him. For a young state rep, he didn’t put on any airs.

“Get off me, Bill,” Robert said.

But Bill was having a good time; he didn’t give a shit about basketball. He guarded Robert, and Reggie guarded Sam, and the president guarded me. Mostly I tried to get out of his way. I didn’t want to injure anybody, and the ground was cold concrete and slippery with snow dust. Obama put up a jump shot and missed, and Reggie grabbed the rebound and kicked it back to him, and this time he knocked it down.

Advertisement

Advertisement

“It’s raining on a snowy day,” Obama said. He had a quick jerky left-handed stroke, which took a little getting used to. After each shot he held his hand out like a claw.

“You got to get on him,” Robert told me.

At one point, between plays, Obama tried to start up a conversation. “So what’s your story?” We were catching our breath, and I looked at him. He said, “What’s your connection to these bums?”

Advertisement

“I knew them in college, but that’s not what I’m doing here.”

I figured he meant working on Robert’s staff or Bill’s campaign team.

“So what are you doing?”

Advertisement

Advertisement

“Just living here. Teaching high school, mostly subbing. I’m one of the guys who moved in.”

“Don’t let Robert push you around,” he said.

We played to 15 and then we played to 15 again. Sam was still in good shape. His shot was rusty but he was strong and fast and could dribble all over the place; somehow nobody ever got in his way. And Robert had a nice little soft 15-footer, a white-boy jumpshot, Obama said. I don’t think Reggie tried particularly hard. He picked up a lot of rebounds. We won the first game and then Obama got hot, shooting from the fences he called it, and they pulled out the second. Obama and Reggie liked to talk. Sam didn’t say a word, and Robert didn’t talk much either; it took me a while to realize he was pissed off. Partly at Bill, who kept horsing around and taking out his legs. But partly at me, too.

Advertisement

“Rubber match?” Obama said, and when the third game started, Robert switched me onto Bill and guarded the president himself.

Afterwards I tried to work out what happened—I wanted to understand the build-up. Maybe it was a racial thing. Robert played varsity basketball for Claremont High. They had one of those teams where the uniforms don’t show your name. The way Robert was brought up, you played hard and you made the extra pass and you didn’t care how many points you scored, you cared about winning. And you didn’t talk. But Obama liked to run his mouth. It didn’t bother me much. But maybe it had nothing to do with basketball, maybe Robert was pissed off about something else.

Anyway, it was cold and people were tired, and still half drunk. I got the feeling on both sides that some guys really wanted to win. Then Reggie set a pick for Obama, and Robert fought through it. I tried to help out and caught an elbow in the nose from somebody and sat down on the frozen concrete trying to hold the blood in with my fingers.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Obama put his hand on my head. “You all right, kid?” he said. “Let’s call this thing off.”

But Bill ran in to get toilet paper, which I stuffed in my nose to stop the bleeding.

“Marny’s fine,” Robert said. “You all right, Marny? He’s fine. If you start something you finish it.”

Advertisement

“I don’t mind,” I said. So we finished the game.

Afterwards, I said to the president, “There’s somebody who wants to meet you. Someone I teach with.”

Gloria was waiting for me in the kitchen, with a wet warm cloth. I took out the bloody tissue paper and held it to my face. When she saw Obama, she kind of stood at attention, but he put out his hand and she shook it.


But Obama liked to run his mouth. It didn’t bother me much. But maybe it had nothing to do with basketball, maybe Robert was pissed off about something else.


“I think you knew my father,” she said. “I think you knew my father before I knew him.”

Advertisement

Advertisement

Obama’s high forehead was sweating under the kitchen lights; he started drying himself off with cocktail napkins. After a while, he had a handful of these napkins and nowhere to put them.

“Who’s your father?”

“Tom Lambert. He used to work for the DCP in Chicago.”

Advertisement

He put the napkins in his pocket. “I was very sorry to hear it when he died.”

“That was a long time ago.”

“Too long,” Obama said. “He died too young.”

Advertisement

Advertisement

“Thank you, Mr. President.”

The kitchen was crowded, there were maybe 30 people in the room, including the caterers, waitstaff, security, and the rest of the guys who played. Obama put his arm around me and said, “I want you to know something about this guy, he’s not a whiner,” and then the other conversations took over. Somebody brought the president a glass of mineral water. He turned to Robert, who was drinking tap water by the sink, and called out, “You ever seen the shower they got on Air Force One?”

“You can use the showers here.”

Advertisement

“If I leave now I can kiss the kids goodnight.”

The sense I had of unreality was strong. Robert had left his shirt over one of the chairs and put it on again, buttoning it slowly; his fingers were probably cold. He didn’t look very happy—we lost that last game by six or seven points, and I got this funny feeling that Obama was talking so much because he won. But then I couldn’t read him at all. His face was very expressive. Of course, he was used to being looked at, and maybe the best way of covering up what you think is to show a lot of expression. But then at other times his face went blank, he stopped paying attention, and people around him had to repeat their questions. Robert I knew a lot better, but he was strange to me, too, and I wondered if they had been working on some deal that didn’t come off.

Gloria said to me, “Take me home.”

Advertisement

Advertisement

“You ready to go?”

“If you can’t make it with me now, you never gonna make it with me.”

So I took her home.


You Don’t Have To Live Like This is available for pre-order now on Amazon. Benjamin Markovits’s is also the author of Playing Days, a novel set in the world of minor-league European basketball. He lives in London with his wife and two kids.

Advertisement

Photo via Getty