Still, some of his friends felt that Chambers was going nowhere. He may have been off cocaine, they say, but he was drinking heavily and smoking pot. Apart from a little house-painting and a caretaker's job with a neighbor, he didn't work. And one confidant recalls Chambers's growing desperation to resolve the contradictions between his mother's expectations, his image with his peers, and his low self-esteem.
Chambers's problems can't be blamed entirely on the scene that had become such a major part of his life. But what the scene did was provide a cover, a setting in which Chambers's decline did not stand out. "He was a nice, normal guy," one of his friends recalls. "But once in a while, he'd show this crazy streak, a strangeness. Of course, we were wrecked all of the time, so it was hard to tell what was strange and what was just being high." All the same, the carelessness and despair that characterized Chambers's actions that August morning—even assuming the most innocent scenario—had penetrated his life long before the sad events took place.
Though his family was hardly rich, Chambers grew up in the privileged world of the elite.
Robert Emmet Chambers Jr. was born on September 25, 1966, the only child of Robert Chambers, a former employee of MCA Records who now works for a videocassette distributorship, and Phyllis Chambers, an Irish-born private nurse who still speaks with a brogue. The family lived in Jackson Heights before moving to Park Avenue in 1975 and then to an apartment in a brownstone at 11 East 90th in 1980. Chambers's parents separated two years ago.
The family was hardly rich, but Chambers had the advantages enjoyed by children of New York's wealthy elite. When he was four, he was enrolled at Saint David's, a private East Side elementary school whose graduates typically attend the area's most competitive secondary schools. At eight, he joined the Knickerbocker Greys. In sixth grade, he was confirmed in St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church, on East 89th Street, under the sponsorship of Theodore McCarrick, who is now the archbishop of Newark.
Chambers thrived in this sheltered setting. He did well at Saint David's, where classmates remember him as a top athlete. He rose to lieutenant colonel in the Greys, the company's penultimate rank. And he was well thought of as an altar boy at St. Thomas More. "He was very faithful, very honest in his duties," Monsignor James Wilders recalls.
"All the younger boys loved Robert," says Tim Packard, who was also a lieutenant colonel in the Greys. "He had this smile that would just melt everyone around him."
Several of the girls at Spence recall Chambers as a nice but extremely shy seventh-grader, one of a small group of Saint David's boys with whom they hung out at the Sweet Suite, a candy store on the block between the two schools. "I always remember him with his rumpled shirt and his tie in his pocket after school," says one of the girls. "In groups, he was always standing back, looking at his shoes or the pavement, then scurrying off to be with his pals."
In eighth grade, Chambers's social life expanded. Along with students from the other single-sex schools—Buckley, Chapin, Collegiate, Nightingale-Bamford, and St. Bernard's—his group gathered at the Bandwagon, a teen disco in an Upper East Side Young Republican club. Liquor was prohibited, but Chambers's crowd sipped Southern Comfort from flasks or bought beer at a neighboring deli. The more adventurous students drank at the nearby Yorkville bar and experimented with pot.
A friend of Chambers's remembers a curious incident from that time. "I was teasing him about something really stupid," she says, "and somehow the teasing got physical. I kicked him in the butt—but playfully—and suddenly he started twisting my arm so hard he nearly broke it. I yelled at him to stop, but he wouldn't let go, and when I looked at his eyes, they were really weird, like he meant it." But of the dozens of friends and acquaintances interviewed for this story, she was the only one to recall seeing Chambers act out his anger.
He continued to do well in school. With its small classes and emphasis on personal development, Saint David's fosters a sense of family among its students. (Chambers's first visitors in jail included three of his former teachers.) He won an award for public speaking, reciting the gallows speech of the Irish rebel Robert Emmet, for whom he was named. He gained admission to Choate, in Wallingford, Connecticut. And during the summer, he worked as a teacher's aide at Saint David's, instructing underprivileged youngsters in photography. Chambers befriended Ed Crespo, a shy Puerto Rican student from East Harlem who was in the program.