Let Them Eat Crab Cakes

As he takes in a cinematic view of the misty Manhattan skyline from aboard the Highlander, the Forbes family’s 151-foot yacht, Chris Foreman*, 24, nurses a Ketel One and tonic at the bow-side bar. On the stern side, a few dozen revelers are trading small talk in the ship’s main salon, done up like a Park Avenue living room, complete with family portraits and blue-and-green needlepoint pillows with forbes asap stitched on the front. A handful of passengers step belowdecks, cocktails in hand, for guided tours of the staterooms where Margaret Thatcher slept just days before.

Foreman decides to climb above to the James Bond-esque second level, where a white leather banquette looks out on a set of cigarette boats and twin BMW motorcycles perched on the sundeck. Suddenly, a furious whirring sound cuts through the party chatter, followed by a weighty thump. A giggling guest in a jacket and tie descends, fresh from a ride in the Highlander’s helicopter. “Did you buzz my building?” someone asks. Around eight, white-jacketed waiters serve up roast beef, scallops, chicken, winter vegetables. And after capping off the evening with Napoleons and cigars, the partygoers are dispatched into the drizzly night with solicitous good-byes and Town Car vouchers.

It’s the perfect final touch to Foreman’s perfectly luxurious evening – especially considering that he took the crosstown bus to the yacht in the first place.

An assistant media planner at a prestigious advertising agency with a sociology degree from an elite liberal-arts college, Foreman pays $750 a month to split a walkup in the East Nineties – and he can barely afford it on his $28,000-a-year salary. Taxis aren’t in his budget, movies aren’t, either, and he doesn’t buy meat for the pasta he cooks at home. But since it’s the job of a media planner to recommend which publications his client should buy advertising in – and since a full-page ad can cost about five times his yearly salary – Forbes invites Foreman out on the Highlander so often he sometimes doesn’t bother to go. Other perks thrown his way include all-expenses-paid ski weekends (worth almost $1,000 in Foreman’s estimation), tickets to see Serena Williams at the U.S. Open ($75 each), the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue party, where he chatted with Heidi Klum and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (priceless), prime seats for sold-out Bruce Springsteen concerts ($500 each), and dinners at Cité, Sparks, Il Mulino, Maloney & Porcelli, and Monkey Bar, to name a few of his favorites ($100 a pop).

“It’s kind of crazy,” says Foreman. “I had dinner at Nobu on Monday, but I don’t have enough money to buy socks.”

Navigating such extremes is all in a day’s work for the Poverty Elite – the junior stylists, assistant editors, associate marketing managers, and assorted other aspiring media executives who enjoy the best of what money can buy without actually making any money. Mostly middle-class and private-college-educated, they spend their days greasing the wheels of Manhattan’s entertainment-industrial complex for a modest twentysomething’s salary – say, $20,000 to $40,000 a year – and their nights at Pastis, wrapped in trade-price Burberry scarves, chatting on loaner StarTACs, or in clients’ courtside Knicks seats drinking expensed Bud Lights. Weekends are devoted to building walls to subdivide their studio apartments for a succession of roommates.

The Poverty Elite has existed for decades, but with the expanding media sector and the stock-market boom it’s become a thriving underground economy all its own. Record-company assistants receive promo CDs by the bucketful. Publishing peons sip Merlot at book parties and recycle hardcovers at the Strand. Associate fashion publicists take the Concorde to Milan shows, where they stay at the Principe e Savoia. (“I started crying when we drove by the Duomo,” admits one. “It was so cool to be in the actual Italian Gucci.”) And just about everyone has a complimentary Coach organizer filled with invites to sumptuously catered dot-com launch parties.

What’s in it for the companies sending out all those invitations? Good old-fashioned networking, mostly. A prime example is the entry-level employees, like Foreman, in the media departments of ad agencies: Just off Dad’s dole, they’re charged with spending millions of client dollars on ad buys. In turn, the ad sales reps who need their business don’t want their boss to see them hunched over a tuna sandwich instead of plying a buyer with a Le Cirque lunch. “They come in and schmooze you, and you’re expected to go,” explains one media buyer, who went to Las Vegas for a cable network and was treated to stops at Spago and the Palm and a stay at Caesars Palace. Not that it’s a chore: Another was pleasantly surprised when his rep handed over his ATM card and password with instructions to withdraw $500. “Then we piled in a cab to that strip club Private Eyes.”

Since the cost of such indulgences is a fraction of a prime-time commercial or glossy gatefold ad, such glad-handing is considered a worthwhile expense, a percentage of which can be written off. “We’re the gatekeepers of the Fortune 500 companies – no one at AT&T actually purchases the ads,” says Jason Krumm, who worked as an account planner. “If at the end of a buying cycle, your budget has an extra $200,000, you’ll throw it back to the person who treated you best.”

Then there are the perks Poverty Elites collect just by circulating within their industry. Publicists throw parties to generate coverage for everything from new watchband links to new flavors of vodka. Even if guests don’t actually write about the new product or place them in photographs, the events themselves can still generate goodwill and all-important buzz – and provide Poverty Elites with a light dinner in the process. “They’re tastemakers,” explains Nikki Gerston, head of Shop PR, a fashion-and-beauty public-relations firm. “There’s a benefit to getting a product into their hands: They turn to other people and tell them about it, and it keeps going.” And, of course, today’s Poverty Elites are tomorrow’s power brokers. “It’s the associates who are doing the work, looking for what’s new,” Gerston continues. “You have to get in with them now before they start running the show.”

Some companies restrict what gifts their employees can accept, but Poverty Elites need their freebies to keep up the appearances of their professions on their paltry paychecks. “Everybody in our industry is guilty of it,” says Nancy Behrman, the head of her own beauty P.R. firm, who remembers having the best highlights in town when she was 23 and making $12,000. “The young women in my office all have perfect manicures, perfect pedicures.” Many of those who travel for work take their boyfriends and call it a vacation.

“I always get a kick out of the assistants,” says Dan McCann, director of marketing and public relations at the clothing line A.B.S., which outfits Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. “They’re wearing Fendi bags they bought at invitation-only sample sales for $100 – the same $1,200 bag there’s a three-month waiting list for at the store.” By the end of a year, the trickle-down perks effectively lift the group into another tax bracket. “I started at $24,000,” says Antonio Sardinas, a media planner, “but it would be more like $100,000 with what I get.”

On a frosty tuesday evening, Mia Harlock, a 25-year-old editorial assistant at a fashion magazine, is walking east on 23rd Street, fingering a pack of American Spirit Lights and dodging patches of black ice in strappy heels. Harlock and her boyfriend, Tom Phillips, a graphic designer, are on their way to a benefit for the New York City Opera. “The dress is supposed to be ‘Turkish’ or ‘opulent,’ ” says Harlock. “So I made my shirt last night.” She pulls back her coat to reveal a white halter hung on a tiny metal wire around her neck. “I went to Kmart, got a Martha Stewart sheet, and cut it up. I just got a new sewing machine.”

Black limos are stretched bumper-to-bumper in front of the City Opera Thrift Shop. Inside, Harlock and Phillips are ushered into a swirl of well-heeled committee members, including Nadja Swarovski and Eleanor Lambert. Across the room, socialites scour racks of donated couture, pausing only to nibble Turkish meatballs by Serena Bass.

Harlock crouches by a pile of Prada and Manolo heels and plucks out a $75 orange Miu Miu by the stiletto. “It’s a little too orange,” she pronounces, dropping it back onto the heap as Bill Cunningham snaps costumed grandes dames behind her. She orders a vodka tonic at the upstairs bar, then greets colleagues and flips through the racks some more before settling on an off-white lace blouse marked at $35. “I think this is Stella McCartney,” she says.

Harlock’s standing a few inches away when British fashion darlings Plum and Lucy Sykes arrive to flashbulbs sparkling like firecrackers. “You’re missing the event of all fucking time!” a black-clad partygoer hisses into her cell phone.

As the crowd thins, she lines up between Marina Rust and Tiffany Dubin to pay for the shirt she selected. Reaching for her wallet, she giggles to herself, “It would be so embarrassing for my credit card not to work at this.”

A week in the life of poverty elites might find them spending Monday night at a restaurant opening and Wednesday night sharing takeout Chinese food on the couch (usually a futon from college). But by the end of the week, they’ve probably spent as many nights in the presence of real-life rock stars as watching their videos.

A 26-year-old associate producer at VH1 who makes $30,000 a year spent one evening escorting Madonna and Lourdes to the VH1 Fashion Awards. She’s also dished with Susan Sarandon at Chelsea Piers and hung out with Debbie Harry during the shoot for Blondie’s Behind the Music. “We watched Fargo and ordered deli food,” she says. “She has a really cute little dog.” A former assistant at Island Records couldn’t believe her luck when she was asked to go to Vegas with U2.

Michael Lee Barlin, 29, a filmmaker who often house-sits a Fifth Avenue loft with his girlfriend, is still paying back the $40,000 he charged on his credit card to make his first feature. So he sees most movies for free – at private screenings. “After This Is My Father, I was making a cell-phone call in the lobby, and when I turned around, Julia Roberts was doing the same thing right next to me.” Such proximity to greatness can make up for distinctly unfabulous downtime. “I’m not shy about going up to people,” says Matt Jankowski, a former media planner who snapped pictures of himself with Melissa Joan Hart at a Teen People promotion. “That’s half the game.”

Last year, Lisa Garrett was working for Halston and sleeping on her twin bed from childhood because she couldn’t afford new furniture. But she jetted to Los Angeles to dress celebrities for the Oscars. “Tara Reid came in,” she recalls, brightly. “She’s from New Jersey, I’m from New Jersey – we were totally just hanging out.” Then there was the Talk magazine party at the Mondrian’s Sky Bar, for which Garrett herself received the celebrity treatment; she got to borrow a $2,000 white cashmere Halston suit. “I will never feel that attractive again,” she sighs. After sipping red wine next to Kim Basinger, Alec Baldwin, Warren Beatty, Steve Martin, and Kirstie Alley, she managed to gather up enough nerve to work the party. “We said hello to Chris Rock,” she says. “We chatted with Tina Brown. Obviously.”

The high life can be habit-forming, and the more Poverty Elites are exposed to its riches, the more they feel entitled to live it. Especially when they see their friends in other fields – e-commerce entrepreneurs, third-year associates at Cravath – enjoying the Hamptons shares and Hermès Kelly bags they earned the old-fashioned way. “In my mind, I feel like I deserve to have more money,” says a 26-year-old network-television editor who makes $31,000. “Entertainers and TV producers work hard, but I work just as hard as they do. Why shouldn’t I be compensated with millions?”

To close the gap, what the Poverty Elite can’t get through work they get by working it. Some approach scoring graft with the zeal of a competitive sport. “Any time I want, I could get loaned a Corvette for a week,” says one broadcast journalist – with or without a story assignment. “A friend of mine borrows a different car every weekend.”

An event planner at a top investment bank, Erica Ross spends most of her time on all-expenses-paid scouting trips to the Lodge in Vail or the Breakers in Palm Beach. Her itinerary usually factors in beach time and a massage. Often, she’s allowed to take along companions – even her mother. And when she’s not on the clock, her job title has its advantages. “If I go to a restaurant or a club and tell them I’m an event planner, I’ll get nicer treatment,” she says. “I have friends who work it very well. A colleague was going to the Four Seasons in Maui on her honeymoon, so we called and got her a suite.”

What can’t be called in can be traded for. Evelyn Carrasco, who works in the home-video department of USA Films, often gets cold calls from movie-industry people on the West Coast looking to barter. “They ask me if I want to trade screening passes so if I’m ever in L.A. I could come to screenings there.” Getting friends in on the deal is also part of the challenge. “People know people who know people – I’ve seen two Broadway shows for free,” says a television editor. “I got to take three buddies to a Knicks game, and we all got loaded in the Wall Street Journal box,” says Jason Krumm. He adds that his biggest coup was when Samsung flew him to Seoul first class and then footed the bill for him to stop in L.A. for a vacation. The miles, plus the fact that he bought the tickets on his AmEx card, netted him two free domestic flights on Delta.

When the need for actual cash arises, there are always business gifts to return. Just days after more senior Time Warner employees were watching their stock price soar in the wake of the AOL deal, Ellen Waterman, who works in marketing at one of the company’s divisions, was spending her lunch hour at Tiffany’s returning an unsightly bamboo-imprinted crystal bowl. “I’m into renting stuff,” she confesses. “I buy jewelry, wear it, and then return it.”

Four years out of college, she lives in an Upper West Side two-bedroom apartment she and her roommates reconfigured to snugly fit four. “We built two walls,” she says. “My entire salary goes to rent, sushi, and Visa. I don’t save anything.” She makes a beeline for the $175 silver Atlas ring, then hands over her credit slip. “How much is the matching bracelet?” she inquires. “Two hundred and sixty-five dollars,” says the sales clerk. “Thanks,” she says, with a smile. “That’s next.”

Harlock and Phillips are sharing a cigarette on their double bed. There’s no place else for them to sit, since they made the living room of their St. Marks Place one-bedroom into a makeshift quarters for their two roommates. “I feel like I still live in a dorm,” Harlock says, exhaling as one of Tom’s acid-jazz CDs plays in the background. “The dresser is a friend of mine’s. I found all the chairs on the street on garbage night and reupholstered them. I’ve had that stereo since I was 16.” The sewing machine sits on a desk. The closet boasts an impressive collection of thrift-shop finds, like the Asian silk top with embroidery, beading, and gold sequins she’s wearing today. Across the room, a handbag hanging on a wall hook has a distinctive Gucci pattern. “Four dollars,” she smiles.

“You’re invited, but you’re standing there with headsets on, going, ‘Sharon Stone is approaching!’”

They’re enjoying a mellow Saturday, a stark contrast to the second act of their evening at the City Opera fête two nights before. “The after-party was two doors down from Chez Es Saada at an old school this guy’s redone as his home. There were courtyards inside, snow with rose petals, a sunken living room with ceilings ten times higher than these. It’s all part of the fantastical New York I imagined when I was younger,” says Harlock. “I don’t want to say it’s like a Great Gatsby party, but I am aware that it’s an illusion.”

Their third-floor walkup just seems like part of the game. “I don’t understand the concept of making a million dollars when you’re 25,” she continues. “I can’t see myself making more than $40,000 – I can’t see any reason to until I have kids. You can still have a great time in New York: I can pay my rent, eat out a few nights a week. It’s more romantic.”

As Harlock fixes a bowl of Rice Krispies for a late lunch, her musician roommates are rehearsing behind the curtain that separates their tiny kitchen from the living room/second bedroom. “We’re putting up a sound wall,” says Marnie Stern, 23, apologetically, describing their band’s music as “a mix of Cat Power, Built to Spill, and Heatmiser, in my dream world.” During the day, she works as an assistant at an advertising agency; her boyfriend and bandmate, Alexis Arkus-Duntov, 27, D.J.’s at Sway and Magnum. But at the end of the night, as he says, they both end up back behind the curtain on St. Marks. “It’s very typical New York.”

Such juxtapositions remind the poverty Elite that they haven’t earned a place in the privileged class – only rented it. When Miramax throws a premiere party, low-level staff are always there – to help. “You’re invited,” says an employee, “but you’re standing there with headsets on, going, ‘Sharon Stone is approaching! Sharon Stone is approaching!’ ” Before he gave it up for a job in advertising, Jankowski’s much-envied $18,000 public-relations gig with the New England Patriots found him relaxing on the team’s private plane and palling around with quarterback Drew Bledsoe. During the games, it was a different story. “In Miami, I had to take photos of the field from our corner and bring them to the coaches,” he recalls. It was 107 degrees that day – even the cheerleaders were passing out!”

Perhaps the biggest occupational hazard is the temptation to live beyond one’s means while off-duty. On a business trip to London, Rich Whalen, a Web producer, got to fly first-class – which costs $2,800 each way. “There’s this room,” he whispers. “They throw drinks at you even before you get on the plane. They have these phones you can call wherever you want and leather couches. If you don’t know about it, it’s good – you can never go back.”

A guy could get used to that kind of treatment – and many do. “The last restaurant I went to with a rep was Gotham Bar and Grill,” says Foreman. “It was phenomenal. So when I went out this weekend, I found myself saying, ‘Let’s go to a nice dinner – I’ll pick up this round, no problem!’ You get acclimated to consuming and not worrying about the money, but when there’s no rep around, you’re fucked.”

It can be hard to keep things in perspective – not to mention stay out of debt. “I keep saying I can’t do this forever,” says a television editor. “That’s why I have delusions of grandeur. My plan is screenwriting, but it’s pretty slim.”

In the end, the Poverty Elite is its own kind of aristocracy. It’s a rite of passage – living a glammed-up vie bohème for a few years before getting promoted out of it. “I thought about changing jobs,” says Foreman, “but I decided not to. Even if they’d pay me $40,000, if you add up the costs of the tickets, trips, and everything, it’s still more than that.” There’s a feeling of superiority, too. “When you pass by a line at a screening because you’re on the list,” says Barlin. “You do get that ego boost. You’re thinking, Ha, ha! I’m not a chump.

On a recent Thursday evening, Sardinas and Jankowski wait for the elevator to FHM’s launch party. Tommy Hilfiger steps out as they get in. Once upstairs, they plop down on the leather chairs as if in their own living room. “That’s Mark Ronson,” says Jankowski, pointing to the D.J. whom they know from their side gig as party promoters. “Now I got to go dance, warm up the legs.”

Sardinas sips his vodka and scans the celebrity-spattered crowd for co-workers, pausing to admire actress Jennifer Esposito’s python heels. “Half my group got invited to dinner at the Russian Tea Room,” he says. “But I wasn’t real into the menu.” An overzealous friend they’ve brought along feverishly picks through the five gift bags she’s collected. When she drops them to bolt for LL Cool J’s autograph, they laugh and shake their heads. “This is like two years running for us: We get in, get drinks, eats,” Sardinas says, checking his watch. “Then we move on to the next.”

Let Them Eat Crab Cakes