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A Seat At The Table Of Success

New York City Mayor Eric Adams sitting at a literal table with some restauranteurs at the Manhattan restaurant Ali Baba. This is not the same as the figurative "table of success" at which his haters are his waiters.
Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A person can get away with a lot as a big-city mayor. If there's anything that the collection of singularly weird American mayors currently in office—they are poreless technocratic droids running the "prosecutor" personality package, or glum and valueless himbos who realized too late that their ambition outstripped their talent, or various varieties of gaudy peacock who are identifiable at 100 paces as someone that you should absolutely not make eye contact with, or people who either seem like cops or actually were cops, or just are masochists with a thing for being humiliated by police officers—can be said to have in common it's that they seem highly aware of and attracted to that fact. Some of them seem like people who could only ever be employed as big-city mayors; all of them have personalities so opaque, prickly, and relentlessly overstated that they can only be described as "mayoral."

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who embodies all those listed archetypes from one moment to the next, is stranger than any of them. He is a man who believes that he was divinely ordained to hold this awful job in particular and has been aiming his whole being at it for three decades, and also one who tells weird lies seemingly just to keep himself interested in whatever he's talking about. He lives in whatever office he works out of as a matter of course, never goes to sleep, drives on the sidewalk, instantly and almost instinctually got into cryptocurrency, and puts sweet potatoes in pasta. "Between 2018 and 2021," Ian Parker writes in a sprawling feature story in The New Yorker, "Adams appeared on dozens of podcasts with names such as 'Plantstrong' and 'Spiritual Shit.'"

If Adams is not alone in the debauched community of messianic-but-mid American politicians in seeing his own success as the most amazing and sadly under-appreciated story ever told, his performance of that vanity is both more ebulliently triumphant and more exuberantly sour than any of his peers could manage. It's mayoral in its form and tone and tragicomic thwartedness, but it's also exemplary because of how effortlessly extra and involuted it is. Adams is triumphal and paranoid, grandiose and petty, transparently consumed by feuds and resentments and little online irks while also outwardly being too blessed to be stressed. Of all the weirdo mayors currently gripping and grinning and laughing at inappropriate times and directing their underlings to issue scathing dismissals of local nonprofit housing organizations, only Adams can really claim undeniable Mark Jackson Vibes going on top of all that.

For a while, Adams talked about himself as the future of Democratic politics, and the sort of people who talk about that sort of thing talked about it in turn. He is having kind of a rough go of it of late; the New Yorker feature is not the sort of thing that is going to move votes one way or another, but it is damning and, in the way that comprehensive portraits of politicians tend to be, kind of sad for all that. Adams has real gifts as a politician, but is also an ultra-vain ex-cop who fetishizes deference and discipline and seems to have no actual politics beyond a strange and harsh devotion to a highly aestheticized hierarchy of both authority and personal worth. When he was first elected to the State Senate, in 2010, Adams paid for billboards with pictures of men's asses on them. They read, "We are better than this! Stop the Sag!" and when Gothamist asked about it he said that he "believes that sagging pants are just the first step in a slippery slope to a criminal future."

The person this resonates with is maybe something like the median American voter. Politicians bend themselves into any number of unholy shapes trying to appeal to this sort of person. Adams, who won his office with a campaign in which he said "I am you" a lot, didn't have to fake it. He is just like this. But governing as that type of guy is not going well right now.

"There's going to be a lot of people who will hate you," Adams told the graduating class of Pace University's law school during his speech there in May of 2022. "All I can say, have your haters become your waiters when you sit down at the table of success." This was his closing line, and the mayor already seemed to be laughing when he said "thank you" and walked away from the podium. If it seems weird to tell a bunch of young people, on the day that they graduate, that they are going to be hated by many throughout their lives, it is worth noting that Adams 1) is a pretty weird guy and 2) was flustered when some of the graduates turned their backs on him in protest. "I know protests," Adams said earlier in his speech. "But I'm not getting a degree today because I know how to protest. I'm getting a degree because, after protests, you must do something to protect. You cannot simply protest, you have to protect."

The Haters Become Waiters bit is by now something of an Adams signature; he has been using it in speeches long before he became mayor in 2021. "From what I can tell, Adams came up with this expression himself," Olivia Craighead wrote in Gawker in 2022. "There seems to be no song, movie, or book that contains the phrase." The first instance that Craighead found of Adams saying the phrase was in 2015, when he was Brooklyn Borough President. Back then, it was "when you sit down at the table of success, let your haters be your waiters."

A month after that Pace address, in a speech at Queens College, Adams flipped the script slightly. "Not everyone is going to like you," he told those graduates. "My son calls them haters. Well, let your haters be your waiters when you sit down at the table of success." Adams had previously said the "let your haters be your waiters" bit at Brooklyn College's graduation in 2018; "What a terribly belittling thing to say," reads the only comment on the school's Facebook post of the quote. In 2019, in his speech at the Medgar Evers College graduation, he incorporated The Table Of Success into the bit for the first time. A 2021 New York Times story on Adams quotes him as telling audiences, “Turn your haters into your waiters, and give them a 15 percent tip.” It's in the New Yorker feature as well. "Don’t get mad at me because I became the mayor!" Adams tells some scholarship recipients in an event at Gracie Mansion. "You go raise that $22 million, you go knock on 35,000 doors, you deal with all of the haters yelling at you and calling you names. But no one wants to do that. I always say, ‘Let your haters be your waiters.’”

There is something about this particular turn of phrase, in its corny overdetermination and ultra-forced rhyme and broader implied understanding of the hierarchy between those who matter and those who do not, that would be distinctly Adams even if he hadn't made the decision to make it his own. The team at Hell Gate did their level best to come up with some substitute constructions—I personally liked "Let your doubters be your routers on the Wi-Fi network of success"—but it's hard to imagine anything that could better sum up both the distinctive manias and the signature shortcomings of not just the Adams administration but the broader tranche of haywire narcissist mayors to which he belongs. Adams alleviated his own diabetes by changing his diet, and has made food a major part of his broader brand—"How many apples does it take to make a salad? That is math," Parker quotes Adams as suggesting for a school curriculum. "Or, for geography: 'Where does a banana come from?'"

Here, as elsewhere, Adams has never really tried to meet his constituents where they live, so much as he has held himself up as an example toward which they might aspire. For someone who ran as being Of The People, Adams has governed as someone for them to cheer for, or look up to, or seek to emulate, or anyway line up behind out of aspiration or identification. This isn't new, and neither is a politician who makes his own success the signal and even only goal of whatever greater movement they once gestured toward representing. For all that has been written about Adams, it is unclear why he ever wanted to be mayor beyond the sense that it was the job for him; there is no problem, beyond his seemingly sincere hatred of rats, that he seems to think he can't fix simply by being himself, and letting people interact with him. "Adams’s stories of intervention tend to stop at the point where he’s thanked," Parker writes. "They don’t lead into discussions of agency reform." Adams is by all accounts energetic if sporadic in managing those agencies, but being there and being seen to be in charge, as opposed to any specific outcome, seems to be the point.

If the abstraction and passivity of national politics makes it possible for a sufficiently craven and instinctual demagogue to win office doing this sort of thing, the merciless internecine realities of municipal politics tend to reveal that gambit for the sham that it is. The sole point of Donald Trump's presidency, beyond the dispensing of favors and punishing of enemies, was that it would go on forever. National politics is different, and the federal government runs on rails—not very well, much of the time, but in a way that can't be quickly or entirely disrupted even by the sudden interposition of some of the worst people that the country has ever produced. More than that, though, it runs at a remove: people feel it without really ever seeing it. It is easy to vote for a mascot to run this sort of enterprise; even a more considered and more qualified choice will in many ways only ever be that.

A city is different, and not just because it is smaller. People are closer together, and governance and its absence tend to show up more quickly. Lawlessness isn't an abstraction, at this level; it's a car with a city placard parked on the sidewalk that you have to walk around. People do not so much notice that things change—when police car chases abruptly increase by 600 percent, for instance—so much as they notice the lack of response. Corruption is grandiose as a concept but always shabby and chiseling and cheesy in practice; it's just small people doing selfish shit because they believe they deserve it and know they won't get in trouble for it. It is always obvious; the shamelessness of it is protective, and self-perpetuating.

A mayor will hear about it more directly than a national politician ever will, because they are closer to where this all happens. Adams, with his passion for deference, suffers as a result. "While he calls himself thick-skinned, Mr. Adams retains a mental archive of slights and grievances, describing in one breath those who were 'mean' to him during the primary and insisting in the next that he holds no grudges," the Times wrote back in 2021. When Adams was last moved to deploy his haters-become-waiters phrasing earlier this month, it was because he got mad that someone at an event said "so what?" when told that the mayor was there. "It's not 'so what,'" he said. "It's about you have a mayor that understands what you're going through, and I'm here over and over again."

"I'm immune to hecklers," Adams went on to say, convincingly. "All my haters become my waiters when I sit down at the table of success." The ugly fact of it is that this is more or less true. Leave aside for a moment the cornball prosperity-gospel phrasing and the off-the-rack nonpartisan authoritarianism that gets revealed every time a powerful man hears something he doesn't like. Take it on its face: A powerful man with nothing much in mind beyond his own power is confronted daily, in his powerful job, by people who wish he would do more for anyone but himself and those seated around him at the table that The Lord—or some shabbier structural things, or just the inertia of a broken politics, or whatever—has set for them. This would be annoying, if you are just there to eat; it would feel disrespectful, if you are there hoping to be served. The relationship is fixed, or maybe unfixable. But it is what it is. It is just easier to see for what it actually is when ostensible public servants spend so much time complaining about the service they're receiving from the public.

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