(Bloomberg) -- What’s more important -- fixing New York City’s subways or seeing the GOP’s rewrite of the tax code passed? This reporter asked Scarlett Johansson, David Letterman and a billionaire or two at a gala for the American Museum of Natural History Thursday night.
"Oh my god, let’s fix the subway system. Is that the correct answer? I don’t want to sound dumb," Letterman said, before seeking an opinion from John McEnroe, who got fired up at the mention of the words “tax bill.” Both the House and Senate plans would eliminate the deduction for most state and local taxes, which would hit individuals in high-tax locations.
"I think because he lost the states of California and New York by a wide margin, he’s sticking it to us," McEnroe said of the bill’s champion-in-chief, President Trump.
"I have to say, I’m beginning to lose confidence in the Trump administration," Letterman added.
Scarlett Johansson got nostalgic about the subway tokens of her youth, and said she fears tax cuts will harm programs that benefit the less fortunate. “I have no problem paying my taxes, I just want it to go be used effectively, in a socially responsible way,” Johansson said.
Soon more than 700 guests were moving from cocktails amid dinosaurs to dinner under a whale, which Colin Jost from "Saturday Night Live" would later call out for sexual harassment of a squid during a bit of stand-up. Then he took on the subject of tax cuts, to warn of potential consequences: "Don’t worry about things like Social Security. Don’t ask questions like ‘Do we still have a fire department?’"
Like-minded and dating, Johansson and Jost sat a comfortable five or six tables away from Rebekah Mercer, patron of Breitbart News and former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon. Letterman found a seat near Paul Tudor Jones and Tom Brokaw for the three-course meal that included goat-cheese balls, chicken pot pie and apple tart. A limerick by Jimmy Fallon introduced Bono and the Edge, who gave a sample of U2’s new album (released Friday) and performed a couple of favorites, including "Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of," with a line that could apply to many, many things, including the dysfunction of getting a bill through Congress or making the A train run on time.
"You’ve got to get yourself together," Bono sang.
Both tax reform and a well-functioning subway are important, Ronald Perelman and real-estate magnate Richard LeFrak said in separate interviews. "To me personally, it’s fixing the subway," LeFrak said. "It’s pretty clear people who have done well will pay more taxes. I’m not happy about it, but if economy picks up it would be better. But I’m not gonna whine about it. I can’t complain. Life’s been good to me. My philanthropy’s not going to change."
Lewis Bernard, the retired Morgan Stanley banker who chairs the American Museum of Natural History, said, "I give all that I can now; it would be hard to give more." As for the GOP tax bill: “I don’t think it’s good for the city, and that bothers me a lot."
Like Bernard, Scott Bok, chief executive of Greenhill & Co., said his donation to the museum "will probably be the same either way. And, by the way, I think my tax rate in New York City is going to go up, which means the value of charitable donations is even higher.”
The gala raised more than $4.5 million for the museum’s education programs -- a record -- with some prodding during the auction from SNL’s Leslie Jones.
Roberto Mignone, founder of Bridger Management, commutes on Metro-North Railroad and the subway. "Fixing the subway will be a bigger quality-of-life improvement for me than anything in these tax codes,” Mignone said. He wouldn’t mind an upgrade in underground entertainment.
”There might be no volatility in the markets, but there’s a lot of volatility in the quality of subway artists,” he said.
Read about finding "the right side of history" at American Academy in Berlin’s gala
Jost might have been surprised to hear Mignone is a daily subway rider. During his comic riffs, he mentioned an exhibition on senses that gives museum-goers encounters with foul smells.
"Or you could take the subway home," Jost said. "I’m sorry, I should explain to this crowd.”
Jost described the subway as a “silver box” that connects the outer boroughs with Manhattan. “In the middle of the train is something called the conductor, in the back is an engine powered by hobo masturbation.”
Keegan-Michael Key, who’s starring in Steve Martin’s "Meteor Shower" on Broadway, said fixing the transit system is most important “because it’s the great equalizer for this city.”
He even took the subway to the gala, dressed in a tuxedo.
’‘I’m from the Midwest, I’m from the place where cars were invented," said Key, a Detroit native. "The thing is, if you don’t have the money for a car, you can’t get to your job. But any New Yorker, I can give you a swipe of my card if it’s going to help you. There’s something very democratic about it. It’s very New York. It should be very American. But it allows people opportunity.”
What happens on the subway -- the jostling, poking, sneezing and waiting -- became a work of art at a gala for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre on Wednesday night that raised $2.4 million. The piece was "The Groove to Nobody’s Business," choreographed by Camille A. Brown, and its moves rang true, even if few look as graceful fighting for a seat as these dancers did. Those in New York City Center’s comfortable seats for the performance included Queen Latifah, Janelle Monae, Daria Wallach, managing partner of Lord, Abbett & Co., and Debra Lee, chairman and CEO of BET, who was honored.
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.