I had been in Grand Central on Monday night, and it struck me again that I haven’t looked up while walking through the terminal in years. I have what one might call a pathological fear of the escalators that ferry workers from the terminal up into a certain landmark building. While, for most commuters, such a fear would not be an issue. I, however, pass through Grand Central Terminal every single day.
So I walk. Sideways; longways; outside the building if need be. Eyes facing down or on my blackberry as I cross the main concourse. People ask to meet at the clock and I insist that we must meet on the south side.
Which side is the south one?
The one that faces Vanderbilt Hall. The one away from the escalators.
But on Tuesday, I was out of the office and on site in Connecticut for a project — far away from GCT — and my phone rang. It was Smooth, calling me on my mobile to try to interrupt my conference call. I dropped off the call I was on and returned his.
What do you want?
We have a bunch of action items to discuss left over from that deal last year, but more importantly, a former employer of yours has bedbugs.
I stopped. Paused. Looked out the window of the 11th floor conference room and looked out over the water.
I used to work at a prestigious place, with a suite of offices in that architecturally relevant building adjacent to Grand Central. My office – the one where I closed the door and daydreamed, sometimes cried, while I stared out at my unobstructed view up Park Avenue; on a clear day, looking all the way to White Plains — was two floors below the only floor they’d ever had anyone jump. I mean, there were other tragedies there too. Aside from the tragedy of the Very Architecturally Relevant Building having been built in the first place, there was the problem of the helipad on the roof, and the helicopter that should have stopped, but didn’t, and parts of chopper and bodies had been scattered all the way into the eighties and down into the thirties. But that was back in the Seventies. And things were different then.
Right before I’d started working for the company, they’d completed their migration from floor to floor within the building. And the month I arrived, they had finally settled on a four-floor suite on high-floors, with two storage floors above the workspace.
The floors on which this employer had offices – the ones the firm had actually built-out – had been done up like the childhood fantasies of the White Witch of Narnia. The suites were icycool white marble as far as the eye could see; white carrara marble floors from the elevator lobbies throughout the front hallways; thick frosty silver carpets beyond that. The lobbies and the rest of the office had touches of ultramodern dark woods – not the stuffy crowned type of furnishings and appurtenances, but slick shelves and slim desks. And where the dark wood would not suffice, there was white laminate cabinetry, wiped down a million times a day by the hands of quiet, downcast-eyed women in powder blue uniforms.
The the place radiated coldness; a bone-chilling kind of cold. And everyone spoke in library tones, moving quickly through the hallways like they were afraid of being caught outside of their offices. And even the stationary objects moved quickly. Every week, the firm would replace the white orchids in the reception areas with fresh ones from some hothouse in California. If you knew the janitor, maybe he’d give you the discarded orchids and you could raise them in your office. The cast-offs were perfectly good, it was just, what kind of self-respecting non-floral company wanted to be in the business of raising orchids? We were licensed professionals for Christ’s sake — not licensed by 4-H.
(I always took the orchids. And for years, kept orchids, like some kind of self-flagellating freak, atoning for someone else’s excesses.)
In all that clean and quiet, however, the storage floors were hiding a secret. I’d discovered during a document review that those floors held a treasure trove of stuff: midcentury desk chairs; metal wastebaskets and empty file-cabinets; things galore.
The company, you see, had not always looked like an early-edition Restoration Hardware catalog. The office had been cobbled together from several well-established New York practices; a patchwork of very good people stitched together to make the New York office of a national limited liability partnership. But the heart of the place, the nature of the beast was probably more like the bulky-sleek midcentury office chairs and humble file-cabinets on the storage floor rather than the cararra marble paving the hallways.
Somewhere along the way, it seemed, the groups who had merged and given up what had made each uniquely “itself” in exchange for some kind of unified, sanitized beauty. They had lost their way. And so had I.
When I left that employer, and went down those escalators for the last time – with the opening volley of marital chaos having been lobbed, and a Chinese visa firmly affixed to my US passport – I knew that there were some things in my life that would never ever be the same. And I became terrified to look at those escalators whenever I passed through Grand Central; as the moving stairs represented the filthy, churning self-doubt moving around inside of me and packaged up neatly in an impeccably tailored suit. As if I so much as glanced up at the escalators as I walked through the terminal, the dirty, misfit feeling would stick itself back to me, like it had whenever I walked down those echoey marble halls.
“Are you listening to me?” I suddenly heard Smooth saying; his New Jersey voice, inflected with the twang of his adopted home in the deep South. It broke my reminiscing. I was no longer forty-something stories in the air. I was working at a different employer altogether; today in a different state working on a different project.
Things had changed since those old days. More importantly, I had changed.
“Absolutely. I am definitely listening to you,” I said, “Bedbugs.”
He went on to tell me he had no further details. I thanked him for the information. What he’d told me was enough.
I had given that old job so much power in my head. And that was an easy thing to have happen, considering where I was personally and professionally when that chapter of my life ended. So it seemed fitting, I suppose, to think that no matter how sterile and scrubbed that Goliath may have seemed on the outside; no matter how slickly marbled and beautifully appointed and newly flowered the place had been, the most ordinary of afflictions – i.e., the tiny bedbug – could still prove just as powerful a David as bedbugs were to any other New Yorker.
To think that Goliath was, after all, just an ordinary New York office, with chairs, and windows, and the detritus of past lives piling up in storage areas, and even, god forbid, bedbugs…well, it all seemed somehow totally satisfying.
And even like I could finally walk through Grand Central with my head up.