Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Part VI: Coffee Stirrers and Fax Cover Sheets

I have trouble with the little details. I often invert numbers, days and years. I can't remember if Fitzgerald was 40 when he died in '44 or if he was 44 when he died in '40. It's one I'm constantly forgetting, though, I constantly look it up. I do the same with my father's birthday, confusing the month number with the day. Now, I can't remember if it was the 34th floor or the 37th floor my cubicle was located on. I had only worked in this position for a week, and it was a holiday-shortened week, at that. Either way, it was a long way up.

I was 25 years old in 2001. I know this because I was born in 1976, not because I have any memory of being 25 in 2001. I have discovered a severe lack of overt sentimentality in myself. After years of moving between the West and East coasts, from apartments to hotels to friends couches, of leaving in the middle of the night to avoid officers with eviction orders, I have learned the importance of being completely unattached to objects and assorted possesions. Dishware left in cabinets. Books left on shelves. Clothes left hanging in closets. The things of life which will not fit in an overhead compartment, instead, shoved unceremoniously into large industrial garbage bags, left on the curb at 3 o'clock in the morning. I have learned the real truth is that you can never really own something physically, everything is temporary in some way. The only way to hold onto anything is in memory, and in this, as established, I am especially weak in.

I am attached emotionally to very little, and of very little I will admit being attached to. Numbers are not something in which I put effort into remembering, nor bestow any importance upon. Having no memory of being 25 years old in the year 2001 is akin to me having no memory of being 3 years old in 1979. The numbers are meaningless, just arbitrary markers of time, simple units of value, like inches or grams, or floors or blocks, or the age of a dead author. They don't stick. They can be looked up, again and again. They've been written down, recorded by smarter men than I.

I often say it was 10 blocks between the World Trade Center and the office hi-rise I worked in as an administrative assistant, but that has only ever been an estimate based on nothing more than just a feeling I had. Everything feels like 10 blocks in Lower Manhattan. I know that it was a reasonable walking distance because I would go there on lunch breaks with a colleague friend of mine. I have since occasionally taken to counting the blocks on a map, but this is an exercise that serves only to satisfy futile curiosity, and that is like feeding a hunger that knows no satiation. There is no answer to be found in the number of blocks. There is no real question that would be served by any such answer, anyway.

Rector Street station is about 4 blocks south of the Twin Towers. My office building is about 10 blocks south of the Towers. My cubicle is located on the 34th or 37th floor. I am mathamatically 25 years old. Fitzgerald was 44 years old when he died in 1940. My father was born on April 11th, 1918. The five boroughs of New York City are populated by roughly 8.3 million people. I will be unemployed for 10 months following today. It is just past 9 o'clock in the morning. It is the eleventh day of the ninth month of the 2001st year.

Every cubicle in every office building consists of the same general layout of upholstered wall units, industry-grade countertop desk, and cabinet/drawer system. Fastened to the underside of the desk, generally in the space designated for the office chair, there is a single, long shallow sliding drawer. Open this drawer and one will find it divided inside into various small compartments and shallow wells and basins by a caddy of some sort. There will be a long concave well up front designed for pens and pencils, two to three basins for paper clips, binder clips, and rubber bands, several deep boxed wells for hi-liters and Sharpie markers, and assorted other divots for assorted other office tools. What also will be found in all such drawers will be some, if not all, of the following: loose packets of sugar and/or sugar substitute; short brown or red hollow plastic coffee stirrers, some single-barrelled, some double-barrelled; loose packets of herbal tea and several packets of regular Lipton tea; half-empty containers of Tic-Tacs or other types of breath mints; packs of gum containing only one last stale, brittle stick; various balled up pieces of foil gum wrappers; clear-cellophaned red-and-white striped peppermints from a local Chinese take-out.

In the filing cabinet to the left or right, there will be one standard-size manila folder, unlabelled, stuffed with the take-out menus of all local eateries. These will include: several delis and sub-sandwich shops; several pizzarias and italian food take-outs; three to four Thai noodle shops; three to four Chinese take-outs; an Indian curry house; a sushi bar; a Middle Eastern vegatarian shop; a juice bar; and several bakeries, one for croissants and danish for morning meetings, another for cakes for birthdays, anniversaries, and going-away parties.

Another file cabinet drawer will contain a pair of scuffed black pumps and/or a pair of white running trainers. In another drawer will be a half-eaten box of Ritz crackers or a half-eaten, crimped up tube of saltines; another drawer, a box of single-serving packets of instant oatmeal; another drawer, an unopened box of some type of feminine hygeine product. Amongst all of this will be drawers and files containing the various stuff needed for daily activities: FedEx and UPS shipping labels; expense account forms; fax cover sheets; telephone call log forms; yellow college-ruled writing pads; catalogues for various office supply companies; boxes of blank white mailing labels and file tab stickers; small plastic cartons of multi-colored dots; large shrinkwrapped blocks of Post-It Notes; boxes of staples, paper clips, pens and pencils; empty three-ring binders of various size; padded envelopes of various size; and reams of standard-size printer paper, some in cream, yellow, pink, or grey, but most in bright white.

On the desk will sit a black rectangular multi-line phone with the speed-dial tabs only partially filled in; a computer screen, keyboard, and mouse, the latter sitting on a frayed black and gray foam mouse pad; a stapler that jams every fifth staple; and a wire or smokey black plastic pencil cup overstuffed with mostly non-working pens, pencils and markers. All of the pencils will have there erasers completely worn down to the metal band. Most of the pens will be promotional pens stamped with the logos and brand names of either pharmacuetical companies or hotel chains, at least one being Marriott. In front of the keyboard will be a gelatinous foam wrist pad with slight sweat stains corresponding to the placement of one's wrists. The keyboard, phone, and monitor frame will be slightly discolored due to years of dust and contact with oily skin. You will sit at this desk, stare at this screen, type on this keyboard, talk on this phone, and you will develope a habit of repeatedly lifting one end of the wrist pad and releasing it producing a satisfying slapping noise against the desktop. This will be your job for anywhere from one week to one year, depending on the companies eagerness to higher a permanent replacement. This is your life as the middle-child temporary office employee. Welcome.


I am staring up into the sky, staring through a jungle of towering glass and steel, of bricks and concrete, of architecture both turn-of-the-century and new-millennial. There are massive plumes of black smoke rushing out from the Towers into the glossy smooth Pantone blue sky. It is snowing; tiny specks of ash and paper flutter in odd gentle swirls, seeming to melt as they hit the street. The air is crisp and cool, the type of cool that can only exist before Noon. Everything feels closed in, stopped, quiet and loud. I look around to see I am not alone. We are all standing out here, on the sidewalks, in the street, all looking up. I think some people are talking, shouting, shaking their heads, holding their hands to their mouths in disbelief. I think some people break their stares and move on, continue on to their offices, to their jobs, move on with the rest of their day. I think I am one of these people for I am walking to the office. I am somehow reminded that I am still running late. I'm walking and it's important. Right now, work, jobs, time sheets, coffee, voice mail, filing, the office banter of the early morning, is still important.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Part V: This Morning Was Uneventful

The weather is always described as being unseasonably warm, as if that early in September is expected to already be tinged by winter. It's Autumn in New York and the air feels clean and sharp, biting everything playfully like a lover waking you up in the morning through some sensual form of torture. It's agonizingly beautiful and makes one's skin feel new as if freshly revealed out from under layers of dead earth and ash. It's not unseasonably warm, but just the type of weather one sees in New York more often than they care to recognize. It's more fun to complain about the freezing axe of winter or the humid club of summer than it is to tout the days that rock the cradle of the five boroughs and send the crying babies into a sense of well-being. It is not unseasonably warm, but the type of weather that makes life worth living.

I don't remember much about that early morning, mostly because I'd spent it like any other weekday morning for the past 8 months, getting ready for my temporary office job. Morning routines are that type of thing that is both memorized in strict detail and instantly forgotten once it comes to end. The muscle memory remembers the motions of teeth-brushing and shirt-buttoning, but the brain never records anything. When asked what one has done in the morning, one generally answers simply, "I got ready for work." This particular morning, something has happened to jar this pattern slightly for I remember doing everything five minutes later than it would normally have needed to be done to allow me to be at work on time.

At this time, in my early 20's, I was fond of setting my morning alarm at 6:40. I don't remember why now, but I had an elaborate reasoning for this odd designate. Everything was planned out from this asymmetrical hour so that I would hit other specifically designated activities at specifically designated times. I allotted the perfect amounts of time for showering, dressing, and walking to the Astoria Blvd. Station so that I would be walking to the North platform end in time to enter the last train car on the same train, and sit with the same people every morning. For all of its vibrancy and electricity, New York is still a towering industrialized mess of people who do the same exact things in the same exact way every single day for their entire lives.

I have already decided that stopping for coffee will now not happen, as its allotment of time must be sacrificed for the greater good of the overall day's agenda. I also realize that a woman I admire every morning, who enters the N line at 30th ST, will now not be not noticing my subtle passive stares from across the car, as she will be on an earlier train. I know she works in high-finance, too, as is evidenced by her smart black pencil skirts, white blouses, and her exiting the train at Rector St. Station, also my stop. I often follow a few feet behind her up the station stairs to afford myself views of her calves.

She does not enter at 30th St. Station this morning, as expected, so now I search for other women to fantasize about. Some people read the Times, I imagine myself having sex with any number of secretaries, personal assistants, fashion designers, sales clerks, real estate agents, drama majors, and art students who enter and exit along the NRW's long, weaving route. These are the games lonely people play.

There is nothing eventful about any of this at all. There is nothing that separates this morning from any other morning. Nothing happens that makes this particular morning subway commute any more or less interesting than any other commute on any other day. The train empties like a ship with a leak, slowly losing passengers as we get closer to Brooklyn, until there are only two of us left. There is myself and another gentleman. We are approaching Cortlandt St. Station. There is nothing eventful about any of this at all.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we will be skipping Cortlandt Street due to a fire situation in the station. Next stop will be Rector St. Again, we will be skipping Cortland Street due to a fire situation. Our next stop will be Rector Street. Rector Street next stop."

This is the matter-of-fact announcement made by the train conductor and my initial reaction is one of relief. I'm going to make up a few minutes. I may even now have time for coffee.

Our train slows as we enter Cortlandt Street station. The underground tube of tile and concrete is filled with smoke. The feeling is immediately one of bizarre disquiet coupled with rubberneck curiosity, as though we have entered an amusement park ride in which, at any moment, animatronic mannequins will emerge from within the black clouds dressed as end-of-the-world zombies and the walls will shake around our tram in perfectly timed and choreographed movements of theatrical violence. Seconds pass and the echoing buzz-saw grinds of the train wheels turn into a white noise; the gentle rocking of the snaking car disorients as we lazily wobble through the asphyxiated chamber. It becomes clear that this is more than just a trash can fire, still it is not serious.

Out of the station, back into the tunnel, next stop Rector St.

We enter the station and both myself and the other gentleman exit the train. He is tapping on his Palm Pilot. As we make our way to the station stairs, this man turns to me and says, "It hit the building." There is amazement in his voice, a nonchalant disbelief at what he has just learned, that comes across in his broken statement, this non-sequiter with unassigned pronoun. "It was a plane." He turns back to his phone. I don't respond verbally, just nod with a smile, realizing then he is referring to the "fire situation" we have just passed under. We continue on towards the stairs, the two of us joined now by other financial district stragglers from other cars on the train.

Two weeks before this, a man piloting a paramotor, a small single-propeller craft, managed to entangle his parachute around the torch of the Statue of Liberty while attempting to land on it to perform a stunt bungee jump. This was not unusual, for New York landmarks have always been targets for stunts by publicity-hungry thrill seekers, and this is what immediately entered my mind when told of this mysterious "it" that had hit a building above us. A small stunt-plane, single-prop, at the misguided hands of a idiotic adrenaline-junkie. Nothing more than this.

Our small sleep-weary, commute-addled group climbs the station stairs to greet a beautiful September morning in Lower Manhattan. As we emerge from the green-railed steps onto the street, our eyes are all immediately drawn up to the sky. It is the last Autumn morning in New York City.