I know the comings and goings of every executive, secretary, mailboy, and janitor. I know all their secrets, their illicit affairs, their hopes, their dreams. They don’t know me. They don’t see me. Well, they sort of do. I’m hard to miss, what with my stone, steel, and glass figure. But to them, I’m just a building, nothing more. I’m indistinct in this city of steel and glass.
But they aren’t. I house the créme de la créme of some of New York’s elite. These executives occupy the top floor, carving out their territory with elaborate desks, tasteless art, and crystal ashtrays. They are seemingly model figures in society, these company men, these gray men in suits, admired by their subordinates who wish to be them and their secretaries who hope to find someone like them. Yes, these are upstanding citizens, leaving the office at 6:00 P.M. on the dot to dutifully return home to their immaculate wives and children, indulging in to their significant others’ latest humanitarian “hobbies” and galas, going to church, playing out and believing in the American Dream. Nevermind the grueling hours, the lack of individualism, the blockage in one’s heart, the never ending race to achieve the newest, greatest, and shiniest toys. What are all these in the face of two kids, two cars, and a white picket fence? But I see them. They’re cracking. A day at the country club or aboard their “modest” yachts can only do so much. And they take it out on me--throwing glasses at my walls, slamming my doors, flipping desks on my floor, shaking the linoleum lights that adorn my ceilings. It’s the only time one sees them human; it’s the only time I see them not as robots, but individualistic human beings. But these incidents, like all things ugly, are quietly swept under the carpet, soon, the mask of compliance is donned once more.
The janitor summoned to vanish the space is different. Whether it be through individuality or isolation, he’s no man in grey suit. No, far from it. He has no idyllic life in the suburbs to return to, no country club luncheon he has to attend. He has few prospects in this great land of opportunity; he is black. I hear the nasty insults that are spattered in my halls and offices, and James bears the burden of internalizing such hateful words. Zoo ape. sooty, knuckle-dragger. He protests in the only way he knows how, the only way he isn’t fired for insolence or for impertinence: he writes. He writes of his status as a second class citizen, of his pursuit to enter the threshold that is the accepted middle class, the underlying currents of tension. He paints his story, his unhappiness that the color of his skin has provided him, his frustration from his lack of opportunity and equality, his sorrow knowing that there is little he can do to make this a better world for his own children. I wonder if he will ever push his boundaries past writing under the protection pseudonyms afford him. Will he pursue something greater? Something that could shake my very foundations? Perhaps. Another time, perhaps.
Of the hundreds of people operating within my walls, James has but one kindred spirit in the office--Mary. Mary too fights for a something that goes against the fabrics of society: women’s rights. By being here, married, with children, and with the reluctant acceptance of her husband, Mary fights against established gender norms. Yes, her job seems menial (I mean what isn’t compared to the knowledge that you played a critical part in the war effort as a mechanic), She’s a secretary performing the humdrum tasks of answering phone calls, arranging meetings, but at least it’s something. Better than returning to her facade of a picturesque life in suburbia. Better than suffering from the “intelligent-housewife syndrome”. By going back to work, she engages in a battle against a force that would prefer to see her barefoot and pregnant than in the office hunched over a typewriter. She knows that many see her as betraying her family, her moral compass, her duties. She’s seen the latest reports, the “scientific evidence” that because she isn’t home, she is endangering the very infrastructure of the nuclear family. But she isn’t, she protests. The children are fine. Besides, whether she is or isn’t there, little Bobby and Anne are being raised by television, not her. There are some days when she is feeling particularly melancholy she summons what little composure she has left and runs to the bathroom. She longs for the days of autonomy, of independence. She wonders if she made the right choice, marrying and having children. Is she a terrible mother for wondering what could of been? In the eyes of society, her husband, and God, she is. She should count herself lucky, married to a husband who is open-minded enough to allow her to return back to work, mother to children who have been, according to her neighbor Francis, nothing but absolute angels. But why is there such a conflict? She has incurred the envy of every woman there. What’s the right path for her? As she ponders this, she leaves the sanctuary of the bathroom and returns to the homogenous sounds of corporate America, her line of questioning smothered by the sound of typewriters and telephones
I am nothing but a building, a construct of mankind’s imagination and ingenuity. However, I bear witness to all that has happened and all that ever will. These are times achanging, no matter how steady and harmonious matters seem to appear. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that nothing appears as it seems. The successful company men, no matter how robust they may appear, strain under the office they’ve strived their whole life to achieve. The lowly janitor, a civil rights author. The fulfilled secretary, who struggles to toe the line between the accepted and the radical. But what do I know? I’m just a building.