New York in Winter

New York in Winter

Sunday, November 24, 2013

YOU ARE A HOPPER PAINTING

Men, fear the future.
This story came to me in part from experience, but largely from observation. Unusually, the narration is in the present tense and the second person.


YOU ARE A HOPPER PAINTING

by Terence Hughes


Will this be your bright day?
You ask yourself this as you step onto the platform and mill with the herd up the broken escalator to Penn Station. Take inventory: Hartmann briefcase with consultant business cards, resumes (two versions, you still working, you in new direction), Mont Blanc pen, pad of paper, Samsung tablet, Macy’s tie, low-fat tuna sandwich and apple for lunch. Enough cash for two coffee stops with goodie. Late-model iPhone in right pocket of blazer, wallet in left chest pocket. Hardcopy address and appointment book right chest pocket.
You see yourself in a mirror in the station: 56, shortish brown hair not too much gray, neither tall nor short, trim, polished tassel loafers, gray trousers and blazer from Jos. A. Bank. Will they pass as Brooks? Presentable, though. In the running.
You stride eastward from the station, out into the sunny May morning, happy to be in the bustle of the city. Check phone. 8:02. You pick up the pace, tearing through the crowds to get to Fifth and 40th by 8:15. A quick networking meet with Walt Josephson, then quality time with Mitch Thomas. A good day.
You’ve been doing this for one year, three months and two weeks. Into the city four days of five, online and on the phone the rest of the time. Buttoned up, organized. It’s the only way to find a job similar to the level you had before and – isn’t it ever true – the best way to find that job is to treat looking for a job like your primary job. Being prompt and professional is always required. Be respectful of your contact’s time, and he will gratefully return the favor. But it’s funny how few offices ask if you want coffee.
Still, that employment guru, he said one true thing, that every single person is a contact. Trick’s in knowing how to approach each one to yield results. You still haven’t figured all of that out, but then you’re not an employment guru.
Right on the button you’re at Walt Josephson’s office. Points for promptness. It’s too early for the receptionist. Walt himself walks by with coffee and says, Shit! He forgot you were coming in and do you want a cup?
You settle in a small conference room, sipping weak joe. Walt makes small talk about family and sports, you interrupt and ask if he could give you some new numbers to call. Unemployment’s run out and.
Walt nods. Hard at our age.
You feel a little indignant. He’s 60 at least.
Walt chats a little more and looks at his watch. Wow. Getting on. Two names, he says. He writes them down and passes the paper to you.
You pump his hand gratefully. Paper into blazer pocket.
Walt escorts you to the reception area, where a sultry Dominican is checking her makeup. Walt tells you to call him if can do anything more: meaning he’s done enough. A salute. Gone.
You nod at the receptionist. She gives you a freezing onceover. You take the elevator to the street without changing your face.
You lean against the building, feeling as though you somehow had been slapped, and pull out the address book. Nine o’clock at the old Time-Life Building. You work up a sweat walking there.
The guards give you trouble. Who exactly are you here to see? Do you have an appointment? There are four of them. Four. Employed, to do this. They check your driver’s license. They search the visitors’ log. Nothing.
You give them the contact’s name and title again, adding the floor this time. They confer and make phone calls. They come back and tell you Mr. Thomas was let go on Friday. The head man turns his attention to a form and its proper completion. No, he says, eyes on the form, we don’t know where he went. Maybe you shoulda gotten his personal email and phone number.
You thank him and go outside to Sixth Avenue. Shell-shocked. Mitch Thomas. One of your primary contacts. Always ready to lend a hand. A prince of a guy. And just 48 years old with two kids in college.
This day’s evaporated. Your schedule was built around Mitch’s contacts. Who promised at least four. Contacts who’d be waiting for your call today.
You walk dazedly toward the park, checking the time on the cell phone (9:18). Suddenly you turn and walk at a faster pace down to 42nd and Fifth. You march up the stairs and into the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library. You take out your tablet and begin the daily scan of the main employment sites men your age use. You spend two hours scouring them and make note of a possible fit in Philadelphia. Send them the I’m-still-working version of the resume. You hate Philly, but any port. Could drive there from Chatham … only about 2 hours each way.
It’s 11:36 now, and you smile. This is just one day of a long campaign. Bound to have ups and downs.
To pass some time and keep on the lookout for old colleagues, you stroll up Lex and go into the crowded Starbucks at the base of the old GE building. It’s become very warm, so as you stand in line to place the order, you remove the tie and stuff it in your jacket. You see a man watching you, a man your age, wearing khakis and a rumpled pink polo shirt with the tails out. The man doesn’t look away but looks angrily at you. His face has that decomposed look heavy drinkers get.
With your coffee and scone to delay lunch, you sit at the counter next to him. You keep your head turned away. The man clears his throat. -- I see you’ve gotten rid of the necktie. Pretty soon you'll be all Dockers and no blazer. Before you know it, you won't leave Ridgewood or Tarrytown, or wherever you live. You’ll spend every day in sweat pants.
You say nothing. What can you say?
--I sit in these places and see dozens, hundreds guys like you, he says. Being all professional and so on. Pretending you’re still corporate. Hey, get a tin cup and set up shop against the building here. You’re done.
He’s agitated now. Abruptly stands, sticks his battered laptop in his canvas briefcase and heads toward Third Avenue. He crosses Lex against the light and nearly gets clipped by a car-service limo.
He’s given up, you haven’t.
The scone has no taste and the coffee turns cold as you watch the lunchtime crowd stream by. You see well-known people, many of them very old yet in work, off to a lunch meeting at, say, the Four Seasons, or the Waldorf across the street. Big-time money men. Media celebrities. A cabinet secretary in intense discussion with a pretty young woman.
1:30. It’s safe to hit up some contacts. You call a few and stop in at several former colleagues’ offices. You leave messages and funny little written notes with deadpan receptionists.
Then you’re leaving the Empire State Building and see Stu Braun. Stu, your old protégé. You gave him guidance when he was right out of Dartmouth, you promoted his career, what a great guy. You push past the tourists and position yourself five yards behind him. You call out to him.
Stu Braun and his colleagues stop and turn. You go up to them, holding your hand out to Stu, swearing that you thought he moved to Boston. Stu shakes hands and gives you a half-smile. He asks how you’re doing and that you should get together the next time he’s in New York.
Stu, you say, taking him a little to the side, I hate to impose but it’s been over a year and, oh man, I need—
I’d love to help, but my contacts in New York are, have fallen by the wayside in large numbers. The endless recession, well, it --
Something in Boston then? Hell, I’d go to Hartford. I have something cooking in Philly, but Philly! You try jocularity but Stu looks hard at you and says he really doesn’t think there’s a fit. To hear this old dodge from him
Look, you shout at Stu, I’m not asking for special favors or breaks, just a chance to – I’m the same man who was good enough to --
Look, I have to go, he tells you. I have to catch a flight back to Boston. Thank you for everything, you know, and. Good. Luck. And he covers one hand with another as he shakes yours.
One of Stu’s younger companions laughs in response to what you can’t hear. They disappear into the crowd.
You check the calendar on the phone and double-check the appointment book in your briefcase. Nothing. 2:19. Can’t get home too early. You’d be told you’re not trying hard enough. And you’re not. You must do better tomorrow.
You resolve to go to a quiet place and write down all the contacts you haven’t contacted in the past month, and you will draw up a schedule to communicate with them, drawing up columns to check for TELEPHONE -- EMAIL -- IN-PERSON.
Then there are the thank-yous for today. Can’t be rude. Who knows, it could hit the right note, maybe someone will keep you in mind for a new opportunity.
Eat sandwich in Bryant Park. Seeking shade because it’s very hot now, very sunny. You find a chair alone in the shade, overlooking the lawn and sidepaths.
You notice them around you, like the man in Starbucks described. Men of a certain age, gray hair, balding, dye jobs … wearing blazers and tan or gray trousers … wearing almost-good shoes from an outlet mall … a cheap watch because the good’s gone for bills … each with a sandwich and apple, bottled water from Costco … scanning the job listings with the free wifi offered in the park. Sitting on a little chair by a little table. Abstracted. Carefully composed faces, stolid as they scroll through the messages and contacts on their phones.
You get up shaking, and not only because of the lithium.
You walk along 42nd Street at a fast pace, getting those clones behind you. You’ll be a  sweaty mess but so what? No more appointments today. None until next Monday, no Wednesday. Appointments with yourself. That’s what you’ve got now.
You walk on and find yourself heading south on Lex. A stretch that’s like the Manhattan from the 1950s or 60s. Lots of sunlight because the neighboring buildings are shorter. Rundown coffee joints and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Quieter. Only locals come here.
You compile a list of the contacts you haven’t touched in a month. There are three you can reach out to. No more. You consult your recent appointment list and notes. You recheck everything. Four, then, if you count Stu Braun.
Knowledge dawns. You take out the paper that Walt gave you. Contacts you’ve already called. Who were cold and insulting. Crumple. Toss it.
Jesus, you whisper, Jesus. What will happen to me?
You stare at the little oblong table. The sun is very hot, very bright. The plate-glass window unveils a staring, empty street. The light blinds you, your head swims. You see the shadows etched knife-sharp, feel the hot and cool parts of your skin. You feel like a man in cross-section, sliced by sunlight and shadow.
Then you feel a strange sort of fizzing in your brain. You’re light-headed, insubstantial. You see yourself vanishing inch by inch in the deserted coffee shop, oblong tables arrayed around, precise as dominoes. The light pours in on all things here, but only you are evaporating. The tables don’t move. Nothing moves, not even motes of dust. Only you move, and you move by disappearing into the light.

2 comments:

  1. Quite nicely written. Mournful, yet elegant, and consummately American. Reminds me of Jack Lemmon's character in Glengary Glen Ross. Very beautiful in its own way.

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  2. I had Sinclair Lewis as a model here, too. He understood what makes this country tick like no one else. Thank you.

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