“What did he fear? It was not fear or dread. It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it was already nada y pues nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”
-Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”
In 1982, Dad was suing Gloria for divorce. Or more accurately, he forced her to sue him. As the defendant, he and his lawyers threatened her with an illegal prior divorce and effectively slaughtered her (see my post last week “IS YOUR MEXICAN DIVORCE LEGAL?”).
During that Fall, I started working at Olcott International part-time, one day a week, on Fridays, when I had no classes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of International Affairs (SIA). It was the last in a string of temporary or part-time jobs held down since my last year of college in 1980.
As a college senior, I created a job for myself as an organizer for Teddy Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1979 and 1980. Teddy didn’t win, as you recall. Then, I worked as the New York State College Coordinator for John Anderson’s Presidential campaign in the Fall of 1980. John didn’t win either. Later on, at SIA, I had summer jobs at Société Générale and the United Nations. Great experiences all.
The highlight of my experience in John’s campaign was when he took the time to call me one day to thank me for my efforts.
But now Dad had offered me full-time employment at Olcott International starting January 1983. This was to be my first time working in a job for a paycheck. To be supporting myself like a real person.
As mentioned in previous posts, I had my reasons to be nervous. The puffed-up title of Assistant Vice President did little to assuage my concerns.The previous Fall, for my part-time gig at Olcott International, I had been assigned a place behind a large desk on the bottom level (of three). I was on the far wall facing the rest of the large sparse room. Aside from my vintage wooden desk, the rest of the office furniture was beat-up metal cabinetry, salvage grade. This stuff wouldn’t cut it in a Government office! There was a tired and filthy black and white carpet covering the concrete floor. Ripped in places, it was held down with duct tape.
The walls were covered in fake wood paneling, like those featured in those Calvin Klein ads in the 1990s. Unlike the ads, there was no campy feeling to the office. Just a cheap dreariness.
It wasn’t this glamorous…
In the course of my working career from 1982 up to 2016, I have worked in a variety of work environments. From modern office buildings in New York, New York or Sydney, Australia to suburban office parks in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, Dollard des Ormeaux, Quebec, or Perrysburg, Ohio, I’ve seen ‘em all. In the scale of things, this office had the charm of “On The Waterfront” meets the “Adams Family.” If you had no sense of humor, it was strictly the former.
Staff at Olcott International in 1983 (me on the lower right). Lurch was always my favorite Adams.
In the center of the room was a smaller desk where my secretary Lorraine would sit (I had yet to learn to type). Behind her against the front wall was Anna’s desk, facing back at me across the room. To the right around the corner in an L-shaped alcove was Mike’s desk, the comptroller. Between Anna’s desk (her left) and Mike’s (his right), next to the telex machine, were two sliding glass doors, the kind you would find in millions of homes nationwide, which you would expect maybe to lead out to a small backyard.
But there was no backyard there. It led to a desolate cement slab overlooking the double helix of the Lincoln Tunnel, an enormous twist of elevated expressway. Four lanes of traffic charging into Manhattan, and four lanes flowing out, not counting the multiple service and ancillary lanes. Anytime you opened those sliding doors, the deafening roar of the cars and trucks would spill into the room. It sounded like a giant industrial grinder crushing souls, dreams, and ambitions into millions of car exhaust particulates.
But you got used to it. You can get used to anything.
Marlon Brando in “On The Waterfront.” The Lincoln Tunnel is not that far away.
Sitting at my desk, I could look out that window from across the room and see both the traffic, as well as Manhattan in the distance, across the river.
But this was January. The cold would seep into the room through tiny cracks in small clouded windows that littered the walls, creating drafts. If the sliding doors were cracked apart, a giant tongue of cold air would sweep into the office, together with the roar. A loud gas-fired blower next to the North wall would periodically belch warm air to overheat the space, followed by a return of the deafening cold.
And then darkness would fall, like a grand piano pushed from some adjacent roof, as soon as clocks struck 16:30. By the late afternoon, my home of Manhattan would dissolve into vertical strings of lights in the distance, separated from me by the abyssal darkness of the Hudson River. Painted black like the sky.
Within that first week, the fear of starting a career with my thrice-divorced Dad (and a fourth in progress), provoked a sort of crisis of faith, which I had never suffered previously. All of a sudden, sitting in that forlorn office one evening after everyone had left that first month, I wondered how I was going to support myself in the event everything were to go South. The roar of the soul grinder outside the sliding doors, the deep inky darkness of the January dusk, and the potential of a family business catastrophe – all of it broadsided me all at once and I felt like I had stepped into a void.
Dark clouds filled the room. The grimy white splotches on the carpet turned gray, fast being subsumed by the black. I felt like I was 2,000 light-years from home, completely vulnerable and solitary in that darkness. I put my head down on the desk and began to weep in deep, profound sobs. No hope. Only nothing.
Dad came down the stairs at that moment and saw me bawling there. “James, what’s wrong?” he asked, with a real and piercing concern. Somehow, hearing his voice pushed me into deeper distress. I was choked up and could barely speak. “Dad,” I sputtered, barely getting the words out, “I love you.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Certainly, he was surprised to see me like that. I was astonished by my own sense of despair and hadn’t seen it coming. He rushed to embrace me, choking with emotion himself.
“James,” he said, tears streaming down his face as well, “I love you too.” Seeing him also upset like that pushed me further into teary convulsions. We cried together for a moment.
The darkness receded into the crevices around us. And outside, that Grand Piano was stealthily lifted from the ground and put back on some nearby roof, ready to play a flying symphony for us in the not too distant future.
As frequently heard on Game of Thrones: Jon Snow, you know nothing!