New York City in the summer is really hot. The subways roar heat, with lower expectations and a recession, the air conditioning was not up to scratch in those days. I remember, instead, fans. And sometimes they didn’t work.
Some days I took the 6th Avenue bus to work. Some days I walked home, past the building on Lower Fifth where years before my mother had shared a kitchen in a tiny service apartment when she had come up to the city for her summer internship at Condé Nast and attempted to shed or at least soften her Southern accent, which she saw as a barrier to being cosmopolitan. She had walked home to save the bus fare.
Philadelphia is hot. And we have had a hot summer in Alabama, which I have enjoyed. I come out of my too-cold office and thaw in my car, the steering wheel burns my hands, and I wait a moment before I roll down the windows. This heat is more intense here. Or maybe we are out in it for longer, doing more, and it takes its toll in a way that getting into your car doesn’t.
It was a good office. One of the account executives had a pool party one weekend at her parents’ house in Long Island, where she still lived, and the art department took photos and posted them over the coffee maker for a caption contest. One of the younger account execs was a couple of years out of college and was working on a novel. He recommended Stop-Time. He was insistent and I promised I would read it and I did, and it was amazing. I don’t remember if I ever thanked him, leaving a note on his desk when I returned with keys to the office as the winter holiday receptionist.
One of the partners, the PR one, sent me off on errands to the BMW dealership, in the way West 50s, where I discovered grass growing between cracks in the sidewalk and marveled at the Palisades, that there could be this seeming wilderness across the river, and that the city could dissolve so quickly at the edges outside of commercial Midtown.
I enjoyed the errands. Back then, when you needed to find something, materials for a shot or a location, you started with the Yellow Pages and then, after making calls, you set out on your feet to see for yourself or collect samples. In search of small plastic airplanes that could be inserted into mailing tubes, I discovered the toy building, the halls of which were lined with tiny showrooms for the companies that advertised on Saturday morning television to small, obscure, family-run businesses.
The side streets of Midtown were all districts for something, and splintered into sub-districts: luggage broke down into handbags or umbrellas or fake perfume. At lunch, we poured out onto the street, to buy cold drinks and deli sandwiches and Korean deli salad bar salads with vegetable/crabstick sushi. I sought air conditioning in Grand Central, Lord & Taylor, the Public Library. Sometimes my dad would meet me for lunch. There was a soul food place called Mr. Leo’s where you could get collards and mac & cheese.
I gravitated to the art department. I knew the art director from my dad’s studio. He had gotten his start and met his wife drawing illustrations for the Yellow Pages in New Orleans. He lived in a nice town in Connecticut and received calls from his wife about their son’s boating mishaps. There were two other artists, with drafting tables and rainbow sets of permanent markers for drawing mock-ups on vellum paper. They showed me how to do the kind of perfectly proportioned lettering you need for the mock-ups, hand-drawn fonts, which I practiced at home.
One of the artists made earrings out of hard-drying modeling clay. I bought a pair and he gave me some rejects. One day, on his calendar, I noticed that he had penciled in on a couple of days, in his graphic penmanship, “Feed Richard.”
“Who’s Richard?” I asked.
“He’s my friend’s cat,” he sighed. “He’s a real asshole.”
I went clothes shopping with the receptionist, who wanted to find something, in her words, “classy.” On bad advice from me, we went to Laura Ashley. If we’re going to think about Mad Men, she was the stacked secretary with a brain, who wanted to move out of reception and into accounts, and not have to flirt with the PR partner, an ambition she would shortly achieve. I went out for Indian food with the Barnard graduate. At 17, I felt like my real life might be beginning, except for the fact that I was still kicking around my hometown.
People left where they were from, my parents and the art director moving up from the South, the account executives and the office manager, coming into the city from the Boroughs or the burbs of the Tri-State area or moving there from Ohio or the Midwest, and then, once a certain level of achievement was reached, they receded like the tide, to a nicer suburb, leaving behind the quirky, nightmare apartment, the suicidal neighbor, the smells, the street noise.
They left with a story about how they had made a life for themselves and discovered their resources, tested their mettle, and so forth.
My parents and the parents of my friends, were in the minority in having stayed on in the city. Leaving home, developing a taste for other cuisines, going to art galleries, was a rite of passage my parents had deprived me of. Which is perhaps why a year on in Alabama, I am still intrigued and not climbing the walls.
While the children spent the day at Dutch Wonderland with their cousins, my husband and I were given the day to ourselves. We opted for a trip into town, on the train. We had reservations at a restaurant and unspecified time to kill. There was an International Boy Scout Jamboree and at every turn, at every intersection, we encountered or saw in the distance packs of young and youngish men in khaki green shorts, which gave the day a somewhat surreal and comedic undertone.
The Australian troop had unfortunate white knee socks and wore dress shirts emblazoned with merit badges while another more local troop eschewed socks all together and sauntered along with baggy, untucked T-shirts.
We found ourselves in the Second Bank of the United States, looking at an exhibit of portraits of early Americans and the above portrait of Chestnut Street, a stop-time vision of street life 300 years ago and the endless streets beyond, but when you stand outside on the corner the painting depicts, the buildings are gone. All of those people assembled now dispersed, the like an office pool party or the weedy waterfront of Hell’s Kitchen.
Tourism, internships, coming of age, these are the passings through. Feed Richard, the obligations and routines, the favors to friends, are the building blocks of your real life.