It was 1997. I was living in New York City. It was the holiday season. The office Christmas party was coming. To say that I was looking forward to the party would be an understatement. I was excited about it, excited like a kid about to walk into an amusement park. I wanted to experience the whole thing: drinking too much, eating too much, kissing a woman in the copy room who hopefully looked like Shirley Maclaine in The Apartment, etc.
I wanted to experience the gamut of joyous, ribald activities that I’d seen in office parties on TV shows and in TV movies for decades. I wanted to be the old drunk, tired of it all, getting drunk alone in his dark office. I wanted to be the sales guy wearing a tiara for some bizarre reason and doing a strange dance to Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” on top of the conference room table.
At office Christmas parties, you were a grown-up—a tax-paying, job-having adult. Yet these parties were rare occasions when you were allowed, even encouraged, to act like a child again. It was OK to let yourself backslide a little at office Christmas parties. It was OK to regress.
In the 90’s it was au courant to hire a strapping, virile young man to work as your secretary. This was an advantage for me. I was, technically speaking, strapping (six foot two), a former college football player; and, as far as anyone could tell by looking at me, I was virile, though I’d tragically lost my right testicle when I was in college. I could also type an impressive 68 words per minute, which is absurdly fast for a six-foot-two former college football player.
I was hired as the token male secretary at a white-glove investment firm in Midtown Manhattan. The office was on the 29th floor; that’s what I’d been told. But my first day there, I got into the elevator and noticed that the lighted numbers on the wall went up to 27. That was it: 27.
Not knowing what else to do, I pressed 27. The doors closed and I started going up. As I was rising, I quickly inspected the area around the elevator door, searching for more buttons—trying to solve this bizarre riddle.
At the 27th floor, the doors opened. I stepped off, feeling both doomed and curious. Everyone feels doomed and curious on a routine basis during their first months in NYC.
I roamed the carpeted, sepulchral halls for five or 10 minutes, trying to figure out where I was supposed to go, what I was supposed to do.
A woman wearing a cornflower-blue dress walked towards me, coming from the other direction. She noticed the presumably anxious expression on my face, and asked if I needed help. “Are you lost, honey?” she asked.
I told her that I was looking for the 29th floor. She grabbed my shoulders—which shocked me, because people where I’m from rarely touched one another like this. Then she, quite literally, turned me around. I didn’t flinch, though I’d wanted to flinch. (One of the first things you learn in a strange city like New York is not to flinch when people do things to you that are more intimate than you expect them to be. You let them do what they want to do. You give them permission. You tell yourself that this is the way it is here.)
I had been going the wrong way, apparently. What I was looking for, the woman said, was another elevator—a second elevator, an exclusive elevator, she said—that serviced only the 28th and 29th floors. She told me that all I needed to do to find it was to keep walking.
“As for your furrowed brow,” she said, pointing her long index finger at my forehead, “there’s not much I can do about that one, honey.” Then she winked—one long, slow wink—her right eye pinching shut like a lemon being squeezed.
She was not attractive, but her playful confidence was. What assuredness people in New York had.
I kept walking, as she’d told me to do.