I worked there for six months, maybe a year. It wasn’t the worst job I’ve ever have (note: I’d find the worst job soon after this). People were pleasant to me, if a little distant and condescending. I wasn’t a New Yorker and they obviously knew this; I felt like they enjoyed knowing this. The investment bankers who stalked around the office like werewolves enjoyed knowing it; the secretaries, which was the group that I was technically a part of, enjoyed knowing it, too.
I answered telephones, directed calls, set up appointments, signed for packages, and ran an old, knucklehead computer. And I operated the velobinder. The velobinder was the office equivalent of a medieval torture device. It was a large, blank-faced machine with a long, thin slot on the front of it. Within seconds of switching it on, the machine would give off a hot, burning smell. I’d carefully feed stacks of paper into the velobinder’s dark slot. The slot heated up to a high enough temperature to melt plastic. The velobinder’s job was to fasten stacks of paper together, to bind them, with the melted plastic. I had to hold the papers very still for maybe five or 10 seconds in the slot when operating the machine. If I moved at all, even the slightest bit, the velobinder would throw a fit and not do what I wanted it to do.
The day of the office Christmas party I put in more of a workday than I’d expected to put in. I sat at my desk and went through the motions, trying to look busy, trying to distract myself. I had a tough time concentrating. I felt restless and impatient. What I was feeling was genuine excitement. I hadn’t been this excited since I was a kid.
I had no idea how to dress for an office Christmas party. Back then I was trying to wear things that looked terrific on the male models in Esquire magazine but looked dreadful on me for some reason. Boat shoes, for example. Everyone wore boat shoes. The male models looked great in boat shoes. I bought a pair of boat shoes, which were 50-percent off at Harry’s on 79th Street, because December is not the season for boat shoes. I was uncomfortable in the boat shoes; I felt short in the boat shoes. They made my feet look small and misshapen, like a pair of discarded gingerbread cookies. Worst of all, the boat shoes didn’t cooperate with the snow. I fell down the subway stairs Tuesday morning because of the boat shoes. I went down like a bag of potatoes: thump, thump, thump. People fall in New York City all the time. I did what the fallen people usually did in New York: I popped right back up to my feet more quickly than I expected to; and I went right back to walking, despite the searing pain in my right knee. I walked as if falling was no big deal, as if falling down an entire flight of snow-covered subway steps was a routine part of my day.
I was also into cardigans then. Very big. I owned cardigans in the stormy-weather color spectrum: blues, blacks, greys, a sad green. I believed that I could make cardigans “work.” The main problem was that I didn’t have any confidence in the boat shoes or cardigans—none whatsoever. I wanted people to notice me, to see how spiffy I looked. But what they saw was what I was: a dauntingly tall, bespectacled, insecure, financially strapped man-boy who was hoping to fit in somehow.
Elaborate trays were delivered to the office—food from all the better catering services in the neighborhood. The office was officially closed at 3 o’clock. Everything was shut down: the fax machine, the phones, even the velobinder. A makeshift bar was set up near the entryway. A man wearing dress shirt and a bowtie did the bartending. He was black, with a small, shaved head. He’d been hired for the party. “What’s the house specialty today, good sir?” I asked, rubbing my hands together with eagerness. I’d bartended a few years earlier, in Sylvan Beach. I could make a world-class Old Fashioned back then—a regular named Ricky used to tell me so—complete with expert muddling.
The bowtie-wearing bartender twisted the top off a stray beer and handed to me. “C’mon, man. I’m not open yet,” he said quietly. I lifted the beer in a quasi celebratory fashion, toasting him. “Feliz navidad,” I said. He turned his back on me and busied himself behind the bar. I took a sip of the beer and discovered that it was practically room temperature. Complaining, I figured, would have been beyond the pale. I begrudgingly drank it, with each subsequent sip more tepid than the last.
A few minutes later, Dan Simpson came out of his office. He was the first of the werewolves to join the party. The rest of them stayed in their offices, heads down, phones glued to sides of their heads. Dan Simpson walked up to the bar and ordered a scotch. Without hesitation, the bartender poured for him.
I liked Dan Simpson’s willingness to forego the office dramatics, to hang up his phone and to enjoy the party. He was confident and sure of himself. “Nothing quite like that first sip of scotch at the holiday party,” he said to no one in particular. He gave his drink a hungry sniff, then tilted his head back. He closed his eyes and poured the scotch down. Then he opened his eyes, and focused on me. I’d been working there for three months at the point but it was as if he was seeing me for the first time. Dan Simpson tilted his head sideways.
“You look like Bill Gates,” he said to me. “Bill Gates at a kids Halloween party.”
Music played from a small radio on one of the secretaries desks. There was no dancing. The werewolves refused to leave their offices. It was a game of Russian roulette. It was a Mexican standoff. They sat there, refusing to be seen enjoying themselves in the least.
Then, one by one, the investors appeared. We got buzzed under the hardboiled glare of the overhead office lights. We started letting out rabid, communal whoops whenever another one hung up his phone, switched off his lights, and joined us.
Then Donald Windsor and Gary Trumbull. On and on they went. All men. No women.
The last one was Mr. Solverson himself. It was Mr. Solverson’s firm. Our work, I learned, wasn’t finished until Solverson appeared. Around 8 p.m., once all the other werewolves had appeared, his office door opened. The entire place let out a whoop. “HOORAY!” we said.
Mr. Solverson waited for the whoop to run its course. Then he made a speech. “I’ll be honest with you, more honest than they’re being over at Citibank today, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “The fourth quarter wasn’t what we expected. And it wasn’t what we were hoping for. Our projections were off by 8-percent. How we missed by that much, I’ll never know. But you know what? That’s why I get out of bed and come here everyday. It’s never what I’m expecting. Never. I’ve spent 35 years building this firm into what it is today. Of those 35 years, this year, 1997, has been my favorite.”
A few of the well-dressed geese dabbed at their eyes as he said this.
I was buzzed by then. Numb. I went into the men’s room. Two urinals. One was occupied. It was Dan Simpson. “Bill Gates? It’s really you!” he said. “What the hell are you doing at this shitty Christmas party, Bill?”
I told him that I wasn’t Bill Gates.
“Asbury Park is the place, Bill,” he said. “You’ve got to get there now. Twenty years from now, Bill, it’ll be the hottest real estate market in the country. You won’t be able to sniff the air around there unless you have a million dollars and your farts smell like candy canes.”
He looked at me as we both continued to pee. “Asbury Park, Bill. Mark my words. You’ll thank me for this.” He flushed, then left.
Dan Simpson would open a hotel room window in Pittsburgh on a business trip and throw himself out of it two years later.