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Monday, March 8, 1999
By Paul Ford
An attempt at an elegaic tone, trapped at work at night feeling worn and bored
I've been alone at work all night. I am sitting on an aluminum chair, at an aluminum table, looking out at the rear of the Flatiron. There is a gentle, watery sound as I type, the pitter of my fingers patting the keyboard.
You would see me from the street, if you stood across on the Northeast corner of the intersection of 5th and 22nd and peered up. My face is rosy from exhaustion, the lone fish in a late-night aquarium. The sun comes up in a few hours.
The sun will begin the day in Long Island, and wander across the Atlantic until it comes to Brooklyn, then the East River. It will come west across Manhattan, crossing on the avenues. It should strike here, in this office, before too long, then move on to Jersey. All of New York will be bursting orange, but Jersey will have a few seconds of sleep before arrays of light spray through the blinds.
A few weeks ago, as I waited for my girlfriend to arrive at Penn Station, I paged through a book on the history of New York. There, I saw a photograph of this office, taken in 1903. On the front window the word "Upholsterers" was painted in gold lettering. Horses stood tethered to posts. Men and women strolled, dressed in black, wearing hats.
It must have been exciting, to live at the cusp of everything, at the beginning of a new century, in a tall and crowded city. The exaggerated pie slice of the Flatiron loomed above them; it was the tallest building in the world for a few days, a skyline reminder of progress. Standing where I sit, men tacked cloth and leather to furniture. They complained, thought about their friends and enemies, said silent prayers, ate lunch in paper wrappers, drank patent medicines, and debated the existence of ghosts. Every one of them is dead. I wonder if the people who sit around here in 2099 will wonder what happened to the denizens of the millennial peak, when Rock, Paper, Scissors, Inc. had their offices here. All my bosses, myself, the database integrators, and designers will be dead, our fashions just as foolish. We will appear childish and ignorant, our predictions and hopes laughable. And then in 2199....
Back in 1999, poster comps hang where the gold paint was, facing inward. I have worked on the text for each poster, writing and proofing, suggesting colors and treatments, applying my clerical role in the global village.
I am supposed to be entering data into a database, editing chunks of prose, writing about dryers and washers, and will return to this in a moment, because my supervisor is presenting our web site tomorrow morning. She calls every hour, up all night in another state, to check on my progress. But now, I am considering.
I am considering when I will be done. I am wondering how I will free myself. If I'd like to work on music or drawing again, two things I have little talent for but enjoy, and both of which inform writing.
I am considering printing, the alphabet, and its applications. The terms "Upper Case" and "Lower Case" come from the printers of prior centuries, who used two large cases of type. The upper case held the capitals, the lower case held diminutives.
When you were apprenticed to a printer, your overseer dumped these cases over, turning thousands of tiny lead letters onto the scratched floor. This dumping was called "pi," spelled as irrationally as the number (also 16th letter of the Greek alphabet).
When you had returned all of the characters, ornaments, and dingbats to their homes, taking care to keep the "f" away from the "fl" or "fi" ligatures, feeling the press of the knobby, kerned curves of certain letters, you knew where everything belonged; the alphabet was now your territory. Your fingers would enter the gridded case, find the proper letter, feel for the notch, and slide the tiny letter onto the composing stick. A million of the same motion, and the sticks, divided by slabs of leading, are assembled into page layouts, so that they might become books, newspapers, magazines, or even advertising.
All this detail is lost in the digital world, I fear; no one touches the alphabet any more, feeling it in their hands.
The last thing I consider, the thing spinning all night in my head, looming over me like the World Trade Center, is the most essential, the most fundamental: it may be over with my girlfriend, for good.