Excerpt of Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith
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The mayor and company president floated pithy speeches about progress and the insurability of the common man. Above the foot shuffling and the iron-rail whinny of the cable cars, Hale said, "Chicago is a city of country people with values that bear those origins." The man beside Owen - a cheerless, onion-breathed fellow who'd been sent by God to avenge insobriety - tugged at his own shirtsleeves and said, "I'm dying out here in this oven. Could they show a fella some mercy?" The rest of the speech was clipped by the wind before the great clock sounded - a C-pitched freighter calling through a high fog. The mayor turned to the ribbon with purpose. The outsized scissors sliced through in one motion and a collective sigh, then cheering, passed through the multitude. Chicago was now ahead of New York by two floors. Two doormen opened the hand-carved doors and the official party, wives first, stepped inside. The lobby gave out a breath of cool, sanctified air and Owen felt the draft on his face as he moved forward: the first reprieve in the halting crush of daylight.
The lobby warrened away into alcoves and cloistered nooks, a tobacconist, a barbershop, a telegraph office, each in a recess of cherrywood paneling and rubbed bronze. A stained glass dome lit from above the bust of Hale Gray's grandfather. Elisha Edmond Gray, merchant underwriter, had amassed a fortune on the calculus of loss and yield. Life insurance has never had its Plato or Aristotle, Hale was saying now in a pulpit voice, there were no poetics or treatises, just the burial clubs of Rome and a fraternity of prudent Britons. Practical men with shipping charts on their walls, actuarial tables mounted like maps of the Atlantic. Owen was aware of his frayed collar and his nicotined fingers as he sidled toward the grillwork of the elevators. The operators stood at attention: dough-faced pallbearers in brass buttons and epaulets. Somebody mentioned a cocktail table waiting roof-side and Owen brightened. He filed into one of the waiting cars, its interior hushed with velvet. The operator fashioned a congenial smile for his passengers - a few executives and their wives, and Owen, backed into a corner - before closing the doors and setting to his controls. A lever was moved into place before the car rocked then began to rise. Owen felt his stomach drop away as they lurched skyward. One of the ladies rested a nervous hand against the crushed velvet siding, steadying herself. Easy now, the husband admonished, as if to a skittish mare, and Owen wondered if he was speaking to his wife or the elevator itself.
Hale Gray was the tour guide and he marshaled the group from floor to floor. In the document repository - a wooden metropolis of floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets - Owen imagined thousands of policies neatly filed, men's lives tallied and reduced to a few pages between cardstock. Next, they moved into the adjacent typing pool, where Hale gestured to the rows of desks, each with a Remington No. 2 museumed in a cone of lamplight. For several minutes, he sermonized on the benevolence of the company's stance toward its employees. His army of policy clerks and typists would enjoy free lunches in the cafeteria, subsidized visits to the doctor's suite, affordable haircuts in the lobby barbershop. There was no reason to leave the building during business hours. Turning solemn, Hale said, "Think of this skyscraper as contributing to the elevation of the species."
Every time Owen thought the tour was winding down, that a gimlet was within reach, Hale took up a new thread of tedium about the building - the system of pneumatic tubes that carried policies between floors, the mail chutes that ran parallel to the elevator shafts, the uplifting array of evening classes available in the second-floor library: actuarial science, sewing, first aid, English, citizenship. Owen drifted from the pack when they passed a washroom. His stomach was a little squiffy from the elevator ride and he needed to splash some cold water on his face. The white-tiled bathroom was cavernous, broken up by a long line of urinals. He washed his face in the sink, drank from his cupped hands, regarded his hangdog expression in the mirror. What did these people want with him, these insurance men and their spaniel-faced wives? Even in the washroom there was a kind of order that threatened to suffocate - the hand towels were stacked in a neat tower, each embossed with the company logo of a lion with one paw on a globe, and a white-faced clock hung above the urinals, the red second hand a needling reminder of time's strident passage. Was this to prevent a clerk's watery rumination? A workingman couldn't be fooled; he knew when he was being hemmed in. It might not be the stockyards, Owen thought, but it was still long hours hunched at mindless labor. A clerk might take his free lunch at noon, his evening class in English verbs, even get his shoes spit-shined in the lobby, but he'd emerge from the glass tower in the falling dark each day with a secret kind of malice toward the benevolence up on the twenty-eighth floor.
Excerpted from Bright and Distant Shores
by Dominic Smith. Copyright © 2011 by Dominic Smith.
Excerpted by permission of Washington Square Press. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.