It’s after five on Friday and I have pleasing, twenty-something plans for the evening.
Judging from the look of Larry, a diminutive agent at the literary agency where I am director of operations, he does too. A tanned, old-school publishing guy, he’s a middle-aged romantic, known to still hold his handsome wife’s hand in public.
We arrive at the elevator in superb spirits. After I press the call button, Larry and I glance at each other and smile. With my black downtown jumpsuit and his Upper East Side tweed, it’s apparent we’re heading for different worlds.
When the elevator arrives, I try to lock up, being last on the floor tonight. "Can you hold that a minute," I ask the lone man inside, as I insert my key in the security gate and flick off the hall light.
But the passenger in the lift, a tall curly-haired man in a black leather jacket, abruptly presses an internal button and snarls, "I can’t wait, I’m meeting someone."
The heavy doors begin to rumble closed.
Larry and I jump to call the elevator again, pulse quickening for a confrontation.
The doors shudder and reverse, the stranger’s pocked face reappears.
The agent firmly steps into the carriage and then holds the door for me while I hoist my bags.
"You only have one floor to go," the elevator man whines in exasperation, as if being one floor above street level makes the thing return any faster, going the right direction at rush hour.
We have no other option since the stairway is locked as usual.
Without a thought, I reply right into the man’s face. "So do you, bud." He has only one floor to go before he is free to pursue his precious appointment, it is true. But rather than instilling some kind of rationality, this ignites a rant about my snotty choice of words.
"Who do you think you are talking to me like that?" he demands, peppering the question with expletives. In the airless car his venom is inescapable. Larry and I press ourselves up against shiny steel walls, gaze averted.
Though it's only a few seconds, tonight the ride seems like an eternity. Then the man attacks what he must consider the jugular with a socioeconomic insult.
"Low rent," he declares, voice thick with condescension.
He is referring to our company’s status in the building hierarchy.
The upper floors in this Gramercy building are monopolized by fancy businesses in the music and fashion trades, with huge view windows and smart furniture.
Down here on two, the space has been compartmentalized and our small back office, crammed with bookcases that sag under the weight of unsolicited novels, looks onto a dingy light-well.
Unused to considering the relative prosperity of my employer, I am baffled to learn we are bottom-rung.
Larry takes offense, perhaps because he’s toiled for decades in world-class publishing organizations and has internalized the prestige of association regardless of traditionally shabby surroundings.
Or, because he’s read a lot of boilerplate romance novels and understands what is required by the chivalrous in these situations.
He invites further confrontation, demanding that the man repeat himself.
"Do I have to spell it for you," the curly headed man spits.
Not only do we work on an inferior floor, apparently we are too dense to comprehend why he despises sharing the elevator.
But Larry and I don’t need much spelled out, except why this guy wants to force the class issue. With his oily hair and pale, scarred skin he looks seedier than we do.
The lift comes to a stop and Larry passes me his folded newspaper.Snotty damsel who instigated this mess, I clutch it purposefully.
The doors slide open and five-foot-two-inch Larry, deliberately genteel, suggests to the stranger, "Let’s step outside."
I have to suppress a giggle. The timing is too perfect. But the incensed man isn’t interested in a gentlemanly duel and stalks ahead of us, bellowing obscenities in the dark and echoing marble lobby.
My dogged co-worker follows and yells from the lobby entrance, "Prick! That’s what you are, a prick."
I well up with pride that affable old Larry has mustered an appropriate term for the altercation. This must be how he talks in the locker room at his chi-chi athletic club.
The creep is crossing 25th Street and launches a final threat over his shoulder. "If you were twenty years younger."
He allows the sentiment to trail into ridiculous silence. Fury deflated, he doesn’t care about us anymore. His appointment must be looming, most likely with someone who has yet to cross him in pursuit of uninterrupted elevator passage.
But sparkplug Larry isn’t finished. He responds loudly, arms open.
"Here I am, come and get me!"
The elevator man skirts the Armory wall and disappears around the corner at Lexington on spindly legs, a hyena chased from an honorable fight.
The world comes back into focus. People in the street watch for a cue as to what’s next.
I return Larry’s neatly folded newspaper and we begin our routine stroll toward Park Avenue.
"I love New York, don’t you?" he says, looking invigorated and alive.
"It’s a beautiful evening," I reply, gazing up at the pink sky.
This appeared in Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, January 2, 2001