Monday, January 10, 2005

How many "i"s in "Rainier"?

I've been revisiting different places that I remembered from my early days in New York on the Upper East Side. This sounds as though I'm a hundred years old and have just returned from distant shores, when actually I'm thirty(cough) years old and have just returned from the Upper West Side. Via Baltimore.

As I was combing the East Side for housewares, I thought I'd take a stroll by the old location of one of my first full-time jobs, on 61st Street between Park and Madison.

When I came to New York, I worked as a temp, as hundreds of thousands of people do. I bought a slightly-too-large suit for ten dollars from a thrift store, and wore it to every crazy job that came along. The very first job I got (not the 61st Street job) was at a large law firm, where I was manning the reception desk. This was in the days before voicemail and before phone systems were computerized to the degree they are now; they plugged in the phone at 9:00 a.m. on the dot, and all the lines immediately lit up. They didn't stop ringing until the phone was unplugged at 5:00 p.m. sharp.

The trick was, each of the four lines that insistently lit up had to be answered in a different way. One was, "Dretzin, Kauff, McClain & McGuire!" making sure to pronounce Kauff as Cowf and not Cough. Another was "Brillstein, Bernstein!" There were two others, but I've forgotten them. It's been fifteen years, after all.

Above all, my task was to get someone else to pick up the phone. Send the call back to an extension, and if it bounced back, keep sending it to different extensions but do not take a message. See, this is where voicemail would have been handy.

Sometimes, if the secretaries and para-legals did not coordinate their lunches properly, a call would bounce back to me no matter how desperately I tried to foist it off on someone else. Once, not knowing what else to do, I took a message.

"Just tell him Mrs. Sinatra called," the voice said. A little unsure of the spelling, I almost said, "Oh, like in 'Frank'?" but just took a shot and spelled it that way. Later, when I passed on the message (and was chastised for having taken a message at all), I learned that, yes, it was THAT Sinatra family. The firm also represented the royal family of Monaco, so don't ask about the spelling of Rainier or Grimaldi.

After that job, and few others that were sometimes hellish (Jaeger Sportswear) and sometimes delightful (Jim Henson Associates) and sometimes a combination of both (the New York Philharmonic), I came to a job where I would stay (well, on and off) for the next five years.

This firm was in the business of "brand identity" and "corporate identity." This was something like a combination of advertising and design, combined with consumer research. I found the subject very interesting, and the people at the company were intriguing and energetic.

The company had offices all over the world, but the New York office was on the medium-to-small side - around 30 people or so. It was located in a townhouse on 61st Street; the owner of the townhouse still lived on the top floor, and swept in with her Pomeranians and her mink to disappear in the small wire-cage elevator to her apartment. The spaces were small and a bit overcrowded, but had a real sense of style. The conference room had been the dining room, with a huge gilt plaster ceiling. It gave me, a newcomer from Arizona, an idea of what a truly grand New York townhouse might have been like.

I had been hired because I knew Macintosh - I'd had one since the very first days of the 512K Mac (MacPaint! MacDraw! MacWrite!). At the time, very, very few businesses used them, and they were different enough from PCs (which were mostly MS-DOS then) to make cross-training difficult. This company was on the forward edge of using computers in graphic design, so they used Macs throughout. To give you an idea of what technology was like not so long ago, fax machines were just coming in, and people still had teletype machines (although I can't say I ever saw one used.) These were the days when faxes were unreliable and came out on that shiny thermal paper; after you sent a fax, you always had to call and confirm. And by "you," I mean me, the one who was actually doing the faxing and calling.

Just before I started working there, the company had been bought by a large advertising firm. This meant that they would be moving to a new space within a year or two; this was distressing, because even though the space was crowded and was only going to get more so, the uniqueness of the workspace contributed to the character and culture of the place. I loved it almost immediately. After a month or so, I got hired full-time as the assistant to the creative director, and was soon assisting four design directors as well. (Of course, I was Wonder!Boy!Assistant! If only I could run my own life as neatly as I ran all of theirs.) Many years later, this same creative director would bring me to a different firm (in the same industry) which would be my Last Corporate Job Ever. But that's another story.

So, without getting sidetracked by all the stories I could tell about my years at BrandCorp Inc. (not the real name, obviously), let's go back to me, skipping along 61st Street, looking to see what shape the old townhouse was in.

Well, it was gone of course. It wasn't a weed-grown vacant lot - although that would be a great end to the story ("... and it turned out that it was all a dream! And the creative director ... WAS A GHOST!") No, the townhouse had been rebuilt and refurbished. They kept the most striking architectural details - a big arched window over the entrance and loft-like windows on the upper floors - but it was now some other firm with an Italian name - perhaps related to fashion or high-end furniture, it wasn't clear. I knew that it wouldn't be the same - I was with the company when they were moved to a new space by their corporate owners - a depressingly average office space complete with soulkilling gray cubicles. I hadn't expected it to be so completely transformed. But then, I've transformed since then (at least I think I have) so - why not?


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