In February of that long winter of his second TBI year, Sean told the student employment office he was sick of his factory job, so they found him work downtown in an insurance company on the twenty-fifth floor of the Tribune Tower. This job would be very different—lots of contact with people. People, Sean feared, that would be very different from himself.
On his first day of work, Sean ate early lunch at TBI, then walked out through the arch toward downtown. A group of about ten guys who worked at the Federal Reserve Bank streamed in front of him, talking and yelling as they jogged across the intersections, ignoring the traffic lights, zig-zagging between the stopped cars, hopping over hoods. When they would leave the bank later that afternoon, the bank guards would turn their pockets inside out looking for pennies.
Sean turned left on Illinois Street, then walked down Michigan Avenue toward the Chicago River. He stared up at the Tribune Tower, the giant building shrinking him into insignificance. A steel and concrete monolith built in 1925, its thirty-six stories, soared 462 feet high, above its glass façade. A revolving door opened from the street into the lobby. He passed the coffee counter, found the bank of elevators and told the operator, “Twenty-fifth floor.”
Exiting the elevator, he found the huge First Chicago Insurance office suite where the hiring manager waited. “The bulk of our staff works in this main office” he said, “but you’ll work in the smaller office down the hall.” They walked in to see a manager sitting at a large desk inside the glassed-in corner cubicle. He wore a dark business suit, white shirt and tie, and his umbrella hung on a wooden coat stand. “Sean, this is Mr. Merton,” the manager said. “He’ll introduce you to the others.”
Sean shook Mr. Merton’s hand, who pointed and said, “That’s Duane; he’s our junior underwriter. Marion and Myra over there are our office assistants.” They all nodded and smiled. Mr. Merton never smiled. “Myra here will give you a stack of policies to file. The red-tagged folders are active; the others are expired.” Then he walked back into his cage.
Myra helped Sean learn how to organize the slightly-askew, dog-eared folders that hung in the file drawers. He liked Myra immediately—pretty, bombastic, friendly. She lit up the office. He began organizing the bills, receipts, and records of sprinkler damage that Myra had strewn helter-skelter across his desk. He thought, These wrinkled folders wouldn’t inspire much customer confidence.
Mr. Merton kept a clean and organized space. The few times he emerged from his office he would lean against a desk and deliver pep talks to his minions—“If we get these insurance claims organized and wrapped up it’ll put a real feather in all our caps.”
Privately, Duane told Sean, “He means a feather in his cap.”
Duane, tall and darker-skinned and smelling of cologne and tobacco, slicked his black hair back with a careless hand. When he smoked he sucked in his cheeks, languid eyelids drooping over a clenched smile that revealed confident teeth.
Duane loved to flirt with Marion, a slightly-built Catholic girl who would toss her blond hair and blink her big, hazel eyes. She always looked cute in her see-through blouse and tight skirt. Duan confided to Sean, “I like Marion but she’s Catholic and I’m Lutheran, so I don’t know how we could get together.”
One day Mr. Merton called in sick and put Duane in charge. That would be the day the inmates took over the asylum.
Duane opened his desk drawer and pulled out a bottle. “Myra, get some plastic cups in that drawer over there. Could you pour?” Sean had never tasted alcohol and TBI prohibited students from drinking, but the pressure of the social occasion pushed him to take a sip. He coughed as the strong liquid slid down his throat. Duane laughed, sitting relaxed with his feet up on the desk, cigarette hanging from his lower lip. Marion came over and sat on his lap. Duane pretended to ignore her but Sean could see he loved it. Sean tried concentrating on his filing, but in vain. The atmosphere turned relaxed, a day of freedom from Mr. Merton.
Then Myra went crazy. Dear, bubbly Myra, not quite obese but pleasantly plump, long dark hair, black eyes, plenty of lipstick and red fingernail polish, gregarious, owner of a loud, sultry voice, she radiated Eau de Toilette and always brought her fun with her.
Marion told Duane, “Put some music on your radio.” When the music started, Myra stepped up on her chair, then onto the desk, revealing her high heels, plump legs and sheer hose. She flung her arms above her head, swayed her hips, twirled her short dress, and sang a lusty song, her gold bracelets and Star of David earrings swinging in time. Marion and Duane sang and clapped. For Sean, this was a day to remember.
Then the big boss from the main office walked in.
Silence, hung heads, as all returned to work with tails between legs. No one lost their job but the next day Mr. Merton walked into his tiny cubicle, hung up his black overcoat, scarf, and umbrella and then rallied his troops. “People, I’m surprised at this behavior. It casts a shadow on my leadership. You embarrassed me in front of my own boss.” He droned on—lack of maturity and professionalism, black marks, etc. Plainly, the big boss had reamed him out and charged him with castigating his staff. For his part, Sean thought, It was worth it!
Sean’s two jobs couldn’t have been more different. The pie filling job had numbed him. The insurance job felt equally automaton-like but he found himself liking his officemates and felt like he was learning to navigate the human diversity in the huge city.
With her behavior, could Myra be an observant Jew? Sean didn’t think so. And Duane—suave, worldly-wise, sophisticated—did “Lutheran” mean he was born again? And were Catholic girls allowed to sit on Lutheran men’s laps? Sean’s childhood formation made him critical of people, even church-goers, outside of Fundamentalism. He didn’t think Marion or Duane were real Christians. And how could he share his Christian faith with them if he no longer believed it himself? His atheism was getting more and more complicated, presenting more of a risk for him at TBI. His dread intensified.