remnants: memories of nyc through places I used to work

the lobby of the New York Times building has a birch forest inside

hi. this is remnants, the off-week version of jukeboxgraduate, in which I pull out old half-finished pieces & cast them into the universe to see if they float. I am literally pulling these things out of old dusty notepad or google drive files and they may not be linear or have endings or logic and they may very well have typos and need editing and i am not going to promote them (but you are free to if they move you in any way). these versions will always come in with remnants at the top so you can filter them out of your mailbox if you are uninterested in receiving them. thank you for your support!

the xyz buildings
the xyz buildings

1: Midtown

At the end of my junior year, when most of my classes were in the evening and my days were free, I decided to see if I typed fast enough to work as a temp. I did it during the summer, but realized Connecticut was not New york and that the rules might be very different. But my fingers flew over the keys and I passed all of the tests.

I got sent to insurance companies and ad agencies up and down Madison and Park Avenues, back in the days before turnstiles and security guards. I would walk up at 8:45am, running from the N or the R train, and give my name and the person I was supposed to report to. In the best cases there was a friendly HR woman who showed me to my IBM Selectric, in the worst case there was some slimy guy in a cheap suit who would gesture at a secretarial chair covered in some kind of orange tweed fabric. I would type, and file, and open and sort mail. Even though I didn’t know shorthand they would try to get me to take dictation, which the agency warned me they would try to do, but dictation costs more than just someone who could type, file and answer phones.

At lunch I would find the cheap pizza joint or the coffee shop nearby, and sit on a bench or a stone wall and read a book. Sometimes I brought my lunch but most places didn’t have a refrigerator in the windowless fluorescent space that went for the kitchen or ‘break room’. Usually if an assignment went past two days I felt bold enough to ask if there was a place I could “put my lunch.”

The streets were wide and angular and right angles and grey and black and off white, lined by men in suits and younger men in ties and button-down shirts and women and girls in cheap suits from Alexander’s. I had two actual suits, and some other skirts and tops I borrowed from my mom, and I made do. It always felt like I was stepping back into some time warp every time I walked up Madison or down Park Avenue, searching for large metallic numbers indicating whether or not this was the building I was looking for.

2: Rockefeller Center

A temp assignment sent me to a law firm on the 17th floor of one of the sharp silver grey skyscrapers across from Rockefeller Center. They were called the XYZ Buildings, I learned from a plaque I would find in the lobby later, on a rainy day when I didn’t want to leave the building. Later I would learn how they were all joined by underground passages and escalators, and you could walk from 48th and 7th underground to 6th Avenue, and then connect to the passageway underneath Rockefeller Center. You could go all the way to Fifth Avenue and come out right across the street from Saks Fifth Avenue, where I would wander around and pretend to be old and rich or at least rich, thumbing scarves that cost half a week’s salary, smiling nicely at the perfume girls so they’d let me walk through a cloud of scent to take back to the very beige offices.

I started in the typing pool, a long narrow room next to the reception lined with desks and the massive electric typewriters. There was another room where the women who typed on the word processors, the Wang 1200’s. Everyone wanted to show enough potential that they’d be chosen to move to the word processing room and train on the black and green machines, you made $14 to $16 over the $10 or $12 you made as a typist or legal secretary. The typing pool was presided over by a grandfatherly white-haired gentleman with glasses, who reviewed the assignments as they came in escorted by the secretaries, documents too large for them to handle and deal with the rest of their daily correspondence.

We had to sign in as we arrived in the morning and no one wanted to arrive after the sign-in book got taken off the desk, which happened promptly at 9:02 every morning. If you didn’t sign in then you were tardy and if you were tardy three times, you would get a call from your agency telling you that the firm no longer required your services and to call in for your next assignment.

I don’t remember much except typing and typing and typing, but i must have done something right because one day the supervisor told me that HR wanted to see me, and when I got there, wondering what I had done wrong, she instead asked me if I liked working there and if I’d like to move up to being a legal secretary. They wanted me to become a ‘floater,’ people to cover for secretaries who were on vacation or sick, or for positions where they were still trying to find a permanent replacement. The biggest difference was that unlike in the typing pool, where if there was no work to do we were allowed to read, you couldn’t do that because it gave a ‘bad impression’ that the lawyers you worked for weren’t busy enough. Some lawyers were good eggs and would tell you that you were welcome to do any personal typing you wanted, as long as it wasn’t obvious that was what you were doing.

The secretaries sat in alcoves spaced out along the walls, four secretaries to each alcove, each secretary working for two lawyers, one partner and one associate. Usually the partner generated tons and tons of work and overtime, and the associate would come up with a letter or two to dictate to you. When one secretary went to lunch or to the bathroom, you had to get one of the others to cover for you, answering the shared phone lines on the big square brown telephone. Mr. So-and-So’s office. I’m sorry, she’s away from her desk, can I help you?

At lunch I would find a bookstore or a corner of a bench somewhere so I could read or think or stare into space and feel the warmth absorb into my bones again. There was a cheap pizza place and some Japanese restaurant that had a beef curry that was cheap and I craved irrationally. If I let myself splurge, there was an Au Bon Pain in the Rockefeller Center concourse--I believe it is STILL there--which had a broccoli cheddar soup. It came with a roll, and I always felt guilty but it was the largest indulgence to my broke-ass 20 something self.

I was glad for the overtime, getting fed on a client’s dollar, and pocketing the per diem for the cab ride home, instead walking through the middle of Times Square to the Port Authority to get the bus back to Hoboken. I always walked right down the middle of 42nd Street because I felt like it was safer than any of the side streets, there were too many people and cop cars and bright lights for anything to happen if I just looked like I knew where I was going and practiced my best don’t fuck with me expression, which was somewhere between a frown and a look of determination. I used to practice that look with other girls in my class freshman year, the girls who commuted in from their parents’ houses in the two-fare zones in Queens and Brooklyn. They grew up here and I hadn’t, so I used them for every piece of information and street smarts that I could pry out of them. I walked fast and didn’t stare and never felt like I was in danger.


I worked for a start-up that went under and the President asked me to go with him to an ad agency uptown who were “rekindling their digital practice,” he kept saying, as though it was some kind of mystical Eastern philosophy that you adopted. I knew when I walked in for the first interview that it was the wrong place for me because it looked and felt like those insurance companies and ad agencies I worked at in the 80s, silent and muted and black and gray lines.

I had gone back to a day job because I had finished my first novel but had run to the end of the discretionary income earned from tech stock, so I was broke and constantly worried about money. Madison Avenue had gotten worse, not better, since I was last there; I was working in the 50s and there was nowhere to get a cheap bite to eat besides the endless delis that all had the exact same thing, a hot prepared foods buffet and ‘toss salad’ and some kind of stir fry thing. The best I could come up with was the ramen station, where I would slurp buckwheat soba in a corner or back at my desk, which was an old secretarial station and from time to time people would come up to me and treat me like I was the president’s secretary, and i’d have to explain that I was a project manager and I just happened to sit near him, but I didn’t know where he was and I didn’t maintain his calendar and no, I could not take a message for him.

Whenever I walked towards Fifth Avenue I always got a weird deja vu, as though it was still the 80s and I was walking to work in a pair of cheap shoes from a no-name place somewhere near Macy’s. The lines for American Girl sometimes stretched back to our corner of Madison, mothers with small excited daughters alongside them. I would bring my lunch but there was nowhere to sit and eat it; there was no break room and management ‘frowned’ at people eating at their desks. There was a ‘shared’ ‘kitchen’ available for the people in the company who worked for the parent company who owned us, and they had a coffee machine and a sink. After some negotiation with various senior staff who weren’t soulless automatons, a compromise was reached and we were allowed to use the room to rinse out our containers if we brought food from home, and there was a table in the reception area where we could eat our lunches.

No one ate in the reception area, ever.

I would either take the E back to Court Square from the 53rd & 5th stop, getting on at the front or the back at the odd labyrinthine passageway at the other end, lined with shops that were now dark except for one newsstand and one cobbler. BAZZINI NUTS $1, read a large cardboard sign on the newsstand, every day of the week.

I quit after 9 months of feeling like I was being squished between two grill plates each and every day.


My grandfather was in the garment business (like any good Jew from Eastern Europe) and progressed from a pushcart down on Delancey Street to an office in the Empire State Building. My father tells the story about how he could come into Penn Station on the LIRR and be able to walk to his office without ever setting foot outside.

I remember Eighth Avenue as an obstacle course of having to dodge the guys rolling garment racks up and down the sidewalk. You had to get out of the way or your heels would get clipped with no apologies offered. There would be clothes lines extending out of upper floor windows down to semis parked on the street as clothes were relayed down the rope to the street.

I never went there at night.

Now I come out of the 7 train, riding in the car third from the back, and climbing out of the entrance adjacent to Red Lobster, In the winter it smelled like rancid butter and in the summer it was the most vomit inducing smell in the history of the world since I lived in Hoboken and had to walk past a poultry slaughter place every morning on my way up to the bus on Washington Street. I would climb the stairs holding my breath and take a right down 41st to the New York Times building, then cut through the New York Times lobby either for a gust of air conditioning or a blast of heat, observe the birch forest growing in the atrium in the middle of the lobby, then walk down Eighth past the DVD and the sex toy stores and the people waiting with their suitcases for the off-brand long distance buses to random locations like Falls Church, VA, past the tourists rolling their large duffel bags up Eighth from Penn Station and the train from Newark to the Port Authority.

Eighth Avenue from 34th to 42nd was a transit corridor with not much to offer. The requisite deli with the salad bar and the ramen station and the pizza oven was the main lunch destination, although the Chinese restaurant in the building had lunch specials and I could run down there with just a coat and be back up to the 17th floor in under 10 minutes if I got the elevators just right. Until I had sussed out my lunch options I found myself timing a run across Eighth to Grey’s Papaya and then back, clutching my paper sack with two dogs with mustard and sauerkraut and a papaya drink. I wasn’t broke any more but still found myself falling back on old habits when I was busy or lazy or had no appetite. There was a kitchen and a microwave and no one cared if you ate at your desk, mostly because there was nowhere else you could go. Some people in the office were bold and headed down to the Chipotle on 34th Street, where one of the project managers would check in and held that Foursquare mayorship for quite a long time. (She would also do it at the coffee station on another floor, which belonged to another company but they let anyone who worked in the building come by. I would question whether or not this was an appropriate use of Foursquare.)


Chelsea in the 80s was me getting off the PATH at 23rd Street on a hot windless Saturday and walking over to one of the dozens of professional photo processing labs that dotted the blocks between Fifth and Sixth Avenues to drop off my film from the night before. Chelsea was heading for Danceteria on 21st Street and then across the street (more or less) to go to Berlin afterwards. Chelsea was Lox around the Clock on the corner of 6th and 21st, where you would go if you were on a date or felt particularly flush. I worked a second job in a phone room on a high floor in the Masonic Building on the corner of 6th and 23rd, two weeknights and one weekend day; there was nowhere to eat which meant I ate the Dannon Yogurt I brought from home. Dave’s Topless was still on the corner of 24th & 6th.

Chelsea was the Limelight, where I never, ever, went alone. The optimum group size was five, which meant that no one ever had to stand by herself at the bar or go to the ladies’ room solo. Chelsea was the guy from my creative writing class I thought liked me, and was a stand-up guy who would sleep on the floor of the one-bedroom apartment he shared with some random person he found through the Village Voice’s “Roommates Wanted” section, while I slept on the threadbare couch with the cat. Chelsea is the night I found out that he “only” was attracted to younger women (I was 21), me stumbling out to 8th Avenue and sobbing in the doorway of a closed store, being brought into the dim lighting of a leather bar while a kindly drag queen made me drink a shot of whiskey so I could stop crying long enough to get home “without having ‘MUG ME’ written on your back,” as she put it.

Now Chelsea is the strip mall of Manhattan, Bed Bath and Beyond and the Container Store and TJ Maxx at right angles; there is a store servicing Apple computers and the steel and glass of the Caroline and the adjacent Home Depot. Billy’s Topless is a bagel joint; the old man Irish bar on 23rd still lingers; all the old manufacturing loft buildings are now full of tech bros, who walk to lunch in packs of four and five, oblivious to anyone who might be in a hurry behind them.