Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

The Midtown Hustle

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It took nine business days to find a single black employee working above the first floor. Rather, it took me that long to find a single black male working above the first floor: Most people of color coming in, flashing their IDs and taking the elevators are young and female. There is plenty of melanin among the elevator operators, security guards, mailroom clerks, janitors and porters, natch; Some things never change.

The background check took ten days. It involved five years’ tax records, interviews with the last ten years’ worth of employers, calls to all listed higher educational institutions, records in federal and state law enforcement, a credit check and a urinalysis test. It was far more comprehensive and intrusive than that required for government work, but then this is far more important than one’s responsibility to the American public: We’re talking one’s responsibility to rich people’s money.

Practically as illustration, at this financial institution, there is a ban on the stock and commodities trading floors of all cellphones. This isn’t due to distraction or interference with the confluence of sensitive equipment on hand, but to keep the traders honest. The bank knew it had hired thieves – indeed, it’s counting on that; those lawyers aren’t just for show – but it took precautions that they steal for the bank, not from the bank.

Working for a contractor to a contractor to a contractor to said institution – itself a necessary precaution, this time against unionism; 50 hour workweeks are the bare minimum – placed me down in the bowels of the building, among men for whom no love was lost on the folks above, but whose distance from the top was so vast that they might as well be in different countries. Then again, maybe they are; who knows? It is also a respite for all the color: Upstairs gets folks from England, Brazil, Japan; downstairs gets Barbados, Jamaica, Haiti.

A senior tech, ex-marine, big black dude, incongruous loudmouth that defies corporate convention: Coworkers say he’s warming up to me because the first word out of his mouth when he sees me is no longer “douchebag.” He gave nicknames to the temps; mine is “ponytail.” A fellow temp, this poor black kid pegged as somebody who doesn’t know where he should be in life, is known as “church clothes,” because he came in for most of his first week in a manner of dress that was sorely unprofessional, making it up on Friday with the best clothes he owned.

Another temp, a skinny, snappy-dressed Haitian dude, hasn’t got one, however. That’s largely because he works 17 hours a day for two full-time jobs and commutes for a further three. Most of the time he’s quiet and the rest he’s napping in the corner. When he’s regarded at all, there’s a small sense of pity. Not much, though: Nobody in the office has less than two sources of income. Nobody can afford to. Overtime work is jealously hoarded, and rationed out lest the whole department simply work 24/7.

The Jamaican supervisor intimates to me that they’re looking for someone permanent. The ex-marine immediately chimes up that the only reason he likes me is because I’m half-black. The Barbadian tech asks who called me black, to which the ex-marine retorts, “his white half.” Another Jamaican tech points out that, with my knowledge, my accent and my skin color, I could be making a great deal more money creating and plying connections in his home country than working here. I reply that the Chinese have already formalized the process; he grins.

He’s colorstruck and aware of such. I’m colorstruck in reverse. We’re both in it for the money; under the prying eyes of ubiquitous security cameras but away from the prying eyes of true movers and shakers, stoking coal into the great engine that this economy is supposedly based upon. One day it may fail, in which case the ground floor may yet prove to be the best vantage.

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