Raymond Wallace sits on his freshly-made bunk at the Railroad YMCA—eyes dry with jetlag; palms firm on the rough blanket—and glances at his wristwatch. As the minute hand hits eight o’clock, he adjusts his tie, stands up and—as a matter of habit—brushes his trousers down. His suit feels oddly loose on him, as though he has somehow shed weight during the transatlantic flight. Passing a mirror in the corridor he licks a finger and dabs it on a shaving cut from a sleep-deprived hand. He smooths his hair, thinking as he does so how he prefers the colour when it is like this, still darkly damp from the shower. He tries to avoid the eyes everyone back home says remind them of his father’s, slips on his overcoat and heads out onto the street. The air is brisk, autumnal, and scented with yeast and iron: bakeries and brake dust. It is Monday October 14th, 1963, Raymond is twenty-one years old, and by the time he leaves Manhattan a mere three months later, on January 8th, 1964, he will have made the greatest mistake of his life.
As he crosses Lexington and looks left, his eye is drawn up and up and up to the zenith of what he recognises from his guide book as the Chrysler Building, its spire of concentric fans, shiny and elegant in the morning sunlight, accelerating and diminishing towards its peak. This fills his heart with twin senses of joy and ambition, senses which are assaulted almost immediately by the parps of determined traffic that send him dashing to the far kerb. His stomach still out of step with the time difference, Raymond stops at a diner on East 43rd Street, removing his coat as he enters. He is seated at a window table by a waitress who, handing him a menu stained with greasy fingerprints, immediately removes a pencil from her hair-wrap and licks the tip, studying his face as though for a portrait.
‘Er…I would like some pancakes, please.’
Her lips curl into an appraising smile. She marks her pad without losing eye contact. ‘Bacon?’
‘Yes. And some eggs, please.’
‘Scrambled, over easy, sunny side up?’
Raymond feels overwhelmed by the number of options. He turns the menu over as though the answer he seeks might lie on the reverse side. It is blank. ‘I don’t mind.’
‘Over easy. Coffee?’
‘No. Thank you.’
‘Sweet enough. Cream?’
Raymond looks at her with unalloyed incredulity. ‘In my coffee?’
‘Accent like yours, Honey, you can pour it where you want.’
He eats ravenously, sipping at the coffee between bites, then—checking his watch once more—wipes his mouth, pays his bill and is back on the street. As he begins the final approach to his destination—the offices of The New York Times at 229 West 43rd Street—his heart begins to beat faster; out of confidence, he tells himself.
Once through the revolving doors he is directed upstairs to the vast third-floor newsroom, the capaciousness of which has been facilitated by numerous regimented columns; the centre of which is dominated by a series of densely populated, curved desks, and the population of which has already rolled up its sleeves for the day’s work. The curvilinear shape of the desks is echoed above the workers’ heads by a circular structure from which hang lamps, themselves made of concentric circles, so that—it seems to Raymond—the very layout of the room stands in stark counterpoint to the intrinsic angularity of type-set columns, photographs and folded papers. The scent of male bodies, of soap, coffee, and the tart perfume of printer’s ink; the sound of the woodpecker tapping of typewriters, the irritant scratch of nibs on notepads, the mutter of collaborative conversations and the roll and squeak of revolving chairs; the sight of lips moving silently as they rephrase sentences, and here and there the smoke signals of the day’s first cigarettes.
A lady—red hair, pale green dress tied at the waist, her coat—a fur—slung over her shoulder—walks briskly past Raymond, brushing his shoulder heedlessly as she does so, then crosses the vast room at a pace and knocks on the glass of a hitherto unnoticed door, the interior of which is obscured by a lowered blind. The door opens, but before Raymond can catch a glimpse of the figure inside, the lady has been ushered in and the door closed—and, for some reason, Raymond is convinced, locked—behind her.
He stands uncertainly, trying to catch someone’s—anyone’s—eye before realising that everyone is studiously avoiding him. He taps the nearest man on the shoulder.
‘Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m here to see Mr Bukowski. Could you tell me which is his office, please? I’m Raymond. Raymond Wallace.’
‘Bukowski? Office over there.’ He wags a finger. ‘But he’s busy right now. You saw the lady?’
‘I see. Do you know how long he will be?’
‘Anybody’s guess, pal, anybody’s guess.’
‘Ah. I’m here from England, and—’
‘No kidding.’ The man waves his hand vaguely over his desk that is empty except for a small pile of paper, printed with what seem to be adverts.
‘Of course. I’m sorry to have bothered you.’
A few minutes later the slam of a door sends a shiver down Raymond’s spine and he turns to see the woman in the green dress once more. Fur now across her shoulders, head sunk low, she darts defiant glances at the men she passes—each of whom studiously avoids her eyes—and strides towards the exit. A few minutes pass and then the man Raymond assumes is Bukowski steps out of his office and walks towards him. Late forties, his face inscrutable as a primed canvas, his thinning hair is parted to the left. As he approaches Raymond, he cocks his head and squints, eyeing him up like a pigeon.
‘You here to see me?’
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