That’s One Small Step

The second the espresso hit his tongue Donny knew he’d made another mistake. It would turn his spit the color and consistency of caramel and color his breath with the spike of forced coffee. He wasn’t thinking and now he realized he might have to speak directly to Mr. Donegal; perhaps even close enough, if Donegal were the temperamental type, to lose the job because he just spent three dollars on an indulgence he thought would calm him down but was having quite opposite effect; physically and psychologically. He put the demitasse down and started walking again.

It was the interview. It took two months, a stack of reference letters, and every cent he had but he got it. He had his portfolio under wing. He was absolutely conscious that the thousands of hours of work, and the last desperate thirty, distilled into its contents were only for this appointment. And, as his ramping anxiety was reminding him, he was aware it was useless.

The afternoon streets of New York City were busy, Fifth was jammed. A man jostling through the stream bumped him. Staggering to keep from knocking a baby carriage over he stepped, kicking through with his lead foot, right in a huge, fresh pile of dog shit. It seemed to wrap around the brown leather with a deliberate intelligence.

He stood still, bemoaning the fact, just long enough to be elbowed roughly twice and told he was a fucking asshole once. He contemplated a lifetime of similar small misfortunes, starting with his parents’ problematic taste in names. But that sort of thinking never lasted long for him. Feeling sorry for yourself was one thing, acting sorry for yourself was another.

He continued, not attempting to drag the shoes that he was unwilling to miss ten meals again to replace if they got scuffed.

At the lobby he took off his shoes and walked lightly, holding them. He went to the desk to ask where the bathroom was, nearly garnering a conversation with the security man just off lunch. The desk attendant, a blonde Italian-American whose intonation of the word “business” placed her point of origin somewhere in Queens, reluctantly coughed up a key to the bathroom after Donny explained why he wasn’t ready for his appointment upstairs.

The lobby bathroom was nice enough but his socks still stuck to the floor. There was one other person there. A graying white man in oily overalls was at a sink toward the end scrubbing oil out from under his nails with a hospital brush. Donny had begun to shun personal contact. Especially with the reactions he’d got in NYC to what his Southern upbringing considered polite behavior. He’d been in dirty jumpsuits all his life doing greasy work at long shifts to afford this space shot to NYC from Bluewater, GA. He learned a lot, and almost nothing, about people in those jobs. It was the only kind of work he seemed to be able to hold though. In a line of fifteen sink basins he went straight to the one next to the man and began washing his shoes. The watery shit was running all over his hands while he dug in the grooves with a finger tip to get it all out.

“That’s disgusting,” said the man.

“With respect, sir,” said Donny, “It’s just shit. It comes off with a little soap and water.”

“Why don’t you just go to the shine box outside?”

“I wouldn’t do that to some poor son of bitch because I’m too stupid to watch where I walk. Besides I can’t afford to tip, so I can’t afford the shine.”

“Have you got a hot date or something?”

“I’ve got a job interview.”

“Here?”

Donny breathed deeply with nerves and said, “Yeah.”

“With Donegal?”

“Yes.”

“Pretty important I guess.”

“I don’t want to do anything to fuck it up. Excuse me. Oh, sorry, I’m Donny. I’d shake your hand but.”

Donny began to apply the soap, doing the real wash on his shoes.

“I’m Faustin. Pleased.”

“You work here?” asked Donny. Faustin nodded. “What do you do?”

“Right now…” Faustin said, coughing painfully a couple of times, “…I’m fixing the steering pin on the old man’s old Jag, down in the garage. You know how old guys are, permanent hard-ons for fast cars. I don’t know why he keeps buying them. They hardly run as often as I’m fixing them. They’re beasts to maintain.”

“Ah, but when you find something you like. Something that really works for you… You don’t want anything else.”

“You really want this job, don’t you?”

“I’ve never wanted anything in my life as badly as I want this job.”

“Why, it’s just a job?”

“Not to me, sir,” said Donny flatly.

“Have you met the old man yet?”

“No. I’m scared outta my mind. I think he’s the only person in the world I’ve ever been afraid of. I’m almost an hour early and I’m too scared to go up to his office. It’s sad really. Say, it’s helping me to talk. Would you mind sticking around for a minute? I’m not queer or anything, I know people here think it’s strange to talk to people you don’t know. But this is really helping me calm down to talk.” Donny was just pulling some towels to dry his shoes.

“No problem,” said Faustin. He leaned on the counter drying his hands. “You might be right to be scared. I can’t think of a single person in this building who likes the bastard. ’Sides me, maybe.”

“I don’t care if he’s a bastard and I don’t care if I like him as long as he hires me.”

“Why would you want to work for a tyro like Donegal if you don’t like him?”

“Personality counts for nothing when you design what he has done. I don’t care if he’s the Marquis de Sade. He’s the only architect building who has integrity and vision; and balls. He makes Le Corbusier look like the stale boxbuilder he was. He makes Wright seem like a talented kid. I’d give anything I had to work under his supervision for a single year.”

“I wouldn’t know. You any good at it? Buildings?”

“I haven’t seen better… except for Mr… except for the old man.”

“Well, you oughta be happy. I mean, he’s gotta hire you if you’re so great.”

“But I won’t get it. Especially if he’s like you say.”

“Why not?” asked Faustin.

“No serious experience, for one.”

“Does that matter? I see you’ve got a fat portfolio there. Isn’t that all that matters for an intern or a draftsman?”

“Doesn’t seem to. But that’s not all. I don’t interview well.”

“Why’s that?”

“People just don’t like me.”

“Why not? You seem fine to me.”

“I am fine until I talk about building. Nobody wants opinions from their juniors, especially when they’re correct.”

“What, you some kind of architectural Mr. Hyde?”

“Normally I can keep my mouth shut. But I can’t about buildings.”

“So?”

“I guess if I say what I really think I come off arrogant and impossible to work with.”

“Are you?”

“Really? I guess so. I don’t work well with others.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because they’re all weak minded parrots who don’t know shit about anything. I’m sorry. See, there I go,” Donny said.

“Bitter?”

“Well, sir, it’s hard. I try not to care about it, I mean compared to designing it’s easy, but it’s hard. I think about all the fools who are putting up bad renaissance like Corinthian pilasters were ever in good taste. While I’ve finished a few garages and porches, about a hundred kitchens and baths, one apartment building remodel, and exactly zero free standing structures. And here I am, shaking like a virgin on prom night for the chance to even draft for Donegal.”

“A bit arrogant? Considering? I mean if experience is so important.”

“I’m only arrogant about this. I don’t know enough about anything but this, and I know I have a lot to learn but I know what I’m talking about.”

“What if you don’t get the job? It’s supposed to be a pretty important firm, I see young architects coming in like lemmings.”

“It’s my only real shot here. I hate to say it. I can’t afford to stay another month if I don’t get it and I don’t want to.”

“There are plenty of firms that would hire you if you’re so good at it. Hell, you could draft for cost of living.”

“There aren’t plenty of firms I’d spit on though. And I don’t draft any work I can better. That’s why I’m here and not down at F. R. R. & G.”

“You’ll give it up if you don’t get this job?”

“No,” Donny said and laughed, “No chance of that. If I had to draft on napkins at the Y, I wouldn’t give it up. I guess I’d move to Colorado or Montana or something and build small hotels and residences; whatever I could get that the hicks didn’t find too radical. Maybe I’d have the chance to break back in here or Chicago after ten or fifteen years, maybe. But I sure want to work here. If I can’t get work here I’ll probably never see a single one of my serious buildings put up. New York’s the only city that could handle them. It’s the only place I really want to build.”

“Would that be so bad? Building in the country?”

“Small buildings are always interesting but Jesus Christ. I want to do buildings that hurt. That matter.”

“You a religious man?” asked Faustin.

“Huh, oh, no, sorry, force of habit.”

“Where are you from?”

“Georgia,” Donny said.

“Doesn’t the old man have some buildings in Atlanta?”

“I was fifteen when I saw the Brindle House for the first time. Christ, now that I think of it, that was when I realized I didn’t believe in God. I saw that building and I knew that there was no God. Because I spent a lifetime in Baptist services and looking at that building… it was the first time I’d ever felt… hope.”

“Nice building, I guess.”

“Yeah. Say, you’ve worked for Mr. Donegal a long time?”

“Years.”

“Any tips you can give me for the interview?”

“Only one. Tell the old man the truth. That’s how I’ve lasted so long. That old bastard knows, I mean knows, if you’re lying.”

“Thanks, but I never learned to lie so it won’t matter. Goddamn I wish everyone was like us.”

“Like us?” asked Faustin.

“Yeah, you know. Just who they are. Not a bunch of phoneys and hicks. Why is the world full of phoneys and hicks?”

“I don’t know,” Faustin said.

“Sorry… It was nice meeting you. Thanks again for talking with me; letting me talk. Thanks.”

They shook hands.

“You too, Donny. Hope to see you around here.”

“Yeah, me too. At least there would be one person at work I could stand. Hey, if I get it, I’m buying you all the drinks you want come Friday.”

“Well, then, good luck,” Faustin said.

“See you.”

Donny put his clean shoes on and went up the elevator fifty-eight floors. Until he got to NYC he’d never been in a building higher than fifteen. He was so excited about it that he stayed relaxed for the first twenty minutes he waited across from Donegal’s busy secretary. He admired the studio. He could see the drafting desks in separate glass rooms. They were exquisite; so perfect. He knew how much they’d facilitate everything. He’d always wanted one half as nice. He thought of the time it would save him if he wasn’t wasting hours with cheap papers, small surfaces, disposable pens, manual erasers… if he only had the right tools, the right space, a computer… Donny forced himself to stop thinking like he already had the job. He knew that wasn’t going to happen. It never did; no one liked him. They always thought he was nuts. Glanced at his buildings and thought it immediately; a few even said it out loud. He’d argued for an hour once with a studio partner about the nature of the universe. She said the universe was basically benevolent, Donny said the universe was basically indifferent. That was years ago. Donny was becoming more convinced the universe was basically malevolent; unwilling to allow the good things in life to get enough light, enough water. He’d go back to Bluewater long enough to pack all his drawings and he’d buy a bus ticket for that firm in Boulder that Saltz had swung for him. At least he could build then. Even if it was on a scale he considered doomed and it felt humiliating, it would be his designs. Better to rule in Hell… he told himself. He bought the bus ticket in his mind; hungry even in daydream. He felt a little better for it. He didn’t have to have a lousy interview; he’d already quit. He got up to leave and made a U-turn at the door, walked around the office once looking at the paintings instead; holding his portfolio like a fool.

When the secretary buzzed him in after another hour he wasn’t calm anymore. When he saw Mr. Donegal he had no idea what to feel.

Donegal was Faustin, the mechanic in overalls from the bathroom. But now he wasn’t greasy or friendly. He was cold and wearing a suit the color of winter clouds. He looked a lot older; unhappier.

“Donny Poseme,” said Donny, “Pleased to meet you. Again.” Donny put his hand out. Donegal didn’t look at him.

“Sit down.”

Whatever fellowship occurred in the bathroom was clearly gone.

“Is that dog shit I smell?” Donegal asked without inflection.

“Not on my shoes, sir.” Donny was calm now. Somehow he felt himself here; brave. The corner windows offered an incredible view. The Chrysler building was glinting in the afternoon sunlight.

“Long wait?”

“It’s not important.”

“Let’s start with some personal information.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You play ball? Polo? Anything like that?”

“No, I don’t like team sports.”

“I love golf. Golf?”

“Never really tried it.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know,” said Donny.

“Are you incapable of speaking your mind?”

“I subscribe to the Samuel Clemens view: golf is a good walk ruined.”

“You go in for women?”

“Not much.”

“Why not? Are you queer?” asked Donegal blankly.

“No. I don’t find it’s worth it. I was hoping things would be different here. Professional town and all. I thought the women would be different. But it’s the same small town games. Just bigger stakes.”

“Huh… Let’s see your portfolio.”

Donny handed it across the desk. Donegal began turning pages.

“Oh, here we go. Shit, crap, crap…”

Donny nodded curtly with his lips tightening. Feeling quite ready to cry but he wasn’t going to give Donegal the satisfaction. He could wait. He couldn’t believe it but he could wait it out and believe later.

“What’s all this?” asked Donegal pushing the portfolio over towards him.

“Plans for a metropolitan tenement. I was hoping you’d ask about that one. It’s my favorite.”

“You play favorites with your buildings?”

“Every building I’m working on is my favorite until I do another but this one is going to outlast that I think.”

“Run it down like you were pitching a design-build contest.”

“I’m a poor salesman,” Donny said.

“Try.”

“There are several traditionally accepted problems with highrise housing in a metropolitan area. This building addresses them–”

“Why are the walls like this?” Donegal cut him off.

“They are designed to support a limited ecosystem. The walls are over-poured with this light cement, specs for it are back there, after they’re fixed to the frame; procedure and protocols are with the cement. It contains a nitrate balance particularly friendly to creeping vegetation. The building will be overgrown, discounting windows and roof, in three years.”

“That’s stupid. It will ruin the facade.”

“The facade is designed to be ruined. You see the system in the walls? Under the poured cement? It is the permanent support for the vines, and the roots of a couple of complimentary South American creepers. The cement will be eaten away entirely in five years. This will reduce the ambient noise greatly as well as clean the air, as much as that is possible in New York. You see how the windows are staggered off axis toward the street and are round in the back. These ledges are for nesting falcons. They do quite well in cities. They don’t bother people and they eat a large quantity of pigeons.”

“The vines will fuck-up these underpinnings eventually; they’ll pull them right off. You don’t know how strong those things are given a couple decades.”

“Yes I do. I’ve seen buildings in Georgia go down to Spanish moss and vines. These walls and pinnings are composed of a ceramic material with better than molybdenum-steel’s mohs and a hundred times the tensile strength. These walls would stand up a thousand feet from a nuclear blast, they will be standing as built in a thousand years forgoing this type of event.”

“You’re going to have a chimney in every apartment?” asked Donegal.

“Those are fiber-optics. Every apartment will have a skylight piped down from the roof. If it’s done right, even moonlight will come right down those conduits just like a real window.”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah. This is crazy to build like this. Look at the unit cost on this. Did you think I’d breeze over these numbers if you hid them down here? Any fool can design a hotel for the Gods at ten thousand a square foot. Do you think people are gonna cough that up, even in Manhattan?”

“Though I started it purely as an experiment, yes sir. The more I worked it out, the more I was sure this building, or a revision of it, should stand and that people would pay whatever they had to.”

“Why would they?”

“This will be the nicest apartment building in North America. Though the floorplan isn’t as good as your Brindle House. Still, the pros balance with that and I was hoping for a little help with some issues of the layout.”

“Why’s it gonna be so great?”

“Look at the perspective.” The final drawing of the building was stunning; beautiful and natural like an Aztec pyramid by Kawasaki that had rooted in Manhattan. Donny thought if this building ever went up, Machu Picchu would lose a lot of traffic.

“And?”

“Also, it will be easy to customize every space for every apartment. Look at the way the walls come down. I think the kitchens and kitchenettes are simply as good as it gets. It won’t be as expensive as you say. Materials will be but transport and construction will be considerably less than a standard concrete steel frame and it will go up much quicker. The general maintenance costs will approach zero. And as I’ve said it will be whisper quiet. The walls–”

Donegal cut him off again, speaking quickly, trying to force Donny into hurrying himself. “What about rats? You think vines and birds will love this building you won’t believe how much the roaches and rats will love it.”

“On the contrary. The falcon ledges are sincerely prohibitory for rodents. Pigeons will not be a problem, no crap all over the ornamentation to feed the roaches. Rats won’t nest that high in the open and the birds’ ledges will be where the eggs will be safe and no temptation. And this particular creeper emits a chemical which is quite unpopular with roaches. The building seals are tighter than English fit to metric. In fact, if the design specs are met, this will be the closest to roach free any building in New York will ever get. As you can see there’s no place for them to go.”

“There’s no place for anything to go. These walls are too thin. This must be a joke. You have no insulation. You must be stupid. In the South I realize you have mild winters but in New York we have the real thing. You know how much it will cost to heat this thing?”

“Sir, no, sir. This entire building will heat and air cheaper than a stretch limo. The walls are strictly my design. They’re a synthetic ceramic; Bucky-balls. The geometry of the support comb needs to have some computer simulations run but I think my math is sound. These walls will support a near vacuum and are close to absolutely insular; that goes for sound as well as heat. The interchange is so nominal that a closed floor would maintain temperature for nearly a week. I’m not screwing around. I know what I’m saying. If it were closed and cooled to sixty degrees in July it would be September before it had warmed to the average ambient temperature.”

“Bullshit.”

“Look at the specs, sir. Call NYU and get a physics post doc to verify them. They’re right.”

“I’ve never heard of this.”

“You know why no one’s using it. You know the anachronistic nature of the materials industry better than I do. I couldn’t tell you anything but that they’re stupid, scared of lawsuits, or too cheap to get truly rich off a new technology. It won’t cost much in fifty years when it’s being done in space but for now… it’s possible with enough investment capital. But a lot of the construction will be practically free. Because of the vacuum, and the ceramics, the walls are going to be almost as light as air. The vacuum won’t be up to those specs until it can be done in space, I should mention, but it will still be a thermodynamic wetdream.”

“You’re a physicist?”

“Amateur really. But if you can read a technical journal some things are just obvious.”

“I build cars. I really love cars.”

“Yes, sir, I know.”

Donegal paused and then backed away from the familiar tone that had made its way into his voice. He looked Donny right in the eyes and slowly asked, “Are you one of those country niggers who thinks men like me keep people like you down?”

Donny felt heat in his cheek but didn’t look away. “No, sir. I don’t know many people like myself but I know all too well what keeps other blacks down and it’s not people like you.”

“If I don’t hire you, you aren’t going to tell yourself it’s because you’re black?”

“No, sir. I’d tell myself you were blind.”

“Why is that?”

“If you can’t see what’s in these plans, you aren’t the man I thought you were.”

“Explain yourself.”

“I can’t. I have no interest and no talent for the words behind it. Either you see what I see, or you don’t. I was sure you did, but I’ve been wrong all my life about that sort of thing.”

Donegal paused long enough to almost smile. He stood up and put his hand out. Donny shook it.

“You’re hired. We will not debate your contract. I’m starting you at what I’d pay you if you were a junior partner. You have two buildings and three weeks to prove you’re worth it. And we work here, you’ll put in whatever hours you’re asked. Don’t panic, you’re not designing yet. You’re drafting and doing my math; and the elevations. Yours are better than mine ever were and better than anyone in here can do. Don’t disappoint me and I’m certain you’ll own the firm in eight years. Disappoint me, so much as bring me cold coffee, and you’re out on your ass in five minutes.”

“Are you serious?”

“I haven’t been this serious in years. I want you here tomorrow at six. I’ve been waiting twenty years to see the spark again that died in my eyes in the mirror when I was thirty. Sorry about the nigger business; I had to know. Now get out. Send my son in on your way.”

“Your son?”

“Yeah, my ex-designer. The one without a chin in the thousand dollar suit that hangs like it’s from Burlington. If he’s not buzzing around out there ask Arlene, she’ll tell you where he is. Don’t ask her to do it. I want you to. Go.”

Donny did it. He didn’t like doing it but he had the clear impression it was the only job unrelated to architecture he’d ever have to perform again. The son was a nasty customer; frightening really. The kind of person Donny didn’t like upon first sight. That bothered him, he wanted to like everybody, they were just so damn hard to like.

The elevator down was just the beginning of gravity falling away. Donny had never been so light, it was a moon walk. He thought distantly but distinctly of the shock he felt when he saw Neil Armstrong out of a spacesuit for the first time, when Donny was almost twenty. Of course the first man who walked on the moon was supposed to be black, because Donny was. It was that simple. He walked fifteen city blocks without noticing anyone or anything. It seemed to him that the entire history of the city, of that city, had been a steady evolution toward standing up and embracing him that afternoon. He concentrated on, more than dreamed of, the buildings that could occupy, would occupy these spaces in the coming years and for all time. He had a barely suppressed impulse to run down the streets jumping in every pile of shit like a kid playing in the puddles after a spring storm. He laughed.

That night he didn’t sleep. He had lucid dreams that were restful but there was no true sleep. He would never sleep again, and he would never be tired again. He would be busier than he’d ever imagined. He knew the apartment he was going to rent. It was one just off the west side of the Park he had stupidly looked at three weeks prior. If you have to ask…and he hadn’t asked when he should have. But with the salary he’d be seeing he didn’t have to ask. Now he would reverse the hot shame he had felt when told the rent and his expression revealed his exact income bracket to the agent. He’d go right back to that smug little phoney and ask for the papers on it. Sign them right then and there. Donny knew, suddenly with a mystic certainty, that there was a woman somewhere in New York City for him, he was sure she had black hair and slept on her stomach and had a purpose in life. The thought gave him his first waking erection in five months.

Breakfast that morning was cold polenta and some overly sharp orange juice. After he got the roaches out of the sink he even washed all his dishes. It felt great. Thinking that perhaps in ten years he would live in the only roachless building in the greatest city in the world. In a room built with the best materials that existed, to the specifications of his pen. He knew the one he wanted now. It was on the fifth floor overlooking the galeria.

He forced himself to stop. There were toiletries to attend to; he had to get to work. More golden words had never been spoken. It’s four a.m. and I have to go to work.

But Donny didn’t make it to work. Because, as page seven of the Times informed him at five thirty a.m. in a coffee kiosk on Broadway, he didn’t have to go. Faustin Donegal was dead and the firm would be locked up in disputes for however many months it took to resolve the somewhat erratic will and testament, and New York State’s property claims.


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