The Good Citizen
There is a section of the 110 freeway in Los Angeles that drops into downtown and at night it feels like you are driving through the skyscrapers, lit up like a big carnival on the edge of the city. It’s exciting and misleading because during the day downtown is a random collection of tall and squat buildings and empty, disorienting, one-way streets—it’s not much of a downtown at all.
On the top floor of the tallest of those buildings a photo of a young Victorian-era woman hung on the wall that faced my desk. She was leaping off a tall Brownstone stoop into—you couldn’t tell what—she was mid-flight. When I was on the phone I stared at her. When I closed my eyes I could still see the picture.
When I opened my eyes again Lita was standing in front of me.
“Good Morning, Lita.”
“Morning, Lita.” Lita and I had the same name. The only other thing we had in common was that we were always first in the office in the morning. We sat next to each other. She was a trader. After the merger my boss and I were deposited in the middle of Global Markets.
Like the other girls in the Chinese Banking section of the Bank of the United States, Lita wore delicate sixties-style suits she had made for her in Shanghai. All day the girls barked orders and issues and god knows what else in Cantonese across the floor back and forth. To me, they might as well have been selling daikon and fish heads on the street. cnn played constantly at each hub. Usually all that came through were the screeching 1-800-mattress ads.
Nothing much went on in our area of Commercial Banking. Sometimes I passed my boss’ door to see what he was doing. He didn’t know that I could see his computer screen reflected in his mahogany bookcase with the glass cabinets. Usually he was on porn and gambling sites. By then I could tell which it was by the colors on the screen. The gambling sites were green with splashes of red; the porn sites were a concoction of skin tones, soft and barely lit peaches and browns.
Last year my company took over the bank in my mom’s hometown in Boonville, Illinois. They gutted the wood and brass lobby, painted the walls red and installed a café-style lounge area with tv screens permanently tuned to cnn.
I didn’t even think about the legacy part until I was at the bank a few years and my mom reminded me. See, my grandfather worked at the Boonville Bank and Trust all his adult life.
Growing up we usually went to see grandpa and grandma to get away from my step dad, and we would stay for weeks at a time. Whenever we visited I spent every day with him in his basement. If I stayed upstairs with grandma, she would hound me to straighten my back and smile more and drink less soda and help her in the kitchen and worst of all, watch soap operas with her. So I stayed downstairs with grandpa, watching him make the little ships that he fit inside bottles; they opened up with the pull of a string, like magical wooden butterflies. He had built the basement himself and it was known as the finest rec room in town. He painted the floors red and had throw rugs on it and lined the walls with leftover wood from the funeral parlor down the street.
But Sandra didn’t want to hear about this, “You know who you are? You’re Eeyore.”
“You know, Eeyore from Winnie the—”
“I am not Eeyore—”
“—I see you, you come in here—”
“I am so not Eeyore—”
“—I picture you out in the world saying, ‘oh, woe is me, oh, this happened and that happened.’ Like everything happens to you.”
“Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do here? Isn’t that what I pay you for?”
My new therapist was helping me get off the anti-depressants and leave the bank. But really, mostly I listened and she talked. I think they call it the listening cure. She talked so much she didn’t know the real reason I needed to leave the job, which I had not yet told her. She didn’t know about the boiling pit of fear in my stomach. Most of all she made me miss New York when she talked about her days in the Village.
Sandra: “Did I ever tell you about the time I was at the Bitter End and Bob Dylan held my hand?”
Me: “No, but…”
“Oh yeah, that was when he was still beautiful, 1964, ’65? Let’s see, I was living on Grove Street. Oh my god, that apartment. It was the size of a king-size bed. Of course, back in those days we didn’t have king-size beds, but it was so small, I had to eat dinner in bed or on the toilet. Those were the days. Yeah, it must have been ’65. That’s when I met my first husband Artie. Around the time of…”
Sandra was tiny and imperious. She wore loud caftans and tinkly jewelry. She had curly black hair and slim little ankles that I was mesmerized by. I found her on the Internet. One of those desperate nights you think you can’t go on one more minute and then you realize, oh—maybe I’ll go look for a shrink on the Internet. She was close to my house in Silver Lake, across the street from my Austrian car repair guys and my favorite bakery. She was convenient, if nothing else.
Every week I sat in the moldy vestibule, which served as a waiting area, and I heard her talking to the guy ahead of me. It seemed even harder for him to get a word in sideways. I heard everything:
“Adam, you need a girl who thinks you’re as funny as I do, you know?”
“You remind me of my son, you know? He’s not doing so well now, have I mentioned that? He’s still up in boarding school in Oregon. It’s almost like Outward Bound. I’m not sure it’s helping though and I’m not sure he’s off the drugs. But you look like him. Have I ever shown you a picture of him?”
I waited. I flipped through the stack of The Nation magazines on the table in the hall and wondered if I had time to use the bathroom in the travel agent’s office next door.
“I adopted him when I was older than you. It’s not too late Adam, for you to have a family, when you meet the right girl.”
“Well, we have to stop now. We’ll continue where we left off next week, okay?”
Every week Adam walked out of her office the same way, a little sheepish, not wanting to look at me, but too curious not to.
After my sessions I went down to the Thai restaurant and got dinner to go. I didn’t go home and cry in my Pad Ga Pow though. The medication I was on made that impossible.
My first job at the bank was researching the audit trail for all the branches in Los Angeles. One day I calculated that I handled 10,000 pieces of paper a day. I had no nails left, the quantity of paper rubbed them down.
My boss’s old assistant noticed how I pored over my e-mails to make them perfect and when she left, they moved me up to his world to research and write his speeches and plan his parties and generally make sure he was happy. Awhile back, forever ago, I was an actress. You wouldn’t have caught me in anything though, unless you happened to see that training film the lapd did on guns. The one with Michael Douglas? That was me dialing 911 in the phone booth.
My boss’s favorite cufflinks were miniatures of the Presidential Seal that said George W. Bush. The ringtone on his cell phone? Hail to the Chief. When a new email came in: “Master, I have mail for you,” from I Dream of Jeannie. He wouldn’t have known how to procure this stuff for himself though. I was forever on eBay and iTunes looking for the perfect things for him.
Before this job I didn’t even have a bank account. I had to cash my checks at the Quickie Cash down on Sunset Boulevard, next to Fashion For Eva where I bought my clothes.
This was my first time in the Corporate world and after five years there was still a lot I didn’t understand. Like why have great art on the walls if no one looks at it, or cares about it?
That was the first thing I noticed on my first day. There were modern masters like Warhol, Motherwell, Rothko, Rauschenberg. Local artists like John Alexander and Ed Ruscha. The requisite old French drawings, prints of original Hollywood, Calder. It was exciting to walk the halls. I circled the floor endlessly, looking at the plaques next to the artwork. Writing down the titles, checking their worth on the Internet. The irritating Lichtenstein cow next to my desk was worth $300,000. One day we tried to take it down ourselves, but it was screwed into the wall too tightly and we got spooked by the camera tucked away in the corner, facing my desk.
There was a lot of turnover among the executives. They got promoted or they were moved laterally; sometimes they were “managed out.” No one was ever fired. So the new executives, the first thing they did was change the art in their offices, it was their way of pissing on the fire hydrant.
I had a crush on the guy who hung the art, so I changed the artwork in my boss’s office and around my area even more often, like every couple months, just to see him.
One day I was once again down in the art vault in the basement, below the elevators, below the stores, below the first three parking levels. It was way down there. And Mark, my art guy, was showing me around. To him, I was just another pair of hose and high heels carrying a Starbucks cup, but I liked being around him.
That day he had faint little paint splatters on his T-shirt. If he was upstairs the girls would comment on what a bum he looked like, but I liked the way he smelled. I could get lost in his mostly gray hair that cowlicked here and there, the faded blue jeans, the scuffed boots. I could just get lost searching for what part of him was still me. The part that dove into the world out of college expecting life to stay the same.
We were walking the aisles of the really cavernous vault that went on forever, looking at this and that, and he was pulling out paintings I knew at a glance I had absolutely no interest in, but I asked to see them anyway, and I saw a Stella watercolor leaning against a table, pretty haphazardly, and I said “ooh, I love Frank Stella!” (I did; especially the French curve paintings, and this one was really large, maybe a prototype for one of the oil paintings in the series.) Mark told me how he was clearing out a bank branch down in Inglewood the day before, one that was being renovated, and he was grabbing all the art that had been there, to be “cleaned and re-issued,” and he saw the Stella in the dumpster out back. $500,000 sitting in the trash.
That’s where I worked. Money talked, the rest was bullshit, my boss liked to say. Even a half-million dollar work of art counted as bullshit if it couldn’t be quantified by a teller standing behind bullet-proof glass.
I asked Mark if he thought of putting the Stella in the back of his truck and driving it home. He looked at me for a long time, his gray-green eyes open like a child’s, as if he was trying to decide whether to tell me the truth or not. “Yes, I did. I thought of it. But I couldn’t figure out how.”
“What do you mean?”
“What would I tell my wife? I sat in the parking lot for a long time and realized it wasn’t that I thought it was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out a way to deal with it with her, you know? So I brought it back here. But it was wrong, of course. It would have been wrong.”
“Nobody would have known?”
“Next time bring it to my house.”
And we laughed.
We drank our coffees and Mark started to say something and then he stopped. When we locked eyes again it was like that moment when you know you’re going to sleep with someone but no one makes a move just yet. But this wasn’t about sex. It was about being allies in something we had no clue of yet. After that I started spending a lot of time down in the vault.
Mark and his family would go to Disneyland for the kids’ birthdays. For awhile I felt betrayed when he told me that, not by the wife and children, but that even he could get sucked into the l.a. theme park consumerism thing. But he was just trying to be a good dad.
Even so, it made me sad to think of him wandering around Disneyland, trying to choose between pink and purple dancing Fairies, corn dogs and Cracker Jacks, Pirates and teacups.
While grandpa crafted the miniature ships at his workbench I sat on the rug and held his prized leather-bound photo book, the one that had pictures of him when he was a boy and a young man. I could stare at his pictures for hours, my favorites were the ones from the war: he was tall, like 6´4˝; blond; he had a beautiful, square, softly angular face; and he stood straight as a stick in his World War II uniform.
“Grandpa, you don’t look like your pictures.”
“That’s because they’re 40 years old.”
“Oh. How old are you?”
“Lita-Marie, I’m 60.”
“Which one was grandma?”
“She’s not in those pictures, Lita. Those pictures were from the war, before I met your grandma.”
“But this lady liked you, didn’t she?” I pointed at the tall, pretty girl with light hair and dark lips who beamed at my granddad.
Grandpa laughed his deep laugh and tweaked my nose with two fingers.
“Yes, she did. She did like me,” he looked at the picture and turned back to his boat. “She was a nice lady too,” he said softly.
Anita had her gray suede flats tucked under her knees in the big bamboo Papasan chair and she cut me off with a twirl of her wrist and the sound of jingling gold, “Lita, you can’t go after married men.”
“I’m not going after him.”
“What are you doing?”
“I like to be around him. I think we could do something together.”
“Did I ever tell you about my boyfriend who was married, that was back in 1956. We went to hear Frank Sinatra at Birdland…”
Later I sat in the Thai restaurant downstairs and watched the traffic on Silver Lake. My Austrian car repair guys were still open, working on an old pine-green, battle-ax Jaguar.
My boss and I used the same drug. He admitted to it, I didn’t. He said his last assistant got him started on anti-anxiety medicine. For me, it was my last boyfriend, the Dutch guy. It was either drugs or start smoking again. Then I started smoking too.
After one of his parties by the pool at his house in the hills, at the very end when it was late and he knew we were leaving soon, my boss would get a little weepy. He got very huggy with the girls. Especially me. He followed me into the house. “You know I love you,” he started telling me. Do I love him as much as he loves me? He asked me that.
I wouldn’t lose my job if I said no, but that seemed impolite, so I just said, “yes, I do.”
James Taylor and Michael McDonald music blared over the splashing in the pool, the laughing frat boy brokers, the crackling ice cubes.
“I don’t believe you,” he said, as he pawed my bare shoulder.
I laughed that laugh you laugh, more like a trill, when you’re trying to get away, and said “awww.”
His new assistant didn’t know not to flirt back. Didn’t know it’s just not right, that it could get ugly. At one of the last parties my boss’s wife had to pull him off one of the sales girls, “down boy, down boy,” she said as she used a lurching prying maneuver I’m sure she had perfected after 25 years with him.
I haven’t mentioned my boss’s name. There’s a reason for that, but I might as well. He was Stan Bickman. I suppose he still is, but this was back when it meant something. Stan was the President of the bank for the Pacific Southwest and California. The titles were a little confusing because he was also the Executive Vice President for Commercial Banking for the bank nationwide. He was also Chairman of the bank’s Political Action Committee. He never remembered his titles so I had to remind him all the time. He couldn’t remember my name for the longest time. I would hear him in his office, “um…” and I would run in, knowing he was looking for me.
Actually, the titles changed every year there, along with the company’s official motto. That year it was all about Client Delight. That’s what the daily focus was. No one mentioned how much it made us sound like a whore house. Our ceo talked to us in weekly video broadcasts. We would go into the large conference room wearing our name badges and sit at attention. Everyone jockeyed for the best seat, anxious not to be caught sitting next to the wrong co-worker. If you stood in back, it showed that you were too busy for this shit. If you sat in the right seat up front, you could signal that you were more important than the rest. The ceo reminded us that our #1 priority was to delight our customers. I would try to imagine him as a pimp daddy with his minions, whores and macks instructing them on Client Delight. But he looked nothing like a pimp. He looked like an Irish Leprechaun.
Stan didn’t look like your normal banker. Maybe if you didn’t live in l.a., maybe you’d think this was how l.a. executives looked, but really that’s not true. Except he had that executive swagger that made him look like he was packing under his suit and his underwear was chafing. His face was red from all the wine he drank and his nose was starting to swell and get veiny. He had just turned 50 and had no lines on his face, but he didn’t look taut, just a little puffy from the Botox. When his frosted hair got on the long side, sometimes it flipped to the left, sometimes to the right. He liked it when it got long. We all did. We called him Elvis, and when he got drunk, which was often, he liked to sing “Hound Dog” and swivel his hips. To me, it was like watching my dad: a little perverse, but not unentertaining.
Grandpa was very chaste. My grandma pestered him about everything pretty much and she was always after him for sex. He could take it or leave it; that was just the way he was. After grandpa died she was the one the town talked about when different fellow’s cars would be parked in her driveway overnight. In pop. 4000 Boonville, Illinois, this was stuff of coffee hour legend.
Boonville was a farming town, but grandpa didn’t have much of a constitution for agriculture, so he stuck with banking, year after year, as the young ones got promoted over him. Maybe he wasn’t so swift as my grandma liked to say, but he knew how to talk to customers and he could always make a sale. It was sad and it made no sense to anyone who knew him. He was a teller for 35 years; he never even made assistant manager.
But my new therapist Bertrand wasn’t so interested in what was going on in my life and he didn’t want to hear about grandpa or my job or even the Dutch guy, who had come back. Bertrand was my newest therapist and he wanted to work on issues “in the room,” that’s what he called it.
One thing we never worked on in the room was something I found out from another patient in the waiting area: Bertrand had been on Seinfeld a couple times, as well as every other show ever made in the last 20 years. You can look him up on IMDb. Had I thought to do that, to look him up on the web before I started with him, I would had found out for myself and avoided the whole mess.
Bertrand was a descendent of Freud the way Paul was a descendant of Jesus. He studied with James Hillman who studied with Carl Jung who studied with Freud. For the longest time I thought this was an advantage, until later when I had some time to think about it and wondered why I wanted to be in therapy with someone who was that close to Freud.
One day Bertrand showed me a picture of a painting, asked me what I thought. The picture was a photo-realistic representation of a child stepping out of the surf. The boy wore blue shorts and had vivid speckles of dirt crusting his shoulders and chest. The painting caught the boy in motion, throwing his head back so that torrents of water sprayed all over the place, like a dog shaking himself off after a swim. It was horrible. I wondered if this was a new kind of Rorschach test, as if my entire therapeutic cure depended on my answer.
He and I had been working with honesty, as in I hadn’t been honest enough with my boyfriend and a relative or two. “Oh god, I hate it,” was what I actually said, channeling my mother for one truthful moment. The pained look on his face was searing. “I mean, I’m not crazy about it, I mean… I mean it’s not my favorite style of work, was what I meant.” At my next session the painting hung over the chair I always sat in.
One night I was switching channels in the middle of the night and I saw a familiar face on Matlock, a show I had never actually watched. A younger face. The same voice. Bertrand was playing a weak, whining, defeated character, whose image didn’t square with the gun in his hand or the menacing looks he threw at an old man in a chair behind a desk. Between the painting and the tv encounter I couldn’t go back.
Finally when grandpa was 61, he was passed over at the bank one last, humiliating time. They had a party for the new assistant manager. Grandpa had terrible ulcers, the kind you had to watch constantly, another thing grandma hectored him about; she hated cooking and hated even more catering to his illness. But at the party he had three scotch whiskeys, no chasers, no food, nothing. Nobody knew what he felt that night when he went to bed. He was an iron-tempered Swede who never complained. All anyone knew was he died in his sleep at about four in the morning. There was nothing they could do. The alcohol had slowly eaten its way through his already pulverized stomach.
One morning my boss was gone. Nothing was said. I was transferred to a job writing speeches for the head of the Diversity Procurement Implementation Department. dpid. The rumors came later, after many weeks. An executive caught with 30,000 pornographic pictures on his computer. Our personnel lady said they didn’t even investigate this stuff until it hit 3,000 images, because it was so rampant. I put two and two together.
My days were numbered. This diversity gig couldn’t last forever. I decided to go down to the vault and lay out a plan for Mark. And me. For us. A chance to run away together and start over.
No, that wasn’t quite right. He was better than that.
The next time I went down to the vault it was late in the day. Mark and his two assistants, a couple of earnest Cal Arts interns, were sitting around the restoration table, drinking beers.
“Hey guys—what’s going on here, drinking on the job?” Jesus, could I be more trite? Why didn’t I just say, What’s this, banking hours? or Hey, hey, happy hump day?
“Jack’s leaving for New York tomorrow,” Mark handed me his bottle of Dos Equis but I tapped my Starbucks cup. Wiry Jack, with his shiny bald head and Superman glasses belonged in New York. “He’s moving in with his girlfriend in Williamsburg. What’s up?”
“Oh—you left this upstairs—I thought I’d return it.”
“Your level. I thought you might need it.”
“But I haven’t been up there in a month.”
“I know. I noticed.”
He smiled at me. “Sure you don’t want a beer?”
“No, I gotta go back… you know… But my boss wants a new painting. Can I just…” and I motioned towards one of the shelving unit.
“You know where everything is. Help yourself.”
They continued chatting and drinking while I walked to the furthest aisle and stepped in. At the end of a neglected section I saw something familiar sitting on a shelf. A grimy, glittery, electric blue Lynda Benglis bow, leaning against a coffee mug, across from a teak box, forgotten, dusty, dirty.
Then I doubled back into a row I knew well, searching for a familiar painting, and I crouched low next to the second shelf. My eye was caught by a bit of sparkle amidst the dust. A small Louise Bourgeois rose-quartz dagger. Bulbous on one end, pointed and sharp on the other, maybe 10 inches long.
I picked it up slowly and rested it in my hand. The bulb rested in my palm and the tip extended beyond my fingers, sharp and menacing. It sat in both my hands, weighty and dusty. I wiped it off on my skirt, and it glistened. It practically purred. Barely thinking I turned the gem over and dropped it in my purse and walked out of the aisle and back to where Mark and the crew were sitting, talking about a new painting they were installing in the lobby.
“Back so soon?” Mark smiled and took a swig.
“I think I’ll have to come back. There’s too much to look at all once.”
I wished Jack good luck in Brooklyn and Mark walked me to the hall.
“Hey, I’ll see you soon. Let’s go look for another Stella together.”
“Yeah, we’ll do that.” His hair was a bit longer and came down to the middle of his forehead.
The escalator next to the vault led right down to level d. I walked down the parking landing to my car, got in, turned the ignition and drove my car toward the gate, waved my badge at the guard and rode out the parking exit and drove to Silver Lake.
That night I was back waiting in the vestibule outside of Sandra’s office. I took the pink sculpture out of my purse again and again to look at it in the light, feeling the cold point and caressing the smooth, milky, cold curves. I turned it over and over and then tucked it back in to my bag when I heard her come to the door.
“Lita, did I ever tell you about my professor in college who trained his cat to follow him as he walked down Ninth Avenue? Anyway, take a seat. I have a friend, actually she’s not much of a friend anymore. I think when you hit middle age you start losing friends, or you start becoming more of yourself, who you are, or who you’re meant to be and the people who don’t belong, they just fall out of your life. Still, it hurt just a little bit, because she was a very close, dear friend. We hung out at the old clubs back in the day…”
I thought her story was about how there were no accidents in life, that people come and go. That there were things we want, and things we don’t want and god’s not taking notes. Something along those lines. But after a while I faded away until I saw Sandra’s eyes flicker toward the clock behind my head and it was time to go.
Afterwards I sat in the Thai restaurant downstairs and ordered two orders of Satay as I looked out the window and watched my car mechanics close up the repair shop until the rain started to fall on the passing traffic.
Jolie Gorchov is the author of Cool Women: Funny Girls, a book ranked #6,496,974 on Amazon, but which was never actually published. She worked in the film business for 20 years and now studies at NYU. She currently resides in Brooklyn.