They were showing the savages on the rooftop—that was the word at the curbstone. The brickwork canyon of La Salle Street ebbed with clerks and stenographers, messenger boys astride their Monarch bicycles, wheat brokers up from the pit at the Board of Trade. Typists in gingham dresses stood behind mullioned windows, gazing down at the tidal crowd. Insurance men huddled together in islands of billycock hats and brown woolen suits, their necks craned, wetted handkerchiefs at the nape. The swelter hung in the air like a stench. All summer long the signal station had issued warnings and proclamations. Water-carriers at construction sites fainted from heatstroke and were carried off on stretchers. Coal and lumberyard workers could be seen at noon, shirtless, wading into the oceanic blue of Lake Michigan. People spread rugs on their stoops to eat supper in the open air, watching, with something that approached religious awe, the horse-drawn ice wagons pull along the streets.
Despite the heat wave, the Chicago First Equitable was opening on schedule. Destined to be the world’s tallest skyscraper for a little over a year, it jutted above the noonday tumult, twenty-eight stories of Bessemer steel, terracotta, and glass. For months, welders and riveters had worked by night to meet the deadline, tethered to the steel frame by lengths of hemp rope, laboring in the haloes of sodium lamps. Laden barges hauled along the roily dark of the Chicago River. They came from a bridgeworks on the Mississippi, pulling loads of rivet-punched girders and spandrel beams. By late spring the glaziers and carpenters had taken over, finishing out, thirty men to a floor. The clock tower was calibrated and set in motion, each hand as broad as a man. In the final stages the Tribune reported a death a week: pipefitters down the elevator shaft, electricians over the brink. But, as the glass-paneled walls began to hang from the girded floors like drawn curtains, not bearing weight so much as channeling light, the newspapermen turned their ink to the soaring itself. They stopped writing about the insurance company’s grandfathered building permit, the backroom deals that trumped the city’s height limit, and instead wrote about the effects of altitude on business acumen, about the hawks and falcons that roosted above the high cornices and gargoyles. By mid-morning, they wrote, with the sun up over Michigan Avenue and the shadows shortening inside the Loop, the juggernaut is nothing but a wall of lake-hued light.
Owen Graves stood among the crowd waiting to enter the mahogany cool of the building’s lobby. The company would conduct tours by hydraulic elevator but only VIPs—insurance executives and their wives, journalists, councilmen—were invited for the topside exhibition. Owen was one of the rooftop invitees and he stood a few feet from the bloodred mayoral ribbon, staring down at the elegant shoes of his fellow skyscraper travelers, squinting through the brassy aura of a noonday hangover. He was wearing a pair of stovepipe boots, scuffed at the toe and split along one seam. Perhaps there had been a mistake. Ever since returning from a Pacific trading voyage two years earlier, he had been dodging the letters of his creditors so that he’d opened the company envelope with dread. Arriving as it had by private messenger, he’d thought it was surely a summons for failure to pay. But the elegant lettering inexplicably requested his presence at the opening and suggested he would have a private meeting with the company president at the conclusion of the event.
The city teemed at his back. A concession wagon made a slow orbit through the welter of derby hats and bicycles, selling tripe to famished telegraph boys. Herdics and hansoms rode up to the human wall and fell back, their passengers alighting in the side streets and alleyways. The wind was scorched with smoking lard as it whipped through the financial canyon and he could smell the dredge of the cess-filled river. Owen Graves did not like crowds. There was no happier place for him than on the foredeck of a sloop or clipper, alone and keeping watch in the spectral hours before dawn at sea. He missed the ocean and the rituals of sailing. He raised his eyes—tender as peeled fruit—to see a clutch of policemen escort the mayor and company president toward the building entrance. A wave of applause lapped through the crowd, echoing off the windowpanes and masonry, punctuated here and there with a stadium whistle and an alley whoop. The recently elected Carter Harrison, Jr., edged forward in a bowler and double-breasted, his epic mustache riding above a grin. Hale Gray, insurance magnate and company president, trotted at his side, doffing his hat to the ladies. Bearded in the manner of frontier explorers, Hale brought to Owen’s mind an Irish wolfhound—there was something woolly and quietly menacing about him.
The mayor and company president floated pithy speeches about progress and the insurability of the common man. Above the foot shuffling and the iron-rail whinny of the cable cars, Hale said, “Chicago is a city of country people with values that bear those origins.” The man beside Owen—a cheerless, onion-breathed fellow who’d been sent by God to avenge insobriety— tugged at his own shirtsleeves and said, “I’m dying out here in this oven. Could they show a fella some mercy?” The rest of the speech was clipped by the wind before the great clock sounded—a C-pitched freighter calling through a high fog. The mayor turned to the ribbon with purpose. The outsized scissors sliced through in one motion and a collective sigh, then cheering, passed through the multitude. Chicago was now ahead of New York by two floors. Two doormen opened the hand-carved doors and the official party, wives first, stepped inside. The lobby gave out a breath of cool, sanctified air and Owen felt the draft on his face as he moved forward: the first reprieve in the halting crush of daylight.
The lobby warrened away into alcoves and cloistered nooks, a tobacconist, a barbershop, a telegraph office, each in a recess of cherrywood paneling and rubbed bronze. A stained glass dome lit from above the bust of Hale Gray’s grandfather. Elisha Edmond Gray, merchant underwriter, had amassed a fortune on the calculus of loss and yield. Life insurance has never had its Plato or Aristotle, Hale was saying now in a pulpit voice, there were no poetics or treatises, just the burial clubs of Rome and a fraternity of prudent Britons. Practical men with shipping charts on their walls, actuarial tables mounted like maps of the Atlantic. Owen was aware of his frayed collar and his nicotined fingers as he sidled toward the grillwork of the elevators. The operators stood at attention: dough-faced pallbearers in brass buttons and epaulets. Somebody mentioned a cocktail table waiting roof-side and Owen brightened. He filed into one of the waiting cars, its interior hushed with velvet. The operator fashioned a congenial smile for his passengers—a few executives and their wives, and Owen, backed into a corner—before closing the doors and setting to his controls. A lever was moved into place before the car rocked then began to rise. Owen felt his stomach drop away as they lurched skyward. One of the ladies rested a nervous hand against the crushed velvet siding, steadying herself. Easy now, the husband admonished, as if to a skittish mare, and Owen wondered if he was speaking to his wife or the elevator itself.
Hale Gray was the tour guide and he marshaled the group from floor to floor. In the document repository—a wooden metropolis of floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets—Owen imagined thousands of policies neatly filed, men’s lives tallied and reduced to a few pages between cardstock. Next, they moved into the adjacent typing pool, where Hale gestured to the rows of desks, each with a Remington No. 2 museumed in a cone of lamplight. For several minutes, he sermonized on the benevolence of the company’s stance toward its employees. His army of policy clerks and typists would enjoy free lunches in the cafeteria, subsidized visits to the doctor’s suite, affordable haircuts in the lobby barbershop. There was no reason to leave the building during business hours. Turning solemn, Hale said, “Think of this skyscraper as contributing to the elevation of the species.”
Every time Owen thought the tour was winding down, that a gimlet was within reach, Hale took up a new thread of tedium about the building—the system of pneumatic tubes that carried policies between floors, the mail chutes that ran parallel to the elevator shafts, the uplifting array of evening classes available in the second-floor library: actuarial science, sewing, first aid, English, citizenship. Owen drifted from the pack when they passed a washroom. His stomach was a little squiffy from the elevator ride and he needed to splash some cold water on his face. The white-tiled bathroom was cavernous, broken up by a long line of urinals. He washed his face in the sink, drank from his cupped hands, regarded his hangdog expression in the mirror. What did these people want with him, these insurance men and their spaniel-faced wives? Even in the washroom there was a kind of order that threatened to suffocate—the hand towels were stacked in a neat tower, each embossed with the company logo of a lion with one paw on a globe, and a white-faced clock hung above the urinals, the red second hand a needling reminder of time’s strident passage. Was this to prevent a clerk’s watery rumination? A workingman couldn’t be fooled; he knew when he was being hemmed in. It might not be the stockyards, Owen thought, but it was still long hours hunched at mindless labor. A clerk might take his free lunch at noon, his evening class in English verbs, even get his shoes spit-shined in the lobby, but he’d emerge from the glass tower in the falling dark each day with a secret kind of malice toward the benevolence up on the twenty-eighth floor.
When Owen came out the party was waiting for him by the elevators. The attendants stood at attention, waiting to load.
Hale laced his fingers across his stomach and launched onto the balls of his feet—“And now the rooftop beckons. We’re all mountain climbers today, even you, Mrs. Carmody.”
An elderly woman looked over the rims of her glasses and tapped her cane good-naturedly. “Will it be any cooler up there in the clouds?” she asked.
“Could be breezy, so hold on to your hat,” Hale said, ushering people into the elevators.
The iron railing of the observation platform kept the VIPs a dozen feet from the abyss. Cocktails poised, hats fastened, they stepped onto the deck and edged toward it. Owen was now in front and he placed one hand on the metal guardrail while the other held the sacrament of gin over ice. La Salle Street dropped away, a river of hats, flecked cloth, upturned faces. “Give them a wave,” said Hale. Owen set his glass on a table and raised both hands, crossing them above his head in a nautical look-here-now. The mob hollered in response. Errand boys tossed their hats in the air, tooted their bicycle horns. The other VIPs joined Owen and there was a full minute of waving down into the pit as a photographer flashbulbed beside them.
When the euphoria subsided, Owen picked up a pair of opera glasses and took in the panorama—the ziggurat skyline with its middling towers and sunless mercantile valleys, the lake a sapphire backdrop to the east. The streets, glimpsed through the endless procession of flat roofs, dizzied with placards and advertisements—miniature lettering for Brown’s Iron Bitters and Roxwell’s Corned Beef Hash. Over on State he could make out the Masonic Temple, Chicago’s now-eclipsed high point, and the Reliance, with its wide bays of glass and Gothic tracery. His father had once demolished buildings in that vicinity though he couldn’t remember the exact blocks. The El cut a narrow path between office façades, between walls of red-pressed brick, and Owen saw the dotted faces of passengers at the windowpanes as it flashed into a narrow gap of open space. The cross-hatching of streets and avenues stretched for miles, bordered on one side by the shoreline, but continuing south and west through a scrim of smoke and soot, the grid thinning into tenements and vacant lots and cemeteries, out farther to the Livestock Emporium and stockyards, before it all faded into a distant patchwork of dun-brown farms. The Midwest of the country was just beyond, the great plains furrowed and sown. This bucolic reminder continued closer in, on the flat rooftops of nearby buildings—chickens, a running dog, a boxed flower bed. A custodian’s perch topped a ten-story office building, a leaning tin shack with a man standing shadowed in the crude doorway. Laundry flapped from a line and a scrubwoman was beating a Persian rug into dusty submission.
“The great mongrel city,” Hale said, sipping his neat whiskey. He looked off at the clouds scudding in from Canada, at the ships hauling timber from Michigan pineries, before turning abruptly and raising his glass. “We’ve outstripped the Masons and the church steeple and of course the easterners are clambering after us. But no matter. This is our moment. To the dream of a fully insured populace. To them, down in the hole.” Everyone drank and Hale tilted his glass as if to anoint the laborers and shopgirls with a single drop. “Now,” he said, stepping away from the edge, “I believe it’s time for lunch and a little demonstration. Ladies, we will enjoy the buffet together but then I’m afraid it will be gentlemen only for a few minutes. Forgive me on this account.”
They moved to the alcove by the clock tower, to a canvas tent filled with chairs and banquet tables. Bow-tied waiters, flushed in their dinner jackets, tended the reception. Slices of salmon and mackerel were stacked on ice; crescents of fruit and sandwich triangles were arranged on trays. Owen moved among the tables, a chip of ice cooling his tongue. As long as he didn’t linger in one spot there was little chance of conversation. Itinerant trader, orphaned son of a housewrecker, what did he have to discuss with Mrs. Carmody, widow and baroness, who kept a lockbox of jewels in the basement of the First National? Precisely nothing, he thought, retreating to the cocktail table.
Hale guided the women from the tent, inviting them to take another spell at the observation deck. When he returned he asked the men to be seated while a pedestal was set up in the rear. A man in coveralls, sitting on a high stool, tinkered with a contraption that burned a small lamp bulb. The mayor whispered the word Vitascope and the tent flaps were shut. The scent of warming mackerel and body heat on wool. Darkness except for a shiv of daylight along the tent’s ground-seam. The projector hummed through its gears and a grainy, silver-blue light threw itself against the canvas siding. At first the images were dark and jumbled—a wedge of pristine beach, a flickering of date palms, a settlement of thatched treehouses—before the view crystallized on a band of tattooed savages dancing in a circle. A ragged line of bare-chested women clapped sticks together. A silent montage spilled across the canvas—canoe races, black men with kinked hair paddling through the waves, a masked figure rampaging through a village with a club, a pig roasting in a coral hearth, an old woman asleep on the sand. The audience sat rigid, cocktail glasses and cigars poised. An insurance broker held an asparagus tip inches from his mouth. Owen leaned forward in his seat. A jittered sequence tracked a naked girl coming out of the ocean with a fish writhing in her hands. She smiled and took off running in the sand and a few of the insurance underlings whistled before Hale placed a finger to his lips. A young boy on a clifftop blew into a conch shell. Villagers sat in the dirt, feasting on what Owen guessed was taro and pork. Somewhere in Melanesia, he suspected. The last image was of a native hoisting himself up a banyan tree. He sat in the fork of two branches, a betel-nut bag over his shoulder, looking out to sea. After a moment, he took a brownish clump from the bag and put it into his mouth. He chewed slowly, eyes fixed on the horizon, before the image faded and bled away from the screen.
The tent flaps remained closed but Hale lit a kerosene lamp. The nitrate smell of heated filmstock lingered. Hale walked among the men, handing each of them a postcard. On the front was a picture of an idyllic beach where two black natives faced each other with spears and wood-carved shields. Their muscles were tense, their stances martial. The reverse side featured a printed message made to look like handwriting: Dear Sir, The Chicago First Equitable Insurance Company invites you to see an exotic spectacle on the rooftop of their new landmark downtown building. Then, below, in smaller font: Life Insurance Delivers Men from the Primitive Rule of Nature. A murmur broke out among the vice presidents as they lit to the idea of sending postcards to thousands of suburban households, out into the third-acre plots where Mr. O’Connor or Haroldson still kept a smokehouse and a potato patch in back and was waiting to be brought in from the frayed edge of his workaday life.
“This is just the beginning, gentlemen,” Hale said. “Think of this building as our totem pole. Our chief advertisement up in the clouds. Tourists will flock to the observatory. They’ll try to spot their houses and neighborhoods, pointing this way and that. We’ll rent them spyglasses and hand out policy pamphlets and lemonade in the elevators.” He moved to the tent entrance and drew back one of the canvas flaps, letting the daylight blanch their faces. “And each night when the clock tower stops chiming and the beacon comes alight, they’ll remember that we stand for permanence and fair-mindedness. Something beyond the grime and gristle.”
Owen pictured the galley slaves in the typing pool, the filing clerks perched on their stepladders like steeplejacks. He stood up from his chair, feeling the pull of a breeze and a tumbler of gin somewhere outside the canvas furnace. Hale Gray let him pass without a word but was soon upon him, an assured hand at his back.
“Mr. Graves, when all these niceties are over, I have a business proposition for you.”
Owen’s hangover had receded behind an inebriate hum in his chest. Hale was making them another drink and embarking on a voyage of uncommon knowledge, clipping his way through a flotsam of historical totes and trinkets. Something about the deadbeat escapement of Old World clocks and wasn’t this preferable, to separate the locking mechanism from the impulse, to let the pendulum swing continuously? Owen had no opinion on the subject of clockworks. Besides, he was taking in the display cases that covered an entire wall of Hale’s enormous office. It was a private museum, a thousand artifacts resting on velvet. Japanese woodblock prints, Chinese rhinoceros-horn cups, Malagasy beaten brass, Hopi funerary bonnets and sashes, obsidian knives, canopic jars, scarabs, Pacific Island clubs and tomahawks, a haft imbedded with shark teeth.
Owen’s hands ghosted up to the glass. Ever since those boyhood days spent razing houses with his father, his lust for objects had been unceasing; by age ten he’d assembled a scrapyard museum of fixtures and architectural flourishes. Long before he’d ever been to the Field Columbian Museum, he’d felt the libidinal pull of cold, dead things. Now he studied the filigreed edges and native brocade work and felt something like object-lust. It was a desire to look at the carvings and whittlings of people long dead, to witness the lasting sediment of their minds. Owen thought of the policy files some floors below, the wooden towers reamed with paper, or the pneumatic tubes that carried addendums to Hale Gray’s desk for signature. It was a different kind of collection—a living museum of riders and annuities, the typewritten odds of a man’s decline. Owen heard the president click across the floor with his cane. Even his walk was tightly coiled, a metronome of calculated steps.
Owen turned and received a glass of gin from his gently drunk host. Hale moved for the east-facing windows and Owen followed. Dusk was hardening over the rooftops. The yellow lights of schooners stippled the blackening lake. An office worker— bent in lamplight at his desk—could be seen through the window of an adjacent building.
“You must be the first one in the city to see sunup,” Owen said. He was aware of their reflections in the windowpane, the glimmer of Hale Gray looking north toward Canada. The whiskey gave Hale a pawky, speculative air. A few of the westward windows were open and a draft came up from the street, carrying the metallic sound of the El grinding into a turn.
“What do you think of my collection, Mr. Graves?”
“Very impressive. Is that a Papuan skull?”
Hale raised slightly onto his toes. “Good eye. See the engravings. But why? Why engrave a geometric pattern on a human skull?”
“Some kind of ceremony. Funeral rite perhaps. I’ve heard them lecture on it at the Field.”
“What a lot of tweed and chalk dust they burn through at the museum these days. Wasn’t one of the curators trying to measure the ears of Chinamen not long ago?”
“I didn’t hear that.”
“Yes. He wanted to prove a correlation between ear length and philosophical disposition. It came to him while standing in front of a portrait of Lao-Tze in a New York museum. Now picture him chasing Mongols down Clark Street with a tape measure and all the Oriental merchants running like bandits.”
Hale shot out a laugh that took them both by surprise. A cloud of breathy vapor fogged the glass pane in front of him. Owen smiled and held a swallow of gin in his mouth, nodding in afterthought. When would the wolfhound get on with it?
Hale turned his back to the skyline and gestured with his drink to the sitting area. His tumbler led the way, a steady prow cutting across the room. A dim and smoky portrait of Elisha Edmond Gray hung above the mantel—the great man in repose, floating through the woody pall of an English manor. He sat waistcoated by a hearth, hound at his side, slightly ablaze in the cheeks, as if he’d rushed indoors from a pheasant hunt.
Hale sat, looked up at the portrait, nostalgia pursing his lips. “Leadership skips a generation, that’s what I’ve come to believe, Owen.”
The sound of his Christian name seemed oddly misplaced, as if a coin had dropped from Hale’s pocket onto the hardwood floor.
“Jethro, my son, is back from college in New England and I suppose I should be finding a place for him at the firm. But, to be frank, I have elevator boys who show more shrift. At Harvard he studied natural science and art and dickered about for four years. I hope to have my portrait on that wall someday and for Jethro to be sipping single malt in this very seat. The problem is one of— what?—character and preparation I suppose.” Hale crossed his legs and removed a speck of something from his pant leg. “Tell me about your Pacific trading voyage from a few years back. I’m partial to sailing myself.”
“Let’s see . . . A stint in the South Sea Islands. A circuit of trade, mostly.”
“What did you bring back?”
“All sorts of things. We also dropped off a cargo of trepang in Shanghai.”
“I’m not familiar.”
“Sea cucumber. They cure it and sell it for epicures in the Orient.”
“The ship ran aground and had to be rehulled in Queensland. A seaman ran off and married an Australian girl.”
“Too much sun. A tropical fever, perhaps.”
“Being at sea for months can turn a man.”
“And did you sell your items to the Field Museum when you returned? Not long after they opened their doors after the fair I noticed one lunchtime they had a whole batch of new tribal weapons from the Pacific.”
Owen touched the rim of his glass. “I’ve heard that there’s some old rivalry between you and Marshall Field. That you’re trying to outdo the museum.”
Hale persisted: “Did they pay you well? I heard not. Then again, those were hard times. We’re just now rounding the bend.”
“I’m sure they thought it was a fair price.”
“They say the Pacific is fast running out of artifacts. That you can more easily find good curios at Jamrach’s in the East End of London than on Thursday Island. That first cargo load in the Christy Museum was all because of the sandalwooders, God bless them, and now that’s done it’s slim pickings. Time is of the essence before someone drains the whole bathtub.” Hale took out an envelope from his breast pocket and placed it on the low table between them.
Owen noticed there was a bloom of moisture—probably Hale’s sweat—trailing one edge.
“I like to make proposals in writing. Consider it an underwriter’s old habit. You’ll find a list of categories I’m interested in and a sum specified for delivery. A percentage up front plus funding for the voyage, the remainder upon return. There are also a few special conditions, should you decide to enter into the contract. Taking the railway to San Francisco and contracting a ship and crew out west would be the most cost-effective, I believe. The ship should be arranged before you leave, of course. Naturally, have your lawyer look the contract over if you like.”
Owen had never spoken to a lawyer, let alone retained one. “I look forward to reading it.” He picked up the envelope and placed it inside his jacket.
Hale got to his feet and Owen did likewise. They walked out through the double doors, a paternal hand now on Owen’s shoulder. Hale stopped and pressed a brass button on the wall of the landing. “Elevator’s on its way up.”
“Congratulations again on the magnificent new building. It seemed to go up overnight.”
“The glaziers’ combine didn’t finish my sheet glass on time. Half of it had to come from Canada, some from Mexico. I’m no friend to price fixing and union organizing, let me tell you. A man needs to count on certain things. Are you married, Owen?”
“No, sir. Being in trade makes it hard to settle.” In fact, he’d been on the verge of asking Adelaide Cummings to marry him for four years. But he’d been waiting for a more solid livelihood, a chance to make his way before asking for her hand. Adelaide, he knew, was fast losing patience with his delays. And now another voyage.
Hale opened one of the doors and Owen stepped out into the corridor.
“Well, there’s no shortage of eager women in this building as of tomorrow. Take one to lunch sometime. City girls with silt still on their hands. Honest and hard-working. You could do worse.”
“Thank you for the hospitality today.”
“Will you be all right on the elevator? You looked squeamish earlier.”
“I think I have the hang of it.”
“Good night, then,” Hale said, returning to his office.
Owen stood on the landing, aware of the air whistling in the elevator shaft. He took the envelope out of his pocket and broke the seal with his penknife. The typewritten document was thirty pages of minuscule font, separated by headings that indemnified against acts of God, payments to subsequent heirs, delays and failures, et cetera, et cetera. It was hard to tell exactly what the contract proposed. The elevator arrived and the attendant sat slumped on his stool. He gave a cursory nod to Owen and the doors closed. Gone was the ceremony of earlier hours; the pomp had been reduced by the hordes to something shuffling and miffed. Owen was glad for the silence and the light coming from the elevator ceiling. He positioned the contract and traced a finger over the elliptical text. The car swayed downward, stuttering here and there in the windy shaft. The gist of the proposal was buried in the addendum. Jethro Hale Gray to enlist in the voyage as “ship’s naturalist,” under the direct protection of Owen Graves. An itemized list of desired cargo: shields, canoes, painted masks, tribal weapons, adornments, textiles, et cetera, and there, listed like a handmade artifact or a woven skirt, was the phrase a number of natives, preferably related by the bonds of blood, for the purposes of exhibition and advertising. A single dotted line awaited his signature at the bottom of the page.
© 2011 Dominic Smith