At my first job at S--, I had my own office. This was more an accident of history than a sign of my ability or promise. The floor plan had been designed in the pre-cubicle days and still arranged along the terms of more traditional hierarchies, with glass enclosed spaces along the perimeter, and a warren of various sized spaces in the interior to which the staff navigated through narrow hallways the color of a damp concrete. In the early days, orienting to life in a tall office building after so many years working in libraries and studies, I felt at moments like a lost tourist in the most boring Venice imaginable, moving through strange narrow streets that muted both light and sound, and which, despite their beauty, could appear strangely alike, especially when I was disoriented by the endless winding streets. It seemed that it was only after I’d lost all hope of finding the restaurant or museum I sought, that I would emerge suddenly onto a loud, sun-splashed piazza, tables set for a party, a man speaking into a microphone, young girls in black and red dresses gathering in a line before a seated dignitary; or, in this case, turning before a brightly lit corner office, where Senior Managers were meeting with visiting clients, and they seemed posed as if on stage, their postures of easy camaraderie designed to inspire confidence and envy, while behind them, through a wall made of glass, New York’s buildings rose and fell in uneven levels block after block down to the harbor.
My office was eight feet wide and a dozen feet long. And though there was no window, I did have a door inset with an eight-inch pane of glass, letting in light from the hall as well as allowing me views of my colleagues as they walked passed. My office was around the corner from the receptionist who sat before the locked glass doors leading onto the foyer-space containing the elevators so I saw half of the office staff on their way to meetings and breaks on other floors and out to lunch or accompanied by bags rolling beside them like obedient pets, down to waiting cars which would speed them to the airport. It seemed to me that this position allowed me a perspective on the behavior of my colleagues that others lacked. For instance, I learned that it took most people the length of the hallway to readjust to the environment of the office when returning from lunch, sipping their sodas and coffees as they pulled off their coats. I often heard someone modulate their voice in the midst of some joke or remark probably best left outside, invariably at the request of another member of the party who reminded everyone where they were with a gesture like a flat hand descending through space. It was, in any case, through this repeated experience of listening to so many different voices, young and old, male and female, boisterous, sly, confessional, catty all adjust in volume and tone to an eerily similar register that I first came to understand the power of the space itself to focus the abundant and defuse energy of the staff toward a shared purpose.