Wallace Stevens Loses His Job

Moment in flux: Tuesday, February 8, 1916.
Place in passing: 55 Liberty Street, Manhattan, New York City:
a new tower, the Liberty Nassau Building,
Liberty Tower, first called the Bryant Building for
William Cullen Bryant, poet of "Thanatopsis" and the Green River,
Editor, New York Evening Post
in the prior building on the site, just below Printers Row, Park Row.

Liberty Street: formerly Crown Street, three blocks north
of Wall: Pine, Cedar, Liberty.
Next North: Maiden Lane, ambiguous name 
for the course of a brook and a path beside it,
its vale still curving and descending to the East River.

In 1916, six years old, the Bryant Building 
re-named Liberty Tower
holds many small offices for 
lawyers, stockbrokers and financiers, including
former President Theodore Roosevelt.

One such enterprise is New England Equitable Insurance Company
(or perhaps the Equitable Assurance Company of St. Louis, Missouri). 
It sells fidelity and surety bonds, and a vice president 
in the New York office is thirty-six years old, 
married and on his own time sometimes writes poems,
one Wallace Stevens, Harvard man, lawyer. 
His “Sunday Morning” was published recently 
in Harriet Monroe’s magazine from Chicago,
Poetry,
			chopped short,
					stanzas rearranged.

			But down to business:
Otis elevators allow concentration in small areas like this
Financial District, mean economies
in transportation costs and communication
of sales ideas, people interfacing like microchips do now,
such fast facial exchanges expressed within tall buildings in clusters,
motherboards sparking with energy.
Everyone is building – though this year has been weaker –
so the market for surety bonds
is thriving, to guarantee completion of construction projects.
Dealings must be down to earth into bedrock,
people assessed, finances assessed, defaults stark in measure 
and remedies structured in terms precise.

It had been a rough haul for Stevens 
through New York Law School right here
and several firms and businesses on these few blocks:

			interning with W.G. Peckham, attorney at law, 
     a Harvard connection, an Advocate alum and friend, then
Eaton and Lewis, the leading firm in insurance,
					then months unemployed,
		then Eustis and Foster, 
				or Fidelity and Deposit,
then partners with Lyman Ward 
			with few clients, then 
					American Bonding Company,
			now two years here.

			Now things were looking up like people to skyscrapers
out of Chicago and the Beaux Arts tradition.

But - Europe is at war, insane.
This week: Guns Open Attacks - Saloniki Line and
Pound Strategic Points from Somme River to
Lorraine - Big Assault in West Expected.
Settlement Near on Lusitania -
Wrest Submarine Weapon from Germany.
Germany, Self-Fed - Defies Her Enemies –
Fear of Rupture – America Has Sided with Allies –
Kaiser’s Son Wounded Again.

Locus on earth: center of capital.
55 Liberty Street: corner of Nassau:
handsome, slim tower,
white terra cotta coated steel cage construction,
caissons forced deep into rock foundation.
Its style is Neo Gothic – churchy like the resonance of poetry,
all immanence and epiphany – 
with humorous touches:
Grinning, agile alligators grasp and climb the front -
biting at flora from fabled Florida.
A bay window, two stories high, juts out over
a single bronze and glass revolving door.
(Where’s the door, they ask in studio, and here it’s clear.)

Young Mr. Stevens is at work in a three-piece suit
somewhere in what is now a luxury co-op apartment 
in Liberty Tower, along an exterior wall, in a manager’s office,
double-windowed, with a half-glass door and dividing wall 
to let light pass into the central staff area,
when word comes from Boston (or St. Louis) 
by earpiece on a two-piece phone, 
in his office or next door in Ed Southworth’s, 
that the New York office is closing. Now. Shut it down, it’s over. 
People will get paid through today (or so, actual terms not known).
You can put files in order for auditors and attorneys, 
answering questions, and then afraid you’re out.

Not entirely a surprise:
The Board had fired the company President last month.
Rumors were the books were troubling
at New England when they bought St. Louis.
The money isn’t there, theft with a pen 
at headquarters exposed by the market weakening,
insufficient inflow to cover the risks taken.
Though the business looked good, its proceeds are sunk
into paper transactions, notes below water, cash gone.

Ed Southworth and Wallace Stevens call the staff together 
and tell them they’re all let go, to anger, tears, dismay.
Voices are raised, outrage.
Men and women lose their legs and sit despondently. 
Not leaving without my money, they say,
but leave with promises.

In early evening, Stevens exits an elevator into the marble lobby,
past a bust of William Cullen Bryant, 
looking up to tall, narrow windows - a sacristy of suits -
and spirals in the sole revolving door through bronze décor.
He looks left to 84 William Street, red brick rounding the bend
where Maiden Lane meets Liberty and William, 
where he used to work for American Bonding Company 
of Baltimore on the seventh floor,
assistant manager, two blocks, two years ago.

						Could he go back there?
But all his crowd have moved on. (Now it’s a dorm for New School
and Pace students, no, now it’s been converted 
behind scaffolds into luxury condos.) 
He has to reinvent himself again, like a line in a poem.

He looks down narrow Nassau into Broad Street 
at Federal Hall, the stone Greek temple
of the site of Washington’s inauguration.
In 1916, it’s the U. S. Sub-Treasury Building,
where many tons of gold are stored.
(Now, that gold and more is stored just left, 
under the palazzo of the Federal Reserve Bank.)
With Broad Street curving, in the view straight ahead, 
the perspectival focus of the narrow Nassau way 
is the front of the New York Stock Exchange,
a large, columned temple extruding from a wall.

This block at Liberty is the swell of a knoll, a high point 
descending three ways to water,
to rivers, harbor and turbulent, grasping sea.

Wallace Stevens turns right in the dark and heads west
with the evening rush hour crowds along Liberty Street 
past the New York Chamber of Commerce Building,
more solemn columns and large round portholes 
alluding to the sea trade
(now home to The Central Bank of China, Taipei).

As we walk west with the unemployed, ahead 
is the Turkish delight of the Singer Building, 
cupola on high, another wild weed coursing with
elevator juice, and jammed right beside it, 
the lopsided City Investing Building.
Singer makes tabletop machines, 
so many men and women doing piecework
at machines in loft buildings uptown 
in the Lower East Side, and
in the back room of a dimly lit candy store, 
behind a curtain into the parlor
(the main enterprise in the ground floor 
storefront apartment is sewing)
and out to prairies and cities, 
sewing to clothe the people.

To the left, seen above older buildings 
for banking and paper transfers,
is the most massive office building of all, 
the Equitable Building,
newly completed as rental property
filling all its city block thirty times over, 
forty stories straight up,
1.2 million square feet, room enough
for 16,000 workers, men in authority
and women assisting.
In daytime it casts shadows over all 
the surroundings, darkening the district.

Just south of Pine, the American Surety Company 
has its own substantial building too,
fronted with militant, mature women, Greek goddesses.
American Surety - his book of business was good, but 
lawyers in that building will succeed to it.
(Now it's the Bank of Tokyo Building.)

          Who do I know there? 
          Too much movement on my resume.
          Now fresh from a failed company. 

What a building boom this is, so much surety work.
Left down Broadway are twin Trinity Buildings, 
Tall and dripping with swag,
then the old graveyard, bare in winter, and 
the brownstone, steepled church.
Just south of Rector Street,
U.S. Steel rules regions and states
from the Empire Building, 
eldest of the Trinity triplets.

Standard Oil is further down, 
and Shippers Row will grow from the sea,
white, beige, ivory buildings:
U.S. Lines – Panama Pacific will build at One Broadway,
Cunard Lines may build, Adams Express has built
and American Express will build new headquarters
in front of their red brick warehouse, all this is in the works.

Stevens turns right on Broadway, north
into the diamond district, over the clock in the sidewalk. 
He’s thinking about work and ruin.
Across Broadway is a construction site, for
the American Telephone and Telegraph Company,
white columns of grandeur and authority all over it.

Further north for looking up is the Woolworth Building,
newly completed, tallest in the world,
twice the height of Liberty Tower,
with more Gothic drapery. 
So much around is Greek or Gothic, reason and faith.
Woolworth built with bargains in five and ten cent stores,
women attentive behind counters and selling goods to women.
Singer and Woolworth are selling goods to go
with buildings in boom times.

Stevens sees the column cake of the Post Office ahead,
but turns right onto Fulton Street. 
(Fulton's steamship worked these rivers,
Fulton lies buried in Trinity Yard.)
He thought he'd walk home to plan what he’d say 
to Elsie, but it’s cold.
Among peddlers of pamphlets, books and belts, 
he walks slowly down the stairs
into the subway station at Fulton, East Side IRT, 
the only subway downtown.
The West Side IRT is under construction downtown. 
The BMT is under construction.
The subway tunnel east to Brooklyn is under construction.
Steel rails are laid by hand underground and underwater
in a tube like cables of fiber optics.
He’ll ride to 23rd Street and walk west to Elsie on 21st Street,
across from the seminary, home to start over again.

          I’ll call Jim Kearney in the morning. Kearney is key.
          Not Collins Lee.
          Jim knows my work, he knows I’m clean.
          But Jim prefers Ed Southworth to me...
          Hartford could use a strong team.
          Call Jim in the morning. We’ll see.




Certain details from Parts of A World: Wallace Stevens Remembered by Peter Brazeau

–William Considine