“People will be together only in a common wretchedness as long as each isolated being refuses to understand that a gesture of liberation, however weak and clumsy it may be, always bears an authentic communication, an adequate personal message.” – Raoul Vaneigem
It all started with Saturnalia.
Deadlines and sleepless nights can alter your mind. Or maybe with the bank crashes 3 months ago. What started in September with the folding of Lehman Brothers was the first in a string of dominos that, lined up to fall, were falling. Sometimes it’s difficult to find where anything really begins because sometimes it looks more like an ending.
In the week following the impromptu road trip, all the joy, relaxation and insight Ike and Fred gained from their road trip evaporated as they fell back into the sticky situations they’d evaded for a few days. It had seemed at the time that they were changed by their experiences, but as the mold of the old routine forced them back inside it, whether they still fit or not, they found themselves more uncomfortable than ever, yet still not willing to end it.
“Ike, any way you can get that door schedule revision out before lunch?” Gordon asked, when Ike got in.
“Before lunch? I don’t know,” Ike said, hanging up his coat. Gordon was still standing there, silently. “I’ll look at it, see what I can do. Probably two at the latest.”
Gordon nodded and headed upstairs.
Maybe it was the fact that he’d been out of the office for a few days, but Ike felt a cool hostility aimed in his direction, though no one dared say anything since Ike had not specified exactly what kind of family emergency he’d been seeing to. He overheard Lewis discussing lunch plans with Wills and then Allen, but wasn’t asked himself, maybe from an awkward sense of delicacy. Maybe.
And then Gordon trudged down the spiral staircase, Phil lumbering behind him, face hyper-tension red, looking around for someone to abuse. His favorite target sat directly in front of him.
“Well, well, look who’s back,” Phil said, his booming voice filling the entire studio. He squinted at Ike. “What happened to you? Walk into a door, Duckworth?”
Ike turned in his chair. “No, I jumped out of a tree.”
Phil pointed out the window with a deadly smirk. “There’s a window over there, try that.”
Ike stood abruptly and Phil took a step back, but before Ike had decided on a clever retort, Gordon interceded.
“You probably deserve it, Phil, but I still need Ike on my team, so could you get scarce so he doesn’t get fired? M’kay?”
Wills laughed and tossed Godzilla to Phil. “Don’t kick the baby!”
Even Ike half-laughed.
“Don’t let that door hit you on the way out,” Phil said, slouching away. “Tree, my ass.”
Gordon leaned his chin on the top of the cubical partition. “Ignore him.”
“Who?” said Ike, forcing himself to grin at Gordon and finding he meant it.
Gordon lifted his brows ironically and sank from sight. A few minutes later, Ike heard him on a phone call, buying time.
In the conference room, Fred found his fellow fiduciaries discussing the recent FDIC announcement that the government planned to stand by the guarantee of federal deposit insurance in the event of a bank failure. Considering this had long been policy, one had to wonder why there was any need to reiterate it. Do they still expect the banks to fail? He actually had several millions in there himself these days, with deposits of only $250,000 guaranteed. The very thought of that money turned his bowels to water, but at the same time, now that he was its steward, he had to do the best with it that he could. He caught Ike on his way to lunch and asked to borrow his cell phone. It was time he made a few calls.
It was noticeable to any outside observer that Ike had three times the energy of his friends, who had worked all weekend and were putting in long hours through the week, but after only four hours at his desk, and the run-in with Phil, he had already acquired some of their hunted look. Hunched over burgers and fries at one of their favorite lunch time haunts, Ike caught up on the news.
“They killed the UC project,” Lewis said, setting down his sandwich as if it was a foreign object. “Or will. Just got a heads-up email.”
Wills wagged his head sympathetically. “Yours too? Bad luck, dude.”
“Too?” Ike was glad to be included after all, but he had clearly missed a lot.
Phil raised his hand. “Dead. The new rec hall in upstate New York—the administration called Ed this morning. He said we were all really valuable and not to worry. Yeah right. We got a day to wrap up the plans then get reassigned.”
No wonder Phil had been such an ass this morning.
“Is yours cancelled or on hold?” Gordon asked Lewis with a transparently light tone.
“On hold,” Lewis acknowledged. “But what’s the difference really? The economy isn’t going to recover any time soon, is it?”
The waitress came by to refill all of the glasses of soda.
Gordon took on the voice of authority. “It makes a difference. A big difference. Listen to what Phil just said. Or think about when that developer pulled out on the New York high-rise—he killed the biggest project in Newark. A month later, no more Newark. I doubt that’s a coincidence. On-hold means it will come back…one of these days. Hang in there, man.”
Ike was following the conversation like a ping-pong match. “Are we in trouble?”
Gordon shrugged and glanced out the door while Phil said something probably self-congratulatory though it was hard to be certain since he said it with his mouth full of French fries.
“I’ve still got the Hudson River cabin with Amanda, but it sucks to just deep-six that sport complex,” Lewis said. “How many more project can we lose till we’re Newark?”
“The Gym’s going strong enough,” Ike said, trying desperately to infuse some optimism into his friends, but Gordon just stared intently into his eyes like he was performing an ESP experiment. Ike blinked without comprehension, smiling apologetically. He’d been away for two days and they hadn’t. It was easy for him to be glib.
Silence fell and everyone went back to their burgers.
The situation, it turned out, wasn’t much better for Ray’s team. The University now wanted the Gym pricing set by the 17th, rather than year end. They looked at each other as an ominous cloud of doubt lowered over them. Would they want the 100% set at year’s end rather than the following August? No one was saying, if they knew. Neither Gordon nor Ray made any announcements one way or other, fearful perhaps that there might be a mass walkout.
Ike fell asleep at his desk at 11:30 Thursday night and Lewis drove him home. He slept through Paulette’s call, but found her selfie, beaming with his postcard in her hand, when he woke up at 6:00. For a moment, he felt alive again. Momentarily on top of the world, Ike went for a quick run, showered, ate oatmeal for breakfast and caught the bus for work. He meant to do it all right, man up to the task, think positive, but the resolve didn’t hold long.
The workload had grown worse almost daily as the weeks wound down toward the end of the year, and even with the addition of Phil’s team, people had been asked to cancel or postpone holiday plans. Gordon was tight-lipped about the daily conference calls with the client, and he looked like an over-stoked boiler, recruiting drinking parties most evenings at quitting time, which grew later and later. Every night, now, was a late one and weekends became obligatory.
Even so, Ike and Paulette went out to shoot pool on Saturday night, and even in the bar, decorations, conversation, even commercials reminded him that Christmas was only two weeks away. Lately, all he knew was work. Time was racing away from him and he was not one line further in completing the drawings for Lance. “I don’t feel very Christmas,” he said, squeezing her hand for comfort.
“I do,” she said. “For once, I do.”
Ike had a feeling he might be a part of that, which was a miracle considering how little he saw her, but she seemed happy. Besides, her shifts were unrelenting now too. He spent the night at her place and slept better than he had in days. After a quick brunch downtown, during which they laughed over dreams of cozy naps, room service and foot massages—and made promises about next weekend, if the heavens aligned in their favor—Ike was in the office all day. That night he managed an hour on Lance’s project before falling asleep at his laptop.
On Monday, Ray pulled Ike aside at the coffee machine. “I just found out we’re losing Mary once this round of specs go out,” he said in a hushed tone.
“You mean Wednesday?” Ike asked incredulously.
Ray nodded. “I want you working with her to wrap this up. You’ll be my go-to once she’s gone.”
“I won’t be working in Revit?”
“Oh, sure you will—I don’t expect this to take all your time,” Ray said.
It had taken all her time, Ike thought maliciously.
Alice paged Ray to a call from Accounting just then, and Ray patted Ike shoulder in parting, like the reward of respect to a valued team member. Maybe he was.
Though he hadn’t spent five years in architecture school to be an admin, he still had a job and soon Mary wouldn’t. Fred’s money weighed on his conscience. Was it time to go? All the other admins were gone already, except for Alice, and nothing he did would save her. He settled his headphones over his ears and dived into the work.
An hour later, Ray pitched a code book at the wall in fury, shattering glass samples propped along the wall. Ike, zoning under his headphones, had jumped from his chair at the sudden noise and motion. His nerves were too frayed to get back into the red lines, so he got up to check on the spec situation with Mary.
“What the hell are they doing, Gordo?” Ike asked Tuesday morning, after another team meeting. “Trying to finish the damn thing by Christmas? I thought we had till next August.”
He was greeted by a hysterical laugh. “It’s why we drink.”
So, apparently, was the news that the Fed cut the key interest rate to near zero. It was not an encouraging sign for the economy, and though Fred had been gulping elixir like water, his private economy seemed to be extremely stable. Yet what good was it to be in a life boat when everyone else was drowning in icy waters? There had to be something he could do.
His answer, of course, was to build community.
Wasn’t it only natural to make the most of the dark of the year? Fred had ready knowledge of several back-to-back celebrations that embraced the best traditions of his quasi-Christian upbringing, as well as those of ancient Roman and medieval peasantry. And so it happened that at another well-deserved Happy Hour after the December 17th deadline had been met, and with a pint already under his belt, Fred addressed the FKRS contingent gathered at the bar. On this particular evening, six men had headed for the Crown Bar, mostly the guys working on the Gym project: three registered architects, two interns, and Fred.
“—that’s a stretch, Fuchs,” Phil bellowed. “Only Duckworth knows you from a hole in the wall.”
“God, how many have you had, Phil?” Ike said. “Even you should know Fred from a hole in the wall. We’re architects, for chrissake. Where I studied, a hole in the wall was usually a window—not Fred.”
Phil did not appreciate raillery at his expense.
“My friends,” Fred began again. “Excluding those who do not wish to accept the magnanimity of my offer, I wish to suggest we start tonight, as in the tradition of ancient Rome, to practice the office of Saturnalia.”
Gordon looked up, pushing his glasses into place to bring Fred’s face into focus. “Is there a lot of drinking?”
Several people lifted their pints to “Cheers!” “Here, here!” with Wills adding a heartily lugubrious “I’ll drink to that!”
“We know you will,” Gordon said, putting an arm around Wills’ shoulder.
Fred continued pontificating, now that he had an audience. “Saturnalia had another custom designed, at its basest interpretation, to amuse. For the seven days of Saturnalia, servant and master trade places.”
There was sporadic laughter, interrupted by Ike.
“Anyone think I can get Ray to do toilet partitions for seven days?”
Gordon shot him a grin and lifted his glass. A few other suggestions were made, but Fred waited as they faded into mumbled remarks, and thence to contemplation.
“I shall nominate myself Saturnalia princeps, a sort of master of ceremonies, to launch the festivities. First, we need a couch to place before the Temple of Saturn. For our purposes, that shall be the front porch of Casa Hector. During this holiday, we must eat, drink and be merry. We must gamble—“
“No, thanks,” said Ike. “Been there; done that. Too bad the casino in town isn’t finished…”
“Have you looked at the renderings? I don’t want to be seen in that place, open or not.”
Fred ignored the architectural trash talk. “We must dress in motley, even at work—“
“Gaudy, ugly clothing—golf shirts and the like. To continue: it is traditional that we may abuse our bosses as much as we please.”
“If only!” Wills’ eyes were wide, dark pools of anticipatory madness.
“I will send out a company-wide email. We cannot be fired for pursuing the customs appropriate to our religious beliefs.”
“Who would believe we’ve become Roman…whatevers?”
“They don’t fire her for her weird-ass rituals and candle-burning and what have you.”
“Yeah, the City has its crèche—maybe we can put our couch in front of that.”
“Indeed. I shall research the local Neo-Pagans to see if we might attend their celebrations, if any. It would lend credence to our claims.”
That idea garnered enthusiasm. Fred was now sitting back, sipping another beer. The idea was adopted, it was growing, was gaining momentum. He glanced over at Ike, who seemed a little lost.
“What else, Fuchs?” Phil demanded.
“Small gifts were exchanged and a Servant’s Banquet was traditional, served before, with or by the bosses.”
“That can’t happen.”
“We can at least have it in the lunch room.”
“Catered! A big deal—lobster and champagne and big T-bone steaks! Only us, no one else. Make ‘em jealous!” This had come from Phil, of all people.
“May I proffer, as Saturnalia princeps, that we extend our celebrations to any who wish to participate. Building community is a golden ideal.”
Ike lifted his glass, which was half full. “Communitas felix!” he called out, and drank the glass empty. Fred and several others drank the toast as well.
“Lastly, we must greet each other for the next six days with the cry “Yo, Saturnalia!”
The six young men roared together, three times in fact, then fell to laughter and more drinking. Fred ordered two large orders of cheese fries and a platter of General Panic Maximum Heat chicken wings from the black waitress who sported a foot-high burgundy coiffure worthy of Maria Antoinette, as Fred explained to her. She giggled and told him she was in art school. Probably thought he was hitting on her, but she was too skinny for his interests.
The food came and the princeps moved into the center of the warm-hearted pack. Even Phil was appeased. Fred was content: He was building community, one architect at a time.
Find all of the chapters here.