Office chair races that are held as corporate events at companies, or sometimes as fundraisers, are much different from the chair races I participated in the late-1980’s and early-1990’s. We held our races at 3 a.m., surreptitiously. This was the midnight shift of the word processing department of an international corporate law firm in downtown Manhattan. How we got away with it still surprises me, since there would occasionally be lawyers on hand burning the midnight oil working on a closing, who would filter in and out of our department dropping off drafts of agreements that needed to be revised and proofread with instant turnaround. This process has recently started to change, with some behemoth law firms now outsourcing these tasks. Back in the day, our merry band of word processors and proofreaders were all artists–actors, dancers, writers, singers, and cartoonists. Some went on to successful artistic careers, and some gave up the arts for the workaday world.
The word processing midnight shift was a great draw for the artistic folks who wanted their days free for auditions, classes, and occasional acting or dancing gigs, while still keeping a steady paycheck. They typed, revised, or proofread legal documents for a very well-paying law firm that had great health benefits. It was a popular night job to have if you were young enough to withstand the little sleep acquired (short stretches of naps, flipped between late-morning or late-evening, depending on one’s schedule on any given day). I stumbled into that job in late-February of 1988.
One thing that can be said about artistic folks is their knack for fun. On nights when we would find ourselves with downtime, with no late-working lawyers on our floor, there were plenty of ways to keep ourselves occupied. Ruth would grace our cavernous room with opera and spirituals. Ted would limber up a few dance moves–and there would be chair races. Two employees would sit in respective chairs while another person pushed them along the interior aisles of our department. Upon letting go, the winner would be the first to reach the end of the aisle. As we exited the building when our shift ended at 7 a.m., we still didn’t encounter the lawyers and legal secretaries and administrative staff who were two-and-a-half hours away from arriving for their work day. We slipped in and out of the building under cover of late night and dawn, ghost artists and chair athletes that we were.
There was a feeling of great freedom that came with the job. Being given downtime we could do we what wanted, and we felt the world would always be like this, work would always be fun, and who needed maturity, anyway? Not us. We were young and happy and eager about whatever artistic careers we would all eventually land.
Since the department was located deep in the middle core of the building with no windows to the outside world, I spent my official break time in one of the many conference rooms with expansive windows. Depending on which darkened room I sat in, my view from the 44th floor would span across the harbor to Staten Island, or up the East River with its bridges sparkling at night, or look directly into the windows of the World Trade Center, since it was one block away. (Our holiday office party was usually held at Windows on the World. They had even better views from 63-more stories higher.) Clear winter nights were the most spectacular, when the city lights in the middle of the night danced and glistened, and the only sound in the dark conference room was the air venting through the building. Humming silence and lights while the rest of the city slept, and daydreams of what was to come with maturity, whenever I would finally feel ready for it.
After five years of little sleep, I left that job. The maturity bug started to itch at me. I wanted something more meaty from life, and the fun atmosphere was finally starting to feel like a waste of time. Administrative jobs in the arts were ahead of me, where I began to learn how to behave like a responsible adult.
I met my best friend at that job, and we reminisce about those days and how different life was for us back then. So much has changed over the years, not just personally for us, but for the city we grew up in and eventually matured in. New jobs, relationships, career choices, and then major life decisions to relocate out of the city, bringing the success that slowly materializes once you put your nose to the grind and stop frittering away your time.
I haven’t experienced a chair race since then, and I’m okay with that. Life has given me experience and maturity. I can look back now on my early-20s with a grin at the free-loving lifestyle, knowing that it was a stepping stone along the way to eventual success and sustained happiness. I think anyone can relate to that.