The Falconer Building

October 17, 2009

Bats, Bugs and Drunks

Miss Rita, the middle-aged woman at the desk next to mine, is asking personal questions. That’s something she does every night. I’m 22 years old and this is my first serious job since being FalconerBldgdischarged from the U. S. Army, two years ago. The inquiring Miss Rita and I are clerks in the Social Security Administration — I’m a new hire and she’s my trainer. We are working the 4:00 P. M. to 12:30 A. M. shift on the seventh floor of the Falconer Building at 414 Water Street in downtown Baltimore, two blocks from the harbor. The year is 1959, deep summer, and I’ve made a new friend.

The windows are open, three huge floor fans blowing at full power. If the temperature in the Falconer Building rises above 90 degrees, we’ll be sent home. This happens often during the day shift, less so after the sun goes down. Miss Rita and I sit in the cross-ventilation and flip SS-5 cards and scribble name and date-of-birth changes into huge metal-covered ledgers, delighted with each other’s company. Form SS-5(This photo of an actual Form SS-5 shows a Miss Apgar requesting that her name be changed to Mrs. Lake. Click images for larger views.)

The evening passes to the rhythm of turning pages: flip, flip, scribble, flip, flip, scribble, scribble, flip. Against the background of dirty brick walls scores of other clerks’ bend to the identical task. The oily aroma of Baltimore harbor wafts in the windows and, when the wind shifts, more pungent odors come from the nearby wholesale fish market. The whirring fans cool our necks and blow the occasional card from desk to floor — or out a window. The strange sound of bat wings flutter in one window and out another. There is a gentle rustling noise as rat’s forage for sandwich crumbs in waste baskets, and the buzzing of blood-sucking insects foraging for us.

At the moment, Miss Rita’s job is to introduce me to the mysteries of entry-level clerking in the Numerical Register Section of SSA — and, it seems, to trade work information for personal tidbits. With anyone else her intimate prying might be offensive, but, somehow — I guess because of her odd sense of humor — it’s just harmless fun. Miss Rita’s constant stream of chatter, spiced with sexy double meanings, makes the long evenings of repetitive work bearable. In fact, they are downright entertaining. Anyway, there is not much of a private life to expose — I ‘m still in the process of trying to develop one. Somehow I manage to keep Miss Rita interested by making up outrageous but plausible tales about my exploits. She seems to especially enjoy the lies (these days we might call them “creative non-fictions”) that I tell about the erotic adventures of my mother, a born-again Christian, who would have been shocked if she knew that her son used her straight-arrow life for creative inspiration. Perhaps Miss Rita identifies with my fictions because she and my mother are about the same age.

On my first night in the Falconer Building — one of several rental properties which comprise the original 1936posterSSA headquarters — Miss Rita gives me the grand tour. She points out the freight elevator which, she says, I can use at peak load times during shift changes, when the passenger elevator is often overwhelmed. She shows me the stairs and mentions in passing that they are handy because the freight elevator only goes to the 5th floor. She doesn’t comment on the empty booze bottles in the stairwell, nor does she explain the sleeping drunk. Our “cafeteria” is located by the elevator door on the 4th floor, Miss Rita says. That is, at 9 o’clock each evening an old man gets off the elevator and stands there selling cold sandwiches out of a large cardboard box. Finally, Miss Rita gives me a booklet explaining what is expected in terms of production and conduct. The publication also has a small map showing the location of the men’s room and fire exits. I can use the restroom anytime, Miss Rita says, provided it isn’t too often. “Two often” and it will reflect in my “rating,” whatever that is.

The Falconer Building is clean, at least compared to the steel mill in which I had worked prior to this job, and there is even a bit of external entertainment. As we young male clerks arrive early for the evening shift, we often gather to watch strippers sunbathing on the low roof of the nearby Gayety Show Bar, the keystone of Baltimore’s infamous “Block” of sleazy nightclubs clustered nearby. When the women are up there relaxing between shows we all go a little crazy. The younger clerks in the Numerical Register Section — male and female — are friendly, and I am quickly drawn into a sort of loose-knit social club. After our shift finishes at 12:30 A. M., few of us want to go home to bed — we’re still too primed with youthful energy — so most nights a meeting is called for a party or card game at someone’s home or apartment. Or we go out on a sort of group date, which usually involves bar-hopping, the only form of entertainment available at that hour. Some nights we simply cruise the city and talk until dawn at an all night diner. Often, I drop into bed at first light or later, sleep until two in the afternoon, then get up to start the work/play cycle again. Some of my new friends have been living this way for several years, but the fun will last only a few months for me. I have “EOD’d” (Entered On Duty) at the end of an era. The whole of SSA’s scattered downtown headquarters is scheduled to consolidate in a modern complex in the western suburbs of Baltimore in January of 1960, only a few months hence.

Well before we leave the city, though, it comes to pass that my social life is greatly enriched as a direct result of information provided by Miss Rita. She tells me that a particular young lady, another Numerical Register clerk, is interested in me beyond mere friendship, and before long I am involved in my first “adult” relationship. I reward Miss Rita by continuing my stories, now more fact than fiction, and much more titillating than ever. I even expand the scope of the tales to include many of my young and ever-horny (at least in my telling) coworkers. And I notice that Miss Rita’s interest in our escapades become more intense the closer I stick to real life, which I take as a literary lesson. So as I become a better clerk, I also sharpen my narratives. Miss Rita especially likes to hear my juiced-up versions of our nocturnal forays to various “hillbilly” bars and other hotspots around town, and the house parties that follow into the wee hours, many of them ending in sleep overs. These stories require scant embellishment.

All of this happened a half century ago, late summer until the end of 1959. I spent 29 years with the Social Security Administration, taking an early retirement in 1988. Not long after the SSA headquarters moved to the suburbs, I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life flipping pages and scribbling in ledgers, so I took advantage of the Korean G. I. Bill and enrolled in evening art classes. That led to a temporary job in SSA’s drafting department, which in turn got me through what I called “the back door” of their large art department —where my first assignment was to help produce the original Medicare Handbook. Living and working in the suburbs was O. K., but I never again had an experience quite so rich in character or characters, or that made such an intense impression on me, as those early nights in downtown Baltimore, flipping SS-5 cards and trading punch lines with Miss Rita.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

A much longer version of this personal essay was published in the October, 1978 issue of OASIS, a magazine distributed monthly to Social Security Administration employees nationwide.


Not A Book Review

January 14, 2009

Slipping the Moorings, By Susan McCallum-Smith

Book reviews are not something I do, but I highly recommend this particular volume because the author is,book1 I’m proud to say, a friend of mine.
Even so, I can also say that this personal plug is for a collection of accomplished and engrossing tales by a very talented young writer. Susan and I met in a Johns Hopkins University evening writing class some years’ back. When the class ended, several of us formed what we called “The Little Group of Serious Writers” and began to meet every couple of weeks to talk about writing and to critique each other’s work. For me, even when reading early drafts of Susan’s stories, I detected what I came to think of as “heft.” It’s a word I define, when applied to writing, as having depth and breath and clarity; also humor, insight, sensitivity and nuance. So, as I use it, that small word is actually very large (it contains multitudes), and applies to only the very best prose, the kind of writing that entertains even as it moves and informs the reader. Susan’s book gives us stories I believe my reading friends—and their friends, and their friends of friends—will find to be not just fun and beautifully written, but—dare I say it—even soul satisfying. Don’t just take my word for it; several of Susan’s professional peers also have great praise for her first collection of short fiction:

“No one could blame you for pausing with a slight air of forgetful uncertainty after devouring three or four stories in this fabulous collection, closing the book to glance again at the name of its author. Margot Livesey? Maeve Binchy? Sorry, no, but you’re in the right league, not by reputation but certainly by measure of aesthetic luminosity, narrative acumen, and dazzling descriptive powers unmatched except by the very best writers of this age or any other. Susan McCallum-Smith, a brilliant young writer making her debut, soars across the transatlantic pond of contemporary literature like a frigate bird, an old master with fresh wings, and Slipping The Moorings overwhelms with grace, elegance, gravity, humor, intelligence and dare I say perfection. Susan McCallum-Smith. Congratulations, dear reader–you just discovered a new and extraordinary talent.”
Bob Shacochis, National Book Award-winning author of
Easy In The Islands and The Next New World.

“Susan McCallum- Smith enters the minds and particularly the voices of her diverse characters with much understanding, humour, and sympathy. She renders moments of conflict and change with lively language, and illuminates these moments with an admirable attention to detail and imagery.”
Sheila Kohler, author of Cracks.

“Sean O’Faolain said the short story must supply both punch and poetry, and Susan McCallum-Smith’s debut story collection does that and much more. Ranging from the edgy to the elegiac, these stories feature characters living in contexts of emotional urgency within worlds richly, even munificently, observed.”
Margaret Meyers, author of Swimming in the Congo.

Susan’s publisher, Entsasis Press, describes her work this way: “McCallum-Smith creates vivid portraits of individuals who bear the scars of failed relationships, misunderstood intentions, sexual and physical abuse, and spiritual isolation. These nine stories, which move effortlessly from the 19th to the 21st centuries, take the reader to a Mexican colonial city for a Day of the Dead celebration, to visitors’ day at a Glasgow prison, to Belle Epoch New York, to the contemporary art scene of London, to villages of Scotland’s rugged coast, and to Montreal, where a hockey fan’s keen interest in the game leads to an unexpected dilemma. McCallum-Smith’s ability to give a comic and wry edge to a dark scene, to capture the patois of both high and low society, to navigate the turbulent waters of dysfunctional families, and to pull her readers through the emotional undertow of these stories attests to the power of her fictive voice. Much of the pleasure for readers lies in her masterful use of syntax and figurative language; her talent for finding exactly the right images to convey mood and setting gives her work its immediacy and its keen sense of place, creating elements of lasting beauty and transcendent insight.”

I couldn’t agree more. susan-colorFinally, Susan, being the modest lass that she is, tells us just a wee bit about herself: “I grew up in a family and a city (Glasgow) of storytellers, and many of the stories were tall, and not all of them savory, and it instilled in me a passion for language and a fascination with the nuance and diversity of the human voice.”

Born and raised in Scotland, Susan McCallum-Smith currently lives in Baltimore, where she is a freelance editor and book reviewer. Her work has appeared in Urbanite, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Scottish Review of Books; her reviews are often heard on Maryland Public Radio. She received her MA from Johns Hopkins University and her MFA from Bennington College. Slipping the Moorings is her first book. Visit her literary blog by clicking the “Belles Lettres” link in the sidebar blogroll.

Author Photo by Jason Okutake.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.