The Greeter

Sean Wilsey helps out in a support centre for the families of employees missing after 11 September

A few days after the World Trade Center was destroyed I heard on the radio that Cantor Fitzgerald, which had traded bonds on its 101st, 103rd, 104th and 105th floors, had six hundred missing employees, and needed volunteers to help run a support centre for their families. I put my name on a list. They asked me to come to the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel on Monday, 17 September, by which time ‘missing’ had changed, in everyone’s minds, to ‘presumed dead’.

I got to the Plaza at nine, and a tall, blonde Englishwoman, dressed completely in white, told me to stand by the two elevators that brought people to the ballroom and be a ‘greeter’. She said I should say ‘Can I help you?’ when people arrived. I was to make sure they signed in, so we knew who had come; I should try to answer any question asked of me; and if people were overcome with emotion I should find a professional counsellor, who would be wearing a name tag with an orange circle on it. My name tag had a blue circle on it. There were plain name tags for the victims’ families.

During the first hour I mostly greeted other volunteers. Also Plaza Hotel employees, priests, rabbis and psychotherapists. During lulls I would read from one of four cork boards, which displayed handwritten notes to lost family members, phone numbers of people who had extra beds in their homes, a safe list, locations and times of numerous memorial services, an announcement stating that this was the last day the centre would be open, but that a website and hotline would continue to be available, and several copies of a laser-printed message which read: ‘Massages are available from Margaret in the back of the ballroom.’

The first grieving person to arrive was a big man in his late fifties, wearing a yellow and green polo shirt stretched tight over his stomach. I realised that he was one of the people we were all here for because the words ‘Can I help you?’ seemed to sink into him, rather than leaving him unaffected, or making him conventionally polite, or annoyed. He was pierced with sadness and gratitude by the question. He had not been to the support centre before and he was dazed and needed us to tell him what to do.

At around eleven, two other volunteers were made greeters. One was a 21-year-old who had just graduated from Tulane and moved to New York. He was wearing a white T-shirt, an unbuttoned and untucked blue Oxford, baggy denim cargo pants, a necklace of small, white shells, through which he’d threaded a dangling pair of sunglasses, and an off-white baseball cap. He said: ‘I’m unemployed. So it’s not like I have anywhere else to be. I worked here two days last week, too.’

I said: ‘Wow.’

He said: ‘The worst thing I saw was a guy who was sitting on the stairs with his head in his hands because he’d quit the Friday before it happened.’

The other new volunteer was a 20-year-old woman wearing white jeans and a white tank top who had two parallel black pen marks running up and down her nose. She told me she’d dropped out of college and come to New York looking for a ‘fashion industry internship’. She was from a small town in California. She kept losing track of what she was talking about as people spilled out of the elevators and said who they’d lost and great washes of sadness and empathy passed over her face. She said: ‘I graduated from high school in ‘99. My generation – we’ve had nothing. We really want to participate in something. We want to help. You had’ – a second’s pause – ‘Vietnam.’

I said: ‘I missed Vietnam. You graduated high school in ‘99? How old are you?’

‘Twenty.’

‘I was your age in the Gulf War.’

I wanted to ask about the pen marks on her nose. But I was worried they might not be pen marks, but unusual pigmentation.

‘Well – we all really want to do something. That’s why I’m here.’

They had to be pen marks.

We started talking about the President. I said: ‘Everyone thinks we need to support him, but we should probably just impeach his ass fast.’

She nodded in agreement.

A group of four solemn, middle-aged black women arrived. One of them said: ‘We’ve come to get the picture of our son. Where is it?’

They looked at me as though I would know. I could not tell them where this precious thing was. I could not tell them that this was my first day and that I did not even know anyone’s name. I knew the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald was Howard Lutnick and that was it. Hundreds of pictures of missing people covered a wall in the ballroom about a hundred feet long. The wall looked like a quilt. But they were all colour Xeroxes, and these women were looking for a real photograph. I imagined that it was a baby picture. I could see my mom doing that. More people were coming and we had to greet them. I told the women it was certainly on the wall in the ballroom. I felt them thinking: A lot of good it did leaving his picture here. He’s still gone.

The girl and I started talking about the likely military response.

She said: ‘I have a friend in the Navy and he told me that we just bomb all the time, in all these places, whenever we feel like it, and it’s all completely secret.’

We were joined by a man in his late twenties called John, with long curly hair and very blue eyes. He said: ‘Bush looked good today. He just talked to reporters at the White House and he was really on a roll. Speaking extemporaneously for a few minutes at a time. He’s good at that kind of back and forth. It takes him a few days to get a handle on situations. But now he knows what’s going on and he’s really impressive.’

We were silent. Then he said: ‘Have you heard the international reaction to what’s happening? I have an Icelandic friend. You know, Iceland? This guy said that on Tuesday a group of four or five Algerians and Tunisians – people who work in the canneries up there for a few months at a time and make five thousand dollars and then leave – were spotted jumping around in their yards having a little whoop-up, you know, after hearing the news. So this got around and a bunch of Icelandic guys went over and beat them till they had to scrape them off the ground. Like almost to death. You know the Scandinavians.’ He laughed.

‘I don’t think that’s a good thing,’ I said.

The 20-year-old was silent. Her nose pen strokes looked like the Twin Towers combined with the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Maybe she had put them there on purpose? John said: ‘It’s bad if attacks on Arabs are unprovoked, but if people are celebrating they’ve got it coming. I’m telling you, if someone did that right next to me on that day I don’t think that I’d be able to resist just beating them. To death or close to death.’

At this point I was sent to find a Plaza security employee, to help someone park their car. I found a burly-looking man in a suit and when I asked if he was security he dropped what he’d been doing, tensed, and strode down the corridor in the direction I’d come from, looking from side to side and barking ‘What’s the problem?’ over his shoulder.

‘Nothing. No problem. Something about parking,’ I said.

When I returned to the elevators I saw John talking intensely to the 20-year-old, who was listening and nodding in just the same way she’d been listening and nodding when I was talking to her.

The others were sent out to Kinko’s, and I was briefly alone. Then a young Asian man dressed in an immaculate grey suit and grey tie joined me. He was wearing a name tag that said ‘Kristina’.

I asked him how he happened to be here.

‘I had a friend who worked there,’ he said.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said.

‘It’s no big deal for me. It’s not like I’m in his family. They’re really suffering.’

‘How did you know each other?’

‘We met in college, through a mutual friend I knew in high school. Yeah, man, Sean – that was his name.’ He shook his head and smiled. ‘He was a total derelict.’ Pause. ‘What’s crazy is that he’s got an identical twin and I don’t think anyone here knows about that. He’s just like him. And he’s coming out here now. Man, when the people at Cantor see him it’ll blow them away. He’s just like Sean.’

We were silent for a second. It occurred to me that all the people who might recognise Sean’s identical twin had probably perished.

‘Now he’s gonna have to rage twice as hard for both of them,’ Kristina added.

Meanwhile, sad people were arriving in numbers that would soon overwhelm the shrinks. The sad people were black, white, Irish, Latin American, English, South Asian, East Asian. But they all looked the same.

All of them looked like they never again wanted to see pain inflicted on anyone. In even the most trifling acts – signing their names, drinking water, walking – they were slow and gentle. Time after time I had to hold the elevator doors for them so they wouldn’t get caught. The sad people who came in groups would put forward the least sad among them to speak. The saddest were almost impossible to speak to; their sadness made them far too distant. Saddest of all were those who were alone.

A young man stepped off the elevator, advanced five feet towards me. I said: ‘Can I help you?’

He was wearing baggy grey cargo pants, a grey-blue, too big crew-necked shirt with dark maroon pinstripes, loafers, a grey-blue backpack with both straps on, wire-rim glasses. Everything about him was muted. And he could not speak. ‘Yes,’ he whispered. Everyone else in the elevator stood behind him, waiting, not wanting to walk past.

‘My friend,’ he said even more softly, with barely any air in his lungs. ‘I’m. I’m. I’m.’ He choked up.

I touched his arm and said: ‘It’s OK. You’re in the right place.’

Kristina seemed desperately to want to do something. He paced distractedly around us, letting people from behind filter past ungreeted. Then he stepped in decisively and asked, with efficiency and cheer: ‘Can I bring you something to drink?’

The young man moaned, and then started to cry. Everyone around us hushed. Not knowing what to do I asked the man to follow me. Kristina said he would try and get a counsellor. I guided the man over to a long table where we were signing people in, and said: ‘There are other people here, too. Other people who have lost people. You’re not alone. Please just write down your name so we know you’re here.’

Holding the pen so tightly his fingers went white, he started to write, very slowly: ‘R-o-b-e-r-t L----’.

I uncapped a blue magic marker and carefully copied what he was writing onto a name tag. Once he had a name tag everything would become normal. It took fully thirty seconds to write the tag. Then I tried to peel it and realised that I had been writing on the waxy reverse, not on the sticker side. This seemed like a monstrous fuck-up. No one could bear any further delays.

I flipped the tag over and wrote his name again, causing some of the blue ink from the not yet dry side to seep into the tablecloth. I placed it on his chest.

A counsellor arrived. She had a red bob. But she didn’t approach us. Instead she stood a few feet off, like a meter maid. I kept looking at her while stroking his back. She kept standing there. I tried to telegraph the message: I’ve got the blue dot, you’ve got the orange dot. They’ve given us these dots for a reason. The red-bobbed woman kept standing still, but eventually nodded, and I moved back to the elevator.

The tall, blonde Englishwoman in white – almost everyone had decided to wear either all black or all white (I had gone for black and brown) – asked me if I could stay for another shift. She lent me her cellphone so I could make calls to arrange this. I got a friend to walk my dog.

A tall, elegant, Arabic-looking man strode out of the elevator and said: ‘I’m from the Bubble Lounge.’ The Bubble Lounge is a champagne bar in Tribeca. He was dressed in what looked like a very expensive blue button-down shirt. He reached out and shook my hand. ‘I just wanted to offer space or money or whatever I could. You guys were in there all the time and this really hurts us, too.’

Kristina was still thinking about Robert L. ‘I can’t believe I offered that man a drink. I’m an idiot.’ He looked pained.

I said: ‘That’s actually what they told us to do earlier. Offer something to drink. It’s OK.’

It occurred to me that the question ‘Can I bring you something to drink?’ was part of the fabric of the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel. I changed the subject.

‘What do you do?’

He said: ‘I’ve been working out of my home with a company that has Cantor as one of our clients.’

I imagined him not wearing his beautiful grey suit, but in sweat pants at home in Brooklyn, doing a spreadsheet and getting a joke e-mail from Sean at Cantor Fitzgerald.

‘But now I’m applying to graduate business programmes. I’d like to go to Pepperdine, in California. Man, that’d be the life. California. The weather! I want to just be on the beach, you know.’

The idea of anyone ever going to Pepperdine again seemed patently ridiculous. We were going to send more blue-dot people to Afghanistan and make more people without dots. And then they would quietly send more of their blue-dot people over here.

John, the Bush supporter, stopped to talk with us for a moment. He introduced himself to Kristina.

‘Who’s Kristina?’ he asked.

Kristina said: ‘Kristina? That’s my girlfriend. Why?’

A dark-skinned woman with a cane stepped out of the elevator. She had long black hair and looked like an ageing Spanish flamenco dancer, or a Portuguese fado singer. She was wearing black, many, many layers of black – long skirt, sweater, blouse – dangly jewellery and ample, dusky make-up. She looked like a professional mourner. She had come to offer her services.

She spoke softly, almost inaudibly. ‘I saw what Mr Lutnick said on TV last night and . . . whisper . . . whisper . . . help . . . moving . . . need to tell him . . . understand . . . must talk with him about . . . special . . . called to do.’

I said he wasn’t here at the moment. She clouded up, and whispered a repetition of the above, with more urgency.

I said: ‘Why don’t you talk to the blonde woman in white over there? She should know more about when he’s coming and what to tell you.’ She drifted across the marble and stood in front of the volunteer registration area.

The woman at the sign-in desk next to me asked, nervously: ‘Did she maybe need to sign in?’ A person who looked like they needed to sign in was someone who looked like they were troubled or suffering or about to lose control.

Two empty-faced women, like bombed-out buildings themselves, stood near us, their eyes unfocused. They looked like mother and daughter. One was a slightly smaller, younger version of the other. Their faces registered pain in the same way. They wore red hearts pinned to their sweatshirts. I stepped around Kristina and asked: ‘Can I get you anything?’

‘No. We’re leaving,’ they said, and continued to stand still as elevator doors opened and closed and people came and disappeared.

Kristina and I resumed our conversation about graduate school. He had replaced his ‘Kristina’ name tag.

I said: ‘Pepperdine, dude!’

He said: ‘Man, the beach!’

I said: ‘I really hope you end up there.’

‘Unfortunately, most of the schools that I’ve applied to are in the North-East,’ he said.

I wondered what his girlfriend thought.

A serene, dark-haired man in his mid-thirties named Steve, who by some miracle of public transport was one of the only surviving Cantor employees from the New York office, came up to us and said: ‘Everyone’s asking me: “Who are all these wonderful people?” “They’re just regular people, volunteers,” I tell them. You all are doing an incredible job.’

I saw Robert, the man who could not speak, reading the message board.

I went closer and saw that the back of his head, where the arms of his glasses wrapped behind his ears, was pulsing. I’d never seen this part of the body register emotion. It was vivid. People kept coming. More than Kristina could deal with alone. Here was my excuse. I was afraid to approach Robert. I decided to let him be.

People got out of the elevator. The man I still thought of as Kristina and I delivered our phrase. ‘Can I help you?’ I said repeatedly.

A dark-haired woman in her late thirties, beautiful, drawn, steely, matter of fact, said, ‘My husband is gone from the World Trade Center,’ and walked right by me.

Seemingly the same woman, but thirty years older, said: ‘My son is missing from the 104th floor of the World Trade Center.’

Everyone always specified that it was the World Trade Center, apart from a well-dressed man in his mid-thirties who said, simply: ‘My brother was a Cantor Fitzgerald employee.’ With a look of great cordiality on his face he waited for me to explain the forms we had. He signed in. An older, tired man with a face full of broken blood vessels, who looked like a Scottish golf pro, had to be his dad.

Standing behind two older black women who looked like her mother and aunt was a teenage girl, pretty, sassy, like a member of TLC, wearing a huge Stars-and-Stripes Cat-in-the-Hat top hat, beneath which her face was hollow, empty, crushed. One of the older women said: ‘My daughter was a temp. I think she was there that day. We haven’t heard from her.’ The Cat-in-the-Hat girl stared blankly in the direction of the message board.

Five Spanish-speaking women wearing clothes that suggested they had just come from cleaning a building on the night shift pushed the youngest in their group to the front. She pointed to an older woman and said: ‘Her son. He worked as a caterer there. She thinks he was there. She has not heard from him.’ She looked at me as though I might at least be able to put the question to rest.

A tall, thin, handsome man, with a Midwestern inflection in his voice, said: ‘I’m from Howard Lutnick’s hometown and I just came out to see him.’

An Upper-West-Sideish woman with huge curly hair and a long jacket, over a cardigan, over a dress, said, her voice thick New York: ‘I’ve brought back the CEO’s wife’s cellphone. She lost it. This is it.’ She waved a silver, plastic, folded-in-half object at me.

There was a man who was so bent over he looked like a Muppet without a puppeteer – with his sunken, sagging cheeks and days of stubble, he looked like Fozzie Bear in particular. He stood behind two women, one of whom said: ‘My son was in the World Trade Center and we haven’t heard from him.’

I said: ‘Can I help you?’

A tall, resigned man with a clerical intensity said: ‘Yes.’ He was wearing a black FDNY ball cap and a blue FDNY sweatshirt. He made blinkless eye contact, with bloodshot eyes, through steel-framed, circular glasses. ‘I’ve been here before. I’ve signed in and registered and been given a name tag – twice. Now I just need information. Benefit forms. Social Security.’

A group of neat, slender, composed, preppy, South Asian men in shorts stepped off the elevator. One said: ‘I am looking for my brother who was employed by Cantor Fitzgerald.’

I touched everyone who looked like they’d let me.

We gave them all name tags as quickly as we could. Name tags seemed to make us all closer. ‘Cantor is a family,’ people with dots on their tags said, and it seemed like the truth, not the corporate speak it would’ve been a week before. We all milled around with our name tags, doing the opposite of what strangers usually do when gathered in a hotel wearing name tags. Touching, crying, talking truthfully. I began to love the name tags and feel strongly about their necessity. Others needed them. Out on the streets, everywhere.

The professional mourner, apparently satisfied, left with a look of peace on her face.

The Bubble Lounge guy came to say goodbye and give me a firm, extended handshake. He seemed to love me because I was a Cantor employee. I was strong and helping my company in a time of need. I didn’t tell him I was none of these things, that the real employees were off trading bonds. The Bubble Lounge did not need to know about this.

Muted Robert walked slowly into the elevator. His name, in my handwriting, was still where I’d pressed it.

The Englishwoman in white invited me to a memorial service in the ballroom before my shift ended. Kristina would take over the elevators. I went in and sat down at a table marked ‘104th Floor’. From either end of the ceiling hung two crystal chandeliers, and in the centre of the room was a disco ball. It was beautiful. I stared at it until I realised what it was and why it was there – weddings – and was then able to look away. On stage there were black priests, Irish priests, Spanish priests. Old, white-haired rabbis, young, red-headed rabbis. An older priest spoke. A young woman sang liltingly and badly, in a way that brought out the pathos all the more. A female rabbi read something. A Social Security representative with a wide tie that was a narrow American flag had a desk in the corner.

I went to say goodbye to the Englishwoman in white. She asked me if I would volunteer in the future. I said I would.

She took my number. ‘We’ll call you,’ she said. ‘I imagine there’ll be lots to carry on doing.’ Then, as an afterthought, she said, ‘I’ll give you my mobile number, too,’ and I wrote it down on a blank name tag.

On the subway I realised that I was still wearing my name tag. Out of vanity I did not remove it. Back home I stuck the other name tag, with the Englishwoman’s number on it, to a bookshelf by my desk.

I didn’t hear from Cantor Fitzgerald. Over the next few weeks life began eerily to resume. Normal things happened and then strange things happened. Sometimes simultaneously.

One night, within sight of the late-night-ballgame glow of the Trade Center site, I saw a blonde, loudly drunk woman who reminded me of a similarly drunk, blonde woman I’d met on 11 September, and then forgotten about. I’d gone up to my roof and found some neighbours there whom I’d never spoken to before: two guys, and this modelish-looking woman. They were passing round a bottle. It was dark. We were watching what looked like a high-plains tornado of smoke and debris blow steadily into Brooklyn. It had just been announced that Manhattan south of 14th Street would be closed to everyone but residents, and by way of starting a conversation with these neighbours/strangers I told them this news. The blonde, drunk girl began to dance around the roof, with the smoke behind her, singing: ‘No work for me-ee! No work for me-ee!’

After the 11th I was feverish, like so many people, with the desire to do something. But also with the competing desire for all of this just to go away. After working that one day at the Plaza the worst of the fever abated.

People were pouring in from all over the US. I walked my dog. I continued not to hear from Cantor Fitzgerald.

I originally thought that the attacks resembled Pearl Harbor, but I then started to research the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Almost everything was the same, in specific details and general surreality. The quake, like the planes, hit without warning: at 5.12 in the morning, when people were asleep in bed and, unable to escape, were buried in the wreckage. When the shaking stopped people thought the worst was over. It was a beautiful, severely clear day. No one anticipated that fire would sweep the city, levelling five hundred blocks, just as no one anticipated that the Towers would collapse. In the end, a few more than three thousand San Franciscans were killed. The majority of the bodies were unrecovered, incinerated in temperatures in excess of 2000°F. Witnesses remarked on the beauty and grandeur of the fires. The city was closed, but people came from all over the country to volunteer, sneaking or talking their way past military checkpoints. Buildings were dynamited. There was ash everywhere. Eugene Schmitz, the previously vilified mayor, became an acclaimed national figure. Flyers like this one covered the city:

missing Mrs Bessie O. Steele Age 33, dark hair, brown eyes, 5 ft 5 in., weight 135, slender; Helen Steele 6 years old, brown eyes; Donald Steele 2 years old, blue eyes; Mrs H.O. Wheeler Age 55, iron grey hair, eyes grey, 5 ft 2 in., heavy set, weight 150 lbs.

The fire chief was killed. People fought fires with wine. Refugees wandered through the streets with parrots on their shoulders and birdcages full of cats. Camaraderie formed and then evaporated. Nobody knew what to expect. Aftershocks struck, and it seemed like the whole thing was going to happen again. There were rumours. Someone said the same thing was happening in New York and Chicago in a pan-American doomsday. Afterwards people bragged that they’d been there. There were massive fund-raising benefits featuring famous actors. Money poured in.

In the aftermath, Pauline Jacobson, a staff writer for the San Francisco Bulletin, wrote:

Have you noticed with your merest acquaintance of ten days back how you wring his hand when you encounter him these days, how you hang onto it like grim death as if he were some dearly beloved relative you were afraid the bowels of the earth will swallow up again . . . Some take it that we are such ‘brave, brave women’, such ‘strong, strong men’ . . . Bah! That’s spreadeagle, yellow journalist rot! . . . To talk of bravery is previous. Wait till this novelty has worn off, this novelty of having been spilled out on the world like so many rats caught in a hole, like so many insignificant ants on the face of the earth, petted objects of charity and of kindness, the focal point of all the world. Wait till we have settled back into the old trying grooves of traditional civilisation with the added trying struggles inherited . . . It is then time to bring out one’s adjectives of bravery and courage.

Heading uptown on the express train, mid-December, I was standing in the centre of a semi-crowded car doing what I thought was a pretty impressive balancing act: holding an umbrella, a backpack, a skateboard, the overhead grab bar during sudden decelerations, and ripping open and reading a bunch of Christmas cards. I remember feeling pleased because it was a bumper mail day for me. I did this for four stops, from Houston to 34th Street Penn Station, at which point, as I was about to open the final envelope, a man in his early forties, who had been sitting directly in front of me the whole time, caught my eye and shouted, in a thick West Indian accent, and with great, pent-up hostility: ‘I goalie dewlap in that Marilyn mafia!’

I looked at him closely. He was wearing a houndstooth cap, a perfectly smooth, black, weatherproof jacket and very blue blue jeans, with cargo pockets.

I said: ‘What? Me?’

He said the same thing again, and this time I could make out the words ‘don’t’, ‘like’ and ‘face’. He was saying that he didn’t like my face. My obvious enjoyment of my Christmas cards was galling to him.

‘I’m not sure what you’re saying,’ I said again. All the people sitting with him on the bench had turned to stare. They seemed to dislike me and my Christmas cards, too.

He said the same phrase a third time, with anger and now a bit of panic in his voice.

I looked at the man next to him, who was Filipino, in his fifties, and wearing a khaki raincoat. His expression was impassive. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I still don’t understand you.’

Then the man said, very slowly, and with a great deal of force and deliberation: ‘I Don’t Like You Opening That Mail In My Face!’

And I realised that he believed my Christmas cards might be contaminated with anthrax.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said.

I shoved the last, unopened letter in my jacket pocket.

‘I didn’t know you were worried about that.’

‘Yees,’ he hissed. ‘I’m worried about that.’

For months I looked at the name tag and phone number next to my desk and told myself I would call the Englishwoman in white soon – if I didn’t hear from Cantor Fitzgerald in the next week, or two weeks maybe. But I was delaying. Finally I grabbed the tag off my bookshelf and called the number before I could really think about it.

After a couple of rings a female voice with a bright English accent said: ‘Hello.’

I said, nervously: ‘Hi. My name is Sean. I worked as a volunteer for Cantor Fitzgerald at the support centre back in September. You gave me your number, and it’s actually the only contact number I have, and I’ve been wondering if there was still any volunteering going on, still anything to do.’

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I actually live in Chicago now.’ She paused. ‘You should look on the website for information. Have you looked on the website?’ I remembered that many people at the support centre had talked about how when the centre closed the website would carry on.

I said I had seen the website some time ago, but would have another look. I did not mention that the website, with its bottomless links and emphasis on bond trading, offered no information except how to donate money. There was a silence.

Then I asked, awkwardly: ‘When did you move to Chicago?’

‘I’ve been here for four weeks now.’

‘Are you still working for Cantor Fitzgerald?’

‘No, someone else,’ she said ambiguously.

I felt strongly that I was intruding on her resumed life. What the hell was I doing?

I said: ‘I’m really sorry to bother you. You probably don’t remember me.’

Without hesitation she said: ‘No! I do! You’re the soup guy!’

For a moment I thought about what this might mean. Then I said: ‘No . . .’

‘You do work in a restaurant, though?’

‘No. I was a greeter for a day at the Plaza. I stood by the elevators, and you asked me if I could do more in the future.’

‘You were there with your friend!’ she said happily, like she’d put it all together. I could hear some outdoor, city-type noise behind her. I imagined she was standing by Lake Michigan in the same all-white outfit she’d worn that day at the Plaza.

I said: ‘No, no. I was by myself.’ There was some white noise in the background. ‘But of course there were so many people there. I’ll check the website again. And I’m really sorry to bother you.’

Then, as I was about to hang up, she said, her tone gone sweet: ‘If you’re ever in Chicago, give me a call.’

And we said goodbye.