Monday, December 7, 2009

A Room with a View

Fairfax, 2008

I wish I could evoke the same feelings about a view in my writing that E.F. Forster did in A Room with a View, or portray it as well as Merchant & Ivory did in their movie version of the book.

But alas, the view I write of today is far less dramatic and a lot more irreverent.

For almost ten years I was research director at an advertising agency. We had offices in a number of cities. I was based at the agency’s headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia.

It was a wonderful agency. Great talents everywhere. The requisite number of idiosyncratic personalities you’d expect for an ad agency. Everyone passionate and obsessive about their work. The place had the kind of avuncular personality—our new business presentation, after all, was narrated by Bob & Ray—that once led AdWeek magazine to describe it as the kind of place where “Ward Cleaver would have worked if he’d been in advertising.”

The agency looked out for its people. But it didn’t believe in excessive spending on décor and fittings. The chief financial officer swore that the path to ad agency financial ruin was paved with Oriental rugs and lithe young receptionists with soft English accents. Consequently, workspaces were spare. New employees were sent to the basement to scavenge whatever ramshackle furniture and art they could find.

I would like to brag and impress upon you my importance in this operation by telling you that I had a corner office on the top floor with a floor-to-ceiling window half as wide as my office. Technically speaking, all of this is true. But the building was only two stories, the window was very skinny, my office was only twice as wide as the window and prior to me occupying it, the room had been a broom closet. The office overlooked an asphalt parking lot.

Diagonally behind our building was a company that made prosthetic devices. It was nothing to look out my window and see arms and legs of various compositions, sizes and colors set out to dry on the top of the dumpster behind their building.

Even more interesting was when customers would come in for new or replacement limb fittings. A lot of them were apparently military veterans and rough looking guys who looked as if they would have ridden in on motorcycles had they had a complete pair of legs.

I don’t know much about the making and fitting of artificial limbs. I gather it takes some time to get the fit of a new limb right. You’d see customers walk in the front of the store on crutches and out the back door to test new legs by taking a walk across our parking lot. They might repeat this exercise several times in an afternoon.

Because they used so much petroleum-based material to make prosthetic limbs—there was always a cloud of varnish vapors and WD40 in the air—customers weren’t allowed to smoke inside the store. It wasn’t uncommon to see one of the prosthetic technicians walk a one-legged customer out to the back of the store and prop him up against a wall so that he could have a smoke between fittings. Some days I’d look out my window and see not only all the limbs laid out to dry on the dumpster top, but also three or four rough looking limb-needy guys propped up against the alley wall, smoking cigarettes and talking jive about their time in “Nam.”


  1. That was a good one, Chris! I can just picture it all. Makes for a great tale.

  2. You know, I doubt you could have told as interesting a story about a view of a bucolic meadow with mountains rising in the distance.