It’s almost eight a.m., and you like to get to work before anyone else. You trail your fingertips across the cool plaster of the old Spanish colonial buildings as you walk. Men in dirty white aprons hose down the sidewalk outside this restaurant, that all-night bar. A wizened drugstore clerk, her copper-dyed bouffant squashed beneath a polyester scrim, ducks into the cathedral for morning Mass.
You sidestep the mule cart pulling up to the flagstone curb. Under the green and white striped awning, the Vietnamese women tuck wrinkled dollar bills in their pockets and heft trays of precariously-balanced saucers and cups, the heavy kind you might see in a Navy mess. At the window, you ask for one order and a café au lait. Clutching the white paper bag, you trot towards Canal Street, making up for lost time, pinching off bits of beignet, hot and soft inside, crispy outside, a fine snow of powdered sugar dusting your black shirt.
The early-morning coolness is already turning humid. You push the heavy brass door open and submerge in the frigid air conditioning. The graybeard amputee and the sour giant talk politics outside the brass elevators. Six men belong to the Elevator Operators Union and they have been on the job since before you were born. Each one whips the elevator control crank around expertly, the way streetcar conductors do. The graybeard banters cheerfully through his missing front teeth. The giant barely conceals his contempt for the universe and rarely speaks even when spoken to.
You exit on the ninth floor, which smells like brass, polish, air conditioning, old wood, old New Orleans. You unlock the heavy oak door and finesse the antique brass knob, which rattles loosely in its socket. No one else is in yet. You sit at your favorite typewriter in the newsroom, watch a pigeon strut on the flat roof below the oversized window, dust off your shirt, and carefully suck the fingers of your right hand clean. Upriver, the morning shift at the chemical plant is taking its daily dose of polyvinyl chloride. You guide a sheet of yellow pulp into the rollers and begin.