When I worked downtown at my dad’s office, I saw my dad’s secret life. I saw that the people who worked for him thought he was fair, and solid, and a little crazy, all of which I knew was true. I was sixteen, and I did everything I could to show them I was a hard worker, not spoiled, and not a snitch.
One of his secretaries was about to get married. Someone brought in a book with pictures of naked men, and they tittered at it, and said they shouldn’t show it to me. I was seventeen, not scandalized or impressed. It was funny to me that they found the book so lurid, being grown people.
Dad and I sometimes ate lunch together that summer. There are six kids in my family, so this alone time with Dad was strange and good.
We went to an Italian place for lunch. I remember they had Ott’s salad dressing. Recently my roommate threw out my Ott’s in my Brooklyn refrigerator. Otherwise she did beautiful work and I am grateful, but salad dressing doesn’t go bad! There is no other salad dressing with horseradish in it.
I was delighted that the guy who clearly owned the lunch place knew my dad, they chatted. Clearly Dad had been going there forever, getting the same thing every time. I was a getting a secret view of my dad, a place he could be free in a different way. Someday I would have my own home-away-from-home restaurants, with kind and generous proprieters.
The downtown crowd at that time was so small, it was like its own little small town.
Walking to lunch, or to make the daily deposit at the bank, we would pass this old fountain that looked like silver trees. That was where the homeless and the sketchy hung out, and you were supposed to walk past their quickly, so they wouldn’t draw you into their dangers. I didn’t know anything about poverty then.
There were also ladies in heels and skirts, holding them so they wouldn’t blow up when the wind ran up the canyons of the buildings. I wore long skirts then, anyway.
By dinnertime downtown, everything was closed up, and only a few sketchy wanderers, or people who were going to an evening event like the opera or the circus, would be downtown.
The lawyers I saw in movies and on TV made eloquent speeches in court. I knew my dad went to court sometimes, but that he wasn’t the kind of lawyer who studied evidence and persuaded jurors and knew criminals. Mostly he wrote and read and went to meetings. That was a bummer.
Rarely, he had to go out of town for work, to do a “bond deal.” I had no idea what that meant. For one bond deal, he went to New York, and stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria. He came back with a box of lotions and shampoo from his hotel, which I treasured.
I never thought of his work world as a world of men, though I could have, I guess since he was always so insistent about me looking like a “lady lawyer,” and learning to mow the lawn. Powerful, independent women were valued in our family. My “lady lawyer” outfit was a white blouse with navy polka dots and a bow to tie at the throat, with a navy skirt. It made me feel extremely grown up. The only feeling I ever wanted to have was “grown up.”
Even now, I guess it’s one of my favorite feelings. I’ve got this! It’s probably one of my dad’s favorite feeling, too. We like to take care of people, not necessarily in a touchy-feely way, more of a practical, protective way.
During the short period when he was single, after divorcing my mom and before remarrying, he took pride in teaching us to make salad, explaining he used to be the salad guy at a restaurant. He bought us little aprons to wear in the kitchen when we were on kitchen duty. I cut the tip of my ring finger off, cutting radishes. I preferred to help my little sister, get her into her overalls. She had an incredibly adorable collection of Osh Kosh b’Gosh outfits. She had the short and long overalls, the short and long sleeved shirts, mix and match, and I’m frustrated I can no longer dress her like that.
I loved Dad’s giant desk, his enormous swivel chair. I loved that the Law Building sign was right behind his head. I loved that the Law building in downtown Kansas City was abandoned, full of pigeons and crackheads or whatever. (The building has since been torn down, and is a parking lot.) I loved the leather, and the conservatism of the law. I loved how everything in the office was so heavy, physically and aesthetically. In complete opposition to his in-the-wind childhood as a Navy brat, we had a deeply settled home. Nothing was going nowhere.
I loved seeing how the other lawyer and my dad operated their weird work marriage. They had a shorthand, and jokes, and rituals that I was on the outside of. For dozens of years, there is an envelope they deliver to one of their clients. It has a name: the Niffi ‘lope.
To the other attorney, I was the impish, trouble maker girl, oh no! She has another ticket! I happily rarely availed myself of the lawyer’s daughter privileges. Maybe two speeding tickets. A couple of fender benders.
My dad’s work world was hidden, but also very much a part of our family, as with any family business. The real estate market, and the economy, would make our boat rise or fall, and we got used to that. Only at the beginning of his career did he work for someone else. I remember that man for the cigar boxes he gave me, Partegas, they have my favorite yellow inside the lid. And I remember all the z’s in his name, probably because I have one, too.
My sixteenth summer I reorganized the files in the space next to the offices. My dad rented two suites. The one on the left was unfinished space, just bare shelves and boxes and columns. I gave numbers to the boxes, rearranged them. I listened to the White Album over and over and over. I had stolen my dad’s Beatles CDs, and he would never get them back.
I was in frequent and passionate conflict with my dad through my adolescence and early twenties, the evangelical Republican dad versus the ecumenical leftist. But I obsessively listened to the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix (the same music he listened to at my age) and I wore a brown corduroy blazer of his, until its linings wore out.
After my dad moved his office to the suburbs, downtown Kansas City went from ghostly to hopping. They are turning his building into more fancy apartments. I prefer the ghostliness, the otherworldliness, the half-emptiness, that I first knew.
Image: The Law Building, 12th Street and Grand, Kansas City, 1941. Anderson, Kansas City, Missouri, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.