It was Friday morning, the Fourth of July. The building was empty. Bunshaft waited outside on the plaza to meet Bartleby, who arrived precisely at the appointed time. This was their first and only meeting. Bunshaft extended his right hand to meet Bartleby’s right hand. They said a few words and entered the building, a tall building made of steel, glass, and aluminum. Bunshaft designed it; he was the chief architect. Bartleby had spent a number of years working in Wall Street offices; he was expert in the ways of office life. Bunshaft wanted to hear Bartleby’s opinions and ideas on what he called the “work environment.”
The building was empty because it was a holiday, so the two of them, Bartleby & Bunshaft, took the appropriate elevator straight to the top, the sixtieth floor.
60. Bartleby said he would prefer not to work on the top floor of any building. When Bunshaft pressed him for details, Bartleby said that being on top of other people was ugly enough, but being on top of everybody was against nature. Bartleby said he would prefer a glass ceiling, but Bunshaft told him it was not technologically feasible. Besides it would cost a small fortune to keep clean. In any case, regular workers weren’t allowed on the top floor.
59. Bartleby said he would prefer not to work directly under the top floor of any building. When Bunshaft asked him why, Bartleby said that the complicity of proximity would be intolerable on the floor beneath the topmost floor. It’s like being second best or second worst, an intolerable situation. The thought crossed Bunshaft’s mind, “How could third best be better than second best?”
58. Bartleby said he would prefer not to look out the window at the spectacular view. When Bunshaft pressed him for details, Bartleby said that looking out of windows, especially high windows, encourages unproductive dreams of avian flight, dreams that could never be realized. Bunshaft listened and nodded but had no response. They took the elevator to the floor below.
57. Bartleby said he would prefer not to know the height of the building. When Bunshaft asked him why, Bartleby said that scale, by its very nature, is relative, and to say the tower is 248 meters tall is the same as saying it is 813 feet tall. Other buildings in the area were not quite as tall. Bunshaft looked proud when he mentioned this to Bartleby, but Bartleby already was beginning to show signs of weariness. Bartleby said that there was nothing vertical about office life. He said it was relentlessy horizontal. Bunshaft scribbled this phrase in his notebook.
56. Bartleby said he would prefer not to reveal the exact nature of his office work. He worked on accounts and reports. When Bunshaft pressed him for details, Bartleby said that not only was the work beneath him, it was beneath contempt. Every floor started to resemble the floor above. Bartleby told Bunshaft that he could learn to love such a work environment, even if he loathed the work itself. Bunshaft swelled with pride. Yes, he thought, this is it.
55. Bartleby and Bunshaft rested a moment in silence. They looked around. What they saw was much the same as what they saw on the floors above. Bartleby said he would prefer not to stop at every floor. Bunshaft insisted that it was a contractual obligation; the firm needed comprehensive information.
54. Bartleby said he would prefer not to feel sorry for Bunshaft’s predicament. When Bunshaft asked him why, Bartleby said that it was time to renegotiate their contract. They compromised: every other floor. Bunshaft knew that it didn’t really make a difference to the firm, and he agreed with Bartleby that it was already getting a little tedious. Bartleby was not terribly forthcoming; Bunshaft had to change his strategy.
52. Bartleby said he would prefer not to have Bunshaft feel sorry for him. When Bunshaft pressed him for details, Bartleby said that he once was in the employ of a man who felt sorry for him only because by so doing he could cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. Bunshaft was familiar with the mechanism.
50. Bartleby said he would prefer to not think of office design as something of great consequence. Bunshaft looked perplexed and hurt. He told Bartleby that the spaces had been shaped for people like him. Bartleby looked away with a gentle whisper of scorn on his face.
48. Bartleby said he would prefer not to answer questions about his employment history. When Bunshaft asked him why, Bartleby said that he couldn’t remember where he worked, when he worked, or for whom he worked. All that he remembered was that he worked on Wall Street.
46. Bartleby said he would prefer not to talk about financial markets. When Bunshaft pressed him for details, Bartleby said that he had no use for banks and little use for money. This, Bunshaft, thought, set him apart from other men and made all his words more than a little suspect.
44. Bartleby said he would prefer not to tell Bunshaft about his personal financial situation. When Bunshaft asked him why, Bartleby said that his material needs were few but his mental needs were many. Bunshaft told Bartleby that his answer was insufficient.
42. Bartleby said he would prefer not to see or hear from Bunshaft for several minutes and asked him politely to wait in the elevator. Bartleby walked down every corridor, looked into every office, and began to notice things that he hadn’t noticed before. Bunshaft waited impatiently. Bartleby returned with a gentle smile on his face. Every floor started to resemble the floor above, and all of it was bathed in a patina of dreariness.
40. Bunshaft was more than curious. What did Bartleby see that would make him smile? They walked around in silence, and Bunshaft began to notice things he hadn’t noticed before. He had thought his building was a modern cathedral, the firm thought so also. But it started to look more like a mausoleum. Everything looked half dead. There were no people, but there were desks and chairs and art on the walls, and all of it was exquisite. It was austerely exquisite. It had beauty built in to every detail, yet taken as a whole it was not beautiful. Nothing had been left to chance. It was too orderly, too perfect, too rigid in its symmetry. But it couldn’t last. Nature has its way of reclaiming space. The firm should have solicited Bartleby’s opinions earlier, but now that the building was finished nothing could be done to undo it.
They decided to take the stairs instead of the elevator. Entering the stairwell, Bartleby said that he would like to ask Bunshaft a few questions and that he would prefer straight answers. Bartleby asked if Bunshaft was starting to see how pointless their endeavor had become. Bunshaft nodded. Bartleby said in a flat voice, “Are you hungry?” Bunshaft nodded. “Are you thirsty?” Bunshaft nodded again. “Are you cold? Are you tired?” Bunshaft crossed his arms and looked down.
They both knew the tour was over, contractual obligations were beside the point. They slowly walked down the stairs, around and around, stopping every so often so as not to get dizzy. Bartleby said, “I can’t really help you.” Bunshaft said, “And I can’t really help you.” They shared a laugh and a shrug.
1. In the lobby they shook hands again and walked out into the plaza where they had met several hours earlier. Church bells were ringing and birds were chirping. The sun was directly above them. In this moment there were no shadows, but that would soon change as the morning turned to afternoon.