In The Tower

The Club feels like an airplane for two reasons. Firstly the ceiling is quite low and hums faintly with the unseen HVAC systems piping air, water and power from the bowels of the street high into the air. The second is the Club’s altitude — it orbits 75 stories above the city. There is no access to the outside but, from up here on a clear day, one can see a good chunk of Washington state and sizeable minority of its inhabitants. 

The Club is arranged along the western flank of Seattle’s highest skyscraper. Seats at the rear back onto an angular wall of black-gold geometry, giving the place the feel of a Bond villain’s lair. My favourite tables are right up against the window, where you can peer down at the streets. I like to watch ferries chug across Puget Sound and dock at Pioneer Square far below, disgorging a fleet of cyclists that filter into the city like dispersing ants out of a nest.

Getting one of these seats means making it to the Club early in the morning, when the sunshine is slanting over the city and Puget Sound to light up the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula. At this hour, I am alone with the Businessmen. They come in, distractedly munch their breakfast from the buffet (the food is bad, but I’m stingy enough to care that it’s free), take a call or two and read their favourite business columnists for the day’s hot takes before scooting away.

The Club, with its blazer-only restaurant and deferential waiters, is a relic. So to survive, it installed Wi-Fi routers and began branding itself — somewhat subtly and through word-of-mouth, so as to not offend the old timers — as a coworking space.

So after the Businessmen, the Startups are the next to arrive. These are groups of three or four oddly matched people — usually a no-fuss marketing woman, an old Amazon coder bravely cutting the corporate umbilical cord and a self-designated Visionary who can extract your business card and a LinkedIn connection from 20 paces. 

Sprinkled among them are those I call the Rovers, who are vaguely attached to three or four different startups. These people fill their days with the following three activities:

  1. frowning at their phone and ignoring the open laptop in front of them, 
  2. having loud meetings in which they spout vaguely intelligent soundbites (“Yeah, Salesforce acquiring Tableau was a really good move for all involved”) and 
  3. flattering other Rovers into doing the little actual work people have given them (“I’ve been asked to put together a branding one-sheeter, and I just need to tap into the vein of branding genius that is your mind.”)

Later, just before lunch, the group I have mentally dubbed the Power Boys show up. These are men in suits. The Power Boys are cocky middle-aged Businessmen, usually ranging from early 30’s to mid-40’s. They are always white. They are always men. They always come in groups of three or five. And, in their high-flying success, they seem to have forgotten how to use a chair. 

In your mind, picture a chair. Given the inclination or invitation, you would almost certainly know how to properly use it in a way that both maximises your comfort and satisfies the sensibilities of wider society. 

But the Power Boys appear to have lost this most basic of human faculties. They throw their legs over the arms, prostrate themselves diagonally across the seat, lean heavily to one side. I do not know why. It might be the mortal discomfort of a lifetime spent in constrictive slacks. It might just be that they are the Power Boys, and they can do whatever they damn please.

Whatever the case, the Power Boys are very impressed with themselves, and assume that whatever they’re talking about — competitively spouting obscure statistics on Ohio State’s new quarterback, boasting about “executing” on “action items” and “sunsetting” a proposal from that one coworker they all hate — must be heard by every single person in the Club. They speak with the nasal over-pronunciation of the coastal upper class, this country’s language of power.

But Seattle is a diverse city, and the obnoxious Power Boy vernacular is not the only kind of speech heard in the lofty den of the Club. A large man — a community organizer and political activist of some kind — moves fluently from Power Boy speak to the looser language of his Interns, kids from working class neighbourhoods who creep around apparently convinced they will soon be discovered and sent back down to Earth. The Wait Staff flips constantly between the chingada-heavy Spanish of the Mexican street and the confidential murmur of the in-flight stewardess. A young blockchain entrepreneur makes no apologies for her thick Russian accent. And, similarly, the Chinese families who appear every day at lunchtime make no attempt to modify their speech. They converse easily, munch on smelly salmon and watch the politicians sweating and spitting on the ubiquitous screens, biding time until their particular brand of Mandarin supplants Power Boy as the global language of power.

And me? Where do I fit into all this? Well, my faint Australian accent makes me sound British to American ears, endowing me with a devastating — and undeserved — combination of charm and authority. But I rarely use it. I enjoy working remotely because I have never mastered the art of informal communication in a professional setting — I prefer to curse and tell compromising stories over the kind of safe and inane conversations that characterize white collar workplaces. 

So I practice my Spanish a little with the waiters and and indulge the small talk of Businessmen whenever they trap me in the coffee line (“I heard it’s getting into the high 70’s next week!”), then plug in my headphones to drown out the Rovers and the Power Boys and try to get my work done. At lunchtime the Club fills up and the smell of decomposing cuisine fills the room, driving me into the elevators and back to Earth.

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