Thursday, January 8, 2009

Pan Am Building


I cannot call it the MetLife Building, not to save my life. It was, and to me it still is and always will be, the Pan Am Building. Going up the escalators from the main hall of Grand Central Station, you'd reach the top, circulate through the revolving doors, pass a newsstand on your right, the bank of elevators, and eventually you'd reach Zum Zum, the breakfast (or lunch) counter run with efficiency by Edda, the middle-aged Polish waitress who always had a smile for her regulars. For a time, that included my father, and me. We'd perch on the stools and order eggs (him), or French toast (me), and we'd talk to each other and to Edda. I remember her as being short, a little stocky but not plump, and as having short blond hair. I could be wrong. I'm sure she had an accent, but I can no longer hear it in my mind. At Christmastime, she would purchase silk-thread ornaments (the basic globes you could buy in sets in a drug store and that came in bright solid colors of red, green, gold, white, and royal blue). She'd buy long pinhead needles, sequins, and colored beads, and create elaborate baubled patterns by threading the tiny sparkling "gems" onto the needles and pushing them deep into the ornaments. She gave many of these to our family, and each year they still grace our trees. She lived, I think, in New Jersey, and maybe she still does. I think my father stayed in touch with her for a while, even after there was no more Pan Am, no more Zum Zum. My father worked for Pan Am at two different times, once in the early 1970s and the other in the mid-1980s, leading up to the company's hostile takeover and ousting of top executives. It was sad what happened to Pan Am—its history was rich; its pioneering of passenger aviation was a study of luxury and good taste (that's certainly a bygone era!). It's my opinion that the company was originally brought down, as many are, by labor-management disputes and by greed (this was the first shoe falling, the other was to come a short time later). My father was a bit of an oddball in the company, being neither a shady business/teamster type nor a former military pilot as some others were. It's a cutthroat business, the airline industry. But most who worked at Pan Am knew a passion for the airline, and the Manhattan skyline is an eyesore now with the MetLife logo atop the historic, squashed-octagonal building of the early 1960s that used to be PA headquarters. After my father left the company, I had occasion to work there for a summer and then during my first winter break from college. This was in 1988, and yes, I was at work in the building on December 21, when Clipper Maid of the Seas, Flight 103 from London to NYC (a flight I myself had taken many times), was blown from the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland. I worked in the Customer Service department, which I remember as being on the fifth floor of the building, going up the right-hand bank of low-rise elevators, if you were entering the building from the north, and my main task was to code complaint letters for possible compensation. (There were some pretty bizarre requests, and I had many ways at my disposal to reply in the negative, though they tended to be generous with legitimate issues.) I remember the switchboard area lighting up, the gloom that fell over the office as word of the tragedy spread. No one could focus, everyone eager for that day to end so that we could get home to our families and hold someone tightly, or be held. It was a long hour and twenty minutes up the New Haven Line on Metro-North for me that rush hour, up to my parents' house in Connecticut and back to my dad, who would know what this day had been like, who knew the layout of the office I had sat in while the phones continued to ring, families of victims trying to get news through our department. These calls were redirected, but every one was like a nail in the heart, even to me, sitting in my cubicle space with no phone, just a stack of letters. That was, I suppose, the other shoe dropping. The company was already flying empty planes, and things got worse. Bit by bit, Pan Am was sold for scrap to other airlines, and eventually the logo on the top of the building that presided over Grand Central and rose high above Park Avenue, came down. Today, I travel through Grand Central on a regular basis, and I often walk past the place where Zum Zum used to be. I remember the family drama when my father became a casualty of the company takeover; I remember Lockerbie, of course. But there were wonderful times, then, too, and I am fond of the building, still: the Pan Am building, thank you very much.

1 comment:

  1. I still call it that too, to the consternation of my daughters, who don't quite get my rambling explanation!

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