On the Incandescent Transience of the Rex Cole General Electric Appliance Empire

20Jan08

Let’s imagine that your name is Rex Cole. You were born in 1887 in Port Huron, Michigan. You drop out of school at the age of 16 to become an electrician. Dissatisfied with the provincial life, you fight the tide of many millions and head east to New York City, where you save enough money to open up a small lamp-manufacturing facility. Time passes; deals are made and broken and made again, until in 1926 — switching gears — you win an exclusive franchise from General Electric to sell its fabulous new Monitor Top refrigerator.

In less than five years you grow from one small office with four sales reps to a massive operation with over 1000 employees who work in and around the fantastic showrooms you are building all over New York City. These are modern, deco-inspired atriums added to the tops of existing buildings, with high vaulting steel arches and acres and acres of plate glass. People come just to look at the sprawling urban panorama that lies beyond the shining white brilliance of your enamel-coated product. Is it “too much”? Is it extreme and obsessive? There are whispers and innuendos — what kind of man does this sort of thing? — but what do you care? Revenue is over $15 million a year and you want to give your customers — and the city you love — something to remember.

The Depression is not kind to your business; in 1935 you file for bankruptcy and watch as your holdings are sold off to pay your creditors. You emerge from this horribly shaken, and at times shattered: each one of these showrooms seems to have held some irretrievable part of your soul, and even though you offer promises of redemption, the words feel hollow in your mouth. You begin to long for nothing as much as sleep.

You turn fifty and resign yourself to the fact that your affair with power and money has ended. One by one your showrooms are dismantled or covered in aluminum siding, while the trademark billboards you had also put up all over Manhattan and the Bronx — in white enamel with the classic GE logo and your name below in a modern sans serif font — are taken down to be discarded and recycled.

But now you feel oddly unmoved, as if you are now only watching a movie about your past. You are relieved that nobody recognizes you on the street or asks you for money or autographs. As still more time passes and you enter the final decades of your life, you look back with even greater distance at the ruins of a personal destiny that seems to coincide with the city around you, which is increasingly marked by violent chaos and abandonment; entire swaths of neighborhoods you once knew so intimately are set on fire and left to burn. It’s not that you don’t love the city as much as you once loved your life, but neither lies within your grasp; you are eighty years old and there’s nothing more you can do. The year is 1967.

Forty years later almost every trace of your vast empire is gone; occasionally someone will look up and see one of the last of your weather-beaten signs — the enamel now streaked with rust and grit — hanging near the top of one of those grand, forgotten apartment palaces in Washington Heights.

“Who was Rex Cole?” someone will ask, and nobody but you will know the answer.

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