Here they come with umbrellas and briefcases, in comfortable heels and running shoes and loafers, with the hot wind of the subway train, car, taxi or whatever propelled them into this lobby at their backs.
Down the block and through the door.
And the person sitting behind that desk or standing at that door is watching.
Then, just like that: They, the people rushing in, do it or not. Flick a wrist, a nod, a smile, a glance. Or nothing -- look right through the person before disappearing into the elevator and ascending into the responsibility or obligation or whatever it is that pushes them through those doors and upstairs.
And behind them, the flung-out how-you-doin's hang there.
Unanswered. Suspended like bats in daytime. Dangling. Pushed to the side like a leftover morsel on a plate. The last vestige of something that once existed: human connection in a world moving too fast.
They didn't wait long enough to hear the answer. Or to give an answer.
Shoulders hunch under the weight of purses and backpacks and coffee-cup balancing acts. Scowls and heavy thoughts push heads down. Lips press. E-mail printouts, gripped for dear life. Cell phones are out, a plug in one ear, mouthpieces invisible, talking as if to the air. Cherry-faced in the rush and summer heat, masked with superficial smiles.
"Hey, how you doin'." They say it right before pushing the elevator button. The doors open and the how-you-doin' -- a statement, not a question -- is left sitting there with the security guard, the door attendant, the toll collector, the hot-dog vendor, the parking attendant. To whom they just handed over the keys to their car.
"Hey, how you doin'." And they push off up the street to wherever it is they go in such a hurry that they're oblivious to whether the guy with their keys might have an answer.
"I'm okay," Ricardo Guzman, 34, says after the doors shut. But he doesn't mind that the preoccupied passersby don't wait to hear his reply because he figures "everybody is moving too fast to work."
And it's the same with him in his job at the parking garage on M Street. He doesn't have time to talk anyway.
"A lot of people I say hi to, but some don't say it back," says Ebony Johnson, 26, a guard at an office building downtown. "They're just rude. It don't bother me if they want to act that way. . . . I don't care. The main people who don't say nothing to you, as soon as they need something, they come right up to the desk."
Flesh and bone, the gatekeepers sit, but invisible to some. "I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind," Ralph Ellison wrote in "Invisible Man." "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
It is said that the whole of the human story can be captured in the details of each day, the details of every life, the insignificant encounters, the what-ifs, the how-comes, the what-would-it-cost-yous? Two seconds to stop and ask how you doin'. Or to answer.
"I just continue to speak," says Eyona Fountain, a security officer at a desk in an office building downtown. "You might be having a bad day. Some people treat you like you are invisible and they see you every day. I guess my spirit is like, 'Whatever!' I have a tendency to take the godly point of view. I can come in one frame of mind. And no matter what, I keep my spirit."
Just then a woman walks by. Head down. "Good day," the woman says, automatic-like. "How you doing." And moves quickly on. Within seconds, she has vanished. And she, too, becomes invisible.
Rote conversations. "Hello," they say. Response: "I'm fine." But there was no question.
In comes Johnathan Smith, a postal carrier. He holds the door for a woman. She does not say thank you.
"About 40 percent of the time, no one says anything to you unless they want me to take the mail or get a letter dropped in the slot by mistake," Smith says. "Or they need directions. Other than that, I'm like invisible. If I get your mail out, you might say, 'Hey, how you doing' two more times and keep going. And a couple weeks later, they may not even acknowledge my presence. But that is okay. It's all good. Most people are good."
The lobby is clean, and the marble shines with a kind of coolness. It's a place where words can bounce around, even if heads are turned. It's a place where the invisible sometimes try to transform others, to pry out a smile. For some, it is a mission.
"I speak loud enough if they don't have time to stop, they can still hear me," says Ed Pugh, a guard in Northwest Washington. "Some people don't speak but most people do. The thing is, I continue to speak to those people till, most of the time, they look for it. They will start speaking."
If they ask how he is doing and wait for an answer, "I say, 'I'm doing very well' or 'fine.' Then I might say something else, like, 'Great.' That's what I usually say on Fridays. 'Great -- it's Friday.' "
If they don't wait, he doesn't mind. "It's a figure of speech. I have never given that much thought whether they mean it or not."
William Lutz, English professor at Rutgers University at Camden, N.J., and author of "Doublespeak," says these superficial encounters are not really superficial. They are just social norms, people trying to protect their space, keep the peace, establish boundaries. As in: Don't stand too close to someone on an elevator. "We all have a three-foot circle around us," he says. "Once inside that circle is a sign of intimacy."
Because nobody really wants to hear that your mother had a stroke, that your dog chewed up the carpet or you didn't get the kid to school on time. They have their own problems. No need to mess up the lobby with messy lives.
The guards often are sentinels holding down the place, invisible but there, cementing themselves in the foundation of harried lives. A nod of the hat, a flick of the wrist. A hello, how-you-doin', even if you don't mean it, continues the ebb, adds to the flow.