Our story begins with Eddie Willers, who will be playing the part of The Average Man, as he hustles across Manhattan in twilight. His destination is the Grand Central-like headquarters of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad Company, where he must inform company president James Taggart that there has been a crash on their Colorado-bound line.
Eddie passes a bum on the street who blankly mutters ‘Who is John Galt?’ at him. Eddie should get used to this question by the way, because Galt is basically Jacob from Lost in this book: he makes lists of his favorite people and everyone will be cryptically overhyping him for like 800 pages. Anyway the question freaks Eddie out. He feels ’causeless uneasiness,’ ‘dread without reason,’ and ‘immense, diffused apprehension.’ He just can’t seem to shake the feeling that the world is going down the tubes (what with the bums and all), and now he’s got the unsettling impression that this particular bum can read his mind and tease him, knowingly, with cryptic non-explanations.
This sends him on a reverie about an oak tree on a hill from his childhood, which he saw as a symbol of strength until it got hit by lightning and exposed as hollow and rotted inside. That bummed L’il Eddie out, existentially speaking. Plus it’s a metaphor for society. But Eddie brushes all that off as he gets to the Taggart Transcontinental offices, where the art deco majesty…
…and row upon row of Peggy Olson typists…
…give him a raging hard-on for his job again.
Stirred to purpose once more, Eddie strides into James Taggart’s corner suite. Taggart is not exactly a born leader of men cut straight from granite. He’s almost 40 but he looks over 50. He’s a schlub and, as we will see shortly, a weasel. Eddie tells him about the crash. Taggart — the company president, remember — could give a shit. Accidents happen all the time! Cost of doing business! Cartoon villainy, etc. Eddie tries to point out that they need to reinvest in that track to compete for the freight business coming from some newly opened oil fields.
Taggart scoffs, “Who cares? The guy who runs those fields is an asshole! I’ve got friends I’m used to working with, we’re just gonna stay the course.” But Eddie knows which market players are thriving and which are withering and he cannot comprehend what Jim could be thinking. He and Taggart have known each other since childhood, when Eddie was the patrician Taggart family’s token bourgeois friend, but now it’s like they’re always talking past each other!
As if to prove the point, Jim keeps obfuscating the issue of good corporate policy with defensive rants about how just because Ellis Wyatt (the oil man) churns out a lot of commerce doesn’t make him good for society. Think of all the jobs lost as he saps business from established companies! That economic dislocation hurts people! Taggart has apparently never heard of creative destruction, while pure simple Eddie just wants to know if they’re going to fund repairs in Colorado or not. He is, after all, personal aide to the VP of Operations.
Taggart: ‘It’s touching–your devotion to Taggart Transcontinental. If you don’t look out, you’ll turn into one of those real feudal serfs.’
Eddie: ‘That’s what I am, Jim.’
Damn, that’s a harsh self-evaluation, Eddie. If that’s supposed to be your ‘everyman’ character being humble, Ayn, that is some seriously rough humility. But Eddie can take it because he’s loyal and obedient. And really into industrial aesthetics. And blonde-haired and blue-eyed… wait wait wait, is Rand suggesting that The Average Man would make a good Nazi? Ayn, you are one subversive bitch, and I respect it.
Taggart officially informs Eddie that he wants to keep their resources focused on a track into Mexico he’s had built to reach the San Sebastian copper mines. Eddie has this whole vision of the continental map as a living organism with railroads as arteries and fossil fuels as blood, and James’ plan seems like some piss-poor anatomy to him, but Eddie doesn’t have the wherewithal to talk back to his superiors any more than he already has. He knows his place. And so he leaves.
On his way out he passes a Wise Old Clerk, who’s tinkering away on his busted antique typewriter and lamenting how everything nowadays is cheap crap and he’s never buying a typewriter again because they don’t make ’em like they used’t, grumble grumble fart. I think e-mail would piss this guy off just conceptually, but Eddie sizes him up as having the same ‘cynical indifference’ in his eyes as the bum, and then Wise Old Clerk even asks ‘Who is John Galt?’ again, in a sort of “Oh well what’r’ya gonna do” way, then out of nowhere there’s a violin sting and ominous opening credits.