Seize the Day is set in New York City in the area around Broadway from 70th Street up to the nineties. It begins at the Hotel Gloriana where Tommy Wilhelm is staying. Wilhelm is a divorced, struggling salesman who has quit his job and currently has no income. It is a little unusual for him to be at a hotel like the Gloriana, since most of its residents and guests are elderly, while Wilhelm is in his mid-forties.
At about eight o'clock in the morning, Wilhelm comes down to the lobby, and goes out of the hotel to the nearby newsstand, owned by a man named Rubin. They chat for a few minutes. Ruben compliments Wilhelm on the shirt he is wearing, and says he is looking sharp. Wilhelm is surprised because he does not think he looks good. Rubin talks about the card game the previous evening, which Wilhelm usually attends. But Wilhelm was fed up with losing and went to the movies instead.
Wilhelm buys a newspaper to check the prices in the commodities market. He and his advisor, the psychologist Dr. Tamkin, had bought three orders of lard four days ago, but since then the price of lard has been falling steadily. Wilhelm blames Tamkin, who also lives at the Gloriana, for persuading him to invest. Tamkin seems to know a lot about the market and how it works, and makes it sound as if it is a simple task to make large sums of money. Wilhelm told Tamkin that he had no desire to be rich, he just wanted to use the market to make a little steady income. Tamkin promised that he would be able to achieve his goals.
Wilhelm starts thinking about his father. Dr. Adler, a retired physician, lives at the same hotel, but in an entirely different world than his son. Wilhelm resents his father's detached manner towards him. He cannot speak his mind to his own father, or unburden himself of his problems. Dr. Adler, who is still active and respected by many, has considerable money, but has made no effort to help his son financially, even when Wilhelm confessed that he needed some help. He feels that his father is ashamed of him, because he is the only member of the family not to have completed a college education. However, this does not stop Dr. Adler boasting about his son to his friends, telling them he is a sales executive who makes a lot of money. But his father wants no part of his son's problems.
Wilhelm delays the moment he must go into the dining room and have breakfast with his father. As he stands at the edge of the newsstand with the newspaper, he thinks back to when he was about twenty, when he went to Hollywood to become an actor, against the wishes of his mother. This episode began when Wilhelm received a letter from Maurice Venice, a talent scout who had seen Wilhelm's picture in the college newspaper. Venice invited him to New York for a screen test. Venice was a shady character but Wilhelm did not see through him. Venice insisted that he knew how to spot talent, and saw Wilhelm cast in the movies as the steady, faithful type who loses the girl to the more rakish type of character. Wilhelm was not keen on this kind of role, but Venice insisted that it would make him famous. Wilhelm quit college and went to California, quarreling with his family over the move. But Wilhelm did poorly on the screen test, and Venice dumped him. In California, Wilhelm learned that a recommendation from Venice was the kiss of death anyway. Venice was later sent to prison for running a call-girl ring.
It was while he was in California that Wilhelm changed his name to Tommy Wilhelm. His father never accepted the change and still calls his son Wilky. Wilhelm now realizes that a man cannot change himself. He regrets the name change because he has never succeeded at becoming Tommy Wilhelm.
Close to despair, Wilhelm prays to God for help, asking that he be allowed to do something better with his life.
The theme of Tommy Wilhelm's isolation is established quickly in the opening chapter. He is out of place in the Hotel Gloriana, which houses mainly elderly residents. He chats with Rubin only in a superficial way. Even though both men know a lot about each other, the conversation never turns to anything important or personal: "the great weight of the unspoken left them little to talk about" (p. 10). When the talk turns to Wilhelm's investments, Rubin responds without any real interest. His eyes turn away, "He didn't want to hear" (p. 12). Wilhelm also has a very distant relationship with his father, even though Dr. Adler lives in the same hotel. They have never communicated well. Now, when Wilhelm desperately needs some warm human contact, there is nowhere for him to find it. The saying "alone in a crowd" could be applied to Tommy Wilhelm. All he can do is regret the mistakes of the past that have gradually led him to this point of near despair and pray that God will help him.