If I speak my mind at work, I will be promptly fired.
It’s not the job itself; I’m comfortable there, and I’m good at it. Besides: I know enough about our modern, secretless world to know that my future employers may well stumble upon this or any other defamatory remarks I make about my past places of employment.
Rather, it’s the clientele who tempt me toward madness and fury on a daily basis. I wanted to believe that working at a bookstore would attract a certain – I don’t know… respectable – element of the population: those with inquisitive minds and mild temperaments. I should have known that the flotsam of society would wander through our doors as frequently any other establishment, if only to demand directions to, and then desecrate, our very clearly labeled bathroom.
My job description might contain phrases like “digital sales” and “technical support.” eReaders, in other words. Electronic books. And so I’m at the forefront of our glorious and terrible “digital revolution” that will some day replace the comfort of paper with the fickle arrangement of electrons and silicon. I myself have learned to accept and even love the coming revolution, but for every person I meet who understands what we’re trying to accomplish, there are three more who glare at me suspiciously on their way into our store, as though I’ll Jedi-mind-trick them into buying an eReader if they lower their guard. To be frank, the glarers are actually the preferable crop of skeptics. There are those who, in a tone of voice suggesting I’d deflowered their only daughter and never called again, accost me and insist that “I like a book in my hands… I’ll never buy one of those.” That’s great, but I didn’t ask, I’d like to say.
Though even this pales in comparison to a younger couple I came across while running the register one day. When the time came to pay for their paperbacks, they presented me with crumpled bills and loudly announced, “We only use cash. We don’t have credit cards and we don’t believe in computers. We’re off-the-grid and proud of it!” They said this loud enough so that they could be sure everyone else in line could hear them.
Oh, what a breath of fresh air you are.
Off-the-grid? Who the hell do they think they are? If I hadn’t been on the clock, I’d have beat him until he agreed to purchase a digital watch. There are luddites and then there are those contemptible proud luddites. They don’t believe in computers? Like the vanishing act where a parent holds their hands over their face for the wonderment of their infant child? Self-deception is only remotely adorable when we’re too young to know better. Unless these folks could convince me that hemp necklaces, bottle caps, or seashells are acceptable currencies, the very transaction to obtain the books they’re buying will have to be filtered through a computer. Computers manufactured their crumpled ones and fives; computers designed and built the Prius they used to drive here. These people would like us to believe, as they do, that Satan dreamed up computers out of boredom on the same afternoon he came up with Walmart, popular music, and bikes with more than one gear.
I managed to smile politely at this young couple and hand them their change, swallowing my fury the same way I swallow seething rebuttals any time a person who looks like they’ve never read a book in their lives tells me they don’t like eReaders and “prefer the feeling of a book in their hands.” They typically say this while carrying the latest celebrity gossip magazine.
My most excruciating case of retaliation blue-balls came just the other day, when an overweight, middle-aged gentleman swept through our doors with his wife in tow, and began a conversation in a tone that immediately had me believing I must have accidentally hit on his wife, run over his dog, and sold heroin to his son. He told me, while I thanked the stars that my rabies shots were up-to-date, that he’d bought one of our devices a week or two earlier and that when he’d attempted to connect to the wi-fi in his house, the thing had gone “freaking bonkers.”
I sighed, readying myself for a lengthy and probably heated exchange where I’d try to determine just what he meant by “bonkers.” Let’s be clear about something first: when other employees have questions about our eReaders, there are two people they come to. I’m one of them. I’m the first and last line of defense – a righteous defender of capitalism and the march of technological advancement. I asked him a series of questions that seemed only to inflame his sense of entitlement, while he puffed himself up like a toad and interrupted me regularly. “I drove 120 miles to get here. And you’re telling me you can’t fix this?”
And here marched by another situation where my response would have been significantly different if I hadn’t been wearing a name tag. Bullshit! I’d say. There are closer stores than this one, and if you did actually drive as far as you claim, this clearly isn’t your only stop. And you realize there’s a 1-800 number you could have called, right? What I said instead was: “The device is operating properly in the store. This means that we’ve traced the problem to your home network.”
“No it doesn’t,” he bellowed. “You’re talking to a licensed Microsoft…” and here he trailed off, and so I’ll never know for sure if he was a licensed programmer or a licensed asshat. I suspected the latter, which I’d like to have told him, saying something like So ‘freaking bonkers’ is an engineering term, then? Instead, I smiled politely while his wife cowered behind him, and said “I suggest you go home and try my suggestions, and if it doesn’t work, give us a call back or try the customer support number.”
He gathered up his belongings and began to make his way to the door, closing with this little gem: “One way or another, we’ll make it work… even if I have to shove it up his ass.”
A moment of pride overcame me; the idea that one’s butthole has healing properties, you have to admit, is a weirdly appealing one. I shook it off pretty quickly, though, and did what any other sensible person would do when threatened with sodomy: suppressed the urge to launch myself at this bastard, knock him to the floor, and teach him some patience and manners.
And then I remembered that after a certain age, these things can no longer be taught, and that those who possess them can only smile politely and endure those who do not, and hope that their weekly paycheck remains a strong enough deterrent to physical violence.
I accidentally ate a $36 steak.
The eating part wasn’t what was accidental. I very much intended to put all of that glorious meat in my mouth. The “accidentally” part was my forgetting about that certain timeless axiom: if you have to ask for the price, then you can’t afford it.
Of course, my first warning bell was the fact that I had no idea how to pronounce the name of the restaurant. Another thing I now regret not asking.
Emily and I had been lured by the siren song of those restaurant.com vouchers, promising $25 off a purchase of $35 or more. She’d received four of these vouchers thanks to some unused airline miles: two for this restaurant, and two for a local Thai place. For just a moment, consider: over the last couple of years she’s traveled to China and back. Then to India and back. A couple times around the world, really. And what she got for her trouble was some glorified coupons.
But I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. We made the trip to this unpronounceable restaurant – which I shall henceforth refer to as “Obnoxiouslie Fancie” – deciding after a brief discussion that we “deserved” something nice once in a while. That we should “treat ourselves” now and then and remind ourselves that this whole wide world is full to bursting with wonderful things that we have to ration amongst ourselves.
After we sat down at a pleasantly lighted table, our waitress rattled off the six or seven specials for the evening from memory, none of which I could reproduce accurately here. When she arrived at lucky number seven, I heard only the words “porterhouse,” “sun-dried tomatoes,” and “mushrooms.” I made my choice, price be damned.
The menu was full enough of these wonderful things, each with a price tag that, if converted into something the United Nations could airdrop, would feed an African village for a fortnight. Our kindly waitress picked out an appetizer for us at our prodding and it turned out to be a wildly expensive… salad. It was an exceptional salad, though, I’ll admit that much.
And we decided to go for broke and order drinks as well, deciding to pick out a wine from their extensive selection. Emily deferred to me and I selected one of the four that I’d heard my father order on special occasions throughout my childhood. I went with a Montepulciano. I figured that at $9 per glass, it had better be extraordinary. And it was. I realized right then, as though from some revelatory communion with a burning bush, that I’d really been buying the wrong wines since I was old enough to drink legally. As with choosing a restaurant, the quality of a wine is evidently measured by your difficulty pronouncing its name.
So the steak arrived, and I was greeted not by some miniature doll’s house-portion of meat, but by something fully the size of my forearm. I was amazed – in awe, really – and dove in. And it was just… well, it was damned spectacular.
While I’m thinking about it, I’ve become really curious about our fetishization of food. Let’s be honest: the act of eating is an animal’s impulse. It’s something we do to stave off death, and in some certain cases – based on our culinary choices – invite it. What’s with this business of eating the puffer fish – a wholly unappetizing-looking thing – that could kill you if you prepare it just a little bit improperly? Certain Asian civilizations have made a series of decisions that have resulted in the puffer fish becoming a sought-after delicacy in certain corners of the globe. On some sunny afternoon many years ago, some industrious Asian gentleman spotted one of these ugly little bastards through the floor of a glass-bottom boat, looked past the hundreds of scary, poisonous barbs, and felt a little twinge of hunger in his belly. His eyes grew wide with wonder and he patted his growling belly thoughtfully. He made it his life’s work to capture this magnificent creature and perfect the art of putting it inside his body. And after his inevitable and probably embarrassing death, someone decided to carry the torch for him and learned not only how to remove the highly venomous barbs and internal organs, but how to safely extract what precious little meat the fish actually possessed, all without screwing up and sending his body into a painful and brief coma followed shortly by death.
Honestly, it’s all enough to blow the mind, the lengths we go to and the herculean efforts we undertake to eat more and more outlandish and unusual foodstuffs. All of this in the name of dressing up a thing we do everyday anyway just to survive. In the name of human progress, I’m going to devote the rest of my life to improving the act of taking a leak. There has got to be room for improvement there.
But at the end of the day, this comes back to indulging ourselves, and allowing ourselves to believe that we deserve all of the fine things the world has to offer. And from time to time we’ll taste splendor and hereafter everything else will just taste bland. And once in a while we forget to ask up-front for the price and we’ll be just a little bit shocked at the price tag that extravagance carries, when a six-dollar home-cooked meal will fill us up just as well and stave off death-by-hunger for another day.
I don’t know if it’s the most important thing, but it’s worth noting that I didn’t really regret it. I didn’t spend all that much time thinking about what else I could have done with that money. I paid as much for that food as for the experience of eating it. And if I had the means to eat such food on a daily basis, I’d lose any hope of objectivity. It’d just be food to me – like a $1.80 loaf of bread at Giant – rather than something worth looking forward to.
But at the same time, we’ve still got one more voucher for that unpronounceable restaurant, and so I sleep a little less soundly now, knowing that someday soon we’ll have to return to Obnoxiouslie Fancie and I’ll go in, this time, knowing what it is I’m getting myself into.
People insist on talking at me about the Super Bowl.
I walked into the bathroom at work the other day. As I did so, a middle-aged man in sweatpants pushed open the door to one of the stalls and came toward me. I gave him only as much eye contact as I had to, which either came across as politely stand-offish or suspicious. He didn’t seem to mind.
The X’s beat the Y’s, he insisted, turning back to fix me with a smile as I passed him. I couldn’t tell you now what teams he’d named, but I knew well enough that he was talking about football. So was everybody else, that day. I’d paid just enough attention to a handful of jersey- and sweatpants-clad customers to know that some kind of important gridiron confrontation had commanded all the concentration they could marshal.
Do you have a team? the man asked me as I stepped up to the urinal and began fondling my junk. This isn’t a conversation I want to have at the best of times, and certainly not when my own concentration is otherwise engaged.
Not exactly, no, I said, bewildered that this man would betray the sanctity of the urinal to talk about sports. I like my pisses the way I like my haircuts: silent. You don’t actually care where I went to school, or what I have planned for the rest of the day, Sally from Great Clips. Just do your damn job.
I wasn’t about to turn back to face this man, but I could literally feel him deflate as he made his way toward the bathroom door. He’d wanted to strike up a conversation in a public bathroom with a perfect stranger who happened to be an employee of the business he was currently frequenting. What was it about me that invited this intrusion, I wonder? Does something about my person scream football fan?
More to the point, what is it about certain sports enthusiasts that drives them to awkward conversation with any stranger that wanders into their field of vision? How lonely are they at home that they have to reach out to me to celebrate or pontificate or commiserate on the day’s sports happenings? And why do they take for granted that everybody in the world has as huge and irritating a fanaticism for sports as they do?
Suppose I approached someone in an anonymous bathroom and asked him, as he pulled at his zipper, what he thought of the series finale of Battlestar Galactica. Can you imagine how much of a tool I’d look like? I’ll give you my worry-free guarantee that he’d not be as polite as I’d been to my own sweats-wearing, Miller Lite-drinking cretin. It’d suddenly be middle school all over again, being made the fool for not knowing who the hell Beyonce was, retreating into my corner of friends to discuss Star Wars or The Elder Scrolls.
The truth is, it’s amazing how many f*cks I don’t give about football. Until about six minutes ago, I had no idea when the Super Bowl was even supposed to take place, or who was in the running to play in it. And I’ll have forgotten by the time I’m done writing this article. I’ve only once successfully convinced myself that I cared about that whole sorry spectacle, and I was in the fifth grade. In the years since, I’ve only taken advantage of the Super Bowl insofar as it meant that certain businesses or establishments would be deserted. For example: no one at college ever did their laundry the night of the Super Bowl.
Maybe what I object to the most is how many people in the world allow their likes and dislikes to substitute for personality. I’ve been disingenuous if I’ve suggested that every football fan in the world gives Members Mark sweatpants and Miller Lite their exclusive endorsements. But enough of them do; caricatures don’t arise out of nothing. I have friends who share my enthusiasm for science fiction and super heroes, and one of them strongly objects to the character of Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, decrying his socially-awkward tendencies and neuroticism as attacks on geek culture itself. After I remove the broom handle from his ass, I remind him that it’s not so much poking fun at geek culture as celebrating it. I skate around the fact that in some respects, he’s as delightfully peculiar in his own ways as our Sheldon Cooper.
I’ve just about lost my train of thought, but it was something like this: there’s no reason to subjugate our humanity and personality to such trivial matters as our enthusiasm for sports or graphic novels or video games. I can’t necessarily tell if a given individual is a football fan, but I can when they want me to identify them as such. I guess I want to invite conversation instead of broadcasting whatever it is I feel is essential to my being.
And now we come full circle, back to that stranger in the bathroom, asking innocent questions about my taste in sports as though I’d invited him to. And I still manage to hate it, when a smile and a nod – something just a little more human – would have been enough for me.
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