Monday, September 12, 2005

Cheese and Whine.

“Hi sweetheart,” I say to Maria, one of the hard-core regulars, as she walks into the shop on Saturday. “How are you?”

Maria is normally a rather cheerful woman, but seems out of sorts tonight. I’ve had a bit of bad news myself, and I’m not at all in the mood to deal with anybody else’s plaintive little cares, the bitching and moaning that passes for conversation with a lot of people.

“I’m really tired,” Maria whines. Yep. Just what I was expecting. Take my question and answer it with a complaint, without even bothering to ask how I am in return. The really awful thing is that I get this answer from about a third of my customers. Right, sure, I shouldn’t ask if I don’t want an honest answer, but really I just want someone else out there to engage in the pleasant set of lies that we dub courtesy in English so that we can all interact a bit more effectively. Nations will march off to war over lies about God and Hitler and Allah and Imperialism and Communism, and I can’t, with a sled and a pack of huskies, drag somebody into saying, “I’m fine, thanks for asking,” unless they literally and explicitly mean it and believe it.

“What’s troubling you tonight, dear?” I’m going to be nice anyway, damn it all, as a spiteful exercise in my higher social skills.

“Well, I worked all day long,” she begins her ode to sadness, while I grab the cigar rolling papers she’s going to need to get stoned when she gets home, “and then I got in an argument on the phone with that damn man of mine, and it’s late, and I’m tired, and I just want to go home and,” she whispers, “smoke me a fattie so that I can go to sleep.” I am unsure how I became the intimate confidante of every substance abuser in my zip code, but it obviously happened somewhere without me even filling out an application for the job.

I stop to do a mathematical formula: job + telephone argument + advanced hour = bad day. I realize that I sometimes give people way too much credit for sophisticated motivations and that I should just start applying math formulas to all of them and be done with it. As I listen to Maria complain with my patience a little more constrained than it usually is, I start to get offended and annoyed that she’s missing the point so badly.

So what’s the point I’m talking about? Maria, is like me, and like everyone else, a unique, highly improbable event. She thinks she’s an overweight woman who wears glasses and sports dreadlocks, and in those terms she is technically correct, but she is, like everybody else, a whole hell of a lot more than that. She is a recombination of genetic material unlike any that has ever come before and any that will come hence, an animal so totally individual that were I to take away her name and all of her possessions and everything she has ever learned, she would still recognize her reflection in a pool of water. She’s a thing so special that theologians come up with beautiful words like soul and Atman and inner light and Holy Spirit to address her individuality. She is a construction of organic matter so complex that it takes hundreds of differentiated organs working at a breathtaking level of productivity just to keep her from breaking down and dying any given moment. And in the face of that amazing fiat from nature she has the audacity to whine over a little bit of struggle in her life, the necessity that she work so that she may live.

“But if you in your pain,” Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.” I think Mr. Gibran had that one just about right: we work, and we suffer, that we may live. An animal that lies down too long in the wild is a sick animal that does not expect to survive. Only industrial humanity has the luxury of viewing work as a curse, as some type of punishment, rather than the things we do to provide for ourselves and our loved ones. Maria would be darned bummed out, I strongly suspect, if the entire capitalist experiment were to fail tomorrow and she had to start hunting or gathering to live and thus be rudely informed of how easy she actually has it.

And so we grouse and grumble about our pain, as if it were designed by a wicked god to torment us, instead of being the very capacity that lets us know that we are animate, incarnate beings and not stones littering a beach. Who doesn’t feel pain? Quadriplegics? Heroin addicts? Other categories of people on the edge of death? Pain is the world’s most useful reminder to get your hand the bloody hell off of that burning stick or not to step on that snake again. People who shrink from pain—intellectual, emotional, or purely physical—are refusing to learn the lessons that pain and fatigue are trying to teach them. People who are habitually exhausted at the end of the workday, nine times out of ten, need to get more sleep and exercise. People that are constantly upset after talking to their significant others on the phone need to learn better communication skills or find new people to date.

I want to tell Maria this, as I listen to her sad misconceptions about the unparalleled gift that is life, that she’s a whiner, and that I’m sick of whiners, and that I just found out that an old friend of mine that I’d lost touch with was a whiner just like her except his case of the whines was so bad that he put a shotgun load through the back of his skull in a public park in Ohio and left some poor kids to stumble across his body. I want her to know that he’d forgotten that to be alive is nearly always to be loved, and that whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, there are people who are deeply attached to our lives, who hold fond memories of our presence and the shared experiences we have celebrated and endured alongside them. That thought alone should shut her up and make her realize that the world is bigger than just her, and go home and call her parents to thank them for making her.

But of course, I don’t. I can hardly go around condemning other people’s rudeness in dumping their small cares upon strangers and then go do something like that, especially when the reason I’m upset has almost nothing to do with her story and everything to do with the blaring noise in my head. So I just look at Maria, and, gently rebuke, “So it’s all about you then. Is it?”

She falls silent, with a look of childish amazement, and starts wildly beckoning me to follow her. I come around the counter out of curiosity, wondering what she’s up to, and follow her pointed finger to the plastic front plate on her car. It reads, I jest not: “IT’S ALL ABOUT ME.”

“Thank you Maria,” is all I can say when I get done laughing, which is something I badly needed to do. Maria drives away and I’m left with a valedictory thought regarding our conversation: Maria can poke fun at her whining and her selfishness, so at least she knows the score on that count, I muse. And that’s the start to understanding an awful lot more.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Moving On.

"If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause and say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.

This thing, this situation, that has taught me so much about myself, about the world and all its beauty and horror, this life as a…gas station attendant, nears its end. To leave it behind will involve both a little euphoria and a touch of sadness, as all endings and new beginnings do, but to dress the situation up with a little (probably meaningless), feel-good rhetoric—it’s just time.

In a few months, Gas Guy starts a very different job, in a very different kind of office, because he allowed himself to do this one, at his rare best moments, with a love and patience that trumped selfishness and bitterness and resentment. Since that was the goal all along, the very thing I asked by immersing myself into the purgatory of service-slavery, it is time now to set new goals based on the same principles: I must come to love a different kind of work, not necessarily better or more necessary, but better suited to my interests, better matched to my skills, with a greater power to influence minds, and hence a greater responsibility to work with a compassionate caution, a vigilant remonstrance that I always do my best.

But I had to go through purgatory to burn away much of my stubbornness and foolishness, my blindness and arrogance and opinion, before I could let myself move on to new endeavors. I’ll not delude myself or anyone else into thinking that I am cured of the folly that being human so often entails, but, then again, I never will be nor will anyone else. I will offer myself only the flattery that I am less sick than when I took this job, that I am less foolish than the man who took issue over the smallest of perceived slights, who dwelt constantly in the twisted precepts of his imagination and created a reality so painfully illusory and unhappy that he was fit to do no kind of work that allowed him to share illusion and unhappiness with a greater multitude of people. I never liked that guy much, and so I will leave as much of him behind as I am able when I punch in the five-digit alarm code for the final time, a little while hence.

When I started this job a small span back, I was bitter and sarcastic, and saw people and things only so well as they conformed to the veil of my bitterness and sarcasm. Sometimes that filter produced some pretty funny descriptions of events, but the descriptions were funny because I had taken reality and perverted it to fit my peculiar and unique sense of humor. I still do, of course, but try to at least recognize that that’s what’s going on. When I can’t possibly resist the urge to label things and people to conform to my snarky predisposition toward them, I at least struggle to comprehend that the description is not the event, that people are not reprobates because I’m in a bad mood, nor saints when I am ebullient. They are what they are, wholly independent of what the three pounds of gristle in my skull is inclined to designate them that particular day. Life and time transpire as they do, and my opinion of it changes matters none at all.

I saw this job, I must confess, as beneath me when I took it. I cringed at the thought that someone with my education should be reduced, out of pecuniary necessity, to a labor so menial and so mundane. I felt superior to the college students and the laborers and the vagrants and crackheads and hookers that roll through here, because I knew things and had seen things and had been places that they’ll never know and never see and never be.

And, in that regard, I was half right; all of that last assertion is true. But I came, slowly, in fits and starts, to realize that every one of those people could apply the same statement to me and be just as correct. Sure, most of the pothead furniture movers I’ve sold beer to have never poured libations in three countries or toured Pompeii or read Milton and Shakespeare or the Bhagavad-Gita or the Tao te Ching. They have not led lives that afford them the idle luxuries that I have been afforded, and have had to learn other lessons, missives hard and real and practical. They have learned to keep 35-year-old automobiles running, to work on scaffolds without plunging to their deaths, to build the buildings that I live and work in, to survive traumatic childhoods that I never had, to reap the rewards of backbreaking labor that I’ve never performed; they have learned that survival is often more an act of necessity than one of decorum or convenience, that life in a country that sometimes doesn’t like your native tongue or skin color or taste in recreational drugs can be a pretty cold thing. Many of them are brusque people, with brusque demeanors, not crafted, as I once imagined, as a personal affront to me but rather as a defense mechanism against a world which has often been unkind to them, in a manner which it has never been so ungracious to me. Whores, as Jesus himself knew, know the dark secrets of the world in a way that I do not, and cannot, ever know.

I learned, concurrently, about the fortunate ones, kids driving cars that they could never afford without parental assistance, wearing fine clothing and living lives of ostensible comfort and ease. I begrudgingly accepted that my reflexive hatred of them was nothing more than envy, that my resentment was based in the warped ideological construction that because rich people are generous to their children, that the world owes me riches. It doesn’t. Wealthy people devolving wealth onto their own does not, contrary to popular opinion, entitle any of the rest of us to a cut.

I learned about this kind of learning, that of the blessed and the unblessed, because, once I got past my initial fear and revulsion toward kinds of people whom I had never before encountered, I began to ask questions. I began to realize that everyone has a story, and that all the stories are good ones. Not good in the sense of being pleasant, always, but good in the greater sense of being enthralling testaments to the human will to persevere through misfortune, or, alternately, the heartbreaking tragedy of those who do not persevere, who live lives of melancholy defeat and despair. I learned that, sometimes, charmed lives have their own sufferings, and beleaguered ones have their conquests. In watching and listening to all these narratives, I came to a terribly belated, if never-too-late understanding: I am damned lucky to have had so little to vie against in my time on earth.

In the face of the poignant, brilliant, joyous struggles of the people whom I’ve met, I decided to become, as the wise Dr. King would have it, a great street sweeper. I’ve elected to cease doing silly things like drinking at work, picking fights with the clueless nineteen-year-olds, and resenting every moment of my time behind that counter. It didn’t happen all at once, of course, and coincided with other changes in my perspective, but it happened, slowly-but-perceptibly, nevertheless. I can now perform a very easy job without much exertion, because I decided to pay attention to what I’m doing rather than fantasize about what I’d rather be doing or dreaming about where I’d rather be. The fact that a diplomat lobbying for human rights in China and me sweeping a floor in Tennessee are not of equal importance does not mean that the latter action is unimportant: if people worldwide with low-wage employment all quit caring at once, the entire global economy would collapse overnight. The world needs ditch diggers and street sweepers, or else we’d all have a lot of flooded roads and dirty streets.

And yet, all that said, with Dr. King in mind, I realize that some people are called to be ditch diggers and street sweepers, and others, perhaps, are not. I once, years ago, worked with a mentally retarded, 50-year-old dishwasher named Shirley. She washed dishes as Michelangelo painted, and Beethoven composed, and Shakespeare penned poesy, as it was dubbed during his time. She washed dishes so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth paused to say, “Here lived a great dishwasher, who did her job well.”

But although Shirley was certainly a great dishwasher, I suspect that possibly I am not called to be a great gas guy forever; I hope that vanity can be forgiven. And so I’m going to do something else: I’m going to teach college freshmen how to write, in the hopes that one day they may be able to tell their own stories with the passion and the insight that I desperately strive for, and often fall short of, in telling mine. I am going to try to teach with love that which I have learned through turmoil and conflict, so that others may see things for themselves which I have not yet learned and may never learn—to see the world through the rigorous wonder of observation, to tell the truth as they see it and not how anyone taught it to them, to tell the story of reality better than I can tell it.

If I can sweep a floor with dignity, which I believe that I now can, then I feel that I may be ready for a greater challenge. I merely hope that I may learn as much from teaching as I have from watching these manifold incredible things transpire, from an elevated perch in a convenience store.