Friday, April 29, 2011

Excerpt from story "Blackheart" - 1993

     Obviously if I enjoy very little in life I am not going to like work.  I’m not sure of the actual definition of work (and I’m much to lazy to look it up) but I imagine it must contain something about being an activity that you hate.  It is the opposite of play, right?
     I’m not sure what that’s worth, but some days I hate my job and some days I really hate my job.  Another interesting fact from my big files of things I’ve cataloged in my mind for no reason other than to drag them out and torment myself further:  a huge percentage of the American population spends about 1/3 of their lives doing something that they, for the most part, despise.  I know there are some smug douche-bags that profess to love their jobs and get some kind of fulfillment from them, but I’m not talking about those fools.
     I’m talking about the majority of people who have to work some shitty job with some asshole boss because they need to feed and clothe themselves or their family, and if they feel like maybe they might enjoy not having to put up with it they are branded lazy or ungrateful.
     Throw in another 1/3 for sleeping, and that leaves the last third for heart-break, illness, sexual, mental and physical abuse, social anxiety, unwanted pregnancies, STD’s, missing the prom and lots of bad television… well that’s pretty small percentage left over for sheer joy.
     If you listen to most people they’ll tell you “who said life is supposed to be fun?” or “you gotta take the good with the bad.”  “No one ever said life was fair.” is another good one.
     I don’t expect it to be fair, and I’ll take the good with the bad, but who decided to let some arbitrary social structure mete out my fun in small, sparingly placed doses?
     When man was starting out all you had to do to fill your function in society was gather your share of nuts and berries or kill your antelope or fish.  Now someone decides which nuts and berries you gather and they sell them to the highest bidder.  They take your antelope and fish and they eat what they want and give the carcass to whomever they please.
     Man no longer controls his own destiny.  You either play by the rules no matter how skewed against you they are or you get plowed under, and as you play by these rules keep reassuring yourself that life’s not supposed to be fun or fair.
     But I digress.

     There haven’t been many times in my 15 years or so of working life that the experience was pleasant.  Today was one of those times when I had to go to New York and fix a piece of machinery.
     This machine was on the roof of the Chase building, a 50 story skyscraper on the lower tip of Manhattan.  The machine belonged to a construction company made up of 1st and 2nd generation Irish immigrants and when I was done working I started talking to the foreman Sean about the view from the top of the building.
     “Beautiful view, huh?” I asked him, truly impressed by the sight of the water with the statue of liberty rising in the middle of it.
     “Yeah, beautiful alright.”  He agreed in his thick Irish brogue.
     “Not such a bad job when you get a view like this all day.” I continued.
     “Yeah, I guess.” He spat back, “That’s about all.”  I could sense Sean wasn’t getting the same thrill out of the seascape as I was.
     “What’s that over there?” I asked, pressing on with the conversation.
     “That’s Ellis Island.”  He told me.
     “It’s pretty.  Very clean” I commented.  “At least people see something nice and clean when they arrive in the country,” feeling stupid as I said it realizing that people no longer arrive on crowded in boats in the harbor.
     “Yeah, it’s like everything else.  Looks nice on the outside, huh.”  It appeared Sean took my ridiculous comment as analogy.
     I had dealt with Sean before and never found him to be this miserable and cynical and I told him so.
     “Sorry.” He apologized, “I’m just sick of working for this company.  I’m looking for something else, but you know, there’s not much out there right now.”
     “Well, you know it’s America.  You can be anything you want.”
     “Hmm.  That crap again.”  He spit over the railing.  “I don’t believe that’s true anywhere, especially here.”
     I wasn’t used to being the cheerful one in the conversation, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
     “What’s that island?” I asked, pointing in a different direction.
     “Governor’s Island.” Sean informed me.
     “That’s clean too.” I offered.  “In fact, it’s beautiful.”  It was beautiful.  The grass was so green and it had a huge courtyard.  The buildings were spotless.  “What’s on that island?”
     “Rich people.” He sneered.  Apparently islands with clean buildings on it really annoyed Sean.  “They can only get there by ferry.  They live out there in their own little world.” 
      I don’t know if any of Sean’s assertions were true, but he certainly believed them.
     We stared for another moment, me in my unaccustomed joy and Sean in his ill-fitting temper.
     “I think I may go back to Ireland.”  He said out of nowhere.
     “Isn’t being in America what you thought it would be?” I asked him.
     “Yes and no.  I knew it wouldn’t be as good or as bad as I imagined.  How could anyone know another land completely different from their homeland until they got there?”
     “That’s true, I guess.” I offered feebly.  I didn’t feel like I was contributing any good points about life to the conversation.
     “I just never felt like I belonged here.”  He told me.  “Like I was part of the crowd.”
     “And that’s why you want to leave?”
     “No, I want to leave because I feel like I’m starting to belong here.”  He was staring sown at the streets now, at the cars going by, and the people, very small below.   I thought about the Rolling Stones song, you know, “Go ahead bite the big apple, don’t mind the maggots.”  I felt a little like my old self again.
     “I’m not sure I understand exactly, Sean.” I told him.
     “Well, the people I meet in America all seem to have a vague feeling of discomfort.  They’re on edge but they’re also resigned to the fact that it’s just the way they’re always going to feel.”  He looked at me and there seemed to be real fear in his eyes.  “I’m starting to feel that way too, and it feels like dying.”
     He stared at me for a minute, then he seemed to wake up and realize where he was that he was talking to a mechanic on a construction job.  He chuckled unconvincingly, not even caring that I knew it was a phony laugh meant to bridge an awkward moment.
     “Anyway,” he repeated, I think I might go back to Ireland.”
     “I thought you came here from Ireland because you were unhappy.”  I contended.  “Why go back?”
     “Well,” He replied, “sometimes I think you don’t recognize happiness until you see it from far away.”
     I thought that was a really wonderful way of looking at things.  I thought it was a beautiful realization that everything you need to make you happy is right in front of you and you have to lose it to make you appreciate it.
     Then I thought about it another way.  Maybe it’s just that when you don’t have something you think that getting it will make you happy.  Thus happiness always seems like something far away.  People always want what they can’t have.  If people wanted true happiness they would stop trying to find it everywhere else.
     Then it disturbed me to think that the one constant in both those angles is that you have the means to be happy right in front of you all the time.  Maybe the idea of happiness that’s wrong.  Maybe people imagine happiness to be much grander than it really is, that’s why they never find it.  Maybe it’s a little, insignificant thing and people trip over it while chasing illusions.  I’ll have to mention that to Topper sometime.
     At any rate I said goodbye to Sean and decided to have a quick stroll around the rooftop.  I looked off of each side, and when I looked off the last side I noticed a building in the distance with an elaborate roof-top garden.  It had a lot of wonderful looking flowers and in the middle was a large topiary sculpture of an airplane.  It was an old airplane, like a biplane from the first world war.
     I thought how odd it is that there was something that beautiful and no one on the streets below would ever see it or even know it was there.
     Then I saw, way off in the distance, a man on another rooftop.  He was looking right at me, across block after block of buildings and traffic.  We continued looking at each other for a moment, and I thought to myself ‘poor bastard, his building is at least 15 stories lower than mine.  He can’t see near the things I can see.  He can’t even see the beautiful garden with the biplane made out of hedges.
     Suddenly I raised my hand over my head and waved it back and forth, just once.  Up came his hand and he waved back, and although I couldn’t see it, I know he was smiling.
     ‘Good for him’ I thought, ‘who cares how tall his building is.’
     I was happy to realize that my black thoughts couldn’t reach him from here and sour his joy.
     What in the world was I becoming anyway?  I packed up my toolbox and went back to the elevator.

© David Ferraris 2011

1 comment:

  1. What if happiness is an illusion that only works at a distance? When you look at it up close suppose the tarnish, rust, and decay becomes apparent. Not a pretty picture.

    I think I'll stick with my own myopic view of the happiness in my life.