Thursday, November 12, 2015

9, 10 - Boomtown


              Chicago was a nightmare. Disgusting, filthy. People shitting against walls, squatting in gutters, bundles of cloth piled on the ground and I think they used to be people. I’m on a bus now, heading east, and there are Army Humvees ahead and behind of us, we’re rolling through Ohio like it’s a demilitarized zone. Somehow I feel like things will be better when we cross the border into New York, and this is the first time in my life I’ve ever thought entering Buffalo would be a positive thing, but I was born in New York, and somehow I feel like they’re still my people and they will rally.

              I know New York. I need New York. You know I need unique New York.

              The guy next to me is Steve, and he says that it’s not this bad everywhere. He says the train stations and bus depots are hot spots, people flocked to them, hoping to get somewhere safer, and when they realized there was no such thing as safer, they just… sat down.

              And the 90 is bad because it’s a main artery, it’s where the money is, it’s how the people with money get from A to B, from east to west and back again. People with money. People like me.

              I should feel bad that I’m better off, the Catholic in me knows that, but I don’t. I don’t want to be in those gutters. Maybe that makes me a bad person, maybe it’s just one of the many things that makes me a bad person, and I’ve never been in a fight in my life, not a real one, but if someone tried to take what I’ve got I’d fight for it. Just thinking about it puts a charge in my guts.

              And I’d win that fight, right? Of course I would. I’m special. I can’t throw a punch, I’ve never been hit, everything I know about self-defense I learned with a bucket of popcorn on my lap, but somehow I know that if I had to, if I was pushed to, I’d be some sort of instant badass, That Guy You’d Never Suspect.

              It is a joke and I know it, but it might be the only thing that keeps me from wetting myself right now. I have to feel like there’s some barrier between my life and theirs, like there’s some force somehow keeping me from taking a bad step and falling through a rotten floorboard.

              And I can look back on my life, and I can weigh the good against the bad, and I can twist it so the former outweighs the later. It boils down to those Good Deeds, the ones I’ve done, the ones everyone like me has done, those discrete moments of time when you decide to stop and give a shit, and then walk away a few dollars lighter, patting yourself on the back. Those prove I deserve to be okay. Right?

              But weighed against the rest of it, the mundane, day-in and day-out habit of total indifference, of not even seeing, much less caring, those little bright spots are just punctuation in a page full of inhumanity, just little pauses in an otherwise unchecked sprint to a single conclusion: I am a sucky human being.

              This bus is carting me toward my fate. My comeuppance. My just desserts. I don’t know what I’ll find when I get home, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to destroy me.


              “Please, help yourself.”
              Wendy smiled, politely, at the receptionist. She might as well have offered up a bowl of fabric softener. At least she could use fabric softener. The bowl of brightly colored gobs of sugar, chemical flavorings, and lab-generated colors were an abstraction of food to her, as separate from her biological process as one of those god-awful Chiluly pieces Susan had a thing for. Wendy hadn’t had a carb since the Bush administration, and her last piece of candy? Christ, what, grade school?
              She demurred, shook her head, politely, and said “I’m on a diet.”
              The receptionist, all three-hundred pounds of her, smiled sympathetically. “I know,” she said. “I shouldn’t even have these.” Then she leaned forward conspiratorially and added “I eat most of them myself.”
              No fucking shit. What was she looking for, absolution? Try making different choices, you weak-willed clusterfuck of a cow.
              But she smiled and nodded, woman to woman, the transaction complete. If there was one thing she had learned the hard way, and taught others the brutally hard way in turn, it was that you always pay your dues to the gatekeepers. It didn’t matter if they were an admin at the White House or the hostess at an iHop. The gatekeepers see everything, know everything, and they control access. Wars have been lost because admins were paid to misdirect communiques. Scandals that could have changed the course of history have been buried under the simple act of turning down a phone call. The most powerful person in the land is not the king. It’s the person who controls the king’s calendar.
              Malinda Whateverthefuckherlastnameis was a person to be courted, flattered, endured, humored. Malinda would be useful, would be used, gladly, happily, would skip and cartwheel toward getting used, as long as Wendy laid this groundwork first. Wendy knew she was beautiful, paid dearly to be fashionable, and worked relentlessly to be leaner and tougher than a steel beam. People who looked like her weren’t nice to people who looked like Malinda, but that was because most people who looked like her were fucking idiots. They didn’t know the value of a well-placed stooge.
              So they chatted, and Wendy did grant her that absolution of a sort, she smiled, shook her head, pouted in commiseration. She’d met enough losers, or worse, people with potential who let themselves lose, to know how to playact. Yes, it was tough sticking to a diet (it wasn’t.) Yes, men did have it easier (that one was true, but that advantage made them soft. She had yet to meet a man she couldn’t own after three minutes of quiet observation.) No, she hadn’t seen last night’s Dr. Phil, but she was certain he must have been every bit as insightful as Malinda claimed (seriously, this was how they broke terror suspects. They made them talk to Malinda about Dr. Fucking Phil.)
              The minutes crawled by, they dragged themselves by, agonizingly, the skin on their bellies worn through and their guts trailing out in a bloody tangle behind them.
              But at last, Don had an opening. Oh Don. Poor, poor, pathetic Don. He smiled as he waved her in, and she smiled back. Poor Don.
              She sat in the chair across from his desk and noted the bad springs in the seat. She took in the room in one gulp, the fishing photos, faded with age, back when his hair was still dark and all accounted for. Pictures of his kids, but also old. Certificates and trophies and awards, dusty with age. A man whose best years were behind him. She was almost sorry about how easy this was going to be.
              “So, what can I do for you?” Don asked.
              Wendy leaned forward, smiled. She had already won. The next hour would just be going through the motions. “I was going to ask you the same thing, Don.”