A few years ago – actually a few more than a few – I was ever so close to becoming a full-fledged drone in the beehive of modern-day America. During that time, I was still merely an apprentice — one of many youthful human resource units at the disposal of a large and powerful Wall Street corporation. My job was to sit at a desk ten hours a day and do various unimportant things. In return, I received money. Not that much of it, but just enough so that I didn’t have to worry constantly about how much I was spending. Forty thousand a year, let’s call it, though it was probably only thirty-eight at best.
Now, you may say to yourself, forty grand’s not bad for just sitting at a desk and doing a few things here and there. And I would have to agree with you. The trouble is this kind of activity — or, really inactivity — can be very boring; and in my opinion, there is no way to be adequately compensated for having boredom inflicted on you day after day, week after week, year after year, at a rate of ten hours a day.
Boredom is an awful thing. And also a relatively recent phenomenon, historically speaking. In all likelihood, there wasn’t very much of it around before the twentieth century, except perhaps among the aristocracy — about whom no one cares. In previous ages, people were too miserable to be bored. They had too much to worry about — death, famine, disease, abject poverty, just to name a few blights. They had to work eighteen-hour days in coal mines and factories from the age of about eight until about the age of thirty-five, when they generally died. They didn’t have the time or energy to be bored.
Now, only people in third world countries and big American cities have these kinds of outdated concerns. The average middle-class individual spends sixty hours a week sleeping, forty hours a week working — or at least, sitting in a chair — ten hours a week traveling, and twenty hours a week running errands. This leaves roughly forty or so hours in which he might attempt to entertain himself. Few individuals, however, have either the imagination or capital necessary to entertain themselves for forty hours a week. Most would be hard-pressed to divert themselves for half, or even a quarter, of that time. As a result, the typical modern individual wastes at least twenty hours a week being bored. Adding in the forty hours a week which most people spend bored at work, the grand weekly boredom total for the modern world comes to sixty hours — or, in other words, more than a third of an entire human existence.
It is a truism that life is too short. But, by the standards of the current century, I would have to disagree with this. I would say that it is too long. By sixty hours a week.
As much time as I myself spent disaffected on the job, the truth is when I think back now, I can’t remember actually being disaffected. In fact, I’m slightly embarrassed to say, I’m not sure I can remember my job at all. I remember what the office looked like and a few people who used to work in it. But, particular events and moments in time escape me. Now, is that remarkable? I don’t think so, because when you consider it, what is boredom really but a series of unmemorable moments, strung together ad nauseum, beginning and ending without note?
The one thing I do vividly remember about my job is that I quit it. I did this four months before I was due to attend business school, my plan being to take the summer off (against my father’s advice) and entertain myself in Europe. As it turned out, not as much entertainment was to be had as I’d anticipated; and, like most tourists, I found myself doing a lot of grinning and trudging around, wondering if I was having a good time and hoping that I was not being systematically ripped off by locals.
Returning home to New York, I found quite a bit of depressing business school mail sitting in my mailbox — really, my father’s mailbox, because I was living in the apartment which he had recently vacated and was now attempting to sell. It was difficult to decide whether the mail was more demoralizing in the tediousness of its contents, or in its sheer volume. I couldn’t believe that one institution could demand so many fees, signatures, and applications from a single individual. One day, while perusing an extremely complicated housing request, it occurred to me that this inundation of annoying paper might well be an omen of my life to come. Not in the hereafter or anything, but right here on Earth. It was not an appealing prospect.
Yet, looking around me, as far as I could see, everyone else seemed to have little or no problem with the dull, infinitely recurring routines of adult life. My friends were nearly all in workaholic high-paying jobs and making various preparations for business school or law school or transfer to other, even more workaholic, higher-paying jobs. Surely, I told myself, they knew what they were doing. These individuals were former valedictorians, All-American athletes, Ivy League graduates. They were the cream of the crop — the front lines of the most recently come-of-age generation. Surely, these future captains of industry and government could not be duped. Surely, they understood the essence of life and had made sensible decisions about it. Still, I couldn’t shake the vague, uneasy feeling that all was not right. My father, the psychiatrist, was sure it was I who had the ridiculous ideas. “Look at John,” he would say. “Look at Lawrence. They’re all doing very well. Do you see them complaining? No. They want to get ahead. They want to make a life for themselves. Meanwhile, what are you doing, Gordon? Stalling. It’s ridiculous.”
It was true I was stalling. I wasn’t sending any forms in to business school, and the mail kept piling up. My father’s logic, which I found invariably to be of the sink-or-swim, don’t-like-it-tough-luck variety, was of little consolation. What troubled me, however, was the possibility that the advice, though not very life-affirming, was, nonetheless, good.
The day before I was supposed to make the trip to school, I started packing my things. I still hadn’t dealt with most of my pre-matriculation paperwork, but it was very certain that I was going to matriculate. There was no turning back now. The process had been set in motion. I had a roommate, a place to live; I’d picked my courses. Everything was falling into place for me, like tumblers on an enormous, daunting lock.
I was sitting on the kitchen floor in shorts and a T-shirt. My stepmother — at that time, my dad’s girlfriend — was helping me pack up the glasses and dishes. She was doing all the work. I was just sitting, legs spread apart, staring dully into space. Every once in a while, I would pick up an object and mechanically put it into a crate.
“What’s the matter?” my not-yet-stepmother said.
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t you want to go to business school?” she asked.
I took several seconds to reply. I wasn’t actually thinking during this time. I was just silent.
“No, I don’t,” I said.
“Then why are you going?”
“What else would I do?”
“I don’t know. Isn’t there something you like?”
“There are plenty of things I like,” I said. “It’s just that nobody will pay me to do them.”
She finished crushing a wad of newspaper into one of the boxes on the floor.
“Then go to business school,” she said.
I nodded thoughtfully. She taped the box shut. In the moment during which the package was sealed, I had a vision of myself inside the box, where the dishes and glasses should have been. Inside the box, there was no air or light, only the faintly nauseating odor of aging newsprint and the feel of yellowing paper against my face. I felt something in my brain give way and snap…
We were all standing in the dining room. My father was looking at his mail. I had said what I had to say, and somehow he was still inspecting his mail. There were only about five or six letters, and he had looked them all over at least twice. It occurred to me that pretty soon he would have to start opening them or look up, one or the other.
He started opening them. He didn’t say anything for five minutes. It was easily five minutes by the kitchen clock.
The argument, when it came, was exactly as bad as I expected. It lasted roughly three years. Before it got into full swing, my father and stepmother went into another room, and she calmed him down. When they came back out, I was on the phone, explaining to my former future-roommate that he should not drive through New York with his U-Haul to pick me up. He took the news very well, I had to say. Especially after I agreed to pay the whole first month’s rent. Our brief and somewhat awkward conversation was over in less than ten minutes. I expressed my mixed feelings about not matriculating, and he wished me the best in whatever career I eventually pursued. At the end of our chat, we said we would talk to each other soon and, of course, we did not. Sometime after our conversation ended, I was back on the phone again, with a faceless, nameless educational bureaucrat who, upon being informed of my decision not to attend business school this fall, next fall, or any fall, merely asked me for my social security number, said thank you when I gave it to her, and then hung up.
The following April, I was sitting on the West-facing terrace of my father’s still-unsold eighteenth-floor apartment, listening to the stereo and drinking some kind of orange-colored alcoholic beverage concocted for me by my friend, Rodney K. James. The booze had come from my dad’s liquor bar, which, incidentally, was in a state of severe depletion, thanks to Rodney’s frequent visits.
At the present moment, Rodney was rocking back on a lawn chair so that he was on his tippy-toes. After a few seconds, he put his drink down, belched, and patted his stomach in bemused satisfaction. Although he was over six feet tall, large-limbed, and prematurely gray to boot, there was something infinitely juvenile about Rodney. The way he drank, ate a candy bar, watched television, or even squinted at faraway objects tended to remind me of what he was like when he was younger while simultaneously making me wonder how much he had really changed since that time. Unshaven and dressed in a rumpled pocket T-shirt, black jeans and sockless loafers, he could have passed for forty-one or twenty-one. In his own way, Rodney was timeless, a child existing in a body that was passing through the stages of the human life cycle. And in some other way, he was an adult — indeed someone who, having sprouted his first gray hair at the age of ten, had never really been a child at all.
At this time, I could not have called myself gainfully employed. What I was doing, to my considerable embarrassment, was working as a “Kelly Girl.” For those unfamiliar with the temporary employment game, let me explain. There was no cross-dressing involved. I was a temp, and I worked for a large agency. I got paid eleven to fourteen dollars an hour, depending on whether I was working for the city or an entity that actually had some money, and I worked as frequently or infrequently as the Kelly people wanted. On days that I wasn’t working, I went in and sat in the Kelly waiting room in one of my Brooks Brothers suits until my name was called. I sat with people of all ages, sexes, and ethnic persuasions. I sat wondering whether ten years from then my shoes would be as scuffed, my suit-cuffs as worn, and my hair as thin as the forty- and even fifty-year-old veterans of the temporary wars who loitered about like so many refugees.
If I thought my old job was tedious, working as a temp was something worse than that. There are only two things worse, in my opinion, than boredom. One is physical pain. This, fortunately, I was spared. The other is humiliation. This I was helped to in great servings.
As a graduate of one of the more prestigious, or at least pretentious, universities in the country, I had worked in a job where I had been given, at the tender age of twenty-one, a secretary. Now, at the age of twenty-four, I was taking orders from people just out of high school. They were telling me what to do, and what was more, they were speaking very slowly, so that I could understand them better. They were instructing me to make photocopies of documents, pick up envelopes in the mail room, hold all Mister X’s calls. They were explaining that I should spellcheck a document, but not worry about the big words.
Rodney thought I would have been much better off tending bar than working as a temp. The trouble was I had no bartending experience and didn’t really feel like attending bartending school. Also, unlike Rodney, I was not the kind of person who could successfully lie my way into a service industry job for which I was unqualified, then, after getting fired, repeat the procedure elsewhere, until I became sufficiently experienced to avoid being exposed as a fraud.
Rodney actually set up one bartending interview for me, with the balding owner of a few just-out-of-college Upper East Side bars. I told him I had six months of bartending experience, which I claimed to have accumulated in a distant town in the not-so-distant past. By coincidence, he told me, he happened to be very familiar with that particular establishment. Ten or eleven words into my first major job interview lie, and I was caught in it. Ultimately, it didn’t matter, though, because he went on in the same breath to inform me that he didn’t need any bartenders, I didn’t have the requisite two years of experience, and that if I wanted to get on the waiting list, he could bring me in as a barback sometime towards the middle of the decade. I told him thanks, complimented him, for lack of anything else to say, on his cowboy hat, and left. Later, Rodney berated me for not lying more elaborately, as the situation demanded.
Unlike me, Rodney was employed — at least, nominally. He worked as a free-lance photographer’s assistant and was starting to do some work on his own now for the first time. As far as I could make out, Rodney worked only one or two days a week. The rest of his time he spent carrying his “book” around, sleeping, and sponging drinks off various bartenders he knew around the city. Rodney was one of those people who, no matter how much money they are making, is always broke. I had never seen him withdraw more than twenty dollars from an automatic teller, and often he had only loose change to get through the day. He ate a lot of his meals at my dad’s apartment, using whatever odds and ends he could find in the refrigerator to make big sloppy sandwiches, heavy on mustard and mayonnaise.
Rodney and I had been friends since the fifth grade. The main thing to know about him was that he was determined to become great at something, and he didn’t care especially what. The actual activity didn’t matter so much as the achievement of greatness. His whole being was centered on an indestructible beam of desire, a lust to ascend, God-like above the poor mass of humanity and to look down upon it, smiling — or saying “I told you so” — one or the other. And if people were going to think him foolish, then so be it. He would have the last laugh over a margarita somewhere.
Even at the age of fourteen or fifteen, when he was planning to be the next Bjorn Borg and would make me play tennis with him in twenty-degree weather with no net on the court — he was the master of his fear. When people would walk by, softly chuckling to themselves, Rodney would say to me, “Don’t even look at them, Gordo.” And he would clobber a flat, powerful serve into the spastic wind.
The spring of the year in question, Rodney and I began spending a disproportionately large number of our afternoons reclining in a somewhat torpid state on my father’s lawn furniture, contemplating the somewhat dubious future that lay before us. While he contentedly slurped down daunting combinations of juice, fruit, and liqueur du jour, and talked of glorious things to come, my mind often wandered among the treetops of Central Park, calculating how much money I had left in my bank account and wondering what on earth I was going to do with myself between now and my old age.
I had this vague idea that I wanted to do something creative — I’d already tried and hated business, so I figured I might as well swing to the opposite extreme. The trouble was that the arts, unlike crime and Wall Street, didn’t pay. All of which meant I was going to have to either find some kind of school to go to or get another job.
I had toyed with the idea of going to something called “film school,” mainly because I’d heard you didn’t have to be either very bright or talented to go — all you needed was the money to pay for the “education” they gave you. Also, I liked the movies in principal, if not practice. They were always air-conditioned and sometimes entertaining — or, at least they used to be. I remembered enjoying “Alien,” “Jaws,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and any number of other violent and dark seventies-type films in which people were eaten, beaten, and shot for no real reason other than that they were living in a wicked world.
In Rodney’s opinion, film school was a waste of time. He had gone for a year, and all he had to show for it was a short about a day in the life of a dog. The short was not one of his favorite subjects. The only thing I can remember him telling me about it was that in order to achieve the effect of the “dog’s point of view,” he had to mount his sixteen millimeter camera on a skateboard and scoot around campus, pulling the contraption with a string.
Rodney’s advice to me was if I ever wanted to make a movie, I should just take all the money I was going to spend going to film school to learn to make a movie and, with it, actually make one. I tried to explain to him that there was a slight catch to this theory: If I didn’t go to film school, I wouldn’t know how to make a movie.
“Yeah, but I would,” said Rodney.
We were sitting on the terrace, gazing off with alcohol-laden ambivalence at the vast architecture of Central Park West. “You want to make a film together?” I said, deadpan.
“Why not?” said Rodney.
“That’s funny,” I said.
“What’s so funny?”
“How would we make a film Rodney?”
“Well, I’d direct, and you’d…” He thought for a moment. “Produce,” he concluded with a note of abstraction in his voice.
“Produce? What does that mean?”
“It means…” said Rodney, clearing his throat for emphasis, “you put in the money.” He lowered his sunglasses — my sunglasses, actually (he’d sort of permanently borrowed them from me) — and with a smile added, “I believe you’ve got some of that.”
“I only have about eight thousand in my savings account,” I pointed out, “and I don’t have a job.”
I felt somewhat foolish saying this to someone who didn’t even have a savings account, but I said it anyway.
“Eight thousand’s not bad,” replied Rodney with an impressed frown. “What about the stock fund?”
I couldn’t help groaning inwardly at the mention of the “stock fund.” It wasn’t just that Rodney’s uncanny knowledge of my finances was disconcerting, it was also that I knew we were now entering into a dangerous area of discussion. I had a discretionary stock account that my parents had started for me when I was six years old. They’d put in a few thousand dollars initially and added to it a little every year, whenever relatives sent me money or they felt like putting some in. When the stock market took off, as it does every other decade or so, the value of my holdings increased substantially. The account now held more than sixty thousand dollars, which technically was mine. I’d never even thought about dipping into it on a lark. The money was supposed to be for graduate school or emergencies — catastrophic illness, dismemberment, that sort of thing.
After I informed Rodney that I couldn’t touch the stock fund, he countered, “Why not? It’s yours, isn’t it?”
“Look, I’m not…” I began, but stopped.
“You’re not what?” pressed Rodney.
“Who do you think?”
Rodney shook his head. One side of his mouth was smiling and the other side was just sitting there. “Your Father,” he said a little snidely. He took a large gulp from his glass, then began crunching ice between his teeth.
“Look, it doesn’t matter,” I retorted. “Even if it was okay for me to touch it, I wouldn’t use it all up on some half-baked scheme anyway.”
Rodney’s eyebrows bounced up and down. He turned to me, licking some orange pulp off one of his fingers.
“Who said anything about using it all?”
For a moment, I teetered between derision and mild curiosity.
“Why, how much would it cost?” I said, almost in spite of myself.
“All it would take would be a few thousand dollars,” Rodney continued. “The most it would cost, if you wanted to do it really professionally, would be twenty thousand.”
On the subject of film production, I knew next to nothing. I was, however, under the impression that movies were mainly eight-figure projects that were undertaken by people who lived in California.
Sensing my skepticism, Rodney started to explain to me some of the rudimentary facts of the movie business. According to him, movies could be made and actually were being made for tiny amounts of money all over the country. Young people like ourselves were simply renting equipment cheaply, getting people to work for a pittance, and going out and shooting films. Hardly any of them actually made it into the movie theatres, he admitted, but that was because they all stunk. The movie we made, he assured me, would not stink.
“I don’t know, Rodney,” I said. “This sounds kind of crazy to me.”
At that point, Rodney put a reassuring hand on my shoulder and said, “Listen, Gordo, I don’t mean to pressure you. It’s just something to think about. For the future. You know what I’m saying?” Then he settled back into his seat thoughtfully and said, as if it had just occurred to him, “What the hell, you never know. One day maybe I’ll have some money. We can do it then.”
Rodney turned his head slightly and started sucking on an ice cube. I watched him for a moment, a twang of guilt reverberating dully inside me. Then I looked away and tried to think of something else.
A few days later, I was not particularly shocked to find myself sitting in the same position, in the same place, with the same person. Since our previous get-together, it terrified me to realize, nothing of any real importance had happened. We had eaten a few more meals, slept off another hangover or two, and grown a bit older. Time, in essence, had stood still. Only, of course, it had not stood still. Instead, it had marched forward at the alarming rate of twenty-four hours a day.
For some reason, the Kelly people hadn’t called me this week. They hadn’t called me the week before either, actually, but I hadn’t thought much of it at the time. If I really wanted to work, I suppose, I could have sat in their depressing offices all day long. Lately, though, I’d had trouble getting myself in my suit and downtown. In reality, the only thing I dreaded more than sitting around useless in their waiting room all day was actually getting hired. The last temp job I’d had, these consultants had taken advantage of my arrival to photocopy what seemed like the entire contents of their file cabinets. It took me a whole week of slaving all day, every day, nine to five. I started to hear the churning sound of the copy machine in my sleep. I’d get in in the morning and carry a few thousand pages of paper into the tiny, suffocating room where the huge, erratic machines were located. Eight hours later, I would emerge carrying twice that amount in a stack that stretched from my knees to my chin. What happened in between? It was anybody’s guess. My only memory was the flash of light from under the lid of the photocopier and my feeling of annoyance when the machines would run out of paper or jam.
I found sitting on the terrace infinitely preferable to running a copy machine. The only problem was I felt guilty doing it. I felt like my father was going to walk in any minute and reprimand me. I also felt like maybe he’d be right in doing it. That was the worst part. God forbid, maybe I really was nothing better than a spoiled, milquetoast post-adolescent who was unreasonably and passive-aggressively shirking his responsibilities as a member of the great American middle class.
Rodney’s presence did nothing to alleviate my angst. If anything, his being there exacerbated it. What day was it anyway? I asked myself. Who knew? Who cared? The day of the week or month only matters if you have a calendar, if you are ticking the days off to some specific purpose. I had no such purpose. Purpose was something I was utterly without. I was a vessel empty of purpose. A biological machine winding down, slowly but inexorably progressing towards…
The day waned.
I could feel the sun pressing with gentle insistence against my forehead. We were on our third round of the afternoon. The alcohol had dulled and warmed my senses. My mind was a blank. Rodney’s? It was always a little difficult to tell what was going on in there. This much I could say. He was contentedly stirring his fresh drink with a long and double-jointed index finger. For some reason, the relaxed motion of his hand gave me the distinct feeling that nothing was going to happen on that terrace in the next minute, hour, or year.
Something did happen, though, a few minutes later. There was a click of the terrace door, and my father appeared in the doorway. He was wearing a tan sportcoat, a white shirt, slacks, and a burgundy tie knotted in a bulbous, octagonal Windsor knot. His gold-rimmed spectacles were perched invisibly on the crest of his nose. He held his keys in one hand and some mail in the other.
“Enjoying the sunshine?” he inquired a little too congenially. The “on my terrace” and the “in the middle of the day” were implicit.
“Trying to,” I responded.
I noticed he was now staring somewhat intently at Rodney’s drink. Rodney put the glass down, as casually as possible, near his chair.
“How are you, Rodney?” he asked, perhaps trying to decipher the glass’s contents. The concoction was greenish-orange — a forbidding combination of Grand Marnier, orange juice, and Creme de Menthe.
“Very well, and yourself, Dr. Goodman?”
“Well, you know, just the working life.”
I cleared my throat irritably.
“I thought you just took a vacation in Europe,” Rodney said.
“Yes, we did. That’s right.”
“How was that?”
“Oh, it was wonderful. Very relaxing. But then you get back and all the bills are all piled up.”
My father walked over to the window and scrutinized the double pane of tinted glass momentarily.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I thought you were going to clean this.”
“It doesn’t look very clean to me.”
“You want me to do it again?”
“Please,” he said.
I did my best to smile.
“Did any brokers come up today?” he asked.
“Two,” I responded.
“Did they stay long?”
Seeming a bit disheartened, he looked into the apartment through the window. “Have you vacuumed recently?”
“Vacuum again, would you?” he told me. “And clean the stove.” He walked back to the terrace door, but did not leave. Neither Rodney nor I said anything. “So, what are you two going to do with the rest of the day? Anything?”
In retrospect I’d have to say it was the “anything” that really did it. The rest of what he said was de rigueur, but the “anything” I found uncalled for. I looked over at Rodney, who was squinting sightlessly through the terrace’s steel bars. Their shadow made a striated pattern on his white shirt.
I thought for a moment.
“Yeah, we’re going to make a movie,” I said.
My father’s brow furrowed in confusion. He chuckled. “A what?”
Rodney had turned his head one hundred eighty degrees to look at me.
“You know, a movie,” I said. “Like… ‘Gone With the Wind.'”
My father chuckled again, this time a bit oddly, then departed. The terrace door snapped shut.
When he was gone, Rodney took off my sunglasses and regarded me with colossal irony.
“Just for the record, Gordo… that was an attempt at humor, am I right?” he said.
I didn’t answer right away. I was watching a small red balloon drift upwards towards the rooftops of Madison Avenue. It had a pretty good head of steam, and I was rooting for it to make it past the high-rises, into the light-filled blue sky and beyond. A gust of wind scooped it up, and it sailed, wobbling, over a water tower and a TV antenna. The lovely white clouds beckoned.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
Banner Image: By John Kratz from Burlington NJ, USA (Universal Minute 16) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons