Occupied TerritoriesIssue: Section:
what i do is translate for the devil. i make his hateful speech comprehensible and palatable to the public so that they forget about the wickedness that is his primary business.
depending on who you ask, the company i work for has as its number one cllient either the number two or number three largest defense contractor on the planet.
i won't even call it by name. the name itself has a distinctly military ring to it. they make airplane engines and weapons systems; they finance wars; they control one of the big three networks; and they also distract the public with the bright ideas in their light bulbs and the fancy knobs on their appliances.
imagine the depths of depravity: here's a corporation whose stock is strongest when our country is at war. they build the machines that deliver the killing. AND they report on the rectitude and necessity of that killing before, during and after the killing. and they invest and shift money to finance the killing--before, during and after. it would seem--and i admit that i'm a bit cynical and jaded--that their board of directors might look on all that killing a little differently than most people.
but nobody wants to be identified as the bully's best friend, so this corporation has a kindly, avuncular face that they are at pains to put on parade.
"we're really still all about home and hearth," they tell us. "we give you the bulbs that produce that lovely lambent light by which your lovely children tend to their homework under your watchful eye, while the other lovely spouse cooks a lovely meal with our lovely, friendly appliances that anticipate, appreciate and alleviate your every need..."
we bring good things to life, indeed. so that we can make money off of killing it.
it's all a lie, and i help perpetrate it. it's how i put food on the table. there aren't many options here for a guy with my experience and skill set.
the corporation used to at least build the factotums of their distraction here. countless families bought their dream homes in the burbs, put braces on the kids, sent those kids to college and now dad dodders around the yard and mom volunteers at the church--all because the corporation couldn't beat down the unions sufficiently.
that was then.
now the gargantuan park with its own zip code and phone prefix is a shell.
what was once prime pasture got bought up and turned into huge manufacturing buildings, with attendant parking lots.
swear to god the parking lots have their own traffic lights. they are that big.
i don't know what the few people who park there anymore do all day. they say that some of the corporation's appliances are still built here. i haven't seen it.
the stuff i traffic in comes from mexico or korea.
the parking surfaces furthest from any door are fighting recolonization from the weeds that either create or take advantage of the asphalt cracks.
it's a sad place. you get the impression that the corporation really has its mind elsewhere.
but anyway, the company i work for builds the corporation's trade show exhibits, the booths designed to highlight and sell the stuff that looks benign to the public. the stuff the corporation loses money on.
we make fake kitchens, essentially: light, portable walls and detachable cabinet faces and countertops convincingly covered in laminate to look like slate or marble or whatever else the Industrial Design guys want it to look like.
a typical display kitchen (without its appliances) usually fits on one stack frame: a metal unit three feet wide by six feet long by four feet high. we build the illusory kitchens. i load them up in a couple of tractor trailers, ship them to the trade show, fly in later to set them up, babysit them during the show, then break them down and ship them home.
the shows are held in predictable places. the big shows happen in new york, chicago, san francisco, las vegas, atlanta, orlando. there are other fill-in shows, more regional affairs that might take me to st louis, dallas, new orleans, denver or pasadena, for instance. a big show means i camp out for two weeks. i might spend four days away from home on the smaller deals.
in all cases, the routine is fairly consistent. i meet up with my contracted labor crew and we build the illusion up from the electrical ports in the floor to the spotlights hanging in the rafters.
the work itself is not unsatisfying. i've always liked building shit. part lincoln logs, part legos, part tinker toy, part alphabet blocks, and/or a little moonsand, erector set, doll house, litebrite, GI Joe Adventure Tower, with some dominoes or house of cards elements thrown in... only bigger than full-grown human size in scale. and if it falls over it won't just scare the cat, it might kill somebody.
i occupy a sort of nether region, status-wise. the guys i hire on are union carpenters who make way more than me. the clients who attend the show and evaluate the booth are salespeople. they also make way more than me. i get along with both sides of the equation because i belong to neither.
the labor guys are usually a salty bunch. they speak the language of the shop. (and when i say "guys" i mean the women occasionally on the crew, as well.) which means they harass one another, pepper their talk with inside jokes and obscure expressions, and have an extensive vocabulary with which to insult each other's masculinity or competence.
the first couple of hours of the first day i usually hang back and ear hustle. i'm trying to identify the cadences of their local idiom and get a feel for the established hierarchy. to them, i am just another client.
but at heart, i am a shop rat. i can hold my own with the trash talk. in a shop setting i have said some of the vilest, most insulting things to people i genuinely like. it's the language.
in atlanta i notice the shop steward calling one of the younger guys "sixty nine point five." later, i see the kid identify a potential problem to the steward. the kid is right and it shows a keen insight.
i tell the steward, "he's got it right actually. this guy's at least a seventy-two."
at first the steward is perplexed, then relieved. i have outed myself. i am not the kind of client he is accustomed to. i am not a company man, a suit slumming in jeans, a desk jockey overlord. i actually do this shit for a living.
i speak shop.
i know that in the shop dialect, the number 70 refers to the Intelligence Quotient below which people used to be called "mentally retarded."
and so, for the next ten days, the kid will have as his name a range of numbers from 44 to "almost a hundred."
as the opening of the show approaches, i come into contact with the clients and reps. i have to speak their language, too. they live and die on words like margins, forecasts, quotas, percentages, shares, sales, profit and loss. they look at and talk about the booth in completely different terms than the folks who build it.
handed a shovel, a person in an orchard would use it to knock fruit from the trees. a person on the water would call it a paddle.
i pity the reps. they are the foot soldiers, wave after wave of them going to the front to fight and die for the commander in chief's folly.
i put the products in the holes. i can read the cartons that say "made in korea" or "hecho en mexico." really it's the same crap being stuffed in holes on all the competition's booths, too.
the reps, though, they have to stand there on the carpet for three days and, with a straight face and an earnest smile, convince potential buyers that their crap is somehow different and better than the crap in the next aisle. i think most of them believe it to some degree. some of the lifers believe it down in their nuclei, i'm afraid.
but, ultimately, that's all neither here nor there. i speak shop, i speak sales'n'marketing. i bat apples and paddle canoes. i order people around and i kiss ass.
and i do it all for free.
it's the waiting around i get paid for.
as a rule, i stay in a hotel near the convention center. usually there are a few to choose from. the same franchises are represented in most towns. they may differ in minute, insubstantial ways from one another, but in essence they are the same hotels across the country and within a city. you might get a breakfast thrown in at an embassy suites, or a few drink tickets at a hyatt, but the facilities themselves are interchangeable.
mostly the immediate environs of the hotel and con center are interchangeable as well. i've heard this part of town called numerous things. i refer to it as either The Gouge Zone or NoLo, as in no locals actually go there. i am guessing that when the convention halls were built, part of the financing involved a clause that arbitrarily inflated the price of all adjacent real estate. the ridiculous property taxes must pay down the debt or something. as a consequence only the deep pockets of the national chains can ever afford to build there. these national chains have to make their nut, so everything within walking distance of any con center is sold at a price at least 50% higher than anywhere else in town.
i find the options available to me supremely depressing. i don't patronize TGIFridays or HardRock Cafe or Carrabarra's at home, and i certainly don't like the idea of travelling across half the country to do so in a new town. but, that comfort, that familiarity, that safeness, seems to be just what conventioneers and tourists crave, and so the chains thrive. just like at home.
so, let's see... i am a whore for the devil. i deal in falsehoods and illusions to support an even grander illusion: that the devil is interested in the public's domestic tranquility and not only his own heartless advancement. with regularity i live and work in the civic red light districts that strive for and propagate a massive and numb uniformity, a sameness as empty as the whited-out eyes of some cheap blind movie villain. i move among people who speak metaphors of their own making and communicate rarely and imperfectly with other codependent tribes, and i belong to none of it.
when all signs point to SUBMIT and ACCEPT, how can i RESIST and DISAGREE?
subtly, if at all, i have found.
i tell stories. i listen to stories. i seek them out.
i throw my bag down in the hotel room for the first time and take stock.
the first thing i notice is access to natural light. maximize that, minimize the reliance on electric half-measures and pale imitations.
next, i examine the art with which the hotel entity has outfitted the room.
i can usually find one piece that sings, something personal, a work that--even though there are a hundred or so identical prints within the property-- it started life as a human expression. if it is not the first thing i see when i slide my keycard, get the green light and enter, then i move it to where it can greet me.
then i find the weakest link on the walls. the piece of detritus that most exemplifies the culture of familiarity and predictability and stasis. the piece that screams WHORE at me, the one i identify with, the one that the artist probably knew could say what the hotel chain might wish to say. the piece that speaks in a mealy voice, "we are the same because we willingly subject ourselves to the telling of and hearing of the same banal, stoopid story." the one that found a home on the wall because the burgundy matches the upholstery. ME, in other words.
i find that one, and i take it off the wall.
which can be a challenge.
if you haven't arrived with tools.
i have tools and i speak the language of mount/dismount. i applaud the ingenuity of the folks who mount this stuff to the walls.
so i move the good art into a better entry position and i lay the bad egg on a wide flat surface. i remove the print from the frame and place it beside it. i now have a canvas.
for the length of my stay, i will collect stuff and glue it on. i will construct scenes from the day. i will employ feathers, access wristbands, escort service business cards, receipts showing The Gouge, native flora, sharpie sketches on bar napkins, the valet from ghana's signature on a cell phone battery, the show brochure sliced & diced, whatever... these are the fetishes and indicators that this is life in the NoLo, which denies honest culture, which makes it difficult to remember that we are humans.
about 3 million years ago, our ancestors started making a life for themselves out of the trees. you can check this out in an awesome Discover series at pbs.org/wgbh/nova/beta/evolution/becoming-human-part1.html.
no longer safe in the trees at night, our ancestors used fire for protection while they slept.
a newly-developed lean frame and hairless body allowed our forebears to perfect "persistence hunting," which means that while other animals were laying in the shade to avoid the heat of the day, homo erectus could roust and stalk them. the early humans didn't overheat because their perspiration cooled them. their prey could only cool themselves by panting, which was impossible when being chased by little naked dods with pointy sticks. great grandpa erectus and his mates just kept harassing the poor critter until it was stopped by overexertion. protein for the whole clan.
and with the advent of fire the meat could be cooked. it was easier to chew so our teeth grew smaller. it was easier to digest and killed fewer of our kind, as well.
and while our ancestors waited for the food to cook, they sat around the fire. after a long day of cooperative persistence hunting, i can imagine there were plenty of stories to tell. the one about grog falling face-first in the dung. the time aak stepped into the hornets' nest. kaan and his bad gas, etc...
the fossil record from this time also tells us two things were happening: our ancestors' brains were getting bigger and the first verifiable evidence of social bonding starts to appear. it's as if the stories around the campfire were filling their heads and helping them to get along, or something.
there would be no utilitarian reason to keep supporting an eight year old boy who is riddled with infection from an abscess in his jaw. but the bones show that they did. for a long time, until he went septic and died.
likewise, an old man without a tooth in his head and with fragile cracking bones would have been a burden to a group of self-concerned individuals. but the bones show that somehow the old guy lived in this condition for over two years. it is quite possible that someone was chewing his food for him.
the scientists say that this is the point in history that our ancestors both began to look like us and to act like us. that is to say, like humans.
not to put too fine a point on it, but i sometimes fear that the consumerist monoculture is working to devolve us from our humanity, to destroy the social bonds that were so long in the making and that we have refined for the millions of years since.
at least in my job, here in the belly of the whale, it seems to be true....
the sameness, the white-out, could seem complete if we don't squint through it. with a little effort, it's possible to catch a glimpse of the primitive hearth most anywhere you go.
in orlando--so fresh, so new, a place where ten year old buildings are leveled to put up new ones; a place where on the strip from my hotel to the convention center i pass 3 (three) TGIFridays, one of which is billed as "the world's largest", as if that is somehow a good thing, there is Cafe TuTu Tango, "a place for the starving artist". it's a for real tapas joint, with for real prices where for real artists can afford to eat and show their for real work.
in san francisco, i highcrawl out of the hotel st francis on union square, past the bigbox boutiques and the mushroom-like proliferation of starbucks to find a thriving little thai noodle shop. through the open door i spy a well-dressed bangladeshi businessman across the table from his college age son. in the the corner sits a latina woman and her three year old daughter. they are tucking into something scrumptious. a bugged-out bolshevik typical of berkeley nurses a beer at the only other table. at the bar grandma sorts fish. mom works behind the bar at the grill, making lenin's meal. her daughter is the waitstaff. i am so there. and i am so stoopidly satisfied. for nine bucks i stuff myself and leave with tomorrow's lunch.
in las vegas i run from the neon until i find what i swear is a barrio. no one has yet to corroborate this. but i was there. i found a corner tienda/restaurant,ordered pork tacos and ate like a king. the guy who made the tacos walked me about half a mile back to a thoroughfare he thought might be safer for a carless dumbass anglo like me.
there are places like this, still stoking the campfire, in every town. usually they are just out of reach of the pulsing lights of make believe, in the shadow of the false glow. sometimes i just have to walk a little further.
mostly i can find the glimmer just by stepping outside of the hotel to smoke.
in the Gouge District, the population moving on the sidewalks around the expensive hotels, eateries and shops can be assumed to have n hand a fair bit of disposable income (excluding of course those in uniforms). this, in turn, attracts panhandlers of a certain type. these are not customarily the "spare a quarter?", broad net types. across the board, in most cities, the quote-unquote bums around the convention centers possess a certain degree of game.
they target their mark with a precise payoff algorithm in mind. they make their case. usually it's fairly elaborate, and almost always invokes unforeseen circumstances and couple of children and/or a wife who would be the true beneficiaries of my compassionate donation. often it begins with an apology and then another apology prefaces the closing argument about why i should kick down some cash.
but factored into their algorithm is the assumption that in the NoLo Zone, the faces change quickly. marks come and go and are never seen again. i am out smoking in roughly the same spot near the entrance to the hotel for many consecutive days, however. i tend to pick up on repetition not intended for me.
by the third or fourth day i will point out to roddy that his family has been stranded in a car, out of gas, waiting to make it to the shelter before it closes for roughly 96 hours. apparently the cumulative $12 i have given him hasn't been enough or something...
or that james, with his striking green eyes and amazing cocoa skin, has professed that today is his 43rd day clean and sober for at least the past five days...
or that clement needs needs needs to catch a cab because the buses have stopped running and he's late for a final evaluation at the bellagio, an evaluation that of course will land him a coveted and lucrative egg-job in vegas if he can only get there in the next ten minutes. for roughly 5750 minutes your future has hung in the balance, clement. maybe you should start walking...
but that is the point where recognition begins.
i am not just another mark, another person who can afford to be here. i don't belong here any more than you do. i'm out here hustling, too. i'm lying and covering the shit of my lies in pure dripping cane sugar. and i'm helping to sell the poison as candy once it hardens. and it is making me sick, even though it never comes back to my lips. my lies, what i am selling, actually helps to kill people, as a matter of fact. i am not ok with that, but i got a kid to feed, for real, and i am trying to drive the nourishment to him in an honest way from a dishonest motor pool. i'm hustling, my friend. i am lying. i am not what you think i am, nor am i anything like what i'd hoped to be.
and you, you are not just the vagrant i have watched every day for the last week or so. you are not just a bum, panhandler, or freeloader.
once we have gotten past that, the surface trappings and apparent circumstances that tell us as much as a facebook status update, once we find ourselves face to face and holding space for each other, then then then we begin to recognize one another.
you are yolanda, who escaped to atlanta from rural tennessee from an abusive boyfriend with what would appear to have been a huge mouth, judging by the expanse of bite scar on your left cheek.
you are not just "the joke man". you are clarence, who lost everything after a nasty divorce and who now wages a silent battle with the bottle and periodic depression in between telling cornball jokes for money.
and you are james, and behind those electric green eyes, you probably are just plain shitbird crazy. but i see a huge heart and remarkable compassion when you tell me how you tend a flock of feral cats with your daily proceeds. i may see through your fabrication about 43 days of sobriety, but i see the truth on your face when you talk about your cats.
you are henry, and you are proud to the point of tears when you talk about the son you didn't raise who now plays college football.
you are Ouisa, still a big sister even though you sleep behind a dumpster these days.
i remember you and you remember me. we have chased prey together under a boiling sun, and we have sat across the fire telling stories in the dark.
that is the flicker of the campfire in our eyes now. we are no longer marks or tools or instruments. we are no longer employees or clients. we are neither buying or selling or maintaining elaborate lies about what our intentions are. we are not going to save or fix one another tonight. we are not going to develop a deep and lasting relationship. this is neither cataclysmic or momentous.
this is refreshingly mundane.
and it is real.
this is two bipeds connecting, rediscovering the shape of and sharing a bond for a minute or two, despite the odds. this is how we have evolved to act.
that glimpse of your silhouette there by the fire, that brief reminder will be enough for me. it will pay for the trip with the stablest currency i know.
and with that payday in hand, i can afford to finish amending the artwork in the hotel room. i will tell our little story with all the little pieces. i will pop it behind the glass and reframe it. i will mount it on the indistinguishable wall in the indistinguishable hotel in the indistinguishable part of town, then i will leave.
i don't know what anyone who comes after will think about it. maybe no one will notice.