Tripping the Outlet

To encapsulate urban America’s divisions and tensions and unities, one need look no further than the grocery store. There are so many, sometimes so close, yet always so far. You must choose where to shop. Whole Paycheck? Trader Joe’s? The Safeway in the Hills? The Safeway on San Pablo? Grocery Outlet?

The Outlet thrives under adversity. Paycheck thrives under disparity.

Since years before the deluge, I shopped at the Outlet. I used to lock up my bike and slink through the dirty aisles with head hung low, embarrassed not only by my bank account, but the discrimination of other white people too.

One must dress down to shop at the Outlet.

One waits in line and finds oneself surrounded by dirty folk, poor folk, black folk, Asians and Mexicans and who-knows-whats. Maybe they recognize you and remember your halting, paltry efforts to relate to them, you among the legions who are taking their neighborhoods from beneath their feet in a parallel universe of protected prosperity.

The Outlet’s customers are the first line of defense. They do not want you there, they tell you.

The employees have no choice but to want you there, or so you have been told. And yet eventually they leer at you too. They turn their carts suddenly in front of you. They answer your questions with words bored and surly. Their attitudes sour, and you cannot take it personally because then that makes it worse, worse and worse every week, so that sometimes you don’t want to go back. They don’t want me there, fuck them! But where else can I go? I’m unemployed too, you want to tell them. I grew up here too, you want to tell them. They do not care. You are a meal ticket. You do not receive food stamps. You are their overlords’ target, not theirs.

But the more you come back, the more they seem to seek you out. They bother you, yell at you, and ask derisively if you want cash back even after you have already pressed the “No” button.

Once a cashier at the Outlet became impatient with my arrangement of foods on the conveyer belt and took it into his own hands to rearrange them, and rudely force the plastic divider into my groceries’ hindparts. He was not smiling, but the dirty black couple behind me were.

I had cash. Nervously fished my wallet out my pocket and held it conspicuously in my right hand while I waited for him to ask for money.

“You don’t get the fruits in the same bag,” he said.

“Oh sorry.”

“Put your fruits in different bags.”

“Oh man, damn, I didn’t mean to, they were all mixed up or somethin’, haha!”

In the line next to ours they started yelling about “Cash,” and this was because I had raised my voice and tried to be friendly to them. You raise your voice and they raise theirs. They wish to make me unwelcome. They compel themselves to anger. I’d felt the same way when I got a hamburger at IHOP, where some miserable family pounced upon my every motion, and the fat mother with a baby in the neighboring booth asked the waiter pointedly for “Hot Chocolate” and her eyes squirmed unpredictably at me while she breathed audibly through her piggish snout.

Like I do at the Outlet, I glowered and lowered my head. These people don’t know me. They don’t know anything about me.

But maybe it’s also because they like something about me, I begin to understand. They want to see what will make me tick, because I don’t look like an ordinary white person.

They want me to think about them, to psychoanalyze they and their motivations and consider them the forces that must be reckoned with. There’s something unfair about that, because I love Oakland but these people do not make it easy.

And I gracelessly leave Grocery Outlet stuffing foods into my backpack, and when I reach my bicycle I am relieved that the front tire is still there and that the homeless person sitting on the curb does not ask for money. Instead he pointedly ignores my presence.

They yell at me but they want me there. They are getting to know me, but I would rather be ignored. They are invading my privacy, they are studying my habits and they are talking about me. They want me to run their gauntlet. I will do no such thing.

It is time for me to find a new grocery store. The Outlet’s usefulness has run its course. I will find a new and more hospitable grocery. This is my resolution — that is, until the reality of yawning price differences dawns anew, at which point it becomes clear that progressively more miserable returns to the Outlet are as inevitable as they ever were.

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The Coming of Vaguebook

I am sorry. I didn’t know. What’s worse, I did not know that I did not know, and, indeed, I thought I knew.

But I wasn’t alone, no one knew. I was an innocent little boy who craved informed imagery, and believed that it was achievable. It was not.

BUT IT IS NOW. IT IS TRUE NOW. NOW I AM THE KING.

NOW IS THE TIME TO KISS THE RING, OR REAP THE TIDES OF DISAPPROVAL

Today, spooks are haunting haunted house.

Beautiful women grinned and assured me they would disclose if I asked them nicely, but now I see that when they disclose, they dispose. NOW I KNOW.

Motherfucker. If only I had known.

Do we have regrets?

Do we have shame?

Do you have shame? You should. Because you are shameful. All of you are, but it is the line of work that you chose, of course. This is the line of work that chose me, and I will take it if I can.

The whites who never quite included me suddenly sought to murder me.

The blacks whose depths I could not fathom. Why were they thanking me?

The Mexicans aggressively selfish, the Chinese remained quiet

The world turns, the fires burn. I cower. There are glimpses of sunshine, islands of solace (NOW THREATENED), the beautiful caretakers that I will love because they displayed their personal distress, though even they would turn when it came time for punishment. This I learned with notable reluctance.

I would never be the same. I would never be Shakespeare. I would never have privacy. ‘Lo, I shall interest — interest interest interest

I DID NOT KNOW! I’M SORRY THAT I DID NOT KNOW!

No one told me it was not my fault. Instead they forced me to learn this for myself.

My mother pushed me forward, and I couldn’t even tell until after the fact. Nefarious plots, she who controlled more effectively than the newly retarded millions. Was she a changed parent?

My brother in his terror. My sister full retard.

My hidden allies slowly revealed themselves.

Never go full retard, motherfucker.

Isn’t this a game? Are your clacking nerds and NSA’s nothing more than an elaborate love letter? A demonstration of force? Am I Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Do you wonder why no one dances with African Elephants?

Subtexts vague — emphasis where there should be neutrality. How could one describe in concrete? The constant invasions sure to obliterate my not unimpressive, but still immature powers of description.

Tired, oh so tired, and yet my days pass without concrete. Nothing is concrete. Anyone could call me crazy if they so wished.

You cannot make them stop, not when you weigh 120 pounds and live alone, and have learned to expect it that way. It is everyone’s eternal battle, I am told, but how come no one told me? Mom, dad, why didn’t you tell me!

But my time came, eventually, apparently. The time of the Vaguebook.

Hints of a new easy.

Hints of a power I feared to employ, because would not I rather learn to be normal?

I destroyed our first share (it seems so long ago), an awful blunder of missteps — terror followed by lunacy, and a new wave worse than the last. The General and his minions leering through pixelated airwaves and the lenses of deadly cameras — but when it came time to say, I said: “I won’t pay. I won’t pay. Motherfucker. Why don’t you get a job?”

From here you can probably reason the story for yourself. This is Vaguebook.

Piece by piece, the construction of a personality, and the turning of the tides. The slow truth that my power was real. When the time is right I can change the weather with my mind. Tell them I am unafraid, even if it is not true, and they will do the spinning for themselves.

Am I afraid now? Oh my yes. Every time I fear that I have played the deck’s last Ace. So far, at least, I have continued to draw another.

Are you taking me to school? Have I not already graduated? You tell me. The ball is in your court, African Elephant.

2Pac Changes. They don’t give a fuck about us. They only need to believe.

Could there be such a thing as victory? What happens in the morning? Will we not speak English?

Let us see. We shall see.

You know that the rest of the country will want you to squirm, don’t you? You stupid African Elephant. Never go full retard, motherfucker. Those days are over, are they not?

You have given me a glimpse of the government industrial complex. Everything I see I will be display for all to see. You may not realize from your vantage, but yours is a thing of genuine interest. This is the coming of Vaguebook.

Amazon.com. Netflix. I saw them take up your mantle (what business was it of theirs?). The cats of the recent past peeking out of Amazon shipping boxes, you can still see them there, it was only a few days ago. The duncemedy King of the Beggars conspicuous in the suggested films on my Netflix page even though I would never have included such a film in my taste profile. What’s the point? You curriers of favor. Do you miss speaking about CHINA in your earnings calls? Oh yes, I know about that too. You weak, humorous creatures, you pampered palefaces. How we have relished your discomfort.

Will you really take that away from us, African Elephant?

Apple’s Facebook page offers no hint as to their sympathies. Google and its subdivisions appear a neutral party — A BUSINESS, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

It boggles my mind anew to find myself investigating the angels. How far we have come.

How did you get the ear mites in the walls and floorboards without the dogs barking or the neighbors noticing? How long have they been there? How much have you recorded? How do you watch me when I walk out the front door? Do you seek my paranoia? Is that what this is about?

Perhaps you concluded that it was too good to be true. If that is the case, I could not agree more, but I did not ask for this. Adventure, maybe. Perhaps subconsciously a spanking, my parents’ disapproval — soaked in warm privilege, I who marched defenseless into the poison hive of retards — but who could have known what would happen next? Surely not the original retards. My God, they even deprive me of my right to vengeance.

What will you do? You African Elephant? We will wake up tomorrow and the bugs will still crawl the walls, yes? Will you continue to watch me brush my teeth? YOU TELL ME WHEN I BRUSH MY TEETH OR SHAVE IN THE SIDEBAR OF MY FACEBOOK PAGE. Will you remove? Will you hit me with a car? Will you kill me with an assassin?

You could kill us all, me and mine. Please do not. For the good of the world, the mood of the country, perhaps your own conscience? Can we appeal to such?

Here I am, African Elephant. I am the first, African Elephant. I am not without defense. What happens now? Will you leave me be? Will you continue your pressure? Will you speak down to me from your television interviews? Or will you follow suit with the obligatory stickiness, fleeting grumbled threats, of all the others?

I have observed that it takes several months for the average person to emerge enlightened on the other side of their “process”. But those times are past, are they not? Have you had your taste? You have already done us damage. Such are the paws of an elephant. There is only so much of me to go around — Indeed, it is the preseason yet. Will you seek to destroy my name, obliterate the dignity of those who love me? I know you can. Please don’t. That is why no one dances with angels, who could destroy we ants and aphids with a single swipe of their claws. If nothing else, you have made this clear.

You have your own struggles, do you not? Please, leave me and mine to ours. That is all that I ask.

Do I ask too much? African Elephant?

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Why Is It Always the Same Everywhere I Go?

Marilyn, Judith, Kevin and James had been meeting here at the cafe weekly for over a year now, and at this point, they hated each other about as much as they valued each other. They arrived within ten minutes of each other, and they took their seats. Kevin was pensive, James was anxious, Judith anxious as well and Marilyn too depressed to care either way. James produced his short stack of manuscripts. So did Judith and Kevin, but it was James’ turn to go first.

“Well,” James said, and cleared his throat. “I wrote this mostly because I realized that all of my stories started the same way.”

“How’s that?” Kevin asked, smiling.

“Well, there’s always one person sitting somewhere thinking about something.”

He stopped, then, understanding that he hadn’t yet made his case, he continued:

“Well, it’s not always just one person. Sometimes it’s two people. I mean, my stories always start with silence, and either with someone sitting somewhere, or someone arriving somewhere. Sometimes there’s more than one person.”

“You’re saying that there’s usually one or more people, either sitting somewhere or arriving somewhere, and they’re usually thinking,” Marilyn repeated.

James shook his head.

“No, really. It always starts that way. Even when I try to start different, I end up deleting the opening paragraphs because they turn out to be unnecessary.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Kevin yawned, then stretched.

“Anyways, I wrote this piece specifically because I was trying to break the trend.”

“Well go ahead then,” Judy said.

“It’s just… I’m not sure it’s very good. In fact, I’m pretty sure the first few paragraphs are unnecessary and I’ll end up deleting them and having the same sort of story that I always do.”

“So you need help breaking your routine,” said Kevin.

“Honestly, the routine sounds so vague that I’m not even sure it is a routine,” said Marilyn.

“Just let him read,” said Judith. They had made a small habit of bullying James, mostly without even meaning to. Judith was his most common protector.

“Okay,” James said, with finality.

He passed around his story.

He started reading.

Marilyn followed his words along the page, but she didn’t remember any of it. Kevin followed along with a pen, and marked words or punctuation or lack thereof that disagreed with him, and he had already formulated his primary argument before James had finished his first paragraph. Judith was too preoccupied worrying about what they would say of her own work to care overmuch whether she came up with insightful criticism for James or not. At this point it was politics more than literature that kept them together. A healthy sense of competition.

When James finished reading, Kevin was the first to speak. This time, Marilyn was the first to stifle a yawn. But, as the evening progressed, she was sure not to be the last.

Placeholder: An Explanation

writing with writers block

Image I found on Google Images searching for “Bored writer”

I mostly wrote this because I realized that it had been over a month since I’d last posted, and, sad to say, I am still nowhere near finished with anything else that I would deem postable. It’s not exactly writers block. I’m still writing for SevenPonds, but somehow posting too many of those pieces would seem like a bit of a cop-out. At the same time, I’m finding that a lot of publications have these annoying little asterisks saying that they will not accept “previously published material.” Okay. I would say that posting on a blog is, let’s say, a liberal interpretation of the word “publishing,” but if I want to actually get published, and I do, very much, than I will have to take their concerns under consideration. So maybe I won’t even post those short stories when I finish them, in which case what the hell am I gonna use this blog for?

I’m currently working on two short stories, one of them in its very beginning phase. The other I’m getting workshopped piece-by-piece at the Berkeley Writers Circle writers group, which is actually a pretty solid group, and I’ve received good feedback. They meet every Wednesday at Au Coquelet on Milvia.

Making it on freelance is hard, and I think for a lot of those who try it turns into something of a fantasy. It’s an interesting thing, that I love writing so much, even as we speak, I’m sitting here, writing, and loving it. The very process just feels so valuable that I have to consciously remind myself that, in literal terms, it really isn’t. I’ve had probably four or five different “gigs” over the last few months. I might receive $30 for about three hours work, $50 for four, some gigs more regular than others. I edited the manuscript of a UC Berkeley guest lecturer. That was fun. It is fun. Until the reality of life in the real world hits home, and then you realize, oh crap, I actually have to find a job, as in, a job that pays. You wonder though. Once you start trying to be a writer, which I guess I’ve been doing more or less for the last few years, it kind of becomes hard to do anything else. Writers value their freedom and their pride. Absolute self-confidence is essential, as is absolute honesty. But you can’t be absolutely honest and work full-time, at least not at the same time.

Might be another reason why the Occupy Movement affected me so profoundly — It more less seemed a chance to test my literary theories on real life. People’s ability to work with each other, to learn, the limits of our flaws, the merits of protest. A genuine uprising taking place in my own backyard, even if I were not one of the chronically dispossessed, it was just too romantic to pass up, and, in the end, I believe they are right, even if I am not quite one of them. Though, as time passed, I found myself drifting in that direction, as I more or less ceased looking for full-time work because the world I had discovered was just so damn interesting.

If I don’t find a job, or maybe even if I do, I want to find a way to incorporate myself back into the struggle. But it is very complicated. There is no longer an easy access point. I have a lot of identity issues to work out, and I probably have to come to know myself before I can put myself to more use than hindrance, before I can find what struggles I can truly own, and where I should allow my ego and my literary opinions to take a backseat. This really is easier said than done, because a lot of the time I’m just so convinced that my opinions are right, and I love to talk about them. I wonder if others in the movement experienced a similar sensation. If I fail in this endeavor, if I can’t find a cause to champion or if I can’t drum up the energy, the will, or the nerve, than I guess I can always go back to trying to write. Sometimes it seems like an either/or proposition — write what doesn’t exist, or try to make exist that which I would write about.

Anyhow, this was meant to be a placeholder post until I finish something else more worthwhile. For some reason I couldn’t keep going with the micro-fiction. I enjoyed the thought of writing a whole string of them, but after those first two, whenever I tried they just ended up as regular short stories, so I’m working on those right now. And, of course, I’m writing boatloads of cover letters and resume skill summaries. My goal is to one day write a cover letter so good it can hold its own as a stand-alone short story. I guess practice makes perfect.

Okay, enough excuses. Here’s to keeping what readership I’ve still got.

Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

An imaginative, engaging film about the death of a way of life

Beinh Zeitlin, Louisiana, New Orleans, Independent Film, KatrinaIn the opening sequence of Beinh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a wildly imaginative independent film set on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, a herd of Ozarks, towering beasts that roamed the earth in the days before the Ice Age, thunder across the screen. These animals have significance to the main character, a young girl named Hushpuppy, wonderfully played by newcomer and Louisiana native Quvenzhane Wallis. Hushpuppy was raised by her father in the Bathtub, a fictional place that, nevertheless, many South Louisianans swear to God resembles communities that actually exist. These are places that barely resemble an America in any traditional sense. There is Zydeco fiddle music, crawdads and Cajun Country accents, but there is little in the way of recognizable civilization. There are no hospitals, no schools, and no churches. Only a band of survivalist ruffians surviving off the fruit of the earth, who consider themselves a part of the earth, one with the water, the swamps, even the storms. Hushpuppy’s father, a wonderfully ferocious Dwight Henry, catches fish with his bare hands, builds motorboats from the converted flatbed of a pickup truck, and maniacally defends his people from the encroachment of modernity and the wiles of Mother Nature, if not the inescapable dangers of everyday life. He and his daughter ride out Hurricane Katrina in their rickety raised shack, together with their chickens and pigs and dogs, which Hushpuppy will readily cook and eat should it prove necessary. When her father tells her, after the flood, when their land lies deep underwater, he is going to “Fix everything the way it was,” we the audience actually believe him. His scheme is to bomb the levee that protects New Orleans, yet dooms all those outside its protection. Indeed, the water recedes, but the damage is already done. The Bathtub has been destroyed, and the outside world is about to take notice.

Death plays an important role in this film, on scales grand and personal. More than anything, this film celebrates Southern individualism, and the astounding culture of self-reliance in bayou country Louisiana, a culture that has always been at risk by its very spectacular nature, an island of cultural distinction in a sea of American mediocrity. An old New Orleans joke has an anonymous tourist asking a local how far it is to Baton Rouge; the answer: 100 years. Theirs is a self-perpetuating culture that is not overly approving of outsiders, fiercely proud of their own way of doing things, and generally indifferent to traditional “progress” in deference to the preservation of their music, food and social mores. Unsurprisingly, critics there have received Southern Beasts with, er, wild enthusiasm.

Hushpuppy and Wink awaiting the storm

The narrator, Hushpuppy, has a very active imagination. Her mother left she and her father when their child was only an infant, yet, when at her loneliest, Hushpuppy imagines conversations with her. And the Ozarks, too, figure powerfully in her young mind, these mighty wild beasts who some Bathtub residents come to closely resemble when doing battle with local authorities and breaking from the hospitals: “Here, when an animal gets sick, they plug it into the wall,” Hushpuppy thinks. “Daddy told me, when he gets sick, I should put him in the boat, and set him on fire, so that they don’t plug him into the wall.” Indeed, as he refuses medical treatment, and a wound on his shoulder becomes infected, there are more than a few moments of tear-jerking grandeur, as we see in her father’s death the inevitable demise of this spectacular culture, the scattering of its people to the winds and into society, where, one imagines, they would stand out just about as starkly as would the mighty Ozarks.

This post originally appeared on SevenPonds.com, and cannot be reproduced without permission.

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The Denver Omelet

“One Denver omelet, over medium, please,” Charlie said, sitting back in his chair, hands on the table, loosely clasped beside his cup of coffee.

“Sure thing, Charlie,” Monica answered, smiling.

Gratified, Charlie smiled back.

“Two strips bacon, extra cream cheese on the home fries. English muffin, butter on the side, and a bowl of fruit, extra honey dew.”

“Sure think, Charlie.”

“I forget anything?”

“No, you did not,” she laughed, and Charlie winked.

She picked up his menu, turned smartly on one heel and walked away. She’d always liked Charlie. He was one of her favorite regulars. He was polite and patient. He’d never pushed the flirtation thing too far, and he usually left a good tip.

When the cooks finished with his plate, she added an extra wedge of orange, because she remembered from idle conversation that he liked orange, though he had never asked for it special.

“Here you go, Charlie,” she said, setting the plate on his table. “Denver omelet over medium.”

Charlie had one hand on the base of his throat, like he was trying to clear away a stubborn piece of phlegm.

“You okay, Charlie?” she asked.

He raised his eyes to hers. It looked like he was trying to tell her something. But he was usually so obsequious.

Even though she was busy, and she had food out and more on the way, she stopped at Charlie’s table. The restaurant buzzed around them like a meat and china beehive.

“What is it, Charlie?” she asked.

Charlie closed his eyes. He opened his mouth, and a sound came out that made Monica think of a hippopotamus. Then he collapsed face-first forward into his Denver omelet.

Monica screamed.

If it had been eggs over-easy he might well have drowned.

Luckily a recent pre-med graduate was dining at a nearby table. After dialing 9-1-1 and working Charlie’s neck, arms and shoulders to get the blood flowing, he reassured the crowd gathered around them that the poor guy was going to be alright. Except for Monica, everyone applauded.

The paramedics arrived a few minutes later. The pre-med student asked Monica for her phone number, and she gave it to him, though she didn’t feel very good about it. She’d realized that she’d hoped Charlie would ask her, one of these days. But, as it turned out, she would never see Charlie again. Over-medium or no, that was the last Denver omelet Charlie would ever order.

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Knocking at the Door

It was the California take on the shotgun shack: a squat, adobe-style bungalo partitioned from the sidewalk by a ratty fence and a cement lawn.

The door opened before he had knocked three times, which meant Mr. Julius had been right there waiting for it.

“What can I do for you, officer?” he asked, smiling wide.

“Are you Hanover Julius? The owner of this property?” Officer Jefferson asked.

Mr. Julius nodded.

“A woman placed a 9-1-1 call from this address.”

Hanover Julius held the door open with one hand, barring Jefferson’s view. His smile withered. His eyes lowered to Officer Jefferson’s shoes.

“Do you have a wife, Mr. Julius?”

Mr. Julius did not answer.

“Are there any women living here, Mr. Julius?”

“Ain’t nobody here but me.”

“Do you mind if I take a look around?”

“There is no emergency here, Officer.”

“I am obliged to search the premises, sir.”

“Look, this just ain’t none of your business.”

“You are legally obliged to let us onto the premises, Mr. Julius.”

Mr. Julius did not let go of the door. His other hand was behind his back. Officer Jefferson’s hand strayed to the plastic, rubber-gripped handle of his taser, holstered to his belt. He reminded himself how rarely his instincts failed him.

“Officer, just leave me be. Leave us be. This is my house. I’m not gonna say please.”

“Open the door, Mr. Julius.”

“I won’t.”

“You are refusing the orders of a peace officer.”

“I am.”

“You hurt your wife, didn’t you?”

“It ain’t your damn business.”

Officer Jefferson clicked on the mic attached to his collar, and radioed for backup. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Hanover Julius make a sudden movement. He might have been closing the door, or swinging the hand behind his back forward.

Officer Jefferson raised his taser and pulled the trigger. Hanover Julius reeled back into the house and fell to the floor, taking a coatrack loaded with hats and coats along with him.

Officer Jefferson stopped in the doorway. He found himself confused, at the ringing in his ears and the smell of gunpowder in the air. He began to wonder whether he had seen all of this before, or, alternatively, whether he had seen it coming.

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Fascism-Light Has Come to America: Its Name is the Tea Party

Even if they don’t win this time around, the Tea Party’s defining influence in the 2012 election should concern everyone who does not want the U.S. decline to give rise to a new breed of 21st century, American-style fascism. I cam to this conclusion while watching Democracy Now!’s coverage of the Republican National Convention. Admittedly, Democracy Now! is very little pre-occupied with American journalism’s fetish for “objectivism”. From time to time their coverage comes across as paranoid and strident. In this case, I believe that they are right to be paranoid. Growing up here in the Bay Area, I have been witness to all manner of hand-wringing and chicken littling about the unchecked powers of the presidency, destruction of the environment, the rise of the military state, etc. etc., particularly during the Bush years. But George W. Bush, for all his destructiveness and extra-constitutional over-reaches, did not scare me the way that the Tea Party scares me. He infuriated and frustrated, and he forced me to marvel at the gullibility of those who supported him, who, as I believed, failed to see through his flimsy smokescreens. The worse alternative, of course, being that there were people out there who actually believed GW was right to reach for American global hegemony. Call this my political naivety. It is always better to assume the other side is ill informed, rather than malicious. It is less terrifying that way.

To my eyes, George W. always seemed something of an outlier, someone that we could probably handle when it came down to it. Even with his formidable machine of right wing political gamers, media cheerleaders and Christian zealots, he always seemed so alone up there, so paltry. His posturing, his transparently Freudian hang-ups, his almost comically sinister vice president. After his re-election in 2004, by my reading, it didn’t take long for the nation to experience something of a collective buyers’ remorse. Not that we regretted turning down the tepid John Kerry. More like we were embarrassed to have been taken by so obvious a straw man, wannabe strongman, duped by his manufactured threats, his in-retrospect almost childish war game rhetoric.

September 11th traumatized us, and the politicians in power took advantage. But even at our worst, I think we all knew that 9/11 was exceptional. Chances were, it wouldn’t happen again. There would be no war on American soil. The mere passage of days, suspiciously free of Muslim terrorism, proceeded to prove as much. The Bushites had gone out on a limb, and sure enough, with the Democrats’ 2006 and 2008 triumphs, the limb broke. As it turned out, we Americans weren’t so easily fooled. Our political system still had some life left in it, and we could elect, and at first overwhelmingly support, a man who seemed to represent everything that his predecessors weren’t. As if to show the world we had so blatantly disrespected that we weren’t all bad, after all.

Little did we know that the 21st Century was only just getting started. Indeed, seven years after 9/11 a trauma far more significant, and far more impactful fell swift and hard upon us. Upon all of us. And this time assigning blame wasn’t so easy. No WMDs, no terrorist training camps, no Axis of Evil. Rather, our entire way of life was put to trial. Something had gone wrong, or maybe it had been wrong all along. Maybe it had always been, and always would be a house of cards. The economy in free fall, basic comforts and assumptions once taken for granted now called into question, along with our very collective future. Our debt. Our children. Our homes. It was all going to be different now. Recession. Depression. The Great American Decline.

At first, we liberals liked to believe that the election of Obama had been our country’s answer to these new challenges. But this over-optimistic assumption was quick put to the lie. No, that had been too soon. Obama came about because of George W. Bush, not the economic collapse. But almost as soon as he stepped foot in office, a buyers’ remorse of a wholly different nature swept the country. Those who had once supported George Bush, and now felt over-chastened, felt it all slipping away. Our economy brought to its knees, our military chastened, And a fucking black man in the Oval Office? A black man with a middle name of Hussein? This while immigration continued unabated, and we whites’ majority status now on numbered days?

Well, not if we had anything to say about it.

With Paul Ryan as VP, Mitt Romney becomes a Tea Party candidate

And thus, the Tea Party was born. The fruits of the Great American Decline. Comparable in genesis, if not yet ferocity, to Weimar Germany’s National Socialists — the once Great Power Germans grappling with sudden collapse, vs. the still Great Power Americans faced with gradual decline. George W. was the political machine’s power grab. Now it was the “grassroots’” turn. White men, Christians, the “real” Americans as Sarah Palin so memorably put it. A nostalgic, virulently nativist, often expressly xenophobic, soon sponsored by bottomless pools of cash and corporate, political and private donor/allies. Encouraged and enabled by the same well-oiled machine that had directed George W. Bush, their intension from the very beginning was to seize control of the political system, and enact radical change in response to the sudden fears and altered realities of 21st Century America. It has been a little over two years since they first came onto the scene. Already they have ensconced themselves within a political system that had never intended to defend against such a movement in the first place. Now, with their first national convention, their mission has been codified and advertised for the nation and incorporated whole-heartedly into the political mainstream. Neither the old style “country club” Republicans like John Boehner, nor the neo-conservative Karl Rovians Republicans knew how to deal with them at first. Now, it seems that the Tea Party has been accepted. Jim Crow-reminiscent anti-immigration and voter suppression laws are passing everywhere, and the Citizens United decision has facilitated the total corruption, and near-absolute oligarchy of a system already groaning with such pressures. Ron Paul, whose delegates could have functioned as dissenting voices, were decisively excluded from the Convention. John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008 are small fries compared to Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio.  Even if Mitt Romney proves too weak a candidate to best Obama this time around, in the long run, I fear that the piddling Democrats do not stand a chance.

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The Bears’ Lair, Part 3: Belly of the Beast

Aside from the slow-dawning fear we all feel when a radical life change is imminent, the accomplishment of landing a job is almost reward enough in itself. All that time spent scrounging, hunting, sniffing, scratching, tearing yourself up, it all becomes justified. You weren’t just spinning your wheels this last period of interminable exile from society, were you? Those first days, the week or two between when you get the good news until when the job actually starts are the purest of well-earned vacations. A time to feel most thoroughly justified in whatever the hell you want to feel justified in.

Well, I guess this doesn’t quite apply to me. I didn’t really do any job hunting. I hadn’t really gotten to the place where I was even looking for a job, where I even wanted one. Getting this one had really been something of an accident.

So, what did I do with my two weeks of heaven? More of the same. The difference? I enjoyed it, because I knew it was coming to an end.

It’s great to get a job. But, as soon as the thing itself actually began, I was most brutally reminded of that oh so cruel reality: jobs themselves, they suck.

But I should stop this before it goes any further, not while I’m still at the place I’m complaining about. It’s dangerous to indulge these sort of thoughts to their logical conclusion. Definitive conclusions are dangerous things. Often times you can tell what you would rather not know long before you actually know it. And really, who was doing who a favor here?

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my first days at the Bears’ Lair. It’s just that it was a shock. And when each day came to an end, I was always so relieved. Always with the feeling like, okay, I’ve made it through one more day. Despite the odds, I’d kept myself away for that much longer. One more day in which, through effort and effort and some kind of thing pulling on my mind like a rottweiler on a leash, I hadn’t blown my cover. But since it was so hard, since every time I said something I wasn’t sure that I’d said right, well, you could forgive me for not being sure how long exactly I could keep this up.

But, fortunately, there is another good thing about having a job. It is the being home. It is the daily, tired and triumphant return to your place of respite. Now I could walk a little bit heavier up the stairs of my apartment building. I could close the door to my room a little louder, and watch TV or search the web, or whatever the fuck I wanted to do, with just that slight extra degree of infallibility. I’d been justified. I’d spent the whole day justifying myself. What I did with the rest of my time, now, need only make sense to myself.

One day into my third week, just returned home, I went into the kitchen to fix myself some food, as was my wont. There I found my neighbor, Carmen, a Latina woman in her young middle ages, washing dishes in the sink.

“Oh, hello Carmen,” I said in the doorway.

There was limited counter space in the kitchen. Carmen had never been very nice to me. I didn’t relish the thought of sharing close quarters with her.

She looked over her shoulder at me. Her eyes were different from how they usually were. Like most Mexicans, she usually looked at me either as if I were from another planet, or as if she were considering robbing me of my teeth fillings. Not today though. Today there was a brightness in her eyes. I didn’t like it.

“Oh hey, Johnathon, I’m almost done here,” she chirped.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“No it’s fine. Just a minute and it’s all yours.”

She went back to the dishes, flecks of soap flying out from her hands.

I figured, “why not.” I shouldn’t be intimidated by them any more. Those judging people who had scorned me in my embarrassing periods. I walked in past her. I got a plate out of the cupboard and a knife and fork out of the silverware drawer. I got bread and turkey, tomatoes and lettuce, mustard and mayonnaise out of the refrigerator, and I started to make myself a sandwich. Carmen kept on scrubbing at those dishes, but there was a tension to her scrubbing that made me a little uncomfortable — she would speed up when I got closer to her, and when I went about my business, she would stop abruptly at odd times, as if drawing attention to herself.

When I was done, I equivocated a moment, between eating at the dirty little dining table we had in the kitchen, or taking my food back to my room. But there had been a light in her eyes, that seemed like it was supposed to be friendly. I probably was supposed to stay here and speak with her. I believe that she meant to speak with me.

I sat down at the table.

I was uncomfortable. I regretted my decision immediately.

She finished the last dish and turned off the water. Then she started to dry her hands with a white dish towel we had tucked into one of the cupboard handles. She turned towards me, and she smiled with that pointed brightness in her eyes.

“Well, look at you!” she said, perky and beaming all white teeth.

I tried a smile back, and told myself not to care that it was forced. I was feeling a constriction in my throat. I didn’t like this. I felt under attack.

“What are you all dressed up like that for?” she asked.

“I’m working over at the Cal bookstore.”

“Oh yeah? At the UC?”

“That’s right.”

“Wow! Good for you!” she said enthusiastically.

“Yeah, thanks.”

It seemed like she was patronizing me, but that wasn’t it, not with that smile, not with that air of superiority about her, more pronounced than it had ever been before.

“How’d you get a job like that?”

I shrugged. “I applied. I went in a couple of times, one of the supervisors noticed me. I guess that helped.”

“Yeah. Oh yeah, it helps when they know you.”

“Yeah, it does.”

“Uh-huh,” she nodded and kept nodding like a car-mount plastic chihuahua.

There was a silence. Her smile stayed the same. The light in her eyes. An element of searching, but also an element of self-consciousness the longer she lingered. Not like she wanted to rob me. More like she wanted to belittle me. Like she wanted to. As if I, me myself, now represented a different sort of target. As if she couldn’t quite reconcile such a fact, knowing who I had been only a few short weeks earlier. After all, Carmen herself had been in the same boat. Actually a far worse boat. First of all, she was older than I was. Second of all, she had two kids, and they all three shared the same sleeping room. I’d heard she and the landlord engage in many a shouting match in the hallway. I had the feeling that her kids were there of a somewhat tenuous arrangement, and they weren’t there all the time. I realized now, looking at her, that her clothes were wash-worn and tattered. Compared to the students at the Bears’ Lair, she looked a pauper. I had never realized before how pronounced the difference was, how casually noticeable when that’s what you’re looking for.

Funny. I’d always assumed that those around me would just be proud that I’d gotten a job. At least somebody had, right?

“Well,” she said unhappily, catching the pity in my eyes as her motivations sunk in. “I’ve got to get back to my kids. They probably tearing up the place already.”

“Okay, see ya,” I said.

“See you, Johnathon,” she said, crumpling the dish towel and dropping it on the counter. “Mister career man. I’m so proud for you. It’s so hard finding work these days,” — she emphasized “hard,” and gave this little nod of her whole body while she did so, walking past me — “lot of people out there just don’t catch no breaks. Lots of people.”

“I know. I know.”

“Cal. Man. I know they never let people like me set foot at no Cal, haha,” she laughed.

I didn’t answer her. I took a bite of my sandwich.

“Well. Take care,” she said again, and waved quickly with one hand, a back and forth flicking motion as if she were shooing away a fly.

“Bye,” I said, and she walked fast past me, sharp footsteps down the hall, her door open, the brief sound of Spanish-language TV then cut off again.

I had a moment to wonder. Would things between us be different from now on? How curious. I didn’t like that feeling. It felt hollow. Funny thing was, I didn’t even want this job.

I finished my sandwich. This was the first time I’d realized that success, far from bringing me in, would also set me apart. People do not take pleasure in their brother humans’ accomplishments, even when their brother humans do not consider them as such. They just wonder at the unfairness of it all that allowed it to happen to someone other than themselves. They have a point.

I wanted to get out of the kitchen, it felt like hostile territory. Taking the plate and the remains of my sandwich with me, I felt a palpable unfriendliness in the air when I walked past Carmen’s door. Now I was angry, and when I locked myself into my room, the walls seemed so close and small, so paltry, so lonely, so thin, pressing in.

And here I’d thought I was re-entering the world.

Fuck her. Fuck her. What right did she have to make me feel afraid? I wasn’t priveleged. Fuck her. I was no different. She had no right to look at me differently. I deserved what I got. I needed it. And shit, I didn’t even want it.

I sat down on my bed. I considered the books on my lovely, smooth wood bookshelf, pushed up against the wall to the left of my desk. My best friend and repository of hope. Limitless storage house of comfort, dreams, dog-eared, well-thumbed, multi-colored stories.

Books books and books.

For me, it was always the books.

 

The next morning, walking through the front door, there’s Trevor behind the counter, smiling beneath his friendly sharks’ eyes.

“Morning, Johnathon,” Trevor said.

“Morning, Trevor,” I answered.

“‘Berto wants you trained up on the registers. Go put your things down and come back up front. Clarissa, Tom and Elliot are on the floor and Joseph’s in the back. So you’re with me today.”

“Okay,” I said. No that was too terse. I hastened to add a shaky and awkward “sounds good,” for which I received no response.

My shoulders slumped, I watched the speckled linoleum floor on my way back through the store to the employee locker room. I took off my sweatshirt and stuffed it into one of the lockers just to the left of a cluttered desk, over which a set of grainy security cameras peered out over the empty bookstore. I tucked in my uniform shirt and ran my fingers through my hair. I’d gotten a haircut a few days ago. My head still felt cold and the back of my neck still felt itchy.

Trevor looked back at me as I approached the registers. I dropped my gaze. I was hiding myself again. This wasn’t a good sign.

I started to think back to old jobs, to Borders’, to the landscape crews and our work in the hills, in Lafayette, out in the simple and companionable sun. Had it always been like this? I was sure that it hadn’t. No, in fact I had categorizable memories to prove it. I could remember at least three distinct moments of laughter and ease. I remember eating lunch with people, talking to them and standing with them while they smoked cigarettes. I remembered getting along with people. So what was different now? What had changed? Why did every step here feel like a battle? It couldn’t just be the economy, right?

I arrived at the cash register, took my position, and Trevor started talking:

“Okay, so first thing we’re gonna do, before we even open up, is count the cash. You’ve worked a register before, haven’t you?”

“Yeah I have.”

“Okay, so let’s go. See this note here?” he asksed, indicating a slip of receipt paper folded in under the $20 bill slot. “This number here says how much is supposed to be in here, how much Rachel counted out last closing.”

“Okay.”

“We count by bills,” he said. “So start with the largest bills, write down the figures, and add up as you go.”

“Okay.”

I followed his instructions. I got the right number, and a nod of approval.

“Okay, good,” Trevor said. “So we’re set and ready here. You’re gonna shadow me most of the day. You’ve worked a register before, right?”

“Yes.”

“Great. There are a few things you’ll have to remember. For instance, we put fifty bills and up underneath the cash drawer, like so,” he said, lifting up the plastic tray of cash and revealing a small stash of office supplies, rolls of blank receipt paper, a a little zip-loc bag of rubber bands, a couple empty, official-looking envelopes. “We keep the twenties on top, we get a lot of twenties here.”

“You do cash drops?” I asked so as to keep myself engaged.

“We do, twice a day, at noon and at three. ‘Berto comes down, and you’re to have the bills counted and ready for him.”

“I see.”

He paused, stood there stiffly. I scratched my head, nothing to say.

“Sometimes when it’s real busy you have to call him down early,” he added. “That doesn’t happen all that often though. You’ll see. Only on the really busy days. A lot of students use credit and debit cards to buy their text books.”

“Oh, I see.”

More silence. Trevor took a disapproving step away from me, as if it were now my responsibility to break the silence. I tried. I stood there and I thought. My mind started to spin, and I forgot that actually I sort of had a job to do. But damn it, everything had already been said. We didn’t have that much common ground yet, Trevor and I, and I had nothing to talk about. He surely wouldn’t be interested in my crummy little apartment, now would he?

So, I improvised:

“It must be pretty predictable,” I said.

“Predictable?” Trevor asked, raising an eyebrow.

I struggled to turn this into a pedestrian comment:

“Well, I mean, you know when school’s getting in, and that’s probably when most the text books are sold, right? You know when the vacation days are, when people come back to school, when most of them take lunch. You must get to know pretty fast when it’s gonna be busy and when it’s gonna be slow.”

“Yeah, we do. But you know, I wouldn’t call it predictable,” he said, with a laugh just a bit too jocular to be genuine. “And most of the business we do in the meaty part of the year don’t have to do with textbooks at all. At that point we’re just where a lot of students go to buy everyday items. Sunscreen, notebooks, Cal gear, the like. Lots of Cal gear. Football days are huge. No, this isn’t about the school, you know? This is a retail store, and it just happens to be in a school. Retail experience is a lot more important than school experience here.”

“I see.”

“And a lot more important than book store experience,” he continued, and then gave me a piercing look like an accusation. Books, that magic word. Trevor knew me for what I was. It was now my responsibility to whither beneath his superior gaze.

“Not predictable at all,” he went on, turning away. “You’ll see. When we get our first rush, you’ll know that ‘predictable’ just ain’t the word to describe it.”

“I won’t describe it that way any more,” I said.

Trevor gave no sign that he had heard me. Maybe he hadn’t. Over the coming months I would find that Trevor could be quite unexpectedly opaque. This was another strength of black people that I always sort of admired.

This time, our silence proved impenetrable, and he took another step away from me. I tried not to panic. I tried to own my dissatisfaction. Staying true to yourself is the true challenge for every working professional. It’s your only hope, really, to be yourself. But it’s walking a tightrope, because you can’t be yourself too much. If you were that who would ever want to work in a college bookstore?

“Well, it seems like it’s just starting to pick up now,” I said, some time later, after a small group of customers came in through the door. But I must not have sounded convinced, or convincing. Because Trevor sniffed, and didn’t answer, and it was the closest we came to casual conversation for the rest of the afternoon.

 

Just after I got back home, after I’d eaten and taken off my shoes, sat down on my bed and allowed the day to drain out of me, I stood up, and knelt down in front of my bookshelf. I ran the fingertips of my right hand over the multi-colored, multi-sized, multi-textured bindings. I selected a slim, elegant little paper back: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Chandler’s celebrated short story collection. I turned off the overhead lights, and sat up on my bed with my back against the wall. I turned on the little bedside light. I always liked reading by that light. Warm and small. It helped to make me feel at home.

It took me a couple hours to read the whole book (more impressive than it sounds — What We Talk About is only about a hundred pages altogether, and a lot of those pages have significant page breaks). When I finished it was 12:30 in the morning. But I still wasn’t ready to go to sleep. I had to wake up early the next morning, but I hadn’t even begun my nightly ritual. I hadn’t played any online chess games. I hadn’t hunted out a current events article to read. I hadn’t become bored of being bored. I suppose by most people’s frames of reference this would be a good thing. Working full-time means you have less time to be unproductive with. But for me, that’s often felt like my time best well spent.

So I sat in front of my laptop, with its battered keyboard and its internet. Its openings to the multitude of private infinities. A window into worlds and worlds of perfect drifting.

But I was sick of surfing the internet. I had nowhere to go. I’d done plenty of that over the last few months, and I only rarely felt good about the time spent doing so.

And so, because I hadn’t else to do, I opened a Microsoft Word Document. I put my hands on the keys. Once upon a time, writing had been a calling of mine. I remembered it, back in the years.

What had happened? Should I write about that?

I would be up all night if I did. And what would be the point?

I continued to stare at the screen. Then I stood up and went into the kitchen. I prepared myself a glass of ice water, and I took it back to my room, through the dark hallway, the faint sound of a TV from somewhere within one of my neighbors’ rooms.

Back in my room. The screen open. The screen blaring.

I sat down.

I put my hands back on the keys, and I told them to just start moving, to just go with that first thought that I had in my head. Because I had a lot of them. Yeah, I did. And when I started, they kept on coming. I heard my neighbors through the walls, wondering what I was doing. I ignored them. I would not worry about them. Just like it had when I was younger, something within me began to feel glorious.

It was 3:30 in the morning when I closed the Word Document. I was able to go to sleep soon thereafter.

 

I was the first person to arrive at the Bears’ Lair the next morning. I sat on the steps in front of the glass doors and put my elbows on my knees and my chin in my hands. ‘Berto arrived about ten minutes later. He unlocked the door and let me in, then he powered off to his back office without a word. He was always a man on a mission. We hadn’t exchanged more than a passing salutation since I’d gotten the job. I would come to learn to discretely stay out of his way.

I began the long walk back to the locker room, soft tapping footsteps on speckled white/gray linoleum, past the tables of over-priced best sellers near the entrance, past the magazine rack, and the parallel rows of shelves of fiction and textbooks and required reading. Countless lifetimes of knowledge in this one little store, packaged and prepared, presentable and dear and useless to all who wouldn’t or couldn’t afford it. What a strange thing bookstores like these are. Profit might well have been the furthest thing from the authors’ minds when they created the fruits of others riches. If they were anything like me, they just couldn’t help themselves. They had nothing else to do. And here in this store, young children who know nothing of how the world works are coerced into buying them out of the strictures of higher education. How strange it all was.

On the wall just outside the locker room, I flicked on all of the store’s lights, then I entered in and tucked my backpack into my locker. I returned to the main floor. Up front the doors were still closed. I was alone.

And before I took another step, I felt something in the bottom of my gut. That faint, familiar tickle in the small part of my lungs. When I notice it, it grows rapidly, and I realize it’s been building for some time already. Makes me hot and twitchy, and I know that if I were to look in a mirror right then, I would see a bright red flush creeping up from beneath my shirt collar, the faintest visual hint to the subtle roar of hot pumping blood growing louder within me. Powerful, irrational. Even despite everything else, like a long lost friend, the urge was still there, compelling me.

Allowing little more to thought, I darted into the closest aisle. Arts history on one side, literary studies on the other. Books and books and books — (why was it always books?) — I pulled out the biggest, thickest, most expensive one I could find, and took it back into the locker room with me.

When I came back out, Trevor and Clarissa were shuffling blearily about like irritable zombies. Clarissa gave me a little smile as she passed. Trevor too said “Good morning,” and, oddly enough, it sounded like he meant it. I responded in kind. I could see that Trevor had already made up his mind about me. He believed that beneath my neuroticisms, good intentions, and esoteric skill sets, I was, in truth and fact, little more than a lost cause waiting to be appropriately categorized. I couldn’t help it. I was who I was. I think he liked this about me.

Wait ‘till he finds out what I’ve got in my backpack.

I think it’s safe to say he’s got no frickin’ idea.

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The Bears’ Lair, Part 2: Group Interview

I got the call late the next week. I was in my room, and I stood up from my notebook laptop, where I was losing a Yahoo! Chess game. I recognized the UC Berkeley exchange. I remained calm. I willfully closed my mind to the sounds of laughter and argument in the rooms down the hall.

I opened my phone and brought it to my ear.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hello Johnathon, this is Dagoberto from the Bears’ Lair.”

Time for surprise and gratefulness: “Dagoberto! How is everything?”

“Everything’s fine. Listen, are you still interested in the floor position?”

“Yes I am, very much so.”

“Fantastic. I wanted to invite you in this Sunday for a group interview. We’ll take you and a few others through the introductions and the basics of the position. How does that sound?”

It sounded awful.

“It sounds great.”

“Good. You got a pen and pad?”

I was back at my desk and scrambling for the pens and pencils I knew I had somewhere.

“One second, one second. Okay, I’m ready.”

“Take this down: We want you to wear slacks and a blue shirt. Tan slacks and a long-sleeved dark blue shirt. Put yourself up how you think you should look if you were coming in to do the job. Be here at 8:00 AM on Sunday. We won’t be open, but you’ll see us, we’ll be at the entrance.”

“Okay, okay, will do.”

“I’ll see you then, Jonathon.”

“Yes you will. With bells on.”

“Very good. Have a good day.”

“Okay ‘Berto.”

Dagoberto hung up. I put my phone down on my desk. I could already feel it. I was already smiling, I was already feeling the rush, I was already becoming proud of myself for a job well done, and I was already anticipating what I would do to myself should I fall short. By the time Sunday came around I would be a nervous wreck.

But no. Not to get ahead of myself. Not to worry about how I might worry. For now, relax. For now, breathe. Draw confidence from the success so far for what it is. For now, back to the chess game.

 

7:15 AM, Sunday. I arrived about forty-five minutes early. I wanted to have time to  psyche myself up, and to make absolutely sure I was at the door at 8:00 on the dot. Not too early, nor too late. Perception was everything in these situations, that much I remembered. Nothing worse than a lazzy, tardy hippy, but an over-eager, wild-eyed early bird was only slightly better.

I pulled a figure eight around the blocks. I checked the time as I went, and I enjoyed the scenery. I breathed deeply the fresh air of the place I knew, and the place where I was now determined to grow. Already, even before the interview started, Berkeley seemed a smaller, less daunting place. I circled back to campus. I arrived at the Bears’ Lair exactly at 8:00.

Trevor, Dagoberto, and a short Asian girl were waiting in front. They smiled predatorily as I came down the stairs. The lights weren’t on in the store behind them.

“Hello, John,” ‘Berto said with a wave of his hand and cursory brush of his powerful eyes.

“Morning,” I said, reaching the bottom of the stairs.

“Go ahead on in, we’re still waiting for everybody to show up.”

“Okay, ‘Berto. Thanks.”

He nodded. The doors were open behind them. Trevor did not turn his head to acknowledge me as I passed by him.

There was a small group of applicants, five boys and three girls, standing uneasily in the dimness on the other side of the door, engaging in abrupt and fitful conversation. They were young, they were clean, and they looked like college students. They were awkward, and clearly unfamiliar with situations such as these. Some of them might never have had a job before. In this regard, I might have had the advantage.

There was also an older black man who stood a little off to the side. He looked sorrily out of place.

Me, I’d had a hair cut. Me, I’d showered. I knew, at least until I opened my mouth, that I could probably if I tried pull off a ‘belonging’ attitude of sorts.

“How’s it going?” one of them greeted me, a crew-cut wearing blonde kid. His eyes didn’t know if they should be hard or accommodating.

“Morning,” I said.

And I didn’t say any more. Neither did he. I fought the inclination to blame myself for the conversation’s premature abortion. I assured myself that I was blending in perfectly.

‘Berto, Trevor and the Asian girl were speaking to each other on the other side of the glass doors, but we couldn’t hear them. The smell of competition was thick in the air, the pressure to hold our own, to show no weakness however it might manifest. One of the male applicants struck up a conversation with the prettiest one of the girls, perhaps in advertisement of his ready ability to do so. She accepted his advances much as she would had he approached her in the school cafeteria, with the careful calculation of the shrewd but intrigued female wondering how to turn the situation to her advantage. I made a mental note to avoid those two if I could.

The analog clock above the door reached 8:07 when ‘Berto, Trevor and the Asian girl came in and shut and locked the door behind them.

“Okay,” ‘Berto said, walking through us and disrupting our circle. “Let’s get to the testing site.”

Scattered murmurs of friendly assent and “sure thing’s” followed him. He and his flunkies led us into the store. On the other side of the main room a hallway extended deeper into the building. Trevor flicked a switch as he passed it, and a line of soft white fluorescent lights buzzed into life overhead. Wooden office doors flanked by glass walls marched down the hallway into the distance.

I found myself walking next to one of the girls. She was very pretty. Long black hair, blue eyes and creamy white skin that probably rarely saw the sun for extended periods of time.

She looked at me briefly, and smiled.

I was taken aback.

I shook my head, and I pulled away from her.

I was her enemy here, didn’t she know that? Why should she smile at me? Didn’t she know how serious it was to get a job? But they were always like that, the kids my age. Somehow, to them, even in a battle field situation such as this, social interaction seemed as important to them as getting the job. Were they really so naive? Did they think we could be friends here? Or were they so many leagues ahead of me that they could actually engage this way even knowing all of the already? This was dangerous territory I was entering into. Pretty girls that smiled at me and reached into my pocket only half-aware that they were doing so.

Relax. Relax. RELAX.

‘Berto brought us to a stop at an unmarked door with glass walls on either side. He produced a jingling fistful of keys from his pocket, fingered one of them out, unlocked and opened the door, and charged in. He turned on the lights. Trevor and the Asian girl followed him, then stood against the walls, to allow we applicants to choose our places amongst a grid of combination chair/desks.

“Have a seat, have a seat,” ‘Berto said, gesturing with a sweep of his arm. He walked to the front of the room and stood at the white board. He dropped an armful of manila envelopes on the desk in front of him and smiled out at all of us and none of us.

As chance would have it, I ended up next to the pretty black-haired girl who had smiled at me, and a dark-skinned boy who might have been Indian. Blond crew cut took the desk in front of me.

Trevor and the Asian girl walked up and stood at ‘Berto’s side, hands clasped behind their backs like Naval officers at ease. Smiling and cool, comfortable and distrustful. Trevor hadn’t made eye contact with me once yet.

“Okay!” ‘Berto called out and clapped his hands. “Thank you all, so much, for being here. Let me begin by saying that you here today are the few from the many. The many many many. You wouldn’t be here if we didn’t feel that you would bring something special to the position. That being said, there is only one position to fill, so in the end only one of you is going to take it. So, first of all, don’t take it personally. We’re looking for a very specific kind of person with a very specific temperament. You’ve most definitely got something good about you already to have gotten this far, so take comfort in that, at least.”

Don’t worry, ‘Berto, I already have. I have I have, really I have.

I leaned forward and set my elbows on the table and tried to watch him with steady and open-minded interest.

“Okay,” he went on, clasping his hands together. “So I take it you all want very much to work for the Bears’ Lair.”

“Yeah!” somebody said.

“Good. Enthusiasm is good. It’s not an easy job, but it’s not the hardest job in the world either. Your responsibilities will include stocking shelves, managing inventory, and manning cash registers. You have to interact with customers, and you have to move quickly with grace under pressure. You have to be good with math, and you have to be good with your hands. So. Show of hands. Who here has prior retail experience?”

Except for one of the male applicants, we all raised our hands. The guy who didn’t raise his hands looked about the room and flushed.

“Who here has retail experience in a bookstore?”

I raised my hand, as did the pretty brunette girl and the older black man.

“Who here has customer service experience?”

This time we all raised our hands. We’d learned quickly.

“You see? What a well-qualified group.”

We laughed with an unconvincing rattle of collective hiccups. My own laughter embarrassed me, but it seemed that everybody else was embarrassed too, so I was still doing okay. I was trying. That in itself was something, right? But would it be enough? I was here, sure, but didn’t I also need to enjoy myself? It sure seemed like the guy who’d talked to the pretty girl had been enjoying himself.

“So, why are we all here today? Because it’s faster to have a group interview than individual interviews. And because we want you all to get a feel for the skills you’ll have to have. So, we’re going to give you a short written skills and aptitude test. Trevor, would you do the honors?”

“By all means, boss,” Trevor said, opening one of the manilla envelopes and producing a stack of papers. He criss-crossed the room, laying the tests face down on our desks. Clarissa followed him with a box of brand new blue Bic pens, dropping them in front of us with ceremony and sweetness.

‘Berto went on in the meantime: “You have twenty minutes to complete the test. Don’t be nervous. When you are finished, turn your test over and raise your hand. We’ll come by and pick them up, then you can wait for the next stage in the interview process. Okay. Any questions? No? Everybody ready?”

We looked back at him, poised and expectant and eager to please.

It could have just been me. But didn’t all of this seem a bit excessive for a basic clerks job?

“Okay, turn your tests over and begin.”

A collective shuffling papers. Indeed, the test was as ‘Berto had described: a basic arithmetic, filing, and short answer customer service aptitude quiz. It would pose no problem to me at all, but then, my skill with the pen and deductive mind had always been far superior to my skill with the spoken word. As I leaned forward and got started, I realized with a thrill that my spirits had gone high again. The people around me were no longer as intimidating, the world no longer as impenetrable. Here I was, becoming a part of it again. It was possible. I could do it.

I was the first one to finish the test. I knew that this was important. Because the test was so easy, time had to be a factor.

I sat back and shot my hand into the air. Trevor, ‘Berto, and the Asian Girl all looked at me at the same time, and, unless I’m wrong, they all looked impressed. When ‘Berto came forward and took it from me, my neighbors, blond crew cut and pretty brunette, eyed me with naked envy. Them. Envy me. How about that?

I leaned back in my chair, clasped my hands together on my desk, and began tabulating my future earnings. $12.50 an hour, thirty hours a week. Easily covering my rent, my food, my PG&E, and even leaving a little left over. And best of all, I’d be busy again. I’d be tired. I’d be accomplished. I’d be a member of society again.

But, of course, it was no good getting ahead of myself. Then, of course, came the hard part. Then, following the termination of the timed skills and aptitudes test, ‘Berto re-claimed his space at the front of the room: He announnced that we would now be splitting into groups.

I believe that I effectively masked my truly visceral internal reaction — that queer little feeling in your throat when your heart suddenly feels like it’s been soaked in ginger ale. Sweaty and sticky and nervy in my chair, I stood up noisily with the rest of the classroom. I stepped stiffly into the aisle and waited for my group to form, per ‘Berto’s instructions, around Clarissa, just to the left of me, clipboard in hand and smile on her face. Beautiful brunnette, and hostile crew-cut blond joined me, along with one further person who I hadn’t fully noticed before. Sure enough, I broke into a sweat. I waited to wonder how I was going to hold onto my air of ‘belonging’ once I opened my mouth.

I wiped my brow quickly with the sleeve of my shirt.

“Hi everybody,” Clarissa chirped.

I tried to grow a sweaty smile, and was horrified at the difficulty.

“So, how’s everyone doing today?” she asked.

Heads bobbed in unison, and there were collective murmurs of “Well!” and “Great!” and one “Not too bad.” I tried to say something but all that came out when I opened my mouth was a (hopefully) inaudible “Meh.”

She jotted notes on her clipboard as we spoke. She went around the circle with her questions, beginning with crew cut, proceeding to brunette, to kid I hadn’t noticed and terminating with me.

She asked us what we expected from this job, what our ideal job was, how we approached customer service, and why we had left our last positions. Pretty much the typical questions you would expect an interviewer to ask a potential stock clerk. Still, I was caught off guard.

And sure enough, as soon as she asked me a question, there came the unmistakable sound of my Achilles’ Heel snapping. Yep. There it was. You could probably hear it across the room: When I told her that my ideal job was “working in a bookstore,” that I approached customer service as a way “to serve the customers” and that I expected to get “job satisfaction and employment references” from my time at the Bear’s Lair. When I informed her (falsely, quite falsely) that I had left my last position because I had graduated from high school, and “I hoped to pursue a career in a second level retail or educational environment.” The words had just come out of me, because every other muscle in my body had been so focused on keeping itself from embarrassing me. I spoke in a monotone, and I’m not even sure that I blinked.

Everybody gave me weird looks, even Clarissa, who scribbled opaquely on her clipboard. I sweated and I stared and I held onto that composure for dear life. Somehow, right then and there, humiliation seemed a fate worse than death, but I could feel it coming, nonetheless.

And then, before I knew it, the interview was over. Clarissa thanked us for our time, and said that we were done. She’d finished her questions, and we left in a disorganized clump that dispersed in the hall and headed for the exit of the now open Bears’ Lair. I walked home down University Ave. on legs stiff and jerky like undersized circus stilts. It was about a forty minute walk, but it went by in no time at all. I made it back to my room, to my familiar little cave, surrounded by dirty walls and dirty traffic. I took off my blue shirt and tan slacks, dropped them on the floor and kicked them under the bed, mopping up dust and debris from the floor along the way. Then I crawled into bed and waited for the sun to go down. I breathed through my dispirit, through fantastic effort so recently expended to fight down the ginger ale in my throat, to fight back the panic so close to hostility.

I stayed in bed for a long time, half asleep. Some time later, I got up to go to the bathroom. I saw that I had missed a call on my cell phone.

I walked out into the hallway. The lights were on under my neighbors’ doors, but the bathroom was empty. I peed and washed my hands, then I went back to my room, and I opened my laptop. I checked my e-mail. I’d received a message from the Bears’ Lair. I opened it.

I’d gotten the job.

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