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03 Jun 98

7 June 1998 (Departure Point) 1

7 June 1998 (Departure Point)

In the cool morning flourescence, I walked over the gray carpet. I know coworkers by their heads. I see them over the cubicle walls as necks, faces, and hair. They may not have bodies.

I checked email. I had thirty six messages, all from corporate. Our rocketry division will soon go public, so keep this private. Division thirty will downsize, then disappear, then be re-created with mechanically augmented spider monkeys. The projected savings from this move are more than the GNP of the moon. Our vertical growth markets are farming, finance, and medical bandages. Three divisions will move off planet; Human Resources will relocate to Mars Nine.

"They're already there," I joke, to myself.

I'm on the "corporate memory" committee for division thirteen (not my division--don't ask). We forget to meet. I have never seen, or received email from, my direct supervisor. His name is George, and he's rumored as tall and on the fast track. When the HR program hired me, it described my division as quick-moving, exciting division, and George's leadership style as personal and hands-on.

I left work at ten AM. The next day, I didn't show up. I punched in sick from home.

The following day I stayed home, but didn't punch in.

A month went by.

My bank account was updated twice.

The next month, I received a raise.

Finally, the phone rang.

"We've found that Mr. Ford has not come into work for six months."

"Yes. He passed away in January."

"Oh, I see. So he won't be in anymore?"

"No," I said.

The next day, my bank account swelled to seven figures. It was the insurance payment from my death.

"They're already there," I joke, to myself.

I'm on the "corporate memory" committee for division thirteen (not my division--don't ask). We forget to meet. I have never seen, or received email from, my direct supervisor. His name is George, and he's rumored as tall and on the fast track. When the HR program hired me, it described my division as quick-moving, exciting division, and George's leadership style as personal and hands-on.

I left work at ten AM. The next day, I didn't show up. I punched in sick from home.

The following day I stayed home, but didn't punch in.

A month went by.

My bank account was updated twice.

The next month, I received a raise.

Finally, the phone rang.

"We've found that Mr. Ford has not come into work for six months."

"Yes. He passed away in January."

"Oh, I see. So he won't be in anymore?"

"No," I said.

The next day, my bank account swelled to seven figures. It was the insurance payment from my death.

Jerome Kaye keep an online journal, and on 7 June 1998, he wrote the above. He'd been writing more and more little essays about Paul Ford, a semi-fictional doppelganger.

After Jerome posted the entry online, he sat in his tiny apartment in Carroll Gardens. The paint flaked from the wall, his gray handprints on the tan paint, laundry on the floor. He thought of food, but did not feel hungry. He thought of sex without arousal. He went to the computer, geared up a video game, and turned away. He didn't own a television, so that temptation did not factor.

All the cardinal directions pulled at him, and all the directions between. He breathed in sighs, frustrated.

Maybe he could be a journalist. Or a novelist. Or a computer programmer; he could quit and make money working for finance companies after learning more about databases. Lots of cash for computer geeks. Pissloads. Or he might take off all his clothes and stare at himself in the mirror. Which he could do, so he did.

Naked and fat and tall. His eyes were brighter than the streetligh through the Venetian blinds. "That's you," he thought. "What do you want to do?"

If he'd had a girlfriend, she would have decided for him, said "come back to bed," or comforted him with a steady palm on his back and a kiss, pleasure instead of answers. But he was alone, standing and looking at his length in the mirror--the arms, heavy chest, stretched stomach. The retracted penis hanging bored, the testicles and kneecaps the same dark color. The huge feet, size twelve double E, heels and arches like a low bridge.

Jerome turned from the mirror and looked down, over his belly, staring at the hair on the top of his feet. He stretched out his arms and waited, eyes closed.

He stayed this way for several minutes, feeling silly. Thoughts wandered behind his shut eyes, and he considered Ex-girlfriends, old plans, anger at a supervisor, the need to pee, aching shoulders. Finally, he began to talk to himself.

This is a game he's played for years. It's a way to set in motion a mental machine, when he doesn't know where to find any guidance and must provide it for himself. If he sits still, he thinks new things.

He asked himself questions, simple and not profound. "What should I do? I'm bored with the job, frustrated at myself." The quiet, interior response was, "what will it hurt to try something different?"

In a few minutes, after this meditation lost its edge, he went to his Bible, a red clothbound "scholar's edition" from a college course in Western Lit, and randomly opened to Job. He was hoping for some inspiration, but found amusement at the barroom conversations between God and Satan, where Satan puts God up to an act of torture. And God needs to prove himself to Satan. Had Satan asked God to balance a chair on the tip of his cosmic nose, would God have done it? But when it came to shitting all over poor Job, God was the tough-love Dad. Jerome was an athiest, or close, anyway.

The phone rang with a portentuous electronic tinkle. This was the answer for which he waited, the cosmic calling over the great web of phone lines.

"Is Letisha there?" A deep black voice.

"No, this is Jerome."

"Well, where's Letisha?"

"I don't know. Did you mean to call this number in Brooklyn?" People mix up the area codes.

"Whoa, shit, I meant the cell phone number. Later, nigger."

He hung up, and decided it was time to leave the city.

All next day he wandered through the office. The large cubicles looked dented and fragile. He walked on the deck and chatted with the smokers; he drank spring water from the cooler, and finished a day's work, writing and organizing and responding to email, understanding that there were years of work waiting beneath it, technical, analytical stuff. We don't really talk to each other as we build the web pages, he thought. We keep to ourselves. Forty-five bodies on this floor, feeling wasteful when we speak with one another, on company time.

Each day became more dense, burdened beneath the days before. He orbited from his home, to the subway, to the office, and home, and again. All of that spinning--but where was the bright center around which to revolve? Tuesday was two days long, Wednesday was three days long, and finally, on Friday, he had fifteen days to work through from nine to six, swimming in gravel. He wished he could talk with someone, but all the supervisors were at meetings, and when he saw them his tongue knotted. Friday night, he stayed late at work and wrote a letter of resignation. It was five pages long, explaining why he wanted to leave. Poetic and frustrated, he used phrases like "lack of process" and "miscommunicated mission."

It was just a job. Not a way of life or something to regret or hate yourself over. A good start out of school. Around the same time he graduated college, he realized that all the hundreds of hours he watched television, from age four to fifteen, he couldn't remember anything. He remembered learning the trombone, teaching himself to use a computer, church choir, getting beat up. But all of those screen-bathed hours were tossed into a cerebral shitbasket. He'd thrown out his TV. Work was the same--a blur of shapes and meaningless labors, tasks that neither helped, nor healed, nor answered an inner voice, nor educated.

It wasn't worth the rhetoric or explanation. He dropped the letter, and its meaningful phrases, into the computer wastecan and wrote a single paragraph:

Bob, Jerry, and Marie:

I have learned a great deal from his two years at Steiglitz Partners, but see no further benefits from working here. Thank you for an interesting, educational time. I will leave the company two weeks from today.

Sincerely,

Jerome

Sincerely,

Jerome

Fear exploded in his chest. This letter opened a world without salary and benefits. Sure, his time blurred, and he could find no center in his life, trading heartbeats for dollars. But he had friends there, work that challenged, even if he could not believe in it. If he stayed, he could gain the skills he needed to make 100K a year by the time he was thirty. It's hubris that makes me want to leave, he thought. I'm not better than this.

And the inner voice came back, and said, "where are you in here?" He was alone on the nineteenth floor. It was eleven; the rest of the office had gone home. Looking out the window at the Empire State, he thought: If you took away the buildings and cubicles and clothes, people would hang naked in a solid tower of industrious flesh all across Manhattan, moving slices of data from cubicle to cubicle, in massive network of wire, screens, and skin. That was work without the walls. A hive of words and signals, millions of bees with no goal but "keep safe; save; plan; hope; make money; you'll be management."

If that effort was for something more than profit, he thought, it could do something. The hive's honey is money, nothing real.

He printed the note, then took it home and stared at it. On Saturday, he woke at eight and wondered what to do with himself. Feeling guilty for not doing his laundry, he left the apartment and walked north to the Bridge.

Jerome had written in his online diary about the Brooklyn Bridge. He'd read hundreds of pages about it, the details of the caissons, the case of the bends engineer Washington Roebling contracted when he descended into the river bed, the kind of stone, the conspiracy over the cables. It spoke to him, the greatness of it, the two Gothic towers slotted into the riverbed.

It was quiet, joggers and bicyclists groggy in morning exercise. The Staten Island Ferry moved off in one corner; Governor's Island sat solid and empty. The Piers of Brooklyn stuck their fat thumbs out, hoping to hitchhike a ride to Jersey, where the shipping business had moved. The Statue of Liberty, copper-green and staring, looked out to Europe.

He walked fast, blurring the boards of the bridge walkway until he was walking in transluscent space. He looked down, past the steel-grate catwalk, into the money-green East River.

The men who built this thing watched fireworks celebrate the rising stone, spun the earth's length of wire over and over into huge cords, and created a cathedral inside out, weaving something between a spiderweb and a piano's interior on the scale of giants. They'd seen the ferrymen lose their jobs as the bridge rose, wondered at the deep corruption as Tammany Hall, Boss Tweed. Assemblymen had sneered at the building plans, until their pockets were fed with graft money.

He thought: The Internet is a kind of bridge. Wires connecting people, bringing them together. It's bigger and worth more than the Brooklyn Bridge, just there's nothing to touch or find evocative, directly. But it's not evil, or bad, what I do.

When he graduated from college, he told himself working in online marketing was a kind of art--you had ideas that became products, and selling the product was a way of crafting rhetoric in order to compell people towards your idea. He knew it wasn't rocket science or missionary work, but it seemed interesting. A year into the career, he realized that it might be a kind of aesthetic exercise, at least, if not an art, but when you put so many dozens of people in a room, all doing the same small thing, the sum of their efforts was still small. A thousand pettinesses, piled into a whole, add up to pettiness. They didn't build the Brooklyn Bridge; they just sold more orange juice. There was nothing wrong with it, but there was nothing right.

On Sunday, he called his Dad and explained the situation. After twenty minutes of discussion, him father said:

"Come home," he said. "I don't know what's bothering you, but if you're miserable, come back. Sleep on the couch for a month while you figure out what do do. Mail your stuff."

"You think? There's a lot here."

"If you're not happy, don't stay."

"Maybe I could get a sublet? Someone to keep my stereo and computer in case I want to get back?"

"Not a bad idea. But if you're miserable, quit. You've been talking about it for three months. If you can't make the job work, stop moaning. I can't tak it. There are lots of jobs out there. Employment's at what? 96 percent?"

On Monday Jerome went in and laid down three copies of the brief resignation letter, one for each supervisor's desk. The supervisors wanted to know why, but he didn't have a solid answer. "I have some other interests I need to pursue." It was surprising that in two years, they didn't seem to know him, to have any understanding of how frustrated and bored he had been. They shook hands, and he walked cubicle to cubicle, letting certain people know.

"No, really?" said a girl with orange skin who'd worked there six months. "That's something. What are you doing?"

"Don't know," he said. "Just get out of New York for a while. Do you know anyone who needs a sublet?"

She paused, thought. "You should talk to Al. His roommate and he aren't doing too well."

Al got the vampire's look of a city apartment hunter, and asked how much.

"Five hundred, if you agree to live with my stuff for a month. Then you can take over the place for real. The landlord's a good guy; there's no lease or other bullshit. It's six hundred, normally."

"I need a new place. My roommate is a shithead. "

"It's on a subway stop. Small. Do you need a lot of room."

"Not really. And I'm happy to screw the roommate; his girlfriend's been living with us for six months without paying rent. She's pregnant. Just showed up one day. Sleeping on the couch and complaining about the TV. Effin bitch." Jerome knew this story and didn't want to hear it again, so he excused himself and walked away.

He packed up his desk tchotchkes--a white ceramic mug, a coffee spoon, an eraser shaped like a cat, a few family photographs--and shoved them in his bag. He geared up the machine and worked on a corporate newsletter, than left for a two hour lunch, reading a novel about lesbians who worked in fisheries in Canada. The day was over soon after.

He arrived at eleven the next day, and noon the day after. Each day was one-half the last. Friday was ten minutes long. They tried to take him out for drinks, but he felt it was maudlin and shook his head, saying he had a dinner date. People hugged him. On the way to the train, he turned around to look up at the building. It was tall and lit brightly, with old, ornate masonry. He'd never be back on the 19th floor. Al would move in two weeks from now.

Jerome went to see a movie, then another. Both dumb action films with people on motorcycles riding directly into flames. One had a woman on the motorcycle, the other had a man; he had a tiger in the sidecar. He had no goodbyes to say--most of his friends were from work; the rest he hardly saw. All he'd been doing is working, cutting and pasting, piling words up to sell the latest in maps, or soda can tooling equipment, or dog food.

Walking to the train at midnight, he wondered why no one writes a song about all the dumb stuff you do when you leave a place.


I'm gonna close out my bank account,
And get my deposit back on the place.
And fill out the yellow form from the Post Office.
I'll call up my friends--I only have five,
And say that I'm leaving and ask them to drive.
To the bus station.

He got home and called his Dad, in Philadephia. "I'm going to be down tomorrow for a day. Then I'll come back up and deal with what's here."

"Did you quit?"

"Yeah."

"Okay. So here we go. I'll get the help wanted out of the Inquirer."

"Yeah."

The next morning he went to Penn Station and took the train to Trenton. A large Jamaican man read "Out" magazine in the seat above. Jerome read Byte magazine out of habit--his job required him to know the latest about the computer industry--and pulled out a notebook. He drew little mind maps, trying to rebuild his mental machinery. What was important ("art, life, happiness, etc") was connected to what was necessary ("money, food, shelter") by arrows. He needed to find the middle, the bright sun around which he could revolve both sets of needs. As he scribbled in a little sun, with curled flames leaping from the sphere, he remembered the Center for Cultural Understanding in Ellery, Pennsylvania.

The train docked in Trenton, and he switched to the SEPTA train to Center City. He was trying to remember the Center for Cultural Understanding in upstate PA; it was sort of a hippy center, but they'd take you in to do some raking and potato-peeling in exchange for a lot of quiet time, meditation, and a bed. A young man sat by Jerome, about sixteen years olf, with an earnest, dumb, horse-look.

"Hello," said the boy.

"Hi." Jerome pull a book from his bag, A History of Western Philosophy by Betrand Russell. He brought books like this, tomes, whenever he traveled, then spent the journey glaring out the window, disappointed in his weak scholarship. For the past three years, he'd stayed six pages into Mr. Russell's book. This time, Jerome read slightly beyond the first sentence of the preface: "Many histories of philosophy exist, and it has not been my purpose merely to add another one to their number. My purpose is to--"

"Sir," said the horsey boy, whom Jerome suddenly nicknamed Trigger, "can I ask you a personal question?"

"Sure," Jerome said. In this case, he thought, the person initiating the discussion has a need, or justification for the conversation, so they have forced the social interaction. Trigger hasn't said, "how's that Bertrand Russell holding up?" or "do you know how to switch to the R3 Train in Philly?" It's some meta-topic that he's going to engage in, and I'm trapped for an hour and a half on a moving train.

"Are you a Christian?"

Here we go.

"No," said Jerome. "I'm not."

Trigger nodded, sage, plotting to save his quarry. He fingered the green book and the paper crinkled. Onion skin Bible paper.

"Can I ask why not?"

"Because it's not a better system than any other," said Jerome. "Because you can look at the motion of molecules in DNA, or the way that Buddha advocates a middle path, and they make exactly as much sense. You know," Jerome said, "I listen to late-night radio. All the time. I stay awake and try to decide what to do with my life, and I listen to the Christian radio station in New York. There are two shows I listen to. There's one where they do a serious breakdown of scripture. They discuss eschatology and hermeneutics and dispensationalism. They laugh at their own jokes and pray that the fundamentalists will end their non-eschatalogical reading of scripture and accept the entirety of Jesus' message. I like it. They're trying to work things out. I think they're running in literary-analysis circles but what the hell, okay? So then after that show all the Bible geeks get off the air and there's some talk-show guy who's entirely sponsored by a Christian long distance phone company--"

"Lifeline," said Trigger. "We use them at the school--"

"Lifeline. And the idea is that if you use Lifeline you don't subscribe to a company that makes its money from allowing phone sex lines. And some of your bill goes to fighting Satan in the courts, pro-life stuff and prayer in school. And the salesman for Lifeline says something like 'enjoy savings and fight Satan.' It's totally hypocritical."

He'd stopped listening at the word "DNA," and Trigger finally burst out: "Okay, you were talking about heredity, right? There's a kind of African beetle. It uses its dung as a propulsion. As a weapon. It literally explodes and jets around, right? I believe science is important, and medicine. But how could heredity have created that beetle? Because you can't argue that the beetle wasn't made by intelligent design, by something greater than genetics."

"Look, listen, genetics, the way that a random mutation comes and goes, the totally blind way it happens that one set of characteristics might live and the others all die--that's miraculous simply because it's not miraculous. It has its own blunt method, and just because the poets haven't written it down like the Psalms of David with singing instructions doesn't mean it can't eventually be as sacred and human as Jesus being resurrected." Jerome breathed, and tried to make his point. "You can give God credit for everything, but then what's the point of his creation? Is this a giant computer program, execution after execution? Free will doesn't mean humans only. It means weather and molecules and DNA. You can choose who you marry; that's evolution right there; you mate for specific characteristics, how pretty or smart or decent someone is."

"But why then would Jesus perform miracles? Why would anyone do anything decent? Why would Mother Theresa work in the slums if there was no point in any of it except to have babies and evolve?" His eyebrows furrowed.

Jerome felt frustrated and as trapped as he'd felt at work. "Don't take credit for Mother Theresa. If you're as fundamentalist as you seem, your church fathers think she's in Hell for worshipping Isis cloaked as Mary. What about the Black Muslims, Farrakhan's muslims? They hate the Jews and mock white Christians, but they're in there feeding the poor like Mother Theresa. Do you take credit for them, too? Some people are good and want to help. Some are evil and hateful. I've met Christians of both kind. The worst are the malicious Christians, the ones who turn their faith to spite and judge other through those narrow piggy sacrimonious eyes."

The boy excused himself to go to the bathroom, and since there was an empty seat three seats back, Jerome moved there.

(Continued at some point soon; Jerome has a long way to go.)


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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