Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Encore: "Trouble, according to James Carter" (Fiction)

(c) Written by DG, 2002


“There are some things that are certain—not only death and taxes, but also fucking, eating, and shitting, greed, exhaustion, and poverty,” said the managing editor, an overweight, ruddy-faced bore who imagined himself a wit. James smiled tightly at him, hoping this little lecture had a point that had something to do with his own work. As far as James knew, the editor seemed to imagine that these epigrams were to be taken in by James and remembered and would someday become one with the very structure of James’s mind—but James knew this would not happen.

“With the way things are in the economy, businesses closing, people being laid off, dire predictions, the homeless shelters and food pantries and soup kitchens are crowded. I’d like you to do a story on this,” said the managing editor.

I really do not want to do this, thought James. Give me an executive who has lost his job, or someone trying to keep a company going, or a labor union leader or secretary struggling to pay her bills—somebody with hope. I don’t want to visit a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. What is there to say? People are suffering. People are always suffering. Why pretend this is new, and why pretend to care? Give people education and opportunities to work and reduce the reasons for their suffering, and give me a political scandal, a fashion show, an innovative computer, an alcoholic sports star, a literary masterpiece, a film premiere, a historical discovery, or a new building going up: those are my subjects.

James returned to his desk, wondering where to start. He logged onto the internet to do a quick search of resources—institutions, experts, books, and articles. He called the office librarian to tell her what he was working on, what he’d found, what he thought he needed, and his deadlines for research, active interviewing, and various drafts. James then called his friend Pete and asked him if he wanted to have dinner later, but Pete said, No, that he had to work late. When James looked up again, he saw Calvin at his desk putting things in a box, looking angry, determined, and sad.

James stood and walked over to Calvin. James was apprehensive, fearful.

“What’s going on?” asked James.

“I’ve just been fired,” said Calvin.


“Because I didn’t turn in my expense reports on time. Because I yelled at the receptionist for mixing up my messages. Because I took a too adversarial stance toward corruption in my reporting. Those are some of the things the Redface told me. They’ve wanted to fire me for a while—I’m not acquiescent enough for their taste; so they just wracked their brains to come up with a bunch of junk to accuse me of,” said Calvin.

“I can’t believe it,” said James, though he knew there was a clique of people in the office who were always trying to make everything as simple as their own minds. “The idiots.”

The two looked at each other; they’d miss working together.

“Do you want to have lunch? I can walk out with you,” said James.

“Would you do that? It’s not a very politic thing to do,” said Calvin.

“I want to—and I’m hungry,” said James.

Calvin laughed.
When Calvin had gathered his things, and the two men walked out, all eyes were on them; and when James looked back at the looking eyes, the eyes looked down or looked away. The Redface was the only one who held James’s gaze.

James and Calvin ate at a small sushi bar. Calvin liked sushi, and that was why they chose the place, but once they began to eat—standing, hunched over their food, people all around them in the small place—they realized that they had made a mistake. If they’d gone to a larger, quieter place, they both would have been more comfortable. Yet, neither said anything about the place; they talked to each other beyond their discomfort about the work they had hoped to do in the office, about trying to deal with the pettiness there, and about what Calvin was going to do now. “It’s amazing how quickly a man’s life can change,” said Calvin, who said he thought he would try freelance writing and editing. “As long as I’m working, you can use me as a reference, and if you need money, let me know, and if I have it, it’s yours,” said James. Calvin was glad to hear that, and a smile crossed his face, banishing for a moment his more intense feelings.“What are you going to do?” asked Calvin.

“I’m going to try to do my job,” said James, both of them knowing this would not be easy, as James’s sense of mission was not entirely that of his editor’s, and his editor’s mission was not entirely that of James. But then, what drove James was not simple—news, truth, pleasure, meaning, a critique of power, history, prophecy—and what drove his editor—beating the competition in being the first to deliver the news, surprising the reader, raising the number of subscribers and newsstand sales, impressing the publisher—was also not entirely simple, though it was possibly much more obvious.

“I know Sharon will be glad that I’m not there anymore,” said Calvin.

“Her only goal is to try to make the office safe for her unquestioned inadequacies,” said James.
James laughed, and said, “I don’t know how people like that get so far and stay so long. She delegates most of her work to others and spends most of her time on the phone,” said Calvin.
When they said goodbye, neither James nor Calvin was happy, neither was relieved.

James made an appointment to interview the executive director of a homeless organization, and after work he stopped by a poetry and music event organized for attendants of a mental health program that worked to get people off the streets and into homes and jobs. He thought the music was good—very rhythmic—and the poetry plain and dull, but he liked the sense of camaraderie between the attendants. He didn’t introduce himself or take notes; he knew he would be back. Leaving the building, located on the edge of Manhattan’s East Village, above the bowery, James thought about the tickets he’d bought for a music concert for the coming weekend. His friend Pete had backed out because of work, and James hadn’t found anyone else yet to go with. He couldn’t ask Gail without asking her husband, and he didn’t have a ticket for her husband, nor was he fond of the ill-informed, blunt man. Too often, when you had a married friend, you were forced to deal with the spouse as well despite lack of rapport.

On his way into his office the next day, he stopped by a couple of churches to ask about their soup kitchens, coat drives, and food pantries. Most of the church offices were closed and he left notes, but one church office was open, and the woman there was direct: “We see all kinds of people—high school dropouts and college graduates, different ethnicities, married couples, singles, whatever. People are hungry, and we feed them,” she said. “They need clothes and we give them the clothes our parishioners leave with us. We shouldn’t have to do this, and they shouldn’t need to come here, but that is the way the world is, that’s the way it’s been, and maybe that’s the way it will always be.”

With that summarizing impulse she’d get on with the Redface, thought James. Yet, he could not say she was wrong. She was trying to be clear, and she was; and James realized once more that we’re all trying to produce knowledge or wisdom and it might be too late. If a child hasn’t learned wise and generous ways, he may not be able to adapt to them when he’s a man—his bad habits may be his very own nature: this may be why it’s so hard to change anyone, why it’s so hard to change the world.

Leaving the office, he reconsidered this conclusion. He thought that children were sometimes limited in their perspectives because of lack of experience, and because information was kept from them, but that men and women had the perspective and freedom to change—to change themselves and others.

James waited in the open air on a square marble bench near a bulbous sculpture in a cement park surrounded by seven office towers, one out of which he had come after leaving his desk and its work, and another his friend Gail would leave to join him. James was pleased the sun was shining, as the breeze off the nearby water was cool. He wondered what kind of mood Gail would be in. She had been up for a job at a small television station committed to social issues, but had not been given the job. A personnel committee made up of two managers and two support staffers had reviewed her work, resume, and colleagues’ response to her, and they recommended Gail for the job. The executive director in her office had not agreed, and so she did not get the job. Gail and the executive director had disagreed before, disagreements that were matters of policy, procedure, and personality. Instead the job Gail wanted had gone to someone who had been eliminated earlier in the process, someone the committee had decided was not even one of their top three choices, a man Gail had not considered a friend but a friendly colleague. Yet when Gail arrived, she smiled and said, “How is my friend, the misanthropic humanist?”

James laughed. “I’m well, though you seem, amazingly, in a much better mood than I am.”“It’s their loss,” said Gail. “I applied, I was found gifted and worthy, and I was not appointed, so it’s the organization’s loss. I still have my televised nightly discussion program and I’m going to continue to do my work.”

James listened and thought about what she said. She was in a better mood than he was. He was still thinking about Calvin, still thinking about the injustice of that, of how Calvin’s good work had meant nothing, and now Gail was giving him further evidence of injustice. Where would they eat?

James was having a salad at his desk. The salad was full of chunks of chicken, croutons, thin slivers of carrots and other vegetables, olives, and a thick dark oriental dressing—delicious. He was thinking about his lunch date with Gail the day before, about Calvin, about the office he himself continued to work in and the exaggerated exclamations of pleasure and outraged complaints over minutiae there, the indifference to genuinely important matters, the jockeying not so much for relationships with the powerful but for appearances of relationships with the powerful—no one really wanted to know the publisher, but they wanted to seem to be in his favor. Once James and the man were in an elevator together, and, James, incapable of thinking of anything to say after briefly describing the story he’d been working on, went on to describe an Italian film retrospective he was attending, having seen four of twelve scheduled films. The two of them spent the remainder of the elevator ride talking about the difference in the mood of Italian films compared to American films. James knew he had squandered an opportunity to advance a professional goal, but he was pleased that he had the kind of conversation with the publisher that he might have had with a friendly acquaintance. James smiled upon thinking that it was not the kind of conversation he could tell most of his coworkers about; they wouldn’t understand why it pleased him. He smiled; and then the grimaced, for this was another example of how and why he was something of a misfit. He finished his salad, and then went to work on his afternoon story, the retiring of a French designer after thirty years of big business and bigger headlines, headlines about nervous breakdowns, drugs, ill-chosen lovers, and great clothes.

James called his friend Pete, whom he had been invited to see the Italian films, and who had said he’d try to see something, but Pete had managed not to see a single film. James doubted Pete would be interested in going to the Whitney for a free exhibit, but James would ask him anyway, and when he did, Pete said “No, I have to work.”

James asked, “Do you have to work, or do you choose to work late?”

Pete said, “I have to—I have a project I have to finish and there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do it.”

“Do other people there work such long hours?” asked James.

“Some people do,” said Pete.

Pete said they’d get together soon, and told James to stay in touch.

James left several messages for Calvin, and when they finally talked, Calvin explained that he hadn’t been seeing anyone, that he was trying to assess where he was, and what he wanted to do. He found it painful to talk about being fired, even to someone who respected him and understood that he hadn’t done anything wrong of significance. He also said that he didn’t see any available job that he really wanted and felt as if he had to choose between getting an important job he didn’t like that might be overwhelming or getting an unimportant job he didn’t like but could easily manage. He decided to try to get work proofreading, but wanted to avoid temporary office clerical assignments. He said, “I’m not that desperate yet. Some people think any job is better than none, but I disagree: some jobs undermine who you are.”

When James and Pete got together, they went to a comedy club, where women comedians insulted men in general and those in the audience in particular, and the two men, drinking and making comments between the comedy sets, had a great time, honest, intimate, and thoughtful.
James had begun publishing a series of articles on the unemployed, the hungry, and the homeless. James thought the best piece was on a mother’s attempts to keep her children in school with good grades despite the family’s living in a homeless shelter. He was still interviewing people for the series. Reading over the interview transcripts of a man who had come out of jail and was depending on soup kitchens for daily sustenance, James sat in the company cafeteria not far from Sharon, a managing editor, and her staff, two young women and a man. It was supposed to be a casual editorial meeting they were having but sounded like a gossip session, with professional evaluations mixed with ignorant perceptions. At one disturbing articulation, James looked at the group and they looked at him, seeing his disapproval. He soon left the table, and on his way back to this desk stopped by the mailroom to get express mail envelopes and overheard the mailroom supervisor’s comments to his staff. The supervisor was tall and slim with thinning blond hair and a pimple near his mouth, and James thought he looked like photographs of Paul Verlaine, the poet who left his wife for another poet, Rimbaud. It was obvious to James that the African American assistant, Jerome, was being given menial tasks while the Irish American, Michael, was being given tasks requiring more thought and management skill. James knew both men had begun working there around the same time, and he’d had conversations with them, and he knew the African American was ambitious to move up in the company. Jerome was confident but not a braggart; he was boyish and quick, with sensitive eyes, and James imagined he could be easily disappointed—wasn’t I easily disappointed at his age? James asked the supervisor if Jerome might help Michael, suggesting this would cut the time it took to get the assigned work done. He knew this suggestion might be seen as intrusive but thought what it entailed possibly had not been imagined and might be helpful. Jerome looked hopeful, while Michael merely waited. The supervisor looked offended, and said, “I’ve made my assignments, but I’ll consider more task-sharing in the future. In the meantime, I’ll think up a list of story ideas you might want to pursue.” James smiled and left. Well, that didn’t help, James thought.

James took a cab ride from Greenwich Village to the Metropolitan Museum. He never grew tired of observing the city and its people.

His thoughts drifted from the city to a conversation he’d had with the Redface, a conversation that could only worry him.

The Redface had said, “I’ve tried to influence you, to point you in a direction that complements me and serves this office, but you seem sometimes to resist that. It’s as if you’re determined to be independent.”

James, hearing the complaint, had smiled without joy.

“When I hired you, you seemed so grateful for the job,” said the Redface.

“I was glad that you hired me and excited about the work,” said James.

“Aren’t you grateful now?” asked the Redface.

“I’m still glad that you hired me and I still feel I have something to contribute,” said James.

“We’ve gotten good responses to a lot of my stories, even a couple of award nominations—and you had no complaints of significance at the time of my last performance evaluation three months ago.”

“I’m always re-evaluating everyone,” said the Redface with a smile.What a stupid face, thought James, who watched the man’s face show in quick succession surprise, alarm, and a sense of accomplishment in response to what he’d seen in James’s face. He wants to alienate me now, thought James. Why do I know enough to know that, and not enough to change my responses?
James heard the taxi driver say something. “What?” asked James. The man repeated his pleasantly empty question. James answered, and they rode on to the museum.

There were a lot of people outside the Metropolitan Museum, some of them invited guests who were just arriving but many of them simply there to watch the celebrities arrive. James disliked making his way through crowds, but he had been looking forward to this event for months. He had on a new black suit, new white shirt, new black tie, new shoes, and new cologne.

Inside, he saw faces he had seen on movie screens and in magazines, some he’d seen walking in Soho or entering the stage door of a Broadway show, a few he had interviewed, and some he had worked with who had gone on to bigger things. James saw statesman Henry Kissinger and journalist Christopher Hitchens sharing cigars together in one part of the large hall, laughing and puffing away, and he saw former vice president Al Gore and activist Ralph Nader in another corner, with Gore patting Nader’s shoulder affectionately as he spoke. James saw the model and businesswoman Iman talking with her husband David Bowie, a musician James had liked since he was a boy, and James hoped he could think of something smart to say later to Bowie. James heard someone say that he’d had a 1958 Cabernet Sauvignon at dinner the previous night. James saw one of New York’s grand ladies, Brooke Astor, elderly and frail, but with an utterly joyous look on her face, and he vaguely remembered reading something about her foundation’s plan to give away its remaining assets. When had he read that—a year ago, two, five? Walking past another society lady, Nan Kempner, he heard part of actress Catherine Deneuve comments and realized she was talking with film director Andrew Techine, whose work he liked. James saw singer Diana Ross talking with the model Naomi Campbell, their faces excited, and he wondered what they were talking about—war in Africa, poetry, cosmetics? Or perfume? The place was full of scents. James saw waiters passing by with trays of champagne, which they brought to the famous faces first. He was curious as to whether they were also serving wine, which he would prefer. “I loved Pamela Todd’s book, Celebrating the Impressionist Table—great paintings, very good recipes,” someone said. James looked around and saw someone with a glass of red wine, asked him where he got it, and went in that direction. Not far from tables filled with glasses, he saw novelist Toni Morrison and the essayists Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr. huddled together. He said hello to them, and Gates nodded. James understood that violinist Joshua Bell would perform and he wondered where and when that would be. Walking away form the wine table, James saw Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and one of his writers, David Kamp. James sipped his Chianti. He saw the painter Ross Bleckner and music executive David Geffen talking with singers Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe. What was that thing Stipe was wearing? James saw the journalists Utrice Leid and Clayton Riley and stopped to ask them about their latest projects, sipping as he listened. Golfer Tiger Woods was talking with boxer Muhammad Ali—how Calvin would like that, as he was wild about golf—wild about golf? Sounds like a perversion, but Calvin had become an enthusiast of the sport. That was Marisa Berenson! Were those two the Hilton sisters? James recognized in the crowd Bill Gates, Alan Greenspan, Richard Parsons, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Gore Vidal, John Updike, Caryl Phillips, Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Valerie Simpson and her husband Nick Ashford, Jude Law, Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Giovanni Ribisi. On James’s way to a table to pick up grilled slices of chicken, which he wanted to couple with bits of blue cheese, James saw and avoided Percival Everett, who hadn’t liked the profile James had done of him a couple of years ago. The piece was something James had thought would please the writer but Everett had said it was more concerned with his personal life than his work. When James reached the food table, he forgot about the chicken and put on his plate scallops glazed and topped with almonds and shallots, and a small serving of a gratin of peas, tarragon, and pistachios. Before the night was over, James would see and hear Rudolf Guiliani, David Dinkins, and Ed Koch, New York mayors, break into an aria from Tosca, seeing who could hit the highest note.


Weeks after the museum gala, James entered the Redface’s office, thinking about the previous night’s celebration of Calvin’s new job and wondering what this meeting with the Redface would be about, barely noticing the sound of Frank Sinatra singing “That’s Life” that was playing low on the stereo behind the man’s chair. James hated surprises.

James sat down and opened his notebook, poised to write. The Redface affected seriousness but James could see he was pleased with himself, fatuous; he almost hoped that James would share the enthusiasm he felt for what he would say. The man was quick, direct, and he said, “James, you’re being here is no longer working. I’ve been trying to put together a team here and you aren’t a team player and your work has suffered because of it—it expresses you more than it expresses this institution. We have to let you go.”

“You have to?” asked James.

“Yes,” said the man, disliking the editorial implications of the question as much as the logical correction it suggestion. He went on. “I’ve asked the personnel office to extend your insurance benefits for three months and to give you whatever reasonable support you might need upon your separation from this office, which will be effective in one hour. A security guard can help you gather your things, if you like.”

“No, I don’t like,” said James, standing up. “I’ll gather my own things.”

James put resumes in the mail, and he made phone calls; his life was now not about work but about seduction—trying to interest employers in what he had to offer as a worker. He spent his days following up on job possibilities he found in newspapers and on the internet; and he sometimes went to films or museums for the distractions and took long walks at the end of the day to use up his extra energy and to think.

One day James found himself being extraordinarily polite to everyone he met, a newspaper vendor, a waitress in a breakfast diner, and a subway booth clerk. James realized this was a false benevolence that had come out of his own sense of injury; he was offering care to others when he wanted it for himself. He restrained himself.

James was in a bookstore one night, browsing, his friend Pete having backed out of a plan to meet for a drink. James bumped into a woman he hadn’t seen in years. They went to a bar for drinks, a bar full of Polish-American locals, and he told her what had happened to him, and she told him about her own disappointments and frustrations. She had been hired for what seemed a dream job, but the company went through a sudden downturn and she was reassigned to the kind of job she’d had when she first began her career. The newspapers were full of similar stories—of innovations that undermined traditional sectors of the economy, of new companies begun in good times that didn’t produce enough of a profit when things went bad, and of dwindling consumer confidence that affected consumerism that then affected staffing levels. The woman’s face, pale, with baby fat at her cheeks but tiny lines at the corner of her eyes, was well intentioned, sensitive, and hopeless; she had not thought of how to change her life. They talked past midnight, and he woke up the next morning in her bed, remembering everything, miserable. He thought about sex more often now, and when he pursued it, it brought a sense of adventure and a quick sharp pleasure, but it solved nothing.

After putting two hundred resumes in the mail at the post office, James went back to the clerk’s window to get a money order check for a telephone bill he wanted to pay. Soon after handing over a fifty-dollar bill, a man in a wheelchair asked James to move back so the man could pass, but James hadn’t received his change yet and was afraid of a mix-up if he moved away from his money or out of the clerk’s line of vision. The man in the wheelchair—middle age, bearded, short, with a somewhat thick though not fat body—looked at James, who had only moved a little, and said, “Some people are so rude.” James looked down at the man as he rolled away—should James swallow the presumption and the shock of pain he felt? James called out loudly, “You crippled idiot.” A woman near James looked disapproving, while a man nearby laughed.

James often used a copy center downtown to reproduce his portfolio, and the first time there he argued with a young woman behind the counter. She didn’t seem in the mood to be helpful, and he wasn’t in the mood to tolerate the slightest disrespect. Their argument was short and ugly and they repeated it on two or three of his visits. Once he heard her say to her supervisor, “We’re going to have trouble with that one.” Weeks passed and James didn’t say anything at all to her and finally he tried ordinary greetings and she returned them. One day he’d been working quietly, collating materials, and felt something and looked up and saw she was staring at him and he smiled. She blushed. She was a small pretty woman, Venezuelan, with a slight accent; and, to him, her face was sensual and surly—passionate. James began talking to her when he was done with collating, and he asked her when her break was, and if she’d like to go out for a coffee, and she said yes. He was surprised at how easy they found their way to bed, but realized that because his mind was full of so many things—culture, philosophy, and politics—sex was usually not the first thing he thought of; but for his generation and those younger, many of whom were concerned with a lot less than he was, sex was one of the few things they thought about. In bed, she was like a woman both begging for and fighting her own pleasure, afraid and demanding, and James found this very exciting, though a part of him observed it from a distance, as if for later consideration.

Before his friend Gail had called him with the news, James had heard it over a local arts radio station he listened to. The program director and the executive director of the television station she worked for had been fired, along with several of their assistants, and Gail had been appointed interim program director. James was pleased for her, but not as happy as he would have been if his own life had been as he wanted; and so he saw her ascension also as if from a distance. The appointment had been made not by an executive director or a personnel committee, as was customary, but by the chairman of the board of the corporation that owned the station. There were already protests outside the station’s offices of people who feared corporate intervention would weaken the station’s programs. The station had been known for its independence—for its coverage of the arts, progressive politics, eccentric personalities, obscure news, and advocacy of free speech rights. Gail had gone on the air to reassure the public that the station’s mission would continue undisturbed, but though she was a known journalist, and someone who had covered issues important in various communities, her words did not placate the demonstrators. When Gail called him, she said, “I have the job I was entitled to, and now I have the chance to do some good work for the station.”

James hadn’t eaten in two weeks, and his energy had diminished, his face was drawn, his body was learner, and he suffered headaches, when he got a tiny check for an article he did for a local giveaway paper on a recent special community board election. He cashed the check at a storefront check-cashing service and went to a local Chinese restaurant for chicken in garlic sauce. Hours later at home, in the bathroom, he read from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil—“A human being who strives for something great considers everyone he meets on his way either as a means or as a delay and obstacle—or as a temporary resting place. His characteristic high-grade graciousness toward his fellow man becomes possible only once he has attained his height and rules. Impatience and his consciousness that until then he is always condemned to comedy—for even war is a comedy and conceals, just as every means conceals the end—spoil all of his relations to others; this type of man knows solitude and what is poisonous in it”; and James pushed out of his bowels tiny rabbit-like pellets. James thought of what he wanted—individuality, self-expression, the pursuit and exploration of an intellectual mission with a social purpose and appropriate rewards—and he thought of his own anger, distrust, and impatience when faced with obstacles and these feelings had made him sometimes, too often, politically clumsy: he had paid the people he disliked the tribute of honesty when he might have been a hypocrite, but hypocrisy would not have caused them to question themselves, their values, or their sense of reality. A human being who strives for something great considers everyone he meets on his way either as a means or as a delay and obstacle—or as a temporary resting place.Having read his fill of the book, taken a walk outside, and had a little something to eat, James called his friend Pete and asked him if he had time to get together during the weekend—maybe they could meet in a park and talk for an hour, or have a cup of tea somewhere. Pete said, No, he was busy with work, and as James put away the phone, he knew that he and Pete were not friends and had not been friends for years.


James had applied for jobs in person and through letters, faxes, and electronic mail. He had sought reporting jobs and work in the various industries he’d previously worked in, but he found nothing.

James had drunk glasses of water to fill his belly and had taken aspirins for the headaches, but he was ravenous; he thought he was going mad with hunger.

It had been months since James had spoken to Pete, longer than that. He had not spoken to Calvin recently. James realized that he’d left several messages for Calvin that Calvin had not responded to—queries, invitations. James’s friend Gail, who was still enduring protests outside her office, and slanderous reports in the press—in which she was accused of egocentricity, professional favoritism, and political shortsidedness, in addition to being a corporate pawn—had loaned him money for rent, and he didn’t feel comfortable calling to ask for more.

The first time James entered a soup kitchen, one run by a national charity group with local offices, he felt lucky. Being served was roasted chicken, with potato salad, gravy, and string beans, and it all looked good and tasted good. He, dressed simply but neatly and carrying a canvas bag with his notebook and a magazine, took a seat across from a man seated alone, and James began to eat, glad he’d come even after the man opposite him started mumbling irrationally to himself. In time, James would see the range of food offered: food that was surprisingly good or quite bad, with little in between, with the worst being a tasteless stew of stringy chicken rumps over unsalted pasta.

Many of the people who came here were what he expected: homeless men and women, old people, toothless people who had been drug addicts, women whose salaries were not enough to sustain a life, and young men whose families abandoned them after they had lost jobs or gone into crime or jail. But there were also people who seemed ordinary, able, clean, and sane; they simply were hungry and wanted to eat.

Some of the people were quiet, and kept to themselves; and others acted as if this were a great social occasion, a chance to see and speak with good friends. James was not interested in them, in their oddly plump, weary, indistinct middle-age faces, nor in their comments—“I hate to throw food away, I hate to see food wasted, I won’t have any more food as I’m watching my weight, The powdered milk is so useful.” They were smart about pretending that frugality was chosen, or that if they didn’t get what they wanted here there remained options at home. James sat and ate, his attention entirely on the food, and when he wanted a second plate of food he asked for it. He would not pretend he was here for any other reason. Their friendliness, as he’d seen, might be followed suddenly by suspicion, fear, unsolicited self-defense, or even mockery.

One man had misplaced a bag and immediately thought it was stolen by one of the other people in the dining hall; but it was only on a chair underneath his coat. James thought, Paranoid people are worried about injury but they don’t realize that the injury they’re worried about is actually in the past, not the future; the wound is already there, misunderstood, unhealed. The man has already lost something and that is why he is here.

James couldn’t stand these conversations; he preferred silence to banality. He sat at a table, and took out a magazine, and was happy to see that the three people seated there whom had already eaten get up and leave, but then three more took their place. A chatty woman among them talked about having twins with a man who worked in a local beauty shop, something that surprised one of her tablemates.

James was surprised to find that the magazine he read carried an article about Gail, in which she was said to have fired people who questioned her authority—questioned her authority? A couple of them had called her a bitch on the air—and in the article she was also chided for being overweight: what does being overweight have to do with anything? James saw also that the co-anchor on one of her programs was being demonized as well, discussed as if he were bordering on the violent and insane simply because he was angry at being constantly insulted—he had talked about simply trying to do good journalism despite the surrounding controversies and had received nasty calls and letters and even threats.

At one point the chatty woman turned to James and asked if he’d been here a few weeks ago for a particularly good meal and he simply nodded yes. As soon as he had eaten, he folded close his magazine, wished them a good day, and walked outside into the gray, cold day.

At home, James put on a John Lee Hooker album, liking the wit of the blues, and he liked the drama, but when he heard the song “House Rent Blues,” with its story of a lost job, late rent, a disapproving landlady, homelessness, and an undependable friend, he turned it off. He took out a manuscript an editor had sent him to proofread, a small job.

He was having trouble concentrating after two hours and was glad to get Gail’s call. She laughed when he asked how she was. “Well, I’m not sure who on staff is for me, or who is against me. Someone will offer me a word of support and then I’ll turn into his program and hear him attack corporate puppets and women who put knives into men’s backs in order to advance and then conclude with how these words refer to situations near and far.” She laughed again. “I’d find this more acceptable if someone would say exactly what it is I’m doing that they object to, but instead they offer generalities and rhetoric.” James wondered if she was being ingenuous—if she was resisting seeing herself as part of institutional power, the appointment, the face, the tool, of a corporate board, as some of her colleagues claimed. Maybe she saw further—that all of them, and most people, worked for a large company. Toward the end of their talk, she did sound weary, and he realized she was surprised and confused by what had happened. How could people have once supported the idea of her becoming program director, and now that she was director not give her the chance to actually perform the job without obstruction?

James was late getting to lunch. He had spent the morning revising his resume, one of countless versions. After revising his resume, he had done some internet searches, using as key words names of past acquaintances; and he found that some of the people he had known had gone on to advanced degrees, television anchor positions, book contracts, prestigious teaching jobs; and he was depressed further. What had he been doing with his life? What had he to show for the years besides some published clippings and more free-floating worries and bad memories?

James passed a woman with two suitcases in tow, her everyday baggage, and he walked into the building, hoping that there was a decent lunch served. The woman, an office worker in the reception area, who usually told the men entering the building to take off their hats, was at the entrance. Thin, almost old, pious and tough, she stood at the door barring latecomers, and said in an angry burst, “No, no more. It’s over with—lunch is done.” James turned away, and began to think of where he would eat for the rest of the week, planning each day.

James decided to walk to the local library. James remembered a recent interview in which he had been asked whether he had journalism experience, a weird question in light of the fact that the ad requested an experienced journalist. Why else would he have been called for the interview? The interviewer was clearly surprised to see someone who looked like him apply, a fact that both amused and angered James. Inside the library James saw a man working on a craft project involving beads—he seemed to be making some kind of mat. James recognized the man from a soup kitchen he’d eaten in. James looked through some new magazines, then thought of borrowing some music, something different, and he walked to the music section and was suddenly overtaken by the smell of excrement, he looked around and saw an old man in layers of filthy clothes. To confirm this as the source, he walked near the man—yes, confirmed. James borrowed some Brazilian music, and thought he’d stop for a minute to look at some essay collections and hours passed before he left the library. James saw a guard tell a man he could not sleep in the library. The man, with piercing green eyes, tanned skin, light brown hair with a little white in it, was thin, obviously malnourished, and in dirty blue jeans; he stood up and left but returned about ten minutes later; and he saw James, sat across from him, and asked him where he was from. James told him, and the man said he thought he was from somewhere else—and then the man opened a book in front of himself, closed his eyes, and slept. When the man awoke, James took out of his bag a list of soup kitchens and gave it to the man. “This might be helpful to you. Sometimes it’s been helpful to me.” The man looked at it and said, “Thank you.”

James was using a reference computer in the library one afternoon, trying to gather together some books he thought he’d use in a proposal for a writing grant. He thought he might try to write a book on an Ohio-born writer who wrote about rather mad families caught between ambition and circumstance. Next to him sat a tall, tanned young man. James looked twice at him. James had seen him before, but didn’t know his name. He hung around with another man James thought crazy. James looked at him twice as the man had dyed his hair—what color is that? A light orange? The man sensed James looking and returned his gaze. They smiled. They worked silently next to each other, but a tension was in the air. James wondered if he should say something, either about what he was working on or ask the man bout his own concerns. James had become reticent to say anything about himself since losing his job, so he said, “Working on anything interesting?”

“I’m just printing some Japanese anime,” said the man, turning his computer screen toward James, who saw illustrations of half-nude women.

“Interesting,” said James.

The man laughed.

The tension, however, was not dispelled. Each attended to his concerns, but there was something remaining to be said. What could James say to this man, a stranger, someone he did not know, and someone he suspected he had little in common with? Every once in a while he felt this kind of thing—a connection having nothing to do with reason, nothing to do with will—and he dismissed it, but now that he was idle, now that his emotions were so obviously unfocused and unresolved in so many ways, he found these impulses harder to dismiss. James looked over at the young man, and then down into the man’s lap where he saw the man was aroused. After a brief exchange of looks, comments, and gestures, they went back to the apartment the man, Santiago, shared with his girlfriend, who was at work, and amid low laughter and high-spirited lust they drank liquor and fucked. James was charmed by the man’s energy and joy; and he felt as if he were lying down with an affectionate but dangerous animal.

“Does your girlfriend know about this side of you?” asked James.

“What’s there to know? It’s not like I’m going to fall in love with any guy,” said Santiago. “I don’t give guys flowers or taken them out to candlelit dinners. I hang out with guys sometimes and sometimes we play basketball and sometimes we fuck,” he said.

James looked out of one of the windows, onto the streets he’d be entering soon.

“You’re intelligent, sensitive, free. What do you want to do?” asked Santiago.

James was startled. He hadn’t expected that perception or the honesty, and he stumbled, “I don’t know. I just want to get a job that doesn’t involve too much humiliation.”

Walking in the neighborhood, James came face to face with a boy he had been seeing in the area for years. James had first seen the boy when he was about ten, chubby, and carrying a football, and now he was twenty-five, dressed all in black with longish hair, affecting a Manhattan style that was not entirely current. It was odd to have seen someone grow older without having any connection to him. When the boy was young, he had seemed open, pleasant-natured, and now he seemed a little closed, private, moody. James had seen this transformation in other boys. It might have been the narrowing of the focus of their energies that had led to this—they went from being interested in each other and everything to being interested principally in work, sports, women. James himself had not changed very much since he had first seen the boy—a fact he attributed to not being married or having kids, things that exhausted a man—and it was obvious that the boy recognized him. James said hello to the boy and asked about what he was doing and they talked about the weather, rock music, Manhattan, the too dull neighborhood. An hour later, when James kissed the back of the boy’s neck, after ruffling his thick dark hair, as James’s cock smoothly pushed in and out of the boy’s freckled pink ass in the boy’s bedroom, which still seemed the room of an adolescent, James felt a terrific sense of conquest. James was happy to substitute this sexual conquest for professional conquest, at least for a few minutes, but then he wondered if such a feeling—so small, so conscious—wouldn’t make the experience bitter to him later, and he knew then what he would do. When he whispered in a rush of words in the boy’s ear that he wanted the boy to fuck him, the boy seemed surprised, then disturbed, and finally he grinned.

When James spoke with Gail on the phone, they inevitably discussed what had been happening to her, but James tried to remind her about other things—about restaurants she might try, about films that were opening, about books to read, about places she might travel, about other jobs she might consider. He wanted her to remember that there was a wider world.
So they talked about different things, then Gail said, “I think Susan Sunshine”—and they laughed again at the name, which Gail had mocked in the past—“I think Susan Sunshine is behind a lot of the protests.” Sunshine was a reporter with a cult following—she presented herself as the girl next door but was known for aggressive reporting and had grilled the U.S. president so thoroughly several newspaper columnists had wondered if she had disrespected his office. “She wants to control this station—she used to, through the former program director,” said Gail.

James wasn’t sure he believed in human puppetry. Sunshine might have had indirect influence, but indirect control?

A mutual colleague of Gail’s and the woman claimed that Gail was jealous of Sunshine. James thought Sunshine self-consciously good, sweet, smart, but her audience read her eager grin as warmth and her plain hairstyle and clothes as integrity and read Gail’s precise diction as artificiality, her confidence as imperiousness, her girth as transgression, and her knowledge as foreign ideology. Gail’s proper Trinidadian upbringing was working against her in their eyes.
The protests against the television station where Gail worked, surprisingly well financed and well organized, had continued so long that newspapers were no longer even pretending to try to get the other side of the story. They had been bombarded with calls and e-mails and printed material from the protesters for so long, they were saturated with their version and simply reproduced it in their stories. Gail had even been recast in her own life story as someone incompetent and power-driven, somehow both clueless and so thoroughly calculating she had fooled many of her current coworkers and the public.

The harassment of board members by the protesters—calls at home and office, protests outside their children’s schools—had led some board members to resign and others to consider firing Gail but as yet there wasn’t enough board support for removing her from her position.
“I think our work is to report the news—yes, critically, intelligently—but to report it, not to be it or to make it, but Susan wants to make news. She thinks reporters are inevitably part of their stories and should advocate a position,” said Gail.

“Well, you’ve done advocacy journalism too,” said James.

“Sometimes it’s appropriate,” said Gail.

The truth was that power had changed her—or, if not power, the circumstances of power. She had gone from being hopeful though chastened, to trying to articulate a vision staff and viewers could rally around, to being defensive, to being controlling about what was said on the air by her staff about the controversies, to being unable to tolerate dissent. The atmosphere inside the television station had become calm but fearful, professional but without intimacies or the honesty that comes with intimacy. Gail had been treated unfairly; and that became the foundation from which she thought and acted.

Gail said, “You tell me I’m brilliant and strong—we agree about that—but you’re even more pleased by the fact that I’m not afraid to be tough or difficult.”

James laughed. It was true.

“You think many of us are complex, and that when that complexity is revealed it creates difficulty, and that’s why people are afraid to reveal complexity. They don’t want the difficulty or the punishment that might come with it,” she said.

“Yes, yes, yes, yes,” said James.

They both laughed.

It was the middle of the morning, and there were snow flurries. In yesterday’s mail there had been a telephone bill, which remained on James’s mind—how would he pay it? How would he pay to get his clothes cleaned? How would he pay his taxes? James gritted his teeth as he walked, wondering if his shoes would soon be soaked.

James saw a puppy take a bone under a car, where the dog huddled near the front right tire. James stopped to watch, thinking about the smallness of the dog and its obvious hunger. He walked on and a woman, who had seen him watching said, “I don’t know whose dog that is. He’s just eating those chicken bones.” James smiled at her. He thought about the dog’s tenacious gnawing at the bone, about his huddling against the tire, and felt sympathy. This is pathetic—I’m projecting myself onto a puppy, he thought.

A man was milling outside of the small trailer that operated as a food pantry, and James walked in his direction. James had seen the man before, inside, but this was the first time he noticed the man had a scar on his left lower cheek. A knife wound? The man had dark, intense eyes. He looked at James’s face, then at his coat, his scarf about his check, his pressed pants, his shining shoes; he looked skeptical. James saw the look and wanted to say, not everyone in need or trouble looks or sounds broken. But this is what they seemed to want, to see your need abject. James had been handing out his resume to businesses in the area, and so he was clean, shaven, and dressed very presentably but not especially well by his usual standards. He had sat down earlier in a real estate office to discuss the possibility of selling real estate, but had been told it would be about three months before he would be likely to make money he could live on. He would have to be able to afford training, licenses, a desk, and he would not get a salary but would make commissions. That was another dead end.

James asked the scarred man if the pantry was opened and the man said, No.On his way home, James stopped at a supermarket. He had no money on him, but it had become his habit to tour the aisles of food and clothing stores he couldn’t now afford, seeing the things he hoped to be able to afford again one day in the future. These were tours akin to brothel or museum visits, with most of the pleasure taking place in his mind, not on his lips or tongue. James realized he had a headache, remembered he was out of aspirin at home, and was almost surprised when he found himself picking up a a bottle of aspirin and slipping it into his coat pocket. A block away from the store, he smiled, pleased. I’ll have to do that again, he thought. He retrieved the bottle from his pocket, broke the plastic seal, and put the two white bitter tablets on his tongue.

The radiator in James’s bedroom kicked on; it was as if the house were breathing. James thought the heat was less than in previous years, and he knew that was because he was behind in his rent. He thought of this as he heard Gail say, “Two people can have the same strengths, do the same kind of work, but if they belong to different social groups, they’ll get a different reception, different rewards. We are individuals but we’re not appreciated as individuals.”James said, “No, we’re not.”

Gail had told him about finding herself, thirsty, at her office approaching a water fountain as Susan Sunshine neared the same fountain to drink. Gail had gestured, deferring to Susan, who drank first. As Susan was bent drinking, Gail couldn’t resist adding, “You think you’re entitled to public recognition and admiration.”

Susan had straightened, a look of surprise on her face, and said, “People recognize my work. Do you resent that?”

Gail said, “You’re not the only one who does relevant work. Do you feel at all guilty about the unequal attention you get?”

Susan said, “Would you?”

Gail had not answered. She had moved passed Susan, drank water, and then walked away.Gail said, “She’s oblivious—she assumes power is her right.” She paused, and asked, “How are you James?”

“I’m tired,” he said. “I’m very tired. The life I’m living is not the life I planned,” said James. He laughed sadly. “I’m no longer the hero in my own story—I’m more of a case study, a statistic. I guess not everyone’s allowed to be a hero.”

Gail said, “We’re individuals but we’re not appreciated as individuals.” She was quiet a moment. “You’re still a hero to me.”

“And you are to me,” he said.

The corporate board of the company Gail worked for had elected new members, many of them whom were either sympathetic to the protesters or who simply wanted the protest to end and were willing to make a sacrifice for that. Gail could see that when the new board had its first meeting in two weeks, she’d likely be the ritual’s sacrifice. She announced that she was resigning to write a book and consider other professional opportunities. James read a report of the board election and resignation in the morning paper and intuited the rest.

James saw a man alone making karate gestures and mouthing words, clearly crazy. The man crossed the street, and though a bus was coming he stood in the middle of the street, unzipped his pants and took out his prick and began to urinate.

When James entered the soup kitchen in the church basement, a nervous young man was speaking with someone. James assumed this nervousness was because he was new to such spare accommodations, but in the midst of James’ meal—spicy chicken wings, buttery whipped potatoes, string beans with other vegetables—the young man sat down next to him and began talking the social service program he was with and about health benefits James might qualify for. James asked him if he had a card, and after the man handed over a card and pamphlet, James said, “I’ll review these and if I need anything, I’ll call you.” The young man tried to continue talking. James asked, “Have you eaten the lunch? The young man said, No. James said, “Well, you should eat. This is really good, and I’m going to finish my delicious meal, which is why I’m here, and if I need anything I’ll call you.” The young man then tried to shake James’s hand, and James said, “I can’t—my hands aren’t clean: I’m eating.” The man kept his hand out as if it was okay, he didn’t mind James’s hand but James repeated his words. Would the man shake someone’s greasy hand in other circumstances? He must be new to his job, James thought. With his small build, light brown skin, small mobile eyes, cheekbones, short-cropped hair, and quiet manner, there was a resemblance to James, but the man saw in himself no resemblance to James or anyone else here. He’s so uncomfortable he’s dangerous, thought James. You can destroy someone with disappointment and pity, James thought. If I had been weaker. If I had been having a very bad day.

James received a small check for a proofreading job he did, and decided to go to a party. It had been months since he’d gone to a party. He’d had a bleak spring and a terrible summer—he had not known that a summer could be terrible.

James walked into the party and saw people smoking marijuana and doing powdered cocaine. He had rarely smoked the first and had never tried the second but he knew that tonight he would do both; and he did.

The noise in the party was no longer aggravating; it seemed far away. James no longer felt as if he would cry if someone asked him where he worked. James imagined the hands of a nearby clock spinning quickly, an acceleration of time. He noticed a man watching him and thought the man looked hostile and wondered if the man, whom he did not know, wanted to kill him. James suddenly imagined himself in a closed coffin, face up, the lid a few inches from his eyes, the coffin filled with cobwebs and dirt. Could he be feeling afraid and sleepy and sexually aroused at once?
Every day for a week, James thought of calling the party’s host to ask about getting more of the drug. He went to bed late one night having decided that he would do that the very next day.
James woke up the next day and turned on the television to find the towers where he and Gail used to work on fire. Two planes had flown into them. James smiled: there was justice on earth.James lay across his bed, reading Simone DeBeauvoir’s interview in a Paris Review anthology: “When one has an existentialist view of the world, like mine, the paradox of human life is precisely that one tries to be and, in the long run, merely exists. It’s because of this discrepancy that when you’ve laid your stake on being—and, in a way you always do when you make plans, even if you actually know that you can’t succeed in being—when you turn around and look back on your life, you see that you’ve simply existed. In other words, life isn’t behind you like a solid thing, like the life of a god (as it is conceived, that is, as something impossible). Your life is simply a human life.” He suddenly felt pressure in his stomach, and went to the bathroom; and moments later, after realizing he was almost out of toilet paper, he gazed down, seeing the thick snake-like turd in the white bowl, and bent to flush the toilet.

James stood in the food pantry line. After James was given a small bag of canned vegetables, a box of raisins, and some apples, he thought, So much humiliation for so little in return.

This world is too small for me, thought James.

(April 2002)(c) DG