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Thursday, February 6, 2003
By Scott Rahin
A night out, then over.
Wednesday night: everyone slumped around the table, thinking, this was a bad idea, I want to go home. James the copywriter started talking about basketball, and quickly realized no one else cared. Chris the executive assistant and Chris the senior executive assistant flirted aimlessly. The other 4 of us, that is James, Susan the designer, Ell the art director, and Scott, myself, the temporary enterer of data, each love one or the other Chris. Perhaps in Ell's case, both. We all feel jealous and excluded by their flirting. I have less invested in either Chris, because I am a temp, but given time I could fall in love, too. It passes the time.
The waittress took our drink orders on a Palm Pilot, then beamed the drink order to an infrared receiver on the ceiling. I thought, that is enough technology until tomorrow. The conversation turned to the criticism of a vice president at the agency, his affairs with subordinates and morale-reducing actions.
I went upstate in my mind, back four years, when I was 27, drinking in a bar with wood tables, lit by little candles in jars and a flickering smoke-stained fluorescent lamp over the register. The bartender would bring his 16-year-old son into help out, and we'd give the kid hell. “Look at that handsome little bastard,” someone would say. “I bet he's got half the high school knocked up.”
“He better watch that,” I'd say. I'd pass him 3 quarters over the counter. “Go in the bathroom, get yourself some of those rubbers,” I said. “Don't be shy, get the big ones.”
He'd blush and tell us to go fuck ourselves.
“Oh, my God! Big words!” someone would shout.
“Well, a big strong moustache like that, the kid deserves respect,” someone else would say.
“Shit, that's a moustache? I thought it was tap foam.”
“Al Jr, how often you gotta shave that thing?”
“Shave it, you put some milk on it, the cat'll lick it off.”
He'd go home around 10, and by the end of the night, an hour or two later except for the true drinkers, there was a good chance for a fight, a half-assed falling-down tumble over some high-school ex-girlfriend or old insult, and we'd all cheer until someone actually threw a punch, at which point someone would break in and stop the action, and the bartender would throw us out.
During that one-year stretch where I haunted Red's Pub and Grill, my fellow drinkers were racists, sexists, which I am not, and like me, shitheads. I played along with their banter for about six months, to my shame, and then I finally disagreed out loud with something someone said about the poor Black people he'd run into in Rochester. I said, “I know some people up there. They were all right. There's no need to be disrespectful.” The racist who'd been talking, Dave, looked at me, the brown hair hanging limply on his shoulders, his yellow rugby shirt speckled with spilled beer. Along with 6 or 7 of the men here, he worked restoring trains. Finally, he nodded, and said through his moustache, “I respect that,” he said. “It ain't all of them.”
Dave and I liked to argue. Some later night, or maybe it was that night, I said, “How in God's name can you call yourself union and vote Republican?” I asked. “What about the people trying to make it now? How are you helping them?”
“I ain't got any trouble with people trying to make it,” Dave said. He was about 35, three little kids. He'd show their pictures. The oldest boy, at 5, had a mullet, and hair to his shoulders. “But not on my back, man,” he continued. “Not for something that happened 200 years ago.”
I would counter, and he would laugh at me. Finally it would come down to political party. “Democrats are pussies,” he'd say.
“I'm not a Democrat,” I'd say, over and over. It never sank in. You were one or the other. Ford or Chevy. White or not-White. Bud or not-Bud. Catholic or Christian. American or, um, something. “Democrat's too conservative for me. I'm independent.”
“Even more of a pussy.”
“How come everybody says we're pussies when we're the ones that get beat in the head by cops? How many times they release the dogs on Republicans? How often do the cops come through the summit at Davos on horses beating up CEOs?”
I got a stare, then. I don't think he knew what Davos was. He rolled his eyes. “Pussies,” he said. “I know people sat in a hole in the desert getting shot for our country. You tell me they're not brave?”
“You can't say people are all pussies just because they don't shoot Iraqis. People who fight for things and risk getting hurt on either side are brave. Calling them weak is wrong. Martin Luther King had balls like a billy goat.”
I saw right away where he'd take that. He smiled broadly. “Yeah, like all them--”
“Don't say it.”
“I just say, you don't know what you're talking about. We got a holiday forthat sonofabitch, and what about -”
“Don't say it,” I said, feeling something like genuine pain and exhaustion, the edge of depression that racism and ignorance in someone else, or in myself, brings out.
Sometimes it would get into shouting, but somewhere below we were hashing it out. They thought I was a communist, but they treated me like an equal. They would call to the bartender, or his son, “get that anti-American communist bastard an American God-blessed Budweiser with this good American hard-earned dollar fifty that I slaved for.” And I would say, “buy that racist half-breed former-slave-owning trailer trash a scotch and soda so he can forget what a narrow-minded bigot he is.” And we'd bang bottle to glass and nod and smile.
Tonight, at a bar in downtown Manhattan, the small group is Asian, Caribbean, European. They are not racists. They are open-minded, against the war, citizens of the Information Age. They loathe the president. They have informally adopted me, a lowly temp, into their world, conferring on me their social status without sharing the health benefits and 401(k) plans.
They talk about real estate and read Web sites. They tell stories of the great apartment, the mythical $500 a month, 2000-square foot loft. They argue where it will be when they find it, in Manhattan or Brooklyn. They congratulate themselves for bringing me, the broke-dick temp, along tonight. Chris, with the dreadlocks, feels good for reaching out to me. He handed me a pile of stacked pages with numbers which I have been entering into a database for $11/hr over the last three weeks, and then he took the time to know me, to joke with me, and he is proud of this. Scott, they say to each other, is a cool guy, leaving out the for a temp. They have been to Europe and South America on business. They develop strategies and solutions. Tonight, their proximity to my broke-dick status assures them that they are legitimate human beings, that they can talk to anyone. They are more than this, too; they are good and well-intentioned, hopeful, promising, smart, well-educated.
I need to stop smoking and get more sleep. I need to eat more fruit, drink a few glasses of water every day. I need to go.
Sitting with them I half-miss the racists upstate, who had as many layers and as much intelligence, even if they believed in more utter bullshit. I do not miss the depression, or wolfing down hot dogs at three in the morning at the Uni-Mart piled with chili made from rats. I do not miss stopping by a house to pick up someone on the way to work, to see their toddlers tumbling around the hallway and the tired wife trapped in the house all day with a 32-inch television, Snak Kakes, and defecating children for company.
My current peers would look down on the racists. They wouldn't be able to help it. They would hear them spout over their Budweisers and they would be shocked and unnerved. Yet these people have no union, no voice as a group, and they are often ashamed of their work. Right now they are putting together a web site for a company that makes food products for the United States Army, and they hate and make fun of the tasks they do, the people with whom they meet. They work long hours and play networked video games, and believe that the rug will not be pulled from under them, or if it is, they will find another rug right below. Probably they are right. They will end up retired, having dinner with friends, bobbing back and forth on low shoes as Godspeed You Black Emperor plays its reunion tour 20 years from now. Where will I be?
The racists would not do well in this bar. They would say, “that Asian girl is hot, man” and they would see Chris, with his dreadlocks and cream-coffee skin talking to Chris with her big breasts and blonde hair and feel threatened and angry, upset that Chris, who graduated from Swarthmore, could speak so well and command the attention of the beautiful, the intelligent, the desirable. They would talk about sex and their hair would shag out in the back. They would gape at the high-breasted models in the corner.
I went to the bathroom and leaned my head against the cool tile by the door before I came back out. Then I excused myself, and no one tried to keep me. I walked home, three miles, a witness the moon instead of the subway, clouds moving, cold. I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge. I bought a pack of cigarettes from a tired-looking Yemeni man at an all-night store. The booze was out of me when I walked in the door. Neither of my two roommates was home. I went up to the roof for a while, took off my shirt and felt the coldness, the wind moving the hair on my chest and stomach. A car alarm went off. Someone yelled in Spanish. The reply was in English. I counted a few stars through the ambient light and pollution, and went back downstairs, where I read for a while, and finally I let the book fall out of my hands and leaned back on my small, hard mattress.