I drink my coffee and stare out the window at the cars passing by on the highway. I remember the old Kerouac line: whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny automobile? It was all open roads and possibilities for that guy. A wide-eyed, down-to-earth madness that rolled from one coast to another. Football-playing kids with books of poetry by their beds. I grew up in Kerouac’s America. He was my guy. One of the first things I did when I got to New York was take the train up to Columbia so that I could walk in his footsteps. I lived for his idea of what we were supposed to be. But there are no angels anymore. No more saints. No visionary catholic supplications or prayers to make to god. No more optimism. No fantastic smiles. No great west. No more cowboys or jazzmen, unless they’re in a Visa commercial I would love to go moan for man, but the credit cards would sue me and the student loan companies would put me in default. No need to go looking for Dean Moriarty, because he works for the collections department of an insurance company in Delaware. He hates his job and would quit and hit the road, but can’t afford to miss a mortgage payment. And he’s not really in traveling shape anymore, but about 80 pounds overweight. Too big to fail.
I turn away from the window, go back to the Sallie Mae website and finish with the electronic forms for my second-to-last deferment. After this one, I’ll be coming in here to Starbucks looking for a job. I can see myself filling out the application at the wobbly table in the corner, wallowing in the glory that really never was, then sitting there with a stupid smile on my face as the 21-year-old assistant manager holds up a mirror to more than two decades of overeducated bad decisions. The goatee with the first signs of grey, crow’s feet around the eyes, and the tattoos no longer anti-establishment cool, but mile markers on the road to nowhere. I never expected or even wanted my life to be a straight line, but thought that if you put the time in and paid your dues, then you wouldn’t end up back in the same place you were 20 years ago.
I put away my laptop, finish the coffee and head out the door. I walk past the California Pizza Kitchen, the Chipotle and up the sidewalk toward the Target. The way the sun glistens off the minivans is spectacular, haunting. I enter through the sliding automatic doors into the fluorescent lights and cut through rows of candles, heaters, curtains, blinds, slipcovers, mirrors, humidifiers and pet supplies. I stop to ask a salesclerk about the soy milk. The man is maybe 75, thick coke-bottle glasses, splotchy face and crooked back. He should be off somewhere playing shuffleboard and bitching about the young, not spending the last years before the grand exit struggling in the belly of a big box store. It takes him 25 seconds just to walk across the aisle. “I’m sorry to bother you, sir. But do you know where the soy milk is?”
“No sir, the soy milk….”
“No sir, the soy milk.”
I feel like the most bourgeois, pretentious yuppie that ever lived. Ohmygawd, you’ve never heard of soy milk? Didn’t you read the article in Salon about the dairy industry? There’s as much suffering in a cup of milk as a pound of beef! “Oh wait, sir, hold on…I think I see it right over there! Thank you!” I take off through maternity, outerwear, plus sizes, women’s shoes, accessories, luggage, infant, toddler, patio furniture and into the refrigerated food section…Like a liberal in Texas, it’s surrounded by chicken nuggets, buffalo wings, sausage patties and microwave-ready cheeseburgers. I take two half-gallons off the shelf and tell myself how I wonderful I am for making the enlightened consumer choice, but really the soy milk is made by a subsidiary of a publicly-traded company that’s owned by a conglomerate with its headquarters on a space station that controls the factories that make the chicken nuggets, buffalo wings, sausage patties and microwave-ready cheeseburgers. There is no escape from complicity when you’re an American. All we can do is turn down the volume from 11 to 9.
I met Joe three months ago when I walked over to pick up some soy sauce and tampons. He was playing Fight Night on the XBOX, Ali versus Frazier. I challenged him to a fight and pursuant to Section Four of the Target employee handbook, we went back around the building to smoke some pot. Joe can be bitter and hard to take at times, but the same could be said of me and I didn’t do two tours in the war then come back home and have to clean up shit on Aisle 5.
“You got a few?”
“Can you meet me back around by the fertilizer for a smoke?” he asks. “I’ve got to talk to you about something.”
“Yeah, what’s it about?”
”I got popped.”
“Of what, a poor attitude?”
“And so now, as an attorney, let me get this straight…After being charged with marijuana possession, you want to go smoke marijuana while on company time and directly behind your place of employment?”
“Okay, sounds good…I’ll see you back there in five.”
I cut back through electronics, dog toys, placemats, candles, dishes, bowls, jewelry, watches, celebrity magazines, diet supplements and pay at the register with a credit card because there is no ATM in the area that charges less than four dollars to give us our money, then go outside and find a semi-quiet place along the wall for a cigarette. Outside of our little slice of heaven here along the highway, there’s nothing else around for miles. Rachel and I live in a sprawled out, disconnected, real estate McProduct. A cheap boardroom diorama that the investors spilled coffee on as they talked about where to put the dumpsters. There’re figurines of us in it somewhere. The moody existential couple struggling to find meaning in the suburban wasteland. I stare out across the parking lot at an abandoned basketball court and then into the decaying fabric of telephone poles and electric wires. Bleakness seems so cool when your life is filled with wine and purpose, but utterly romanticized bullshit when you’ve got no role to play or place to stand.
I toss my cig onto the sidewalk, walk around the corner to the loading dock and into a little alley with the fertilizer bags. It’s like a bunker with a view of the highway and all those cars whooshing by…Whither goest thou? Joe is already there leaning up against the bags with a pipe in his hand.
“So can you believe it?”
“Yeah, they picked up that receiver.”
“We’re going this year.”
He hands me the pipe. I take a hit and the whole area brightens from a toxic grey to an innocuous beige. “I think you still need a couple players, but you should definitely be in the playoffs.”
“Playoffs was last year. Super Bowl is this year.”
“Tell me something?”
“Did your neck get thicker or is it some kind of weird optical illusion because it looks like tree trunk?”
“You should see my…”
“Now that’s what I’m talking about…That’s the customer service that made America great.”
“America is still great.”
“Damn right it is. So what happened?”
“Yeah, so I was at the train station over here and the cop came up to me and asked if he could look in my bag. I didn’t know what to say.”
“You didn’t say that you objected to the politics of fear and the war on terror?”
“Yeah, I did, but then he told me to go fuck myself.”
“Okay, good, just wanted to make sure.”
“He went in my bag, found 80 bucks worth of weed and arrested me on the platform. Spent the night in county, didn’t get out till seven the next night.”
“They arrested you on the platform?”
“Yeah, it was fucking humiliating…Kids were pointing at me, families watching, these guys were laughing at me…”
“You tell him you were in the war?”
“What did he say?”
“That I shouldn’t be smoking weed like some hippie dirtbag…”
A black face peers around from the other side of the fertilizer bags. Around 50, works here, helped me once when I was looking for peanut butter. “I knew I’d find your ass back here,” he says.
“Here you go, Ray.” Joe hands him the pipe.
“This is some bullshit.”
“Why, what’s up?” asks Joe.
“This man just came up with his boy asking me where the tennis rackets is at,” Ray says. “I take him over there trying to do my job, then he started coming at me with all these questions about tennis…Tennis? Shit, I grew up in ghetto, what the fuck do I know about tennis? All he was trying to do is make himself look big in front of his boy, but the whole time his boy is looking at him like Motherfucker, I’m gonna do everything I gotta do not to be like you.”
“Hey, Ray, Jerry told me that you were giving notice…” Joe says.
“Nah, I was, but we can’t do it this year,” he says.
“Do what?” asks Joe.
“I was going to go live with my son in Colorado,” Ray says. “Help him take care of his family, but we can’t do it this year. Things fell through."
“Maybe next year,” I say. “It’s nice out there.”
“Maybe so, maybe so, that's what they say...” He takes a hit and blows it out into the sky, the smoke fading like it was never there. “Alright! Taped up, back in the game, ready to take on The Man…Gentlemen, take care. Joe, I owe.”
“Yeah, no problem.”
He disappears back inside.
“He seems like a cool guy.”
“Try working with him every day.”
“And so they charged you with possession?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” he says. “They sent me a letter saying that I could mail in a fine and plead guilty or show up in court and fight it…If it gets on my record, they could take away my benefits. And more than that, you know, it’s like I was just being there at the train station, so now I guess it’s like illegal to be.”
I opine for a moment on the illegality of being, then force myself back to the matter at hand. “So let me ask you something—you didn’t give him any kind of consent to say that he could search your bag? Nod your head? Mumble yes? Anything?”
“And what does your public defender say?”
“They said I make too much to get one.”
“Yeah, they said that with my benefits and the money I make here, it puts me over the line. They said I’m no poor enough. I’m not indignant.”
“Well, you should be…Who handled the arraignment?”
“That first hearing when they took you before the court. Who was there?”
“The PD and he wasn’t that bad, but then after they said he couldn’t represent me, this other lawyer came up and gave me his card.”
“I called him up a couple days later and he said he’d get rid of it for two grand. I might as well just pay the fucking fine.”
“Do you have the money.”
“Yeah, not really. I just got my jeep fixed and I was supposed to go downtheshore in a couple weeks.”
“Around AC. My brother rents a place on Long Island City once a year.”
“Is it nice around there?”
“Drink beer all day, pass out, go to the clubs at night and pick up, like shooting fish in a barrel.”
“So what do you want to do about this thing?”
“I want to fight it.”
“You have a record? I’m just asking.”
“Not for pot.”
“I got in a scrap a couple years ago outside a bar on Route 7. Housed this guy.”
“No, Fibbar McCools.”
“They give you like a ticket or was it something else?”
“Yeah, like a traffic ticket.”
“Alright, that’s no big deal. Anything else, I just need to know.”
“Disorderly Conduct…After the Giants won the Super Bowl, I took off my clothes and ran through Times Square. Cops got me in my boxers outside the ESPN Zone Tyree’s catch…”
“Yeah, that was a heluva grab...Hey, how do you get along with the Eagles fans here in Philly?”
“I don’t,” he says. “One of my brothers works security at the stadium and gets me into the games. Or go up to watch at my other brother’s apartment in Trenton.”
“What’s that bridge say?”
“Trenton makes, the world takes.”
“They still make anything there?”
“So you want to fight this thing?”
“That’s what I said.”
I made a promise to myself to focus only on the job search, but the world has a way of making you say yes or no. “Alright, look…I can’t represent you in court because I’m not licensed in PA. But if you really want to go in there and fight it—I can help you get ready.”
“Yeah, can’t have our boys getting busted for nothing.”
“I thought you were against war.”
“I was and am.”
“That’s what I like about you, Neal.”
“For being like a liberal homo, you’re still a regular guy.”
“I appreciate that.”
“And smart, too.”
“I could tell that you’re a good lawyer just by getting high with you.”
Not exactly a quote for the top of the resume, but good to hear nonetheless. Having grown up in the west and having spent most of my adult life trying to make it on the east coast—I always felt like I had to work a little harder to be taken seriously. I know it’s just my own paranoia, but I always felt like people saw me as the kind of guy who hung around strip malls and got stoned behind Target.
I give him my email address, pick up my soy milk, jog to the end of the Target parking lot, step over the shrubs to get down to the dirt path that leads to the broken wood fence that surrounds our apartment complex. Twelve main buildings with hundreds of units: kind of place where you live at 19, not 39. I walk over to the mailboxes. The woman that lived in our place before us was a catalogue junky. Joan and David, J. Crew, Chadwick’s of Boston, Coldwater Creek. They just keep coming. They never stop. There’s no recycling program, so we can’t do anything but throw them away. No matter how hard you try, you’re always living in the wake of other people. I toss them in one of the dumpsters, squeeze between two cars, go up the concrete stairs and hear the scratching on the door. “Zola!” More crazy scratching. I open the door and she jumps up. “Zola girl!” We found her as a puppy abandoned behind a restaurant in the French Quarter. We originally named her NOLA as in New Orleans, but every time we told her no as in stop chewing the couch or eating our shoes, she would give us a confused look like we were saying her name. So we switched to Zola because it sounded cool, then realized it was the same name as the French writer of the disenfranchised and dispossessed.
“Is that you?”
Depending on where you live, this question is either a simple greeting or a concern that hurts your heart. “Yes, it’s me, Sweety. I just need to check email.” It’s not a dangerous building, but not a secure one, either. I go into the hall closet that we’ve turned into my office. Enough room for a dining room chair, laptop, autographed picture of Johnny Cash, the monster insecurities of unemployment and the unrelenting guilt that comes from having put us in this situation. So, on the level of psychological demons, at least, I’ve got the corner office with the view of the Empire State Building. I check my inbox: nothing. No chain letters, no rip offs, no spam: even the guys who send out those shyster emails from Third World countries know I’m broke. I told Rachel that if she took a temporary nursing assignment in Philadelphia, then I could look for jobs in both DC and New York. I said that it would give us fluidity, be a cool adventure in the birthplace of our democracy. But after seven months of being trapped without a car on the outskirts of town, in a one-bedroom apartment with rented furniture and piss stains on the carpet, our cool democratic adventure has turned into a grinding detour through economically depressed states of weariness and isolation.
“Yeah...” I turn around in my chair. She’s tall with night black hair and white skin. If she weren’t a Jersey Jew, she would almost remind me of the cholos that I grew up with in Albuquerque. They always had their heads cocked at a slight angle of defiance, too.
“Did you ever get a chance to call about the credit card?”
“No, I didn’t, Rachel.”
“I have it all set up…I’m on top of it. I’m going to transfer them to the zero interest thing tomorrow.”
“Whatever.” Her whatever is a punk rock whatever.
“I promise you that we’re good. It makes no difference whether I call today or tomorrow.”
“I said whatever, Neal.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I don’t want you to say anything. I just want you to do it so I don’t have to think about it.”
“I promise you that you don’t have to think about it.”
“I don’t know.”
“I just thought you’d be able to do it.”
“Why, because I’m not working and you are?”
“No, because I ‘d rather listen to music, go for a walk, read a book, do laundry, stick my head in the fucking oven or almost anything other than stare at a fucking credit card bill.”
“I said I’d take care of it.”
“We can’t let them go the collectors, Neal.”
“Nothing has ever gone into collection because of me.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“The electric bill?”
“You threw it away!”
“After you said you paid it!”
We stop to breathe: we’re good at going right to the edge, then pulling back. I get up and go into the living room and sit down at the table under the Goya print that we bought in New York several years ago. That was a good day. “I promise you that I will do it by tomorrow. I know you hate dealing with it as much as I do.”
“You got a call on your cell,” she says, joining me. “It was in the bedroom so I answered it.”
“Did it wake you up? I’m sorry.”
“No, I was up already.”
“Who was it?”
“A temp agency.”
“Really?” She sits down at the table with me.
“They want you to come in for an interview.”
“They said to call,” she says, wiping the tired out of her eyes. “But don’t you think it would be better to use this time to find real work?”
“We need the money,” I say, and knock on the four-page credit card bill lying in the middle of the table.
“But as long as we stay on top of things,” she knocks back on the credit card bill. “Then we’re fine.”
“I’ll just go down and see what they have.”
“But do you really want to do that work?”
“Yeah, why not.”
I knew she was going to bring up Steven…One of our friends went to law school for the sole and express purpose of doing civil rights work for the GLBT community. He couldn’t get a job, so started temping in New York. After six months of being buried under discovery, he figured out that the small law firm that he thought he was working for was actually hired by a larger law firm that was defending a large corporation that was being sued with a class action for discriminating against gays and lesbians. He quit the legal profession right there and became a teacher.
“You could be working for IBM 1938 and have no idea.”
“It’s not gonna be IBM 1938,” I say. “It’s all just bankruptcy these days. It’ll help with the credit card.”
“Great. Fantastic. We’re responsible. Would you fuck me now?”
We stand up together and I take her in my arms. Her hand in my hand, her head on my shoulder, we sway to the music that only we can hear.
“Tell me a story, Neal. I want to get away from this…”
“Yasss, right there, that’s it….”
We dive into each other as we walk down black-and-white chessboard-tiled alleys, picking up speed from piazza to piazza with those wild hand signals flashing in the blurred vision of the steaming port town of our souls...
“Shit, baby,” she whispers in my ear. “Naples made New York slow.”
“I need to be deep in you.”
“Fuck me hard, Neal.”
And then we climbed those stairs by candlelight up to the roof where furious and sweating we danced above the city in the chaos and the madness of a real anarchist party going deeper and deeper into the passion and the glory until we went down into the hot kitchen of the four star outlaw squat where our new friends made us…
“Anarchist Pizza! Anarchist Pizza!”
And there we saw the sunrise in the sweetness of creation in a come together morning of the things that the darkness could never touch…
“I love you, baby.”
“I love you, too.”
Character and Fitness is a semi-autobiographical novel about an unemployed social justice lawyer and his nurse girlfriend living in a shitty apartment complex behind a strip mall in the suburbs of Philadelphia , birthplace of our democracy. The book is about the alienation and estrangement that working class, thinking people feel in this country. The Americans trying to make their lives about something more than money, which makes them strangers in a strange land.