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 suburban Philadelphia, the birthplace of our democracy. The novel explores the alienation and estrangement that working class, thinking people feel in America. The characters inhabiting this novel are trying to make their lives about something more than simply making money, which makes them strangers in a strange land. Tune in every month for another installment.
The mirror is cracked and terrible to gaze into…Broken glass, rusted bed frames, falling-down fences, burnt-out buildings, used-up factories, asphalt that goes nowhere, plastic bags, plastic garbage, plastic everywhere, the smell of oil and other unknown chemicals in the air. The outside of the city is trashed, a sad and toxic wasteland that speaks to the depressing pettiness of the human soul. “And you know what bothers me the most about it,” I tell her. “Is not the fact that you did it, but the fact that you won’t admit it.”
“Fucking look at this place….”
“Did you hear me?” I ask. “It bugs me. It bothers me.”
“Good,” Rachel says, lighting a cigarette as she drives. “Be bugged. Be bothered. I’m done with the Neal show…”
“Then just admit it…”
“But why won’t you just admit it?”
“Fine,” she says. “I admit it: I am sick of your stupid voice.”
“Well, then maybe I shouldn’t have come out here to give a talk.”
“Oh, don’t get back on that,” she says.
“Why? I don’t even want to do it. Some post-capitalist, freegan space, what do I care? There’re going to be like five kids there and they’re all going to smell,” I say. “All I want to do is chill out in my own space and wait for the Civil Rights Guild to get back. How come I’m not allowed to do that?”
“Because you promised our young friend that you would come and support what she’s doing, and that’s just the end of that…Do you have the directions?”
“She said look for a junk man,” I say. “Big man made of junk.”
“Sitting next to me,” she says.
“Sitting next to me,” I copy her. “Sitting next to me.”
“You are the most unenjoyable, maximally annoying little man.” My cell phone rings. “Answer your stupid phone.”
“I don’t want to answer it.”
“Well, now I’m going to...”
“Oh, good burn. They teach you that in law school?”
I wait for it to go to voicemail, feeling her glare at me out of the corner of her eye…It’s Chris Majerus. “Neal de la Vega…The People’s Champion!! Joe Frazier! We’re having a rooftop party next Friday…I emailed you the address…”
I click off the phone and stick it back into my pocket. “I bet you want to know who that was, huh?”
“No, not really,” she says. “I could actually care less.”
“One of my friends from law school,” I say. “Yeah, I have friends from law school who call me. Does that rock your world or what?”
“Ohmygawd, you’re so needy and pathetic,” she says.
“At least I’m not a hypocrite.”
“What did you say?”
“I’d rather be needy and pathetic than a hypocrite,” I say.
“The fact that I said you’re needy and pathetic doesn’t also mean that you’re not a hypocrite,” she says.
“And the fact that I said you’re a hypocrite doesn’t mean that you’re whatever else you said.”
“You’re trying to ape me, but you’re actually so stupid that you can’t even do it.”
“Oooh oooh ooh ooh…I’m a monkey. I’m a monkey. 98 percent chimp.”
“I can’t stand you.”
“Then just admit it.”
“What’s that up there?”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
There’s a large mound of trash with some kind of head-like thing and rusted metal beams sticking out the side like arms. It doesn’t look like a man at all. Everything always has to be cute. We pull up next to the factory. It dwarfs us, like the Target wall.
“You give me this hard time,” I say, getting out. “But then when it comes to your own behavior...”
“If you would just please shut the fuck up,” she says. “I’m serious, Neal. I’ve been looking forward to this and you’re not going to ruin it for me. I came to see Nancy and all the work that she’s doing here…It’s not about you.”
I get out and walk over to several large compost boxes along the brick wall: rotten orange peels, moldy apples and worms. It’s incredible. She leaves the bathroom, kitchen and living room lights on and then refuses to take any criticism whatsoever. But I’m not going to say anything else, I’m just going to let it go. I’m going to be generous. “You know, I can’t believe that you won’t admit to leaving the bathroom, kitchen and living room lights on when you went to take Zola for a walk...”
She starts marching over to me, the wind catching her skirt and revealing the white thigh above her black knee-high boots. Also blowing her dark hair across her face in a way that looks really good, too. I suddenly become fearful that if I don’t quickly modify my behavior, then this woman will no longer have sex with me.
“You want the truth?”
“Yeah, I want the truth.”
“Then here’s the truth,” she says. “You left them on when you left the apartment, then I left them on because it made me so angry,” she says then sighs. “And then you got back to the apartment before I did, and by that time I realized how much of a complete ass I was being by leaving the lights on just to prove a point.”
“Hey, we should really get moving,” I say. “She’s probably expecting us.”
She gives me one last angry look, then turns and starts walking toward the factory doors, those long legs leading the way. I swear an oath to myself to make 100 percent sure to turn off the lights now every time before I leave the apartment. For the environment, of course, and the future generations to whom we owe the stewardship of our resources. God bless those kids. They are the future.
We squeeze through two large doors that are chained together. On one side of the concrete hall are jars; on the other side are buckets. I look into the jars. The first has nothing but seeds at the bottom, but as I go from jar-to-jar, the seeds become sprouts and the sprouts get bigger and bigger, so that by the time I get to the last jar, the seeds are fully sprouted and ready to eat. I check the buckets on the other side: they’re filled with bagels, potatoes, broccoli, lettuce, boxes of strawberries, red bell peppers and carrots. Maybe a few wilted leaves here and there, but it’s all good food.
“I can’t believe that they get all this of the garbage,” Rachel says.
“Yeah, I know.”
“I needed to see this.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“They’re actually doing something to try and stop all the waste,” she says.
“Hey, I’m sorry for acting like that in the car.”
Nancy is thrift-store fabulous in a shiny black and gold dress. A couple of sequins missing, a red rose in her long brown hair. I can tell that she’s put some real thought into how she looks tonight, which makes me like her even more. It takes a special kind of sincerity to admit that something is a big deal to you. To say: it may not be some huge thing, but for me this is important. We all put so much energy put into acting like we don’t care. We all greet each other with a strong and happy hug. Despite the empty coldness of the factory, the feeling is good and warm.
“You guys want the official tour?”
“You better give it us!”
As we walk though a cavernous room that might have been an assembly line at some point, I think about what it must be like to be a young now, raised on wars, anger, polarization, global warming and the total onslaught of consumerism where every message that fills their brains tells them to keep going, keep buying, don’t question, keep going, keep buying, don’t question. Their outside world is controlled by corporate mass media and when they feel alienated and depressed by it, then their inside world is handed over to the pharmaceutical companies. Their society invests more in prisons than it does in schools. They’ve probably never had an art class, or a music class, or even heard of the books that wake up souls. Yet, somehow, a few of them have refused to give in. They have found a resistance inside themselves…I watch as Nancy shows us how they collect rainwater to wash their dishes and to hopefully irrigate the gardens that they plan to plant in Spring. I may not be willing to go dumpster diving for my food next week, but because they do, I sure as hell am going pay more attention to the food that I waste and throw away.
“Do you live here, Nancy?” asks Rachel.
“No,” she says as we come to a large kitchen area. “I’m not 19 anymore. I need my own little space now.”
“A place where you can bring boys back,” says Rachel. “Gawd, I know when I was you’re your age…”
“I’m right here, Rachel” I say. “I don’t need to hear about your youthful escapades.”
“Hey, if I can’t dance…” Rachel smiles.
“Then I don’t want to be a part of your revolution!” Nancy yells back.
And the factory echoes with Emma Goldman…
There are 20 or 25 buckets of food in the kitchen with several makeshift sinks, soaps and vinegars for washing, cleaning and preparing it. Nancy explains how they use it to feed homeless in Camden every Monday while opening a bottle of red wine and pouring us each glasses in recycled jelly jars. I like the mix of the two. This is a hard, losing fight. You’ve got to drink wine along the way.
“Hey, I meant to ask you something, Neal?”
“Is there a way for us to like legally have this space?”
“Yeah, adverse possession,” I say. “It was like the one cool punk rock thing in property class…If you’re here openly squatting it and no one ever claims ownership, then I think you just eventually get the title. Only problem is that it takes a really long time, like 10 or 20 years.”
“Nothing faster?” asks Rachel.
“There might be…” I say, sipping my wine. “But it’s a Catch-22 because if you go down to the city and apply for permits and all that, then you could be opening yourself up to all sorts of problems.”
“Well, if you can think of anything at all…” Nancy says.
“Yeah, look into it, Neal, ” Rachel says. “It’s got to be hard putting all this energy into this space and knowing that they could just come out and take it away from you whenever they want.”
“I know,” Nancy says, her voice sounding a little upset. “It’s almost like they’d rather have it just sitting here empty, than us doing anything with it. We’ve already had the sheriff’s department come out here and look around.”
“Did they say you had to go?” I ask her.
“No, but they sort of made fun of us,” she says. “Just walked around liked they owned the place, like we weren’t even here. One of them said it smelled or something.”
“I’ll look into it,” I say.
We follow her into a long narrow hall filled with painted tarps, movable sculptures, colorful masks, posters and prints. Like a tour guide at the Metropolitan, Nancy goes from piece to piece giving us the low down and the backstory, her enthusiasm for all things protest reminding me of a period in my life when I thought it was a complete waste of time. After having done it in my early 20s and seeing things just get worse, I swore to myself that I would never do it again. And I didn’t. Not for four or five years. But then one day Rachel came home with a flyer saying that they were cutting off funding to our beloved local library and that there was going to be a protest against it the next afternoon. We went down there and stood with the other 11 people who loved our local library, held up our signs to the passing cars and demanded funding for books and not for wars. And it was totally ineffective. And it made no difference. And they of course ended up closing our library. But it was one of the more beautiful things that we ever did together. It got the fire going again. Reminded me that protest wasn’t about the thing that I thought I was protesting as much as it was about protesting myself. My own apathy. My own complicity. My own resignation. The fault, Dear Brutus, does not lie in the stars…
Nancy tells us about how these banners went to an immigrant rights march in Arizona, this casket went to Wall Street, these signs and sculptures went to an anti-war action in Georgia, these tarps are going down to North Carolina to protest off-shore drilling and these posters are going to an action against those goddamned war profiteers. “It’s either got to recontextualize public space or call assholes on their bullshit,” she says, taking a sip of wine.
“Yeah,” Rachel says. “That’s the same philosophy they have over there at Sotheby’s…” She winks, then leans over and gives me a kiss.
The decision to turn that one down obviously wasn’t just mine. A lot of serious talk went into my big brave email before I sent it out. I remember pulling away from New York City in the U-haul, that skyline fading behind us, looking at each other and really hoping that we had made the right choice. It can be real nervy affair sleeping in a Motel 6 in nowhere West Virginia when you know that you could be moving into an apartment on the Upper East Side. We held each other pretty tight that night.
“You spilled some wine on your shirt, baby.”
“Did I…” I say.
“I got it,” she says.
From the art room, we go down a windowed corridor that they’ve converted into an indoor garden. The windows are open and there are pvc pipes that bring rainwater from outside to the trays of vegetables and herbs. Nancy seems to notice something wrong, picks up a wrench and goes over to tighten a fitting, the muscles in her thin forearms flexing as she turns. “I want to try and figure out how to get really good at this, so I can help other people do permaculture,” she says, face lighting up. “My real dream is for there to be indoor community gardens in all apartment buildings, so that people can cultivate together, share the food, eat meals together, have something that reconnects us to each other, and even back to nature in some small way,” she says, turning the wrench. “I know it’s dumb, but I truly believe that there’s like a cycle of life that flows between us and that right now it’s not really flowing.”
Rachel gently grabs my hand.
From the indoor permaculture garden, we go into a long hall filled with futons, bunks, mattresses, sheets and pillows. The stuff is all in perfect in condition. All gotten from dumpsters and picked up on trash days. Nancy explains how they eventually want to try and house people, but that there are safety issues because the space is all girl-run right now.
“That’s the way it should be,” Rachel says.
“Oh, yeah!” I say, grabbing her by the waist and wrestling. “That’s the way it should be!”
“You know,” Nancy says, getting something down off a bookshelf. “I could never even picture you two guys apart.”
“Yeah, you should have seen us on the drive over,” Rachel says.
“How did you guys meet anyway?” Nancy asks.
“At a bar in the East Village,” Rachel says. “I was drinking with my friends and Neal came up to me. He had his little tough guy thing going on, but I knew there was something more going on in there. I’ll never forget this,” she says, rolling her eyes. “It was like one in the morning and we were sitting in the corner of the bar together totally drunk—I had ditched my friends hours ago—and Neal was whispering to me about how he wanted to live a life that he could be proud of, always wanted to be to look himself in the mirror, never stop taking on The Man with an open heart, right? And I was like, well, boy, that can be a pretty damn hard thing to do. And he looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry, baby, we’ll either find a way or make one.’”
“I was trying really hard to get laid,” I say.
“And it worked,” she says.
“Amen to that.”
“Hey, Neal,” Nancy says, walking over with a piece of paper in her hand. “Please don’t think I’m trying to ask you what to do at all, but I was really hoping that you could talk about this tonight…”
We both sit up. I remember this like it was yesterday. I wrote an appeal for a kid in New Orleans that had been sentenced to life in prison. There was new evidence that he wasn’t guilty, but the DA argued that the court couldn’t even consider it because of a procedural technicality. In other words, the DA was willing to let an innocent 19-year-old kid spend the rest of his life in prison for a rule. Nothing real, just a rule. And he won. The evidence was never brought before the court and that kid remains in a cell in Angola to this day. It was hard for me to process the sheer coldness of that one. That boy had only known poverty and suffering his entire life. And for the DA to be so inhuman, and for the system to be so unjust, and for a society that prides itself on being so fair and decent to brutally turn its back on one of its own children…The only thing that kept me from going crazy was putting it all into this piece. It wrote it as an op ed for the newspaper down there. I guess she must have got it off the Internet…Rachel leans into me and sighs. It’s her work as much as it is mine. She would come home from 12-hour shifts at the hospital and help me with research on the appeal.
“Let’s do this thing,” I say.
“Right on,” Nancy says.
We get up and follow her down a short hall piled with rusted metal and broken parts, then turn through what might have once been an office and stop at a set of red velvet curtains. She stands in front of them in her black and yellow thrift store dress—a sort of an anti-establishment Vanna White—and proudly parts them to reveal a dark, candle-lit room with rows of theater chairs leading to a small stage.
“This is gorgeous!” Rachel says.
“We heard about an abandoned movie theater in Atlantic City,” she says. “We rented a truck, drove out there …There was water damage and mold, but nothing that we couldn’t fix. So we took out the chairs, curtains and brought them all back here. Even the popcorn machine,” she says, pointing over to an old popcorn maker along the wall. “Do you guys like it?”
“We love it, Nancy,” Rachel says.
I smile and nod my head: there are three people here besides us. And while I of course respect the fact that anyone is here at all, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to there being a let down. I was feeling the fire. I was ready to fly. But I am brought back down to the reality of my life. Unemployment. The Closet. As Rachel and Nancy go up to the front, I sit alone in a chair in the back row and go over the article that I wrote. It was a horrible time and a heartbreaking thing to see, but at least I was part of things back then. I had a role to play. Now what am I but the old guy hanging around with freegan kids in some weird space? I can’t put this on my resume. I feel myself descending into the pettiness that I felt on the drive over, which is great being that in a few seconds I’m going to have to pretend like I’m a social just fighter who cares deeply about the world.
“And now we are proud to present Neal de la Vega…”
JASON FLORES-WILLIAMS is a lawyer in New Mexico.