Kim works in management in Manhattan’s midtown diamond industry. As with any strange job or slightly off-kilter circumstance it has become something of a conversational fulcrum for us, a wellspring of humorous anecdotes to be related over dinner or drinks when it seems far away and not her real life. Kim is doing a split over the widening crevice between the two worlds she finds herself a part of: her allegiance to the underground, and the day-to-day professionalism of her office job. Since I’ve been holding down a job with zero anecdotal value in my mind, babysitting a four-year old child, I become patently wrapped up in the juicy office drama, the Dilbert-esque quality that is Kim’s white-collar alter ego. While my friends gather in living rooms to watch DVD’s of The Office, I pace around anxiously awaiting our after-work rendezvous so I can hear the latest chapter in the serialized sitcom that is her life. Kim used to book punk shows in Michigan coffee shops, but moved to Brooklyn, and like so many others from the youth surge into the borough, put her do-it-yourself skills to work for her. The skills she learned setting up punk shows taught her how to successfully run a catered lunchtime training session. Instead of playing in bands, she performs solo in front of the board of investors at the quarterly progress report seminar. Being a hardworking Midwestern rube in the Big Apple, she was poached out of her temp job into a full-time position and quickly found herself on the other side of the looking-glass in a career. Being my only unbiased correspondent from the dark side, I press her for the sordid details: What’s it like in there? You get to take all-expenses-paid trips around the world AND have health insurance? Despite all the outward perks, she describes her job as the kind of ongoing nightmare you can’t wake up from: awful, windpipe-constricting panic attacks during trainee interviews. Lying awake at night crushed beneath the deluge of her responsibilities and her Microsoft Outlook calendar. A man named “Don” coming into her office to whisper that she had better buck up and start performing before her position gets off-shored to somebody in India who will work for a third of her pay. Kim rises from bed every morning before dawn, the city roaring out her window, and puts on her work clothes, transforming before my bleary eyes from the vivacious hoodied rocker I knew the evening before into a stranger; Kim, a personable but take-no-bullshit training manager for a multibillion dollar company with offices in four countries. Kim, a beautiful young woman who plows her way through vast, inconceivable twelve-hour days in her private air-conditioned office at a desk equipped with a panic button and retractable bulletproof glass. I wave goodbye to this stranger, rasping
“Have a good day at work”, before rolling back over to sleep.
After she’s gone I wake up early, in order to have plenty of time to lie around panicking about my life in her apartment, attempting to come up with new schemas to fill up my huge swaths of free time. Two worlds: Kim wrings every ounce of pleasure from her precious dollops of time off while I am trying to blast away at large chunks of mine. In the crater I attempt to erect the structure of some low-grade responsibilities like finishing a zine or going to the post office, but these attempts provide only a slapdash veneer of respectability. The panic takes the place of coffee and I jump out of her bed, furiously setting to work drawing indecipherable charts and diagrams for projects that will never happen, writing lengthy manifestos for bands that will never exist. This is where trusting fate drops you off—at a ledge with a view of the Great Plain up ahead—a future of no deadlines, no schedules, and grueling, incongruously planned vacations. I’m literally fighting the emptiness back with a stick. It grew like kudzu and now I’m walled in, desperately trying to get involved, to get a job, to make something happen;
Kim, in contrast, is like a Talking Heads song. She’s right there with the world. In rain, sleet, or with crippling depression, tapping into some bottomless reserve of vitality she manages gets out of bed every morning and don the costume of the professional. She enjoys her role as a leadership figure and method acts her way through the workweek. At the end of the day she takes the subway back to her apartment among the rest of society, relatively sane and happy, yoked to routine and responsibility. For me, when the initial thrill of a job begins to fade into a daily grind with little hope for advancement or rush deadlines in sight, I start performing as poorly as possible, no doubt subconsciously trying to get fired to once again be set free. Like the retiree who still wakes up early by habit, I get up at ten, lock the apartment and pretend like I’m going to work. Since there’s no longer a work to go to, I just walk the bridges back and forth into Manhattan; going home is too embarrassing and loitering isn’t an option, so I just wear holes in the bottoms of my shoes. New York City—the aimless wandering has reached a nadir and it seems of the utmost importance that I maintain the illusion that I’m on the path to becoming a functional, working adult; you know, fake it til you make it. But instead of dropping off resumes, I bustle down crowded streets surrounded by busy, important-seeming people, and try to figure out what it is that makes them tick. How do they do it? What’s their secret? I keep their pace and look preoccupied with the hopes that I can fool them into thinking I’m part of the pack. But my secret is I’m going nowhere and doing nothing. Just another sponge walking around in circles and soaking up their sunlight. Another face, alone, anonymous, and wasting time.
Kim calls me up excited with the good news.
“I told them I’m going to quit!” she squeals.
I congratulate her, and then do a double-take.
“Wait…what? I mean, do you really want to quit? What will you do? And besides, what will we talk about if you’re not…”
She laughs, “Well, I thought I would just pet-sit or do something part-time. Aaron, I have to thank you because I just don’t think I would have done it without you. All those talks with you made me realize…Well, that I don’t have to do other people’s work.”
Sweat beads begin to form on my furrowed brow, and I’m gripped by the fear that I may have infected her with this bug, the horrible sickness.
“I never meant to…”
“No, it’s not like that!” she says, giving cinematic pause
“It’s just that I really needed to hear from someone else how crazy it all is. But all that doesn’t even matter. When I told them I was going to quit, the owners freaked out and told me that I’m the best employee they have! They took me out to dinner, got me drunk and then gave me a fifteen thousand dollar raise!”
I am relieved, happy to be back to familiar neutrality in terms of my interpersonal influence. Horrible visions there for a moment, of Kim giving up the job and apartment to join the ranks of the shiftless and unemployed to couch-surf for a couple of months; or worse, to leave and go traveling, joining the hosts of other lost souls searching for that ephemeral something, wraith-like in their pursuit. Let my life be a warning sign for those free spirits looking for direction, for a cause. Nothing to see here! Turn away now! Beware ye who enter, abandon all hope!
“Oh it’s not as bad as all that” Kim interrupts my protean inner monologue.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right” I mutter before saying goodnight and hanging up the phone. Sitting on my bed, I wonder why I surrender in the face of any conflict, empathizing with the other person. What am I saying? It is as bad as that. The case for and against ping-pong back and forth in my mind: bunker down for the long haul against society or just buck up and assimilate? Now’s the time to decide because once the tide carries you away it doesn’t get any easier. Maybe giving up is the best way to be preserved-- to stay unaffected by the years by become a Zen-like prisoner, reconciled to your circumstances. No writer, or revolutionary, or religious figure can halt the glacial drift toward the future. Paint peels off the walls, old pictures yellow cardboard boxes; our cancers blossom secretly in dark places. The dilapidation is slow. It’s so insidious that it’s almost unnoticeable.
Aaron Lake Smith