Few things in this life drive a man to a pre-noon rum & coke faster than an encounter with the insurance industry. Maybe a death in the family, maybe a vacation, or just maybe the honest ownership of one’s own alcoholism. Whatever you have to tell yourself. I put up my hand for another round. I am curious as to why exactly John left me in a room where I could hear what was going on at F.O.S. I thought a company’s skeleton’s were supposed to make themselves known only after you were committed, not before. Is this where the recession has taken us? An employer can just treat you like trash and get away with it because you need them more than they need you? Well if this is what constitutes adulthood, to hell with that. I’d rather be a beach bum living out of a van down by Big Sur than some poor bastard, working a job he hates to pay for the marriage he settled for and the dog who spitefully piddles on the rug every time he goes out bowling, all in the name of appearing respectable to the outside world.
My pocket is filled with vibrations as I reach for the phone to discover a text from my father. He’s asking how the interview went. How do I convey disappointment, frustration and just a dash of relief into one coherent response?
“I would’ve gotten chewed up and spit out faster than sunflower seeds at a ballgame.”
“Went that well, huh?” Dad texted back.
“If nothing else I got some interview experience, shoddy as it was, and came out of it a little wiser… I think.”
“Take this as an opportunity to figure out what you want and what you don’t want out of a job. Trust me, you’ll be much happier in the long run.”
“But I don’t want a day job, Dad. I don’t want any job, I just want to write.”
“Well Hemmingway when you pen a best seller you can live off your writing. But as long as you’re under my roof you pay your own way, so let’s talk about your resume when you get home.”
“And make sure you eat something to go along with whatever you’re mixing in Coke these days.”
Good lord, am I that transparent? Well tempting as it would be to sit here and ruminate, my head is getting heavy, a sign that I’m one too deep and need to walk it off. Besides I don’t have that much scratch left. I’m really going to have to budget better if I hope not to disrupt my boozing. I go through the motions and skulk around the box stores of Maple Tree Place in Williston, collecting applications like a high school kid looking for a summer job. The manager at a candle store doesn’t seem very impressed by the alcohol on my breath and tells me that the position has been filled. Whatever. After mindlessly grabbing four or five applications I take a moment to actually think about what I’m doing. Christ I have to be able to do better than retail, I just have to. The applications go in the trash as I whip out the iPhone I can hardly afford and surf the web, looking for something better. Nothing going on in the Burlington Free Press classifieds except “previous experience required” and “part time, 15-20 hours.” Vermont’s Seven Days? Nothing. JobsInVT.com? No dice.
I know my parents are concerned about my lack of progress. They want me to get a job and get out of the house already, start my own life. But these days being able to afford that is difficult. Jobs up here aren’t growing off of trees, wages are stagnant for those that are available and the market for apartments in Chittenden County is obscene. Everywhere I look there are new apartment buildings being built and all seem to be either reserved for Section 8 housing or start at $1600 a month with no utilities included. Even with a roommate or two that’s asking a lot. I’m also twenty-five grand in the hole thanks to student loans, the god-damned millstone around my neck that dashed any hope I had of doing any traveling after college. On top of all that, not only do I not have experience, but my college degree doesn’t count for much—not when the market is flooded with college graduates. It’s who you know, who your references are that counts. I should’ve gone out for more internships while I was still in school. Now I’m out in the wilderness without much in the way of lifelines and the anxiety is starting to get to me. I hope my parents know I’m trying, but it’s tough, even when I’m not buzzed by noon.
I wasn’t kidding when I told my dad I just want to write, it’s about the only thing that gives me a sense of purpose nowadays. And even that is blocked up at the moment. Damnit this whole day is shot and I know nothing of any significance will be accomplished. Now I’m thirsty again, I want a beer but have to be sober enough to drive home. I’m in no rush to go home either, there’s only so many times a man can polish his resume before he wants to beat his head against a wall. No I’d rather procrastinate, and what better place than downtown Burlington? But where specifically shall I go? Downtown has more than a dozen bars within a three block radius, and for the Irish gentleman drinker there’s always the possibility you get woken up by police on a park bench having pissed yourself. I remember an ex-girlfriend once told me about a coffee place called Uncommon Grounds on Church Street, and not wanting to overdo Starbucks I figure it’s worth a shot.
I parked in the garage on Cherry Street and walked toward Uncommon Grounds. The increasingly heavy rain took away some of the beauty of Church Street but the year round Christmas lights are still pretty . People bundled up in raincoats marched past me, heads down, hands in pockets, all business. I hustled past a determined street fiddler and into the coffeehouse. Behind the counter at Uncommon Grounds stood a male twenty-something cashier equipped with a goatee and black rimmed glasses. Great, just what I needed, another smug hipster. Now came the tricky part, what to get? Since I don’t drink tea or coffee, I decided on the most scintillating, intoxicating, artery-clogging goodie I could find. Behind the glass display case was a desert item with a name that suggested it was probably banned in several states: a Triple Chocolate Cappuccino tart, $3.15. This was too irresistible to pass up, so I ordered a slice. Now something to drink. I once heard their mocha
described as “hot chocolate with benefits.” Good enough for me! I whipped out my debit card and, to my chagrin, drew immediate reprisal from our hipster barista.
“We don’t accept plastic here,” he said, pointing to a poorly placed sign, apparently personally insulted that I dared to even remove the card from my wallet.
“What, do you have a moral stance against credit cards? You prefer I whip out a bunch murdered trees instead of recycled plastic? What kind of mother fucking environmentalist are you?” Is what I wished I said.
In the meantime, with the line building up behind me I folded faster than a cheap lawn chair. “That’s fine, whatever.” I said. I took out a ten spot to appease that smug son of a bitch. I push that anger down, like always, and move away from the counter.
The place was packed and I had to wait for a table to open up. I looked around. Everything from the soothing flutes and smooth sax playing over the sound system, to the pictures of people and places from around the world that were plastered over the walls, screamed sophistication. Laptops were open everywhere, lit up like joints at a Dead concert. A thirty-something with messy brown hair appeared to be writing a story on his laptop. I love those heroes who go out to public places to write, “Look at me, everybody! Come admire the short story I’m writing. May I humbly predict that it will be in The New Yorker by Christmas?” I bet he couldn’t write his way out of a middle school book report, fucking poser.
I finally secured a table in the back and put down my goodies along with a notebook I had brought to kill some time. Observing my surroundings, I ponder why were these places are so popular? It’s cramp and crowded and with a half dozen different conversations going can hardly hear myself think. Of course I’m anti-social so naturally I’m not predisposed to like this place. A more unbiased approach perhaps then. I made use of the WiFi on my phone and approached the question like I was writing a research paper. There was plenty online about coffee culture. As the British trade empire vastly expanded over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, coffee became a valued commodity. It was not as highly valued as tea, but still, beginning in the 1700s, coffeehouses began springing up all over trade cities like London. People from all walks of life met there to conduct business, socialize and catch up on the latest news—not that different from today, really.
Here in the present, people hurried in and out, sat in front of laptops, or read the paper. They could drink coffee at home, but it’s about the scene; the feeling of sipping your coffee, or civilly attending to your scone while world music plays in the background. The experience is designed to make you feel chic, intellectual and important. The patrons of Uncommon Grounds had formed their own culture within those red and white walls, one to which did not belong. It seems more and more these days that I can’t go out anywhere without feeling out of place and awkward. As I was sitting there I got the strangest feeling of deja-vu, like I’ve rattled off this very diatribe in this very spot. Then it occurred to me that, in fact, I had. Not two years prior I had critiqued coffee house culture for an observational creative writing project. How did I not remember that, and Christ I’m already repeating myself, the death knell for almost any writer. With drowsiness setting in, and no desire to further explore the exposition of yesteryear, I closed my notebook, carefully cleaned my table before starting the journey home.
When I got there, Dad was sitting on the front porch with his laptop. My father was a stately, sixty-year-old man, white haired since his thirties but always with an irrepressible youth in his face, the twinkle not yet extinguished from his eyes. In temperament he was like Chevy Chase, more accurately like the characters he played in the movies and not the egotistical, self-centered prick he is in real life. Dad had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s not three years before, and while you probably couldn’t pick it out if you didn’t know, I had begun to notice the symptoms more. His hands trembled somewhat when he texted, he tended to drag his right foot as he walked, could list from side to side, tended to tire easily, particularly in heat and suffered from some weird combination of narcolepsy and sleeplessness. While his humor persists, much of his vigor is fading and I find myself growing increasingly concerned.
“Boy” He said as he glanced up at me.
“Man” I replied, our traditional greeting.
“I’m sorry your interview didn’t go well.”
“Nothing felt right about the place Dad.”
“What was the name of the company again?”
“Fox Owen Stanley Insurance.”
“Oh no—I’m sorry I must’ve missed that when you told me last night.”
“Why the oh no?”
“Back when I did consulting in New Jersey, I had occasional dealings with F.O.S. They target unions and their members. While people are on the job they’re told they can sign up for a fifteen hundred dollar life insurance policy at no cost to them. But their union has a contract with F.O.S. so their names go onto the call list.”
“Well that doesn’t sound like a scam or anything.”
“What they’re doing isn’t illegal, just underhanded. The salesman makes the call. Then he shows up to the union member’s house and makes his pitch. The goal is to get them to sign up for… let’s say five thousand dollars in final expenses—accidental, disability—insurance they could find considerably cheaper elsewhere. F.O.S. preys on a worker’s union membership. After all, if the union endorses F.O.S. then they must be on the level. A few people always bite, just enough to keep the thing going. They tried to sell your brother on one of those policies. Of course, Charlie turned them down.”
“That’s one job I’m glad I didn’t get.”
“At least you learned something from the experience. Now what other jobs are you looking at?”
“I don’t know, Dad. I’d have to pull up the list on my computer.”
“Try to find at least two or three good leads that we can talk about and write cover letters for by tomorrow night, okay?”
“Dad, all these progress updates—asking me every night what’s new on the job front, it puts pressure on me and I’m under enough pressure already.”
“The sooner you find a job the sooner I’m off your case, okay?
“Oh, and before you go upstairs, garbage and recycling need to go out.”
I muttered and swore under my breath as I lugged the garbage bag and recycling bin out to the garage. It’s like they have to make sure I’m constantly doing something; no idleness in this household! I know that’s probably not accurate but still, better cordon myself off upstairs before my temper gets the best of me and I do or say something I’ll regret. I put Concierto de Aranjuez on the laptop and drifted off for all of thirty seconds before getting on the internet. Can’t rightly explain it. One moment I’m listening to music, and the next moment I’m on Facebook mindlessly sending a poke to a girl I want to hook up with or checking my buddy’s timeline to see what outrageous things he wants the world to think he did last weekend.
I can’t remember the last time I sat down and read one of the dozens of good books Dad and Ann have given to me over the years. I have enough unread material in my room to keep me occupied for the next decade. I really want to read more, but it’s more soothing to blast away and troll people on Modern Warfare. But I can’t even concentrate on that for long, and before I know it I’m right back on Facebook. I found myself looking up the photo section of a girl I once had a date with. There she was, decked out in a light blue jacket, her beautiful red hair reflecting the autumn sunshine and her brown leather boots standing atop the faded leaves. I was filled with hopeless and rather pathetic longing. Looking at this picture again, a part of a poem I began writing to impress her but abandoned months ago, kept running through my head:
Never that far from my mind.
You’re the picture pristine…
A few pretty words followed by a whole lot of nothing. Story of my life.