Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapter Five

Chapter Five

Things sure had changed since those days when Corey’s parents had paired-off in matrimonial bliss. Just as planned, he’d surpassed them according to standard measurements of achievement. His father had been a union carpenter in Eastern Massachusetts and his mother the member of a once-thriving, but now extinct guild: the stay at home wife.

If Dad had aspirations to be anything else, anything grander or worldlier, he kept them secret. Day in, day out he’d gone to work and brought home a paycheck that grew steadily, if not dramatically, for years. Childhood always seems longer so that the time his father spent with shoulder to grindstone struck Corey as having been an eternity. Despite his being an adult, it seemed so to Dad as well.

Corey knew, however, that it was not. He knew that when Dad was the age he was now, Corey was already fourteen years old. The reality was disquieting. Here he was, at 34, a college graduate (unlike his father), employed in a tony job with an irreverent name and flashy business card, yet without child or real estate.

To his father’s eyes, Corey and Clarisse had opted for a lifestyle that rendered parties an obligation because of the need to make contacts and forward themselves when really, on many nights, they preferred to stay in, rent a movie, and get some rest. He was covered by a patchy health care plan and Clarisse, who made good money as a waitress, was uninsured.

Somehow, highly educated, doubly employed and free of children, the couple was unable to duplicate the modest and steady life Corey’s parents, and for that matter, Clarisse’s parents across the ocean had enjoyed.

Somewhere along the line, Corey felt, wealthy America had wearied of dragging a permanent middle-class around and forgotten the perils of living in a country without one.

He could not help but think that things had somehow been easier and fairer under earlier regimes. It was all a freewheeling scheme that left one independent to improve their credentials, lay down some money and go in for their chances.

If they failed, people were condemned to swim naked with their clothing bundled under an arm, because society was no longer in the business of rescuing its own shipwrecks.

“Treading water,” is what Corey deemed it, in an ocean proffering a beautiful island holding all great things that might happen like a mirage in the distance.

That mirage was an only comfort and the reason-to-be for those living lives filled with more promise than posterity would ever make good on.

Corey, by most standards (save for Dad’s), had worked hard and woven an ingenuity typically touted as the key to success. Starting out but a few years before, while doing medium-well as a salesman for an engineering parts firm back home, Corey perceived the coming of the digital age. He was an acquaintance to many computer aces at work. When upper-level management was suddenly hit by one of the periodic downsizings that convulsed it, Corey saw the handwriting on the wall. He wasn’t too clear on what it said, but instinctively decided to update his skill-set so that the company didn’t shrink his life, too.

He could not afford classes because he went out every night, purchased stacks of stereo equipment, and had a weakness for designer-grown marijuana. So he offered part of the marijuana to some of the office chipheads in exchange for lectures and lessons at the central processing unit.

Note please, the enterprise and motivation Corey demonstrated: he saves money by sharing something he’s already paid for and simultaneously lessens his intake of mild narcotics. Rather than go home to watch football, baseball, hockey or Xtreme-games (there was no end to the permutations on this male-targeted fare and the beer commercials that came with them), he “stays late,” one of the corporate regime’s most treasured employee virtues.

Technologies race and he purchases a high-powered (for a fleeting moment) computer. He quits to hang out his own shingle in the computer services game. His particular skill, at this time, is not crucial to the story and would only serve to date it for future generations of book buyers. But soon enough he is hired by a new technology company, the stated mission of which is to develop (according to a press release) “the next generation packet-based technology enabling us to provide a multi-service environment in which traditional ‘telephony’ and data features are integrated in a packet environment, supporting convergence at the network core.”

Corey is never quite sure what that means, but the base salary will do.

The situation holds for a while, but technological jobs are almost always rendered obsolete by new innovations and Corey finds himself in just such a situation – again. The digital economy morphs along and 18 months later he turns to night classes at a renowned local university for yet another academic retooling; getting a masters degree in the computer science known and in universal use, again, for the fleeting moment.

Rather than consolidate his status, he is exposed to a high-pressure situation requiring groundbreaking (and profitable) ideas to hold position. He moves to his current place of residence where all of this stuff occurs in a natural way, moving along at speeds greater than elsewhere in the world. His degree opens doors for him, gets him desk jobs at self-described “dynamic” new companies, but no relief from accruing student loan debt until he generates that evolutionary innovation.

At this point in his story, employer and wife are still sitting in expectation of them – the innovations. They know he’s bright, they know he’s well prepared, and they also know that it takes a lot of faith whilst living day-to-day in expectation of the big score. The employer will have to wait. Corey has lived too long at the mercy of companies to hand over his heart. He knows that they will not take care of him before they take care of themselves. He is using his present employer, the way it is using him, rooting around for a truffle to couple with his talent and win big – on his own.

All he needs is an idea. It doesn’t even have to be a good one because, through hard work, he’ll sell it anyway.

Clarisse, as has been noted, is a waitress. Like lots of people in town, she does this while waiting for her good fortune to arrive on a very slow boat from China; the country where all the jobs went. When out at one of the endless soirees the couple attend in search of gatekeepers to economic security, fame, and world travel, she always answers “furniture designer” when asked that most American of queries: “What do you do?”

And she is a furniture designer, an avant-garde creator of marvelous pieces capable of altering an entire room – whole houses even – for the better. They are bookcases and shoe racks and storage chests that break the mold people show up to her studio with.

She enjoys, on occasion, an opening at a gallery specializing in such items. Nothing ever comes of it except an increase in the storage bill for her pieces; obligating Clarisse to give them away as gifts. It is an always embittering defeat sweetened only by the notion that at least somebody will see it.

“Somebody” is whom Corey and Clarisse attend the parties in search of: somebody that will offer him scads of money for an idea of his, (yet to be hatched); somebody, maybe a rich heiress who will walk into one of her shows, be thoroughly bowled over, purchase everything she’s made and then spread the word to other heiress friends (heiresses hanging out together as they do) who will backlog her order book for three years. Then, exhausted but exhilarated, she and Corey can purchase a place on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco and live half the year there and half the year in Western Civilization, alternating epochs of escape and creative validation.

Corey’s Dad knows that this is his son’s and his daughter-in-law’s fatal flaw. They don’t know the simple joys, the things that nature can give: a family; home; and the humble struggle to keep them afloat, moving slowly forward through honest labor before selflessly passing on hard-earned and incremental gains to the next generation. He knows that is why they spend enough money on health clubs, workouts and facials (for him!) to raise twice the number of kids he did. No, Corey’s Dad is not fully aware of what it takes to pay for a kid in today’s world, but he’s not far off the mark on his other assertions. For Corey and Clarisse know friends who have made it big in the game, who enjoy stylized houses, maids, broods of children without stress and occasional interviews in glossy magazines from which they evolve their own aesthetics and desires.

And they want all of this, too.

His Dad remembers that in his day Hollywood actors and actresses, the odd novelist or Nobel Prize-winning scientist, and the President of the United States were the only famous people. He recalls how they led their special lives while everybody else watched in fascination. Now anybody could be famous: a designer, home furnisher, car company executive, hotelier, storeowner; the proper mix of money, success, and calculation could elevate them unto the public eye and blessed attainment.

And his Dad thought it was all so much bullshit. For a time he was proud of his son’s outsized ambition and believed it was what he himself had worked for. Now he saw in Corey a big baby boy who didn’t have the guts to deal with the real things; who had trapped himself in an urban situation that was both too expensive and more provincial than his son could see.

And he wanted grandchildren and he wanted to see them in a suburban house so that he might rest assured that, God forbid, if anything happened to grandpa or grandma, there was a place for them to bail in this increasingly unkind world.

And the kid was out all the time at parties, his debt level rising to a point where the big score would be all but a wash and the years beginning with the prefix forty- weighing more heavily than he ever imagined. Young people, the old man fretted, don’t know what getting old means.

Worst of all, his Dad had a presentiment, which he would never admit out loud, that it was his favorite country in the whole entire world that had made his son like this (He certainly wasn’t to blame). It was a country that had offered him (Dad) a square deal in exchange for honest work, but had since pulled out of that handshake across the kitchen table with the common man. In exchange, it had offered his son a small steel ball at the roulette wheel, or (insert the cheap casino metaphor of your choice) a pair of dice bouncing across a green velvet table. It had turned life into a crapshoot in which the common man might get very rich or, more likely, very beaten. And the reason Dad never admitted this presentiment out loud was its similarity to the speech his son had been hiding behind for a couple of years now.
Corey didn’t get it completely. He wanted to dream big and reach for the stars; so much of what he’d been fed had encouraged this. His family, he thought, was seeking to limit his horizons. Life, he bum philosophized (the concept gaining an increasing hold over him), was a risky affair and, properly lived, one faced its peril head-on rather than lying low in a company job, which was, in any case, a thing of the past; little more than a myth with which parents might beat their offspring over the head.

Anyhow it didn’t matter because Clarisse and Corey were out, again, to some pricey eatery they could not really afford to be at, nor afford not to. They justified their presence through a logic born of their own experience that only when things got truly expensive did they find they were getting what they paid for: proof positive the economy had drifted toward servicing the more profitable predilections of the rich.

We join them now at an establishment located on a street boasting a string of similar restaurants catering to a class of ambitious go-getters that comprise city nightlife. As it turned out there did not seem to be many people worth meeting and so they were kind of glad to sit and enjoy their exquisite entrees in peace. Not a lot was being said between them, however. This was not new and had been eating away at the couple for some time. It wasn’t a question of having nothing to discuss. It was just that they had reached a pause in their marriage, a point at which their lives together, however fun, had become something of a rerun.

“So,” said Clarisse, mock innocence in her voice, “when are we going to haf a bayby?” Corey sighed aloud, frustrated. She inevitably took this as a sign that he did not want to have a baby, which was not true.

“Why you do sigh?” she asked. “You don want to haf a baby?”

“We’ve been over this. I do. I just don’t know how to go about it.” Thusly did the rerun always begin and then Clarisse would uniformly respond, “Well, why we don jus do eet? Look at de Mexeecans. They don worry about money. They haf tree or four chilren. And I want a cat and you won let me haf a cat!”

To which he invariably would answer, “Mexicans live in the worst parts of town. If you want to get a prefabricated place with cottage cheese ceilings east of Western Avenue, let’s do it.” There was more than a grain of truth to this, which shut Clarisse up, but left her totally unsatisfied. So Corey would break the unhappy silence with, “I know I don’t make a lot, but you can quit your job and we can somehow make it. We can move out to the exburbs or get a smaller place (although they’d be growing) and make it work.”

“What about my career?” she would say, plaintively.

“You’ll have to give it up…for a while.”

From this point the conversation would inevitably degenerate into a revelation of how Clarisse wanted it both ways: to strive for fame and a distinct, elevated social identity, and to enjoy the warm rigors of motherhood all at a time. Briefly, and pointlessly, she would ask, “Why you don give up you job?” which was a perfectly legitimate question save for the fact men don’t give up their jobs for babies. Women have made much headway, but not quite so much as to convince the masculine half that it should fully engage the business of child rearing (see: “diaper changing”), and Clarisse and every woman in her position knew it.

And this was their quandary, just as Corey’s father perceived it. They could have a kid and risk being run out of Bigtown – surrendering their cheap champagne lifestyle – for a slot, maybe, in a tinny suburbia or pass on the baby, roll those dice, and wait around for dimming prospects of wealth and celebrity to pay off.

It was an utterly distasteful deductive process that always left them disheartened and always led to Clarisse expressing the desire to go outside for a moment and smoke a cigarette.

And this is, in fact, what she did.

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