I’m Ringing People Up

From behind the counter, I keep an eye on the people. Baskets hanging from their forearms, they’re busy harvesting, hunting, and gathering, 2012 style. During this lull, I pull a roll of paper towels from a shelf and spritz the scanner.

The last person I “rung out” was visibly irritated when their Kombucha didn’t scan and I’ve found, despite everything I’d thought I knew about myself, that I like to make people happy.

Agata, the floor manager, approaches the register. She’s carrying two pieces of paper and she’s not smiling. Her English is passable, but combined with my poor hearing, we’ve had some early communication trouble. Agata is paid in cash.

“Chris, what are these?”

“I’m not sure, what are they?”

“Chris, they are invoices. They are your responsibility to put away. I tell you now, but next time, I talk to the boss. You understand?”

In the meantime, a customer has approached the register to witness this scolding. The customer is an old friend of mine, a real estate broker. When we first met I was trading and making well over $200,000 a year. He recently sold a house for over $10 million. I’m tempted to say that our paths have diverged, but here we are, involved in a transaction.

As Agata walks away he shakes his head and looks me in the eyes, “Dude, what are you DOING here?”

The answer is simple, I’m ringing people up.

A year after graduating from school, I drove across country. I was proud and I had one of those college stickers plastered to the back window of my car. But something strange came over me as I sped through Nebraska.

The road was empty that morning as I left the campground. It hadn’t rained, but the asphalt was dark with dew and the sky was deep blue. I drove a straight line through empty fields and came to a small rise where a black and white cow stood chewing grass on the side of the road.

I had passed many cows on the first week of my trip, but the rise allowed the black and white of the cow to be seen against the clean sky. I stopped the car and stood in the road looking at the cow chew. Such clean lines. Beautiful separation. True simplicity. Wind hit me and I felt some sort of ecstatic release. I screamed into the wind. I don’t know where the scream came from. I opened the back door of the car, reached in, ripped my college sticker off the back window and sped away.

I felt like no one I knew.

I wanted to be new.

So back in the grocery store, I guess the extended answer to my friend’s question is that I’m ripping the old stickers that defined me off the vehicle that dropped me off in this spot. My position isn’t easily explained, but it’s true. This hasn’t been easy. Quite the opposite. In the last 3 weeks since I’ve started this job I’ve often felt humiliated, embarrassed, and sometimes angry at myself.

Judy understands. She’s my guide.

She says that not many people could do what I’m doing.

She says the hardest part is over.

She says this is a beginning.

She says I’m not a check out boy.

She says I’m just a baby.

She says I’m terrifying.

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Exit Music.

Death And Costco

A false advertisement.

Judy and I took a road trip to visit her brother, who lives in the “cradle of civilization,” Staten Island, New York. Staten Island is a classic place, and worth visiting if you miss the 1980s.

Anyway, on our way home, I decided to stop at my mother’s house. Shortly after we arrived, the skies darkened, winds turned the leaves on trees, and a bizarre light suffused the area. In a matter of minutes, the power was out and we were in the basement rummaging for candles.

The trip had made me feel very in touch with my mortality. Perhaps it was because we hadn’t seen Judy’s brother in a while and his hairline had receded.  Perhaps it was because when we sat down to play Risk we found tallies of games played years ago. I don’t know exactly. But for whatever reason, I had this feeling that my daughters were growing quickly, and that people I love were getting old while I wasn’t paying attention.

I noticed the eroding power of time.

And on another level, thoughts of my own mortality paid me a visit as I lay in my brother in law’s bed with Judy, unable to sleep at 2am. The bedroom window was cracked, and sitting on a concrete wall in front of the house, a girl spoke on her phone.

“He will be WASHED. I’m gonna WASH his ass!” (Pause) “BITCH, I already been in jail so don’t think I fucking care. He’s gonna git WASHED.”

I crept over to the window holding my breath, and looked down. She shone yellow under the streetlight, her back to the house, hand waving in the night, alone. I was waiting for a gunshot. I was hoping her mother would come, find her, tell her everything was temporary, and give her a hug or something.  She’d find another man.  One she didn’t want to murder.

So the thing is, once the power went out at my mom’s house, the vague feelings of threat that had built up in me during our visit to Staten Island, conspired and gave me the urge to “stock up” on supplies.

To get stuff.

And so 15 minutes later, my mom was flashing her “membership card” at some 90 year-old security guy, and Judy and I were strolling into a Costco.

An aisle at Costco

Now, I’m a very cultured guy, but I’ve never been in a Costco.

After a few minutes of walking around aisles wide enough to allow the easy passage of very obese people and wondering if we really needed 28 glue sticks, I started thinking about the middle of America. I thought about the Iowa caucus.

“Rick Fucking Santorum. Sheesh.” I grabbed a sleeve of 36 D-size batteries and threw it into our cart. “I bet my immigrant Italian ancestors were nothing like his immigrant Italian ancestors.” I said aloud to no one in particular, “Who the hell has seven kids in this day and age? God Bless him though…”

An old woman who was eyeing a huge box of discounted Christmas lights heard me. She said, “God Bless” and tottered by.

I looked at Judy, my waifish yoga wife, and compared her to a 300-pound woman riding around in one of those electric wheelchairs. I thought of three Judys in one big “Judy body” while I reached for a Red Cross Emergency Kit. “Maybe Judy needs to gain a little weight,” I thought to myself.   I threw a 3 million candle spotlight into our cart.

A mom and her son, both huge, were looking at bags of chips.

“Those bags are bigger than the other ones we got,” the son said while giggling.

The mom giggled back at him. They stood there like that, in front of the chips, shoulders shaking, necks all loose, laughing. I walked by them and picked up 1000 feet of aluminum foil.

“I can’t believe Weisenthal thought Michelle Bachmann’s eyelashes were real” I thought. “Damned Krugmanite should stick to FRED charts.”

Costco sized eyelashes.

I spent a long time contemplating a generator before Judy pulled me away.  I listened to a salesman talking to an old guy about Tums.

“If you have a few people in your family taking these,” he explained slowly in a serious tone, “buying in this quantity is a very economical way to go.”

The old guy nodded thoughtfully, and added the gallon-sized tub of Tums to his cart.

All around me, different people were having different conversations but the words I heard were the same… “big,” “bigger,” and “biggest.” An 87 year old woman wearing a Costco visor was handing out free samples of grape juice.

“Where could I find the green tea?” I asked.

“Aisle 32,148,” she said, as she continued to pour the juice into tiny plastic cups.

She didn’t even look up. She was like an 87 year old robot, lifting the plastic cup from the stack, placing it on the counter, and then filling it with purple… over and over. I felt a pang of sympathy for her and remembered how it used to be when old people retired.

“But hey,” I thought. “She probably had credit card debt, and should be happy Costco gave her the opportunity to pay it off.”

Behind me, a lady was struggling to carry a huge bag of red meat. She was grunting as she lugged it toward her double-size shopping cart. I imagined her, as a cavewoman or something, trying to drag a dead boar to her fire. She was hunting here, at Costco.

Other people were pawing over discounted books. One large woman was reading the back cover of a book about the South Beach diet and another, equally large woman, came over and told her that it changed her life.

Men were buying quantities of meat, and cases of beer. They wore sports jerseys and Nascar caps. The mood was light. The people were happy. They were filling their carts. They were getting good deals on big stuff.

What more was there?

We got to the checkout and I realized, in a panic, that there was no way we could fit this stuff into my small car.  I worried about this, out loud, to my mother.  A man in the next checkout lane overheard our conversation.

“Oh, you find ways to fit it all in. You always do,” he said.  Lightheartedly, he laughed, and I felt like I was a member of some new club.

This man was my brother. He spoke in open-ended terms, he sounded wise. He too had found it difficult to fit the absurdly large quantities of stuff into his car, but he had managed. I would manage too.   I could consume.  There was no reason to worry.

I laughed with him. “Oh, I’ll fit it in! Ha! Ha! Ha!”  I thought about purchasing a larger car.

What Costco looks like from heaven.

We exited Costco through automatic sliding doors and I looked out over the vast parking lot towards where the horizon should be (instead there was a BestBuy or something). A funnel cloud descended, slowly and silently from the close black sky.

I thought the coincidence of my first Costco trip coinciding with my first funnel cloud was just too much.

The hulking warehouse. The parking lot. The cloud.  Death.

It made me feel American.

But at the same time, I lost a little faith in my purchases.

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OMFG! OMFG! BONUS BLACK FRIDAY COMPANION VIDEO!!!

Fear Of Flying

The plane had gone down in an open field. The grass around the wreckage was burnt black. A man stumbled away from the loud bent metal and walked in a direction, towards nothing but away. He vowed never to fly again. He knew he could walk and he’d start from there.

Of course, he had some doubts about walking. He had been told that to get to where he wanted to go he must fly. “Perhaps so,” he thought, “but I will walk. I was never happy flying and it nearly killed me.”

keep it moving

Where did he want to go? He wanted to go to the end. He wanted to look out at the sea and be free. He wanted nothing except his family and the weather. He could be happy with his family in the weather. But where were they?

You have a couple of magic years and then you are set on a path. This path has a real beginning but an imaginary end. We think we must go somewhere. We move in lines. This just happens. Everyone does it. This great game of striving. We all have the right to be happy. The great irony is that we start there. We load ourselves down, enter into this bizarre pit of moving mash, and then try the rest of our lives to escape it.

We’re happiest when we are clean and simple.

As the man walked another plane flew overhead. He stopped and squinted up at the sky to watch the plane, blue on blue. He imagined the people on the plane were quite happy. They thought they were getting where they needed to go. They looked around and saw others like them. The comfort of numbers. He could shout up at the bottom of the plane but he knew it would do him no good. The plane roared for a few seconds and then slowly melted into the sky.

“Maybe they will get to their destination afterall,” the man thought. “There really is no telling.”

He walked with empty purpose through the landscape, swirling atoms.

.

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Exit music.

Peak Sheen (or how $10 gasoline will save the world)

A few nights ago, I decided to torture myself and watch a movie about “peak oil” cleverly titled, “A Crude Awakening”.

I say “torture myself” because what can I do really? Drive a Prius?

Whatever, America is an oil society. George W. Bush got it right: we are addicted to oil. Almost everything we do involves oil. I’m not saying that Priuses aren’t great and a step in the right direction. The problem is that even if everyone was forced to drive a Prius tomorrow, and assuming our historical rate of economic growth, oil demand would rebound to current levels in only a few years.

It’s not going to be as easy as switching the car you drive. No, the real solution to our “addiction to oil” will be something closer to what Charlie Sheen is going through right now.

Some sort of ugly, embarrassing, strung-out withdrawal but without the glamor and pornstars.

“A Crude Awakening” debates and dismisses each of the major alternatives to oil: solar, wind, biomass, nuclear and hydrogen. Of these, hydrogen seems to have the most promise. Too bad a “hydrogen society” won’t be a viable alternative for another 30-50 years.

Until then, things don’t look pretty. In fact, one of the dudes featured in the movie was being interviewed in front of emergency crates of water manufactured by “S.O.S Food Labs”.

Seriously.

It was late. I was watching the movie alone. My mind began to race.

“Wonder if oil wars are our only future.”

“Dad drove a huge Plymouth in the 1970s. Is he a dick for doing that?”

“Are my kids going to become some sort of oil slaves?”

“Jesus. Am I already an oil slave?”

“Do I need to stock dried goods? Dehydrated vegetables?”

“Where can I buy a horse? For transportation?”

Like a good American, instead of freaking out any further, I just turned off the movie. I needed to smile. I pulled up the Charlie Sheen ABC interview.

 

I got to the part where the interviewer seemed to cast doubt on his ability to stop “using.”

“How do you know you won’t relapse?” she asked.

“Because,” he said, “I blinked and I cured my brain, everybody has the power.  It’s just because, you know… Can’t is the cancer of happen. Can’t is the cancer of happen.”

“Maybe Charlie Sheen is right,” I thought, thinking about the movie again. “Maybe we’re just saying we can’t change, get off oil, but we really could. Can’t is the cancer of happen. Yeah… Nothing is going to happen if we keep saying we can’t do it! Maybe we can have a hydrogen society in only 10 years and forestall world disaster! Maybe we need more leaders like Charlie Sheen!”

Charlie Sheen brought me back from the edge. Mind sufficiently calmed, I quickly fell asleep.

But the next morning, the movie re-entered my mind. Over breakfast, without telling my wife about the movie, I said, “I could totally see moving up to a quiet farm somewhere. You know, a small plot of land, grow our own food organically. Some chickens.”

I didn’t tell her my ideas about buying guns and stocking food.

“Really?” She said, rubbing her very pregnant belly. “I can’t.”

Trying to give the idea momentum, I continued. “Wouldn’t it be great to wake up, hear roosters, see dew on a meadow?”

“No.” she said. “I like our life here. All of our friends are here. Our family is close.”

“Yeah but what happens when trucks…” and here my voice cracked before I blurted out, “stop delivering food out here?” Shit! I reached for my fork, averted my eyes, and tried to play it cool.

The weapon of choice in Italian households.

But my wife was staring through me. She was quiet for a good 10 seconds, just staring at me, rubbing her belly menacingly. I could hear her hands going “swoosh, swoosh” over the fabric.

“What are you talking about?” She took a step towards me. She was holding a wooden spoon. “My god,” I thought, “I’ve angered a pregnant Italian woman and she’s holding a wooden spoon.”

Clearly, I was in danger.

She raised her voice, waving the wooden spoon around like some crazed conductor leading a group of crack-addled Charlie Sheens playing piccolos. “You’re getting all paranoid and crazy again?” Slam! The spoon hit the table. “While I’m eight-and-a-half months pregnant?” Slam! “Remember when you had me split our savings between 6 different banks and bought bullion?” Slam!

Ah, memories of 2008…

I got the fuck out of there and head back to my cave, the office. I closed and locked the door.

The first thing I noticed, was oil creeping close to $107 a barrel. Searching for the reason, I read an article about $200 crude calls changing hands.  Then I read about the upcoming “Saudi Day of Rage.”

$200 oil. Wow. Days of rage. $10 gasoline. Man! The movie was right! We’re at the beginning of the end!

I tried to calm down. Thinking back to the night before, I thought about Charlie Sheen. What would he say about this? I bet he’d say that worrying about $200 oil was boring and normal.

Could $200 oil actually be good?

Sure! $200 oil is only bad if we want to continue on the exact path we’re on, but that path is ending. Changing isn’t going to be an option. There are finite amounts of oil under the ground. That’s just a fact. “Drill baby drill” is nothing more than a weak slogan and useless policy unless it’s coupled with huge commitment to developing other resources as well.

If $200 oil gets us thinking harder about hydrogen, or about solar, or does anything to shake the entrenched interests in this country that are standing in the way of real change, then that’s actually a good thing.

The alternative is that, like the pre-awakened version of our friend Charlie Sheen, we continue chilling with pornstars and “banging 7 gram rocks.”  Then when our heart explodes in a couple of decades, we’re not going to have anyone else to blame but ourselves.

Not the liberals. Not the conservatives. And not the other terrorists.

Wonder if cars can run on #tigerblood?

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Exit music.