WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE
A short fiction by Christopher Horton
One hundred degrees under a cloudless blue sky. I wasn’t sweating. Not because I am in such good shape but because the humidity was seven percent. That’s how it is in Los Angeles in September when the Santa Anas blow. You don’t sweat but you know you could fall over and die if you tried hard enough. I could feel the sun eating into the skin of my forearms as I walked down Franklin Avenue. I’d known Irish girls that you could watch turn lobster red on a day like this, but I had a lot of green in my skin. My folks had said it was Greek from way back. Whatever.
I’d just been at the Bourgeoisie Pig, this coffee house that looked like a relic from 1978 but still drew young bohos. Franklin Avenue was hip but too far east in Hollywood to be really rich. So young bohos were as thick as. . .well, the ants on that dead lizard in the gutter there. Which is almost enough to turn over the double Americano and muffin in my gut. Some people would say that dumping eight bucks for the privilege of having coffee and a pastry with a bunch of mostly twenty something artists and poseurs was a pretty piss poor choice for an unemployed fifty year old. Fuck ‘em. I got where I am by making piss poor choices. Like not finishing that dissertation.
And where the fuck was I? Besides standing on Franklin Avenue mindlessly looking at the cart of fifty cent books outside the used book store. I was broke. But since I’d already lost my house and my health insurance, maybe that didn’t matter much. That’s why I probably should’ve finished that dissertation. Maybe then I’d be a tenured professor, blowing up my gas bag and basking in the admiration glowing in the eyes of women twenty-five years younger than me. And drawing a guaranteed pay check.
Instead, I’m a lecturer in the community college system because that’s all a masters in political science is worth. Well, a couple of years ago. Now, it’s worth nothing, since California is also broke and my classes have been cancelled indefinitely. And, oddly enough, an impressive expertise in Bakunin and other nineteenth century anarchists doesn’t seem to be an asset in the current job market. The only interview I got was for assistant manager of a book and game store in Valencia. Valencia. The kids up there call it “Awesome Town,” if you catch my drift. For a second, I thought my masters was worth wearing a smock for thirteen dollars an hour. But it wasn’t. I didn’t get the job. They gave it to some guy with an associate degree who hadn’t worked in ten years.
On the plus side, I’d been right all along in a sense. The reason I never finished that dissertation was it seemed too pointless—the world didn’t really need another ream of crap about Russian anarchists. So I guess I’m right instead of President. I suppose, if I were going to stop lying to myself, I’d say that I didn’t finish that dissertation because I decided to get married instead. But that sounds even more pathetic, all things considered. And if I stopped lying to myself, I’d probably eat the gun. But, just this once—I guess I ended up neither right nor President.
We all got problems. Look at the guy who owns that SUV parked there. It’s got one of those stick finger family decals on the back. But the mother has been scratched out and the kid cut in half. He probably has painful problems. Nonetheless, I find my own problems infinitely more fascinating than other people’s problems.
Like my distinctly Republican safety net, which has holes in it the Trojan offensive line would be proud of. There’s my wife, probably my ex-wife by now. Last I heard she was in Brazil. I last saw her about ten years ago. And I helped her out in her hour of need, even though we weren’t together anymore. So she should be popping up out of nowhere any second now to help me. It happens all the time. In the movies. I call that a fallback option. My parents are long dead. Just as well since maybe I would be pathetic enough to move back in with them at fifty. They were both professors. So I was an only child. And three of my grandparents were professors. So I have no other family. I call that my drop dead option.
By the way, not having any family has never bugged me too much. Until the other week. When my best friend, Eugene, and I were having coffee at the Bourgeoisie Pig. Eugene had been out of work longer than me and he still had eight dollars to waste. He’d just been staring into his cup for awhile. I was beginning to wish I’d brought a book. Then he looked at me with this terrible combination of defeat and relief, and said, “I’m going home.” To southern Georgia. I’m sort of a literal guy, so my first thought was that he had gone insane. He was from there. But he’d always considered that a bad break before. Personally, I’d take the drop dead option first. Three days later, he was gone. I guess he owed a lot of back rent. I haven’t heard from him since. So he’s not an option at all.
Now I keep hearing him saying, “I’m going home.” It’s interesting to me. Because that isn’t an option. For me. Hell, it isn’t even a concept anymore. I have no “home.” That never bugged me before. I guess that’s what hard times will do to ya.
My other good friend has been gone for a few months. He’d had to declare bankruptcy when his house went under, he’d borrowed so much out of it. He and his wife had gone on some pretty nice trips. I didn’t do that. But, now, neither one of us has a house or a wife, so who’s the dumb ass? Now he’s living in this shack with no electricity up in Santa Cruz on the property of one of his friends. A little ridiculous at fifty, but he could be daydreaming in front of a used bookstore on Franklin Avenue instead. So I’m flush out of family and friends. Maybe not making more friends was another pretty piss poor choice.
All of the sudden, the sun is really oppressing me. My head is starting to overheat, I start walking to the corner. There’s a bus stop billboard that says, “We Are All Workers” in large white letters. For a second, I thought I was hallucinating from the heat—was there a Bakunin advertising campaign? Maybe I could get work. The glare and heat rising off the billboard made it hard to see but as I got closer I could see it was a Levis ad. Another job opportunity shot to hell. It looks like the picture is a tall, proud African woman picking something. Maybe it’s the heat, but “we are all workers” doesn’t resonate to me at all in these times. In lots of ways. In fact, it pisses me off. Maybe it would make more sense if the picture was a banker fucking some shlub in the ass. Maybe that wouldn’t sell as many pairs of Levis. But you never know. Maybe they should hire me.
I remember when that phrase did resonate. At least to me. Back when I was starting grad school in Chicago. Seems about as long ago as the Russian revolution. I mean, not only to me, but socially, culturally. Before the crash. Before Bush and 9/11. That’s why that ad is so fucked up. I feet like it’s mocking my whole life. Cheapening it. It makes me mad. I want to take a crowbar to it. Except that I’m fifty. Back when I was young and dumb and starting graduate school. . .well, I might have. Although not in broad daylight of course.
But I had dreams then. Or at least nonsensical, romanticized notions. What had I known about workers? My father was an academic. And I could probably count my days of physical labor on my fingers and toes. At least if I had a couple of mutations. Being poor isn’t the same—I was just a young boho like these guys sauntering by, full of hubris and vinegar. Just like ‘em, in fact. Back then, I was living in this shabby apartment in Latin King territory with this guy, Jay. He was a smart guy, but he was just getting by doing non-union construction. Then, we saw eye to eye on most things. Later, he became a big deal journalist and then a conservative pundit. So, now, he’s not part of my safety net.
But that year, we were pretty close. The apartment, a wreck of a turn of the century building, was on the second floor at a corner not too far from Wrigley Field. There was a bar underneath that had its fair share of Latin Kings. The aptly named Buzz’s Tap. And there was a bodega on the corner across the street. Now, I couldn’t afford to live in that neighborhood. Then, there were blood trails in the snow. A lot of them started at this place a couple of blocks away, the also aptly named Terminal Liquors. If you bought cigarettes in the machine—it was a long time ago—you got a pack of matches with a picture of a naked girl.
There was a lot of snow that winter. One of the worst ever. A real winter of my discontent. By January, the snow was frozen to the top of the little chain link fences. It didn’t completely melt until June that year. By January, I was pretty sick of peasant revolution in southeast Asia, rural uprisings in the Mexican revolution, and the various massacres of the Russian civil war. I was thinking about law school. It was a crossroads. I think I would have gone except for two things. My parents, the professors, would’ve hated it if I’d become a “tradesman.” Letting that influence me was probably another piss poor choice. But I try not to think about it because I’m trying really hard not to become one of those bitter old men you see bitching in bars who curdled because they did what other people told them to do instead of what they wanted to do and it didn’t work out. I’m doing okay avoiding that. Partly because I drink at home alone.
Besides, in all fairness, I also didn’t go because something that seemed beautiful happened. Because a bunch of shitty things happened first. Like I was sick that winter. All winter. That was my own fault too—I’d get better, and get wasted. And get sick again. So I was sick one Saturday night and just stayed home drinking by myself. Maybe things haven’t changed so much after all. Jay had gone out to some club with these girls we knew. It was a break from hanging out at Buzz’s. We’d done that a lot that winter because it was too cold and there was too much snow to get any farther. We played pool with the gangbangers. That was a good thing. At least, when those girls came by, they didn’t have to run a gauntlet of hooting gang members to get to the apartment, like they had to the first time in the fall.
Jesus, it’s hot. Maybe I will keel over before I get home. That would solve a lot of my other problems. Maybe that’s why I’m thinking about a Chicago winter. Anyway, the next morning I opened my eyes. I lay there on my dingy mattress on the floor and assessed my condition. I was still pretty sick. This odd rhythmic thumping sound from somewhere in the apartment took my mind off my sinuses and throat. I wondered what time it was. A moment later the opening verse of “Copa, Copacabana” came up through the floor to assail my ears. So it was ten o’clock. Buzz’s was open. This was a downside of living over a bar. We were very proud that on two separate evenings they’d asked us to turn down our music. But we favored rock and roll with a more than reasonable amount of bass. Sleep was hopeless so I decided to find out what the thumping sound was.
It was Jay, hobbling around the apartment with a baseball bat and a look of agony. One of his knees was twice the size it should have been. “Dude. What happened to you?”
The dance floor had claimed another victim. Jay said he’d heard something pop last night and it hurt a lot. And then this morning, he freaked when he saw it. I looked out the window—only a light windblown snow was adding a wisp of freshness to the frozen urban tundra. I practically had to carry him the block to the main road where we grabbed a cab.
Orwell wrote this essay, “How the Poor Die.” Back when he was full of sympathy for all we workers. He said that if you couldn’t die with your boots on, try real hard to do it in your own bed instead of in a public ward. We waited two hours for a doctor at the county ER. Jay was writhing in this wheelchair but the nurses wouldn’t give him anything until the doctor read the x ray and saw him. Finally, the doctor came over to us. The first thing he said was, “Why do you have it bent? It’s much more painful that way.” I was flabbergasted—it was my studies come to life for the first time. Apparently it didn’t make as big an impression on Jay or he wouldn’t write all those op-ed pieces bitching about Medicaid and the undeserving poor.
As it turned out, Jay’s kneecap was broken. His winter was over—not that it had stopped snowing in April when he finally got out of the apartment. Things went downhill fast that January. He’d been the one with the halfway decent income. My miserable stipend didn’t go very far. It was still snowing and it hadn’t been above freezing for weeks. I went across the street to the bodega with the money we had. I was still sick. I remember coughing up a lung as I carefully selected a bag of rice, some beans, cans of tuna, and a pound of this terrifyingly harsh Puerto Rican coffee that was very cheap. The owner was running the register. He was a leathery and square Latin man, probably in his early forties. He seemed very old. Then. Anyway, somehow, I miscalculated—I’m usually good with numbers. Maybe because I was so sick. On the outside, I was embarrassed about making a mistake but on the inside I felt like crying. I stared at the pile of goods, trying to decide what to sacrifice. And this man, this poor man, this man of color whose name I never knew, looked me, the white, educated kid, squarely in the eye and said, “Take it all. I saw you carry your friend to the hospital. We are all workers.”
I think that was one of the most beautiful things I ever heard. Inspiring. And maybe the greatest act of kindness I’ve ever received. Which sucks in its own way, but never mind that. It was a wonderful thing. And that’s the other reason I didn’t go to law school. The good reason. That was the inspiration that saw me through the rest of that cold Russian winter and the colder calculus of Russian nihilism. And it’s why that billboard poster is a finger in my eye. Especially today. I feel lost. And pointless. And now mocked. I think it’s the last straw.
It’s not that much cooler in this crummy apartment. All sorts of progress in the last thirty years. Not. The ice in this drink is practically melted already. Too bad I didn’t have enough inspiration to finish that dissertation. Too bad getting married and becoming a hack lecturer seemed more appealing. Jelly roll blues there. Too bad it didn’t work out. And too bad that I just spent my last eight dollars. And too bad I saw that poster. And really too bad that I stopped lying to myself. Too bad it’s time to eat the gun.
About the author:
Once upon a time in America, Christopher Horton graduated from a snotty private university. Fortunately, he soon thereafter fell in with evil companions and thus attended a method acting school. He has written several screenplays, some of which were optioned but none made. His story, “Three Visions”, was published in the print anthology “Literary Pasadena”, and “Day of Destiny” recently appeared in the online literary journal “Page & Spine.” He has also written a novel, “The Great Big Book of Bitches (a love story).” Christopher lives and writes in Hollywood, which at least sounds romantic, and otherwise largely strives to suit himself.
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