14 October 1999

(Sketchbook Excerpt 3 - "I'm Such A Prick")

I feel awful for saying this, but I am in a class taught by a Muppet: an honest-to-God woman made of construction paper and felt with plastic eyes. She is real old and looks like she can keel over at any moment, as if her puppeteer is becoming bored. I can’t be the only one in the class who thinks it’s some cheesy bullshit, come on! In fact, I’m sure that I am not, because I have seen changing expressions on classmates’ faces when she tries to sound deep with us. See, it’s not necessarily what we’re doing, it’s just her; she makes it painful.

It’s like a cult. She is slowly brainwashing us into becoming wide-eyed cornballs holding hands at the end of class, discussing the deep spiritual revelations we had. Give me a break! I can’t believe my parents are paying for this God-awful class; really, I can’t believe I haven’t brought myself to drop it. Maybe I keep hoping it’ll get better, though it’s a little late for that now. The semester is halfway over – that’s a crazy fact within itself! – and here I am, listening to the Muppet go on and on, and trying to prevent my guilty smirk from becoming guffawing laughter.

We passed around energy tonight. We stood in a circle, and each person invented some kind of shape to play with, then squished it and passed it on to the next person who would imagine something entirely different. Yeah, neat idea, but she kept saying crap like “explore!” and it made the whole thing so damn silly! Some kids are really into it. There’s this dorky motherfucker from Canada who tries to invite everyone out with him after class. Every week, while people are putting on their jackets and getting their belongings together to make a quick getaway, he lamely offers a “so, who wants to get together for some coffee or dinner?” He wants to talk about the wonderful class he had and make new friends, and I can understand but… Why am I so mean? Am I mean, or is this a normal reaction?

It’s probably the former but, either way, the class fucking blows and I’m tired of these cheeseball people, especially that Canadian schmuck.

08 October 1999

(Sketchbook Excerpt 2 - "Routine")

I am thinking about the route I took every morning to and from work. I woke at 6 AM. The house was pitch black. My whole family was asleep, so I’d have to be careful not to switch on the lights and awaken anyone. I’d take a quick shower, try to wake up myself, then turn the bathroom light off before opening the door to the hall. Then I’d pick out my clothes. I was only allowed to wear slacks or corduroys, and I was required to tuck in my shirt. Judging by what I have, my clothing options were limited.

After dressing and tearing another page off the daily calendar, I’d shut the lights, head downstairs (in the dark), and find my lunch in the refrigerator. I’d almost never eat anything, and always ran late. So, I’d hastily gulp a glass of orange juice, running out of the door as the sun began to rise.

I’d drive down Lincolnwood to Lincoln, right on Lincoln all the way to the street right before the golf course, left on that street to Central, right on Central to that other street before the golf course (I can’t believe I’ve already forgotten their names already), pull into someone’s driveway so I could turn around, then park. I’d always have the radio on – usually WNUR which had a great jazz show – and I’d shut it right before I shut the engine. I’d walk 2 and a half blocks up the same street up to the same train station, swipe the CTA card in the same slot, go through the same turnstile and up the same stairs to see: the same people.

There was a guy named Randy whom I would talk to frequently, never about much. His hair was always matted, his breath stunk, he was badly shaven most of the time, wore a cheap coat, and seemed a little off. He lived only three blocks from the station.

“How are you,” he’d ask.

“Exhausted,” was almost always my reply.

“It sure is cold!”

“Freezing!”

And every time, I’d try to get more out of him, just to learn about him. I never learned much other than his train stop (Armitage) and his place of employment (Mount Sinai Hospital). I have no idea what he does there. He’s not a doctor. As soon as the train came, we’d say goodbye and get in separate cars. I’d either try and sleep or read until I got to Belmont, then transfer to the Red line. I’d stare at people- an inevitability since the train was consistently packed – and wonder where they worked. Many were dressed rather nicely, but there were a smattering of students and random people who looked as if they could’ve been going anywhere.

The train ventured underground, and I’d stand and wait for another line at the State & Lake stop, from where I’d walk over a mile down Randolph to Clinton through a swarm of business people all doing the same thing I was doing. I’d always need to walk super fast to make it on time. I did the exact same thing going home, but instead of the sun beginning to rise, it was in the process of setting. On the train ride back, I’d always sleep. When I finally reached my stop, there wasn’t much of a walk back to my car, but I always looked forward to it: it meant another day had passed, and I think it simultaneously scared the shit out of me.

My job was the same story. After the walk, I’d get inside and give the same, half-assed hello to the guy behind the desk who had the duty of signing in guests or delivery people. I think that is all he did. I don’t know what time he got there, but it was always way before I did. He had an elevator button behind his desk to activate the doors, which was nice. I worked on the eighth floor in an incredibly sterile office. I’d pass through the glass doors, sometimes say hi to the secretary, Sheryl, and walk to my cubicle among the many circumscribing the large room.

We each had our own desk on which sat the all-important phone, a computer and, of course, we each had desk drawers. I’d sign in, turn on my computer, and then walk down the hall to hang my coat before getting coffee in the lounge. In the lounge, there were always at least five people getting coffee, toasting a bagel or a Pop Tart, or putting their lunch in the fridge. I did all these things before returning to work. I’d check my messages (usually I had none because no one wants to call a telemarketer back), then check my email. Thank God I’d usually have some of those. Then, it was time to “smile and dial” as my boss and his boss would say.

My department was full of temps, but there were actually some folks who had been there a while! There was this British wanker named Ian. He loved the job. He loved sitting on his ass and calling people all day, registering them for engineering conferences. There was Jim, who is a really cool guy. He is a married musician who has been there for a couple of years. He has gigs Wednesday though Saturday, so I don’t think he really gives the job too much thought; he does it to supplement his income, I suppose. But everyone else… That’s what they do.

Monday through Friday, they sit on the phone and leave voicemails for people across America, repeating the same exact script over and over again:

“Hello Mr./Ms. ____, this is Zachary Walsh [I used an alias] calling with the International Engineering Consortium in Chicago at 312-559-3305. I wanted to touch base with you concerning the ____ coming up in ____ at the ____. If you register before ____, you can get a complimentary copy of the ____. You can visit us online for full conference details at www.iec.org, or call. The number again is 312-559-3305. Thank you for your time, hope to hear from you soon.”

For eight hours. Eight hours with a lunch break. We had call sets, and the database sucked. There were tons of duplicate files, files with the first and last names mismatched, the incorrect number/address/title, or even the wrong company entirely. We’d constantly phone the employee locator numbers and, sometimes, the companies we had on file no longer existed. We’d call everybody from secretaries through presidents and give them the same shit over and over again (you had to wait an interval of ten days in between – big fucking deal!). Then, they’d get faxes. Emails. They remember us because they get bombarded with our mail.

My friend worked with me there for a while, but after he left, I had a lot more of an opportunity to talk to everyone at lunch. It was the same routine each time: some guy would have a newspaper, say something about a sports game that week, then disinterestedly ask “oh – you read that story ‘bout ____? Crazy world, huh?” Then, I’d start singing or saying some random-ass shit and freak everyone out. It was like entertaining robots. I just felt these people’s lives were miserable. They’d all take the train, do the same garbage day in and day out, and go home. They almost never head anything to say at lunch, and I felt like if I wasn’t there, no one would even laugh. My boss said everyone would talk about stuff I said afterwards and how I was “so crazy.” People told me they didn’t want to miss “my show” at lunch…

I really hope this isn’t what I have to look forward to after school. My best friend lives in San Francisco, and he has a temp job doing data entry and errands for a scientist. He goes into Microsoft Excel and makes spreadsheets of DNA samples. He graduated from college. He studied music.

I guess I am going to need to make a decision about whether or not to have a miserably boring temp job so I can spend more time with my music, or do something challenging and have less time… I have no idea what I will do, really. I know what I love, and with it comes sacrifices to do what I need to do.

I’ll need to wait and see, won’t I?

04 October 1999

(Sketchbook Excerpt 1 - "Reunion")

It is our second pitcher by this point. He is sitting across from me, and his face looks the same as it did back in elementary school except that he wears glasses now. So do I. He just looks older. I suppose I do too, although he said my face is exactly the same.

Our waitress is pretty cute, and I keep looking over at her when she walks by – not too much to be obnoxious though. He is telling me about his first girlfriend, Naomi. It was senior year in high school, and they started seeing each other three weeks before prom. They never kissed. The night of prom, she was ignoring him. Four other kids and she were going to “smoke up,” and he didn’t smoke at the time, so he said he’d just meet up with them in 20 minutes or whatever.

“You guys doing okay?” the waitress interjects.

“Yeah, everything is cool, thanks,” I smile.

So, he was walking around alone in his tuxedo, and started getting interrogated by this cop - asking why he’s walking around, what he is doing, if he is meeting anyone, etc. He basically blew up at the cop, saying it was none of his business, and left to find Naomi and everyone else.

They were all going to a house in Wisconsin after the prom. He wasn’t invited; Naomi basically told him not to come. This was the culmination of his high school experience, and he was dropped off the next morning alone. He saw Naomi a couple days later at a party – one of the few he had ever been to – and she was kissing a boy he didn’t really know… She didn’t see him. That wasn’t the first time he had thought about killing himself.

Our beers are getting empty, and I wave over to the waitress to order another pitcher.

“So, you still in touch with anyone from high school?” he asks.

“Yeah, definitely.” Our waitress sets down a big pitcher next to me, and smiles as she walks away.

“What’s everyone doing?”

“Well,” I say, wondering who he’d know, “Johnny is a mailman.”

He smiles.

“And Ryan still works at the bike shop. Jacob moved down to Champaign with his brother, Jason just graduated…”

I am going on and on, and he is smiling, but I don’t think he really knew any of those kids. I guess he just wants to hear; it’s like looking at an old yearbook, remembering only someone’s face, and wondering who they were then – who they are now. You probably saw them at a party or in the halls. You might have made eye contact. Maybe you had a class together, and you always noticed them, or heard rumors. I think – to him – most of our high school was like that: people he only heard about.

The bar suddenly erupts in cheering: the Mets won. In the corner I see a bunch of jerseys on the television screen. I couldn’t care less. He looks over at the screaming yuppies, then back at me.

“Remember Mr. Cole?”

“Oh yeah!” I scream, “I wonder what he’s doing nowadays.”

“Probably molesting squirrels in the forest preserve, coming to class with a foaming mouth with fur in the corners, bites up and down his arms and face.”

He is laughing hard, as am I.

“I swear, that man touched everything that moved!”

“God! What about Ms. Friedberg?”

Laughter on both sides. He is genuinely smiling. He is happy now – not just in the bar, but in general. I think of my friend who killed himself. I wish that the old friend in front of me could’ve told him that things do get better.