November 30, 2016
I find myself in the most casual of clothes. Jeans, t-shirt. Worn, comfortable shoes. Socks with holes at the big toes. They’re clean, though you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking. Old stains have set, impervious to laundering. At fifty paces, you might think I was homeless.
I’ve given up, you see. On everything. Family and friends, career, personal expression, joy. All of it. What remains is a thick bank account and a trickle of royalties. So I live as a drifter, staying in hotels or shelters as my appearance warrants. And I choose the cheapest of calories to stay alive.
At the moment, the cheapest sustenance in reach is beer, kept artificially affordable by a government who wants a dull, docile constituency. Thinking hard and caring hard never did me much good, so I tank up every waking hour.
Finding an open pub at 4am isn’t easy, but I’ve been at this a while. Can usually find a spot. Sometimes, it’s a run down inner city dive with a short assortment of burnouts like me and a bartender who understands. But usually it’s an upscale place for those accustomed to getting everything they want. Costs more, and they expect you to dress the part.
I book a room. Shower and scrape the gray beard away then splurge on a minimally acceptable ensemble. Something that says, “Eccentric Professor,” or , “I’m rich enough to give zero fucks.” What the hell? Money won’t last forever.
I head down to the social club, foregoing the elevator to avoid interacting with random posh snobs. The stairs are covered in handwoven wool runners, clamped in place by polished brass rods. It’s a perfect metaphor how rich Europeans appropriate cultures better than their own, then use metal force to keep them under heel. I smirk and make a game of stepping only on bare wood to the sides.
A padded red leather door is opened for me by someone real, someone human, and I thank them. Then I step into a haze of rank cigar smoke. Thick velvet drapes blanket twelve foot windows, rendering them pointless day or night. Islands of incandescent light suggest outlines of suits, lounging at low tables, puffing at cherry red coals. They grin at each other like hyenas.
I head for a colossal bar carved from old-growth mahogany and park myself on a red leather stool with brass rivets. The barman polishes a glass and lifts his eyebrows.
“Macallan eighteen. Two fingers, neat.”
The barman nods, pulls a bottle from his well, uncorks it, and pours into spotless crystal.
Object acquired, I cast a glance around the space. Most chairs are empty, and low voices are all but inaudible. It might have been peaceful, if not for the TVs barking away. I grimace at a neon-bright screen where a group of men huddles together, wearing upside-down baskets on their heads. Without my glasses, I have to squint.
The men are unusually short, as if stunted by poor nutrition. Deeply tanned skin, dark beards. Middle eastern, possibly Kurdish, Jordanian, or Iraqi. All are bound by thick ropes around torsos, and they lean against each other as taller uniformed men thrash them on the head with long poles.
I shake my head at what must be yet another idiotic reality TV show when one of the baskets takes a direct hit and detonates. The man immediately collapses in a spray of red and slumps with a camera view into his open skull. The remaining men jostle like penguins as the uniformed men smash their long poles again and again. One by one, they collapse in clouds of blood and brain.
A newscaster announces these men have been convicted of crimes against the state and their shameful acts have earned this avoidable execution. I huff in revulsion, thinking how much more likely their crime was being different and daring to demand equality. Or even more likely, expecting to keep their land when valuable minerals lay beneath it.
I gulp the scotch and order another. No matter how horrified I am at the long, lingering camera shots over their remains, or that one of them is literally still kicking, it’s plain this broadcast is more entertainment than news. I glance at the suited hyenas around the club who are leering at the TVs. They don’t see atrocity. They see genetic justice, well-satisfied by this Darwinian and Machiavellian triumph of force.
Sitting here, I have consumed this content like a rotten meal. My stomach churns. I quell it with another gulp of scotch.
People filter in for early breakfast. Tables and chairs fill with silk and pearls. Collagen and silicone. Italian fashions. Diamond encrusted timepieces. Arrogance and entitlement. They sip at mimosas or bloody marys, casually pushing food around a plate with no intention of eating. Many raise a suspicious eyebrow at me as I hunch with heavy thoughts. But they just as quickly dismiss me, since I can clearly afford to be here. And because I have the proper shade of skin. I am one of their own, after all.
Conversations play out around me. Political discourse of elites. Things that should be. I hear opinions from both sides of the aisle, varying across a surprising spectrum. But I find myself most annoyed with the liberals who have no clue what it means to live like the people they claim to support. Their bovine platitudes fall flat before the laser-guided greed of their conservative opponents, and all they accomplish is more deeply entrenching their right wing friends.
Then I hear, “What this country really needs…” and my disgust reaches a threshold. I slide off the stool, drop four c-notes on the bar, and head for the door.
“If these immigrants would just stand up for themselves and demand better of their governments, they wouldn’t have to come here…”
“Refugees are the ultimate cowards. That’s your home! Stand and fight, you goddamned callow bastards…”
“You know, the poor like getting handouts. It’s generational now. Parents don’t teach their kids how to get a job, they teach them how to suck a government tit…”
“Islam is a violent religion, and muslims all want to kill anyone who isn’t a muslim…”
“Why are we letting Iran and North Korea get nukes? Bomb ’em to the stone age…”
“Why would we cut military spending? We should increase it! Having the best-equipped fighters in the world means no one will try to mess with us. Like Teddy Roosevelt said, Speak softly and carry a big stick…”
“Well if the environmentalists would just get out of the way of progress, we might actually have some good jobs for the poor of this country…”
The blame, the hatred, the ill-informed rants pierce my gauze-like wrappings of ethanol. “You want to know what the real problem is?” I shout.
Sullen eyes fall on me. Mouths curve in disapproval.
“We, as a nation, won’t agree on a goddamned thing. All our idiotic thoughts and opinions spilling out through chat rooms and social media and breakfast clubs… Just pointless TALK that does nothing but push us into opposing camps. That’s what you want, right? Because a divided nation is easy to rule…easy to plunder.”
The room is still.
“We aren’t just divided, we’re in tatters. Ripped to fucking ribbons by petty vendettas. There’s no leadership, no direction. WE ARE RESTLESS. We search for enemies now. If we can’t find one, we’ll make one. Wars start that way. And modern war is TOTAL war. But what do you care, your sons and daughters will never have to serve, right? Unless…” I point to the floor. “…that war starts right here.”
Haughty faces turn away, heads shake.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” I say. “Keep ignoring the ones you exploit. Keep writing non-competes and busting unions. Keep mining. Keep taking all for yourself, leaving nothing for others. Keep funding your vile juntas across the globe. Keep buying elections and thwarting justice. And this above all: keep blaming someone other than yourselves. Then, you’ll see what it feels like when a mob rips you out of your mansion and clubs you to death in the street.”
On my way out a hundred incensed eyes follow. Then, laughter. Deep, rolling laughter. Didn’t even make a dent. But that’s how it usually goes, and I chide myself for opening my mouth, at all.
The doorman, though… He’s not laughing. He wants to say something. I know he can’t, not if he wants to keep his paycheck. So I nod to him as I pass, and I go find another bar to numb these useless thoughts.