The day I crashed my car was the same day I met real power.
I don’t have any friends at work, but Don would be the closest thing to one. He’s the guy I work with the most, the guy I’ve talked to about our not-mutual interests the most. I pretend to be interested in him and he pretends to be interested in me. It’s better than spending 10 hours a day alone on the factory floor.
Don’s another controls engineer, and he’s been at it for fifteen years now. He’s got a mustache and a 40-year-old’s burgeoning jowls and a huge gut and prescription safety goggles and a daughter in high school who wants to be a dancer.
I never wanted to be this industry — a friend got me into it. I needed to pay my bills. At the time I had an even shittier job. Don’t we all.
I walked into my first job terrified. For the first nine months, every day when I walked out I figured I’d be fired come the next day. I still do. But I’ve survived, and I’ve been at it four years now. I’m not good at it, but I’m decently competent and the industry is really hurting for bodies right now. I’ve picked up a few things but it’s not an educational environment. Everyone’s just here for the paycheck like me.
My car got wrecked at lunch courtesy of three things — 1) a chain-link fence outside the BDubs I went to, 2) a retention pond swollen with an inordinate amount of May rain and 3) a foot that thought it was on the brake and not the gas.
It only took five seconds for four years of payments to go down the drain. It was a 2012 Honda and I’ll miss the faithful little guy. The cop who came was a saggy-faced hounddog of a black guy who wrote on a clipboard. He reminded me of Danny Glover and asked me three times how much I’d had to drink that afternoon.
As they towed my totaled car away, I thought of Bukowski’s poem where he compares a car to a woman that only you know and understand.
When I got back to the factory, which was only just down the road (that’s what was so infuriating, I should’ve just walked in the first place) a whirl of thoughts spun around my head — my powerlessness, my awareness of my situation, my inability to help myself, my inability to catch a break. I’m far from home, far from the friendships it took my entire youth to build. I am On My Own in America, and it doesn’t feel like freedom to me.
“We gotta go to admin,” said Don when I got back to our tables. We’re set up in the rear end of the factory, responsible for the floor pan section of the line. There’s new technology going in further up and we’ve been dead in the water for over a week now.
Don shows me the printed email. I scan it without retaining any information. I can only wonder how the fuck I’m going to get back to my hotel room that day. I don’t know anyone well enough to ask for a ride, not even Don, though I’ll probably end up asking him.
“It’s a meeting. They want the whole team. We’re just gonna get yelled at.”
And then he says something he’s never said before.
“It’ll be all right. Just follow me.”
He gets up and I follow, confused as to why he would preface this with such a remark. We’ve had these meetings before. Usually just Mueller and one of his toadies will ask us stern questions about where we’re at and then let us go.
We walk from the factory building to the administration building, which looks like a high school from the 70’s — long and low and alternating panels of metetl and glass. It takes about fifteen minutes. There’s an old fashioned felt pin bulliten board in the lobby area and rubber mats. The hallways are lined with plastic mailboxes stuffed with random folders and papers. The monotony and tedium of office life permeates all.
The sheer unbridled maleness of the place is prevalent in every carpet thread. Everyone we pass in their cubicles or offices looks down and pounds or scribbles out their tasks. There’s an odd tension here, and I’ve been around long enough to know it’s not normal. It’s because of something. A presence that isn’t usually around.
Two suits are in the meeting room Don leads me to, and I’ve seen them before on the floor looking stressed out and yakking on their cell phones. It’s Mueller and one of his cronies. Mueller has like twelve cronies and I can never remember their names because they come and go so erratically. They’re the highest of the high in this hierarchy.
Today, there’s the same nervous energy pouring off them, the same kind I can sense off the rest of the place.
They don’t shake hands, but they ask me and Don what we do and how long we’ve been at it.
I tell them. Four years, and I’ve been on this job for two months.
“I’ve actually known numerous people on this job for a couple years, and I’ve met you a couple times before.”
“Yeah, I’m trying to remember a time when I appreciated you,” says Mueller’s crony. It’s a quick little insult, designed to sting and flit off faster than I can respond to it.
People file in and the room gets crowded. I recognize faces and names but no one talks to me and I don’t want them to. I am unfortuantely in the front row, across the table from Mueller and his crony. I assume the meeting will start now and Mueller and his crony will tell us how dissatisfied they are.
But then, he appears.
He’s dressed in black, and his skin is so tan it looks leathered. He’s probably in his 50’s but wants to look 30 and has the money to almost pull it off.
He’s got facial tattoos, this weird grid of stuff on the lower half of is chin under a handlebar mustache. He’s got indecipherable cursive on his cheeks and above his eyebrows. His black hair so thick and greased it looks permanently frozen, as if he’s on the back of some hog on some impossibly free American highway.
A young woman with skin like his, an ass like a ripe pumpkin and eyes as cold and hot as a jungle leopard slinks in behind him and takes a seat against the wall, as far away from us wagecucks as she can be. She looks 19 and is dressed like an Instagrammer — taut belly showing with a gun-piercing dangling from her navel, platform shoes and a denim skirt so short we can see her black string-thong.
Leathers stomps in on his his clean-as-fuck boots. He stops in front of the table, right across from me. Everyone on my side of the room stares up at him.
We’ve ever seen him before, but his vibrations tell us exactly who he is. Mueller introduces him but he’s so quiet I don’t catch his name. Everything about the guy screams darkness and ruthless conservatism. It screams wealth and “Serve me or I’ll make you sorry.”
The irritation on him is palpable, even though he’s flashing us predatory grins of sharp, chiclet-white teeth through his leather-brown skin. He probably thinks they look friendly, or thinks we’re dumb enough to see them as friendly, but they look like a wolf or a shark. His eyes are a demonic twinkling brown. He smells like desert sweetness, like oily perfume, air from the back of his freedom harley. Sunglasses dangle from the collar of his shirt. He probably took them off just before coming into the room. They probably cost more than what we make in a year.
He starts talking without any introduction.
“Do you, any of you, have any idea how expensive this is.”
It’s not posed as a question.
“Do you have any idea what an unimaginably intricate web of plastic tubing and sparks and metallic shards we are dealing with here? Do you have any idea what any of this labyrinthian mechanical undertaking — of which you meatloaf-eaters are each responsible for minuscule fraction of — costs in total?”
The silence is as thick as the meatloaf we apparently eat.
Leathers talks with his manicured hands. His clean-as-fuck motorcylcle boots don’t move, not even enough to creak the custom leather or clink the silver chains.
“Now I have sympathy for those trapped in the matrix, I get it,” he tells us. “Shit happens. Setbacks are had, people have mothers, you’re just paying for your kid’s spaghetti-o’s and your wife’s IKEA patio furniture. I get it.”
“But I’m on my way to fucking Bali right now. Do you think I want to stick my head in this mess and breathe this air today? Because apparently the people I’m paying the biggest fraction of this financial contraption to…” — he gestures at Mueller — “…can’t seem to get the sheep to fall in line and do what they’re getting paid for.”
He steps back and prepares to fire the first volley from the cannons, chest puffing up.
“So for the love of murgatroyd, let the abilitating START!”
He points at me.
“You. What’s Ohm’s Law?”
I don’t know what that is. I’ve never even heard of it. I don’t know what to say, my eyes automatically flick to any sympathetic face in the room and find only downcast eyes or eyes looking obediently up at Leathers.
I haven’t felt this icy kind of terror since high school.
“You’re a controls engineer right?”
I don’t even need to answer before the tripwire happens. The next events play out in like five seconds but it’ll take longer to explain them.
“HOW THE FUCK DO YOU NOT KNOW THAT,” Leathers screams at me, then turns to Mueller. “AND HOW THE FUCK DID HE GET HIRED?”
His voice bounces off the walls like shotgun spray, we absorb it like foam.
“He told us he knew it for the interview,” says Mueller, who normally exudes rich-dad confidence but now looks like he’s under a guillotine.
Bullshit. They didn’t interview me and that question never came up in the actual interview anyway. The interview consisted of me saying what jobs I’d worked on and them saying we’ll call you and then a week later they did.
“They’re lying,” I says loudly. It’s an instant reaction, a misdirection of the stress and strain I’ve felt from losing my car this afternoon. All heads snap in my direction with eyes bugging.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP,” Leathers screams in my face from across the table, but I’m too hot to listen.
“Maybe that’s your problem,” I say, looking down, shoulders shaking. “You hire people who lie to you.”
The words are out and I can’t believe I’ve said them. Mueller and his crony are looking at me like I just told them God is gay and Jesus is his buttboy — all pursed Christian lips and furious, accusing upper-middle-class suburbanite eyes. I see Don looking at me and his face is horrified in the same way a person who’s watching an /r/natureismetal video of a deer getting ripped apart might be.
Leathers laughs like someone just told him a frustratingly stupid joke.
He leans down and gets in my face. The economic power radiates off him. His eyes are pill-popping watery.
“You do realize that if I send you packing before this is over, you will no longer not only be able to make a living in this industry, you will not be able to make a living in any industry, and I can make sure of it before your bleached ass leaves this ROOM.”
His breathe smells like caramel and mints, some maple syrup concoction.
I know in my heart this isn’t a big deal for him. I’m talking to the spider in the center of the web right now, the alpha predator. This guy is the director of many, many economic threads, and this one must be a large one or he wouldn’t be here. The lines out back are probably in excess of a billion dollars. They won’t even let us see the new technology they’re putting in.
Leathers’ girlfriend in the corner snickers, on her phone.
“Now, I’m a compassionate mammal,” he says, not waiting for an answer from me, rising to his full 5 foot 6 six inches again and addressing the whole room. “I’ve got plenty of honey to go around. I can take care of some of the less neurologically fortunate members of this great nation. BUT I NEED SOMEONE TO PUSH SOME BUTTONS AND GET ME SOME PARTS AND I NEED IT RIGHT FUCKING YESTERDAY.”
The room is silent.
Leathers clasps his hands and unclasps them, spreads them like a priest giving a blessing.
“Heads will start getting chopped by the end of this week if something does not improve. If I don’t start getting production numbers sent to my phone that make my balls tingle…”
He turns to Muller.
“…do I even need to finish that sentence?”
Mueller shakes his head, lips pursed.
Leathers addresses us one last time.
“Do what I’m directing your pissant little flow of financial security — your wonderful little piece of the American Dream —INTO YOUR GRUBBY LITTLE BUTTHOLES FOR.”
He points at Mueller and the crony one last time.
“There will be no second visit. It either happens, or I cancel Christmas.”
He turns and leaves the room. His girlfirned follows with her eyes on her phone. Off to Bali.
That’s it. The only thing that lingers is that cloyingly sweet oil smell.
“Any questions?” Mueller asks us.
We don’t answer.
The problem with modern capitalism is that there’s no way for benevolence to rise to the top. It’s all people like Leathers — brutal calculation and malevolence and execution. They see the world as a system, and there’s no salvation coming. The system, for them, IS the salvation. There’s no room for ethics or compassion. If you don’t do it, your competitor will.
We are locked into the simulation, and everything is a performance. Jon Stewart’s testimony to Congress on behalf of the 9/11 responders was a fucking performance. God knows what even the most decently-presented moguls and millionares of our time do when they’re not visible to the rest of us. Child trafficking is a billion dollar industry. Are you spending money on that? Cause I’m not. And I’m techinically in the global 1 percent, as I’m reminded anytime I try to point out the gross injustices of our economic sorting to anyone right of the political spectrum.
That’s what I think on my way back to the parking lot. I’m so worked up I forget I don’t have a car till I’m nearly to my parking spot.
I pull out my phone and see what I can do.