HERE's a link to the Paper Machete podcast, wherein I read my fast food essay. Which is quite good.
Entries in Live Lit (15)
Fast food workers have staged one-day walkouts in seven U.S. cities, demanding a “living wage” of fifteen dollars per hour, up from the current minimum wage of $7.25.
From New York to Detroit; Milwaukee to St. Louis, fat-asses are baffled as to where they might go to stuff their faces with the well-salted gristle they have come to depend on for their five to seven daily… well “meals” is probably not the right word. But I don’t know that there is a single word to convey the activity of shame-dunking your face into another round of sad greasy meat paste.
Maybe there’s a German word for this. I don’t know.
In an appalling demonstration of the insensitivity to the nation’s lard-assed community, workers at fast food outlets walked the picket lines instead of slinging the dispiriting slop we have come to depend on as the only means of quieting for a moment the self-loathing that plagues us. For if we are not permitted the unrestricted opportunity to shovel sodium nuggets and despair patties into our gullets till gravy runs through our veins, then what is freedom even FOR?
These fast food workers, who are attempting to uncouple the lard-hose from our face-nozzle underestimate the power of riled-up fatties to oppose gastro-tyranny in all its forms. Because make no mistake – that’s precisely what this is: tyranny, plain and simple. Asking us to rouse ourselves from our gluttony-pods to reflect on your struggles as you drive this obesity train, asks TOO MUCH OF US – leave us in peace to consume our thrice-daily bucket of diabetes dippin’ sticks.
Your unrealistic demands to make what you glibly call a “living wage” would mean an increase the price of a Big Mac up to SIXTY-EIGHT CENTS. Which, I don’t have to tell you, would the DEATH OF FREE MARKETS AT THE HANDS OF UNION THUGS.
Listen: my first job was actually at a McDonald’s – Route 9 in Hadley, Massachusetts. Did I like it? Hell, no, I didn’t like it. Nobody did. The only guy that DID like it was this developmentally disabled kid named Donny.
But even though it was tough, thankless, underpaid work, I DID learn many valuable lessons during my frankly disgusting tenure there that have served me well to this day.
I learned that work is hot, stressful, greasy, dangerous, boring, gross, smelly, depressing, and pointless. I learned that the workplace – no matter how low the stakes – is a nest of vipers more interested in sowing intrigue and in futile, stupid power struggles than in actually getting anything done.
I learned that every job affords a level of fulfillment and satisfaction comparable to dry humping a pile of pinecones for nine hours at a stretch. While people complain about your technique. And you take orders from a pathetic little despot you’d still struggle to respect if you discovered him stepping out of a time machine dragging Hitler’s corpse.
According to Nelson Lichtenstein, director at the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, there are a number factors governing the corporate rationale for opposing a wage hike, most of which center on the time-honored principle of American business, namely the principle of I Got Mine, Jack – So Do Us Both a Favor and Go Fuck Yourself.
Owners of fast food outlets actually benefit from high worker turnover, so they obviously have a stake in keeping their people pissed off.
“From the company’s point of view, if they know their employees are going to be there for three years, then there’s also this informal pressure on the managers to accommodate the workers,” he says, citing the possibility of wage creep and further increased labor costs for employers. “Managers then can’t just move people around all the time. Firing gets more difficult. So they don’t want a permanent workforce.”
Let’s take a sec to define our terms.
“Wage creep” is what used to be called “upward mobility,” or, more quaintly, “the American dream.”
For you young people, this was a fiction whereby working people were encouraged to cling to the delusion that through hard work, they could attain prosperity. History has of course demonstrated that this is not only not possible, for the rich, it is not desirable.
The cunning of this delusion is that working people – whom reality has trapped for all time in a permanent underclass. An underclass that care for the nation’s obese and ill-tempered children, that keep the nation’s food trough brimming with oily, pre-cancerous slop, that serve as cannon fodder overseas, and that are the baristas that reverse the nation’s sluggishness. According to this fiction, workers cling to the false hope that the only thing separating them from the rich is just catching a break or two. They are not poor people whose tenuous hold on stability is crushed at every turn by a system rigged against them – they are people whose riches are just over the next rise, people whose wealth is merely in its dormant stage. We’re not POOR, goes the fiction, we’re just PRE-RICH.
By perpetuating this delusion, the 1% have a bottomless barrel of cheap labor that remains docile and that consistently votes against its own interests. The fiction has succeeded in shifting worker allegiance to their overlords, and away from their fellow wage slaves next to them on the assembly line, or at the fry station, or at the Genius Bar. And they keep clocking in, and they keep voting to ensure they live and work in a lake of unregulated poison, their dumb, fat kids go to shitty schools, and their aging and demented parents will die in shabby and squalid nursing homes.
For the public to support fast food workers would entail the abandonment of several generations worth of destructive and self-defeating beliefs. Because the idiotic delusion has for us come to resemble economic hope.
So listen up, you fast food workers. Be clear on what you are: you are the wranglers on the nation’s industrial feedlot. You are to fatten us on a slurry of bone meal and hormones, herd us up the ramp onto the killing floor, and push from your mind the role you have played in turning us into deli meats for the rich.
“Have a blessed day.”
Even in our very darkest hour, when we stand at the brink of slipping into the volcanic pit of our loathing and brutality; when humanity seems poised to send its last weak ripple out into the pond of the world; and the cowl of hatred and fury threatens to blot out the sunlight of kindness and clarity for the final time – there will be calls in these times for the relaxing… of standards.
I say: NO. Now more than ever, we must cleave all the more closely to what we know to be true and right. Whether free speech, or civil liberties, or common sense – there are cries to leave these by the wayside – if only temporarily. They can be restored to us at some later, more placid date.
But once the soil is eroded – it is gone for good.
“Have a blessed day.”
Of all the farewells in the language, this one stands out as the grisliest of the bunch. As grating as it is presumptuous, as patronizing as it is sanctimonious, and as hypocritical as it is vapid.
“Have a blessed day.”
Listen Flanders – doesn’t matter what’s happening in the world: if you catch sight of THIS FACE, and still urge me to have a “blessed day,” you mistakenly believe that you and I share a sense of what constitutes a state of blessedness; you further believe – again, quite mistakenly – I concur that you are by some means imbued with the power to draw blessings from the heavens and to bestow them upon me; and finally, you further believe – and again, I hasten to add how badly off base you are, here – that I want your shabby goddamn blessings at all, ever, for any reason.
For you to say “Have a blessed day,” as you press my change into my palm, would be like me saying “Hail Satan!” Which I almost never do. Because it would have NOTHING WHATEVER TO DO with the Tacquitos I am seeking to purchase in your establishment.
I would sooner suffer every anguish conceived by the demon mind than to have you trying to insinuate your blessings into our transaction – I came here for a thing of Skittles and some piping hot Tacquitos, not for your tepidly conceived theology. Mine are secular Skittles, friend, and I frankly resent your attempts to make them some kind of sacrament in your half-assed church-less liturgy.
Now then – if my rejection of your blessings constitutes my damnation, then so be it.
The fate of my soul – assuming despite abundant evidence to the contrary that I have such a thing – is not yours to determine. If my “soul” is to be consigned to your totally made up lake of flames, or your make believe castle in the clouds, then it ain’t gonna be you that does the consigning – you feel me, Tammy Faye?
And even if you WERE so empowered, if you were handling the traffic flow of the afterlife, I would choose the Damned over the Blessed every goddamn time.
Cause “the Damned” is an apt synonym for “the Interesting”.
Whereas the Blessed – whether in this world or the next – are to me is like a congealing tower of rice pudding – a featureless and lumpy expanse of Boring distinguished mostly by its enduring capacity for self-congratulation.
My allegiance is with the Damned. And if you’re honest with yourself, so is yours.
You gotta be suspicious of any word that lends itself to the pretentious version: “blessed” here becoming “BLESS-ED.” The one exception is “legged” – but ONLY where it is used to indicate an off-count, like “three-legged dog” or “one-legged man.”
BLESS-ED is the way your eight-year-old ass feels during hour two of a sermon on the unyielding oak of a church pew. Damned is the way your lungs feel on that first drag of the cigarette you’re not supposed to be having.
BLESS-ED is the opening strains of a shitty song wafting over your cubicle wall – a song so generic, it could well be playing at the party in the After School Special about the perils of underage drinking – a song made infinitely worse when it dawns on you that your new officemate is VOLUNTARILY playing Christian Rock WITHOUT A TRACE OF IRONY – this naturally collapses your remaining affection and regard for the species into a bleak little wad of monkey-brain hatred. At 9:17AM.
Because if there is any more effective means than Christian Rock to make you wanna go do a bunch of heroin in the break room, it has yet to be discovered.
Look, it’s very simple: Damned is Highway to Hell, Blessed is Highway to Heaven – so what’s it gonna be?
The guitar licks of Angus? Or the helmet-haired syndication piety of Michael Landon? Because Eric Ruelle is asking you to choose the helmet-haired piety of Michael Landon. Which, listen… if you can live with yourself throwing in with the helmet-haired piety of Michael Landon and his earthbound minion Eric fucking Ruelle, then so be it.
I guess you wanna be a giant hopeless douche-twat. Which is JUST what Eric Ruelle and all his superstitious, ignorant, quivering little helmet-haired Army of God shit sticks want you to be: a giant hopeless douche-twat.
I don’t want that for you. You don’t want that for you. You don’t wanna look in the mirror and see a giant hopeless douche-twat looking back at you. A vote for BLESS-ED constitutes the unapologetic declaration that you believe yourself to be a giant hopeless douche-twat.
Though Damned, we know you to be a person of quality, a person of valor and moxie. We the Damned welcome you – in all your frailty and imperfection, all your strivings and struggles. Join us. Join the Damned. It is the only way to avoid becoming for all time a giant hopeless douche-twat.
My dad left when I was nine. My brother was eight. This was 1975.
When I say he left, I mean exactly that. He did not move out. There’s a distinction. Divorced dads move out, they do what they can to stay involved. They might try to minimize their own guilt by bribing their kids with sugary cereal and water parks.
I’m a dad now myself, and so have thought some about this. I have had moments where I can see my wife getting so fully fed up with my bullshit that she calls it quits. I have imagined myself newly divorced and moving into a dingy garden apartment to remain nearby. And then filling my shared-custody time with the kids with museum trips and turkey legs at Medieval Times.
But that isn’t what my dad did. He didn’t move out. He left. We only saw him sparingly from then on. Which matters for the thing I’m going to tell.
My dad’s name was Peter Belknap. He was ill suited for just about any adult responsibility you could name – steady employment, maintaining a steady address, fatherhood, marriage. I don’t know for certain, but I’d be surprised if he voted. Or paid taxes. Or kept the registration on his vehicle current. Or wiped his feet when he came in your house.
He was good at road trips. He was good at striking out on destination-less voyages of unknown duration in the dead of night. He was good at drinking into the small hours. He was good at slouching sidelong into precarious living situations with wild-eyed women in barely converted barns and former filling stations. He was good at forging shaky economic alliances with other marginal unstables who would sell weed with him, or help in the chaotic construction of steel drums, or barter his automotive know-how for room and board in some hovel or other.
He was good at eating a stick of butter like a banana.
He was good at bestowing nicknames – he called people not Jenny or Bill, or whatever their name was. He called them Ghoulie or Noogs, Pu Pu Platter or Steeltoe.
He was good at twisting your words and taking umbrage. Conversation with him could be a thicket of twining brambles from which you’d emerge dazed and lacerated.
What he was mostly good at, though, was self-administered anesthesia in various forms, and heeding his impulse to flee, which was constant.
I know this becauseI became exactly as he was. Like just about everybody in the checkered history of the species that’s pledged never to become like their forebears. There is a part of me that wants badly to burn my house down and head west; to stomp on that Thelma and Louise pedal and plummet into the ravine.
This is a common symptom of the alcoholic. I got that from dad. I got his low speaking voice. I got his insistently itchy impulse to flee and to destroy. I got the need to get black-out hammered.
In this, I am my father’s son. In this, I am a living testament to the truth that alcoholism is an inherited malady, a defect passed between generations – like brittle nails, or fat ankles, or diabetes.
So far, I am quite different from my dad in a couple of respects: 1) I quit drinking, which he never did, and 2) I did not kill myself when I turned 40, which he did.
For a while there, though – a long while, actually – it looked like I wouldn’t live as long as he had. I was a bleak alcoholic depressive and wanted to die all the time. But the great thing about having a suicide in your immediate family is this: you recognize suicide as the permanent and shitty decision of lasting consequence that it is, and you refrain from doing it till you are certain beyond all doubt. Doubt – however tiny or weak – is pretty life-giving stuff when you are related to a guy that’s died by his own hand; because as long as there lingers the slightest doubt, it can hold at bay the lethal certainty that must precede suicide.
But that’s all stuff I learned later.
The last time I saw my dad alive, I had no notion of how despairing he would become, no sense that he was in peril, no idea that I would come to regret being unkind to him. Because I was unkind to him. On the very last occasion I saw him alive. If I’m honest, I have to report that I was petulant and shitty to him.
But before I tell that, you should know this: my dad’s father, my grandfather had been murdered a few months prior to that last time I saw my dad. Papa was beaten to death in his own garage. His skull was bashed in with a pair of pruning shears. The crime remains unsolved to this day.
So. In ADDITION to being petulant and shitty with my dad on the last occasion I saw him alive, I was petulant and shitty with him in the wake of his own father’s homicide.
But I obviously cannot have known that the last time I saw my dad would be the last time. With the benefit of hindsight, it is tempting to believe that my every encounter with dad over all the preceding years had been a long, slow cry for help. But I was just a kid. I had only the dimmest understanding of the appetites and anguishes that impelled grownups to act in destructive and baffling ways.
The last time I saw my dad, I was a selfish and frightened teenager. The world had recently revealed itself to be a place where an upright and honorable man like Preston Belknap – my Papa – could get his skull caved in for no good reason; a place where the seeming safety of a person’s own home afforded nothing of the kind; a place where the few steps from a person’s living room to their garage can lead along a path of madness and suffering and blood.
If I speak to you the phrase “the last time I saw him alive”, in your mind I’ll bet you picture some more auspicious location that the parking lot where I spoke to my dad on the last occasion I saw him alive. A parking lot. Not a deathbed. Or a forest clearing. Or even a jail cell.
A parking lot.
It was a pretty nice parking lot, I suppose. On the crest of a hill overlooking the piny forests of the New Hampshire college campus I was about to get booted from because I’d run out of money. Had no business going to a private college – but I’d fucked up so thoroughly in high school, this academic slag heap was the only place that’d take me.
So it’s early spring of 1986. Around this time of year, actually. There were still stubborn crusts of snow in the shade under the Scotch pines and sugar maples. The pine warblers and gray catbirds had joined the sparrows and robins to split the clear tang of the spring sky with their song. The crocuses and snow drops had bloomed; the daffodils were still just tender green spears.
There is this kind of shock to spring that I love – this sense of having EARNED this dewy and bright bursting world by having suffered through the serial dick punch of winter.
My dad rolled up in one of the massive cars he always had – those long boxy gas-chugging things Detroit cranked out for a decade and half, those Buicks and Dodges and Pontiacs like a pontoon boat on wheels with a hood big as a king size bed.
I know it’s him, cause he’s still got that beard. That chest-length beard like a carpet of wiry brown moss on his face. And this is a time when the beard has been generally discredited – it wasn’t like now, with all these hipsters like dainty mountain men. This was 1986. Skinny tie time. Clean shave all the way. None of this twee Iron & Wine bullshit, son.
So he’s got on these bellbottoms. And just so you’ll be sure and notice that these are bellbottoms, they got these wide awning stripes in those colors that were only used in men’s apparel during the seventies: goldenrod, terra cotta, russet. He’s got these scuffed brown square-toed boots, this poly shirt in this… pattern. Like a Jimmy Buffet song rendered in vomit. And this buckskin jacket. With fringes. Like he’s a scout on a wagon train.
The reason my dad, who’s been MIA for much of my life to this point, has met me on the campus of the college I can no longer afford? He’s there to see can he “work something out” with the Bursar’s office. Now, somebody as chronically sketchy as my dad has proved himself consistently to be – when that dude says he will “work something out” about the THOUSANDS of dollars you’re in the hole for tuition, you can bet that is some dirtbag code for “string them along and piss everybody off.”
He was unusually adept with empty promises, especially where money was concerned. So it was obviously a desperation move for me to have called him in the first place. It’s like being in a foxhole and calling in reinforcements from around a card table at the VA hospital – with bullets whizzing over your head, you rely on the haunted and shuffling old man in the grimy sweats to save you. Dumb idea. Everybody dies.
So I got out of class – English Comp, I think it was. Hung over as fuck, like the kind of hangover where it would be not at all surprising to discover a hatchet handle protruding from your forehead like a grisly narwhal horn. I’m sweating bullets about getting booted from school, pulling hard on a Camel Filter. My dad looks like he’s pretty baked. He smells like bong water and is pupils look like squashed beetles swimming in the amber of his irises, rimmed in blood. He’s smoking an Old Gold.
Dad has already had the meeting with the Bursar.
“Well?” I said.
“What? No hug?” says dad. I haven’t seen him in like four years.
“No,” I said. “What did they say?”
He looks stung, and gives me some shit about stiff-arming him after all this time. Inside my skull, there are many rebuttals to this.
Then he went on to give me this song and dance about how he’s gonna set up a payment plan. I’m gonna get to stay. I’ll be back at school in the fall.
But I phase him out. I look around us. I know this is the beginning of the end. I’m never coming back to this campus. I am furious at him. Again. Still. He talks on – laying down a line of patter about the rosy future he’ll make for me. But what he’s laid down is just another rug for me to stand on, another rug for him to yank – leaving me flat on my back and staring at the sky, seeing white stars like maggots and tasting blood where I’ve bit my tongue.
But this time – this last time – I don’t step on his rug. I remain un-betrayed, maybe, but as I watch my dad talking on that blacktop, he seems to recede. And fade. And become even more of a ghost. A shifty-eyed, fast-talking hippie ghost.
Most mornings, he woke to find some bruising someplace on himself, and, often as not, a newly forming scab or two.
Nothing big. Nothing major. He wasn’t a fighter. But he did black out a lot. And his forehead would meet the pavement with not inconsiderable velocity once every other week or so.
Or he’d misjudge things and the doorframe of the cab he was to slopping himself into would catch him on the hairline.
Or he’d pass out on the floor of the bar where he was supposed to be working and in addition to the cigarette butts and bottle caps mashed into his face – so it was like embossed – he’d find his spine all janked around so turning to face anybody was more like the turret of a tank than the fluid swivel of other mammals.
So. Even though he wasn’t getting into tussles with anybody, exactly, he was pretty beat to shit most of the time and you could very much say that his was a life of conflict.
People he’d gone to school with had, like… embarked. On something you could properly call a life. They had set sail for points distant, with a bracing mist dampening their faces and a briny wind at their backs. While he just seemed to remain… suspended. In a tide pool, warm and cloudy as milk.
He’d long suspected things had gotten bad. That HE had gotten bad. But he didn’t really KNOW it until he snapped off like half of his front tooth. It was an incident he came to call The Snaggling. As in, he was now snaggle-toothed, and so that the precipitating time his teeth became thus, he called The Snaggling.
To those that did not know him well, which was everybody, The Snaggling nested within his longstanding precedent of rueful humor at the expense of his own excesses. He’d roll in late to the bar with a scabby face, cock and eyebrow, and go “You oughtta see the other guy.” Shit like that.
But with The Snaggling, he couldn’t even muster this form of slack deflection, this oblique non-coping.
There’d been plenty of other incidents. In fact, if he was honest with himself, which he almost never was, he’d have to concede that his recent past was pretty strewn with red flags. Red flags that he’d disregarded completely.
There was that time The Girl had come into the bar, requesting his set of keys to her apartment, since his sloshing and bleary state stood in clear contravention to her longstanding refusal to let him in her place while hammered.
Or the time his landlord had come by the bar during a brunch shift to make a polite but firm inquiry about his back rent.
Or the time he’d made that readhead cry pretty hard in that back booth.
Or the time he’d passed out on the steps of that Methodist church a few blocks over. Not like on A step, but lying diagonally across SEVERAL steps, each perpendicular point of contact – shoulder, ribs, hip, outer thigh – had this abraded-looking blood-blistery bruise.
Then there was the plain fact that the whites of his eyes looked like rancid butter. Even though he was only twenty-eight.
No doubt about – he was a mess.
But The Snaggling seemed to represent a new plateau, an order-of-magnitude type deal. His vanity was a part of it, for sure – every time he caught sight of his scoured-out face in the mirror behind the bar, he saw that glaring little gap – askew, sharp-edged, a black little polygon of space where he till recently had a pretty good quality front tooth.
Because even though he was routinely pretty torn to shit, he remained a decent-enough looking dude who exerted a dark magnetism on certain among the “save-him-from-himself” ladies. He felt like that shit was now over, with this gaping absence in his mouth.
“Fuck it,” he told himself. “Chicks, man. I don’t need the fucking headaches.”
This was maybe as much in response to the fact that he didn’t have the money to fix his tooth as it was his to his whole deal with chicks.
Setting aside his vanity, though – it was this galling thing of the, like, incontrovertible-ness of it. The Snaggling was this starkly visible emblem of the chaos he was living in. His face was now the kind of face that would prompt longer, more probing looks from cops, and would cause moms to hustle their kids away from him in the food court or whatever.
With one sharp blow, he’d gone from a little rough-looking, maybe, to fully unsavory-like and ragged and presenting maybe some threat. The thing that really sucked was that this sharp blow was a blow for which he had no recall, since he’d it had taken place at some point behind that opaque whiskey curtain he drew over his mind each night.
The Snaggling had turned him into a sad piece of shit. Or, more likely: it had REVEALED to him and everybody else what a sad piece of shit he’d permitted himself to become.
He’d reached that fork in the road – go all-out and die a boozy mess, like his stupid father, or figure shit out and get a handle on this.
Which, on paper, is an easy choice. But in real life? Whole other thing. He’d have to haul his ass to those fucking meetings or whatever, and get some kind of real job. Go back to school, maybe. He was exhausted in advance by all the change he’d need to undergo. Just completely wiped out.
So obviously he did nothing.
Kept waking up on the floor of the bar, his faced waffled by the mungy rubber floor mats.
And trapezing from one financial crisis to the next, hitting up his step-dad for money every couple months, which felt like facing a firing squad every fucking time.
And things remained essentially hectic and stupid and shitty. And grew, of course, worse.
And he powered down shots and pints to try and drive from his mind The Snaggling. Except this was impossible, obviously. Because in addition to its being situated in the center of his fucking face, the busted stub of his tooth started to rot. He’d killed the nerve, or whatever, so even though he was hyper-diligent brushing and so forth, the jagged stump yellowed and turned brown.
After a few months, he had this speckled and slanty little chisel thing where a tooth should’ve been. Needless to say, he’d stopped smiling, at first because he wished to conceal this jutting little tusk, then later because he concluded on a more or less permanent basis that there was nothing to smile about. Like literally – he couldn’t think of a single fucking thing.
And he settled into a trough of habit and hatred and pointlessness, his life little better than a parade of face-plants and escalating fuckups.
And then The Snaggling started to blacken and hurt like a motherfucker.
So he finds this dentist who’ll take cash to pull the thing, which is all infected. This dentist smelled of gin only halfway metabolized and went to dental school in Grenada or some weird island nation. This hulking and fat-fingered waste case of a dentist – the only one he could afford – kept pumping these gin clouds into his propped-open mouth, making him gag on last night’s gut-load of whiskey.
This sketchy dirtbag of a dentist, as he’s yanking, tells him how lucky he is. Tells him how if he’d waited any longer on this extraction, the infection would have claimed some of the bone in his upper jaw. Tells him he’s just in the nick of time and super lucky. He’s a lucky, lucky guy.
He pays at the counter, sliding a meager stack of worn and wilting bills through the slot in the glass that looks bulletproof, and griping a little bit that the fat-ass didn’t even write him a prescription for something good like Vicodin,
He lights a cigarette on the cracked sidewalk out front of the clinic, even though the dentist just now told him not to smoke for the next few hours.
He tongue-stabs the blood-throbbing, pulpy hole and squints at the sky.
A lucky, lucky guy.