Barstool Jockey

March 5, 2010

There are some things you can’t talk to people about unless they already have experienced something similar. Actually, there are a lot of these things, and generally all of the people who have gone through them agree on the salient points. Find a group of young mothers and ask them about the experience of childbirth. Meet a group of former alcoholics and listen to their tales of quitting. Talk with some paragliders, or some surfers, or some X sport enthusiasts, and marvel at how much they all seem to agree on things related to that activity. Repeat ad nauseum.

Then there are travelers. They all have had wonderful experiences, incredible adventures, and shitlow days where nothing seemed worth a damn. Pretty much every one I’ve ever met has expressed their heartfelt desire to do as much traveling, wandering, exploring as they can in this life, and how they can’t wait for the next town/country/trip. None of them want to have a career, relationship, or situation that interferes with their wanderlust, at least “not yet.” Nothing is so important, so drawing, so engrossing as this crazy lifestyle they’re all stuck in, and it’s a secret that none of those poor working stiffs at home will ever understand because they just haven’t been here, haven’t felt this.

Then the travelers all go home, get steady jobs, fall in love, and get married. They pop out kids, take out a mortgage, buy a car, and they’re set in a completely different orbit. It’s like a rite of passage – go out there, see that there’s an alternative to the life you led, live it, love it, be changed forever, swear to never go back and get stuck, then go back and get stuck. Oh, and tell your stories – the ones that mean so much, the ones that shaped your entire life – to a bunch of people who will not get it, will never be quite able to understand what the fuck you’re talking about, nor why you keep telling the same tales over and over as the worry lines spread, as the drinks come one after another after another. Former travelers and bar stools seem well acquianted – like strippers and dollar bills, like rice and beans.

Not surprisingly I have no real desire, even at this late hour, to become another barstool jockey with that old fire dying. I’m sure I could settle down, get a respectable job, and start slowly dying – if I’m not careful, that’s less possible and more inevitable. It takes a lot of work to remain free and mobile. The thing is, there’s no profit in freedom, adventure, rabble-rousing, or doing anything that don’t sell other things. There’s a way for me to fund my travels, probably forever – travel writing, hawking bracelets or artwork or small gizmos to tourists – but I can’t be fucked with to do that, because to me those things are just a different level of the same soul-salesmanship that epitomizes modern existence.

How much is your life worth? That’s the real question being asked when you look for a job, and answered whenever you accept a paycheck or do anything for profit. How much am I willing to sell a chunk of my existence for? For most of us, that isn’t much. When I worked in Honduras, it was $5 a day, plus a bed in a concrete hovel and three squares. In Guatemala about $200 a month and all the leftovers and booze I could sneak. Was I happy with it? No, not really. Not when I thought about it. Thing is, I didn’t think about it much because the other rewards of my life – being in amazing cities, swimming in phosphorescent seas, watching volcanoes erupt from my rooftop and living in foreign lands surrounded by amazing strangers – all made up for the shit pay, and on top of that, life was cheap as dirt. The ability to leave town right now, no notice beyond “I quit”, no more time required than packing a backpack and walking to the bus terminal – none of those hurt either.

Now I’m back stateside and the question looms but the answer is going to be a little more problematic. The rub is that I’m losing every perk – the sense of adventure, the foreign travelers, the ability to tell my future boss to shove this job up his ass as I walk. I’m facing a looming mountain of credit card debt, an awful job market in a city I’ve never really enjoyed living in, and I’m going to lose my biggest advantage, which was being from a far-off land surrounded as all of the foreign travelers and locals that sustained me through the rough times. In Central America everything about me was as exotic, wild, and different as I wanted it to be. My flight and inability to stay put were seen as assets – my refusal to put up with bullshit jobs, my dirty clothes and scruffy look were all admirable to those around me. I was desired, looked up to, praised for my lifestyle. Once I get home I’m nothing – just another post-college bum, broke and hungry, with an awful resume and a useless college degree. Stories and adventures aren’t looked too highly upon here. To say I’m not looking forward to it would be like saying cattle going into the meat factory weren’t much looking forward to the future either.

That’s why I’m think about that former traveler, lined, resigned, fire dead inside, sitting quietly on his barstool. In the near future I’ll be him, unless I’m careful. It shouldn’t be so god damned difficult to live without selling yourself, without giving up your values, hopes, and dreams for a dollar. Especially when that dollar is just going toward the things you need to live.

Who really profits, when it comes down to it? Those business executives, the ones everyone hates for their massive salaries and crazy bonuses are working 100 hours a week straight from school to heart attack, going through their divorces, never seeing their children until they plop over spent and dead. They’re not winning. The burger cooks and maids and strawberry pickers get the shit hours, the family problems, the health destroyed, and don’t even have the pay to show for it – they’re definitely not coming out on top. What about the guy in the middle? He’s working all day, gets his two weeks off, might even be able to skip out of town to go skiing once in a while. Still, he’s underwater on his mortgage, going further in to pay for little Jimmie or Juanita’s college in a couple years, doesn’t get to see the piano recital or the ballgame, and is one paycheck or a broken muffler from falling into poverty. I don’t see him coming out on top either.

Perhaps the guy doing best is the one sitting on a street corner in ragged clothes, singing to himself as he watches everyone rush off to their deaths. He might be the only one who sees the joke. I mean, people are GIVING him free money sometimes, pitying glances, and he’s the only one free to do as he pleases – it would make Kafka smile. Sure, he’s never going to have the nice vacation home, he’ll never get to visit the fancy restaurants, and he certainly won’t make the “25 most influential people of 2010” but have you seen how much Barack Obama has died in a year? The man has aged a decade and a half since he began running for the office! Every action has a price, every movement, everything we do – I’m halfway, barely joking about the bums profiting most from society being as it is. What use is there in having so much, so many nice things, if you spend all of the best parts of your life striving for more, for better, so that you can spend the dimming years in relative, threadbare comfort?

Why not just live yourself ragged, die a few decades earlier, and have something beautiful to show for it? A successful shoe company? A lifetime sales award? Employee of the month? A BMW and a stamp collection? ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?! What use is any of that, what value can it possibly bring you? A poem written on a torn-off piece of a cardboard box has more value in it than any of those things. A kiss at sunrise on a rooftop – priceless. The look a girl gives you as you help her pick up the spilled items from her purse is worth more than any CEO’s pay can buy. There is nothing good, nothing valuable, nothing helpful that comes from the work 99.9% of us do, and yet we all carry on, all push ahead, so that we keep consuming, multiplying, dividing.

Isn’t that what a cancer does? Pushes on ahead, grows, spreads, regardless of the health of the organism or of the system? Perhaps human society has gone cancerous. Perhaps we’re not good any more, have become the very root of the problem. Granted, we need to survive, but does DSL cable, fast food hamburgers, or suburban sprawl really even out against the destruction necessary for any of it? You can’t have modern America if you don’t have modern Haiti – the two must coexist or neither can. Sub-Saharan Africa, for all her woes, is the Siamese twin of Los Angeles, Beijing, and Rio. Those of us on the upper end don’t see it much, but every excess, every luxury we have comes from somewhere else – somewhere there are children starving so that kids in America can eat greasy french fries. This is a zero-sum game, just like selling your time for money, but at much larger scale.

There is X amount of Oil, Y amount of water, Z amount of arable farmland. Every resource has a true value balanced against a limited quantity, and that reality of limits must factor into any discussion of worth. If we factored in the true cost of burning one gallon of the only fossil fuels we have, fossil fuels that cannot be replaced, do you think it would really cost $3.50 a gallon? $10 a gallon? Give me a break – how much do you think the last gallon of oil will sell for? The same can be said of clean water, just look at the water wars that Bolivians were going through a couple years back! Likewise for everything on the planet – at a certain level there is a finite quantity of everything we depend on, because we only have this planet as yet – until we start mining the universe for raw materials, that is a fact.

If we were smart we’d start thinking about what we really need to survive – not video games, not new clothes, not the latest iFuckstick – food, water, shelter, power, medicines, community. Those are things we really, truly need, and so of course those are the things that have such ridiculously suppresed values. Growing food isn’t glamorous, doesn’t pay well, and so nobody even knows where their dinner comes from. It’s cheaper to import it – labor from Central America, off-season foods from the Southern Hemisphere. The true cost of growing a tomato in Chile, packing it in a box, shipping it to the US, and then selling it to me in the middle of NYC should include the environmental impact of every step, just like the true price of one hour working in that dead-end sales job ought include the one hour less you have alive. Why doesn’t it?

For starters, such a revaluation would blow the shit out of everyone’s investments – what sane person would buy a house in the suburbs if gas sold for its real value? Who would ever work at or support one of those big-box superstores? Nobody. The US economy would collapse as the service sector was seen as the useless circlejerk that it is, and the world economy would follow. There wouldn’t be a market for luxury goods if we were serious about saving resources. There would be no fall fashion, no seasonal sales to pump up the numbers. There would rations – life would become a whole lot poorer, dirtier, labor-intensive. The US would have to stop consuming 25% of what the world consumes in a year. Things would be a whole lot less routine, and we’d have to start living as if our actions actually meant a damn thing. A lot could change, and to say it would unpredictable is an understatement at the very least.

That would be uncomfortable. That would be scary. Thus, everyone with a vested interest in the current order of things – be that a house, a fat 401k, or just a truck and an apartment in the city – has a stake in things staying as they are now. Or at least, that’s how it appears on the surface. The guys in the nice seats in front class, with beverage service and the hot air stewardesses have every reason in maintaining the current system right up until the airplane nosedives into the ground. Almost everyone in the US fits that metaphor – we’ll be doing great right up until our brains go through the ass of the guy in front of us. If we were smart, if we were looking ahead, if we thought about what we were really doing, we’d probably all sell our cars and plant a garden, or move off to a place less utterly dependant on scarce resources and imports. I’m not holding my breath…

The wizened old traveler slumps forward on his stool, the glass nearly empty in front of him. The barkeep, a fresh looking kid from another country, stands polishing a glass in front of him. “Another mack?” A shake of his head nearly sends the sodden chap onto the floor. “No thanks – I’ve had too many. We’ve all had one too many.” The bar is nearly empty now, the few remaining patrons all in shit shape and on their way out.

“Say man, whatever happened that stopped you from doing all that crazy traveling you talk about? It seems like you really loved what you were doing, and if you’re still talking about it now, you must regret giving it up.”

“I didn’t give it up – it ended because it had to. There’s not really any way to sustain that sort of life unless you’re born rich or get lucky and inherit some dough. That’s part of the tragedy of it all – you find this life, so beautiful, so rich, so utterly fulfilling and free, and then you have to go back to another one that you don’t agree with, that you hate even. You swear you’re only going to work until you can get out, until you can save up a bit and blow this joint, that you’ll never give in, that you’ll never sell out like all the other suckers.” A tilt of the glass, and it’s empty now.

“So what happened?”

“Same thing that happens to everyone. I fell in love, got stuck in the job. Once I had a kid I wasn’t going anywhere soon, and then the years just fly by with the drink. Now – shit. I don’t think I’d even know how to travel like I used to. You won’t find me wearing a backpack and hitchhiking, that’s for sure.”

“Pretty tragic.”

“You can say that again.”

“Pretty tragic.”

“Hah, fuck off! I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

“Take care of yourself out there.”

The old man staggers out, pauses with a hand on the doorframe and slowly turns back over his shoulder. “You think you’re different, that you’re young, and you’re smart, and you won’t fall into the same traps I did. You might be right, but if you’re going to succeed you need to be relentless – to follow what you want even when it doesn’t make any sense, even when it goes against everything your friends and family say, even when it nearly kills you. Eventually, it will kill you – doesn’t matter what it is, it will eventually knock you down and you won’t get up that time. Just make sure that whatever kills you is worthwhile. That’s the only way you won’t waste your life.”

And with that he’s gone, out the door into the misty night. The young bartender shakes his head, wipes another glass, and smiles to himself. Life goes on, and there’s work he needs to do. Why worry about the ramblings of washed-up old men?


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