Intoxicating The Public Auction
Writing about something that’s wrong, is surely just a matter of writing about personal taste right? I mean some things are very obviously wrong: paedophilia, murder, rape and in Belfast, the sight of teenage mothers walking in unison to the shops in their pyjamas in the middle of the day.
Personally, there’s little I’ve done wrong that I can’t persuade myself was actually right, if I try hard enough. Under the right circumstances, we can convince ourselves of anything we wish and we go to great lengths to justify actions that are clearly wrong. Raskalnikov’s majestic effort to persuade us of his legitimate reasons for killing the old woman in Dostoyevsky’s “Crime And Punishment” are testament of that: “Why am I going there now? Am I capable of that? Is that serious? It is not serious at all. It’s simply a fantasy to amuse myself; a plaything!”
Once, I was young, bored and working in a downtown office of Toronto’s financial sector. My official job title was “Return Mail Technician” at a telecoms company. In those days, hard drive archiving was in its infancy and my job was to sort returned mail, but also to locate customers’ correct addresses, send them their bill and store the new details on a database that was being built. I had a desk, but spent a lot of time in another room upstairs retrieving details off the gelatine-like sheets of purple microfiche. Looking out the window, a St Andrews flag fluttered away in the wind above a little church, a constant reminder of my exile from Scotland to Canada. The only visitor to the room other than myself was an old red-faced ginger guy called George. He would come in each day to peer out the window and check that the food vans were there on the avenue alongside the gulls, greedily awaiting the lunchtime hordes.
‘Oh yeah!’, he’d say , ‘Sausage and chunky fries!’, before scooting off to my relief. The diet of hydrogenated fats hadn’t exactly done wonders for George’s body odour.
My boss Colin, was a genuinely nice fellow. He ran a team that included myself and several others: Cornel, a friendly Jamaican guy, sat in front of me, Maria, a forty-something blonde, was behind me. Leliana from Belize, along with Colin, made up those in my immediate vicinity. Alongside us but separated by cabinets were the other members of the team. We were all besotted with paperwork doing back office duties for the company. Every Friday, one member of the group would be on duty rotation to bring in a food of their choice to share with the others. Cornel was an excellent cook and often brought in his famous home made spring rolls, whether it was his turn or not.
The passport to progression through the company’s grey corridors was an MBA and I was growing increasingly weary pushing my rickety microfiche trolley through them. A friend tipped me off about a job in a local film company and with my previous experience as a projectionist, I made a successful application, much to my relief. I gave Colin my two week notice who mustered an: ‘…at least your moving to your own field’. The corporate script was in use in all its weighted diligence..
They were scrambling to get a new body in for me to train. To be fair I hadn’t a clue what I had been doing and was even convinced I’d accidentally erased half the batch of records that were on the database one muddle-some morning. (Fittingly, it turned out that my departure day would also be my first and only day in the food rotation.)
To pass the time, I had been reading a book called “T.A.Z” by Hakim Bey in which he discussed a theory called “Poetic Terrorism” or “PT”.
“An exquisite seduction carried out not only in the cause of mutual satisfaction but also as a conscious act may be the ultimate PT. The PTerrorist behaves like a confidence-trickster whose aim is… CHANGE. Do PT for people who will not realize (at least for a few moments) that what you have done is art…don’t stick around to argue, don’t be sentimental; be ruthless, take risks…Be legendary. The best PT is against the law, but don’t get caught. Art as crime; crime as art.”
In light of my boredom with the world in which I was working, I could not shake these theories from my head and was fascinated by them. That my final day of work would fall on my first and only turn in the food rotation no longer seemed a stroke of misfortune, but was rapidly becoming an obsession with the opportunity to incite change.
Running tasks through the office each day, I had become aware of a curious balding man sequestered near the filing cupboard all on his own. He was always gazing at his fingernails picking at them and flicking all manner of flaky debris over his keyboard. If there was such a thing as corporate destitute, this guy had found it. He had all the trappings: the framed photo of his wife and newborn on his desk, the grey trench-coat, the dapper brown briefcase… Joining further dots might lead to the suburbs, a dog, a green lawn and weekly get-togethers with a few old friends to watch American football… – it was a reality conditioned by no change. I was on the verge of escaping the very fate that he was trapped in.
Soon, a cute new intern started and she sat nervously alongside me as I showed her the daily tasks she would be inheriting. I struggled not to ridicule them as I did so. I didn’t mention the accidental erasure of records, she’d find out soon enough and I would be gone. In the days that followed, she got the hang of things and I even introduced her to George who we disturbed unwittingly in the microfiche room peering out the window and talking to himself one day. It was a short visit though: the room smelled of pickled eggs.
When the Friday finally arrived, I came in with my tupperware of food and the team came together. Mariam, a statuesque Kenyan was the first to declare her hunger and there was a general excitement in the air. I opened my container and produced my brownies. ‘They’re, uh, home-made!’ I told them.
‘… AND extra chocolatey!’, said Mariam taking a bite. ‘Stu, these are wonderful! I will have to get that recipe from you, mmmmmm!’.
The others began to congregate.
‘One at a time now’, I joked. I left a plate on a table for those running late and they all disappeared for a meeting, while I ate my brownie. It seemed only fair. The cute intern had also taken one. I had timed things reasonably well. It was almost an hour later that they all returned.
Cornel looked sleepier than usual as he moved slowly back to his desk. The intern’s once timid approach had mellowed, but her increasingly glassy-eyed appearance had steadily evolved into spasms of laughter and tearful hysterics. Everything I tried to explain to her was suddenly a joke. In the increasingly comedic air, I noticed that Colin had been sitting at his desk in front of his blank monitor for some time. Maria behind me piped in:
‘Nice brownies Stu! Got any more?’
‘No problem,’ I replied. She winked at me knowingly.
Soon, following a particularly violent laughing fit, the intern excused herself to the bathroom. Quickly behind her, the tall figure of Mariam made a beeline in the same direction, running the final few steps down the hallway towards the ladies. I felt pretty out of it myself, but knew that some of the others had unwittingly scoffed “seconds”. Colin had disappeared and returned with a computer technician who inspected the station and watched as the monitor sprang into life.
‘You didn’t turn it on, Colin,’ said the technician as he walked away looking quizzically at him. The intern returned and remained straight-faced for five minutes before bursting into unstoppable giggling once again. She was in tears and kept apologizing.
Maria invited me for lunch and we had a game of pool and a beer. “I actually prefer the white stuff usually Stu,’ she told me. I laughed, wondering how the hell someone who seemed so normal could be turning out to be such a party animal. As we walked back to the office, I wondered if there was anything else she might be keeping under wraps.
When we returned, I realised I had forgotten about the colleagues upstairs and put the last two brownies on a paper plate. I thought about getting one to George but decided the poor guy probably had enough issues without needing any of my help. I headed up to where the “bored guy” was, but he wasn’t anywhere to be seen. His jacket and briefcase were there, so I knew he hadn’t gone home. I left the paper plate on his desk and returned downstairs. As the day’s end neared, my colleagues began to gather at my table.
Cornel stood there in a daze, his bloodshot eyes were almost shut. Maria sat there, happily munching a large bag of popcorn. The others all stood about looking weary. Colin led the send-off:
‘Well Stu, we wish you well,’he mustered. He looked drained. Cornel attempted a complicated handshake that I had difficulty grasping.
‘I dunno’ what it is about today man,’ he said. ‘It’s been uh…different and…it’s felt good!’
Maria laughed quietly between bites of popcorn.
‘Mariam had to go home,’ continued Colin, ‘but she said to say goodbye and good luck, as do we all Stu’.
I looked at them. None of them seemed aware of what had occurred except Maria. They were all harmless and for a moment I began to question what I had done. I thought of the guy upstairs and how he wasn’t really guilty of anything except perhaps, being dull and unadventurous. I hoped that on his train journey home he might find himself a little more drawn in by the visuals of the passing landscape than usual. I thought of how perhaps, after eventually peeling his face off the train window, he’d find that he’d already missed his stop. He’d have to explain that to his wife. But if perhaps for just one hour that train ride would provide a deeper and more pleasant escape than he might have previously known, then perhaps for that one day his public auction would be something sweeter than he’d ever experienced and he’d consider things he never before thought possible, like change.
As my soon-to-be former colleagues began to disperse, the little intern was getting the desk ready for her return on Monday. She looked at me as I packed the empty tupper-ware into my bag.
‘You want to go for a beer?’ she asked. I thought about taking her out and seeing what might happen and how that might be a delectable sprinkle of sugar on top of my departure, but I politely declined. I hadn’t the courage anymore.
‘Now Stu…’, said Maria who had evidently been listening in. ‘…if you think your just going to slink away after all that, then you’ve another thing coming.’
She grabbed my arm.
‘We’re ALL going for a beer and we’ll see what happens!’ There was a twinkle in her eye.
The wonderfully delicious thing about doing something wrong is that it feels so right. Hergé’s Captain Haddock character had legendary battles with the bottle, often illustrated by a duel between the devil and angel aspects of his conscience arguing over the pros and cons of drinking. More often than not the angel was left weeping while the devil laughed victoriously.
The point of my story is, however much our conscience flirts with the idea of what constitutes good or bad, ultimately, we often do what makes us feel good, whether that’s right or wrong. This basic human instinct is one that takes some effort to ignore. Some are afraid to explore and ignore their inner voice or are weary of repercussions. Surely whatever role it is our conscience may play, in the midst of the public auction, rightly or wrongly we’re all hedonists at heart…right?