4.12 / December 2009

Be Your Own Boss

Before getting fired I’d never measured how much empty time makes a day. I’d spent years writing blogs on the company’s dime, leading dozens of made-up lives with their own careers and diseases and hobbies, and all those voices I had to keep speaking carried me through each eight hours of work and through five days of the week in which enough tasks and chores piled up at home to last me the weekend. And now, with seven of seven days free? Without those extra lives to occupy mine and at home every day to keep up with the house? I’d always worked at one job or another and though I’d never enjoyed it, that’s what I knew. As often as I might have imagined winning the lotto and quitting my job, now that I’d come closer than ever all that shapeless, idealized freedom had lost its appeal.

Working at Second Nature was boring and I didn’t do very much while I was there, but I knew what I was meant to be doing whether I did it or not. I had a title and a boxful of cards to confirm it. I knew exactly how much time I had in each day for projects other than those I was paid for and I could rely on not being bothered for as long as I sat at my desk. Now, with no desk to sit at and all the time in the world to myself, I was overwhelmed by my options –who could I steal time from now?

I spent days and then weeks sprawled on the couch or on the white carpet floor of my white living room, following the stuccoed swirls of the ceiling around and around with my eyes until its pale blur assembled into a daydream. The tie I’d pulled off upon coming home that last day coiled on the floor between coffee table and sofa, and I imagined it rising snakelike to dance on its tail, or trailing into the air like a long slender ribbon or one of those prayer flags I’d seen on TV.

I stopped wearing shoes and I let my beard grow and was shocked at the gray it contained. I’d never gone more than a few days without shaving, and didn’t expect the pale stripe that emerged like a ski slope on a forested mountain. (And if it was a snowy stripe then, it’s a whole frozen forest all these years later, hanging like a bib to my belly.) In the dormant screen of the TV set, with the living room lights out around me, my reflection was reduced to only that stripe and if I moved my head back and forth I was smoke passing against the night sky of the screen. My hair grew shaggy and the more time I spent on the couch and the longer I went without washing the more pronounced and persistent my bed-head became. I looked like I’d been caught in three or four gusts of wind blowing in different directions at once.

I watched animal shows with the sound turned up loud but the brightness down low, and I pretended my couch was in a faraway jungle as some baritone narrator described my place in the world. I hadn’t watched those shows very often before, and I’d never spent much time outside except walking from the front door to my car or across parking lots, and I discovered that the world of lions and zebras, of penguins and baobab trees and deadly piranhas, was more exciting than I’d ever known. I wondered if I’d missed the boat on nature, and if it was too late to do something about it.

As time passed and I went without washing, without changing out of the foul shorts and T-shirt I’d had on forever, I started to stink then I went beyond stinking to something new, a sharp tang I’d never imagined my own body capable of producing. It was almost an accomplishment, I almost felt proud, like my commitment to inertia was coming out through my pores. And I thought I smelled a little bit wild, like the jungles I was listening to on TV would have smelled if broadcast technology were more advanced.

I daydreamed without interruption by the ping of an incoming email, and spent unbroken hours following unguided thoughts through my head. My bills were all paid by automatic withdrawal so I had no idea how much money was going out or had come in as my severance pay from Second Nature. I ate when the idea of a meal crossed my mind but I never shopped for more food. Soon there were only forgotten canned goods at the back of the pantry and a refrigerator door full of condiments orphaned there over the years. One night it was creamed corn with instant gravy, the next cranberry sauce with parmesan-flavored flakes. I was driven to eat by curiosity as much as by hunger, wondering how one thing might taste with another. When I finally exhausted the two jars of bacon bits I couldn’t recall ever buying, I was disappointed because they went so well with everything; that was the first genuine, recognizable feeling I’d had in a while.

When I was working I wished for free time and daydreamed of how I might spend it. Traveling abroad or wandering the streets of my city, learning to paint or to sail or to decorate cakes. Now, with nothing but time on my hands, I didn’t know where to start and it was simpler to not start at all. I had no more interest in finding a job than I had in anything else, and the couch molded itself to my body as my mind molded itself to the time.

When the landlord began to leave messages, I knew my money was gone or at least that the rent had stopped getting withdrawn from my bank account. The phone company called, and the electric company, too, but I never answered; I let all their warnings and threats spew into the room from my answering machine’s tiny speaker. It was only a matter of time, I knew, until the lights and the TV went dark and until the landlord came knocking. I should have done something about it, but I preferred not to. I watched and I waited in part because I didn’t know what exactly to do, how to respond apart from getting a job to get some more money to get the bills all paid again, but also because I was curious what really happened to someone who stopped paying rent. Would my utilities actually be turned off, and after how long? I’d seen these kinds of things on TV but never in my own life — I took the consequences of being a deadbeat on faith just like the existence of snowballs and blue whales, and the surface of the moon not being green cheese, and because of that faith I’d always paid my bills and my rent and invested for my retirement like everyone else. But now that I was up against it, against eviction and severed phone service, it wasn’t as scary as I’d thought it would be. After weeks on the couch doing nothing, it was even exciting to worry if the landlord’s appearance would break up the routine of my days.

And he did come, I think, in the dark while I tried to remember the myriad ways in which the swirled ceiling caught light and shadows when there were light and shadows to catch. When I moved into my unit in the apartment complex, I was annoyed by those bland textured whorls and longed for smooth plaster, only to discover their vast complications when I gave them the time they deserved. There was a knock at the door, and another, the scraping and clanking of keys but none sliding into the lock. I heard a guttural curse then heavy battering both high and low like someone punching and kicking the wood. The door rattled and the front window shook but I didn’t get up. If they were coming in, they were coming; what difference would it make if I stayed on the floor or sat on the couch or opened the door to greet them as my liberators? Then the noise stopped and the quiet came back. I returned to recalling my ceiling by daylight, then daylight returned and my ceiling became its old self again and I tried to remember where night’s shadows had fallen across it and eventually I fell asleep.

Days and nights I wandered the web, reading a few words on this site and a few words on that, watching videos I’d forgotten as soon as they ended. The only email address I’d ever had was for work and I found that I missed getting email — not reading the email, not the requests they delivered or the work they demanded, but the simple pleasure of a new message arriving and the promise-filled moment before it was read. So I made myself an account with a free online service and I signed up for mailing lists and listservs and weekly coupons and anything else I could find that promised to fill my inbox. I spent hours with the computer warm as a cat in my lap while I watched movies and infomercials and all the nature shows I could find, and I read every email that came in. I read the spam, about growing my penis and firing my boss and saving Nigerian princes; offers of drugs just approved for the market and invitations to test those that weren’t; genuine college diplomas and ads for DVDs that would teach me how to quickly get rich selling get rich quick DVDs. I read all of it. I looked for patterns and secrets and codes. I read between the lines, I looked beneath the strategic typos and awkward word choices for signs of human intention — I tried to locate the person behind the machine that randomly assembled those texts, the personality behind the promotion. Sometimes they seemed to be written for me, when the arbitrary, half-sensical subjects referred to events in my life or came from names I recognized, and I wrote back as if we were friends. I told Nigerian princes to hang in there, their family’s fortune would be safe soon, I was sure, they could trust me, I had a good feeling for them. I told lonely, horny young women their princes would come in due time, perhaps from Nigeria, and I gave them each other’s email addresses to help the connections occur. I wrote quick notes and long letters but none of my correspondents ever replied. Until one night who knows how many weeks into unemployment and how many hours away from eviction, an email arrived in the deep part of morning, an email sent out to the whole nocturnal world but aimed directly at me:

Are you a quiet, contemplative nature enthusiast available for full time employment? This is the opportunity you have been waiting for and thought would never arrive. We offer a competitive salary and excellent benefits, including all lodging and meals. Daydreamers and introverts encouraged to apply. May we assume you are interested?

So I replied only with “Yes,” a single word email cast into the night like a desperate bottle tossed asea from an island, with just as much hope of reply. And then I read some more spam and wrote to more princes and fell asleep as the dust-crusted blinds of my dreary apartment began to glow orange again.