Y’know, I complain about everything because complaining suits me, and I’m alienated from most everything because that’s my nature. But it’s a frivolous and tiresome way to be, considering I’m a white guy in America in undeserved good health. I’ve seen and done a lot of interesting things, and right now, when loads of smarter and better educated people than me are barely making ends meet (or aren’t making them meet at all), I’ve got this cushy-ass office job that pays me more than a single guy needs to basically come in here and sit. But still, it’s all too easy to get caught up in my own shit and exaggerate the things I never had, and all that bonny crap…
What brings it to mind, almost every day, is this old guy who I always see during my last smoke break. He’s the busboy at the Chinese deli downstairs, and he’s gotta be 60 or 65 years old. He’s as frail as a bird, with thin little arms that look like they’re made out of balsa-wood, and he has a long sallow unhappy-looking face. He’s always out of breath because of his job, so I can see he has only a couple or three teeth in his mouth, but even if he had a full set of choppers he’d still be a homely little sonofabitch by our culture’s prevailing standards. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t speak English—he’s only grunted when I’ve said hello though I’ve heard him rattle on in Chinese with his coworkers. I never see him when he’s not working—he’s always straightening up the tables or stocking the cooler—and come 4:15 he has to stack up the aluminum tables and chairs on the patio, and then he drags that day’s garbage down the street and around the corner to the whole other side of the building, where the dumpsters are hidden. It takes him two trips, hauling these giant plastic trash cans brimming with refuse almost a full city block, while all the office workers with their nice clothes and laptops and gym bags make sure to dance their way around him.
I can’t blame them, I’d do the same thing—treat him like a pothole and jump right past him—if he ever got in between me and the subway when I was getting off work. But when you observe his routine day after day for a while, it’s impossible not to wonder how he views the situation. There’s an art academy a couple blocks south of here, and around this time of day a stream of students comes trickling down this way heading to Market Street, and lot of ’em are these 20-something chickadees who’re all just cute as a button. Is the busboy like me? Does he check the young girls out, too, even resignedly and from a distance? Does he even notice the office workers? Does he resent their jumping past him, or wonder why it is they get the laptops and nice suits while he has to haul the goddam garbage down the street and get in everybody’s way? Is he even half as bitter or discouraged as I’d be in his place?
At one point in Junior Bonner Steve McQueen says about his second-place lot in life “Someone has to hold the horses”, and the only thing that makes the thought bearable is the fact that most of life’s horse-holders are out of our sight, tucked away somewhere that lets us promise ourselves they aren’t too miserable or too tuckered out from the day to enjoy their loved ones, that something in their lives makes their existence worth the unholy grind. Carlos, the guy who works in the taquería by my house, told me once that he makes so many burritos he wakes up in the middle of the night to find his fingers making a rolling motion. Once I had a job I used to dream about, too, but I was fresh out of high-school then, with my whole wide life before me; Carlos is a full-grown man with a son already in middle-school. If I sometimes resent the distance between myself and Brad Pitt, what the hell must Carlos feel? And what goes through Brad Pitt’s mind when he sees someone like the Chinese busboy? Success at that level must come with its own level of dread, and I’m not saying that just because I hope it does.