I blame science fiction, and all the various ideas of consciousness that it contains. You see, for much of my life I’ve struggled with a fear that goes something like this: Sleep is essentially equivalent to death. It’s a break in consciousness. So when you go to sleep, you basically die. The “you” that wakes up tomorrow isn’t actually you, any more than a clone would be. It’s just picking up the dropped thread of consciousness where you left off, the same way you are picking up where yesterday’s version of you left off. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll still be around tomorrow, any more than watching someone else’s home videos makes you that person.
The logical, if absurd, conclusion to this philosophy is that all of us are only alive for a single day. Remember the song? “Sha na na na na na live for today, hey hey”. The only things that you will ever experience before you “die” are what you’re going to do today.
It’s a very seductive theory, and there’s a bit of evidence to support it, but I’ve had to convince myself to let it go. First off, truly believing that today is the only day that I will ever be alive is a terrible incentive to skullduggery/adultery/aggravated-assault/impulse-purchasing/ZX-14R-wheelies and the like. Secondly, it’s hugely depressing on the days when nothing good or interesting happens. Consider today, if you will. The weather was miserable. Work has been annoying. And then there’s my usual $7.27 lunch at Jimmy John’s Subs. But wait! Today wasn’t entirely worthless, because I got to make other people unhappy.
Given the choice, I wouldn’t even be in the vicinity of my local JJ’s between 11:45 and 12:45. That’s when every single one of my fellow emasculated cubicle monkeys (and open-workspace bonobos!) stops “doing email” long enough to trudge down the street for a seven-dollar lunch. This isn’t a punishment to us; it’s a reward, because a lot of office drones in downtown Colulmbus can’t leave their desks at lunch and have to suffer the indignity of paying JJ’s to send a bicycle messenger with their sub. Those people are worse off than medium-security inmates at the prisons fifty miles south; after all, they get to step outside and walk to lunch.
My walk to Jimmy John’s always takes me past a weathered-looking fifty-something black guy who pretends to be homeless. He sells the “homeless newspaper” which is printed on a weekly basis and donated to the indigent, who then are supposed to sell it and in thus doing acquire some dignity. They’re not panhandlers, you see — they’re members of the media! I’ve stood there and watched his street sales pitch, a magnificent piece of performance art that threads the thin line between being pathetic and being rather menacing, depending on the age and sex of his pigeon du jour. He’s quite good and he earns more on a daily basis than other pretend members of the media, such as the average contributor to The Drive.
This guy is out in rain or shine, selling his newspaper. We’ve grown close over the past few years, based on a multi-faceted mutual understanding that works like so: I don’t buy his stupid newspaper. He doesn’t ask me to buy his stupid newspaper. He doesn’t laugh at me when my knees give out right in front of him and I tumble to the ground like I’ve been tripped by a vindictive ghost — this has happened three times in the past two years courtesy of my repaired left leg. And, finally, I don’t mention to anybody that I occasionally see him at Tim Horton’s in the morning, enjoying a nine-dollar breakfast to start his long day of pretending to be homeless. He’s not homeless. In fact, I’m pretty sure he owns a late-model Acura TL with Technology and Advance packages, in slate grey.
When he saw me today, limping down the street towards the sub shop, he raised his eyebrows at me. He knows I’m too smart to go in there during peak hours. But in this instance I was the mere puppet of my schedule, and in truth the line wasn’t so bad. There were six people waiting to order ahead of me, and they all finished in a hurry. I nodded at the young lady behind the counter, who knows my order and does not require that I speak it aloud.
There was a line of people waiting to get their subs. They were all holding empty soda cups. I was also holding an empty soda cup. I looked past the line of people to the soda machine. There was nobody there.
Since I’m kind of a Starfish Alien and my super-power is pattern recognition, I immediately understood what was going on here. In the minds of the ten or so people ahead of me, their Jimmy John’s experience was meant to follow a certain pattern:
- Order meal
- Receive cup
- Wait for sandwich
- Receive sandwich
- Walk to soda machine
- Fill soda
- Eat meal
This is perfectly reasonable as long as all aspects of the line are moving at the same pace. But when the sandwich-making line is running a bit slow, as it tends to do around noon because they are making the to-go lunch orders and the delivery orders as well as the meals which have been commissioned locally, then the sandwich reception becomes a bottleneck.
So I walked around these ten people who were holding their empty soda cups. I walked to the soda machine. I filled my cup with ice. Then I filled it with soda. All ten people saw me do this. Then… almost as one… they bum-rushed the soda machine. The first fellow to get there was a corporate vice president right out of central casting. Six foot four, ruggedly handsome, wearing a topcoat. He tried to shove his cup in front of me while I was still getting the plastic top for my cup. I contrived to “accidentally” swat him in the face with the plastic top.
My antagonist flushed with anger and I could tell that he would have liked to punch me in the face. The problem for him was that you don’t get to a VP position in a major corporation if you’re the kind of person who punches first and asks questions later. We looked at each other for a long primate moment and we both correctly concluded that he had much more to lose than I do in any potential confrontation. So he settled for a kind of subvocalized snarl. I gave him the blankest look possible then put the cherry on the top of my satisfaction by shoving him unceremoniously into the soda machine with my right shoulder as I walked past him back towards the sandwich counter. There are moments when I take a real pleasure in being a lower-middle-class piece of human garbage with no career prospects and this was one of those times. While Mr. Vice-President bent over to pick up the cup he’d dropped, two other people went around him and started passive-aggressively bumping and shoving at the soda machine. It was anarchy, bro!
The whole interaction was beyond fascinating for me. I think it perfectly encapsulates the transitional state of modern middle-class American society. Nobody was paying attention. Nobody was thinking about the process. Maybe they all had more important things on their minds, but I attend a lot of corporate meetings and I’ve yet to see any evidence that anybody at any of those meetings does much thinking during the day, whether in the lunch line or elsewhere. Once I “cheated” and demonstrated a better way to operate the process, however, all sense of decorum was immediately abandoned by all parties in a rush to arrive at the soda machine first.
A practiced student of game theory could model this situation and show all the different scenarios/costs/potential actions. You could argue, for instance, that I’d actually “cut” the first person in the sandwich line. Had he received his sandwich while I was filling up, he would have found me in front of him. I’d have felt bad about that. But as things turned out, the first person to get to the machine behind me was actually third or fourth in line. He was just the quickest person to realize that he could do what I’d done. He was also obviously the tallest and most successful person in line.
I don’t think that’s coincidental. We live in world where most fortunes are made by recognizing an exploitation potential faster than someone else. Whether that’s in tech, real estate, Bitcoin, the market as a whole, or the law. I’ll give you an example. There’s a fellow in Columbus who was an apartment builder. He was searching for a competitive advantage. He looked at the laws governing condominium developments and he realized that they were much less rigorous than the laws governing apartments. So he stopped building apartments — and started building condos. Then he created a property management agency to rent those condos while the owners weren’t using them.
Turns out that 100% of the owners of these new “condos” wanted to rent them out. Can you believe it? And at least 10% of those condos were sold at a discount to trusts that operated on behalf of various Ohio lawmakers. So despite the protests of pretty much every consumer watchdog group in a fifty-mile radius, the good times never stopped rolling. After ten years or so, his competitors caught on and started doing the same thing. It was too late. Our protagonist had already bought the good lots. And his house in Naples. And his fractional jet share. Meanwhile, the “condos” were starting to fall apart. But it was the owners, not the builder, left holding the bag. I met the guy once, at a party. He struck me as a cross between Charleton Heston and a barracuda. One of the most unpleasant people I’ve ever stood face to face with. Nobody would mourn his death. Not even his family. But let the record show that he is worth more than $200 million and I am worthless to everybody but my son and the sales staff at Paul Reed Smith, Inc.
My pal with the homeless newspapers affected mild surprise to see me come back out of the Jimmy John’s so quickly. I winked at him. He turned away from me and started applying the inexorable pressure of his presence on two frightened-looking Millennial office workers in casual khaki. One of them stuttered excuses. The other started fumbling in his front pockets, hand shaking. I had to smile. Game, as they say, can recognize game. I strode away with the limping swagger of a lightly wounded Roman centurion. Maybe this is the only day that is allotted to me after all. I could live with that. Maybe it’s enough. Like the lady said, I got my feet on the ground and I don’t go to sleep to dream.