Friday, March 11, 2005

by Steve Kostecke

For a year before I left the States I wore a nametag that read Hi, I’m Jack while working as assistant manager on the afternoon shift at an extremely large corporate supermarket, whose name I want to forget. A manager gave me the tag my first day on the job (when I started as stock boy) and told me to go to Human Robotics to get the name changed (meaning Human Resources). I told him that this robot had no need for that. John happened to be my middle name, nicknamed Jack, and like a lot of good folk I went by my middle name instead of my first. None of this was true but what did it matter. Human names didn’t matter. The nice big barcode tattooed on my forehead that automatically bleeped each time I entered and exited the workplace, that was what mattered.

There was a reason I worked at an extremely large corporate supermarket: I had graduated from an extremely large Midwestern University (whose name I want to forget) with a degree from their humanities department. I did not understand at the time that there was not much of a buck to be made in the humanities, or in benefiting humanity, or in general in being part of humanity. My employment options were just the same coming out of the Big U as they had been before going into the Big U, except now I owed a small fortune to a student loan corporation. (That right there was the most enlightening part of my education.) I didn’t know what to do about this. I could have continued along the educational conveyor belt in those hermetically-sealed classrooms and earned a master's degree in something like creative writing--and learnt how to write like a writer is supposed to write--but instead I dropped out and learnt how to write the wrong way. I started writing a zine. If you were into the zine scene of the late 90s you may have heard of it: I Ache Therefore I Am. It was a per-zine, meaning a personal zine. I wrote about my daily painful existence. Waking up was a pain, getting out of bed was a pain, spooning oatmeal into my mouth was a pain, so on and so forth until going to bed was a pain, which was actually an extraordinary pain because of how painful it was trying to fall asleep with all this pain. At one time I had as many as five dozen orders for my zine after one of its appearances in A Reader’s Guide to the Underground Press. I considered this a big success. Why anyone who didn’t know me would care about my daily life was way beyond me.

I moved out of the house where I had been renting an expensive room near campus and moved into a one-room apartment on the outskirts of my university town. This apartment happened to be within walking distance of a certain large corporate chain grocery store. I had no car and so I applied for any opening there out of sheer desperation. Desperation is good--for those who aren’t desperate. Like a good little drone I sold myself into wage labor. I took a position as a stock boy and spent eight hours a day stocking shelves with products that provided the customers with the illusion of freedom of choice. They were wowed by the fifty-two varieties of salad dressing--so wowed that they never caught on to the true choice staring straight at them: buy more or buy even more.

The hours of braindead busywork made my shift fly. Before I knew it, it would be eleven o’clock and 5A77K (or whatever my barcode identity was) could return to its regeneration quarters. The problem was: I began to degenerate in my down time. Those things existentialists talk about--like angst and anguish and forlornness (knowledge of this comes with a degree in the humanities)--they rocketed inside of me. I felt like I had lost all potential through a very large barely-perceptible con, and that all I had ahead of me were even furtherly large cons of the same imperceptibility. To top this off, I was reading far too much Beckett than was healthy for me (I admit now that I was a comparative lit major). Texts for Nothing became the literary anthem of my corporate chain grocery store days. How can I go on, I shouldn’t have begun, no, I had to begin. This type of rumination made me require a few stiff drinks each night in order to slip into subconsciousness.

I started to lose contact with the people who still called me by my real name. They were down near campus. I was out in a burb. I decided to make an effort to get to know my fellow workmates better in order to see if anything clicked. We were of different classes but I didn’t see how that could matter. I brought two slips of paper with me to work one day, and whenever I had the chance I handed the first one to whoever I could. On the front it said: Where does Superman go shopping? (please turn over). They turned it over and read on the back: At the supermarket! The workmate laughed or not, and then I took the first slip back and handed them the second slip of paper. On it read: Where does Batman go shopping? (please turn over). On the back was: In actuality, Bruce Wayne was a rich capitalist and never needed to go shopping. He would merely make a list of things he wanted to be bought and give it to his manservant, Alfred, who would then carry out this laborious task for him. I then took this second slip back and asked which one they thought was more hilarious. Nobody--and I mean nobody--appreciated the Batman one. A couple of my workplace equals even told me that it was not a joke at all. This forced me to explain that it was a joke in being not a joke, in a cool zen kind of way. Get it now? They shook their heads at me in pity. One fellow wage-slaver, a black guy, picked a can of food off the nearest shelf and held it near my face. "See this can of soup?" he asked. "Well it’s not a can of soup. Get it?"

I got it all right.

Steve Kostecke is a member of the Underground Literary Alliance where he edits The Slush Pile, the ULA's zine. He also publishes very engrossing oneshot literary zines of his own such as Auslanders Raus, Asian Kix, and Seoul in Slices. A Detroiter, he currently resides in South Korea. Contact him at skostecke (whereit'sat) hotmail dott com.

No comments: