Volume 21, Number 4

Room at the Top

G. D. McFetridge

So it was like this: How could I break loose from the containment factor, release the master parking brake—you know, kick loose and escape that D-9 bulldozer that’s behind me pushing for all it’s worth. Pushing like a wave of karma, fate, ill fortune or whatever terms you’re comfortable with. But aside from smoldering under the weight of destiny, part of it is the health issues, all the big and little problems that creep up on you over time and get tangled into a giant ball. For twenty-five years I weighed somewhere around 150 pounds, and I could run like a gazelle, run five or ten miles at a stretch if I wanted to. Matter of fact, when I was thirty-three years old, I still could still knock out a mile in just over five minutes. Jesus got spiked at age thirty-three. Is there some kind of mystical connection here?

Nowadays I drink too much vodka. Weigh 180, and I feel cumbersome and heavy.

First came the asthma. Came right of nowhere while I was in the middle of a bad cold. It cut my lungpower down by a third, and I didn’t have any health benefits.

The young woman doctor—I think she was from India—put a stethoscope to my chest and listened, then offered a professional furrowing of her brow. “How long have you had asthma?” she asked.

“I’ve never had asthma.”

“You got it now,” she said.

Asthma, for chrissake? I couldn’t believe it. Then the allergies started and after that the arthritis and basal cell skin cancer. I mean no one ever took me aside and said, “The sun is wrecking your skin, young man. Stop running around half naked all summer long, stop sunbathing!”

I worked outdoors in my twenties, surfed, hiked, biked and lay out in the sun. Sunshine was holy and good, golden nourishment for body and soul … I didn’t have a clue. The government was busy protecting me from all the things I didn’t want to be protected from, but they never ran public-service ads warning dopes like me that I was irreversibly damaging my skin and risking various skin cancers … and melanoma for chrissake.

And here’s the funny part—not funny-ha-ha, but funny as in odd—my grandfather on my mother’s side is French-Canadian and he’s five-eighths Chippewa, or so the documentation says. He married Grandmother who is one-fourth Cheyenne, so that makes my mom almost half-Indian and me almost a quarter-blood. Mom didn’t like being stigmatized as a “half-breed redskin,” residue from the small-town bigotry where she grew up, so eventually she began telling people she was part Italian to explain away her darker skin and her jet black hair. Although my dad, good solid Scots-Irish top to bottom—the Kneelands and the McKettricks—was so taken by her striking looks, high cheekbones and flashing dark eyes, I don’t think he gave a shit what she was. Plus I’ve seen the old pictures. Mom had a great figure back in the day. But anyway, I don’t fully understand how genes and genomes function—scientifically speaking—however, in spite of my dose of Native American blood, my ass is pure alabaster white, I have hazel-green eyes and light-brown hair, and you would never suspect I was anything other than good old western European stock.

My sister, on the other hand, is dark like Mom—and I can remember, in grade school; she was two years behind me—how kids would tease her and say she was a Mexican. Back then we lived north of the border by about a hundred miles, and there was definitely a downside to being mistaken for a Mexican. I hate to admit this, but there was a period during my teenage years when I told friends my sister was my half-sister, you know, to distance myself.

So … getting back to the original subject. What is with that containment thing anyway? I can’t precisely put a finger on it, and I can’t make up my mind if the problem is inside of me, or if it’s inherent to the world in which I am trapped. Let me clarify that. A man is in the dark and all he knows is that something smells like shit. And it’s always smelled like shit as long as he can remember. Eventually he decides—lacking any substantial evidence to the contrary—it must be he himself who stinks, because what else could it be? And in this way he becomes the target of his own accusations, his own finger pointing and self-hatred.

“My life stinks, I stink, and it’s my own fault, and no matter what I do I can’t escape the stench,” he says to himself.

But then one day in the midst of this darkness, a light shines down from above, as if somebody has flipped a switch, and what the poor bastard realizes is that he’s up to his armpits in a cesspool—so of course he smells like shit. And the entity with the magic light reaches down and snatches him out of the sewer and says, “Go to the river and cleanse yourself, head to toe, and you will never smell that stench again.”

Seriously. You do get what I’m saying, right? Either I’m all fucked up or the world’s all fucked up, or it’s a combination of the two. This is the total circumference of the problem.

The other approach is to ask where all that sewer came from in the first place, and how did I get myself in up to my armpits? Was the cesspool innate to planet Earth, the universe, innate to life and the human world … or was it a byproduct of circumstances, of arbitrary conditions, or was it somebody else’s intentions? I’ll remind you that we’re using sewer water as a symbol here, so don’t get anal retentive about the details. Okay?

I can tell by your facial expression and body language that we’re not connecting here. So let’s try this from another angle. The first thing I like to do is divide my observations of reality and the world into logical opposites. For example: you have light and dark, and absolute light is the farthest end of the scale in one direction, and absolute dark is on the other. It’s the same for temperature: absolute zero on one end and absolute super-heated atomic dissolution at the other. We also have something like order versus chaos. And of course, philosophically speaking, each of these dichotomies is the opposite side of the same coin, yet in that sense they are also interdependent. Light cannot exist without darkness acting as its comparative juxtaposition. Right? It’s the same for losers and winners.

So … I look at myself in the mirror, and I see a failure, more or less. No big career (I’m a middle-aged mechanic at the local car dealership), no wonderful wife and kids, no money to speak of, no house or land, just my own tired face in that mirror, living day-to-day and doing shitwork. And trust me, being an auto mechanic is basically shit. It’s dirty and greasy, uncomfortable mindless repetitive work that leaves you with grimy fingernails and the whiff of oil and burnt carbon clinging to your skin. Plus don’t forget about breathing too much brake-lining dust—there’s a sure way to get lung cancer. And I make a lousy 30K a year with no benefits. That ain’t no party-time lifestyle, although there are plenty of people who got it worse than me. But I know for damn sure that I’m a lot closer to the bottom than the top, even though I’m smarter than you might think and have a pretty good vocabulary.

Not to mention, watch how fast this whole goddamn country comes screeching to a halt when there’s nobody to fix the cars and trucks and buses and every other mechanical thing with an internal combustion engine and handfuls of gears and bearings and seals and … well, you get what I’m saying. Try growing your own wheat, try mining your own coal. Because if rich people couldn’t hire poor people, then they’d have to take out their own garbage and unplug their own toilets—and of course fight their own wars.

You see I’m not stupid, and just because I’m stuck being an auto mechanic who can’t even afford a house doesn’t mean I’m some kind of second-rate human. I had my daydreams, had lots of them. I wanted to be other things, and I think I could’ve been if things were different, but then that’s where the containment factor comes back into the picture, the invisible walls and what I said about that D-9 bulldozer pushing me from behind.

Because it seems like to me, looking back on my own life, that every time I tried to steer myself from one path and to another, I ended up back on the very road I was trying to escape—I mean come on, what’s with that? The apologists will say, “You made choices, you’re responsible.” But I want you to really think about something. If a man or woman, all things being equal, actually chooses losing over winning, then we need to wonder about the content of their mind. Why would anyone freely choose to be lesser than greater? Unless of course something was wrong with the mechanism of choice. The other possibility is that some people are programmed to fail. Then the question is, who did the programming? And I’ve heard some people say that slavery in America never really ended, it was just given a new name—employment.

I already know what you’re going to say. I’m my own worst enemy, I suffer self-defeating behavior, I’m neurotic, I’m manifest self-fulfilling prophecy, etc. I admit, I once bought into that BS too, and that’s why I looked at myself in the mirror and pointed a finger at myself, that’s why I hated myself, because I figured it was my fault. Some people are winners, and others are losers, and I’m one of the losers. Case closed. I don’t deserve to be a winner.

So let me tell you about Rooster. His real name is Roberto Morales, and in his spare time he raises chickens and fighting cocks, so that’s why we call him “Rooster.” He’s close to twenty years younger than me, but old for an apprentice—apprentice mechanic that is. And he’s Mexican, has too many gang-style tattoos, drinks and smokes too much, but he’s one of life’s true characters. He has dark, intense eyes, and you can see in his eyes that he’s thinking, always thinking, trying to understand things and find some way out of the big maze. The first time I met him I figured he’d had a hard childhood, I saw it in his face. Probably got kicked around by a drunken father, poor as dirt. A fuckin’ Mexican (that’s what the white boys say behind his back), gangs and drugs, living in racist Southern California—the whole bit.

But he’s not dumb, no sir, not by any means. Sure, he’s uneducated, just like me, but he’s got a damned good brain, and he thinks about life in ways other people never even dream. And he has an aura of kindness about himself, in his voice, in his tone, and the way he shows respect and tries to understand how it is for the other guy. He’s conscious of his position in life, knows the pecking order, realizes his limitations, but he also knows that he could have been something else. He said that to me once, when we were talking about how things are.

“Jorge,” he said (he calls me Jorge), “I know the way it is … I’m an ugly Mexican (actually he’s handsome in his own way), and white people are afraid of me, and they don’t want us Mexicans here, but I know I have it inside me, and I could have done a lot of other things … maybe I still can.”

I nodded. I understood what he was saying—more than understood it, I felt it, but I also saw those invisible walls closing in around him, that big bulldozer pushing, relentlessly pushing from behind along that same old road. Rooster has hope, hope he can break loose from the containment, the walls and the order of things. But I’m beginning to think that neither of us can break loose, we’re stuck here for the rest of our lives. Or so it would seem. And the only question left … is there any honor in this resignation? Will our heavenly father make it all right in the end? I’m sorry, but that don’t work for me. Call it a weakness, I guess.

Because here’s the catch, the earthly dilemma: Is there room at the top? For Rooster, for me, for any of us natural-born losers? I think it’s something my father once said: “In America anyone can become a millionaire (this was back when a million was a lot), but not everyone can be a millionaire—there just ain’t enough money to go around.” The logic of his wisdom was not lost on me, even though at the time I was only fourteen or fifteen.

There’re a lot of people just like Rooster and me, stuck doing crappy jobs and never having a chance at a better life, no chance to ascend. Some people are born on home plate, and they’re busy bragging how they hit a home run. Rooster will never live uptown, never have a nice professional job, and I’ll never be anything better than a greasy mechanic. Maybe never is too strong a word, but in truth it’s about the same odds as winning the mega-lottery—what are the chances really? You see, unless I miss my guess it’s like this: America has ten losers for every big winner, or maybe it’s a hundred losers, but whatever the case, in order for one of us losers to start having a winner’s life, we got to pull one of them winners down to where we are. We got to swap lives, change places so to speak, or else we got to figure out how to recreate the whole culture and society in such a way that everyone gets to be a winner. But then that’s not very Darwinian—not very American. What are the chances of that?

I remember when I was a kid, about eleven, twelve, or thirteen maybe. Me and Terry and Tommy and Cliff played Monopoly all summer long. We’d hole up in my dad’s garage and battle it out for hours. We played by the rules for the most part, but we also made up rules to suit ourselves, to govern the fine points of the game. Sometimes we’d get into arguments over the rules, because of course they’d change to fit the circumstances, change to tip the balance of power. Tom and I were the smartest, so we could usually manipulate the rules in our favor, and if a dispute got out of hand, we had BB guns, and the Monopoly game would turn into a shootout. Seriously. We were tough kids. Ultimately I won most of the games, for two reasons: first, I was clever at skewing the rules to my own advantage; and secondly, I was the most vicious when it came to the shootouts. In the game of Monopoly, I was a winner, but apparently the skills didn’t carry over into real life.

Here’s another recollection: One of my good friends is named Dexter, and he’s Scots-Irish just like me, only he’s a pureblood, so to speak, and we went to high school together. He’s a hell of a good guitar player and singer, and he writes his own songs; he’s also a construction worker—union carpenter—and he’s good at what he does. Much like me, he’s been around a while, and because he works in a labor union he can “boom out,” as they say in the business, which means he can sign in at the local union hall in a different city and get sent out to work. So what he does, to make the real money, the overtime money, is head out to Las Vegas. In Vegas, where a lot of big motels and gambling casinos get built, the billion-dollar corporations are willing to shell out some heavy green because there’s a shit-load of profit to be made. I mean, opening up a casino/motel is like drilling an oil well—once the strike is made, the money rolls in like a goddamned biblical flood.

My pal Dexter—actually we all call him Dex—has a friend, and his name is Steve, Mexican Steve among the good old boys because he’s three-quarters Mexican. Dex and Steve like booming out together because they get along well and don’t mind sharing a motel room when they’re working. In Las Vegas, on a big job, there’s lots of overtime, and the overtime makes it possible to pay a weekly motel rate and still come out ahead. So that’s what they do. Although what Dex told me about the last job they did in Vegas, was that they got stuck on a job with a real sonofabitch of a boss. He was one of those old-school bastards whose theory of labor management was based on fear, intimidation and constant bullying. The very thing unions were suppose to protect against.

As an auto mechanic, I could have tried to get on a union job, but they were pretty scarce, only the fancy places like the Volvo dealership or BMW, and if you weren’t related to somebody or hooked up, chances of getting in were slightly above piss-poor. But anyway, this boss—Kevin somebody—didn’t realize that Steve was Mexican until Dex and him showed up on the job. So to punish Dex, who had done the talking to get him and Steve hired to begin with, boss Kevin put Dex on baseboard, the wood that goes along the bottom of a wall along the floor line. Dex is an older guy like me, and being on his hands and knees all day long wasn’t easy, but he did what he had to do.

Meanwhile, Steve was put on another job and boss Kevin dogged him relentlessly, just looking for any reason to fire him. Dex and Steve had to bear it, because, needless to say, the union wouldn’t intervene, even after Dex phoned the business agent and explained the situation. Eventually, he told Kevin to fuck himself and walked off the job; Steve hung with it because he had a wife and kids and couldn’t afford not to work. Dex told me that the union was nothing but a hiring hall with benefits, and since the days of Reagan and his union-busting policies, working union didn’t mean shit—the philosophy about a man being able to retain his dignity in the workplace was a distant memory. Nowadays it’s down to sucking ass and playing by the rules—their rules, and their rules are pretty brutal.

A long time ago, when I was naïve and went into the army to do my duty as an American citizen, or at least what at the time I perceived was my duty—a yes sir, all right now good citizen who gonna fight commies and Iraqis and whoever else—all us recruits took a test, an intelligence test, which I suppose helped the army people figure out what to do with each individual, cannon fodder or some kind of specialist. One of the sergeants during the later stages of processing took me aside and informed me that I had scored really high on the test, although the look on his face seemed to suggest he was puzzling over whether or not I had somehow cheated, or perhaps gotten amazingly lucky. To make a long story short, I was eventually dismissed from my military adventure because of a medical condition that I won’t bother going into. It’s not a life-threatening thing, just something the army didn’t want to deal with or worry about.

And to this day I still wonder about intelligence tests. There’s SAT tests and IQ tests and tests to see if you get to be a doctor or lawyer or a whatever. But who makes up those tests, and have any of these test makers ever created an intelligence test that they do poorly on? Think about it. If I made up a big fancy test and flunked it, I’d be tempted to remake the test, or something. Because I was thinking about what Rooster had once mentioned to me, about how he was told as a teenager that he wasn’t very bright because he messed up on some important test. And from that point on he believed what they’d told him, at least until he was old enough to question things for himself.

From my standpoint, Rooster has a very sharp mind. He understands a lot. It’s just that he understands things from a different kind of perspective. How many types of intelligence are there, and do tests really measure the total spectrum, or do they just measure a slice of things that fits someone else’s agenda? I wonder about that.

All this aside, Rooster had a story about a job he was on before he got hired by the outfit I work for. It was another auto repair shop, and Rooster was a new hire. His boss was born in Puerto Rico, named Mario, and you might think that one “Latino” would be decent to another Latino, seeing how they were both caught in the white man’s game. But not according to Rooster. Mario treated him like some sort of second-rate human, always talking shit to him and making him feel like he was an idiot.

Rooster said to me, “Man, I could have gone off on a guy like that—I mean, hey, Jorge, he disrespected me every chance he had, and no matter what I did or tried to do, it wasn’t good enough. It got to me, man.”

I didn’t know what to say, except to ask Rooster if Mario was light-skinned. He said, yeah, pretty much, and he had grayish-blue eyes. So I said, “Well, Rooster, unless I miss my guess, he’s working real hard to prove to his white boss that he’s just like him, you know, a man who knows how to ride herd on brown-skin motherfuckers.”

Rooster gave me an odd look, as if he wasn’t sure he was fully getting what I was saying; but then I think the light went on, and he got exactly what I was saying. Rooster didn’t know that I was part Native American. I’d never said anything about my background, but he looked closely into my eyes and said, “Jorge, you’re not like other white men, you’re straight-up in the way you treat people, people like me. You’re a good man.”

“Maybe I can relate better than you think,” was all I said.

I was honored by what Rooster had said to me, and he grinned then and put an arm around my shoulder and jostled me and gave me a manly sort of hug. I thought about explaining my own family history, but then I decided not to. I didn’t want to water down the moment. Because I really respected Rooster, and I understood his struggles, and despite the fact that I could pass under their radar didn’t change that—the bottom line was pretty damned simple: Rooster was a good man in his own right, a little crazy and rough around the edges, but then who wouldn’t be. I mean, try it from the other side, when you’re not sitting back in all your societal comfort and the fact that you’re part of the pretty people, the ones for whom everything just falls into to place. That’s right, get a good taste of what’s it’s like to be on the outside looking in, looking in your whole fucking life and never even having a hint of a chance of getting inside.

That’s double right—all you fuckers who ride in all puffed up on your privilege and background, all you bastards born with your silver spoons and your tickets to the fancy universities where they’ll teach you how to run the world, or if you’re one of the really privileged, they’ll teach you how to own it. But what have you really done? You just got born under the right stars, and the stars are out there in an empty void, and even if you assign meaning to those stars it doesn’t mean they have any meaning at all—it’s just a trick, like bullshit religion, like that pimp the Pope and every other pretender and liar who talks about pie in the sky—it’s just another way to convince the slave that it’s God’s will that you’re the master, and he’s the beast of burden. The bottom line is simple; one class does all the shit work while another class has all the good jobs and all the money.

Well, let me tell you what, people like me won’t stay stupid forever. Eventually we’ll all see through the fat big lie, and then … well, think back on the French revolution, when the sharp edge of the guillotine was the solution, the best way to get the attention of the lords and masters and their kings.

So anyway … back to that containment thing, that Karmic bulldozer, that Caterpillar D-9 pushing me forward. How can I become something other than what the world of humans has decided that I should be? I dream about a hundred things that I could be, yet the world allows none of them, except the lowest. I’m a dumb-ass mechanic, a zero, a social and monetary nothing, and the world moves on without me. The world doesn’t give a shit about me … and I suppose, in my darker hours, I wonder if the world isn’t right. Hey, I am a nobody, I am a zero, but there are other times when that’s not how it seems to me, not in my interior world; and thus the conflict: me against the world. The world of “them,” the ones for whom everything seems to go right—versus me, the one for whom nothing goes right.

I remember when I was a little kid, and Mom read me stories at bedtime, and one of the stories that stuck in my mind was the one about the emperor who had no clothes. Did you ever hear that story? Well … if you did, fine, and if you didn’t I won’t bother telling the whole thing. The truth is, I think there’s a whole boatload of people just like the emperor—they got nothing on, just an illusion that everyone agrees to buy into. That’s what I think about most of these so-called famous people, all the movie stars and TV personalities, the politicians, Paris Hiltons, Trumps, and all the other luminaries working-class people are taught to idolize.

But I say fuck ‘em. Give every regular guy his fifteen minutes of fame, and give all the famous ones fifteen months worth of hauling garbage or digging ditches or picking fruit. I want to see some of these privileged candy-ass bastards do what I do, or do what Rooster has to do, or Mexican Steve or Dexter. I want to read about some rich boys dying in coal mines or getting blown up on oil-drilling platforms, getting their asses shot full of lead in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Get out there and sweat and get blisters and broken backs and breathe hazardous dust and chemicals and die too young and every other fucking thing. Grab every sonofabitch at the Oscar Awards and put a pick and shovel in their lily hands and kick ’em in the ass, and if they can’t hack it, throw the bastards under the bus. I know … I’m getting carried away.

So … Rooster and me are walking down the avenue, and we see a couple corporate dandy dudes in their suits and ties, with their fancy eighty-thousand dollar cars and downtown seventh-story condominiums, and so we say hey motherfuckers we want to trade lives with you two pretty boys. Why don’t you come and do our shitwork jobs for a while, and we’ll take your jobs. We get your BMWs and your Barbie-Doll blonde trophy wives, your big credit cards and your golden parachutes, government bailouts, and all that other good stuff.

One of them runs his fingers back through his hair, smoothing his seventy-five dollar haircut. He glances at his buddy, and they both give us looks and laugh and keep walking, like we’re a couple dumb-ass jokers vying for their good humor. Rooster elbows me in the ribs, and we exchange a look of our own … because it’s pretty damn clear, at least walking here on Park Place Avenue, that unless we pull out pistols and blow their fucking brains all over the sidewalk, there ain’t no room at the top … right?