The curly-haired boy thumps in a dino t-shirt and Nike shorts up from the warm suffocating oven-like downstairs with its childlike stuffed animals to the silent bedroom and the laptops humming on the desk and its surface of wood hidden by tchotkes, and pushes through the piles of watched blu-rays, searching for the quick sale, ignoring the roommate’s questions of unnecessary curiosity, through eBay and Craigslist and ecommerce apps growing on the mobile phone toward the silent girl tapping her fingers on a black cushioned chair and smiles at her and looks at the eyes from the girl at the dining table of his home.
“We need you,” they say.
I falter when I hear that. I hear that I am needed, and my heart tickles. A burst of serotonin has touched my brain, and my reaction is to want more. I want to hear that I am needed, and I’ll do anything to hear people say that again.
So what I am doing is making people feel like I am needed?
This is the addiction of work and jobs. The reason why people can’t pull away. They want to be part of something, something greater. And when people call for help, our instinct inside says, go for it, let’s get more of that
It’s risky, because I know that it’s not what I want. But then I hear that I am needed, and I stay. How can I deny that they appreciated me? How can I say that I don’t want to help you anymore? How can I deny that people would suffer if I wasn’t there? There’s a superiority complex and unhealthy dependency at play.
I see it clearly. But I say that I will go. Eventually.
When I hear that, I want to respond, “But you can too!”
Everybody can, I think. I don’t carry luck. It wasn’t within me to have the opportunities appear to me.
You can too.
“That’s not a vice!” a manager after I told him my only vice: sugar.
I always recount that moment, because I felt embarrassed that I had no deep dark secrets like smoking, drinking, or porn. Nothing that the public would be happy to shame without regard to individuality. Sugar? Everybody does it.
But earlier this year, I agreed to help out a startup where I knew some people from previous gigs. It fulfilled one of my requirements for freelance jobs: working with people I know. And it also fulfilled another important one: impacting people beyond the 1% (at least in the near term).
Their pitch: We help people with chronic conditions. Starting with diabetes.
Going into this, I barely knew anything about diabetes. Beyond what I know that Stacy from The Babysitters Club endured. Yes, my grandmother did pass away due to complications from diabetes and my grandfather did have type 2 diabetes for the longest time. But I didn’t know much beyond besides the fact that during special dinner, my mom would say “just have a small piece of cake” to my grandmother. Just a little bit.
And so I dived into the project. Because of my role, I spend hours upon hours talking to people with diabetes. I ask them who they are, what they do everyday, and why do they do that. I take time to understand their choices, their behavior and their motivations. And in it, I hear cries of help, sadness, but hope always for the future.
One said to me, “I want to live happily for the next decade. I don’t want to be an old person.”
Silently with a sympathetic smile, I nod. I can’t truly empathize beyond understanding now what my grandparents had to suffer.
But then all the words, all the statements, all the facts that I learned start touching what I do everyday. In food, I always believe in moderation. I don’t believe in diets. I believe in enjoying what we eat—it should be treated as a pleasure of life, a privilege of being human. Yes, have that piece of candy. Yet, have that piece of cake and ice cream. I believe in savoring delicious food, to extend its lifespan as much as possible on the tongue. I believe in eating slow and being choosy about ingredients.
I have always rejected the guilt that comes with food. Just eat what you like and don’t eat what you don’t like. But perhaps that’s the rub. I have rarely loved bread or even most carbs. Nowadays too, I don’t like the sweetest things, the syrupy headache-inducing things. I love things that are sweet and fresh. Juicy and fruit.
But learning about diabetes and becoming aware of how my body reacts, because that’s what these people do. They feel the sweats, they feel the exhaustion, they feel the headaches when their glucose levels are too high and low. I am moving beyond sympathy and can feel it in my body. And the worry increases. Maybe I will pass out too? Maybe I will have a seizure? Maybe I won’t be able to see?
There’s a phenomenon for this, of course. The kind that doctors regularly get when they listen to their patients. Be cold and distant is probably a defense mechanism. But I can’t do that. In talking to people with diabetes, I want to be warm and welcoming (unless of course, they’re tricking me and pretending to have diabetes just to be part of the studies). So I am there, listening, constantly listening. Then I eat and think: did I eat too much? Will my pancreas fail on me?
But my head feels fine. I see vividly. And the tiredness is due to the heat or probably working all day. I am okay, right? I am okay.
“Maybe stand over there,” I said, pointing at the balcony that overlooked the lobby of city hall. “We need more candid-looking photos.”
My sister and her fiance looked over the railing. I pressed the shutter button. *Click* *Click*
Then I heard a familiar voice come up behind me. “My car got towed,” my dad said. “I need your help. It’s at Mcallister and Market.”
I gave the camera to my sister and told them that we’ll have to meet them at the restaurant. I started walking down the stairs and started asking questions. Is that an intersection? Is that where all city government towed vehicles go? What would get your car towed? Aren’t we usually very careful about parking in the city? How was that possible?
My dad explained that he called the number posted on the sign. He didn’t know why the car was towed. I listened to it and got lost in the complicated numbers. Then he asked the security.
“I don’t think that there’s a garage at McAllister and Market,” I said. “I know where the impound lot is.”
How can anybody not miss the snazzy Autoreturn lot across from the Hall of Justice off of Bryant. Not only did it have a well-designed logo that suggested that the service of getting towed was swift and happy, but it suggested that people got their cars in a happy fashion.
I pondered asking Chris to drive us there, but time was not on our side. And unfortunately Lyft was not on my windows phone so I called an Uber. With calmness, I led my dad to the car and I accepted the surge charge. My dad never had experienced a rideshare and slipped into the front seat. I chatted briefly with the driver who expressed sympathy at the situation. And we arrived at the building. Bulletproof glass greeted us. It separated the common folk and the workers. Nobody else was there beyond the employees. My dad rushed to the open window, explaining his plight—he was there to see his daughter get married and he didn’t see any signs that would suggest that a car was towed. “There’s nothing you can do,” I whispered. “I learned this from a friend. You can’t plea here. You can only plea in court. The best thing to do is pay the fees and get out of here. You might be able to get the fees reversed later.”
And so the fees were paid and a man handed us a slip through the bars to get the car. Everything was in perfect condition, a newly purchased car that my dad proudly chose a month prior sat among other law breaking cars. A ticket sat underneath the windshield blades. “I can’t believe it!” he exclaimed.
“Maybe you can argue in court,” I said. “That’s the best thing you can do. But the best thing right now is to return to where you parked and determine if there was a mistake in the ticketing.”
with guidance from Waze, we returned to the scene…of the tow. I stood in middle of the former parking spot, examining all angles. The sign at the front, the sign at the back, the meter. But there was nothing. I waved my hands in defeat. From every angle, the sign clearly stated no parking between 3 and 7 pm. The anti-gridlock laws of San Francisco. “I didn’t know,” my dad repeated. “We got here before 3 pm and we have a handicapped sign because your grandmother came with us. I didn’t know that we couldn’t park there.”
After more than three years of commuting on the caltrain to various jobs, I have gotten used to it. It’s how I sleep, how I pack in my writing time, the method by which I catch up on Twitter and Facebook, browse endlessly on articles, fill up on people watching.
It is my time. But there’s still part of me that hates it. The fact that I am stuck on a metal tube hurtling down and up the peninsula to a career far, far away. But the thing is people have done these for years, for decades even. Popular in the east coast to move from state to state. To be the bridge and tunnel people. But in this modern era, I am the road warrior, on a train, among the hordes of young professionals headed to an open office layout full of snacks and drinks and treadmill desks.
I never see people my parents age on the caltrain. Perhaps because I take the rush hour trains—the ones that stop every 15 miles or so, skipping the stations with little demand.
This morning though, there was a woman, wrinkly skin, oozing anxiety about finding her stop and understanding how the train worked. We were in the bike car, so everyone was a cyclist hoisting bikes and helmets, except for her of course where she filled a nearby seat with Caltrain material—the schedule, the announcements, etc. She asked questions to a nearby passenger and responded to each answer with a grateful “Oh thank you so much”. In between the lines, I heard I appreciate that you listened to little old me, I don’t know how I could survive this day, it’s scary to me
Sometimes I wish that I wasn’t filled with so much apathy, sometimes turning into cynicism and self-righteousness, as I ride this train. Having embodied all the social mores of riding the train. Get up before the stop. Say as little as possible. Don’t stare. There’s a strangeness in this because it’s as if we’re together, but we’re not. I don’t even know who is riding with me, except for the recognized bags, the jackets. Occasionally, I see someone I know. But the whole ride up and down, I am silent, save for the “excuse me” when I bump into someone. Keep eyes down, get off the train as quickly as possible, exit. And whoosh, the passengers leave the car, walking to the exits, arriving faster there than by car.
As she approached, I realized who she was—the girl from a birthday bonfire. She and I agreed through a Facebook group message to help our friend prepare for Burning Man by testing their shade structure. She and Chris were crying materials over to the spot we found at the panhandle. I grimaced upon recognition. I helped everyone move things into place. Then we paused as we took a break from the moving. “Hi, my name—” she said and stretched out her hand.
“We met earlier,” I said and then the words slipped out. “No babies.”
“Yes,” I said and could not stop. “That’s what I remember the most about you. You don’t like babies.”
“Oh you mean having them? That’s a weird thing to remember”
“Yes…” I said and shifted the subject. “Hey, how shall we get started?”
But the slight bitterness stayed with me as I recalled her criticism of people having kids. We were talking about a mutual friend who couldn’t make it because she gave birth recently. “Why would you want to lose your freedom?” she said aloud to nobody in particular. “You can’t travel. I don’t think that it’s good. I can’t believe that they decided to have them. I love my life and think that other people shouldn’t have to give that up.”
I was silent then at first. “People change and want different things,” I mused, but I could feel a twist inside.
“Yeah,” she said and turned to me. “Why would anybody destroy their lives like that?”
I ate a marshmallow then, stuffing my mouth so I wouldn’t say anything more. After the bonfire, that’s all I could talk about. It was the second time in less than a year that I heard anti-children sentiment from people. And this time, it stayed with me.
On the panhandle, we hauled and hammered rebar, stretching pipes across them, and throwing tarp over the pipes. And as we did that work, a small child wandered over, curious about the construction. He barely reached my knee and said nothing. His strut was awkward and unrefined. He outstretched his hands and his mother asked whether he could play.
“Come and place your hands on that pipe,” I said.
He didn’t really quite listen to me, but he placed one hand on a pipe. His face collapsed into a big smile and chuckles fell out. “There you go!” I cried as I lifted the pipe and his hand “pushed” it upward. “Wow, we really needed your help. Thank you so much!”
The boy jumped up and down, clapping. “Thank you,” his mother mouthed as the boy ran back to her.
Chris tells me this, without any pretension.
“I don’t know if I want to be a zombie,” I say.
I have thought about this carefully. That one day, I would want to sign a DNR order. That in case of the zombie apocalypse, perhaps caused by a vegetarian type food like quinoa, I would prefer to survive. And if bitten, I would rather die than to cause others the pain of my own bites. Chris said that he would join me. “Wouldn’t it be great if we were eating people together?” he says.
“But then I wouldn’t be myself,” I say, thinking of rotting skin and my mindless head, devoid of any of the Jennifer personality beyond the general weak constitution.
“Okay,” he agrees. “But just believe me when there are zombies. Don’t disbelieve me like all those characters on TV and movies. Believe me when I say that there are zombies. We will need a safe word.”
I wrote that as a note in a draft of a story.
The act of shoplifting is cold and distant, because the core concept is the idea that things are taken away from a mysterious being. The being that owns the shop. and that being even if it’s a real family isn’t visible. It’s distant from the things that stock shelves and the people that run the store. Buying something, stealing something isn’t as visibly wrong as mugging someone.
So what else is? Is anything that is done through the Internet that cold and distant? The idea of an online dating service which at its core could be seen a meat market. Or just the idea of a man absent from a scene where the only interaction is through a machine. Isn’t that cold and distant?
I am actually nearing the completion of my book, and it terrifies me. I am admitting it.
It has been the excuse for many things. To freelance instead of committing to a full-time job, which has been a great decision. To give me the headspace to write. To have ice cream, talk about it constantly, and wonder what else I could do to make the book better.
But it must come to an end. Partially, because I made a commitment and it would disappoint myself so much that I couldn’t follow through. Flakiness is not within myself (although tardiness is prevalent). I always…eventually…show up.
A year ago, this whole project paralyzed me and I often laid in bed, wondering what I was doing. Twisted underneath the blankets, the enormity of the project weighed down physically on my body. The expectations, the rejection I got from publishers, and the unknown. But somehow I came to terms with it and I woke up. I sought help and slowly finished it. And now it’s really here.
What if all it takes now is to walk to the door and open it? Then close it with a satisfying slam. It’s done, I yell, it’s done, I whisper, and that doneness ripples through my body wrenching a familiar feeling away. Then I think: what’s next?