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If I Ever Forget Thee, O Babylon
When the Revolution comes, Economic Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (EPTSD) will finally be recognized, added to the DSM-X along with Cyborg depression and Schizoaffective AI. For now though, homo economicus will have to wait for the same attention and couch space that homo sapiens gets. Dear future doctors, let me describe the symptoms. Chief among these is the sensation of being gripped and held in place until drowning in anxiety, a state of mind where one does not know what will happen to them. Release, or failing that, mercy from these fingers is all one can hope for. But there is also insomnia, poor posture, an aversion to spending money, shouting at broken copiers, and hoarding supplies in an office such as paper clips, pens, and glue sticks. Working in temp jobs is believed to exacerbate the condition, especially the last symptom. One never knows when the next blow will come and never feels they have gotten over the last. Often, there are no attacks, just a general sort of malaise. You feel like an envelope battered and torn, held together with tape and bits of scrap paper. The recession internalized and made flesh.
The causes? They are both abstract for all those who suffer and specific to the individual case. In my own condition, the troubles began like they did for so many other people my age, right before the Beijing Olympics and after the Inauguration of the Hope and Change administration. That period of time when it was “cool” to “feel” somehow “involved.” Most of you probably remember what happened then. An economy built on rotten spreadsheets and subprime mortgages came tumbling down and no one knew just how far we would fall. Unemployment ballooned, foreclosures increased, the price of oil spiked, and the cost of a bagel on the streets of New York City rose 25 percent, at least on the one corner I frequented near Bleeker Street and Broadway. This of course was a statistic specific to my life. Without a mortgage or retirement plan, though, this was how I first felt things crumbling. The bottom going out. The dream ending. There was talk of a slow down before I graduated that May. But it was a rumor then, an unconfirmed hypothesis. By the time fall rolled around, hot dog places were serving up recession specials and there was little doubt the market’s bony hand of austerity was stalking the land.
However, it is not the state of the economy by itself which breaks a person. Indeed, one might fall through the cracks even in an era of prosperity. Such falls are worse since they occur with less miserable company, fewer beautiful losers among the consigned. A recession or depression has that advantage at least. When one has crossed over, though, the pain ultimately remains the same. Headlines and charts alone do not induce it. They only serve as the swamp for the vector to breed in, a contagion where anxiety may find a home and mutate. It is ultimately one’s own experience which grounds one down. In my case, it took me from job to job, interview to interview, gig to gig, finally leaving me hopeless and desperate in front of a Criagslist ad which promised a paid internship in election security.
It seemed like a good match for me. A ray of sunshine, even. After the stormy passage of so many months spent trying to find work, perhaps this would open the proverbial door for me. It was only an internship, but it paid $1,000 a month. Plus, it would last three months total. $3,000. By itself, it would not pay the rent. I did have savings, and these combined with the promised earnings would give me enough to survive through the end of winter and into the spring. The position involved experience with data entry and an interest in politics, two things I had. The ideal candidate needed to be self-motivated and capable of working on his or her own, again, something I knew how to do. My last significant position was helping a get out the vote campaign in Brooklyn. I compiled information from our canvassers and used it to generate new lists of doors to knock on. By Election Day, I was supervising a whole team dedicated to making sure we contacted all the registered voters in the district.
The post told me to contact a man named Aaron in case I was interested. I was, so I did. I researched first to make sure he was legit. To Aaron’s cred, he helped with this. In the post, Aaron offered a link to a book he was consulted on, showing someone else thought he was an expert on election security. Confident, I wrote him an email, attached my resume, and sent them both. Within minutes, he responded, telling me to give him a call. Over the phone, he was excited to hear from me and decided we needed to meet in person. We debated locations until he settled on Café Esperanto. I was familiar with the place, and agreed. Aaron told me I was by far the most qualified person who had applied so far and that I should bring pen and paper in case the interview went well enough he could start giving me direction right away.
Aaron was ready for me when I arrived. He had transformed a corner booth into a makeshift office. There were papers spread out over the table, along with a laptop and cellphone. Powering the devices were chords which ran to distant outlets, much to the annoyance of the waitresses who had to step over them. I introduced myself to Aaron, then sat down and took out a notepad. Pen in hand, I was ready for his questions.
“Okay, so let’s just dive in, shall we?”
“Let’s see…do you have Skype?”
“No. What’s that?”
“We’ll have to give that to you.” Aaron opened up his laptop and started typing. I could see the screen reflected in his glasses. “How about Open Office?”
“I’m going to send you links to download everything you need. This way you can look at my documents. Which I’m sending to you now you in this folder. There.”
“I want you to familiarize yourself with the system. What I’m trying to do is develop software which can model attacks against an election, particularly one which uses machines. We input values and we get out a rough estimate of the likelihood of an attack and how much it would cost in hours and money.”
“Yes. We have to defend our elections. We can’t just trust the machines or the people who make them. Look what happened in 2000.”
His eyes widened. “Yes! Very good. I’m glad you know about that.”
“You are so smart!” The compliment softened me. It had been a while anyone made me feel intelligent, or that my decision to major in history was a worthwhile one. Immediately, all my doubts about the job and what I would be doing faded away. I committed myself to help Aaron and the cause of safer elections. It time, my faith in them might even be restored to the point that I might be bothered to vote again.
The duties were simple enough. The first was to research electoral bodies in various counties and cities and see who we could contact and interview. After Aaron approved my list, I needed to call the officials and arrange times to talk with us. When that was done and the conversation was underway, my role was to take notes on the specifics of the system used by the jurisdictions, whether they were Clark County, Nevada or King County, Washington. With the right numbers in hand, I could then edit the code in our program to reflect several different scenarios. If say, a county had 500 machines and they used paper ballots scanned into the system, anyone looking to compromise the results would have to alter the scanner and dispose of the legitimate ballots. If, on the other hand, the county used touch-screen machines that only produced receipts, one just had to fix the device at the onset.
At first, the job had an Ocean’s Eleven feel to it. We were like thieves trying to crack the mother of all depositories, the Federal Government. What better way to get into the vault than through influencing the guards sitting in front of it? There were times the two of us had to come up with completely Byzantine plans, purely hypothetical, of compromising the results of an election. A favorite I came up with was making it look like an election had been stolen, thus necessitating a do-over, which could help a candidate surging in the polls at the last minute before the vote. On occasion, some of the people I contacted for information seemed to think this was the business we were in, posing as consultants in order learn how to crack the system from the other side.
At this stage of the job, my contact with Aaron was done mostly through the computer, either over Skype, or using email. After a week, I was already starting to forget what he looked like. He became a disembodied voice rising from the speakers and filling the apartment. While I was out of sight from him, he enveloped me in the air, along with anyone else on a conference call. I made sure my microphone was off most of the time. I did not want him to hear me going on with the business of life in the background. It overlapped with my time at work. Since I was being paid a flat rate for the internship, there were no set hours to start and finish. By the time my second week with Aaron started, I had left the realm of nine to five and was approaching eight to six. I was worried about losing my free time, but I reasoned that I did not need the extra hours because I was not commuting, and I was lucky enough to have a job.
Aaron looked at the work we were doing and decided we needed to spend more time in person. We had to compare notes and toy around with the computer models to see what they did. He lived on the edge of Queens, beyond what even the subway could reach. I had to take the commuter rail to see him. I lived in Manhattan, so the walk to Penn Station to catch the train was not too arduous under normal conditions, even with a laptop. But, it had snowed recently, so there were icy sidewalks and intersections blocked by piles of plowed snow. I scaled and slipped my way around and caught a line heading out to Long Island. The ride over was uneventful. I admired the way the ice bent the wild grasses growing by the sides of the railway tracks, and caught my first glimpse of Citi Field. Along the way, I saw a church holding up a phrase from the Book of Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?” When the train pulled into Bayside, I got off and made my way up to the pizza place which Aaron lived above. It was a definite annoyance for him. Not because of the noise. Aaron was a vegan with severe gluten allergies and lactose intolerance. If he spent too much time on the ground floor he claimed he broke out in rashes and hives.
His living quarters were roughly as spacious as mine. They were messier, but only because he had more possessions. Papers, cushions, cups, and wires covered the floor and furniture. But it was his roommates which gave me the most difficulty. Against all city regulations, Aaron owned two ferrets, Brownie and Cha-Cha. As soon as he introduced me to them I immediately lost track of their names. It did not matter. Every time I visited Aaron’s apartment they would cause the same trouble. They were curious rodents and treated me like overzealous TSA agents, sticking their noses in my crotch, then trying to climb up my pant legs. Inevitably, I had to try and shake them loose, cognizant of their claws. Tenacious as they were, I was able to triumph with my hems and genitals intact.
During our first meeting, we discussed contemporary politics as much as how to steal future elections. It was a distraction which I welcomed. I got to offer my analysis and someone listened. On further occasions at his apartment, we tried to get to work straight away, interrupted only by Aaron’s attempts to introduce me to various culinary secrets. It was my first time eating quinoa, and a mixture of tahini and honey which Aaron claimed approximated the taste of halva. Aaron’s girlfriend showed up as well, though she never stayed in the kitchen with us for long. She was a high-strung violinist and was put off by me. Indeed, it seemed she was wary of any visitor in the apartment. She was good with the ferrets, and could calm them both down at the same time. It was a welcome relief and I was able to work ever more efficiently thanks to her limited appearances.
Most days, I did not have to commute and interacted with Aaron over the speakers of my laptop. Gradually, my eight to six job became longer in scope until I was working twelve hours a day. Thankfully I regained a sliver of morning to myself, but lost most of my early evening. At 9 a.m. Aaron would start ringing me up on Skype and I would have to listen to him and take notes until 9 o’clock in the evening. I should have complained. I should have made a clear delineation of when I was willing to work. But there was a recession going on. I was convinced I was owed nothing. These were my economic just deserts. I was fortunate enough not to have to work the same hours while taking the train to see Aaron every day. It did not matter if I stopped leaving the apartment because I was on call for so long. Any time spent away from work was unearned and uncalled for. That was a privilege which was Aaron’s to grant me.
By this time, I was three weeks into the internship. My roommate was now spending his nights away from home, living with his girlfriend instead of me. He still paid rent, so I had no reason to complain. I moved out of my bedroom and started to sleep on the futon in the living room. This way I would be ready once Aaron wanted to talk to me. One moment I could sleep on the crusty red raft, the next, I could be at my desk, hunched over my laptop and ready to receive Aaron’s words as holy writ. After a couple of days, I decided to cut this time down and eliminate the delay between sleep and work entirely. I brought the computer to the futon and started eating on the ersatz bed as well, combining all my functions into one total, seamless experience. Well, except for elimination. Solid waste disposal I had to do away from the workspace, but my liquids I could deposit anywhere as long as I had a spare container.
I did not own much, but spare containers I had in abundance, lined up against the exposed brick wall which faced my futon. Whenever Aaron went on a long digression, or had a conference call with several other consultants and experts whom I was supposed to listen in to without speaking, I made use of them. They were carafes once filled with wine from the clutches of Paul Masson’s vineyards. Whatever his principals once were, his successors definitely sold their wine before its time. I did not care though. True, the vintage was subpar yet it was cost-effective. Besides, I was left with glass vessels which worked perfectly for my present needs. When I felt my bladder about to burst, all I had to do was lift the cap off, sit the bottom of the carafe in between my legs, and then slip my member into the spout. After a few warm and foaming minutes, the carafe would be full and I would be empty. If there was more to expel, there was always another carafe. At the end of the work day, I then gathered them up and poured the contents out into my tub. They gave off a strange scent, like pepper mixed with vinegar. Besides work, I had other reasons to minimize my visits to the bathroom. I found the scene inside depressing. The tub was cracked, the mirror’s hinges rusted, and my roommate’s friends had broken the stopper on the faucet. It leaked and all I had to stop it was a wad of tinfoil which I used months before to cook a spinach pie.
Aaron’s calls started to involve me more once again, this time though, it was to help him with a new idea. No longer was he content with models of attacks for research purposes. He wanted to be a full-fledged consultant who could be booked for lectures. To do so, he was convinced he would need a presence on YouTube. My new task was to contact the math and science clubs of local colleges to see if Aaron could deliver a talk before them, one which I would record and upload onto the internet. It was my boss’ hope that once the world got to see the work he was up to, then the offers would start pouring in. I was hesitant at first, since I doubted the merits of the plan, and had not signed onto this task. I felt a sense of mission drift. We were losing our focus in favor of a new project unrelated to our current work, which was still not finished. A short while later, Aaron called me up with another new idea for me to pursue.
“I want you to look up these tag things.” His voice commanded from my computer.
“Okay. What things?”
“The link. Look at the link.”
Indeed, he had sent me a link in an email. I clicked on it and looked at what he wanted me to look into.
“They’re tracking devices for kids.”
“So,” there was a touch of frustration in his voice. “We can maybe put them on ballots, or bags of ballots to track them.”
“Yes. To sell. We can sell this technology to counties doing elections.”
“Whatever happened to the models?”
“We’re doing that, too. We’re doing everything. We’re touching all the bases here.”
A few hours later he called me on my phone. I was at lunch, trying to fill myself with calories at an Indian buffet so I could then hibernate back at my apartment.
I took my time answering. “Aaron?”
“Hey, I know it’s Saturday but I need your help.”
“Can you come out to Queens? Do you think you can actually come out here tomorrow, too?”
“Why…why would I do that?”
“Look, you have to help me. Taxes are due and mine are a mess. I got to organize everything. No Brownie, Brownie, no. Go play with Cha-Cha. Go.” For the first time in my life, I envied the simple, curious life of a ferret. They never had to worry about losing their weekends to work, or finding any work in the first place. “Don’t worry, you can take a break on Wednesday.”
“I haven’t had any time off since Sunday.”
“Just give me this time. Please? I swear I’ll leave you alone on Wednesday.”
I wanted to remind him he said the same about Saturdays. I refrained and soon left for Queens and Aaron’s lair. Why bother angering the boss? I would need him as a reference and I needed his money. Rare trips to curry laden buffets aside, most mornings and nights, I was scraping the bottom of a peanut butter jar for sustenance.
When I arrived, the ferrets ran up to me and tried to crawl up my pants. Aaron yelled at them and they clung to my socks ferociously as I managed to shake them off. Their owner got a hold of their attention with a noisy plush toy and tossed in into his room, locking the door behind Brownie and Cha-Cha once they were safely inside. Now that there was peace, Aaron outlined the assignment. He took out a stool and removed the top. Inside was a bundle of documents going back several years. Aaron took them out and spread them across the kitchen table. I gave them a cursory look. They were mostly bank and credit card statements mixed with receipts. Aaron explained that he needed them filed by date and source. He gave me an empty accordion folder to help and as a token of his appreciation offered to buy me a slice of cheese pizza and a soda of my choice. I picked Coke and he was off, leaving me alone to sift through the history of his finances.
What I found was discouraging and soon, downright frightening. I saw the names of several companies he was involved with as a sole proprietor, each one coming to some form of insolvency or dissolving among rough financial waters. I started to wonder if I would ever get my money from Aaron at the end of my three months’ of work. As my task continued into Sunday, he did little to calm the fear. I showed him the gaps in the folders where he was missing bank statements from several different months. Aaron congratulated me on the find and started making calls as I returned to sorting. I let my attention wander and listened in on the discussions. He was talking to the bank about getting replacement copies for what he lost.
“Yes, I need the statements from March of 2007, August of 2008, and January of 2006…yes, I can hold…hello, my name is Aaron…oh you know? Good…please I really need these statements. I’m doing my taxes and they’ll be a big help to me. How soon can I get them? I see. Okay. Five dollars each? Are you sure you can’t waive the fee on this? Please? I really can’t spare that right now. I’ve done plenty of business with you…yes…I know that…How about five dollars total…can we do that?”
Aaron pleaded for relief from a fifteen dollar fee and I tried to return to work. The familiar logos of respected institutions, some of which had just been bailed out, gave way to documents which were typed up. I looked closer and saw they were emails. Judging from the headings, they looked like emails Aaron printed out. Since they were part of the pile I read them in order to figure out where they belonged among the other files. The emails had nothing to do with business, except of a very personal nature. Aaron had consulted a sex therapist of some kind and was giving a run-down of problems in the bedroom. No matter what he tried to spice up his sex life, he ran into an issue. Edible lubricants gave him hives, while nipple clamps caused his skin to crack and bleed. His experiments further confirmed that anything latex was out of the question.
I tucked those papers back into the stool and said I had to go back home. It was dark out and I shivered on the platform waiting for the train. Already a month into the job and I could not tell if I was shaking from the cold or the work. I had little faith I could make it to Wednesday and even less faith Aaron would let me get away for a whole day. A call would come. Thinking about it made my throat and chest tighten. Some force had its hand on me and would not let me go, pinning me in place. It was the feeling of too much security. I kept my hand over my phone during the train ride back into Manhattan, unsure if I should just turn the device off and disconnect from Aaron completely. He would leave messages but maybe if I refused to answer him right away the pressing need to draw me back into his work would fade. Somewhere between Queens and Brooklyn, the phone started buzzing and I jumped up in my seat, screaming at first, then following it with a curse. None of the other passengers told me to be quiet. They were all too tired. I picked it up and rudely answered. My mother was on the other end. She wanted to know how I was doing.
Back home, I decided to take a shower. I could not remember the last time I washed myself. Aaron never complained about my hygiene, but he was in no position to judge. The smell of his ferrets probably persevered over anything I emitted. Next to them, my rank was amateur. I ran the water and spun the knobs back and forth to get the right combination of hot and cold. I could not produce warmth outright, but this way I could at least keep the two temperatures alternating like the dots and dashes of a message in Morse code. I used the bathroom while I waited for the shower head to work and tried to wash my hands afterwards. The foil fell out and I could not make it go back in. None of my anger or my extensive vocabulary of racy multilingual constructions was enough make the foil work again. I could only reduce the flow coming out of the spout to a trickle. I stepped into the shower and it was only one temperature. Cold. I screamed and clawed at the tiles.
The next morning, I woke up early. I wrote Aaron an email and did something new. I quit. It was a strange territory and I was not quite sure how to navigate through it. How did one walk away from the promise of money in exchange for labor? 'No' was not a word I liked to use. Not with professors, family, friends, girlfriends, or potential employers. Yet, here I was, using so many words to say it. I softened the blow of my departure by telling him I was starting to develop symptoms which worried me and because of them, I could no longer work under the conditions he required. I told Aaron I was convinced they were related to an autoimmune disorder of mine called Crohn’s Disease. Now, I was not having a flare up at the time. However, I was genuinely worried about the stress. The verge of a nervous breakdown is always an opportunity for the body to take matters into its own hands and build a fascist state on a cellular level. Satisfied with the work, I sent the message and went out to eat at the local diner. To celebrate to my newfound state of confidence and unemployment, I ate a Monte Cristo sandwich.
Aaron took it well. He understood. He sympathized. He apologized and was sad to see me go, but let me go he did. To his credit, he did come through for me, albeit a few months later. He sent me a check for a thousand dollars, and another one to cover my transportation expenses going to and from his house in Queens. Eighty-five dollars and twenty-seven cents. By the time the money I arrived, I was gone from New York. Instead, the money reached me in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I was earning a living as a camp counselor. The position was a temporary one, too, but it provided room and board, along with plenty of contact with other human beings, most of which were too young to ask me to help them with their taxes. I built up my reserves and resolve somewhat during that summer, enough to go back to applying for full-time work, which has yet to arrive despite the promise of an alleged economic recovery.
Currently I am a temporary bureaucrat, acting the part of factotum with job security and a career ladder to climb. So far, all the visitors to the office seem convinced. I do my best to try and forget the internship from so many years ago, but it returns to me in waves of anxiety and self-loathing. They strike during the day in my cubicle and at night, when I wake up in the middle of sleep, my body convinced an invisible hand has its fingers around my throat.
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