I started working. I ran into a guy that I did some work for when I passed through Boulder last summer, and he told me he had more for me if I’m interested. So Monday morning I drive out to the office/warehouse and spend the next eight hours of my life sitting behind a desk punching numbers into a computer and printing out barcode labels. There’s a printed out spreadsheet with several hundred different products. Each of them has a base price and a UPC barcode. There’s a folder on the computer where each product has a corresponding word document that can be printed out using a special label maker. My job is to open each document, double check that the price on the screen matches the price on my printout, which it mostly doesn’t, and check that the 14 digit UPC code is identical, which is mostly isn’t. So I scan the number digit by digit, replace whatever numerals are incorrect, and then save the document and print out the corrected label. Nine bucks an hour baby.
I panic after the first hour, take a few deep breaths and remember that this is not really my life. Whatever, I can push through it and spend the week here, I can force myself to do it, but I am utterly baffled and completely incapable of understanding how people can do something like this day in and day out for years upon years upon years. Driving back to Boulder in the evening, I try to come up with a good reason to go back tomorrow. Because I will make money? That seems so hollow. And of course, if I wasn’t looking for a place to live and pay rent, I wouldn’t even need this kind of money. Shelter + bondage or star-roof + freedom? We spend countless hours doing things that do not matter to us, in order to get something that we think matters to us, in order to get a precious few things that do matter to us, along with a whole lot of things that don’t matter to us. Maybe I’m overdramatizing this but my God it was awful. At the same time, as Dr. No reminds me, there might be something of value for me in seeing how other people live.
I’m going to need somewhere to deposit the check, but I can’t join a credit union until I’m actually a Colorado resident with a local address. So I decide to temporarily open an account at US Bank. I choose US Bank because they’re offering a $100 bonus for opening an account, and I plan to immediately close the account after joining a credit union, which I am candid about with the banker. He frowns. “Why wouldn’t you want an account with us?” I explain why I’d rather not be directly involved with a major financial institution that will use my money to invest in multinational corporations that commit worldwide atrocities and why I’d prefer to work with a local credit union that will invest in socially conscious ways. He argues that US Bank is one of the most charitable large banks in the country; I say it’s just a cost of doing business in order to make US Bank look good in public while putting money into terrible and profitable things behind closed doors. We talk about the mortgage crisis and US Bank’s discriminatory lending practices, the ability of major banks to generate the conditions that make international financial crises possible, and I even tell him about being arrested in a protest against the housing foreclosure process in which US Bank has played a significant role. He does a procedural credit check and squints at the screen. “It looks like you have an outstanding $500 bill with St. Johns Medical Center?” I nod. “Yes, that’s an experiment I was doing to see what it would be like to go through the collections process.” “You know,” he says after a while, “I really don’t even like working here,” and then he tells me how to set up automatic bill pay and mail three small checks to myself to get another $25 bonus on top of the $100 for opening the account.
Back at Leigh, Trevor, and Aneliya’s place that night, I talk to Lou, one of the couchsurfers who is also staying there. The conversation shifts to politics and society and revolution and I tell him about a few of my experiences with Occupy, and then he launches into a vent about how fucked everything is, he talks about the economy and the education system and the media and propaganda and how of course it’s all solidified by the system of wage slavery, and how can you read a subversive book when you’re working 60 hours a week? “But then why do you work?” I ask him. He gets a kind of funny look on his face and falls silent. “Seriously, if you have all these thoughts of revolution and freedom and change, and you think a job is the thing between you and making it happen, then why do you work?” He explains how he doesn’t really have a choice and how he needs to start saving up money and how he has payments to make on things he has bought and how he doesn’t want to starve. And I’m just sitting there thinking, not criticizing him for not wanting to make drastic lifestyle changes, but just fascinated by the fact that we can point out all the ways things are messed up but as soon as it requires some kind of radical rethinking and experimentation in our own lives, the excuses begin and the responsibility shifts from our shoulders to those of society. We can only see the situation clearly until it gets personal, it’s hard to keep asking these questions when something in our own lives is at stake, but that’s exactly what I’m here to do, isn’t it? To see things clearly and put everything on the line? To find a way to preserve my core values and beliefs even while living within the traditional bounds of the system? Maybe this is it, maybe this is the real work, this is where the true challenge lies. In some ways, it’s a lot easier to just fuck the system and try to stay out of it, not work, not have money, not buy the newest cars and electronics, not consume production, not pay war taxes to the government, not sacrifice personal happiness for a paycheck, just stay as far away from the whole thing as possible. But that’s so much easier than actually learning about exactly what ways my financial connection to the global economy facilitates mass atrocities around the world and whether there are ways a person can still drink coffee and buy books and drive cars and have a clean conscience after having honestly and thoroughly evaluated the repercussions of this widely accepted mainstream lifestyle. Yes, to live within it all and still know how to resist, armed with knowledge and experience, that’s much trickier, to learn how to navigate the labyrinth of responsible, conscious living, materialism and consumption and labor and taxes and transportation and food and rent and work. To take on some deep and inevitable new hypocrisies in exchange for a desk at which to write, a kitchen in which to cook dinner and keep wine, and the opportunity to have conversations that might radicalize bankers, to deepen dialogues with people because I’m sticking around for days and weeks instead of hours. And making such an exchange, is that even something I actually want to do? From a purist philosophical perspective, maybe not. And if I am doing it, I don’t want to delude myself into forgetting that our society, founded upon one of the worst genocides in human history, is destroying the planet and wreaking mass havoc around the world. These things are important to remember. But to really be on my game and know how to resist from within, that’s so much harder and it will take me being much more dangerous and well informed. It’ll take a lot more from me. And the whole point is that there’s really only so much I can do from the outside. As a penniless traveler, I can strive to attain some sense of personal purity of lifestyle, and maybe I can even inspire those I encounter through my way of living, but once again, when I try to challenge other people to rethink the way they’re living, when I talk about things like freedom, my words probably don’t hit home for most people because what I’m doing seems so far removed from their own direct experience. What if my external life was less extreme and more traditional, and I were to use that as a platform from which to express radical ideas? There’s that old Flaubert quote, “be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Maybe that’s what this whole thing is really about.