Growing up in the late-1990s, one felt either that it was the best time to be alive or the worst time. One was a teen, so inevitably there was no middle ground to consider. One may also have been a suburbanite teen and so will likely have lacked a whole lot of scope. It was through popular culture that the world’s general health was assessed. Specifically it was through MTV. Then at the peak of its social relevance, MTV firmly understood, or tried to understand in earnest, the passions of that period’s crop of young. They guessed that most young people were less inert and closed off, cheerier, keener to have fun, optimistic about the present and future, and they selected ephemera that complemented it best. If there were young people who felt this was a bad direction in which to go, that it was nothing if not an aftershock of the decline of a purer spirit, they were shit out of luck.
What was this “purer spirit,” you might ask? Well take a seat and let me tell you a story.
Many thousands of years ago (1986), in a far off sylvan land (Seattle), a group of people gathered to create a new world. They had grown tired of the larger world in which they lived; they felt out of sorts with it, unappreciated and left behind. This world, to be sure, would resemble the wider world in certain ways—propelled by commerce, organized by hierarchical customs—but very different in two respects. First it would be much smaller in scale, with the understanding that it could not accommodate just anyone. And so second, its population would be determined by one crucial trait: its loserdom.
How one became or discovered that they were a loser is something of a mystery. Presumably if one felt it so deeply that it made no sense to be anything else, one gained entry. One could get a t-shirt saying so. If one sought the sustenance of the keepers of the world, one would gain validation no matter the result. The loser proved rather appealing. It was a badge of distinction rather than a slander. So appealing, in fact, that Satan himself took notice, struck a deal with the keepers, and made it much bigger than anyone, save perhaps a few terrible prophets, could have foreseen. Now all is a ruin of dust, Shins, and ash.
The funeral march for Loser World has been a long and occasionally literal one. This is especially the case for those who were just outside the years of its peak popularity. All they know, in fact, is the march, the mourning of a golden day submerged in autumnal twilight, weirdly because the autumnal twilight had given way to a golden day. This type of mourning is not one that engenders a lot of reflection. Glowing and sorrowful postmortem is taken as granted, legends are facts, and motives are always well thought out and morally pure. One thinks of Winona Ryder’s Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice, who longed to join her house’s haunters in death because it seemed like much less of a drag than life.
But with the passage of time all things once thought great must be demystified. I should hope so because they would otherwise not be very interesting to talk about.
The demystification of the loser is a three-step process. The first step is addressing the genuine article and how counterfeit it actually was. Loser World—let’s just get it out of the way and say Sub Pop—was run by duumvirate made up of two extremely shrewd shitlords. It was first a cultural enterprise in which Bruce Pavitt packaged and evangelized a particular local sound. Add Jonathan Poneman, who provided the business acumen, and Sub Pop became an aesthetic, indeed, a way of life. Yet it is quite difficult to keep track of what Sub Pop actually wanted. In addition to the “LOSER” t-shirt there was also the “WORLD DOMINATION REGIME” t-shirt. At first it seems like clever, if nihilistic, marketing. “You have before you two ironies,” Sub Pop seemed to say. “We can neg you or we can stroke your young, stupid ego. Either way you’re going to buy our records.” But as time went on it looked more like an internal conflict. Sub Pop did, for a time, appear as if it had dominated the world. This sat well with Poneman but not so well with Pavitt, who bitterly left the label. By then, though, no one cared to answer the question none seemed eager to ask: what is a loser who, actually, has won?
Step two entails reconciling oneself with the effects of post-grunge. No, this does not mean that one needs to go over every musical act that emerged in the mainstream of the late-1990s and redeem them. Let it be clear that many—though by no means all—acts from that period have been terrible, are terrible, and shall forever be terrible so long as the balance of this present universe is kept steady. Rather, it is up to one to embrace humility for once in one’s fucking existence and find commonality with one’s peers one long ago denied. Even if one’s peers were a bit overboard with the pep, their attitude was by and large, rather measured compared to one’s own. And their passions, guided though they were by the likes of Carson Daly, were quite eclectic and open-ended. One, in short, was kind of an asshole. One needed to lighten the fuck up, at least realize that being made to go to church on Sunday morning was not grounds for an Amnesty International intervention. This is not wisdom to anyone who stuck out Daria after season three.
Thus we come to step three: concluding that being a loser actually fucking sucks. Stripped of its cultural prestige of time past, a loser today is no longer a source of ironic triumph or sardonic solidarity. It is brought back to first principles: the loser is someone who has lost. The loser is refuse, identified not by detachment, malaise, or downbeat self-assurance, but of paranoia, anxiety, and condemnation. There is no room in this narrative for reversal of fortune or redemption, but a long and grinding limbo to oblivion. It’s a version of loserdom that feels very ancient, pure even. It’s a musk wafting out from the pages of Charles Bukowski, John Fante, or, best-case scenario, Nathanael West.
A new shrewd cultural entrepreneur might be inclined to see a silver lining. This is just another opportunity to take disillusionment and to spin it into a new mass moment. Surely one is needed, and many have already attempted. Yet they have not stuck.
Whether one prefers the era of grunge or post-grunge, both offered a sense of simplicity that is no longer possible today. One may often see cultural binaries conjured from the media ether—alpha and beta, normie and weird, even jock and nerd—but these are diversionary phantasms, not assessments of The Way Things Are. The hope of a mass moment is dashed when one sees the culture as it is, splintered into smaller and smaller nanocommunities, smaller even than the community concocted in Seattle. These communities are of such size and such idiosyncrasy as to disqualify as subcultures, they are at once too fluid to be cliques and too exclusive to be scenes. One never really knows how or why they got into one or when or why they are out of another. The individual exists but only as a beer can floating down a stream, occasionally getting lodged into a nook of stones and losing more and more of its label with each stop.
The face-saving outcome of this atmosphere is that everyone at the end of the day is a loser. How or when one comes to lose is entirely up to their individual fortune, but that is the endgame. If winning is possible it is also rather pointless. This may seem like a mass moment is on the verge after all, but that only happens if people want it, if it elevates them. This merely establishes reality. It is not a mass moment, but a paradigm shift. The civilizational churning or grinding that occurs at its own molten pace regardless of our feelings.
What remedies I can offer are rather pitiful. Meditative humility is one, cheerful resignation perhaps (not that I can tell you what either of those mean), sweetened with a moderate amount of nostalgia. Granted I might just be saying that because I’m wearing a Mudhoney shirt as I type this.
SCENE: An examination room. At the center there is a table with black box on top of it, and two chairs on each side. There is a light above the door and a two-way mirror facing the side of the table. YOU sit nervously at the table. Enter the MENTOR, dressed in a well-tailored grey suit and carrying a clipboard.
MENTOR: Good afternoon.
YOU: Good afternoon.
MENTOR: I see you’re here today for … [looks at clipboard] … self-confidence.
MENTOR: Would you care to elaborate? It doesn’t say any more than that.
MENTOR: Are you here to address a lack of self-confidence or an excess of self-confidence?
YOU: Well … I … I—
MENTOR: Out with it, dumbass!
YOU: Lack. It’s a lack of confidence.
MENTOR: Good. Good. Well someone not confident enough to complete an application form should have given it away to me.
YOU: I don’t know.
MENTOR: I feel like we’ve already gotten off on the wrong foot. [Begins to pace slowly in front of the table.] But you can be assured that I will not falter going forward. You are in capable hands.
YOU: You do seem very confident.
MENTOR: You are quite mistaken.
YOU: Seems hard to believe.
MENTOR: The first lesson is to establish the difference between self-confidence and self-awareness. The two are very often confused. It has parented so many of our modern crises. For you see, I am not very confident. I may, on occasion, exert confidence. But it is a byproduct. A gas. A conjuring from a celestial blackness. Nothing more. No, I am self-aware. I have a deep and rounded familiarity with my self. That means having the total knowledge not only of my strengths and talents, but also my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. [Pause.] I hope that you will permit me to be candid.
The MENTOR sits at the table.
MENTOR: In the many years I’ve carried out these duties, I’ve had the opportunity to help scores of people just like you. People with issues of self-confidence, self-control, independent thinking, inability to cohere, and some other stuff that escapes me at the moment. [Pause.] Not all of my attempts were successful. And even though I earned income on every attempt, I regret the failures very much. You could say that they haunt me; that each morning I wake up with one of them clear in my mind as if it occurred just the day before. Failure is always possible. It’s probable, in fact. [Pause.] But I keep going. Do you know why?
YOU: You have to earn income?
MENTOR: No— … well … sure, yes. But also because I feel impelled to do so. I need to do so. I am like a car. In my head there is an ignition, and every day some … driver or other puts a kind of key into my brain and turns it, shifting into gear—I can only guess—with my spinal cord. And every day I am here. Even when I don’t need to be in a technical sense I am here. And everyone I have ever helped or tried to help is with me. Always. [Pause. Looks at YOU skeptically.] I assume that you looked at online reviews of our firm before you made an appointment.
YOU: Not very deeply.
MENTOR: I will take your word for that. But to repeat for summation’s sake … I am not confident. I am, some might say, a level above confident. Maybe that’s true, we certainly charge more to instill self-awareness. I don’t like to think about it. It fires my crusader’s loins. [Pause.] Any questions so far?
YOU: What is confidence then?
MENTOR: I’m very glad you asked that question. So few people do. [Paces across the room again.] Confidence, plainly put, is about belief. Not any old belief, but confirmed and resolute belief. For most people, beliefs are quite flexible. People can be bent, corrected, or persuaded away from one belief or another. Even so-called “absolute” beliefs—principles, if you will—can find their way to being contorted. Sometimes because people are spineless but mostly because that’s just how things work. There are very few beliefs that are truly absolute. And that’s good, we can’t have too many. Our species is too wound-up, too feeble to accommodate more than maybe two. Not even. So self-confidence is the one absolute most people take on. And from there, all other beliefs tend to fall into place. Do you have many beliefs?
YOU: I’d like to think I have a few beliefs.
MENTOR: You sound like you have a lot of ideas.
YOU: What’s the difference?
MENTOR: Ideas are for pussies. [Pause.] Someone more efficient than me would simply reduce self-confidence to belief and nothing more. You wake up and you just … believe. You believe in your strength—mental and physical. You believe you can take on any challenge and come out on the top of it. You believe that you are a vessel for the love and the joy heretofore absent in everyone around you. But you believe at the same time that not just anyone should use you as such. You believe that only someone who believes as strongly as you do is able and deserving of accessing their love and joy through you. You believe that you can subsist exclusively on bread for every meal—bread and candy bars. You believe that … [Leans forward over the table inches away from YOUR face.] … should you have to, you can take a weed wacker to the face, and be up for work the very next day.
YOU: Why would I do that?
MENTOR: It doesn’t matter. You just can. [Grabs YOUR shoulders.] Because you believe.
The MENTOR leaps back up and exhales in a state of ecstasy. Pause.
YOU: I have to do all those things to be confident?
MENTOR: No, these are the fruits of self-confidence. Before any of that can be conferred … [lifts up the box and reveals a red button] … you must push this button.
YOU: That’s it?
YOU: That’s all I have to do? Push this red button?
MENTOR: Nothing more.
YOU: I don’t know.
MENTOR: Why not?
YOU: It can’t be that simple.
MENTOR: It can be when you believe you can have self-confidence.
YOU: But …
The MENTOR sits down in front of YOU.
MENTOR: Look. I know it seems like this whole weird thing. Too good to be true. But, think about it. You came all this way. You’re gonna pay all this money. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. [Puts a hand on YOUR shoulder.] I have confidence.
The light above the door flashes blue. Pause. The MENTOR stands up and looks down smiling at YOU. YOU reach out your finger and cautiously lower it to the button. After a moment of hesitation YOU press it. Pause. YOU press it again harder. Shorter pause. YOU press it a few more times more rapidly. The light flashes red.
YOU: I think it’s broken. Nothing’s happening.
MENTOR [contentedly]: I know.
Enter an ADMINISTRATOR wearing a hazmat suit and carrying a weed trimmer. The MENTOR turns and faces the ADMINISTRATOR who revs the weed trimmer to the MENTOR’s face. Blood sprays in every direction. YOU grimace as it hits your face. The MENTOR falls to the floor. The ADMINISTRATOR turns off the trimmer, removes his mask, and faces YOU.
ADMIN: Thank you for participating in our self-confidence exercise. Self-confidence exercises are $149.99, but today we are offering a one-time only premium package at $349.99. We accept credit, debit, cash …
Pause. YOU stare blankly at him.
YOU go into your pocket, take out your wallet, and hand him the credit card. The ADMINISTRATOR exits. Silence. He returns with the card, a receipt, a pen, and a sheet of paper. He places the receipt on the table.
Here is your receipt.
YOU sign it. He takes the receipt and places the piece of paper on the table.
This is a survey to rate your experience. We appreciate your honest feedback and hope you will consider assisting us in future exercises.
The ADMINISTRATOR exits dragging the MENTOR with him. YOU fill out the survey.
SCENE: An art deco living room with a grand piano next to a fireplace. The AUTHOR enters in a tuxedo t-shirt and a red cardigan over it. He sits at the piano and plays a light, ponderous melody.
AUTHOR: You know, people sometimes ask me, “Chris …”—that’s my name, by the way—they ask me, “Chris, how do you do it?” To which I answer, “How do I do what?” To which they reply, “You only seem to do one thing, do we have to be more specific?” To which I reply, “Oh, well, that’s fair.” [Pause.] No one really asks me that, actually. But if anyone did I would have an answer. Which is I don’t really know. And I mean that. I’m not trying to protect the recipe of my secret sauce. It’s not like any actual secret sauces are that secret to begin with. [Pause.] What is the Shake Shack secret sauce, anyway? Thousand island dressing and some pepper? [Pause.] Mayo and catsup? Anyway, as to my secret sauce … there is none. I haven’t the first clue. My brain is a total enigma to me. I wish that weren’t the case. If my brain were more tangible in its operations I’d be more reliable. I could be doing many, many things that are more useful than this. I wish I could do something more useful. Mind you, it’s not because I would be making more money—not completely anyway. I like the idea of usefulness. Doing things that people react to in very unambiguous ways. It could be in a good way or it could be in a bad way. Either way basically does the job. But … no … alas. I am here. [Looks around the room.] Following my brain’s hazy dictates. [Pauses as if listening.] What? You think I want to be here? Well … kind of. It’s kind of nice. I like the carpeting. [Long pause.] My brain woke me up today and told me that I should do something about love. “Do what with love,” I asked my brain. “You only seem to do one thing,” my brain answered, “do I have to be more specific?” “Fine,” I said with a faintly audible sigh that it heard as if at regular volume anyway. So I set out today to write something about love. That was five hours ago and I’m, shall we say, still at the starting stage. I cleaned my kitchen three times already. No that’s not a euphemism. Now that I’m here I have to conclude that love is maybe not my strong suit. What do I really know … really? [Pauses as if listening.] Well … I don’t know how my experience is relevant here. What constitutes experience in love anyway? I could have experience or I could not. Even if I did I wouldn’t tell you. No … no, love is not about one’s own understanding. That gets you and I and the whole world exactly nowhere. I can’t really say why, I’m no philosopher. But … if I had to put a finer point to it, it is because when love threads its way into someone’s own sinews, it translates into that person’s own language. That person’s own code. We are like computers, I guess; and love is the encrypted file or … something. The floppy disk? I don’t know computers. Do you like my framed “Blue Monday” single? [Points to a blank space on the wall.] Okay so I don’t have that, I was hoping if I pointed it out it would sort of materialize. I guess it’s not in my power. [Sighs.] But that would have been very cool. And I would put it exactly there, over the mantle. It’s good for leaning against with some friends in nice seersucker or eveningwear, holding glasses of rosé, talking about the issues of the day. Then they would lightly chide me into sitting at the piano and write something about such and such a subject for them. Except this time it would be exactly what they wanted. [Pause.] So anyway … love. Love … love … love … love. People really like being in love. Some seem to be in love almost every day, even with different people. Some dread the possibility of being in love lest it turn out to be spoiled sooner or later. I think you learn the most about love by watching others. [Pause.] I enjoy looking at people. But, like, not in a mean way. I only look at people I like. People who impress me in some special way. That is what I said to someone when he saw that I was looking at him and his familiar. “I wish you wouldn’t be so impressed,” he replied—not word for word, but that was the gist. Then I told him, “You know, I wouldn’t mind being in your shoes. That is, I wouldn’t mind if the roles were switched. That is, again, that I would be the watched and you being the watcher. I think that would be very nice.” “I can assure you”—again I am paraphrasing—“I can assure you that it is not nice at all.” (Emphasis his.) Then I watched him and his familiar walk in the other direction. So the joke is on him. Well, I thought later, maybe so. But I guess I won’t know until it happens. And if it does happen it’s not like I could tell you anything. Or my brain. Whichever needed the information most.
Enter a female WRESTLER in a spandex wrestling outfit and a towel over her shoulders. She walks past the piano.
WRESTLER [neutrally]: Ronald.
AUTHOR [sternly, keeping eyes on the audience]: Gladys.
She leans against the mantle. Silence.
Do you need anything?
AUTHOR: Well, okay then.
WRESTLER: I think I’ll cut the lawn later.
AUTHOR: You have fun with that.
She exits on the other side.
We live here together. [Pause.] We have this thing where we don’t address each other properly. I won’t tell you her real name. I don’t think I even know it. [Pause.] Do you like my playing? [Pauses as if listening.] Well I’ll tell you a little secret. I’m not actually playing. See that over there? [He nods his head away from the piano. Behind him is a reel-to-reel tape player.] Neat, huh? I’m surprised you haven’t noticed it. [Long pause.] Love is grand and mysterious, I guess. Maybe that’s all there is to it.
He continues playing silently. On the other side of the room is a careful arrangement of stuffed animals.
Let me tell you about this walk I took today.
I know that there is some apprehension from the reader when the writer that he or she—for some reason—chooses to read has pulled “going for a walk” out of his Subjects to Write About satchel. There risks a kind of repetition in tone. Every essay about walking, flâneur, or rambling is just that: rambling. Not just rambling but meandering, ponderous, gloomy, and solipsistic. They all seem to sound the same. Robert Walser based a few of his enchanting feuilletons on walks before dying in the middle of one. Walser’s contemporary Max Beerbohm hated walking for its own sake because it “stopped the brain.” Though if Rousseau is anyone to go by the only thing that stopped him on his walks was a loose great dane. I can’t tell if the quality of these works should serve as a warning or as encouragement. I guess you, dear reader, are going to have to suffer for your own poor choices as much as I will take pleasure in mine.
But to return to this walk, I had done it on an afternoon. It was half-spontaneous in the sense that when I went outside earlier in the day and found it overcast and cool, a refreshing detour from several consecutive days of sun and humidity, I made sure there would be time to go out. I wore a long-sleeved shirt and I was not less comfortable for it. That’s how I could tell this was a good idea.
Walking away from the house is much easier because everything else is down hill from it. I cut through on a path that leads down from the end of a neighborhood across the street from mine and into the parking lot of the local pool. It’s a meeting place for all kinds of wildlife. I’ve treaded carefully over midsize snakes and one large spider. I’ve seen plenty of deer galloping in rhythmic but panicked undulation through the tall grass and into the woods. Occasionally I’ll catch a fox darting in and out of the path. Today I passed two women in pink and black exercise outfits walking their dogs: a black lab and one of those small fluffy ones that are indistinguishable to me. Of course colors appear much differently under clouds than they do under sunlight, but I didn’t appreciate it until now, when the green leaves looked soberer, and the purples, yellows, and blues of the wildflowers demurred. Colors do less performing under the clouds. They get a day of rest, and also appear more present and dignified, more a part of the environment than as scenery.
My walk did have a purpose. I agree with Beerbohm in that much, that walking is better as a means to an end. Even my much longer walks were not done purely for kicks, but ultimately to make me tired, to vent my surplus of nervous energy, among other things. In this case I was walking to the library. Trips to the library have become disappointing lately. Because of some municipal property rigmarole, the library was relocated several feet to the east of its original site to the rectory of the local Catholic parish. It is much smaller and its catalog has been drastically reduced. With better lighting it has the potential to be an ideal place to read my own books, but today I stopped off and placed a loan order for one of its disappeared volumes.
Cars lined the farthest back row of the parking lot, yet the stillness of Church property on a weekday afternoon was totalizing, as if everyone had vanished. I looked at the front of the church and considered going in, if not to pray exactly then to, I guess, meditate on thoughts accumulated en route, though really long before: on the drifting away from friends, on the varying speeds at which morality approaches, on feeling generally adrift in life. Here I disagree with Beerbohm in that walking doesn’t stop the brain but puts it into overdrive. At least indoors I could set some of that aside, prioritize a bit. But no matter. The doors of the chapel (auditorium really) were locked, even as the interior doors leading into it were propped wide open.
There was for many years, from my youth up to as late as a few years ago, a man who could be found walking around town, and surrounding towns for that matter, any day of the week. No one—no one I knew anyway—knew his name, where he lived, or what he did. Some people called him “the leprechaun”; he was short, had a wide grin, and prominent nose and cheeks compacted under a large forehead. I heard him speak only once, to my mom as we walked our dog. He was kind, if abrupt; his New Jersey accent was heavy. What stood out most to me though, in addition to his being seemingly everywhere at once, was that he never changed, it didn’t even appear as if he aged. I haven’t seen him in some time. But I’m around town enough on foot to possibly stand in for a replacement. I’ve always wondered how “certain people in town” come about. Perhaps now I might know. But also, being seen is a less talked about component of walking, because it is less enjoyed all around. Anyone is subject to transformation of some kind through the eyes of anyone else around.
Let me also tell you about the walk I took the night before. My friend who lived a few towns over invited me for drinks at his house. I did not walk to his house, of course; I took an Uber. It consisted of riding on winding, hilly, sparsely lit back roads along lakes and thickly forested neighborhoods. It felt somewhat like taking a carriage ride to a castle—but I digress. Because I took an Uber, however, I timed my trip off somewhat so that I arrived earlier than expected. To pass time, I walked the length of my friend’s street. It was another eerily still experience, though hardly an outlier for a summer Sunday night. The trees on each side were either low or leaning over the street, making it look like I was walking a naturally grown corridor. House windows glowed with the pale blues, purples, and reds of televisual luminance. There was no one else outside. When I reached the intersection a half a mile or so from the house, I took a picture (provided above) of the streetlight and the mailbox at the corner.
Walking back I passed a jogger who was moving around me as I mindlessly gawked at my phone. A few feet later I heard a grunt from behind me. Looking back into mostly darkness I saw nothing and pressed on down the street. Then to my left rode a tall, thin man—almost skeletal in the half-light—in camouflage pants and with a cigarette on his lips. “Evening,” he said before riding off ahead of me into still more darkness, the blinking rear lights of his bike being the only visible proof of him the further away he got.
The reader, having through some sorcery gotten this far, might wonder aloud, “Are you maybe embellishing? You have, I want to say, a … cinematic tendency.”
The reader is advised to give it a try.
There is no form of writing that is more apt to reduce me to cringing than that which affects to prophecy. And yes, I am factoring in everything XO Jane has ever published. For not even the most scabrous, faux-vulnerable internet confessional can touch the dreary self-importance of a would-be prophet. Or even a confirmed prophet. A prophet who is wrong is tolerable because their smug self-assurance is only limited to a single person. While one who sees their visions even partially manifested will inevitably spread their dour triumphalism to a mass of eagerly prideful but lazy bores. Nothing in human life is baser than being correct about something.
So it is with great personal sorrow that I myself must venture into the dark hinterland of strange vision. I must pass into the reflective and/or kaleidoscopic void of unconsciousness to access forbidden knowledge of time not yet reached and events not yet occurred. And I must render them in the only way I know how—on this glorified UHF station of a blog—for the betterment of all. This I do not out of the kindness of my heart, nor for any thrill of adventure, but because there is need of it, and no one else is around. My name is Mr. Morgan, and I am your substitute prophet. You’re welcome.
Instagram is my favorite social media platform. I apply none of those annoying wiggle-room phrases—one of, almost certainly, perhaps, quite possibly, etc.—because I am that confident in my assessment. No others really compare to the joy it offers pretty much any user. Its basic interface has remained largely static since I started using it six years ago, and those changes that have been applied to it, so far as I can tell, have not made it worse. (Stories being the exception, but they solved that by allowing me to mute them.) This is possibly because Instagram is one of the few apps that has a valid reason to exist. It understands the power of visual stimuli and memory in the human experience. What passes time and eases tensions better at family gatherings than sifting through page after page of family photo albums? While its filter features don’t necessarily make it a haven of authenticity (assuming that is important to you), the underlying spirit of fun, adventure, bonding, peace, and experience broadly, is not as susceptible to the morass of vileness as its text-based compatriots. Indeed, look at the most annoying Instagram account, @fuckjerry, the majority of its content being screencaps of tweets and text messages.
But it is also because of these attributes that Instagram is no less vulnerable to the corrosive influence of the internet. In fact it is significantly more vulnerable.
It has always been understood that the greatest risk of perpetuating the internet was that it drastically reordered the value of civil manners. Previously one got on well in life by observing as a general rule propriety, taste, restraint, and discretion with the option of observing them more leniently in proportion to how intimate one was in a given situation. An effective use of the internet, however, requires something of a reversal. Transparency and crudity are of greater value while restraint and discretion are more frowned upon. Early on this was quite liberating because restraint and discretion can, as we are often reminded, conceal vice rather than instill virtue. But the openness of the internet has lately become its own problem. Obsession, exposure, polemic, harassment, counter-harassment, and recycled argument are all common conditions of OnlineTM. Imagine not a single Pandora’s box, but several boxes opening all at once.
With most social media, the internet is like an ill-managed biergarten; but with Instagram, it is more like a zoo. Everyone is exhibiting themselves and looking into everyone else’s exhibits. This is most prevalent in Instagram’s Explore feature, where one can scroll endlessly over algorithm-curated content. At its best it diverts the user with peeks into the past, into people’s lives, into places they have never seen personally, and into cultural substrata they knew nothing about before that are genuinely interesting and ennobling. Accounts like @saladdazed and @somewheremagazine are among its most redeeming qualities, at least related to my use of it. Though the feature itself has improved in what and how it shows, the saturating effect remains a problem that probably has no good solution.
There are two types of boredom. One is isolated—or individual—boredom; the other is systemic—or mass—boredom. We understand isolated boredom as we experience it more directly. Typically it is seen as solitary, characterized by a restlessness without aim—a rule of the self by idle hands. Yet isolated boredom conveyed in the right way has its glamor. A bored person in public can look like a subversive oasis in a desert of joviality. The presence of the bored person indicates the promise that there is always somewhere better to be. Systemic boredom is much different. It’s more of a pestilence than a feeling, spread by a sense of mutual distaste and malaise. Here the aimlessness, idleness, and solitude are features rather than bugs. It is a total retreat from activity of any kind, a world not of two idle hands, but several hundred at least. It indicates the promise that there is nowhere better to be.
Systemic boredom is a crankish sort of idea, to be sure. Circumstances have never arisen to make it seem like something more than a thought experiment. Until now. As one gets older, going to the zoo loses its appeal. The childlike wonder that shielded one from the listless imprisonment of exotic animals can no longer be propped up. Imagine, then, the effect of the digital zoo losing its own luster. Picture the glut of content, no matter how cool, how beautiful, how inspirational, or how attractive it appears, blurring into a beige-colored static. A sunset looks like tacky motel lobby wallpaper or a smiling couple looks like figurines. The sensory overload of the internet engenders the sensory apocalypse.
Of greater concern than systemic boredom actually happening is how systemic boredom will be dealt with once it does. There are positive scenarios, of course. Like people putting down their phones, taking up reading or walking or saying “Hi” to their neighbors. But negative scenarios must be anticipated, like users looking to “improve” their content by any means necessary. This is actually quite possible. Since the advent of the Paul brothers, YouTube has had a rash of users carrying out extreme pranks for the sake of getting clicks. The idea of users on other platforms taking up some creative destruction—or just unsolicited remodeling—simply because there’s nothing better to do doesn’t seem so outlandish.
I know at this point I should have some sort of metaphorical light to shine on the proper solution to make the positive scenario the more possible one. But because I am a prophet and not a troubleshooter I can stop just short. So … good luck with all that!
SCENE: A diner, near midnight. The diner has a counter with a row of booths parallel to it. Two booths are taken up at each end. One has three black-clad youths, the other a young woman. Another customer, an older man sits at the counter, behind which the staff—two waitresses and the manager—is milling around.
CUT TO ANGELA, a waitress of 28, approaches a table with three young, black-clad occupants drinking coffee and picking at a plate of disco fries in the center. She is holding a pot of coffee.
ANGELA: More coffee for you guys?
WARLOCK 1 [indifferently]: Sure.
WARLOCK 2 [identical tone]: Yeah.
ANGELA refills their cups.
ANGELA [to WITCH]: And you?
WITCH [meekly]: No thanks.
ANGELA [smiling]: Okay.
CUT TO the counter. ANGELA puts the coffee pot back on the heater. ROY, a customer of 55, sits hunched over. VINCENT, the manager of 50, leans over the register surveying the diner.
VINCENT [gruffly]: Tuesday.
ANGELA: Yes, it’s Tuesday. For another few minutes anyway.
VINCENT: Tuesday is hell.
VINCENT: It’s what I imagine hell is like. A Tuesday night in this place.
ROY: Why do you always work graveyard, then?
VINCENT: I sleep better during the day.
ANGELA: What’s hell to you, Roy boy?
ROY [smiling slyly and deadpan]: A gentleman’s club with an empty buffet.
ANGELA: Always classy. [Pause.] You know what’s hell for me? [Whispers.] Serving those ghouls over there for eternity. Every week it’s like this. They sit there ‘til closing, eat nothing but disco fries and drink nothing but coffee. What the hell do they do all night?
ROY: Cry in graveyards. Try to raise the dead. Sacrifice virgins. [Leering.] I’d be careful if I were you, Angela.
ANGELA: Gent bent, Roy.
VINCENT smacks ROY upside the head.
VINCENT: Your outta line.
ROY: I’m a paying customer.
VINCENT: You’ve been sitting here just as long as they have and you haven’t ordered a thing.
ANGELA [looking out]: They tip like shit, too.
BETTY, a waitress of 45, enters behind the counter.
BETTY: You think you got a weird table? Look at mine.
CUT TO a WOMAN sitting by herself at a booth with a near-empty milkshake. She about her 30s, thin, pale, with dark hair, wearing a slightly oversized grey pantsuit and red gloves. She looks slightly ill at ease.
BETTY: She’s on milkshake number four and I think she might keep going.
ANGELA: Is she wearing gloves?
BETTY: Yes, and I’m not sure how or if I can address that. [Pause.] She won’t make eye contact either.
ROY: Plausible deniability.
BETTY: Excuse me?
ROY: She obviously doesn’t want to leave a trace of her being here.
ANGELA: That’s not a smooth way of doing it.
BETTY: Like .. a criminal?
ROY: Could be. More likely I’d say she’s the Garden State Dish.
ROY: Why not?
ANGELA: I’m lost.
BETTY: The food critic.
ROY: He—or she—goes around local eateries, all across the state, all levels of quality, and rates them. Totally anonymous.
VINCENT [sardonically]: Part of the charm, I guess.
BETTY [apprehensive]: She’s waving me over. What do I do?
VINCENT: What you always do.
CUT TO the WOMAN’s booth.
BETTY [sweetly]: Gosh hun, I wish I had your figure.
WOMAN [perplexed]: Excuse me?
BETTY: Oh don’t mind me. Another shake?
WOMAN [thinking]: Strawberry, please.
BETTY: You got it.
CUT TO the counter. BETTY returns to prepare the shake.
VINCENT: Doesn’t she want anything else?
BETTY: Doesn’t seem like it.
VINCENT: A sandwich? A surf and turf?
ROY: Maybe she’s been casing the place. Doing her due diligence. Samples the food during the day, and comes in at night for the ambience.
ANGELA: She does have that journalist look: smart … and poor.
BETTY walks past them with the shake and brings it to the WOMAN’s table.
BETTY: Here you go.
WOMAN: Thank you.
She takes the shake and starts to drink from it. BETTY stands awkwardly.
BETTY: Which one do you like?
BETTY: You’ve had every flavor of shake we offer now. I was wondering which one you took to more.
WOMAN: They’re all good, I guess.
BETTY: That’s nice of you.
WOMAN: Do you need something?
BETTY: Oh … well … I was wondering if maybe you wanted something else while the kitchen is still open. [Pause.] We have a new item … fish tacos. They’re really nice. Not what you’re used to in places like this. [Pause.] Or, you know, just grilled cheese. I know that isn’t much but we have a special way of preparing it. [Whispers.] We use actual butter instead of mayo on the bread.
WOMAN: I have … indigestion.
WOMAN: I’ll take the check whenever you get the chance.
BETTY: Of course.
CUT TO the counter. BETTY goes to the register to prepare the check.
VINCENT: What did she say?
BETTY: I tried to sell her on actual food but she wasn’t having it. Tough nut to crack. [She takes the check over to the booth.] Whenever you’re ready, sweetheart.
She goes into the breast pocket of her suit and takes out some bills.
BETTY: Did you lose your purse?
WOMAN [ignoring her]: Is this enough?
BETTY [counting the bills]: That’s fine. Need change?
WOMAN: No, thank you.
BETTY: Thanks, sweetheart. [She turns to go to the counter, but stops and turns back.] I did want to say, and I hope you don’t mind … [pause] … but those are really nice gloves you have.
WOMAN [looking at her hands]: These?
BETTY: Yeah. I think it’s a bold, but effective, fashion statement. [Pause. The WOMAN stares blankly and BETTY gets nervous.] Unless … it’s for a condition. I mean, if so, you conceal it well.
CUT TO the counter, ANGELA looking on.
ANGELA [muttering]: What in God’s name?
CUT TO the WOMAN’s booth.
WOMAN: I’m a … germaphobe.
BETTY: Oh … oh okay, that’s not so bad. My second cousin is one. I think he is.
VINCENT: Mam, we keep a clean facility here.
BETTY: What’s that, Vincent?
CUT TO the counter.
VINCENT: Tell her not to worry because we keep our restaurant clean.
CUT TO the WOMAN’s booth.
WOMAN: What is he saying?
BETTY: It’s … I’m so sorry; he seems to think you’re the Garden State Dish.
WOMAN: Garden … State … Dish?
BETTY: He thinks you’re the food critic. [Pause.] He means well, usually. I’m sorry if I outed you. Please don’t count it against us, we won’t tell.
WOMAN: I’m not the critic.
WOMAN [sips her shake]: I’m a critic. Not the critic.
BETTY: What do you criticize, if you don’t mind me asking?
WOMAN: It’s hard to explain. But … if I had to fine-tune it, I’d say … [thoughtful pause] … people.
BETTY: How do you figure that?
WOMAN: I suppose it makes sense if you think of critic as classically understood. [Pause.] A critic is a judge. So I judge people. That is my function.
BETTY: Like in a competition?
WOMAN: You could say it’s a competition. Although the people being judged might not see it that way. Or even know that they are competing.
BETTY [unsure]: Oh.
WOMAN: Now, some people know they are competing. Some people know that they need to stay ahead of the game to “win.” [Pause.] But they don’t really know their standings. And they fluctuate from time to time—often wildly.
BETTY: That reminds me of something. Like Candid Camera, but it’s not quite the same. This sounds more intentful … if that’s a word? Are you in TV?
WOMAN: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
BETTY: Bad guess.
WOMAN [sips from shake]: It’s not your fault.
BETTY: Are critics always so serious-looking? [Nervous pause.] Not that that’s bad.
WOMAN: I don’t know many other critics besides my immediate colleagues. I don’t think we’re as serious as people think. I think if anyone else had been tasked with our work they too might be a bit grave. But then that is why we get these occasional sabbaticals. [Sips shake.]
BETTY: Well it’s nice that they give you that.
WOMAN: But I don’t think anyone in my line of work sets out wanting to do it. This is the kind of thing you fall into.
BETTY [wistful]: Yeah … I know the feeling.
WOMAN: Sometimes I wonder, as we all probably do (I assume, I’ve never asked), what would it have been like if things had turned out differently. If certain actions had different outcomes, or certain decisions in which few had any input were never made to begin with.
WOMAN: But I can’t keep these thoughts in me for long. [Sips her shake.] It risks empathy with the people I am judging.
CUT TO the counter. VINCENT and ANGELA look on.
ROY: Can I get an avocado toast?
ANGELA [matter-of-factly]: No.
ROY: Vince, come on.
VINCENT [not looking, half-attentive]: You had your chance.
CUT TO the WOMAN’s booth. BETTY is sitting across from her.
BETTY: I think a lot about doing things differently. I can’t really undo them, but I can improve my state in life.
WOMAN [sips her shake]: Hm.
BETTY: I’ve been going back and forth on starting school again. Getting my masters. [Pause.] Criminal justice. [Pause.] But I see my kids so little as it is. [Takes out her car keys, showing a keychain with a photo of a girl and a boy.] They’re booth in high school now.
WOMAN [looking indifferently at the photo]: I see.
BETTY: But … maybe if I could change things, you could change things, too.
WOMAN: I think I’m well past the point of being able to change things, assuming I ever had the chance to begin with. [Finishes off shake with a long slurp.] Anyway, my line of work at least allows me certain perspective of the efficacy of changing anything. Knowing the reality that, almost regardless of any real effort, everyone’s more or less going in the same trajectory.
BETTY: Where’s that?
WOMAN: Nowhere good.
BETTY: That’s … really sad.
WOMAN: You adjust. [Pause. Sits up, readies to leave.] Speaking of which, I must get back. [Slides out of the booth.] Before I say too much.
BETTY: Well it was nice having you, food critic or no.
CUT TO the counter. The WOMAN walks slowly past it to the exit. The black-clad youths are behind her at the register. ANGELA is behind the register with BETTY and VINCENT beside her. ROY makes eye contact with the WOMAN, she returns with a slight smirk.
ROY [somewhat fearfully]: You really do think you’re better than us, don’t you?
BETTY: Roy, what’s the matter with you?
ROY: Me? What’s the matter with her? Coming here all condescending. Lowering herself to our level.
WOMAN: Roy, if I am in any way superior to you or anyone else here it is not by choice. And if you think superiority is something that doesn’t come with trade-offs then I don’t think you know what it is.
ROY [bitterly]: I bet you’re going home to a cat.
WOMAN: Think what you choose to.
She attempts to leave. ROY takes light hold of her arm.
ROY: So what is your authority?
WOMAN [smiling]: I guess it’s this. [Holds up her gloved hand.]
ROY: Your glove?
WOMAN [pulling the fingers to remove the glove]: No, not exactly. [She pulls off the glove revealing an extensively scarred hand.] I can’t really put my authority in words so I’ll have to show you. [She walks back to the register towards the youths; she looks at WARLOCK 2 who looks nervously back. She holds out her hand.] How do you do?
WARLOCK 2 places his hand into hers. He instantly seizes in place. His eyes roll back into his head, before falling to his knees and vomiting. The other youths jolt back and freeze in terror. ANGELA goes to check on him. Everyone is horrified but too dumbfounded to be hysterical.
VINCENT: Holy fuck.
The WOMAN approaches ROY, looking at him coldly.
WOMAN: Are you satisfied?
ROY’s lips tremble but he says nothing.
BETTY: I’m calling the cops.
WOMAN [still staring at ROY but addressing VINCENT]: Before I go, I have a question. [Looks at VINCENT.] When you talk about Hell, do you capitalize it?
WOMAN: That’s what you call it, right? Do you capitalize it when you say it?
VINCENT: I don’t fucking know, lady.
WOMAN [putting the glove back on, looking toward the exit]: Well, I guess it really makes no difference in the long run.
ANGELA: You’re a monster.
WOMAN: He’ll be fine. Improved quite possibly in his case. Good night.
She exits. Silence.
ROY [tremblingly, to VINCENT]: Just so you know … [pause] … it’s Wednesday.
SCENE: Conference room in Area 51. GENERAL HANSON paces at the head of the table in battle fatigues. DR. CARUTHERS enters, disheveled and in sweatpants, accompanied by two soldiers.
HANSON: Dr. Eliza Caruthers?
HANSON: Dr. Eliza Caruthers of MIT? Professor of environmental science?
CARUTHERS: Applied ethics in environmental science.
HANSON: Oh, right. I’m General James Hanson; I’m in charge of things here. Please sit. Can I get you some coffee?
CARUTHERS: No thanks; I had some on the plane.
HANSON: Very well. [To guards.] You’re excused.
The guards exit.
I want to apologize for the … abrupt nature of your visit.
CARUTHERS: For waking me up at two in the morning and flying me across the country, you mean?
HANSON: Like I said … abrupt. But I would not have done so if it the circumstances did not require your expertise.
HANSON: We have, to put it a certain way, an applied ethics in environmental science emergency on our hands.
CARUTHERS: There are a lot of those nowadays.
HANSON: This one is quite pressing.
CARUTHERS: I see.
HANSON: You signed the NDA, I assume.
HANSON: None of what you will be told must leave this room. No writing about it henceforth. Certainly no live-tweeting.
CARUTHERS: I left my phone in Massachusetts.
HANSON: Splendid! Not that you could have done much if you had it. No reception and spotty wi-fi are our greatest security measures.
Enter an OFFICER wheeling a covered object in on a cart.
OFFICER: Where do I put this?
HANSON: Right here where I’m standing.
THE OFFICER wheels the cart in front of HANSON.
HANSON: Thank you, Sergeant. You may inform Dr. McKnight that we are ready for him.
THE OFFICER salutes and exits.
CARUTHERS: Dr. McKnight? Dr. Holden McKnight?
HANSON: You know him!
CARUTHERS [deadpan]: We are aware of each other.
HANSON: He’s been consulting with us on this situation for two months. He’s been instrumental in developing our understanding.
CARUTHERS: Holden is a programmer and linguist. What does this have to—
HANSON: The doctor will clarify everything momentarily.
McKNIGHT enters in jeans, a tucked-in flannel shirt, tennis shoes, a tweet jacket, and carrying a laptop.
HANSON: Dr. McKnight, this is Dr. Eli—
McKNIGHT: Dr. Caruthers, so great we were able to get you.
McKNIGHT extends and shakes CARUTHERS’s hand.
CARUTHERS: An email in advance would have been nice.
McKNIGHT [putting laptop on the cart]: The hazards of our new calling, I’m afraid.
CARUTHERS: So what is this about, exactly?
HANSON: Dr. McKnight, you have my permission to divulge our situation.
McKNIGHT: Very well. About four months ago a quiet little neighborhood in the greater Bloomfield, Indiana area was made somewhat less quiet when, around 3:30 on a Wednesday morning, it was rocked by a bright flash, and very soon by an explosion. It hit smack in the middle of the cul-de-sac, leaving numerous broken windows and other frontal damage, not to mention a massive fucking crater in the pavement. You might have seen it on CNN.
CARUTHERS: A meteorite, was it?
McKNIGHT: So it was thought at the time, and reported thereafter. But you’re probably suspecting that that wasn’t the whole story.
CARUTHERS: You could say that.
McKNIGHT: And you’d be correct. Once the object was excavated from the street and examined it was soon apparent that there was something beneath the outer matter. This, to be exact.
HANSON lifts the sheet, revealing a small black box.
CARUTHERS: A cube?
McKNIGHT: Not just any cube. [He opens the box, revealing a small white dome, a silver button and a USB outlet.] A sphere cube!
CARUTHERS [standing up, examining it closely]: I don’t get it.
McKNIGHT: No one did at first until someone pressed this button. When it was pressed, the people around it were bombarded with incomprehensible and ungodly sounds. Needless to say, that left more questions than answers. And a burst eardrum or two. [Chuckles. Pause.] So that’s when they called me. [Opens up his laptop and types on it.] When they noticed the outlet here, they sought me out to develop a program with the aim of deciphering the racket. A lot of the top noise was just static, though a kind of static no earthly ear is familiar with. It was a tall order for any seasoned technician; essentially the demand was that I build a digital antenna of some sort. [Turns the laptop screen to face CARUTHERS, it shows a white binary sequence typing itself.] One that needed to reach only God knows how far away. [Pause. Goes into his jacket pocket.] In hindsight the coding was the easy part, it would be useless without … [takes out a small case] … the receptor. [He opens the case, revealing a two-way USB plug. He attaches it to the laptop and then to the box.] General, you do the honors.
HANSON pushes the button. The dome blinks red before turning solid. It emits a shrill noise that jolts everyone, not least of all CARUTHERS, hearing it for the first time.
THE BOX [in a male voice]: Hello? [Static.] Hello? [Static.] Are you coming in?
McKNIGHT: This is Dr. Holden McKnight, we read you.
THE BOX: Ah, Dr. McKnight. So happy to hear from you again.
McKNIGHT: This isn’t a bad time, is it?
THE BOX: No, not at all, Dr. Not … at … all. To what do I owe the pleasure?
McKNIGHT: The General and I considered what you told us last time.
THE BOX: Yes?
McKNIGHT: And we’re interested in helping. So I brought on a colleague from my graduate school days who’s eminent in her field.
McKNIGHT nods to CARUTHERS.
CARUTHERS: I’m … [clears throat] I’m Dr. Eliza Caruthers, I’m a professor of applied ethics in environmental science … from MIT.
THE BOX: Cool.
McKNIGHT: So … if it’s okay with you I was hoping you could bring Dr. Caruthers up to speed on your … issue.
THE BOX: Where do you want me to start?
McKNIGHT: From the beginning, I guess?
THE BOX: Very well. [Pause.] GREETINGS PEOPLE OF … PEOPLE OF … What do you call your planet again?
McKNIGHT: Earth, it’s Earth.
THE BOX: Right, thanks. [Clears throat.] GREETINGS PEOPLE OF EARTH. I AM YOUR PLANETARY EQUIVALENT OF A DIPLOMATIC ENVOY FOR ZARKLIV—
HANSON [whispering]: We’re calling it “Melancholia” for our records.
THE BOX: YES, “MELANCHOLIA.” ANYWAY, MY NAME DLORXRORT, BUT FOR EFFICIENCY’S SAKE YOU MAY ADDRESS ME AS … KENNETH. I AM SPEAKING FROM YOU OVER THE SPAN OF THOUSANDS OF LIGHTYEARS IN A FAR-OFF SOLAR SYSTEM. I’M REACHING OUT TO YOU BECAUSE YOUR PLANET HAS MANY SIMILARITIES TO OURS. LIKE YOURS, IT IS MOSTLY WATER-BASED, BUT FILLED WITH VERDANT SPLENDOR, TEEMING WITH DIVERSE WILDLIFE, BUT DOMINATED BY A NOTABLY ADVANCED SPECIES—Hey, can I stop this voice?
THE BOX: Thank you! So … our species is not humanoid, or even bipedal, but like yours it oversees all the affairs of the planet. We are reaching out to you, humbly, to request your assistance.
CARUTHERS: What kind of assistance?
THE BOX: We are, as I said, an advanced species, Dr. Caruthers. On our planet and, as you might have suspected, on yours as well. We have progressed beyond certain things on which you Earthlings are still reliant. Things like national divisions, natural crops, paper currency, regular employment, martial conflict, and the gender binary … to name a few.
CARUTHERS: You have more than two genders?
THE BOX: We have no genders and we are satisfied, thank you. [Pause.] But what we have as yet been unable to conquer is the specter of disease. We have quite possibly eliminated far more ills on our planet than you have on yours, but we are no less vulnerable to new ones. Currently our species is suffering under a new kind of virus that has spread rapidly thanks to an exotic new pet—another thing we, evidently, have been unable to progress away from. The symptoms are fatal, about an 80 percent mortality rate at best, but the process is slow and debilitating. People who have this illness find they cannot be outside for more than a few minutes; their membranes are very sensitive to natural light. They cannot move without vomiting or succumbing to dizziness. The final stage involves horrific convulsions and secretions of all manner of bodily fluid.
HANSON: That sounds horrid.
THE BOX: It is, General. Very despairing.
CARUTHERS: So … what I was … [whispers to McKNIGHT] Can we put that on mute or something?
CARUTHERS: Mute. Can we mute it?
McKNIGHT: Excuse us a moment, Kenneth. [He takes CARUTHERS by the arm and leads her to the far corner of the room.] What’s the matter?
CARUTHERS: I mean, come on Holden. Really? Really? One-gendered quadrupeds?
McKNIGHT: You don’t know how many legs they have.
CARUTHERS: Did you vet this? Like really vet it?
McKNIGHT: For what? Who would do this?
CARUTHERS: MIT has a tech team dedicated to just this kind of thing. Hacking secured systems. Kenneth could be in a fucking basement in St. John’s, Newfoundland for all we know.
McKNIGHT: Let this be the first and final assurance that no one is podcasting into Area 51.
THE BOX: Let me also assure you, Dr. Caruthers, that this is no ruse.
CARUTHERS: I wasn’t insinu—
THE BOX: Do you not think that I’d rather be doing something else other than phoning some far off planet?
CARUTHERS: What actually do you want from us?
THE BOX: We need your help with our malady.
CARUTHERS: Is there some resource that we have but that you don’t that offers some kind of cure?
THE BOX: Not especially, no.
CARUTHERS: Well …
THE BOX: I mean that’d be nice if we got that too, but I think we’d have found that by now. [Pause.] No, actually it’s more of a space thing. As in room—not the plane that separates us. You are the nearest planet that is the least atmospherically antagonistic to us. I am reaching out to see about a temporary transfer of some of our affected to your planet.
CARUTHERS: As in a quarantine?
THE BOX: Just until we get a handle on the situation.
CARUTHERS: But there’s no cure.
THE BOX: “Temporary” has more than one meaning.
HANSON: Kenneth, have you figured out how many you’d be transferring?
THE BOX: Uh … well … that’s fair … uh … let me see. I don’t have exact figures for your metrics. But … [silence] … the present number, assuming the illness doesn’t intensify anymore than it already has is about six …
HANSON [upbeat]: Oh.
THE BOX: Hundred …
HANSON [neutral]: Oh.
THE BOX: Thousand.
HANSON [defeated]: Oh.
CARUTHERS: And what if we decline your request?
THE BOX: Decline?
CARUTHERS: You know, applied ethics and all that.
THE BOX: Refusal would be unwise.
CARUTHERS: What would happen if we refused?
THE BOX: Use your imagination. As I said we are far advan—
CARUTHERS: Far, far advanced, yes. But, like, in what way besides your shipping abilities?
THE BOX: We have way better hair than your species has.
CARUTHERS: You’re going to conquer us with your hair?
THE BOX: No, I’m just saying as an example. Our hair is better. Yes, hair on “Melancholia” is not really the same as hair is understood on Earth. But it’s all uphill from there. For us, that is.
CARUTHERS: Even so … [Pause.] Say all of this goes as you foresee it. Getting things arranged will be very complicated going forward. We have to get this to the President, who must then appeal to the United Nations or NORAD or NATO or something.
THE BOX: Why are you being so process-heavy all of a sudden? The last people we dealt with were much more streamlined.
CARUTHERS: You … You’ve done this already?
THE BOX: What, you thought you were the first people we reached out to?
CARUTHERS: Who were the first? [Looks to HANSON and McKNIGHT.] Guys?
The two men look back blankly.
THE BOX: I’d have to go back and check. But they said they were the People’s Republic. What reason did we have to not believe them?
CARUTHERS: How long has this been going on?
THE BOX: A year … year and a half.
CARUTHERS: How many?
THE BOX: Like 4,000. A dry run. It’s fine from where we’re sitting and we’re not hearing complaints from them. So far as I know.
CARUTHERS: How many quarantines are you expecting to set up?
THE BOX: As many as it takes. You’d do the same, I’m sure.
CARUTHERS: Okay. Assume everything is fine. The process goes smoothly and we let you drop off your sick. Where would we put them?
THE BOX: In a safe place, I can assure you.
CARUTHERS: You’re going to have to be more specific if we’re making these arrangements.
THE BOX: The arrangements are already made.
CARUTHERS: Excuse me?
THE BOX: I feel like something needs to be cleared up between the three of you.
CARUTHERS: Guys what the fuck is he talking about?
McKNIGHT: Uh … I was going to mention …
CARUTHERS [sternly]: What Holden?
McKNIGHT: We didn’t make the connection right away. [Pause.] About a week after the box landed in Indiana, the residents of the neighborhood, who were basically stuck there, started to show some kind of … symptoms.
McKNIGHT: Like they were gassed or something. Vomiting, light-headedness, blisters.
HANSON: Don’t forget to mention the … uh ….
McKNIGHT: Oh yeah, then vines started spreading from the crater. Now they’re pretty much all over town. And it’s growing.
HANSON: They’re being covered as wildfires in the media.
CARUTHERS: So the whole town is infected.
CARUTHERS: It’s quarantined already.
CARUTHERS: So here’s a question. Did you two drag me out of bed just to impress me? Because I—
McKNIGHT: We’re in dark territory, Eliza. All of us.
CARUTHERS: I’ll say. [Pause.] So what is this all for? Some rubber stamp? This is ethically sound regardless of wider impact?
THE BOX: I was trying to be polite.
CARUTHERS [somewhat mockingly]: And I appreciate that, Kenneth.
THE BOX: I may be in another solar system, Dr. Caruthers, but I can still detect sarcasm.
CARUTHERS makes a sour expression at THE BOX. Pause.
CARUTHERS [to HANSON]: Have you at least contained the area?
THE BOX: The area is self-containing. The atmospheric adjustment is designed to extend to a predetermined radius, as much as needed to accommodate our sick. The landing point for the box was the exact center of that radius. We of course regret the inconvenience to the people of the town.
CARUTHERS: I would not want to see how you handle invasions.
THE BOX: No. You would not.
CARUTHERS: So how are you guys going to play this once this covers the entire south of Indiana?
HANSON: Chemical plant explosion.
CARUTHERS looks at him incredulously.
Maybe two chemical plant explosions.
CARUTHERS [deadpan]: I think maybe I will take that coffee now.
HANSON: I think we can all use some.
HANSON exits. McKNIGHT takes a seat next to CARUTHERS.
McKNIGHT: Please understand that I didn’t mean to deceive you. [Pause.] Yes, I admit, you should not have been called so late in the process. [Pause.] But things were moving so fast, and it’s completely out of our hands. [Pause.] Look at the bright side; you get to be a part of something momentous. Something no hum— … Something no American has done before. The honors would be—
CARUTHERS: What honors? The only way this is every going to be known is if we fuck this up—and we will.
McKNIGHT: Come on, what are the chances?
CARUTHERS: Ballpark … like … 85 percent.
McKNIGHT [laughing]: Eight— … 85! Come on, give me your optimistic estimate.
CARUTHERS [staring harshly]: That is my optimistic estimate, Holden. [Points to her face.] This is my optimistic face.
HANSON returns, hands CARUTHERS a cup of coffee.
HANSON: Sorry, I forgot to ask if you take anything.
CARUTHERS: Black is fine.
THE BOX: So I’m still here.
CARUTHERS [standing up, stomping to the box]: Oh fuck off, Kenneth.
CARUTHERS yanks the receptor and throws it at McKNIGHT. The red dome becomes white again.
McKNIGHT: Hey be careful! That cost $400,000 to make!
CARUTHERS slumps back in her seat and sips her coffee, wincing slightly at its bitterness.
CARUTHERS: Applied ethics, my tit.
This is a review of a local restaurant. Full disclosure: I have not eaten at this restaurant. Yet I will persist with its review. Call this thing that compels me what you will—principle, will to life, force majeure, etc.—but I cannot shirk it at this point. I’ve committed. It is the manly thing to do.
Actually, it is more out of amusement. The restaurant amuses me, as does the hotel to which it is connected. Less so the Starbucks, because who cares? You could say that I am enticed by the allure of places I have never been and of senses I seldom if ever indulge. My intelligence, usually passable on a bad day, fails to alert me of the precise name of this concept I am experiencing.
But, anyway—this restaurant. It’s not really the restaurant that amuses me, but the land on which it finds itself placed. The land is very special to me. It is a hilly green patch with some nice lakes that is crossed by a large intersection where my hometown lets out into several others. Once you leave that town and go out into the others, specifically by crossing that intersection, you would pass a place called the Colorado Cafe [sic]. Until it closed very abruptly last year, it was a large inexplicably western-themed bar, with pool tables, a mechanical bull, and a large space for performance, mostly cover bands, and square dancing. Imagine the Roadhouse in Twin Peaks but dumber and with a $10 cover charge. (Though a woman I worked with at a local Whole Foods rip off, also now closed, was from western Canada and understandably felt at home there.) Past the Colorado Cafe is a large shopping center, which had a Toys ‘R’ Us and movie theater that are both gone, and a TGI Fridays and GameStop that are presumably still there. Getting to those places as children required passing that hilly green patch, which did not have at the time what it has now.
People around here get confused when I mention Runnells Hospital. They think that I mean the Runnells Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare, a geriatric center run, until recently, by the county. The confusion over Runnells is partly my fault. I forget that it was not called that officially. It was run by Dr. John E. Runnells and called Bonnie Burn, and it was across from the entrance to Bonnie Burn Road. Dr. Runnells specialized in treating tuberculosis. He founded Bonnie Burn in 1912 as a sanatorium. It took up 145 acres of that hilly green patch. Dr. Runnells died in the 1960s. By the late 1980s, about the time my family moved to the area, the sanatorium fell into disuse.
I am choosing not to reveal the name of the restaurant, because there doesn’t seem to be much point in doing so. It uses the Thing and Thing construction that easily lends to confusion with other services and products that also use that construction: Huckle and Goose, Rag and Bone, Ebony and Ivory, Morgan and Morgan. Its décor is what I would call “rustic eclectic,” in the sense that it combines at least three distinct themes of elevated homeliness: family eatery, boomtown saloon, and urban speakeasy. It breaks the Michael Mann rule by using nothing but earth tones: brick walls and hardwood floors, dim and natural lighting, leather furniture and beige, off-white, or charcoal tabletops. The walls are covered with knick-knacks: photographs of people long dead, posters of events long past, and American flags too tattered to safely fly.
The intersection that crosses the hilly green patch is preceded by a curved road. So when one rode in their family minivan or station wagon, the sanatorium in its final state revealed itself as if it was on a rotating display. On gloomy days it appeared most clearly, the immense size and rot of it, graffiti-coated and boarded up. On clear days it was somehow more imposing. In the late afternoon when the setting sun shone right on it, glowing bright yellow and red, accentuating the extent of the rust and decay. Rust and Decay—that’s a nice name for a retail service.
Bonnie Burn is now mostly an office park. At some point a gym went up in the area, but now it also has that hotel. I suspect it was built to serve primarily the interests of visitors to that office park and the neighboring office parks. There’s really nothing else immediately close by. When you’re a hospital dedicated to helping cure severe and contagious lung ailments, it is unwise to be located in a heavily populated area. So maybe the hotel was put there to meet low expectations. That’s admirable. Not everything has to be epic. But History has other plans sometimes, and now that Bedminster has an auxiliary White House, my dad notifies me of New York Times reports bearing the dateline BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NEW JERSEY. That’s great. I’m glad. I hope they enjoy their stay.
Bonnie Burn had stiff competition in its new urban exploration/ruins porn market. There used to be two other complexes in the immediate area. Greystone was in Morris Plains until it was finally demolished three years ago. Overbrook’s ruins still stand in some form or another in Cedar Grove. Like Bonnie Burn, they collapsed in the late 20th century under the wave of progress, but Greystone and Overbrook were psychiatric hospitals. Bonnie Burn commanded low prestige, perhaps the lowest. Explorers can often separate themselves from psychiatric wards. Though tuberculosis is less common today, the condition is less discriminating. Bonnie Burn got maybe one mention in Weird New Jersey, and few with whom I talk about it, friend or family, really remember it. There is one legend, however, that Woody Guthrie was a patient there and that Bob Dylan once paid him a visit, but I have not verified these details. New Jerseyans are honest at heart, but few sane people ever take them at their word.
The new Runnells is about a mile north of its old land. Though it is more or less on the same hilly green patch. It is much smaller and has recently been subject to layoffs. I’ve been there a few times because that is where I vote. The earliest time I was there, though, was when I was a teenager. I went to see about volunteering, which my mom insisted I undertake out of contrition for a disciplinary lapse. I was very candid about my situation to the official with whom I interviewed about volunteering because I did not know how to frame the situation otherwise. Much to the puzzlement of all involved, she still gave me a blue volunteer smock and a name tag. I never showed up and if I can be candid once more, I’m not terribly curious about what would have gone differently in life if I had.
The food at the restaurant is probably fine.