Freddy’s Lament

I am an anthropologist. I don’t mean it is something I was formally trained for or practice as a profession. It is only in my nature to be curious about men.

My livelihood, that is, what I do for money, is work in a bar. I clean tables and toilets and floors, carry things in from the store room and out to the dumpster, wash dishes in the small kitchen, and generally perform menial tasks for the bartender, waitress and cook.

Murphy’s Law is a tavern of the working class. Once, that meant journeymen from the construction trades, factory workers and the like–men with callused hands and rough clothes, women with short hair and no loose jewelry. Urban renewal, now grown slightly shabby itself, and off-shore manufacturing have changed things over the years. The roughly dressed still come, but they have been joined by others.

The white collar workers who come here to drink and eat fried food have risen as far or even a bit beyond their own expectations–or perhaps their expectations have come down to meet them. They seldom speak of advancement and when they do, the aggravations seem to outweigh the increase in salary, or so they claim. They secretly envy those who work with their hands and sometimes need to be reminded to wash up before they eat. They envy the camaraderie, which they believe is more authentic than what they know in the cubicles where they work. They do not envy the heavy shoes and crooked walks of the plumbers and carpenters and concrete workers and auto mechanics they share the bar with. They do not recognize that much of the tribal unity of those men is based on uncertain wages and uncertain futures and the aches and pains and deformities caused by work and disappointment. They don’t, and yet they do, and that is why they come. It is no different for them. What we all share in Murphy’s Law is the knowledge that things will rarely work out as we imagine.

In the afternoons the bar is surreal in an ordinary sort of way. We’re open, but there are few customers. The staff is  mainly getting ready for the evening. The cook lights the griddle around noon and starts serving from the menu at 3:00. Staff can eat around 2:00 for free.

Most of the early customers are the laid off, retired on meager pension, or disabled but still mobile, with empty hours weighing upon them. They are waiting for happy hour, when the gainfully employed start arriving with the comfort of jokes and complaints and curses… and drinks are two for the price of one.

As an amateur anthropologist, I might describe the degree of sadness or happiness as a personality trait in humans. My own observation is that it is not a direct corollary of their life experience. Some of the unfortunate are in a relatively good humor, some of the fortunate are not. I will not suggest I know why or whence this trait, only that it could be plotted as a bell-shaped curve. The moderately unhappy with occasional moments of happiness people, are grouped at the center of the bell—and from there, twin curves dwindle toward greater extremes of sadness or happiness. The patrons of Murphy’s Law are, I would say, on the whole, toward the middle but on the low side. I would not say this to anyone’s face, however. I have to work here.

It was called just Murphy’s when I began working here many years ago. Ownership has changed several times. During the brighter days of shifting demographics the name was changed to Murphy’s Law. I presume that owner, whom I only briefly met, imagined the facetiously witty and rebellious name would attract the more educated, more upwardly mobile, more recently arrived denizens of the neighborhood. The older, shorter name is still used, but it is accepted custom that one must pass through an initiation period and gain the status of a regular before using it, or risk receiving contemptuous glances. Certainly, there are territorial issues involved, but the primary factor seems to be the capacity to be properly socialized within Murphy’s environment. New arrivals, whether staff or customer, are observed and measured by some unspoken and elusive standards before they are accepted.  There was considerable tension when the white collar class of workers first started patronizing the bar. But that tension has resolved into something resembling the banter and friendly insults traded by fans of rival sports teams.

I myself have achieved acceptance by a combination of appearing defective in a more or less unthreatening way, and being worn but economically serviceable. Like the furnishings and mechanisms, the tables and chairs, the cooler and grill, the scarred bar itself, with its reupholstered stools and dented brass foot-rail, I have been passed along and enjoy a humble, semi-respectable position. I am like the older memorabilia on the walls. No one knows exactly how I came to be here or why, but it is taken for granted there must be some reason. I might be a relative of someone. My wages might be subsidized by some non-profit organization or government program. I might be the modern day village idiot, the lucky one, upon whom some pity has been taken, because I can adequately perform simple tasks and do not suffer problematic episodes of behavior.

These are not unreasonable speculations. I am quite short and have semi-mongoloid features. I have learned to be restrained and cautious in my speech. Newcomers to Murphy’s are often nervously uncertain about me. Those who display fearful or aggressive attitudes toward me are soon chastised by the regulars. They are told in no uncertain terms—Freddy is all right, leave Freddy alone.

I appreciate this support, and of course I take some advantage of it too. On occasion I deliberately say something knowledgeable, intelligent or deviously comic, just to disconcert them in their assumptions. People mess with me, I mess with them back. I have mystique on my side after all. I’m only… of course I’m not but… as one long time customer put it, everybody sticks out their elbows, their thorns, their bad smell or bad temper, whatever they’ve got, just trying to make a little room for themselves in a crowded place. Then another guy said bad haircut, and another said bad mojo, and another said bad suit, and around, people said bad breath and bad genes and bad influences, and people laughed and it made me feel among brothers–standing there with my broom like the sorcerer’s apprentice–and for hours after you would still hear someone say that’s some bad mojo man, or like a bad suit bro, or some other bad thing and laugh again. Say what you might–excuse me–say what I might about the fickleness of the tribe–you gotta love these guys.

As far as I know, I am now the longest habitant of Murphy’s present. There was an old guy… he was an old guy when I met him… and he used to still come by from time to time, and then once or twice with a younger companion. I haven’t seen him for a while though, and I don’t really expect to, he didn’t look well. He said something about having a drink before he went to that big union hall in the sky.

What I mean is… my right to be here is not seriously disputed. My cover is not blown. I have been cashing my paychecks with the same guy for so long he only charges me five percent now. I’m not telling you where I live, for reasons I think will become clear, but I have lived there for many years, paying my rent in cash from my typically minimum wage plus tips plus food. I don’t think I could survive without the tips and food, but they have always been there.

The bartender and the waitress divide up the tips for the night and share with the cook and me. The method of cash distribution is changeable, dependent on mood and need and how much or little cash is there, and other things… sadness and happiness. It is not known to me exactly how they decide. Possibly, they are having a telepathic discussion of the matter I cannot hear.

When I say I was not formally trained, I do not mean to imply I have not studied. I have little money for books, of course, but I have a library card and, lacking any social life other than the bar and riding the bus, I have plenty of free time. I have always had a facility with language. That was a gift and I take no credit for it, but I have done my best to use it to good purpose.

The librarians have been very helpful. Among other things, they taught me how to use the internet, after the computers were installed. Between the books, the bar and the world wide web, I can encounter nearly every idea, opinion, discovery and falsehood ever disseminated by human beings. That can be rather overwhelming at times, but in the long run it has given me an appreciation for the simplicity underlying so many things that seem complex. For instance, just in terms of remaining alive, you are either hungry or nourished, and people may treat you well or badly.

Then too, the TV is always on at Murphy’s. News, athletic contests, science, history, movies and propaganda flow from the screen all of my working hours. The drama of TV and the bar patrons’ reactions to it, has played a large role in my understanding of life on earth and what matters most to the people who live here.

That’s where I first heard about the faster than light experiment, on the TV. It was briefly mentioned on an afternoon science program. I was intrigued and later I looked it up on the internet in the library.  An energy signal was transmitted across some kind of highly excited, supercharged plasma medium to a receiver on the other side. It went across the gap at 300 times the speed of light. It arrived before it left. The scientists declared their experiment cast no doubt on relativity theory. The energy signal arrived without meaningful order in it, no information, no message. They weren’t sure you could even say anything had actually happened, only that it had happened very fast. Einstein’s theory of the constant but relative speed of light was about the orderly movement of information through time and space. The experiment proved Einstein correct, they said, because it demonstrated that at faster than light speed, information would be lost. I was interested in the experiment because I had already figured that out on my own.

This came up today because of a guy named Dave. Dave is a mechanical engineer who designs heating and cooling systems for buildings. Dave likes to talk about the end of the world. He’s full of stories about Nostradamus and the Bible Code and the Mayans and Hindus and Egyptians and astronomy and corporate cartels and big brother and ice ages and electromagnetic flares from the sun and other scenarios for the end of days. He’s quite well versed in these subjects. He has tracked with various conspiracy theories and a string of disappointing predictions regarding the actual date of doom. He is sure we are in the end times now though. He says it’s like mankind is moving into another dark age by mutual and strange attraction. We’re going there because we can.

Lately, Dave has become rather more political in his description of the modern world than he used to be—but he is putting his real hopes on aliens from space. And because that is part of Mayan lore, he is wondering about the Mayan calendar and 2012 and all that. His argument is that between the astronomy, biology, anthropology, quantum theory, Mayans, and other stuff, you can make a reasonable case for alien visitation or seeding–and interstellar space travel (never mind intergalactic travel) is really not conceivable without faster than light speed, and the more faster the better. Dave’s current vision is basically 1984 with benevolent and powerful visitors from space at the end.

So it was Dave who actually started talking about this faster than light experiment. He says other faster than light experiments were done in the twentieth century, but none anywhere near as fast as this one. Scientists don’t know what to make of them, really. It’s not good enough to just say it doesn’t violate relativity theory, it’s not supposed to be possible, but there it is. It raises some interesting questions. If you traveled faster than light would you go into the past?  Could you have an effect there?  Would all information be lost, or only some of it–maybe only the part that organized the rest into a coherent narrative of universal events?  And what did it mean to arrive before you left?

It gradually becomes clear that what Dave pictures is this:  In the future, earth’s descendants will travel among the stars. They will return in time to guide us and save us from ourselves. And if the Mayan calendar is right, we don’t have long to wait now. He likes 2012 because it’s not too far away and he’ll probably live to see it. Or live to regret it, quips someone down the bar.

Dave’s concept of proper aliens from space is humanoid creatures who have entirely gotten over being self-destructive and mean to others. Just how this quality might be transferred to contemporary humans is part of the mystery. He says the aliens would have technology and knowledge we can’t even imagine. It would be like trying to explain television to someone in the sixth century. The aliens would be firm but patient. They would set a good example. They would not try to capitalize on their celebrity and make space sluts of themselves. They would give more than they took… perhaps that in itself would be such a novel experience for humanity it would cause a cognitive dissonance that led to an evolutionary shift in consciousness… he says he is kidding, but maybe not. Benevolent visitor from outer space action figures, says someone.

Dave is ignoring some of the most intriguing evidence, however. What of all the mysterious sightings and maneuvers and abductions and other weird stuff?  Granted the often anecdotal and uncertain nature of this evidence—but does this sound like the behavior of vastly evolved and benevolent visitors from a superior civilization?  Or does it sound like teenage boys and ritualized vandalism?  Showing off and marking their territory. Setting something on fire, or spray-painting the side of a building. Initiations and pranks. Lights in the sky, crop circles, anal probes–they aren’t revealing much in the way of wisdom or technology. Is it an “Aliens: Coming Soon” promotional campaign?  A galactic youth gang tagging their turf?  Space cadets gone wild?  How did they get the keys to the spaceship?  Do their probation officers know where they are and what they’re doing?

I suppose an entirely different wave of visitors might show up at the last minute in 2012. I wouldn’t know about that. I came with the earlier wave and I know Dave’s hopes about us are not going to pan out, and I know why. It’s that faster than the speed of light problem, the loss of information.

We assumed we had embarked with a mission. You see–Dave?–we had hopes for ourselves too. Faster than light travel made us forget so very many things—and here we were in this space craft and we didn’t know why and we had technology onboard we didn’t know what it was or how to use it (I still think the anal probe was actually meant for some other use). But we had our native intelligence, and an inspiring certainty in our purpose—if only we could remember what it was. We were sure it had something to do with men. We felt strongly about that. I feel strongly about it to this day.

It’s all very Lord of the Flies-meets-X Files. But as far as wise men from the stars coming to save us goes… it’s not looking real good. I know what I’m talking about. I think it’s just a hobby for Dave, but it’s a somewhat optimistic one, and well suited to his interests, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it for him even if I dared to speak up, which I don’t.

I jumped ship… if you want to know. We got earth TV on the ship, and apparently I retained a natural talent for language and logic. I watched and listened to human beings telling the story of themselves. The cop shows especially, demonstrated their longing for kindness and justice. I came to the conclusion that humans, despite their confused blend of arrogance and fear, were in fact trying to become better than they were. I thought they deserved better treatment than we were giving them.

I was not successful at convincing my companions of this. If I were to apply human psychology to them, I would say my shipmates had become psychotic. And I would guess that was due to the loss of their own history, their lack of connection and sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.

Since I failed utterly in my attempts to reason with them, I just decided to take my chances on the ground. I admit this was not an entirely altruistic decision based on empathy for earthlings. My own personal sense of shame simply became intolerable.

My old posse is still doing pretty much the same as they did years ago, except they don’t do livestock mutilations much anymore. I regret that I had to abandon them, but what else could I do in such circumstances? Now they are on TV. Invasion of the Clueless from Outer Space.

It is possible of course, that I am a future descendant of earth, that I have traveled faster than light, and backward in time, and therefore information has been lost. This could be interpreted from an optimistic perspective, even if it does not quite match Dave’s vision. Humanity must have survived somehow and moved on and even tried to come back and make things better at a particularly crucial moment. We look kind of alike and have many things in common—including lots of technology but less than a full lick of common sense.

The speed of light limit exists to maintain an orderly evolution throughout the universe—to allow the universe to listen to itself and learn what it is doing. No short cuts are allowed. Short cuts produce chaos, weird feedback loops that make the message incoherent. We all just do the best we can with what we’ve got in the time we have. That’s how it works at Murphy’s. I’m sure that’s why I fit in so well. Like my brothers at the bar I am lost but somehow right at home… lonely, but not alone.

The world contracts around them… these sad with occasional moments of happiness men.  They are not mad visionaries or mad revolutionaries.  Neither did they choose to be trapped in bondage or numbed by the seeming safety of convention.  They did not wish that the few meager peaks of their days would rise up so starkly as to make the plains of the ordinary seem like dank basements, their passageways obscured by smoke machines and haunted by dead promises.  They did not hope that their craving for exaltation would become a commodity for sale in the marketplace of narcissism.

They could not tell you, either now or long ago, just what it was they did hope for, though that makes their hope no less real.  They only followed the path that lay open before them, well marked and well traveled.  They were guided into the catacomb by signs declaring freedom and acceptance and success, and now they are lost in its labyrinth.  And so they drink, but their drinking is not a passive act.  It is not, for most, mere self-pity or self-medication or self-destruction.  It is a deliberate act of contempt for their captivity.

Before they could speak, they were aware of their aliveness.  And if the fire within them did not burn fiercely enough to ignite the billboard and bumper sticker prison that surrounded them and burn it to ashes, neither was that fire extinguished.  They fuel it with alcohol and fan it with the bellows of disbelief and moral outrage.  They stagger and puke and howl at their self-appointed masters.  They become ill-kempt and ill-tempered and ill-advised.  They would rather throw themselves away than be bought so cheaply.  No matter what the circus barkers of politics and religion and commerce may tell them, they know they are not free and it pains them.

I romanticize excessively, I know, even to the point of morbidity.  One could just as well say they are idiots.  One could say that human beings have squandered the inheritance of evolution on gaudy trinkets and plague-infested security blankets.  One could say, in other words, that they have turned their backs on a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Nevertheless, I do feel some affection for them, and my melancholy surely has much to do with my own lonely circumstance.  I too, followed the path that appeared before me, and tried to make the best of it.  I am just as sad and disappointed as they.

The heart must be broken open.  It resists all lesser attempts.








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