(For Lily Elizabeth Potter, beloved daughter - who owns my life, my love and my labor.)
I am a micropiece.
I stand at one of the uncounted entry points to the market; amid the grand swirl and flow of symbols and goods that constitutes the practical life of the swarming human race.
I am an interface, a sentry keeper, a minor sentinel. I am the crux of the purchase, the endpoint of property transfer.
I watch the security system, looking for thieves.
I keep this lone post along the vast web of intestates clean and well lit, attractive to the potential customer - another oasis of sense in the black of night and the random movement of the road.
To me the hordes bring their needs, and to me they lay their money down. With me they trade value for value, and the goal is to satisfy us both. I do not love my job, but I do it well, for it has to be done - and the value it gives back to me is both necessary and acceptable.
What I do is minor, but not unimportant. It is common, but not base. What I do is help complete the vast and intricate puzzle of the human market. It is a puzzle of unimaginable size and complexity, one that will be forever worked at yet never completed, for the puzzle grows as the human race grows.
It will never be completed, but still we will lay the pieces together and try to make them speak sense from chaos. We will continue working on it for the same reason we continue breathing - because it keeps us alive.
I am a minor piece, but sometimes I still smile at the thought of being involved in such a beautiful puzzle.
I am a micropiece.
I am a cashier.
kings of the road
In this day, when a five-year-old song becomes an "oldie", and a ten-year-old movie can be considered "a classic", the truck stop off exit 81 on Interstate 78 in Belden, Mississippi must be viewed as an artifact - an ancient edifice of Lovecraftian stature. It has stood here for over forty years, changed hands a dozen times, endured the changes those years have brought and managed to thrive. The reason is simple:
We sell fuel.
Diesel is the fluid that powers the engine of American commerce. It is the effluence of dinosaurs and prehistoric plants, distilled and made volatile. It powers the monstrous engines of the Macks and Reos and Freightliners that rule the highways of this land mass. The eighteen wheelers you curse as they blast by you on your way to work, pulling a hundred solid tons of freight from here to there at speeds that would send our ancestors into shock. The kings of the road, the merchant princes. The metaphorical descendents of the clipper ship captains who plied the Atlantic between the old world and the new, seeking a fortune and most often simply making ends meet. They run on diesel. And so does the truck stop. But there are other forms of fuel.
We have a restaurant. It's not a fancy restaurant by any means. Truck stop fare, greasy and simple. The prices are oddly high, and the service may sometimes leave a bit to be desired, but the fact that it is always busy is the basic testament to its worth.
You can sit down and order three eggs, a crispy pile of hashbrowns, toast or biscuits, grits or homefries, and a massive slab of bone in country ham dripping with grill grease and flavor for less than seven dollars. Beat it, I dare you. Confront yourself with that eye popping load of food, enough to feed a small family, a platter that looks ready to explode, and tell me where you could get it better.
Perhaps it isn't what you want. That's no surprise. Because you are not being catered to.
The truckers are, with this simple extravagance. Men with no real home but the road, no waypoint but truckstops like this. The waitresses are their sisters, the cooks their mothers, and I their old friend they met not long ago, always ready to fuel them up and get them on their way with a minimum of fuss and bother.
Fuel comes in many forms.
We sell other things. Beer, candy, chips, smokes, truck supplies, soda, tools, phone cards, and so on. But that is all gravy, next to the fuel.
We cater to these distant sons of the merchant princes.
We cater to these kings of the road.
I work third shift, graveyard, late shift, last shift, night shift. Call it what you like, because the name doesn't matter. What matters is that I begin my work day at midnight and end it at eight AM. What matters is that I find myself out of synch with the majority of the human race.
The worst thing about third shift is that you begin busy ; the second shift drive home rush, the closing bar rush. Cranky people wanting to get home and unpredictable drunks trying to sober up a bit at the only restaurant for miles that's open after midnight. And then you end busy, with the first shift going to work rush. More cranky people, barely awake, fueling up and seeking caffeine. They come in hordes, and they want you to hurry. In between is a long stretch of deepening boredom, of nothing to do. You find yourself cleaning, ordering, straightening, doing busy work, just to make the time pass. By the time the morning rush arrives you are tired, bored, annoyed and ready to go home and sleep. But things start jumping.
So far I have maintained control. I have not yet punched the remaining teeth out of an asshole trucker blaming me because his fuel card hasn't been authorized. I have not yet verbally destroyed the skinny bitch who complains in detail about the deli food yet buys it without fail every morning. I have not yet raised hell with the 6 AM second register cashier who is never less than 20 minutes late. 20 minutes as I fiend for a cigarette with a line snaking all the way to the back beer coolers, trying to be polite to people who roll their eyes and whine that they are going to be late for work, or that there's no coffee made.
The best thing about third shift is that I am, for the most part, my own boss. No manager, no supervisor. Just me, a waitress, a cook and a dishwasher. This means I am pretty much the king of the truckstop during the eight hours I am required to be on duty.
For some, that would be a recipe for trouble. Carte blanche in the middle of the night, doing an alternately boring and frustrating job for low pay and little appreciation. Some might start stealing, or sleeping, or drinking, or selling drugs.
I decided to use it as an educational experience.
I decided to see if I could, in my own little way, manipulate the market.
And the results were quite satisfying.
Take the coffee problem. Once the morning rush begins, it's damned near impossible for me to get off the register and make it to meet the massive demand for it. Every morning I would put up with a symphony of complaints and annoyed looks, of the waitresses bitching about non-tipping customers raiding their pots, and there was nothing much I could do but grin and bear it.
Then I noticed something. The regulars, confronted with three empty coffee pots, and knowing the drill from long experience, would simply make a pot or two.
As a gesture of thanks, I would give them their cup on the house.
Word spreads, baby. To hell with tv and the net and radio. Word of mouth is still the fastest information transfer system on the planet. Bandwidth? No such thing. The band is unlimited. Word of mouth supersedes and incorporates all other mediums - since without it, there would be only silence and static on those media.
Within two days, I no longer needed to worry about coffee. The regulars kept it up for me, and saved 74 cents. It has gotten to the point now that folks will come in, be confronted with three full pots, and say “Well, fuck!” as they begin fishing for change.
It is a rare morning that the pots aren't full these days.
My second experiment was the biscuits, and it was much more impressive.
We have this deli box/steam table, glass-enclosed and heated. At 3 AM, the cook brings out three pans of breakfast biscuits. Sausage, bacon, ham, tenderloin, steak, bologna, and chicken. All of them are available plain or with cheese, with egg, or both. The prices change accordingly.
When I started, only a few people bought the biscuits. People would look, ask the prices, then just decide not to get one. We'd end up tossing three quarters of them and writing it off. After a little while, mostly out of boredom, I asked a customer why.
"Well, they look good as hell," I was told. "But the Shell down the street has the same thing, and it's about ten cents cheaper."
I am not a competitive sort. I have no interest in sports, chess, checkers, poker, video games or anything else that places me in direct competition with another person. The reason for this is simple: I detest losing. I get mad. So, I refrain.
But this was different. It affected my job. It also involved my current intellectual obsession, the beautiful market system that pervades human life so deeply that most people never even think about it.
I had an idea. In a sense, it was risky. If it failed, or I was caught, I might be written up or even fired. I thought about it for a day or two, weighed the risks.
Then one morning, I just did it. I threw the price sheet away and just started selling every biscuit for 99 cents.
The results were phenomenal. By the end of that week I couldn't keep the damned biscuits for more than an hour or two. Word spread, and spread. We gained new regulars, folks who apparently used to frequent the Shell in the morning but now stopped here, to grab some biscuits with their gas, coffee, honeybuns and smokes.
I let my 'discount' ride for two weeks, I suppose until I felt I had the new regulars hooked on a routine, then went back, without a word, to the old price system.
I waited to see if I would be busted. I waited to see if business would fall off.
Neither happened. I am still selling those biscuits as fast as people can step into the store. The only complaints I've gotten have been from the waitresses, who've noticed a downturn in their customers since the deli box became so mysteriously attractive, and the cook, who is now required to make five pans of biscuits every morning, and is angry at the talk of ditching the other morning items in favor of biscuits exclusively.
I just shrug, and say "Go figure."
I have pondered the reason why the price increase didn't hurt my shift's business. In fact, it seems to grow every day, as word continues to spread. I have come to a few conclusions:
I am an interface, an entry point to the market, and I determined when I took this job to be a good one, and make this necessary human function as pleasant and enjoyable as I possibly can.
I will do so for as long as i hold this job that I do not love; but have learned to respect.
No one cares what they say to the micropiece - we ride below their threshold.
Some would find this insulting, or demeaning. In fact, I surrendered to that feeling at first. Until, that is, I realized exactly how much opportunity this engendered to actually observe and analyze the complex workings of the individual components in this tiny slice of the market.
Odd that invisibility would lead to such power.
Truckers are an odd lot, individualistic and often outspoken. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of truckers I met espousing any sort of collectivization that even approached socialism. In fact, I met only one. He seemed to be some sort of union organizer or hardcore advocate. He engaged a few others in discussion that led to his being laughed out of the restaurant one night. He left in a huff, angry that the independent operators should dismiss his fantasy of collective fraternity so outright and profanely.
Most of the truckers I met were apolitical. Some actually called politics a scam and a game. Understandable. These are men without a home - road riders. Loners by nature or design. But I certainly heard them express their opinions loudly and clearly quite often.
I never pushed or prodded, or preached or evangelized. That would have been rude. I was there to do a job and they were there to rest during the job. I stuck to the topic at hand, whatever they felt like talking about.
But, on the occasions it did come up, I did not shy away from my own opinions.
The truckers liked me. They liked the fact that I could converse on a wide range of topics, and they liked my jokes and overall sense of humor. Some liked to talk music, some wanted to talk about women and their inscrutable ways. Some wanted to talk sport - which I know nothing about but was game enough to try and fake.
On one memorable occasion, a shrunken elderly black man with a thick and beautiful southern Louisiana accent - an old-school owner/operator who had been driving since his late teens - brought up the Viking explorations of America! I was delighted. Such strange juxtapositions are the real joy in such a dreary job. I know a bit about the subject and we conversed a while. He excused himself to get something from his truck and returned a few minutes later with a thick hardback book that I instantly recognized: Will Durant's The Age Of Faith - the volume that had turned me into a history freak at age 15. He looked a bit sheepish. "I picked this up at a library sale. I don't know why. But it means a lot to me. He wrote more this fella, right? The whole story of civilization, I hear."
He and I talked after that. Really talked - about important things, deep things. He ended up standing there at the counter through the rest of my shift, and our conversation ranged over the history of the world and interspersed with personal stuff. Politics was a big theme - and I was not shy about my opinion. And he agreed. He seemed to draw strength from it. I tried to be eloquent. I tried to be calm and logical. My point - as my point always is - was that the more power we give the state, the more enslaved we are. He agreed. He talked about his own family, his brothers and sisters lost in welfare and housing projects, turned apathetic.
When he left, smiling at me as if he'd found a kindred spirit, we shook hands. His shake was firm and warm and honest. "It was a fine thing to meet you, George," he said to me, "and I hope we meet again soon."
I had to fight tears.
That is the proper way to be a rabblerouser. By treating people as people. By engaging their hearts and souls. By approaching them as human beings and not potential converts. Walking up wild-eyed and tossing pamphlets and yelling slogans simply gets you written off as a nut. You'll never change a person's mind that way, unless they are as crazy as the slogan shouter in the first place.
It happened fairly regularly. Nice conversations got started, I'd see an opening, and I'd introduce my anti-statist opinion. I'd always introduce it as a point where they agreed. I'd never contradict or incite argument. I'd word my response in a way that was non-threatening but thought-provoking. I considered it a triumph to plant a seed and leave them thinking. I'd snuck up on them, after all, below their threshold, placed herein a market friendly point and rousing the rabble the best I could.
Of course, some people are unreachable.
One morning a well-dressed couple stopped, gassed up their SUV, bought a paper, and asked about a menu. I gave them one. Snobs, I knew - just from looking at them. Observing them. They seemed bemused at being in such a common, tacky place. They were an older couple - mid 50's I would guess. Very attractive, especially the lady. She reminded me of the beautiful and talented Gena Rowlands. She had a classic face and a hairstyle that suited her perfectly. She was well dressed and - physically - a picture of real class. I held back my desire to flirt shamelessly.
"Dear lord, we are certainly in the heart of the south!" she laughed. "Look at these menu choices. They all come with grits!" Haha. She tossed me a look, that look that says 'I don't mean you of course'. I smiled, but the urge to flirt died suddenly.
"Seems that Bush is having some trouble convincing Congress of the need to deal with Iraq." Hubby said, reading from his paper.
Wifey sniffed, still perusing the menu she found hilarious. "Idiots. What a bunch of idiots. America is all that matters."
She tossed the menu on the counter, and basically dismissed me.
"Do you know what we should do? Really?"
Oh, I was all fucking ears.
"What's that, sweetie?" asked hubby, probably reading the comics by now.
"We should just nuke the planet. Think about it. We are protected by vast oceans on either side of the truly powerful states. We should just wipe them out. Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa. Waste. Thats all they are. Especially the Middle East. They signed their death warrant when they dared to attack their betters. Just wipe them out. And China is a joke. So is Russia. I never believed either had a functioning ICBM. It's ludicrous. They ride around in rickshaws and can't even give welfare to their poor people. We should just wipe them out. All of them. Good riddance. Then the South American countries would know who's the boss and never give us any trouble. Are you ready? I don't feel like eating this hick slop. Let's go to the Arby's up the road."
"Mmm-hmm," said hubby.
They paid for their gas and I tried to keep my hands from shaking as I rang it up. I tried to keep the bile from rising in my throat. I tried to keep from reaching out and smashing that bitch's face into the counter, hopping over it, and beating her pathetic husband into the floor while she watched and saying, "Hey! Look! I can do it! Must make it right!"
I succeeded, despite the fact that, in my head, I remembered this little piece of video I had seen years ago, of a baby girl dancing joyfully with her brothers and sisters on the streets of Baghdad, while her grandfather played music. That baby girl looked almost exactly like my baby girl. She was just a little darker of skin. Her eyes were the same. Her joy was the same. Her life was exactly the same.
They left, and I cried. I couldn't help it. I cried for a while. Co-workers came up and asked me what was wrong, I told them it was ok, I was just tired, under a lot of pressure, made excuses, etc. I couldn't tell them that I was afraid for the entire human race. Afraid because people like that were the ones in charge, the ones who counted.
And I could only rouse a certain kind of rabble.
humans in action
But then, one day, I saw an amazing thing ...
I'm working a rare day shift - filling in for a call-in and grabbing the opportunity for some overtime. It was just a few minutes after 5 PM, right about when the first afternoon rush gets going, and I was pleased by the steady business that allows me simply go with the flow, lets me ignore the steady passage of minutes towards the goal of quitting time. I am ringing up my customer's purchase, staring at the keypad , when I hear a THUD, and the old guy in front of the counter says, in a voice between awe and horror: "Holy shit!"
I look up and out the plate glass of the store's front wall, and I see a red Dodge Intrepid flipping through the air, trailing glass and debris, landing in the ditch by the highway. It is a surreal sight. A simultaneously fascinating and sickening sight. The woman driving it had blindly pulled out into oncoming traffic and was hit by a huge Chevy truck.
The man behind the current customer, waiting to pay for a tank of gas, tosses a 20 on the counter and says "I'll be right back, I gotta help those people!" His face is pale and his eyes oddly distant. In retrospect, I decided that they were the eyes of a man running on deep impulses that have little to do with conscious thought.
I dial 911 before the damned car even lands, report the accident and take off out the door, as does most of the store. I stop by the time I get to the highway, because at least a dozen other people have already arrived - stopping on their way past, or running from the diesel fuel island. Before even a single minute has passed, people are swarming over that car - truckers, mostly.
The car is on fire, but they don't seem to care.
I hear someone scream - "There's babies in here!"
Ignoring flame and the possibility of explosion, the truckers set to that car like men possessed. One arrives with a sledge hammer and shatters a back window because the doors are jammed shut. Men actually crawl into that car and out - retrieving three scared, screaming, but mostly unhurt children. The hammer gets put to work on a front window, and two men drag the unconscious driver out next.
A man driving by screeches to a sudden stop and pulls - of all things - a fire extinguisher from his trunk, hurriedly dousing the growing flames before they spread to the passenger, who seems to be trapped inside, a living crying conscious body prisoned by twisted metal, unreachable by any easy access point.
By this time, two truckers have taken matters into their own hands and blocked the highway by parking their rigs and trailers across the road - effectively halting traffic.
All this happens in the space of about four minutes.
The police and fire services and two ambulances arrive about five minutes later, just as the truckers are preparing to crank up an acetylene torch to cut the passenger out.
Without an official word, command or procedure, these men and women did what they needed to do, without the thought of reward or fear for their own safety.
The crowd, myself included, is in tears. We are cheering these ordinary heroes.
The firemen got the passenger out fairly quickly with the jaws of life, but the police, when they arrived, mostly concerned themselves with establishing their personal authority, as if angered by such common folk taking on the simple responsibility of humanity without proper permission or clearance - yelling at the truckers for blocking the highway, threatening to arrest the two with the torch, and forcing the shocked and dazed driver to answer questions before allowing her to be loaded onto the second ambulance. (The first had been sent ahead, with the passenger and the children.) They finally left her alone when they noticed that the crowd - which had grown to fifty or sixty people - were getting pissed.
We actually closed in a bit, a low murmur rumbling. If the cops had tried to arrest the truckers with the torch, or continued harassing the obviously near-catatonic driver, they may have found themselves with a small riot on their hands.
This was a crowd that had seen humans in action, after all. Had seen folks just like them answer a call deeper than their own self-interest - and answer that call quickly and well. The sight was hope-giving, and beautiful. Not simply in the selflessness of it, but in the details - these men who were strangers yet worked like crisp professionals when needed. Their silent, hurried co-operation shining like a beacon, negating the cold nihilism of the the well-dressed woman who wanted to nuke the rest of the world, and the continuous flood of bad and worse news that the media pours onto the public like rancid gravy at a wedding feast. Never will the media dwell on such things as this. They happen too fast, they are too ephemeral and hard to explain. They might rile the feathers of the proper saviors and authorities.
But I will dwell on it, because I will never forget it. It's burned in my memory.
I feel that on that day I saw human beings at their best.
I feel that on that day I saw anarchy in action, that I saw the true heart of the market at work....
.... and it was profoundly moving.
I am a micropiece.
I stand here and allow the grand dance of the market to pass over and through me, allow its flow to consume me and soothe me. The invisible beauty of its seeming chaos is nothing more than a complex mask hiding the only sort of order the poor irrational human race has ever achieved.
These thoughts are still new to me, still vivid and wide eyed, like the thoughts of a child.
When I first began to realize the nature of the market, I mistakenly believed that the state regulated and controlled it.
I now believe such thinking is naive and simplistic - and dangerous. It is exactly what the state wants us to believe.
The state is just a parasite. A tick. Ugly and small, but tough. It has found a vast and succulent host on which to feast, infected that host with a morbid fever, and convinced its sickened victim that to pluck it off will lead to certain death.
The market transcends the state the way that the history of music transcends a single song. It is, at its basic level, simply humans being humans - living and dying, working and loving, hating, fearing, dreading, dreaming, giving, taking. It is a process, not an object - a vast, ever growing, ongoing process. It began when the first humans warily traded berries for game, or one crude tool for another. It will continue until we are either destroyed or become immortal and have no needs. It is the process of making things easier, of dividing labor, of discovering value and creating order. It has done great good and great evil, but is to be blamed or praised for neither - for it is not a thinking thing, nor a feeling thing. Its morality is the exact morality that any tool possesses: the morality of its wielder. The market has built grand cities and destroyed them in nuclear fire at the behest of its wielders. It has extended life and cut it short. It has given and taken.
But it has done it all because human beings willed it done.
I do not know what the future holds, whether it will bring great wonder or great horror. History suggest a mixture of the two. But I am presented with two paths: I can either expect the worst and become cynical and angry and apathetic and wait for death, or I can hope for the best and do my damnedest to live a moral life and work to wield the tool of the market in an honest and responsible fashion and rejoice in my life and my time in this world.
I choose the latter. And the best way to do that is to care for those closest to me, to work to raise them up and protect them from harm. I know that my own actions can influence the market. I know that I can make a difference, however small.
I choose the latter, because once I saw brave men dive into a flaming car to save strangers. Ordinary, simple, brave men. I saw that and will refuse to believe that the human race is anything more than good and decent at its heart.
I choose the latter, and will dream of the day when the market - the whole of the thinking, feeling human race - finally brushes the tick of state parasitism from itself like the man who sits by a river on a cool morning, contemplating that flow of matter, and realizes he is being used by a lesser creature. I will dream of the day when the bonds of gravity are broken and men and women once again stride the face of the frontier, building and sowing, turning fallow land to fair, decreasing entropy as only men and women have ever done.
We will not do it for simple, cold currency. We will not do it from fear or force.
We will do it for love. For the sake of our children. For posterity, and promise and the room to grow.
We will do it because that is what it means to be a human.
Reprinted by permission.