My phone broke.
I was sitting in a cafe with a friend after work. The cafe was tucked inside of an informal housing area in what seemed to be a converted old storage room. The floor was slightly below ground level and from the street and all you could see was a blue neon light peaking out from between the trees that lined the road. Despite the neon, the place seemed dimly lit. It was huge and would have made for a good bomb shelter had it been a little deeper in the ground.
Each table was it's own island, far enough from everything that the jazzy hip hop could drown out all other conversations even at such a low volume. I usually preferred tiny places where a conversation could spark at any time, but I liked the food here and every once in a while it was nice to stray from my home turf in the village.
It amazes some people when you take them to this kind of place. The idea that someone would open up shop so far from traffic lights and shopping districts, in an area where there's almost zero chance of a walk-in simply baffles them. Not enough people realize that if you can build a thriving community, anything is possible, especially when the rent is cheap. On the main streets, it's hard enough to find a decent place with its own style, let alone one that isn't overcrowded or overpriced.
My friend was not easily surprised by the secret spots of the city. We had met in a similarly placed restaurant 2 years earlier and were finally getting to know each other. We might had gotten to know each other a little more during those two years but when he was not at work he was usually preoccupied with something related to work. A mutual friend had insisted that we had a lot in common and that we would get along, though at the time I couldn't imagine we would have anything to talk about, nice as he was.
He worked for a producer of steel manhole covers, the kind that those turtle superheroes used to sneak in and out of. I had always wanted to know how anyone ends up working at such a company but I knew I'd be disappointed by the answer to this kind of question.
Tonight was his night. For years he had tried to save enough money to feel comfortable leaving his job and explore other possibilities. Eventually he realized that even with his comfortable salary, it was nearly impossible to save a substantial amount of money without becoming even more committed to his current lifestyle. In the end he decided to move back into his parents house when he quit his job. This way he could triple the mileage of his savings. He estimated that if he really wanted to pinch pennies he could live over two years with the savings but if he indulged in any common luxuries, he probably only had less than a year. This was his first night out after his early retirement party the prior weekend. As an inconsequential act of protest against his former self he made sure it was a Tuesday.
He still seemed to have a hard time getting off the topic of work.
"I can tell you which company made a manhole cover from 30 meters away. Isn't that ridiculous?"
It was ridiculous. There was a collection of old rotting technology, art, being displayed near the window. It was also ridiculous. My attention strayed there during pauses in our conversation.
"That's kind of cool.....and kind of really not" I said, imagining a life devoted to manholes.
I had no problem with the work itself. It just seemed absurd that companies were engaging in intensive economic competition over government contracts for manholes. Every year countless meetings about investors, quarterly reports, strategic advancements....of manholes. I thought it might be pretty cool to be "the manhole guy", but there was no manhole guy, just a big company that specialized in whatever unglamourous thing that could constitute an untapped market or a profitable acquisition.
"I've had dreams about manholes you know. Dreams. Plural." I had dreams about taking over for disillusioned superheroes and getting my ass kicked by super villains I was not prepared to fight against. I thought it might be a bit of a stray from the current conversation to bring these up. The guy obviously had some stuff he needed to get off his chest and I saw no reason not to let him.
"My work hasn't invaded my dreams yet, I guess when it does that's when it's time to quit. Right?" He put his head back and closed his eyes. I hadn't realized the tears he was holding back.
"Yeah man......I have no idea what to do next. It doesn't matter. I could care less. But I'm not going to make any big plans until I can stop making mental notes on every manhole that I see. I think I want to live overseas for a while.....somewhere without plumbing."
We both smiled. It suddenly dawned on me why I was invited to celebrate his resignation with him. 60+ hours a week, it was no wonder he hadn't gotten over his ex girlfriend after 5 years, he never had the time to. He obviously hadn't had the time to make friends either. He most certainly had some work buddies that he would drink with and complain with, then there were the high school friends with which he could barely relate. But after our mutual friend, who was busy that night, I was his next choice.
The saddest thing was that his lack of friends was in no way due to his personality. Sitting there with him that night I could begin to feel who he really was. Sensitive but far from weak, ashamed about how little he knew of the world and eager to know more, longing to express himself, not for attention but because he felt that it was what he was born to do. We tapped glasses. He took a large gulp of white Belgian beer and closed his eyes again. A huge smile came across his face as he opened his eyes.
"This is the most delicious beer I've ever had in my life." It was damn good but I knew it could have been watered down piss and he would have felt the same.
We ate in silence. I imagined how good his meal tasted. I felt excited knowing that before long I could enjoy my meals the way he was enjoying his that night. "Why not start now?" I asked myself. But that would require me to be 100% in the moment, something extremely hard to do when you are living your life on terms set by someone or something other than your self, be it a company, parents, war, poverty, prejudice, or a predetermined role society forcefully pushes you to play. But maybe "in the moment" is human nature at its core, stripped of everything that you think is you but isn't. As these thoughts swirled around in my head, as thoughts often do, I forced them out. Stop thinking about being and just be. Suddenly the food was sublime.
I paid attention to every nuance in the taste and texture of every bite. By the end of the meal I was in the same silent bliss. He sat with his eyes closed. I did the same for a while, knowing that there might be people who felt uncomfortable by our slightly unconventional behavior. Even the chef probably never imagined that two people could enjoy his cooking enough to go into silent meditation afterwards but at that moment it seemed absurd that I would ever bother myself with these worries.
I opened my eyes to find beautiful landscapes in the shape of tables, and chairs. The people around us, engrossed in their own conversations or work, suddenly looked so perfect. They all had hopes and dreams and desires and faults and if you watched them long enough, you could see right through them because as much as they might see themselves as less than incredible, they were all works of art. If only they could realize it. I caught myself worrying that someone might have put something in my drink, but quickly realized the idea was nonsense. This is what the world looks like with a clear head.
"Uh...sorry. Are you finished with all that?" The waiter asked, completely oblivious to the beautiful sights and sounds around him.
"Huh.....?" My friend answered, with one foot still in paradise. I answered for him. I was still close enough to earth to know what was going on around me.
I thought I'd leave him to his own pleasures for a few minutes and try my own opened eyed meditation. The staff would probably just think my friend was sleeping and leave him alone.
I got up and walked over to the exhibition at the entrance. I noticed there were far fewer customers than before we arrived in this other, euphoric dimension. On display were cell phones, a computer, a coffee machine, and other various technology as it might appear hundreds of years after the end of the human race. Everything was covered in rust and mold, cracked and dirty.
I imagined how the artist might have made it that way. I could see clearly a variety different statements or lack of statements the artist might be trying to make; an argument against the control technology has over our lives, or one against consumerism, a reminder of the impermanence of all life, an attempt at impressing people with what might be perceived as unique or mysterious, or perhaps just a game to see if an artist could get away with selling garbage by setting it at an insane price.
There was real moss growing on the cell phone. I wondered what kind of a person would present this as art and what thoughts were going through their head. There was no way to tell for sure but you could narrow anything down to a few possibilities. My thoughts turned to my first computer, the CD player I used to have when CDs were still a thing, my first cell phone which would glow blue when you pushed the buttons and could hardly do anything besides make calls. Where were they now? Were they intact? What did they look like? Could any parts be recycled? If you think about it, each piece of garbage has a story with no one to tell it.
My thoughts continued drifting. One day I'd be gone and so would everyone I knew, but these things, they might still be here. What kind of ideas would people have in the year 2500, after digging up a first generation smartphone? What would they say about us? Would they be able to extract any of the data inside? What would my descendants look like? Would I have any descendants? Would any of us have any descendants?
Everything is connected. All is one. The words echoed through my mind and seemed to move beyond me.
As my focus came back to the room around me, I realized I could hold on to this vibration without the same effort as before. I had become comfortable enough with the music that was everything around me to feel comfortable singing along at the right moments. I sat back in my chair with a smile. If the smile or anything else seemed out of place, I'd make it work somehow. I could do that.
I continued to enjoy the chorus of the sights and sounds and other consciousness around me. I enjoyed silently, waiting for the right moment to add my flavor into the mix in whatever way, big or small, loud or quiet. I thought of an orchestra, where all the instruments find balance with each other, giving each other time and space, pushing and pulling at each other. Any instrument could turn something simple into something incredible by adding just the right note or beat at just the right moment. I was an instrument and would continue to see myself as such from that moment on.
"Thanks for coming out with me, I really needed this."
“I didn't do anything, I was just there at the right time."
"That's exactly what I mean."
At that moment my phone rang. I picked it up and checked the display to see who was calling. Before I could read the name, the display started flickering and then went black. I turned it off and on again, fumbled around with it a while but it was clearly broken.
I laughed hard and showed my friend the phone. After rent, groceries and a few modest nights out a month, I usually managed to save 20% of my paycheck. I had previously decided it would be eight more months before I could feel comfortable setting off on my own adventures. I needed the phone for work and replacing it would set me back about two months. Who knew what other unexpected surprised might set me back even further. There would always be things trying to hold me back if I let them.
My friend smiled back at me, confused at why we were smiling. He had probably never seen someone so happy to lose such an expensive piece of technology, especially someone without much money to throw around on new cell phones. He looked at me like someone had just told a joke that went over his head. The smile hung on his face, not sure whether to stay or to leave as he waited for an explanation.
"I'm not going to buy a new phone. I'll hand in my resignation tomorrow, it's time."
"You sure? "
"So sure. I'm ready, whatever happens."
He still looked a bit wary, though a grin was fighting it's way on to his face. I tried to elaborate, not because I thought he needed the explanation, because it felt good and to show him he wasn't alone on the path he was choosing.
"I might run out of money in a few months and who knows if I'd be able to fall back on my parents if that happened. My company could just as easily go bankrupt in this economy, war could erupt, natural disasters could hit, illness could come at any time. There are so many unseeable misfortunes that could fall on anyone at any time, why wait for any of that? I've played it safe until now with absolutely nothing to show for it. If I don't shake things up, things are going to wear me down. I'm ready."
I was rehearsing, brainstorming explanations for anyone who might worry about me and my seemingly reckless decision. There was no way to explain the magic in the air that night to someone who hadn't felt it before. I had made a prayer and the universe had answered but I knew I'd need to choose my words when expressing such a miracle.
I could feel ripples in the air, just like ripples in the water. As we got up to leave, I saw an image of my cell phone, broken and rusty in a pile of garbage. I stepped outside into the cool autumn night. I could feel myself in many places and many moments.
"Thank you." I said, to no one and everyone at once.
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