I got up today eager for a day of painting and an hour or two working on my novel. I scarfed a bowl of bright cereal and ran for a bus. Oh, I could work at home, but the government says that I'm better off with people my own age.
So I stood in a neat line outside the door of West Hometown Workplace, behind three chefs and a dogcatcher, who hates me and kept stepping on my foot. We are all the same age give or take a few months. I dared not look behind me to see where the warm breath in my hair came from, but I think it was my friend Julia, a soccer coach. I hoped I'd get a chance to talk to her after work.
Next to my line I saw an artist I admire who is a year younger than I am. I couldn't talk to him; it would have been against the rules, and anyway, the workers in my line would have pestered me for months for talking to a younger person like a human being. That's just the way it is.
Finally the bell sounded. A supervisor marched us through the door. Any show of eagerness would have meant a humiliating trip to the back of the line, so I plodded in step with the rest.
First job was architecture. I had to go to remedial architecture because I don't have much skill at building design. There, the trainers talked to me as if I were a small cute animal begging at their door. "Can you hold a pencil?" Of course I can hold a pencil. What I can't do is make a skyscraper that can withstand an earthquake. Can I paint now? It would waste much less time.
Well, bike repair, oil refining and business consulting were similar. In B.C. I tried to signal to my friend that I would meet her after lunch, but the supervisor caught me. I had to sit in the corridor and avoid any contact with others until the bell rang.
Finally I got into single file with everyone my age and marched to the dining area. One man stumbled trying to tuck a loose shoelace in. The supervisor called him to the back of the line. Everyone laughed at him.
Julia found me and sat with her head in her arms, shaking. She'd been mugged. It happens to her a lot. Once one person mugs you, the word gets out that you have money. She sat, crying, knowing she wouldn't get her money back. The worst of it was that she knew her next assignment: to spend half an hour molding plastics in a corner station with just two people, the men who had mugged her. I urged her to have them arrested. She said she had tried that. They always spent a day in an empty workspace and then returned to rob more co-workers. The sentence could not exceed that. I gave her my salad and brownie. It was just a couple of bites but it cheered her up.
I had a bad muscle cramp. I toughed it out, wanting to skip the tangled process of getting permission to take one of my own painkillers. Julia and I had five minutes to hang out in the fenced lot before it was time to line up again. We talked as fast as we could, running back and forth for much-needed exercise.
"What are you painting?" She asked.
"A landscape. What are you doing?"
"I just met someone I think I like a lot. And I got a kitten...."
The bell rang. We stood straight and still. The door swung. We marched.
I went silently into the workspace for a job I dreaded: waiting tables and bussing. In this task, not only did I have no talent for the job, not only did a puzzled-faced short woman keep whispering that she hated me and would "get me" when I passed her -- no, I have no idea what her problem is -- but the supervisor was inexperienced and constantly gave what even I could often see for bad advice.
I trudged in a straight line to astronomy and, just as I was finding some interesting constellations, the bell rang. I lined up and went to webhosting. I don't understand how to write code. Back to remedial with me. "Can you find letters on the keyboard? Do you know what the keyboard is?" Yes, I just don't absorb information about this topic very fast. It goes past me while I'm taking notes. And everything I see has to become a sketch, so that slows me down.
The bell rang, freeing me, and I marched to the art studio at last. There I looked for my work in progress.
It was gone. A new term had started and the old work had been recycled. "Where's my painting?" I howled. "I wasn't done."
"You have to learn to turn it in on time. You lose it otherwise," the supervisor said.
"I didn't know that."
"That doesn't matter."
"Well, where are the oil paints?"
"Today we're working in macrame."
"I have no interest in macrame. I have a landscape in mind and I want it on canvas before I forget what I want to do with it."
"You need to keep up with the workforce or go to the security office."
I macrame'd, weeping and brooding all the while. I saw the supervisor writing a report on my laziness and bad attitude but I knew it would be worse if she caught me peeking so I knotted away.
We went to novel writing, where I changed a character's name and cut out a subplot that slowed the action too much. The supervisor called for a word count. My assignment came up lower than the last session. I watched him put a minus on my record. I said, "I cut some stuff I didn't need. It makes it better."
"That doesn't make any difference. You have to produce a hundred words each session and turn it in."
I sighed. I decided to keep my mouth shut. He didn't care about fiction. If he wanted words, I'd give him words. I gave him the first page copied and pasted a few times. "See?" He said. "This just proves you can do a good job if you try. I want to see this every time." He pasted a "satisfactory" sticker over my report.
I stood, feeling as if I didn't exist, in line again.
I sat out logging claiming a fear of sharp objects. Into my file with that and so what. They'd test me on it later. I'd decide what to do then.
A final bell released me to the open air. Men and women streamed, screamed and sped to the street. Husbands, wives, parents, offspring and friends waited with open car doors to catch the frustrated passengers. Buses lined up, doors open. I leapt on my bus.
But wait -- Julia! I should help her with the fare. I climbed down. "Julia?"
She was nowhere to be seen. A man said she had gone home early.
"How did she do it?"
"She tried it all. She gave herself a temperature with a hot paper towel. She made a fake note from her brother saying he needed her. None of it was good enough."
"So what did the trick? How did Julia escape?"
"I think she jumped. Security's still looking for her."
I rode home. I considered that eventually security would grow as tired of the search for Julia, whose job wasn't on her schedule today anyway, as they had for her repeat muggers. And maybe one day she would no longer have to work with the attackers.
I reflected on the years I'd spent in school and the benefits of the socialization they gave me. Without those lessons, today might have seemed weird.