This series began with “Riffing the Life Fantastic“.
By P. Orin Zack
(Part 3 of a series)
“’Guardian angel’, my eye,” Alluis Benoit said sharply. “It’s self-interest, pure and simple.”
Ben’s traveling companion smiled wryly, but didn’t shift his gaze from ‘Dream Lady’, Edward McCarten’s 1922 sculpture of an angel sprinkling the sand of dreams over two sleeping children. “I used to live nearby,” he said. “Sunday mornings, I’d get up early and walk along the lakefront from Belmont Harbor down here to the Lincoln Park Zoo. One day, I came across a big chalk Ziggy cartoon. ‘If we’re here to help other people’, the little guy wanted to know, ‘what are other people here for?’”
“Now you’ve lost me, Bob.”
Robert Verdun glanced at the Primate House. “This sculpture was put here for a reason,” he said. “The parks department may disagree, but I think it’s our dreams that set us apart from the animals, even more than our genes. Everyone has dreams, Ben. Face it. That protester you hassled outside the abortion clinic was there because she feels just as strongly that a fetus is a person as you do that it’s not. Turning that conviction into accepted fact is her dream, and she acts on it every day. So in a warped kind of way, she’s acting as a guardian angel to people you don’t believe even exist. My point, Ben, is that none of us is here simply to play out the whims of whatever being has decided to look out for us.”
“But that’s just it. My so-called guardian angel is me – a part of me that I’m not consciously aware of, sure, but it’s still me.”
The two men had taken the Chicago Transit bus north from the Loop after stowing their luggage from the Greyhound in a locker. Bob’s planned trip to D.C. had been sidetracked by a cell call he got while they were stopped in St. Louis. All Ben knew was that his new friend had gotten a lead on something, and that he needed to meet someone on the near north side. That’s how they’d ended up near the clinic on Lasalle. And after the confrontation, a walk in the park just seemed like the right thing to do.
“I am humbled at the depth of your understanding.”
Ben flashed a pained smirk.
“I’m serious. Really. The idea that god is just a part of ourselves that we’re not consciously aware of is something that most people never even consider. Even folks who see the divine in all things tend to draw a line, to deny their connection to it by staring blindly into the gulf that separates us mere mortals from the ineffable. When, as you say, it’s really just a matter of us not being aware of it.”
“Are you done yet?”
“Ben,” he said as he turned to leave the park, “I really have to thank you for that. You’ve really made my day. You have.”
Unsure whether Bob was mocking him, Ben shrugged his shoulders and skipped a few times to catch up with him. He was still in a bit of a funk when they turned onto Clark and saw a long line of people standing along the far-side sidewalk, chatting with one another. Curious, they crossed the street and approached a man in a blue work shirt who was watching the cars go by.
“End of the line’s over there,” he said amiably, pointing southward, towards the city.
Ben stepped back and sighted along the line. There were roughly fifty people behind him. “I see. What are you all waiting for? Is there a show or something?”
The man shook his head. “You could call it that, I suppose. They opened a satellite Unemployment office in a vacant storefront – real estate office I think — to handle the overflow and keep all us unsightly folks off the downtown streets. I think someone in City Hall figured having so many unemployed people around was bad for business or some such. Of course all they ever do is give you a song and dance, so, yeah, it is kind of a show. It’s something to do, anyway.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Bob said, “what was it you used to do? I mean before you lost your job or whatever. From the shirt and the look of your hands, I was guessing you were a mechanic.”
He grinned. “No. Cars are my hobby, though. Well, they were when I could afford it. For now, all I can do is look. Anyway, I was an engineer until someone realized I’d been an engineer for so long that my hair was beginning to turn. We all knew it was age discrimination, but the Monkeys in Business Attire— “ he caught himself and chuckled “—the MBAs, I mean, have high-priced lawyers to camouflage it for them.”
Bob extended his hand. “Thanks. I appreciate your honesty.”
While they shook hands, the man tilted his head slightly. “And you two? What’s your story?”
“Me?” Ben said. “Well I was one of the high-fliers. I made two sizeable stacks of coin on the strength of some memories I shouldn’t have been born with, and then lost ‘em both to bad judgment. After I trashed my ride on I-70 yesterday, a Kansas state trooper stopped a Greyhound for me to leave the state on. Bob here’s been my meal ticket since then.” He peered at Bob briefly. “Which reminds me. We’ve got to do something about that. It’s starting to creep me out.”
The engineer laughed heartily. “Chill, man. We all need a hand at one time or another.”
“Speaking of which,” Bob said, “where do we catch the bus downtown?”
The bus stop was just past the entrance to the satellite UI office, so they headed there slowly, exchanging greetings and the odd comment with some of the people they passed. At one point, Ben looked over at his new friend and frowned. “Something’s been bothering me. What is it that you do, anyway? Who was that you went to see on Division Street, a drug connection?”
Bob looked pained. “I suppose you could call it an addiction, but it’s not what you think. I own a store in Denver, Context Antiques and Collectibles. It started as a geeky obsession, really. You see, I’d bought a sculpture called ‘The Laughing Unicorn’ at ChiCon 4 — the Chicago World Science Fiction Convention in 1982. Some years later, I discovered that Darlene Coltrain’s sculpture had been mentioned in Gordon Dickson’s 1984 novel, ‘The Final Encyclopedia’. So, of course I had to find a signed first edition, so I could display them together. You’d be amazed at what paired items like that fetch at auction. Anyway, that call I got in St. Louis was from an old friend here. He said he knew who had the last of those little sculptures she’d made. And well, since we were nearby, I told him to hold the news until I arrived.”
Ben stopped dead in front of the entrance and stared at him. “You’re an antiques dealer? That’s hilarious. I’d always thought that was too stuffy for words, but when you put it that way it sounds more like a scavenger hunt. I mean, really. Think about it. For TV geeks, you could pair a shooting script for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery with the painting that went with it. Or for movie fans, maybe a first edition of ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’ and the painting used in the film. Or—.”
At that moment, the doors flew open and a woman stumbled into him. Hot on her heels were a man in high dudgeon with an ID badge clipped to his vest, and a blue-suited security guard. While Ben was turning to see what had hit him in the back, the woman, trim-looking and about thirty-five, planted her feet and defiantly faced the one with the badge.
“I’ve told you before, Ms. Strumble,” he said loudly, “you don’t qualify for unemployment compensation. That was true downtown, and it’s true here, too. So please, do us all a favor and leave.”
She glanced at the knot of people who had stepped out of the line to prevent a scuffle, and then back at the man. “As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Jenkins, getting paid for being out of work is nothing but a scheme to keep unemployed workers docile. But that’s not what I came down here for anyway, which you would have known if you’d bothered to let me speak before you and your goon rushed me out the door.”
“Uh huh. Well, with an attitude like that, you’re not going to get any kind of help here at all. Good-bye!” He looked around at the people who had moved to intervene, shook his head in annoyance, and went back inside.
While she was catching her breath, Bob stepped closer. “What was all that about, Ms… Strumble is it?”
She nodded. “Kaylee.”
“Were you serious about unemployment being a scheme?”
“As a heart attack. You only qualify for unemployment if you’d been working as an employee. That’s a pretty good disincentive to starting a business right there, since most of them fail anyway. Better to keep your head down and not make waves.”
Several onlookers voiced their support.
“If you start a business, like I did,” she continued, “you’re not only risking everything against failure, you’re cutting your own hole through the social safety net. Go bankrupt — which is what happened to me — and you’re a pariah. Your time in business is a giant black hole in your resume, a time away from whatever you did before, and that’s all the reason HR drones need to cull your pitch for rejoining the workforce.”
“Well,” Ben said unsteadily, “what are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. I need to think.”
“In that case,” Bob said, with a hint of a come-on in his voice, “why don’t you join us for some coffee. There’s a shop across the way. I’m buying.”
Over coffee, Kaylee told them about her business, a handcrafts company that sold the sort of things that Ben had spent most of his life disparaging: tools for meditation and divination, the very same self-exploration that he’d ignored in favor of the future memories he’d grown to depend on. It was an uncomfortable juxtaposition, but it spurred him to relate the rollercoaster of success and failure that he’d just be thrown off of. And finally, Bob filled her in on the geeky obsessions that his oddball business catered to.
“So your business grew out of a hobby?” she asked.
“Yeah. I hear that happens a lot.”
“Hmmm,” she said, swirling the last of her coffee. She studied the barista’s rack of flavorings behind the counter, and then turned to look out the window. “That line-up of people over there is like a primordial stew for building businesses out of.”
“They what?” Ben was lost.
“Yeah. The only thing they knew about one another when they arrived was that they’re all looking for work. But look at what’s happening.”
Bob studied the scene for a moment. “They’re talking?”
“Exactly. And by doing that, they’re finding out little bits and pieces about one another. Since they’re strangers, it’s probably nothing too personal. But maybe they’re chatting about their hobbies.”
“Like that engineer we spoke to,” Ben said, brightening. “He said he worked on cars when he could afford to.”
“Sure. Lots of people have hobbies. Some of them may even own some pretty pricey equipment, too: a programmer who dabbles in machine embroidery, or a receptionist with a penchant for making fine jewelry. Maybe even a mechanical genius that just needs some time in a well-equipped shop to build that gadget she’s always dreaming about.”
She paused, and scanned the line-up. “Each of them only has a part of what it takes to turn it into a profitable business. What they’re missing is the talent pool to flesh out that business, and the inspiration to do it. And yet, they may be within twenty yards of those missing people right this very minute.”
Bob had been nodding for a while, and now broke out in a wide grin. “Hell. Why not? There’s nothing to lose. Let’s give it a try. Come on!”
When they returned, the blue-shirted engineer that Bob and Ben had spoken with earlier was second in line outside the door. “Hey,” he said, as they approached, “weren’t you two looking for the bus stop a while ago?” When he recognized the woman, he smiled graciously and extended his hand. “I’m Jason. And I’ve gotta say, that was great, what you did back there. The line’s been buzzing about you ever since.”
They clasped hands, but did not shake. She studied his face for a moment, and then said, “Kaylee.”
“So what can I do for you? I don’t have much time, though. They’ll be coming out for the next few people in a couple of minutes.”
“We have a proposition for you. If this works, it could change a lot of people’s lives for the better.”
“I’m told that you’re an engineer, but that your real passion is cars. So, would I be right in assuming that you have a well-equipped shop sitting idle for a lack of money?”
Jason nodded. “Sure. I’ve got a full set of tools and supplies, even a lift, but I had to part with the cars to pay my bills. Why?”
“Well, I’m betting that somewhere on this line, there’s someone with an idea for building something, but nowhere to build it, and nothing to build it with. I figure if we start putting pieces like that together, we can turn a lot of this labor force into profitable businesses. And even if we don’t find that mechanical genius, talking the idea up might turn an idle embroidery machine into the means for an unemployed graphic designer to create salable patches, or who knows what.”
The door opened, and a staffer blithely said, “The next three people can come in now.”
Jason turned to look at him, and then back at Kaylee. Smiling, he said, “No thanks. I won’t be needing your help today.”
“Great!” Bob said as Jason stepped from the line.
“Okay, then. Looking at this as an engineering problem, the core asset for each team has to be the owner of the physical plant. In my case, that’s the shop. But as you pointed out, it could also be a hobbyist’s embroidery machine, a jewelry-making set-up, or hell, even a software development suite. Does that sound right to you?”
Kaylee was ecstatic. “Exactly. So we start by polling the line for people with the means and the inclination, but not the talent or skill.”
“Then, once we have those,” Bob added happily, “we start asking around for anyone with the talent or skill, but not the means. And we put those people together.”
“Yes,” Jason said. “At that point, what’s missing is the support structure, the people whose job is to keep the wheels greased, the office managers. If we can get that much organized, the rest will take care of itself. Well, except for the bugaboo that always kept me from making a go at business: sales and marketing.”
“Don’t worry about that yet,” Bob assured him. “I can fix that in post.”
Ben, who’d been looking back and forth among them in increasing distress, finally had to speak. “Wait, wait, wait.”
Kaylee raised her splayed right hand towards him. “Is there something wrong?”
“Not wrong, exactly. But there’s something I’ve got to say.”
“Well, it’s like this. I’ve… I’ve spent years following what I thought was a completely laid-out plan for my life. I lived from one vagrant memory of the future to the next, always knowing that as long as those memories turned real, I wasn’t really taking any risks. And it worked; well it did until yesterday. The thing is, I never really dreamed of doing something, never really took a chance that maybe I could succeed at anything.”
He stopped to look down the line of people they were about to approach, shuddered, and shook his head slowly.
“But you,” he said, gesturing unsteadily at Kaylee, “you’re like, just the opposite. You took a chance at opening that handcrafts business, without a clue about whether you’d succeed, or if you’d fall off a cliff. And now you’re planning to entice a lot of these people here into taking the same kind of risk. But what if they fail? What if there’s no point to even trying? I mean, the idea of pairing someone with a fancy sewing machine with someone who’s a good designer is just nuts! It couldn’t possibly work. If it did, people would be lashing up like that all over the place, and I tell you, I just don’t see that happening all that much. So what makes you think you have the right to get people to take risks like that? If they fail, it won’t hurt you, will it? I just don’t know.”
Kaylee touched his arm, and he relaxed a bit. “I understand where you’re coming from, Ben. Really, I do. I went through panics worse than that before opening my store. But then I realized that I could only fall as far as I could climb. And if I didn’t try at all, I’d never find out if I could succeed, if I could make a dream come real. We’re not going to force anyone to do anything here. All we’re going to do is suggest possibilities. Everyone gets to decide whether to take a risk on the dream we sprinkle over him. But first we have to suggest the dream. What they do with it is up to them. Okay?”
“I suppose. But if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll just wait here, and let you three sprinkle the fairy dust.”
Bob, Kaylee and Jason spread out and started chatting up the line of unemployed Chicagoans. Their inquiries sparked further exchanges among the people who didn’t have the first ingredient. A few minutes later, three people stepped slightly out of line. The trio’s schmoozing had identified two of them; the third, however, was a product of the idea they’d planted. Now it was time for phase two. Bob, Kaylee and Jason each joined one of the trio, and together they started another round, only this time asking if anyone either had the talent to make use of the equipment, or knew someone who did, and who might be interested in taking a chance on using it.
By the time they were finished, another six people had been let into the Unemployment Insurance office, two of the three original candidates had found a match, and several other people had offered their services for such things as writing, website design and of course office manager. Quite a number of people decided to pack it in for the day rather than wait on the sidewalk any longer. So when the UI worker next peeked out to round up some more clients, the only person still near the doorway was Ben.
“Where’d everyone go?” she asked.
“They’re off chasing their dreams, I think.”
Ben pointed at Kaylee, Bob and Jason, who were heading back towards the door. “Ask them.”
The UI worker scrambled back inside. A moment later, the guy with the vest returned. “What’s going on here, Ms. Strumble? What have you done? Are you interfering with the operation of a government agency?”
She looked at him gravely for a few seconds, and then broke into a sly grin. “Why, yes. Yes I am, Mr. Jenkins. I don’t think a lot of those people will be populating your kind of dreams much longer. I’ve given them back a taste for their own.”
Copyright 2011 by P. Orin Zack