This series began with “Riffing the Life Fantastic“.
by P. Orin Zack
(part 6 of a series)
“Hey,” the man peering over Kaylee’s shoulder breathed, hooking his thumb towards the door, “isn’t that the guy from that video? You know, that math geek who wiped the floor with DC’s finest?”
She stopped exploring the custom-built database he was showing her on his tablet, grinned mischievously, and craned around to peer at his weather-beaten face. “If that’s a new superhero movie, Virgil, I’m there.”
“Get real,” he said. “I’m serious. The thing went viral.” He pulled out his smartphone. “Here, I’ll show you.”
Kaylee glanced towards the door, laughed delightedly, and waved her arm overhead. “Ben!” she called over the din in her newly opened combination coffee shop, lending library and business incubator. “Alluis! Over here!”
Virgil groaned. “Not him. The other guy.”
“That’s Alluis Benoit,” she said as the two men approached. “He and his mentor, an antiques buyer from Denver, kind-of midwived the idea behind this place.”
The video had started streaming, so Virgil held his phone up for Kaylee to see.
“What are you doing?” the uniformed officer in the video demanded.
“Giving him a little respect.”
“Jeez,” the math geek said at the sound of his recorded voice, “it’s everywhere.”
Kaylee blocked the screen with her palm. “I’ll watch it later.”
“Thank you. That video’s been making me a bit self-conscious.”
“Glad to oblige.” She returned Virgil’s tablet and did a quick once-over of Ben’s associate, noting the scuffed shoes and natty jacket. “I’m Kaylee Strumble, and I seem to be at a bit of a disadvantage here, having not seen your video.”
“From what I’ve seen,” he laughed, wiggling the fingers of his left hand, “that puts you into a demographic about the size of right-handed southpaws. I’m Franklin Goertz, and Ben here just skipped out on his part of our deal.”
The chatter in the store suddenly abated and a few people glanced their way.
“Deal?” she asked into the momentary silence.
Ben sighed. “Yeah. I offered to make introductions in exchange for airfare to Topeka so I can get the cops and the court off my tail.”
Curious, she cocked her head.
He waved her off. “Long story. You two ought to talk.”
“Well,” Franklin said, his smile fading, “I’m a statistician for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and—.”
“And I’m messing up your model?” she asked hopefully.
“Um, what? No. Robert told me how you’d freed a whole lot of people from the unemployment line like you were a one-woman business incubator.”
“Hey,” she said defensively, “all I did was get a few people to talk to each other, like I do here.”
“Don’t be coy,” Virgil said. “Look, what this woman did was something an army of job-counseling monkeys, HR flacks and job-shop head-hunters couldn’t do in a million years. She got people to see their hobbies, their obsessions, and their secret ambitions as a valuable part of who they are. Hell, she got me to admit that I wasn’t a half-bad database jockey, and now we’re about to put my latest one to use here.”
Ben glanced around the store, at the barista prepping drinks, and at the counter help turning out meals while chatting up the customers about everything but the Chicago weather. He scanned the shelves of books, and counted the people talking to one another about them. And he craned to see the tables, where food and drink took a back seat to the real reason Kaylee’s patrons were here, to supercharge their lives with one another’s talents, ideas and resources.
“After that incident in the police station,” Franklin said, cracking his neck, “I thought I could crawl back into my cube and wrap myself in numbers again, but something happened. Something changed. And the thing of it was, I didn’t know it at the time. I figured that boring into Dvorkin’s true self like that was just a fluke, an adrenaline-fueled response to a caustic situation. But after that video went viral and a big-name blogger asked me how I squared reaching into someone’s soul like that with the dispassionate view of people I needed to have to do my job, I just broke down. I couldn’t. And that’s important. But I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t…”
He trailed off, and Kaylee had the good sense to give him some space. While he was idling, she waved at Marilyn, the performance artist behind the counter who was busy fixing a chicken salad on rye, and mimed an order of relaxing tea for Franklin. Marilyn had just started to nod, when her attention was snatched by a commotion at the doorway. Kaylee followed her sightline, and found Virgil approaching the source of the disruption.
“Jenkins,” she breathed in annoyance, and started towards the door.
By this time, Virgil had stopped just in front of him and mirrored the smaller man’s cross-armed stance. “Is there some problem I can help you with?”
Kaylee nudged him gently and he stepped aside.
“I thought this place was your doing,” Jenkins said darkly, peering around.
“After you hustled me out for the third time just for doing some research, I decided to try a different approach.”
“So I see.”
Ben, who had drifted closer, recognized him as well. “Hey,” he said indignantly, “aren’t you the jerk who tossed Kaylee out of the Unemployment office?”
“So.” Kaylee said smiling back at him. “Can I help you find a new career, Mr. Jenkins?”
His eyes widened. “A new career? Do you have any idea the damage that you are doing to the people you’ve lured here?”
The chatter abruptly stopped. Marilyn followed the others towards the entrance, serrated bread knife still in hand. All eyes were on Kaylee.
“Damage?” she repeated with a humorless laugh. “Do you honestly believe that honoring what people accomplish on their own time, and helping them put it to use is hurting them?”
“If they foolishly abandon their job search, and disqualify themselves from getting the UI payments they deserve, then yes, it hurts them.” He looked at the crowd now arrayed behind Kaylee, Virgil and Ben. “I’ve seen a lot of you come in for counseling, to take our classes and speak with the hiring managers we bring in.”
A woman standing a few feet behind Ben harrumphed. “Yeah. And a fat lot of good it does.”
“You just have to keep at it, that’s all.”
“Where do you live, under a rock?” The gravelly challenge came from portly man still seated at one of the tables. “Haven’t you heard that companies actively discriminate against unemployed workers? After all we’re not a protected class, so it’s fair game to crap all over us.”
As a wave of encouragement swept the room, Jenkins raised his hands defensively. “Hey, we’re just trying to help you people! That’s why we encourage you to stay focused, to keep your skills fresh. After all, you’ve got a lot invested in the career paths you’re already on. That’s too valuable a resource to—.”
“Oh, blow it out your ear!” another patron shouted in disgust.
Franklin came up behind Ben and asked what was going on.
“Guy named Jenkins from Unemployment.”
“Yeah, yeah, but what’s his beef with Ms. Strumble?”
“Hell if I know. He hasn’t really said.”
“Jeez,” Franklin muttered irritably. “This is getting to be a habit.” Then he stepped around Ben and cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Mr. Jenkins.”
“I’m a bit lost here. What exactly is your problem? What are you so upset about? From what I’ve seen so far, this place looks like a pretty good idea.”
He stood mutely for a few seconds before replying. “Looks like? Looks like?? If all that’s important is what it looks like, then we might as well be standing in a Hollywood set. Jobs are real. They’re important. Suckering people into some scheme just because it looks good is fraud!”
Kaylee reddened. “Now just hold on right there. That’s a very serious accusation, and I’ve got a roomful of witnesses here.”
“Ha!” someone called out. “Better than that, it’s on video. And if you don’t back down, it’s gonna be on the Internet in a minute.”
Franklin grimaced, and held both hands up for pause. “Wait, wait wait. Before you do that, let me ask him something.”
“So, Mr. Jenkins,” he said calmly, “exactly how stable is your own job situation? What would your managers and the bureaucrats they report to think about seeing your face plastered all over the Internet like mine was recently? I mean, think about it: a prized employee of the Department of Employment Security publicly accusing a local business owner of fraud by helping people get off the unemployment rolls. I’m sure the press would just love to sink their teeth into that story.”
He glared nervously at the bevy of smartphones pointed at him. “Um,” he said hesitantly, “well…”
“We’re waiting, Jenkins.” It was the kid who’d first threatened to upload the video.
He shook his head. “But…”
“But what, Jenkins?” This time is was Kaylee.
He slumped. “Look. The whole idea behind unemployment insurance is giving people a little breathing room, giving them enough money to get by while they’re trying to get another job. We can’t have people going off and getting involved in harebrained schemes to turn their hobbies into paying jobs.”
“Why the hell not?” Marilyn asked, unconsciously raising her knife hand in punctuation. “It works. Just look around. This was an abandoned storefront two weeks ago. It was costing the landlord plenty to let it sit vacant, so he agreed to let us set up shop here cheap. Just about everything in here was donated by people who’d collected it for some hobby or other, and wanted to be part of making Kaylee’s idea — which she first demonstrated outside your own office, by the way — of making that idea real.” When she realized she was brandishing a bread knife, she waggled it briefly. “You see this? I’m here making sandwiches because I amuse myself making experimental food. Kaylee thought people would enjoy having something different to chew on while they’re batting ideas around. And she was right. In fact, it turned out that not making it the same way each time actually helps people think about their own problems differently. So I call bullshit.”
Jenkins gritted his teeth. “All right, all right. So maybe some good could come of it. But I still say it’s a bad idea for the vast majority of people.”
“You do, huh,” Franklin said, warming to the subject. “And what experience do you have as a statistician? Is that part of your job description? Or maybe you dabble in stats on the side?”
Ben leaned in conspiratorially. “Got you on that one, does he?”
“Well, maybe I don’t have a degree in statistics, but that doesn’t mean I can’t use other people’s figures to—.”
Franklin crossed his arms. “Whose figures, Mr. Jenkins? State your references. And they’d better be good, because I am a statistician. And I happen to work for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So go on. Please. I’m waiting.”
“No,” he said, squeezing his eyes shut, “I was way off base with that. But I still don’t see how diverting people away from the work they do, the work they’ve got experience doing, is going to help.”
“It’s simple,” Marilyn said, “but you’ll never find out unless you actually listen to them. People are happiest doing what they like doing. And even if you have a job doing what you hate, like I did, you’ll still find a way to do what you like, even if it’s in private, like a hobby, or if it’s a secret, and you only do it in your head.”
Jenkins nodded at Franklin. “How do you square it, then? I mean, how do you spend your days thinking about people as if they were nothing more than numbers, and still be able to touch them where they live, to see all of those secret dreams you think are so important?”
He chuckled. “Funny thing. I was asked the same question by a blogger who’d seen the video of me that went viral. It was a standoff in a DC police station, if you’re one of the lucky few that still haven’t seen it. The guy was desperately trying to get people to shake off their roles and see each other as real human beings. Well, when I realized that the police were just reinforcing the pattern that he was trying to break, I struck up a conversation with him. I asked him who he was.”
Kaylee had turned and was gazing into Franklin’s eyes.
“When that blogger asked me how I did it, I really didn’t know. But it started me thinking. And now, thanks to you, I do. To use a metaphor, it’s a bit like light, which, although it can express itself as either a wave or as a particle, is neither. Its reality transcends our experience of it. Those are simply two ways that whatever light really is can interact with the world. It’s the same thing with people. From a distance, or in large numbers, the data we track people with make pretty pointillist patterns that statisticians like me interpret and weave narratives about. Those narratives are the basis for the laws and policies that your world of unemployment insurance is based on. But the people themselves are more like waves. We’re each a bundle of possibilities that can interact with the world in lots of different ways. That, Mr. Jenkins, is what this place is all about. That’s the important truth that Ms. Strumble has plugged into.” He extended his arm towards Jenkins. “And I’d like to thank you for showing it to me.”
Jenkins stared dumbly at the extended hand, unsure how to react.
“Well?” Franklin said amiably. “Either you can accept a new way of looking at the world, or you can’t. Which is it to be?”
Breathing shallowly, Jenkins slowly straightened. His head jerked slightly, as if he were culminating an internal struggle. Then he exhaled and, very calmly, yet very forcefully, said, “No. I… I can’t. It’s not something I can do.”
Franklin lowered his arm.
“That’s okay,” Kaylee said gently. “I understand. But know this: if you ever are ready to take that step, we’ll be here waiting for you. To paraphrase Franklin, we each light the world in our own unique way. There’s probably something you still need to see, and it may only be visible with your special light. When you’ve found it, and you’re ready to share it, come on back, and we can discuss it over some tea.”
Jenkins looked dubious. But just to be on the safe side, he nodded, and said, “We’ll see.”
“Tea!” Marilyn said suddenly, turning back towards the counter. “I was about to make tea for Franklin.”
“For me?” he asked in confusion.
“Well, yeah, and it’s on the house. So what’s your pleasure?”
“I’m a mathematician. Surprise me. Close your eyes and pick one at random.”
Continued in “Prices to Pay”
Copyright 2011 by P. Orin Zack