The problem was, I got fired from every job I’ve ever had because I kept rearranging things.
In the four years after graduating college, I had twenty-six jobs and they were all pretty much the same story. My last one was as a sub-contractor’s assistant for a place called Ambient Plumbing. At the time, the hot item in Lincoln Park and Bucktown was exposed pipes and wiring for the home. Ambient Plumbing didn’t do any plumbing per se, but was rather in the business of retrofitting old Chicago buildings so that the living spaces could incorporate that new trend. My job consisted of extirpating drywall or standing around holding fiberglass until it was called for. After a few days, I looked for ways of making my eight hours on the clock more captivating.
My initial feelings of boredom and displeasure with this line of work inspired what I called Realistic Displacement. It started small. During the lunch break at my first job, I moved one of the couch cushions into the shower stall. At the next client’s home I put the contents of their refrigerator under their bathroom sink and vice versa. Another time I arranged every piece of furniture in the client’s bedroom in alphabetical order, to be experienced clockwise upon entering. I had established a motif that made me feel like a rebel. Yet there was something intellectually unsatisfying about rebellion in this context. It was change without evolution, which is merely entertainment.
The day I was fired was the best. It was March 13th, and I wanted to make the client’s home look like January 2nd. I filled their trashcans with old Christmas decorations and scattered pine needles and tinsel onto their carpeting. I even put expired egg nog in their fridge, and made stale Christmas cookies to put on their counter. It took two weeks of preparation but my boss didn’t appreciate it one bit.
“Mitch Diego,” he said, “Get the hell out of this house.”
“Just let me finish,” I told him. I hated not finishing something I started. My boss fired me on the spot without pay.
I went back to the office to get my stuff and ended up waiting at the El stop with this old guy named Edgar Caquill who had also just been let go from Ambient Plumbing. He was a jowly man with a black mustache and a red wool porkpie hat. I worked with him once and I remember him sleeping through half the job.
“Siesta,” he said out of nowhere. “Nobody here understands the concept. I thought this was supposed to be a grand new era of cultural sensitivity.”
“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t know how to talk to old people.
“Instead they call me lazy. They say ‘hey, asshole, wake up.’ Asshole, they call me. I was four when the Germans bombed Guernica. My parents were communists and we had to go into hiding. These people here don’t know what asshole is. They don’t know anything about anything.”
“Yeah, probably not,” I said.
“You don’t know anything either.”
“No, I doubt it.”
“You don’t know how to do one thing.”
“Not one thing?”
“You must know how to do something.”
“Really, I don’t. I can’t even hold down a job long enough to find out if I’m good at it. Each time it’s cool for about a day and then my mind starts wandering and I gotta find ways to make it interesting again. But I never really learned how to do anything.”
“Y’know, when I was your age, there was nobody like you. We grew our own food, we cooked it, and if something broke, we fixed it, and if we needed something, we built it.”
“Yeah, I know, but if you like that world so much, why did you build this one? Why is there someone like me descended from someone like you?”
Across the tracks, the northbound Howard train skidded to a stop, shuffling windows of bleary faces past us. There’s never any order to the train cars; they mix up the old beat-up ones with the new ones. If you must mix them, I would put the newest car in front and the oldest one in the back, like a herd preparing to be culled. After a few months, the old car in back would break off and explode.
Edgar glanced away to acknowledge the noise, and then he cocked his head and looked me over, eyebrows raised and mouth slightly open.
“They used to talk about you in the office.”
“Yeah, what’d they say about me.”
“You’re an Incapable.”
He scratched his butt while he stared at me. Why can old people get away with stuff like that? “No, not just incapable, but an Incapable, uppercase I,” he said.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 15% of the adult, non-handicapped population are unable to work competently at any job. There’s something fundamental in their personality that prevents them from properly executing assigned tasks. Nobody can put a finger on it. But the government calls these folks Incapables.”
“Fifteen percent seems like a lot,” I said. I was still thinking about how they would even get people to ride in the rear train car. I suppose if it was free. Yet, that didn’t seem like a very egalitarian solution, if only the poor and frugal were killed. It should be some kind of lottery. You’d buy a ticket, it would have a random train car number on it, and you’d board that car or there’d be serious jail time.
“Well, the infant mortality rate ain’t what it used to be. Incapables are now the third act in the great tragedy of western civilization, after genocide and non-sustainable industry. They may have something to offer society, an actual talent or skill, that the marketplace has no demand for at all, or possess an artful mastery of a stupid or pointless preoccupation. The whole program was a second-degree amendment the Democrats added to Senator Firehauser’s Mime Prevention Act a few years back. But the thing is, if you’re accepted, you’ll also have to go to Unemployables Anonymous meetings, which I hear are a pain in the ass.”
“Are you an Incapable?”
“No, you can’t be Incapable for reasons of culture, race, gender, sexual preference or religion. My granddaughter’s Incapable, though. She’s like Augustus Mackinnon. Every job she gets, she gets fired for moving things around.”
“Hm,” I said.
“In any case,” Edgar continued, “I’d say it speaks well of you that you can’t hold down work in this culture. When you get home, you should not only register with the government as an Unemployable but also apply for Incapable status.”
“Incapable status,” I said, tasting a combination of words in my mouth for the first time.
The southbound Red Line train arrived and we rose from the cold bench. I made for the train car in front and Edgar loped behind me. The only two open seats were a few rows apart from each other. Edgar Caquill got off the train two stops later. He turned and nodded to me as he left.
I’d like to say I never saw him again, but once, maybe three months later, I was in Rogers Park walking out of a movie theater and I saw a jowly man with a red wool porkpie hat leaning against a broken pay phone talking to a prostitute. He had a black eye and wore a sweat-stained t-shirt that said “Newport: Alive With Pleasure.” I almost raised my fist and yelled “Incapable!” at him but thought the better of it because I was on a date.
“I know that man,” I said to my date, Rachel Marie Sesay, who I met during my four hours working as a museum docent. “He survived the bombing of Guernica.”
Rachel looked at him and said, “When was that, last week?” I tend to date assertive, smart-ass women. I am briefly intriguing to them.
“He introduced me to Augustus Mackinnon.”