My phone rang one Thursday morning, and seeing my friend Franz Wright's name displayed as the caller, I smiled and answered "Hello!" I heard a woman's voice -- not his wife's -- asking whether I was who I am. When I answered "Yes", she told me that Franz had died a couple of hours before. I said just enough to say nothing and thanked her for the call.
Thursday being the first day of my weekend, a day on which I mostly catch up with sleep, I began the weekend like any other by sleeping all day and into the night. Throughout the weekend I did not mention his death to anyone, either in emails or in conversations. Early the next week I received an email from another friend, M. P., telling me that Franz had died.
Franz and I had been friends in high school but had not communicated with one another in the four decades that followed. M.P., also a poet, was the man who got us talking and writing to each other again after all those years. I had to respond to M.P.'s email, and doing so put an end to the silence in which I had managed to keep the news at bay.
I needed to begin thinking about the disappearance of my friend. I read various obituaries, including the passages from Franz's poems quoted in them. Yet when I opened one of his books to read his work in full, I could not do so. I could not hold his voice in my head knowing that I would hear him no more.
I knew two Franzes. the first, with his long hair and soft face, shy, gentle, was already deeply serious and committed irrevocably and without hesitation to poetry at an age when the rest of us were fumbling through a variety of imagined futures; the second, his visage craggy and his manner outspoken, defiant, and critical, was clearly secure in his status as a poet, proud of his accomplishment and jealous of its value.
Between them lay forty years untold. We had lived in worlds wholly apart. Yet when we were reunited in the last few years, what a special joy it was to find the same man I had known as a boy. It was not just that we understood one another's references and touchstones. Any of our contemporaries would make those same connections (Patty Hearst; Suzy Creamcheese) and would understand one another. No, it was much more. The only way I can describe it is to say that when Franz spoke, I heard my own words, my thoughts, coming out of his mouth.
Yet of course Franz wasn't me. I have stumbled through life. Franz pursued a path that, if not always clear, nevertheless always pointed at a clear destination. This clarity of purpose in his career was matched by an inward assurance of righteousness, not some cheap belief that one is always right but the moral certainty of knowing right from wrong. Franz was able, despite knowing his own weaknesses and failures (or rather because he knew them), to judge with clarity the people and events he encountered in his lifetime.
I loved him for referring to his Pulitzer Prize as "the Putz Prize." I also loved him for quoting another acquaintance of mine, Richard Howard, who said, "We have now come to the point in this country where there are more poets than there are people who read poetry."
I boarded a bus one day a week or two ago and saw two boys, high school students I would guess, probably about 13 or 14 years of age. They spoke with great energy and seriousness. Now and then, they burst out in laughter. Without hearing any specific words, I could tell by their affect what they were saying, what kinds of things they were saying.
Their youth was almost shocking. Their skin seemed translucent. Their shared looks, by turns conspiratorial, sarcastic, enthralled, showed how thoroughly they understood each other. I wondered whether, forty some years ago, some old man riding a bus had looked at Franz and me, unobserved by us, and had seen what I now beheld.
An awareness of growing old has come upon me quickly in the last year or so. I had felt myself to be unchanged in age since early adulthood and took little notice of differences in age among others. What differences I observed between people in their thirties or forties or fifties were superficial matters of getting or not getting references to popular songs or old news. But lately I feel dissociated from much of the society around me and particularly from the future that seems to be unfolding.
I feel this alienation most sharply in the unquestioning acceptance of -- and the belief in the goodness of -- what is called "technology", that is, new electronic devices. When I stop to count up the things lost to technology, I realize that the change has been going on for decades, especially since the widespread adoption of personal computers and the Internet. Travel agents, telephone books, maps, bookstores, and record stores were among the earlier losses. More recently the pace has accelerated: gone is real, physical mail, books, movie theaters, records and CDs, pay phones, and soon enough, I fear, taxi cabs.
My reaction is visceral in part because I know personally what the loss of these objects and institutions has meant when considered as the loss of jobs, and the subsequent ruin of individual lives. American society has not made provision for the bookstore clerks, travel agents, postal employees, et al. who have lost both their incomes and their places in their communities. The politicians, social scientists, and business leaders, to the extent that they pay heed to the problems that these people face, talk about the "need to retool", about providing educational programs so that these people can work at new jobs being created in the "information economy."
Such talk is a glib obfuscation of the reality that these unemployed people live daily. It is a cruel hoax to pretend that tech companies will hire them, "retooled" or not. [And look at the disrespect in that word "retooled", which speaks of people as if they were inanimate machines.]. Technology companies simply do not hire people over 40. Nor will most other companies, since they assume that older workers will retire at 65, just as they once assumed that young women would leave careers to have children and so did not hire them.
Furthermore, those who do get hired and begin a second career find that any one job is the not the same as any other. We are not pegs that can be pulled from one hole and stuck into another equally well. We spend a great deal of time and energy identifying the work that we want to do, at which we can do well, and of which we can be proud. So even if our national economy were creating new jobs in sufficient numbers to absorb all those displaced by internet based automation (now called "disruptive technology"), the people who would be forced to take those new jobs would still have lost much more than could easily be replaced.
A job is not just a job: it is an identity; it is a role in one's community; it is a life. The American mythology declares that an essential part of our "freedom" is that we can choose what kind of work we do, and the positive thinking self-help gurus tell you to "follow your passion" in developing your career. Leaving aside the complete falsehood of the myth that "the money will follow,"(which I shall take up in a later essay), I want to make the point that the myth itself implies that jobs are not interchangeable.
Those who worked as travel agents, booksellers, etc. now find that the expertise, understanding, and skill which they developed over a lifetime no longer hold any value. The job that defined them and gave them a source of pride has been taken by machinery that juggles 0s and 1s. This is the worst aspect of their unemployment. They have been tossed into the trash. People who worked hard, played by the rules, and believed the culture's promise that their efforts would be repaid with respect and prosperity in their "golden years," are instead expected to learn new skills and adopt new identities doing work which they do not have sufficient years left in their lives to master. The skilled worker, the lucky one that is, has been forced to take up a new line of work at which he or she will never have time to reach the level of competence, of pride, and of compensation they once had at their previous work. The unlucky worker is simply abandoned to live out her or his final years in the useless and meaningless struggle merely to survive that is poverty.
I know the truth of what I say because I live in the middle of it every day.
I remember an afternoon in 1978 (I think) when my first partner (we called them "my lover" in those days) Tom and I went to see a travel agent in Wellesley. Living in the Northeast, we liked to go somewhere sunny and warm every winter. The travel agent told us about Negril, Jamaica, where five small hotels, each having only about 20 rooms, were strung along seven miles of perfect white sand beach at the western end of the island. He booked us into a hotel run by delightful German woman who made sure that we knew the best spots to visit at that end of the island. Our vacation was idyllic, and my memories of it are vivid to this day.
I do not think that we would ever have considered Negril if we had been searching the internet on our own. For one thing, the then-current political turmoil and violence in Jamaica would probably have led us to skip the island entirely. But as the travel agent knew, that unrest was taking place in Kingston, at the other end of the island, and Negril was peaceful. What's more, enough tourists were put off by the political news that those five hotels were all only half full, meaning that only about 100 people at most were vacationing along seven miles of beach. We spent whole days naked in the sun without seeing a single person along the endless horizon. On that westward facing pristine beach, we watched overarching sunsets each night. None of these joys would live with me today without that travel agent.
During our week there we saw workmen beginning to survey and to bulldoze a piece of land just north of our hotel. They had begun to build the Negril Beach Village, a Club Med resort which today, I imagine, brings many thousands of people who book their vacations online to over-run that once pristine beach. I imagine the beach littered with plastic cocktail glasses and little paper umbrellas. I hope that sweet German woman made a fortune selling her hotel and got away to parts then and now unknown on the Internet. But how sad it must have been for her to leave such a paradise, driven out by the fiery swords of the angels of commerce. I hope that she never looked back.
And I wonder what became of that travel agent. I have never been good at estimating people's age and have no idea how old the man was. I have the impression that he was not much older than we, so it is likely that he could be living now. Of course, like Tom, he may have died of AIDS decades ago. But if he lives, it is certain that he no longer works as a travel agent. His job most likely disappeared fifteen to twenty years ago. With it went the possibility of his sharing his vast knowledge of the world and its delights with any more than a handful of personal acquaintances. His expertise lost all monetary value too. So much for a "sharing economy" -- a phrase that I detest for its misrepresentation of businesses by which "them thats got shall get", imbuing those businesses with an aura of benevolence that belies the fact that more often than not they are ruining the lives of "them thats not."
I doubt that the travel agency sold for a fortune. I doubt that it sold at all. More likely it folded, and he left with his personal belongings on the last day, perhaps casting a wistful glance over his shoulder at the posters of exotic and historical places that hung on the wall behind the desk where he had labored for many years.
Was he able to retire to one of those distant places he knew so well? If he was indeed our age, he was probably too young to afford that. Maybe he got a job at one of the nearby tech companies then flourishing along Route 128. If so, I doubt that he earned anything like what he did as a travel agent, when you factor in the flights and accommodations and meals that airlines, hotels, and restaurants offered all travel agents, and I doubt that he could ever enjoy his passion for travel again. The witch Winfrey and the smug Wayne Dyer should think of him next time they dispense such platitudinous advice as "follow your passion, and the money will come." Oprah shit.
[I cannot resist noting that when I could not recall Dyer's name, I googled "pbs guru self help" and his was the first name that popped up. God bless the Internet! Now let's try "Idiot President United States" and see what comes up!]
But now back to me.
(I am reminded of the diva who, in the midst of an interminable monologue about the glories of her career, turned to her companion and said, "But enough about me! What do you think of me?")
I have been writing about those who lost their jobs, lost their lives, due to economic changes which were for the most part brought about by technological changes and the development of new infrastructure. I live among these people but must admit to having arrived here by a different route. I was not forced out of my position in life by economic change, by automation, or by what is called "Disruptive Technology." I just never found my place to begin with.
I am a very good student and have been blessed with an exceptionally good education. I believe that I think clearly and that my conclusions are sound. I hope that I write well. I am physically presentable, and I think that people do, on the whole, enjoy my company. I communicate easily with other people. But none of these elements of my character are easily monetized in this economy. I spent almost all of my adult life in sales positions, and I am not a good salesman. An elusive aspect of my character, "temperament", is at fault: I am temperamentally unable to make people buy things that they are not sure they want, and the ability to do just that is what defines sales. As a result, I never really succeeded in business. I merely scraped by.
I am also not good at managing other people. I am in particular incapable of disciplining others. For that reason I have no place in any managerial or supervisorial capacity. That incapacity is also the reason that I was not a good teacher. I struggled painfully to grade student's work. I could not separate their errors from my failure to teach. As far as I was concerned, inadequacies in their work resulted from my failure to communicate clearly the nature of either the subject matter or the assigned task. I was miserable.
I was not tossed from my niche by some "disruptive" iconoclast. It was rather that in all the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the cloud-capped towers, yea the great globe itself, I never found the corner in which I was made to stand.