I said, “I have a couple bucks worth of change.”
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
I made the move with Fox into the RV at a moment of crisis in my life. I was beginning to be consumed by debt. It was sustainable, but in a few years it might overwhelm me if I didn't take action.
One morning I woke up, did some simple addition and concluded that I was thirty seven thousand dollars in credit card debt. I still had six thousand to go on my car loan, so that made a debt load of forty three thousand dollars. How could this happen? I’m legally single and without dependents. I own no stocks, bonds, properties or other convertible assets. I am a man utterly without collateral. So, my question “how did this happen?” is a rhetorical utterance, because I know how it happened. I spent more than I earned. It’s that simple. If we see this happening on a larger scale, as an entire society goes bankrupt, the same basic laws apply. The only difference between me as an individual and our society is that society, represented by The Government, can print money. The newly printed money is really toy money, but it buys a smidgen of time because it’s backed up by history, prestige, momentum and the memory of immense wealth. It may be a few years before anyone notices that United States dollars look like little orange, blue and yellow pieces of paper about three inches long and two inches wide.
I got my first credit card when I was forty-five years old. I had managed to live outside the consumer cycle for all that time, by being either a hippie or a bum. I was a hippie bum when that envelope arrived in the mail, the one that said, “You have already been approved.” I thought it was a joke, I laughed. Who would give me a credit card?
I like being approved. I thrive on approval. This Visa Card provided me with a credit limit of two hundred dollars, at an interest rate of twenty three point nine nine percent. Of course, a credit card is not really about its interest rate. Credit cards are a barge full of tricky charges, most of which are confined to the small print. The two most lethal words in the English language, “Adjustable Rate,” are stated or implied somewhere in that print. There are annual fees, late fees, cash advance fees, all around Desperate Ignorance fees. You’re dumb, and you’re desperate, so we’ll charge you a fee.
I didn’t know any of this at the time. I was living in an in-law unit behind a house in San Geronimo Valley. The area is an enclave of hippies, new age healers, artists, crafts-people and bums hiding out.
I was excited about having two hundred dollars credit. My therapist approved. Having a credit card was a mark of responsibility; it meant I was turning into a mature adult, integrating myself into mainstream society. Provided, of course, that I kept up my payments. How much trouble could I get into, with a two hundred dollar limit?
I didn’t know, at the time, that paying minimum on a credit card means that any amount, no matter how trivial, will take your next ten incarnations to pay off, or about six hundred years. Fortunately, credit companies don’t track future incarnations. Instead, they sue debtor’s spouses or any relative available for the unpaid sum. Eventually, our corporate-controlled government will pass laws allowing credit banks to force you to work off your debt. You will pass your days working in a cubicle in South Dakota, making collection calls for the bank and living in dorms with twenty-four beds to a room. Lunch will be a choice between bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Spam or Macaroni and cheese are the menu for dinner. There WILL be movies every night, hell, we got plenty of movies. Disney will have the exclusive contract to provide Credit Default Camps with DVDs.
I racked up my two hundred dollar debt in one day. I bought a car. That was the kind of car I got in those days. I used a courtesy check from the card company (special interest rate of 29.9 percent) and bought an’82 Honda Civic. It turned out to be a good car. The starter was broken, so the car had to be hot-wired every time I wanted to drive. The gas tank had a crack halfway down its side. Anything over six gallons sent a flammable trickle of gasoline through this crack. I could never put more than five gallons in the tank. I had to be very careful about that. I got full disclosure from the seller about the vehicle’s problems. “Watch out how much gas you put in,” he told me. “Five gallons tops and keep track of what you got left in the tank when you fill. Best thing is to just get three and half. I had a friend with the same problem, and he blew himself up.”
I got great mileage from that little beige go-cart. Five gallons was a hundred twenty miles, easy. It was a bargain, it was a reliable vehicle.
I paid my monthly minimum on time, every month. In about six months, the card company notified me that my limit had been raised to five hundred dollars. Fantastic! I bought a set of tires for the car.
I was living as a free-lance anything: janitor, painter, carpet cleaner. I worked as a flower delivery driver. I survived by the seat of my pants.
My monthly card payments were fifteen dollars. Not a problem, I always put a check in the mail at the last possible minute. I was always on time.
The card company raised my limit to a thousand dollars. It felt good, it meant that Visa trusted me.
I wanted to become a professional photographer. I bought my first digital camera. The payments went up to about twenty eight dollars a month.
Then I got another envelope in the mail. This one was from MasterCharge. “You have already been approved!”
Nice! They were offering me twenty five hundred dollars credit at a rate of sixteen point four percent. It was a Gold Card. I wondered about these metallic cards. Gold, Silver, Platinum. I wondered if there were cards for people on different economic rungs. Cards with metals both common and uncommon. A Uranium Card for nuclear physicists, with radioactive interest rates and loan half-lives that take millions of years to pay off. An Iron Card for weight lifters. The rates just go up and down, up and down. Heavy Metal Cards, shaped like guitars, for rock and rollers. Lithium cards for manic-depressives, with rates that plunge and soar and plunge again.
I believe that credit banks operate with a fundamental yet covert philosophy. It’s called the We Don’t Give A Shit If You Pay Us Back Principle. By the time you have gone through the agonies of ballooning credit balances, of paying monthly minimums on seven different cards, of borrowing from one card to pay another, of paying late fees, overcharge fees, balance transfer fees and been suckered into “credit insurance” programs that protect you from being unable to pay your credit card bills, you have put so much money into the pockets of Citibank and Chase that even if you default, they’ve made a profit of twelve thousand percent, which more than offsets your default, when it comes.
In U.S. Dependencies like Guam, Saipan and Puerto Rico, Congress will enact loopholes in anti-usury laws, allowing Citibank to be what it really is: a loan shark. Rates of a hundred percent, payable next week or they send a goon to break your finger. What’s the “vig”, Louie?
Since I was unable to get credit, that is, low interest bank credit for a legitimate business loan, I used my cards to start my digital photography business. The problem was that my business took ten years to get going, and after five years I was paying almost six hundred dollars a month just to maintain the minimum payments on all those cards.
This was like taking six crisp one hundred dollar bills out of my wallet and setting a match to them. That money was gone, it would not reduce my debt, it would not purchase anything. It was gone. Wasted. At this point my repayment would take twenty six thousand years, or nine hundred future incarnations.
I was having a good spell in my business. I was enjoying some cash flow. I was always rescued by a last minute thing, a portrait session, a wedding, a house to paint, sale of a print or two. Somehow, I was able to keep up with these incredible payments. I made some large payments, bringing my balance down. That’s when the next round of offers came in: “You Have Already Been Approved!”
Wow. Capital One allowed me five thousand dollars in credit at a rate of eleven point nine percent. I took it! I needed a more sophisticated camera and some portrait lights.
Pretty soon I was running five credit cards and I lost track of my total debt. I guess I lost track on purpose, so that I could live in denial.
I was the ideal customer for credit card banks. I racked up a lot of credit yet made minimum payments, on time. There is no better earner for a bank than a consumer like me. They don’t want me to pay off my loan, heavens no! They want to gradually load me up on debt, drag me down into the depths of high interest compound rates and keep me there for the rest of my life.
The thrill began to wear off. For a while, I actually defined wealth as the amount of one’s credit. If I had a few hundred grand in credit, I was in pretty good shape, wasn’t I? Aren’t we defined by our debt? I saw my world as a kind of spending party. Need a new printer? Cool, I‘ve got credit. I’ll keep making the minimum payments. I always do.
I’ll admit it was fun. I had a great time. I am a compulsive person. I will always be a compulsive person. In this, I am not much different from the average American. We are all compulsive. We are made compulsive by the continual stimulus of commercial images of glamorous exciting products.
I never considered bankruptcy. I held the almighty Credit Rating in such awe that I would do nothing to besmirch it. Meanwhile, I became more and more miserable, as my anxieties focused on making the monthly minimum payments and seeing my income going into the fire. Get out the matches, dude, time to burn some more hundred-dollar bills. I began to feel as though I were carrying a mountain on my back. I knew that I would never get rid of this mountain, that the rest of my life would be spent holding up this Sisyphian mass as it grew larger and larger.
This wasn’t fun any more. My outlook changed in a single week. One day, I simply looked at my situation. Within another few days I was there; I was prepared to file for bankruptcy.
It occurred to me that the almighty Credit Rating is a hoax. People go in fear of losing points on their credit rating. People obsess on the difference between six fifty and seven hundred. The terror of losing points on one’s credit rating is a ubiquitous American terror. It rides invisibly on people’s shoulders like a pair of wooden stocks, like a medieval torture device. Companies thrive on milking people’s obsession with their credit score. Go to freecreditreport dot com and find out your score. You’ll learn that your free credit report isn’t free. It’s a lure to sell credit monitoring services. For a monthly fee a consumer can track his or her credit rating and get even more obsessive.
Every American can get a free credit report once a year. That’s the law. You won’t get it at freecreditreport dot com. You’ll just get more crazy.
Radio stations are flooded with commercials for get rich quick instructional CDs, books and videos. Every time I hear the word “free” on the radio I laugh and I visualize gullible wannabe entrepreneurs panting to exploit this amazing opportunity. I’ve always had a maxim regarding American marketing techniques. It’s simple: contempt sells. Marketers view the American consumer as a stupid, gullible and very hungry five year old child with a fist full of money that it would rather spend on toys than on necessities. This toddler justifies spending money on toys because it believes that at some point in the future it’ll somehow make a lot of money, and THEN it will pay for the necessities. Meanwhile it’s having too much fun. Don’t worry. It’ll figure out a scheme to get rich without working very hard.
Thousands of commercials promise the consumer an income of five to ten thousand dollars a month by investing in the stock market. Best of all, the CD is free! Or how about this? Make money using the internet! You don’t have to buy inventory, you don’t have to store inventory, all you have to do is sell stuff on Ebay that you don’t even have! Let your computer do your work for you. Earn money while you sleep! And best of all, the CD explaining how to pull off this miracle is FREE! Wow, (the radio voice says) now I can quit my day job, and pretty soon I’ll own two houses!
Hey, wait, what about Real Estate?! There’s a book telling me how to earn a fortune buying up foreclosed properties. The introductory CD is Free! The word free should be spelled eff arr dollar sign dollar sign. FR$$.
The people making money on these programs are the people selling the book or CD. If the program worked so well, why would these entrepreneurs spawn thousands of competitors?
Let me admit that, initially, my new philosophy, my ‘credit score is a hoax’ pose was a bit of bravado. I was still scared. What if one of us got sick? What if I wanted a new car? What if Fox and I decide to upgrade to a better motorhome? What if what if what if?
I’ll relieve you of the suspense right now. My bankruptcy was a complete success. The first thing that happened was that car dealers showered me with offers. It’s the standard procedure after a bankruptcy. There are business entities whose most lucrative product is helping bankrupts re-establish their credit. Car dealers are foremost among these entities. All kinds of people wanted to help me re-establish my credit. Offers poured in. The first few months, the offers were terrible. The credit cards were loaded with sign-up fees and yearly fees, and the interest rates would shame any loan shark. I got those “You have already been approved” deals all the time. After a few months the offers settled down, became more like the offers I got before I went bankrupt. I accepted one card: no sign up fee, no yearly fee, interest at eleven percent. I keep that one credit card, and I stay below two thousand dollars in total debt. I make large monthly payments when my balance gets too high. Every offer that comes along goes into the wastebasket. I have one credit card. Two thousand dollar limit. Period.
Wait a minute, wait a minute! I have to confess something. I wrote that last paragraph before gas prices hit the roof. It’s getting tougher to function and make ends meet. I sort of broke my rule. I haven’t exceeded my limit. I did, however, take on another credit card. That card is sitting in my wallet like a radioactive pellet, just waiting to leak through and contaminate my world. It scares the hell out of me, while at the same time it comforts me. Its purpose is to backdrop serious emergencies. I haven’t used it. I don’t want to use it. I pray that nothing happens to force me to use it. I just pray and pray.
My attitudes have changed. I don’t spend money just to have something I want, like a new printer. My camera gear is getting old. That’s the way it will have to be. I can’t afford the latest, neatest gear.
What I’m saying is that it’s almost impossible to escape the world of credit cards. They keep coming back like the Terminator’s metal arm.
Have I mentioned that I feel like I’m really getting screwed? Have I just come out and said it in so many words?
I feel choked with anger. I am so frustrated that I need a pitcher of margaritas or a bottle of Vicodin. (I am, of course, exaggerating dramatically for effect here. I’m not an alkie or a dope fiend, no no no.) There are a hundred rip offs dipping into my pocket every day. There are dozens of virtually undetectable drains on my income. This isn’t a free country! It’s a very expensive country.
In the last decade I have found myself trapped by invincible shackles. I have hit the wall of middle age. I have just enough medical and chronic pain conditions to place me at the very center of the health insurance vortex. I have no choice but to be a consumer. I am now the victim of medical blackmail. Insurance and drugs are so expensive; they dominate every aspect of my life. Why? How can one blood pressure pill cost four dollars? It costs pennies to make. We all know that. The Big Pharm companies scream “Research and Development! Marketing! How can we invent those orphan drugs that will help a few thousand people and conspicuously demonstrate our compassion? Our expenses are staggering!”
There there, Big Pharm, don’t cry. Poor Pfizer, you’ve worked so hard to ensure that our aging males can have erections. Don’t sulk in a corner, Glaxo. We know how much you love us. Your efforts have controlled our cholesterol, have saved our lives time and again! Your executives deserve those boats and planes, they’ve earned those vacations at hotels in Dubai that look like flying saucers and cost four thousand dollars a night. They deserve the call girls and the Bugati sports cars, the Rolex watches and the gated estates overlooking the beach at St. Moritz. They’ve worked hard for our benefit.
I often fantasize about what I could do if I didn’t spend half my income every year on health insurance and prescription co-payments. I wouldn’t be living in constant anxiety. I might be able to save enough money to have another RV journey and have some fun. I might be able to get my car fixed. I could repair that weird flub flub sound it makes in the right front wheel. I could afford my dog’s dental work, the removal of those extra teeth that are going to become a nightmare in three or four years.
I’m old enough to remember a time when health care wasn’t everyone’s ball and chain. I remember when a factory worker could support a family and mom could stay home and pay some attention to the kids. I remember when people didn’t endure sour stomachs and panic attacks thinking about their credit card debt. I remember when my dad made enough money from his small business to provide a decent middle class standard of living for his family. I’m old enough to remember the way things shifted so suddenly in the late seventies and early eighties. No one had ever heard of HMOs. Then, suddenly, they were everywhere. Our big industries, like steel and auto manufacture were under assault by the Japanese.
De-regulate everything! We have to compete with a free hand!
I’m not an economist or a political scientist, I don’t understand how our society was co-opted and undermined by an inferno of greed. I only know that a corrupt and devious corporate cruelty has turned middle class people into paupers and terrified debtors.
Dammit, I’m angry!
To further amplify my vulnerability, I have taken yet another credit card. I spent up to the limit on the last one after my car broke down. I needed brakes, a catalytic converter and a new clutch.
My debt has climbed to about three thousand dollars, and I’m paying about a hundred dollars a month. I can live with that. The debt stopped climbing a year ago. I’ve kept pace with my payments; I occasionally pay the bill down by a few dollars. This is familiar territory me. I understand the game, and the futile squirming that I must suffer to keep afloat because I’m not much of a money person. I’m an artist-person, woe is me. I am aware that more millions of people are now living the same way. The economy has gotten bad and there are many new recruits to the kind of life I’ve always lived. I have a certain amount of psychological armor against this insecurity. It doesn’t bother me so much. I know that a lot of people, new to poverty and crushing debt, are quaking with anxiety and dread. I’m sad about those people.
A few days ago I was getting into my car in a large parking lot. I was approached by a well dressed woman. “Excuse, me, sir,” she asked with apparent reluctance. “I’ve had a bit of trouble and I…”
I didn’t force her to end her pitch. She was begging. I held up my hand and said, “Sure, no problem, I have a couple bucks worth of change. I’ve been through hard times myself.”
She relaxed, her shoulders came down from around her ears. She wasn’t a funky street person holding a sign at a busy intersection. She looked like a soccer mom with two kids. This was my first encounter with a more upscale type of beggar. Looks can deceive. She might be the forerunner of a new type of beggar, the housewife-Oxycontin scammer. I don’t care. If she needs money for drugs, let her buy drugs. I’d prefer that she find treatment but if she’s willing to beg drug money in a Safeway parking lot that means she’s NOT willing to be a hooker, not yet.
Some stop-light panhandlers have a dog. Some sit in wheelchairs. There are busy intersections claimed as territory by beggars. Their signs are variations of the same message. “Anything will help.” If the person is able-bodied the sign might say “Will work for food.” I hold no animus towards them. They stand for hours in a noisy place clogged with car fumes and endure a thousand humiliations. I could tell that the well-dressed woman in her early thirties was not used to this kind of activity. The look on her face was shattering. She was humiliated but she tried to appear as if this was just a momentary blip, like she had left her wallet at home and had run out of gas. She was going to beg just this once, it wasn’t a thing she would do tomorrow and the day after that. I saw her move on to the next person and the next. They recoiled, they refused. She kept on, walking gently up to people with an “Excuse me, sir, I’m in a bit of trouble…Excuse me ma’am ”. I don’t care if she spent the money for booze or drugs. I never care about that. Begging is a profession that has always been with the human community. I’ve begged and panhandled. I lived at the bottom tier of society for years. I know how difficult is the work of begging.
Yesterday I was in another parking lot, just coming from Raley’s with two plastic bags of food. It was five-ish, getting dark. A woman approached me wearing a white down jacket and slacks. Her hair was well kept, her makeup was in place.
“Excuse me, sir” she began and again I held up my hand. “No problem,”
I said, “I have a couple bucks worth of change.”
I said, “I have a couple bucks worth of change.”
As I dug through my bag, I asked her a question.
“How many hours a day do you do this?”
“All day. I’ve been here since eight this morning. My feet are killing me. I’m done in an hour. Eight to six,” she laughed bitterly, “it’s a full time job.”
“What are people like?” I wondered. “Do they help you?”
She leaned back against a car, taking the weight off her feet. The bright blue light of the mercury vapor lamps made it easy to see her face. She didn’t look like an addict. She looked like a thirty five year old woman trapped in the grip of circumstances beyond her control. She’s divorced. Her ex-husband’s vanished, not paying child support. She’s three months behind on the rent. Laid off from her job after twelve years of loyal service to the firm. Unemployment benefits are running out. Can’t find a job anywhere. She’s desperate and she wants her kids to have the things they’ve always had. Karate lessons. A music teacher. Little by little she’s lost the ability to provide, and must make some hard choices.
So…panhandling in supermarket parking lots becomes an option, a desperate option that she takes with greatest reluctance.
“About one person in ten is nice.” she replied. “You can’t believe the abuse I get out here. ‘What’s the matter with you?’” she imitated a shrill pitiless voice, “‘Go get a job like a decent person. Shame on you!’ Women are the worst, especially the ones of a certain age, over forty five, fifty. I don’t bother with the twenty-somethings. They’re just overgrown high school kids, they tell me to go fuck myself. Excuse my language. And you know what? I stand up for myself. I tell them they don’t know what’s going on in my life, they’re not qualified to judge me.”
She paused as some unpleasant image washed across her mind.
“Some of the men,” she said, “some of the men, are…you know…they think I’m a hooker. They say the most disgusting things. I’ve got a radar for that type now, it works pretty well…what would you call that, ‘Jerk-dar?’”
“Maybe ‘ass-illoscope’” I quipped, not sure she would get the pun, if she knew the term ‘Oscilloscope’.
“Perfect!” She got the pun. “What about ‘asshole-ascope’.”
“Better, even better!” I affirmed. “There you go!”
Her eyes shifted. A woman carrying groceries was loading her car just down the row. She needed to get back to work.
“Thank you,” she said with sincerity. “I have to make every minute count.”
“Go on,” I said, “Go back to work.”
She had to push herself away from the car. She was bone tired. She didn’t know whether her next approach would end in kindness or invective. Her eyes thanked me for treating her like a human being.
With each passing week I expect to see more of these parking lot beggars.
Begging is one of the hardest jobs in the world.
This has everything to do with the move of Fox and me from house to motor home. We were not forced to move out of the house. True, It got too expensive. We saw our resources diminishing and a future where our age was going up as our income was going down. We saw an economy edging towards bankruptcy and we wanted OUT as quickly as possible, we wanted a way to reduce our earthly footprint.
We WANTED to live in a motor home! After the trip in Yertle, the epic voyage to Arches National Park, the idea became more and more appealing. We didn’t know whether or not it would work out. It was a tremendous risk.
Declaring bankruptcy was also a tremendous risk. What if “they” came and took away our motor home? It was half in my name and half in Fox’s. What if “they” took my camera, my computer, my car? I didn’t know they wouldn’t. I asked several lawyer friends of mine, and they assured me that such things would not happen. I had no real assets. My possessions were exempt. I would be fine.
In spite of these reassurances, Fox and I spent a nervous couple of months.
In 2005 there was a major change in the laws regarding bankruptcy. These changes tended to favor the card companies. A bill was passed called The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. I love that: Consumer Protection Act. The ostensible purpose of this act was to prevent people from racking up a lot of debt with the intention of going bankrupt after spending oodles of the bank’s money. How is this protecting consumers? Give me a break. How many people do you know that are exploiting credit card companies with the intention of defaulting? One, two, a hundred? How many have you heard about? Is it so common that an act of congress is required to protect us from these unscrupulous spenders? The real motive behind this Act is that the banks foresee a flood of bankruptcies looming in the near future. They want to be ready for this tsunami of debt, they want to get their rich butts to higher ground so that when the bankruptcies mount into the millions, they will be safe and capable of forcing debtors into losing the pants they wear, the shoes they walk in. I can see it now, America. People walking around in blankets.
I hired a good lawyer. She was a little hobbit of a woman who wore thick glasses and neat business suits. I had the feeling that in court she was a cyclone, that her antagonists quaked in terror when she opened her briefcase. She charged one fee, two thousand dollars, in advance. She always let me know what was happening, she communicated with me regularly, instructed me in what to do and what not to do.
One of the stipulations of the new law is that debtors must pass two courses in money management and credit awareness. To this effect, a host of companies have arisen to cater to the expanding market of bankruptcy cases. The whole shebang is done online, and it costs about three hundred dollars. The debtor must first pass a credit counseling course. The material in this course is not difficult. The test is a multiple-choice quiz with some pretty silly questions.
The questions go like this: “What is the correct way to use credit cards?”
Answer One: To buy cool things like cell phones, shoes and car accessories.
Answer Two: To finance trips to Hawaii and Disneyland.
Answer Three: To be used as an occasional aid to pay emergency expenses when cash is short.
Question: What is the best way to manage one’s credit account?
Answer One: Put off paying to the last minute.
Answer Two: Build up a lot of debt and make minimum payments.
Answer Three: Pay off debt as it arises, maintaining the lowest possible balance.
These courses are designed for the average American genius. It’s a case of having questions reveal more than the answers. What kind of people find these questions challenging? My god, are we in trouble, here in America? Is this what we’ve become? Consumer morons?
I am the American economy in microcosm. I was encouraged, no, I was seduced, into borrowing beyond my means. Who am I? I am poor! I don’t feel poor, I live a great life, but on paper, I am poor. Why would banks lend me money? Yes, I am responsible for my debt. My greed is at fault. No question.
I was a frustrated man with no money being treated to the most sophisticated sales technique on the planet. Borrow this money! We’re offering it to you, it’s easy, just apply online and we’ll have your credit approved in five minutes.
Got it almost paid off? Here, we’ll lend you some more. We approve of you! You’re a good person! We like you! Here’s five grand. You can pay it off any time you want, just make sure you meet your minimum and we’ll get along great. No one will call you, no letters will arrive. Gee, you know what? Our records show that you have five credit cards, and owe a total of twenty thousand dollars. That makes you a good credit risk! You wouldn’t have all these cards and owe all this money unless banks trusted you. Here, another ten grand in credit. Fine! Pay us back when you can!
The credit counseling companies who advertise so heavily on radio and television are flourishing. They will help you pay down your debt! In fact, there are reputable companies and disreputable companies. The business is predicated on the simple fact that many credit banks are willing to let you pay off forty percent of your loan at a reduced monthly rate. This is a fact. Almost all of your card debt can be drastically reduced. The counseling agency is there to do the paperwork, run interference for you, comfort you in your distress. That’s what the honest companies do. The dishonest ones will have you send your payments directly to them. They will take your money and do nothing. They will not pay your creditors. They will reassure you that all these harassing phone calls that have begun are normal. Wait a couple of months and they’ll die down. Don’t worry, sir, the man with the generic foreign accent on the phone says, don’t worry this is the normal procedure. We have negotiated your credit to ten percent of what it was. We are paying your creditors, and in eighteen months you will be free of debt! Isn’t that wonderful?
I called one of these crooks. He wanted to start the program right away. “I can sign you up right now, you can stop worrying about the letters and the phone calls.”
“How does it work?” I ask.
“It’s simple, “ he replies, “you just make one monthly payment to our office and we’ll take care of the rest.”
“That sounds easy enough,” I say.
“Great, then you’re ready to start,” responds the man.
“Don’t you need my application, some paperwork?” I question.
“Oh no, that’s not necessary, just give me your phone number, social security number and address and we’ll get started on the paperwork right away.”
“Uhhh…I think I’ll wait on that.” I hung up very quickly. I felt as if I had avoided a rattlesnake bite.
I never got any letters or phone calls. I made every monthly minimum payment until my lawyer filed the papers. Within three months, all my creditors had been notified, and there was no point in calling me or harassing me.
I took, and passed, the two courses, via the internet. I filled out a lot of paperwork. I waited some months while my lawyer did whatever it was that she did.
Then my hearing date was scheduled. I was going to walk into a room where it was possible that representatives of all my creditors would confront me with my irresponsible behavior, accuse me of being a crook, question me about purchases I had made three months before I filed for bankruptcy. Why did you buy this lens in August? When did you decide you were going to file for Chapter Eleven? Did you know you were going to file when you bought this lens? How many assets did you transfer in the year before you filed? What are you concealing from us?
Waiting outside the courtroom I was nervous. My lawyer toddled up, looking harmlessly fierce, like a rabbit with giant fangs. “Just answer the questions,” she advised. “Don’t add anything, don’t talk too much. It’ll be fine.”
The doors opened and I entered the hearing room. Five or six other cases were on the docket, so I sat in a folding chair with my fellow bankrupts, while three trustees sat behind a semi-circular dais. A tape recorder was turned on.
The trustees didn’t look like monsters. They looked kind of nice.
My case was first on the docket. The blonde trustee swore me in. Then she asked me two questions.
“Do you understand the implications of your filing Chapter Eleven?”
“Yes, I do, ma’am.”
“Have you been truthful with the trustee in your documentation?”
“Yes I have, ma’am.”
“Thank you very much, you will be notified of your bankruptcy within sixty days.”
That was it. I walked out of the courtroom a free man. It was a very happy day in my life. I could return to my cozy motor home and tell Fox that it was over. Nobody was going to take anything away from us. Except my forty three thousand dollars in debt.
America is, after all, a wonderful country. The system needs a little tweaking, but it is a wonderful country.
Sunday, May 8, 2016
Wait a minute. Am I really seeing this? I'm at the gym, pedaling away furiously on the recumbent bicycle and my headphone jack is plugged in to the television. There's a commercial. There's Kevin Nealon, an alum of Saturday Night Live. There's Arnold Palmer, who needs to introduction. There's a handsome young race car driver dressed in his jump suit. And there's a ten foot tall basketball star. They are driving in two golf carts, side by side. Kevin says, "You know, with Xebelta I didn't even need a blood test. With other blood thinners I need a doctor's appointment."
Arnold, in the other cart, responds, "I love the convenience of Xebelta."
The ten foot tall basketball star says, "Xebelta gives results without waiting."
Race car driver replies, "And there's fewer side effects with Xebelta!"
Kevin gives Arnold a High Five and the two golf carts drive off into the sunset.
Then there's a lot of fine print at the bottom of the screen and a fast-talking voice says,"Xebelta has been known to cause liver damage, double vision, really stinky farts, plummeting blood pressure, hallucinations of Nazi skulls and dried tear ducts. If you begin seeing crimson giraffes, call your doctor. If you die suddenly try to call Nine One One before you hit the floor."
I DID see that commercial. I have not been taking Xebelta. I think there's something wrong with the world. Does Arnold Palmer need the money? Maybe Kevin does, maybe he's got a raging coke habit or six greedy ex-wives, but I don't think the Nascar guy or the ten foot tall guy need money bad enough to appear in a commercial for a possibly lethal blood thinner.
I have noticed an increase in commercials for pharmaceutical products, most of which may apply to an aging demographic. The increase is not slow, it's headlong and aggressive, with new marketing hitting the media almost daily. There's an insidious message underlying all these new medications: we are sick. We are getting sicker. We need a lot of medication. We need to be ever more vigilant for heart disease, cancer, stroke, hypoglycemia, diabetes, Gout, Porfiria and Recalcitrant Plebny. Not only are we getting sicker but there are new diseases appearing, new diseases that need new medicines with which to fill the pockets of the Big Pharm industry. Crohn's Disease is a favorite. We've all heard of Crohn's Disease. But what the F is Purple Flamyglitis? What is Filinson's Syndrome? Did these disorders appear out of the ethers? Did they migrate across the oceans from Asia and Africa?
I'm a little upset because I don't like subliminal marketing even when it's perfectly liminal. The PRODUCT is in front of us, it's in the advertisement. The IMPLICATION works more subliminally, the constant elbowing in the guts with the concept that WE ARE SICK AND GETTING SICKER ALL THE TIME.
I DO NOT LIKE THAT!
Shame on you, Kevin Nealon. Shame! You're supposed to be a comedian, not a pimp for Xebelto.
I won't waste my time shaking my finger at Big Pharm. They have no shame.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
I was trying to reach a book by one of my favorite authors. It was way up in the highest branches of the tree. Just getting near it had consumed my energy so that I was soaked with sweat. My shirt, my pants, even my shoes and socks were spongy with the perspiration of my effort. It's not easy finding and claiming a good book. I had approached the Book Jungle armed with a thesaurus and a machete. The outlying areas were thick with erotic romances. The place was like an impenetrable hedge. I had to get through!
The first resistance came with a word-balloon shaped like a club. "Her bosoms heaved" it said, and I sliced it in two easily. Quickly it was followed by a spear of a book cover that featured a Fabio look-alike embracing a scantily clad young woman. I slashed. A word had magically transported itself from the thesaurus to my machete, where it seemed to engrave itself into the steel. The word was "Ubiquitous". The machete thrust into the book cover and vaporized the fanciful image. Then "Ubiquitous" faded back into the thesaurus. Repeating this procedure with various words I hacked and sliced and thrust my way through the erotic romances. A particularly strong one reared up like a roaring lion. "Seventy Tones Of Mauve" was the title and the cover showed a woman wrapped in coils of whips, tied to a velvet chair. She was nude but the whips covered her more delicate parts. I lashed out with my machete. It said, "narcissistic personality disorder". It dispatched the book with a brief tug and struggle.
At last I was free of the erotic romances, but I faced a tougher challenge, a circle of knotty pines where each pine cone bore a book with the word "murder" in the title. My first encounter was with "Murder In The Boathouse". I swung with my machete. The words that appeared on the blade were "Tittilating Tumescence". The book tried to dodge me. Its cover showed a lakeside boat house lit by the full moon. A posh manor was up a hill and shadowy figures lurked behind white curtains. The legs of a corpse thrust into the moonlight. The book dissolved into a million shards of paper and wafted out of sight on the breeze.
My struggle was becoming more difficult. Strangely, it seemed as if I had allies within the ranks of each category. My encounter with the "Murder" books was subtly aided by books with the names of particular authors. My first helper was Dick Francis. I saw an Elmore Leonard push aside some frothy confection titled "Murder In A Balloon". Thank god for good writers! With the aid of a final push from James Lee Burke I was able to break free and move on to the next obstacle. This was a looming spire of gnarly Oak and Ash trees, their branches tightly interwoven so that it was difficult to tell individual trees. I paused to catch my breath. I knew that if I so much as hesitated I would lose my nerve. I had to move forward. A book came from above, dropping towards the crown of my head. If it had struck I would have been finished. There was no title visible. Instead there were projected words circling around the volume. "Shadowy government agency". It said. "Trust no one." I dodged and the book glanced off my shoulder. It hurt, but I was okay. I noticed a stack of books that had intervened and thwarted the intent of Shadowy Government Agency. It was the collected works of John Le Carre.
So my journey proceeded. I was after the new book by Don DeLillo. The Book Jungle wasn't going to make it easy. There were self-published books by people without talent who were sure of their brilliance.There were books to exploit the credulous: Fifty books had the same title:"I had an alien's octuplets." There were books by lazy hacks who wrote the same book over and over again, merely changing the titles and covers and character's names.
Suddenly there was a clearing. The ground was littered with tattered copies of old potboilers. I began running. No sooner had I taken a step than a book came flying towards my face. "Aliens Built The Pyramids," the title words hovered and circled around the book until the one book became many and they were zooming towards my head with lethal speed. From another angle there came a barrage of counter-fire. Timothy Ferris, Carl Sagan, Freeman Dyson, books by acknowledged experts and fine writers intercepted all the crap and prevented them from crushing my head.
Damn, getting a good book is dangerous! I came to the pine forest of mainstream literature. Behind the forest lofted a mighty range of giant sequoias and redwoods. That's where I was headed! That's where my copy of Don DeLillo's "Zero K" was waiting. There were still millions of copies of junk in my way. By zigging and zagging, and with the help of many fine author's books, I made it to the trunk of the Tree called "National Book Award". It was a mighty Redwood, and its limbs were festooned with excellent works from many a famous author. Behind me was the detritus of many thousands of books that had been written by the greedy, the lazy, the inflated, the incompetent, the deluded and the flat out nuts.All I had to do was climb the colossus of the great tree of literature and snatch my copy of "Zero K".
Monday, May 2, 2016
1. I can never remember the name of Justin Bieber
2. I forgot number two. Can we go on to Number Three?
3.By carefully calibrating my array of bad habits, I can time my death so that I don't grow too old.
4.Sex isn't as important any more. I don't spend my days behaving like a demented bloodhood who's caught the scent of an escaped convict.
5. Everyone else is growing old at exactly the same speed as I am.
6. I hear news of acquaintances' deaths more frequently. Most of them were assholes.
7. I no longer live in fear of toothaches. I have a modular portable set of teeth.
8. Things change so fast that I quit keeping up five years ago. So as far as I'm concerned nothing has changed at all.
9. They say that age confers wisdom. If that's true, there are an incredible number of dumb people out there.
10. What was this list about?
Monday, April 11, 2016
This is the total of the MS I've written until someone with proprietary rights hires me to write the book/screenplay/comic/etc.
The New Superman
C 2003 Arthur Rosch
Superman was awakened by the buzzing of his Iphone. It was still in the utility belt of his tights. Now it vibrated against his butt cheek, bringing him out of a deep dreamless sleep. The fact that the Iphone was in his tights, and his tights still on his body, was due to his having fallen asleep after a hundred hour work-day. He had gotten back to the Fortress of Solitude only long enough to collapse onto his bed, eyelids falling of their own weight like leaded curtains.
“What the fu…” he cursed, but his throat was too dry to create words. There was a half full bottle of spring water on his bedside table. As he tried to reach it, he rolled to his left, and the badly fitted contour sheet on the mattress snapped up in the corner, so that all his bedding started to unravel. The bottle tipped and spilled into the Pandora’s box of junk at the side of the bed. Superman slapped at the buzzing pest in his belt. It vibrated insistently.
He sat up, dragging blankets and sheets with him. He rocked to one side and fished the Iphone from its pouch. There were only four people who had this Iphone code. When he freed it from the belt it expanded to the size of a small book. Superman squinted blearily at the rapidly forming screen.
It was Piers Bloch, his Public Relations Manager. For the last twenty hours Piers had been voning, texting, emailing, over and over again. The message was always the same:“Whr R U? MUST TALK!”
Superman had been dealing with crisis upon crisis and there was no time to answer the ever-nervous Piers. He was flying supplies to the aftermath of an immense Tsunami in Sri Lanka. There had been an earthquake in Szechuan, a volcanic explosion in Colombia, a Sarin attack in Odessa. What could Piers want that could be more important?
The Man of Steel pushed the Clear button. It would notify Piers that he had finally come to rest in the Fortress Of Solitude. Superman couldn’t bring himself to answer these calls. He had nothing left, nothing to give. He was burnt out.
As he slept he had gotten his face stuck to a napkin from KFC. The place was full of such junk, empty bags and cardboard cups. He spit pieces of lint from his lower lip and picked the rest of the material away from his mouth. Pieces he didn’t see still adhered to his chin.
“Where would I be?”, he grumbled, “Moscow? Alma-Ata? Minsk? I’m everywhere and nowhere.” He sat up, kicking his sheets and blankets into a pile on the floor. The place was a wreck. Outside, he could see the mountains of Greenland, rising in range after range, deep in the interior. Wind kicked disdainfully at the peaks, blowing off piles of snow. In this remote wasteland, it was almost possible to make the world stop. Almost.
For Superman, the world could never stop.
Sighing deeply, with a great effort of will, he got up. He took three steps to the left, and was in his bathroom. Outwardly, to the visible world, the Fortress of Solitude was a 2006 Winnebago Adventurer. Superman didn’t need much in the way of personal comfort. The brown and white rectangular vehicle moved with the wind, it’s springs squeaking. There was more of the Fortress, much more, underground. Next to the motorhome, four twelve foot satellite dishes shuddered in the gusts. They were guyed to the bedrock by inch-thick cables. As the wind traversed this giant harp, the strings went “toing toing”. The perforations in the discs, designed to prevent them from becoming sails and blowing away, added an eerie howling to the already lambent sound of the strings. When the wind was high, the installation made a music appropriate to the landscape.
Superman looked at himself in the mirror. He saw a man approaching middle age with a four day growth of beard. He gave himself a sloppy shave with yet another shaving gizmo, a Shick Seven Blade Self Sharpening Ultra Trend. The self sharpener didn’t work; it was just another shaving gimmick. He made a fist and ran it under the blades at blurring speed. In a few seconds the blades were sharp.
His gut hung over the elastic waistband of his red and blue tights. His arms and legs were packed with muscle, but he was subtly broadening in girth. Lately his physique had begun to resemble that of a Russian weight lifter. He needed a Rejuvenation. His body clock had run close to the age of fifty earth years.
Who has the time? he thought plaintively. Wait. He stopped himself from pursuing that line of thought. It was ridiculous. He could Rejuvenate any time he wanted. It took an hour. He could make the time. It was the wanting. It was the motivation that was missing. He was, as the expression went, “letting himself go”. He was doing it on purpose.
Superman thought, with sudden and unexpected longing, of the key to the Kryptonite Vault. It was hanging just out of reach, in the towel shelf. He could see it, hanging from a Bugs Bunny key chain. He could go down into the underground world of the Fortress, unlock the vault, walk in….and never walk out again.
He rubbed his now-smooth chin, patted his belly, and ran a finger in a vertical line along the Adaptex material of his tights. It opened to the slit shape while he withdrew that part of his anatomy he wryly called “The Dong of Steel.” He stood over the lever-operated toilet and made a piss that poured from him like Niagara, on and on. After three minutes, it gradually rattled to a halt, squirted one last time, and was done. He stepped on the flush lever and the fluids disappeared. The super hero replaced himself in his tights, ran his finger across the opening, which instantly self-sealed. He went into the main room of the motorhome, stepping over empty cans and papers. The lights were on…he had fallen asleep with the lights on. They were beginning to dim, and his computers had already kicked over to generator power.
Impervious to the cold, Superman went outside, brushed snow off a stationary bicycle that was hooked up to a bunch of cables and pedaled for two minutes with such force and speed that smoke rose from the pedals’ sealed bearings. The lights came back up. The generators kicked off but the wind was so loud there was no difference in the noise level.
He returned to the bus-like vehicle’s interior. I should clean this up, he told himself.
He could have asked one of his clones do the cleaning, but any one of them would have laughed at him. Besides, the idea of watching himself working for himself as a menial was absurd. He couldn’t create a sweet plump girl named Rosita to do his housework. He cloned himself, only himself. That was his law, his inflexible principle. He couldn’t handle the work of serving Earth without help.
He heard a boom like distant thunder. This was followed by another sound, a sort of backward rendition of the noise a straw makes after emptying a milk shake.
Superman looked out the window. One of his clones had just landed and was heading towards the beat-up looking cargo container behind the RV. He wasn’t wearing “the costume”. Briefly, the clone and its maker exchanged a glance. Superman nodded perfunctorily. It was Kal-el 17, alternate name Boon. Every Kal-el had a secret identity, a life, sometimes a job. Boon wore his hair long, shoulder length. He pulled a door of the container and vanished down the ramp leading into the tunnels of the Fortress.
Kal-el One registered hunger as the quiet gurgling at the center of his abdomen and a slight dizziness due to lowered blood sugar levels. It was ridiculous, this need to eat, defecate, occasionally masturbate, blow his nose, fart. Ridiculous. But that was where the central problem was located, wasn’t it? He was Superman. He wasn’t Super Super. He wasn’t Man Man. He was Superman. He was, in fact, a goodly part human being, even if his Kryptonian origins lent him unusual faculties. He had lived so long with humans that he almost considered himself to be one of them.
He was a half- breed, with all a half-breed’s identity confusion.
He called himself by his real name, Kal-el. That was his given name. He was Clark Kent in the alternate world of his secret identity. This Superman business was a comic book. True, he could leap tall buildings in a single bound, but there was a lot more to him than what he could DO.
He waved his hand in front of his face, as if to dispel a mirage. To get to the half-sized refrigerator, he had to wade through the detritus of his motor coach: bedding, old newspapers, empty CD jewel cases, bottles of Calistoga water. He couldn’t even get the fridge open. There was an empty Costco box that had contained Top Ramen jammed between the door and the pantry. Taking him by surprise, a fit of pure rage filled him, and he kicked the box so that it exploded and filled the place with cardboard confetti.
Frustrated, he decided to clean the place, now, not later. NOW! He gathered cleaning supplies from under the sink, brought out the vacuum cleaner. He became a blur, and twenty seconds later the Winnebago was spotless, immaculate.
“Why did I wait so long to do that?” Kal-el wondered. He was beginning to worry about himself. The brooding, the mess, the overwork….all classic symptoms of depression.
“That won’t do.” He thought with a puzzled sigh. “We can’t have Superman on Prozac.”
When he opened the little refrigerator a noxious smell came lurching from it like an evil creature. Kal-el recoiled, covered his face, swung the Winnebago door open and puked a perfect little pellet of the protein cake he ate when he was too busy to eat anything better. Which was always.
He held his breath, leaned into the fridge with a squirt bottle of Lysol. His hands moved so fast they virtually disappeared. The little fridge was disinfected and spotless in ten seconds. He sealed the organic garbage into some empty cardboard containers. He was left with four parcels of junk and rotten sludge neatly wrapped in biodegradable paper. He went out into the full roar of the storm and tossed each package thirty miles , one in each of the four cardinal directions.
He sang a brief incantation with each toss. The words were a chant to the wind spirits that he had learned from the local indigenous tribe. He used small ceremonial gestures taken from the Inktuktikut. He lived here on their sacred land. The courtesy of using their chants was his way of showing respect.
That was not the only reason he used the shaman’s way. All he had to do was look at the world around him, the wind, the snow, the mountain crags, the great plateaus of ice. It was a place of awesome and mysterious power. It had to be taken seriously.
He wrapped his cape around himself as he got into his RV. He closed both doors, the screen and the outer door. He opened various laminated plywood cabinets, looking for something to eat. There wasn’t a crumb, not even a bar of his cursed protein cake, not an egg, not a Trader Joe’s Carb 100. Nothing.
Maybe one of the other Kal-els had something to eat. By force of habit Kal-el activated his comm gear and data streams. When his corneal implants flickered to life. information began to whiz across his vision. He had turned the damned thing off when he reached the Fortress. Enough! he had told himself. I’m sick of being a data sieve. Now his feeds were back on. He was getting info from weather satellites, military channels, web cams. He heard chatter from intelligence agencies and radio calls from Metropolis cab companies. A driver on 45th Street was singing “Louie Louie,
Oh no, y’bettah go now. Yah yah yah yah!” He was badly out of tune. Unconsciously, Kalel picked through the brontobytes of information, sorting them for relevance and doing emergency triage. There was a lot of chatter about Superman, which he automatically discarded from his attention. There was always chatter about Superman. There was an endless flow of tabloid trash: I’m having Superman’s Baby! Superman Caught in Gay Romance. There was that perennial tabloid favorite: Superman Has Cloned Himself Thousands of Times! He had to laugh. There WERE clones of Superman. He had made a hundred replicas of himself. He didn’t deny, didn’t confirm, he merely ignored. People hallucinated all kinds of things. Let them work it out.
“There’s so much to be done,” he thought desperately. “So much to be done.”
Then, as always, aware of his mental processes, he stopped thinking and hurled his psyche a billion light years into space. From that distance, he looked down upon the infinitesimal speck of this person, this unfortunate hero the Earthlings called Superman, Kal-el, son of Jor-el.
This thought, he realized, was his nemesis: There’s so much to be done. In those five words huddled a universe of misplaced responsibility, guilt, neurotic over-achievement. He had that insight for a few seconds, then his distance collapsed, his detachment gave way to a sucking rubber-band sound, thwangggg! and he was pulled back into his personality. “Who am I kidding?” he asked himself. “I’m the only person who stands between these earthlings and utter self destruction. I can’t afford the luxury of neurosis. I am doomed to be a workaholic because the alternative is to be uncaring, unfeeling, and to let these people fight each other to extinction.”
He had altered the political structure of the planet Earth until its stability depended upon his intervention. He kept the peace by what he called “The Balance of Astonishment”. Or, sometimes, “Mutually Assured Incompetence.”
Meanwhile there was the real pain, the real horror of earth in its emergency century: oceans rising, monster storms, mass death of man and animal. He couldn’t stand it. If he paid attention to his data stream for another five seconds he would be engaged, he would turn around and fly to the nearest tragedy and then his work day would begin again, and last how long? Fifty, sixty, a hundred hours? A week? He turned his feeds off in something close to panic. He was seized with an overpowering need for company. He decided to go down into the subterranean tunnels to visit a few of his clones the old fashioned way, face to face.
The Winnebago’s bedroom was a discreet area. A slide-out extender gave it extra roominess. Kal-el’s bed faced towards the front of the motorhome. There were mirrors all over the place, typical motorhome décor creating the illusion of space. Opposite his bed there was a large mirror that he had modified to make an interior door. It was his personal entrance into the Fortress Of Solitude, with its miles of tunnels, its super computers, machine shops and laboratories. Kal-el pushed at the full length mirror. It clicked and turned on a central axis. He slid through the opening and pushed the mirror closed.
He was in a long corridor lit to emulate sunlight. Cameras recorded his movements, weapons tracked him. Grey concrete walls and a black rubber floor went down, down, down, at a slope of thirty five degrees. Kal-el ’s feet were sore. He used them hard. He landed on them going a hundred miles an hour. He ran on them, kicked down steel walls, punted ticking hydrogen bombs into space. All in a day’s work.
It was hell on the feet.
Kal-el rose into the air and adopted a lazy prone position, as if he were on a couch watching T-Vid. He did a few mock back strokes, turned on his stomach and flapped his arms raggedly, doing the dance called the Funky Chicken.
He descended a mile this way. When he reached the blast doors he let himself back to the ground. He winced as his feet made contact.
There was a keypad, an iris scanner and a DNA analyzer. When Kal-el had satisfied these security devices, a deep sound vibrated beneath the ground and the massive doors slid apart, only wide enough to admit a man before they reversed on their tracks and shut behind him.
He entered a comfortable but functional set of laboratories, computer banks, work benches and lounge spaces.
“Hey, look who’s here, still wearing his monkey suit!” A Kal-el clone came towards him, smiling with some irony. “K-1”, as he now called himself, recognized “K-47” or, as the clone had named himself, “Zyle”.
KI and Zyle did an informal handshake, fists closed, two taps, top and bottom. Zyle had chosen to treat his skin with melanin and his hair was a great bun of dreadlocks. He weighed less than the original Kal-el . His body was wiry and strong but had none of the bulk that had come upon Kal-el One. He wore a sweater, green with orange stripes, and a circular knit cap. His pants were worn jeans and his feet were pushed into leather sandals. He looked like an Ethiopian version of his maker.
There were usually twenty or thirty of the clones on hand in the Fortress. They were autonomous. When they needed to communicate with one another, they activated
a special channel in their communications gear.
Heads began popping over the tops of cubicles. Variously clad, colored, adorned, each wore the features of Kal-el One, but each was subtly different. Kal-el One knew all of their names, numbers and interests.
A corridor divided the vast chamber into two halves. Some areas were walled off, some merely curtained.
“Hey mon, what bring you down here into da bowels of de earth?” Zyle inquired. He had a jeweler’s loupe raised to his forehead, resting there on its elastic band. He had been making a scarab of exquisite delicacy.
Kal-el 1 threw himself onto the nearest couch, a threadbare legless piece of junk worthy of a college dorm room. Its faded upholstery was a plaid pattern of blue and gold diamonds.
“You guys got anything to eat?” Kal-el 1 fussed with his cape so that he didn’t sit on it. Every time he did so, he found that he couldn’t move without dragging the cape along with himself. Sometimes he sat with legs crossed. Attempting to rise from furniture became a wrestling match as the fabric stuck under him and prevented his legs from getting free.
“Got some potato salad,” a voice spoke up from a few rows down the cubicle complex.
“Punkteen?” Another voice issued from behind a curtain, using the slang word for the ubiquitous protein cake.
“’Tato Salad will be just fine,” Kal-el One said. There was a low coffee table in front of the couch. There were empty bottles, cans and other kinds of junk spread across its surface. Kal-el 20 emerged from a cubicle with a half full container of potato salad. A plastic fork stuck out from a chunk of potato. K20 was dressed simply in a light blue shirt and belted slacks. He handed Kal-el One the container and sat next to him on the couch. The furniture sagged even further as the husky bulk of another Kal-el joined the first.
Kal-el One took a bite. After swallowing, he realized that he was very hungry. “This is good. Any more?” He finished the contents of the container, licked the spoon and looked around.
A small crowd of Kal-el s had gathered. They all bore the same basic features. They were the same height, though their weights varied. They were different in physical age. Some were barely teenagers. Others looked forty. Kal-el 1 was the oldest looking “Superman” in the room. It wasn’t until he saw himself in the context of the others that he realized how long it had been since he had Rejuvenated.
One of the Kal-el s had vanished from view and now returned with a new, very large, container of potato salad. It was a twenty five pound opaque plastic drum with a tightly sealed lid. A stack of paper plates was underneath this large drum and a pack of plastic utensils rode atop. This Kal-el , who was number 8, Naftali, set the items down on the table with a dramatic thud.
Using a perfect Elvis Presley drawl, Kal-el One said, “Thank you very much.” He leaned forward, sank the fingers of his right hand around the edge of the vacuum sealed lid and pulled it away. The seal hissed as it was broken, and the aroma of fresh delicatessen potato salad wafted into the air.
A few other Kal-el s had brought beer and cups, pickles, several pounds of corned beef, loaves of French bread, jars of mustard and mayonnaise. Tables were pushed together, chairs and couches added to the original furniture. An impromptu picnic of Supermen was under way.
The eating was fast and ferocious. Twenty two Kal-el s walked back and forth, fetching seconds. Kal-el 1 simply sat on the couch at the center of this activity and ate the way a steam locomotive eats coal. He shoveled food into the furnace of his mouth, he ate with a fiery hunger. Now and again he would slow down long enough to drink a beer in a single gulp.
From a hundred yards away he heard the comments of two other Kal-el s, numbers 76 and 85. Philemon and Becket.
“Hey, One is here,” said K76.
“Don’t you mean ‘THE One’?”responded his clone-brother.
“You know, if he’s paying attention, he can hear you.”
“I don’t care. I doubt he cares, either.”
Their voices faded, and Kal-el 1 had an intuition that they had gone to sign language, a common enough practice in an environment that was essentially a hive of one hundred and one identical twins gifted with super hearing.
He also realized something else, which should not have been a shock. Kal-el s 76 and 85 were gay. They weren’t gay with each other, but they were gay.
It should not have surprised Kal-el 1. He’d just never thought of it. The concept was interesting. It forced him to think of himself as being gay. He tried to stretch his fantasy in a new direction. It didn’t work. His mind kept drifting back to Allyson Followes. She worked for the Daily Planet writing a column on pet behaviour. He tried again to think of attractive men. He knew many such men. His mind returned to Allyson Followes. It was not for him, gayness or bisexuality. It was just…interesting.
If he could find a free hour as Clark Kent, he would like to get to know Allyson. The way things were going, that hour might be years in coming.
In the front assembly area, a party was now in full swing. Bob Marley’s voice was rasping from the speakers of the sound system.
“One loooove, one looove, let’s get together and feel all right.”
Several Kal-els were dancing with great jumps and twirls, writhes and sinuous turnings of the limbs.
The speakers went silent. Kal-el 1, who was finally feeling satiated, looked up to see standing before him the two Kal-el s, 76 and 85.
Each was dressed in a standard set of Superman tights. The tights on Becket were ridiculously too large. The sleeves hid his hands. The cape dragged on the floor.
Philemon’s costume was absurdly small. At his wrists, the ribbed material designed to keep air from blowing up his sleeves was snugged around his elbows. The cape rode at the height of his utility belt. The legs were like bike racers’ shorts; they gripped just below his knees. His thighs bulged and his protective cup no longer blended with the whole but showed its contours through the speedo that covered Kalel’s middle parts.
The two Kal-el s put their arms about each other’s shoulders and a musical accompaniment sprang from the sound system. It was the intro to an old and famous comedy song.
At their cue, first Philemon sang, then Beckett.
“Hello Muddah,” sang Philemon.
“Hello Faddah”, sang Beckett.
“Hello Bruddah”…with each line, the singer did a splay kneed little dip.
“Hello Sistah”, Beckett dipped, a trace of tremble beginning at his shoulders as he suppressed his laughter.
Together they sang, “Here we are at…Camp Granada.”
That was as far as they could go before cracking up, and the whole group of clones and their creator were awash in tears of laughter.
It was an odd laughter. It had elements of genuine amusement, of mania, of self contempt. There was also a subtle element of madness, of the completely unhinged.
It was the type of laughter that subsided and set itself off again, making waves that rose and fell, until finally, reaching a beach where merriment was exhausted, it
ended in a few sighs and blown noses.
A new sound came from the speakers. It was a gentle bonging that sounded once each second.
It was a sound that meant Emergency. The only possessors of the code were the one hundred and one Kal-el s and the four executives in the company doing business as “Superman LLC”. Piers Bloch, as public relations director, was one of those four executives.
Piers handled the public image of a company worth more than forty billion dollars.
Kal-el 1 tapped in the keyboard on his Iphone. When the keyboard came on screen, he tapped Enter and Piers’ face filled every monitor in the Fortress. It appeared deep in the lower levels, down in the genome labs. It appeared another three miles below where a team of Kal-el s was doing research with Neutrino detectors.
It was a head-and-shoulders shot of Piers’ gaunt visage. He was wet, his long heavy hair lay flat against his skull. His glasses were partially fogged. He spoke into a Iphone that was scrambled through a maze of encryptions. The background appeared to be some remote farm in Yorkshire. A few cows wandered through muddy fields, tails swishing. A farm house looked to be about half a mile away.
“Speak to me, Piers,” Kal-el 1 said gently. It was obvious that Piers was badly frightened.
The PR man wiped his face with a dirty handkerchief. He wore a grey Burberry with the collar turned up. A black and somewhat shapeless Western-style hat kept the light rain from falling onto his glasses. Piers had chosen this spot for signal strength. Otherwise, he’d be in his Jaguar. He was fastidious about his clothing
“I can’t believe it, so I’m just going to show you, Kal. Er…I should say Kals. I don’t think I’m ever going to get over the confusion, there are so many of you. Sometimes I think, ‘what would happen if they were evil?’ a very scary thought. Well, we’re in trouble. At first I thought someone was having me on, but I saw twenty, maybe twenty five videos, some of them very hi-res videos at that, so I could have little doubt as to the veracity of the..the product. No green screen, no CGI. It couldn’t be done. I mean, the technical challenges would be….”
“Piers!” Superman spoke sharply. “Just get on with it.”
Piers seemed to gain control of himself. His breathing steadied.
“All right. It’s like this: You were…or I should say a Superman was seen ..uh…exposing himself to rocketliners in flight.”
This brought immediate silent attention to the room full of Kal-el s.
“I…wait a minute…” Superman said. “He what??
“Here,” said Piers Bloch with a helpless shrug. “The stuff’s spreading all over Youtube, Whotube, and Newtube, every where. uh, fuck.” The image of the phone wobbled, Piers’ face vanished, there was ground and sky, a copse of trees. His voice could be heard saying , “Where the effing hell is the play button..”
The scene changed abruptly. A Iphone camera was recording out the window of a sub-orbital passenger transport. It was descending towards an airport that looked like Heathrow. The camera was pointing towards the ground, taking shots through the clouds of the approaching coast line and the city that seemed to turn as the plane banked to find its approach to the runway. Then the phone’s angle changed abruptly. It looked straight out the window to see, just a few feet away, a flying Superman, matching the airplane’s speed so he seemed to be standing still. He smiled, then waved. The camera jiggled a bit, as apparently its owner waved back. Then, still smiling, Superman reached through the adaptex fiber of his tights and let the Super Dong hang flapping in the wind.
The camera twitched with the shock of its user. The exposed Superman slowed a bit so that he could be seen, window by window, along the length of the passenger jet. The Iphone followed him until he could no longer be seen. There was a moment of camera looking at sky, then the lens shifted to the passengers inside the jet. There were piles of people atop one another, looking out every inch of window. They all had Iphones, vidcams, watchcorders. They flowed like thick molasses towards the back of the plane until Superman vanished behind the tail. Then Superman reappeared on the other side of the airplane, smiling impishly, waving, shaking his tool. The passengers scurried to gain an inch of window space as the display was repeated in reverse, with Superman seeming to swim forward towards the plane’s cockpit. When he reached the wing, he stopped, stood up, and did a little dance. His cape was pointed straight back in a three hundred mile an hour wind. His flaccid penis followed the direction of the cape. It was long and it seemed to be an accessory glued on to the costume. The camera showed passengers leaning in a pile, climbing over one another to get a view of The Man of Steel’s Thing of Steel.
Superman pretended to be vulnerable to the wind. He mugged for the passengers, hung onto the wing and simulated terror, regained his footing, imitated the pose of Rodin’s famous sculpture, “The Thinker”. There was, of course, no stool upon which to sit. This particular version of Superman sat in the air, chin resting in hand, eyes drawn down in concentration.
The jet was making its descent towards Heathrow. At about five hundred feet, Superman ended the show. After buzzing the cockpit a few times, he returned to the wing, crossed his arms, squatted on his haunches and did the famous Russian kicking dance called the Kazhatzka. He made a few turns while kicking right left right left. He stood up, spread his arms wide and seemingly let the wind blow him away. He
quickly vanished into the distance, making wild gestures until he was no longer visible.
There was a long and very gelid silence. At last someone said, simply “Uh oh.”
Every Kal-el in the Fortress was now present. They sat on stools, chairs, stood upright, floated in various positions. They were loosely circled around Kal-el One. They were the same but different. They wore a variety of clothing. Some wore their hair long, some had shaven skulls. Some wore earrings, piercings, tattoos, arm bands, bracelets, scarves, facial hair.
It was a concentration of immense power in a single location.
One of their kind was waving his dick at the passengers of high speed sub-orbital transport jets.
. Kal-el One did a quick count. There were thirty one other Kal-el s on hand. That meant sixty nine Kal-el s at large. All of them knew that it was Kal-el seventeen who had done the naughty prank. He was the Kal-el who worked as an actor in Lithuania and called himself Tab Winklerius
Now, thirty one Supermen were looking at Kal-el One, whose earth name was Clark Kent.
“If I send two of you to go get him,” said Kalel One, “I’d have to send four to keep an eye on the first two and that would be futile because I have a dreadful sense that we’re all getting a little screwy.”. He looked as if there should be a spear thrust through the center of his body. His shoulders were thrown back and his eyes were unfocused.
His gaze returned to the present. “Can anyone tell me different?
Kal-el One turned to the Kal-el who sat next to him on his left. He addressed him by his earth-name, as was the custom amongst themselves. “Ricardo, How have you been doing, lately?”
Ricardo, who worked in the Mexican zone, had been preparing to leave on a mission. He was Kal-el 29. He wore a full head-mask. His boots were deep purple and studded with jewels. The “S” on his chest was sculpted with a drop-shadow made of emeralds. He looked like a Mexican wrestling hero, absurd, comic, yet mysterious and dignified.
“Fragile,” he said. “I feel like one little kick can push me over the edge. Lately I’ve just been down, tired…depressed. I want to sleep. I don’t want to do this Superman shit. But I keep going. My sense of duty won’t let me stop.”
He looked at Kal-el One and his gaze took on a blade-like quality. The anger in his eyes came with a blast of heat that started very hot and drew back until it was gone.
This lasted a fraction of a second.
“Tell you the truth,” said Ricardo, “I’ve wanted to kill you a few times. Just for causing me to exist. Not a serious thought, you know; more like a fantasy a kid has when he’s mad at his mom or dad.”
Kal-el One felt a keen sense of sorrow. It was followed by fear. He, who was able to control his body, who could tell his heart how fast and when to beat, had lost control of that heartbeat. It began to race with fear.
“Then it’s even worse than I thought,” he said in a quiet voice. He was afraid. The more he thought about the situation, the more frightened he became.
He asked a question, simply, with little inflection. “Can anyone here honestly say they completely trust themselves?”
There was silence. A faint trembling was beginning at Kal-el One’s fingertips. He had faced so many enemies in his life. He had defeated villains and megalomaniacs. He had battled grandiose figures with the power to rip apart reality itself. Those enemies hadn’t really frightened him. There was only one enemy who terrified him. It was his one inescapable and permanent foe: himself.
“Does anyone know a good therapist who gives group discounts?” It was Gurmeet Singh, number 89, who uttered this quip. No one laughed. Gurmeet didn’t expect a laugh. He had identified the central problem. They were suffering a collective and possibly progressive breakdown.
“What shrink treats a hundred and one Supermen?” Kalel One said. “We need someone of the utmost wisdom. The Sixteenth Dalai Lama? I mean, the real one, not that Chinese pawn. No. He’s a sweet man but this isn't his domain.”
“What about the Third Oprah?” Number 42,Gregor Semyatski, uttered this suggestion.
“Have you MET her?” another Kalel replied. “She’s four foot six and boy is she cranky. No no no no.”
“Hey, she’s only twelve, give the kid a break” said another Kalel. “Maybe she’s just going through a bratty phase.”
“Do we ever stop fucking around?” Kalel One’s voice gained volume.
“NO!” Several Kal els sounded off. One of them voiced their thoughts. “We have to be clowns. If we don’t laugh and be goofy we’re in big trouble. Of course…it kind of looks like we ARE in big trouble. How can we deal with all this tragedy and suffering day after day and not flip out? Yesterday I took pieces of a toddler out of a threshing machine. Then I went to the Florida Coast. You know what that’s like! Refugees from the rising water, Haitians, Cubans, people from all over trying to squeeze onto higher ground. How can we deal with this stuff? I think we’re all just overloaded, you know? Compassion fatigue jammed into Survivor’s Guilt.” The speaker was Kalel 72, Occam Rosen. He wore a yarmulke with his tights. His long curly sideburns framed his tragic face. His voice broke and tears began to flow down his face. “I can’t do it any more….not for a while.
I have to stop or I don’t know what will happen. I’ll throw The Dome of The Rock to Mars.
The temperature in the lounge seemed to drop forty degrees.
Swallowing hard, Kal-el One asked the other Kal-el s. “Have all of you been experiencing odd mental or emotional states?”
There was a grumbling of affirmation in the lounge, and Kal-el One understood that the terror was universal. They were alike. He was mother/father/god/creator. He had needed the help of his clones. He had expended enormous effort figuring out how to make them so that they had all the same powers he possessed. It had finally become a matter of taking a laboratory back to the region of the Andromeda Galaxy where Krypton had once existed. He had purchased an almost-new 2019 Fleetwood Explorer, a forty two foot diesel quad motorhome. He filled it with everything he might need and proceeded to toss and tow the big coach at near light speed. He found a distorted region of space that contained a Lamech Gateway. He used it to transport himself and his RV to the area where Krypton’s home star Rao had once existed.
The neighborhood was still cluttered with bits of the old Krypton. Carefully encased in lead armor, Superman gathered enough of this-Kryptonite to make an asteroid. He took the asteroid to the closest analogue of the star Rao, a G class star with the identical surface temperature and density.
This star had an inhabited planet. He gave it a wide berth, keeping his asteroid always in opposition, hidden behind t he star, invisible to the planet that was called, by its inhabitants, Uberjo.
The beings of this planet were monopedal. Their bodies tapered to a single graceful foot, out of which emerged a spherical roller. This allowed them to move about. Their foot resembled the workings of a ball point pen. They rolled themselves in all directions with great speed and agility. They could compress their bodies like springs and leap hundreds of feet into the air. They could roll up steep grades without rolling backwards. Their language had thousands of words for the concepts of balance and stability.
They mated in threes, leaning together to form a stable tripod. Their genitals were in their upper bodies.
After a brief survey, Kal-el One determined that the Uberjoni were a relatively peaceful species. They were beginning to colonize the bodies of their star system but they were nowhere near the area of his motorhome/laboratory.
Kal-el One replicated the conditions of his birth planet as nearly as possible. He enhanced the asteroid’s gravity with a thimble of neutron star material. He built a dome that was shielded from the kryptonite beneath his feet. He removed his lead armor and proceeded to clone five copies of himself. He took these infants to earth and tested them meticulously.
None displayed anything beyond ordinary human capacity. There were a few deviations in their so-called “junk DNA”, and those must have had a crucial impact.
They were not supposed to, but they did.
Kal-el found loving homes for the infants and returned to his laboratory near the star that the Uberjoni called Tspheeris.
There was a risk he had to take. He put on his lead armor, went outside the dome and collected a fist-sized piece of Kryptonite. According to the radiation detector, it was inert. There was no beta decay.
He returned to the place he had created as his bedroom. He placed the Kryptonite rock on his reading table and removed his lead armor. Then he lay down.
He waited. Nothing happened. The detritus of Krypton had lost its poisonous radiation. He didn’t know why. He had traveled a couple million light years through a Lamech Gateway. It was possible that the half life of the Kryptonite’s radioactive elements had simply run out. The material was now harmless. Back on earth, it was still lethal, but in this part of the space-time continuum, it posed no threat.
He reconstructed the dome without shielding and proceeded to live and work on
his asteroid, which was now called Kryptonino.
He cloned five more infants, this time paying special attention to the details of their junk DNA. The deviations were no longer present. Perhaps they needed contact with the original material of Krypton.
He took these infants to earth.
They had all the powers that he possessed.
He purchased a twenty eight foot Airstream Travel Trailer and made it into a crèche. He returned with the babies to the asteroid.
He proceeded to clone another ninety five embryos.
He took these embroyos back to earth and put them into artificial wombs in the Fortress of Solitude.
The first group of clones helped him raise and train the next group. Their accelerated growth and learning made the work easier as it went along. The Kal-el clones expanded the Fortress of Solitude, gave it more living quarters. In five years Kal-el One had a hundred clones taking responsibility for missions. The work was allocated in an organic fasion. Some of the Kal-el s had affinities for different parts of the world, different peoples. Kal-el One encouraged difference, let them shape their own personalities.