SAD ROBOT #1
In conversation with this work by artist Burton Gray
It’s freezing at my job. It’s only 60 degrees outside but it’s colder in my office. The low temperatures help protect the collections but the entire art department just had to order fingerless gloves. We keep blowing fuses out running space heaters. Finally the operations department confiscates them. They’re a fire hazard, they tell us. We’re freezing, we beg. Just turn the heat up. There’s something wrong with the system, one guy tells us in confidence. They skimped on the HVAC on the fourth floor. I start drinking my water hot just to stay functional. I read somewhere that the Dalai Lama drinks hot water; that’s good enough for me.
Sometimes on my breaks at work I read long passages in Stoic texts. I have to put the book down in disgust when Seneca mentions his endless amounts of leisure and reading time. Those people didn’t even have fucking clocks. Imagine if Nero had been able to send texts to his lackeys:
Dude there’s no lamps out here. The mosquitos are killing me. Bring me a Christian so I can light it on fire and see my dancing girls.
Yes, at two in the morning—am I your emperor or not?
Any chance you could come in at seven on Saturday so we can work on that anti-mater plot? Ha, anti-mater, get it?
But he couldn’t send texts. Think of all the extra sleep his ministers got while he sent a slave to go wake them up. Precious minutes of footsteps in the hallways. Nero was a benevolent tyrant.
When young professionals complain about traffic in Los Angeles, we’re not just talking about driving. We can’t walk through a Target without someone stepping on the backs of our shoes. Every aisle is filled with people on their phones, standing right in front of our brand of soap. Every register is open, staffed by hopeful musicians and would-be video game designers, but it’s still a twenty-minute wait. We slowly fill with rage over things like turn signals and return policies and we can’t even laugh at ourselves. Our lives slip by us one measly little errand at a time. When we say the traffic sucks, what we mean is: we’re dying. We can feel it. Help us.
My boss’s boss cancels our meeting without telling me. What I mean is she walks out of work two hours before the day ends because she’s salaried and can do that kind of thing. She’s probably picking her kids up from school. She probably wants to beat traffic. I only have a meeting with her because she says she wants to get to know all of her staff personally, but she already had to reschedule me. I lose ten minutes waiting before I go and find her assistant. “At least your afternoon is free!” she chirps. “Right, but I already came down here,” I say. The assistant stares at me blankly. It’s no use. I get a hot water and go back upstairs.
A mosaic on an apartment building a block from my craftsman two-bedroom says in both English and Spanish, “The greatest loss in life is not death; rather, what dies within us while we live.” The mosaic depicts two calaca couples: one couple is dancing, but within the other the male offers the female roses while she watches the dancing couple, her skeleton hands clasped longingly, facing away from her roses.
We are the poorest generation, the articles say. We’ve already lost millions of dollars just because of the year we were born. They—the article writers, the boomers, the ones in charge—call it the Great Recession like it means something, like it’s going to produce folk music and cowboys again. Then they mock us for choosing meaning over money when money wasn’t something we could choose. I’d say the joke’s on them, they’ll die first, but that all depends on your definitions.
At the Angel City Brewery a painting of a man either in a mask or with no nose or mouth stares at me through the crowd all during trivia. It looks like a painting of a saint, eyes raised to heaven longingly, an expression of deep sadness and understanding across its features. I get up from the discussion about whether Russia counts as part of Europe or Asia to go examine it. The man in the painting has no eyes or mouth; his skin is merely stretched smoothly across his face from ear to ear and his eyes are rimmed in red as though he has been crying. It is a beautiful painting. I look at the label, hoping the title will give me some insight into beauty—maybe some old biblical title like “Lazarus Raised” or “Daniel in the Days before the Lions’ Den”—but the piece is called “Sad Robot #1.” For fuck’s sake, I think, and I go back to the table and bark that Russia is definitely part of Europe and Moscow is definitely the largest city in Europe and when the trivia answers are called I am right but the painting is still all wrong so I leave.
I would estimate that I enjoy roughly three hours of the twenty-four I am allotted each day. Maybe this is just adulthood. Maybe old age is something to look forward to: to be invisible again, to be granted behavioral licenses, to have too much free time. Maybe dealing with broken garbage disposals on a Wednesday night is just what life is.
(It was just that I thought it was jackandcokes at the neighborhood dive bar and soft breezy nighttimes where the moon shines behind the clouds and the particular feel of a mouth and rough cheek against yours when all you have on are your favorite jeans and the drip drip drip of lakewater off a paddle as you move through a clear cold morning and the way all the houses and hedges and fences look sharper, cartoonish on the day after you heard that your ex-lover hung himself and the moments of surety that come in sometimes through the leaves on the trees or the dolphins just beyond the sandbars when there’s no one else on the beach or when you hold the hands of another woman you love who is grieving and her bones feel delicate and hollow like a bird’s or the feeling of dirt under your bitten nails, worms wriggling through the composted vegetables that might have rotted in your refrigerator but now smell like damp, mineral-laden life.)
At a conference we have fifteen minutes to make a ‘zine out of construction paper, and the instructions say to draw an image of how you see yourself on the first page. My coworker draws a stick figure with giant curly hair. I draw a smooth, slender head with red-rimmed eyes and no nose or mouth, but rather than looking up to heaven or betraying its subpar status as a robot the figure puts its hands against its face and the horizon stretches in flat lines behind it. My coworker asks, “Is that The Scream?” “Yes,” I tell her, “only with no mouth.” I realize belatedly as she tries to laugh it off that this is not work appropriate, but I was just trying to follow instructions.
One night my fiancé is out at a friend’s birthday barhop and I buy a new album by Elle King and sit in the bathtub in the dark and this is when I realize I’ve gotten heavy in all of the possible ways. When I met my fiancé I rolled into Las Vegas in a 14-year old Accord wearing cowboy boots, leggings and plaid and knocked back five or six whiskeys before I took him to bed and now look at me. This woman’s sixth song on her album has a fucking banjo and it feels like bonfires and summertime. Every sixth hair on my head is grey. The water gets cold before the bathtub is full. This is how people get old before they’re thirty.
I started drinking coffee when I was temping in package testing at a soap company in Phoenix. It was the only way to get out of the lab. They had a coffee station down the hallway and I could get up whenever and walk down the hall and have five minutes of freedom and a warm drink in my hands. One day the manager whose name was that of a common bird called me into his freezing cold office and offered me the chance to work for them full time. He said they’d pay for my masters in package engineering. “It’s the biggest industry in the U.S.,” he said. “Everything has to come wrapped in something.” I told him I appreciated it but I wanted to be a writer. “Oh, I write poetry, too!” he said. “Maybe you could look at my stuff.” Sure, I said, but he never sent it.
At the dentist I have to wait an extra twenty minutes because the credit card machine is out of toner. It takes four women in professional knee-length skirts to replace it and it still wouldn’t print anything but blank paper. I want to scream. I want to jump the counter and do it my damn self, but I guess that’d be rude, so I don’t. They are holding my debit card hostage. Finally the most coiffed of them tells me that they will just have to give me a receipt from their system. “So you already ran the payment—I’ve just been waiting for a receipt?” I ask. “Well,” she says. “We need you to sign.” She hands me my debit card. I sign, mute, and then drive the ten miles back to my apartment in just under an hour. Later it turns out they charged my card twice and I have to call them four times before finally filing a chargeback with the bank. No cash changes hands. Money doesn’t even have a physical existence anymore. What the fuck am I even spending my time on.
I could blame the tiny computer in my pocket but I would know it’s a lie. Back before smartphones everyone blamed TV; Fight Club had a whole thing about zombie-watching infomercials and ordering IKEA furniture over a handheld phone. It’s not the device; it’s how you use it. Back before graduate school I stared at my new Android for six hours a day because I was reading Les Miserables on the Kindle app; now I’m reading random articles about celebrities and clicking through pictures of cats and random men who once said something funny. The only difference between then and now is how much energy I have left to have fun with.
My economist fiancé suggests that one day technology and machines will be able to produce so much that we will all simply be provided a living wage without having to work for it. “You mean, we’ll all commonly own the means and profits of production?” I ask. Basically, yeah, he says. “But I won’t have to work?” Unless you want to, he says. Communism sounds great.
Lately I’ve been frantically searching through foreclosure properties, looking for a way out. In Montana there’s a beautiful craftsman with a second house on the property just waiting to be fixed up and rented out while my fiancé and I build a fire in the fireplace and load our books into the built-ins. We have the cash. We could buy it tomorrow. Next year is the problem. Where would we work. Heating costs are the problem. Montana is cold. I remember in New York when I used to turn the thermostat up when I got home from school, rub my hands together in the hot air from the baseboard heaters. My parents would come home, tight-lipped, asking who turned the heat up. You can’t do that, they’d say. I just wanted to be warm, I’d say. Once my father said it was like letting a blender run all day. But Dad, I said, you don’t need a blender all day. He laughed and looked at me and I saw in his face for a second that he understood, that he remembered what it was like to be small and cold but still able to reach the thermostat. Able to imagine a better way to spend a day and make it happen with a tiny turn to the left, the press of a tiny button. “You’re right,” he said. “A blender is not a heater.”