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By George Alec Effinger
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 George Alec Effinger
All rights reserved.
The radio said that the quality of the air had been judged acceptable for the first time in two years. Ernest Weinraub couldn't see any difference; through his modular apartment's single window the skies over Brooklyn still looked yellow, a sick color that tempted him to get back into bed. But, as every morning, he prodded himself with thoughts of job and money. He closed the steel shutters so the light wouldn't disturb Gretchen in her sleep. Then he went into the tiny, curtained bathroom area to shave.
Ernest wondered if the air outside would smell better than usual. He could almost recall the summertime fragrances of his childhood. Lord, there were probably plenty of kids on the streets now who had never gotten that first fresh smell. They were probably down there this morning, bouncing spaldeens against the building, trying to figure out why the air was so funny. Life in the city had changed rapidly; not many trees grew leaves these days, just a few in Prospect Park. That didn't make Ernest feel sad. It made him feel old.
It was dark in the small apartment with the louvers shut. Ernest dressed quickly; he always felt lonely in the morning, with his wife asleep across the room. He tended to think cheerless thoughts, unpleasant things, and he often had to shake his head to break the melancholy train. On television he heard the popular sociologists talking about the reasons. Too many people living too closely together. A person needed a certain territory that he felt he could master. The regulated apartment modules seemed more and more like tin boxes, the kind they packed dead fish in....
Ernest pulled the hinged bench down from its place on the wall and swung open one of the seats. He made himself a bowl of cereal, permitting himself a large teaspoon of sugar and a cup of milk substitute. The sugar was a luxury; he didn't miss real milk very much, but sugar substitutes always left a horrible taste in his mouth. The filtered light was too dim to read by. The cereal box's messages would remain a mystery. That wasn't such a great loss, particularly the side panel that listed the ingredients. Ernest wondered how his stomach would react if it were ever again confronted with real food.
The radio was still on, playing softly, distracting him with the familiar commercials and themes, lulling him with the tinny, muffled voices. He finished his breakfast and took the empty bowl to the sink, leaving it for Gretchen to wash. He stood by the sink for a moment, looking around the small apartment. "This is my domain," he thought bitterly. "This is the little area I'm supposed to feel secure about." No, not even the old module was his completely. The small sink was plugged into the invisible skeleton of the building; carefully metered dollops of water drizzled out when the correct combination was dialed on the tap. How could he think that he was his own master when he was dependent on the city's crumbling systems to keep him alive?
Ernest sighed and switched off the radio. He had to get to work. He walked quietly across the room, not even glancing at Gretchen. He didn't want to think about her yet.
"You going?" she said, yawning.
He stopped by the door, still not turning. "Yeah. See you later."
"What do you want for supper?"
Ernest opened the door, ready to duck out quickly. He looked at his wife. "How do I know?" he said. "Lord, it's only eight-thirty. How do I know what I'll want for supper? Anything you want. I got to go."
"All right, honey. I love you." Ernest nodded and shut the door behind him. He was halfway downstairs before he remembered that he hadn't checked the baby.
Outside, the day was warm and pleasant. The sun shone in a diffuse ball behind the grayish yellow haze and, though it was not yet hot, Ernest removed his light jacket. The ride in the subway was going to be very unpleasant. The entrance to the subway was at the end of a tiresome bus ride; although it was still early, a long line of commuters stretched up the stairs and down the sidewalk. These were the foolish or unlucky people who had not bought enough subway tokens at a more convenient time. Ernest always got his late at night, during the weekend.
He dug in his pocket and found the dull metal coin. It gave him a strange pleasure to be able to bypass the slowly moving line. Once through the turnstile, he pushed through the rush-hour mob to the front of the platform. All through its administration the current city government had wrestled with the problems of mass transit: the equipment was deteriorating, many of the subway cars were over thirty years old and in terrible condition. There were ever more people to move, as the population and labor force grew year by year. The Representative of Europe had adopted the Gleitzeit plan, which had been popular in Germany and certain other areas of Europe for almost twenty years. Under the system, workers were permitted to arrive at their jobs at any time before ten o'clock. They worked as long as they liked, going home any time after two o'clock. As long as they put in the necessary hours every week, the management was pleased. The system seemed to encourage initiative while cutting down on the great masses of employees clogging the public transportation systems at the same hours each day.
Negative effects soon became apparent when the plan was put into continent-wide use. The lack of discipline led to shoddy work and a lessening of personal interest in the traditional values of the mercantile and free-enterprise systems. The Representatives abolished the Gleitzeit plan wherever it was in practice and returned to the old nine-to-five scheme. Other ideas were tested; the Representative of North America required corporations to pay bonuses to employees who lived within walking distance of their jobs. In New York City, workers were forbidden to take jobs outside their borough of residence. There were complaints of governmental meddling but, as usual, the Representatives had a long list of mitigating explanations.
Ernest's job bored him to the point of insanity. He worked in a factory, making electronic testing equipment. He sat at a long table with a dozen women; everyone at the table had a box of tools and a high stool with an uncomfortable back. Ernest was a fourth-class subassembler, which meant that he was not rated for soldering work; his toolbox held fewer and less specialized tools than those of the women, who were for the most part third- and second-class assemblers. Maybe his feelings of inferiority were imaginary. He didn't know for sure, and he wasn't worried enough to test the situation further. But Ernest noticed how rarely the women included him in their conversation.
Some days Ernest worked only on front panels. He would take the plates of sheet metal from their tissue wrappings very carefully, because if he nicked the light green paint on the front the slightest bit, the panel was ruined. His panels had odd-sized holes punched in them, some with calibration markings stenciled around their circumferences. In some of the holes Ernest installed control knobs, in some he merely pushed rubber gaskets or fuses, and in one he put an on-off toggle, which was difficult to tighten without chipping the paint on the front. Sokol, the nervous foreman, walked around the section checking how much was wasted by each employee. He carried a blue plastic notebook; several times a day he'd stand behind each worker and scribble his idea of that person's worth.
When Ernest took his seat at the table, Sokol was already making his rounds, apparently taking an early attendance check. Sokol stopped by Ernest's stool and made a notation.
"Why are you checking up, Sokol?" asked Ernest. "That's what the timeclocks are for, aren't they?"
"Just making sure, Weinraub. It's my job. Just leave me alone."
Ernest shrugged. "Are they that worried?"
"No, they don't even care," said Sokol. "It's very hard to understand, Weinraub. I can understand it fine. That's why I'm a foreman."
"Is that why you're a foreman?"
"Yeah. And because I never wised off, either. Once you get real good at that work, if you get real good, you may get to be a foreman, too. And then you'll find out it's not such a terrific thing."
Ernest snorted skeptically. "What do you do all day? Just walk around and scribble in that notebook, right?"
"Yeah, that's all. And then I write up reports on everything, and I turn them into the front office, and the secretaries throw them away."
"I feel real sorry for you."
Sokol slapped his notebook shut and turned away. Ernest stared after him. "Anybody check up on you, Sokol?" he called.
Sokol stopped and turned again. "Yeah. Kibling does."
"Anybody check up on him?"
"I guess the Assembly Supervisor."
"Where does it end? Old Man Jennings?"
Sokol shook his head sadly. "You won't listen, Weinraub; that's your trouble. It doesn't end. I told you. It doesn't even begin. Now get to work." The foreman stalked off down the narrow aisle toward his cubicle of an office.
Before him on the bench Ernest arranged the color-coded socket wrenches to his left, and the corresponding screwdrivers to his right. He seated the toggle switch in the proper hole, held it with a wrench, and tightened a hexagonal nut on the back. As the morning passed, he paid less attention to his work, completing one panel after another efficiently, mechanically. His hands were cut and his fingernails torn. His day was measured out from clocking-in to coffee break, from break to lunch, from lunch to afternoon break to clocking-out. Those were the only goals he had; if he worked quickly it was only to minimize the awful tedium. But the company knew perfectly well that his boredom would begin to work against that productivity. All that it could devise to alleviate the monotony was piped-in music.
Ernest found that even worse. He sat huddled over his work, protecting his tiny area from the innocent glances of the women and the omniscient gaze of the foreman. Ernest defined the others by their functions—not even limiting them to as human a thing as a name on a timecard. There was the heavy black woman who picked up the stack of front panels he completed. There was the old lady next to him who soldered complex balls of electronic components, turning out those delicate webs with mindless precision. And Sokol, the foreman. He was the boss. He prowled with more freedom, and Ernest envied him. But Sokol wasn't a real person to Ernest, either. Sokol was only the man who watched him.
It was as if everyone were like a rough crystal, with dozens of different facets. Here in the factory Ernest saw only one facet of each person, the same facet every day. And in return he didn't want these strangers to have access to more than one of his own facets. There were thirty million people in the New York metropolitan area, and he could feel the presence of every individual of those masses. There wasn't any way to escape it. The only privacy available was inside; to defend it there could be no hints of one's feelings, no tentative gestures of friendship or loneliness. And there was a terrible loneliness.
Ernest enforced his own alienation; he ignored the multiple facets of the millions of others. Each person had to work out his own salvation; idealism to the contrary, there was no way for Ernest to submerge himself in the incessant dramas of his neighbors and maintain his own mind. So he held himself apart from the shopping-bag ladies who lived their meager lives on the subway, and the kids who shaved a round area on their skulls where three wires poked out, and the others who could so easily upset him. He concentrated on those friendships he wished to endure; and when those people ignored him, he found only a deeper depression. There was only trouble when one person presented the wrong facet to another.
There was no one to whom a person like Ernest could turn for help. He was certain that thousands of other people were making the same depressing realizations every day; the environment was becoming less attractive, and more and more people were turning inward, only to discover there a growing madness. Coping with the mere physical presence of thirty million people was an exhausting occupation. The Representatives had long ago made a declaration which had effectively crippled the psychiatric industry; they had decided that relying on psychic crutches could only weaken the popular mind. Nevertheless, Ernest often felt the need to lessen the emotional burden he carried.
The only person he could address legally was the fuser assigned to the modapt building. The fuser had no special training in psychology; in fact, the idea of public fusers in each modapt building originally came from the office of the Representative of Asia, so they had the government's blessing. But, unskilled as they were, the fusers were vital to the new, highly mobile culture. They were given authority to decide disputes among tenants and, by extension, to make many other decisions which in earlier times had been concluded between neighbors and friends. Few people stayed in one place long enough to form those kinds of relationships, and their places had to be taken by professional strangers. But while minor domestic hassles could be solved by arbitration, there were unfortunately no such solutions beyond the limits of the private residence.
Ernest's job provoked him more as the day went on, and his thoughts moved from simple to abstract. When they became too frightening, usually just before lunch, he thought about Gretchen. She no longer had any facets of her own that he could respond to. Gretchen was the cement that filled the gaps among his other relationships. She was a bland, even unattractive, substitute, but she was dependable. From there he thought about the lack of depth in their marriage; the even shallower relationship he had with almost everyone else; how such a willingness to ignore people guaranteed his freedom to do as he pleased (how, after all, misanthropy was the surest safeguard of liberty); how such an attitude led to community apathy; and then, just as the lunch bell rang, he realized that apathy was what had deluded them all into accepting the world they lived in.
As he walked toward the plant's cafeteria, he met Sokol by the tool cage. "You going to lunch now, Sokol?" he asked.
"In a little while."
"Do you foreman types get longer lunch breaks?" Sokol only glared. "I was thinking," said Ernest. "If you look at the way we're watched in here, you wonder if maybe we're being watched outside, too. I mean, like at home."
Sokol leaned against the iron mesh of the tool cage and yawned. "Maybe we are. But if we're watched by people like plant foremen, then we don't have anything to worry about. They're probably just people who got put into the job just to get them off the streets. They do their work and nobody pays any attention at all."
Ernest looked at Sokol curiously. "You were serious about what you said? About the secretaries throwing your reports away?"
The foreman nodded slowly. "You ever wonder why we got old ladies soldering the insides of these units, when they got printed circuits and magnetics that would be a whole lot cheaper and better? Because our Representative figures the ladies need jobs. I mean, for God's sake, you need a job, right? And what would you be doing if some damn machine was turning out two thousand chassis an hour while you did twelve?"
"It's lunchtime, Sokol. I got to go eat lunch."
Sokol sighed and gestured Ernest away impatiently. Ernest shrugged and followed the crowd of employees to the cafeteria.
Excerpted from Relatives by George Alec Effinger. Copyright © 1973 George Alec Effinger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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