“It’s hot out.”
The sun glares off the surrounding office buildings, magnifying the oppressive heat even further.
“It’s summer. It’s supposed to be hot out.”
“It’s too hot to be outside.”
The trees on the patio sway slightly from the breeze that meanders between skyscrapers. The moving air only seems to make things hotter, like wind coming off of a furnace.
“It takes me five to seven minutes to finish a cigarette, not a big deal.”
“I’m sweating through my shirt.”
Sweat stains decorate both of our button-down, collared shirts but only I seem to notice.
“You can go back in. I’m not stopping you.”
“No, it’s fine. It’s the least I can do since you bought my coffee.”
I take a sip and he follows suit, then exhales his most recent drag.
“There’s a good boy. Don’t bite the hand that feeds.”
“I just, I just don’t get it.”
“What don’t you get?”
“All this… this bullshit.”
“Care to elaborate?”
He takes another drag.
“It’s just… Am I not good enough?”
“Of course you are. Good enough at what, though?”
“At this. At my job.”
I motion to the building rising behind us.
“Sure you are. If you weren’t, you’d be fired.”
“I’ll admit that I’m adequate at my job, but if I were good at it I’d be making progress, right? I’d be moving upward and onward, as they say.”
“Why would you think that?”
“Isn’t that how this is supposed to work? A meritocracy. If I do good, I will be rewarded and move up.”
A homeless man picks butts out of the ashtray that stands outside the building. After dusting off a handful of mostly smoked cigarettes, he continues on his way before the building security can shoo him off.
“Not everyone can move up, ya know.”
“I know that.”
“If everyone moved up at the rate their skills dictated, we’d have a world of managers and no workers.”
“So how do you decide who gets to be a manager and who gets to be a worker?”
“That’s the age old mystery. If I knew the answer, do you think I’d be out here buying you coffee?”
“I mean, I feel like I’ve done everything right. Went to school, got good grades, put in my time, learned the trade. I come in early. Leave late. Do my work and make sure it’s right. Hell, I catch mistakes my manager makes and it doesn’t seem to make a difference.”
He takes another drag and thinks for a moment.
“And you think you should be rewarded for that?”
“I wouldn’t call it a reward. More of a recognition, ya know?”
“So you don’t see yourself as a clerk. You see your essence, your being, your raison d’être, or whatever you want to call it, as amounting to more than your current role and just want life to recognize the ability you see in yourself. Is that it?”
“Yeah, something like that. It doesn’t seem so unreasonable.”
He exhales through his nose as he clicks his tongue against the back of his teeth.
“You’re a dick.”
His smoke has burned down to the filter. He takes another drag, not seeming to notice.
“What do you mean?”
“You think you are some exception to the rule or something?”
“I don’t think I’m the exception to any rule.”
I hear myself getting defensive.
“Do you think you are the only one who thinks they are being under-appreciated?”
“I guess I’ve never really thought about it,” I deflect.
“Maybe that’s your problem then — you are egocentric.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“Okay fine, you aren’t egocentric. You have the ability to consider others, you just choose not to. Does that go down better?”
“I don’t know what you mean, though.”
“Do you think the guy cleaning the toilets identifies as a janitor?”
“It’s a rhetorical question. Of course he doesn’t. While he’s elbow deep in your shit, he’s cursing the fact that his manager doesn’t recognize the potential in him. Or the line cook gets pissed because he’s been chopping onions half his adult life and no one will see him as anything more than an onion chopper to give him a shot to be chef. Managers want to be CEOs and CEOs want to be, I dunno, whoever is above CEOs — politicians, I guess. The point is, everyone is the hero in the their own story. We are all looking for a leg up and pissed no one sees in us what we see in ourselves.”
“Yeah, that sucks.”
“Does it? Life, or people, don’t owe you your perceived worth.”
“So what do I do?”
“Seems simple enough. You either try to take what you want, or you accept what you are given.”
“What if I can’t take what I want?”
“Learn to be grateful? Like I said, if I knew the answer, I wouldn’t be standing here.”
I look down and see a dead wasp lying just on the edge of where the nearest tree is casting its shadow. The last remnants of a smoked cigarette share its resting place.