painting by Jesse Stevens
Greg was a contractor, or so he told himself, and that meant he had odd jobs filter down to him occasionally. He imagined his existence as one similar to those fish that live in the deepest, darkest pits of the ocean, who survive only on what dead matter sinks to the bottom from the glistening waters above. It was dark, though, and always getting darker.
Whenever there was nothing else, he knew he could make a few bucks playing his violin in the subway station. He was actually quite good at it. He even played in a death-affirming string quartet for a while, called Plan B. They put out a couple of independent CDs that nobody bought. He still had a couple of the posters rolled up in his car, so that, one day, when he could afford a place to live, he could get them framed and put them on the wall.
Lately, he found himself playing the violin more and more, and doing what he considered his “real” work less and less. Obsolescence had a kind of kinetic traction and once it got started, it accelerated. It manifested in the way he appeared, the way he dressed, the way his eyes narrowed into that hungry look you see in wild predators on the brink of starvation. Employers can smell desperation. So, it only made sense to employ one's self as much as possible. He did this by playing the violin for odd-change that people condescended to let fall in his violin case. Every note, to him, was the embodiment of his worthlessness. It gave his music an edge of pathos, which seemed to suck the change from people's pockets like a vacuum.
One day, as he was getting ready to set up in his usual space, he saw it: a small white plastic thing, proudly emblazoned with its Yamako logo, playing the trumpet. It stood in his very spot at the station, with the trumpet case open, as though it were some beggar who could use the cash to buy himself one last bottle of cheap booze before expiring behind a dumpster. It played with somewhat sloppy technique, Greg noted. He had no idea how they could make a robot that could play trumpet. After all: you need lips to play a trumpet, and no robot he'd seen had lips. Usually, they had little holes where the speakers were, or sometimes they had animatronic lips of hard plastic. None, though, had anything that could be considered real lips, capable of producing the embrasure required to play an instrument, yet, there it was: belting out clumsy, flatulent notes that sounded a little like a cross between The Entertainer and Baby Elephant Walk.
Nearby, almost hiding behind a briefcase, stood a grinning Japanese man in a suit. He looked down at the robot with the kind of pride a man has watching his grandson's solo recital at school. His head bobbed slightly with the forced rhythm of the trumpet-torturing robot, and his grin seemed as though his lips were formed that way, naturally, like they simply couldn't be stretched far enough to close all the way over his slightly yellowed smoker's teeth. His fingers drummed along the side of the briefcase he held onto at chest-level. Greg noted the Yamako tie tack the Japanese man wore, as if his enthusiasm and proximity were not enough already to implicate him as the robot's benefactor.
What infuriated Greg the most, though, was how much money the robot had collected. The trumpet case was full of bills! Not just singles, either. There were twenties in there as well. Did people realize that robots didn't need money? The notion was infuriating: People would rather watch a clumsy robot play an instrument, and give it money, than to feed a poor hungry man with real talent.
Once, long ago, people used to do that kind of thing with monkeys, he thought. He'd never actually seen such a thing, but there were oblique references to this activity in old cartoons and movies and such, if you knew where to find old 20th century entertainment. People would shell out money for a monkey with a cup and a guy turning the crank on some box because the monkey was cute, not because either of them had talent…that, and the monkey would piss on you if you didn't put out. The robots didn't piss, thankfully, but what they did was perhaps more disturbing than getting sprayed with animal urine: they reminded you that your life was at their convenience, not vice versa. They reminded you that, no matter how special you thought you were, how long you might have devoted yourself to a talent or a discipline, no matter how skilled you were: your place in society was one day going to belong to them. So to survive, you had to constantly keep moving to improve yourself, to keep an edge over the automated scabs for another year or two. Just one more year…one more day…then you might have enough money to buy your own little trumpet-player and allow it to support you while it played Taps for the middle class.
The wind started kicking up in the tunnel, and Greg turned instinctively to look down the tracks for the headlights of the train coming. He was suddenly possessed by a simple, yet nearly overwhelming urge to kick the robot onto the tracks as the train approached. In fact, he fantasized about this very act as the train pulled up. The Japanese man must have been reading his mind, or so it seemed, for his smile faded and he reached down to close the case and take his bot somewhere else, where it might be appreciated again.
“Where'd you get that thing?” asked Greg, trying to muster what was left of his humanity in order to present a smile.
“Your robot,” said Greg, pointing down at the little thing. It looked like it was trying to do the peepee dance as it hopped from one plastic leg to the other. It was only about three feet tall, so its head was right at crotch level, he thought with revulsion.
“Ah, that is Spazzo. Isn't he great? I taught him to play the trumpet myself.”
“Yeah, great. Are you a music teacher or something?”
“That is correct. I used to teach children how to play musical instruments. Now, of course, children aren't interested in learning, so I trained Spazzo. Maybe I can train more robots. Maybe I can get a robot band together. Wouldn't that be something?”
“Yeah, you could call it Plan C.”
“Nothing. I thought you worked for Yamako, since you have the tie tack,” said Greg.
“Oh, you know my little secret, then,” said the man conspiratorially. “I do work for Yamako now, but I really was a music teacher. I do this as a way of demonstrating their superiority in robotics. People see Spazzo playing the trumpet, and they wonder if he's so good at that, maybe he would be a nice house robot who could serve drinks and clean and maybe even cook.”
“How can a robot cook? I mean: doesn't it take some kind of taste buds or something? They can't even smell.”
“They have smoke detectors to alert you if there is a fire,” said the man smiling again. “Besides, nobody really cooks anymore, you know. They just take a package from the freezer and place it in the microwave oven, then press a button. Ding! It's done! I don't see any reason why Spazzo couldn't do that was well as any human.”
“So, you really think Spazzo here, or something like it--“
“Him,” corrected the Japanese man.
“It,” corrected Greg, “should be in every home?”
“Why not? They can do so many things around the house, even balance your checkbook, hahaha!” The man's laugh was a mechanical one, like his robot: it had no feeling. “They are very sophisticated in their reasoning. They can tell when you are angry, so they stay out of your way. They can anticipate your needs, too, so when you need something, they will be right there to take care of it.”
“Are you married, Mr….”
“Kenshi. That is a very personal question.”
“I apologize, Mr. Kenshi,” said Greg. Then, he caught himself. He had heard of these sneaky advertising traps, but he never thought he would be a victim himself. Sometime, near the end of the 20th century, they started doing these advertising campaigns in which they hired people off the street to go into public places, or even private ones, and basically do a live advertisement for some product or other. It might be some pretty girl at the airport who is just a little too enamored by her cellular phone, or it might be that guy in the bar sporting a portable gaming system, or some kid wearing shoes that light up when you kick someone's teeth in. Damn advertisers would crawl up your ass if they could sell you a hemorrhoid ointment. They're everywhere, like bacteria, seeking to infect every little crevice, every blank wall or surface with the stink of their commercialism. Now, Greg finally realized how insidious they were. He had walked right into an advertisement and didn't even realize it until it was too late. The commercial hooks were flailing about, like the waving legs of a beetle on its back, trying to grab onto anything at all to right itself: a Japanese beetle in this case.
“I have already forgotten. Young man, you seem to be intelligent, and, if you will excuse my bluntness, you appear to be in need of gainful employment by the state of your attire.”
“None taken,” said Greg cynically.
“I am not offended by your presumption that I am unemployed. My clothes are admittedly…lacking in freshness.”
“Yes, that is exactly the phrase I was looking for,” said Mr. Kenshi nodding his head. Spazzo was counting the money in the case and folding the bills carefully, sticking them into a money belt as the train began to pull away from the station. A small white piece of paper fluttered by in the wake, like a ghost.
“Perhaps you would be interested in a position at Yamako? Do you have any programming ability?”
“I used to program computers for a while, until they changed the politics.”
“You play the violin, also?”
“How do you know?”
“I believe I've seen you play here a few times,” said Mr. Kenshi, his grin reminding Greg of the grill of a car during the execution of a flawless hit-and-run.
“So you've seen me play here?” he asked, incredulously. Mr. Kenshi nodded. “You would know, then, that your robot, Despaizo or whatever you call it, was playing exactly in my spot?” Greg began to feel the same urge he felt earlier rising within, only this time, it was not the robot he wished to push onto the tracks.
“You have a wonderful gift,” said Mr. Kenshi, oblivious, this time, to Greg's innermost thoughts. “I think there might be a place for you with Yamako.”
“What? Cleaning up after robots? Maybe I could play my violin in the lobby to amuse your mechanical guests?"
“Ah, you misunderstand,” said Mr. Kenshi, his smile fading. “I am suggesting that you do what I am doing.”
“Advertising for Yamako.”
“Please take my card,” said Kenshi, proffering a white smart card. Everyone had these now. You so much as get it near a computer and it will start uploading all kinds of stuff into your hardware…mostly advertising shit. Sometimes it was a virus. Sometimes a trojan. Usually, it was adverts. Probably radiates gamma rays, maybe to make you sterile while it's fucking your computer.
“No. Keep your card.”
“I see your hesitation,” he said, putting the card away. “This one is plain paper.”
“Just paper?” he asked, inspecting the card for hidden mylar chips.
Greg hadn't seen a simple paper card in a long time. Only high-class executives had paper cards these days. This one was quite elegant too. The Japanese seemed to have a thing for business cards. It was beyond Greg to reason with it, but he accepted the card. It was, as all business cards were, just a millimeter too long to go into the plastic card-holder in his wallet, so he jammed it into the pocket where the bills go, like he did with every other business card he owned. He always told himself he would trim them later and put them into the plastic card-holder, but he never did. Why did they make those plastic card flaps, anyway, if they were going to make them just a little too small?
As Kenshi and the robot walked away, the robot reached up to hold Kenshi's hand. Greg shuddered involuntarily.
Greg awoke in his usual fashion: cramped and partially numb from the nightly contortion he suffered in order to sleep in his Hugo Mini. They were cars that were originally made for people who could hitherto only afford to buy bicycles. They were economical, though: all plastic, and they ran on biodeisel…chicken grease, corn oil, or whatever oily substance you could find in sufficient quantity. The exhaust smelled like whatever you put in.
It was painted primer gray. Like most Hugo cars, it was originally colored with Emotochrome™, which, because of advances in technology, caused the car's exterior to behave like a mood ring. The paint color would reflect the mood of the driver, as measured by various autonomic sensors in the seat and steering wheel, and display the driver's emotional state to whomever was on the road at the time. This undermined years of carefully practiced repression on the part of the driver. If you were angry, for instance, it would turn red. If you were depressed, it would be black. If you were happy, it would be blue. Greg had never seen a blue Mini.
No matter how carefully the driver attempted to conceal his anger, fear, frustration, and hatred of other drivers, the car would broadcast their emotional state to every other driver on the road. Predictably, this caused a kind of paranoia cascade. Each emotional car made the other drivers more nervous: the more nervous other drivers got, the more their car colors caused fear in surrounding drivers. This caused a kind of fear-feedback loop on the freeway that culminated in several attacks of paranoia, followed by full-bore freeway shootouts. Eventually, most Mini owners responded to what they considered an insult to their privacy by painting their cars primer gray. Currently, there was a law that was being pushed by the Hugo corporation that would make it illegal to paint over the Emotochrome™ paint. They said that it was important for law enforcement to be able to see the emotional state of the driver before deciding whether or not to make a random stop to check for weapons.
The car was full of Greg's remaining worldly possessions, including those Plan B posters that sometimes gave him the sinking feeling he would never have a wall to hang them on.
The sky outside was dim and cloudy. He could tell that even through the layer of grime and condensation that gave him a modicum of privacy when he needed it. He opened the door to the chill air and went to a nearby culvert to relieve himself, hoping that there would not be a homeless person, human or otherwise, within. Morning air always had that fresh quality, even though you could barely discern it through the smell of decaying civilization. There was also a strange noise in the air, a kind of rumble. He always thought it was the sound of rush hour, of distant freeways lined with cars crawling nose to bumper, slower than most people could walk. He never confirmed it, though. Maybe there was some machine beneath the city that they turned on in the morning that made that low-pitched grinding noise. He could not imagine the purpose of such a thing. Perhaps it ground the bones of the homeless. Perhaps it simply served to put people on edge in the morning, to slowly gnaw away at their reserves of sanity.
After finishing at the culvert, he walked over to the dew-catcher. It was a special rig he bought for about three dollars. Most homeless people had these wonderful devices. They were cheaply produced, inflatable, and yet very valuable: they caught dew, rain, fog, or whatever moisture was in the air, even the exhaust of those hydrogen vehicles, and condensed it into potable drinking water…after you boiled it. Last night was a good catch, he thought inspecting the collection bag. He poured the contents of the plastic bag into his espresso machine. He then got his paper bag of espresso ground Jamaican coffee (he had a friend in the government who could score real coffee) and delicately poured a few ounces into the filter. He then locked the seals and started a blister can to cook it on. In a few minutes, his Hugo Mini was filled with the aroma of espresso. This was usually the high-point in Greg's day. After drinking this, he opened an auto-cooking can of Spam. There was some chemical or something on it or in it that caused it to instantly cook when you opened the can and exposed it to the atmosphere. You had to pull off the lid with the convenient little ring that broke off half the time, and then put the thing down on some flame-retardant tile or something before it went China Syndrome in your hands. He wondered who was the brilliant mind that came up with the idea. After it sizzled and cooled a bit, he wolfed it down, knowing that the vitamin-enriched tofu injections would give him the nutrients necessary for survival. This would compensate for the poverty of the rest of his diet.
After he ate his breakfast and performed his morning ablutions in the San Gabriel River, he remembered the small Yamako card in his wallet. He flipped it out and looked at it. After debating for a few minutes, he decided to give the number a call on his five-dollar cell phone. The time on it was nearly used up, so he would have to be brief.
“Good morning,” said Mr. Kenshi on the other end.
“Mr. Kenshi, this is Greg Hunter. I wanted to inquire about the job opportunity you mentioned yesterday in the subway station.”
“Excellent, Mr. Hunter. I will look forward to seeing you at eleven o'clock.”
“Oh, the Yamako building. I'm in room 304. Please be punctual.”
“Where is the Yamako building?”
“The local building is in downtown Irvine. From that, you should be able to discover your trajectory.”
“Yeah. OK. I'll see you then.”
“Good morning,” said Mr. Kenshi. Greg looked and saw he only had seven seconds left on his phone. Not even enough time for an emergency call, he told himself, as he threw the disposable phone into the trash.
On his way back to the car, he noticed the cleaners at work again. They wore black latex uniforms that were practically level 10 protection against microbes and such. These were complete with heavy rubber boots, gloves, and a gas mask under a face shield. It's important to accessorize. They had industrial strength control nozzles that ejected a kind of sweet-smelling foamy water to remove the dark stain left behind by a fresh corpse. Another homeless person died in the evening. No name, no status, no credit. When they die, the only trace they leave behind (sometimes) is a stain on the pavement, which was quickly cleaned up by the city. Seemed to Greg there was one of these every day…probably more.
Greg had heard stories of places where homeless people could live while they were looking for work. They were called flop-houses or something. One paid a small price to sleep there and you got a shower and a meal. People would live there until they could afford to get an apartment, then they'd leave. Too bad there were no such places in the 21st century. Unemployed people were like baby birds that fall from the nest. They were not expected to be able to make it for long. They were not expected to find jobs again. They were expected to die. Greg had managed to live in that limbo between civilized life and death for too long. He knew that there would not be many opportunities for him to find work. Being homeless was like having leprosy. Nobody would hire you if you were homeless, and you would remain homeless until you got a job. The contradiction never seemed to bother potential employers. They could always find another person who was even more desperate for the job. Maybe someone from China, India, or one of the Stan countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.
Greg remembered how, at the dawn of the 21st century, Americans were concerned about their jobs being sold overseas to these countries. It was obvious, though, that an American could never compete with someone who was willing to do the same work for 1/6th the wage, so the opening of the trade barriers that had hitherto protected American workers from the ravages of the Third World had crumbled like the stone walls of a fortress. Like water through a broken dam, money and jobs flowed fast and furious from the comparatively rich nation of America into the comparatively poor nations of the East. When the money/jobs stopped flowing, nobody was left above sea-level, except Japan, which had erected the very same trade barriers that had once protected America. It was ironic that now the Stan countries, along with China and India were complaining about losing their jobs to the automated workers marching out of factories in Japan. They called them the “Plastic Peril,” which Greg recalled was some reference to some ancient historical xenophobia. The fact was, though: Japan was the most wealthy country in the world, rather, it was the ONLY wealthy country in the world, and while the human population of the country slowly dwindled because they desired more space, the robot population, which one might think of as Japanese, was growing. Ironically, much of the information about robotics Japan had so successfully leveraged had begun as research in the United States. Too bad nobody thought to keep that information as a proprietary secret.
It had been a while since Greg had started the Mini. He was not sure if it would start, but the damn thing was built to last a year or two, and he'd only had it two. With a loud grinding noise, it came to life, spewing a toxic-smelling cloud of rancid fat into the air, choking passersby as he stepped on the accelerator. The Mini had an e-port, which gave him a satellite link to the Internet. He got the directions to the Yamako building from that, and the car told him where to go. He needed to start early, though. A typical drive from Los Angeles to Irvine took about five to six hours. Greg thought that if he ever got enough money, he'd buy one of those little commuter darts, maybe a Vaunt Wombat 800. Then he could fly over the huddled masses and get there in a few minutes. He saw one streak by, low enough to hear the roar of its engines. The driver was just showing off: there was no need to fly that low except to humiliate the drivers on the ground. Jerk. Greg rolled down his window and released the tension building up in his middle finger, thrusting it into the hot, orange sky.
Click here for Part 2 of
by Nigel Strange
[PLASTIC CHILDREN is serialized into 3 Parts,
concluding this Friday--the day after tomorrow]
©by Nigel Strange