a discussion of super powers
Friday, December 21 2001
Today was my last day of work for Yahoo.com, the massive web portal and devourer of companies. As part of the devouring of my old company (Launch.com), I was one of the bones spit out, rejected because of the fact that I work remotely. This is about as benign a reason to be laid off from a company as any I can think of, and what with the severance package and unemployment I'm getting, you'll be hearing no complaints from me.
Even today's act of being laid off was stressless affair. I straggled into the Chelsea office at around 11am, met with the HR person at the time of my choosing, and turned in my two key fobs (one for the Chelsea office, the other for the Santa Monica office). That was it. My paperwork will be arriving in the mail.
Still, no matter how you look at it, it was a breakup, and I didn't feel like hanging around the office after that. I'd already done some last minute documentation of my code and had removed all the personal stuff from my workstation, so I packed my bag (being sure to gather a keepsake Launch.com CDROM bearing my name - it had identified my various cubicles for the past 21 months) and caught a subway downtown.
On a whim, I got out of the subway at Chamber's Street, very close to the site of the erstwhile World Trade Center. The actual site hadn't changed much since I'd last seen it back in September. It's still a huge sixteen acre rectangle of devastation, an indication of what a suitcase nuke might do some day. Most of the bulky building skeletons are gone, and so is the acrid smoke. But now there are several huge cranes cranking away night and day, stirring up clouds of dust that eventually ends up as grit between your teeth. There really ought to be signs down there saying, "Pardon our dust." Interestingly, most of the sidewalks in the vicinity of Ground Zero run atop raised plywood platforms, indicating that makeshift utilities replacing those destroyed underground are being run upon the old concrete sidewalks.
The biggest apparent change near Ground Zero is the sheer volume of crass commercialism that has sprung up in the form of tables groaning under mounds of patriotica and memorabilia. Even in the miserable bluster blowing down the glass-lined canyons at this time of year, entrepreneurs were hawking NYPD and FDNY baseball caps (mostly counterfeit, I assume) and garishly-colored images of the old World Trade Center towers viewed from every conceivable angle and with every imaginable patriotic garnish (eagles and Statue of Liberty watermarks seemed particularly popular).
I went into the massive (and highly segmented) J & R Electronics superstore looking for a particular Christmas present and had no success. Shopping this time of year in New York is a terribly unpleasant experience, especially when you have a backpack. The process of getting past people in the narrow aisles is an endless gauntlet of lesser tortures.
While I was out being laid off, Gretchen had started work as a factotum for yet another established Manhattan poet. Her day had gone well and in the evening we "celebrated" the changes to our respective incomes by going out to eat. Originally we'd planned to dine at our favorite restaurant, Uguale in Manhattan, but we couldn't get a reservation so we made one at Rosewater in Park Slope instead. Gretchen took a nap before dinner and I only gave her about eight minutes warning when I woke her up. Somehow she took a shower during the little time available and we ran down to Rosewater. The place was empty and Gretchen suddenly didn't want to eat there, because the only vegetarian entrée contained a vegetable she doesn't like. So we said we'd be going somewhere else. The staff tried to convince us they could make something special for Gretchen, but now all she wanted was pasta. (Why do people even bother preparing food that isn't pasta?) So we dined at a smallish Italian place called Al di La that had cozy velvet curtains keeping the chill from blowing in through the door. It wasn't anywhere near as romantic as Uguale, but it was good enough for Park Slope.
At some point Gretchen asked me one of her "hypotheticals": if I could have any super power, what would it be? "Time travel," I answered without hesitation. Then I explained how this would inform my stock market positions and make me a very rich man. But then Gretchen informed me that time travel didn't qualify in her book as a superpower. No problem; I had second power alreadly primed, "I'd like to be able to change my size then." Gretchen was delighted until she heard me explain how I'd use my power to steal money from banks and jewelry stores. "So it's all about money, then?" she asked. "Yeah, I suppose so," I agreed. The talk about size changing led to a in-depth exploration of this particular super power. What would its limits be? Would our clothes, keys, and wallets change size too? If not, how about our hair and teeth? If so, how about the floor beneath our feet and people within a ten foot radius? People can fantasize about super powers all they want, but most of these powers seem likely, when you delve into them in any depth, to cause more problems than they solve.
Towards the end of the meal, Gretchen called the manager over and praised one of the guys busting tables because of something subtly pleasant he had done. The couple sitting next to us were so amused to overhear this that they actually said something to us about it.
We ended our evening sitting on the couch at the Loki Lounge drinking frangelico served by a skinny waitress who, to me, looked like a King Cobra (the snake, not the malt liquor). To Gretchen she looked more like a praying mantis.
When we were walking back home I asked Gretchen what she'd do if we came in the door and Sally the Dog wasn't greeting us in the hallway as she always does, with a toy in her mouth and her tail fully a'waggle, but was instead hiding in a closet hoping to surprise us. It's thinking about things like this that allows me to better articulate the differences between the human and animal mind. A dog can create comedy and misdirection to a point, for example by pointedly not looking at something that intensely interests her. But elaborate indirection, such as hiding in a closet and waiting to be found by the people she'd much rather be greeting, are completely beyond a dog's capability. Sometimes I wonder what Sally thinks when I execute elaborate patterns for no apparent reason, like tapping her paws and the top of her head in a certain repetitive order. She can walk around and pick up things, but I'll never see her repeatedly executing a spontaneously varied routine purely for comic effect. Then again, I'll never see most people do this either. The bulk of what we creatures do most of the time is done without thought, exactly like breathing.
Of late I've been using the term "homeslice" instead of "what's his name." For example, I'll be talking about some dinner where I sat next to someone whose name I never bothered to remember and I'll say something like, "Homeslice had something really interesting to say about rare six-gilled benthic sharks."
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