Purgatory

The following text is an adaptation of a chapter from The Brooklyn Follies, a novel by Paul Auster.

No one grows up thinking his destiny is to become a taxi driver [warehouse worker], but in Tom’s case the job had served as a particularly grueling form of penance, a way of mourning the collapse of his most cherished ambitions. It wasn’t that he had ever wanted a great deal from life, but the little he had wanted turned out to have been beyond his grasp: to finish his doctorate, to find a place in some university English department [academy], and then spend the next forty or fifty years teaching [art] and writing about books. That was all he had ever aspired to, with a wife thrown into the bargain, maybe, and a kid or two to go along with her. It had never felt like too much to ask for, but after three [eleven] years of strug­gling to write his dissertation [make a living], Tom finally understood that he didn’t have it in him to finish [succeed]. Or, if he did have it in him, he couldn’t persuade himself to believe in the value of doing it anymore. So he left Ann Arbor [Berlin] and returned to New York [Brussels], a twenty-eight-[thirty-four-]year-old has-been without a clue as to where he was headed or what turn his life was about to take.

At first, the taxi [warehouse] was no more than a temporary solution, a stopgap measure to pay the rent while he looked for something else. He searched for several weeks, but all the teaching jobs in private schools were filled just then, and once he settled into the grind of his twelve [eight]-hour daily shifts, he found himself less and less motivated to hunt for other work. The temporary began to feel like something permanent, and although a part of Tom knew that he was letting himself go to hell, another part of him thought that perhaps this job would do him some good, that if he paid attention to what he was doing and why he was doing it, the cab [warehouse] would teach him lessons that couldn’t be learned any­where else.

It wasn’t always clear to him what those lessons were, but as he prowled the avenues in [isles of the warehouse with] his rattling yellow [orange] Dodge [hand pallet truck] from five [one] in the afternoon to five [nine thirty] in the morning [evening] six [four or five] days a week, there was no question that he learned them well. The disadvantages to the work were so obvious, so omnipresent, so crushing, that unless you found a way to ignore them, you were doomed to a life of bitterness and unending complaint. […] But Tom didn’t grumble. And Tom didn’t feel sorry for himself. He had found a method to atone for his stupidity, and if he could sur­vive the experience without completely losing heart, then per­haps there was some hope for him after all. By sticking with the cab [warehouse], he wasn’t trying to make the best of a bad situation. He was looking for a way to make things happen, and until he un­derstood what those things were, he wouldn’t have the right to release himself from his bondage.

[…] His old friends, who remembered him as a brilliant student and wickedly funny conversationalist, were appalled by what had happened to him. Tom had slipped from the ranks of the anointed, and his downfall seemed to shake their confidence in themselves, to open the door onto a new pessimism about their own prospects in life. It didn’t help matters that Tom had gained weight, that his former plumpness now verged on an embarrass­ing rotundity, but e[E]ven more disturbing was the fact that he didn’t seem to have any plans, that he never spoke about how he was going to undo the damage he’d done to himself and get back on his feet. Whenever he mentioned his new job, he described it in odd, almost religious terms, speculating on such questions as spiritual strength and the importance of finding one’s path through patience and humility, and this confused them and made them fidget in their chairs. Tom’s intelligence had not been dulled by the job, but no one wanted to hear what he had to say anymore, least of all the women he talked to, who expected young men to be full of brave ideas and clever schemes about how they were going to conquer the world. Tom put them off with his doubts and soul-searchings, his obscure disquisitions on the nature of reality, his hesitant manner. It was bad enough that he drove a taxi [worked in a warehouse] for a living, but a philosophical taxi driver [warehouse worker] who dressed in army-navy clothes and carried a paunch around his middle was a bit too much to ask. He was a pleasant guy, of course, and no one actively disliked him, but he wasn’t a legiti­mate candidate—not for marriage, not even for a crazy fling.

[…] Harry never gave up hope that one day he would say yes. He understood that Tom was in hibernation, wrestling blindly against a dark angel of despair, and that things would eventu­ally change for him. That much was certain, even if Tom himself didn’t know it yet. But once he did know it, all that taxi [warehouse] non­sense would immediately turn into yesterday’s dirty laundry.

Tom enjoyed talking to Harry because Harry was such a droll and forthright person, a man of such needling patter and extravagant contradictions that you never knew what was going to come out of his mouth next. To look at him, you would have thought he was just another aging New York queen. All the sur­face rigmarole was calibrated to achieve that single effect—the dyed hair and eyebrows, the silk ascots and yachting club blaz­ers, the sissified turns of speech—but o[O]nce you got to know him a little, Harry turned out to be an astute and challenging fellow. There was something provocative about the way he kept coming at you, a darting, jabbing kind of intelligence that made you want to give good answers when he started reeling off those sly, overly personal questions of his. With Harry, it was never enough just to respond. There had to be some spark to what you said, some effervescent something that proved you were more than just another dullard plodding down the road of life. Since that was largely how Tom saw himself in those days, he had to work especially hard to keep up his end when talking to Harry. That work was what appealed to him most about their conversa­tions. Tom liked having to think fast, and he found it invigorat­ing to push his mind in unaccustomed directions for a change, to be forced to stay on his toes. […]

And yet Tom continued to turn Harry down. For over six months he fended off the book dealer’s proposals to come work for him, and in that time he invented so many different excuses, came up with so many different reasons why Harry should look for someone else, that his reluctance became a standing joke between them. In the beginning, Tom went out of his way to de­fend the virtues of his current profession, improvising elaborate theories about the ontological value of the cabbie [warehouse worker]’s life. “It gives you a direct path into the formlessness of being,” he would say, struggling not to smile as he mocked the jargon of his academic [artistic] past, “a unique entry point into the chaotic sub­structures of the universe. You drive [walk] around the city [warehouse] all night [day], and you never know where you’re going next. A customer climbs into the backseat of your cab, tells you to take him to such and such a place, and that’s where you go. Riverdale, Fort Greene, Murray Hill, Far Rockaway, the dark side of the moon. Every destination is arbitrary, every decision is governed by chance. Y[y]ou float, you weave, you get there as fast as you can, but you don’t really have a say in the matter. You’re a plaything of the gods, and you have no will of your own. The only reason you’re there is to serve the whims of other people.”

[Advantages of a worker in a refrigerated warehouse:

  • You get to wear a hoodie, and actually put on the hood;
  • You get to move around all day, no sitting at all;
  • You take 10.000 steps before lunch;
  • You get to work consecutive hours;
  • You can do little dances once in a while;
  • You make money to pay for rent, food, etc.;
  • You don’t need to interact with people too much;
  • You’re protected from extreme weather;
  • You get to smell fresh fruits (pineapple, strawberry, oranges, …) and to look at nice food.]

[…]

“There are good moments, too,” Tom would add, not wanting to let Harry have the last word. “Indelible moments of grace, tiny exaltations, unexpected miracles. […] No book can duplicate those things. I’m talking about real transcendence, Harry. Leaving your body behind you and entering the fullness and thickness of the world.”

“You don’t have to drive a cab [work in a warehouse] to do that, my boy. Any old car [job] will do.”

“No, there’s a difference. With an ordinary car [job], you lose the element of drudgery, and that’s fundamental to the whole expe­rience. The exhaustion, the boredom, the mind-numbing same­ness of it all. Then, out of nowhere, you suddenly feel a little burst of freedom, a moment or two of genuine, unqualified bliss. But you have to pay for it. Without the drudgery, no bliss.”

Tom had no idea why he resisted Harry in this way. He didn’t believe a tenth of the things he said to him, but each time the subject of changing jobs came up again, he would dig in his heels and start spinning his ludicrous counterarguments and self-justifications. Tom knew he would be better off working for Harry, but the thought of becoming a book dealer’s assistant was hardly a thrilling prospect, hardly what he had in mind when he dreamed of overhauling his life. It was too small a step, somehow, too puny a thing to settle for after having lost so much. So the courtship continued, and t[T]he more Tom came to despise his job, the more stubbornly he defended his own iner­tia; and the more inert he became, the more he despised him­self.[…]

“I’m thirty[-six] years old,” he told his new boss, “and forty pounds overweight. I haven’t slept with a woman in over a year, and for the past twelve mornings I’ve dreamt about traffic jams [crates and hand pallet trucks] in twelve different parts of the city [warehouse]. I could be wrong, but I think I’m ready for a change.”