The prospects of precarity, redux

Standing in IKEA, questioning significance. The jokes on me kept coming. From Buddhism to bust. Zen and the art of futon shopping. Which aisle is fulfillment on? There’s a permanent sale on attachment to desire in housewares. You can take the elevator. Cafe on level 2. Stay awhile, just don’t ask “What am I doing here?” beyond the immediate local context: I need to furnish a studio apartment.

I grasped the truth last week in The Container Store. They have every kind of container except the one I most need, the one that will finally set me free. As I was comparing three different types of overpriced plastic my mom sent me a text: “Must be a little discouraging to have to replace everything you had.” Yes, Mom, thanks for the reminder. Impermanence is often more than a little discouraging. That’s why the stores remain open. Yet there I was among the shoppers. Where I belong?

Earlier I chanced upon a discount Levi’s store. I was talking on the phone and hurrying to catch a bus at the time, but the sale sign seemed enticing. I was running late to a sort-of job interview; I really didn’t have time to shop. But as soon as I walked in the two clerks became very efficient salespeople. Racing, and wanting to please them, I bought two pairs of pants that don’t fit right. I found this out later when I tried them on again at Marshall’s downtown. On a corrective whim I went across the street to Old Navy, at first just to glance, and ended up buying two more pairs of pants. In part this was an effort to vindicate my earlier bad decision, to prove that there are pants out there I can reasonably purchase. But I was also on a mission. At this early stage of my return to the “real world,” I needed to find one area of life over which I could assert some lasting control.

With my backpack full of pants, I walked through the Westfield San Francisco Centre remembering my earlier botched entrance into professional life. I moved to San Francisco ten years ago after graduating college. There were similarly-motivated shopping sprees then, even though one of my first jobs was busing tables at a high-end Mexican restaurant in this very mall. I rode the escalator to the fourth floor to see if it was still there. Nope. Only two prohibitively expensive higher-end restaurants left under The Dome. I don’t care to remember their names.

For years I’ve pretended that I hate consumerism even as I engage in it haplessly. I’m bad at comparison shopping because it violates my prized notions of how a person should be. But I love restaurants. I love a comfortable bed and strive with the best of them to increase the fiber count of my 100% cotton sheets. I have often bought clothing at second-hand stores to indulge my fantasy that I am not contributing to the problem. But now here in San Francisco, without a car and with little shopping savvy, I am held hostage by my long accumulated aversion to becoming a good consumer. Riding the escalator back down the familiar floors of stores, I saw the littered evidence of my hypocrisy and almost choked. There’s a reason I’ve been avoiding this conflict for so long.

* * *

Back at the apartment where I’m cat-sitting through next week, I took out my journal over Thai take-out. Most of the day had involved minor discomfort, instances of mundane humiliation, inconvenience, dropping money on shallow things while planning to do more. I looked at Mr. Smudge, whom I’ve come to recognize as a fellow traveler. He jumps in and out of the litter box, leaving a trail of yellow specks across the floor. I straighten up the rug, vacuum and unpack bags, thinking we’re different.

He purrs, but nothing is enough. There’s the constant chasing of need, the precise satisfaction that comes at moments when food is served or some other sense pleasure observed. He walks and yawns, sleeps and wakes, never knowing what it takes to envy his quality of life. There’s a quiet intelligence enmeshed in his nimbleness, a gentle knowing air that sleeks through cracked doorways, effortless swishing of those feline hips. But then I’ll hear him cry at all hours, at odd intervals when it’s not clear what he wants. Maybe he doesn’t know either. His best face is hidden from the likes of me. What I see is his relentless ruse, an apparent smile I take as my self-congratulations. I provide the necessities and he approves. I close a door too early and he lets me know about it. There isn’t much I can do in the face of such subtle mastery. Even his vulnerability is part of the act, a means of keeping me dancing around his wide, shallow lips.

I still have fantasies of being a writer-social critic, of folding up in my cocoon of beautiful silence and self-importance and staying above the fray. Maybe it was pretense to think I’d joined it… but I know where this line of thinking leads.

Four weeks ago I had that moment gazing out at the city, imagining all I would construct after leaving the Zen Center. I saw a vision of progress and felt the drama of my humiliation forming with it a yin and yang.

That’s what I’m doing here, apparently. Learning to see myself and my ability to function without the infrastructure I relied on for so long in grad school.

Four years ago I wrote a blog post called “The Prospects of Precarity” (https://longingforthereal.com/2012/04/08/the-prospects-of-precarity/). Now I’m living an imperfect version of what that phrase means.

I imagined a perfect ascendance to San Francisco. I imagined that all would fall into place after I left the Zen Center. Yet here I am, preparing to take advantage of a Macy’s sale on a 12-piece set of stainless steel cookware. I don’t want to pick up the phone and call the 1-800-number, but I do want my new kitchen to be serviceable.

“Against a shallow clinging to privilege,” I once wrote, “we owe it to ourselves to ask these questions and find out where they lead.”

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Writer, teacher, recovering academic. After finishing my PhD in American history, I moved to San Francisco in 2016. This blog tells the story.

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Michael Fisher

Writer, teacher, recovering academic. After finishing my PhD in American history, I moved to San Francisco in 2016. This blog tells the story.