I’d always had a theory that if someone wasn’t making you uncomfortable, you were making them uncomfortable. There is no such thing as a mutual relative peace. Peace, or at least a lack of being uncomfortable, is unusual enough to make other people uncomfortable.
Charlie and I were taking a break when I told him my theory. Charlie was an ex-boxer from Nigeria. A heavyweight. And he was one of the happiest people I’d ever met in my life. Even now, with both of us dragging 300 pound hand trucks around midtown for minimum wage, he was happy.
“I think your theory is true.”
I had never seen Charlie uncomfortable. Our boss had been yelling at him back at the truck, telling him that he talked too much, and Charlie had laughed at him and said “Yes! I talk too much! Me! Hahahahahah! I talk too much!” while stomping around a fire hydrant in circles.
“You always seem to be comfortable.”
“Ha! Yes, but is a lie.”
If this guy had figured out how to be happy all the time, I wanted to know the secret. Even if it was a lie.
“Every man, even the biggest, scariest man, knows fear. We all know fear. But when I see someone, if I feel fear, or ‘uncomfortable’?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“If I feel uncomfortable, I ask for something. You see me inside the buildings.”
I’d helped him deliver packages before. Usually, we went out alone, but some buildings were so enormous and received so many packages, it took two or more of us to haul them all over.
Charlie asked every receptionist for food. If they had a jar of chocolates or candies sitting out on the desk, he’d ask for those. If there was a water cooler or a coffee machine anywhere in sight, he’d ask for water and coffee. If the employees were eating a buffet lunch, he’d ask if he could have some, too. And if they said yes (they always said yes), he loaded up. He took multiple handfuls of chocolates, candies, lollipops, mints. If there were no empty containers around, he’d wrap food from the buffet in paper towels, napkins, newspaper. If there was a bathroom, he’d ask if he could use it. If there was a dog or a cat (and there were a surprising number of dogs and cats in these corporate offices), he’d ask if he could pet it. Apparently, he felt uncomfortable all the time.
“This makes you feel better? Less uncomfortable?”
He laughed. He had a booming, frightening laugh.
“No. Not really. But I get free food.”
I lit a cigarette. He was the only person I knew who encouraged my smoking.
“Good. You are smoking. If it makes you happy to smoke, you should smoke.”
“It doesn’t make me happy.”
“It is good to do things that make you happy. If you do it, it must make you happy.”
“Does this job make you happy?”
He laughed some more.
“No. This job does not make anyone happy.”
But he was smiling just the same.
“So what do you do if you can’t ask for anything?”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s say we’re in an elevator. And I’ve been with you in elevators. You don’t ask anyone for anything because you can’t. It’d be too much like mugging them.”
“Ah! Yes, I understand.”
He nodded his head. A cute girl walked by and we both stared at her ass.
“She is not for us. She is for the rich man!”
We both laughed for a few seconds, then were quiet. It was depressing because it was true.
“So what do you do when you can’t ask for anything?”
“I imagine them shitting. When a person is shitting, even a king, it is undignified.”
“And that makes you feel better?”
I’d seen bums shitting on the street and it made me uncomfortable, but maybe that was because they were in context. If I imagined someone like that cute girl shitting, someone I’d normally be too intimidated to approach, I didn’t think it’d make it any easier to approach her. There had to be something I was missing.
“What if I still feel uncomfortable?”
Charlie considered this.
“This is a very scary person, yes?”
“When it is a very scary person, imagine chopping their foot off.”
“I know this is strange. I do not mean to chop off the foot. I do not mean to hurt anyone. But when I think this, I can feel that they become uncomfortable. When I know that they can become uncomfortable, too, I know that they are like me.”
“So thinking about mutilating people and knowing they’re like you makes you feel better?”
“What is ‘mutilating’? Does it mean to chop off a foot?”
“Yes. Well, chopping off anything. Doing permanent damage.”
He repeated “mutilating” to himself three or four times, then “uncomfortable.”
“I am sorry. My English is not good.”
“Your English is fine.”
“No. Not fine. It makes me ‘uncomfortable.’ Hahahaha! I feel very stupid when I speak English. I ‘mutilate’ English. And I talk too much! Ha! Too much!”