Gotta Get Paid

Hours ago, I stood at the busiest intersection in Cupertino, grasping my lunch in one hand, and waited for the crosswalk signal to turn green. At first, I hardly noticed the man to my left. At first, I thought he was on a cell phone, because he was talking really loudly to someone. I looked over and realized he was talking to me. He spoke emphatically, and with such familiarity that I had to search my memory as to whether I knew him or not. He bore a passing resemblance to the comedian Patton Oswalt, and he wore a blue collared shirt and black, knee length shorts, and was really, really angry. I did not recognize him.

"I can't believe these sons of bitches!" he railed. "It's all fucking bullshit! You see this shit?" 

He thrust out his paycheck in front of me. I looked away - none of my business how much money this guy makes - and kept my mouth closed. My instinct told me not to speak, so I kept quiet, did not react, and just let him yell. I'm not big on anger and people yelling at me. I sort of shut down.

"They wouldn't even cash my check! I got my paycheck right here and they refused to cash it, even though I signed it in front of them - see?" He poked his paper with an accusatory finger, thumbing through his pay stub receipts like a bookie at the track.

"They said I had to go to Wells Fargo, because that's what it said on the check!" he yelled. "No wonder the goddamned banks are failing!" he went on, getting madder by the second. "It's like the one percent... uh, I'm like one of the 99 percent. No wonder the banks are failing. This is bullshit! They won't even cash my fucking check. God damn bullshit! Fucking bullshit!"

I kept my face fixed on the red hand at the far end of the street. The man kept talking. He was going off on the banks, on the people who worked at the banks, on the tellers, the banking system. I figured it wouldn't be much longer before he let some of that anger spill out over me, so I took two steps to the right and clutched my lunch a little tighter.

"Can you fucking believe that? In this day and age, you can't even cash a fucking check. It's no wonder the banks are failing!" he shouted again.

A few people stepped in to wait with us on the curb. They all might have assumed that this guy and I were friends, or that we had somehow gotten into an argument. They all looked uncomfortable. I felt like saying, I don't know this guy, but that would require opening my mouth, and letting him into my space by giving him something to focus on.

I listened to him rant for another twenty seconds about how outraged and angry he was, and at last, the light turned green and he strode ahead on his stubby legs, still shouting and screaming. He didn't look back. I already began to feel sorry for bank tellers at the Wells Fargo down the street. No doubt, he was headed for them to get his check cashed.

Anger can be a really scary thing when it comes from people you don't know. What is the right way to respond? I'm not very trusting to begin with, especially with strangers. Also, where is the line between legitimate outrage and unhinged instability? If you don't know someone, that line might be anywhere, so the best thing is to not add fuel to the fire.

I can't assume much about this man, but I can assume that he was having a very, very bad day. His issues - many which probably had little or nothing to do with his paycheck - are very real, and indicative of a larger anger that we can all recognize is surging up around us. It would take one heck of a bad day for me to expose that sort anger around a stranger, someone who has indicated no awareness of me or any knowledge of my willingness to reciprocate or feed into what he's feeling.

People are very angry at banks. People are stressed about money. People are tired of bureaucracy, clamoring for Banks to separate investment and speculation. Most feel powerless in the face of it. There is a lot to be angry and stressed about. I get that. Thing is, it's nothing new under the sun. Throughout history, society might have contained it differently, or restricted access or people or information in ways that contain or suppress it, but it has always been there. The media might have change the way we perceive injustice. Internet memes give us their own spin on the issues of the day. Late night talk shows and opinion panels help to form our worldview. Thing is, most of those things are built for entertainment, and for the presence of drama and conflict.

I'm not saying that the world isn't as bad as we think - there is a lot to be upset about - but I am saying that sometimes, we feed into networks' desire for us to be hooked on and entertained by the stories of our world they give us, the stories of our own lives and the hardships and triumphs of people around us. We are spurred on by this drama; it gets us worked up. It glosses over the grey areas and makes everything into a movie with all or nothing stakes. Sometimes, in spite of ourselves, we pantomime it, like a child putting on lipstick and holding an empty wine glass. We do it because it's what we see others do.

Does this mean we shouldn't be outraged? Of course not. I'm just saying that we should pay attention to our outrage, and not let it control us and impact our decisions.

What does any of this have to do with my angry friend on the street corner? Maybe nothing. I don't know him. I hope he finally got his cash. I hope his outrage didn't get worse and spiral out of control, making everyone else nervous and scared and on edge. I hope he went home today and kissed his family, or his dog, or cat, and that he began to relax. It's not fun feeling that way. I've felt like him a lot lately - not strong enough to freak out in public, or emphatically try to get a stranger to feed into my rage, as he did - but I know that we all have days when we go too far.

At the end of the day, we all gotta get paid, and cash money is scarce right now. I don't know many people who aren't struggling. Most people I know are week to week. Thing is, we really need to get paid every day - with affection, with comfort and intimacy from loved ones, with a sense of belonging in society, a sense that others out there feel the same way we do about things. Now that's really gettin' paid, and it undeniably makes us richer. So, give yourselves a raise, and don't worry about the bank turning you down. It's not that kind of wealth.


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