I’d become friends with a Public Intellectual. He handled everything: scandal, sex, politics, political sex scandals, racism, weather, the racism of weather, Japanese cartoons. Everything was under his purview, but his specialty was the Future. He was a much more successful colleague at the university where I would occasionally adjunct. Several years ago entirely by accident, when collecting some papers from our department’s office, not knowing who he was, I saw him standing next to the faculty mailboxes with a copy of a book I’d just read. I was younger and new to the place and excitable – and so I started up a brief conversation about the book. I think because I wasn’t awestruck, because I’d no idea who he was, the conversation went smoothly. And a few days afterward we continued the conversation, which was rather pleasant, and soon after we more or less became friends. We had some important interests in common but these did not overlap so much that there was any real sense of competition between us. In other ways, we were a good match: he was about a decade older; we were both divorced and had daughters about the same age.
After that first meeting I googled him and realized who he was and that he was famous. Academic famous not TV famous but still. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t known who he was, or anything even about his work, but I also was emboldened by my ignorance. It gave the situation a kind of ease, which somehow, especially at the beginning, was necessary and also gave things momentum. We had to play-act a little, if this makes sense. Both of us had to continue the idea of my ignorance even if it had become a fiction, to maintain our enthusiasm.
But, also, just after I found out who he was and the fact that he specialized in, and was renowned for, a sharp-eyed, bullshitless analysis of the future, a question started to shift the gravity in my mind. Though this is difficult to admit in mixed company, perhaps this is because I am the daughter of quote striver immigrant parents. And so slowly, while maintaining an attitude of nonchalance and casual good humor, I found myself yearning to ask him something. This was a question that had long been on my mind but to which I didn’t think I’d ever find an answer. It was similar to when you by chance meet an orthopedic surgeon at a party and try delicately to bring the conversation around to your chronic and exquisite lower back pain – that kind of egotistical, obvious yet helpless maneuvering. My burning question was this:
Will there be any jobs in the future? What are the good jobs of the future? And what kind of jobs do you think our children might have in the future?
I know that this is three questions but it really is just one question disguised as three questions.
When I finally gathered the gumption to ask, the Public Intellectual was kind. He struggled in only a barely perceptible way to hide his contempt for such a crude and banal and selfish question. In addition he was, it should be said, quite practiced, as would become evident, in answering such questions and so had made a career of answering them as warm-up or filler to or, most often, as comedic relief from, the more refined, profound questions which he intensely wrestled with during his more solitary hours.
So to my question, the Public Intellectual said, ‘Here’s what I say to people when they ask. This is what I say.’
‘Yes?’ I prompted.
‘I say, “You know how our pets are to us?” ’
‘Our pets?’ I said.
‘Yes, you know. Our cats and our dogs.’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and our cats.’
‘What about them?’ I asked.
He said, ‘We keep our pets because they are interesting to us.’
‘I see,’ I said, not seeing.
‘In the future . . .’ the Public Intellectual continued.
‘Yes?’ I said.
‘In the future we have to be as interesting to the AI as our pets are to us.’
‘The AI?’ I said.
‘The AI,’ he said.
I looked bewildered so he dumbed it down for me. ‘The robots. The machines.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I see.’
‘The AI,’ he said. ‘We have to be as interesting to them as our pets are to us.’
‘Hmm,’ I said.
My name is Joan Jessica Jingleheimer Schmidt. It doesn’t matter what my name is. I’m a recently divorced and perennially underemployed adjunct. When I’m lucky enough to be asked, I work at a public university, teaching the children of immigrants to imagine a better life for themselves while they live out their days in the service industry. I do this by making them write five-paragraph essays. But right now, I’m out of work – and so have become a kind of low-level servant to the economic betters of my cultural class. That is, I’ve become a house- and dog-sitter. I’m currently on my thirty-first dog-sitting job. It’s disgraceful that a middle-aged woman with a doctorate is employed as a house-sitter so I have to be a little dissembling. I tell people I’m working on a book and that the house-sitting job is a kind of ongoing writer’s residency. A staycation, I tell them.
I’m currently in the home of Angela and Jerome, two corporate lawyers who knew a friend of a friend of a friend of mine. Over the phone I pretended I was a little more normal than I am and, since they knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew me – and, more importantly, because I think they’d waited until the last minute and had become a little desperate – they gave me the job. No money, as per usual, but I feed myself from whatever’s left in their kitchens, which is usually enough to last months.
When I got to Angela and Jerome’s I put their dog in the basement. I’ve brought into the house a small PA system consisting of a speaker the size of a shoebox, a 200-foot coil of wire I stole from a previous job and a handheld microphone. I go down into the basement and place the speaker in front of the dog. And then I uncoil the wire so that it goes up the basement stairs, around through the kitchen, then up through another set of stairs, until I get to a bedroom facing the back of the house. I know the dog can’t come up from the basement because there’s a gate at the bottom of the stairs.
When I get to the bedroom I attach the microphone to the end of the wire and I click it on.
I say, ‘Hello? Hello? Is this the suicide prevention hotline?’
I pause and I hear a faint and muffled bark from the dog, two stories down in the basement.
‘Hello? Is this you?’ I say. ‘Is this the right place? Well I hope so because I feel pretty awful. I’m right on the edge of giving it all up. I don’t think I’m very good at anything. I don’t enjoy anything. Everything tastes gray and I’m alone and all I do is eat butter pecan ice cream.’
I pause and listen but the dog doesn’t make any sounds.
‘Hello, hello? Hello dog?’ I say into the microphone. ‘Dear dog,’ I say. ‘Dear dog, hallowed be thy name,’ I say into the microphone.‘Dear dog, hallowed be thy name, your kingdom come, your will be done.’
The room I was in overlooked a patio outside the basement door, and the dog could go out there through a plastic flap to shit and pee. I was watching to see if he’d go out onto the patio. I’d set the speaker volume just loud enough that you could hear it in the basement but not if you went out on the patio. I’d wanted to see if my voice would bore the dog.
I say into the microphone, ‘Hello, is this returns? Well, it’s defective. All of it. Also it’s not what I ordered or expected. Also, I found a better price elsewhere. Also, I wanted it in a different color.’
The patio is still empty so I know the dog is still hearing my words. He’s a mix but mostly a Labrador I think. His fur is black with some interesting brown underneath. The dog’s name is Maurice. I agree. It’s an awful name for a dog.
I say into the microphone, ‘Hello, is this the collection agency? I’m finally returning your phone call, you motherfuckers.’ (I say ‘motherfuckers’ as sweetly as I can because I want to curse but I also don’t want to scare the dog with anger as this would discredit any results from my so-called experiment.) ‘Hello,’ I say into the microphone. ‘Hello collection agency shitball-eaters,’ I say, ‘I’m finally getting back to you after avoiding you all these years, but I don’t have any money and I don’t want to set up a payment plan but I’d like to talk to an operator. Sure I’ll hold. I want to talk to someone about the early death of my father and about my mother’s rages and about being into new wave electronic music in junior high and about how all that might explain things.’
I give up looking out the window and go lie down on the kid’s bed. This is Angela and Jerome’s kid. I guess she’s about eight or nine from the pictures in the house and from the room’s decor. The bed is shaped like a cartoon character I don’t recognize. For a moment I think I could maybe use this cartoon character instead of the dog. That is, it occurs to me I might as well just start talking to the cartoon character (who is also a bed – that part is a nice detail), but then I decide I might as well stick it out and finish what I’d started with the dog.
Who knows, I think, maybe if I give up now, the dog’s feelings will be hurt. Part of me is moved by this idea because, maybe if it were true, and most of me thinks it can’t possibly be true, but if it were true, if the dog were to actually be hurt if I happened to stop talking into the microphone, well, this would mean, of course, on some level, the dog was interested in what I was saying. This was enough for me to abandon the idea of just talking to the cartoon character even if the cartoon character was a bed. I say into the microphone, ‘Hello, Betty. Hold all my calls. I’ve a big meeting with Mr Money.’
I say into the microphone, ‘Okay, no more games. Or,’ I say into the microphone so Maurice can hear my voice in the basement, I say, ‘maybe only a few more games. Here’s something I keep thinking about since my friend the Public Intellectual told me this hint about the future. I have something I like to do, Maurice. I have something I like to do and I’ve never shared this information with anyone else. You’ll be the first I ever told, got it? Aren’t you interested? Aren’t you on the edge of your seat?
‘Maurice, what I like to do is smoke a bowl and go to the aquarium and watch the jellyfish.
‘Did you hear that, Maurice? Did you hear my great admission? I mean to say, what I like to do is, there’s a bus that you can pick up not too far from here. And it goes all the way to the aquarium. It takes about an hour but you can always get a seat. I smoke some high-grade medical marijuana, a bowl of it, right before I leave. I get very high. I take the bus to the aquarium. Then, just outside the aquarium I smoke a little more and then I go into the aquarium and watch the jellyfish for an hour or so. And what’s more, Maurice, while I watch the jellyfish I put on my headphones and listen to Scandinavian death metal. I listen to a Norwegian heavy-metal band called Kvelertak. I’ve no idea what Kvelertak means and I’ve no idea what they’re singing about but the drummer is perfect – and when you’re stoned and watching the jellyfish and listening to Kvelertak, well, it’s just so fucking sublime I can’t explain it.
‘So, Maurice, you see, what I’m trying to tell you about is how I met Sofia. I was at the aquarium, pretty stoned, watching the jellyfish, listening to Nordic heavy metal – and I happened to look to my right . . .
‘And there’s another woman with headphones on. She’s maybe ten feet away. And I swear I could tell she was doing the exact same thing I was doing. I swear it. Somehow I just knew she was also high as a kite and listening to Norwegian death metal and just watching the jellyfish bloom their translucent selves into folding and unfolding umbrellas over and over again.
‘I sat there for about a half-hour and then looked to my right again. The woman was still there. I was a strange combination of paranoid and religious feeling. I felt both suspicious and also like fate was laying its hand upon me. I spent some time thinking about this, and then I thought, fuck it, I’ll just go ask her. So I go over and introduce myself. She takes off her headphones and looks at me. I say, Hello, my name is Joan Jessica Jingleheimer Schmidt. Except I don’t. I say my regular unimportant name. She looks at me, then she says, Hello, my name is Sofia. And then we sort of look at each other for a while.
‘Then I sat down right next to her and then we both put our headphones back on and we went back to watching the jellyfish for another half-hour. I thought such behavior could only possibly make sense if we were both high, so I felt confident about my theory.
‘As it happened, after half an hour she got up. And so I took this as a signal, and I got up and I followed her. We walked to the bus stop together.
‘It turned out I was only partially right. Sofia indeed also had the habit of watching the jellyfish for hours at a time, but – she did it completely sober. Furthermore she didn’t listen to Scandinavian death metal. Sofia preferred nineties R&B.
‘Maurice, have I told you I’m the product of stereotypically quote striver immigrant parents? Well, it’s true despite it being hard to admit in mixed company. But because this is true the first narrative line I’m interested in when learning about a person’s life is their labor history. So I ask Sofia about this, indirectly of course, but eventually I piece it together. Here it is. Maurice, here is Sofia’s labor history. She’d grown up in Ecuador and immigrated here when she was seventeen. She passed as a man in order to pick tobacco in North Carolina where they sprayed pesticides on the leaves such that the workers made homemade hazmat suits out of garbage bags and rags, which still didn’t stop them from coughing blood after a few days and such attire certainly acted as a cruel instrument of self-administered sticky torture when worn during the blistering heat of hundred-degree days. After several seasons of this she came up north and worked for many years cleaning homes. And then one day she had a revelation. On that day a delivery truck brought to their small apartment a wing-backed armchair of voluptuous deep-pile mauve velvet. She argues with the delivery people that there must be some kind of mistake, but they show her the name and address on the papers and she has no choice so accepts delivery.
‘Her boyfriend at the time came home and explained it. He said, I bought it but didn’t want to tell you about it because it was too expensive. How much was it? she asked. He said, It’s an old chair but it was in good condition and I got it for nothing but then I had it reupholstered. You got it what? I got it reupholstered. How much? she said. Twelve hundred, he said.
‘Fucking shit, she said and they had a huge fight about it and then they made up and then they had sex.
‘It was after, while she was lying in bed, that she had her revelation. Her revelation was this. She was going to learn to reupholster furniture.
‘And that was what she did. It turned out to be incredibly lucrative. She’d always been clever with her hands. No machine could do it. And it turned out that the very rich in the city would spend obscene amounts of money to reupholster their sofas and their love seats and their chaise longues and their armchairs and their couches. Obscene amounts.
‘And now, Sofia told me, she runs a small company with three employees, but it’s actually a tremendous amount of work and she’s beginning to feel her age, she says, and she’s not sure how long she can keep it all up. Because others are catching on and there’s more and more competition. And so she’s stressed out and the only thing that relaxes her is watching the jellyfish for hours at a time, she says.
‘And Maurice, don’t you see? I finally get it. This is what he meant. This is what it’ll mean to be as interesting to the AI as our pets are to us. It’ll be like Sofia reupholstering sofas for the very wealthy. Maurice, what do you think of that?’
I put down the microphone. I get up off the bed to look out the window down at the patio.
I wave at Maurice.
He barks back.
Photograph © Aaronwil / Adobe Stock