Walking contradiction

I shoved a guy the other day. It wasn’t a push. It was a good, old-fashioned, solid shove, a violent explosion, inner rage pouring out that I didn’t even know was there. It was like putting an empty coffee mug in a microwave and watching in shock as, somehow, water boils over.

He was just standing there. I was exiting the Tube, heading into London to meet some friends. I was carrying a novel in my left hand, and reaching for my mobile with the right. He was directly in front of me. Then, as he reached the last step on the exit out of the station, he just stopped. I don’t know what he was doing. Maybe he was a tourist, confused about where he was going. Maybe he realised he’d left his iron on. Maybe he just decided to pause and drink in a gorgeous day. But he stopped, right in front of me.

Now, people not from London don’t really understand this sometimes, but here, stopping in the middle of the pavement is like someone braking their car in the middle of the motorway. Here, our feet are our cars, and we apply the same rules of the road to the sidewalk. As frustrated as you get when someone cuts you off in traffic, that’s how we feel when someone pauses suddenly to answer a mobile, or makes a snap decision to head toward the Starbucks on the opposite side of the street, or so on. I guess I’d call it Walk Rage.

And this guy just stopped. And I lost it. I pulled my arm across my body to my right side, put my phone back in my pocket, and just waylaid him with my left arm. I had some force behind me too; he almost went barreling into the newsstand set up just beside the station exit. My motion was punctuated with a fierce, involuntary, “OH, FOR FUCK SAKE… WATCH IT!”

He was a smaller Asian man, I was now noticing, probably about 40, with greying hair and a pair of bright blue shorts.

He plunged forward with an audible “Oomph.” He looked back at the source of this strange velocity. His eyes met mine. He did not see a sensitive, island-boy-turned-Londoner, empathetic guy, someone who just tries to get along and go along, an amiable sort always trying to make everyone feel comfortable, the guy cracking jokes at just the right times, the guy who calls everyone “Ma’am” and “Sir” in a slightly joking but still sincere attempt at mock formality, the one who calls his parents three times a week, the one who just wants everything to be OK, just let it all turn out OK, please please.

He saw a snarl and a twisted mouth, spitting, “Idiot! Move!”

He yelled “Arsehole!” I muttered, now somewhat embarrassed, “Yeah, yeah… Fuck… whatever!” before storming on my way.

Moments later, I was feeling really bad about the whole thing. It just wasn’t me. The poor guy certainly didn’t do anything to me (although the stopping-suddenly thing IS quite annoying!) and this is no excuse at all, but… I’ve had a pretty hectic and stressful summer, trying to juggle several tough work projects. And the last couple of weeks have been particularly difficult.

 Now… I’m typically a pretty easy person to get along with, yes, but mostly, I’m a licensed pro at avoiding conflict. If I can sense it coming, I’ll change the subject to something happy, something we can laugh about, smile about, think fondly of. I’m so good at it, typically, that you can’t even notice I’m doing it. Just as soon as they were brought up, unpleasant topics are paved over and smoothly shifted to the next topic, maybe football, or that one movie we saw, or remember that time, when we were in the park, that was great, wasn’t it?

I once went out with this American girl who I thought I might marry, before we split and she married someone else, and never spoke to me again. Even as she was leaving, I didn’t fight. I didn’t scream, or stomp off, or tell her she was a bad person. I tried to be mature, and compassionate, and understanding, and then next thing I knew, she had no real compelling reason to stay, because I’d steadfastly refused to give her one. That’s how far I’m willing to take it. I’ll suck it up if it means avoiding a yelling, nasty tussle. I can take it.

But sometimes the pressure does get to you.  You end up feeling alone, vulnerable, and wiped out at times. That’s when you snap, and fights happen. We’ve all been through them, and I’m becoming worse at avoiding them as I grow older.

One fight with a colleague (I use that term quite loosely – we work in the same place but we certainly don’t work together) was about nothing, really; they usually are. But she was being unreasonable, as usual, and said something that made me feel unappreciated, isolated, awkward, empty… Once she’d left my office, I reacted by pounding my fist into the wall. Then my head. Then I grabbed some papers off my desk and threw them across the room. Then I went for a walk.

Sunday afternoon, I was supposed to write this column, and then meet a friend of mine for lunch, then get some more job work done, run some errands, and maybe even take a walk along the South Bank, one of my favourite ways to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon, which this was.

But I couldn’t get off the sofa. I was out of it, and emotionally spent, and had not an ounce of energy to do anything but just lie. There was some sport on. The US Open. Soapdish, on Comedy Central X, with all the swearing edited out. Some movie with Alec Baldwin and that guy from Gosford Park. I had Chinese delivered. I took a nap. Outside, kids were playing, and people were having brunch, and lying in the sun, and working, and writing, and living, and all the shit I came here to do. For the first time in a while, I simply stayed in, all day, and just watched TV and napped, alone.

I was just so tired. So, so tired.

I do not know what is happening to me. I don’t know if my job is making me hard, or angry, or bitter, or just too exhausted to think. But I do know I don’t feel like myself anymore. I don’t know what I am anymore. I’m maddeningly inconsistent. I don’t know what’s caused it. I don’t know when it happened. And I’m not sure what to do about it.

But I think I kind of miss me. The way I used to be, whenever and whatever that was. Now that I think about it, I might not have been that bad.



Rafat is gone…

My friend Rafat is gone. Like, forever. He’s not dead, thank God, but for all intents and purposes, in my world, he might as well be.

I knew Rafat for several years. He’d moved into a flat near me in Surrey and we often paused to chat when we crossed paths, which was often. When you live across the hall from someone and see them every day, when they’re as much a part of the scenery as everything else, you don’t think of them nearly as often as you should. These people are just simply there, reliable, like the postman who shows up every morning, every day, friendly wave, off we go, best to you.

Rafat and I couldn’t have been more different. He grew up in Libya, which, I learned, is nothing at all like London. Eventually he moved out of the Surrey flat, but still kept in touch, and we’d occasionally meet up in London. A few months ago, when shit had just started to really go down back home, I ran into him at a coffee shop near his workplace; he didn’t say much — just sat there, looking pale as ever. There had been some sort of bombing, or an attack, or something, and his uncle was unaccounted for. He was instant-messaging with family over there, and everyone was in a panic. I said I hoped it all turned out well, then made some lame comment, intended to lighten the moment. I’m not sure if he got the joke. I’m not even sure there was one.

Rafat often struggled with the clash of his upbringing and his life in the UK. On one hand, his parents were devout Muslims who frowned on alcohol or sex or, you know, anything fun. On the other hand, he had a Match.com personal ad and a friend who was constantly trying to persuade him to down tequila shots. Rafat gradually became a part of my circle of friends. He even warmed to a nickname we gave him, “Rartfat,” just because we thought it sounded funny. Which it does.

He came to a party one of my mates hosted once. He just lived down the street, so, unlike everyone else, he had a brief, easy jaunt home. Using this information, I talked him into taking his first swig of hard liquor. To document the occasion, I commandeered my friend Elena’s camera. On three … one … two … let’s go Rafat … and pound! He looked like someone had just stuck a branding iron in his anus. The photo is classic. I don’t know where it is now. I’d love to have it.

He didn’t like beer, so I had him drinking gin and tonics. He was also in charge of the digital camera, and most of the shots of people drunkenly wailing during karaoke were taken by him. He’s not in any of those pictures. Most are, not surprisingly, out of focus anyway. He had a great time that night.

He was here on a work visa, sponsored by his company. This posed a problem. If the business I worked for ever went under, I would just have to go find another job and make sure I could pay my rent. But Rafat, he’d have to go back to Libya. He had been in the UK too long; he was anti-Ghaddafi and wanted him gone, but still didn’t seem very hopeful for Libya’s future under any new regime, so he had little desire to go back there. He knew what it could be like.

Bad news came in. His company was having money troubles. Rafat started looking pale again. He had been dating this girl — not a nice girl, if you ask me. He brought up the notion of possibly getting married so he could stay in the country, in case anything went down. Rafat was a little too public with this notion, in my opinion; soon everyone at his workplace knew about it. I told him to shush a little; he asked me to be the best man, if it went down. He liked this girl anyway; he could make it mutually beneficial.

A turn for the worse where he worked. A few people left their jobs. Staff dwindled. People suddenly found themselves doing the jobs of two or three, and it was stressful and tiring and, occasionally, demeaning. Rafat had a falling-out with the girl, and soon it became evident that not only would they not be marrying, they wouldn’t be hanging out much at all. He had a run-in with his roommate that made his home a place he tried to avoid whenever possible. The walls started closing in.

Rafat stopped talking much. I would ask him how he was doing, how things were at work and back home, and he’d put his head down and shake it, slowly, and say, “Not good, man, not good.” He would go into no more detail. The spiral had begun.

Then his company’s business started to pick up. I took this as good news for Rafat. But the die was already cast with him. He was already lost. He would go to work later and later, and leave later and later. He grew haggard and, when he spoke at all, complained of an inability to sleep. I wish I could have been there more for him. But I had my own stuff going on. We always have our own stuff going on. There is only so much that we can do.

It happened one Friday – September 30 to be exact. According to one of his colleagues, a mutual friend, they were all sitting around, doing their work. Rafat hadn’t spoken all morning. Then he stood up, walked into the boss’ office, and about 10 minutes later, they left in the lift. Our friend received a call about an hour later from the boss, saying Rafat wouldn’t be back in today, could you pick up his work? He said fine, and asked if everything was OK. His boss, hardly one of his better out-of-work pals, sighed and said, “We’ll see. I hope so.”

I left three messages for Rafat over the weekend, none of which were returned until a week later. By then, his office had already made up its own rumours. He told me he was medicated, so bear with him. He then said he was leaving for Libya in a week. I did not press him for details; the battles he was fighting clearly were ongoing.

The night before he left, I dropped by his London flat. We talked for an hour. Then I had to go home and he had lots to do before he hopped on that plane.

“Thank you, David. You have been a good friend.” I shook his hand, and shit, why not, hugged him. “You take care of yourself, Rafat. You’ll be missed. You be safe.”

He said thanks. There was nothing more to be said, really. His flight left the next day. A week later came the news of Ghaddafi’s death and Libya’s “liberation”.  I watched the news clips of London Libyans celebrating and thought of Rafat. He’s gone, and chances are I’ll never see him again, but hey, what do you do? People come, people go, supporting characters, popping up in the side of the frame, maybe making an impact, maybe not. For his sake, I hope things turn out well in Libya. I do wish him the very best.

Man, I’ve got to find that picture!

Forget work. Get a life!

I don’t like to talk too much about my job. It’s not that it’s a bad job, one of those soul-crushing, life-extinguishing corporate slogs bathed in dead light and empty pallor. But neither is it particularly fascinating or compelling. It pays the bills, but it doesn’t exactly have me jumping out of bed full of piss and vigour, ready to conquer the world, to do some Great Work, let’s go! I feel I’m getting too old to be expecting too much of that, though. It doesn’t make me so tired that I can’t concentrate on anything else when I’m away from work, allowing me to indulge in any and all extracurricular activities without worrying whether or not I’ll be able to finish that report by Friday. It’s a job, and that’s that. I do it, and I go home.

Last week, I met up with a few old friends at Rockwells, a great rooftop terrace bar in central London with stunning views over Trafalgar Square. We met a friend of a friend, a mid-30s haggard woman who looked like she stopped caring all that much about life six or seven years ago. She was wearing a bland, dreary “professional” outfit, one of those drab white shirts with a big collar and grey trousers that, despite a baggy nature, probably should have been abandoned about 15 pounds ago.

I grabbed a drink and was introduced to her. Not all that compelled, I nevertheless tossed out the obligatory so-how-are-you. I don’t even think she paused to ask my name because she was off and running. “Oh, what a day at work I had! You know how some people, no matter how well you explain things to them, still don’t get it? Well, there was this woman, and I tell you, I don’t understand some people. I told her I needed the file by 3 p.m. and she told me she’d have it, but then she was avoiding my calls, and I dunno, our office is really formal, but I feel like people just don’t pay attention, because there’s this one woman in accounts, and I don’t know what her problem is, because she can’t seem to figure out her e-mail, so this jpeg I needed didn’t arrive until 4 p.m., which is just way too late for anyone to be able to do anything with anything. You know what I mean?”

I was surprised she hadn’t noticed that, halfway through her absorbing dissertation, I set fire to myself and leapt off the roof. And still, I could hear her going on about Sue in HR and Dawn from the office down the corridor, all the way down. To be honest, I think she was waiting for me when I hit the pavement, talking about how people just don’t really respect their colleagues these days, you know you know you know?

That day, I had written a business case for a project I’m trying to get underway this summer, had two meetings with senior management, emailed several potential suppliers about the proposed project, sat in on another department’s meeting, and tried my best to keep on top of all the  other usual daily stuff. Does that strike you as anything even slightly noteworthy? I mean, it doesn’t strike me as noteworthy, and I work there. With occasional exceptions, our jobs are pretty much the most boring things we do. My job is what allows me to do fun, challenging activities outside of work; to expect the job itself to provide them is actually quite presumptuous. And even if it did, they’d only be of interest to me. I certainly wouldn’t want to force anyone else to put up with it.

My dad had the right idea about work. He had one priority: raising a family and providing for them. Whatever he did during the day to make that happen was beside the point. Sure, he took pride in his work, and he was very good at it, but I don’t remember him going on and on at dinner about this person’s constant screw-ups (although he did occasionally have some pretty hilarious stories), or cumbersome paperwork, or some new equipment they’d brought in. What mattered was us – Mum, and our education, and fun, and why our rooms were a mess. There is your job, and there is life, and they needn’t mix.

But some people just can’t stop. What amazes me sometimes is how people who claim to hate their job can’t stop talking about it. In fact, the amount they seem to despise their work seems to be directly proportional to how much they seem to insist the rest of the world cares. One would think that if someone were miserable at her job, it would be all the more reason to shut it out of her mind when she goes home. It never works out that way.

Your true friends consider what you do for a living so little in their assessment of you as a human being. It’s not like my friends liked me more when I was a full-time journalist and less when I moved into IT. With old friends of mine, the ones who live in different countries and who I talk to six, seven times a year, any conversations about our jobs are cursory. What’s important is that we have one, so we can live our lives.

My job provides me with income, a private office, Web access, an iPhone and constant access to online music when I’m at my desk. I just summed it up. Someday, I’ll have a job that provides me with more income. Maybe someday, I’ll get to a point where I won’t have to work at all. Until then, though, I’ll wake up, shower, walk to work, go home at five, and shut up about it. It is amazing how earth-shattering a concept this is to many!