Collapsing Into The Whatever.

How in the hell did this happen?

The placement exam, eighty multiple choice, covering everything I knew nothing about.
In it being so wide open on material, I could never make a decision.
Erasing answers, frantically bubbling in other options.
Ticking away at the exam, I tried my hardest to prove that I wasn’t an idiot.
And it worked, unfortunately.
Too well.

And now, out of pure chance, I was suffering this advanced High School English class.
Junior year. College prep.
This wasn’t what I wanted.

Instead, I wished to be left alone to do busy work.
To have a disconnected, laid back teacher.
To chat with my friends. Maybe chat with some girls.
Now, for an hour each day, I sat in the dead center of class, enveloped by complete boredom.
That’s what I got for trying.

To add insult to injury, Mrs. Martin, our instructor, was simply miserable.
Wafer thin with enormous eyes, she never said hello.
Never addressed the class with any sense of cordiality.
I never once saw her smile.

But her condescension was what grabbed at me the most.
Her sligh comments followed by a sarcastic, blank stare.
This was a room full of forty students where, because of her, none of us gave a shit about literature.

What I remembered most clearly was our subjection to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter.’
I got the historical symbolism: stuffy, superstitious puritans in early America.
And the questioning of morals: mental abuse suffered from the obstruction of a strict status quo.
But as far as pure narrative, there couldn’t have been a more unbearable read.
Two Hundred pages of human cruelty, of lost love, of guilt ridden adultery.
All, guided by a hateful instructor who looked like a broom stick with glued on googly eyes.

Yes, I hated school. And I didn’t hide it.
But now, no thanks to Mrs. Martin, I hated literature the most.
Jackson Browne’s ‘Running On Empty’ echoed through the room.
Years later in college, this was Classic Literature for me.
Within studying Greek myths, applying thousand year old ethical concepts to our day and age, we sat back, with lights off, and listened to Browne’s ode.
His words painted a life on the road. For no reason other than pure experience.
It was a break from the concrete.
In it, I felt something new, a sense of collapsing into the whatever.
And it felt good.

Our Professor made reading palatable.
And if it got too dense, we’d take a break and chat real life.

He made literature subjective, each word an ethereal experience.
It was a philosophy of the personal.
Campfire talk as a legitimate, academic movement.
Feeling at home in this new process of learning, I was sold.

Giving it little thought, acting solely on emotions, I decided to alter my major.
Though, on spilling the news to my advisor, his reaction lacked the support I was hoping for.
Instead of encouragement, I got a warning, swaying me from literature’s impracticality.
He offered a reality to it all: I could use the degree to teach.
Or even more far fetched, have it under my belt as a springboard for law school.
But in neither did I have the confidence nor the mental capacity to pursue.

This was the first real life decision I’d made on my own.
And according to my mentor, I was off to a bad start.
Obtaining a B.A. was an expensive endeavor.
To offset the twenty year student loan, I landed a part time job at a local donut shop.
Considering the high turnover rate, I was hired on the spot.

I worked hard, not afraid of the mundane work, diving into what others avoided like the plague: scrubbing the deep fryer’s hood, mopping the sugar caked floors, and cleaning the stink filled bathrooms.

Persistent industriousness paid off.
And within a month, I progressed from janitor, to clerk, to assistant donut maker. Because of my reliability, I’d often get stuck in eighteen hour shifts, covering for those employees who would just not show up.
I’d work late into the night. Perfect for me, with plenty of silence to dive into the modern novel, of which I had twenty or so assigned each semester.
I plunged into D.H. Lawrence, Saul Bellow, John Updike. Missing much of the literary kernels relevant to class, I grasped reading for entertainment instead.
And what I found was that the cast of donut making management became parallel to what I was mentally consuming.
Pure human drama.
Surrounded by it, I became a witness, lucky on the sidelines, to the convoluted lives of my coworkers.

Dean would come it at 5pm, have coffee with his mistress and her husband.
The two men were biker buddies, with their washed out, ancient tattoos, having been baked in the sun for eons. Both had long hair pulled back into pony tails. The movie Easy Rider could have been the story of their lives.

By 6:30, Dean would bring in an ex-worker. Mike was his name, I found out that he was banned from the premises for having sex in the walk in freezer.
Mike, as Dean’s subcontractor, made the donuts. This allowed Dean to power away on his Harley to enjoy the night–every night–at one of Tampa’s many strip clubs.

By 5am, after I dressed the donuts to completion, I’d hear Dean’s Harley, rumbling closer in the distance.
On my way out the door, Dean would meet me at the time clock. We’d punch cards together, say our goodbyes and I’d leave amazed at how he’d worked so hard to work so little.

Sara and Liz were hopeless romantics. I’d get them on separate days as managers.
Both of them much older than me, they’d tend to bring a different weirdo to visit each weekend.
Liz liked Goth. She liked gaming.
Her boyfriends, metal heads dressed in leather with bad teeth.
Sara, on the other hand, was a mother, hoping to find Mr. Right in a sea of computer geeks. Before she quit she landed an older man, a pushover obsessed with Amateur Radio.
He’d pull up in his station wagon, a giant antenna on the roof, and sit in the parking lot conversing with truckers.
To know that Sara found love in a man obsessed with logistics was, in a sense, humbling.

Ted was another. His mustache so thick and unkept it would sop up his coffee. His facial hair was naturally brown, but his mustache always stained soot black.
We’d often work late nights together.
A donut Renaissance Man, he went from unclogging the sink, to light electrical work, to filling in on baking: the hundreds of donuts belted out of the fryer each night.
Ted didn’t get along with many people, he often sulked around the shop buried in his handy work.

He and I handled everything on Saturday nights. But, to my benefit, late on those shifts, I could count on his mood swing.
Last call would avail a lone ringing of the drive through bell.
Ted’s frown would upturn, buried within his perpetual grimace.
He would quickly walk over to the donut shelf, select the most well groomed raised donuts. The one’s with the most chocolate icing, the best, most colorful sprinkle assortment.
He’d then pour two dainty cups of black coffee. One cream. One sugar in each.
On his opening of the drive through window, I’d hear two women cat call, drunk from utter debauchery. They’d both lift their shirts, exposing both sets of their giant tits.
Unlocking the key to Ted’s happiness, he’d reach halfway out the window to give them their prize.
On their driving away, Ted would slowly shut the window, turning towards me he’d take a deep breath.
‘Damn,’ he’d say.
Sparing words, yes, but powerful in their simplicity.
His utterance, summing up a brief, inconsequential event that seemed to make his life worth it all.
Ayn Rand’s first novella, Anthem, was the only book I’ve ever read in one sitting.
I’d heard her name tossed around the literary canon and wondered why she had never been taught to us.
One night, late, having caught up on my donut duties, I dove into the narrative.
Between minimal customers on a deathly slow night, I barrelled through page after page.
Like Orwell’s 1984, Anthem was a dystopian narrative warning against the ideas of Collectivism. And with it, the impending doom of individuality.
Anthem, like the rest of Rand’s hits, alluded to her philosophy of a cut throat social and economic selfishness.***
I enjoyed it, which made me hate it.
I wanted so badly to stop, to toss it into the garbage, but I was hooked in, as if addicted to a substance.
On finishing, I closed the final, shellacked page, and discovered that there, on the jacket of the book was Rand’s face.
With her short cropped hair, her big, radiant eyes, it was as if I communed, years in the future, with that old high school hag, Mrs. Martin.
Literature, something I was finally growing to love, shat on, once again, by yet another literary heretic.
The six hours it took me, between customers, to finish the book, left my conscience burgled.
I felt violated.
Weeks later, I was put back on morning shift due to the complete unreliability of other employees.
I’d tack in a shift before class, those rush hours where customers were more apt to spare their change as a tip. I needed any financial help that I could get.

The morning rush was also the most filthy.
With coffee stains on my pink and purple work shirt, donut icing like stalactites hanging from the brim of my hat, I’d keep my head down, rushing from bean grinder, to bagel case, to the final deliverance of a handful of goods through the drive through window.

On sliding it open, I’d finally raise my head to greet the customer.
This time, sitting below in her car, was Mrs. Martin.
I stood speechless, feeling a mix of disdain and fear.
Slowly handing her the order, buying time to formulate the beginnings of a conversation,
I subconsciously hoped for closure.

‘You know I had you as a teacher?’
Handing me her cash, I punched the register keys and opened the drawer to give her change.
I returned quarters usually, the coinage most commonly given back as a tip.
‘I’m actually studying English now,’ I said, throwing her a bone, making her feel as if she played a hand in my decision.
Taking all her change, she stared up at me.
‘Excuse me?’ she questioned.
To her, I was a stranger.
A bum working at a donut shop.

‘Good for you,’ she said, finally.
But was this her superficial praise out of recognizing me?
Or maybe, more like it, our brief conversation was just a small-talking speed bump, obstructing her drive back to the classroom.

‘Hmmm,’ she said, ‘Well at least you’re inside in the air conditioning.’
Sealing our conversation with an insult, crushing me in her wake, she drove off.
Standing alone in the drive through cubicle my blood pressure rose. Becoming light headed, I could feel my heart pounding from being so pissed off.

I watched Mrs. Martin’s car trail off out of the parking lot.
She was heading, I’m sure, back to my old high school, to convince another year’s worth of innocent and impressionable students just how badly English Literature could absolutely suck.

***Ayn Rand’s novels and personal philosophies became a foundation for both Anton Levey’s Church of Satan and, most recently, the Tea Party Movement.

Matt Coplon

Work by day. Ride by evening. Write by night.