Posted by Irresponsibility
“I worked hard”, he says, smiling over a pint of Ginger Pale Ale, “Now I can do what I want: photography, writing, my art.”
Wiry white hairs poke above the stretchy black cotton neck of Roy’s Oakshire Brewing Company tee-shirt, where his rectangular black-framed glasses drag it down. Weather lines curve around his neck. His thinning white hair parts to show a large, dark mole in the centre of his scalp; his front teeth protrude slightly. He moves with the confidence of a man who has paid his dues. A worker worthy of his reward.
We’re standing on opposite sides of a bar. I’m killing time till the end of my waitressing shift, he’s enjoying a mid-afternoon drink. Lining the walls and creeping up onto the ceiling are dozens of lively candid portraits of the restaurant’s staff — all Roy’s handiwork. He is a gifted photographer, a writer, a forest activist, a timber broker. He flits between Eugene, Costa Rica, Hawaii and whatever stretches of wilderness take his fancy. He is in all respects a free man. This, Roy explains, is the result of decades of doing what had to be done. “I own houses in this town. Own outright,” he tells me, by way of explaining what permits his peripatetic lifestyle.
I rock on the mashed-down heels of my Saucony trainers; breathe air conditioning, the smell of old carpet and fresh fries. Respect him? Absolutely. Roy is a good man. What I cannot get to grips with is the notion that houses must come before freedom. It suggests a resignation to the status quo that doesn’t gel with Roy’s lively independence. Fear casts a shadow like a raincloud. Must I, too, buy freedom? My apron sags beneath ketchup stains and a black vinyl server’s book with crumpled ones, fives and tens and a couple of folded-over twenties. I can’t afford it.
Roy is in his 60s. That makes, what, forty years of labour? A life unspooled like ribbon. We are promised nothing, not even today. Leaning across cheap wood of the bar I catch my fingers twining in supplication; please, let there be another way. “It’s a bad system”, I say. “You should be angry”. Instead we’re good Puritans. We obey the admonition to: “lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matthew 6:19). Here we are, waiting on our heavenly reward. Pissing away the present to appease an unpromised future.
Walking home between cloud spit and sunbeams it dogs me. Who says anyone will make it to 60? There you are, 30, 40, 50, working hard, toeing the line, doing your duty, waiting for the day you can be free.
But before it comes your heart gives out; you get run over by the proverbial bus. Worse, your body survives. After decades of submission, of doing what you don’t want to do and being who you are not, you can finally afford to be yourself – but no longer know who that is. Is there a greater tragedy? To follow the rules, play politics, do the judicious thing and, at the end of it, discover you have learned to act your part so perfectly the part is all that’s left. No soul, no self, no separation. You are become what you pretended to be.
He is one of the strong, fortunate few, Roy. He paid his debt to society. Unlike most, he came out still knowing who he is, and what he wants. His smile heartens me but anger bubbles beneath my skin. Slaves never get anywhere trying to buy freedom. We must revolt.