In late 1993, the videogame Doom is released. It’s a sensation. Naturally I’m obsessed with it, just like most game-playing guys my age are. But I’m also obsessed with the game from a technological standpoint. This game has completely revolutionized my thinking regarding what is possible on modern computers. The game has texture mapped walls, light and dark areas, and elevation changes. This is such a monumental leap ahead of what existing games can do that it’s staggering. I look at the programs I’ve written so far and I feel sort of ashamed. Somewhere out there, this is happening. People are inventing this stuff without me. I need to buckle down. I need to learn faster. Or learn more. Or something different. At the rate I’m going, I’m never going to catch up.
It’s not that I want to make videogames (although that sounds like it would be fun) it’s that I want to understand. I want to know how it works. I want to see what else these machines can do.
I learn everything I can about the engine that drives this game. Eventually I get my hands on the level editor and begin making my own maps. This process will pay off for me later in a big way.
Working Taco Bell is murder today. The weather is gorgeous, a new outlet has opened in the plaza, and we are woefully, humiliatingly understaffed. I’m taking a few orders at a time at the front register, then dashing to the back to wash my hands and help prepare tacos, then assembling the orders, and then running back to the register to take more orders. This is horribly inefficient and exhausting, but it’s better than standing in front of the customers drumming my fingers while order times creep towards half an hour.
I stammer halfway through my robotic greeting as I look up at the next customer. It’s Neighbor John! I haven’t seen him since I was still a kid. He’s looking much the same as ever. Perhaps his massive beard is a bit more grey, and perhaps the lines on his face are a little easier to see, but he’s still the same gentle and polite man I remember from my childhood.
I wince as I realize he hasn’t been here before. This is not how I’d like to introduce him to the restaurant. I’d like to treat him like royalty. Barring that, I’d like to not make him wait an egregiously long time for a simple order. I’m so ashamed to work here. Not because it’s fast food, but because it’s inept fast food.
When we really slight a customer, I tend to give them extra food. You’re supposed to ring it up so there’s a record of you giving away free food, but that process takes a full minute. If you’re trying to pacify a customer who is enraged because of how long they had to wait, then your apology should not begin by making the problem worse for them and everyone else in line. So, I never ring up any of my giveaways unless I happen to remember them hours later, when the onslaught is over. Taco Bell will be mad at us for wasting food, but if they don’t care about these customers enough to staff the place then I don’t care about their missing food. Following this habit of food-based apologies, I throw an extra taco into Neighbor John’s order when it’s finally complete.
Later I learn that he came into the store the following day and tried to pay for the extra taco. I am mortified that my clumsy apology caused him more inconvenience. He lives on the opposite side of town from the store, and he had no other business in the area that day. He drove all that distance simply to pay for a sixty-nine cent taco. (Which the cashier couldn’t accept.) His honesty shames me.
The idea that this kind, soft-spoken, rigorously honest man was also a racist was such a mind-blowing concept that I was stunned and perplexed for days afterward. This man had been a surrogate father to me, as well as a personal hero. How was such a thing even possible? In the movies, racists are usually howling, slovenly, uneducated morons. They’re animals that we can hate without guilt and cheer when they get their comeuppance in the end. They’re never thoughtful teachers and polite neighbors.
Of course, the most bloodthirsty and destructive racists of the last hundred years were not crazed toothless hillbillies. In their day, the Nazis were in the running for the most technologically advanced society in human history. Literate, cultured, and pragmatic, their horrifying ideas were realized with ruthless efficiency. I’m sure some Nazis were delightful and stimulating company, as long as you were of the right lineage.
Perhaps a bit late, but I’d learned that the world is not neatly divided into good guys and bad guys. The struggle for harmony and understanding is not against bad people, but bad ideas. (This is not to suggest that there aren’t also bad people. But bad people kill individuals. Bad ideas kill in the millions.)
I don’t know how his racism worked, and there isn’t anyone left to ask. Was he a “everyone should keep to their own kind in marriage” sort? Or would he refuse to patronize a business run by the “wrong” sort of people? I have no idea.
I’m extremely grateful that Neighbor John never shared any of these ideas with me. During all of those talks about history and philosophy, it never crept into conversation? Even once? Given how young I was, hungry I was to learn, and how much I admired him, I could easily have soaked up that poison.
I awaken to a thumping on the basement stairs. I grit my teeth. Here it comes.
“Shamus! You know it’s almost ten o’clock!” Mom’s voice reaches me from the top of the basement steps.
I shout back, exasperated, “Yeah mom. I worked until four last night!” I’ve been asleep for less than four hours, and I suspect she knows this.
“It’s a beautiful day out today!” she tells me.
I’m exhausted, but I’m also too angry to sleep now, so I drag myself out of bed. Now I’m going to spend the rest of the day brooding, tired, and surly. Once I get upstairs, she begins needling me to go to the job center and look for work.
My rut has gotten a little deeper now that I’m on night shift at Taco Bell. Like most people, I usually can’t go to sleep the moment I get home from work. I stay up for a while longer and fall asleep just as the sun rises. I wake up in the late afternoon. It’s almost impossible to look for work while keeping these hours, and Mom is trying to shatter my complacency and get my life moving again. This is a regular exchange between us, and for a while it puts a strain on our relationship.
The problem is that I’ve gotten comfortable in this rut. My job brings in just enough money to keep my car rolling and feed my computer upgrades. It leaves me with enough time to do the computer stuff that strikes my fancy. It’s been easy over the last year to just keep coding at home and punching the clock at Taco Bell. This isn’t my dream, but it’s a tolerable substitute.
But fine. Let’s go to the job center today and see what I can find.
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