THE NEXT DAY WAS STRANGE. I didn’t have a job to get up early to go to. I could sleep in and consume the day at my own pace. This newfound freedom would allow me to cultivate the many non-professional interests I had. I had always been a deep thinking philosophical person who liked to contemplate all those cerebral dilemmas and mysteries that most of the populace so easily ignored while they instead preoccupied themselves with consumerism and mindless self-indulgence. I was different. It was around this time that I had started getting into the English-American philosopher Alan Watts. He was one of the most high profile propagators to Western audiences of Zen Buddhism back in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Although I had never been a Buddhist myself, some of his teachings and interpretations of Zen resonated with me. I wasn’t necessarily a "spiritual seeker," per se—but more of a seeker and lover of wisdom and knowledge in the truest philosophical sense. Wisdom was my preferred currency. I had become obsessed with philosophy slowly over the past decade ever since I took my first introduction to philosophy course in college. And I now had all the time in the world to cognitively wrestle with these things and to seek answers to the questions raging in my head.
Sitting around my apartment that afternoon I peered out my window to the world outside. It was a Tuesday and I’d normally be at work. I now had time to do things during the day. There is a funny irony about life when it comes to work. Having a job provides you money, but little time to enjoy it; not having a job provides you all the time in the world, but no money to enjoy it. But money wasn’t a concern of mine. What was a concern of mine was being able to enjoy this newfound freedom that I had. I decided to call up Pete Hernandez, one of my best friends since high school who now worked as a waiter and who had Tuesdays off. He was surprised to get a call from me at this time and day because I was always working. I told him over the phone about getting fired and asked he if wanted to meet for some drinks. He agreed to meet me down by a local pub we sometimes used on Sundays to catch up on and debate philosophy. So I got dressed and made the ten minute walk over there in the warm afternoon sun. I had on my shades and my newsboy hat because I hadn’t done my hair or showered. There was no reason to now. Without a job there was no reason to look professional. It had dawned on me that I now had the freedom to look casual. I could now let my hair and beard grow out as long as I wanted, one of the many things my arduous job prevented me from doing in the name of “professionality.”
When I arrived at the pub Pete was already there seated at the bar with his back to me, playing with his iPhone in his right hand and clutching his Guinness in the other. I came up behind him.
“What's up man? I never get to see you on Tuesdays.”
“Hey!” he said as we palmed. He looked me over with amusement and said, “So, you got fired.”
“Yup," I nodded in affirmation. "It’s a new beginning.”
“So what are you going to do about this?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Seriously, you know and I know that I need a fucking vacation—badly. I’m just gonna take it easy next couple of weeks, maybe even the next few months. Who knows?”
“Well I advise you start looking for work soon,” he said. “I've had a few episodes of unemployment and it can be tough. You never know how long it might take. Always play it safe.”
Pete was always such a hard working man. Originally from Mexico, he had came to the US at the age of ten. He dropped out of high school to work not long after I met him in the 11th grade and had been working pretty much ever since then. He was a waiter and soon to be restaurant manager and had mastered the fine art of upscale French, Spanish, and Italian drinking and dining. He was by all accounts a foodie and connoisseur, sophisticated and cosmopolitan in his ways, and very unstereotypically Mexican.
We had become good friends because of our shared interest in philosophy, history, and religion. We were both atheists despite our Catholic upbringings (or perhaps because of it), although his was a lot more serious than mine. Mine was more of a sort of cultural Catholicism. My family celebrated Easter and Christmas but I was never really forced to go to church. Pete on the other hand came from a devout Catholic family, very typically Mexican, and was forced to go to Catholic school until age ten when he came to the US. We had arrived at atheism in much the same way independently of one another: we thought too much, asked too many tough questions, and simply couldn’t accept the doctrine on faith. We could easily see how the Bible was built on hundreds of years of fables, lies, and misapprehensions, told over the generations before finally being put into print. We agreed with one another that the Bible was no more a trustworthy source of information than the Koran or the Book of Mormon was, and anyone who based their worldview off of its teachings was ignorant and delusional. It’s always good to have friends that you’re on the same page with.
A few years prior I had turned Pete on to author and journalist Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens’s polemic philosophy on religion had made us into antitheists. An atheist is simply a person who doesn’t believe in any gods, but that alone says nothing about how they feel about religion or the belief in God, which is theism. They might be sympathetic to religious belief and practice while not being a believer themselves. That's where the distinction became important. An antitheist is someone who is not only an atheist, they go a step further and say that they're opposed to belief in God and religion. Although Pete and I were on the same page about God and religion, politics and philosophy were another story. There, we sometimes had heated but friendly disagreements.
I ordered a Stella from the English bartender and promptly took a sip once it was served. Drinking beer on a Tuesday afternoon. It had been some time since I did this.
“You know I’m actually glad that they fired me,” I said. "In a way it was perfect timing. I mean think about it. It’s the middle of the summer, the weather's beautiful outside, and now I’m going to get to do all the things I couldn’t do before. Now I have my life back!” I took my second sip of beer. “You have no idea how fucking stressful my job was. It was sucking the life right out of me. I was working fifty to sixty hours a week. I’d get up at about seven-thirty AM, make the hour and fifteen minute commute to work in New Jersey, work under nonstop stress in front of the computer all day handling customer’s technical issues, and then if I was lucky, I’d leave work around seven or eight — but, sometimes I wouldn’t get out of the office until about nine, sometimes ten. Then it was another hour and fifteen minute commute home and I’d sometimes get home at eleven at night if I had a long day—just in time to eat dinner and basically pass out right after that. Then I’d have to get up the next day to do it all over again. On top of all that, I’d have to work a weekend shift about once every 6 weeks. I’d stop and think where’d my life go? My life was literally disappearing before my eyes.” Pausing for a moment in frustration, I continued, "It’s so fucked up that to make a living nowadays you have give your life away.”
Talking a big sip of his beer and nearly finishing it, Pete responded, “Dude, believe me I know what it’s like to work hard. I work in a fucking restaurant. Sometimes I do double shifts that involve standing on my feet for almost 14 hours. During the lunch and dinner rushes I'm busy almost all the time. I work under a lot of stress, and because I'm a waiter I have to provide service with a smile. Plus I have to deal with all the internal drama with my manager and coworkers. On top of that I’ve pretty much been working full time since I was 16 years old. That’s a lot longer than you.”
It was true. I didn’t really start working full time until I was already in my early twenties. Pete had been working full time since he was 16. If anyone could understand my plight, it was Pete.
“Life is a compromise,” Pete continued. “You’re either going to have all the free time in the world but no money to enjoy it, or you’re going to work hard and have money, but have little free time to enjoy it. Such is life.”
“Uhh fuck man,” I sighed, putting my head down into my beer. “You’re right. It’s the new normal. If you want to make it in this day and age and you don’t have rich parents, you’re going to have to submit yourself to what basically amounts to industrial slavery. Uhh!! It’s enough to make you an alcoholic.”
“Tell me about it,” Pete said, downing the last gulp of his beer. He was a heavy drinker who drank pretty much everyday. No doubt a large part of that was due to his profession working around alcohol all day. Raising his hand he declared to the bartender, “I’ll take another Guinness.”
“Coming right up,” the bartender said.
I looked down at my mostly full beer. “What I plan on doing with my newfound freedom is to use it.” I said. “I'm going to do all the things that I didn't have time to do because of my job. I'm going to explore life. I'm going to try to actually enjoy it. I'm not going to worry about money, or finding work, or anything like that. I'm just going to be.”
“You're going to be one with nature?” he joked.
“In a sense, yes. I'm going to go on an inner journey. Not quite a spiritual journey, but a philosophical journey. I am going to spend my time seeking knowledge and wisdom.”
“About what?” Pete asked.
“I'm not completely sure. You know how we come here on the weekends and drink and our conversations often evolve into philosophical disquisitions on ethics, and science, sex and chicks, and the fucking meaning of life and shit?”
Slowly nodding his head in affirmation Pete said, “Yes.”
“Well, that's what I'm going to seek wisdom on. Working twelve hours a day in a cubicle was keeping me from doing this, and now that I'm unemployed, this is what I'm going to do. This is the plan.”
“The meaning of life? Seriously?”
“We're atheists. There is no meaning of life.”
“A-ha! That is an assumption that I'm going to investigate. Why should meaning in life require a God to give it to you? Maybe atheism can provide a meaning of life. I've been getting into this guy named Alan Watts who was a Buddhist philosopher and he has this interesting idea of this kind of in-between of atheism and theism. It's this idea he calls the organic model of the universe. He contrasts it with what he calls the ceramic model and the fully automatic model. The ceramic model is the concept of the universe under theism. It's the idea of the universe that's made, like the way a carpenter makes a table or a chair. It's the "designed" universe. The fully automatic model is the concept of a fully natural universe that exists without any creator and that evolves according to natural laws. It's the atheist's view of how things are. With the organic model on the other hand the universe is like a symphony. It grows like an organism, like a piece of music.”
“That sound a little, um, pantheistic.”
“It does. But it might all just be a metaphor for something larger. A larger conceptualization of the universe. And in it, there might be some hidden meaning—and this I want to explore.”
This elicited a quintessentially philosophical pondering up at the sky with a hand-on-the-chin gesture from Pete. In the excitement I felt that I might have said something brilliant and epiphany-inducing in him.
“Plus I really just want to explore existence in world where we spend our lives depressed from the jobs we hate that we can't afford to quit. There's got to be something better than a life sentence of that,” I added.
I grabbed my beer and took a heavy swig. A moment of silence had passed as Pete remained in his contemplative state. Then suddenly he sprung back.
“Hey you know what we gotta do?” he shouted while hitting my arm. “We gotta go camping!”
“I know. I’ve been thinking about it.”
“We gotta get more people this time. I think I can get four or five people, it will be great. I want to see if I can get ‘shrooms. Oh man, if I can get ‘shrooms, we’re gonna have a fucking awesome time.”
I agreed with excitement. “All we need is good weather man,” I said “because now, I got all the time in the world. I’m free as a bird baby.”
“Let's do it within two weeks. No later than that.”
Camping was an annual tradition for us. Every summer we’d go upstate to Harriman park, about forty miles north of the city. There was a scene near the beginning of On the Road where Kerouac's character gets stranded in the rain in the roundabout just west of the Bear Mountain Bridge. We had passed through that very same roundabout the year before on our way over the bridge to climb Anthony's Nose. It was always interesting seeing a real life location in one of your favorite books. When we camped we’d get our tents out and make a fire and sleep out in the woods. Most years it was the only time I ever got out of the city, and so I always looked forward to it.
“Call your people to see if you can find some ‘shrooms because they’re not always easy to get,” I said in a serious business-like tone. “And I'll try to look myself.”
“I’ll make some phone calls.”