Tuesday
Jul072015

Click, Tally, Reset

Michael Keenan Gutierrez


Here is your clipboard and here is your pen.

Here is your tally counter and here is your map.

Do you have a watch?

No, how about a cell phone?

No, well, borrow a watch.

The next day, at 9am, I sat myself on a bench on Massachusetts Avenue, just outside of Porter Square in Cambridge and started my shift, clipboard propped on my lap, manual hand tally counter in my palm. It felt like a steel stopwatch. A woman walked by, high heels, southbound towards Harvard. I clicked the counter, 1. A man walked by, Brooks Brothers suit, two hundred dollar loafers. I clicked the counter, 2. A co-ed walked by, MIT sweatshirt, beanie. I clicked the counter, 3. Every fifteen minutes, I looked at the tally, wrote it on the clipboard, and then reset the counter. Click, tally, reset. Until 5pm. Five days a week. Nine bucks an hour.

It was the best money I’d made in months.

I’d arrived in Boston four months earlier, fresh out of UCLA, some writing clips from LA Weekly in my portfolio, and a conviction that I’d have full-time journalism gig before the first snowfall. This did not happen. I got a try-out at the old Boston Phoenix, and wrote perhaps the most boring article in the history of the paper, one on foreign language education in public schools that mercifully never made it off the feature editor’s desk. I called once to ask how she liked it, but it went straight to voice mail. Soon after, I was hired part-time as a researcher for a mediocre mystery novelist. He wanted dirt on Microsoft, on the Silicon Valley industry. It would be his great conspiratorial work, prescient and timely about the boom and bust nature of the computer industry. About a week in, when I confessed that all I had done was read a book about Bill Gates, he knew I was not his man. That’s when I really went to work: two weeks waiting tables at a jazz club; another two weeks frothing milk at a coffee shop for minimum wage; one day at Harvard Bookstore, also for minimum wage; a couple days of data entry for PR firm; a day or two bar-backing at a Tex-Mex restaurant that wanted me to shave my goatee. And when none of that worked out, when I’d been fired or I had walked off the job for some reason or another that I can’t remember almost fifteen years later, I found myself counting people, knowing I had just two weeks to make rent.

The temp agency had called me at seven in the morning, asking me to come in. It was strange. Usually, they just gave me an address where I’d show up, sit at a front desk typing letters, answering phones, and fetching coffee. But this time they wanted a meeting. I had a couple of hundred dollars in my checking account and nowhere to be that day. Wearing the only suit I owned, I listened as the agent described the position: you will count people from a bench, every day, and then give us the totals at the end of the week, handing over the chart at 5:30 pm on Friday, no earlier, no later. Sure, I said. I asked if they wanted me to add it all up at the end of the day, to do the arithmetic for them? No, I didn’t need to do any math. They didn’t trust me with addition.

So I sat, counting. No, that’s not right: I sat, clicking.

At first, I wore khakis and a shirt with a collar and buttons. Professional. But it was Boston in January, when the liquor store lines run out the door and even the squirrels can’t walk on the sidewalk without slipping on ice. I put on long underwear, thermal socks, a stocking cap, gloves, and a pea coat. I rubbed my hands together, stood up and stomped. I’d head over to a payphone, use my calling card, and dial my girlfriend down in New York. Sometimes she picked up, but most of the time she was at work, making money. Around 11 or so, someone from the temp agency would come by, say ‘hi’ and tell me that I was doing a good job. Her task was to go around the city, to count the counters, my brothers and sisters with clipboards.

After her visit, however, I could pretty much do what I wanted. For the most part, I stayed rooted to the bench, waiting for my shift to end, just eyeballing the foot traffic, putting in numbers that seemed right, because if they started noticing a pattern—for instance, 22 people every fifteen-minutes, for five fifteen-minute blocks in a row—they might get suspicious. That’s what my college degree taught me: patterns are suspicious.

Other times, I put on my Walkman and got stoned. I’d drink whiskey from a flask and jot down ideas for stories I’d write when I got home, but I was often too high or drunk after my shift to write a thing, so I’d lay on the couch watching Law & Order reruns with my roommate. Some people say the Beatles were the soundtrack to their youth. Mine was the voice of Jerry Orbach. I could have read books while sitting on that bench. I often brought one along, where it waited, alone, in my coat. But other people’s words only reminded me that I wasn’t keeping up.

Sometimes people stopped to talk to me. They would walk by and hear the click of my counter and they’d ask what I was doing.

Counting people.

Why?

To measure the foot traffic. I think they want to put a Staples here.

They gave me this sort of sad look, like they were staring at a run-over cat, and then tell me ‘good luck’ or ‘have fun. Then they went off to their well paying, sober jobs.

Other times, people got angry when I told them what I was doing. One man—South Boston accent, big moustache—told me he didn’t like it at all.

It’s an invasion of privacy, he said.

To be counted?

Yes.

I said something about ‘the census’ and he called me an ‘asshole.

On days it snowed, the agent called before my alarm clock, telling me to take the day off. I told her I didn’t mind the snow, that I could handle the cold. I really needed the money. But that wasn’t her reason. Snow slowed down the traffic, hindered the survey. It wasn’t my comfort she was worried about, just her numbers.

I think it was then when I started souring on Boston, or at least the Boston I was living. Out west, to be without direction was a metaphor, a way of life, to aimlessly wander the range, free, but out east a life without direction meant eviction. Still, that wasn’t just it. I knew by then that I didn’t want to be a journalist anymore, or more accurately I knew that I didn’t have the chops to call people up and ask them invasive questions like a good reporter should. This was a problem. I didn’t know where to go after that and I was sick of being scared. That’s the thing about the starving artist dream: only kids with trust funds romanticize it. The rest of us lie awake at night, doing addition and subtraction.

After about a month of counting, the agent called up and said the count was complete. She said I did a great job counting, and she was rewarding me with a receptionist position, one that paid $13 an hour. For a few months I did okay. My rent got paid and I could buy beer at a bar in cash rather than quarters. Then, after that job ended, I worked at an Italian restaurant in Faneuil Hall. It was a sort of run of the mill type place, nothing special, until one night I swore in front of my manager, and he told me to watch my mouth.

“It’s a family restaurant.”

I looked at the bar, where a bachelor party was taking shots off some BU student’s breasts, and said, “What are you talking about? This isn’t a family restaurant.”

“No,” he said. “You’re not hearing me. It’s a family restaurant.”

The fat guys in gold chains suddenly made sense.

But I didn’t care. It was steady. I made most of my money there working the patio. The spring was nice and people liked to drink $40 bottles of wine, while looking at Paul Revere’s old digs. I started writing a bit in the morning, a few short stories, a few political essays, but I already had the feeling that this was practice, that my voice wasn’t confident, and besides, I hadn’t anything to say yet. Then May came and it rained for two weeks and no one sat on the patio and I was left with only a couple hundred bucks in my account and too much rent to pay.

My roommate suggested that we leave town.

I agreed.

Three days later, from an Iowa gas station, I sent a postcard with a picture of a cornfield to the temp agency, one that included my forwarding address. They needed to send me my W-2. After all, I knew I’d be counting on that refund by winter.