Holy fuckballs, what a story I have for you…
As regular readers of this blog are aware, I have been unemployed for going on two years, and my unemployment benefits ran out on the day before Thanksgiving. Since then I’ve hustled and brooded and been a nervous, despairing wreck, wondering about what fate has in store for me, especially when considering my very limited financial resources. In short: I’m forty-six, jobless, living in New York City (specifically in Brooklyn’s Park Slope), and nothing is happening in terms of a bright light on the job horizon.
On Friday afternoon I received one of the freelance checks I’d been expecting and in no time at all most of it was spent on my rent and the bills that have been gathering moss, so, with weary heart, I went to the local supermarkets to pick up the fixings for a sandwich that would approximate the outstanding sausage and peppers delight I’d experienced just one day previous. (There’s no companionship or sex going on in my life at the moment thanks to there being no merry and horny female present, comic books have lately been mostly an enormous disappointment, there have been no movies that pique my interest, so I’ve occasionally been taking meager comfort in food.) I first stopped at the Key Food on 5th Avenue, the one just a stone’s throw from Flatbush Avenue, and snagged some of their excellent sweet Italian sausages, after which I walked up the street to the Associated market located around the corner from my humble abode to pick up the rest of what I needed.
Upon wandering the store’s aisles, zombie-like, I got on line at the checkout counter and found myself directly behind some random guy and a woman who was annoyingly holding up the proceedings by trying to explain to the cashier that two of the four items she’d brought up were not the right ones on the sales circular, so she wanted to replace them. She explained this to the cashier in the most convoluted and time-consuming manner humanly possible, and myself and the guy in front of me were both about ready to pull our hair out as this decidedly one-sided exchange dragged on. “Great,” I thought to myself, “not only am I about to spend most of the last of my pitiful funds, I have to wait behind this walking annoyance while doing so.” Presently, one of the store’s employees came over to me and steered me off of the non-moving line and had me stand at the far checkout aisle, right behind two mothers with strollers who were unloading enough food onto the counter to feed all of the Occupy Wall Street crowd. That line was clearly not going to move either, so the staffer apologized for taking me off of my first position and promptly steered me back to where I was in the first place, and in the maybe twenty seconds that elapsed between my shifts in lines, three more people had gotten on line in front of me. So there I was, stuck with a choice of two lines, neither of which was making any kind of progress.
While stuck on line behind the lady who wanted to exchange her items that were not on the sales circular, my eyes began to glaze over and my mind focused on just how my life had suffered a slow and depressing reversal of fortune from the time when I first hit NYC as a wide-eyed college grad who’d landed a job at Marvel Comics — a dream job to one of my geekish ilk — through my being let go from that job thanks to the company’s Chapter 11 woes, on to my time at DC/Vertigo and the mishegoss endured there, followed by two years of unemployment before working at the barbecue joint and dealing with that place’s attendant issues, finally arriving at the dead end of my largely worthless job at the design ‘ho house and my subsequent unemployment in the wake of what was at the time its latest wave of brutal layoffs. I pondered how it could possibly be nearly two years — TWO YEARS — since that layoff and how my life had just lurched along as a shabby going-through-the-motions existence, and the more I considered all of that, the more morose and fed up with life I became.
Suddenly my death march down the dark corridor of memory was interrupted by a frantic-looking guy bearing a bottle of seltzer, and he looked at me with an expression of earnest need plastered across his face. He sheepishly said, “I’m sorry to be ‘that guy’ but can I please go ahead of you? I just have this one item…” After enduring the long lines and annoyance, I was irritated by his request, but I remembered the lessons learned as a wee lad at my mother’s side during many excursions to the market, and she always let people in this guy’s situation go ahead of her, simply because it was the polite and kind thing to do. A simple act of courtesy and kindness in this miserable world keeps us all civilized and all that, right? So I let the guy go ahead of me, for which he offered profuse thanks.
Then, as his one item was rung up, an alarm went off, a loud popping noise was heard (like a champagne cork) and the air around us was filled with balloons. Just as abruptly, the manager’s office door burst open and out flew a video cameraman, a crew member wielding a mike on a short boom, and a guy bearing one of those enormous simulated checks as seen in sweepstakes ads on TV and in magazines. Then a large, glad-handing guy breezed over and directly addressed the seltzer guy with, “Congratulations, sir! You are this store’s one-millionth customer…and you have just won FIFTY-THOUSAND DOLLARS!!!”
(pause for you to process this)
Yes, you read that right. The guy I had let cut the line in front of me with one measly item had just won FIFTY FUCKING GRAND, all because of my act of simple courtesy.
As the celebratory atmosphere began to spread and the sweepstakes officials shook the winner’s hand, the enormity of what happened poked me in the frontal lobe like a solid redwood truncheon. The understandably surprised winner reacted with “Awesome!!!” and welcomed the camera crew and sundry others with open arms.
The other shoppers who’d been on line behind me, some of whom were recognizable neighborhood locals and neighbors from the building next door to mine, at first stood there just as gobsmacked as I was, but they recovered more swiftly than I and began shouting statements along the lines of, “Oh, HELL no! That guy (indicating me) let the dude with the soda go in front of him, so he’s the real winner! This isn’t right!!!” As it all sank in, I said aloud, “This is a joke, right? Seriously, this has to be a joke…please tell me this is a joke…” My words were utterly ignored as the prize people began to usher the winner away for a photo op but before they could full get away, I centered myself and, with no yelling or cursing, announced to the camera in my most stentorian and serious voice, “People, here you see a prime example of exactly why being polite and considerate of others is pointless. I let this guy go ahead of me with his one item and now he’s fifty thousand dollars richer. I’m unemployed and struggling and I get zero. That it. I’m out!”
That only served to fan the flames of the onlookers’ outrage and they began hurling verbal abuse at the store’s manager, while I, feeling a galaxy-wide sense of complete and utter defeat, just waited for my groceries to be rung up. The cashier, who’s served me for years, saw how crushed I was and, looking like she was about to be physically ill, asked me “Are you okay?” to which I responded with “No, I’m most definitely not okay. I just want to take my groceries and go home…” That was certainly true. If I didn’t leave right then, I would have likely smashed my head repeatedly against the nearest wall in an expression of cosmic frustration. More shoppers came over and offered to tell the manager that the seltzer guy only won because I let him cut in front of me, but I had said my piece and was resigned to the simple fact that I had once again lost in the game of life and that again I’d unwittingly been drafted as a source of amusement for whatever cruel gods there may be.
Then a woman walked over and stated she’d witnessed what had happened and that she would try and have words with the manager and try to make things right, but again I stated my desperate desire to simply leave this death camp of my own personal existential mockery. She let that thought hang for a moment and then stated that I’d just been part of a taped “social experiment” and that her crew would pay for my groceries and hand me three-hundred dollars cash up front, so would I please step over here to sign some release forms?
Double-stunned, I followed her to the secluded aisle in back of the manager’s office and watched through what seemed to be someone else’s perception as she reached into her coat and produced a manila envelope positively bursting with crisp fifties. She counted out the aforementioned three hundred bucks and handed it to me, after which she asked me a number of questions as I filled out a release form and gave her my full contact information. “Well, we certainly didn’t expect the reaction we got of you,” she stated. “Were you angry as it was all happening?” I looked her square in the face and told her, “Lady, every word I said back there was true. I am unemployed, so when a guy I’d let go in front of me wins fifty G’s, you bet your sweet ass I was angry! I wanted to leave before I tore his fucking head off!!!” She laughed at that and then had me pose for two head shots, holding a piece of paper with my name written on it in strong-smelling marker and standing directly in front of the stacked maxi-pad display. She also made it clear that they needed all of my contact info in case they decided to use my footage for their show, in which case I will be paid at a professional actor’s rate. As we parted, she asked me not to talk to anyone local about all of this since they planned to spring the setup on other unsuspecting shoppers over what remained of the day. (I stuck to not posting about it until the market’s closing time, after which I felt it was kosher. Plus, I very much doubt they’d pull the same move in the same place the following day, so there you go.)
As I gathered my groceries, the staff of the market all came over and laughed as they apologized for setting up one of their regular customers, but I had free groceries and three-hundred bucks in hand, so I was far from mad any more. Then the seltzer guy came over, hugged me, and wished me the best, also stating that he hoped they used my footage because of the unexpected nature of my response. (I’m betting they expected the big, leather-clad black guy to flip out and act the fool in a stereotypical display of the kind of ghetto histrionics that appall/delight viewers, but what they got was obviously something they did not expect at all.) When I walked out, I ran into the film crew and they laughed their asses off as they high-fived me.
It wasn’t until I returned to my apartment that I remembered seeing notices up around the Associated yesterday, notices warning people not to park in front of the place because there was to be a film shoot there the following day. I didn’t pay much attention to them yesterday because the neighborhood is constantly the site of independent film shoots, Hollywood shoots, and frequent episodes of LAW & ORDER: SVU, and as a result of all of that I never give such notices a second thought, so I was the perfect mark for the show’s purposes.
Still quite stunned, I called a few friends and related this story, much to their amazement, and my old friend Jim Browski clued me in to the fact that the show in question is most probably something called WHAT WOULD YOU DO?, a reality show that places unsuspecting citizens in trying situations and lets the camera roll to see how they handle whatever predicament they find themselves in. I don’t have cable, so I’d never heard of the show, but I assure you I’ll let you all know if they decide to air this lunacy.