Archive for May, 2007

Ethical Dilemma of an Idiot

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

Most of my work days lately have started with a certain element of dread. Often the dread will be pretty low. Maybe there’s a meeting that I would rather skip. That usually carries a dread factor (DF) of 2. If I’m supposed to have something prepared for the meeting, the DF jumps dramatically to a 7 or 8 (not to be confused with the Drama Factor (DramFac) – however, there is certainly a positive correlation between DF and one’s daily DramFac, and certainly when one is propelled into the Dramarama or ridiculous Dramarama-o-rama zone, DF and DramFac become indecipherably intertwined into a lattice of mayhem). If I’ll be PowerPoint presenting on something that I know is only half-baked/half-assed, or bake/ass (if you do the math, that translates to baked/2 multiplied by 2/assed, which can be reduced to baked/assed, shortened to bake/ass), the DF creeps into the 9 or 10 range. A typical day will have at least a white noise hum of 1 DF just as a base, escalated by various crappy elements such as people and meetings. There doesn’t seem to be a high end to the scale, but I can’t recall the last 15 DF day I had . . . no, yes . . . let’s just not think about it right now.

Anyway, last Thursday started with about a 6 DF, waxing to a 7 DF as the train approached the Chicago Ave. stop. The situation was tempered back to a 6 DF when I found a dime at the street-level top of the escalator. I’m a firm believer in the magic of Found Money. For the past few years (okay, it’s probably been a decade), I have kept all of the loose change that I’ve found on the sidewalks, streets and gutters of the city. Sometimes the Found Money will bring quick luck, such as a brilliant hike in sunlight or the guest disappearance of someone I don’t particularly want to run into. Other times the mojo will be gradual or hardly apparent. Either way, it all goes into the Found Money jar, slowly building up good fortune, my karmic Green Lantern power ring.

So I found a dime. That’s a real Found Money coup! Really, anything over a penny is some sort of amazing happenstance. Most people ignore the poor pennies. Even nickels get the brush off quite a bit. Dimes are right on the line, though. I can’t imagine anyone not taking an extra 1.3 seconds to pick up a dime. I mean, that comes out to about $4.62 a minute! In lay terms, that equals $277.20 per hour. Do you make more than $277.20 an hour? So maybe you should stop for 1.3 seconds and pick up that freaking dime.

Yes, so I was feeling pretty good about myself, having had a 1.3 second taste of the good life. I could feel the power of that dime from within my clenched fist, knocking the DF down into the decimal range. It was like diving through a pool of sludge and surfacing in clear mountain lake. All I had to do was make my wish. A dime-wish should never be compulsive. If you phrase it wrong, you could end up in some horrible Monkey’s Paw scenario. Let’s say you find a dime in the crack of a sidewalk and instantly wish for a peaceful breather in a hectic day, just a moment of stillness. Yeah, well, you could very well be wishing for the sudden and unexplained eradication of the human race! I’m sure the Omega Man experienced some stillness as he wandered the barren, unpopulated earth. My point? Don’t be a Charleton Heston. Think before you wish. And be specific, dammit. So, as my slump transformed into a stride, I began to inventory my day’s agenda, deciding exactly how to shape it.

Then HE appeared. It’s never simple. You can’t just find a freaking dime and have an excellent day. No, fate won’t be so easily manipulated. He caught me at the corner of Michigan and Chicago, as I waited for the traffic solenoids to permit my passage. It was a good corner for the blanket canvassing of strangers. He hit me from the left. My unprotected left.

“Excuse me. I don’t mean to bother you. Could you spare any money? A nickel . . . a dime . . . anything?”

Brother, could you spare a dime. Fuck! No no no. I shook my head with the “sorry” that he had certainly fielded to the point of profession, and he moved on to the next commuter, methodically working the corner. I put my hand into my coat pocket, finding only keys, no change. All I had was my lucky fucking dime. All I had to do was hand it over to this guy who certainly needed it far more than I did. But I couldn’t. That dime was worth far more than ten cents. It was my talisman of hope, the exact leverage I needed to push my day beyond the threshold of Crap. I needed that energy, dammit.

As I walked across Michigan Avenue the dime’s density started to approach dangerous, Einsteinian levels of unbearable mass. Why didn’t I just give the guy my dime? I picked it up three blocks before meeting him. He had just as much of a right to the dime as I did. Assuming that he didn’t have a stable, salaried job as I do, the dime had to be worth more to him. I could have turned around and given him a dollar bill. That seemed like an even trade. I didn’t stop, though. I envisioned an image sequence of turning around, waiting for the crossing signal again, hunting the guy down, and crawling to him with sad dog eyes, offering obvious guilt money. That wouldn’t erase the moment of judgment. He already knew that I was a cheap bastard, unwilling to offer even five cents of help to a fellow human in need. The deed was done.

DF 11.5 and rising.

Years ago I made a decision to stop giving money to strangers. Non-participation was a convenient solution to a persistent social dilemma. Every now and then, though, I would break my stupid rule and give a little something to someone who impressed me in a certain way. Sometimes my judgment would be short circuited, and I would realize, moments after giving someone a buck, that I had been swindled. I had given money to an asshole, reinforcing that asshole behavior, ultimately making the world infinitesimally worse. My ethical rules have become as convoluted as those governing English grammar, and now, with my withholding of the dime, I seem to have entered the hazy realm of ethical pidgin. Meaning and value are defined in one moment, and then redefined in the next. Stupid dime.

Yet here is the coda: the Found Money magic persisted. When I slouched into my office, infernal dime still pressed between thumb and toted novel, I found both a voicemail and email releasing me from the majority of my day’s duties. This was the very all-day session that was the seed of my 6-7 DF morning. Clarity! Peace! The Omega Man prevails! I glanced down to the etched profile of Franklin Roosevelt, the author of the New Deal, a man whose presidency began about the same time that the song Brother, can you spare a dime? was composed. Was it still worth more to me than to a guy reduced to panhandling on a city corner? Maybe I could milk it for a little more. Maybe I’m not a complete asshole. Or maybe, just like most of us, my own worry, dread and twisted superstition will always have the potential to outweigh the greater good. I slipped the dime into my front pocket and enjoyed a relatively uneventful, 2 DF day.