Friends traded shallow comments for a quarter-mile or so, then stopped at a bend in the cliff, overgrown with wild fennel, facing the sea. Popwell had something on his mind. "You and Ray," he said, referring to another friend working on the same project, "are really talented. You're like finely tuned Ferraris parked in a garage, waiting for someone to start you up and drive you." I nodded. This seemed like an intro to either a raise or a dismissal, both of which I undoubtedly deserved. "We're really lucky," Popwell continued, not specifying exactly who "we" were, "to have this economic climate. I realize it's a drag for a lot of people, but, you know, we're really lucky to be able to find people as talented as you and Ray to work for as little as you're getting paid." I still couldn't tell whether or not I'd been fired or promoted, or whether Popwell knew what a nasty thing he'd just said in such a friendly way -- as if I were part of the "we"; as if it were only reasonable, or even natural, that I'd be as grateful as the other members of "we" for the circumstances that allowed the Popwells to maintain "our" poverty.
There was still the walk to finish, however, as well as the project. So I mumbled something noncommittal and swallowed, among other things, my coffee.
THREE MONTHS LATER, THE PROJECT WAS finished; two months thereafter I was broke, so one morning I called Graham Popwell to see if he knew of any upcoming work. It turned out that his father needed one more person to move furniture around the office, set up computers, that kind of thing. Immediately. I lived an hour and a half away, without traffic, so I said I'd be there in about two hours.
Three hours of relentless clutching later, I arrived at the fluorescent sprawl of the Popwell corporate offices with a petrified left calf and lower back, ready for a day of the kind of hearty American labor that's inspired such classics as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Gonna See Miss Liza, Gonna Go to Mississippi."
Popwell explained how the furniture moving was to transpire:
"Basically, you'll be running errands for Jennifer."
Jennifer Popwell, soap-opera executive, ran Popwell's many moneymaking schemes -- telecommunications, emergency rooms, software, whatever they could think of. All of them legal, I'd been told.
"Errands? For Jennifer?"
"Yeah. Nothing too strenuous. She just needs a lot of little things taken care of."
"Errands as in driving?"
"As in driving. Why -- is your car okay?"
"Car's fine," I said. "But I'm not really, uh . . . prepared to run errands." I reminded Popwell of his description of the job over the phone that morning.
And Popwell said, "We'll pay you the same rate, and we'll reimburse you for gas. What difference does it make?"
"The difference," I replied, "is that you hired me to move furniture and set up computers, not drive around running errands."
"So now you're saying you don't want to work? I thought I was being nice."
"You were being 'nice.' But if you'd said you wanted me to drive all the way out here so I could run errands for Jennifer, I would've declined. I fuggin' hate driving in the middle of the day."
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Popwell didn't like me anymore. "You asked if I had work, and I did. And you said you'd do it. And now you're saying you're not gonna do it. I already told my dad you were coming today. How do you think that makes me look to my dad?"
I DON'T KNOW, GRAHAM. I DON'T KNOW what sort of impression my not running errands made on the senior Popwell. But here's the impression you and your fellow Popwells left on me:
Download the following ingredients: (1) a video clip of Reagan reading one of his speechwriters' brilliant gags (http://graphics.waveshift.com/reagan/video/ronald/rv0716199600.avi); (2) two short Defensive Driving QuickTime Presentations from Arizona certified defensive-driving instructor Wayne C. Church: Driver's Side Air Bag Expansion (http://wchurch.home.mindspring.com/stabgmo.mov) and Damage From a Driver's Side Impact to a Partial Wall (http://wchurch.home.mindspring.com/lincov.mov); (3) a zipped WAV of "Taps" playing over a 21-gun salute (www.wavplace.com/sept98/21taps.zip).
Decompress the WAV with Stuffit Expander, PKunzip or what have you. Open all four files in your registered QuickTime player (registration's required to unlock the simultaneous-playback features) with Air Bag, Reagan and Damage, respectively, across the top, and "Taps" stretched across the screen beneath them. Set everything to Loop and select Play All Movies. Serving suggestion: Leave it playing in the background at your next trickle-down cocktail party.