I went to a trade show in New York this weekend and rode up on the Amtrak, using a free upgrade coupon to worm my way into first class on the Acela Express. Thus, I had the disadvantage of riding amongst the privileged. The businessman immediately behind me spent the entire trip yowling into his mobile phone, soliciting donations for a black-tie dinner he was organizing to honor somebody or other; he yowled the same joke about Madonna twenty-eight times, accompanied twenty-eight times by the same hiccoughing laugh. Across the aisle, a dumpy little man repeated over and over again to his dumpy little wife that he “actually think[s] Al Gore would have been a better President” in incredulous tones that suggested that this was only just now occurring to him, four years into our national nightmare. The wife ignored him in favor of a sickly sweet mobile phone conversation, which she ended only to turn to him and announce how much she hated the woman to whom she had been speaking. The attendants in the car seemed to like me because I was quiet and polite: both referred to me as “young man,” which was the only saving grace of that nightmarish journey.
I happily rode back in coach.
Speaking of unearned privilege, if there are people out there who don’t think that Dr. Phil is one of the most hateful creatures ever to ooze from the primordial muck of daytime television, I don’t know them. On my trip to New York, I saw his new book advertised on billboards and posters. It’s called Family First, although the first thing you see when you look at the cover is not a family but his own sycophantic image. Dr. Phil has one of those faces that make my head hurt to study, as if none of its component pieces quite fits with any of the others: the effect, in photographs, is an eerie three-dimensional hovering of his features, rather like those optical-illusion checkerboards that convince the eye it sees a floating sphere. This is because he has not been fully trained at mimicking human emotion, and his attempt at a smile, for example, involves only his teeth and none of the other customary ingredients.
At the train station, I also saw the tabloid magazine covers featuring the sordid tale of Brad and Jen and Angelina. I don’t believe a word of this soap opera, which millions of Americans follow, slack-jawed, instead of paying attention to the multi-trillion-dollar swindle their so-called leaders are pulling with the war in Iraq and with their attempts to privatize Social Security. I am convinced that that celebrities like this are paid by the government to portray themselves in a “meta” drama in which ordinary people lose themselves in the same way I used to read comic books to escape from the world. Brad and Jen and Angelina are transformed by taxpayer-funded People magazine into iconic figures, heroes and villainesses, whose only power is to distract the public from the things that they can do to actually improve their lives and to thwart the evildoers who are actively screwing them over.
Although I suspect that if the public actually did manage to elevate themselves to the level of their desires, they, themselves, would transform into the next Brad and Jen and Angelina, stealing brief moments away from their cyclonic melodramas to express to People magazine their jaded desires to live a simple, unexamined life. I suppose I could live with being Matt Damon, but I would have to be a Matt Damon with heightened standards. No more sleeping with Ben Affleck, and no more riding in first class.
In the end, some things just aren’t worth the trouble.