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The commodity firmament

We wanted to go to this famous Indian restaurant while we were in Vancouver, but we weren't quite hungry enough when we first parked our rental car, so we walked down to Chapters, which is the Canadian equivalent of Barnes and Noble. We were browsing around randomly when I was absolutely stunned to see this. The last time I saw this woman, we were in the office she shared with me at the University of Arizona, where we were both composition instructors about six or seven years ago. The last place I would have thought to see her was naked on a paperback cover at the Canadian equivelant of Barnes and Noble in a face-out promotion in the middle of a shelf in the Humor section. I hardly knew her, but the fact that I recognized her on the book cover made me feel for a moment strangely important. I began boasting about the fact that I knew her, that I exchanged pleasantries with her on a semi-weekly basis in 1999. And in the acknowledgements too, these were names I recognized. These were people I knew: Kevin Greer, for example, I just ran into him on the street in New York about a year ago and he actually recognized me. It didn't mean all that much to me at the time -- it was a pleasant enough coincidence -- but now it seemed like a big deal, in the momentary aura that mass-market print suddenly shrouded him in. It took me a few moments to put things into perspective and stop being pointlessly impressed with myself. I didn't do anything; I just happened to be startled by the fact that someone I once crossed paths with had. But the weirdness of it lingered with me. It had something to do with the fact that the last time I saw or thought of Periel Aschenbrand, she was a breathing person beside me. I spoke to her, and she responded. And now she was embalmed in a glossy image on a book cover, and dozens of her stared back at me from an infinite remove. She was beckoning to me in a way that she never would have in reality, when I sat across a cubicle from her. And she was beckoning to my girlfriend in the same way, and the old woman who squeezed past us in the aisle as well. She had succeeded in becoming a commodity and for those first few moments when I stared at her in disbelief, it seemed like she was far above me in the firmament, a more permanent feature of this universe than I was, standing there in a foreign city in a generic bookstore, feeling utterly adrift.

I felt very conscious at that moment of a secret, deep-seated longing in myself, the desire to become a commodity myself, to be one of the many things that our society organizes itself around and exists to circulate. My travels are insignificant, no one manages them but me. But were I a commodity, were I naked on a bookcover, then entire teams of consultants would be tracking my movements, measuring my appeal, keeping my statistics. I would be removed from the audience and placed in the realm where I could truly inspire, up with the brand names and the advertising slogans. I want exist in the realm where I reach out to people but I'm not really there, and they can't really touch me.

We walked back to Vij's and I talked fruitlessly about how maybe I should try to sell my writing, put together book pitches, make something real out of what I'm doing instead of simply screwing around. At Vij's we found out that the wait was over an hour. Another woman who was waiting told us that Harrison Ford, in town shooting a film, was dining there tonight, and that he was sitting somewhere in the back. "I can't believe I just told you that," she said. "I didn't think I'd ever do that."

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

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