I HAVE BEEN ATTEMPTING to discover the origin of a phrase that I once used. I’ve been trying to make sense of it. The phrase is, “This is good for me.”
I will describe the circumstances.
Let’s say that I awoke one day and found myself in a bad situation, like hell but above ground. Let’s say that somehow I found myself managing an apartment building, the on-site manager. A matter of extreme body transport or an abduction of some sort or a financial crisis with a spiritual dimension. I wasn’t sure how it happened, but I was there. No question about it, I was managing an apartment building.
And the job, the situation that somehow appeared around me, the job enveloping me, required—along with other duties—that I keep the apartment building clean, that I pick up everyday garbage, like cigarette butts and dead birds and discarded chewing gum, old newspapers and pizza boxes, and that I also deal with the occasional lagniappe of a used condom or a bottle of urine left by a long distance mover.
So I would pick up the stuff and throw it out and for some reason would sometimes say as I tossed it into the dumpster, “This job is good for me; yes, this is good for me.”
Why would I say that? Didn’t I understand that I was in a bad situation? Had I forgoten?
And let’s say that one day I awoke in hell but above ground and was managing an apartment building and that as part of my job I was required to collect the rent. And let’s say that one of my tenants was a be-drugged, ex-pro football player who never paid on time. And let’s say that one day, when I asked him to please, pretty please, pay his rent, he backed me up against a splintery wooden fence and breathed fire into my face, scorching my eyebrows and all of my nostril hair.
And let’s say that after it was all over, after his friends had dissuaded him from simultaneously breaking all of the bones in my body with one blow from his mighty fist, that I walked back to my apartment and for some reason said, going through the door, “That was good for me; yes, this job is good for me”
Why would I say that? Didn’t I understand that I was in hell?
And let’s say that one day I awoke as a cockroach—okay, as the manager of an apartment building who felt like a cockroach—and that as this cucaracha I worked for a management company and for people in that company who would lie if it suited them and never paid the utilities or the vendors on time, and it was those vendors who did repairs in the apartment building that I managed. Vendors like plumbers, auto gate repair people, maintenance people. So that when I called for an emergency repair to be made, on a weekend, say, the vendors would not come out to make the repair because they had not been paid. And I would have to tell the tenants, whom I cared for—even the sad, fire-breathing line-backer—I would have to tell them that they would have to wait. A one-bedroom apartment with one bathroom and a stopped-up toilet, and the tenants would have to wait because the plumber had not been paid. And the tenants would complain mightily, and I would tell the management company of their complaints, and would be told, “Well, if they don’t like it, tell them that they can move.”
It took a bit more time because my rage had to subside, and the impotence that I felt had to abate, but when I had reached equanimity and the toilet had been fixed, I said, yes I did, for some inexplicable reason: “This is good for me; this job is good for me.”
Why would I say that? Couldn’t I hear the cries of the damned?
For the sake of all that is unholy, what could I have been telling myself? Doesn’t that phrase seem insane? “This job is good for me.” Urine, condom, fire-breathing tenant, lies and liars.
Did I believe that I required punishment, was it penance that I was after? Did I think of myself as a sinner? Was I secretly religious? Was the pain on my upper thigh not some form of age-induced dermatitis but rather the tickle-tickle of the cilice? Can you say, Opus Dei? Did I secretly use the scourge in the morning and not the loofah?
No. None of that. I do not recognize sinner as a personal category, and I am not a believer; but it's just possible that I am spiritual, or spiritual near.
I remember that I would occasionally drop everyday garbage into the dumpster and as I did I would start thinking about Buddhism. I’ll admit that. I had some vague idea about Buddhist monks and mortification of the flesh and the destruction of ego and joining the great heartbeat of the cosmos. Call it a spiritual moment there at the dumpster. Or something. Dyspepsia of the cosmos? And all of that would come to me as I discarded the day’s collection of tenant leavings. Dead plant, sofa cushion, McDonald’s offal. Plop, plop, plop. Not quite like placing colored stones into a sweet little mandala. But I would run through vague religious references, nothing serious, at the altar of the dumpster. Spiritual musings. Like, I wonder if those Buddhist monks are onto something with whatever kind of self-denial they practice. What about their chores? Are their chores somehow spiritual? Mindless and repetitive and spiritual? Do they also pick up garbage?
I GAVE NOTICE in July of 2005. Our financial situation had improved, and I had had enough fun. And since leaving the job, an understanding has come to me of why, beyond any financial reasons, I required that crummy job and what I meant with the whole business of, “This is good for me.”
It has come to me in the same way that most understandings arrive, not as a flashing epiphany, but rather by way of a collection of fragmented thoughts, headaches, twitches and mild fevers.
And the understanding is this: Even though I’m not religious, I am, I must be, uh, spiritual, I guess; and I do believe in something like a soul, call it the synaptic soul. I believe in its journey: the continual acquisition of intense personal knowledge. In managing an apartment building for five long years I learned something about myself and the world. I didn’t get it at the time, but it was my soul talking when I said, “This job is good for me.” The splintery fence and fire, lies and liars, the collection and disposal of everyday garbage, plumbing, the tenants in need. Particularly that last one. Serious soul stuff.