back to the Black Table

Ordinarily, you’d almost want to take it as a compliment when someone comes into your office and tells you it reminds them of The Matrix. But I don’t think it was meant as a compliment. In fact, I think it was said with sad, you-poor-thing condescension. How did you end up HERE? I think that’s how she said it.


On a whim, my little sister decided to come into town this weekend. She heard about a party we had going on, and she had nothing to do this weekend, and she had some extra money lying around, so yeah, I’m coming out, let’s have tear the city apart! I was happy to have her; like the rest of


my family, she lives back in Illinois, so I don’t get to see her often. But I was definitely worried. I’m a different person, living a different life, than I was the last time she was here.

Jill is often accused of living in dream world, but it must not be too much of a dream world, because she really does live there. She is on track to graduate from the University of Illinois this May, and we’re all ecstatic for her, because it has been a long time coming: This is Year Six. I find nothing unusual or detrimental about this. I was fortunate enough to always know what I wanted to do, for better or worse, so getting out in four years was simply a matter of following a basic, pre-set schedule. Jill, like most of the planet, isn’t so sure what the future holds, so she’s bounced from major to major, drifting from here to there, throwing shit to the wall and hoping something sticks. So Jill has had the six years to try to figure herself out a little bit. It might not have been the most comfortable way to do it, particularly for my parents paying for her school, but given the opportunity, most of us would love to be able to not have to learn what we’re all about on the fly. I left for the grownup working world three days after I graduated; any voyages of self-discovery have been done within the 9-to-5 framework. Not ideal.

But now Jill is just a few months away from joining the rest of our dead souls. An serious adjustment is coming. I can’t help but feel bad for her. Sometimes it sucks out here.


Jill came to my office straight from the airport. The guy at the front desk made her sign in and sent her up. She was carrying a carry-on bag that somehow fit a whole weekend’s worth of crap; this, I’ve found, is not something post-college women are capable of. My desk is right by the front door. I let her in.

Like any office, mine is very, very quiet. It’s as if everyone has made an unspoken deal with one another; we have to work in this pallid, dead-blue-light cubby hole, so let’s just deal with it in our own ways, in silence. You leave me alone, and I’ll do the same. No one ever raises their voice in our office, so as not to break the mood. I like it this way.

But the corporate office is a new playing field for Jill. She barreled in, all guns blazing. "HEY BIG BROTHER!!!!" she screamed. "HEY, IT’S YOUR CUBICLE! WOW!" I scrambled to shush her, but this is my sister’s regular speaking voice. She sat down and looked around. Her eyes glazed over within seconds. "Hey, this is, cough, a nice cubicle." It’s not a cubicle, Jill … it’s an office!

"Wow, um … nobody here looks very happy. This place totally reminds me of The Matrix." I could not fool myself into thinking she was talking about the kung-fu parts. She was referring to that beginning part, before Neo changes his life, before he realizes his true calling, back when his life is dead, when he is just a faceless, nameless drone. That’s the part she was referring to.

I chuckled obligingly, and looked down down down.


My sister has an affliction frighteningly common to the young, inexperienced and poor: She has expensive tastes. Specifically, she has developed a fine taste for wine and food, to the point that she says she regularly spends $100 for a quality meal. She has curated a slight wine cellar in my parents’ basement, set to the right temperature and everything, where she stores the "quality shit" she’s saving until their ideal date. That is the type of thing I would love to have someday. It’s not something I can afford now. And neither can she, frankly.

My parents, understandably, often lecture her about this, berate her for not knowing the value of a dollar, explain that she can’t sustain a life like this. Live within your means, they say, we can’t bail you out forever. They, of course, are right. But after her visit this weekend, I have a slightly different perspective.

The one thing Jill wanted to do this weekend was go to the Gramercy Tavern. Let me tell you about the Gramercy Tavern. It is one of the finest restaurants in New York City. It’s the type of place patronized by old guys in tweed jackets and bow ties. When you look it up in the Zagat’s restaurant guide, it’s actually flashing red and beeping: OUT OF YOUR PRICE RANGE. RELENT. RUN TO FREEDOM. Something as simple as a lunch would run be about 50 bucks a plate. And that’s where Jill wanted to go.

I put up a feeble bit of resistance - Jill’s will has always been much stronger than mine; she also punches harder - and then sucked it up and went to the restaurant. As predicted, we were the youngest people there by a good 20 years. We saddled up to the bar, where Jill talked wine with the skeptical wait staff, and I wished to God that nobody noticed I had ink stains on my pants.

While waiting for our food, I thought maybe a lecture was in store for Jill.

Jill, listen. You’re my sister, and my guest, so if you wanted to come here, of course I would go with you. But I think this is excessive. I can’t afford this, and I slave away in an office all week. I know you make good money waiting tables, but I doubt you can afford it either.

What’s your point?

You have to live within your means, Jill. You can’t eat like this and expect to be able to pay your rent.

But this is what I care about. This is what I like to do. You like to watch movies and baseball. I like to do this.

Yes, but I do what I can afford. Only rich people can eat at places like this.

But I have enough money for right now. I’ll figure it out down the line.

But, Jill, this is going to catch up to you. The people who eat here are ones who don’t think twice about dropping 100 bucks on a bottle of wine. We aren’t those people.

Listen, you’re just getting old. Don’t you want to live? It sure doesn’t look like you’re living large in that office of yours.

Yes, but you have to understand, Jill, that this is the way the deal works. I sit in a drab office all day, working, for a larger goal. That pays my bills, in a job that I like, with people I respect, so that I am able to stay here and do the work I need to do to, you know, continue to write and live my life. My first year out here, I wanted to go out to fancy places all the time too. But you learn what you can and can’t do, and adjust accordingly.

But I don’t have to have that life, not yet. Sure, I’ll have to suck it up and get a real job and move onto the same sucky grownup life you have, eventually, sure. But why are you trying to hurry me up? I’ll get there. Don’t rush me. Don’t you sometimes wish you could move as freely as me?

Yes. Yes, I do.

So relax. It’ll happen, and I’ll feel as trapped as you do sometimes, and I won’t have the advantage of you do, knowing there is some larger goal. Most people don’t have a larger goal. So right now, I’m going to just revel in what I have and stave off drudgery as long as I can.

Yes. I understand.

Now enjoy your meal. And quit complaining.


As I write this, my sister is cleaning my apartment. We just moved in in December, and we haven’t done much with the place yet. While I spent an hour writing, she went to the 99-cent store and bought cleaning supplies, nails for my pictures and posters, toilet paper and various storage materials. She’s so much better at that stuff than I am. I’ll let stuff just sit on the floor until it sprouts branches.

Every few minutes, she’ll say, "Where do you want this?" or "Was this originally green?" I’ll turn around, and make a joke, and she’ll punch me in the arm, and it is relaxed and easy and normal. She is my sister. We don’t have to impress each other. We can just be.

Jill won’t be able to just take random jaunts to New York City forever. She’ll eventually have a job she can’t get time off from, or a boyfriend who insists on coming along and making us go see Ground Zero, or will be just too caught up with the day-to-day rigmarole of life that she won’t be able to go visit her brother in New York.

But she’s free from that, for now. She doesn’t have to play that game, not yet. So she’s here, and it’s great, and, when she goes home, in about four hours, I’ll go to bed early, because I have to be back in my cubicle at 9. I know she will have to join this world someday. I believe I am living my life the right way. But I will not lecture my sister anymore. I feel that perhaps she should lecture me.


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