Winter was coming and Herbert was afraid that he had not adequately prepared. It was an abstract and, in many ways, absurd fear, given that his radiator functioned perfectly and his checking account was plentiful, given that for long stretches of winter one could simply forget about the weather roiling outside. One could stay inside. Herbert was a man for whom the Internet meme “first world problems” had been coined. Recently, at a literary event in East Atlanta Village, a local author had juxtaposed the image of hipsters wallowing in self-induced poverty with that of AIDS-ravaged sub-Saharan Africans, as if to say to Herbert, and people like Herbert, boy, do you have it good. And he had not taken it personally. Indeed, he had laughed as loud as anyone. He did have it good.
And yet, as autumn descended onto Atlanta, the uncannily blue skies shading to gray, the leaves turning color and so on, Herbert felt an unfamiliar unease stir within him, an expansive and all-consuming self-doubt that superseded the abundance of his checking account. He feared that he had begun to feel “stuck,” as a childhood therapist had once characterized it, a diagnosis that had never achieved much resonance for Herbert, however, given the word’s connotation with dirt, mud, ground and immovable gears. “Stuck” implied frustration but also stasis, stability. No, what Herbert felt, as the first frost bit against his exposed arms, was not complacency but fear.
It was fear that had gotten Herbert thinking, for the first time in years and years, about problems that were bigger than simply run-of-the-mill. He had never been one for metaphysical concerns. He preferred cartoons, costumes, and craft beer. His philosophy, if someone had forced him to talk about it, which they wouldn’t, because it was a free country (Herbert repeated this phrase—free country—to himself often, like a mantra), boiled down to a belief in material comfort, personal safety, and sensual pleasure, a veritable triptych of hedonism that he thought every American—black, white, or yellow, gay, straight, or queer, Muslim, Christian, or Jew—was entitled to. Herbert may not have wanted to discuss details—those were best left to bureaucrats and technicians, those pitiable pencil-pushers—but surely there were enough resources in this country for everyone to partake. It was simply a problem of income inequality. If only the rich would stop being so greedy, so short-sighted, so stupid. Herbert was an idealist. He believed in creativity, personal freedom, and high tax rates for the wealthy.
Such constellation of beliefs had been sufficient, for some time, to sustain Herbert through a comfortable mental and emotional life. And yet, in the autumn of 2012, he found himself feeling confused. The election had gone well. Pot had passed in two states, gay marriage in three. The consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren had won a senate seat. And of course Obama had triumphed in his bid for reelection. The last time Obama won, Herbert literally danced down Ponce.
This time, though, he was not feeling so euphoric. Indeed, it was Obama’s reelection, with the ensuing ennui, that caused him to ask himself, what does all of this finally mean?
The first place he went for answers was the Trader Joe’s in Midtown. TJ’s had never failed to cheer him up. There were the almost profoundly inexpensive avocados, the nuanced but affordable South American wines, the wonderfully attentive and deferential employees. It was almost too good a grocery store. He loved the bells the cashiers rang when the lines got too long. He loved the personalized notes managers affixed to price tags—so witty, so charming, so personal! He loved that Italian-style products were stamped “Trader Giotto’s,” Chinese-style products “Trader Ming’s,” and so on. Once, strolling through the frozen food aisle, he had spied three middle manager-types with their arms crossed, conversing in hushed tones. His heart nearly leapt at the sight. It was as though he were witnessing a conference between the three wise men themselves.
This day, though, the store offered him little solace. There was something frantic, even a little desperate, in the movements of the Joe’s shoppers, the way they were slinging frozen shrimp or chocolate-covered almonds or packages of salmon jerky into their carts. The cheerful pop music, which usually produced in him a feeling of effervescence, was now giving him a headache. As he walked, empty-handed, through the store, an employee—or “associate”—stopped him to ask if he was finding everything all right. He was smiling but Herbert saw no joy in his smile. The smile said, I am paid to smile. It said, if you do not buy, I may not get paid. It said, buy, sir, buy!
Herbert left with a sour taste in his mouth. For the first time that he could remember, he had entered a grocery store and exited without buying a thing.
Herbert’s second destination was the Stout Beer Bar in Little Five Points. He loved the Stout with a passion that he felt for few people on this earth. The pleasant hush of the interior. The dim, tasteful lighting. The kitschy posters adorning the walls. And of course, the beer. Herbert made a point of trying at least one new beer every time he drank at the Stout, sometimes two or three. Still, he had only ever tasted about one third of the total beverages offered by the bar, a fact that conferred some security, this discrepancy between what he had personally consumed and what there was left to consume.
A young waiter brought him a clipboard thick with papers. As he scanned the list, he was surprised to find that the prospect of tasting a new beer appealed to him hardly at all. He skipped ahead to the food menu. The catalogue of creatively-imagined, locally-sourced dishes unexpectedly turned his stomach. He felt a real pang of despair. If not aged English ale, if not locally-grown beet salad, then what? Then what?
He glanced around the bar. The other patrons seemed to be enjoying themselves reasonably. Then why did he find them so unreasonable? He stood from the table, his lungs burning. He wanted to be outside, where air was.
Herbert’s third stop in his search for meaning was the Apple store in Buckhead. He had admired the company since adolescence. It made an objectively superior product; the designers understood the increasingly visual nature of contemporary culture. Of course, the Foxconn controversy had been way overblown.
When Steve Jobs died, Herbert cried over his Macbook, posting progressively histrionic statuses to his Facebook profile. His friends had understood. They “liked” his statuses with real sympathy and commiseration. Jobs, they agreed, had been nearly perfect. A capitalist who experimented with LSD. A liberal who succeeded in business. He was a real hero.
In the past, Herbert had taken not insubstantial pleasure on his errands to the Apple store. He loved the blue, almost magnetic glow of the computer screens. The gleaming products lining the back shelves. The liberalism with which technicians were allowed to accessorize. Strolling through the Apple store, Herbert felt close to some elusive center, the fulcrum on which their society presently turned.
On this day, though, Herbert found something vaguely sinister about the way the employees approached him. Each was clad in identical blue, iPhones fastened to their necks like millstones, or yokes. All around him blazed the brilliance of the Apple corporation. Suddenly, Herbert felt the need to protect himself. Backing away from the employees, he held up his hands as if to ward off the assault of artificial light. He left the store the same way that he had come.
That evening, Herbert huddled at home on the couch with the radiator blasting. He flipped on the television, switching to MSNBC. He felt like a failure. In his search for meaning, he had swung and missed three times. Maybe there really was no purpose to life. Maybe there was only pleasure and comfort and their lack, which was, of course, pain.
And Herbert was not in pain. He was one of the lucky ones. He was healthy, had plenty of Clif bars in the cupboard and a roof over his head. His Internet access was generally strong.
Still, as the talking heads blathered about God knows what, Herbert felt himself shiver against an impalpable cold. Winter was coming. Already, outside, leaves darkened the ground.