The Hamster Wheel

Joey and I are waiting at the bus stop. He wants to do that ‘Into the Wild’ thing and get himself killed. I give him a week, no more. Either he’ll be crawling back home once his Hopes have been soaked wet and he’s suffering from severe nicotine withdrawal shivering in his $10 tent, or he will have fallen off a cliff in an attempt to get cell reception on that damned mountain. He just read one too many Kerouacs, that’s all.

“You can’t deny that the system we created is plain wrong, man.” His voice is the warm lullaby of a radio presenter. You don’t need much else in life if you have that kind of voice, ‘cos everyone just throws their things at you. “It’s the matrix with all those invisible rules that we built for ourselves, but it’s not working and people are clinging onto it for dear life, because it’s all they’ve ever known.” He flicks the butt of his cigarette toward the two pigeons quarreling by the sidewalk. One looks much smaller than the other, but is bossy as shit. “It’s like, too much evidence has accumulated in my brain to unsee it. Everywhere I look I see those contradictions. It’s the facade crumbling, man. You wait, you’ll see it, too.”

He crouches down to unzip the smaller of his two backpacks, the normal-sized one, and starts again to search for his Hopes. They are in the small pouch in front, just where you left them five minute ago, I could say, but whatever. He’s on his own now, better get used to it. “I still don’t get how you can smoke that menthol crap,” I say.

Joey and I, we were high school friends. Not that we’re not friends anymore, but school is over. For years now. And since then, Joey has done a good five semesters of engineering, while I delivered a trillion pizzas and another zillion people, still brooding over what to study – I guess it’s just never gonna happen.

Joey, having found the packs of Hopes, in that chimney fire voice he says, “You just have to look around you.” He sticks one into the corner of his mouth, pats his jeans for the little red BIC lighter and lights the cigarette with it. “Look around you. People stream in masses to psychologists, because they are depressed and burned-out, and what do they do? Sit there and talk about how depressed and burned-out they are. You think talking about that would cheer you up? And those psychologists are taught to tell them that they just think wrong. That it’s just the wrong patterns in their heads. But come on, who wouldn’t be sick, living plastered in with all this concrete, with the only purpose in life to amass a bunch of trash and slave away in little cubicles to do so. People are meant to live in nature, man. There’s no more nature in our lives. And look at doctors. Whatever the issue – stroke, cancer, whatever – they prescribe pills that only make you more sick. Those people stay inside all day and watch TV, thinking of the lives they can’t afford, when all they’d need to do to get healthy is take a hike in the mountains. It’s a universal thing, man.”

As kids, Joey and I and some other friends would meet for LAN-parties in our parents’ basements. Weekends full of junk food and bad jokes. God, we had to carry those damn computers through the whole neighborhood for that. Those big-ass white plastic things.

“No, you go to the gym and run on one of those treadmills watching an animated forest swishing past, while behind all that, guys pumped up on anabolics lift weights in a dull concrete box. You see the pattern, no?” He takes the last dismissive drag from his Hope, flicks it again toward the two pigeons, the one now puking into the other’s mouth. “We live in all this concrete and make up those pointless goals for our lives that don’t make us happy, and in the process we destroy the one thing that’d be the solution to all this. Like a cage we built for ourselves and now we’re burning the key. We don’t even see that cage anymore, man.”

“Yeah, b-“

“Don’t ‘yeah but’ me, man.”

The thing is, he’s not trying to escape the cage because he wouldn’t work inside. He’s not one of those lunatics who are shoved into asylums because they… well, do see the cage. He’s not like me who’ll be a fuck-up all his life. He’d be successful in that cage.

“Yeah, but,” I say, “how do you want to live out there? A week and you’ll miss Netflix and Skittles. Do you really want to hunt a deer every couple days? I thought you’re vegetarian.” The front pouch! The front pouch, idiot.

“Man, Netflix and Skittles don’t make me happy. Not the way swimming in a cold stream and collecting wild berries will make me happy. And I don’t see how that deer is a problem for me being vegetarian. That deer has never seen a factory farm. It’s never been cramped into one big dark room with a thousand other deer, so stressed and desperate that it gnaws off its own tail. All the reasons I have for being vegetarian – animal cruelty, health, money – None of that applies to the deer. I’m not saying that this whole thing will be easy, but by god, I just wanna live. Don’t you wanna live, man?”

Yeah, but it’s because I want to live that I don’t go into the jungle to get myself killed. Whatever. The bus is late.

“You slave away for half a year in that cubicle to be able to afford three days in some family resort which is another concrete prison. And I say ‘slave away’, because it really is slavery; you are caught in that system that doesn’t leave you any choice while lying to you that choice is exactly what you have, choice between 25 cereal brands; but not the choice that matters. No, you are made to do pointless tasks that only serve to sustain that faulty system. Tell me, man, how many do really have choice? Who has the luxury to self-determine their own life? I hate to use that worn out image, but people are caught in that hamster wheel without the mind to just stop and step out. Fear is what keeps them running; fear to starve, fear to be homeless, fear to be judged by their friends for not having the latest IPhone. People are too hungry and too scared to leave that mad fucking hamster factory and do what is in them. We have poets working the assembly lines, their only job to check whether this little piece of plastic has the knob where it’s supposed to.” He holds up the little red BIC lighter. “And after 16 hours of knob-watching, they’re too tired to write the Annabelle Lee that’s in them. Great inventors driving busses all day, composers working as prostitutes. Do you think that’s right, man?”

The bus, 22 minutes late now, finally pulls in. The big inventor behind its wheel is meant to bring him to Reno, after that he’ll hitchhike, then walk. Joey nods to the driver when putting his backpack in the boot. To me, he says, “And I don’t mean that it’s just one in a million to have such a talent. I mean it’s every. single. one. Dude, when we were kids, you used to write those little stories – what’s with that?” He shows the inventor his ticket, the DIN A4 page all crumpled. Those little stories he mentioned, I had forgotten all about them. In some too-eager temper I had shown one of my teachers “The Adventures of Arnie the Astronaut” scribbled onto the lined sheets of my workbook, and he said that, maybe I shouldn’t waste my time on them.

Joey, he’s in the door of the bus, saying, “And whenever I tell my mom these thoughts, she goes, ‘That’s just the way it is Joey.’ See? Like there’s no choice, man. But we do have a choice. And I’m taking it.” He’s flicking his last Hope out of the door. “If you ever change your mind about the hamster wheel, come find me and we can hunt those deer together.”

Two weeks. Two weeks and he’ll be dead from trying to hug a grizzly, either that or he’ll be begging his mom to live in the basement.

© Deva Mari