By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Once, when you were young and new to San Francisco and didn’t know how things worked, a guy helped you out. And it stuck with you. Years later you are sitting in a hotel room in Innsbruck, Austria, waiting for your wife, and you remember this guy who helped you out, his smile and his well-pressed blue shirt and corporate tie, and he’s looking down at you at your desk in the mail room, and he’s grinning and shaking his head like you are the most amazingly unqualified person for the job, and yet for some reason he wants to help you out. He wants to share with you the secrets of corporate life. You are sitting in the mail room on that armless gray swivel chair with the duct tape on the seat, sorting the mail, and he’s telling you that corporate life . . . well, it’s a life, is what it is, and you can adapt to it and even start to enjoy it if you just adjust your perspective.
“But you,” he says, shaking his head, “you I just don’t know about. I think you’ve got an attitude.”
“Damn right I’ve got an attitude,” you say.
“Stick around, and they’ll take care of you,” he says.
And you say to him, “These assholes are going to take care of me? I don’t think so.”
And he says, Maurice says, with that voice you still remember, “You’d be surprised. Look.” And he pulls up his shirt and shows you the scar on his belly from when he got sick and they put him in the best hospital in San Francisco for the operation and gave him time off to recuperate and sent him flowers, and he even ended up with a wife in the bargain.
“A wife?” you say.
“She was my nurse,” he says, and now he’s showing you his wallet photos of the two kids they are putting through good schools in the good neighborhood where he can afford to live because he works for the corporation.
A thing like that can come back to you thirty-five years later while you’re waiting for your own wife, at a time when you are doubting yourself and the path you took, thinking maybe you threw it all away, which your therapist tells you is exaggerated thinking, with her arched eyebrows and her empathetic look and the way she purses her lips and seems about to speak and then stops as if remembering what she learned in therapist school, which is that she’s supposed to listen, listen, listen.
“So things haven’t turned out exactly how you wanted them to,” she says, really bearing down on the empathy tone, and you are thinking that in spite of all the therapy and what you’ve learned about Buddhism and the transitory nature of all things and the pointlessness of egoistic self-laceration, nevertheless it can seem to you, in that piercing instant of sharp regret, that you threw away all your promise and gifts and all the things your parents gave you — those parents who were enormously kind and patient and tolerant of your every selfish, adolescent tantrum and teenage mood; who stood by you as you made one bad decision after another; who kept silent about the women you brought home for Thanksgiving; who stepped over your passed-out body on the living-room carpet on Sunday morning; who were selfless and forgiving and therefore left you with an enormous load of guilt.
What was happening, really, and what Maurice could not possibly understand — or maybe he could — was that you were in a sort of crisis. You had graduated from the University of Miami with honors, then hopped on a plane to San Francisco to go to graduate school in creative writing. You had come with two friends, but they had left, and now you were all alone and working in a mail room, and the world was wearing you out and sucking you dry. You were twenty-five. You were not a grown-up. You were an overgrown kid who did not know how to cook. You were a fool to others while to yourself you seemed brilliant. And maybe Maurice sensed that you were in crisis, even though you were too headstrong and egotistical and full of belief in yourself to see it. You were headed for a fall but didn’t know it. You took breaks to smoke cigarettes on the roof of your office building. Today, when you see guys in their twenties, guys the same age you were then — guys who are full of themselves, guys with all the answers, guys on the way up, guys who think they’re making it all on their own — you notice they’ve got the same problem you had, and you think maybe it’s part of being human, this phase you go through when you think you’re a god.
As you sit in the hotel in Innsbruck, where you have come with your wife to visit her ailing aunt who may not be long for this world, you think about what you were like back then.
One afternoon you met a poet in San Francisco and brought her home to your bed, and as you both got undressed she started crying and you said, “What’s wrong?” and she said every time she saw a man’s penis, she started crying. So you got dressed and you both went and sat on the steps of your apartment building and smoked cigarettes in the fog, and she told you she’d had some kind of trauma, and she cried and patted your hand and left in a taxi later that afternoon.
Another time you were in the student bookstore at San Francisco State, getting books for your graduate-school classes, and you met this young woman with frizzy brown hair and big glasses and big breasts who told you she did not like men in suits. You visited her in Berkeley, and as the two of you went down the escalator from the elevated BART train, she saw a man in a suit and said something nasty about him. Later she invited you over for dinner with some friends, but when you got to her house there were no friends, just her and you, and you both wanted to have sex, but then she asked you to help her put in her diaphragm, and it made you so uncomfortable you didn’t want to have sex with her anymore.
In 1981 all you wanted was to have sex with women, and when something got in the way of that, you thought it was the woman’s fault, but, looking back on it, you can see that usually it was your fault.
Then there was the time when a classmate in the creative-writing program had a party and you got drunk and wandered home, and the next day you saw him and he said you had been thrown out of the party because you had whipped out your penis and shown it to everyone. Yes, you had shown your penis to people at the party because you were drunk and you thought maybe they would want to see it, but he told you the next day they didn’t want to see it at all.
And now you were coming in late to your mail-room job because you’d stayed up till 2 AM practicing with your band and drinking beer and going to see other bands. You were buying cheap beer and getting in the mosh pit with punk girls who would whirl in their heavy boots that sometimes landed on your tennis shoes — yes, you wore tennis shoes because you were from Florida and didn’t know any better.
He just could not understand it, Maurice, when you told him you couldn’t take the atmosphere at this job anymore, the boredom, and he said, “Yeah, of course, what do you expect? It’s always like that when you start out. You’re on the low rung. You’re down in the galley. You’re a galley slave,” he said.
You remember this especially because he was black, and it was striking to hear a black person use the word slave, but he didn’t pause or give you a knowing look. He started talking to you about Karl Marx, and you admitted that you’d never read Karl Marx, and he was amazed that you, a guy who had gone to graduate school, had never studied Marx, and how could you possibly know anything about anything if you didn’t at least understand dialectical materialism, much less Marxism, which was how people rose up out of feudalism and slavery and mail-room jobs?
“Right now you’re down in the galley with the slaves,” he said. “Of course it sucks. You just have to wait it out.”
“I can’t wait any longer,” you said, and you loosened your expensive tie.
“Your tie is loose,” he said, and he reached in and cinched it up. You loosened it again. He reached in and cinched it up again, and you grabbed his hand, and for a moment you and he were locked in a silent struggle over the stupid tie you’d bought at the priciest store on Sutter Street, just for the thrill of buying a tie in a store like that. Then you let go of his hand and he smiled and tightened up your tie and adjusted it just right.
He flicked a little white thread off your collar with his well-manicured fingernail. “When you started here, you didn’t even know how to tie a damn tie.”
You handed in your resignation that afternoon, effective immediately. You lied and said your mother was dying.
You didn’t say goodbye to Maurice. But all these years later you are thinking about him because you see now that he was only trying to help you out.