SYMPHONY

I Write Fortune-Cookie Fortunes
(8 Pages in Typescript)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

                I am not an evil person. It's true I have a taste for pranks and practical jokes, and that in college I masterminded quite a few of them. It was I, for example, who had the inspiration for the eight-foot slingshot my fellow pranksters and I assembled from heavy-duty, industrial-grade rubber bands. That thing was so powerful we could fire water balloons from the fourth floor of Brattle Dorm and hit the roof of the library, or the computer center, all the way across campus. And it was I who produced the uniforms and hardhats and, well, liberated sawhorses we used to redirect traffic from Crawley Avenue onto the campus, and from there to the dead-end parking lot behind the field house. When the lot had filled with angry, confused drivers driving what looked like bump-'em cars as they tried to extract themselves, we simply hid in the bushes, removed our uniforms, and disappeared. Finally, it was I who originated the idea of hanging Freddy Barnes out a fourth-floor window with a noose around his neck, on Parents Day. I designed the harness that actually supported him, and figured out a way to secure it in his room.
                I also enjoyed being creative with my computer. I didn't do anything malicious, I never caused anyone real harm—except, I suppose, on those few occasions when I was trying to expose the inefficiencies and vulnerabilities of the campus-wide system—I merely did things I thought other people would find funny. Once, for example, I scanned a Chinese menu, and got all sixteen printers in the Johnson Computer Center printing it out at once. Students who were printing papers, or stuff from the Internet, would find their print-outs included a Chinese menu. And if they switched to a different printer, the menu would already be waiting for them in the tray. Another time I produced a form letter explaining why the (name-to-be-filled-in) student had been expelled from school, listing all sorts of sleazy, salacious reasons, and routed it to the dean's office. Later I designed a page entitled The Dean is Watching You, created a fat, ominous eyeball that twisted and rolled as it followed the user's cursor, and e-mailed it to everyone on campus.
                I suppose the amount of time I spent on these extracurricular activities explains why, except in math and computer science, I didn't get very good grades. In science in general, I did well, but in the humanities I was a flop. Anyone can read a poem or novel and answer the questions, unquote, but for me the questions always seemed silly, and besides, they took all the pleasure out of reading the stuff in the first place. And while it's true that economics is based on math, the charts and graphs in the textbooks we used seemed completely theoretical, they had nothing to do with everyday reality. You could argue that if you lowered the price of something you would sell more of it, but some things—perfume, for example—often sell better the more expensive they are. So much for Adam Smith, and economics.
                So you could say I sort of frittered away my college experience. Math and computer science came easily to me, but for the rest I spent my time dreaming up mischief, and playing chess. Chess is just a variety of computer science after all, and because I was already doing graduate-level programming, it was easy to apply that kind of thinking to chess. It's no wonder that in my four years in college, no one ever beat me.
                It's when I graduated that the Great Crash, what I call the Great Crash occurred. I probably should have gone to graduate school, or gotten a job using my computer-programming skills, but like a ton of bricks the realization suddenly fell on me that I had absolutely no idea how to live, no idea how to be a person. I had spent my entire life, I realized, in protected environments, and now, without any preparation or advance notice, I was being asked to cope with— What? The real world? What is the real world? I have no idea, but whatever it is, it came as a great shock to me, it seemed to me very unreal. I didn't know how to make friends, I didn't know how to deal with strangers, I didn't know how to travel alone, I didn't know how to approach women, I didn't know how to exist. I had left the womb—been kicked out of the womb—and I was totally, hopelessly lost. Because I had almost no money when I graduated, I took the cheapest apartment I could find, a hole-in- the-wall in the back of a building not far from the only security I knew, the womb. For a while, I commuted into the city and handed out advertising leaflets on street corners, after that I bagged groceries at a supermarket. Neither of these exalted jobs did much for my social skills, however, so when my work day was over I usually stayed in my room and played chess on the computer—where I finally found people who could beat me—or studied programming manuals. I took in a cat that eventually lost most of her hair, I washed my dishes every other week, I swept the apartment about once a year.
                I was wandering through a small industrial park not far from where I live, one afternoon, when I noticed a sign on a faceless, anonymous factory building. Nanking Chinese Products Company, Manufacturers of Noodles, Wrappers, and Fortune Cookies. I stared at the sign, imagined what went on inside, pictured myself writing fortune-cookie fortunes, and nearly laughed out loud. At that moment, however, something came over me. What's to lose? I thought, anything's better than what I'm doing. I steeled myself, walked in the front door of Nanking Chinese Products, and asked the first person I met whether the company might need someone to write fortune-cookie fortunes. I guess fate had determined that my college education bear fruit after all, because the man I was talking to, Mr. Woo—more about him later—said yes, they did. At that moment I wasn't sure whether I had done the right thing, but I forced myself to go through with it. The next morning, I went to the supermarket and told my boss I had found another job, then returned to the Nanking Chinese Products Company and set about learning the technicalities of making fortune cookies, and the intricacies of writing fortunes for them.
                People imagine that assembly-line workers, probably oriental, insert fortunes into limp dough, fold the dough up by hand, and place it on a trays which are then moved to an oven. Not so. The machines we use, HV 5000's, do all the work automatically, preparing the dough, clipping the fortunes from overhead rolls, inserting them in the cookies, and crimping the dough around them. And they do it incredibly fast. An HV 5000 can turn out five thousand fortune cookies an hour. That's about eighty-three cookies a minute, actually eighty-three and a third, eighty-three followed by an infinity of threes. If an HV 5000 were operated around the clock for an entire year, it would produce five thousand, times twenty-four, times three hundred and sixty-five, or forty-three million, eight hundred thousand cookies. In roughly a hundred and twenty-five years, depending on population patterns, the machine would produce more cookies than there are people on the planet. That's a lot of cookies, and even though each fortune goes into more than one cookie, a lot of fortunes.
                That's where I come in. I sit at a keyboard and dream up compliments, guidance, predictions, and inspiration all day. I offer insight and wisdom (if you can call it that), or explain to people what their future holds (as if I had any idea) or what others think of them (as if I knew). I have books of wit and wisdom at my side, collections of aphorisms and epigrams, and when I can find them, I buy more such collections, which I read through and make checks in, at night. Even though six other people write fortunes for Nanking, some of them working at home, eighty-three fortunes a minute is a lot of fortunes, so mostly I just wing it, dreaming up compliments and pithy sayings as fast as I can. There are days when I wish I had paid more attention to literature while I was in college.
                But I like my job, I really do. People leave me alone, which gives me the anonymity I like, and I can talk to the world without its talking back to me. I make a game out of keeping up with my quotas, I turn the job into a contest of wits, a chess game in which paper battles dough. Paper, dough, paper, dough, all day long. Bon moes, isn't that what they call them? What I produce are a fledgling computer programmer's bon moes. At least I have fun doing it. I often think of my college classmates, laboring away in graduate school or selling their souls at brokerage firms, and wonder what they would think of me. Needless to say, I haven't reported on my job to the alumni magazine.
                Something happened recently, however, that really gets my goat. Mr. Woo, my boss—I think it was originally Wu—hired a new guy who, I've found out, makes only thirty cents less an hour than I do. Here I've written about twenty ga-zillion fortunes over the last three years—some of which, I'm sure, in a kind of endgame, contradicted or canceled one another—and Mr. Woo decided this rank beginner could tell the future as well as I, a seasoned professional, can. I raised the question of salary with Mr. Woo, the other day, and he peremptorily let me know that if I had a problem, I was welcome to find other employment. Well, I'm not ready to quit yet. For one thing, I've discovered that by writing my words of wisdom I'm finally getting an education for life, I'm learning, as it were, on the job, I'm finally wiseing up. Still, I felt some payback was in order. As the fortunes go into the cookies automatically, and the bakery people rarely look at them, I decided to let my mind, well, wander, I decided to let it enjoy little flights of imagination. Instead of writing traditional fortunes, I began generating stuff like stock market predictions, racing tips, lottery advice, I began producing advice to the lovelorn, arcane comments on the news, random collections of phone numbers. One time I produced a mini-ad for Disney World, complete with a reference to nonstop flights to Orlando. Another time I informed the lucky recipient of the cookie that he had won the Publishers Sweepstakes jackpot. I typed out arcane lines of computer-programming language, concocted recipes for things like mulligatawny soup, loaded up one fortune with twenty-five lucky numbers, and even produced secret, coded instructions for a drug delivery. (Shsssh, don't tell, it said at the end.) I was like a computer hacker, only I was hacking other people's minds, I was installing little viruses in their brains. Slowly I realized I was doing this less in a spirit of revenge than of personal liberation, I was simply trying out new things, discovering new possibilities, discovering myself. I only hope the people who received my fortunes were amused, I hope that for people who have never experimented with drugs, my fortunes were a cheap form of hallucination.
                It was the best of times and the worst of times. . . .
                That was one of my favorites, and I thought it summed things up quite nicely. But that's my dilemma. I'm having the best time at Nanking, but I don't like the fact that a newcomer makes almost the same salary as I do. So while I debate about with myself how long I'll stick with the job, I'll continue to give free rein to my imagination, and create a body of literature to rival those stories and novels I had to read in college. I'll become a writer, as it were, in my own right. Who knows, maybe I'll finally become educated.
                Used sombreros nullify public-aspect representatives.
                There. How's that?

 
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