I met this guy on a tropical island in Belize once. Steven.
He was very New Jersey, and I feel somehow qualified to describe him as such although I have never even been to New Jersey: pasty skin, caterpillar eyebrows, and costumed always in an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt and a pilled-up Bowler hat.
Steven sauntered around town in a pair of tacky sunglasses, chain-smoking Colonial Light cigarettes and making frequent allusions to some obscure Internet business he was running.
“Yep,” he’d say, letting out a laborious breath and loosing a cigarette from his crumpled pack, his sunburned nipples peeking out from the opened shirt-flaps: “I’ve been on Caye Caulker nine months. I was only going to stay for three. But that’s how it is when you work online.”
I was sort of impressed, or at least jealous enough to find this guy insufferably annoying. 2004 was early days yet for the Internet of Vocations. We were a mere four years out from a devastating Dot-com bubble burst, Facebook had just made its game-changing debut, and Web 2.0, with its emphasis on active user participation, was rearranging ideas about who and what the Internet was for. Fortunes were being waged and forfeited on the once-and-future might of what we still quaintly referred to as “The Net.”
By 2011, Facebook alone would have more users than there had been people connected to the ENTIRE INTERNET when Steven and I met on that tropical island. So much hadn’t happened yet!
To meet someone back then who was actually making his living from a computer kiosk in the Caribbean seemed the stuff of fantasies. At least, of my fantasies.
I was employed on my own tropical island some 50 miles north, but my posting entailed chasing screaming Mexican three-year-olds around an “English Class” 45 hours a week to the tune of a thousand simple bucks a month. I traded my jealousy for scorn when a fellow traveler named John finally unmasked Steven for the flop he truly was.
John was a dorky MBA candidate from the Deep South with whom I’d had occasion to share a bed my first night in Belize. But not like that: I met him on a bus heading south from Yucatan Peninsula to Belize City. We arrived one rainy Midnight, and, there being no rooms for rent, found ourselves sharing a mattress on the floor of an old woman’s attic at the edge of town. It was as awkward as it sounds. We hopped a boat to the island together the next day, taking care to never, never mention the bed in the attic again.
And there, among a rag-tag gathering of half-a-dozen blissed out backpackers, we met Steven. Our casual assembly spent entire days strung up in hammocks at the top of an island reggae bar, drinking rums.
Someone was passing a joint around when I finally got to the bottom of Steven and the source of his livelihood. He had boringly started in yet again on the oblique Internet-business references.
“The Internet Café opened late today,” he sighed, readjusting his statement hat so it tipped jauntily off to one side. “Baaaaad for business.”
Then, a couple minutes later: “No more joints for me. Got to be to work early.”
John lifted his head, and from beneath a corona of pot smoke and sandy yellow hair, he asked the question that was on the tips of everyone’s tongues: “So . . . what do you do?”
Steven was silent a minute. Then, he rubbed his bare, hairy belly like some self-satisfied jungle cat and said: “I play online poker.”
Silence. Everybody was looking at each other, sort of confused, and I felt a great, wicked peal of laughter bubbling up inside of me like sea foam.
John crinkled his brow and thought for a minute.
He said: “Wait. That’s a job, now?”
I cackled evilly. John looked confused.
Steven blushed prettily, glared in my direction, and shot back at both of us: “Well I make like a thousand bucks a month.”
I felt somehow vindicated. Even if his dropout Caribbean expat lifestyle was superior to mine in every other way, his job was totally fake.
Mine was real. Crappy, but real. Exhausting and perhaps futile, but real. And back in 2004, that still seemed like it counted for something.
Nowadays, I’m not so sure.
Steven pointedly ignored me for the rest of the two weeks I spent on Caye Caulker, except to tell me once that I looked like I was “in a bad mood.”
I left my own tropical island seven months later, and I spent the remainder of my 20s working shitty gigs at home and abroad, dreaming fruitlessly of becoming a writer, and ranting spiritedly to anyone who would listen about the shocking number “fake jobs” that seemed to be willing themselves into existence.
A friend’s mother randomly divorced her husband and quit her job as a teacher in order to become a Life Coach, and I guwaffed.
I saw snoot-nosed academic types described as “Important Public Thinkers” and “Social Commentators” on the backs of crappy book jackets and I sneered.
I was a semi-literate creative myself, but I had no more patience for muses, poets or philosophers than I did for personal cheerleaders or online gamblers.
Some of these postings had been around awhile, it was true, but the the Internet was making it worse, and the Hyper-Literate Leisure Class coming up at the turn of the Millennium seemed to plumb new shallows. If I couldn’t do the questionably important and useful work I dreamed of doing – becoming a writer – then why should others see their nonviable ambitions come true? It wasn’t fair!
This wasn’t about some jobs being more “important” than others. A person could be a hooker, or a trash picker, or a professional pencil sharpener. At least they were performing a service that in some way moved life forward, and that made them noble in a Bon Jovi kind of way.
I was hanging out with a lot of Communists and Anarchists at the time, and so I decided to blame it all on Late Capitalism. One of the hallmarks of an economically complex society, my black-and-red-clad friends had explained to me, was surplus. Surplus indicated that basic needs had been met. And when basic needs were met, niches opened up for all kinds of ridiculousness (thought criticism, interpretive dancing, personal shopping assistants, etc.) that were in no way connected to the chain of basic goods production. The corpus of our overfed economy was sprouting new and useless arms – entire armies of people who served no visible purpose.
And while the rest of us toiled and troubled, some of these aforementioned extra arms sat on tropical beaches cradling early-model laptops, redealing a virtual deck of cards as their non-virtual bank accounts fattened.
Where had these pointy-headed cultural critics and self-satisfied Internet impresarios come from? Shouldn’t they be shucking corn or weaving sweaters or something?
No. No, they shouldn’t. Because I already had 30 sweaters I hated hanging in the closet at my mom’s house and my pick of a zillion more at the mall down the street, and canned corn was so abundant a commodity it had become practically worthless.
The ability to carve out such niches required an incredibly complex leap in social progress. And a lot of hours to burn. And both of those, we had. At least for awhile.
And then, 2009. Then, a useless graduate degree in international journalism. And then, me earning slightly above minimum wage as a glorified secretary and grateful as hell just to be doing that. I busied my hands with useful, low-paying work. Surplus dwindled, belts tightened. It got worse before it got better. For everyone. And I let life take me down a much-needed peg or 10.
I’m a writer by now, as foretold in post-adolescent fantasies. I work mostly remotely. And I still think about Steven. These days, professional online poker players aren’t a people to be ridiculed. They write flashy autobiographies, book cake speaking engagements, and enjoy a good amount of pop culture cachet.
I was probably too hard on the guy. He wasn’t making the world any better from his dubious station at that Internet kiosk in the Caribbean. But he wasn’t really hurting anybody, either. In fact, he was, perhaps, a bit of a Virtual Pioneer. That’s how I picture him, now: as a trail-blazer of sorts. In his bowler hat and Hawaiian shirt, wielding a digital machete and wiggling those caterpillar brows as he hacks his way into the Brave New Future, clearing a path for all who would follow. And follow, we did.
It’s not a bad future at all. The air here’s warm and the dress code’s casual. But, y’know. That’s just how it is when you work online.