It is a sunny, warm December day in sunny California, marred only by a burnt umber haze on the eastern horizon, the first hint of the oncoming winter fire season. Christmas decorations hang from the trees and shrubs in the local park, and snatches of Christmas music from the adjacent shops poke through the traffic noise from time to time.
Jason is oblivious. He is a thin, twenty-something white man, a stereotypical IT geek with his casual dress, close-cropped brown hair, clean-shaven face, and horn-rimmed glasses. He sits slumped over on a bench in the park, eyes closed, face in his hands. The hands are plastered over his face mask; he knows, and doesn’t effing care, that you’re not supposed to be touching the front of your mask with your hands. His tech is on silent and “Do Not Disturb” mode; his focus is entirely on himself. So much so that he neither hears nor sees the approach of the balding middle-aged white man …
“‘S’matter, kid? Lose your job?”
Jason didn’t move. His response was partially muffled by his mask and his hands. That he did respond, to a stranger, was a sign of the depth of his distress. “Not yet. But probably soon. And I’m not sure I care.”
“Yeah? Lot a folk who ain’t got a clue how they’re going to pay the rent this month might have somethin’ to tell you about that.”
A little heat found its way through the mask. “Like what? That it’s OK to be spied on in order to live?”
“They’re spying on us, I tell you!” He snarled, then, with only slightly less fury, continued. “Three of my buddies got fired today, and for what? ‘Serious violations of our policies.’ Our policies are, you kiss the asses of our billionaire bosses or get sacked! And we know your every move. Your email’s on our servers, your texts are on record. We scrape your Facebook and Instagram pages. And they’d all better conform to what the company wants from us, or else! ‘Land of the free’, hah! Land of the wage slaves, where the CEOs and Board chairs and their robots order and we follow. This sucks!”
“Yeah, kid, it does. You need one of these.”
A soft object landed on top of Jason’s balled fists. He, at last, opened his eyes to find out what it was.
Jason shrieked, bolted out of the bench he was sitting on. He flailed his arms, trying to knock the cap into the Pacific Ocean, preferably to the west of Hawaiʻi, but the cap did not cooperate; it fell gently to the ground, indolently, insultingly. He turned this way and that, trying to lay eyes on his tormentor. When he did find him, he discovered that he was not wearing a mask. What he was wearing was a profoundly un-compassionate sneer.
“Not a fan, I take it? Prefer to be in the position of dishing rather than taking?”
A thousand epithets, each more vile than the last, piled up in Jason’s brain – but the only sounds that he could get out of his mouth were squeaks and gawks. He imagined what a mirror would show him; a forehead as crimson as that cap.
“You may as well stop straining yourself”, the balding middle-aged man told him. “If you were my age, you might suffer a stroke, so you learn to relax. And to claim what is yours before you blow an artery getting angry about it.
“So you’re pissed off about your bosses taking away your freedom to say what you want about the company you work for or anyone else, on company time and on the company dime. How the hell do you think we feel about you freaks taking away our freedom to say and do what we want on our own time and our own dimes? What gives you the right to boss us around, about masks or anything else?”
“The facts?”, Jason squeaked out.
The balding middle-aged man thrust his right hand into Jason’s shirt, thrust his face up Jason’s nose. He had far more strength than Jason had given him credit for; he squirmed uselessly.
“Let me tell you what the facts are, kid”, he ground out. “The fact is that you rats will use any information you can find that will make you look good and anyone who disagrees with you look bad. The fact is that you own the machines that pass that information around, and you only care about using it in the big cities because you thought there weren’t enough of us anywhere else to be worth bothering with.
“And, the fact is that, when the shoe is on the other foot, and it’s your ability to do as you damned well please that’s at stake, you are exactly the same as us!! Except, when we abandon you, it will amuse us to watch you try to build an app that will grow you something to eat.”
The balding middle-aged man threw Jason to the ground, with much more effectiveness than Jason had had, trying to swat away the MAGA cap. “Go to hell, kid.” He turned on his heel and walked away.
Jason stayed where he had been thrown. He was still there two hours later when the drone flew overhead, and then his phone buzzed, overriding Jason’s privacy settings. With the slow, erratic motions of an old man in physical and spiritual pain, Jason reached into his shirt pocket, retrieved the phone, answered the call. It was his supervisor, the one who had fired his coworkers that morning.
“Jason! Are you all right?”
“No.” Jason ended the call. And then smashed the phone into pieces on the sidewalk.