John Paschal applies the calculus of felicity to a July 4th weekend conundrum: accept a beach party invitation or report to work delivering pizzas?
I had a decision to make. I could go to work, where I would deliver pizza to people who probably would not have sex with me, or I could go to the beach, where I would deliver witticisms, profundities and yet another kiwi-raspberry wine cooler to young women who, at least in theory, might.
I was twenty years old, burdened with the ambivalence so common to men of my vintage, and had no working formula with which to solve my dilemma. Sure, in college, I had studied the calculus of felicity, the utilitarian algorithm designed to calculate the degree of pleasure an action is likely to cause, but having already assigned the so-called “hedons” to the beach and the so-called “dolors” to pizza delivery, I really hadn’t achieved any clarity on the issue.
Of course the beach was more fun than work. That’s why they called it the beach. And of course work was less fun than the beach. That’s why they called it pizza delivery. If it had been something else—say, something I had expected when I first took the job—they would have called it “bedding lonely housewives who in efforts to satisfy their cravings had called a local Pizza Hut and ordered—and I quote—‘a large pizza with extra sausage.’”
Alas, my visions of illicit, sweaty and quite possibly greasy sex—visions in which I had usually (but not always) removed my Pizza Hut visor—had not been prophetic. Instead of lonely housewives in pink nighties purring, “If you want your tip, you’ll have to come inside,” I’d gotten hungry bachelors in mismatched clothes muttering, “Um, is it OK if I pay you in quarters?”
Still, this was my job, and just like any job other than a George Jones engagement at the Grand Ole Opry, the worker was expected to show. Employment, no matter how paltry the pay and disappointing the benefits, had always demanded a certain sense of duty, a feeling on the part of each responsible citizen that he or she should honor the social contract by performing the assigned tasks, even if those tasks brought forth a measure of sexual frustration and a pocket full of change. Indeed, according to the social contract theory I had also studied in college, each individual agrees to surrender some of his liberties in exchange for membership in a secure and vigorous society—the kind that accommodates the demand for, and the supply of, Pizza Hut pizza, even if delivered by a would-be libertine.
At the same time, this was the fourth of July, the great celebration of American independence, and if anything shouted American independence! to a twenty year-old taxpayer living alone in a coastal city, it was the chance to spend the holiday weekend at the nearby beach house of a friend’s wealthy family.
And frankly, I had never spent any weekend at the beach house of a friend’s wealthy family. In fact, until recently, I had never had a wealthy friend. Not that I’d mentioned it on my Pizza Hut résumé, but I had grown up poor, at least by American standards, and had always understood the constraints—the relative barriers to unchecked freedom—imposed by a life of poverty.
Indeed, after moving to the city for a summer internship at the local paper, I had turned to pizza delivery as a second, after-hours job, a way of earning—this was my line—“extra dough,” the kind made necessary by an absence of a Trumpian trust fund. And even if the job hadn’t supplied the undersexed housewives I had envisioned, and even if it had stolen time that would have been better spent in the surf, it at least had allowed me to responsibly address the more solemn realities of food and shelter, necessities that some kids never questioned but that grown-ups had to provide.
Now, however, that same second job stood in the way of a kick-ass weekend, three full days of women, wine coolers and who-knows-what-else, as if the Roman goddess of duty, Pietas, had returned to cock-block the reincarnated god of the grape, Bacchus, and Bacchus had responded by reminding Pietas that he had a spare bedroom down at the beach house.
What was I to do?
Was I to honor the social contract, or succumb to social pressure?
Was I to observe the call of duty, or obey the urges of self?
My manager expected me: Be here at 6. It’s going to be busy.
My friend had already called: Ready to go? It’s gonna be great.
Of two minds and competing spirits, I sat in my apartment and considered the precedents. First, my short history of shitty jobs—machinist, yard guy, bank employee—whose obligations I had grudgingly fulfilled, and second, my shorter history of an even shittier job—phone solicitor—that I had up and quit.
It had happened the previous year. In Austin for summer school, I had responded to an ad claiming that I could make upward of $100 an hour—and in a fun and exciting environment!—by tapping into my people skills, but by my third week on the job I had already grown weary of cold-calling “innocent victims,” as I called them, people who in exchange for visiting a time-share property would go home with a) a Caribbean vacation, b) a barbecue grill or c) an “AM-FM stereo.” (Full disclosure: It wasn’t an AM-FM stereo, it was a transistor radio, and it’s what every sucker received.)
Fed up with the hinky ethics, and none too pleased that I’d come up considerably short of the hourly Benjamin, I decided one night that I had had enough. Pushing back from my cubicle, I stood and began walking toward the door.
Glancing up, the guy in the next cubicle asked, “What are you doing?”
“Quitting,” I said.
“I’m coming with you,” he replied, standing from his chair.
Together we opened the door and strode into the night, free of irksome employment. It hadn’t been dramatic, exactly. I had always pictured quitting as some sort of “Take This Job and Shove It” routine, a theatric rebuke to a soulless system that had turned otherwise creative, passionate, productive humans into “mere automatons of duty,” as Nietzsche had termed them.
This, however, had been more of a civil disobedience to expectation, a quiet refusal to rank obligation and earnings, especially ill-gained, above character and free will, and even if I’d again feel the constraints imposed by poverty, I’d at least break those imposed by a destitute ideal—that of subordinating the self, at the expense of identity, to the operating costs of free enterprise.
Now, in my apartment, I stood from the couch and walked toward the door. I turned the doorknob, paused at the threshold and stepped into the light.
The following Monday I called my manager.
She told me to return my visor and pick up my last check.
I did so, happily, but even then I understood that the beach house hadn’t been free.
Read more on The Good Life.
Image credit: MattJP/Flickr