The problem, Jane thought, was that the distribution dates were different for everyone. The basic income check came on the sixth of the month, right after rent was due. Food stamps came on the day of the month that matched the last digit of your social. Medical benefits got loaded into your HealthGo card on the twelfth, or twelve days after the date of your last hospital discharge.
It wasn’t even that much money: it was insulting actually, thought Jane, but everyone took it anyway. The economy was still recovering from the Fourth Depression. Even if employment was over 95%, who could afford to say no to state benefits?
If you didn’t take it, you couldn’t give it away.
It was easy to tell who had enough money to weather the recessions and who didn’t. Riding the bus to work in the morning, Jane noticed the bumper stickers on the Jaguars and Teslas that pressed nose-to-fender in rush hour. NPR All Classical. I Love My Co-Op. Don’t Shop, Adopt. A gold sticker meant a member donation, $500 or more. If the sticker had a silver border, that was the highest level. It meant the person could afford to commit their annual distribution income to the nonprofit of their choice. More than one silver-rimmed sticker meant real wealth.
She sneered at a neo-Lambo hybrid covered in shiny donation badges. These people. They fund a perfect society but still can’t share the credit.
Jane pulled the cord for her stop and stepped onto the curb. A few pigeons, pulling french fries from an abandoned McDonald’s carton, scattered as she passed them. It was half a block to her office—an ugly walk. She was glad she’d bought the blocker glasses. She turned up the volume on her device and made sure she had a good grip on her tote bag. Her route took her under a filthy overpass, past a trash drop-off, and around one of the smaller East Side encampments. She told herself she wasn’t scared because she didn’t want to be that person who was afraid of the world she lived in, but all the same, she felt her pulse elevate until it was keeping pace with the synth beat in her headphones.
It wasn’t even eight yet, and both sides of the sidewalk were already lined with beggars sitting on cardboard squares. A few of them propped up handwritten signs, or put out battered hats and bowls to collect spare change. Jane walked stiffly, feeling many eyes on her. There was so much need. She didn’t carry real money: hardly anyone did.
What would these people buy, with that kind of money?
One sign said Reparations.
There were more of them down the block. Clumps of filthy hair. A man in American-flag pajama pants argued with a woman wearing a policeman’s cap. Two people, so thin that their sex was indeterminate, fought over a wheelchair, yanking it back and forth. Jane was glad she couldn’t hear their voices. The tents were covered in white streaks of bird shit. Pigeons nested against the beams of the nearby freeway overpass. She could smell a fire, meat cooking. The homeless caught rats, sparrows, ate them. They ate everything. Anything.
The encampment frightened her. It smelled terrible, even though there were community showers and two bathrooms. The nonprofits dedicated to serving this population provided sanitation, plumbing, clean syringes, personal care, and paper products, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. Everything was dirty. The new installations, like soap dispensers and outside sinks, immediately acquired a layer of grime. Orange caps floated in the gutters. Every other week, there was an ambulance outside the camp, loading out another overdose.
This is fine, Jane said to herself. She held her breath, as though poverty was transmittable, an airborne virus.
It felt contagious, all that bad luck, the sickening fumes of human need. Today was the fifth, though, and she didn’t have her rent. Her account was close, but she was a hundred-odd shy of the total payment. Weekends were like that: accumulating service charges that all got dumped on Sunday at midnight. This wasn’t the first time Jane had woken up to a smaller balance, but it was unusually bad timing.
She stepped around a body wrapped in a brown, scuffed tarp. She hated this walk. Every time, it wasn’t just the smell or the muffled shrieks that made their way through the padding in her headphones. It wasn’t the up-close desperation that might have been real or might have been performative. It was the vacant spaces on the sidewalk between panhandlers: the space that suggested, you are not as far from this as you think.
There was always a crack to fall through, no matter what the billboards said.
Jane tapped her security code into the office door and set it to lock behind her. This morning, nobody was sleeping in the stairwell, which felt like a small mercy. They were usually hung over or strung out or just plain sick. Loud but not combative. Yesterday, one of them had spat directly at her face when she asked him to leave. The phlegm splattered over the left lens of her blockers. Jane’s boss Mitch had found her in the stockroom, looking for the alcohol swabs.
“If you have any HealthGo benefits left you should probably make sure your vaccines are current,” he said.
She didn’t tell Mitch she’d already spent them on a mental health module that was supposed to help manage her chronic imposter fatigue syndrome. She only spent her benefits on the things that soap and water couldn’t fix. The saliva smeared across her lenses when she rubbed them with the swab.
Pretending to be cognitively normal was exhausting.
How could it be worse, though? Chasing trespassers out wasn’t part of her job description. She was a bookkeeper, which was funny because nobody used actual books anymore. Jane’s job was nudging the long columns of digits into line, balancing the daily ledger, and reviewing the industry grant applications before they made their way into the mail. Both sides of her desk were cluttered with soylent wrappers. Cherry chocolate. She cleared them into the trash hamper and sat down facing her monitors. The surface tablet, awakened by the proximal temperature of her body, lit up under her elbows. She set her tote bag on the floor. The screens flickered, updating. She watched them, munching a handful of pistachios out of her snack drawer.
Overnight returns: increased. Spending: as predicted. Payroll: account balance holding. Budget: as predicted. The financial news pinged on the right screen. Any fluctuation in the market might affect the nonprofits’ monthly take. Political unrest, an election, another Constitutionalist riot, or more broken windows on Wall Street all meant decreased funding. A warhead in North Korea translated to job shrinkage at home: one less paid position. The donors stopped giving and the economy, at least below the 5% privilege mark, slowed. Above the line, of course, things continued as usual. Private banks, schools, and for-profits were insulated from all this. They didn’t seem to understand how the rest of the country was so easily affected by the day’s headlines when they were the ones who controlled the cash flow. They didn’t want to pay to support upward mobility: they wanted to invest just enough to keep things as they were. Even the rich had their limits. Every time Jane saw the numbers drop, she thought, what are you punishing us for now?
The national news outlets sometimes went so far as to say to protesters, if you’d just do your jobs, you’d keep your jobs. Don’t you want your debt to go away? Why aren’t you happy with all you’ve been given? They couldn’t limit the basic income, but they could shame you for being satisfied with it.
The system was set up to encourage compliance. They’d found ways of preventing dissent: HealthGo, for example, didn’t apply to injuries or negative outcomes incurred in Free Speech Spaces. Police could ticket you and tag your basic income check with as many fines and fees as they wanted, sometimes thousands of dollars. Drain your whole account. It was all auto-debited, of course, and could be appealed in court, but if you didn’t have money, what were you supposed to do? The message was clear. Keep your head down. Contribute to the society that sustained you. Try to be selfless. Meanwhile, the encampments got bigger.
Ask Not What Your Country was branded on every subway roll-up, on the side of every bus or blank building. Jane’s office had a print of it in the break room. Next to it, a poster of New York Vermin. Deer, raccoons, pigeons, sparrows, Canada geese, rats, and squirrels. The handful of species that had managed to reproduce and adapt at rates that matched urban expansion. You never saw foxes anymore, not even in the zoo. The poster suggested different approaches to population control, mostly poisons applied in the breeding season. All seven species were gray, the color of concrete evolved to blend into places without grass or trees. They were all scavengers. They survived because they took whatever they found, and left no trace behind. Even their nests were temporary. Keep your head down.
Jane tried not to look at the poster while she made the coffee. She filled the water compartment from the dispenser, then loaded the double pods into the coffee machine. It huffed and puffed. Last year’s model, already breaking down. Nothing came with a warranty anymore.
The reasoning was, you have income: can’t you just buy another one?
She mixed in a few spoonfuls of powdered milk from the cardboard canister. The coffee turned the color of faded pajamas.
She was $200 short on her rent. A nice, round number. She’d need to pull up the list of transactions and see what had cleared overnight. Compound interest? A quarterly service fee? Maybe her account had been hacked again. It wasn’t unheard of. The mental health tech who administered the mental health module had taken Jane’s credit information verbally, over Skype. But if you were going to steal from someone, why not take everything you could? It seemed silly to help yourself only to what you needed, instead of scraping out every last credit.
Rent was deducted at midnight when the fifth of the month became the sixth. Payday began tomorrow at 4 p.m. after trade closed. Jane set her coffee on the neutral pad next to her audio set. The Skype comm blinked. Answering the phone also wasn’t part of her job description, but like locking up, making coffee, and keeping the doorway clear, it ended up getting done anyway.
If she was smart, she’d try to negotiate better pay in exchange for these little tasks she did every day. They added up. They represented time, effort invested. The least she could do was try to get some of that back. She looked at the ledger every day: she knew that the Brooklyn Urban Bird Society could afford it. After the Greater Accounting, nonprofits and community groups like BUrBS had flourished. The economy rebounded. Under the New Clinton Administration, people were encouraged to spend their time giving. It was a massive social education campaign, billions of dollars pumped into messaging across every conceivable platform. The income credits were supposed to create a volunteer state. A subsistence wage, universal healthcare, food stamps for everyone, and improved quality of life across the board meant that people like Jane had the chance to really do what they loved. The current President’s double terms represented almost a decade of strong economic growth, high approval ratings, and decreased violence. It seemed like, with everyone’s basic needs taken care of, there was nothing left to fight about.
Jane was applying to colleges when the credit bill passed. Universal education was still on the table, with private universities holding out. The President, who’d graduated from Stanford like her mother Chelsea, and then done a Master’s at Yale like her grandmother, was a strong proponent of public college because of course, she’d had a choice. It looked good, to be wealthy and choosing to live like someone who was just ordinary. Slumming.
Going to a private college was discouraged if you weren’t from the 5%, but Jane didn’t care. She’d dreamed about someplace with ivy on the dorms and ancient professors in cabled sweaters, talking about the marches in Ferguson and Little Beirut. She got into Georgetown. She studied, of all things, medieval illuminations.
Maybe the $200 was a student loan payment. She still had twelve years to go on the loans. She’d been at BUrBS since graduation, patiently working off the fancy education she’d wanted so badly. Her friends, less ambitious, had settled for a public, no-cost community college and were not only working but saving their income credits. They were planning opulent weddings, housewarming parties, baby showers, group vacations to the Commonwealth of Hawaii. Everything was chronicled on social media. Their happiness was totally unavoidable, so Jane kept the notifications muted, especially when she was at work. She hated thinking about them, getting married on a beach in Thailand, while she sifted through receipts for birdwatching workshops and membership sign-ups. She was the one who got stuck, the last to leave the nest. Everything she needed was provided but beyond that? Seemed to fall from the sky, enriching some people but not others.
In college, she would have sneered at all this. She had thought she was going to be an artist. Her friends weren’t as smart as she was, and she scorned their aversion to risk, which she had thought was romantic. But after graduation, nobody wanted to hire someone who still worked with real ink and a hand-cut quill.
She was a sideshow act; her family didn’t have the money to help her set up a studio, or buy space in a gallery. She was, for the first time, truly poor.
She’d never wanted to be middle class so badly. Her desires were embarrassingly bourgeois. She fantasized about soft, mass-manufactured sofas, picture frames with glass in them, and imported cheese. Drawing all day, with no screens chirping at her. Cherries dipped in real chocolate. Even the flavor of the soylent bars she liked smacked of decadence. She always wore her tote bag, printed with the Georgetown seal, design out. As if to say, I don’t belong where I’ve ended up.
For Jane, $200 was equal to a loan payment, or two non-subsidized meals, or five delivery charges, or a handful of incidentals. For BUrBS, it was equal to an executive hour, or half of a donor lunch, or a single standard member donation. Jane scrolled through the ledger. They were down to four full-time employees from the last reduction cycle. The appointment scheduler worked remotely; most of the work was done by unpaid volunteer staffers, hoping to earn points towards their annual Civic Contribution quota. Jane had once caught one of these volunteers in the supply closet, sneaking a box of silver-edged member stickers into his bag. Those sold on the black market for ridiculously high prices, sometimes even higher than an annual membership fee. Jane had heard about people adding the stickers to swag bags, or distributing them at weddings as party favors. After Jane reported the attempted theft, the stickers were kept in the safe in her boss’ office. Her honesty was commended, but they’d also instituted a bag check policy. Nothing left behind was exempt from search. In fact, she was sure her airtight container of pistachios was lighter than it had been when she left work on Friday.
“Jane,” her boss said, flipping the lights on. “What are you doing here in the dark?”
“Just getting organized.”
She watched Mitch go into his office. Through the door, she could see the faux wood paneling, walls crowded with award plaques and framed prints of local, native songbirds. Every year, he convinced another major donor that they could revive the Baird’s Sandpiper population: that the East River’s arsenic levels had subsided, that the banks were habitable by shorebirds. That money would erase the damage that money already had done. He’d told Jane once that his job was telling a story that someone wanted to believe in, whether it was true or not.
“It’s all fear or greed,” he’d told her. “They’re afraid of not getting what they want, or greedy with what they’ve already got. But everyone likes songbirds. One guy gave us a million dollars because I could whistle like a scarlet tanager.”
Jane heard the familiar clump of his personal device landing on its neutral pad.
“Is that coffee I smell?” he called.
She brought him a cup, with a packet of white sweetener stirred in. He thanked her, face pointed towards the cascading icons on his desk screen.
“Did we get that Audubon Scholarship Grant paperwork off last week? The deadline’s tomorrow,” he said.
That we made her bristle.
“Application,” she said. “Not paperwork.”
“Right.” He picked up his coffee, blew on it. Tapped the navigation deck. “So weird that we still say paper.”
She made an agreeing noise and went back to payroll. We. Sure. It wasn’t a hard job, which was good, because her wages were low. But it was full-time, which meant the dullness wore on her. There was never time for anything else, after two hours on the train and nine hours in the office. She was glad there was only one real window, in her boss’ office, because of she would have spent too much time staring out it, wishing she was somewhere else.
It took an hour to set up the payroll deposits. Most of her tasks were automated, and she’d set up a few processes to populate recurring information. It was simple math, just in and out, and filling in the blanks with the same information as last time. Nobody had been sick this month or taken a day off, which made things even easier. The scheduler got paid on a 1099, through a temp agency. The nonprofit filing forms were already done, ready to be sent with the payment stubs.
The blue tubes in the ceiling clicked overhead as the gas inside them warmed, casting a glow that was supposed to mimic the natural light spectrum. She saved her own timesheet for last. She was reluctant to look at how little progress she’d made.
Jane Newman. Single. Deductions: 0. Tax Status: See Form 940. No wonder she felt like nothing ever changed: it didn’t. Her anxiety started to rise, bubbling through the muscles in her lower back. With the coffee, she took a packet of aspirin. The marketing and membership girls would be in soon, too loud and cheerful, sharing stories about their weekend dates. They had boyfriends who bought them drinks and held their places in line at clubs. They each had a cat, declawed bird-killers. Their parents were healthy. They talked about the places their friends’ weddings would take them, this summer. Until Jane had left Georgetown, she had ignored this kind of talk: it was mundane, boring, unartistic. Now, she envied her coworkers’ security. They didn’t realize it, but a future worth talking about was a luxury. Not everyone had one.
The hours field blinked at her, a soothing grassy green.
The payment was deposited at midnight. Hours from now.
If she missed a rent payment, she’d be evicted.
If she had no permanent address, she couldn’t collect any income or benefits.
If she couldn’t collect income, she’d be panhandling in less than a week.
She checked the draw account balance: over seven figures. She weighed her options.
She could put the money back the next month, or make it up by staying late. She was already coming in early, working half an hour unpaid in the mornings, off the clock. Over the past three years, that added up. It was more than 700 unpaid labor hours. Jane reviewed her morning routine. Door, lock, coffee, screen.
Beginning to look at the stack of grant proposals, with their bureaucratic, silly titles in bold: Not All Songbirds, Seeing Native Singers in Brooklyn, Urban Appetites and Foraging. She calculated that more than half a year’s wages were packed into those undocumented half hours.
Nobody was keeping track except for Jane.
She tapped the screen. Her work hours automatically populated into the drop-down menu. Another three-figure paycheck, always a day late. A skipped or delinquent automatic withdrawal could freeze your accounts, for up to ten business days. That didn’t happen at bigger banks, but she couldn’t afford to belong to one. That was for the 5%. She’d joined a local bank and hoped for the best. There was a community credit union on practically every corner, willing to cash in non-standardized paychecks, pawn electronics, and offer an advance of high priced credits when you’d gone over your limit. 500% interest, compounded hourly. Jane’s finger hovered over the ten-key. She added a zero to her paycheck. The sum in the payment window increased exponentially.
That looked better: the anxiety bubbles diminished, incrementally. Just for the sake of experimentation, she added another zero. They’d just finished another membership drive, so the account was flush. Printing the special stickers cost fractions of a cent: shipping was more expensive than the actual swag. The office paid more for coffee and cleaning supplies than she made in a week.
She tapped the zero again. It wasn’t even close to the CEO’s pay, still. Jane didn’t whistle, couldn’t do bird calls, but she knew the Latin names of every species the monks had inked on vellum. She could identify the special combinations of chalks they’d mixed with goat urine to blend the colors. She had copied the hundred secret little leering faces that peeked, like opossums, out of the dense foliage of the illuminations’ holy garden. She felt the invisible hand that shaped words from inky brambles. Learned how to be subversive, even under the eye of God. She clicked the blue moon in the window’s upper right corner. A new drop-down appeared: a calendar.
She backdated the payment, then sat back in her chair, considering what she was about to do. Her foot knocked against the trash hamper, making a hollow clang. She held her breath, but Mitch didn’t say anything. He probably had his headphones on: he liked to listen to old Zeppelin recordings on the days he didn’t have to take potential donors out to lunch. Jane’s hair stuck to the back of her neck.
It had taken three months to save up for those blocker glasses. They weren’t even Apple, just a knockoff brand from one of the pop-up marts. The strap on her canvas tote bag was wearing out. At home, a rat had climbed in her window, stinking of the Gowanus Canal, and chewed through every pair of leather shoes she owned in a terrible frenzy. If she pressed send, the payment would appear in her account within minutes. She could order takeout noodles, watch a new Skin Series episode, and buy a pair of decent shoes. She’d make rent. She’d say that there was an error this month, maybe something with the software, and point to an app glitch that existed but didn’t affect the syndicate copy she’d downloaded for the office.
She was leaving enough for the utilities, the operating budget. And everyone else’s paycheck. She was taking the equivalent of maybe 150 platinum donation stickers: a recurrent income source that they’d double in the next month since not all the new membership sign-ups had been processed yet.
It was a mistake, she rehearsed in her head. Her hand crept into her snack drawer, withdrew a soylent bar, and peeled it.
“Jane,” her boss called.
She jumped. “Coming,” she said.
He was standing by the window, looking down into the street. “Look at this.”
The tent city was on fire. One of the tents was burning. Another one vomited a column of dull orange smoke. The dwellings were packed together: it was difficult to see between them. Jane saw a few structures shaking, as though someone was locked inside and desperately trying to escape. A blue tarp, rigged up as an awning, sagged into black, smoldering holes as the heat ate the plastic away. A raccoon, cub dangling from her mouth, bolted for the safety of the overpass. From the window, Jane could see that the settlement was most cardboard, houses improvised from packing materials, and old camping equipment. All flammable.
“Did you call 911?” she asked.
Mitch shrugged. “You know, it’s not so far from here to there.”
He pointed down at the people standing on the sidewalks. They wore filthy backpacks, stuffed with things that couldn’t be left behind. They clutched each other, hands holding heads and shoulders and bodies close. One man, jacket smoking, rocked back and forth. Jane couldn’t hear sirens, though Emergency Services was less than three blocks away.
“They all have exactly what we have, up here,” her boss said. “What do they spend it on? People like this.
You give them what they need, or you take it away, and the outcome is the same.”
“No, worse. That place they’re squatting used to be a park. Three species of sparrow migrated through it. I can guarantee that the birds contributed more. But the police won’t evict these bums. The sparrows can’t use this space. What’s the point of protecting something that doesn’t make the city more beautiful?”
“Ask not,” Jane recited, like you were supposed to. She wanted to say, there’s no money in homelessness, or you’d be out there taking collections on it. People liked birds because they were simple: reminders of a simpler time when people hung clear tubes of seed outside, and watched the cardinals gather around to eat. They were beautiful, not like these ragged humans with their matted hair and filthy, darkened fingernails.
“I work here all day, looking down at them,” he said. One of the little houses nailed together from sheets of discarded plywood, ignited. The people on the sidewalk flapped their arms, as though they could fly away. They were not migratory. They weren’t going anywhere.
Jane heard the first squeal of sirens.
“It’s a shortfall,” her boss said. Then, he looked up, as though seeing her for the first time. “Having enough isn’t enough. Food, water, healthcare, shelter. What about the rest?”
“You’re young. You’re lucky you don’t know what you’re missing.”
She knew, though. She felt the missing pieces acutely. She backed out, under the pretext of refilling his coffee. When she got back to her desk, she could hear the shouting outside, mixed with the fire services’ horns. Her screens were all dark, so she slid a finger across the surface tablet.
Transaction complete. Her breath caught in her throat. She felt her ears burning. Her blood drained into her stomach, making her feel full. She felt no guilt, no anxiety. It was the sensation of having enough. The payday feeling, as though all of her distribution dates had suddenly aligned and she was complete, provided for, and safe.
Tomorrow, after everything cleared, she could report the error. Make it seem like a mistake. Her rent was covered now; if her boss believed her, she’d still have a job. He would. She was trustworthy. Hadn’t she reported the sticker theft? She could point out the glitch to her boss, letting her voice shake while she explained that she’d read about this problem online. The error caused superimposed digits and incorrect ACH deposits.
He’d have to believe her. She had twelve more years to go.
At lunch, she slipped out to buy a sandwich. Suddenly, she could afford it. She could afford anything she wanted until the theft was reported. She bought a package of cracker jacks and sat on a bench, scarred by skateboarders and insulting graffiti. Even with her blockers and headphones on, she could hear the sirens and shouting from the fire. The smell of burning plastic stuck to her nose. Pigeons crowded around her feet, pecking the pavement suggestively. She tossed a handful of sweetened popcorn into their midst and watched them fight over the kernels. Their lidless eyes gleamed, capturing everything, retaining nothing.
New York’s two million pigeons build their nests on flimsy platforms, ledges, under bridges, and even on windowsills. As naturally cliff-dwelling birds, they roost in high, exposed, unstable places. A handful of straws, twigs, or dried grass signifies a nest but does not provide protection. Even with two parents and reliable access to food and warmth, nest insecurity makes the pigeons’ outcomes unpredictable. Predators, weather, and lack of safe spaces shorten the expected lifespan. Most people do not think twice about a pigeon’s future, Jane considered. After all, it’s just a stupid looking grey bird. It doesn’t even sing.
She let the popcorn fall from her fingers like gold-plated credits. As though there was an endless supply of candy, enough to give away, forever. The pigeons’ hunger frightened her a little. They crowded against her legs, clawing the worn fabric of her work slacks. Their pink scaly feet and silver striped feathers were greasy. She pushed them back, tossed another handful into the frantic mass of birds. On her way home, she’d buy herself a new pair of shoes. A shiny bracelet she’d coveted, with a charm on it. Her eyes unfocused. She’d get a year-long transit pass instead of scratching for change to pay for a two-hour ticket. She’d sit on her bed and finally feel the relief the mental health module promised, stress melting down her shoulders like wings.
The pigeons flapped around her, greedy sycophants. She couldn’t hear them cooing. Inside her headphones, the beats fluttered against her ears like wings, chafing, lifting her up into the city’s gentle, cinder rain, higher and higher, until she was a tiny speck, escaping the small and filthy place she was accustomed to call home.
Claire Rudy Foster is the author of two short story collections: Shine of the Ever and I've Never Done This Before. Their fiction, essays, and miscellaneous writings appear in The New York Times, McSweeney's, The Washington Post, and many other places. A native of Portland, Foster lives, reads, and works in NW.
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