Greg stood before court to deal with his traffic citation the same day his rent was due. It was doubly painful because he still hadn’t found a job to replace his last one. He had searched high and low for someone to break him out of his financial funk, but none were looking for a guy with his qualifications. Some gave reasons. Most didn’t. Of the ones who responded, the managers remained polite, the same way a doctor would remain polite when telling his patient that his cancer has spread throughout his body. They didn’t necessarily think he was useless; they just couldn’t afford to train him. Something about saving face while the economy was still tolerable. A few had also considered testing him, but they were willing to offer him only minimum wage doing things that degraded him as a human being, like sign spinning. Even then they humored him. They really weren’t interested in paying him to do anything. In the end, he was unskilled in most applications, according to his job history, and no one had believed he was competent to prevent setting fire to their businesses. So Greg was forced to sweat his moment of financial fleeting as the judge banged the gavel and ordered him to pay the cashier. Of course, he asked for a job on the way out, but the judge offered him an odd glance instead.
After signing and dating both checks, Greg sat in his famished-looking bedroom, staring at his seven-year-old computer that a friend had sold him for less than a hundred dollars. He had a few basic programs installed and a cheap Internet service running off banners and pop-ups, but no drive to use it. He had tried to get established once by setting up an e-mail account with some company promising him free storage but realized a month too late that free storage meant no more than ten e-mails at a time–including junk mail. After the tenth message, the provider charged him ten cents for each additional message and twenty cents for anything that came with an attachment. The friend who had sold him the computer warned him about the scammer e-mailing company the following month after many complaints had stacked against them, but by then it was too late and he owed them an additional fifty dollars. After that incident, Greg vowed to never use e-mail again, but his friend signed him with another, more reputable company called AOL, and his problems seemed to have lessened a bit.
As he contemplated his future and the moves required for him to reach it, he thought of an option that sounded foolproof. People at school had discussed repeatedly an online trading company called eBay, talking about how a member could buy and sell nearly anything for any price. Some students made a living selling crap on eBay, stuff like model ships, unopened packs of Garbage Pail Kids, and old baseball gloves. One guy had even paid for his entire semester by selling his dad’s mint-condition set of encyclopedias. It made Greg curious about eBay’s mechanics and how he could make the system work to his advantage.
When he stared at his blank monitor, he envisioned before him a huge marketing empire that could rescue him from his financial nightmare. As his eyelids grew heavy and his cheeks tightened, he concentrated hard on the screen, focusing on the random shapes in his mind. He knew his eyes were playing tricks on him, but he didn’t care. He could actually see the buildings of success rising toward him. The image looked like that computer game he had seen his neighbor playing a few nights earlier when he went to borrow a bath towel, SimCity 4. Through eBay, his future rise from poverty would become like that computerized city. And he would become its mayor. What he learned from his classmates would set him free. Looking to capitalize on this information, he resolved to turn on his computer, find this eBay place, and transform his hard-earned assets into pure gold. The plan was foolproof.
His first inclination was to call up a search engine and type in the word ebay, but he figured the company had named its Web site after itself, so he typed it in the address bar and followed it with the famed dot com. After a minute of page loading, the site appeared miraculously in his monitor, and Greg’s hopes for financial liberation finally came true. He saw before him a homepage filled with membership requests and info about how best to navigate the sales world.
As he stared at the site specific navigational bar, Greg became tempted to scour the place for additional toys for his apartment but stopped himself, making a gentle note that he was there only to sell. Of course, as he pondered the thought, he realized that selling anything meant owning fewer things than he already had. That he’d even arrived at this page was an act of desperation.
He scanned his room for anything he wouldn’t miss. As he took inventory, he noted that he’d need his bed in the coming months. He also noted there was no way he would abandon his television or floor lamp. Perhaps, he thought, there was something attached to the bed or the lamp he could dismiss, or maybe an additional trinket sitting on top of the television. But there wasn’t. Not the best start for a man looking to grow his online empire.
Next, he figured he would find something in his closet, but on careful observation, he realized he needed his clothes and shoes. When that failed, he searched the rest of his apartment for that token to financial salvation.
At the end of his search, he found a few items worth discarding, though he wasn’t sure how much he could get for them: his dish detergent was among the list (he could rinse his plates clean), as was his toothbrush (he could brush his teeth with his finger), his Taco Bell cups (he had about twenty of them), his Subway cups (he owned twice as many as those), his plunger (it was already in the bathroom when he’d moved in), his hairbrush (he kept a plastic comb in his closet, somewhere), his oven mitts (he never cooked), his ten-year-old pair of tennis shoes (they were so beaten they no longer stuck to his feet), and a couple pairs of underwear (he could always reverse whatever he had leftover). In the end, he thought if someone was needy enough, he could earn enough to cover part of his utility bills.
Visions of economic waterfalls danced in his head as he imagined the masses pouring over the entries. Images filled his mind of short people, tall people, skinny people, fat people, each fighting over the rights to own the masterpieces that made up his stuff. In his folding chair, he leaned back and placed his hands behind his neck, exhaling with relief that his financial problems were finally over.
He took a few minutes to register with the site and make entries for his items. He didn’t have the means to show pictures, but he wrote intriguing descriptions for each one–his favorite being that they had been used only once. When he finished setting the parameters for each object, he sat back and waited for the auction to begin. He set the bids to close after seven days; he figured that would allow ample time for his prices to skyrocket without having to miss the deadlines for his bills.
But after seven days of frequent checking, with minimal food or bathroom breaks in between, Greg discovered, to his horror, that nobody in the world really wanted his stuff. It seemed the only thing that stood even a remote chance was the oven mitts because the pair was in relatively good condition–okay, perfect condition–but the only bid it got was for a dollar.
He was crushed. As he poked around the corners of his apartment, faced with the same items he tried pawning off to worldwide traders, he felt tears trickling from his eyes. He wanted so badly to become economically free, but that dream seemed distant now. He couldn’t get a job, no one wanted his stuff, and he still had debt up to his eyeballs from rent, traffic tickets, and college tuition. For the first time in his life, he thought it was time to return home.
But then he wouldn’t know what to do. His parents were in no position to take care of him. His dad mopped a football stadium for a living–there was no support in that. And getting back? His car was a clunker, running off its last inch of rusty axle. There was no way he could run from his failure because there was nowhere to run to. As it turned out, regardless of his post-high school ambitions, he had set out on an adventure that would swallow him whole. All because no one wanted to buy his underwear on eBay.
Greg melted in bed and stared at his ceiling for three days straight. The depression over his merchandising failure pushed him to paralysis. Emotionally, his wits escaped him, and physically, his health toppled into sickness. After a while, he felt the underside of his skin crawl from the stress that ate away inside. He knew that if he didn’t move soon, he would disintegrate into his mattress, failing to set foot on the floor again.
And that was what he wanted now.
On the fourth day, his ten-dollar phone rang from a distant corner of his room. At first he didn’t want to move, but he figured it was rude of him to ignore the caller entirely, so he oozed his way over the edge of his bed, dropped to his belly in a soft plop, and slid across the floor by swaying his knees. When he finally reached the phone and knocked it off its base with his chin, the guy on the other end spoke in a virtual shout. It was one of Greg’s friends from class.
“Greg, where’ve you been?” Jeff asked. “The cat detailing assignment was due today.”
“The what?” Greg didn’t really care.
“The cat detailing assignment . . . for sociology. Remember?”
“I don’t care.”
“That was half our grade.”
“Then I guess I fail. Goodbye.”
“Dude, are you all right? This doesn’t sound like you.”
“I have to go.”
“You didn’t blow up your cat, did you?”
“I don’t have a cat.”
“Well, then why are you acting so weird?”
“I’m just depressed right now.”
“Depressed? What? Come on, you don’t get depressed.”
“I’m depressed now. Leave me alone.”
“If you’re depressed, then why don’t you hang with us tonight? We’re going to a club.”
“I can’t afford to leave my house.”
“Why, because of unemployment? Whatever. I’ll spot you the cover. Get dressed. I’m coming to pick you up. And I’m bringing a cat so you can draw it and finish your detailing assignment.”