There are a number of pitfalls to being an anthropologist doing field work on a developing alien planet, such as Earth.
One is the danger of going native; of identifying so much with the culture that you’re studying that you lose your objectivity, and become professionally worthless. We’ve had to send a number of good field workers home for that reason; so the WCCIJ has instituted an extensive program to counteract that. We have periodic refresher seminars and discussion groups at Earth Watch Base on the Moon to keep workers from “going native,” and things have improved dramatically as a result. However, this has never been a problem for me; somehow, I’m just lucky enough to have a knack for avoiding it.
The second is the tendency we all have to empathize with the people we observe to the extent that their personal concerns overwhelm our professional tasks. Don’t get me wrong, compassion is a virtue, and individual intervention is officially encouraged; but this must never be at the expense of our greater mission. No Homelander can pass up a Human in need without doing something to ease his predicament, but we must never allow our “micro” intervention to become an obstacle to our “macro” intervention. I am not immune to this pitfall, but so far, I have avoided major problems without too much difficulty.
The third pitfall is more insidious, and I must confess that I have fallen right in. It took me completely by surprise! We were never trained for this sort of situation, since it was never anticipated; and I can see now what a colossal oversight it is. So you see I have no Homelander source of advice. Ken, you are my only good Human friend, who knows my complete situation (and believes it). You are the only person who can advise me in this! I have never been in this spot before in my life; but as a Human, you have faced this situation successfully in the past. I have every confidence in your abilities.
Now my tale of woe: It all began on Wednesday of this week. The beauty shop closes at 8:00pm, so I was cleaning up all the stations and sweeping all the hair off the floor as usual. It’s hard to do all that work with dimmed lights, but if we don’t make the place look like it’s closed, some lady with an “emergency” will try to bash the door down after hours. (It is amazing how many people claim to be invited to weddings the night before!) Then I have to wax the floor, replenish the supplies, and straighten up our little stock room. After that, the rest rooms need to be cleaned. Normally, I get finished about 9:00 or 9:30, depending on how hirsute the day’s customers were.
But I am not alone in the shop! Mrs. Murphy is in the back room (the “office” ), peering over her half-glasses, toting up the day’s receipts, and preparing bank deposits and such. I don’t know how she makes sense out of all those papers, especially since she still uses an old clattery adding machine that won’t even multiply or divide! But somehow she balances the books to the penny every day. Then she places things in cloth zipper bags. Mr. Murphy has the job of picking them up and slipping them into the night deposit slot at the bank; he doesn’t want her to do that. The streets are dangerous this time of night, he maintains; but they’re just as dangerous for him as for her. So I admire him a bit for that.
Mr. and Mrs. Murphy had a brief conference in the back room. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was apparent that they did not enjoy the subject matter.
“Bobo,” called Mr. Murphy, “Could you come here for a moment?”
“Certainly, I replied, setting my cleaning supplies down. I walked towards the back room, stopping only to straighten one of the dryer hoods on my way. Mrs. Murphy winced as I did that.
“What can I do for you?” I asked cheerfully, lowering myself into the chair that faced the desk. Bills, receipts, and other papers still cluttered the desk. A very large checkbook dominated the mess, as usual. The old-fashioned adding machine was shoved to one side, and was nearly buried among the papers.
“I’ve gone over these books a dozen times,” Mrs. Murphy began, glancing up to her husband for moral support, “But there’s nothing else I can do.” She looked like she’d rather be caught snoring during her pastor’s sermon than attend to the matter at hand! I still had no clue what it was. Her eyes began to puddle up, and she took advantage of that to reach for her voluminous purse and consume an extraordinary amount of time searching for a tissue.
Mr. Murphy read her signal correctly and picked up where she had left off. “She’s trying to say that we’ll have to let you go,” Mr. Murphy explained somberly.
“Let me go where?” I asked in obvious confusion. I hadn’t been planning any trips.
“We have to terminate your employment,” Mrs. Murphy explained, honking her nose loudly into the tissue. Then in a quavering voice, she turned to her husband and asked, “Is there any other way, Harry?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said defensively. Mr. Murphy cleared his throat and continued, “You remember when Eleanor left the shop a month ago?” I nodded. “Well, she took her ‘following’ with her, I’m afraid.” That wasn’t too surprising; hairdressers commonly take their clients with them every where they go.
“The result of this,” he continued, removing his glasses, “is that our receipts have been down for the last month. We thought we could hire a replacement quickly, and that things would be back to normal without a hitch; but as you know, things didn’t work out as we’d hoped.”
I nodded. They never did find a replacement for Eleanor, despite their vigorous efforts. Then the full impact of the situation sank into me.
“We have no choice but to reduce our costs to stay in business—at least until we can find someone to replace Eleanor and her following.”
“We are so terribly sorry,” Mrs. Murphy said, relocating her voice, “You know that if there were any other way, we would keep you on! It’s just that we have no choice.”
“You are the finest fellow I have ever met,” Mr. Murphy added admiringly, “and I would be honored if I could call you my friend...”
“You may,” I reassured.
” …But we must survive. I’m sure you understand that!” he added unnecessarily. “We’ll give you the most generous severance check we can afford; and we’ll give you the best references possible. We’ve even gotten you some leads!” Mr. Murphy triumphantly slipped a sheet of paper to me. Apparently he felt he had bent over backwards on my behalf, and I had to agree. It was a list of six near-by beauty parlors. “We’ve already contacted them, and they will be expecting you to apply.”
“Oh, Bobo!” wailed Mrs. Murphy, “I’m so sorry!”
Mr. Murphy shook my hand and wished me well. Then he presented me with a check for $187.64, very generous, considering that I had just recently been paid.
And that was it. The end.
So now I am faced with unemployment! I never thought this would happen! I took my check to the check-cashing service around the block and my $187.64 turned into $185.14. The fee never seemed much, until it came from a check that represented all the money I have in the world. That week, I trudged all over Anacostia, but none of the six beauty parlors could hire me, though they were very nice.
I have discovered that everyone seems to have the sneaking suspicion that if you were fired, you deserved it. But so what if you did deserve it? This attitude is stupid, because it means that support, compassion, and help tend to be denied the very people who need it most, and it makes a social problem worse! (What a crazy planet this is!) I think that people with jobs tend to have an immature feeling of superiority over those who don’t, and childishly like to rub it in. Then again, I might not have the professional detachment at the moment to properly assess the situation, but I will make notes. This sort of emotional retardation in an adult Homelanderoid being is regrettable, assuming that’s what it is... so maybe this predicament will actually be a professional boon in the long run!
Maybe I can get a letter of recommendation from Mr. Hufnagel in Pittsburgh (remember when I worked there?) I could always work in a pet shop again.
I bought the Sunday edition of The Washington Post, and I’m scouring the want ads, but I really don’t know where to begin. The sheer volume of this newspaper is discouraging! How will I pay my rent if this goes on? I’m rationing my grocery money. I need all the advice, skills, and strategies you can give me, Ken; I really don’t know what to do.
I am so lonely. Alexander has gone off with his new wife to Baltimore; I can’t impose on the Murphys’ offers of help without making them feel guiltier (which is against my profession), and most of my friends think I am a fictional character in a story.
I really miss Homeland. I need a Hugmup to console me, so that my mind will clear. I need a good, long hug from a friend; not an Earth-style watered-down handshake. Suddenly, I am alone without means on an alien planet light-years from home! I even tried to cheer myself up by singing the Thorgelfaynese national anthem, but that was a calamitous mistake. It magnified my nostalgia and I cried a good half hour. (It was a good catharsis, though!)
How silly. Here I am, with two doctorate degrees. A salaried employee of the WCCIJ Earth Watch Program who can’t touch his salary, investments, or savings, simply because Earth isn’t in the Interstellar Monetary Fund. I even own a two-story house in Hapdorn province on a nice plot of land—and I own it outright at that! What good does that do me here? I can picture every room in that house, and all the comforts it provides; but I try not to do it, because it hurts to think of it.
And I am completely devastated because I was fired from a minimum-wage job in a beauty parlor. They never told me it would be like this; but if I can better the Human race in the slightest way, the suffering will be worth it.
Your (temporarily) desolate friend,