Ben Swisko stood at the light on Market St. and 2nd waiting to cross. Suddenly he heard screeching car tires, making that jarring squeal heard right before a car collision. Amazingly, the sedan’s driver, who had been caught off guard, was able to stop just short of a difficult day, but Ben was still startled out of daydreaming about his upcoming project at work. He had been deeply lost in thought.
This was at once followed by a symphony of car horns coming from his right toward the Embarcadero, and what he saw coming straight down the middle of Market Street was a spectacle to be sure—it also explained what precipitated the near accident. Not that there were not countless sideshows happening on a daily basis in downtown San Francisco, but this was one of those “must stop and watch” scenes.
Ben was heading back to his office on Pine Street after lunch, but before he could cross over Market, his attention was captured and why not, this was not a sideshow, but the main event. The man was in the middle of the street, walking into oncoming traffic, raging at the top of his lungs at anyone or anything he met.
Of course, that brought traffic to grinding halt, and straight away there was a large pack of drivers who were about to engage him with equal rage. As he drew closer to the intersection, Ben could see the man was clearly drunk—angry and drunk. But the weird thing was that he was not one of the homeless and disheveled masses found throughout the city, especially downtown, he was wearing a suit.
There were no police officers in sight as he entered the bustling intersection and by now the honking was a cacophony of horns. Ben knew it would not be long before the police showed up and the real show began. He was jokingly thinking he needed popcorn for this one, when suddenly the man stopped raging at traffic and realized there were people nearby who did not have honking steel machines to defend themselves.
Ever since he could remember, Ben had some sort of homing beacon that brought any and all of the city’s weirdo’s homing in on him. It was his unfortunate reality that he stood six-five and looked even taller than that. People always guessed him to be six-seven, maybe due to the brown bird’s nest that arose off his head. His hair grew like weeds, and it quickly added to his height if he did not keep it in check.
That was why the man came right at him. Feeling uncomfortable with the upcoming confrontation, Ben braced for the coming outburst as the man made his way off the blaring street.
Not one second after he had cleared the roadway then the cars started zooming by, giving him no choice but sure death if he were to reverse direction.
Right away Ben could see the man was handsome in a way he would never be, not that he was ugly, but his friends often teased that he looked like Penn Jillette, ponytail, and all, not Ken from the Barbie fame, as this man looked.
As the man stepped up the curb, Ben took a step back from the light pole he was holding onto. The man squinted at him, displeased that he stepped away and blurted loudly, “What, you think I’m a threat to you? Look at you, you’re like twice my size.”
Ben did not answer.
The stranger really was a good-looking man, tall at around six-feet, blonde, and fit. His suit was high fashion; he had money. Ben had money himself, but he wore jeans, cowboy boots, and a blue button-up shirt that was designed to be untucked. He also wore glasses, whereas this man wore none. Ben was thirty-two years old, and he assumed this man to be no older, so at least it was going to be a fair fight, if nothing else.
The man asked again in a drunken and elevated tone, “I asked you if you think I’m a threat to you?”
Ben’s light turned green to walk, so he stepped to the man’s left as he exclaimed, “I think you’re very drunk.” He had just stepped into the crosswalk when the man turned and came toward him insisting, “I’m no threat. You don’t know what they did to . . .”
He never finished the sentence as he misread the curb and face planted into the street. Feeling empathy for the man and not really being afraid of him, Ben helped him up and escorted him out of the street. The man was really inebriated, so he helped him wipe himself off and herded him into the coffee shop on the corner.
He chose a corner booth and Ben noted the drunken man seemed to pour onto the bench seat. Ben had been there himself, as most males had—drinking too much was akin to reverting oneself into a child. Maybe that’s why people drank too much, he pondered; it was the only true way one could return to childhood.
The man finally righted himself and Ben offered, “I’m Ben.” No hand was extended.
The man looked flatly at him, and Ben wasn’t sure if he was so blotto that all reasonable communication and thought were lost to him . . . or it was something else. Ben noted that he had a scar on his chin, which stole from his overall perfect looks, as did the whites of his blue eyes being very beet red. He counted out model as his career, that was until the first words out of his mouth were about vanity, then the possibility of him being an actor came to mind, “Name’s Kevin Conway. Are my teeth chipped?”
The man had been touching his mouth and using his tongue to feel around, so he wasn’t surprised to see the inside of the man’s upper lip was bleeding. Kevin flashed his perfect smile and then jutted his face out so Ben could get a better look with the use of the lamp over the table. The restaurant had smoked windows facing 2nd Street, so the lamps inside were indeed needed for the job, but they were not bright enough on their own.
After careful inspection with his phone’s flashlight, Ben let him know it did not appear he had any chipped or broken teeth. That settled Kevin down enough to try to converse, albeit very slurred. Ben soon understood he wasn’t going to get much out of this encounter except being late back from lunch. Realizing that, he texted work and let them know he would be late and would explain when he returned.
Then he recognized what Kevin needed, so he fetched a server who brought a large carafe of coffee, along with cream and sugar. Kevin drank it cautiously after burning his already damaged lip on the first sip. But he kept at it and Ben saw that as a good sign toward some sobriety.
With way more clarity of thought than Ben thought he was up to, he said, “Thanks for picking me up out of the street. Unbelievably, that was kind of a low point in my life so far. That and throwing up in Kendra Watkins car.” He took a sip of coffee with trepidation, “She was the hottest girl in school, and I ralphed in her car senior year up on Mulholland Drive. She abandoned me right there.”
Ben looked the dandy of man over and said, “Bummer, I had zero dates in high school, so you beat me there, even with the barf story. I can believe that about lying face down in the street, that is never a good feeling I imagine.”
Kevin added, “I wasn’t threatening anyone, I just wanted to interrupt their perfect day with the thought that someone else wasn’t having that perfect day.” He continued to sip the coffee.
Ben knew it was going to extend this encounter, but he had to know what would send someone so over the rails like that, so he asked, “Sorry, I know it’s not my business, but what happened?”
Kevin paused before answering, “My firm just let me go. I thought I was being called in to be made partner, but instead I was told that they wanted an overseas attorney handling my overseas matters; that my services would no longer be needed.”
Ben got it now, and he suddenly empathized a lot more. Although he was in the field of artificial intelligence, he also used to work in robotics. Robotics that oftentimes replaced people’s livelihoods. That was the worst part about the advancements he was helping to create—they were putting a lot of people out of work. Couple that with outsourcing and Ben often wondered what all these people were going to do once their jobs had all been replaced. How were they going to survive?
Ben asked sincerely, “Are you going to be okay?” He did not notice a wedding ring, but that didn’t mean anything.
Kevin thought about it, and Ben was fairly certain the delay was alcohol related, “Maybe. I know some people . . . but this wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I was insulated, I had a niche; I thought I had people looking out for me!”
As he said the last part his voice raised to his Market Street level, so Ben reminded him, “If you want to continue mellowing out in here, you’d better chill out or they’ll toss you for that.”
Kevin realized his inner-Hulk was raised whenever he thought about the injustice just brought onto him not two and a half hours ago. He said less enthusiastically, “This place is rigged.”
Ben had to think about it before he answered, assuming correctly that Kevin was talking on a grander scale than their immediate environment, “You mean the whole game?”
Kevin nodded, appreciating the fact he picked an erudite man to have his very public meltdown in front of, “Yes, the whole game. The whole game is rigged and they’re taking it all away from us right under our noses—and we’re clueless. The sad part is, until a little while ago, I was part of it. I helped companies plan their escape from the U.S. and set up business overseas.”
Kevin rubbed his nose like a lot of intoxicated people tended to do before continuing, “And now I’m outsourced. Where does it end?”
Ben often wondered the same thing. If his field were to continue, they would eventually replace everyone’s jobs. Surgeons, manufacturing, communications, driving, flying and at some point, even lawyering. He looked earnestly at the man and asked, “Do you have a family?”
Kevin shook his head no, “I had no time. I often worked fourteen-hour days. The best I could muster this last two years was a couple scattered blind dates and some swipe rights off Tinder.”
Ben was single, as well, and like Kevin here was working hellish hours to meet one deadline to the next. Ben was currently working on creating high-end lifelike sex robots that were selling worldwide at a pace their factory could not keep up with. Of course, he didn’t work in the factory itself, he worked as an A.I. mentor at the main lab. Ben understood the loneliness factor of the life of such a man, and that was why he owned one of the bots he was helping to mold and design.
It only seemed logical to own one of the very things he oversaw training others to understand. A.I. was such new science and companies were scrambling for people with his qualifications, thus his three hundred and fifty dollar an hour salary. He nodded understanding to Kevin, not wanting to get into his life about living with his robotic sex doll.
When he tried to articulate it to someone, Ben became aware it was more than a stigma; it was downright embarrassing if the person on the other side of the conversation was against the concept. Like Kevin here, he once had crappy blind dates and hookups in his life, but now he had Sindia, and all that was behind him. At least now his sex drive and curiosity could be satisfied in a safe, albeit not widely accepted fashion, but this was not the time for that conversation.
Ben felt more relaxed now that he and Kevin had gotten to know each other, so he inquired, “You live in the city?”
Kevin responded snappishly, “Hah, right, me and Mr. Rockefeller are neighbors.”
Ben felt a little guilty, as he lived not two blocks over and walked to work, but Kevin continued, “No, I live in Redwood City. Not much different than here pricewise nowadays, but I got in at a good time. I take Caltrain home.”
Ben needed to get back to work, so he asked without seeming like he was trying to lose him, “You okay to get on the train?”
Kevin had drained most of his coffee and some coherence had returned, so it was no surprise that he answered, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be okay. I think I’ll just chill here a while more. I gotta let my parents know at some point. My dad’s a probate attorney in Marina del Rey down south, I should probably call him.”
Ben felt it was okay to leave, so he got up and reached out his hand to the man. They shook and Kevin said, “Thanks again . . . and let me have your number so I can buy you a drink sometime.”
Not having a problem with that, the two men exchanged numbers and Ben returned to work leaving Kevin in the coffee shop, neither man realizing that their chance meeting was much more than that, perhaps serendipitous, if nothing else, it was the start of a close friendship. But from another perspective, it could be said that what was
put into motion on that street in San Francisco would lead to a series of events that would become much bigger than either one of them could ever have imagined.