…this morning I watched a house burn down.
…Stepping out of the bus, Mo finds himself on the curb looking down an empty street lined with office buildings of varying heights but nearly identical architecture. He walks to the intersection and reads the name on the street sign: isn’t this the right street? He checks the number of the nearest building: isn’t this the right building, the one where my client’s office is located, where I’m scheduled to attend a meeting this morning at eight thirty? The smoky glass doors slide open as he approaches. Striding across the pinkish-gray polished granite floor of the expansive lobby, Mo realizes that he has forgotten who it was in the firm that he was supposed to meet. The information is written on a sheet of paper stuck inside his notebook, but when he reaches into his bag he discovers that the notebook isn’t there. Did I leave it at home? Did someone take it when I fell asleep on that first bus?
Now Mo is up a few floors inside this office building, walking along the corridor. He enters the door to an office, large and well appointed in dark wood and leather. It seems to be the office of Hutch, or someone quite like him. Hutch, Mo’s boss in his first job after finishing grad school, was a living stereotype: the red-faced, corpulent, loud-talking, back-slapping, hard-drinking, hard-driving businessman. As it turned out Hutch and Mo got along great despite the striking personality contrasts between the two of them. Personalities didn’t matter to either of them: it was all about the work. Now there’s a meeting going on in this office, with Hutch and two other men Mo doesn’t know positioned around a conference table discussing some scheme about which Mo knows nothing. They nod at Mo; he takes a seat at the table.
“Basically,” the man in the velvet burgundy sport coat is saying, “it’s my job to guarantee that the contractor can be counted on to put up the building according to specs and on time. Why wouldn’t they? Well, they might not have the know-how to tackle a really complex job. Maybe they’ve never done such a big project before. Maybe they’re overextended – too much work spread across too many job sites and not enough foremen to keep things on track. Or they underbid the job and just can’t afford to complete the project. Or they’ve gotten distracted by some other problem on some other job, and they lose focus on the easy jobs, the ones they could do in their sleep. So many ways for things to go wrong. Right, Hutch?”
“You got it, pal. If our contractor can’t get the job done, then it’s up to us to find somebody else who can. That’s not so bad – plenty of guys out there ready and willing to step in. The problem is paying for it. Our contractor starts running into problems on the job, he’s still confident, figures he’s bound to be able to fix things up sooner or later. It takes money to fix problems. So our contractor keeps submitting progress reports and invoices, keeps cashing checks, keeps spending money, and still the goddamn problem doesn’t fix itself. Instead it gets worse, and it spreads. Pretty soon our guy is borrowing money from his other jobs to try to pull the bad one out of the fire. Pretty soon he can’t pay his workers and subs and suppliers on time. The past due notices start piling up: 30 days past due, 60 days, 90. Eventually somebody gets fed up, slaps a lien on the job, and that’s when the owner – the guy who hired our contractor, the guy who pays our contractor’s invoices – first gets the clue. Something is seriously fucked up here.”
“And that’s when the owner calls us,” the velvet-jacketed man says. “Maybe we already know things are going to shit for our contractor. Usually there’s at least some early warning that things are getting a little shaky, but our contractor can always explain it away. And we’re inclined to believe him. We’ve been doing business with him for years, collected tens of thousands of dollars in premiums from him, sat down across the table from him, walked through his yard, kicked the tires on his trucks, joked around with his office manager. Hell, we like the guy. Besides, if we pull the plug on him, stop writing his bonds, what’s he going to do? He needs new work to pay for cleaning up the problems on the old jobs. But sometimes you can feel it. You know you’re just throwing good money after bad. Then finally the whole house of cards comes tumbling down around our contractor’s head. Then comes the sickening moment when a guy like me, who has stuck his neck way out for this contractor, hands over his file to the claims attorney. And then you know you’re just about to cost your company a few million bucks, maybe cost yourself a job.”
“And that,” Hutch burst out, slamming the tabletop, “is why we need to call in our friend Bud before the shit really hits the fan. Am I right, Bud?”
Hutch presides at one end of the table, Velvet Jacket sits on Hutch’s left, Bud is positioned directly across the table from VJ. “Wallace Stevens,” Bud remarks, looking toward the ceiling. The others eye him skeptically. “The poet? He was a bond man, a surety claims attorney. I don’t know if he made enough selling his poems to quit the bond business. As I understand it, he didn’t want to. He said that holding down a regular job was good for him, good for his writing. It’s hard to imagine. Here’s a guy who’s just spent all day wrangling over past-due bills and selling off the contractor’s house to pay the creditors. Then he walks to the train station, buys himself a drink in a plastic cup, sits down by the window, and writes a poem on the commute home? I read somewhere how old Wally would be at the office, right in the middle of dictating a letter, when he’d just stop, pull out a pad of paper, and write a few lines of poetry. They say he kept his poems in the lower left drawer of his desk, separate from his claims work. Still, how separate could they have been?”
Bud looks expectantly from Hutch to Velvet Jacket, but they’re waiting. He turns to the other end of the table and winks at Mo before resuming his discourse. “One of Wallace Stevens’s poems starts like this: I placed a jar in Tennessee. Jar is what he wrote, but maybe he was thinking about a building, some surety claim case, some half-built eyesore that Stevens found a way to get finished after his company’s contractor went under. Was he proud to see that building sitting on top of that Tennessee hill, turning the surrounding wilderness into a kind of landscaping? Or did he wish he could have demolished the fucking thing? Maybe old Wally just decided to make a settlement with the owner, and they left a half-finished empty shell of a building up there on the Tennessee hill, tall and of a port of air. Every once in a while you get the sense that some of the papers from the right desk drawer found their way to the left drawer. The earth is not a building but a body, he wrote. Wallace Stevens’s day job was to make sure that buildings got built on the body of the earth. There is no difference between god and his temple, he wrote. A claim man finds it difficult sometimes to distinguish himself from the papers he handles, he wrote in an article for a trade journal. Money is a kind of poetry – I wonder what he meant by that? When he was finished writing a poem he’d hand the little pieces of paper to his secretary and she’d type them up for him. Maybe when he’d open that bottom left drawer those little slips of paper would remind him of money, like a loose wad of dollar bills stashed in there. But then wouldn’t he have said it the other way around – poetry is a kind of money?”
“Near as I can tell,” the velvet-jacketed man insinuates, “poetry is nothing like money, has nothing to do with money. Poetry is about as far from money as you can get.”
“You sound like Robert Graves,” Bud tells Velvet Jacket. “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.” Hutch guffawed as Bud went on. “Was Stevens just another greedy bastard, and that’s why he kept his claims job, so at the end of the day he could go home to a snifter of V.S.O.P. cognac and admire the fine paintings on his walls? He made poems, and he made money – same thing, just little pieces of paper, two sides of the same coin. Then again, maybe he was looking at money like a bond claims man, a poetic claims man. The flows of money, the meaning of money, the reality made up of an accumulation of abstract things, like a poem that’s really not just a string of words.”
“Well I don’t got any V.S.O.P. in this joint…” Hutch starts to stand, then plumps back down into his leather swivel chair. He rears back and slams his palms onto the tabletop. He whistles loudly. “Hey Dianne! Bring us some of the good stuff, would you, darlin’?” Hutch strikes a match and gets his cigar smoldering again, taking a few quick puffs as Dianne arrives with a tray of tumblers, an ice bucket, and a cut crystal decanter of bourbon. Beaming victoriously at the assembly, Hutch waves his cigar in the air like a Philistine orchestra conductor or a profane priest wafting a thurible over the congregation. He pours himself a three-finger portion, neat, and quaffs half of it. “Ah! It’s five o’clock somewhere, am I right, gentlemen?”
Bud reaches for the decanter and the ice. “Maybe this is the Tennessee jar that Stevens was talking about,” he said as he took a sip.
“You nailed it, Bud,” Hutch bellows, slapping Bud on the shoulder. “Here’s how,” he says, finishing off his first drink.
“The jar displaces and tames nature,” Bud observes as with the tongs he places three clear cubes into a glass. “Imagination encloses a bit of nature inside a round transparent container and calls it art, but what seems like a creation turns out also to be a destruction. So maybe Stevens held an ambivalent stance toward poetry and all works of imagination that impose meaning on the wilderness. Money is another work of the imagination that tames and encloses, another gray and barren creation of man. The poetry of a work of the imagination constantly illuminates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact, Stevens wrote. I wonder if the struggle against the sheer facticity of handling bond claims gave old Wally’s poetry a more severe and resolute commitment to imaginative vision, to the kind of meaning that couldn’t be reduced to the legal and financial considerations at which he was also adept. What strikes me now is the rigid compartmentalization he must have been able to impose on himself. Or maybe it was the clarity of the window through which he could see the poetic. Wally wasn’t just a guy in a cubicle futzing around with his poems when nobody was watching. He was a goddamn vice president. He had responsibility, a corner office, a budget, people to manage.”
“Maybe that’s your advantage,” the velvet-jacketed man tells Bud. “You’re a solo practitioner, a lone gunman, a rogue operative lurking in the shadows. An underground man.”
As the discussion continues and the glasses are refilled, Mo decides that he’s at the wrong meeting. He gets up from his chair; the three men raise their tumblers in salute…
* * *
After graduating from college I got a job in the Chicago Loop as a surety bond underwriter at the regional headquarters of a large insurance company. As a trainee I learned my trade through a combination of informal rules of thumb and OJT, supplemented by a three-week session of didactics and case studies taught by the gurus in the San Francisco home office. In other words, I simulated the expertise of others who had acquired the expertise before me. Eventually I got good enough at the job to become surety manager of the Detroit office. Several years later, as an AI postdoctoral fellow in Minneapolis, I designed and built a surety underwriting expert system, modeling on paper and eventually on a computer program the heuristics I myself had used as a professional practitioner. In other words, I built a simulation of myself. Then, taking a job as vice president at a national insurance company, I built from scratch a surety department in which the real-world underwriting decisions were made in real time by the AI program I had built as a postdoc. And just now I wrote a condensed narrative meta-simulation of a real-world sequence of events. It’s the weird tale about a guy who made himself into a human simulation of others and who then built and ran a computerized algorithmic simulation of himself. I understand that this sort of pomo meta-meta has gone out of fashion…
Surety Show Trial. The AI underwriter, running on an old-fashioned desktop PC, sits in judgment over fourteen construction companies. First case: Your Honor, I would like to be granted a bonding line of credit of four million dollars single contract, eighteen million aggregate workload, without the owners’ personal indemnity, at preferred rates. The robotic judge would question the petitioner: What is your net quick position? Your average gross profit margin on your three largest completed jobs? Annual debt service? Aging of receivables? The judge would deliver the verdict yay or nay. Perhaps a plea bargain would be negotiated: standard rather than preferred rates, a slightly lower single-job limit. I’ve not tracked the industry since I left it a generation ago, but beyond reasonable doubt the routine underwriting decisions are no longer made by the human experts but by AI replicants. Unlike the earliest model I designed and built, the current technology would be augmented by an empirically-driven machine learning module, whereby the human experts’ heuristics would be supplemented, modified, and eventually replaced by multivariate probabilistic algorithms that far exceed the calculating capabilities and the accuracy of the human surety underwriter. Just like in banking, stock trading, lawyering, marketing, hydrocarbon exploring, gene splicing, surveilling, tactical bombing, software engineering… Eventually experts from every field could present their cases before the human resources judge – credentials, experience, recommendations. Guilty, every last one of them: hang ’em high, send ’em to Limbo.
Human history can be traced by charting the emergence, heyday, and obsolescence of various types of jobs. I don’t know what has become of the surety underwriters displaced by the AIs – maybe they can auction themselves off as indentured servants in Act Two. I don’t know what careers beckon to new graduates who realize that their progress in acquiring professional expertise will almost surely be outpaced by the machines already being programmed to replace them. I read the results of a recent British survey in which 14 thousand respondents, presented with a list of jobs, were asked whether they would or would not like to do each of those jobs for a living. The top three choices were author, librarian, and academic. Creating and discovering and archiving and teaching, extending the rickety architecture of cumulative human culture a little further across the void – these jobs too are on the way out, of course. Then again, maybe after the replicants have clearcut the job market to a hundred percent human unemployment, after waves of anthropocenic catastrophe have thinned the human population to post-apocalyptic sustainability, the remnant will keep itself busy by building and exploring worlds. Not just new but old, not just different but better, not just one but many, not just possible and real but impossible and unreal.