The Difference Between Chickens and Goats

by

05/22/2005

Broadway & E 8th St, New York, NY 10003

Neighborhood: West Village

A Goat walks in with a camera, wants to document me, the Best Administrative Assistant in the World, diligently at work. I turn off the Atari emulator on my computer, open up a word processing document, and get to my Work, processing, retrieving, shrugging off calls in triplicate. Each call and customer needs to feel like they are wanted, even as I dissuade them. And they are indeed dissuaded, most of them, like these little Space Invaders that come in at me with only a single gun turret to defend myself.

*

For much of my tenure at a film department at a well-known “University” with “New York” in its name, I labored as an Administrative Assistant, pay grade 7, behind a north-facing desk in what is known as the Inventory Insult Booth. It was a meetingplace where the Film Students—which, with the help of the search-and-replace feature on my word processing software are referred to henceforth as “Goats”—are first greeted with the news that they had slept in a marijuana cloud through their phone registration slots, and so therefore cannot receive their degree, cannot attend classes, or both. Goats were invariably disappointed at the news, and usually declaimed their ignorance as the brand of their innocence.

*

Goats have spit on me, flipped middle fingers, and threatened legal action. Goats have called me “The Man.” Goats have farted, cropduster plane–style, across the front of my desk; they have accused me of embezzling, mental retardation, and laziness; they have called me “faggot,” “dumbass honky,” and “jackass.” Nipping at the Goats’ heels in the Inventory Insult Booth are the “Chickens.” This is the name I give to non-Film-majors who stop at nothing to take a film class, save switching majors and actually being polite. From mid-1996, when I completed my graduate poetry studies, until mid-2000, I decided, in the face of all this adversity, to keep my chin up and become the Best Administrative Assistant in the World! I recently found this Notebook on a 3.5-inch floppy disk, in which I had set out to chronicle my efforts.

*

A small woman walks straight up to my desk, the ding of the elevator still ringing in the air. She’s a Chicken, but wants to be a Goat. I say that it’s impossible, that there must be some confusion here, for I can only help with Goat classes, and you are not a Goat. She says No, she is indeed a Chicken, but wants to become a Goat to take Goat classes. I say Goat classes are only for Goats, and, as a Chicken, you are therefore ineligible to take part in the Goats’ curriculum. I tell her that, furthermore, there are no forms or appeals available to her to become a Temporary Goat, other than The Big Form, which would wait until the autumn, when all Big Forms are processed. She is an able opponent, this ornery Chicken. It is at this moment that I realize that my dreams of being the Best Administrative Assistant in the world have already begun to come true, right here, under my eyes!

*

…but I, I who aspire to be The Best Administrative Assistant in the World, have taken on the full brunt of her thrusts and parries. I am talking Chicken to her, dissuading her from the ways of the Goat. This small Chicken shrugs, says she’ll be back, with more documentation for her to become a Temporary Goat.

*

Several Philosopher-Goats have asked me questions in math. Pure math, no stuttering. They are numbering requests to me, directly across my desk’s counterspace, they are yammering on in zeroes and ones. It takes me awhile to decipher what is going on, but as their Administrative Assistant, I give them the necessary papers, or I file something, and they go on with lives that are much more nourished than mine. I applaud them, these Philosopher-Goats, those who question each word others say, but applaud themselves after their words find articulation in the mouths of others, no matter the originality or even the verity. It is an unconditional language, like math, except with a sort of acknowledgment before each utterance, as if each sentence were footnoted with the same exact sentence printed in smaller font.

*

Several Goats have crank-called me—this is funny, since they are artists. Most times, I go along with it, since as Goats they need a supportive audience, and I know this. Most of the time, they will reveal who they are—Dude, it’s me, Joshua the Goat!—but sometimes they don’t. Those that don’t go on to become administrators here after graduation. Usually they are short and have a background in student government. It’s OK, though; I’m not jealous. This is part of the job that I have chosen. Or did the job choose me?

*

You can ask anyone who the toughest customers are. Old ladies with coupons at a busy grocery checkout? Good guess. Haggling young mothers in Egyptian street shops? Another good one. Trust fund kids on a budget, reading their section of a diner tab? Again, close. Goats pumped up that they are the next generation of cinema, faced with the crush of doing their own quotidian paperwork? Bingo. Those are the toughest customers, and it is they whom I, the Best Administrative Assistant in the World, aspire to serve.

*

A group of Goats walk up to me and ask me a question: if there are 24 cameras in a classroom, and 24 desks, then why can we not join the class as guests, who can, on occasion, sit in a desk or get behind a camera, under the scenario, say, of a suicide or extended absence. They are indeed able opponents, these Goats, and I respect them. But only to a point. To serve film student-Goats, there has to be a certain amount of antipathy involved, a certain hatred. They will approach you, challenge you, ask to be a Goat when they are a Chicken, ask to take dead peoples’ cameras, and you must hold your ground. All the while I know this: the Chicken never wins. The Goat has hooves.

*

According to legend, Goats are so awful at figuring out how to graduate, and—after being told they were the heir apparent to such alumni as Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch—are so rude to the folks in the Central Inventory Insult Booth that the Department had to set up its own Inventory Insult Booth, in-house. And I work there.

*

The Best Administrative Assistant in the World walks into a bar. He sees other Administrative Assistants there, ones who have assisted the same Goats and Philosopher-Goats. We share a pitcher, gossip, jibe each other. When one of us sneezes, we all say God Bless You. We talk about Goat Forms, Chicken Forms, Temporary Goat Forms, The Big Form. We let off some AA steam. But as the Best, they wait and give space for my stories, for I am the best and my stories are the best. I am deeper in the trenches than my comrades, I have met all of the Goats, all of the Philosopher-Goats, at their most prone moments. All of my comrades have certain defining characteristics. Facial tics. They wait for me to speak more. I finish my beer. I tell them I have an appointment. One of them hugs me.

*

I kept track of how many times a Goat asked the question, “Do you know who I am?” The number: 27. That’s about 6.75 times a year in my four-year tenure. The only time I really “knew” who a Goat was when a Goat, in turn, actually told me. In his case, he was a son of a major producer in Hollywood, who had forgotten to pay his son’s tuition and was now de-enrolled from all his classes. I took pity on this Goat, and sent him to my supervisor’s Insult Booth.

*

My speech would have gone something like this: “Friends, Hallelujah! Those who have been in New York this long, and who have midwifed the future Goats of cinema as long as I, we have a task. Hallelujah! A dirty task, one in which the entire world waits for these gods’ visions to come to the fore. Hallelujah! We cannot stop these visions. Hallelujah! They are holy, they are purely and simply youthful. Hallelujah! Sure, they haven’t written a single script. Hallelujah! Sure, they are Goats, Temporary Goats, even Chickens. Hallelujah! But we must help them, control their anger, their deprecation, assist in their baptism. Hallelujah!” I knew my fellow Administrative Assistants would have many questions if I had given that speech, and I really did have an appointment, of sorts. So I’m glad I held back; there’d be other times. Hallelujah!

*

Today the Best Administrative Assistant in the World had no air conditioning.

*

He played electric guitar in his cubicle while a business student asked questions. To him, I was the Facilitator of Goats. I felt this as I hit an open E chord, finishing off with a blues-based run that felt as comfortable as an old pair of sneakers. How can I, a lowly business student, learn to approach your greatness? he asked. I responded, “Don’t try to be like me. When your emotions are pure, you will see what you have to be. If you are a Chicken, be a Chicken. If you are a Goat, be a Goat. If you are a business student majoring in entertainment management at the Stern School of Business, then be that. Don’t be a Chicken trying to be a Goat, as you are today. That’s too messy, and no one will know who you are. Just do it, as they say around here. Strive for greatness.” The phone rings. The business student shakes my hand, give me his card, takes the next elevator, down to the street, filled, no doubt, with greatness thoughts, not Chicken-Goat thoughts.

*

….[text unreadable] a continuation on that Chicken girl. While all of this has transpired, she has come by, every morning, to ask me if the situation has changed. Am I a Temporary Goat yet? I look something up on the computer. I look at her. No, I say. You are still a Chicken. She says that she has filled out The Big Form, and it will only be a matter of days before her Chicken status will change—poof!— into that of a Temporary Goat. I tell her I have no documentation or proof, and neither does she, and so we stand there, eye-to-eye, waiting for the Chicken air conditioning to change to Temporary Goat air conditioning. The phone rings. An email arrives. I look forward to the tasks ahead of me.

*

Yes, I said, I also want to be famous. I have to admit it: I also want to be the Most Famous Administrative Assistant in the World. No, wait, I just want to the Best. How I will do both I have yet to know. But I know that when it happens, it will be a fluid moment, there will be no epiphany in the third-act sense. Somewhere, where things are less prosaic than where we are now, such methodologies are actually sought after at a high price, but I know that my wisdom in the small world I live in has afforded me much patience. I am ambitious, yes, and I can wait until something as great and as inevitable as my crowning will happen. And I will be the Best, and maybe no one will know that. I have to face that. I may not be Famous. I may not be Famous. I may not be Famous. And it will be nothing like the movies.

*

One big secret I’ve learned: Many people in this great city, New York City, do not have to work to survive. They have either attained a level of wealth that facilitates a life of leisure, or the wealth of their forebears have given them luxury, a bequeathed greatness. I see this in Williamsburg, SoHo, or the East Village, when I, the Soon to Be The Most Famous and Best Administrative Assistant in the World, call out sick for mental health holidays. For being the Best takes Rest. I make $27,573 a year, in the mid-range of pay grade 7, and a lot of those funds have to go to what I call “upkeep,” as I call it, care for my physical being. Hot-temperature aerobic classes. Body sculpting. Tae-bo. Jazzercise. Russian-Turkish baths. All of the pressures of helping Goats sometimes catches up to me, and sometimes even I have to spend time in crowded cafes, drink iced coffee and eat a pastry. And in these cafes, I see these people of luxury. And they are so relaxed! The way they sip their beverages, the way they talk to each other! It reminds me sometimes of the Goats I serve, but I shan’t think any more along these lines, for I know most Goats cannot be this rich and lazy. Surely not. They are not waiting for the visions to meet them here—they are out there getting them, seizing them. And I help them do this. That is my job.

*

The fame has not yet arrived. Nightfall during the winter precedes my release from my desk, and so I walk home in the dark. My soul, filled as it is with feathers and hoofprints, slowly freezes over, thankfully, and I thank all of the gods that have put me in the place where I can midwife the stories of Goats for the next 20 years. The stories they will tell! And all of these full-fledged Goats, walking strong, never falling, four-legged, whinnying to me via phone, fax, email, and in person, the din it creates! By the time I get to Houston Street, the music returns full-blast. The Famousness will arrive soon. So, too, will the Bestness, I tell myself. And the Goat’s music resumes like buskers in the shadow of tall buildings.

*

My desk welcomes me, wooden and slightly stained by the elaborate feasts I’ve had on its surface. It is, as I said, solid wood, something I get in my capacity as the Best Administrative Assistant in the World. But when I am The Most Famous—I have not given up that side-dream yet, friends—I will surely receive a different, far more officious and decorous desk. But will I wait for that desk to come, too, along with the fame? And whom shall I ask, whom shall I call or email or fax, whom shall I contact regarding this Famous Desk? Should I make arrangements to give away this, my wooden Best desk, or surrender myself to the Department’s wishes? I ask these questions every day, as I look at the splotch-stained wood of the feasts that have welcomed me.

*

Goat music has a tinge of sadness in it. It is like Schubert or Schoenberg in parts, or, if I dare compare it to cinema, mid-period Ron Howard. All of this is in vain, since I cannot describe the Goat music to those who have yet to create cinema. But it is my job to stop them, these Goats, and ask them questions about their music; to, in short, put into words what no one else has done. After all, I will face the world for them, I will negotiate on their behalf. Their movies will have sadness, joy, and poor people they’ve never met. And I must protect them.

*

Goat music is indeed distant, but when I speak to other Administrative Assistants, they say they cannot even hear it. I play them other music to make sure the other AAs aren’t deaf. Hear that music? I ask. It’s the lost saxophone solo from the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” from the Pet Sounds Sessions box set. Blank stares all around. It is at these moments when I am reassured of my Bestness. The words I speak are otherworldly. Sometimes I go up to one of my colleagues or so-called superiors, and speak to them as I have been speaking to you now. They look at me half-askew, confused but in some way in awe of my candor. It is at these moments I am reassured my greatness, my Bestness.

*

A team of Philosopher-Goats walk up to me. This will not be a prosaic story. They are asking about Goats and Chickens. No, scratch that. It is I who brings up the subject. Philosopher-Goats speak in math, but they listen patiently, and I tell them about the Chicken Forms, the Goat Forms, the Temporary Goat Forms, and The Big Form. They reply in ones and zeroes. These logicians high-five each other and walk away. My story hasn’t ended. I am not yet Famous. I am merely the Best. There will be a prosaic story that follows that will, of course, explain things better. But I don’t think you should know more than this.

*

Waiting to be an original writer is not unlike waiting to be the Most Famous Administrative Assistant in the World. Both are waiting; both are at a desk; and both exist with the din of typewriters in the background. But I am the Goat-catcher here, waiting to be original, writing at my desk, my wooden, food-stained desk. In one of its drawers, I am blessed with a cylinder of artificial creamer, more creamy than any kind of milk in the world. I am not yet original, but I can take minor solace in the fact that there have been other Best AA’s in the world. Yes, now I can begin. Yes, now I can focus on my own typewriter.

*

The Chickens come in today. This is the day they get to be Temporary Goats and even full-fledged Goats. They are so happy! And I am happy for them, basically, because it distracts me from some of the very real pain of being the Best AA in the world. As I type this, two Chickens are looking at me, thinking that I am entering in their passwords into the world of Goats. Wrong. Oh, they are so wrong, as all Chickens usually are. But I need to get down and transcribe some of my thoughts. They will be Goats soon enough, I say. My pain will subside. Give me just a little more time.

*

Sometimes I see a Goat, or a former Goat, out on the street. It is usually in Williamsburg or the East Village. This may happen in a cafe on my mental health holidays, or it may happen in passing on weekday evenings, when I am on my way to an appointment. They usually insult me, call me a ball-buster, but I know these are merely cries for help, or perhaps they are thanking me for my years of “tough love.” Invariably, they are former Chickens who have endured my explanations of the difference between Chickens and Goats. And it will be awhile before their Goat-Chicken status catches up with their inner spirits, the kudzu crawling in their inner Goat-child. I usually wave, and pass along a nugget of wisdom down to them. I think they enjoy seeing their Best AA out in what they call the “real world,” and sometimes, if they are really special, I’ll help them with their bills.

*

I do pray, you know. It’s just that it’s highly esoteric. There’s one that I save for the deep summer, because it is in the summer that the distinctions between Goat and Chicken evaporate. And yes, on a summer day like today, when the girl Chicken-Goats wear little or no clothing, you may think that the difference between being the Best AA and the Most Famous AA is little or naught. Who cares? People aren’t wearing any clothes, male or female. Just the opposite: it is these days, when I am forced to wear shorts and reveal myself, show myself, that I feel most vulnerable. The Famousness had got to come soon. I am so lonely.

*

The Goats of whom I speak: they must be taught by someone. And they come in the form of a semi-professional lot, the Philosopher-Goats, the ones who have gone out to the farms and met other Goats and even Chickens, and told their stories. I respect them and what they do. And the way they speak to the little Goats! Such a blessing they give them! It is the foreign-speaking Philosopher-Goats of which I speak most fondly, for as I write this, one is flirting with a Goat-Chicken (or is it Temporary Chicken-Goat? no matter) and she is laughing heartily, hoping to be signed into a class that Goats usually get. It is such respect the Philosopher-Goats give back, the kind that Goats need in order to survive.

*

Anyone who has seen a Goat being born will understand what I am about to say better than those who haven’t. But the general thrust is this: All Goats, when they are born, land on only three feet. Not all four. The newborns, wet, soaking in the waters of their mother, struggle, and, gradually, like all good prose, they will land on four feet, struggling with the first shaky steps. But to these Goats who land on three legs, whom I assist as the Best Administrative Assistant in the World, I am that fourth leg. It is I who props them up beneath them, giving them advice on how to keep orderly. They may insult me, yes, but this is because they do not understand the wisdom. And when they go back to Westchester or Connecticut or Southern California and eat their festive winter feasts, they will think back to my desk, where I have eaten my own feasts in front of them, where their fourth leg waits for them, even in their absence.

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