Grooving octopuses, Passenger empathy, and Dave the Compliment Machine

On the lineup for today: a woman passenger reminisces on Berkeley’s days of yore, a time when a passenger really had my back, and a short story sparked by a comment made in a Lyft ride.

~~~

Berkeley High Schooler in the ’70s

“The teachers didn’t have a handle on the kids at all. We’d go to Stinson Beach after lunch, skip out on class for the rest of the day–usually because we knew there wasn’t anything going on in the classroom that we had to be there for. The teacher would just put on a video and sit back. 

Vintage Berkeley

Ditching didn’t lead to any consequences. The school didn’t punish us. They didn’t call home to our parents, didn’t dock us on our report card, nothing like that; so we got stoned and dipped our feet in the ocean.”

-Woman I picked up in south Berkeley talking about her experience many years ago as a high school student in Berkeley

~~~~~

Road Thoughts: A Heartening Moment of Passenger Empathy

I don’t fully remember what happened here. I think it was that a car cut in front of me, abruptly and recklessly. What I do at least recall though is that a driver honked at me, and I honked back.

I put my hand on the horn, then held it there for at least five seconds. I remember making a fair amount of noise.

Was this gratuitous and over-the-top? I wondered right after. Maybe my passenger would think I was being aggressive. Maybe they’re a little afraid of me now.

Was I being petty and reactive? Playing the victim, even? Or, (since it stemmed not just from a self-protective impulse but an instinct to protect my passenger as well), did the receiver of the honk deserve my ire?

 To my pleasant surprise, instead of judging my reaction the passenger instead rolled down the window and yelled back at the initial honker:

“It was your fucking fault, asshole!” Then turning towards me: “You did the right thing. Watch out for bad drivers like that.”

Unexpected comments like these are so lovely and validating. When a passenger makes them it feels like they’ve given me a tiny engine that helps power my canoe through the choppy waters of the rest of the day.

Readers, can you recall a moment like this from your lives? Unanticipated validation or empathy from a stranger, or someone with whom you had no established relationship?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Funky Octopus Grooves

A passenger asks to connect his phone. The new music he exposes me to is the kind I could picture an octopus dancing along to. In the imaginary video to it I can really see all eight tentacles grooving.

“I could get behind that,” the (I suspect stoned) passenger says to me after asking me what kind of “feeling” the songs brings up for me.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Short Story: “Dave the Compliment Machine” (inspired by a Lyft ride)

I wrote “Dave The Compliment Machine” one day after giving a ride to a passenger who described herself as having felt equated to a machine with her ex, expected to pump out unending time and validation whenever he wanted her to.

The following passage from Melissa A Fabello comes to mind:

I sometimes wonder if, somewhere down the road, our impatience with lack of immediate resolution will spill over into the way we treat our relationships– be they with friends, partners, cashiers, waiters, or Uber drivers. I worry that the more we come to expect instant validation, the more our empathy skills will atrophy, while our capacity for introspection and perspective-taking will also slowly diminish.

Maybe at some point we’ll have become trained to see each other— albeit perhaps not at a conscious level— as objects who either help us or stand in the way of achieving our individual goals. Or maybe this will only ever be the plot of a dystopian novel.

Anyways, in the following story, workers at an office periodically turn to the compliment machine for a shot of validation. Dave gives them that little extra oomph they feel they need to power them through the remainder of the day’s drudgery. 

One day, employee named Mark goes to the machine only to find that Dave is out of service. Mark responds with anger and frustration at this, kicking Dave in an attempt to restore his function. What happens from here on? Read on to find out!

**

Tucked into the corner of the break room at Shuman Bask Office, the compliment machine doled out shiny pieces of paper containing individualized affirmations on a continuous basis. Businessmen, secretaries, the newly single, people dissatisfied with their relationships, jaded workers just trying to make it through their day– all could rely on it for steady allotments of validation. Reading the paper caused their dopamine levels to surge, providing them that extra boost they needed to make it through the remaining hours of their shift. 

Now they could finish their perfunctory paper filing. Now they could make that call to that exhausting customer they’d been putting off all afternoon. Now they could sit through the empty dinner hour at the end of the day, with their shell of a shut-down partner who had at some point stopped breathing love into the connection that had once burned so bright between them.

Everyone called the machine Dave, reminiscent as it was of a little red man with a glass head.

One day Mark, who was feeling particularly low, approached Dave in pursuit of a boost. He was in extreme need of one, in fact.

After pressing the usual buttons, Mark waited. That the machine did not stir came as an unpleasant and unwelcome surprise to him.

You’ve got to be kidding me, he thought.

He pressed the button again, and waited some more.

Still nothing.

This can’t be happening. Not now of all moments. Please say it’s not.

Mark hit the button more frantically, even giving the machine a little shake. Still no response.

He kicked it. Nothing. Kicked it some more. Nothing again.

“You fucking stupid machine!” Mark finally yelled.

Sweat was pooling down his face by the time he returned to his desk. Feeling unsettled, he went outside to smoke a cigarette, even though he’d been trying to quit. 

Once back in the office, Mark botched the files. He fumbled a phone call. He was short with a coworker. Before he left work for the day, his boss requested that he “step up his game” the following morning.

Morning came, and Mark’s co-worker Earnest entered Mark’s office to announce that the machine was working again.

Relief rushed through him.

“GOOD,” Mark replied. “It’s about time.” He got up to leave, but Earnest remained in the doorway.

“There was one thing though…”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“He’s asked that you…don’t go near him anymore.”

Mark didn’t reply for about five seconds as he processed this. Then a gigantic, bemused smile overtook his face.

“Don’t go near him anymore?” Mark laughed. “Because machines have feelings and agency now?”

“Yes, well you see…even though he wasn’t functional at the time, Dave was still conscious during your…episode. He heard everything. Took it all in.”

Mark paused, trying to make sure he had heard correctly. He opened his mouth, then closed it again before finally saying:

“That’s ridiculous. It’s a machine!!”

“Dave is one of the first robots to have what—well—what we might think of as being similar to human feelings. Your behavior was hurtful. It made him afraid. The trust is gone.”

The same panic that tornadoed through Mark yesterday again ripped through him now.

“There must be some way to…can’t you just tell him that it was a mistake? I wasn’t aware of any of this. I didn’t know he had feelings. This was all just a misunderstanding. Please say that to him.”

“It just…doesn’t work like that, Mark,”  Earnest responded. “The damage is done. I’m sorry.”

Mark was about to concede, when suddenly a possibility occurred to him. 

“Wait,” he said. “Maybe I could…talk to him.” Empathy for the machine rushed in, tempering his initial panic. “To tell him I’m sorry.”

Earnest hesitated. Then, seeing the genuineness in Mark’s face, he told him okay. He allowed Mark to pass through.

Over the following weeks, Dave and Mark slowly rebuilt their trust. When Mark felt stressed or lonely, he went outside to talk to Dave. The machine didn’t feed him any overt compliments like it had at one point, but after their interactions, Mark felt restored—and in a healthier way than before. It was as if these talks joined together to create something that gave Mark a more sustained form of the boost he’d once been accustomed to.

The previous compliments had been like shots of caffeine—effective for a brief period of time, but always followed by the need for more once the effect wore off.

Mark was also finding that in general now, he didn’t feel the need to make quite so many trips. He didn’t go back to the machine nearly as often as he did before. Some days he didn’t go at all, and this was perfectly okay.

 Could it be that he was developing a…what would be the word for it? Friendship with the machine? One wherein he respected Dave and cared for his well-being? Mark’s initial reaction to that thought was to call it ridiculous–yet, how else to explain the noticeable reduction in his stress levels as compared with before? 

When Mark went home to his shut-down wife later that day, he looked at her and really took her in. Sitting down beside her, he asked her questions about her day. And when she began chattering on about her passion for rhododendrons, he didn’t filter her out. He didn’t treat it like background noise or the ever present hum of the fridge, nor did he put forth a not altogether unkind but still monosyllabic reply to indicate a desire for the talking to stop.

Instead he looked into her face and invited her to tell him more. 

Twenty miles away in the corner of the break room at Shuman Bask Office, Dave beamed with pride.

~~~

Photo credits

Gum-ball machine– https://www.gumballs.com/jumbo-giant-14450-gumball-machine.html

Vintage Berkeley– https://www.bygonely.com/vintage-berkeley-1960s-1970s/

Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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