Every morning I drink coffee with The Unyielding Claw of the Universe. She’s also known as Mrs. Shoffner. For the past couple of years we’ve bought caffeinated beverages at the same Starbucks and chatted as we drank them. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. I learn about the things she’s learned in her 35 years as a junior high English teacher, and she gives me shit about my caramel frappucino.

This morning I mentioned to her that my ancient car had just destroyed itself in a storm of black smoke and Japanese plastic. I complained about how expensive cars are now and about all my other financial burdens. And I described how in particular my student loan debt was crushing me—a staggering amount that I could never pay off, in return for a degree that hadn’t enabled me to earn the kind of money I’d expected. In fact, I told her that I thought all student loan debt should be forgiven for the good of the country.

Mrs. Shoffner laid her trifocal gaze upon me, and I felt as if I might have just done something bad with a dangling participle. She said, “Young man, did you freely assume this obligation? Was a hooded fellow wielding a red hot iron standing behind you when you signed the loan agreement?”

I smirked at her. “I did, and no, there wasn’t anybody like that behind me.”

“So you agreed to the loan, and then the rapacious lender altered the terms, perhaps increasing the interest to usurious levels. Is that the case?”

“No, but that’s not the point.”

“What then is the point?”

I told myself that she was from another generation and didn’t understand how unfair the current system had become. I resolved to be gentle. “You can’t get anywhere without a college degree these days. That’s just a fact. And college tuition is outrageously expensive. There’s no way to get that degree without borrowing a huge amount of money.”

I gave Mrs. Shoffner a polite smile and waited for her to acknowledge my explanation. She returned my polite smile and waited, offering the impression that I had incompletely conjugated a verb. I toyed with my frappuccino’s straw until my discomfort at last forced me to say something else. “I did the thing I was told to do in order to succeed. I got the education. But the game is rigged. I can’t get a job that pays enough, and now there’s no way to pay off the loan.”

“I see,” she said, and she sipped her black coffee with a double espresso shot. “Who told you to do this thing?”

After blinking twice I said, “Everybody.”

“Then everybody promised to employ you at a sufficient wage to repay your loan. Correct?”

When I frowned at her, she continued, “Or perhaps those who loaned you the money promised to employ you in so lucrative a position?”

“That’s ridiculous! You’re oversimplifying a complex—“

Mrs. Shoffner lifted her arthritic hand in a gracious motion, displaying her palm as if it were the Wall of Troy. I stopped speaking.

“In fact, no one made a binding promise to provide you anything, other than money that you must repay. Perhaps you heeded certain nonspecific advice, but it was you who chose to borrow money, and you invested in an education.”

“It was a bait and switch!” I said.

“Your education has intrinsic worth, but perhaps you fail to value Steinbeck and the Pythagorean Theorem. I myself find Pythagoras as nauseating as a rancid codfish. But you nonetheless made an investment, and you may have invested unwisely. If you purchase a house anticipating it will appreciate in value, and it then does not so appreciate, do you expect the loan to be forgiven?”

I cherished a fleeting image of ramming a cranberry scone up Mrs. Shoffner’s nose. Instead I said, “No, of course not.”

“Then how is this different?” She sat there, straight-backed in her navy blue polka dot dress like Socrates’ cruel maiden aunt.

I didn’t even have to think. “This involves people’s livelihoods. It’s about their jobs. It’s more basic.”

“Then perhaps you should have considered your livelihood before you borrowed this astounding sum. For example, if a man intends to become a poet, he might not choose to borrow $50,000 to finance the endeavor, unless he intends to repay the debt over 200 years.”

I leaned back and sighed. “Fine. Maybe I should have thought about all of that back then. Maybe. But this is where I am now, and I’ll never get out of it.”

Mrs. Shoffner looked around the coffee bar while pursing her rose-pink lips. “Perhaps this establishment is hiring. With a second salary I am sure you could pay off your loan in a few years.”

I gaped at her. With my mouth open that wide I’m sure she could see my tongue, and maybe my tonsils. Maybe even my stomach clenching at the idea of a second job.

“Why not?” Mrs. Shoffner grinned. “That is how I paid for college.”

Instead of answering, I just smiled at the old lady and lifted my cheap plastic cup in a toast. I knew I’d never convince her, so I’d pretend to capitulate and never mention it again.

She touched her cup to mine and said, “I know that you are not convinced, young man, but carry away with you this one idea. Nothing is ever fair, and the game is always rigged. Acknowledge that, and you shall be far more successful.” She winked. “Besides, what else do you have to do with your time? Sit around with vindictive old bitches and drink coffee?”

My recollection of the day I signed up for my student loan. (Photo from http://www.entrepreneurrookie.com)

People are awful, and that’s the way I like them. Whenever some spiteful squid of a person tells me about another fellow’s terrible behavior, I just smile. I smile because despite his abominable acts, that fellow still has people who love him and a place to sleep and better taste in clothes than I will ever have. And that makes me happy, because I have certainly done things as bad or worse than any of the nasty crap he’s done. He and I may not have been punished as we deserve, because the world is not fair. Then again, if we all got what we deserved, it would be a mighty sad world.

I like people so much that I watch them a lot, in what I hope is a non-creepy way. They are more entertaining than any blockbuster movie in the past 50 years. They’re more fun than a Wii, that’s for damn sure. Even when I can kind of start predicting what they’ll do, the way they do it still gushes charm. And people never enthrall me more than when they somehow, mystically, figure out how to act around one another without ever talking about the rules, or really saying anything at all about it.

You may feel that I’m now communicating to you in ancient Babylonian, or in the language of crayfish, because my words make no sense. I will produce an example for you. When you walk into an elevator that has people in it, you know there are certain rules for behaving in there that don’t apply anywhere else. For example, in an elevator you must move as far as possible away from anyone you don’t know. If someone gets off the elevator, you have to readjust like those B-Bs in those stupid games so that everyone can move farther away using the newly freed space. No one ever told you to move the hell away from those people. No one handed you a rule book for riding elevators. But you, and every other elevator-riding human, know how to behave.

I’ve never just ridden the elevator all day to enjoy this phenomenon, because I’m not a sociopathic freak, or at least I’m not one yet. But I have wandered around looking for similar behaviors, and I didn’t have to wander far. If you look carefully, you’ll see that when I check out at the grocery store the whole process is choreographed like Swan Lake. I stand in line, which is nothing special—I do that lots of places. While waiting, I snatch looks at trashy newspapers and Baby Ruth bars and magazine covers showing women with breasts bigger than their heads. But I try to pretend that I’m not actually looking at them—that I’m really passing the time checking out the carpet cleaning machines and the Pepsi display shaped like a football helmet. As if anyone would care.

Then when the person ahead of me is unloading his cart, it’s okay to pay surreptitious attention to what he’s buying. I may think, Ooh, marshmallows, cinnamon gelato, and Cocoa Puffs. I see someone’s getting back in shape. But I make sure not to look like I’m reconnoitering his groceries. And for God’s sake, I would never make any sort of comment about them, even if he were buying Crisco and syringes so he could shoot up lard.

If the guy in line ahead of me asks for three price verifications on a can of Pringles, then writes a two party, out of state check, I’ll get mad. I’ll grumble, and I’ll roll my eyes at the shopper behind me. But I won’t kick the moron in the shin, raise my voice, or even say anything to him. When the moron is at last in the parking lot, then we can all bitch him out and enjoy doing it, but we can’t do it to his face.

When it’s my turn to check out, I must follow a protocol. What do you think would happen if I just walked up and handed the cashier a fist full of money before he scanned my items? What if I nudged the cashier out of the way and tried to scan my items myself? What if I tried to pay with 10,000 pennies, or with a gold watch? What would happen if I asked the cashier for his autograph? These things aren’t as outlandish as you might think. Someone from another culture might not know they’re wrong. But I know all about these things, even though I have never taken a class on grocery checkout etiquette. I just absorbed the social conventions over the hundreds of times I bought bananas and cup cakes.

This all makes grocery shopping sound a lot more exhausting than it really is. But in fact, the conventions smooth out the whole experience so that you don’t have to think as much. You don’t have to wonder what the heck to do when the credit card scanner starts blinking at you like a lemur in the daylight.

It would be nice to have such strong social conventions in other situations, such as buying an over-priced television, farting in a job interview, and trying to get a table in a restaurant that’s far too classy for you. I think we can take care of this. The other awful people and I will get right on creating those social conventions for everybody. It beats breaking out of court houses, starting bar fights, and yelling in church at mean, old religious ladies.

In January a long-time buddy and I were engaged in crushing the hopes and dreams of creative people. It’s a hobby. We and a number of other well-meaning ruthless shrews were bickering about which people to nurture and which people to crush. I wouldn’t describe the discussion as heated, or even spirited. I’d describe it as discussion with flecks of spit flying through the air. Eventually fairness was raised as an argument. If we nurtured “Creative Person X,” then it would be unfair to crush “Creative Person Kind of Like X.”

My response was, “I refuse to be dictated to by the whims of fairness.” My buddy immediately had to write that down. Not that she agreed with me. I suspect she just wanted to keep it so she can whip it out at my funeral service and show everyone what a dick I was.

In the end we chose not to crush either of those people, and those people went on to convince me that was the right decision. But I stand by my “whims of fairness” position. Fairness is supposed to be a good thing. It’s supposed to be even. It’s supposed to be blind. Well, for most things in life such as swinging on trapeezes, and building bridges, and driving supertankers, blindness is not an asset. If you need a tumor cut out of your brain, do you want to get whatever surgeon is on deck at the hospital that day? “Dr. Xu normally does tonsils and deviated septums, but he’s next up today so here you go!”  No, I suspect you would want the best god damned brain surgeon on earth, or at least the best one your hospital can bribe to work there.

Fairness binds me in an arbitrary standard that takes the decision making out of my hands. I believe in creativity and courage. But fairness is the refuge of the uncreative and the timid.

People hate my philosophy on fairness. It kicks everything they cherish right in the crotch. Therefore, while I dislike fairness I have enormous respect for the perception of fairness. And that perception isn’t tough to create, because in the end people really, deep down, don’t want fairness. Think about it–if everyone got what they deserved, this would be a mighty sad world. When we are heard, and our ideas and needs are acknowledged, and when creative, brave decisions help us succeed collectively and as people–well, we still won’t be happy, because we’re still people and never satisfied. But we’ll be less miserable.

Fairness is a rule. And as Thomas Edison said, “There ain’t no rules around here! We’re trying to accomplish something!”