I wrote this piece for Use Your Words, a spoken word open mic at Orcas Island’s tiniest bar, The Barnacle. I still haven’t performed it. I have some hesitancy as much of my audience is comfortably retired or affluent, and well, you’ll see. I am attempting to talk about something that is real, without succumbing to a negative or blaming tone. Tell me if I succeeded.
The drawing is from my old web comic Instructions for Life.
Welcome to Life on Orcas, our twenty-part series on living and thriving on Orcas Island.
Section Fifteen: Working on Orcas Island
In our previous section, we talked about how Orcas Island’s natural beauty and strong community make it an attractive destination. But how do Orcas islanders make a living?
It turns out that a large percentage of Orcas Islanders don’t need to make a living, because of something called Retirement.
Retirement is a cultural tradition, dating to the middle of the 20th century. In Retirement, a person stops working because they have accumulated enough money to support a comfortable lifestyle for the remainder of their life. Retirement is practiced by members of what was once called the middle class.
On Orcas Island, the final generation of retired people enjoys everything this quiet paradise has to offer. They can be seen in their home gardens, patiently weeding dandelions out of their rose bushes, as if to say: I have no idea what will happen to my grandchildren, but in my garden, there is order and beauty.
Orcas is also home to another group of people who don’t work. They’re called rich people. Rich people are easily identified by their excellent dental work and an air of barely concealed impatience—as if they are about to receive an excellent bottle of Bordeaux, but it’s several minutes late. Their children have clean fingernails and speak fashionable languages like French and Mandarin.
Little is known about the interior lives of rich people, because they don’t like to talk about feelings, but it is known that rich people love collecting houses, and that is a thing that they do on Orcas Island.
Some individuals may experience feelings of anger or resentment when they think about rich people. It is important to remember that rich people are just regular people who through luck alone have risen to the top of a system that is fundamentally arbitrary and unfair. Additionally, material wealth is a poor substitute for genuine human needs like love, understanding, and connection, none of which have monetary value or can be bought or sold. For these vital human needs, rich people will experience the same degree of scarcity—or abundance—that is experienced by all human beings.
While retired and rich orcas islanders do not need to work, the remaining islanders do need to work. They’re called: Workers.
On Orcas, people work in one of two fields—Serving tourists, or serving the island’s retired and rich people. They can enjoy such jobs as restaurant server, private aircraft mechanic, and petsitter. In the next five to ten years, most of these jobs will be automated.
In the Orcas Island of the future, workers will be polite and compliant robots. Because of their silicon organs and Teflon skin, they will not require housing, food, or love. Our robot workers will not start families, they will not perform in community theater, and they will not wave when they drive by in a battered red Toyota pick-up truck.
And when a future billionaire orders a cocktail at one of Orcas Island’s automated bars, and says to the automated bartender, “I am lonely,” the bartender robot will use facial recognition to analyze the billionaire’s sad, pinched face, and the bartender will initiate a compassion subroutine, altering its voice synthesizer to a soothing tone, activating the motors in its face to approximate human empathy, and say something eerily human like, “Sorry to hear it, friend.”
And the billionaire will feel the tiniest easing of his pain. But the source of that pain will remain forever, like a hole in his pocket.