A Modern Fable
Once upon a time, in very large city in a very wealthy country, there worked an accountant. He worked in a tall, shiny building that ended in the clouds and began on the street. His desk was on a floor of the building that was closer to the street than the sky. It was also near a window, which, he told his friends, was better than having the larger, loftier offices above. The truth was, he didn’t understand why people would want to look at clouds. When the numbers on the pages and the screens overwhelmed his brain, he much preferred to rest his eyes and mind looking at the busy avenue below.
During these eye and mind breaks while peering at the busy avenue below, he saw the usual bristle-faced hot dog seller, the legless and armless keyboard musician, and of course, the many, many people who were shopping, couriering, smoke-breaking, vaping, pan-handling, touristing, or lost-getting.
But this past week and into the current one, there was someone new. Someone he didn’t recognize. She stood in the middle of the sidewalk, approaching people as they made their ways. She was like a rock in the middle of a stream.
As people walked towards her, he could see her lean into their flow and greet them. Her smile initially caused the flow-byers to smile in return. For most the smiles — which, honestly, were more lip-tightenings — were the beginning and end of it; two lips, one dismissive interaction. Some of them looked over, past, or, for the practiced professionals, through her.
But sometimes her smile turned their movement into nods and conversation.
The accountant, being an accountant, began to keep track of the number of people she talked to, how many ignored her, how many nodded and rushed past, how many returned her engaging smile and talked with her.
And most importantly, of the talkers, how many of their faces went from a smiling nodding face to a straight-browed, close-lipped face to a disturbed, bothered face to a face that shook its head to a face that took its head and the body and walked off with stiff-kneed purpose.
Even without opening a spreadsheet and keeping exact track of each interaction in one of his brightly-coloured pie-chart which were known all over his floor of the sky-scraper, the accountant knew that the angry, stiff-legged walk-aways were the majority by at least a third, or 33.3 repeating.
Even though he turned away from the window and back to his desk, and even though it was his favourite time of the year — end of second quarter when an accountants fancy turned to opening a gloriously blank spreadsheet for the second half of the year — the sidewalk interactions became a post-it note that he couldn’t shake off the inside of his head. So at lunch, he decided to delay his food input and went out to the sidewalk.
She was still there. Still leaning in to people as they passed by, still spreading her smile — which he could now see was an attractive, white toothed one. Instead of seeing the top of her dark haired head, he saw she wore a t-shirt with a single word emblazoned on it: “Vegan!”
Unlike most of the people heading her way, the accountant stepped into a current that would carry him directly to her.
If this surprised her, he couldn’t detect it. Her bright blue eyes connected with his and as he had seen numerous times, from above, her lips peeled back and she smiled. At him. For the first time, he could hear the words that he suspected she said to everybody.
“How are you?” she asked in a warm voice that betrayed none of the rasp that his would have had, had he been addressing people non-stop on a city side-walk for two hours a day. For him, a solid Mekko or Spider chart could say so much more than words.
But he managed to answer, “I’m… interested.”
Now she did appear a little surprised.
“You see,” he continued, “I work in that office right there,” and he pointed up to the office he had just journeyed down from, “And for two hours every day this week, I’ve seen you talking, or trying to talk to people. My interest is what you’re talking to them about.”
The brightness and openness of her face brightened more and opened further as she told him. “I’ve been telling them about how many lives they could save by becoming a Vegan! Are you Vegan?”
“No, I’m an accountant.”
“I mean, do you eat any meat?”
He thought he was impressing her when he answered with the exact number of grams of meat he consumed each day, but her smile lessened, hiding her well-cared-for teeth. And then she began speaking. And being a militant but cunning Vegan, she recalled that he said he was an accountant and knew to use as many numbers as she could.
He was enraptured. Kilo-litres of methane emitted per herd, bushels of feed grown to produce x kilograms of flesh, decagrams of waste excreted per minute per anus, and most importantly, animal deaths per annum. Upon this last statistic, her eyes grew into such wells of intensity and involvement, he thought she would consume him. And in truth, he felt some part of him taken by her.
His phone buzzed in his breast pocket. He was actually almost late for a meeting with the slumber-eyed number-haters in the art department. He had been standing with the Vegan his entire lunch hour!
He apologized. She placed her hand on his wrist and said she hoped he had taken what she had said to heart. He nodded furiously; how could he not? He took two copies of every pamphlet she had and promised that he couldn’t possibly forget what she had just told him.
The meeting with the art department was an unmitigated haze. He was supposed to have provided numeric back-up for the budgetary officer to chastise them for not paying more attention to their growing highlighter expenses. But all he could think about was helping the Vegan save the lives of more animals.
And the thoughts continued after the meeting, through the rest of the day, jostling about on the subway home, and throughout the entire weekend. He would help her. He would solve it for her the only way that anything in the modern world is solved: with accountancy!
On Monday, he was on the sidewalk before her. His phone had the Powerpoint all queued and ready to go. His scatter chart was backed up by the data in a year-by-year spreadsheet plugged into an international database that was cross-referenced against thirteen different auditors’ reports on the meat, fish, fowl, cattle, and invertebrate industries.
Unable to help himself, he intercepted her before she reached her usual sidewalk turf, and whisked her away to the nearby coffee shop. After a half-hour of didactic accountancy, he summarized, knowing that she would be so relieved that he had made her goal so much easier. So… achievable!
“Because the average North American is only 1% likely to adopt a lifestyle that involves eating no meat, but 68% would be amenable to reducing their meat intake, you could save the lives of 10 billion multi-cellular creatures over a 5 year span! 9.68 billion more than you’re saving now!”
He felt himself finish with a flourish of his printouts. He noticed he was standing, looking down at her, his breath bellowing through his flesh, hot trickles of sweat in places other than his arm-pits.
Her smile was gone.
He placed his rump slowly back in his chair. The furrow in her brow was mimicked by the lump in his throat.
Eventually she spoke. And after she was done, she got up and left him. No backward glance. No parting smile. His happy sweat chilled on his skin and pooled in his shoes.
Eliminate the eating of all meat?
He argued with her within himself. Yes, adoption of Veganism had risen by hundreds of percents in just a few years. 6% of people in America in 2017 identified as fully vegan. But, even if all those people weren’t lying for a trending vanity, that was just a few tens of millions of animals saved. He was talking billions!
He sat in the litter of numbers that had fallen about him. It felt like the end of third quarter, harbinger of slushy subway floors and emptier streets beneath his window.
A week later.
Flora the Vegan reached into her handbag and prepared her pamphlets with their sickening photos of what happened to animals in rendering plants. She applied her spider’s smile. She looked down the sidewalk and began making eye contact with approaching people.
And across the street, under the building in which he used to have a window, Gerald the former-Accountant stood on his new path. He kept his eyes to his own sidewalk and his mind on saving all those numbers.