To every one of my complaints, usually about the noise of her son slamming Pogs on the coffee table or our shoddy brake pads shrieking to be changed or our ever-settling house we had to settle for given the mortgage rates and our less-than-stellar credit scores or the jets overhead, their engines droning through the triple-pane windows the city provided, the unremitting roar of the world bearing down on our overworked eardrums—as I say, my wife would respond to said complaints and the like, with the unsympathetic phrase, “first world problems.”
I’d say, in my defense, as if our bedroom or kitchen table were a courtroom and her son both jury and co-conspirator, “it’s not a first world problem, it’s my problem, it’s real to me, and also it’s not first world anymore, it’s developed world so you’re being insensitive two times over,” and she’d say, predictably, with a smirk, “first world problems.”
Such combative exchanges characterized our five years of marriage to the point that when she died free solo climbing El Capitan—a lifelong dream of hers that I reminded her, time and time again, not because I didn’t understand this sort of thrill-seeking, I’m one of the world’s premier cave divers after all, more at home in the silence of those subterranean seas than this clamorous surface world, but because I never trusted her climbing chops, that such a summit was potentially, nay, was in all likelihood a lethal venture—I confess I was relieved. Not I-told-you-so relieved, necessarily, though I’ve been known to enjoy a nip or two of schadenfreude liqueur, I’m no teetotaler in that department, rest assured, but, yes, vindicated, on the one hand, and glad, even overjoyed, at the prospect of never again hearing anyone dismiss my concerns with the phrase, “first world problems.” Regarding the rest of our marriage, however, I had no complaints.
You’ll understand, then, that I was irked, to put it mildly, when my stepson at the unripe age of seven, the cheeky runt, inherited his mother’s expression, his mother’s barbed dismissal, as if it were genetic, first trotting it out at his mother’s funeral no less when I complained—or remarked, complained is too pejorative, it was a harmless remark—that I’d wished for a less gloomy day for the funeral. “First world problems,” he said, chirping like a self-satisfied little songbird. “First world problems, first world problems.”
“Albert,” I’d say, for this was his name, “I’ve noticed your grades are slipping,” or, “Albert, my boy, how is it you’ve received no merit badges,” or, “Dear little Albert, could you refrain from putting matches out on the cat?” to which, without the slightest variation, he’d chirp, “first world problems.”
After six months of this my mother, queen of the community quilting club, empress of Epstein Street, unanimously considered across all seven boroughs to be an act of unimpeachable class, the woman who set me on my watery path of cave diving by, in lieu of hiring a babysitter we couldn’t afford or enrolling me in an extracurricular she couldn’t be bothered to drive me to, tossing me into the quarry behind our house when I was three saying, “sink or swim, my little tadpole, for this world is mostly water,” and I’d spend hours strengthening my pudgy toddler muscles flailing in those dark and, to a young child such as myself, fathomless waters—well, she died. And, would you know it, of course you know it, you’re no idiot, everyone knows you’re fair and wise: what did Albert say when I told him of my deep and wholly expected, even natural, sadness? “First world problems.”
I’m not an especially violent man, mind you. Yes, I’ve broken the odd bully’s nose, thrown darts at a dog or two (mostly Huskies for I find the cold judgement in their blue eyes unnerving, a Siberian look, vast and boring) like any feisty ragamuffin, and dunked one notoriously annoying cousin’s head in a toilet full of post-prandial Thanksgiving excreta—in my defense, he’d eaten all the marshmallow topping off Aunt Clara’s famous sweet potato casserole and I believe I’d attained silent consent from Clara herself for this act of retribution—so as you can see, I’ve sinned but I maintain I’m not an irredeemable sinner though is anyone, really, for if there’s no chance at redemption, what’s the point of sin? This is all to say, please hold this in your mind as you react to my following action: I taped Albert’s mouth shut. Duct tape, yes, but just a single strip and this was his only punishment for his incessant dismissiveness even as I was grieving the loss of such an adored mother. And this would have been the extent of his punishment if he’d learned from it and changed his ways but, as you can probably predict, you’re no stranger to patterns of behavior, he did not. The phrase “first world problems” continued to dribble out of him like shit from an incontinent senator, “first world problems” at breakfast, in his book reports, “first world problems,” while he played with his action figures—as if his toys were somehow reflecting on their privilege—I even heard him muttering “first world problems” in his sleep when I observed him, pillow not in hand, exactly, but I was aware of it, on the periphery, as a final option to silence this litany, little Albert with his mother’s potato nose and his unknown father’s attached earlobes, spewing into the sheet of night like a nocturnal emission: “first world problems, first world problems, first world problems.”
I’m not proud of it, neither, though, am I ashamed—for what is shame but indecisiveness? and an elite cave diver can spare nary a nanosecond for indecision—but this was the moment I decided to call Pavitir Pet, my cave diving comrade, my faithful squire on our outings into the earth’s underground waterways, and ask him to arrange for Albert’s redeployment. The following week, I boxed Albert up with his favorite action figures—the boy was docile, malleable, more so than his mother anyway—and a handful of his most cherished Pogs like obols for Charon, and I taped an eight by ten photo of his mother on the inside of the box to keep him company, lest I be accused of callousness. Pavitir’s connections appeared forthwith and shipped Albert to the Deonar Dumping Ground outside of Mumbai where he’d find gainful employment with the other orphans of the landfill, rummaging and raking and sorting—or whatever it is they do, I’m hazy on the details myself. His mother had always wanted to visit India and I was glad that I could play a role, even a minor one, in assisting Albert to fulfill one of her wishes. I patted him on the head in a final adieu though, given the sedatives I’d slipped him, I’m not sure Albert heard my affectionate send-off. Nevertheless, he was gone. And let me tell you: the subsequent silence in my house was revelatory. A balm. Salvation. Listen:
For eight months I savored this quietude, dancing naked in the silence, until Pavitir and I, as some of the world’s—all of them, first, second, and third—most eminent cave divers, received a request. Evidently, a child was heard crying at night in the sewers of Mumbai which opened into a system of underground caves that were unmapped and whose currents could be treacherous and, as illustrated by the death of two other diving teams, fatal. I thought briefly of Albert, very briefly because I was certain he’d be busy in his landfill living that productive landfill orphan life (I’d seen the brochures and the children, while thin, perhaps even malnourished, lived an active life beneath the Indian sun, free of many so-called “first world problems,” obesity, video game addiction, ADD, cyberbullying and the like). Pavitir and I accepted the job. Here was, undeniably, a third world problem: a child in a well. A child trapped in a well except the well was a sewer, a cave, underneath a city of over twelve million people in the world’s most populous nation, recently crowned.
Pavitir and I arrived in Mumbai to much fanfare, pelted with basmati rice and sachets of Houthi khat and dodging, like George W. Bush nimbly ducking that Iraqi journalist’s projectile shoe, a hefty lead miniature keepsake version of the Gateway of India painted the colors of the Union Jack. After consulting with the Indian and international agencies at the mouth of the previously uncharted and unknown cave which the locals had taken to calling “Maut Kee Gupha,” a phrase Pavitir translated for me as “Lucky Gash,” this cave which may have in fact been not a geological feature but a new sinkhole created as a consequence of India’s rapid development, capitalism prying open a maw in the earth in which to feed the manifold debris generated by its glorious and creative destruction, skyrises embedded into and destabilizing a shaky crust, temples erected to the Almighty Rupee, we began our descent.
Equipped with the most cutting-edge gear, Pavitir and I entered the cave following the flags placed by the ill-fated previous teams, wading-floundering-swimming through a combination of feces and gray water and industrial waste, the muck and mire of human progress, and then, just as we donned our masks, the current sucked us under, in a roil pulling us into the Indian subcontinent, Pavitir spinning beside me in the viciously narrowing gyre until I lost sight of him, that peaceful, harmless, quiet fellow, and I plummeted down or shot sideways or erupted upward, completely disoriented in the rushing watery dark, and emerged heavily contused and cut, a tenderized buoy bobbing beside an island or some sort of land mass deep in this strange cave, a pool of sorts, though I had no idea of whether it was at the periphery or the heart of this system, no one had yet traced its ambit, and no idea of what tunnel had flushed me here or what tunnel might lead to my salvation. I removed my mask. I cast my light. Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing—
( A sound. )
A little voice in the nothing.
A murmur not of water but words, trickling in the dark and I kicked and paddled toward it, not sure if it was a dream or the false promise of an oasis or the child I was commissioned to find or my dear Pavitir. I flopped onto the island like one of our ancient aquatic relatives must have first crawled on shore, frightened and confused but driven on by a peculiar and irrepressible yearning. Except this shore wasn’t rock or soil but trash, a tremendous mound of trash, a fetid heap of amalgamated cultures that I crawled over, seeking the grail of that chirping voice, batteries leaking acid, and the chirp was a tad clearer, four muddled syllables, catalytic converters stripped of their platinum, three semi distinct words, English words apparently, corpses of kings and teamsters piled high, there’s an f sound at the start, Elmos all tickled out, a rounded lip w sound creeping up in the middle, copies of Atari’s E.T. game nestled in the arms of Thanjavur dolls, their heads bobbling ominously, a bilabial consonant m, yakuza pinkies and wide-eyed Furbies, certainly an s at the end meaning plural, mangled bikes from defunct share programs and faulty SpaceX rocket parts, until there, perched atop a vertical and charred Ford Pinto stuffed with Pogs depicting illustrious Raja and radioactive uranium slammers, sat Albert, a little Yama crouching on his throne in the underworld.
“Albert?” I said, “Dear little Albert, is that you?” And the silence in response was neither a balm nor my salvation. Listen:
Can you hear the difference? I could. We both could. So I cried, “Albert? How have you come to this place? What of your friends, the other orphans of trash? I thought you’d be happy there, at home in the third world, utterly free of any first world problems, of even the faintest whiff of a first world problem, Albert, say something, Albert?”
“I loved your mother, Albert, and she loved me, each in our own ways, to be sure, for even you must confess she could be dismissive while also overestimating her climbing acumen, but you’ll understand the range of affection once you’re older…
Then I felt my exhaustion and my injuries and all that I’d lost, including my mother and Pavitir and most importantly, my way. How to escape both Albert and the cold and murky waters of this miserable cave?
I tried to remember the quarry, the intricate stitching my mother employed in her award-winning quilts, tried to recollect and learn from my wife’s calamitous—but not unforeseen, you’ll recall—headfirst descent down El Capitan, to resee Pavitir’s dutiful and stalwart face. I stood, checked my oxygen, and looked up to Albert who said, loudly now, just two words, “first world,” while pointing to a crack in the tunnel behind me and I knew, given the boy’s uncanny survival instinct and even supernatural sensitivities, that he’d forgiven me and was pointing the way home yet I had one underdeveloped thought for a second, a nanosecond of hesitation, I’ll admit, a mistake of costly indecision, that I should take Albert with me to make amends for something or at least fulfill the mission the Indian government had assigned us, to honor Pavitir and claim the reward, but I took another look around his new domain and he seemed to be well appointed in the bowels of the earth, a regal viceroy of this shadowy realm, so I put on my mask, bid Albert a final adieu, and kicked my way toward the first world, weaving past all manner of eccentric detritus, baskets from long dead lobstermen, hair nets from innumerable ex-con Waffle House cooks, and I began to struggle, caught in the various lines and ropes and wires, so I surfaced and called out, again, succumbing to a developing indecision, “Albert, dear, are you sure this is the way?” and before I could hear his answer my leg snagged a submerged car—a Pyeonghwa Bbeokgugi 4 by the look of its North Korean fender—and I felt the water suck me down with its forceful Flowbee current, down into the labyrinthine system of caves that the dynamo of tiger capitalism had developed, and through my sewage-smeared goggles I could just see Albert atop his throne saying something, one final world, and though I heard nothing but the water enveloping me and my own fear, I knew exactly what that little shit was saying.