The Physicality of Systems

Well, dear reader, it seems we have come to that time of year where the much-fabled rupture between who we are and who we will be for the next year elegantly splits us off a reawakened better version of ourselves. We are the early strawberry picked from the vine as we simultaneously are the picker, biting with relish into the fruit of summer’s dawning.  It helps to take a trip during such points of transition, and I was lucky to be driven by two friends who were in Portland for memorial day weekend back to their big brother of an emerald city on the very Monday that we tout so enthusiastically as the introduction of our so fabled sun-drenched season of universal preference. The literal movement and change returning a few days later on the bus would inevitably symbolize the shedding of a previous self with its Midnight Cowboy back of the bus tropes. The last time I took that bus from Seattle to Portland a lady sitting next to me engaged about what I was reading and seemed interested in my thoughts on the impact of automobiles on urban life (the subject of the book I was reading), and my park suggestions for her time in Portland, and she turned out to be an evangelist for the teachings of Jesus Christ. She handed me a small greatest hits version of the most Jesus-related parts of the new testament and told me the gentleman in question loved me as we got off the bus. This visit ended with an 8PM bus ride and a dusk that seemed to go on forever. I had both seats to myself, alternately slept, read a biography of Marshall “Major” Taylor, and accessed the internet with my cracked camera phone. The violence of our disjunction from the shared past was at first subtle as I learned from the twitter feed of the bike non-profit I microblog for: an SUV jumped a curb while its human component was attempting to parallel park in downtown Seattle, running into a family of three, its patriarch hospitalized for serious head trauma, its matriarch more or less alright, and its progeny’s stroller, launched a dozen feet from the impact. What an absurd yet foreboding scene for a lovely Thursday afternoon in downtown Seattle. The driver, Jack Peters, suffered minor injuries as well. He told police he was attempting to parallel park the vehicle when his foot slipped off the brake and the SUV jumped the curb and hit the family before slamming into a wall.” He was trying his darndest to put his automobile next to the curb, which is really a difficult prospect if you think about it, putting a couple tons of metal and explosions neatly between two others, an inch from where human life is intended to thrive, smile, skip, and stroll without fear of getting hit by a car. Forewarning: googling “suv jumps curb strikes family” yields a diverse and horrifying array of stories. Picture 6 As I was on the bus Alexandra was at Portland City Council for the already notorious Mt. Tabor Reservoir public forum—the threat existed that the park’s iconic, glistening brilliance would become the past, we would go on with a new reality, one in which, instead of holding water, the huge reservoirs nestled into Mt. Tabor’s volcanic hillside would hold only the sad absence of the lifeblood of memories that these functional fountains formed. 20150601-143808-52688484.jpg Our utopian northwest cosmopolitan dream was unraveling, the dismissive “it’s Chinatown…” nearly formed on everyone’s lips. What once were our values have become commodities to be sold to those who do not share those values, tourists to a novel Portlandia version of what was naively hoped not to be commodifiable. She also informed me a bicyclist had been struck and killed the day before. And neither of us knew that at that moment three people had been shot at the first Last Thursday of the summer with Alberta Street closed to cars, the man (black) who aided the victims and rushed them to shelter was nearly arrested by the cops (white), and that the party continued for another couple hours with the early closing of Salt & Straw the only marring of the evening for the visitors. I heard on the radio the next morning Casey Parks’ horrified account of standing next to the police presence and hearing the cops asked over and over if they could cross the yellow tape to get some ice cream, inspiring a well-wrought history of the art event. They came to the police tape, dozens of people, to inquire about ice cream.” For the internet-inclined yuppie hive mind, Portland is, after all, famous for its 4-year-old ice cream shop. Joe Biden didn’t come to Portland after all to witness the vanguard of sustainable transportation—because you can’t consume a bike lane, and American politicians embarrass and hurt themselves when they try to ride bikes, apparently.

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The Van Duzer Corridor would like to acknowledge that Biden himself is experiencing the painful tremors of change through the loss of his son Beau today.

The insidiousness of oppressive systems become clear as they begin to express themselves through physical facts. Perhaps a speculative fiction piece has already been written predicting with acerbic wit a scene in which privileged white people—dare I say spoiled and gluttonous perpetual children with no awareness or acceptance of the subjectivity of those different than them?—ignore the suffering of those around them, essentially stepping over a wounded body, as they whine that the artisanal ice cream is not in their mouth, or that they are not presently in queue toward that ultimate end. Jerry Useem explains in the latest issue of the Atlantic, “Why it pays to be a jerk.” He cites Aaron James’ working definition of an asshole as one who “(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantage; (2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; (3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.” Why else would a parade of people think that the police will let them have the artisanal ice cream in their mouths? Just as the young and wealthy who come from more expensive housing markets are entitled to displace the less privileged through this sense of entitlement—they are not the problem because they are special–they deserve it. Just as those attracted to the city’s famed bikeability, its quiet treed streets come with a fleet of cars, drive on bike routes, and fume when the bike takes the full lane on said bike route. This is America after all and the trickle down bullshit of the Reagan era remains the default mindset of anyone who makes a lot more money than everyone else. They stimulate new business. That business brings more capital into the city. Everybody gets jobs. An endless line forms as the rejoicing underclass of Portland grabs an ice cream scoop and puts on a perpetual smile, dollar signs reflecting in their glazed eyes.

Another bicyclist was hit the day after my return, the spot on Powell where a bicyclist lost a leg earlier in the month because a truck was in a hurry—or rather the truck’s Geppetto—because of an inflated sense of self-importance that is not sociopathic or even unique, simply instead the expected product of the reality of spending one’s time in a car instead of on a bus, on the sidewalk, on a bicycle, or otherwise in a vulnerable position, not sheltered from strangers by paned glass. When cars keep hitting people on bicycles—bicycles on the bike route—it is not the complete picture to call the drivers assholes. Instead the privileging of the destructive, selfish, wasteful means of transport over all the other ones, against all logic, instead expressing the insane delusion that whatever lets individuals do things as quickly as possible, no matter at what cost, is the very stuff of capitalism, progress, the inevitable prosperity of us all. Alexandra texted me as I rode downtown about the accident, she saw the scene from the bus, the traffic backed up on the urban highway the other way for blocks. Later that day the traffic was backed up again for a ride in memorium of the young man killed Wednesday, named “No More Ghost Bikes,” after the all-white painted bikes locked at the intersections of such needless carnage. The humans in the cars honked and shouted as hundreds of bikes silently rode together ringing their bells, the different timbers hauntingly reverberating through the carless streets. Who are these drivers upset with when traffic is backed up because the intersection is closed after an accident? Where is their rage directed when they are stopped simply because of traffic? Did they forget to set their DVRs or did their spouses promise to bring home a pint of artisanal ice cream? Who can say. The next stop on my return to Portland was my Friday night shift at the Independent Publishing Resource Center. Things inside were slightly disrupted since the wall had been busted in from the outside.

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You can’t blame someone for having an epileptic seizure and losing control of their Dodge Ram, which then takes a detour of its own volition into the community creative publishing space, but maybe you can acknowledge that, at the moment—symbolized by this seizure—we don’t realize and acknowledge that cars are destructive and damaging, and always potentially a little more so, they become unrestrained assholes that separate humans from each other and replace those connections with an increasing acceptance of the destructiveness of day-to-day life in America. Environmentalists are forced to take hypocritical actions. Healthy active people find themselves sitting in traffic or, worse, a drive-thru. The liberal bourgeoisie listens to NPR stories on slow living as they rush home on the eight-lane freeway, and everything we believe in slips away and gets consumed by swirls of consumer culture gushing out of the tailpipe of capitalism. The failures of our old selves come to a head as we anticipate our new reality, as we base it in our hopes, values, and belief that we are connected to everybody, no matter how systematically we are encouraged to be assholes.

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