Come eavesdrop on a conversation in sunny Manhattan
(No. 120) Why didn't we avoid damaging our home in the first place? + Chapter 10 of The Lost City of Desire
I live in Manhattan, a collection of neighborhoods filled with gossipy people who connect in passing on the sidewalks. Almost every casual interaction I have these days includes a comment from one of us about how warm this winter has been. How pleasant it is to be able to take a January run or walk uptown without bending into biting winds and snowdrifts. We’ve had absolutely zero snowfall.
“I love not having to shovel,” I say.
“Yeah, but…” the neighbor says, nodding in agreement.
“Feels kind of sad to the core, right?” I say. “It just shouldn’t be so warm. It’s unnatural.”
“Yeah, that’s it — it’s nice, but so disturbing. I feel it in my heart.”
With age — I will begin using Medicare in just 9 days, hard as that is for me to believe — comes a long memory of previous New York winters where blizzards were common this time of year. My age also marks me as a willing participant in the incredibly harmful consumptions that has gripped Americans for the last 7 decades. I wish I’d taken it all more seriously.
Yesterday I saw pink Hellebore blooming in an outdoor pot. That’s not “supposed to” happen until late February, at the earliest. But “supposed to” is in short supply these days in almost all areas of life we used to take for granted. Ten years ago the idea that our society would just barrel ahead into climate change by doing nothing until circumstances forced us to react, rather than be proactive and nip it in the bud, seemed impossible to me. I assumed that some new technology would take care of the problem.
Yet instead of fixing it, we’re using technology to build a new industrial age that will swallow natural resources in the hope of protecting them. That’s what we’re doing with our talk of seawalls, relocating houses from coastlines into the interior, and desalinating saltwater to replace denuded rivers and aquifers. Not to mention electric cars that consume far more than they preserve, and are like adult candy for the well to do. Everybody wants a new electric car now.
I’m aware of many efforts underway to eliminate or counter the effects of climate change and future energy crises. Aside from small scale, sustainable agriculture, these efforts tend to industrialize our response to our collective panic, with machines, barriers and an intense use of materials and energy. Does that make sense to you?
Yet, that’s where we’re at. Up until a few years ago I was quite the idealist when it came to world change. Now I no longer think about big projects that might flip the switch on climate change. Instead, the future looks like a place where I should at least be familiar with growing food (my grandparents were farmers, but all that is lost on me) and digging a well. I envision a home in the city with a larger than normal plot of land where I raise vegetables, grains and fruit. Such places exist, even here. I just need to find a way to settle in one. That’s because as a society, we’ve settled.
If I plant a forest, I won’t live to see it in it’s mature glory. But perhaps someone will.
This is from my utopian novel, The Lost City of Desire. You can read the previous chapters here. I will publish chapter 11 next week. I’m so happy that you are reading my words.
Chapter 10: BRAIN TEXT ME THROUGH YOUR HOLOGRAM
[In the last chapter, Joe, Carmen and Sarah got a lesson in the world from Terence, at The Libray.]
“Tell me about what happened -- cause I know there was a virus, but I’ve never really heard,” Joe said. “My dad always said it wasn’t worth discussing.”
Terence started right in. Even though he could barely read, he thought of himself as a storyteller first, and chief librarian of The Libray second.
“The first thing you need to know is that once upon a time this country, or what used to be this country, what they called the USA, was a funny place that thought it was the greatest place in the world. And maybe it was – I don’t know. Definitely it was the greatest at selling itself, and keeping up its Land of the Free mumbo jumbo. I remember there was a time when you couldn’t even criticize this country out loud without getting in trouble – and that was especially if you criticized it by saying that criticism wasn’t allowed, that it wasn’t a free place, that it wasn’t all it was cut out to be. Oh my, if you said something like that you might as well have put a gun to your own damn head. People got shot for that – for saying that you could be persecuted in this country. Seriously, they’d shoot you for complaining about being oppressed. Ragging on freedom made your freedom go away. Up definitely was down.”
Joe fidgeted at the table, trying to wrap his mind around what Terence was saying. He didn’t really know what any of it meant. Terence stared straight at him, daring Joe, whose gaze hit the table between them, to lose focus. Joe looked up.
“What did USA stand for?” he asked.
Terence looked toward the ceiling in exasperation, and Joe took that moment to look over at me with a What the Fuck? glance.
“United States of America,” said Terence.
“Or Unfettered Savants of Arbitrage.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Joe.
“Or Union of Sick Assholes. Uncanny Saviors of Art. Urban Sociopaths Association”
“Now that I’ve got your attention,” Terence said, chuckling a bit. “Listen up. It went like this: we were a weak, self-satisfied, kind of spoiled nation and we were overrun by religious fanatics. They’d bubbled up to the surface almost unseen and all of a sudden they were running the government. It was insane. The conservative Christians were alright to deal with – like a known quantity, like I could understand them the same way I understood my grandmother’s churchgoing friends. You know, nutty but lovable in their way. But then a new strain developed. These new groups of people sprang up, like social groups that were also political groups. One big one was called The Scientificists, even though there wasn’t much science in their logic. And the Thinstians, this anti-fat, lean government Christian group. And the Ballers, who were fans of this TV show. Just so many, and a bunch of them got together and, you know, united we stand divided we fall.
“Wait, anti-fat?” said Joe. “You mean anti fat people? That an issue back then -- being fat?”
Terence smiled, nodded, kind of brushed the question away.
“Yeah, they opposed people being fat. No big deal. Together these groups formed a militia called The Saved --- the foot soldiers were these crazy white nationalists who tied knives to their thighs, let their hair grow down to their knees and declared themselves warriors for America – and that was it. They took over.
“My dad said it was a virus that took over.”
“Your dad was right. That too. But that came later,” said Terence. “And the virus didn’t “take over,” it just spread death around New York even in the years after the Westerners put up that wall, and destroyed our economy. There was lots and lots of death. You know, bodies stacked like cordwood and all that. Well, actually, that’s a terrible analogy. The bodies were lying around everywhere. Nobody stacked them. It’s more like they were scattered like chicken bones in the parking lot of a KFC.”
“What’s a KFC?”
“Never mind,” said Terence.
He told Joe how the fanatics, the Hard Fork people, got a little, as he called it, “self-absorbed” after the Westerners took over. If you were one of them, and a lot of people were, you were treated pretty well.
“You got your cars. Your health subsidies. These Hard Forkers got choice apartments in fancy neighborhoods of Chicago, where Hard Fork was based. Plenty of good stuff. But you had to kiss a lot of ass to show that you were one of the chosen people. There were long-assed meetings of neighborhood watch groups where if you didn’t come up with dirt on one of your friends or your brother or whatever, your boss, the poobahs, they’d get suspicious. You wouldn’t believe how quickly people turned into rats. It was horrible.
“And then it just got worse.
“This is going to be a little hard for you to wrap your mind around,” Terence told Joe. “But you know brain-phones, right? I mean, you’ve heard of them, right?”
“Of course,” he said.
I knew he didn’t know anything about them. None of us did, really. I mean, we knew what they were because you’d come across these abandoned devices everywhere, every time you opened a bedside drawer or an old jacket or a car. I was told the devices controlled the implants in people’s brains. Fastening one of them onto your head so you could broadcast your thoughts? I’d use paper cups and string before I’d do anything like that, but that was it. Hard for me to grasp.
“Well, some bad guy somewhere in the world figured out how to make you more susceptible to viruses by sending pulses and musical notes through your brain phone. All of a sudden a new form of music came out based on that, little snippets that you could only hear through the phone, and people loved the songs so much they kind of took over. These squishy notes and deep, insistent beats were so pleasing that nobody could resist them. I loved them, myself. Later we realized those beats and notes were actually rejiggering our DNA. They were designed by a Swiss Lab to be addictive on a genetic level -- it was going to be the biggest business of all time! But wouldn’t you know -- well, really you wouldn’t -- the same music would also reconfigure your RNA, making your immune system weaker. And I don’t mean metaphorically.”
“Ribonucleic acid. It’s like a messenger that your genes -- the parts of you that control who you are -- use to send out their instructions to the body. The virus got right in there. And the music made it worse.”
“Holy crap,” Joe said.
“Before then, the virus would make some people sick, kill others, but overall it was only a bit scary, but not so scary that you’d want to hide. And then, all of sudden, people started dying en masse, the numbers rising exponentially.
“The phones were perfect vectors for spreading the virus once it hit. You’d be so careful not to touch things on the subway, or at the movies, or in a cab, and you’d always wash your hands or disinfect them when you got home. But you couldn’t really help but touch your phone at times without washing your hands, and that virus would get on the phone and later, back on your fingers and then, at home, you’d touch your finger to your lips or eyes. And then you’d put on the music. We were all fucked, as they say. Ha ha.”
I’d heard the story before, and I tuned in and out of my reading while listening to him. But Joe was rapt. His dad had only told him the outline of what had happened – after all, his dad had just been a teenager at the time. There really wasn’t much memory left of all of this.
“Soon the religious fanatics got hold of the technology and that was all she wrote,” Terence told Joe. “Things just got out of control. The government started using viruses in police work, then warfare. The viruses were meant at first just to attack enemies of the believers. Just a little death and destruction to keep everybody in line. The phony Sikhs thought they understood what they were doing, but it turns out the virus had a mind of its own.
“We all had brain phones,” Terence said. “I remember my last one – it was a half-inch diameter screen with a pale blue glass border coated in titoplastic so it couldn't break. If I wanted, it would project a hologram of my brain phone activity that hovered in front of my face, so everyone would see how I felt and what I was thinking. When I fluttered my fingers the image would move from here to there. I could choose who to send my thoughts to – images, words, pain, love – or I could broadcast it to strangers who were receptive. I used it for everything – my map, my shopping, in a way I used it as my friend. It read books for me and wrote notes. I was even learning to read and write from that thing.”
Again, Joe perked up to hear this. There were a lot of kids who couldn’t read these days. Not that there were that many kids in general, but a lot of those had never been taught. And believe me, they all wanted to read. Everyone wanted to be able to read. I was lucky. My parents had taught me the basics before they disappeared, and now I loved books, magazines, everything.
“But one day, a wicked virus was unleashed,” Terence told Joe and Carmen, who listened, rapt.
He said it was a sick, awful virus. In days it hit tens of thousands and it just kept going. Terence said he went to visit his girlfriend, Ximena, and she was sick, vomiting, with a headache, disoriented. She waved him away, told him to run.
“There was nothing I could do but leave her there alone to die,” he said, sitting tall, unable to let a hint of guilt or someone else’s sympathy pass through him. “Otherwise, I would have died myself. I just said goodbye – she understood, or pretended she did. I think it might have been that. I took my brain phone off and put it in the trash. I washed my hands, spit into the sink, and walked out the door.”
For a moment, Terence looked as if he might cry. All the heartache of that moment and the succeeding years hadn’t shut him down. He felt his love so true. That’s what I admired the most about Terence. He had that solid connection to his heart. It was beautiful.
He regained his composure and continued the history, Joe rapt and Carmen listening attentively.
“The virus killed so many. Bodies left in the streets – as you know, you still find skeletons here and there,” Terence said. “Stench, violence – but mostly people worked together and then, almost out of the blue, the government turned on New York. The city and much of the state took the brunt. The Westerners blamed us, called us the plague givers. We were the scapegoats. It was pure fantasy, but maybe they believed it. They began to isolate New York. They forbade commerce with us. They wouldn’t help us with the disaster of 90 percent of the city dying.
“They wouldn't do shit!” Terence said. “Excuse my language. And then, the wall. The wall to keep the infected devils out.
“That’s us,” Terence said. “They actually said we were evil over here. I think they believed it, too.”
It was an excuse. A propaganda tool. And it worked. The other side united against us heathens over here. And we devolved into the dead zone.
“And for that I am glad,” said Terence, concluding his history lesson. “Because that has kept us from becoming them.”
I noticed that Terence had told the story differently, again. He changed it every time I heard it. In this version the wall came long after the virus. In the first version I’d heard the wall was built to stop the virus. No one really knew anymore. We just knew the wall was there. Although I’d never met anyone who had actually visited it.
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