Under the Pavement, the Stars

Our life is no dream. However, it should–and perhaps one day will–be.

 For a few days, I left the bustling streets of the city throngs, the culture and learning of the urban, and stayed in the village of Oak Grove, not far from Ravenswood.  The hearth which sheltered me, ringed by old pines, was a short walk from a quiet but strong stream which salmon use every autumn to spawn. To get to this stream, not far from where it becomes a river emptying into an ancient lake and then into the sea, one needed only to walk along a worn, weathered fence, pass through a well-concealed gate, and pick a way through old orchard trees and alder to a place where the bank slopes enough to walk down.

(where I sat)

There, listening to water, sitting upon a small beach formed by worn, rounded pebbles, I quieted, allowing myself to be open to what the stream had to say to me. 
“Hey,” called the voice of the man on the other bank.  “How’s it going?”
My journal was already open, but I set my pen aside long enough to say greet him back.  There was a tension in his voice, a forceful, assertive-agressive hail, but I ignored it, suspected I’d mistaken his tone.
After a while, distracted by the way the water lapped occasionally over moss-covered stones, feeling again at peace, I took up my pen.
“Watch out for that strange guy by the river,” I heard, before I’d written my first word.
I looked up, disappointed, perturbed.  I saw the man talking to a maiden I presumed to be his daughter by her response. “Where, dad?”
“Not so loud,” he answered, and then they both went out of earshot, into their expensive, suburban home.

I didn’t mention that part.  Oak Grove isn’t a village, nor is Ravenswood.  They’re “living communities,” probably with a TM somewhere on their websites.  I was house-sitting for some friends for a few days, hiding away from the great noise and dance of responsibility that has become my life in the city in one of the many old logging towns that have been transformed into “bedroom communities” in recent years around the city of Seattle.

A Brief (Personal) History of the Car

Every city has its suburbs, and I have avoided them whenever possible for the entirety of my adult life.  When I moved here, I swore off such places as dull, bourgeois, and ultimately anti-civilization.  Besides the usual reason why a gay man in his early 20’s would want to be in a city (culture, ease of finding work, ease of finding dates), I’ve lived a very adversarial life to one of the two things which compel and create the existence of the suburbs.

I spent most of my pre-pubescent years in rural ohio, in the foothills of the Appalachians.  The WIC truck delivered, as did the government food truck, and I was reminiscing with a co-worker the other night about how perfect (and toxic) government cheese was–it made the best grilled cheese sandwiches imaginable, but turned your feces a strange color.  Also, powdered milk? Miserable.  Don’t bother.

Me and an outhouse.

I lived in a worn-down A-frame house with a leaking sewer (the plants grew gorgeously tall above the iridescent-black sheen seeping through the leech-bed), a van on cinder-blocks (it was our shed), two old washers and one old fridge on the porch, and a fenced-off forest behind us.  The only industry worth talking about in that area was the paper-mill, and trees needed to be protected so they could be sold at a premium when the buyers came calling, so I wasn’t allowed to hop the barbed-wire fence (that motherfucker hurt).

But we had a road, a paved one even (not many of those around), and sometimes my father would drive us “to town.” My little sisters would brush their hair and put on a dress, I’d comb my hair and put on shoes, and, if the car started (half the time, maybe), my family would make the 45 minute drive to a town of 20,000 people, the center of life, excitement, and also groceries and, the most exciting element of all, K-Mart.  I cannot begin to describe the extreme disappointment I’d feel when we were strapped into our seat-belts, all primped for the big world, and the car didn’t start. 

After a divorce, my mother moved my sisters and me to what seemed the opposite world.  I lived all my adolescence in a town in South Florida, near beaches and amusement and well-dressed people in gated communities (a few of which incorporated themselves into “cities”).  Yet–I’m not sure I can honestly say much changed.  We didn’t have a car, and though the 5 mile walk to the grocery store (in summer humidity, in south Florida temperatures) was possible, it was never fun.  The worst part? Crossing the 10 lane “streets” built to accomadate the inundation of cars sweeping into the southern lands to escape the balance of temperatures most people call “winter.”

These “streets” have a peculiar adornment, more visible in the later months of the year.  White crosses covered in flowers, cards, images of the Virgin, always painted with a hispanic first and last name (yes, roadside-shrines are everywhere, but in Florida, they’re majority Hispanic).  I was far from enlightened when I was fourteen, and I remember asking someone why “mexicans always seemed to die when crossing the street” and the answer jarred me brutally, pointing out my own idiocy and also my own poverty: “mexicans can’t afford cars, stupid.”

It was at this point I first learned both class consciousness and race consciousness, and I’ve never been the same since. 

Life without Cars

In a benevolent city, you do not need a car.  I try only to live in such cities, as I’ve never learned to drive and hope to live my life without needing to.  But such a decision requires a lot of loss–multiple jobs will never be available to me, and, as a particular quirk of American civil planning has it, I cannot get anywhere truly “wild” without being driven there by a friend. 

This is okay, though.  I hate cars. I hate the car’s waste of resources, its brutal impact on the planet, and its brutal impact on society.  I don’t like running to cross a street because someone isn’t looking (and are instead looking at one of the other technologies I’ve grown to despise, their smartphone).  I dislike having pets squashed on the street, I loathe the searing heat coming from seas of parking lots, I get depressed when I compare European cities to ours, and I am disappointed that there are places I cannot go without one. 

Though my own choices and admittedly strong opinions regarding automobiles probably disqualifies me in the eyes of some to talk about how cars have damaged our world (both outer and inner), there’s something I hope to convey here.

Return for a moment to my account of sitting by the river just outside “Oak Grove.”  If I painted it correctly for you, perhaps you imagined what I was trying to imagine while I was there– that is, the ideal beneath the forms, the “world below the pavement.”  It should not be hard to imagine such a village, not only because we want such a thing (and thus the archaic names for housing developments), but because there have been such things in the world.  Not only that, but there are still, for there are (believe it or not) a few places in the world where the necessities of the car did not trump the already-existing societal structures where it was introduced.

I’d argue, with the slow decline of industrialised society that I think is occurring (peak oil, capitalism grinding down, etc.,) we will have to adopt such old forms again.  North America will likely have it harder than most other places because so much of what we do, what we’ve built, relies upon the existence of cars.  The rest of the world has been quite accustomed to villages and cities interacting without cars, or at least for most of the last several thousand years.

The suburbs in North America are not like the villages in Europe or elsewhere, unfortunately.  They sprung up primarily because of the car and what was called “white flight” in 70’s and 80’s; whereas in the rest of the world, villages were emptied by industrialisation, in North America villages were transformed by both racism and industrialisation, aided by the handy “chariot of freedom” known as the automobile. The suburbs as they exist now function both as overflow for cities (though, now, in many places, they are becoming a refuge for the poor and immigrants who cannot afford the “white return”).  And though the suburb’s legacy is one of racism, there are plenty of people who choose to liver there for other reasons, not just fear of difference (though, in the case of the man who warned his daughter to beware me, it probably was).  I’ve also begun to be aware of something else, a way that the city damages us.  

Telling an Other Story

I can’t believe I’m saying this, actually, but there’s this: cities, with their press of peoples and noise, the primacy of commerce and consumerism and the destruction of nature, create a massive wall between the part of us which can experience the Other and the part of us who experiences the material.  Though I’m far from being extremely perceptive of such things, the more I’ve opened myself up to such experiences, the harder living in a city has become.  I’ve heard that people who are very good at listening to the subtle senses are able to block out all the noise, but these are high priests and mages, not normal people like me trying to awaken the old gods and work a full-time social work job (I won’t even begin to tell you what working with schizophrenics is like now…).  Downtown gets…difficult.

Still, I don’t think we should destroy the city, though.  Nope–far from it, for anyone who’s ever had a deviant thought in her or his life knows quite well that the suburbs and rural areas are not friendly places to deviants.  Nor do I think we should raze the suburbs, with their symbolic village life.  Instead, I suspect we need to change the stories we tell about both.  Draw out from the suburbs their faux-archaic names and hold them to it, draw out the cultural and civilising promise of cities and demand it. 

The world has become dis-enchanted.  It’s hard to find the magic in things, the whispers in nature, the voices of the Gods, the ancient paths that lead to Other worlds.  There are a myriad of reasons for this, and I intend to write more on one of the biggest reasons later.  But the fact of this dis-enchantment should not be allowed to stand, nor should our ability to re-enchant the world be forsaken.  We can re-weave the world with our stories, and one of the places I think maybe we should start is with the cities and villages in which we live.

And while telling this Other story about the places we live, we can begin to transform those places.  The cities are noisy and crowded and full of strife, yes, but they can also be places of wonder, with markets full of exotics from far-off lands and towers full of learning.  The suburbs are often closed-minded and fearful of outsiders, yes,  but they can be villages full of wise folk closer to nature and the old ways.   Not only can they be, but they ought to be, and it’d probably be best for all of us if we got started, learning to re-enchant the world and each other so that, when the world we’ve created around the car starts to crumble, there’s something more enduring to take its place.

4 thoughts on “Under the Pavement, the Stars

  1. I have had quite a mix of feelings about the Automobile, personally.

    I remember working my ass off all summer when I was 15, such that I could afford a car when I was 16. And that car was freedom. Not just a metaphor. It meant that I could go out on dates, drive into McAllen to find the one gay bar in the Region, drive to school instead of being driven by my parents, and drive to find better paying work.

    I've lost many friends to drunk driving, and I've had some hard conversations with myself. If I live in a major city, I shouldn't drive a car. Driving a car is bad for the environment, bad for myself, bad for the city, etc. etc. I should be using public transit or walking.

    And yet, that means, on average an additional 30 minutes of waiting to get somewhere, because I am not a person for which Seattle Roads are designed. They are built so that people in cars can quickly get to and fro, and pedestrians and public transit riders are left to whatever crumbs fall from the masters' table.

    What will Seattle look like without oil? Without a plentiful fuel that enables people to drive to and fro across the lake with impunity?

  2. I miss living in Jerusalem for many reasons. The biggest one is that I walked so much every day regardless of the weather. It was common to walk forty-five minutes to meet a friend or and hour and a half to visit the Wall. When I returned to the States, I dreamed of walking familiar routes through the city and could clearly see details that had somehow been etched in my subconscious. Although I am grateful for my car, I still resent that a walk to the grocery store would take ten hours.

    But that’s not the reason I tracked down this post.

    When I first read about the experience you had by the river, I thought I should offer some sympathy, but what I felt was a desire to punch that man on behalf of his daughter.

    Hadn’t he already explained to her that any stranger might be dangerous? And why was he bossing her around instead of teaching her to trust her own intuition? As long as she’s ignorant and afraid, he’ll be in control, and she’ll never have a nice chat with a “strange guy by the river.”

    Reading this again, now that I understand my response, he doesn’t seem as terrible as he did when I first read this post. However, I do feel bad that your feelings were hurt and your morning by the river was diminished by his thoughtlessness.

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