Tuesday, May 8, 2018

First Chapter of my new novel, 
On Vestige Way

On Vestige Way is a fictional story of the worst case scenario for global warming. The science in this story is completely accurate. The conclusions are mine. The story takes place near mid-21st century as the world is experiencing severe consequences of climate change ultimately resulting in catastrophic environmental collapse. The story is the sequel to the first of the World Federation novels entitled On Deception Watch, the theme of which was sustainable energy. On Vestige Way carries several plot strands that follow the reactions of the World Federation (now located in Beijing), the United States, The People's Republic of China, Russia and finally the Marshall family consisting of James, Sylvia and their son Jonas. The story ends with an entirely new world order.

Chapter 1
From the rostrum above Tiananmen Gate at the northern extremity of the plaza, Sylvia Carlyle Marshall could see a crowd of people so vast that it was impossible for her to encompass it. Never before had she experienced this kind of foreign outpouring of solidarity with the United States. She expected things to be on a massive scale in The People’s Republic of China, but she was not prepared for this. With an area of 440,000 square meters, this was the largest plaza on Earth. The crowd it could contain was simply enormous.
In spite of her winter clothing Sylvia’s teeth were chattering in the bitter cold as a north wind blew across the Square and across the thronging crowd. The hastily erected wooden walls on either side of the elevated rostrum provided scant protection against the late January winds that swept through the level and open plaza.
It is said that Napoleon III widened the Champs Elysées in Paris to its⎯for that time⎯extraordinary width not only to provide space for celebrations worthy of an emperor’s army but also the better to control unruly and possibly rebellious crowds. Tiananmen Square likewise had its similar multiple advantages. Yet it was impossible at this moment, she felt, to experience anything but awe at this vast, enthusiastic gathering of humanity, numbering in excess of a million people, moved to gather there by the death of an American general.
Viewed from her lofty vantage point along with the other dignitaries, Sylvia could see the towering column of the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the center of the plaza. Beyond the Monument, further south, was the massive and looming tribute to the George Washington of their country, the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.
It still all seemed surreal to her. Sylvia looked around once again at the honored invited guests she sat among. These were the most powerful people on Earth. That General Morgan Slaider merited such honors Sylvia did not in the least doubt for even a moment. What seemed unreal to her was that she sat among these elect. Only twelve years ago she was simply a young, black, female physicist, the dependable right arm of her boss, then as now, Dr. Arthur J. Cranshaw, founder of AJC Fusion Incorporated. Her unexpected and unlikely rise to eminence, her achievements as Deputy Director of the Federation Laser-Fusion Agency, everything she became since her AJC Fusion days she owed to General Slaider. Even more stunning to her was where she now was sitting⎯in Beijing, China, eleven thousand kilometers from General Slaider’s home in Maryland, attending this second, national memorial ceremony.
Ritual has always been an essential ingredient for both the military and in politics and when the two combine, when the emotions of each intersect at one event in history, at the death of one charismatic individual, the effect on people is at once cautionary, liberating and exhausting. The tributes to General Slaider for both his extraordinary talents and boldness in the face of America under internal attack and as a political force of even now unfathomed influence…well, she could not restrain her own sobs once again at his passing.
Five days earlier, the rituals of an American state funeral reserved for presidents, vice presidents and other especially high officers of government ran their dignified and orchestrated course. All of America watched Marion Morgan as her husband’s casket was transferred from the hearse used to bring the general’s body to Washington to its position of honor atop the waiting limber and caisson. The limber and caisson then made its slow and somber way to Constitution Avenue drawn by three pairs of same-colored horses. On one horse of each pair sat an erect and solemn soldier. An honor guard escort representing each branch of the major US military forces flanked the casket. Additional military units followed slowly further behind to be followed still further back by a line of limousines led by the limousine bearing Mrs. Morgan, her son and two daughters. In the vehicle with Mrs. Morgan was Major General Roland Stanwick, ramrod and chivalrous commander of the Military District of Washington, who was Mrs. Morgan’s official escort. But most affecting and immediately following the limber and caisson with its casket was the white riderless horse named Lightning, head held high and slowly led by its bridle by a soldier from the US Army 1st Cavalry Division. In the stirrups were the general’s riding boots, reversed as if looking back at the troops he would never again see nor lead. A portion of the Marine Band, in measured steps, played muffled drums directly behind the riderless horse.
The caisson paused for a moment at 4th and Constitution Avenue where the band played “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” The procession then resumed its slow progress down Constitution Avenue toward Capital Hill until it reached the steps of the Capital building. The casket was removed by the honor guard from the limber and caisson to begin its stately transfer up the steps to the rotunda of the Capital whereupon a 19 gun salute was begun, each firing at thirty second intervals until the casket was settled on its bier at the center of the rotunda and the honor guard re-established itself around the bier.
President Llewellyn had issued a presidential decree closing all government offices for the day and declaring a national day of mourning. He spoke graciously at Washington National Cathedral about General Slaider’s service to his country and about their long and close personal friendship. The president recalled the days that Sylvia remembered so well, that even though the nation knew General Slaider was fighting a brave but losing battle with disease, still the finality of death, even when it is expected and there is time to prepare, is a stunning lesson that the least among us, likewise the greatest among us are all mortal, that we take nothing with us, and that all that remains when we are gone are the seeds that we have sown in life. The President urged all his fellow Americans and General Slaider’s friends worldwide to follow the general’s example of courage, self-sacrifice, and purpose⎯to hold not a shallow and foolish vision of their lives but a deep and meaningful vision. If you want to shoot for the stars, the President said, the lesson of Morgan Slaider’s life was that you have to aim at the sky.
The President did not mention that General Slaider’s vision and President Llewellyn’s codifying a world powered by laser-induced fusion energy could not have come to fruition had it not been for Dr. Cranshaw and his team of scientists and managers. Nor did he mention that Sylvia had been the glue that held AJC Fusion together when chaos had reigned and Dr. Cranshaw’s dreams were turning to dust along with his company⎯before it became the Federation Laser-Fusion Agency. Under her direction and Dr. Cranshaw’s mentorship, the Laboratory had fulfilled the dream that former President Drummond had died for and that President Llewellyn had enshrined into law by his “arrangement” with The People’s Republic of China: cheap,
widespread, virtually unlimited fusion energy and successful exploitation of the moon’s rich supply of the rare helium isotope, Helium-3, needed for the mix of ingredients that made the fusion process work.
The US President didn’t mention these things, but they were why Sylvia now found herself in Beijing going through the same gut wrenching commemoration she endured in Washington. My god, she thought, how much this man has changed the geopolitics of the world. Sylvia listened distractedly, not caring about the translation or what was being said. She was certain it was appropriate, genuine, and moving. She looked around her in continuous amazement at the Americans who had also travelled for this historic gathering to this historic location with our unlikely partner, masters of a new world of geopolitical economics.
The United States and The People’s Republic of China had locked arms to create a new kind of world organization, an organization that displaced and replaced the old United Nations with not yet another political “good intention” but with a very real entity⎯the “super corporation.” Amidst all this, she knew that she was here among the illustrious of the world not for merely a dream come true, but rather a development beyond her wildest dreams of twelve years ago when The World Federation was created.
As she was lost in thought, the air was suddenly ripped by the approaching engine roar of five Chinese J-13 “Flanker” jet fighters flying in “missing man” formation. This formation was famously first devised, Sylvia had learned, by World War I British fighter pilots honoring the funeral of Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron. She had witnessed a similar tribute over the United States Capital as General Slaider’s coffin was being carried up the steps to the rotunda.
The crowd below looked skyward and applauded their pilots as the five jets approaching from the south streaked towards Tiananmen Square. The formation leader took the point position while two elements of two formed on either side, completing the “V”. Just as the formation was directly over the square, in plain sight to all, the left wing man broke formation rolling to the left, to the west symbolically into where the setting sun would vanish, thus honoring the missing man. On foreign land and among foreign people, Sylvia was especially moved by this gesture of respect for General Slaider by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.
The crowd below was still applauding as the planes flew quickly out of sight when suddenly another rising roar of engines could be heard coming from the east. Another formation of jets was rapidly approaching. The crowd quickly turned and watched with excitement as the planes approached for what they assumed was another flyover by the PLAAF. As the fighters drew nearer a gasp of astonishment rose from a million onlookers as a formation of five clearly marked United States Air Force F-38 fighter jets, also in missing man formation, approached rapidly toward the Square.
A startled silence gripped the anxious crowd for a moment. When the formation was directly over Tiananmen Square the left F-38 Super Falcon wing man suddenly broke formation going this time into a steep vertical climb, rising up, up, up into the gray overcast sky until it could no longer be seen in its flight, symbolizing their fallen comrade’s journey into eternity. At the instant the fighter broke formation the crowd suddenly went wild, shouting and clapping and waving their arms at the American fighter planes receding as quickly as they had arrived. When all planes were finally lost from view, as if activated by an electric signal, every face turned toward the rostrum filled with dignitaries from around the world and in their million waved their little flags and sang.
It was not easy establishing a hydrogen energy economy. Even now, Sylvia well knew, the infrastructure was only in its early stages of development. She called it, when among friends, the Bullshit Stage, when almost everything that needed to be done was being done for the first time and so even among the eager and converted there was the unconscious mountain of doubt that needed always to be climbed. And the people problems were not even the half of it.
Hydrogen is the smallest molecule in nature and so is able to escape from containers closed convincingly for any other gases. Seals, joints, valves and containers all have to be “perfect.” A perfect container and transport system is to an engineer as unconventional as “unlimited” credit is to a banker. The terms were almost devoid of meaning, there being no baseline, no precedent for the concept. Yet, as had happened so often in the history of laser-induced fusion energy, throw enough brilliant minds motivated to find a solution rather than merely to study the problem forever and a way is always found.
The lumbering train of hydrogen energy worldwide was finally gaining momentum. A critical mass of countries was subscribers, franchisees as it were, and the finances of The World Federation were becoming self-sustaining. James had written a wonderful article, Sylvia thought, on the projected expansion of the number of franchise countries over the next ten years. He described for the layman the scientific achievements accomplished by the international research body of the World Federation and the challenges they yet faced. She was so proud of her husband’s contributions.
Politically, General Slaider’s expectation had been confirmed that governments would ”adjust” their governing strategies and policies in light of the need to score well on the domestic stability test in order to qualify for a franchise. As Dr. Cranshaw frequently told her, financial self-interest can become the driving agent of high-minded principles. The genius of General Slaider’s plan was to marry the two, so financial self-interest could be best served by altruistic governance. Domestic stability was the key to the door of membership in The World Federation. The surprising result was that the ruling elites of countries formerly known for intransigent autocracy discovered that with careful planning they could still enjoy the benefits of ruling while also promoting the well being of those they ruled. Besides, access to the World Federation’s technology and materiel demanded it.
After the ceremonies, Sylvia relaxed for the first time when she arrived back at the Rosewood. The Rosewood Beijing hotel knew how to cater to foreign dignitaries, to entertain them if that was what they wanted and to isolate them when that was what they needed. Right now it was the latter that she craved. The Rosewood had the most magnificent apartment suites she had ever experienced. The rooms were spacious beyond any self-indulgent expectation, verging on the absurd. Yet ironically, they were furnished, decorated and illuminated with a reserved elegance that belied the almost pointless extravagance of size.
Comfortably seated in a chair facing the oversized window that offered a panoramic view of the city from her twenty story high vantage, Sylvia Marshal finally had time to miss James. In the eleventh year of their marriage it was usually he who was the absent party, his job with the World Federation taking him to all corners of Earth and even once to the moon. It didn’t really matter to her now whether it was he who was absent or she. The void was there either way.
Sylvia’s thoughts returned to when she first met James at the AJC Fusion headquarters, how his skeptical view of their claims gradually abated as she escorted him through the lab and after his meeting with Dr. Cranshaw. She remembered the crazy, scary times when the country was in chaos following the attacks on the nation’s energy infrastructure, the death of the President, and finally the imposition of martial law. That was the scariest of all for her as she remembered waiting, terrified in her Brooklyn Heights apartment, for some indication from government officials that safety and security would quickly be re-established. She remembered how she felt when James unexpectedly appeared on her doorstep. Like the marines had landed, she said to him then and how she felt when they made love for the first time during those desperate hours.
She leaned back more comfortably into her heavily cushioned chair and closed her eyes. Yes, she thought, the world has changed a great deal since that dangerous year of transition. Who would have thought that the United Nations would ever be displaced and that a new form of international cooperation would be established not based on xenophobic national self-interest, but on multinational economic self-preservation? The threat of losing access to the laser-fusion technology and essential materials obtainable only through the World Federation proved to be everything General Slaider predicted it would be. A failure to obtain access to the Federation monopoly quickly demonstrated the catastrophic financial consequences to the few nations who challenged the rules and resisted the mandates for membership, who tried to go it alone. There was one major exception. The Russian Federation.
The World Federation, General Slaider explained to her twelve years ago, was not simply an organization to join but a business entity, a super corporation such as had never before existed in the history of humanity. The World Federation transcends national borders and narrow national agendas. Denial of a franchise for the laser-fusion package is tantamount to economic ruin for the rejected nation. Sylvia was convinced Russia would soon decide it had made its anger known at being left out of the charter membership club and in time would join.
Unlike the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated by the United Nations, The World Federation political stability protocol would be a mandate with teeth. Political stability and the happiness of the people would be tied, General Slaider explained, to economic survival and profitability rather than to altruism and the delusion of human rights. Instead, in the economic interests of the world, in every geographic region, social stability must reign for stable economic and political outcomes. Fail the domestic stability test and you don’t receive a franchise.
Sylvia thought, with deep admiration, about Ranjit Lal, the former General Secretary of the United Nations and now CEO of The World Federation. In a few short years he has brought the vision alive of a world-governing model that actually benefitted the people while retaining the cooperation of the oligarchy. Lal’s masterful use of the carrot and the stick had changed the course of human destiny. But most amazing of all, Sylvia thought, was the cooperation General Slaider had nursed successfully from the very beginning between the United States and The People’s Republic of China. General Slaider’s vision got the teeth it needed without the threat of military force when the US and China claimed joint sovereignty, in the name of The World Federation, to the moon and it’s helium riches.
The moon was home to a bountiful and exclusive supply of the one chemical not found in nature on Earth beyond trace amounts, but crucial to an economically feasible laser-fusion process, the isotope of helium, He-3. The steady rain, from the sun to the moon, of this isotope in the solar wind was the limiting factor that made laser-induced fusion energy possible. Only the United States and China possessed the resources and power to monopolize and guard the moon from competing efforts by entities that foolishly might think to challenge their monopoly.
In creating this new world order, Sylvia agreed, the ends justified the means and the results spoke for themselves. Wherever franchises existed the living standard of the people had risen dramatically. Opposition to the power of the World Federation melted away and the conversion to hydrogen-based energy was gaining speed as more and more fossil-fuel fired power stations were being retired. Small pockets of opposition based on national rather than economic loyalty was, as predicted, proving unsustainable. A peaceful Earth was now in the offing.
In spite of all this, Sylvia wondered, why am I worried?

Friday, September 30, 2016


An important term in environmental science is "carrying capacity." It means that above the carrying capacity everyone suffers. Every country, or let's say region to avoid political boundaries, has its cultural, economic and nutritional carrying capacity. Go beyond these and things break down quickly. Environmental science considers mostly the nutritional component, but I think the others are just as critical. And dangerous.

Every region has reached its own equilibrium in these components of carrying capacity. Equilibrium is always disrupted at one's peril. Not to say it can't be done, but it can't be mismanaged. I think we are seeing this playing out in Europe. While freedom of travel within the EU has worked pretty well, opening the doors even a bit to freedom of entry from outside is quickly leading to chaos, politically and economically. Perhaps nutritionally as well (as in, not enough food). We will have to see how that aspect plays out.

The assertion by writer, Alex Tabarrok, that "…no defensible moral framework regards foreigners as less deserving of rights than people born in the right place at the right time" is really a straw man argument because carrying capacity, for example, is a defensible framework that has nothing to do with morality. In any event, I think with the accelerating issues created by global warming, massive migrations by FOOD refugees, will leave the question of morality far behind. Countries, in my opinion, will for better or worse, slam their doors shut to keep from being overwhelmed. Walls will be going up everywhere. I make no value judgment here. I am simply expressing what I believe will happen. The ethics of such a reaction is quite another matter. 

A friend expressed the belief that a world grounded on ethical choices is always a better world. I've been thinking a lot about this comment regarding a world grounded in ethical choices. Actually there is an interesting emergence of science not so much grounded in ethics but rather incorporating ethics into a holistic view of the world. It seems to have started with James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis of the whole Earth and everything on it as single living organism. This enlarged over time into what has been described as engaging with the world not only by what can be measured or observed, but also on a kind of intuitive, "poetic" and ethical level of awareness. It's not so much that the subjective view is more valid, but rather that it is an essential component needed for a truer understanding, along with the objective engagement. This makes sense to me.

The only problem with using ethics as a filter for right decisions and right behavior is agreeing on what is meant by "ethical." Philosophers have been trying to come up with an operational definition for centuries with varying success. I personally favor Kant's Categorical Imperative, a kind of enhanced Golden Rule. The Categorical Imperative is based on the following operational filter. Act as you would want all other people to act towards all other people. Act according to the maxim that you would wish all other rational people to follow, as if it were a universal law.

I think this applies to the discussion of borders as well as to what Kant discussed, for example, lying, stealing, etc. His definition is interesting to me because its operational aspect includes consideration of consequences. "What would happen if everyone behaved that way?" Right and wrong behavior follows from that assessment, according to Kant.

Here, one could ask the question "What would happen if all countries abandoned their borders?" Borders definitely and unfortunately create a "them" versus "us" mentality, but we seem to be hardwired to promote this "tribalism" since we have functioned that way throughout recorded history. I don't know whether Kant would consider open borders ethical, by his definition, if it proposes a new "universal law" that goes against our nature. It may be asking too much, even without the carrying capacity argument.

On the other hand, the idea of "fresh blood" and the "melting pot" have had very beneficial consequences, which can be attested to in our own history. So, is it simply that open borders are potentially/probably destructive, but "porous" borders are rejuvenating? Dickens in "David Copperfield" showed the dangers, in David's first marriage, of a communion with too great a gap in values, capabilities and worldview.

It's complicated, or else immigration would not be the issue of contention that it is. Simply declaring that borders violate basic human rights, as some favoring this measure assert, assumes as axiomatic what is anything but. There is no such agreed upon basic human right to unlimited travel or, for that matter, for sharing in the success and wealth of more favored nations by letting anyone who wishes to come and partake. Merely asserting that there is does not make it so. There is no universal agreement on just what “basic human rights” means.

The United States constitution and Bill of Rights was a significant and inspirational step towards the modern institutionalizing of basic human rights. The French Revolution in 1789 contributed its Declaration of the Rights of Man. The League of Nations, formed in 1919, was created amid a flourish of speeches about human rights. The United Nations, motivated by the almost unbelievable atrocities committed during WWII and revealed during the Nuremberg war crimes trials, re-awakened international consciousness to individual human rights. The resulting United Nations document was The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (largely ignored.)

Even more recently, the European Union has attempted to promote a mechanism for redress of a violation of human rights among its nation partners. All member nations of the EU are subject to the European Convention on Human Rights. Issues of human rights violations can be brought before the European Court of Human Rights and its decisions are binding on the member nations. Thus, we see throughout recent history philosophers and political policy-makers have struggled to construct such a universal doctrine.

In the EU, the carrying capacity for divergent values evidently was a consideration behind the requirement for its member nations to subscribe to its human rights convention. This is a requirement that the recent influx to Europe of millions of immigrants from the Middle East has evidently ignored for no clearly articulated reason, to unknown consequences.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

My First Life. Chapter 1

My First Life
A Love Story

David H. Spielberg

© 2015 by
David H. Spielberg
All rights reserved

Any similarity to people living or dead
is purely coincidental.


Today’s the day I go to the new shrink.
I didn’t sleep well last night thinking about it. Of course, the traffic doesn’t help, either. Morning and evening and into the night, cars race down the street. The hump in the road a block south of my building fails to slow them. Even the regulars hit their heads and curse from the bounce and the jolt when they’ve had too much to drink and forget. Hubcaps litter the side of the road.
Less common, but still regular enough, are the sudden crashes and inevitable sirens and drunken drivers wrapping themselves around utility poles or slamming into parked cars.
We who live in the houses along the street assume the high speed driving is due to the long straight stretch and the fact that running along the river as it does the street is the best north-south route in this section of town. Also, there really isn’t any reason to slow down or stop, unless you live here.
This river, as with too many rivers where people are or have been, shows both the remnants of its lost beauty and the record of its abuse. A quarter mile down river, the abandoned fuel company landing spoils the view with rotting timbers and pilings protruding along the shore. Vacant and decrepit buildings border the fuel company property on either side. Beer cans, broken brooms with broken handles, bits of diapers, amorphous mixes of rotting paper and cloth, used and discarded condoms, plastic garbage bags tossed there weeks or months ago and torn open by ravening dogs or cats—these and more—litter the sidewalk and the lots. Among the waste and decay, the scarlet lances of purple loosestrife are in bloom, growing up between the boards and tires and trash.
The river does at least provide a cooling breeze in the summer. And when the summer is in full bloom, the junk trees, which will grow anywhere, and the wild grasses and the brush, and the scrubby, unnamed flowers—these things help you forget, if only for a moment, the abandoned cars and the shattered windows and the broken down buildings with “fuck you” scrawled on the walls.
A quarter mile or so up the street from the fuel landing, the buildings that line the street on the water side are either renovated from the last real estate boom when everyone thought this part of town was ripe for rampant price appreciation or else they are the corpses of buildings whose turn came too late to be recalled to life. When the boom fizzled, the frenzy of speculation and development died as quickly as it took the local banks to begin saying “no.” Projects were stillborn or only partly finished. A few latecomers made it to completion, only to sit ingloriously ignored and foreclosed upon when they couldn’t be sold and rents were unable to carry the debt.
Across the street, where I live one row of houses away from the river, the buildings are less traumatized. Because they were less promising to the real estate developers, lacking river frontage, they suffer less from the wild swings in economic fortune. They’re mostly old, wood frame, multifamily houses built into the rising slope of the ground. The first levels are more or less finished basements with walkout fronts. Almost all are built over dirt, no real basements. Most are now tied in to the sewer system, but three houses down, I know for sure, they’re still on septic. In a good rain, the septic systems, old and inadequate, back up and you can smell them a half a block away. Some of the buildings, aspiring to greatness in earlier, more promising times, were built with turrets and cupolas and other such pretensions, but for the most part, the houses are plain. They all have lopsided wooden staircases leading up to the first level. All need painting.
The couple that owns 237 River Road, just south of where I live, are out cleaning up the litter that spontaneously appears overnight in the lot across the street from their building. The women upstairs in our building persist in dumping their garbage there. They can’t seem to remember when the pickup is or perhaps the problem is agreeing on whose turn it is to take it out and so take this obvious expedient requiring no commitment to a schedule. The anxious couple in 237 repeatedly reports them to the city but the authorities always come too late to catch them at it, if they come at all.
As the couple—I never did get their names—clean the mess neatly into big plastic bags they talk to each other about “the kind of people that would just dump their garbage like that” and they shake their heads in disgust. They never belonged here, as if anyone does.
They believed the real estate agent who sold them their building. It seemed like a good investment at the time—getting in on the ground floor. Their plan was to hold it for two or three years and sell the building for a nice profit. Except it didn’t work that way. No one is buying and their two tenants have stopped paying the rent. Slowly they are sinking into financial ruin. Slowly their desperation grows as they grimly work to purge the nearby vacant lots along the street of trash, trying to maintain their illusion of a preserved prosperity for any potential buyer.
Up by 244 River Road, across the street, the Italian stallion is working on the wreck he bought for two hundred dollars. It’s a totaled, two year old Buick. He thinks he’s ‘Super Mechanic’ and will fix it up and make a killing. But it’s still a wreck and an eyesore and I think he’s all talk. He leaves lots of tools around with the hood up and the trunk up. He has managed to get the doors open, but he’s been at it a long time now and I don’t think he’ll ever get it fixed. Besides, he loves his motorcycle too much. He can’t seem to work at anything for more than maybe twenty minutes before its...varrooom, varrooom. Off he goes on his motorcycle. Actually, I don’t know what he does for his money. He’s living with his parents and doesn’t seem to work, that is, have a regular job, you know, with set hours.
It is a neighborhood, at least, a community of sorts along the river. Rivercrest section of Bridgeport. I’ve been living here now for about six months. One street back, up the hill, it’s another world. Up there, it’s a suburban world of well kept, blue collar, Italian homes. Anyone else would have left, what with the decay and the drugs and the whores along the river. But Italians are interesting people. “Eh, its my neighborhood—I aint leavin’.” I can hear them now.
I live in 239 River Road, ground floor. My place isnt much, but I call it home. Three rooms—kitchen, living room, and bedroom. It sounds bigger than it is. Three small rooms, but they’re mine and it serves for now. Plus I get the use of the backyard. Well, we all do, but we kind of know how to share it so we don’t get in each other’s way. Not that it’s an unfriendly building. Because it isn’t. I know the other tenants. We speak to each other.
On the middle level there’s John. Quiet. Secretive, really. Evidently into drugs. I see the crack vials in his garbage from time to time. I always think he should be more discreet, but I guess the garbage men don’t really care what people do with their lives. John seems anachronistically polite for a young man. That’s not common these days. A good looking boy, too. He has dark, brooding eyes and thick black hair parted in the center. His face is smooth and he keeps it close shaven giving him a vulnerable boyish look in a strong and dangerous man’s body. I imagine he has no trouble with the ladies, though I don’t remember him ever in the company of a woman, at least not in the neighborhood. He’s friendly enough, but his toys are worrisome for a person his age, his youth, you know. He drives a new Mazda with gold metallic trim and wire wheels, sunroof, tinted windows, big engine. Its got to be drug money. He seems to wear an invisible sign that we all can see. “Dont fuck with me or my things.” People give his car a wide berth when its parked in the street. I don’t ask too many questions when we meet. “Hiya, John. How’s it goin’.” You know, safe stuff. There are rumors of serious violence by his hands. The best part about John is that he keeps very late hours. So I never hear him.
I know the floors are thin. The previous tenant in John's apartment was a young women in the throes of getting divorced. It was her bachelor apartment and she was making up for lost time. The music was loud and the parties were loud and the running back and forth and the humping was loud. It was not a relaxing time for me. I hate having to deal with noise problems—of having to ask people to keep it down. I discovered earplugs because of her. Surprisingly they cut out the noise almost completely. But they didn’t cut out the anger that gnawed at me that she could be so inconsiderate, no matter that I found a way to counter her irritating lifestyle. She was only here a short time after I moved in, though. John was a big improvement even if in a scary sort of way.
On the top floor its Sheila and Karen. They are a big improvement, as well. Before them, there was that blackish Puerto Rican woman and her daughter. And the cats. Noisy, smelly creatures. The cats, that is. Well, actually, all of them. She didn’t take any better care of the cats than she did of her child. Cat piss is the worst. There’s no way to get rid of the smell. Water seems only to aggravate it. I don’t think she had a litter box in the apartment. Couldn’t afford it, I suppose. So of course, she had to have two cats. And on welfare, food stamps, and child support when she could get it. The whole disaster scenario.
She sounded so sweet when you talked to her. Very earnest, childlike voice. Very dedicated to her child. Grief stricken with the collapse of her marriage. It was all very sad and moving. Except that she lied. All the time, about anything and everything, for no apparent benefit to herself. And she didn’t do anything, I mean around the house or work for that matter. Her mother would come over and together they would sit in the apartment and watch television and talk all day long. It was cable TV. There probably should be a government allowance, like food stamps, for cable TV, the opiate of the masses.
Her husband would come by once in a while, to see the baby, I guess. Then they would fight. And he would yell at her to do something. Clean up the place, clean the baby, do something. And she would cry and tell him, really scream at him, that she loved him and if only he would love her back she would feel good enough about herself to do these things he was asking her to do. Evidently she had been to a shrink and had learned just enough to construct a blame-script that didnt involve herself. He had heard this all before and was not interested anymore in the debate. Eventually, he would slap her, sometimes often. Then there would be a period of silence or at least low level sound that I could not make out when I assumed they were engaged in “make up” sex. Then he would leave. She always had a few extra dollars after these encounters. I decided it was all part of the child support payment ritual they had worked out. Just before she left for god knows where and Sheila and Karen took her apartment, she was pregnant again.
Actually, Karen took the apartment first with her husband about three months ago. I forget his name. He was very rarely around. But when they separated I was surprised. They had just arrived from Colorado or some such western straight-arrow place. Being from out of town with no local rental history it would normally be hard to get an apartment, but her husband’s father was some kind of a big shot in Ravenport and he guaranteed their rent. She seemed very western. “Sir’s” and “thank you’s” and “your welcome’s” scattered in her conversation like raisins in a biscuit. Her hair was long and light brown with an appealing slight curliness. She used very little makeup and even when she dressed comfortably on warm days her clothes were carefully modest, though I noticed that she had long and shapely legs that showed to advantage when she wore shorts. She seemed like the kind of wife a man could be happy with. But I guess you never know unless you walk in their moccasins for a while, as they say.
I never got a feel for her husband. He just wasn’t around much. Working hard, I guess. So, when they separated after only about two months I was surprised. I didnt see it coming the way you know when a couple is in trouble. Sheila came after he left. Karen wasn’t able to make the rent payments with her salary alone and needed a roommate. She advertised for a roommate and Sheila answered the ad.
Sheila was an unlikely choice, if you’d have asked me then. She’s very different from Karen. Very confident in herself as a woman and confident that she can handle any man. She’s just a little bit of a thing—maybe five feet two. But she’s all there and doesn’t mind letting you know it, either. Tight clothes are Sheila’s specialty. The tighter the better. She turns every head when she appears. Yet she wears her clothes as if shes unconscious of the effect she is having on people, which of course she isn’t. But she acts as though she is—as if theres nothing unusual about her clothes, clothes that were little more than painted to her body—that she didn’t give it a second thought and never imagined that anyone else did either. Yeah, right.
Maybe it wasn’t such an unlikely choice after all. It’s exactly the way Karen would like to feel about herself. I dont think she’s up to it. I think Sheila and her friends scare Karen sometimes.
Next door, 241 River Road, it’s a two family house. A two bedroom and a one bedroom. The two bedroom, that’s the Black Muslim family. He treats his wife like shit. I don’t know if that’s a Muslim thing, a black thing or just him. He’s very big and would ordinarily, I guess, be quite intimidating, except for his mild and reasonable way of speaking—not apologetic or deferential, just, I don’t know, quiet and sincere. He seems sincere when he talks to you and it defuses your concern.
He seems intelligent enough but when she irritates him, which due to her youth she seems unable to avoid, he just beats the living crap out of her. Actually, I find it disgusting—her lack of self-respect by tolerating such treatment and his undisciplined violence. But maybe institutionalized abuse of women, if that’s what it is, is better than the guy who’s just mean and enjoys beating up his wife. Then again, what’s the difference for the woman? Her teeth in the front have been knocked out. She told me in the street that she had an epileptic seizure and accidentally broke them against the wall. She’s had the seizures since she was a child, she said. Stranger things have happened, but I don’t believe it. Too many times she’s come running out into the night, clutching her robe, screaming in terror to call the police. And each time when they come, after waking the whole neighborhood with her cries for help, she refuses to press charges, disgusting the police, her neighbors, and I think even her husband who usually sits grimly in the back seat of the police car waiting for the charade to be over.
Above them are the lesbians. Rhoda’s the dyke and Jane is the other one, whatever that’s called. I don’t know what to make of them. Rhoda has a daughter—not living with her. She comes to visit from time to time. Nice looking kid. Quite a sexy little thing. About seventeen years old. Seems completely normal. The women on the other hand fight like cats. Screaming and yelling at each other all the time. Thank god they’re not in my building. One night, I swear, in a wild shouting match, Rhoda fell out of the window and broke her arm. She landed on the trash barrels stored below her window. Lucky she wasn’t killed. Actually, Jane is Rhoda's second live-in lover. I wonder how long Jane will last. I think she's bisexual and I think the fights are about her boyfriends. It’s very weird. Rhoda is not my type physically at all. She’s short and a tad on the plump side and really very masculine looking. Jane, on the other hand, is quite a stunner. Thin, good figure, straight jet-black hair, dark, penetrating eyes, full lips, the kind you want to suck on. I wonder what she sees in Rhoda. Well, different strokes, I guess.
I take a river glimpse between buildings before going into my apartment and I wonder why it offers me so little tranquility. That’s the appeal after all—isn’t it?—for waterfront property, or water view, anyway. The tranquility of the water scene, the shimmering light, the reflected sky, the primordial connection with our ascent from the ocean. It should be tranquil for me here. That’s all I’ve sought since leaving Sharon and all the complications about the children. Tranquility. And yet I can’t remember any serious period of tranquility, ever. If I had to describe what it would feel like or look like, I couldn’t. I expect that I would know it when I achieved it. So far it has eluded me. And yet, compared to so many others, I guess things could be a lot worse.
I spend a lot of time in my apartment. I feel safe here. In control. I take the phone off the hook as soon as I enter. No one can get to me if I don’t want them to. The ‘draw bridge’ is up and I can count on some undisturbed solitude. I won’t leave it off the hook all night. Just long enough to wind down, to feel safe. This lousy little apartment may not be much, but it’s mine. I control who and what can get to me here. No explanations, no apologies, no arguments.
I remember when I left the house I first moved into a kind of transition studio apartment. What did I have? A mattress, a beach chair with plastic netting, a card table with two folding chairs, and my hifi set. My friend, Andy, who helped me move said, “Are you nuts? You’re not taking the stereo? She never listens to music. It’ll take her two years before she realizes it’s gone. Take it.” He was right.
When people called me then, they’d ask where I was, there was such an echo. Helloooo, hellooo, helloo, hello. I mean there was nothing to absorb the sound. It was like I was calling from inside a cave. Not now. I’ve gotten a few things along the way, along with my freedom—a sofa, a couple of arm chairs, heavy room darkening curtains, and a Persian carpet. Pictures and photographs I hung on the walls really helped personalize the apartment, made it mine.
I do regret how much television I watch. I seem to need the sound in the background, except when I’m reading. I’m studying about wildflowers. It's been a long-term interest of mine. I tell myself I’m doing it so I can share the knowledge with the children when I take them on nature walks, botanizing and all that. But I think I’m really doing it for me. It seems sort of fundamental to be in touch with nature, to see oneself as an element of a larger picture that is not completely manmade. Maybe it’s just that anything associated with people has such a strong potential to become spiteful. Nature is just nature. There’s nothing personal in it. And if you get to know the names and the characteristics of wildflowers, where to look for them and how to spot them, they become like friends you can meet almost anywhere. Dirty, empty lots, even like the lot across the street with the loosestrife and the five-lobed cinquefoils and the giant dandelion-like goats beard. I like knowing the names and the flowers.
I watch a lot of television, especially when I’m eating and it makes the eating take too long, which I regret, because it’s time I could have spent better reading, exercising, writing, whatever. I find I’m writing a lot of letters these days. I don’t know why I like to write letters. Or maybe I do. Nobody writes letters anymore. It makes me feel special. I know they are going to get the letter and think that it’s special to get a letter and special of me to write one. Everyone just calls now. But a call is no good. There’s nothing to savor afterwards except the imperfect memory that fades quickly into just a generalized phone call. “Oh yeah, I got a call from Whomever the other day.” One call is like any other. They just merge into a vat of mental waste material. To me phone calls are the vanilla of communication. They have no individual character for the most part and no lasting value. But a letter! Its a gift basket of flavor. You can reread it and discover new meaning or simply relive the feelings it gave when you first read it. It is a continuing joy. I’ve been told I write lovely letters.
I guess people are set in their ways. No one takes the trouble to write. I hardly get any letters myself. And the holiday cards are such a disgusting substitute. I hate them. They’re worse than phone calls. They’re a lying excuse for communication. They’re a fraud. I usually just tear them up when I get them without even opening them. I take notice of the return address and send a long letter to whoever sent it to show them what a real communication should look like.
My apartment gets a little warm this time of year and dinner preparations only make it hotter. There’s not a lot of cross ventilation at the moment. Right now it’s the time of day when the wind direction changes and so there’s naturally a period of stillness. I sweat easily and it’s been a humid day today. Nothing like what it will be in August, but bad enough.
I like Chinese food. I like especially the cutting and chopping and organizing into little piles and the sauces in little Dixie cups. But you need to get the oil and the wok good and hot and it only adds to the heat in the room. But at least you don’t have to cook long. Only a few minutes and you’re done, so the heat aspect isn’t really so terrible. Actually, that’s one of the advantages of Chinese cooking, how quickly everything cooks.
I sit on the couch with my food on a tray table and turn on the TV to watch the news while I eat. I think about the appointment I have for later. It’s a new shrink. Highly recommended. Well, we’ll see. My mind is distracted and I can’t really focus on the broadcast. Nevertheless, my eating is timed perfectly this night. One hour for CNN—one hour for dinner.
Dinner is done and it’s still light out, but the sun is decidedly lower in the sky and the air is beginning to cool somewhat. The nights still do that in June. By August there will be no difference. Hot as hell during the day. Hot as hell in the evening. I go out in the back yard with Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers and my notebook and some wilted remains of a flower I collected on my walk from the bus stop. I couldn’t remember what it was called and as long as I saw there were other flowers around just like it I wasn’t concerned about picking it. I quickly thumb through the guide to locate the section with that type of flower head. I locate the flower and write it down in my notebook. I’ve been keeping a record now for about six months of the flowers I’ve recognized or identified. Over a hundred different kinds so far.
I close the notebook and put it down beside the couch and close my eyes. The landlord had the lawn mowed yesterday and I can still smell the intoxicating odor of freshly cut grass. If memory had an odor, it would smell like cut grass. I practice my sensory awareness exercises—listening to the sounds of the still warm zephyr through the beech and maple trees along the rear border of the back yard. And, of course, the smell of the grass, and the feel of the breeze and sound of the birds and the far off dog barking at some passerby and the jet just becoming audible though still very far off. I take a deep breath and relax leaving all the images free to drift and merge and disappear one by one until I slip into a short nap.
When I awake, I go inside to get my copy of Cyrano de Bergerac and my French dictionary. I’m trying to read it in French. Lots of English penciled into the text for the words I don’t know. But I’m pleased that the annotations are getting less and less as I’m slowly working my way through the play. I make myself comfortable once again on the couch and pick up where I left off with Cyrano, English/French dictionary on my lap. However, I’m still tired from the poor sleep I had last night and nod off again after only a few moments. When I awake, it’s time to get going to the shrink.
Dusk is falling as I walk to the bus stop about a quarter mile up the street, by the Market Avenue bridge. The bridge reminds me of a wannabe version of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence with its shops and walkway. I saw it once when I was on vacation in Europe. It was the only bridge the Germans left standing after their retreat from Italy in World War II. They also failed to burn Paris as Hitler ordered. Interesting people, the Germans—capable of such atrocities and yet culturally sensitive. Well, the Market Avenue Bridge is not quite the Ponte Vecchio. In fact the stores and such are not really on the bridge itself. They’re on the approach to it from the east. But still I see a similarity for some reason. At least, it makes me think of the Ponte Vecchio, so that must mean something.
The bikers come and go from the restaurant at the foot of the bridge. Developers have been trying to shut this place down for months as a blight on the neighborhood. By itself, it seems harmless enough, but it does attract the drug trade. And those guys are a definite danger. It’s not unusual to hear the sound of gunfire at night. You can get a little jumpy waiting alone for a bus. But I figure I’m clearly not a customer or a cop so unless I just get unlucky and happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, I’m okay. So far so good. It is worrisome, though.
The bus comes and a woman who was waiting inside a nearby store now rushes out to meet the bus. I often think I’m waiting alone only to find in the last seconds before the bus arrives that there are one or two, sometimes more, women waiting in hiding. They don’t trust me or the street. It’s probably a good policy for them. They can never be too careful these days.
Riding in a bus is like riding in an elevator. No one looks at anybody, people talk in whispers, life seems suspended. Except for kids. For them it’s a trip all by itself. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a destination or not. But with adults, it’s just an elevator ride with sort of understood rules. Everyone fills up the seats one by one first, so that every double seat first is a single. And then when there’s no other choice, the singles start to get filled in and you can imagine people thinking “What do you want, sitting here next to me? Why didn’t you take that other seat? Why me? And you better not talk to me because I don’t know you and I don’t want to have to be socializing with you when I don’t know you, so if you have to sit here just do it and don’t make a fuss or start talking to me.”
Everyone secretly wishes, I know, that the bus driver would lower the interior lights at night. The buses are too bright. You have to cup your hand to your eyes to look out after dark. Mostly all you see is your own image looking out at nothing. And anyway, usually the bus isn’t full.
One thing about buses though. I do enjoy watching people and people are always coming and going on a bus if you have any distance at all to cover. You learn to watch people furtively. And in the summer women’s clothes are often suggestive and revealing, which is fun. For the most part, until we get closer to town the women tend to be poor Puerto Rican and overweight and beaten down, their spirit buried in flesh. The teenagers are still slim and are practicing at being provocative with their boyfriends or would-be boyfriends. They’re more interesting to watch. And so are their lithe young bodies and smiling faces and easy good nature. They’re treated well at this stage in their lives. It doesn’t seem to last. By the time they’re twenty they dress like tramps and when they’re thirty their lives have shrunk, reduced to cooking, cleaning and having babies.
I watch a young couple in the back talking enthusiastically with each other. They’re about seventeen, I guess. When he steals a quick kiss, he also cops a quick feel through her light blouse. She looks around and giggles and pushes him away, uncrossing her bare legs for better leverage. But soon they press closely together again and begin to whisper excitedly. I turn to the front of the bus.
I think again about this shrink. I haven’t been to one recently. Of course, when I was married to Sharon there was a steady stream of them. Shrinks and marriage counselors. We tried everything except a witch doctor. I don’t know how these people get away with it. You go to them on a regular basis, pay them good money for long periods of time and they never tell you what’s wrong with you or what you can do about it. They just talk with you and ask you questions and listen. It seems so unstructured and so unfair. There should almost be a law against it. They should be made to give a diagnosis and a treatment plan after the third visit like you would expect from a regular doctor. And that’s another thing. You don’t have to even be a doctor. Most counselors only have masters degrees. I mean, anyone, practically, can start messing with your mind. And they have creative ways of calling themselves things other than psychotherapists so they can avoid licensing requirements. They become holistic communications consultants or some meaningless equivalent. Because we don’t know what to do or where to turn, we go to them. We try them all. How many times have I thought that a good sympathetic bartender would do just as well as these expensive charlatans and at least you’re left with a nice buzz afterwards.
But we’re a culture impressed with legitimacy. And all these shrinks and counselors and therapists and what-have-you lay claim to some title and we’re all impressed and we continue to seek them out and try them like some new highly recommended skin cream, hair conditioner, or vitamin supplement.
I pull the string and a little, dull, metallic ping goes off by the drivers seat. I get up and walk to the rear exit door. The bus slows gradually. Even so, there is a slight lurch as it comes to a complete halt and I grab the pole by the door for support. I give one last glance to the couple in the rear. She looks up and smiles at me as I descend into the street. Sweet!