On ‘Backing Down’ From A ‘Streetfight’

Yesterday afternoon, as I walked across a pedestrian crossing on Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue, I found a large SUV, turning right, barreling down at me; he braked hard, even as I yelled out “I’ve got the ‘Walk’ sign, dude!” He yelled back, “We both got the light!” I yelled back, “I’ve got right of way!” He yelled back, ‘Fuck off!’ I yelled back, “Go fuck yourself!” Clearly, this was a fruitful and productive exchange of views on how to best negotiate street crossings. As I turned on the sidewalk, I noticed he’d pulled over to the side of the street, and was waiting for me to walk by his car. The driver was not alone; he had a belligerent female companion in the passenger seat who had also been screaming obscenities at me. I continued walking on the sidewalk, past the parked car on my left, keeping my eyes straight, walking on to my gym class. As I did so, I could hear their jeering; clearly, I had not risen to the challenge. My bravado was bigger than my bite; I had ‘backed down.’

Fair enough; I did. I smarted for a while afterwards, but it was the correct decision. I was outnumbered; even if I could have engaged in the undignified business of throwing punches or grappling with a belligerent stranger–who looked to be roughly my size, but about ten years younger–on a city sidewalk, I would have left myself open to being clocked upside the head with some hard object by my opponent’s companion. I could have, for instance, taken a bottle to the head or something similar. Given her visible demeanor, this sort of ‘participation’ in the fight was not unlikely at all. Street fights are always dirty; this one would have been no different. Given the emotions on display just earlier, this would have been a dirty business through and through. No one would have intervened; no one intervenes in street fights in New York City. Or anywhere else for that matter. I did not want the police involved; I did not want to suffer physical injury, a high price to pay for trying to remind a driver that he did not have right of way on a pedestrian crossing when the light turns green. Quite possibly, because the parameters of such fights are so poorly defined, I could have suffered an injury disproportionate to the original provocation. For as long as I’ve lived in Brooklyn, I’ve been haunted by the memory of the bodega store owner who tried to stop a teenager from shoplifting and was stabbed with a screwdriver in the head; the resultant injury caused permanent brain damage.

Quite simply, there was no upside to my responding to this provocation, to continuing this conflict. I swallowed hard, fuming, and walked on straight to my gym, where I worked out and flattered myself by performing a reasonably hard gymnastic move several times during my workout. Then, sweaty and satisfied, I returned home in time to say goodnight to my daughter before she went to bed. Her father hadn’t been ‘manly’ enough earlier; but this was good enough for me.

A Cup Final On The Playground’s Jungle Gym

On Wednesday evening, as is my usual practice, I picked up my daughter from her daycare, and began walking home with her. The unseasonably warm weather suggested a little detour in the tot-lot on the way back was a very good idea. (I remain unenthusiastic about visiting playgrounds but my sense of parental duty overrides this unease of mine.) There, in the playground, my daughter confronted a familiar challenge: the combination jungle-gym/slide which serves as centerpiece for juvenile mayhem.

This particular variant features two slides, three sets of stairs, and two ingenious tests of balancing/climbing ability on the side: a set of semi-circular rings with a running bar which can be traversed by a child who grasps the side and then walks from ring to ring, and a set of interlocking metallic ‘Olympic rings’ set at a slope, which can be used as steps of a sort. My daughter had mastered the first challenge a while ago, but the second remained out of reach. The leg length and the grip strength it required were bridges too far. Moreover, my daughter would often freeze when I would start to instruct her on how she could solve the various challenges the rings posed. I had backed off, worried that I might be making her more anxious.

Now, there we were yet again, staring at a familiar nemesis. We had visited the playground last week, and then again, a familiar pattern had manifested itself: my daughter ascended partway, stopped, overcome by doubt and anxiety; I stepped closer, offered some advice; she froze; she dismounted. Now, she went off again to climb the rings, and I hung back, checking my phone for messages. I was determined to stay out of this one.

My daughter took her first steps, and soon hit a dead-end. She shifted her feet and moved left. Then, she reached up and pulled, moving up to the second level of rings. Now, again, she was stuck. For a moment, she took one foot off the rings, a sign that she was considering dismounting. I groaned inwardly. Then the foot went back on, and she moved right, looking for a better foothold. Crucially, she had not turned around to look for me. Perhaps she was going to go ahead with this thing. She looked up, saw a hold. She would have to reach and pull herself up to a spot from where she would be secure and could then use the bars on the side to take the final step to safety.  I tensed.

I realized, at that moment, that I was experiencing a sensation that I had previously only felt while watching sports: cup finals, penalty shoot-outs, tennis tie-breaks, the frenetic closing stages of a one-day cricket game. I was ready to be overcome with elation, while simultaneously terrified at the thought of failure. I was urging ‘my team’ on.

My daughter pulled, and swung up. She fumbled on the bars, but grasped them nevertheless, and then stepped to safety. As she did so, she suddenly broke into a grin and announced, “I did it; all by myself!”

Standing behind her, I had executed, as circumspectly as possible, the kind of punching-the-air ritual I often execute when a goal or touchdown is scored, a catch taken, an ace served. My team had won. Against itself.

Descartes, The Planned City, And Misplaced Philosophical Desires

In Part 2 of Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences Rene Descartes, as a prelude to his ‘clearing away’ of prior philosophy, writes:

[T]here is very often less perfection in works composed of several portions, and carried out by the hands of various masters, than in those on which one individual alone has worked. Thus we see that buildings planned and carried out by one architect alone are usually more beautiful and better proportioned than those which many have tried to put in order and improve, making use of old walls which were built with other ends in view. In the same way also, those ancient cities which, originally mere villages, have become in the process of time great towns, are usually badly constructed in comparison with those which are regularly laid out on a plain by a surveyor who is free to follow his own ideas….we understand how difficult it is to bring about much that is satisfactory in operating only upon the works of others.

Interestingly enough, as the examples of Chandigarh, Brasilia, and Canberra show, the planned city, built from scratch to purpose, the product of a singular architectural vision, is very often a counterpart to the bustling, chaotic, cosmopolitan cities whose growth has proceeded, at best, along an entirely haphazard trajectory.The ostensible beauty of the planned city’s design has not compensated for its lack of history, the absence of accretions of culture and lives lived within its precincts; the planned city gets off the ground with little interference from what came before, but it does not encourage riffs and improvisation. The planned city offers a gleaming surface and little else; it lacks the blemishes that speak of a rich interior. It has set itself apart, and there it shall stay. (No offense is intended to the residents of these cities; still, I think they would agree their city’s lack of a past, its ab initio origins, contribute in some measure to the contrast it offers to the great metropolises of the world.)

There is much that goes wrong with Western philosophy thanks to Descartes: the obsession with system building, the epistemic foundationalism, the quest for certainty, the alignment of philosophy with the sciences and mathematics, the appearance-reality distinction, the desire to ground truths in something beyond the human, the divorce of philosophy from history. (These sins cannot all be laid at Descartes door, of course; Plato is the original culprit for many of them.) Here, in the Discourse, we see the glimmerings of another problematic vision, one manifest in domains other than philosophy as well: that works made in splendid solitude are necessarily inferior to those made jointly with others, through acts of creative, even if sometimes clumsy and flawed, appropriation and improvisation. In doing so, Descartes reinforces–among other things–the fallacy of the lone creator, the solitary artist, the self-made man, the sole author.

Ironically, Descartes ended up generating a great deal of undergrowth that hasn’t been cleared yet (or alternatively, a foundation that still tempts too many of those who came after.)

The Children’s Playground AKA ‘The Yard’

Parenting entails many unpleasant duties. Changing diapers and dealing with toddlers reluctant to eat, sleep, or behave like rational human beings–which they aren’t–are often ranked lowest on the scale of parenting unpleasantness. But for my money, little can rival accompanying your child to the playground.

Here it may all be found: a mixed-age, mixed-gender space for interaction, populated by children and their curiously disengaged parents, featuring aggression, rudeness, selfishness, and ample opportunity for traumatic brain injury. Here is a cauldron of class and ethnic interaction and mutual misunderstanding and confusion, of excessive parental protectiveness and its counterpart, malignant indifference.

I was convinced, long before my wife and I had our daughter, that children were not innocent, that they were not unsullied human beings waiting to be despoiled by maturity and civilization. There was always something of the monstrous in them, too many glimpses of the unrestrained Id were all too clearly visible. The memories of my childhood–its bullies, the brawls, the tantrums, the ganging up on the weak, the merciless hunting down of the quirky, the taunting, the teasing, the mocking, the clique forming and exclusions–were still clear; I have had no desire to ever revisit it. Adulthood was not degradation and descent; it was growth in both the physical and moral dimensions. Within reasonable bounds, of course.

My experience at children’s playgrounds has given me ample opportunity to confirm this gloomy diagnosis of mine. Children are monsters. And in a space featuring everyone from pre-walkers to fleet runners, from those wearing diapers to those free of them, the range of interactions on display frequently show them off at their worst. You want your child to learn ‘the ropes’, the ‘tricks of the trade’; you want to be suitably disengaged and yet protective; you want children to ‘figure it out by themselves’ without adult intervention or supervision; and you cannot bring these competing desiderata together into a coherent vision of how to conduct yourself at the playground.

Sometimes you want to tell a parent to stop checking their phone and do something about their child’s selfishness; sometimes you want to tell a child (and his or her parent) to look a little closer at the misanthropic tendencies on display; sometimes  you want your own child to provide a better representation of your parenting abilities. Sometimes you want to make a hard right turn and avoid the playground altogether.

At the playground, you find your vision of the correct moral upbringing of your child dashed against the hard rocks of those Sartre called ‘hell’: other people. They will rapidly reconfigure it all; they will make you say things–if only under your breath–like ‘well, perhaps you should have pushed your way to the front; perhaps you should have shoved that other kid aside; the next time someone blocks the slide, just slide into them.’ Here, it all comes apart; here, you realize where the sophomoric theorizing about the ‘survival of the fittest’ and the invocations of ‘its a jungle out there’ come from.

Many years of this lie ahead. Some kinds of time should fly.

A Persistent Reminder Of A Hardened Heart

A few weeks ago, as I approached the entrance to the subway station I use on my way back home after a trip to the gym, I noticed a familiar figure standing by its stairs: a man of indeterminate age who stands at the top step, next to the door for a deli, asking for change from subway passengers and deli customers (his location is strategic and well thought out.) His normal tone of request is never aggressive; just a little plaintive with just the trace of a wheedle. And he is persistent, repeating the same plaint: his down- and-out-ness, his desperate need for the smallest bit–a penny, a dime, a quarter–that anyone can spare to move him along just a bit toward the desired goal of a full stomach.

On this day, his tone was significantly different. He had shifted into a more insistently repetitive tone: his vocal delivery of his plea had become a monotone, delivered once, and then followed up, immediately, with a precise copy on its heels: “Sir, can you please help me, a dollar, a quarter, any change you have; Sir, can you please help me, a dollar, a quarter, any change you have.” And on, and on. Whereas previously, he had only directed this plea to emerging or entering passengers and held his peace otherwise, now it seemed a tripwire had been hit, and he had been catapulted into a new state of being. He now sounded jarring and harsh, and the persistent repetition of his lament was now more invasive. It made me move quicker–past him, down the steps, and into the station. Anything to get away from that  Chinese water torture–it was like having a cup with a few coins rattled, again and again, in my face, under my nose, their jingling threatening to unravel me, bit by bit, thread by thread.

As I walked on, I remembered I had never, ever, given that man any of my spare change. I have, over the years, become impervious to the many beseechments that are sent my way in this great city: from those who lie on sidewalks, a cardboard sign detailing the precise state of their misfortunes, economic, personal, or medical; from those who walk into my subway car, announcing the loss of a job or home, the parlous state of their family and children, their hunger, their desperate desire to convince us that the money given out as alms will not be spent on alcohol or drugs. I have, more often than not, simply looked a little closer at the book I have been reading, and turned away. Perhaps I fear charlatans; perhaps I have become numb; perhaps I think my efforts at ‘helping’ are better directed elsewhere.

Now, I had fled from a scene of escalated desperation; I had turned away, again, unable to respond adequately to this nagging reminder of how, in this city with its fortunes and misfortunes, with its too-big-to-process tragedies and comedies, I had let my heart harden just a little.

The Road And The Apocalyptic World of the Homeless

Last week, the students in my Philosophical Issues in Literature class and I, as part of our ongoing discussion about Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, watched John Hillcoat‘s cinematic adaptation of it. On Monday, we watched roughly half the movie in class, and then on Wednesday, we concentrated on three scenes: the encounter with Ely the ‘blind’ old man; the encounter with the thief; and the closing scenes, as the Boy meets his ‘new family.’

After we had finished viewing the encounter with Ely, I asked my students what they made of the differences between the novel and the movie’s treatment of that event. This spun into an interesting discussion about the imagery employed by McCarthy and Hillcoat, especially as many of my students felt that the movie could not quite conjure up the novel’s aura of apocalyptic destitution that swirls around Ely and his gnomic pronouncements on the state of the world.

Building on this, I asked my students what they made of the movie’s visual descriptions of the Man, the Boy, and Ely: their filthy dress, their dirty, unkempt, unwashed appearance, their patched up shoes, the cart containing their possessions that they push along. (The book also makes note of Ely’s terrible smell.) What did this most remind them of? A few hands went up: these characters looked like New York City’s homeless, an often familiar sight.

As this identification was made, my students realized, I think, what I was getting at.

The central characters in The Road are homeless folk. They might seem unfamiliar to us at first, because the world described in the novel and the movie–devastated by an unspecified catastrophe–looks comfortably distant from our normal, everyday existence. But the homeless among us live in such a post-apocalyptic world now: an apocalypse has already occurred in their lives. They are without homes, dirty, hungry, on the edge of starvation, reduced to foraging for scraps, smothered in their own waste, stinking to high heaven, perennially in danger of being set on, assaulted, set on fire, or murdered (as news bulletins often remind us). Unlike the Man, the Boy, and Ely, they don’t have to fear cannibalism (not yet anyway) but perhaps they can sense there is little hope in their lives, little to drive them onwards except the brute desire to stay alive.

If we want to engage in an exercise of the imagination and think about how the Man and the Boy might feel we might want to think of those homeless folk we see in New York City’s subway stations and streets. If we wish to conjecture about how the man and the boy experience the cold in their world, which will eventually freeze their starving, impoverished selves to death, we need only think about how every winter, in subzero temperatures, the homeless desperately try to survive, using cardboard boxes, sleeping on top of subway gratings, seeking warm corners and nooks, hopefully safe from marauders at night, next to, and on top of, some of the world’s most expensive real estate.

So while we might sustain the illusion that the events described in The Road are fiction, the homeless remind us the apocalypse–conceived as fantasy in novel and movie–is already all around us.

Getting What We Really Want: Heavily Armed Police Forces

A couple of months ago, I made note, yet again, of the steady militarization of US police. Today, we have more news from that ‘front.’ (A word that seems ever more appropriate).

The New York TimesMatt Apuzzo reports:

[A]s President Obama ushers in the end of what he called America’s “long season of war,” the former tools of combat — M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, silencers and more — are ending up in local police departments, often with little public notice.

During the Obama administration…police departments have received tens of thousands of machine guns; nearly 200,000 ammunition magazines; thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment; and hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft.

Nothing quite brings out the idiocy of this relentless arming than the deployment of an armored combat vehicle in Neenah, Wisconsin, “a quiet city of about 25,000 people” with “a violent crime rate that is far below the national average.” It has “not had a homicide in more than five years.”

Moreover:

Congress created the military-transfer program in the early 1990s, when violent crime plagued America’s cities and the police felt outgunned by drug gangs. Today, crime has fallen to its lowest levels in a generation, the wars have wound down, and despite current fears, the number of domestic terrorist attacks has declined sharply from the 1960s and 1970s.

And of course, these weapons contribute to changing self-perceptions among police forces:

Recruiting videos feature clips of officers storming into homes with smoke grenades and firing automatic weapons. In Springdale, Ark., a police recruiting video is dominated by SWAT clips, including officers throwing a flash grenade into a house and creeping through a field in camouflage.

The indiscriminate arming also seems to have corroded police officers’ intelligence:

In South Carolina, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s website features its SWAT team, dressed in black with guns drawn, flanking an armored vehicle that looks like a tank and has a mounted .50-caliber gun. Capt. Chris Cowan, a department spokesman, said…police officers had taken it to schools and community events, where it was a conversation starter.

“All of a sudden, we start relationships with people,” he said.

These “relationships” terminus might, unfortunately, be a violent death.

Two ‘wars’–the one on drugs, and the one on terrorism–are having entirely unsurprising effects: the steady arming of domestic police forces, the evisceration of civil rights, the indiscriminate use of violence against citizenry (more often than not, of the darker-skinned persuasion). The citizens of this land continue to be socialized to the norm of the stop and frisk, the warrantless scan of communications, the invasive entry, the carefully circumscribed public protest. In all of this, the image of the policeman has morphed from neighborhood peacekeeper to external enforcer. One armed with the best weaponry available.

The US is awash with guns, often owned by those who claim they do so to protect themselves against governmental tyranny; their arguments often seem risible, but when news reports like these make the rounds, they seem a little less so.

Imagine that: finding yourself nodding in unison with armed militia wingnuts. Never thought you’d see the day? It might be here.