April 16, 2011

Bedtime for Democracy

So Sarah Palin, the President of the United States, which was subject to repossession by China, enacted the “Word Tax” to keep the White House from going into foreclosure. Citizens living inside all city limits were taxed for both spoken and written word. This was tracked by a “Freedom Chip” which was implanted in the back of the neck. The procedure was mandatory and often performed at veterinary clinics. Only politicians and pornographers could afford to be treated by human doctors. Folks didn’t appreciate being treated like animals, but under the “New Patriot Act,” complaining was deemed a commodity, and thus taxable. Someone suffering a broken arm or stroke had to wait while, say, a guinea pig had a marble surgically removed from its anus.
The only folks that survived in the real world were the Field Dwellers. A Field Dweller was someone who lived in the country. Everyone was required to receive a Freedom Chip, but it wasn’t directly enforced. Those without Freedom Chips were considered “Persons with Non-Competencies.” The tax man could shut off your phone, internet, lights, whatever, but they didn’t come looking for you. Like most people, they were scared of the real world. Aside from bullying folks on social media, digital bank accounts or email, they were as harmless as housecats.

Technology helped us think beyond our brains, but the information slowly dried up. “Selectively cleansed,” claimed the government, but that didn’t keep folks from depending on it.

My days, I decided, were numbered. After receiving the letter from Brigadoon Animal Hospital informing me of my Freedom Chip appointment, I left town. After packing a suitcase, I drove South using back-country roads and spent the night in my car. The next morning, I remembered something from my childhood: a trailer colony in the middle of a dirt farm. Growing up, our family used to pass it when we took the short cut to Raleigh. I’d look out the window of our Chevy Blazer, surrounded by soy bean and cotton fields, before coming to the cross roads. For someone who grew up on the beach, out there seemed like the most remote place in the world. The stop sign was peppered with bullets. My dad didn’t even brake—he just raised his arms and yelled “rolling stop” as we blew right through it.

There were, I remember, four to six trailers at this intersection. They encircled a large, steel-beam radio tower that you could see for miles. Aside from the laundry drying outside, the trailers looked abandoned. I wondered why anyone would live there, and so close to a radio tower. It had been an obsession growing up, these freakish people committing horrible atrocities inside. But why that? Why not thoughts of more? More money; a bigger promotion? I thought of that as I drove toward the tower. The tenacious strive toward success. It was always just out of reach. I killed the engine before the stop sign. The fields were barren now, and stretched into the distance in each direction.

I was in insurance when the government began scaling back the economy. A few folks saw it coming. Our company sold all the ergonomically designed chairs and installed coin operated locks on the bathroom stalls. They traded my BMW company car for a Chinese sedan. They did, however, let me keep my company girlfriend, who was specifically designed to “enhance” my lifestyle: She was prone to debt, prescription drug-induced crying jags, and had breasts engineered to near perfection.
Thus did consumerism and procreation go hand in hand.

Field dwellers didn’t have breast implants or bald pubic regions. These things had nothing to do with survival. Daily life revolved around the radio tower, or rather, what the tower provided. Grandma had an aluminum hip that intercepted phone calls late at night. Like I said, politicians and pornographers could afford to speak in whole sentences, and did so in great detail about anything they pleased. Overhearing an educated conversation like that would have cost five thousand dollars. That’s how much it cost to ‘unlock’ this particular radio channel. Even the rich weren’t granted total privacy. When the signal wasn’t great, we’d stick our ear directly against Grandma’s hip. This minimized the "tinny" sound so we could hear more clearly.

A low, steady hum was always present around the tower. The trailers would sometimes vibrate, but it didn’t vibrate people so much as it permeated them. We all sat in plastic lawn chairs in the back yard. Every meal was barbequed on an open pit, and little Joey would run barefoot from one trailer to the next.

“Momma says ‘the hummin’ is God talking to Himself while he’s doing his work.”
“Great Joey,” I’d say. “Now run over and fetch me a jar of moonshine.” 

It was still strange to me, hearing folks talk about God. Aside from OMG, which was changed from Oh My God to Oh My Gosh, talking about God beyond the context of Freedom was forbidden and taxable. The pornographers discussed ways to implement God into film plots, but this was done subtly, usually by symbolism, since no one understood big words anymore. For most folks, acronyms were cheaper and conveyed most thoughts.

“God microwaves our home with his love and hummin’ powers.”
“Did your momma tell you that, Joey?”
When asked a question, Joey would sometimes gaze up to the red blinking light. I had no idea he was looking up there for guidance.
“I think about hummin’ and how come other places don’t hum.”
“How do you know other places don’t hum?” I said.
“Well…look at you. I beg your pardon, but you’re dumber than a stump.”

It was true. Aside from my 30 years of life experience, I was no smarter than this child. At ten years old, he rebuilt the carburetor in my Chinese sedan. He could kill, pluck and gut a chicken in 4 minutes flat. He even knew how to brew moonshine using an old copper milk can. He’d mix in the corn and water and whatever else, pausing every so often to gaze up at the tower.

April 6, 2011

Two if by Sea

It was a late, sunny morning in October, and I was heading back into Düsseldorf from a doctor visit. On the train home, while making a list of chores, I missed my stop and ended up at the altstadt, the old quarter, where I found myself in a kiosk buying two large bottles of beer. Funny how that happens.

I wandered for a bit and wound up at this inlet canal about 100 yards from the Rhine. There were oversized stairs for sitting and watching folks pass by the boardwalk. The water wasn’t much to look at: Dark green with floating trash. Perhaps as a distraction, the city marooned an old ship right out in the middle. With bulging sides and a tall, wooden mast, it didn’t float so much as it slowly disintegrated.

Despite the nice weather, there weren’t a lot of folks out. There was a guy sitting 30 feet away from me, wearing a black jacket and sunglasses, the big kind that wrap around your eyes like a windshield. To passersby, we were just two Germans. “Slackers,” they might have whispered, “Couldn’t even wait till noon to crack a beer.” Of course, I never had that sort of problem when I lived in China. During my two years there, I didn’t need a tattoo across my forehead saying “Outsider.” What for?

Germany was different, though. I had the same pea coat and pale complexion as everyone else. “You blend in,” my wife said. And folks naturally thought I was German. That is, until I opened my mouth. How frustrating it must be to speak to someone, to reach out to a stranger, only to have them reply with “Uh…was?” The German word for what is our word for was, so basically I was asking them to repeat themselves, only louder. To save my hearing, my next bright idea was to inform people mid-sentence.

“—Let me stop you right there,” I’d say. I honestly thought they’d thank me with the breath they saved. Of course they usually just said “sorry” and walked away.

Two men appeared from behind the ship, navigating the harbor in a tiny row boat. They were wearing orange suits with electric blue strips along the shoulder. The rower sat in back as another man crouched at the bow, scouring the water with a ten-foot net. Their vessel meandered along, scooping up bottles and potato chip bags as they went, leaving a small wake in their trail. 

Like many city workers, these men were large; not fat exactly, but big boned. I suppose a lifetime of beer and bratwurst lunches will do that, but, like the great manatee, there was a grace to their glide -- something almost…romantic.

I wanted to ask them if they signed up for this duty, or if the job was assigned on a rotating basis. Did they get to choose partners, and if so, how do they determine who rows and who scoops? Basically, what I wanted to know was: How do people wind up doing what they’re doing?

At the time these questions seemed relevant, but it was only because I couldn’t actually ask them. Even if I had spoken German, I probably would have talked myself out of it. Oh, don’t bother them. It’s basic psychology: We want what we can’t have. For most people, sunning by the water with a beer isn’t a bad way to spend a weekday. And, oh, I am one of those people. I was lucky to be out there; however, I’d be lying if I said that, in the back of my mind, there wasn’t a small part of me that wanted to trade in my beer for a pair of oars.