The Mind of Winter and the Ground of Being
by DAVID Ker THOMSON
A land already possessed.
I’m on my gondola doing loops around two cars and a fallen bumper positioned with the litigious freeze-frame melodrama of après-accident. Ooh, don’t move the cars, someone might lose brownie points in court.
Long faces, tow trucks, a renewed license to occupy the street as if the petty problems of the principals in the drama were everyone’s problem. “Ha-ha!” I call out like Nelson the Simpsons bully as I swing the gondola through. “City Without Cars thanks you all for coming. We’ve arranged a demonstration,” I say in my barker’s voice. “City Without Cars, Exhibit A.” I consider stealing the bumper, but the Saturn bumper I already have in the basement hasn’t exactly assuaged my wife’s desire to end our relationship. I think strategically and leave the bumper in the street.
The cars are only about twenty feet from the subway as the train beneath them isn’t buried very deeply here at the corner of Delaware between Oz and Dovercourt along Bloor. If you step off the gondola you can feel it rumbling.
The sense of entitlement it takes to think you have the right to crash your passenger car twenty feet above a passenger train strikes me as stratospheric, up there with bombing a nation whose language you don’t speak, bailing out bankers whose morality you do not share, and not moving out of the way on escalators.
If we can sum up the situation briefly here, we might say of these drivers that they are two people who think that those who ride public transportation are little people. Little people are quite literally beneath their notice and contempt. So here we have two lazy people—just two!—who are happy to spew poisons into the air of the children of the neighborhood, two people who can ignore the train beneath their feet, two people who understand the risks posed to children by running over them with cars but are happy to assume that risk. Two people, just two people, now arrogate to themselves the right to occupy the whole of the street for a half an hour based upon their demonstrable incompetence. The free pass you get to occupy the main east-west street of Toronto twenty feet above a passenger train is this: demonstrate that you cannot drive but that you’ve decided to do it anyway. Find a similarly incompetent person and smash into them. Pass go, collect the free half hour.
Where I Live and What I Live For
Now imagine two people without cars occupying Bloor Street for a half hour. My thought experiment isn’t anything so complex as getting you to imagine the heroes of Austin or Oakland or Zuccotti Park or Gaza. Just imagine two occupiers. Imagine that the basis of their occupation is not willingness to maim their fellows, not willingness to risk the lives of children or show contempt for subway train passengers. Imagine, if you will, two people who wish to occupy Bloor on the basis of joy. This part of Bloor is right next to the swill trough for the police, who like getting battery-raised bantams at the corner of Delaware and sticking their oinky suburban snouts into it while ricocheting farts off the naugahyde up into their flack jackets. Imagine two people occupying this part of Bloor with no maiming qualifications—in fact, with no car at all! It’s okay officers, keep gumming your breasts, we’ve got the situation under control. Everyone’s stopping for joy. I can assure you that the joy perps’d be tied up in the back of a squad car in five minutes, their wrists bound in metal and slathered with the grease of dead hens.
That’s why we occupy the streets, you suburban dumbfux. Get it? It’s because we feel like it. Those of you who honk at my gondola because I move slowly out of the intersection dragging my eight-foot push stick fashioned from a cedar harvested in my back yard, you think history is going to be kind to you? I’m having a good time and I’m not hurting anyone, and the only reason I get out of your way at all you suburban dumbfux who are too lazy to take the train is because you’ve got a paid trigger with chicken grease on it backing you up. A thousand paid triggers. People like me get killed all the time, but we’re not backing down. My friend Katrina was just telling me about her friend, waiting on his bike at a light while she’s with the friend’s kids, and a truck drags him off and squishes him—on Halloween! You think it was fun telling the kids? People like us are killed all the time, but we’re not backing down. Well, okay, you’ve got us outnumbered, and we back down a little, but our retreat is organized and above all truculent, and we make farting noises in your general direction, as would any honorable warrior.
Every year you kill some of us, and every year we don’t kill some of you. Does that seem fair? Remind me again—why aren’t we killing a few of you every year? I can never understand this sort of thing. It’s like higher math or something. If you cull folks, folks should be allowed to cull you back. Am I missing something? Heed the cull. My poet says, I have to say (he says) that nonviolence stuff seems like a cop out and about, a cop with his stick up your anus, a cop and you in room with a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. Nonviolence is a copout. If our forbears had heeded the cull instead of indulging in all that nonviolence stuff, we wouldn’t be looking down the barrel of a thousand thousand cars and guns. Nonviolence is the most violent act of all; it breeds nothing but violence. Just because it’s systemic, my poet says, doesn’t mean it’s not violence of the most brutal and wide-ranging sort. Well, don’t listen to him. He’s not a potentate or anything, just a poet. As for me, waddoo I know, eh? If I spoke the truth as our people have spoken it in these parts for ten thousand years, do you think it would be legal to print it here? What dull things you people write about, if it’s legal to write it. You’re mollycoddled, you nonviolence types, and you pretend not to notice.
That poet, eh?
At the least we should have Bicyclists in Cars Day once a year, where people who don’t routinely drive on Bloor get to borrow the cars of people who do and just kind of ram them into each other. Such behavior isn’t really fair, as it’s only once a year and wouldn’t really even things up, but it would be clearly marked by joy.
Well, such were my thoughts as I poled home from St. James Park on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Wait, says my poet, stick this line into that crap you write: Temperament of Americana Chickens These birds are usually quiet and adapt well to confinement.
The Pond in Winter
Anyway, such were my thoughts, I was saying, as I poled home from St. James Park on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. For now, there’s still a home to pole back to, but storm clouds mass. I like to check in with the occupationists a few times a week. Today a guitarist named Doug (camp moniker “Patches” after two tiny bits of gray in the beard of a young man) comes down from the gazebo between songs and offers me the straight dope on things, including plans to survive an urban winter along the 45th parallel. Unlike me, Patches has been here continuously from day one. He’s slept in the nearby parking garage, but has now secured a tent, and the plan for overwintering is to slip a small tent inside a big one and stuff the intervening space with insulating newspapers. I’m reminded of what Wallace Stevens called “the mind of winter.” My advice about the mind of winter: best not to smoke in there. Patches directs me to another part of camp, where two men are building a yurt. The acoustical magic of moving through a compressed utopian space is compelling: ten paces brings a scene change, a new register of speech. The variously prosaic or world-historical dioramas of camp life. Seens from a newseum.
It’s getting cold. I was up moving in the middle of the night along the barrier reefs a few miles out from the mainland far to the north of here the other night, the canoe invisible beneath me in the darkness. My people have been doing this for ten thousand years, says my poet, and when people wanted to fuck up the water everyone needed to live, they didn’t practice nonviolence or tender a plea to their congressperson. They killed them. Wasn’t rocket science, my poet says. Protecting the water is the least violent thing in the long run. I was sprinting between sightings of a North Star only occasionally visible, when it occurred to me that people don’t do this much anymore. Is that the “anymore” of late October or late capital? So late in October and capital, still later, I pulled the canoe out on shore, and it was the color and slipperiness of a greased watermelon, lightly basted in a rime of ice. Last pull-out of the season: end rime.
At the northwest corner of the park in Toronto, some wit has accurately captioned the scene by emphasizing the slogan of the parks in the city: A City Within A Park. On Friday local writer Jeff and I occupied the Occupation, a mickey’s worth of St. Remy’s in hand. There was a space under a tarp with a nice nest of straw and an official designation as a worker’s retreat. Well, “worker” is an ill-fitting name for Jeff and me, but it’ll do under certain circumstances. We parked our sleeping bags and snuggled in. The general assembly was in full swing but we convened a specific assembly around our brandy from “a revolution long since passed,” as Jeff characterized the spirits. “Try the spirits,” my mother used to say, quoting the Bible, and if I pass the phrase along here it is less out of context than first glance would suggest. Jeff tells me he has a “wild, unkempt mind,” and my wife—if she ever was my wife—says I’m estrambótico (outlandish?), but between Jeff and me we solved the problem of co-optation, the next challenge of the Occupation, in about fifteen tugs on the bottle. We’ll let you know.
My poet says next time we’re out on the water we should play around with that word ‘outlandish’.
I suspect Jeff of suspecting that I should be gentler on my readers, making the writing more accessible. But once “gondola,” say, is found to be “just” a pole and a longboard, all the other possibilities close down. One’s best readers are defrauded by explanation. Far from explaining things in terms everyone can understand, a good writer should be antagonizing his readers, dragging them through unfamiliar terrain, insulting them. Let a reader sit with “the litigious freeze-frame melodrama of après-accident” for a bit, or let them shove off back to their familiar whining about being disappointed with Obama. The devotees of leaderville aren’t going to get as far as eighteen hundred words into one of my articles in any case. I follow Jesus on this one. It was said of him and the people that “without a riddle spake he not unto them.” Riddles have a way of separating out fair-weather friends. Winter’s coming.
Plus I’m channeling twenty years of French political theory, muthafucka. You want to spend twenty years reading Foucault, Derrida, Bataille, and the surrealists, only some of whom could handle their end of a streetfight? Sacre bleu, don’t touch that dial. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” as Alligator Dundee almost said in a streetfight, “that’s a pipe.” Got in a standoff yesterday with the fine young man in his twenties with the large pectoral muscles at the house on Delaware that has the Support Our Troops sign on it. He called me a faggot, which was intuitive in a partial sort of way. He yelled into the house to get his mom to phone the police, which tipped the balance on the standoff but tells us everything we need to know about the oedipal drama called democracy, about how wars of democracy are constitutive rather than contingent, and tells us everything we need to know about the task of the writer in uncovering these oedipal configurations.
The point is to change the world, not ratify it. Thoreau didn’t sell out or sell at all, but his life as word trove went into the collective unconscious archive as a sleeper of immense power. Well, after a role in the hay on the ground of occupied being, Jeff and I come into alignment on even this topic. Whatever else the ground of being is, it’s the palimpsest of contested meaning on the planar field of script. Like, writing and such. The dingbats have been pretending to be in charge for a long time, but not everyone everywhere is always a retard. I’ll save writing like a Star or Economist reporter for when I’m doing my fifteen-year-old’s civics homework, thank-you very much (and with what spirit of glee you can imagine!).
St. James Park isn’t just a city within a park, it’s a city within a person. The City of God has been ascendant in the West for a millennium or two, but the idea that some higher power is going to save us, that some daddy politician needs to be presented with demands, is so naked you can see its Augustinian testicles hanging from behind through the spread of its Mrs. Clinton-style legs.
Food, shelter, curiosity—there isn’t much an authentic human needs, except for maybe a good gondola of some sort or other. In the city within a park, as within the mind of a man not so preoccupied that he cannot occupy the world fully, some folks are just getting on with it.
* * *
Well, my poet and I aren’t getting paid enough here at the homesite, lovely as it might be as a wall to mene mene tekel upon, so send cash. Otherwise, prepare to feel the wrath of my poet. On the same note, I’m off for a few weeks to put some of that research stuff into an important article on the unimportance of overpopulation (“The Rhetoric of the New Manifest Destiny” or some such) and try to sell it in a publishing world that loves blaming people for their births rather than for their destructive environmental habits. Wish me well. I’ll try not to show up here unless the cops actually attempt to clear out St. James Park. But you know I’m always out on the street every day messing with people’s minds. For now, I’ll pull out with a rhyming couplet.
Out of time.
Section headings from Walden.
David Ker Thomson is a fitfully enthusiastic correspondent, and is working through May’s emails. Full disclosure: Mr. Thomson does not hold stocks in any of the companies implicitly criticized here. In fact he has no stocks at all. dave dot thomson at utoronto dot ca