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The Lady Vanishes
We seldom surface long enough to be registered as anything substantial upon the consciousness of your cities, but we are everywhere in your midst. Our ubiquity is akin to that of dog scat—unremarked till you step in it.
We seldom write, or if we do, we are seldom embraced by editors. Ours is the glossolalia of street level, gutturals of gutter and ground, the shouts of broken reveries, the harsh brief clamour of intersections.
We neither vote nor pay attention to governments nor leaders—what have they to do with us? In the forests we might be monkeywrenchers, ‘radical’ environmentalists, or nobody. Our only real skill is lurking, seeing things.
In the city we might be anyone.
One day in the city of men I stepped forth and, suppressing the first and second things that came to mind as I strode towards four officers of the law (notions one and two having something to do with the mention of donuts), I selected the third thing that came to mind and said, “Oh officers, kind sirs, that is a friend of mine whom you so roughly hold in your hands. Release him, I pray you, he is a friend of mine, and a good man.” Or, if not that, a cyclist at least, and neither carmonger nor careerist. For who in these times would dare to call another man good?
Dear reader, you may judge for yourself the value of a word in season from me by how quickly these Kevlar-carapace’d officers bristled with guns and threats in my unarmed and peacable direction. Judge, also, from the alacrity with which I stepped back the fifty paces they advised.
My Hungarian friend is hoary-headed, but his speech in English is as the babble of a child. He had been moving in a stately fashion down our street, his trailer adorned with teddy bears and the detritus of the gleaner’s trade, and he’d been slowing traffic, which is something democracy cannot abide. I leave him now to take his chances with these officers—this in a country where lawmongers kill with electric sticks for offenses more minor than an alleged friendship with such a wild-haired fellow as myself—and I return in spirit and body to the same intersection a few months later.
Am I not, even now, replacing the cable housing on my front brake, and is this not the very same intersection?
I am, and this is. And is this sedan here not slowing to a certain forty miles an hour I judge insufficient to count as even an obeisance to this stop sign here—and more importantly, to this squirrel, this cat, this neighborhood of children? Have the words “slow down you fucken punks” not slipped unbidden from my mouth?
They have, dear reader, indeed they have, as surely as that word “driving” is scrawled over here, by a strange coincidence, beneath the word “Stop” on this very sign. And have I not leaped into the intersection, at fifty-one in years (not kilometers—I’m not that Canadian) no longer young but ready for the fray nevertheless? No time to answer, because a light-coloured van is upon me and I have to spring into the gutter, from which vantage I renew my challenges in language so unseemly only my nine-year-old could approve. Two vehicles, in short, racing through my intersection, with me in hot-footed pursuit, my fingers hellenkeller’d in a tumult of angry gestures.
A sign from heaven!
And of course five minutes later in this same street, my street, our street, farther up, I see the people crowded around the body I had predicted a thousand times. I’m expecting my thirteen-year-old to be crossing there now, at the church, right there where he likes to cross the road to get to the chicken on the other side, at Empire falafel.
“There’ll be a body here under this sign one day,” I’d told him often enough to irritate him, “don’t let it be yours.”
It isn’t. It’s a woman in a coat, though it’s still summer for another day or two. She’s not moving. By the time I get to this other end of the block, no one’s paying the woman anything but oblique attention, though there’s a cop standing to one side, and knots of cops milling about, carmen come to see what one of their own has done to a body. Ambulances in the distance.
The woman is not a cyclist but she is lying, by a quirk of fate, in the highly contested future bike lane on Bloor, which the city has not granted to cyclists (the kind who believe in such fictions of sanctuary) despite all their wheedling and genuflecting and soul-selling down at city hall. The faux chalk lines outlining the faux bike lane cross her body like the record of a true crime.
“I called 911,” says a guy I know as Ryan, “dispatcher tells me it’s not an Ontario plate. Like I can’t tell an Ontario plate.” A few of us who’ve seen things, who’ve been out in the world and had a look around, we glance at each other now, think thoughts so illegal the laws against them have yet to be invented, mutter injudiciously about the meaning of 911, subside. For now, we will drift back down into the cracks.
The body lies here beneath the apartheid sign telling pedestrians they have no right to this intersection. This intersection is for cars, not people. The little old Italian and Portuguese ladies can hobble down to Havelock in the distance and occupy themselves pressing the placebo light-change button there.
The sign is expensive. The city fathers have gone to a lot of trouble to put it here under the shadow of the Catholic church. An altar right here at Bloor and Rusholme.
And by precisely the kind of fortune the altar makers invoked when first they raised the sign of malediction against pedestrians, there is now a body on the altar, legs slightly askew.
If you were to lie on the street and look up, you’d see the sign next to the church tower against the sky. A sign from heaven.
Resurrection on Bloor!
Tomorrow I’ll come to this altar and cast down my guilt for not stopping the hit-and-run driver, despite my bravado in the street. Tonight is tonight. Saturday night on Bloor—I mean right on Bloor, the near-equinox sun on this the nineteenth of September coming down the street notch from the west and illuminating ineffectual icons on the façade of the church. Faux sanctuary. From the back of my head I desire—I will—a resurrection, turning and walking away for fear of failure. I put everything I have into this resurrection, into the back story that the woman is just resting, that we’re all just waiting for the ambulances, and then she’ll get up and be taken in, for observation merely. If I do this right, even if she’s unconscious, she’ll awaken in the morning newspapers with minor injuries and a tale.
Tomorrow we will come to the altar and renew our vows—is that the word?—to smash, stone by stone, this empire of cars and its love of leaders. But tonight is for resurrection, for the strange subtleties of the church-side paradox that if there is a resurrection, it will be by definition trivial. Of no more consequence than a skinned shin or a broken leg. I’ll settle for that.
Shop Till You Drop!
So I write it up and send it over to the news editor at NOW, the local independent. Well, okay, you know what I mean by independent. They’ve got these papers everywhere, right? Half an inch of naked ladies for sale in back, supports the front end. Front end singing the glories of electric cars for people who’d rather not walk. Back end is, well, the back end, if you know what I mean. The paper’s green in front, beige behind brindling with a few other colors in the coffee-and-cream end of the spectrum.
Not complaining about the view here, of course, just taking note of it. Not saying I didn’t take my $175 bucks for filing our caper last year when the family and a few hundred friends on bikes took over the local expressway. It’s Canadian money in pastel colours—it’s not real, is it? Not saying, on the other hand, that I’d take another $175. Just not saying, is all. Still thinking about it. Journalism’s sex for money if it isn’t downright necrophilia. The errant erotics of streets and bodies.
“what happened…?” Enzo the subeditor teletexts me, “cuz the cops have no release on this…and bike folks i’ve spoken to have heard nothing of it…” I like the intimacy of Enzo without caps. Enzo capless. The newsroom is hip neo-noir, the sound is the bustle and the clickety-clack of Things Happening. I feel sure of this. Enzo liked my bit on love last week, but his senior editor apparently canned it at the last minute. If CounterPunch was wary of it, they didn’t say. It was on love, so it was short.
“We should probably just skip reporting on news and go straight to the source: get police accident reports,” I write back to Enzo with the stiffness of appropriate capitalization. “What the police say is such a…release. I guess there weren’t half a dozen cruisers and a knot of fifty people at the end of my street for an hour. And the lady wasn’t lying there not moving because it’s like I told you: I resurrected her! It was all just a dream. Shop till you drop, as the cover of the latest NOW advises.” Heh heh, I think in that little head of mine. It’s okay to make jokes because the woman lives. Shop till you drop! Good dig, that one. I conclude my note to Enzo about the body in the road, “I guess that lady was just taking a breather!”
At the bike pirates’ cave I see the Ukranian woman whose boyfriend always rides his bike without hands, his fingers twitching at his sides like a gunslinger’s. “That a body there on our street the other night?” I say to her. To the roster of quasi-invisible bodies around the incident I add mine. The woman squints in my general direction like she’s detected a disembodied voice. I move a little, like maybe she’s a T-rex who can’t see you without that. She doesn’t recognize me. “I live, like, next door to you,” I say, with mild exaggeration. “I gave that speech about what police are good for. Two cars nearly ran me down in front of my house.” Nothing. “Forget it,” I say.
But then she says, “that woman was pushed from the car. The van behind chased the car that dropped the woman. There were a lot of police.”
And so the woman has said it’s true: the lady lies. Has lain in the lane.
Postscript in Chalk
Bike lanes are ghettos. They are bar graphs of political commitment printed on the city. They appear as a series of hyphens and dashes with breaks to reinforce the supremacy of cars. Long and short, like a distress code. Car doors swing into them for the purpose of killing people. No wait, amend that last one. For no purpose at all. The mother of my friend Ned was splattered dead into her car door by a car—two cars acting in concert. What a concert. Bike lanes are musical notation. Read them sideways with bodies in bloody bold as the dramatic notes. Let the witless complicity of do-gooder cyclists leaning into their drop handlebars serve as the connecting notes in italics.
Bike lanes exist. Bike lanes don’t exist. Bike lanes are chalk lines of bodies at a crime scene called democracy. Bike lanes are a freedom pen. They’re a reservation for the good, submissive people. For Canadians. Bike lanes are for tossing the extra bodies from cars. Detroit’s veto to the notion of more passengers in cars. Bike lanes are for chasing cars that toss bodies. We want bike lanes on Bloor, the cyclists chant. We want a box. Can we have one shaped like democracy? We want to sign onto a contract leaving the city in control of the cars and the politicians and the newsrooms. We want apartheid. The little old men and the little old ladies can walk to the X signs far away. That’s not our concern. Maybe that’s where they belong—in the triple’d X’s of the yellow crosswalks, nothings and hags insufficiently erotic in their errancy.
In the police-controlled lines of the yellow journals, the police-controlled releases of the independents, the nothingness of the old is recorded as the blank spaces between the lines. Read between the lines.
Which we are we? Do we exist? There is a picture of us chalked onto the sidewalk in the moment just before the stencil breaks.
DAVID Ker THOMSON lives in the Dufferin Grove watershed of Toronto. email@example.com