This is event number I142447.
Not that there aren’t various ways to reckon the event. And various reckonings. “There’ll come a day of reckoning,” for example, my mother used to say, and she didn’t always mean the rapture.
The same day my Friday urban psychogeography piece appears in CP (a musing on walking, biking, and disappearing bodies), the New York Times has a piece covering similar ground—city biking.
“His description of riding in Detroit is especially good,” the writer says of now-author David Byrne, and then quotes a selection of his especially good prose. “I bike from the center of town out to the suburbs. It’s an amazing ride — a time line through a city’s history, its glory and betrayal.”
I think it’s safe to say that I’ll never be able to write like that.
Everyone’s an armchair David these days. Everyone thinks they can write.
Byrnes and I both have a bit about Detroit, but it’s a different Detroit. In my piece Detroit isn’t a place for celebrity fly-ins to slum-it. It’s a distributive function. Detroit drops bodies in streets around North America, though not without a certain macabre grace. Someone’s dropped a body this week in my street by way of illustrating the principle, and done so in the future bike lane. “Bike lanes are musical notation,” I write. “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.” My leader-lovin’ friends remain silent. Like I said, I’ll never be able to write for the Times, though my theoretical belief in parallel universes suggests that there is at least a technical possibility of a cosmos in which the journal of record from the island of Manhattan neither pimps for empire nor trades in banalities.
Glory and betrayal indeed.
Now about that event. It was a good day for cars in the empire, as Fridays go, judging from my own neighborhood. Within an hour or two of the appearance of my article making fun of crosswalks, I pulled myself away from the fine sport of riding the wrong way on a Canadian bike lane—I believe Jesus had something like this in mind when he noted while hovering above the road to Damascus that Saul, not quite Paul yet, had a history of “kicking against the pricks”—and I ventured into the final frontier, crossing legally at a crosswalk. Brace yourself.
I hadn’t been this precise and legal in my movements since the time thirty years earlier, a young pro-police itinerant preacher, I’d asked some cops at the Bureau of Ordinance Enforcement in Chicago to speculate on whether putting one foot out of the crosswalk was a sin. Not quite knowing at the time that the whole fucken establishment was arranged as a breach in the order of things, a brute soteriological fuckup. A sin, in short.
At the corner of Dewson and Oz this Friday thirty years later, I push the button, gesture appropriately into the traffic under the tutelage of the icons printed above the button, step forward with my bike in one hand, pull back sharply in mock alarm when two northbound drivers add some juice to beat me to the first X, then in genuine alarm as a southbound yellow cab leadfoots it down Ossington and through the crosswalk so dramatically that I lose confidence and glance upwards to see if the yellow lights are actually flashing.
Ropewalker by Zare Radakovic.
I wouldn’t have died in any case because by dropping my left shoulder enough to see above me I had exposed the thick gunmetal-gray conch of my helmet to the grillwork of an average American van, the standard Canadian urban menace. Keeping in mind that the real news of the day, of all days, is the forty-thousand children—perhaps thirty-thousand by this point in the day—who have died of hunger and related complications, it is still possibly a matter worthy of mention that I am so close to the white Astrovan with Ontario plate 394 9ET that I have a transitory sense of being companionably seated next to the driver, a balding man my age. The fringe of my left sleeve and some piece of metal on the van occupy the same space and time for an instant too brief to comprehend, and then the van is gone.
In fact one of the witnesses who took careful note of the incident continued to marvel for some time that I was still standing, since I was so close to the van she thought I had been struck, or must have been. And this by a heavy vehicle practically careening in its eagerness to make the left into Dewson, where an hour or two earlier the sidewalks and playground at the public school would have been malthusiastically swarming with children. In the interests of full disclosure I should admit that I considered the possibility that I had actually been struck with such force that I’d been shifted slightly into an alternate universe where law enforcement personnel would be grateful for citizens who report dangerous road behaviour, and where crosswalk lights flash red to reinforce the stop message rather than yellow to make it ambiguous.
The frieze that follows the near miss: glory and betrayal. Three seconds where no one moves. Tableau of blinking drivers and pedestrians. Then the city surface closes over the dropped stone of event, and the scene changes.
Cops’ll be next. Thing about cops is they’re car cops. Judges are car judges. Justice is car justice. No one’s fooled by, say, bike cops, who are actually just car cops with carcop bodies thugged up by steroids and car trips to weight rooms. Car cops might try to understand what walkers and other non-violent humans are like, but it’s the fox’s ontological speculations about henlife. Whatever.
I think I’ve had occasion to mention Alain Badiou in these pages before. Bad i-o-u, who popularized for philosophers the word “event” (the French use the technical word “event”). When Badiou as social theorist uses the word “Police” he means society in general, not individual members of “la basse police,” the actual boys in blue. Back in 1980 in Chicago when I was chatting so amicably over by the river with the cops at the Bureau of Ordinance Enforcement, someone else was filming The Blues Brothers a few hundred yards away. I missed the filming but I knew some Jesus brothers who’d caught it on eyeball livefeed. We didn’t know anything about worldly films filled with carnal knowledge but we could understand flying cars, especially since we were experts on the rapture. Pretty much everything you need to know about how the world works is in the sequence where one blues brother collects the other from his prison stint in a police cruiser adapted to civilian life and to jazz improvisational posturing, makes the case to his skeptical friend that the car should be the new bluesmobile, then jumps the river on the ascending drawbridge to make his point. He then enumerates the qualities of the vehicle, which in my analogy is society in the larger Badiouvian sense. “Cop motor…cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks…What do you say, is it the new bluesmobile or what?”
So when I get on the horn back at the ranch, bolstered by a covenant amongst the witnesses that we should do something to protect the children of Dewson from menacing drivers, and I work my way around the police apathy roster of entities like “non-emergency number” and “Traffic Services” and “14 Division” (not 14th?) and “Traffic Enforcement,” I’m on the cop phone calling from my cop house and I’m a cop subject, the round of exhaustions is cop tires, one’s sense that one can’t believe this is happening is cop suspension of disbelief, the sense of being exploited is like they’ve copped a feel, and so on. In late capital, what wouldn’t be cop?
Can you think of words that begin with cop? It’s fun, and it gives you something to do while P.C. Lim down at the 150 Harrison Street station intones three times, “I can’t do anything,” and refuses to put you on with someone who can. P.C. Lim, who couldn’t give a flying fuck that our neighborhood has a nearly blind high-speed van driver who drives near the elementary school, and thinks there’s something wrong with you, with me, that we do.
My favorite is actually officer Mackay, badge number 87978, who shares P.C. Lim’s general valuation of children and tells me to “change my attitude.” Yet Mackay and I end up practically buds by the end of our chat because she asks me at one point if P.C. Lim is “retarded.” Hey, you said it lady. My straight-A-student American nephew, crowned in the head by a Crown Victoria and suffering from the consequent mental retardation, has died now so use the damn word for all I care. Though I know that might seem like a cop-out.
“Tell him to use the jet form for a number 326 traffic violation,” Mackay says, invoking once again the r-word about P.C. Lim.
“You’ll have trouble parking down at 150,” Mackay offers, now kindly. “Not much room down there.” My neighborhood.
“Yeah,” I tell her, “that’s where the police park their cruisers in front of the fire hydrant.” I laugh a cop laugh. We hang up coplaughing, wheezy and smoky and tough. My nephew’s ashes shift slightly in their grave.
Sample conversation with P.C. Lim:
Me: “So you’re telling me that even though I’ve got a vehicle description, driver description, and multiple witnesses, including their contact information, there’s nothing you can do?”
P.C. Lim: “Can’t do anything without the plate number.”
Me: “I just gave it to you. And it’s in the event number, which is filled out and is on your computer. Event number I142447. Letter ‘I’ followed by the number ‘1’. Jenny at the main switchboard tells me I got the plate right, that it’s a white Astrovan, just like we said.”
P.C. Lim: “What we’re going to do is make a note and have officers keep an eye on that intersection.”
I hate it when people write “etc., etc.,” but I’m tempted to put it in here.
When P.C. Lim isn’t saying “I can’t do anything” (is he reading that from a manual or is he smart enough to make the sentence up fresh each time?) his theme seems to be that I didn’t actually get hit. He stresses this lack more insistently as our conversation progresses, like maybe it’s a grave fault that he wouldn’t mind ameliorating himself. P.C. Lim’s lament, in other words, is that there’s no body, that my complaint function is not as persuasive as my meat function.
The lament works wonderfully as an ironic diptych with my article earlier in the day, where the problem I was having was that I did have a body lying in the street. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” as my mother used to say, breaching the etiquette she’d established herself.
So I’m lying low for a while. Going to stay out of those crosswalks. Try not to do anything too legal.
“Are you the new bluesmobile or what?” I ask my bike-and-Bob-trailer combo rig. Sulky silence.
I leave it tethered to itself and I slink off into an alley. Avoid the main drags, snoop around for some lateral rapture. I can’t help roaming the city even though I know that all roams lead to road.
DAVID Ker THOMSON lives in the Great Lakes watershed. Painting by Zare Radakovic, used with kind permission. email@example.com