Sects and the City

Absorbed into the belly of the beast

—Jacques Rancière

I try to keep up.

“The media’s graphic coverage of the earthquake’s aftermath in Haiti is designed to titillate,” complains the British newspaper The First Post, providing links to detailed pictorial coverage in case you missed the titillation first time around.

So that’s what titillation is.  In our part of the empire, on the subway to yoga, for example, a girl—and I use the word advisedly—comes over to my side of the car, looks me in the eye, and adjusts the rise on the bottom part of her shirt.  A twinkly cross on a chain comes briefly into view against a sky of flesh.

At City without Cars, the nearly ungoogleable environmental disorganization, we have fewer female members than male unless you count sister nowtopian groups or nodes in the sphere.  And in my neighborhood, there are more men on the streets than women, so I suppose that as pedestrians we have more to lose from cars.  In any case the male/female ratio is likely to persist.

Without taking her eyes off my face, the girl—she isn’t finished with us yet—does something technical to her i-thing.  Then she arches her back a little and the block type on her undergaps looms up from the nether with bold assertions of brand.  The brand band on her ’gaps is like police tape at a crime site.  It’s as if the subliminal message maybe isn’t sex but that kinkier thing, money.  Her face is so thoroughly without affect it’s as if expression has been wrung from it like a sponge, but her eyebrow hints a trace of movement that keeps every option on the table.  Not that there are any on the subway.  Tables, or options.

She gets out at Yonge, and I’ve made it all up, but at the escalator she looks back, and I haven’t.

My wife Eva-Lynn reads some of her Proust to me later in the day from across the room, and it sounds something like, “there is not a single torso, disfigured like an antique marble that tears us away” something something…dusk [dust?] “that blurs it, that does not aim at our heart.”  Well, it’s not Shakespeare, but you get the idea.  Perhaps any writer of urban landscapes and women—are they the same thing?—has to disfigure the torso of Proust in order to move ahead.

Here in Toronto, sweet kids are out with buckets for the Red Cross.  I only donate if it looks like a real swindler holding the bucket.  Then again, I’m not sure how you’d know what’s real if the Canadian Red Cross is pretending not to be the American Red Cross, which is an American government agency pretending not to be governmental, and like any government is pretending to be a force for good rather than unremitting evil, and in this case I suppose pretending never to have segregated the blood of black and white people, say, or that their logo doesn’t look like the device of a medieval Crusader, which I guess must be pleasantly nostalgic for Islamic peoples.

Even the tough guy who generally owns donations along the whole west side of Yonge up the hill above Eglinton has had his turf overrun by Red Cross bucketeers of various levels of pluck and true grit.  He seems a bit pissed, frankly, or pissed off, as we used to say.  I look too much like him for him to have ever bothered asking me for money.  He hardly even has time to nod to me these days, what with the bucketeer swarm.

In advanced yoga it’s bandha and mudras up the wazoo, sort of like the kegels us fathers used to do in childbirth classes.  When we get our torsos sorted, we learn to see from the back of our heads, which takes some getting used to.  I gather that if we do this right we can enter siddhi, which is more or less perfection.  ‘It’s a thing that I do from the back of my head’, as Paul Simon might have said.  Siddhi is pronounced ‘city’.

After two hours I’m out in the city again.  The real McCoy.  The first thing I see from the back of my head tooling down Yonge is a car with two cameramen in it and a “Young Drivers” logo on it.  Suddenly I revert from yoga IFR to visual flight rules, and I see that logo up close.  Putting a logo like that in front of a City without Cars (seewalk) guy is like waving a red cape at a bull or a red cross at a homeland defender.  Unless you do a lot of semi-inversions and cap things off with a salamba sarvangasana or two, my kind of yoga’s not necessarily going to make you more peaceful.  It can fire you up to justice, which is generally a bad thing.  Maybe the mudras messed with my octane levels or something, because I ran on down past all the bucketeers and caught up with that car at the Eglinton light.

I meant to say “fuck you” to the Young Drivers brigade—why can I never think of the great lines until later?—but what I said instead was, “Young Drivers?  Young Drivers?  You think that’s what we need in the city?  If it’s notions of youthfulness and personal freedom you want to link together with combustion, obesity, laziness, lung cancer, maiming, crippling, violent and/or lingering death, unpredictable consequences, and billions of dollars in property damage, why not Young Arsonists?  Wouldn’t that be cheaper and simpler?”  I get a little professorial and shit when there are two cameras on me.  Also, I sometimes forget if ‘billions of dollars of property damage’ is supposed to be in the plus or minus column.

Well, after a few blocks of this sort of thing, with me hunting down in heavy traffic the not-so-young Young Drivers cameramen on Yonge at each red light, wondering if the terms of my particular parole would allow me to stand on the roof of their car, I left them with their cylinders burning 451 degrees Fahrenheit, and I dropped down into the rabbit hole at the sign of the TTC, not necessarily keeping an eye out for Alice or anything.

Later, back at the ranch, a handsome young man in a spiffy black suit keeps trying to interrupt me while I’m talking to a friend near our front porch.  My friend is Canadian and in Canada the primary virtue is not being pottymouth’d, so I have certain constraints.

“I gotta tell you, man,” I say to him, “you look kind of like a Mormon.”

“We are Mormons.” He gestures toward his partner in a big American van so shiny and new it’s effulgent.  If they had chrome diaries, that’d be it.  The thing’s fresh from the carwash and glistening on the brilliant saltflat of the January street like a giant wet stone tablet handed down from God himself to some guy, let’s call him Smith.

“Listen, kid,” I say, looking as wrathful as a semitic storm god. “You can’t be real Mormons.”

For form’s sake, and to give the guy persecution bonus points, I chase him off the property, into his getaway vehicle, and down the street.  “Real Mormons walk,” I yell after them.  “Or ride bikes.”

Am I right here, or am I right?  What’s the world coming to?  These kids have the whole rest of their lives to work for the FBI and drive boxy mid-size sedans around, assemble dossiers on environmentalists and their ilk, and consume caffeine-free beverages.  But the missionary kids are supposed to walk.  There’s an order to these things.

It’s been said that Mormonism is the greatest of the white-invented American religions, but of course pride of place for American home-grown religion ought to go to automobile worship, where every devotee has the under-the-dash bent knee of true submission, hands in prayer position at ten and two o’clock on the wheel.  Those supplicatory hands make it seem like we’re a Canamerican nation of fat zombie squirrels rolling around in big plastic nuts.

You think the one-handed toughguy pickup-truck drivers are going to get away from my mixed metaphors?  Here goes: They’re charismatic holy rollers, one sacramental hand aloft, and they’re awash in the glossolalia of talk radio babble.  If I’m preachin’ this right, let me hear you.  Amen or amen?  If you’ve ever been to a place called America, you know I’m speakin’ the truth.

It’s a scary moment to see Detroit missionaries pretending to be Salt Lake missionaries.  It’s like the empire’s in decline and everyone’s making one last grab at the cash register, the rats are on the move, snake oil’s got a big discount.  Five years from now, the close cousins of these kids, if not these kids themselves, will be watching me or someone like me through that little camera hole we’ve got in our macbooks.

Hey, I’m not paranoid.  I just keep a band-aid over that camera eye because I like the color of the band-aid.

Well, the sun is setting off there to the south, as it does in winter in these parts, whatever they told you otherwise.

“To be alive is to be misunderstood,” I say to Eva-Lynn with grim satisfaction at the close of day.

“No it isn’t,” she says agreeably.

Is she fantasizing, like me, about doing couples yoga, a torrid torso tangle of asanas?  We hold hands and watch the city pass by.  Moonrise is upon us.

DAVID Ker THOMSON was a gravedigger in Bedford, Massachusetts and wrote a doctoral dissertation on charity and the gift in Princeton, New Jersey.  The Rancière quote is from The Emancipated Spectator.