There’s no such thing as weirding out the normals these days.
She dressed up in her wildest fuck you outfit but nobody noticed and if they did, they would not care. There’s no such thing as weirding out the normals these days, not in the digital age. Everybody’s on their own trip, gazing into private screens, searching for salvation among the chaos of zeroes and ones, scanning for signals that light up their lizard brains. The face of an old high school crush or a deeply discounted deal. Exposed flesh or an adorable kitten, perhaps affirmation of a private worldview.
She missed the years of protest and riot, the days of catching hell for not wearing a bra, of chanting in the crowd heat of a picket line and believing everybody was going to get free. The shape of resistance looks scattered and thin these days. Defanged. An obligatory plot point in the narrative. Seems like people, the real ones who struggle and count their loose change and feel bad a lot of the time— well, most of them gave up, deciding it’s better to stand on the sidelines and simply wait for the machine to die.
But she is going to go all out today. Shock make-up and freakshow clothes, singing ‘come and get me’ while carrying her outrageous sign. She might wake up somebody today.
Seeing a toddler’s shoes dangling over a bottle-strewn alley or swinging from a lonely tree bothers the soul.
Empty shoes dangle from power lines, utility cables, and trees throughout the United States. Tied together by their laces, the shoes are flung at wires or branches until they catch and hang. Very few people have seen shoes actually thrown and of the twenty-eight witnesses who have been surveyed, their reports vary as to the average number of attempts before the shoes find their mark, ranging from three to fifteen. This practice is more frequent in urban areas, although this may simply be a function of population density rather than any fundamental difference between the psyche of the city dweller and the rural resident. The style of shoes and their arrangement, however, are worth noting. Lone sneakers are common in the city but when shoes appear in rural areas, the formations are much more elaborate. In the Mojave desert, dozens of work boots are clustered in dead Joshua trees. In Oklahoma, black army boots hang from irrigation pipes over neglected crops.
Many of these shoes once belonged to children. Seeing a toddler’s shoes dangling over a bottle-strewn alley or swinging from a lonely tree bothers the soul, calling to mind Hemingway’s famous six word short story: For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.
Some say that tennis shoes draped over a telephone line indicates a place to buy drugs. Often referred to as ‘crack tennies’, they serve as a storefront shingle for the local crackhouse. Dangling shoes may also mark a shooting gallery where heroin is sold and used, a grim reminder that once you get hooked you can never walk away. These theories, however, do not explain the shoes that hang in remote deserts or beneath highway overpasses where even drug dealers won’t go.
Between twelve to sixteen percent of Americans struggle with addiction to alcohol or drugs. This includes prescription medication but does not include nicotine, sex, food, gambling, television, compulsive ceiling tile-counting, desk straightening, etc. which are also capable of leaving its sufferer guilt-ridden, unwashed, and the children unfed. Every geographical area has its controlled substance of choice. Wealthier zip codes skew towards painkillers and anti-anxiety medications while low-income neighborhoods favor high octane liquor and felony-grade stimulants. This probably does not surprise you, yet when we zoom into each respective neighborhood, we find that certain clusters of blocks are much deeper in the throes of addiction than other blocks. This clustering effect applies to apartments in housing projects as well as mansions in gated communities— and when we overlay a map of the locations with shoes flung over power lines, it correlates with these addicted clusters to a startling degree.
Some people believe these abandoned shoes memorialize a site where a child was murdered or possibly a gangland killing. More levelheaded folks chalk it to up to run-of-the-mill bullying in which a kid steals another kid’s shoes and tosses them beyond his reach.
If any of these theories are true, there are an awful lot of murder victims, gang-bangers, addicts, and bullies in the USA.
I stand on a busy corner waiting for her to arrive.
When our romance was new, we would whisper deep into the night about moving to the city. We were young and we craved the center of the universe, searching for the crowd heat and machine noise that makes the world spin. The city promised action and progress; it offered escape and acceptance. We talked big until dawn, each of us dimly sensing that our love might not be real until we brought it to the city.
I fell for the city long before I met her. Dreams of blinking neon and fire escapes filled my teenage years; I fantasized about stone lions and all-night diners. I borrowed these images from movies and song lyrics and made them my own. I believed the city would transform me into somebody more interesting. To fall in love with a city is to fall in love with a moving target. The city is always changing, which is a valuable lesson for learning to love somebody.
The city was good for love because I discovered the world through her eyes, holding hands while I watched how she reacted to the chaos, spectacle, and light, her ideas bleeding into mine until the town became something we invented together. I held imaginary conversations with her about the things I saw when she was not with me. Sometimes I scribbled them into my notebook and brought them home to her.
Tonight I stand on a busy corner waiting for her to arrive, trying not to look at my watch. I scan the faces that pass by, each person defined by the simple fact of not being her. She is late or I am early and there is time to look up, which I rarely do these days. Gargoyles and grey glass. Spectral signs from the days of machine manufacturers and fruit importers. Cornices and eaves that make the neighborhood feel like a room. I watch the never-ending stream of people carrying their hopes, ailments, and gods I will never know. I search these people for her face until at last she appears with a goofy little wave and time resumes. This is when lover, crowd, and city become one.
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During the first world war we called sauerkraut ‘liberty cabbage’ because we did not like the Germans. Ninety years later we referred to French fries as ‘freedom fries’ during a war without a number. Perhaps we stopped counting the wars because it would be too depressing otherwise.
Listen close. Beneath the floorboards of the American brainpan you can hear Robert Johnson moaning about a hellhound on his tail, grateful that we still talk about the night he sold his soul on a Mississippi highway back in 1929. Twenty years before the devil handed Johnson a guitar, a woman named Carrie Nation destroyed an Oklahoma saloon with her hatchet, determined to rid the nation of booze. They locked her up twice that day. “You have put me in jail as a cub,” she said, “but I will come out roaring like a lion and I will make all hell howl.”
While doing my laps in an empty pool, I listen to the thwack and groan of an old woman beating the devil out of a punching bag. She does not wear gloves. Anger always finds its way out. An enormous man passes me in the pool, whistling ‘que sera sera’ while doing a lazy backstroke. The TV in the locker room describes yesterday’s murders. We’re silent until somebody says “How did we get like this?”
I motor through the neon city with a busted tape deck and the heat on blast. Powerball and Jesus saves. No money down and free financing. A giant billboard with a lady grinning at a screen urges me to ‘stay entertained everywhere.’ Twist the dial and Frankie Avalon pines for a lovely girl with sunlight in her hair while voices murmur about carjackings and data-mining. Twenty-five years ago Chuck D told us about the trouble on his mind, that the government was up to no good. Not enough of us listened.