Train stations are a great place from which to survey the world of this wintry economic landscape. Ever-increasing numbers of Americans gather in their shelter, the well-heeled to avoid airline delays, the homeless for their warmth. Train stations are some of the few places left in America where a full spectrum of citizens–rich, poor, high, low–sit side by side, cheek by jowl.
Last week I had to go from Washington to Boston. I settled in to wait at Gate J of Union Station with my knitting and a book of crossword puzzles. A woman who had seemingly donned everything she owns sat down two seats away from me. She was wearing a linty black knit cap drawn over short dreadlocks, an oversize stained sweatshirt and baggy maroon trousers. She carried several smudged and well-worn shopping bags, which she arranged in a semicircle at her feet, and she began talking to them, commiserating about the terrible state of the world. Her tone was gentle, conversational, light. At first I thought she was speaking on a cellphone–there were polite pauses in what she said, moments of agreement and playfulness–but in fact she was not.
She mourned the loss of democratic process in the Senate, the rise of mercenary armies and agribusiness as well as the concentration of corporate power in the manufacture of butter and detergents. ("It looks like there are a thousand brands on the shelves, but in fact they’re all owned by one or two multinationals.") She feared the social consequences of the financial crisis: "Things that should protect our economy… the Robinson-Patman Act… They’re so busy undoing that–that undoing will be our undoing…"
Genius? Insanity? Either way, her observations threw me for a loop–they were illuminating, mesmerizing, shocking, dislocating. I dug my iPhone from my bag and Googled the Robinson-Patman Act. In some other universe, I used to know what it said.
As the tiny blue screen fluttered and winked to life in its search for meaning, I gazed about the waiting area of Gate J. Nearly everyone was similarly engaged with their cyberspacial phylacteries, davening into thin air, entranced, uttering streams of words that echoed in the high-domed space like a turbulent waterfall. Unlike the woman next to me, however, they all seemed to be deploying visible Bluetooth devices or earplugs affixed to their heads, their eyes flat, inwardly transfixed.
Fifteen years ago, I suppose, the place would have seemed like a ward at Bellevue. A well-dressed man across from me was enunciating loudly about having to reschedule a game of handball. A woman with a messily overstuffed briefcase had her head cocked like an eager spaniel’s in order to keep her phone tucked in the hollow between shoulder and neck; she murmured over and over, "Uh-huh… uh-huh… uh-huh… uh-huh," like a series of involuntary spasms. A college student in a porkpie hat congratulated a friend on his recent engagement and promised to throw him a bachelor party with lots of "juicy, big-lipped prostitutes, dude." A guy in a hoodie and mud-spattered Timberland boots was waxing lively about "some people" who don’t want to "move their fat butts and work." Not on a cellphone was the exception–a wiry child of about 10 with alarming, much too bright eyes, darting up and down the aisles seeking "a dollar for food."
Fifteen years ago, it was still springtime in America. The thought of a recession as deep as ours crossed few minds outside the more perspicacious–some said paranoid–quadrants of academia and, of course, the perpetually redlined limits of inner cities. In contrast, the present-day waiting room at Union Station was ablaze with the semaphores of legitimacy, exhaustion, the absurd. My head spun with fatigue and the roaring heteroglossia. Next to me, the woman in the linty hat was telling the same story over and over: she moved so fluently among the disappointments of commerce, politics, law enforcement and grammatical apocalypse ("You need to end that sentence with a question mark, young lady!"). I struggled to track the coherence in her constantly disrupted narrative.
An amiable security guard strolled by. He nudged at the woman’s circle of bags with his shoe and told her to move along. She gathered her belongings, the flow of her words never ceasing. There was a particularly intriguing riff about the police having killed her, followed by a soft, wise little laugh: "But you can’t let your kin kill you either." Then, still addressing the epistemic gatekeeper within, she offered shyly, "You are very well liked." "Thanks," she responded brightly and shuffled off.
The District of Columbia suffers the highest percentage of homelessness in the nation. African-Americans, veterans and the mentally ill are disproportionately represented among their ranks. As the foreclosure crisis spreads, incrementally leveling this unfortunate playing field, non-African-Americans, nonveterans and the certifiably sane struggle madly to distinguish themselves from the usual narratives of poverty: laziness, lack of qualifications, bad choices. A determined dis-identification with the already internally displaced has edged into our national parlance, with a host of predictable resentments. The possibility that we, the broad collective of people, are sinking into a communal financial ooze is underestimated, rationalized as the fault of the ones who sank first. From Fox News to the blogosphere, such analysis focuses on blaming those on the bottom for being too heavy, weighing too much and generally dragging the rest down.
In Madness and Civilization, Foucault wrote, "If, now, we try to assign a value, in and of itself, outside its relations with the dream and with error, to classical unreason, we must understand it not as reason diseased, or as reason lost or alienated, but quite simply as reason dazzled." By the same token, the failure to see our common fate defines a dangerously bedazzling split between spirit and logic; between poetry and engineering; between the messiness of mercy and, ultimately, the orderliness of law.