The Overpass

It is a gray river in the dusk. It rumbles and roars and whines, wave after wave of obnoxious sound pounds the ear. The smell and noise and turbulence in the air batter you. You grasp the big metal tube of a handrail to keep from being sucked off your feet and thrown into the current below. The handrail is too big to get a firm grip on. It isn’t really a handrail — it’s a guardrail meant to stop a vehicle from plunging over the edge into the relentless traffic, after it has somehow managed to leap over the curb which is itself a foot high barrier of unforgiving concrete. This overpass is not meant for human beings on foot

Dusk is the best time to be here. When sodium lights cast their sickly yellow glow. When it is overcast or there is a little fog. When you can see the back of a mall on one side and banks, insurance companies and motels on the other, and the buildings are all up on the flood plain of this gray river and colorful neon lights announce them. When there are swirls of dust and a few pieces of trash strewn across the bridge — a greasy food wrapper, a sugar and caffeine drink container, a disposable diaper.

In a war zone there is a similar sense of chaos and collective abandonment of all reason. But there, along with cruelty and destruction, are also fear and grief and confusion and bravery and self sacrifice and even hope. Despite soldiers in identical uniforms and ideological justifications and the logistic order of weapons and technology, everyone knows the savagery in the human breast has slipped its bonds for the moment, and as horrible as that may be, it is just the dark side of man. It’s all pretty exciting.

The horror of the overpass is that it is so utterly ordinary, business as usual, another day in the life, accepted and taken for granted in all its grotesque ugliness, its assault on the senses and the world. All these strange floating containers of sheet metal and glass, and these creatures with their arms raised like zombies, with steering wheels in their fists, with their eyes pointed straight ahead, with their feet longing to stomp their way through the detritus around them — are going ordinary places to do ordinary things — home from work, to the grocery store, to a night class in business administration, to visit mom, to drink themselves silly in a pick-up bar.

When I was a teenager I had a dream about an overpass. The kind of dream that seems to be telling you something very important, only you don’t know what. In the dream I was living under an overpass with a group of other children. We had a friendly little camp there, doing the things children do — playing tag, skipping rope, running around, laughing. Though a child myself I was a little older than the rest and therefore a sort of elder with certain responsibilities like making meals and handling arguments when they arose. I had a girlfriend who was also an elder of this sort and all in all we were a happy bunch. There were no adults around, no traffic on the road over our heads.

That was 1963, during the cold war, the year JFK was assassinated. A time when, though nobody really talked to kids about it much, the shadow of nuclear holocaust loomed over us and you couldn’t help being aware of it. Your next door neighbor might be building a fallout shelter in his back yard. You could buy a plastic model of an ICBM with your paper route money and glue it together. Every week radio and TV stations issued their foreboding message — “This is a test. For the next sixty seconds, this station will conduct a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test.”

So clearly this dream had a kind of post-apocalyptic flavor and taken literally might suggest I wished all these crazy grownups would just go away. At first it was a pleasant dream, better in some ways than my actual life where, for instance, I did not have a girlfriend. But then, in the dream, I became imbued with a mysterious sense of mission. I was supposed to go out into the world and “find something and bring it back”. I set out on this quest and found the larger world a desolate and empty place. The landscape littered with the bones of civilization.

Under this overpass where I now stand are four lanes of traffic plus entrance and exit ramps and a breakdown lane, going each direction. There is a sign that says “Highway Patrol 1/2 mile”. I haven’t seen any Highway Patrollers. In the thick of tidal traffic they only come out to clean up the mess when it all goes wrong with the shriek of tearing metal. The gray river is out of control. I don’t know how many square miles of America have been covered by concrete since I was born. The number would be different tomorrow. I only know it is very large because I can see that with my own eyes.

Roads are collectively built structures, social structures if you will. Our social structures — like democracy, capitalism, manifest destiny, the new world order — are built first of all out of ideas. Since the founding of America people have been talking about “individualism” and our somewhat unique obsession with it as a nation. The gray river at my feet is one example among many of where that obsession has brought us.

My dictionary says the suffix “-ism” may refer to an ideological movement. Lot of them going around these days. Capitalism, socialism, environmentalism, feminism, conservatism, liberalism, postmodernism etc. “Individualism” is a social ideology that favors individual freedom of action over control by the collective or state. Taken at face value that doesn’t sound too bad, until you remember that man has a dark side. The reason we live by the rule of law, or at least attempt to, is because man has a dark side. The law is how we try to achieve a workable balance between individual freedom and the kind of cooperation required to have a functioning society.

This attempt at balance between self-interest and cooperation with the larger society or environment is not unique to humans. Every creature on earth faces this problem and meets it successfully or disappears. The notion that only the fittest survive, particularly in its social Darwinist version, is totally misleading. It suggests that the way of nature is a bunch of individuals “red in tooth and claw” rampaging around eating one another. Follow this to its logical conclusion. The next to last creature is eaten by the last creature, who then starves to death… end of story. Is this how life actually works?

Not really.

Capitalist economists and apologists have been insisting for years that the “free market economy” is self-governing and self-correcting. A business gives the people what they need and want at a reasonable price or it fails. Picture Darwin with a cash register. If you aren’t making enough money you will be “corrected” — that is, you will be killed and eaten by something with bigger teeth, a more successful advertising campaign, a more powerful lobbying firm, a lower paid third world labor force etc. Or alternatively, you will fail because God is not on your side. These economists have been implying corporations ought to be allowed to operate without government regulation because “the market” itself governs them. Governmental interference is cast as evil, communism, socialism, a violation of their God or Darwin-given right to extract as much wealth from society as they possibly can and the only measure of value that matters is the bottom line. Theirs.

Corporations have come to dominate the world. Their presence is apparent everywhere — in media, in government, in education, in health care, in wars. As a group, they have obstructed attempts to control their behavior, to protect the environment, clean up the air and water, share the wealth and so on. Lately, their track record of economic success speaks very well for itself.

I don’t mean to pick on a few really rich people and their mouthpieces. Heck, I’ve met quite a few folks who would become wealthy capitalist pigs in a second if they just had the chance. The goals of the American citizenry have been modeled on these predators, but sadly, there isn’t enough to go around. Most folks will just have to settle for being running dogs and lackeys. Or be eaten.

Capitalism, like a number of other “-isms”, is not inherently evil either. It is simply one way of pooling resources in order to get things done. Big things that no one can do by themselves. It’s this sticky business of “individualism” that is giving us so much trouble. Where do you draw the line? “Socialism” would be a good name for the cooperative side of the picture but unfortunately it’s already taken. Just as there is a predatory side in our nature, there is an impulse to get along with other people — an impulse toward cooperation and compassion. Were it not so, we would have perished as a species long ago.

So I am hopeful we will sort this out. We are a part of nature too, and life will have its way with us. Meanwhile, I’m watching the cars go by — people in their little rolling canisters on the way to — somewhere.

I mean hey, are they free or what.


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