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This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

PVD Resolutions

What should Providence and Rhode Island focus on in order to make 2016 an urbanist year? I've bolded the decisionmakers to make it clear who should act on these goals.

10. Follow through on promises about snow removal. The Elorza Admin worked with the Statehouse and RIDOT to come up with a snow removal plan, but this morning I found the sidewalks to be in a state that was. . . less than optimal. Let's follow through on the goodwill the city and state have created around this issue, and make sure that schools, parks, bridges, and other public pedestrian infrastructure is clear.

9. Modify RIPTA routes so that they don't go into parking lots. This is an easy goal that RIPTA can achieve without any extra money. RIPTA planning should work with municipalities and RIDOT to figure out how to assure access to the front doors of big boxes for disabled people, without delaying routes in traffic to get there, using multi-use paths. This plan could improve all the major East Providence routes, as well as the 54 to Woonsocket and the 66 to South County, just naming a few routes I've encountered that have too many parking lot stops. The East Main 60 bus also has a minor detour into an apartment complex that I have never seen someone actually get on or off of, but which nonetheless delays the trip. Bike paths have upfront costs, but virtually no operational costs, whereas buses have year-after-year operational costs, so this is a sensible trade.

8. Put in 20 miles of protected bike lanes. I noticed on a recent trip to the West Side that the mayor has followed up on promises to make sure that the Broadway bike lane is completed from Olneyville to downtown, including a spiffy section that is buffered and against the sidewalk near Regency Plaza (No door zone!). This is a nice step, but the mayor also promised that bike routes would be protected. It's time for action on this. During the month of December, we did a #TopTwentyOne blackjack game on Twitter with protected bike lanes, asking people to suggest their top twenty-one miles of infrastructure. It's surprising how comprehensive a system can be with just that amount of bike infrastructure. It's time, Mayor Elorza. Let's get a move on!

7. Finish the bike share, and make sure it includes the South Side. The planned bike share program includes bikes that can be locked anywhere, which is a great improvement since the plan includes very few actual mooring stations. This will really help people coming from a Downtown or East Side location and traveling elsewhere, but won't do much for anyone coming from elsewhere in the city and going to those job centers. The West Side gets short shrift in the bike share plan, with very few mooring stations, and the South Side and Olneyville get nothing. I've heard mixed reports on this from sources in the Elorza Administration. So far, what I've gathered leads me to think that the administration is working to include more neighborhoods than the original Taveras plan had included. This is a great step, if true, and Mayor Elorza should continue in that direction.

6. Pass a parking tax, and lower property taxes. I've written a lot on the parking tax. Providence should pass a tax on parking lots which can then be used to reduce property taxes. In Pittsburgh, which has the highest parking tax in the country, more revenue is raised off of parking than from the city income tax. In Pittsburgh, the rate is set at 40%. Why not start more modestly here, since we haven't passed a parking tax yet? A rate even of 10%, with a concomitant reduction in property taxes, would mean infill and growth, and would also help produce a city that is affordable to live in. Affordable housing, not parking should be the key to our city. The parking tax could even be made part of efforts to create a permanent, standard TSA system--charging for parking would mean that tax stabilization wouldn't have to be on the backs of our school children, since other revenue would be made available.

A parking tax could be construed as requiring state approval, but inside sources tell me that a lot could be done at the city level by Mayor Elorza and City Council to modify the evaluation of what parking lots are worth.

5. Elongate car-free festivals on Thayer Street. Thayer Street has had very successful festivities that shut down the street. As a location that I think should eventually be pedestrianized like Burlington, VT's Church Street, Thayer would be a great place to continue to do temporary pedestrianized events. Let's elongate those events--not just a day at a time, but perhaps over a weekend, or even during a whole week, we should eliminate cars from Thayer Street. This is a goal that Brown University, the Thayer Street Merchants' Association, and other groups could take on.

4. The pedestrian bridge--where is it? RIDOT needs to finish it. Get 'er done!

3. Pass RhodeWorks. The truck tolls are the most just and sustainable (financially and in the environmental sense of that word) that we can fund our road system. The Statehouse should come together and support Governor Raimondo on RhodeWorks.

2. Pee Alley The "Pee Alley" was closed (alongside the Superman Building and the next adjoining one). This, no doubt,  means that there's less of a stench walking along Fulton St. or Westminster. But there's still nowhere to pee in downtown during many hours of the day and night. The RIPTA hut closes very early in the evening, and even when it's open, some of the toilets are missing toilet seats, there's no soap in the bathrooms, and so on. City Hall is available but not very well advertised, and has better bathroom accommodations, but also closes early. I have found that Small Point Cafe is very gracious in allowing me to go to the bathroom in their facilities, even though I am not always a customer, but this is really an unfair thing to ask of just one business. The business community, the city, and whatever other state or local stakeholders, should get involved and make sanitary, pleasant public restrooms available. This is a major concern for anyone using transit or walking, and it would benefit everyone. I think this is a job for Frank LaTorre!

1. Tear out the 6/10 Connector, and replace it with a boulevard. Of course, the #1 thing we can do is make sure that the 6/10 Connector never darkens the doorway of the city again. Support the Moving Together movement, and call your state and local officials to make sure they do too. This is a job for the City of Providence, the City of Cranston, the Statehouse, RIDOT, and the Governor to come together on.


Auld Lang Syne

May auld acquaintance be forgot. . . 
My friend on the right, Justin Katz, who I almost never agree with, has nonetheless shown remarkable grace in twice allowing me to publish Transport Providence articles questioning the narrative being put forward about proposed RhodeWorks tolls and the 6/10 Connector.

Justin has been making Christmas and New Year's songs about the tolls, and I couldn't help but jump in. You too can put up your Auld Lang Syne for the year 2016 (just tweet it at @transportpvd). Here are mine:

Justin also went on a Carol of the Bells spree earlier this morning. My responses to his #CaroloftheTolls posts:

Remember: let your state rep. and state senator know that the trucking industry should pay its own way. And tell them it's important for us to revisit the bad decisions we made around urban highways.


Moving Together Providence on Coalition Radio

If you haven't heard the hour-long podcast of WPRO's Coalition Radio program, please give it a listen.

Is your representative Rep. Dan Reilly, Rep. Brian Newberry, Rep. Aaron Regunberg, or Rep. Art Handy? You should thank them for their championing of this idea, so far. Councilman Bryan Principe (Providence, West Side) also deserves special thanks, and Councilman Steve Stycos (Cranston). Mayor Jorge Elorza's planning department has been very open to talking about this as well.

Not sure where your councilperson or state rep./senator stand? Ask your state rep. (PVD Council, Cranston Council).


A Five Year Retrospective, Using "Dog, Pig, and Wise Horse".

Rachel was showing me the short videos we made together during Occupy Philadelphia, just months before we moved to New England. I'm amazed at what has changed and not changed about my views on the world since then. 

There may be a way I don't know of it embed Vimeo into Blogger, but my best efforts are not turning up. So follow the links.

The first one I saw was Occupy Christmas

I found this on the internet of the Christmas Village.
This was the "Christmas Village" at LOVE Park. We disrupted it with a candlelit vigil and drew political slogans on the pavement with chalk. It was actually a very nice demonstration, because we had productive conversations with some people at the market. But the underlying premise was that the "Christmas Village" itself was a problem, and that was the focus of the demonstration.

I had mixed feelings about the idea that the Christmas Village was bad from the beginning, but I participated. The premise was that the city allowed people to set up an open-air market in LOVE Park, which is usually a relatively barren concrete park surrounded by wide (for Philadelphia) roads. Looking at the idea then, I felt torn. The group really felt that this was part of a pipeline to prison: a way to push "undesirable" people (homeless people, youth-of-color, skateboarders) from the area and put in "business". They also viewed this as an appropriation of common space for private purposes. 

Today, I still feel as connected to the concerns that younger me had about the Christmas Village. It's true that when places get "nice" that police are often detailed to keep out people who "aren't nice", and I think we need to look closely at that pattern and see how we can not repeat it. But I also feel really separated from the original premise, which is that making places nice inevitably means inequality and disruption of poor people's lives. If older me were to set up a demonstration, I might have wanted to know who felt affected by this feeling of being "pushed out" and find out how they could be re-welcomed into the space without abandoning the niceties of having hundreds of other people out to enjoy a market.

Pope Francis, at Sts. Peter & Paul Basilica.
The second video that really struck me was the one I did talking about immigration.

This one really stands the test of time for me, and I'm really happy with it. I interviewed the Monsignor of Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral, which--kind of cool in retrospect--is where Pope Francis went during his trip to Philadelphia. That Cathedral has a physical presence in the history of immigrant rights, and makes me feel like maybe I understood something from my great-great grandfather's life.

Then there's this one about the architectural background of Philadelphia life.

Wow. It really brings me back to a different point in my life. Filming a die-in, walking into a bank branch and trying pushily to put the poor bank branch manager on record about the demonstration. I was crazy then (I mean, in a good way, maybe?). I've definitely calmed down and mellowed out.

One of the themes I covered when I talked to my professor, Dr. David Watt, of Temple University's religion and history departments, was this idea of what the built environment says about our contempt for public life. And this is still a theme I think that is important to me. The backstory of Philadelphia's City Hall, which was briefly the tallest building in the world (until 1908), and which is the only "tallest" to be both non-religious and non-commercial, is an interesting one. What does it mean when a society puts emphasis on the public realm? Great question, still.

But the underlying premise that by building taller buildings, we're ignoring those needs is one I no longer agree with. A lot of times, building taller buildings is what is needed to keep a neighborhood affordable, and is what allows more people to live near and financially support great public resources like parks, libraries, and schools. There's definitely been a sea-change in how I view the heightening of skylines.

So many things going on in these videos. It's weird to look back on yourself and see a five year gap, and try to think about how much can change in such a small time.


No Demolitions for Parking

Please contact Brown University and ask the administration to call off plans to demolish six perfectly good homes for a parking lot.

I had been aware that some houses were slated for demolition along this area (they're fenced right now) but was not aware until recently that the demolitions were for surface parking. A source at Brown University brought this to my attention.

Brown credits itself for being green. We have too much parking in the neighborhood. We need to be working to eliminate some. Adding more parking is like adding stagnant pools of water to the neighborhood in an effort to rid ourselves of mosquitos.

Removing housing will also make housing in the area more scarce, and thus more expensive. I fully support knocking a house down from time to time to add a larger building, with more housing, or more business. We should not allow Brown to demolish homes just to add asphalt to the neighborhood.


On the Straight & Narrow: A Response to Russell Moore

“Because straight is the way, and narrow is the road, that lead unto life, and few ever find it.”

--Matthew, 7:14

Olneyville: a "second downtown" that was destroyed by 6/10.
Russell Moore’s opinion piece in Go Local Prov states the case that removing the 6/10 Connector and replacing it with a boulevard as proposed by Moving Together Providence would be an attack on freedom. We as members of Moving Together PVD respect Moore’s sincerity and passion, but strongly disagree. We invite the public dialogue and hope even to eventually win skeptics like Moore to our position, as we already have done with some other notable Rhode Island conservatives. Removing 6/10 is the conservative option.

In this time of heightened partisanship, a conservative argument for removing the 6/10 Connector and replacing it with a boulevard should not be misinterpreted as being mutually exclusive with the many progressive reasons to do so. We believe the added housing, transit, biking, and walking options will help to hold at bay displacement of low income residents, will increase access to jobs for those residents, and will help the state to stand firm in its commitment to fight and adapt to climate change. Representative Aaron Regunberg deftly describes the ecological reasons, while an endorsement by the UNITE-HERE Local 217 hotel workers’ union explains the equity ones.

Conservatives value self-reliance, tradition, thrift, local control, private property, healthy business conditions, and freedom of choice. Conservatives also tend to value in-groups over out-groups. The 6/10 Boulevard will help each of these values to flourish.

In the election of 1965, William F. Buckley ran for NYC mayor
with a platform that included congestion charges and bike lanes.
Self-reliance It seems to make common sense that if drivers pay gas taxes and  other fees, the roads they use must be paid for. But this isn’t so: user fees cover only about half of road costs. It’s only partly that fees are too low. It’s also that policies have been set to emphasize expansion over maintenance of the existing system. But on top of that, urban freeways cost far more than normal highways, for reasons that we’ll address in “Thrift”.

Transit also receives a subsidy, but well-designed transit can carry many times as many people in a much smaller space than driving alone can. Bike riding, meanwhile, actually has a net negative cost. Even if a person plans to drive everywhere, it is in the best interest of that driver as both a person trying to get somewhere, as well as in their role as a taxpayer, to make sure as few people as possible make the same choice.

Tradition Because conservatives tend to support a course of action that pays close attention to original intent, we should understand what the beginnings of our highway system were meant to be, and how the actual outcome differed from that vision.

Ike did not support urban highways.
It’s absolutely vital to note that arguing for the removal of the 6/10 Connector is not an argument against highways, but rather one against urban highways. Highways are best conceived as fast, limited-access routes between two financially and socially productive places. Libertarian-leaning engineer Charles Marohn has articulated what happened to cause the breakdown of this traditional model, explaining how it became something much more costly, and much less useful. Marohn describes the way that core “streets” in business areas have been made speedier while highways have been allowed greater and greater direct adjacent access to previously fast “roads”: the “stroad”.  Marohn calls the stroad a design futon: an uncomfortable and ugly couch that turns into an uncomfortable and ugly bed.

Futon design was not a conservative dream. Dwight Eisenhower, who is credited as the presidential force behind completion of the federal Interstate system, did not believe (PDF of original memorandum) that highways belonged in cities. Quoting from the memorandum:

[Eisenhower] went on to say that the matter of running Interstate routes through the congested parts of the cities was entirely against his original concept and wishes; that he never anticipated that the program would turn out this way . . . and that he was certainly not aware of any concept of using the program to build up an extensive intra-city route network as part of the program he sponsored.  He added that those who had not advised him that such was being done, and those who steered the program in such a direction, had not followed his wishes.

Moore points out, correctly, that many liberals pushed the United States in the direction of urban freeways. Drawn by the promise of union jobs and the expectation that cities would be left out if highways didn’t bisect their cities directly down the middle, Democratic mayors chased federal highway dollars and destroyed many great places. One of those great places was Olneyville, Providence’s once glorious “second downtown”. Beautification ideas by Moving Together member Art Eddy would help to reignite that.

Thrift Conservatives believe in an efficient and minimal use of public resources in order to achieve the highest possible potential for private entrepreneurial gain. The 6/10 boulevard is exactly that.

It’s important to note that highways as well as transit can be costly or wasteful. The city of Atlanta, Georgia, not well-known for its transit, has a surprisingly large amount of rail service—almost as much as Barcelona, Spain. The land use of Atlanta—a city with a similar population the same as Barcelona but 26.5 times bigger—means that that Atlanta’s rail corridors are accessible (defined as within 1/3 of a mile) for just 4% of its population. In Barcelona, the same public investment serves 60% of the population. Atlanta’s system simply is not a good investment.

Atlanta vs. Barcelona: land use matters
In Northeastern U.S. terms, Providence may not feel like a very dense city. It is, however, much closer to Barcelona in layout—even after decades of demolitions along its urban highways—than it is to Atlanta. At close to 10,000 people per square mile, Providence is four times as dense as Atlanta, and less than a fifth of its area. Of course, those statistics apply to Providence as one big mass, which includes sections of growth that are more suburb-like than its historic core. The neighborhoods along 6/10: Capitol Center, Smith Hill, Federal Hill, Valley, Olneyville, Manton, the West End, and the Upper and Lower South Sides, are some of the densest and most transit-oriented parts of the city, already with high transit-ridership. Olneyville—once a “second downtown” for Providence, has a population that is already close to 50% car-free, but surrounded on three sides by a highway that cuts it off from its neighbors. All of these neighborhoods have room to add more housing and business density, even before considering the 70 acres of surplus land that would be available from the boulevard—that’s more than three I-195 Districts. Fully connecting existing bikeways to Cranston and Johnston—bikeways that, though very nice, are hard to access due to the highway—would augment that transit-shed even further. And, of course, Olneyville could and should get an infill MBTA station.

Wickford Jct: a failure
The most recent failure of Rhode Island transit policy was the extension of rail to Wickford Junction. That project failed for a number of reasons. It was sited in a location with little density, walkability, or bike infrastructure to facilitate last-mile connections. Because the project’s conception was already an expensive outlay of resources, the MBTA has not been able to affordably add transit frequency to the route, a major factor in ridership. The cost of parking to facilitate park & ride use  was astronomical, and even when the state chose to given that valuable parking away free, it saw little occupancy. The 6/10 Boulevard contrasts in every possible way, just taken on the merits of its transit design.

But we owe ourselves a full picture of the costs of driving. The 6/10 Connector, if rebuilt as a destructive highway, would draw the majority of projected toll funding for a mere few miles of redundant road, during a time when truck tolls have drawn the ire of the right. As a boulevard, the fourteen bridges that make up the Connector could be eliminated or shortened—Moving Together member Jonathan Harris finds a reduction of as much as 85% in bridge length. Why build more when you can use less? Providence is, in fact, #8 in per capita lane-miles of highway, a distinction that no other city north of the Mason-Dixon Line or east of the Appalachians has. No wonder we can’t pay to maintain our highway system! Would we rather share a list with Baltimore and Cleveland—or set out for less money to become a more livable city?

Local Control & Private Property The Connector laid waste to the West Elmwood neighborhood, and to sections of several other neighborhoods, in order to create room for its giant on- and off-ramps. While regrowth should be expected to be slow and organic, the removal of the ramps to create a boulevard feel would allow private business the opportunity to reclaim the pieces of neighborhoods that were taken by eminent domain in the runaway period of “urban renewal”. Olneyville Square was also made a much less pleasant place to live because of the highway.
Portland's Harbor Drive, after the boulevard.

Moore’s piece presents the boulevard as social engineering, but what could be a crisper example of government overreach than eminent domain? Why double down on the same mistake, if it’s going to cost more than other options?

Business Climate In the 1980s, Portland, Oregon was a washed up lumber town, with a population a bit larger than Providence’s.  After Oregon Republicans led the fight to remove the Harbor Drive Freeway, the population in the next three decades doubled. Portland is now a city of Boston’s population size, with growing use of transit, biking, walking, and carpooling. The Harbor Drive-adjacent properties gained in value faster than other properties in the city. Portland may have a crunchy image, but it is a business success. Yet for all of Portland’s in-roads towards a transit- and bike-oriented design, it is still behind Providence in land use. A combined area of Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket, East Providence, and Cranston would be just 60% of the land area of Portland proper, and the same  density (about 5,000 per square mile).  Not only can we match what Portland did, but we can also beat Portland at its own game. But don’t follow just Portland’s example: try cities like Memphis, Chattanooga, or Milwaukee.

A Flexible Labor Market Conservatives criticize government actions that create barriers to employment, and favor deregulated, “flexible” labor markets to allow for full employment. Yet, a car-centric society is one of the worst obstacles to a flexible labor market in existence. Mandatory rather than optional car ownership is the ultimate minimum wage: in order to enter the labor market for many jobs (including many low-wage jobs), one must have a car. American society has drifted into using more and more general funds to build and maintain roads and bridges, and the subsidy to driving through this and other means might seem like a liberal equity experiment. But because these subsidies act as matching grants for only those who are able to own a car, it’s akin to giving everyone with a job an extra raise but barring the unemployed from any job at all. Certainly, a system of roads based on user fees, with a strong emphasis on the more financially efficient modes of transit and biking, as well as land use that obviates the need to go anywhere far in the first place, are the answers. This is one reason conservatives who care about an open labor market should also support the boulevard.

Freedom of Choice The current configuration of the highway makes freedom of movement an impossibility for many people: the very old, the very young, the disabled, and those too poor to own a car come to mind easily. Yet urban highways fail even a fully able-bodied person who owns a car, because their design ensures that they will be clogged by traffic at the exact time when commuters need mobility most.
Embarcadero: before and after.

This is called induced demand. It’s the most counterintuitive of the arguments for the boulevard, but the most conservative, because what it says is that people adjust their consumption of readily available free things until that consumption fills the container of availability. Many of the first highway-to-boulevard conversions happened by accident. The West Side Highway, in New York City, fell due to being in poor repair. Though it carried tens of thousands of vehicles a day, traffic engineers were surprised and befuddled when they could not located new traffic jams elsewhere as a result of the sudden loss of road capacity. The 1980s saw the earthquake collapse of the Embarcadero and Central Artery freeways in San Francisco, to a similar end. These urban highways, once blights, were redeveloped at less cost to be boulevards, and they now are healthy, growing neighborhoods.

The case for induced demand is strongest when looked at from the opposite vantage point: it’s easy to imagine dense cities like New York or San Francisco—or even Portland—lowering the amount of driving they do when a highway disappears. But what happens if an existing highway in a driving-centric metro gets even bigger?
The Katy Freeway: 23 "Lanes of Freedom".
Rick Perry called it 18 “lanes of freedom” (they weren’t actually free, they cost billions of dollars) Going from eight lanes to eighteen (and in places, to twenty-three) only modestly improved travel times. Within a few years, the Houston Chronicle reported that the expansion caused the Katy Freeway to become even more clogged than when it was a third the size. Why? In the universe of traffic, conservative truths rule the day: people drive up to the point of tolerance for traffic congestion. I wonder how Texans feel when they sit in the multi-billion-dollar traffic Rick Perry created?

In-Group/Out-Group Dynamics
All of us, liberal or conservative, value in-groups over out-groups in at least some part of our lives, though in-group affiliation is a more prominent part of many conservatives’ affiliations. The fact, in the outset of this article, that we had to list some liberals who support this project is an example of liberals employing the same tendency: some liberals, hearing that a project is “conservative” will react against it no matter what the merits. The claim that there is a liberal war-on-cars is an in-group tactic, meant to draw the solidarity of suburban or rural drivers who feel an effete liberal elite is attempting to oust them. This, though on its face conservative, is not.

We need to drive less. The environmental and social implications of continuing a completely car-centric lifestyle are too severe to ignore--the damage won’t just be to spotted owls, but to business investments in cities around the world. Yet driving is always going to be a part of the mix of transportation. A boulevard is not anti-car, but by using other modes as part of the mix of technologies, allows cars to be put to their best use. Already in this article we’ve explored some examples of transit that was mis-used. Two of the three members of Moving Together PVD are frequent drivers, but all three would like to see a Providence and Rhode Island that have more options not to drive.

Who is our in-group? Our young cannot drive until they are at least sixteen, and many of us worry about the implications for safety of teenagers on the road. Our elderly--all of us, eventually--reach a point when we cannot drive (or at least, should not). Any of us as parents who have to shuttle children hectically to school before rushing off to a traffic jam before work know that having to drive for every trip is exhausting. It takes what can at times be a convenience and makes it a chore.

Moving Together Driving is with us for good, but that doesn’t mean that the urban highways of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s must be.  They were a poor choice, made in earnest, but we know now that that choice did not work. We cannot continue unabated on this path. Let’s work together to create a Providence that is open for business, that has flexible labor markets and the ability to use resources efficiently. Let’s restore traditional neighborhoods that give strength to the family structure. This is what Moving Together PVD stands for. We invite liberals and conservatives to join us in tearing down this highway.


School Bus Memories

Armed with Miyazaki films, and the Rhode Island State Plant*, I've been making a lot of emotional breakthroughs into the complex nature of my own personality, of the things that make me tick as a person. It's been very therapeutic, and I thought I'd share some more.

One thing I imagine a lot of people struggle with is positioning themselves in society. Perhaps a lot of us are exactly sure where we stand, but I think more than a few of us don't know if we're on top or bottom, and that confusion is a big source of personal pain as well as a lot of political and social dysfunction in our society.

A core memory in my childhood was being added to a gifted program in 4th grade. There were four people in the class, two girls, a boy, and myself. The other three had been in the class since 1st grade, and on the first day as we waited for the bus to take us from the elementary school to the middle school where the program was, the boy took it upon himself to let me know where I stood.

"You're not supposed to be here," he told me. "If you're supposed to be here, then why weren't you here in 1st grade?"

I'll call the boy Ben, which isn't his actual name. Ben's parents were highly educated and lived in the nicer part of town. Ben was fond of telling me that the reason I lived in a crappy Warner West rowhouse was because my parents must have given all their money to the school psychologist to bribe me into the gifted program. He liked to remind me that my dad was a "cart pusher" (he was an assistant manager at a grocery store) and that my mom was a dumb secretary. And Ben's parents, who were fluent in Asian languages** and had Ivy League degrees and did really important, educated things, were clearly able to give to him access to knowledge I didn't have. Ben would come in and talk about, say, string theory, and what his dad told him about the workings of the universe. I would be flabbergasted. Ben would find me in a hallway and knock my books out of my hand or shove me into a locker.

The first project we did in that program was build balsa wood structures that were supposed to hold a lot of weight. Having been told that triangles were the strongest of all shapes, I went about trying to create this triangular structure that was, in retrospect, very poorly designed and not likely to survive any weight at all. The groups were split, two to each. At some point, the other three students (correctly) realized that Ben's structure was the best, and joined in on his team. Determined not to give in to the kid that called me a cart pusher's son, I opted to keep working on mine. My structure never got finished.

Of course, I'd come back to normal classes, and the kids who weren't in the program had exactly the opposite anger to heap on me. They'd shove me too, but they didn't call me a cart pusher kid, but instead called me faggot for being perceived as too soft and refined. So I found myself caught between a class where everyone thought I wasn't up to snuff, and one where all the kids thought I was an elitist. 

The thing I really like about Miyazaki films that of late has helped me think a lot about my own life is that his characters are never truly good or evil. They have deep wounds inside them that fester and make them act in stupid ways, but the gestalt of their behavior is more like that of someone who is a broken machine, repeating the same bad actions. And one thing I've realized lately is that I've simultaneously held an anger at both groups of people, but I've never thought about how I responded to the situations I was faced with.  I really dug in my heals and didn't cooperate with anyone, put myself purposefully on the outside as if by doing so I would claim some territory of respect. But I became, equally, a monstrous person. Sometimes I look back on the people that picked on me and wonder what their demons were. Why did they do these things? What pain were they experiencing that they had to act this way?

Another memory I have was when my parents were getting divorced. There was a lot of turmoil in my house, and the DCYS (Delaware County Youth Services) had assigned us TSS workers (I have no idea what that stands for, but it's like a one-on-one helper that comes to your house--we had three, I guess (?) one for each child.  Another part of the program was being sent on a bus out to this youth camp in the summer. I'd never taken a school bus anywhere except class trips, and this was a new exercise for me. I'd wait for the bus, that would pick me up. The other kids all seemed to be severely (like non-verbally) autistic, or extremely angry and violent, or otherwise completely on the outside of society. We went through "bad" neighborhoods and picked up African-American kids, who in my mind at the time seemed fairly normal. I had the tools to understand that perhaps the reason these kids were on the bus was because there was some kind of racism going on. They came from poorer neighborhoods than my lower middle class one, and (I assumed) maybe they had families that were even more unstable than mine. The kids from the "bad" neighborhoods always seemed like nice people. 

We arrived at the camp, and this struck me yet again. It was like a sea of children of color, with severely disabled white kids in between. And I remember the overwhelming feeling amidst my understanding that their must be racism at play was "but what's wrong with me?" I mean, I could explain away what was going on with these other kids. But in my cohort, the only white kid was an autistic kid with an imaginary friend named Nadine.*** I looked around in a sea of black--and my town was not lily white by any means--and what I'd intuited from experience was that any place you were in that was that black was a place of troubles. Not out of a direct resentment of African-Americans, but out of just a knowledge that the neighborhoods that "looked that way" were not wealthy or safe places. That fear can overwhelm you when you're 12.

One of the most shameful memories I have of myself was that I told this kid that Nadine wasn't real. It got the kid upset, and I calmly insisted that Nadine wasn't there. It seemed odd to me that this kid had invented an imaginary friend and was able to believe in her throughout whatever counter-evidence of her existence was around him, but could be so easily dissuaded by my statement that she'd gone away. He'd cry. I'd keep insisting, "No, Nadine's gone. She died, actually. She's dead." He'd cry some more. I don't know why I did that. No adult ever knew that I did that. It was really something I only did for one day, and even by the end of the day I felt ashamed of my foray into cruelty, and admitted to the autistic kid that his imaginary friend was alive and well (he was grateful, and stopped crying on a dime). But it still haunts me occasionally. It's one of those memories of myself that I've buried and don't think about, and then sometimes it comes back and realize that it's the cosmic equivalent of smashing a baby against the rocks. I took advantage of someone who had no ability to reason through his situation. It makes me feel awful.

I made friends with the bus attendant on the trip to the camp, and everyday we'd have fairly deep discussions. I think he was a psycho major still in school. I remember sharing my insecurity that there was something wrong with me that I should be in such a place, and he said that he thought it wasn't so. But the feeling stuck with me.

And then, as quickly as I became part of all that, it went away. For some reason, the TSS workers stopped coming. The camp stopped. I don't know if funding ran out, or what happened. But I pushed it all behind me.

We're living in a time when a lot of people are trying to make sense of their existence, and in a time when you aren't sure of yourself of of who you are. I'm frightened by the swell of support that exists for Donald Trump, who I think is truly a fascist, without any exaggeration. I'm aware enough, I hope, to see the many ways that society has privileged my existence. I grew up lower middle class, maybe dropped half a rung in the midst of the divorce, but otherwise had everything going for me. Maybe a touch of gender-oddity or bisexuality, but basically a white, straight kid for all intents and purposes living in the suburbs. I've struggled at times with whether I'm the elite who has to show great solidarity with the poor and down-trodden, or the poor needing help myself. And I think for many people who fall into my rung of society, if there isn't an overt political ideology that guides them through (I was drawn to marxism, personally, in middle school, an idea that was introduced to me by some people in the gifted classes I was in, and totally unknown to the kids in my regular classes) then the people that get blamed are people of color, foreigners, etc. But how can we speak to these people's experiences? They have people above them calling them cart pusher kids, and people below them that they fear being a part of. They're fed convenient lies that help them make sense of it all, and some of them accept those lies.

I still never know who I am. I love when someone tells me that I'll grow up and have a car when I have kids. Or sometimes, it takes the form of someone telling me that the reason I don't have kids yet is because I'm an elitist. And this is partly true. I went on to Temple University, was in the honors program, rubbed elbows with all the right people, and came away with an ability to express myself that puts me in an upper echelon of society. The ability to choose to put off having a family because there's no money around is a choice that comes from education. And then, on the other hand, there's the fact that I'm 30. My parents had me, age five, and my sister, soon a toddler, by that point in their lives. My dad started a job the night John Lennon died stocking shelves at a grocery store and worked his way consistently into lower and then middle management positions, spending three decades at one job without interruption. How I'd wish for such an opportunity, even with my college degree! I feel a deep hole in myself, like I'm at a point where I'd like to move on and be an adult, but I can't.  I feel embarrassed by how dependent I am on others, and I know I could never provide for another human being. And it's usually the territory of women, I think, to feel a biological clock ticking, but I feel mine too. All this research out there that says older fathers caused birth defects or learning and emotional disabilities in their kids. I look back at my TSS worker days and I wonder if the next generation is going to be even more fucked up than me. Do I ride a bicycle and take a bus because I have no money (yes) or because I'm an elite educated environmentalist (yes)? It's all very confusing. Fascism is the conservative revolution, as Slavoj Zizek says, and its strength in people's minds is that it appeals to this feeling of being caught in the middle. It swallows us in its jaws, like a shark.

But as I process memories like this, I realize we have a lot of things to talk about in order not to go blindly off a cliff.


*Quahogs, of course (or is it calamari?). They both really help with the processing of emotions, especially in small doses.

**By the way, in case there's any ambiguity, Ben was white. His parents spoke Asian languages fluently because they'd spent years abroad.

***I didn't protect Nadine's identity, given that she's . . . uh. . . imaginary. That's actually what her name was.