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This Business of Punishment
by Thom Fowler

You can now get locks for the washing machine at the hipster laundromat with the café and live music. That’s new. I asked the attendant whose idea it was. He didn’t know. He was new. I asked him how often they get used. In the last month, only three people have requested them. I asked him what prompted the installation of locks. He didn’t know. “It’s just like the news, it just makes you scared,” said the attendant.

You know you are in San Francisco when at the laundromat, the out of order sign says, “The hamsters who run this machine are on strike until their demands are met. Do not cross the line.”

The locks are only available on machines that are along the grab and dash path. The people that get the locks are just buying into the hysteria. The signs also make you suspicious of everyone around you. I never thought that any of the people just milling about were waiting for their opportunity to grab my clothes but someone may have been looking at me as a suspect. There is nothing worse than feeling like a suspect.

Stealing clothes, that’s like a sign of the times. When the middle class loses their jobs, the people even farther down stream drop off the map, seeing as how service workers make their money catering to the managerial class who make their money catering to the financiers whose assets they are all busy managing. During the dot com boom, petty thievery in South of Market could get you several 4,000 laptops in a single sweep. It was like Halloween. But now, the streets are filled with a bunch of piece-of-shit cars driven by working class schlubs out for a beer and a laugh, like it was before, except for the vacant upscale lofts where affordable housing used to be. So busting a car window isn’t going to get you anything except a pile of discarded parking tickets. Where is a street thief to turn for durable goods that can be sold or traded? Laundromats, apparently.

In local San Francisco election nonsense, Proposition N would cut general assistance for the indigent to 59 dollars a month while not developing any new assistance programs. Such is the brutal underbelly of American capitalism. If we just starve the indigent, they’ll just go away. Dying is like going away, right?

And that’s why I tell people to not have children. The infrastructure is at capacity – the system is overloaded. It’s getting time to reboot. And the middle class just believes the lies they perpetuate about limitless growth. No, there are limits to how many suburban subdivisions you can create with a strip mall anchored by Home Depot and Costco as the soul of the community to herd a roving tribe of alienated wage slaves clambering up the ladder of success one mortgage at a time.

I’ve talked about this until I’m blue in the face and still I drive past once pristine hillsides to find it paved over and dotted with three models of 1300 square foot homes moderately priced from 300-500,000 dollars. Places where there is no crime. Too far away for ethnics to infiltrate. When it all falls apart, don’t say nobody told you so. I’m not ready for a world of 12 billion people.

So maybe the Bush Administration has got this war thing all right. Thin out the herds. The Nazis were the least shameless in their program to rid the world of undesirables. Capitalism, a kind of economic Nazism, is designed to kill the poor, most of whom didn’t ask to be born. I mean, one is okay, but its not like we need farmhands anymore. We are just breeding consumers to create economic growth. The middle class are slaves to banks. The working class are slaves to their subsistence wages. The economy has to expand to meet the needs of a growing population, all of whom will one day be looking for their cubicle and their slice of the American dream. Except there are only two places to go. Outer Space or Inner Space.

And everyone still goes along with the idea that better cars and fatter wallets make for more quality people. And we treat fatter wallets and better cars as if they are deserving of our service.

Which is why I hate Sunset Boulevard because it’s all about pretending to have what you don’t and be what you aren’t. Janeane Garofalo, who is just such good source material for quotes when I want to use other people’s words to say what I’m thinking, said, “I wish a huge fireball would descend on Sunset Boulevard, consuming everything in its path, miraculously sparing Book Soup. Nobody will ever say about any of the missing, ‘That guy was so cool.”

Why are we driven to follow trends and adopt a uniform? What happened to exotic, esoteric, unique? I mean, what is up with the new acid-wash? You know those jeans with a faded stripe running up the front and back? I know the trend was started by designers who wanted to provide the look of working class poverty to trendoids with upscale pretensions, but it has become so stylized that the look is just plain ugly. They are completely without context. That faded spot tells no story at all. It’s just glommed on like an afterthought, like a wad of gum you are done chewing. It’s only purpose is to make you look like you aren’t different, that you belong. Please don’t persecute me, I’m normal. Look, I’ve got the faded spot and everything.

Background music for the Sunset Strip should be two songs played in a loop. “We Are the Robots” by Kraftwerk and “Road to Nowhere” by Talking Heads. There has got to be a way to get the electricity jumping across those synaptic chasms in people who have evidently just given up, or given in.

I saw a guy in Berkeley dancing on a unicycle at a street corner. Wearing headphones with beads of sweat rolling down his face, he was pedaling back and forth and doing spins and hops. And then he would gracefully flap his arms like a bird and make big sweeping half circles and flash peace signs at the people driving by. My friend who is not unused to such things, said, “What’s that guy doing.”

“Making the world a better place,” I replied. He was my hero for the day.

In San Anselmo, where I live, which you may know as the pre-Afghanistan home of John Walker Lindh and roaming grounds of George Lucas, a handful of families had a peace demonstration. They stood in twos and threes, children, parents and grandparents, on the corners where two main roads met, with giant blue flags emblazoned with a photograph of planet Earth from space carrying signs that read, “No War in Iraq.”

When I taught high school, most of my day was spent participating in a conditioning exercise. The highest level of cooperation among staff and faculty was a penal operation. We were basically one big dragnet waiting for some kid to fuck up so we could bust him.

I stopped in the Democratic Party headquarters in San Leandro and had a chat with the volunteers and one of the women told me how she joined the ACLU after they came to her defense when her daughter was punished, along with the entire class, for something she didn’t do. “Group punishment,” the mother explained. I was talking to her about this essay I was working on that mentioned how public schools are organized just like prisons and the two college-aged volunteers lit up. They asked me why I quit teaching and I told them that public schools live in the past and don’t meet the present needs of the students and nobody seems to think that is a problem.

Even Democrats agree – Bush is trouble. I always think of Democrats as being mainstream, middle of the road, opinionless people and I was surprised to find “Hail to the Thief” buttons for sale.

I was a little concerned when one of the students, after I offered to let him read this, said, “How long is it? I’m in college and all but I don’t like to read.”

And then he made me laugh when he asked me, “The Green Party is for weed, right?”

Yeah, it used to be called the Green BUD party, but it was shortened on the advice of a PR officer.

LA Life is now just Life. But we are way past 101 and are into graduate level work.

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originally posted: 10/22/02 17:02:26
last updated: 10/22/02 17:54:18
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