We go into the city to celebrate my fantastic new job, bar hopping in the Mission with Jeremy and Jenifer.
Jeremy and Jenifer are a bit older than my sweetie and I and they have the kind of financial stability we are striving for and the suburbanism we are trying to avoid.
The bars close at two and we go up to their hotel. It occurs to me that my visits to hotels have mostly been connected to conferences and road trip stopovers. The very idea that my friends are paying to spend the night in the city is exemplary of the kind of luxury that makes me bashful.
At the room, we spend a lot of time bitching about the motion sensor refrigerators. They have fridges in every room but they are already fully stocked with drinks. If you take one, the sensor records it on your bill. This is a good way to take advantage of wasted partiers and it also means that every room has a refrigerator that can’t be used. If one wants to use it, they charge a twenty dollar fee to have its contents removed. This resonates with me as a symbol of what’s fundamentally wrong with this society: the hotel pays for every room to have an unusable fridge while so many people in the world still don’t have refrigeration. It is the same as the empty houses in a city with so many homeless, the same as the wasted, unpurchased food that rots in the trash while so many people starve.
The only word to justify such logic is profit.
I have been reading Derrick Jensen and he is caught up in the idea that the dominant culture is insane. The only way to choose sushi and freeways over birds and tuna and the preservation of the climate, he argues, is to be crazy. It is crazy to destroy one’s landbase for any reason, much less so we can all pay for minibars in our hotel rooms. But I don’t think the dominant culture is crazy. It does not have, as Jensen puts it, a death wish. I believe we are merely short-sighted.
Leaving the hotel room I couldn’t help but see how easy it is to fall into this luxury, how very second-nature it is to me.
Standing in the big glass elevator, I hear its mechanical WOOSH and we are swept past eight floors, each one arranged precisely to be sterile and beautiful and non-offensive. Everywhere I look I am surrounded by artifice. There was no elevator muzak, but in such a moment there should have been. Sean was saying something about how all these hotels are designed the same way, like a formula. Briefly I feel science fiction, like this can’t be real, these smooth and perfect elevators in this smooth and perfect structure. Some day people will look back in awe, trying to imagine living in a world so pristine, in the same way impoverished Cubans wonder at the splendor of Batista’s muraled and gilded palace. Some day this same building will be dark and dirty and people will try to imagine how beautiful it must have been to ride in those glass elevators (It’s the same hotel featured in the 1977 Mel Brooks movie, High Anxiety).
Yet this kind of luxury has been omnipresent my entire life. Even as someone that has tried to take a step back and evaluate where my culture has come from, where it is going, the electric glow of the hotel lobby is expected, commonplace. Nature is what’s alien.
Humans are not good at connecting the dots. Even if I can see the connection between eating sushi and the “clear-cutting” of the oceans, it doesn’t touch my life. I have my own dreams, things I’ve been aspiring to as long as I can remember. Everyone does. Rarely does the trajectory of our lives come unhinged by the things we read about in the news. I know the polar bears are dying but there are so many things I want to do with my life that have nothing to do with polar bears. These few who say, “this is more important than my life, more important than anything I have ever wanted for myself,” are far out-numbered by those who are following their dreams in the system that perpetuates the destruction. Not sinister desires: musicians and writers, lawyers and firemen, chefs and film makers all rely on the continuation of the current system. And how could they not? Their dreams are born in it, they have never known anything else.
I am consumed by these thought as we drive home over the bay bridge. Sean is talking about how much he enjoys the ride. It is all downhill and easy turns. The cars speed at 80. The bridge has two levels and we are on the lower. In the distance there is a column of smoke. It goes higher than the concrete ceiling that limits our view. The smoke is so black it stands out against the navy of the night sky. It is four a.m.
As we leave the covered part of the bridge, the traffic slows to gaze at the biggest fire I have ever seen. Flames are easily shooting seventy feet into the air (later figures are 250 feet). The onramp we are passing is on fire. People are pulled over to look and take pictures. A firetruck is arriving at the scene and even the fireman is using his camera phone to take pictures. The fire is on the “maze,” a cluster of ramps that go onto the bridge. It has entirely consumed whatever started it. The lower ramp is broken in two and, as we drive by, the people gawking gasp: there is a crack as the flames consume the higher overpass like so much kindling in a giant campfire.
This awakens me from my daze. Through the glass and steel encasing of the car, the fire beckons, a bright bold reminder of nature, powerful and awesome. It is enormous. The firetrucks are powerless to stop it, at most they can only hope to contain it.
Tomorrow, I will hear radio recordings of of penguins making distress calls because their ice is melting. I will learn that the bluebell flowers are dying and thus so are the orange tipped butterflies and the birds that eat those butterflies (and so on). Just as every day I hear of the disappearance of some frog or the bleaching of the coral reefs. And I will go on singing and blogging and drawing.
But on this night my animal instincts are touched, the blaze attacking my artificial world like a giant pillaging the village. Still, I am civilized. I know there are firemen whose job it is to confront this giant. My job is to stay in my car. This is my place, our place, to sit by and watch as the whole world burns.