by Ares Demertzis (Nov. 2008)
Celebrating 232 years of a now fatigued, honorable experiment in liberty, justice, and the resolute courage of uncompromising individualism.
I exited the West Side Highway at 125th Street and drove cross-town. I was running late for my scheduled lecture at Columbia University on the collapse of the Roman Empire. Columbia is located in an area known as Morningside Heights, and I mutely speculated as to the appropriateness, given the contemporary historical reality of the nation, of that neighborhood as accommodation for a radically inclined organization of higher learning. Would not Twilight Chasm be more appropriate and afford a more apposite link to the significance of my lecture?
I saw the post office and remembered the small package that my wife had given me to post back in our town across the river; I had neglected the task, and it was still on the vacant passenger seat beside me. I pulled to the curb; the policeman materialized out of nowhere. “Can´t park here, buddy” he said. I pushed my head towards the window. “I´m sorry officer,” I pleaded with an exaggerated grin that turned my stomach in self revulsion as I groveled for understanding. “I just need to send this package.” I held it up for him to see, like a child pleading for parental consideration. “I´ll only be a minute,” I added beseechingly.
The police officer approached; pressing his body against the door he casually wrapped his hands over the bottom ledge of the window. “Sign sez no parking,” he repeated. “Oh, please, officer. Please. I´m a history professor on my way to Columbia to deliver a lecture. When it’s over the post office will be closed and it’s imperative I send this package today.” I regretted using the word imperative; it occurred to me that he was probably unfamiliar with its meaning. His right hand began offhandedly caressing the door, his fingers drumming on the interior upholstery. Unexpectedly Senator Larry Craig tapping his fingers under a public bathroom stall came to mind and startled me; I edged myself away from the window; mailing the package wasn´t any longer that important.
“Well, I dunno…” He appeared to be reconsidering.
“Oh, please, Officer.”
“Ten,” he said.”
“It cost you ten.”
“Oh…Oh! Sure!” I responded flustered, reaching for my wallet.
He slipped an arm deeper into my car and opened his fingers, palm down. “Jes´ slip the ten to my hand and get out the car.”
I opened the car door cautiously against his body, exiting the vehicle slowly to conceal a swift, furtive movement as he pocketed my money.
“Don´ be long,” he admonished.
“Thank you. Thank you very much, Sir,” I fawned distastefully, scurrying away rapidly.
I had mixed feelings concerning this corrupt transaction. I was well aware that I had just bribed an officer of the law, but the law itself implored being disregarded by ignoring an obvious civic need. There was no logical reason to prohibit parking here, but New York, since Ed Koch was mayor, initiated a proliferation of unwarranted parking restrictions that added significantly to the always stressed finances of the city through penalties imposed for violations. It occurred to me that contempt for order and government originates in superfluous laws fashioned by an arrogant and indifferent body politic.
I noticed the young man when I walked back to my car, sitting on the curb with a baseball cap worn backward over his head, large sunglasses concealing his features. In the gutter, next to his leg, was a small, battered hydraulic jack. The front tire was missing from the driver’s side of my vehicle which was now lopsided, unsteadily perched on a cinder block. The police officer was nowhere to be seen.
“Lose you tire?” he asked with a grin.
“It was stolen.”
“Gonna need ´nother one.”
“Is there a tire store nearby?”
“Don´need no tire store. I can find your tire.”
“Oh. I understand. How much?”
“Twenty,” I insisted, looking at my watch. Shit! I was going to be late for my lecture.
“Thirty. Share the wealth, bro! It´s only fair.” It was a contemporary iconic expression that echoed through my mind with bitter familiarity.
“O.K. Twenty five is fair,” I agreed submissively, having no other alternative.
With considerable lethargy the young man unfolded his body from the sidewalk and approached me with his hand out.
“You´ll get the money when you bring the tire.”
He sneered with unconcealed contempt. “Whatever you say, Boss Man. I be right back, you jes¨ keep an eye on this here ma jack, y´hear?”
My Lord, I thought, the barbarian hordes have breached the walls! It won´t be long now. It won´t be long.
The passenger jet lowered itself and comfortably slid over the runway. I was in San Francisco. Tomorrow I was scheduled to attend an important meeting with one of my company´s most significant clients; I arrived one day early in order to attend the baseball game at Candlestick Park; the flight out of New York had been delayed, and I was anxious about arriving late. I rented a car and hastily tuned the radio to hear the game from the start, not wanting to miss even the first inning. As I was exiting the rental car parking lot a traffic cop pulled me over to the curb. She was a short, pudgy woman, her long, tightly coiled hair covered with a service cap that seemed too large for her head, displaying the shield of the San Francisco Police Department. I lowered the window, simultaneously turning down the volume of the car radio and looked in her direction.
“Good afternoon, Officer,” I addressed her pleasantly.
“License and registration.”
“What did I do wrong, Officer?” I asked with a generous, innocent smile.
“License and registration.”
I unbuckled the seat belt and reached for my wallet, where I keep my driver’s license; I opened the glove compartment and removed the contract. “It´s a rental,” I offered unnecessarily, still smiling amiably as I offered the documents.
Ignoring them, she chose instead to look intently at me with a serious, unsmiling expression.
“It cost you twenty dollar.”
“Give me twenty dollar.”
“What did I do, Officer?”
“You didn´ do nothin´, but if you don´ give me twenty, I can find somethin´ t´charge ya with. Unerstan´ ?”
A sudden sense of vulnerability overcame me. This outright gangsterism, the corrupt traditions of alien cultures, of failed societies, now formed an integral part of my cotidian reality.
“O.K., Officer. I´m from out of town. I don´t want any problems.”
“Put twenty with the license and registration an´ pass ém ta me.”
Coincidentally, The National Anthem abruptly resonated from the car´s speakers with what seemed to me the echo of a less than time-honored pride. A new baseball game was about to begin at the stadium; it was already in progress within the nation. An unsettling recollection I experienced, as my airplane cruised at thirty three thousand feet returned to me. I remembered an energetic black man with a seductive smile, Barack Obama, the candidate of the Democratic Party for the Presidency of the United States of America, a country internationally vilified for being a chauvinistic nation of bigoted racists, arguing convincingly that the lyrics of The Star Spangled Banner were bellicose in content, and therefore he refused to recognize and salute it; a new National Anthem would have to be composed. Even this symbol of patriotism will change in the not too distant future, I reflected somberly; for change is the novel, overriding mantra of perceived social progress.
Then I remembered King Solomon, quoted in an address by Abraham Lincoln: “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which would be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.”
I resolved to engrave a ring, as King Solomon many centuries ago, with this savant insight.
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