Don Bigote: Chapter 8

Don Bigote: Chapter 8

The story so far:

  1. Don and Dan Build a Shelter
  2. Don and Dan Take a Flight
  3. Don and Dan Go to Spain
  4. Don and Dan Do Drugs
  5. Don and Dan Find God
  6. Don and Dan Find Themselves
  7. Don and Dan Find Happiness

The Coronavirus Chronicles, Part I

“Wuuhhhuh,” I say, waking up with a start.

My head hurts, my stomach feels shitty, and my left knee is throbbing. Where am I? The light hurts when I open my eyes, so I keep them shut and try to think. What happened? I remember… a kind of trippy cave, a bunch of hippies, some German dudes, and… and… a police raid! How did we get out of there? Last thing I can clearly recall is piling into this sort of weird helicopter thing and taking off through the brush.

I try opening my eyes again, rubbing them and squinting in the sunlight. Everything looks green, very green. It’s some kind of field with lots of trees and bushes around. Okay then… But where’s Bigote?

“He… hello?” I try calling out, but my voice is weak and kind of whispery, like when you’ve smoked a lot and have a bad hangover. I try again: “Bigote?”

“Ah, hah!” I hear a voice from nearby. “It appears that my faithful squire has finally awoken from his slumber.” It’s him.

“Sir?” I crawl toward his voice, still unable to see very clearly. “What’s going on?”

“Well…” This is another voice, a German guy. “It appears that the landing mechanism had a slight malfunction, causing us to impact the ground at a speed that was higher than optimal.”

“How are you feeling, my friend?” This was another German voice—younger. I feel a friendly arm pat me on the back.

“Well, not so great I gotta say. Where are we?”

“Galicia!” Bigote says.

“Ga-what?”

“The northwest of Spain—an ancient land, once populated by celts. A land unconquered by the Muslim invaders and one of the most venerated seats of Catholicism in Europe.”

“Yes, my contraption did not carry us a great distance before we ran into technical troubles,” the older German voice says. I catch a glimpse at the speaker and my memory starts to come back. It’s professor Allesprachen, the guy from that paradise place who we met in Portugal. “I’m afraid there must be a design flaw that I overlooked.”

“Don’t be harsh on yourself, professor,” the younger voice says. I suddenly remember him too: the prince named Franck. “If it weren’t for you, we’d all be in jail right now.”

“Does anybody have some water or something?” I say, sitting back down, holding my head. 

“I am afraid not, my long-suffering companion,” Bigote says. “We have virtually no resources available at the moment.”

“Oh, don’t worry about resources,” Franck says. “We’ve got money to spare. Maybe we ought to find the nearest town and buy some supplies.”

“An excellent idea!” Bigote says. “Should each of us take off in a different direction and return here by sundown?”

“Unnecessary,” Allesprachen says, gesturing to a little black thing in his hand. “I have a device here that can find our location from any point on the earth, and direct us to where we want to go.”

“Marvellous!” Bigote replies. “But how does such a thing work?”

“It uses satellites to triangulate our position on the earth’s surface. I call it ‘Locational Ordinate Specifying Technology,’ or LOST.”

“Brilliant!” Bigote says.

“Isn’t that just GPS?” I say.

“GPS?”

“You know, like Google Maps and all that.”

Before Allesprachen can respond, Bigote cuts in:

“Do not be a fool, Chopin. GPS is a tool of control used by the Muslim-Mexican conspiracy. They use it to monitor the population and enforce that people observe the Call to Prayer and the fasting rules of Ramadan.”

“Well, I cannot say I have ever heard of this Google Maps,” Allesprachen says. “Nor do I know of how it is related with any such conspiracy. But I assure you my device is perfectly safe.”

“Let us go!” Franck says, and soon enough we’re walking through the countryside.

Maybe if I didn’t have a terrible headache, and I weren’t hungry and thirsty, and my stomach didn’t feel kind of like I drank some hydrochloric acid, and my knee didn’t feel like someone hit it with a baseball bat—and if I had clean clothes, a shower, a decent night’s sleep, the prospect of sex anytime soon, or maybe even a nice massage and a tightly-rolled blunt—maybe, in that case, I’d be enjoying this walk through this countryside towards wherever we’re going. But as it is, I feel like absolute garbage.

Luckily we aren’t so far away. Soon, one of these crazy old European towns comes into view, the kind with big walls wrapped around the outside, and all these old stone towers sticking out of it (the pointy kind). We make our way to the nearest bar and shuffle into a booth.

¿Qué vais a tomar, chicos?” the waitress says.

“Ahh, the sweet sound of Castilian. What a beautiful European language!”

“I thought that was Spanish?” Franck says.

“Oh, no—no, no, no,” Bigote says. “Spanish is what they speak in Mexico. In Spain they speak Castilian.”

“But…” Allesprachen tries to say.

Cuatro cervezas,” I say, using some of the only Spanish I remember from Señor González’s class.

Vale, chicos,” she says.

“My word!” Bigote says. “Chopin, I did not know you can speak Castilian.”

“Only a few words,” I say. “I learned it in high school.”

“Astounding! I thought that the conspiracy had removed all European languages from our public schools long ago, replacing them with Spanish and Arabic.”

“Guess my school is a bit special.”

Soon the lady comes back with four big goblets of the good stuff. I gulp mine down almost as soon as I get it.

“So,” Franck says, after taking his own ginger sip. “My good doctor, does your LOST device tell us what city this is?”

“Ah, yes,” Allesprachen says. “We are in a place called ‘Lugo.’”

“Lugo!” Bigote cries out, mid gulp, his moustache dripping. “I have heard of this place. I read about it while researching the Camino de Santiago.”

“Ah, yes!” Allesprachen now cries. “The Camino de Santiago, of course!”

“What is that, my dear mentor?” the prince asks.

“This is an ancient pilgrimage route, established during the darkest ages of Europe. It consists of several different paths, some of them extending as far as our Geheimnisland.”

“But my dear doctor,” Franck says, “what is a pilgrimage?”

“It is a sort of religious voyage that one undertakes in order to feel closer to God, and to purge oneself of one’s sins.”

“I am familiar with the notion of God,” Franck says. “But what is ‘sin’?”

“Well, in this Christian faith, it is the embodiment of God’s disapproval for an action that has been prohibited in the religion.”

“So it is like a cosmic crime?”

“A very astute summary, my prince.”

“What a quaint place this is,” Franck says. “They worship a police officer.”

“Quaint is not the word, my dear friend,” Bigote says. “It is an ancient, noble custom, an homage to one of the pillars of Western civilization—the holy Christian faith. You see, in these dark ages, when this land was overrun by the evil Muslim hoard, Galicia was home to a small pocket of surviving Europeans. This pilgrimage was one of the ways they kept their faith alive, and regained their strength to beat back the invading barbarians.”

“Fascinating,” Franck says. Then, turning to Allesprachen: “You know, my dear doctor, perhaps this is a golden opportunity. I mean, after all, we are searching for a new way of life, a different concept of happiness. Maybe this will help us in our spiritual quest!”

“I think that is a wonderful idea, my prince.”

“Indeed!” Bigote says, newly wetting his moustache. “This is a golden opportunity! And as it is my mission to understand European culture as deeply as I can—before the dastardly conspiracy causes everything to sink into ruin—it appears not only desirably, but incumbent upon me to perform this sacred ritual.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” I say, a knot forming in my stomach. “What are you guys talking about? We only just got here. And I’m sure I would appreciate a few days to relax and eat and recover from all this craziness.”

“Do not worry, my dear squire,” Bigote says. “A pilgrimage, by its very nature, is restful and rejuvenating.”

“For one, I don’t really know what a squire is, or why you’re calling me that. And two—what is a pilgrimage?”

§

“This blows,” I say. “Pilgrimages pretty much suck, I guess.”

So it turns out that all this talk of spirituality and tradition and all that is just an excuse to go on a really long walk. That’s all this Camino de Santiago business is—a glorified stroll. All we’ve been doing is following these silly little signs with yellow arrows on them, which are leading us further and further into the middle of nowhere. 

“Do not be so censorious, my dear Chopin. We have only just begun the journey!”

“I’d like to stop and have a coffee and a ham sandwich or something.”

“Why, was our breakfast not ample enough?”

“A single croissant? No way, man. And also, we could’ve stayed in bed for way, way longer. I don’t know why you had to drag me out at six in the morning.”

“Ah, but my dear Chopin, you must understand that it is only wise to partake of a light meal before spending the day on our feet. And you must admit that it is worthwhile to sacrifice a little sleep if it means that we do not have to walk during the hottest part of the day.”

“I guess… But I’d still like to stop.”

“Oh, my dear Chopin, you have no taste for romance! As I walk this hallowed path, my mind flies back more than a millenia. Think of the nobles, philosophers, saints, and kings who must have trod the very same ground you are standing upon now! Over hundreds of years, facing a relentless foe, these noble Europeans built a culture that remains the envy of the world—gothic architecture, contrapuntal music, three-dimensional painting! It is our sacred duty to preserve what we can of this heritage, before its inevitable destruction at the hands of the conspiracy.”

“I think we should let the conspiracy destroy really long walks…”

“You know,” Allesprachen cuts in, “I must admit, Mr. Bigote, that I am still rather fuzzy on this conspiracy you talk so much about. Can you help me understand better the history and purpose of this nefarious organization?”

“Why, of course, my erudite friend. The conspiracy against civilization has taken many forms in the long course of history. But the most convenient place to start is the Cold War. At this time, the forces of Western destruction operated more or less out in the open, as communists and socialists. But after America’s triumph in the 1990s, these enemies of capitalism, truth, freedom, and justice had to go underground.”

“Underground?”

“Yes, they decided they had to operate in secret, since they could not overthrow the West directly. By establishing a secret network of spies and operatives, they slowly took control—of the CIA, the media—and they set up centers of power in many parts of the less-developed world, like Mexico and the Middle East. This way, they have accomplished through stealth what one hundred years of war could not: almost total control of the levers of power.”

“My word!” Franck says. “But isn’t there some way to stop them?”

“Sadly, I believe it is too late. Yes, at one point I did think we had a chance. The election of our dear leader, Donald Trump, gave me hope. Even now, he is fighting a losing battle against the forces of destruction, buried deep within the United States government. But even a man as talented and brave as he is can never win against such odds.”

“Guys,” I say. “I think I’m going to pass out if we go any further. I’m not cut out for this shit… You know I failed gym class every year since the fifth grade? This is torture.”

“Cheer up, Chopin!” Bigote cries. “We’re almost halfway there!”

§

A few agonizing hours later—with sweat running down my back, blisters covering the soles of my feet, a bad sunburn on the back of my neck—feeling lightheaded, woozy, hungry, thirsty, and generally terrible—just then, we get to the hostel.

It isn’t much. Basically, it’s just a bunch of metal bunk beds in a big white room. They gave us a couple shitty pillow cases for the plastic pillows and also a couple blankets. The bathroom and shower and all that is shared. Luckily there aren’t many people there beside us, so at least it isn’t cramped. But, honestly, if this is what it takes to get God to forgive me, he can hold onto his grudge.

The town isn’t much either—just a few stone houses, some fields full of cows, and a single restaurant. Well, at least the restaurant has hamburgers and beer. After dinner, I crawl into my bunk and find it to be almost comfortable. At least I’ll be able to savor a few hours of being unconscious and away from these nutjobs.

The next morning, as usual, Bigote gets me out of bed by jabbing his bony finger into my rib cage.

“Jesus, dude,” I groan. “Can’t you just say my name or something?”

“Oh, my dear Chopin,” Bigote says. “You and I both know that a touch of physical violence is required to rouse you from your slumber.”

“You sound like my mom, except with a much better vocabulary I guess.”

I sit up and rub my eyes. I feel wretched.

“Honestly, guys,” I say, to nobody in particular. “I can’t believe this is how you want to spend your time. Here we are, in Spain, a country with wine, clubs, hot girls, and we’re out here, walking, like somehow this is going to solve any of the world’s problems.”

“Chopin, hurry up!” Bigote calls from across the room.

Somehow, I managed to brush my teeth and dress myself. But just as we’re about to walk out the door, the owner of the hostel rushes in front of us.

¿¡Qué hacéis!? No se puede salir ahora por el virus!”

“Chopin, did you catch that?” Bigote asks me.

“Nah…”

“Wait a moment,” Allesprachen says. Then, he pulls out a device from his bag. “Here is another one of my inventions, the Linguistic Omnidirectional Speech Translator, or LOST.”

“Isn’t the name of your other thing?” I say.

“Oh, you’re right…”

“And isn’t that just like Google Translate?”

“How many times do I have to tell you, Chopin!” Bigote says. “Google is a tool of the conspiracy!”

“Well, let me turn on the device.”

Allesprachen switches a button on the little black box and a green light pops on. He holds it up to the Spanish man and says, “Can you say that again?”

A digital voice then emits from the box, and says: “¿Puedes decir esto otra vez?

The man starts talking through the machine:

“You guys need to know that there’s a virus out there, called the coronavirus. Lots of people are dying and the government says that we can’t leave our houses anymore.”

“Can’t leave out houses!? That’s tyranny!” Bigote cries.

“I don’t make the laws, man, but if you leave here, you could get a big, big fine, and maybe even arrested. All the flights are cancelled so it looks like we’ll all have to stay here for the time being.”

I look around the hostel. Aside from us and the owner, there are about ten people with us.

“Well at least we don’t have to do any more walking,” I say.

“This is not the time for smart comments, Chopin. I’m afraid that this may signify the beginning of the end.”

“What?”

“I have research to do!” Bigote cries, and walks back to his bunk.

“Indeed, I believe I should do some investigating myself,” Allesprachen says, and also retreats.

From that point on, time has started to go pretty slowly. I spend a lot of time sleeping, and a lot more time laying in bed, looking at the ceiling. Among the people trapped here, there isn’t even one hot girl—the closest is a lady in her forties with a big nose—so there’s no relief in that department. Thankfully, we’re still allowed to go out to buy food and, very importantly, alcohol. So that’s helping. And one of the ‘pilgrims’ here has some playing cards, which has helped to pass the time. But that’s pretty much it, as far as my life goes.

Meanwhile, Bigote has disappeared into the internet. He’s been using the hostel’s computer to do his ‘research,’ all day and apparently all night, too. Allesprachen has set up a kind of lab in a supply closet. He says he’s working on a cure for the virus.

After about a week of this, Bigote emerges—his mustache even bigger, scratchier, and messier than usual—and calls a meeting.

“Everyone, gather together!” he yells. “I need to let you know the truth of what is happening.”

We all pull up folding chairs into a little circle, like an AA meeting.

“We have been told that there is a pandemic raging in the world. The mainstream media assure us that a virus, inadvertently transferred from wild animals, has traveled from China to the rest of the world. So-called experts have concluded that the only way to stop the virus from catastrophic spread is to shut us all in our homes and to close all ‘non-essential’ businesses. We are told that the only way to defeat this virus is a vaccine, to be developed by these same so-called experts in their laboratories.”

“Get to the point,” one of the pilgrims says.

“I am here to tell you that none of this is true. Indeed, this entire emergency is, in reality, a meticulously planned power-grab by the conspiracy to seize control of our society. Now, some people have already doubted the official story about the virus coming from wild animals, thinking that it was crafted in a Chinese laboratory. This is only half-true. The horrible truth is that the symptoms of the virus are really the effects of MSG, built up in the bloodstream through years of eating Chinese takeout. Yet MSG is only one half of the recipe. The recently-developed ‘5G’ wireless network is carefully engineered to activate the MSG that has built up in our muscles, nerves, and blood. The activated MSG produces the virus symptoms.”

“Are you sure…” someone says.

“But why would they do this? The answer is obvious. The communist Chinese government, like so many governments around the world, is really just a puppet for the Muslim Mexican conspiracy. You see, it is all connected—vegans, gays, communists, liberals, global warming scientists, identity politics—it is all part of a grand scheme to finally topple Western Civilization. And this fake pandemic is the perfect vehicle to accomplish their plan. The economic ruin alone will bring many governments to their knees. The manufactured disaster will weaken the leaders who have honest, liberal principles, like our dear Trump, and only strengthen authoritarian communist regimes. State control will seem not only desirable, but necessary, and personal liberties frivolous.”

“But what about…”

“When they finally come out with a ‘vaccine,’ it will be the last phase in their nefarious scheme. They will inject hundreds of millions with a devious concoction, laced with gay genes and mind-control chemicals, allowing them to turn us all into obedient subjects, praying to Allah five times a day and eating vegetarian tacos in polygamous relationships.”

“That doesn’t sound so…”

“Unfortunately, if they have been able to come this far, it is probably too late to stop them. All we can do is hunker down and try to ride out the storm of civilizational collapse. Then, it will be our task to start rebuilding what we lost…”

Bigote stops, and the whole room becomes silent. I can’t tell if it’s because these people think he’s really onto something, or if they think he’s batshit crazy, or if they’re just kinda bored like me. Just as the silence starts to get a bit awkward and uncomfortable, one of the pilgrims starts to talk. He’s stocky, bald, and clean-shaven, who looks like he’s about forty.

“You know,” he says, “a lot of what you been saying makes sense to me. You see, I ain’t trusted Muslims, Mexicans, or really anyone from outside the country for a long time. They’re always up to something, these immigrants, whether they’re stealing our jobs or our women. I swear. Hell, a lot of born Americans aren’t trustworthy either, if they’re from the wrong neighborhood, if you know what I mean.”

“I apologize,” Bigote says, “but I did not catch your name, good sir.”

“My name’s Derek,” he says.

“Well, I appreciate your contribution to the conversation!” Bigote responds. “Judging from your accent, it appears that you are, like myself, of American extraction.”

“I’m an American, for sure,” he says. “Minnesota, born and bred.”

“The real heartland of the country!” Bigote says. “What brings you all the way here, on a pilgrimage in Europe?”

“Well, that’s sort of a long story,” Derek says.

“Why, I think we could all use a long story,” Franck says. “After all, we’re stuck here for the foreseeable future. It would be nice to pass the time some way, maybe by sharing the story of how we got here.”

“If that’s what you want, little man,” Derek says, “I’m game. Here we go.”


The Police Officer’s Tale

Well, first of all, I want to set the record straight about my background. People these days talk about white privilege, like all we whites live in mansions and drive Ferraris. That’s a bunch of bullshit. We didn’t have much growing up, my family. You see, my dad worked at the steel mill, so when I was younger it was mainly my mom, my sister, and me. He made a good, honest living that way, but it was hard work, and he’d come back late, tired, sweaty, cranky. You know.

Well, the years rolled by, and I think work got to my dad a bit. He started staying out late, drinking. At first it was only on the weekends, but then it started to be almost every night. And he was a mean drunk. He raised us right when he was sober. He’d smack us into shape sometimes, but he never hurt us. But when he was drunk he’d take it a bit too far, if you know what I mean, and sometimes he’d hit mom too. I didn’t like that.

Well, I think my mom got a bit tired of it. When I was twelve, she took us to her parent’s house, and told us they was getting a divorce. It was pretty ugly. Dad came over a few times, beat on the door, yelling and screaming. One time he even shot his rifle into the upstairs window. I think he smashed up my grandma’s car a bit, too. That all stopped with the restraining order. Anyways, they had to go to court and all that. My daddy, he must have felt pretty bad by then, because he wanted paternity tests for me and my baby sister. Turns out, I was his son, but she wasn’t.

Well, the judge considered that, and decided that the two of them would get joint custody of me, but my sister would stay with our mom full time. So some weeks I’d go over to dad’s, some to mom’s. Mom got a job as an accountant to push us through. But she started going out with some new guy, Carl, who I guess was my sister’s daddy. I didn’t like him. He’d walk in like he owned the place. He’d boss my mom around. I’d fight with him. One time, when my mom wasn’t around, he smacked me. So then, whenever he’d come over, I’d just go to my dad’s.

Well, my dad wasn’t doing so good, either. Without my mom he started drinking more and more. Most of the time when I’d get there, he wasn’t home. I’d sneak in through the back door and just hang out there, all by myself. Sometimes he’d come home and he’d be happy to see me. But, when he was drunk, he was meaner than ever. I dunno, maybe I brought back bad memories of my mom, and he’d rough me up. One time, he came back with a streetwalker and kicked me out.

Well, this sort of continued for a while. But then, one day, there was a big hullabaloo in town. Turns out, the steel mill was closing down for good. They sacked everyone, including my dad, and boarded up the old buildings. Things went downhill for my dad pretty fast after that. His drinking got out of hand. He’d basically just drink from morning to night. The last time I came over, the house was a dump, liquor bottles everywhere, and my dad was passed out on the floor. When I woke him up he didn’t even remember who I was. So I just left him there. He was dead about a week later.

Well, that was pretty sad. Naturally, I wasn’t doing too good in school under the circumstances. I pretty much failed everything and eventually I just decided that it was just a big old waste of time. So I dropped out and started looking for work. Unfortunately, a lot of the jobs had dried up. Of course the factory was gone. But after all the workers lost all their money, a lot of other places went out of business, too. So the only thing I could find was being a dishwasher in the local diner.

Well, that wasn’t too much fun. I worked six nights a week, ten-hour shifts, and the pay was total shit. I had the idea that I’d be able to move out, buy a car, maybe get a girl, just like my dad did at my age. But I barely had enough money for the bus, nevermind a car. And that’s when I started thinking. You know, working as a dishwasher gives you a lot of empty headspace. So I started wondering why things had gone downhill. Where’d all the good jobs go? 

Well, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was we was getting fleeced. The government says they’re gonna take care of all us good, hardworking Americans. But what do they do? They send out jobs to China. Or they let immigrants in and take our jobs from right under our noses. Or they take our taxes and they support all these lazy welfare queens in the cities. Or they just let these criminals rob our money, rape our women, sell drugs—basically run rampant. Basically, I figured we was getting the short end of the stick.

Well, that’s when I decided that we had to fight back. And I decided the best way to do that was to become a police officer. But of course I had a problem: I didn’t graduate high school. So I quit my job, studied a bit, got my GED, and enrolled in the academy. It was a bit hard at first, but soon I started to really love it. Eventually I graduated, got a job in the city, and got to work.

Well, that was really great. Being a police officer has a lot of perks, you know. You’re on a team with a bunch of boys, and everyone has everyone else’s back no matter what. Whether it’s some nosy reporter, a politician, or some activist type, it don’t matter, because we never squeal on each other. Yes, at times the job can be a little boring, like traffic stops and whatnot. But sometimes it’s real exciting. Like sometimes you got to bust into people’s houses. One time, for example, we got a domestic violence call. We get there, the guy refuses to let us in, so we kick the door down. Turns out, guy’s got a gun, and he’s sort of stumbling, reaching for it, so I pop him in the shoulder. 

Well, even traffic stops can be a bit exciting. For example, you know you can basically just ask anyone you want to get out of their car, and you can just search it? So if anyone looks suspicious, or if they’re just giving you some lip, you can have them on the pavement, face down. Anything you find in there is basically yours to keep. Petty cash? Could be to buy drugs, you can put it right in your pocket. And sometimes you’ll find a bit of weed, or you’ll just “find” some weed. Half the time, the guy starts to get upset. He might be insulting you, or even struggling, or trying to stop you. Funny thing is, as soon as there’s any resistance, all bets are off. You can wrestle him to the ground, tear gas him, taze him, anything you want. You get out a lot of anger on the job.

Well, the most exciting things could be the drug busts. That’s when you get all armored up, grab a shotgun, and then just go in, guns blazing. You don’t even need to knock or anything, we can just bust right in. It’s exciting as hell. Admittedly, sometimes we made a few mistakes. One time a flashbang burned a kid, and another time we gave some old guy a heart attack. Yeah, and I admit we don’t always find drugs. But it makes you feel like you’re in an action movie.

Well, I do have to admit one thing. I really was never very good with the ladies. I feel kinda shy and I never say the right thing, so basically dating hasn’t worked out for me. But being a police officer fixed that, too. You see, one part of the job is dealing with the prostitutes. Technically, being a whore is against the law, of course. On the other hand, there’s not a lot we can do about it. We throw them in jail and, next week, they’re out again. Or another girl’s replaced the one we locked away. And of course the demand is always there.

Well, so we basically have come to an understanding with the street-walkers. We go over there once in a while, make a big show of busting them up, taking down IDs, maybe dragging a few to jail for some nights. But mostly we sort of tax them. There’s two ways we do this. A lot of the boys just take some cash and zip off. Me, on the other hand, I prefer to get my rocks off. And you know, I think the girl’s prefer it, too, since it’s their job and all, and they don’t have to lose any money. So it’s a win-win. This way, I’ve basically kept myself satisfied, as far as the ladies are concerned. 

Well, so I was really enjoying this job. Sure, I got into some tight corners. People complained. I injured a few people. I got reprimanded a bit. But they also gave me medals, like for tackling a drunk guy waving a bottle around. The money was good. I had my lady friends. Basically, I felt like I was all set. But it came apart a few weeks ago. 

Well, it started with a pretty routine traffic stop. Some guy with a broken tail light. Honestly, I wasn’t feeling too hot that day. You see, the night before, I had done quite a bit of drinking, not to mention a couple pills I pocketed in a drug bust a few days before. So, basically, I was pretty hungover and just looking to have an easy day. Know what I mean? The end of the month was coming up, though, so I figured I should do a couple traffic stops to make my quota. Best way to do this is to go over to the other side of the tracks, the bad part of town, since everyone’s car is busted up one way or another. Pretty easy to stop people for vehicle violations.

Well, so I see this guy with the broken tail light, I flash my sirens, and he starts slowing down. But then, the crazy motherfucker opens his door, jumps out, and starts sprinting away through a park nearby. Now, when I was feeling hot, I woulda just run after him. I was pretty fast in my glory days. But that day I just felt so dog tired. I wasn’t about to be running with a hangover. So I sort of hesitated for a moment, until I remembered something we was taught in the police academy, that it’s legal to shoot a fleeing suspect. That seemed a heck of a lot better than running, so I pulled out my gun and squeezed the trigger a few times.

Well, soon enough the rest of the boys came. I was a bit worried at first, since I figured he was almost definitely a goner, but they said I was right about the law. Any fleeing suspect is fair game. Of course I had some paperwork to do and all that, but basically it seemed all good. Turns out, the guy was running because he was driving with a suspended license, and that was because he was late on his childcare payments. So basically he was just some deadbeat anyways. Good riddance, I figured.

Well, the next few days were more or less normal. The chief got me on desk duty, since that’s the normal procedure after you kill a suspect. That was fine by me, though. But three days later, everything just went to hell. Turns out, some liberal jackass filmed the whole thing on his cellphone, and it was circulating on the internets—one of those viral videos, you know. Soon as that happened, it just exploded. The media were involved. Reporters outside the precinct. Protests in the street. It got rough pretty fast.

Well, even after all that, I wasn’t so worried. You see, the police, we got each other’s backs no matter what. So I was pretty confident nothing would really change. After all, it wasn’t the first man I killed in the line of duty. And the chief had my back. He gave them media people the facts—I was within my legal rights to shoot a fleeing suspect, he was some deadbeat, and so on. But the pressure kept on building. After a while, the chief told me to stay home for a bit, to help relieve the pressure. But then the reporters were hanging out around my house and I couldn’t do nothing.

Well, after a while the mayor got involved, and told the chief that I had to go. I admit, they gave me a pretty good severance package. Let me keep my pension. Decent unemployment. But that didn’t help the fact that I was notorious. I couldn’t even go to the grocery store without getting funny looks. This didn’t make it any easier to try to find a new job, let me tell you. And you know what? These protesters, they weren’t even happy when they gave me the boot. They wanted me arrested. Imagine that! They don’t know the law. A police officer don’t follow the same rules as normal people.

Well, crazy thing is, they kept saying I killed the guy because he was black. But the truth is I woulda killed him no matter what color he was. I just didn’t feel like running that day.

Well, I got pretty bored all alone in my house, drinking and so on, so that’s when I decided I’d come on this pilgrimage. I had a decent amount of money tucked away, mostly from all the confiscating I did on the job. So now I’m here. And it’s pretty great. People don’t recognize me so I don’t get any dirty looks. And of course all the scenery is nice. But I do miss being a cop. There’s nothing like it. When you’re a cop, you are the boss of the neighborhood. Nobody can say shit to you. And everyone got to do what you tell them to do. Besides, when you’re a cop, you know you’re basically doing a good thing in the world. Without us, who would protect the people from thieves, murderers, and rapists? But do I get any respect? Nope.


Derek stops talking, and we’re all silent for a while.

“What a remarkable tale,” Franck says.

“Wait a second,” I say. “So, you can just take whatever you want from people you stop on the street?”

“Chopin,” Bigote says. “I believe you missed the most important lesson from this story.”

“Yeah?”

“This is a perfect illustration of how the conspiracy has undermined the United States. Through their wily machinations, they have managed to promote trade deals that, they knew, would have disastrous economic consequences for the country. This loss of decent employment, in turn, caused a wave of crime that required additional police to handle. But the conspirators have turned their dastardly ideology on the police, making it impossible for brave officers, such as Derek, to do their jobs. Now, they are demonized, as part of the so-called ‘white, patriarchal, Christian state!’ As the public’s trust in the forces of order erodes, the evil forces of chaos—the Muslim-Mexican conspiracy—get ever closer to their goal of destabilizing the society completely, and ushering in their dystopian world of vegan, feminist identity politics!”

“That’s damn right,” Derek says.

“You know,” Franck says, “I feel that I have learned so much about the world from your story. And this has given me an inspiration. Perhaps all of us should share our stories? After all, we have a lot of time to pass during the quarantine, and I personally am greatly eager to learn more.”

“Want a story?” someone says. “I got one for you.”

To be continued…

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Review: Evicted

Review: Evicted

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.

Yesterday, on July 24, the federal moratorium on evictions—protecting about 12 million renters—ended; and many state-level moratoriums will conclude soon as well. Enhanced unemployment benefits, which gave households an extra $600 per month, will terminate this month, too, meaning that families will lose income at just the moment they are vulnerable to eviction. Meanwhile, as the virus rages on, so does massive unemployment. It seems likely, then, that the United States is on the cusp of a huge wave of evictions. Under these circumstances, I thought it was a good time to read this book.

This is an urban ethnography written about the lives of the desperately poor as they struggle to find stable housing. Matthew Desmond lived for months in a trailer park and then in the inner city, following people around, taking notes and photographs, recording conversations, conducting interviews, and carrying out large surveys. In many ethnographies—especially since the postmodern turn—the author has striven to include herself in the narrative, emphasizing the subjectivity of the process. But Desmond has effaced himself from this book, and has instead written a kind of nonfiction novel of eight families undergoing eviction.

The first thing that strikes the reader is that Desmond is an excellent writer. The narration is gripping from the beginning—dramatic, vivid, and even occasionally poetic—meaning that my first reaction was emotional rather than intellectual. Wrenching pity for the people caught up in this cycle of poverty alternated, at times, with light disapproval at seemingly self-destructive behavior, which disappeared into outrage at the landlords profiting from this situation, and then incredulity that such things can be allowed to go on in a supposedly advanced nation. Often, I found it hard to take in, and had to put the book down to take a breath:

[Crystal] had been born prematurely on a spring day in 1990 shortly after her pregnant mother was stabbed eleven times in the back during a robbery—the attack had induced labor. Both mother and daughter survived. It was not the first time Crystal’s mother had been stabbed. For as far back as she could remember, Crystal’s father had beat her mother. He smoked crack and so did her mother and so did her mother’s mother.

But if this book were merely a collection of such stories, it would be little more than poverty voyeurism. This book has quite an important point to make, though, and that is how eviction is not only a consequence of poverty, but one of its major causes.

Any account of housing instability needs to begin with the fact that most people who qualify for housing aid to not get it—3 out of 4 receive no aide whatsoever. This leaves them at the mercy of the private housing market, which has seen steadily rising rents for years, at a time when wages are stagnant. Though it is normally recommended to pay no more than 30% of your wages in rent, the subjects of this book paid far, far more—in some cases, over 90%. This has serious consequences. Most obviously, if you are paying so much of your income in rent, it is impossible to save, and often even to pay basic expenses. What is more, this means that virtually any unforeseen expense—repairs, medical problems, or a funeral—can make a renter fall behind.

Once behind, it is extremely difficult for a renter to catch up. This effectively puts them at the mercy of the landlord. Even if the house is in disrepair and violates safety codes, missing rent means that the renter can be evicted on short notice. As Desmond describes, some landlords are willing to be lax—at least for a time—and cut deals with tenants. But for many who fall behind, the sheriff will soon be knocking on their door, along with a team of movers, giving the tenants a stark choice: to have their things left on the curb, or put into storage (where they need to pay extortionate fees in order to keep it from being trashed). Most evictees do not have housing lined up, and many end up in homeless shelters.

In a market where buyers are desperate and sellers are relatively scarce, there is little incentive for landlords to reduce prices, or even to make basic repairs of their properties. As Desmond explains, it is often more profitable for landlords to evict late-paying tenants and contract new ones than to make their properties livable. The tenants in these pages put up with rats, roaches, broken walls, smashed windows, clogged plumbing, sagging ceilings, to give just a short list. Desmond himself did not have hot water during his stay at the trailer park, despite paying rent on time, repeatedly asking the landlord, and even informing them that he was writing a book about life in a trailer park.

Eviction is not a rare occurrence—there are well over one million per year in the United States—and it is also not merely a private tragedy. Unsurprisingly, evictions concentrate in poor neighborhoods; and when residence in an area is unstable, it makes it an even less desirable place to life. As Jane Jacobs pointed out, neighborhoods are not primarily made safe by patrolling police, but by the constant presence of people on the street, people with a sense of ownership of the neighborhood. Ejecting residents obviously erodes this possibility—and not only in the area where people are evicted from, but also in the areas they unwillingly move to—which makes the city generally less safe.

Eviction is also not colorblind. Just as black men are disproportionately locked up, Desmond found that black women are disproportionately thrown out. And when you consider that having either a conviction or an eviction record can disqualify you from public housing, and can legally be used to screen potential renters by private landlords, you can see that this disadvantage is compounded. The white families in these pages certainly did not have an easy time finding and maintaining housing, but the black families were significantly worse off. Desmond followed one white couple who managed to find a place despite both of them having eviction and felony records, and one of them an outstanding warrant!

It is crucial to remember that housing instability is not merely the byproduct of individuals navigating private markets. The government is not only culpable for being a bystander to suffering citizens, but for propping up this very situation. Just as government force—in the guise of police officers and prisons—has been used to deal with the social fallout of disappearing jobs, so has government force—in the form of eviction courts, sheriffs, movers, public eviction records, and homelessness shelters—been used to deal with the disappearance of affordable housing. Without this government backing, the situation could not exist.

In many cases Desmond documented, government workers actually encouraged landlords to evict their tenants. Since many properties do not meet building codes, virtually any government attention—whether from the police, the fire department, an ambulance, or social services—can motivate a landlord to eject a tenant. What is more, if too many 911 calls come from an address, the property is labeled a ‘nuisance property,’ and landlords are forced by the police to ‘take action’—usually through an eviction. Even victims of domestic abuse are often evicted, one reason that many victims do not contact the police.

If we can agree that this situation is unconscionable, then of course we must do something to change it. But what? One solution is rent control: establish maximum prices that landlords can legally charge. This can have some quite negative unintended consequences, however. For one, if low-income housing ceases to be profitable, then there is no incentive to create more. This leads to shortage. But what about simply giving people more money, such as by raising the minimum wage or a basic income scheme? The problem with this strategy is that rising rents can easily offset income gains.

One fairly easy, short-term solution would be to provide defendants in civil courts with public defenders. Currently, in the United States, only defendants in criminal courts have such a right, though many other nations also provide legal counsel in civil cases. At the moment, most people do not even show up for their eviction hearings; the majority who show up do not have a lawyer, and most of them lose the case. Legal counsel can profoundly change the odds of evictees. And it is worth noting that, though hiring lawyers is expensive, cycling people through homelessness shelters is even more so—and this does not even take into account the other forms of economic disruption caused by eviction, such as job loss (quite common when people lose their home).

Another solution, popular in the past, has been to build public housing. This has several obvious problems, too. For one, as happened in NYC, vibrant and affordable neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for enormous housing projects. What is more, the design of public housing projects was ill-conceived: enormous high-rises with parks in between. By isolating the poor into these buildings—with no shops or other services nearby, and few good communal spaces—the projects became dangerous and dysfunctional.

It is possible that smarter public housing could play an important role in the housing crisis. If apartments are scattered through the city, rather than concentrated, and integrated with shops, restaurants, and other businesses, then it is much less likely that they will become dangerous. An added benefit to cheap public housing is that they exert a downward pressure on the housing market, since private apartments must compete with them. However, the housing shortage is so acute that public housing alone is unlikely to be enough; it would require too much building.

This is why Matthew Desmond advocates housing vouchers. These vouchers basically pick up the tab for renters, covering anything above 30% of their income. However, there is an obvious problem with such a scheme: landlords are incentivized to overcharge for their properties, since the money is guaranteed. Indeed, according to Desmond, this often happens, which leads to a lot of wasted taxpayer money. Clearly, some mechanism is necessary to establish reasonable prices. But the voucher scheme does have the great advantage of scalability: they can be distributed quickly and widely.

Such a program would not be cheap. And in the United States, welfare programs tend to be politically divisive, since in our individualistic culture we prefer to hold the poor responsible for their own poverty. This mindset runs very deep. Desmond even records a preacher who, after giving a sermon about the importance of charity, refused to help a homeless woman so that she could learn her lesson. And certainly many of the people in this book did make bad, self-destructive choices. But as Desmond points out—and as psychological studies have shown—living in poverty actively erodes people’s ability to choose wisely and to think in the long term. Furthermore, many behaviors which seem irrational to middle-class onlookers are actually sensible adaptations to poverty.

The other important point to consider is that those of us lucky enough not to live in poverty are also benefiting from government policies. The federal government subsidizes mortgages—a policy that mainly benefits people with six-figure incomes. The capital gains exception means that homeowners who sell their house do not have to include much of that money in their income, and thus are not taxed. Indeed, the United States loses far more in tax revenue through these kinds of tax breaks than it spends in housing aid for the poor. This fits into a common pattern in American life: that those least in need of help are those most likely to receive it (and vice versa, of course).

As I hope you can see, this is a gripping and important book. The reader comes away with both an intellectual and a visceral understanding of housing insecurity. There are some things that I wish Desmond included—most notably, what economic trends drove this change—but, on balance, I do not think anyone could have written a better book on this topic. Now, as we face the prospect of mass evictions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps we will summon the political will to do something about the problem.

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Review: Tightrope

Review: Tightrope

Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Something is wrong with America’s tax structure when the working poor pay taxes so the federal government can make a payment to an e-commerce giant owned by the world’s richest man.

This book was timely when it was released, and it has only grown timelier since the pandemic struck. Normally, Americans are typified by high levels of patriotism and pride in our country—the unshakeable conviction that we are the greatest. (Indeed, as the authors note, while Americans students are not especially strong by international standards, they are most likely of all to think they have mastered the subject-matter.) But now, as the virus comes roaring back, with unemployment soaring and systemic racism undeniable, this illusion is difficult to maintain. Indeed, the pandemic may have been the perfect crisis to expose the underlying weaknesses in our society. With every country responding to the same challenge, we can compare successes and failures; and at the moment the US response is not inspiring.

The premise of this book is that the United States is falling behind its peer countries in many respects—high-school enrollment, healthcare, child mortality, incarceration—largely as a result of a governmental philosophy embraced in the 1970s. In a nutshell, this was the philosophy of extreme individualism: that every person is wholly responsible from themself. Put another way, this was a kind of radical, economic meritocracy—the belief that the distribution of wealth was a perfect reflection of people’s worth. Thus, the wealthy deserved their wealth and should not be taxed or regulated, while the poor deserved their poverty and should not be helped.

The effects of this mentality can be seen in all sorts of places. The IRS is much more likely to audit someone making less than $20,000 than someone making a thousand times that. White collar crimes are rarely prosecuted, and if so with a fine or a light sentence, while a shoplifter can face serious jail time. After irresponsibly marketing OxyContin—and contributing to a heroine epidemic that cost many lives—Purdue paid a fine that was a mere fraction of their profits, while there are many poor individuals serving life sentences for drug possession. Two zip codes in the same city, one rich and one poor, correspond with life expectancies that differ by twenty years. Income bracket is a stronger predictor of college success than SAT scores (and income partially predicts SAT scores, too). The list goes on.

One irony of American life is that the excuse given for not having welfare programs is always the same: How will we pay for it? When it comes to helping out poor Americans we suddenly become extremely penurious. Thus, we wring our hands about Section 8 housing assistance but not tax breaks for mortgages, and we knit our brow at public healthcare but rarely discuss the tax breaks for employer-based healthcare. We underinvest in social services, rehab facilities, education, and housing, but we do not bat an eye at the expense of cycling the poor through shelters, emergency rooms, and jails. When it comes to police, prisons, and the military, there is never any discussion of affordability.

What makes this book worthwhile is not for this information, however, as it can be found in many places, but for the stories from Nicholas Kristoff’s life. The son of Yamhill, a small town in Oregon, Kristoff has watched many of the kids he grew up with succumb to deaths of despair over the years. The most memorable case may be the Knapp family. After growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father, the five Knapp children all died before their sixtieth birthday. One died of liver failure, one of hepatitis from injecting drugs, one of a heroin overdose, one of an explosion in a drug lab, one of a fire while inebriated and unconscious. In fact, when the book was published one of the siblings, Keylan, was still alive, but died last March.

While in any individual case you can make an argument about bad choices, the mere fact that a quarter of the children on Kristoff’s school bus died points to a deeper problem. In the authors’ opinion, the fundamental shift is the disappearance of decent, blue-collar work—particularly for men. By now, the story is familiar enough. Whereas, in the past, a person without a high school diploma could work a unionized job in a factory and afford a house, that is simply not the case nowadays.

The disappearance of jobs has a kind of domino effect: people deal drugs to make money, take drugs to ward off boredom, get arrested, lose custody of children, have their driver’s license revoked, get evicted—in short, the cycle of poverty.

Now, as Kristoff and WuDunn repeatedly point out, it is far too easy to write this off as a series of irresponsible choices. And it is true, many poor people make bad decisions. Being impoverished does not inculcate saintliness or enlightenment. But to ascribe the failure to individuals is, I think, both illogical and unfair, though that is so often how we choose to see it in America. Indeed, this sort of individualistic thinking can be quite compelling, such as in the case of Tanitoluwa Adewumi, a Nigerian immigrant who won the New York State K-3 chess championship at the age of eight while living in a homeless shelter. His tale attracted attention and Tani is now living in a real home, thanks to the generosity of many strangers.

Stories like this are intensely inspiring, since they seem to validate our belief that real merit will always get rewarded in the end. But arguably the more socially important fact of Tani’s story is that all the children he was competing against were from well-off families, with private chess tutors. And this underscores the essential point: that chess ability—like so many things—is not normally the product of raw talent and individual drive alone, but also the result of resources and environment.

For me, the best way of thinking about the competing influences of environment and individual merit is that they conflict only at their extremes. Here is what I mean. The environment is akin to the menu in a restaurant, and the individual chooses from these pre-set options. Only rarely, in extreme cases, does the diner get to switch restaurants and look at a new menu.

Just so, when a child is born into a family of a certain economic class, there is a certain range of likely economic outcomes. A child of a middle-class family has a decent chance of becoming, say, a doctor, while the child of a wealthy family has a fair shot at becoming a CEO. In the United States, at present, most children will not radically change the economic class they were born into. It is even more unlikely that a child of a billionaire will end up homeless than that a homeless boy will win a chess championship. But a small number of people, through a combination of luck and skill, will succeed in radically raising themselves (or, in some cases, lowering themselves). In these cases, individual factors will seem to have trumped environmental influence.

To continue the metaphor, just as it is the responsibility of the individual to choose wisely from the menu, it is the responsibility of the society to make sure that nothing on the menu is poisonous. Too often, however, people are born into circumstances that make it extremely difficult to choose correctly. And in the case of the poor, one bad choice can be disastrous. This is the meaning of the book’s title: the least advantaged have the least room for error—one mistake, and society brands them a criminal, a junkie, or a welfare queen—while those from wealthy backgrounds can make any number of mistakes without facing catastrophic consequences. To use the book’s metaphor, then, it is the individual that has to walk, but it is society that choses whether they will walk on a tightrope or a promenade.

How can we change this situation? The book ends with a series of policy suggestions—universal health care, jobs programs, child credits, maternity leave—which I suspect will not be terribly surprising. But if we are going to adopt any of these, we must first throw off the perspective of seeing every person as wholly responsible for their fate, our belief that the market is a faultless reflection of personal merit—which is the perfect excuse for inaction. We say of poor kids like Tani that they “beat the odds,” and they do deserve accolades. But these stories should motivate us to change those very odds, so that they are not stacked so heavily against the poor.



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Review: When Work Disappears

Review: When Work Disappears

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor by William Julius Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is just as indefensible to treat inner-city residents as superheroes who are able to overcome racist oppression as it is to view them as helpless victims.

This book is remarkable to read now, as it documents a phenomenon that has only grown more widespread in the years since its publication. William Julius Wilson set his sights on understanding the causes and effects of urban poverty, particularly as it afflicted the black community.

The process Wilson identifies will be familiar to most Americans now: As factories close and industry decamps, well-paying jobs for people without college degrees dry up. The disappearance of decent work causes a kind of domino effect. Those who can move out, do so, leaving only the most disadvantaged to stay. Little by little, the community starts to crumble. Families fall apart as people—particularly fathers—are unable to support their children. Drug use and drug dealing become widespread in a community with few legitimate employment opportunities.

Meanwhile, the government provides little support for the people trapped in this situation. The chronically underfunded schools did not provide a ladder out of poverty. The lack of public transportation means that people who do not own cars have little opportunity to find work elsewhere. Mothers are forced to choose between staying on welfare, facing stigma and losing a sense of autonomy, or taking minimum-wage work and losing health insurance—for themselves and their children. Instead of providing drug counseling and addiction support, the primary response is to incarcerate drug offenders in large numbers, which only further debilitates the community and makes family life even more difficult.

By now, this basic process has played out in many parts of America. But before it affected rural whites, it hit urban African Americans. And here is where the country’s racial attitude became a major factor. For the public response to this suffering was not sympathetic; rather, people worried about “thugs” and “super predators,” making American streets unsafe—people so dangerous that they could not be helped, only locked away. The public pointed the finger at “welfare queens” and accused poor mothers of milking the system to live a life of ease. In other words, as is so often the case in the United States, we blamed the poor for living in poverty.

As Wilson, a distinguished sociologist, is at pains to show, the key factor in this process is the disappearance of jobs. When there is no opportunity to make a decent living, a community suffers. Nowadays such a thesis is hardly controversial. Indeed, we have seen it play out in many parts of the country. But at the time, it was a vital point to make, since the public discourse insistently framed the problem as a kind of moral failing on the part of the poor. Either that, or some sort of negative cultural attribute was blamed. And, of course, all of this was racially coded. But as more and more communities succumb to this process, the explanations relying on personal responsibility or cultural traits seems less and less plausible. This is a structural problem.

This is not to say that Wilson is against using culture as an explanation. To the contrary, in the first part of this book, where he relies on surveys and interviews performed by his team, he notes how living in such an environment can cause adaptations that are maladaptive elsewhere. This can become a self-reinforcing cycle, since negative stereotypes are sometimes borne out, and used to further stigmatize the community. One of the most fascinating sections are a series of interviews with employers in the area, many of whom give excuses and justifications for not wanting to hire black employees, particularly males. But even more striking is that most of Wilson’s respondents endorsed the basic American value system of individualism and personal responsibility. Those on welfare did not relish a life of ease, but longed for work that could support themselves and their children.

The second part of this book looks at larger trends and solutions. Wilson notes that the sort of urban poverty widespread in American cities is virtually nonexistent in Europe, and credits the strong safety net there. His own proposals for improving the lives of the urban poor are familiar by now—universal healthcare, improved infrastructure, more funding for education—but they do not seem much closer to reality now than in 1996, when this book was published. We can start moving in direction at any time. All that is lacking is the political will.



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