…and other mysteries
For the past year, whenever we walk up 17th Avenue from our house in the direction of the park, which we do daily, I anticipate the hole. I don’t say anything. Michael is sometimes in the middle of a joke or anecdote—one meant to illustrate the focal topic of that particular walk—and I don’t care to cut in with irrelevancies. Our subjects range from teaching as opposed to telling… to how power corrupts (perhaps especially those who think they’re incapable of abusing theirs)… to what we should have for dinner. The choices are: frozen pizza, a salmon sandwich, takeout from Pepper Asian Bistro, a Caesar salad, poke, chili with fritos, or a shrimp chimchanga. Really, it depends on the mood we’re in.
Strolling by restaurants with their animated patios—populated in spite of COVID-19, much to our relief, as we want our neighborhood businesses to thrive even though we would not personally sit among others with our masks off and our mouths open no matter how delicious the barbecued sausages look—my attention shifts as I prepare to pass the hole. After the intersection, I can see it ahead. It’s about a foot long, eight inches across, and it vanishes off the edge of the sidewalk: a gap where there is no concrete and no grass, no dirt, nothing at all, just an opening into an impenetrable blackness. When we’re beside it, I glance in but do not exclaim, What the actual hell is up with that hole?
The hole is a feature of an area immediately in front of a row of rental units where families and children live. I know this because not only do I see kids playing there, on the stoops, but because the sidewalk often has a stray ball or a trike lying about. I wonder if anybody who lives there has worried about the hole enough to call the property owner or the City. I wonder if the property owner and the City have ignored their concerns. I wonder why the property owner or the City don’t care.
The hole is also right there where plenty of pedestrians walk. The elderly, young couples in love, joggers, drunken revelers, dads pushing babies in strollers, entire groups of coworkers, and whole families pass by this fissure every morning, afternoon and evening. COVID has forced us all to veer frequently off the concrete to avoid others by the health-conscious distance of six feet. Why hasn’t someone stepped into this thing and broken a leg, or like Persephone disappeared into the depths? Why haven’t I?
Last spring, I called Public Works. I reported not just the one but several similar orifices I’ve seen in the course of our wanderings. There’s a patch on 18th Avenue that has caved in to the point that it could swallow a small dog, let’s say one of those irritable, super-yippy little things with the underbite and all the fur. Whether or not the dog would deserve it, I won’t speculate. They can’t help how they are. None of us can.
My tone, during the call, was one of courteous excitement hardly bordering on panic at all. The person to whom I spoke wanted to know the exact locations of alleged holes, which coordinates I described. She then wondered if this wasn’t perhaps the responsibility of the owners of the adjacent properties. But, these holes are all over the neighborhood, I said. On the verges. A verge, as I am sure you know, is that area between sidewalk and street. It’s not clear that it’s the City’s duty to keep these safe, but if the City doesn’t, and the property owners don’t notice, care, or take action, somebody could die.
I wasn’t planning to end the sentence like that; I meant to write, Then who will? but I realized that someone COULD die. People die all the time. One minute, they’re riding past you on their electric scooter, all shorts and a t-shirt in February, which is so passive-aggressive. The next, a wheel having slipped slightly off the edge of the concrete, they—minus their red Warbys, which land with a clatter on the curb—have vanished into the murky depths. Whether or or not they would deserve it, again, is not for me to say.
And, I pressed the Public Works lady, don’t you want to understand the nature of the holes, the underlying cause, so you can better respond? Even if it’s not absolutely the City’s issue, you don’t want to ignore that there could be a much bigger thing going on, of which the holes are but a sign. There needed to be an investigation, was my message.
The Public Works lady suggested that I submit an online report that would/could/might prompt some kind of action. I pictured a phlegmatic, older male in baggy pants and a windbreaker. He would come take a looksee and set into motion something, perhaps Caution tape, a crew with walkie-talkies, the disruption of traffic, the discovery of complex of subterranean caverns, the remains of early settlers or (older than that, far older) of paleopeople. Ghosts would be released. Or, they’d find a portal. Or nothing. Who knows? I wanted to. So, I did submit, I submitted liberally, attaching photographic evidence to my emotional plea. Then I relaxed, as much as I ever do, and waited.
Months passed. Things happened on the news. It was easy to imagine worst-case-scenarios, unstoppable societal mayhem, anarchy, Armageddon. There was always COVID, of course, and the isolating features of its perpetual avoidance, plus distressing images of a man whose windpipe was crushed by a police officer, plus protests (covered incessantly on Fox and CNN as if protests were the only thing happening in the whole universe, and as if the image of one burning trashcan, played over and over, or six kids breaking windows, meant utter chaos had been unleashed upon the planet) plus the upcoming U.S. Presidential election and its fraught discourses across all media channels and platforms, plus the development of a sprawling tent encampment, desperate people with nowhere else to go, on our block. Shop windows were boarded. Murals and graffiti appeared, some angry, some mournful, some ugly, some beautiful.
There was also this. One day, Michael and I were followed home by a very large, pale, half-naked, bearded, muttering man. No, no–he pursued us. We’d walked by him, parsing the effects of organizational climates in which relational and intellectual discomforts are voiced as accusations, and where differences of communicative style or perspective are only framed as the entitled behavior of the privileged. Anyway, what? Oh, right: so, this giant, shirtless dude decided to come after us like old Squish Plop in the campfire story.
There were people out and about. We weren’t alone, but among the public, so why he picked on us—two average-looking, masked, middle-aged pedestrians—is anybody’s guess. We glanced back, and there he was, barrelling towards us, half a block away. We glanced back again—Ha ha! It looks like that fellow is after us! Ha ha!— and he was thirty feet from our heels and gaining. We ended up more or less hightailing it into our house, where we slammed the front door and heard him barge onto the porch. He rearranged our porch furniture—Thump! Scrape! Bang!—then sat in the lounger, talking loudly to himself. I worried that he would hurt himself, given his size and the age and frailty of the lounger. After about five minutes, Michael opened the door and said, “You’ll have to leave. This is our porch, and you can’t be up here.” Michael came back inside, and we called the police, who never showed up. We expected our visitor to throw something through the big picture window, which he did not. But, eventually—after fifteen more minutes—he lumbered from our porch and, on his way out, tore our front gate right off its hinges and stomped on it. When Michael went out again to ask him stop destroying our property (I’d decided to watch, not to participate) the man hurled a splintered stave at Michael’s head, which it missed by a couple of feet, smacking hard against the house.
In November, it snowed, and when the snow melted, the hole on 17th Avenue was still there, more defined now, less a crevice and more a crevasse. At this point in the year, we were discussing Zoom and whether it allows for greater intimacy than socially-distanced classrooms where everybody is masked. Nodding vigorously (to cover my distraction and alarm at the hole’s persistence) I agreed with Michael that in some ways, it does. On Zoom, you can see people’s faces, their expressions, and you’re not shouting through a mask. But, you miss presence—physical presence. You lose the ripples of spontaneous laughter that can energize a classroom. You lose eye contact.
In the weeks and months of winter, the hole has continued to stare at me, cyclops-like, when we go by. In the middle of the night recently, it came to me that our neighborhood must sit atop a vast sinkhole. The openings I can see on the surface are indicators of an imminent catastrophe. The City is, no doubt, aware of what’s going on, but the scope of the problem is so vast, they can’t imagine how to deal with it, so they’re pretending it doesn’t exist, as Cities do. When everything caves in one day, they’ll be all like, We had no idea! What a tragedy! All those people. All those houses. The pub, the taco place, the waffle house, all of it, gone forever. Huh! If only someone had submitted an online report with attached photos, all this could have been avoided.
I ponder cities and their governing bodies, all governing bodies. I consider how challenging it is, even for the faculty in my small department, to come together, discuss an issue, and get something tangible accomplished.
I think about how—given the wealth of our nation, our level of prosperity and education, and the sheer number of us who care about quality of life for all (even if selfishly, because a rising tide, yadayada)— we ought to have solved homelessness by now. As a nation, and as communities of neighbors, we ought to have figured out how to truly and sustainably help our down-and-out, our neediest, those who suffer the most among us, while ensuring that the healthy and the capaple can find work, are able to earn a decent living, and are in a position to take care of themselves. I guess it must be true that maintaining a permanent, helpless, dependent and unhappy underclass is politically and economically beneficial to those in power, else we’d surely have done better. What the hell is up with that hole?
Given the frankly astounding reach of science and engineering—the capacity of our very best thinkers and designers to develop solutions to problems—we ought to have been on top of the human-caused components of climate change for decades, if not for a century, collectively and without significant infighting. We should have realized the aspirations of scientists, environmentalists, clean energy advocates who have been on this since the Industrial Revolution started spewing filth into our (only) (shared) (necessary) air and water. The whole energy enterprise, to the extent that it poisons our only home, is unsustainable, a bad idea, and needed to commit to change decades ago. What the hell.
We should, by now, have managed to productively address the flow of human beings across (arbitrary, socially-constructed, but important) borders without subjecting our society, our families, our children, to traffickers and terrorists, and also without vilifying, torturing, warehousing, and treating as inhuman those who most need empathy and compassion. Not everyone who wants to come into a country belongs there, and not everyone who crosses a border brings blessings with them. Nor does everyone bring ill; some bring hunger and hope, determination, love, goodwill, creativity, brilliance. Are we stymied by the complexity? Welcome to societies across human history: welcome to many thousands of years of Who’s “We?” How Do We Live Together? To Whom Are We Responsible? How Do We Protect Our Loved Ones? How Do We Best Thrive? Ought we not to be in a somewhat better place in our response to these questions, given millennia of practice? What the hell.
Shouldn’t we (after all this time on the planet, living among one another, sleeping with one another, raising families, creating communities, depending upon each other for help when we most need it) have, long ago, reduced violent policing (by our own civil servants, against us) for the benefit of all? Surely, by now, we ought to have been able to successfully mitigate patterns of intimidation and brutality by badge-flashing, uniform-wearing, gun-toting law enforcement… without undermining the capacity of police to protect and to serve, while recognizing and promoting ethical officers, and collectively improving the cultural health of our local police forces, thus of our communities. What the hell.
Our species is amazing at reproducing, creating, designing, building, repairing damaged cells, sewing bodies back together, improving chances of survival for people with any number of illnesses, connecting the world via invisible signals. We’re the best at making things explode, brewing better and better beer, and landing a probe on Mars. We’re just not all that great at fixing some things. Why would I expect that a phone call to the City of Denver might result in a City employee coming out to examine, assess, put into context, and deal with the gaping holes that riddle our neighborhood?
I appreciate that as many things work as do: that traffic flows on our streets; that people go to the grocery store, hand over bills or swipe a magic chip and are allowed to leave with food and paper products; that I can teach a remote class on Zoom during a pandemic; that there are parks in which parents push toddlers in swings on sunny days. These all seem like miracles to me. But, what the hell is up with that hole? I probably won’t accidentally fall into it. Possibly, nobody else will, either. I hope the neighborhood will not be sucked into the earth. I have to believe that it won’t.