Wednesday, May 09, 2007

World Without Oil: Terra Incognita

Shots were fired in the neighborhood last night. I’d just gotten up to take my watch shift shortly before four in the morning when I heard them, three brief pops echoing in rapid succession from halfway down the block. I was out the door within seconds, but it was still dark, and the street had fallen silent. There was the scent of acrid smoke in the air, and a red glow to the southeast, where Griffith Park was still burning.

Lights were coming on up and down the block, when suddenly someone came charging across the front yards, straight toward my front porch. I could see that he was staggering, struggling to hold onto a large gas can. “Drop it!” I shouted, and that brought him up short. He dropped the can and stumbled off up the next door neighbor’s driveway. I heard him throw himself over the fence in the backyard as Max and Andy came running towards me. Max had a flashlight that flickered across the ground in front of him.

“Where’d he go?” they panted. “Backyard,” I said, but clearly none of us wanted to give chase. “Was that gunfire?”

“I don’t know,” replied Max, still struggling to get his breath. “I didn’t see it.” Andy had reached down to pick up the gas can. The cap had popped off when it hit the ground, and only a little bit of the remaining gas sloshed about inside. As the flashlight played across its metal surface, I could see dark wet blotches on it. Andy dropped the can quickly. There was blood on his hand.

“I caught the guy coming out of Smith’s garage, saw him coming out the driveway. Then he spots me and the next thing I know, he’s firing.”

“Is that your blood or his?” I asked.

“His, I guess. He didn’t hit me.”

“I didn’t see a gun on him.”

“He might have dropped it,” added Max. “We’d better go look for it.”

Up and down the street, some people were cautiously poking their heads out their front doors. Other houses, where lights had been on just a moment before, were now dark. Whatever it was, people who were safe in their homes, even if they were curious, assumed it was being taken care of. They probably wouldn’t sleep the rest of the night, but as long as we were out here, “handling it”, they were content to remain behind locked doors.

“Shouldn’t we report this to the police? Let them look for the gun?” I asked.

“Really?” Andy threw back over his shoulder. “You think they’d come?” Somewhere off in the night, I heard sirens wailing. I realized that I’d gotten used to hearing sirens at all hours of the day and night. No, I didn’t think they’d come. What’s more, I didn’t think Andy wanted them to come.

When we got down to the Smith place, the owner was just emerging from his garage, quickly pulling the door closed behind him. We’d checked all the yards and bushes along the path the thief had taken, but had come up empty-handed. We searched all the bushes around the house; still, no gun. Smith remained on guard near the door to his garage as we did so. It was apparent to me that he didn’t want us checking out whatever it was he had stashed in there – probably gasoline, but maybe food and water as well. He thanked us profusely, then briskly wished us a good night.

“Maybe we should retrace our steps?” Andy remarked as Max bid us good night as well and returned to his house. I could see Tim headed our way, ready to take Max’s place. “What’s the point?” I asked. “I thought we agreed: no guns.”

“What are you talking about? The guy fired at me!”

“Three shots at close range, and he missed? But that’s his blood on the gas can? It doesn’t make sense. Where’s the gun?”

By this time, Tim had joined us. “What’s going on?” he asked, clearly oblivious to what had occurred.

“Where is it?” I persisted. “Where’s the gun?” Andy looked long and hard at me, then, throwing a glance in Tim’s direction, he pulled the handgun out from under his shirt in back.

“Get real, man. Don’t you watch the news? This city’s coming apart at the seams. It was only a matter of time, and now it’s happening. It’s up to us to defend ourselves. Nobody’s gonna do it for us.”

“How long have you been carrying that with you?” I asked.

“Since we started.” I looked to Tim, who didn’t seem particularly shocked by this revelation. “And you?” I asked. He pulled out his handgun as well. “Do you own a weapon?” he asked.

“No. I don’t. And I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I did.”

“We can teach you,” said Tim. “You’re going to need it.”

“No,” I said. “No, I’m not. And honestly, I don’t want to be out here with you cowboys if you’re going to be carrying loaded weapons.”

“You know damn well we’re on our own here. How do you propose we stop these guys from taking what’s ours?”

“I don’t know. I don’t have that plan. But what are you guys going to do if they turn out to be better shots – or just better equipped?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but for the time being,” Andy replied, “I feel a whole lot safer with this thing than without it. And so should you. Good night.”

I suppose he’s right, after all. Do I still have the luxury of taking the moral high ground, of entertaining notions of fairness and justice or a half-hearted commitment to non-violence – in the face of what’s happening tonight all over this city?

It is coming apart, you know, breaking down, balkanizing in ways that represent the worst that angry, disenfranchised people are capable of. The rich, we are told, are hiring private armies to defend themselves. The police, undermanned and overwhelmed, augmented by small contingents of National Guardsmen (they’re short of manpower due to the war), are fighting holding actions off elsewhere against the hit-and-run armies of the poor and dispossessed, organized around the firepower of established gang culture.

The rest of us are caught in the middle, trying to maintain some semblance of a normal life by day, hiding away in our houses at night. The situation hasn’t quite descended into the chaos of uncontrolled looting and wanton destruction, as it did during the King riots. But events are outrunning our ability to even react responsibly, let alone come up with some sort of considered plan of action for the longer term.

Time is contracting, grinding us down. Lines are being drawn, and then crossed, and then redrawn, and then crossed again – over and over again every day. It’s all happening too fast, faster than people can take it in, faster than they can formulate a response before the next wave knocks them over and tumbles them to the ground.

Remember how you felt on 9/11? Remember how, after that first plane had hit the tower, you thought, “Christ, yet another horror. Those poor people in New York City. I hope there aren’t too many dead. I hope I don’t know any of them.” And then the second plane hit. And then the towers collapsed. And then another plane hit the Pentagon, and another slammed into the Pennsylvania countryside, and each one ratcheted up the horror and fear and pushed you farther and farther away from any idea you might have had about what’s normal. You found yourself looking up into the clear blue morning sky and thinking, “Could death rain down on me from above today?”

It was as if normal was a receding shore. The boat that was sailing away, taking you with it, would never return to tie up at that dock again. That shore was yesterday, and the boat was sailing, full steam ahead, in the direction of a very dark and storm-tossed tomorrow, bound for terra incognita.

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