A short story, written in one sitting this afternoon (and I confess, not yet thoroughly proofed). This post is offered in the spirit of completion energy and is inspired by my current read, Jurgen Wolff’s “Your Creative Writing Masterclass” (Nicholas Brealey, 2012). The poem weaves together last night’s dream, some thoughts spurred by Earth Day and a futuristic location based loosely on a suburb of San Diego, CA.
Gone are the cars
I used to worry that I would be found out. But I have come to this conclusion, since everything is so carefully monitored, either someone is protecting me or the authorities are waiting for the right moment to take me down. I have come with my camera and a commission. I am to photograph the fading world of parked cars. Officially, I use a digital device for my work, but after finding a memory card mysteriously wiped after an assignment, I now carry two cameras. The other is based on pre-screen methods of image-capturing, with negatives and processed photographs. This is deemed intensely wasteful, which is why the practice was outlawed ages ago, but in my experience, these are the only photographs that no-one else can intercept. It is only through my own negligence that my physical negatives might be destroyed.
Tarmac roads are still in use in these outer neighbourhoods. The authorities feel no need to update the paving and roads, especially as these are still the areas in which cars are used for transport. I spot one a manhole cover. This is unusual. Even though they are unwieldy to move and heavy to carry, few remain. At metal recycling plants they fetch a hefty price as black-market items.
Of course, everyone is encouraged to recycle. The fines are hefty for the ‘lazy’ and ‘unconscious’ who neglect to put their trash out in the correct containers, on the designated day. Rules about which items may be mixed, which may be separated, what should be cleaned and what may be thrown in as is, change so often. For those who are able to afford it, specialist services will manage your trash separation. The services range from brand-mark companies, with symbiotic shares in the waste management and recycling sectors, to small-timers, individuals who will come to your house before collection to sort through items. Those who run these services, keep themselves updated about the changes, often by paying for the information from the authorities’ Environmental Support Departments.
“This here is the house of a ‘lazy’. You will see for yourself.” J knocks on the door.
“Coming,” wobbles a voice from within. A chain is removed. The door opens.
“Oh, so good to see you. Come in.”
“This is an old friend of mine. May…?”
“No need to ask. Come in. How lovely, my dear.” Two wrinkled hands clasp at our arms in greeting and drag us out of the sooty air into the dark corridor.
“Mrs B, shall we take your trash out while we’re here?”
“Mrs B has lived here, alone, for six years. Her family lives further North, in the New Town. She regularly forgets to sort her trash. She seldom remembers that items must be separated. When she does manage the sorting, she forgets to put the bins out.”
In the kitchen, we are confronted with piles of tins, empty plastic milk bottles, egg containers and the stench of food waste decomposing in a brown bin. A few fruit flies disappear up my nose. My sinuses inflame at the mould spores. I respond on instinct to these triggers. I pull up my lens.
After helping Mrs B with her trash for this week, J and I continue down the street. “It’s a losing battle. She’ll forget something next week and there will be another fine of 150 in addition to the 2570 already black-marked next to her name. We have been appealing, but the courts are delaying it in the hope that she will pass before the case is heard. The authorities will deduct the owed from her estate.”
“Don’t her children care?”
“They’re well established and it is not worth their while to have their names associated officially with a ‘lazy’. They have tried to send assistance, but Mrs B does not like strangers in her home. When they visit, they do what they can. If they take her into any of their households, Mrs B’s listed misdemeanours will follow. This will compromise the environmental points on their property.”
“And the unconscious? What’s the story there?”
“You’re smart. What do you think?”
“I’m guessing it’s the overworked, the other half. And the child-headed households.”
Two rusting beauties with fresh, pumped up tires are parked along the curbside. I walk around them, snapping close-ups. I stand back to capture the full bodies against the board houses and withered grass verges behind them. A few rats appear from the gutter-grilles, but when I step forward to include them in a shot, they’ve skimmed off. I turn to my host, “I can’t believe it’s been thirty years since I was last here. That exchange year made such an impact one me. I always thought I’d come back, but this place – it has changed. Even in those days, I knew it was desert country, but back then it was green, blue and sunny. Remember how from our campus cafeteria, over the suburban roofs, you could see a thin strip of the Ocean as it met the sky. All around the library were those glades of cooling trees. And remember our newly built residences? I remember the landscaping: neat green shrubs and bird of paradise flowers added for colour.”
“My parents had a spectacular bird of paradise outside the front door. Every year it shot out those spiked orange blooms. Eventually the authorities sent removers from the Water Management Department, claiming that it was a classified ‘indulgent plant’ requiring excessive watering. I now have a feeling it is now the abundant plant that now flourishes outside the Department’s own entrance. But that’s just a suspicion. Hey, look here.”
J points and we left into a street. Ahead of us is a vast, multi-level parking lot. “That should give you lots of photographs.”
I look at the shelves of grey concrete, the abandoned cars silenced while they chalked up monthly payments in storage for their nostalgic owners. These were not the luxury relics of high-end collectors. These were the beloveds that owners had lovingly kept on despite the rising rates and repaired in the most ingenious Heath Robinson ways. These were the defiant beauties that had been coaxed along, even during the decade’s recurring fuel shortages, to rallies at parking areas along the sea promenade, near the mountain park, even along the highway. Those had caused the greatest ruckus, but did not disrupt much traffic. Even in those days, it was only the trucks that really used major roads. For most of us, our circumference of movement was already limited to the daily, public transport commute or flights. Those were the days when driving a car seemed a political act declaring our freedom of movement.
I felt a constriction. Pulled out my pump. “How much time do we have?”
“Just under an hour. The collection bus will be expecting us, so we must still walk back to the collection point. The route that avoids the cameras will take at least thirty minutes.”
Photographing cars is conspiracy enough. Anyone caught out of their allocated carbon-neutral zone faced not only fines, but sentencing. I already had listings in two international locations. I could not afford, either for my professional freedom or for my family’s environmental rating, to be caught out of line in a third.
Where I now live, only luxury cars held in private collections may be seen by the people. They are on display in two national museums, as people once exhibited paintings. A mock-up automobile, powered by renewable energy, drives along a reconstructed road. It costs a lot of money to take this novelty ride. From what I remember, it is a fine replica of a luxury vehicle. It certainly is nothing like the rickety old moto my parents constantly tried to keep going. Traces of those ordinary vehicles have disappeared. First, through government intervention manufacture came to an almost standstill through, although limited edition models were still available for a price. Slowly, they disappeared from popular culture. No mention in songs, no longer screened in programmes, gone from billboards.
It was the disappearance from advertisements that affected me most, for I used to earn my salary photographing vehicles and then constructing scenes of affluent families with their latest upgrade. When those assignments became fewer, I noticed the larger obliteration. My children were nearing adolescence and I recalled how when I was a teenager, a car was your ticket to independence. Once everyone started interacting via screens and blocking out the world with headphones, meeting up was no longer as important. Initially, young people no longer needed a car to meet up somewhere. Then, the cost of obtaining a license and a car was prohibitive. Finally, cars themselves disappeared. I have been told there are mountains of rusting bodies in the rubble regions, those areas that accept waste for compensation. I would like to photograph this, but that would be a very dangerous mission. Cars have entered public consciousness as demonic vessels that brought down the industrial world. Designing carbon-neutral and environmentally conscious democracies has depended on this narrative. We now live lives circumscribed by monitoring cameras, restricted travel, carefully allocated food and entertainment resources.
The air is heavy. I struggle to breath and clutch at the asthma pump in my pocket with more urgency than my camera, and my camera is for me my everything, my life. Overhead, the sky is pale grey. In times past, people may have called this an ‘overcast’ day. This meant that clouds were gathering, possibly for a bout of rain, or perhaps to blown with the rain elsewhere. That was in the time when rain was more frequent and did not burn the skin as much.
“J, do you feel that? J?” It doesn’t make sense that it should be raining inside a covered parking lot. Perhaps it’s slanting in from outside, like in the days when wind used to blow rain in directions.
“Yeah. Just here.”
I carry on snapping, “It’s not going to be great walking back in this rain.”
I’m also worried about my equipment. It’s more difficult to hide and juggle under difficult conditions. I start packing up. “Hey, let’s head out now.”
“Are you sure? How about another ten minutes, at least? Come on. When will you get a chance like this? I mean… It’s not every day that you fall across a parking lot… Not even ten minutes?”
“Nah, I’d rather be on the safe side.”
“Are you sure?”
I’m ready to go. J is stalling. If also soaked to the bone, J will be under as much suspicion. No ordinary spends too much time in rain, as we all know every drop that doesn’t sting is needed for the dams, the water supplies, the plants. I start moving. I have to pass down three storeys back to street level. My pace has a regular tempo. J’s is laid back. Of the two of us I’m the one who usually stops to admire the scenery; J’s definitely the one who’s destination orientated.
“Stop dragging your heels. Come on.”
We arrive at street level. This isn’t my home turf, so I need J to navigate back to the collection point, avoiding those cameras. It’s raining pretty hard now. I hide my hands in my sleeves, but the drops are stinging my face. A car starts up in the parking lot, drives out and stops in front of us. The driver is panting, but offers us a ride. I take a cue from J who acknowledges, “Sure. Thanks.” We get in.
“It’s very generous of you to help out some strangers like this,” I say.
“Oh, we haven’t met,” replies the driver, “but we’re not strangers. And I’d like our photographs.”