At long last, the bike path from Fresh Pond to Watertown is usable. Two years after its scheduled completion date, signs and pylons still declare “Path Closed,” but the surface is paved and striped and many pedestrians and cyclists use it.
The stretch of pavement (less than half a mile) took years to plan, design, and build. Some features are elegant: the nice benches and split-rail fences, the retention ponds nestled along the edges.
Others are questionable: the long entry ramp from Mount Auburn Street at Holworthy, constructed of pre-cast concrete that deposits cyclists less than 300 feet from existing access at grade. How many trees, excavation, and concrete would have been saved by simple signage? Where we really could have used an actual path: to climb from the pavement up the Star Market parking lot, there’s nothing but muddy tracks.
The city took out dozens, maybe hundreds of trees, and planted almost as many new ones back. Some have already died and been replaced.
The walls of underpasses and immense back wall of same-said Star Market have been painted a neutral tone: a blank canvas irresistible to graffitists. The wall has already been defaced, painted a second time, and graffitied again.
I don’t know what the city’s planning process entailed for this project. I only know it was long, and never included any notifications I received, a property owner in the immediate neighborhood. What’s clear is that the city spent exorbitant money and a lot of time, yet still missed a few key elements. The most glaring being the giant blank wall that will be filled with graffiti again and again until someone wakes to the reality: a mural will look great here!
Cambridge has many beautiful murals, my favorite being the imagine2018 mural on Mass Ave in Central Square. Actually, most all the city’s murals are in Central Square. I suppose this correlates with the prevailing notion that Central Square is cool and active, while Strawberry Hill is, well, beige. Did they think graffitists would not find a big, fresh painted wall in our tiny, quiet neighborhood? Do they actually plan to keep painting it over, providing fresh canvas again and again?
Strawberry Hill may not be as hip as Central Square, but we are not quite so boring as the blank wall of Star Market implies. And we would we certainly enjoy a mural.
It is a glorious April Saturday morning in New England. Sixty degrees: bright sun; cotton candy clouds; light breeze. I hop on my bike to go to the gym and run errands. I travel easily along city streets, many of which have designated bicycle lanes. I divert onto dedicated bike trails to shortcut automobile routes. I lock my bike to a post right in front of the gym. If you consider time lost in searching for parking, I get from home to gym to store to supermarket as quickly as anyone. The only place I encounter traffic is in Danehy Park, where the bike path is full of casual riders and families with young children on this gorgeous day. But all those bikes disappear the moment I leave the park and pedal to Fresh Pond Shopping Center. The parking lot is full of cars, while mine is the only bike locked to the rack.
The vast majority of Americans own cars. Car sales peaked in 2016, above 17 million vehicles, dipped during the pandemic, and are climbing again. The vast majority of Americans also own bicycles. Coincidently, over 17 million bicycles are sold in the United States each year as well. During the pandemic, bicycles actually outsold cars, but we are quick-slip-sliding back to our old gas pedal ways.
Cambridge, MA is a benevolent place to be a cyclist. The city’s 2020 Bicycle Plan promotes the advantages of cycling from an economic, environmental, and personal health perspective. The document also outlines an ambitious plan to increase cycling for all types of trips. And yet, on an April Saturday in ideal cycling weather, I see folks on bicycles noodling around for fun, but not a single other cyclist pedaling through their daily activities.
A common refrain among bicycle advocates is, “build it and they will come.” If we only provide more designated bike lanes, or more protected bike lanes, or more dedicated bike routes, people will feel that cycling is safe; they’ll ditch their cars; they’ll start to pedal. The City has taken that mantra to heart. In 2021, Cambridge added 4.08 miles of new bike lanes. There are now over 101 miles of dedicated bicycle pavement in a city of only seven square miles in area. Yet many—most—people only use bicycles for recreation.
As a person whose primary means of transport has always been my bicycle, I truly appreciate what the city has done, and what it aspires to continue to do. Cycling throughout the Boston area is so much easier, and safer, than it was thirty, forty years ago. Still, I am the sole cyclist in a separated bike lane often enough to appreciate the frustration of vehicle drivers queued up beside me, pushed into a single traffic lane that, before the bike-lane-paint was applied and stanchions installed, used to be two.
Change comes hard. Four generations into cityscapes defined by automobiles, we have no reference for streets that accommodate a range of transit options. And when we need to do anything other than ‘play,’ our go-to mode of transport is the automobile.
Designated bike lanes are part of the solution to creating better balance between vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians. So is increased density, pedestrian-friendly development. So is phasing out the myth of ‘free’ parking. But none of these changes, individually or collectively, will make much difference unless we make a cultural shift and embrace bicycle riding beyond simply recreation. If we live in a city or town, we can do what we need to do and get where we need to be—on a bicycle!
One serendipitous joy of my life is living three blocks from Mount Auburn Cemetery, my go-to destination for a walk any time of year. Our country’s first garden cemetery, consecrated 1831, is a national landmark of remarkable landscape brimming with intriguing monuments. The place reflects Boston’s history, both serious and novel, in a strikingly direct way: from the start Mount Auburn Cemetery accepted people of any race or creed: provided, of course, you had the entry fee. Thus it contains a wide-spectrum resting of Brahmins as well as successful immigrants. Lacking, as history so often does, only paupers and ne’er-do-wells.
Recently, I came upon a flat stone with a peculiar name. Took a photo and posted it on Facebook. “Spring comes to Mount Auburn Cemetery—plus we found a marker with smokin’ cool name!”
Ignorant me. I quickly received several comments from people better connected to the dithering height of Boston society. “Smoki Bacon! She and Dick interviewed me on their radio show way back in 1990.” “In 1970’s Boston, she was one of those people who was ‘famous for being famous.’” “She and Dick were always on the guests lists back in the day.”
I doubt the phrase ‘back in the day’ circa 1990 properly applies to a woman born in 1928, but I got the gist. However, rather than rely on Facebook friends alone, I did the twenty-first century thing, and Googled “Smoki Bacon Boston.” Up pops Bryan Marquard’s Boston Globe obit from December 30, 2019; a tribute many of us would love to leave as our legacy. You can read the whole thing here. Or, peruse the highlights that caught my own fancy.
Smoki Bacon, who went from child flower seller to Back Bay socialite, dies at 91
You might feel flattered if you were called a “legendary Back Bay socialite.” Smoki Bacon didn’t. She’d quickly set the record straight while holding you in place with a steady gaze made more intense by her trademark oversized glasses. “I’ve had my Social Security number since 1937,” she once told the Globe. “I’ve worked since I was 9 years old. I’m not schlepping around shopping for clothes out of a chauffeured limousine.”
Mrs. Bacon was 91 when she died Friday of Alzheimer’s disease, and nearly everything about her life was the stuff of oft-told legend — not least her ability to outlast everyone, everywhere, every time. “She was typically the person with the most energy in the room — when she was 45 and when she was 90,” said Joe O’Connor. They first met in 1974, when he was director of operations for the city’s celebration of the nation’s bicentennial and she ostensibly was his employee — though in practice he often took guidance from her.
A public relations consultant and fund-raiser for scores of events and organizations, and cohost with her husband, Richard Concannon, of the long-running TV show “The Literati Scene,” Mrs. Bacon also threw many of Boston’s most memorable parties and weddings (including her own). Her real calling was civic activism, though, and she compiled a list of jobs and volunteer work that could fill five resumes while helping shape Boston’s culture and character. Decades ago, she hid a pregnancy to keep her job and foil restrictions that excluded expectant mothers from working. She went on to stake a place on numerous boards that hadn’t welcomed women until she threw open the door.
Over more than a half-century, beginning in the 1950s, Mrs. Bacon served on more than 100 boards and committees, always finding a new way to squeeze 36 hours of work into a 24-hour day. Her causes ranged from eliminating all bigotry — on the basis gender or race, sexual orientation or socioeconomic background — to her ardent support of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra.
Rising from poverty to prominence, Mrs. Bacon transformed from Adelaide Ruth Ginepra — who lived on welfare with her mother and brother in Brookline — to Smoki Bacon, whose Back Bay home was an entryway into the ranks of Boston’s who’s who. An intellectual and cultural matchmaker, she fostered friendships across boundaries among those who never realized they needed to meet until Mrs. Bacon introduced them, typically at a party she hosted.
Born Jan. 29, 1928, Adelaide Ginepra was the daughter of Ruth Burns and Alfred Ginepra. She was 7 when her parents separated, and she hit the job market early, selling flowers along The Riverway as a girl. “She understood exactly what it meant to be poor and so she devoted her life to working for hundreds of nonprofit organizations that have made a huge difference to people in the community,” said her daughter Brooks Bacon of New York City.
Graduating from Brookline High School in 1945, she attended the School of Practical Art and switched to Jackson Von Ladau School of Design, graduating in 1951. Returning to Boston after a spell working in New York as a graphic artist, she married Edwin Bacon in 1957. They lived in the Back Bay and she was already a force in the community when he died…in 1974.
In 1979, she married Concannon, who had been a Harvard College classmate of her late husband. Their wedding at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard and the reception on the Boston Tea Party Ship drew an estimated 800 people. The two of them launched programs including “The Literati Scene,” on which they interviewed numerous authors, sometimes in their Beacon Hill home, on local cable channels.
“I used to say that Auntie Mame could have taken a lesson from her. She was larger than life,” said Mrs. Bacon’s daughter Hilary Bacon Gabrieli of Boston.
Among the lessons Mrs. Bacon imparted was how to remain self-assured, regardless of adversity. According to filmmaker Yule Caise, “She never had to alter who she was. That’s how secure she was in the world.”
Part of Mrs. Bacon’s self-confidence was there for all to see and hear: her name itself. When she was a girl, teasing classmates had called her Smokey — a nickname she initially hated. One-upping them, she embraced the sobriquet, changed the spelling, and made it unforgettable. “I substituted an ‘i’ for the ‘ey,’” she confided with a smile.
Last October the Cambridge Public Library joined a trend among libraries nation-wide. They abolished overdue fees on materials past due.
I always knew the point of charging ten cents per day per overdue book (a dollar for a CD!) was not to generate real income for the library. It thought it was a mild incentive to be a good library user; to return items borrowed on time. Therefore, I couldn’t understand the point of eliminating them.
After the policy was in force a few months, I asked my local librarian about the fallout of eliminating overdue fines. Her response revealed a completely different logic than the one trapped within me.
“It has been a huge success. We’ve received hundreds of items that people did not bring back because their fines were so high. Books and CD’s that people had held on to for years.”
This provided one of those moments when I stand in awe at the spectrum of human behavior, while simultaneously acknowledging that I occupy a lonely niche more than two standard deviations beyond the norm. What was for me: incentive; was to others: punishment. Ten cents per day is not a lot of money for the guy who gets his books in within the basic timeframe of ‘due date.’ But for the person harboring library materials for years, it adds up to serious money. And though criminal it may be to withhold library books, no one lies in fear that the sheriff will come a-knockin’ in search of that long missing copy of Pride and Prejudice.
The trend continues: New York Public Library, Chicago Public Library, Boston Public Library, even the library in beautiful downtown Burbank. And so far, the results are exactly what libraries were seeking: people are returning long, long overdue books.
Nowadays, when I push to finish a book in time to get it back to the library, a voice in my head says, “It doesn’t matter. There are no fines.” I am nothing if not disciplined, and so far, the lack of fines has not loosened my punctuality habit. I override the louche voice by internally proclaiming the fundamental library contract–knowledge for all; shared among all—and get materials back so they can used by another patron. But that logic is not nearly as compelling as the vision of dimes spilling out of my pocket which has haunted me since I was seven, and dimes were real money. I’m pretty sure it’s just a matter of time before I fall off my high horse and return something: overdue.
I stand in front of the gym locker and stare at my combination lock. Let’s see… Is it 6-29-34? Or maybe 29-6-34? It can’t be 34-29-6: combo locks are always high/low/high. I know the three numbers involved. I recall the basic algorithm of a padlock. But what order? I have no clue. My gym lock is over twenty years old; I’ve unlocked its combination at least a thousand times. But today, the order of numbers required to open the lock eludes me.
Thus is the world this sixty-seven-year-old man inhabits. Capable in many ways, certainly not feeble, nor dementiaed. Yet every so often the synapses in my brain simply refuse to fire. And so I stand, towel wrapped, in the locker room, baffled by a task I performed admirably yesterday, and will likely manipulate well tomorrow.
Or perchance I’m having a conversation and a simple image—say ‘envelope’—floats in my mind, but the actual word refuses to escape my lips.
Or I come upon someone. I know I know and their name…darn it, what is their name?
Slip sliding away is not all that awful. Sometimes, lost in a moment of dysfunction, I feel a release, a head-lightening, as if I’m unburdening my noggin’s accumulated detritus. And the function always returns—at least it has so far—usually within a few seconds. Still, in a world of time measured in nanos, a few untethered seconds feels awfully long. But I do not despair. For when the time finally arrives when my mind vacations for minutes, hours, and eventually eternity; there’ll be a lengthy digital trail of its demise.
I am a sucker for data and measures. I guinea pig myself for any research study that doesn’t require shots or pills. Every Survey Monkey that climbs into my Inbox gets filled out with relish. Several years ago, I was invited to participate in two different, long-term studies about aging brains.
I joined Brain Health Registry, out of UCSF, in 2014. Every year, they send me tests that measure my cognitive ability, and surveys that track my own dimming perceptions.
I also participate in the APT (Alzheimer’s Prevention Treatment) Webstudy, a cognitive assessment research tool that identifies individuals at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease with the goal of providing them the opportunity to participate in clinical trials aimed at preventing dementia. I have no reason to believe I am at higher risk for Alzheimer’s than the next geezer, but I rather enjoy doing the cognate tests that arrive every three months, and timed reflex exercises that address such world-critical questions as: Have you seen this card before? Is the card red or black? Is the card the same as the previous card? The tests also come with a slew of questionnaires that usually make me feel good about myself. Yes, I have social interactions with others; I can follow the plot of a movie; I can find my bicycle in a parking lot. No, I am not a hoarder.
I hope that that data my brain waves contribute to science are useful, and I encourage others to join these long-term studies.
For the last eight years, my markers have been pretty consistent. I’ve charted a solid baseline. But as my inability to find the right word, remember a name, and release my gym locker become more common, my cognate scores and self-assessment are beginning to slip. That’s fine by me, as I have no desire to live forever. I rather hope that my mind and my body dwindle in accord; but over that I have no control. Yet I’m glad that, even as I may not remember it, I’ll leave a data trail that tracks how one particular human slipped away.
In the meantime, I am keen on coping mechanisms. A few years ago, I wrote the combination of my gym locker on a sticker affixed to the back of the padlock. Not very secure, but what thief goes around peeking the backside of gym locks? There it was, in clear order. 34-6-29. I spun the dial, the door swung open, and my street clothes appeared.
In January, the American Red Cross proclaimed its first ever “blood crisis.” Boston-area hospitals have established priority protocols should available blood become scarce. My response to this humanitarian challenge: Tough Nuggies to the homophobic Red Cross.
Forty-five years ago, as a dutiful college undergraduate, I received a gallon-pin from the Red Cross. Then another. My college held blood drives every eight weeks. I laid on a cot and held out my arm every time.
Thirty-seven years ago, at the height of AIDS-mongering fear, the Red Cross stopped taking blood donations from any man who had sex with another man.
Twenty-eight years ago was the first time that my wish to donate blood clashed with this prohibition. I answered ‘yes’ to the man-on-man sex question on my intake form at a blood donation site, and was declined. I got angry, charged the reception desk, argued that this was 1994, that means of transmission were well established. The grey-haired volunteer clutched her pearls as I denounced the Red Cross’ blanket policy that ignored levels of sexual risk. I stomped away in disgust. I daresay the intake lady was glad to see me go.
When the Red Cross stopped wanting my blood, I stopped giving them my greenbacks as well.
Occasionally, over the next decades, I’d go into a Red Cross Blood Drive, fill out the forms, and make a scene when I was denied. Neither an organized nor effective form of protest, yet it allowed me to vent my frustration. Over time, Red Cross policy changed. They’d take a gay man’s blood if he hadn’t had sex in a year. Then they reduced the time to ninety days. We have known (for a long, long time) that not all gay men have HIV in their blood, while all sorts of other people do have HIV in their blood. The Red Cross tests every donor’s pint for hepatitis, HIV syphilis, and a slew of other infections, regardless what identities the donors’ claim. So why, in 2022, are gay men the only demographic asked to refrain from sex for ninety days before doing a good civic deed? The restriction on gay men are nothing more than parochial prejudice; nothing less than good ol’ fashioned homophobia.
The latest blood shortage has clarioned new calls for the Red Cross to loosen their prohibition on blood donations by sexually-active gay men. If they do, I promise that my memory of Red Cross’s misguided discrimination will be short with regards to donating blood: I will give it because people need it. But my heart will be hard to opening my wallet to a supposedly philanthropic institution that has promulgated prejudice beyond thirty years of scientific reason.
A civilized person is one “…with inborn instincts inhibited.”
That phrase stopped me short, even though it was embedded—mid-paragraph, page two—in Peter Schjeldahl’s review of “As They Saw It: Artists Witnessing War,” the current exhibit at The Clark (The New Yorker, March 22, 2022).
I like to think of civilization as an unalloyed, if imperfect, good. The accumulation of human potential and achievement over time, evolving ever onward towards equity and light. I never considered that the fundamental building block of civilization—the civilized person—could be defined by how well we inhibit instinct.
Yet, as a child, I grew up on the myth of the American West and therefore equate ‘real men’ with wild, lawless, open space. As an architect, I witnessed the testosterone throb of Bosses who thrive in chaotic Haiti, and the countervailing deference every worker in China displays. These international experiences helped me appreciate Haitian culture even as I recognize it as so fundamentally different than our own that direct comparison is useless. Meanwhile, I understand how China’s culture of conformity is the fuel of its economic juggernaut.
While mulling the tradeoffs between the benefits civilization provides against the constraints each individual must accommodate for a supposed greater good, I considered several current paradoxes, seeking a keen example. Perhaps, how asserting the right to participate in society unvaccinated and unmasked compromises others’ health? Or how people of certain identities demand equal rights which others (who may not understand or even recognize those identities) see as special treatment? Maybe, how regulating the way gender/sexuality can be taught in public schools protects (coddles?) some innocents at the expense of eliminating viable visions of adulthood for those few students for whom it is their healthy path?
But then Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on national television at the Oscars; and shortly thereafter the audience gave the perpetrator a standing ovation. If ever there is an example of inborn instincts unleashed in a forum pretending to be civilized, this is it.
First, consider Chris Rock. Why does the Academy Awards keep inviting him back? His first outing as host, in 2005, got mixed to poor reviews by mainstream media and was resoundingly panned in-house. His riffs twittered between mean-spirited and raw. His spoof highlighting what movie-goers actually see versus what’s nominated exposed an uncomfortable Hollywood truth. His insistent jabbering at Jude Law for showing up in virtually every movie that year received a direct rebut, on stage, from the ever-dour Sean Penn. Yet, the Academy invited him back again in 2016: the year of #OscarSoWhite. That must have been quite a party, though by 2016 I had stopped watching the Oscars. Still, The Academy invited him back again. Why? Because Hollywood endures insults better than crashing ratings, and Chris Rock is a better audience draw than some of the movies celebrated.
I watched the first hour of this year’s show: about as much pomp and makeup and exposed cleavage and limousine liberal-speak I can stomach. I witnessed Will Smith’s prominent seat, since he was a shoo-in for Oscar glory, with his beautiful wife sitting beside. I noticed that Jada was bald, and gave it no more thought than her sumptuous gown. Everybody’s gotta have a look. Chemotherapy? Alopecia? Fashion? Who cares? Among our inalienable rights, there must be the right to be bald.
It is not, however, Jada Pinkett Smith’s inalienable right to sit front and center at the Oscar’s with irreverent Christ Rock at the mic, and escape whatever wrath he inflicts. Chris Rock isn’t invited to the party to be nice, and Jada Pinkett Smith is a public person. Whatever one thinks of the GI-Jane joke, it was classic Chris Rock, and it wasn’t libel.
Enter Will Smith, storming up center stage and slapping Chris Rock. So much for inhibiting instincts. Fisticuffs has a long-standing among men of grit protecting their women-folk. But on stage at the Dolby Theater, in tuxedoes, in front of the peers about to give him a little golden man, before however many dwindling numbers of television viewers? Welcome to civilization removing its gloves.
Will returned to his seat and cursed and cursed. What the video views I’ve watched don’t show is: Will consoling his wife. Defending the purity of the little woman has always been more about the men than the supposedly injured party, anyway.
Will returns later to claim his statue. Aligns himself with his character, King Richard. Talks of defending his family. Cries. The audience gives him a standing ovation. The world heaves a kind of chest-thumping ‘huzzah’ for the strong man. Even left-leaning Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley tweets, “#Alopecia nation stand up! Thank you #WillSmith. Shout out to all the husbands who defend their wives living with alopecia in the face of daily ignorance & insults.”
The show ends and the crowd parties hard. The next morning everyone wakes up. The spirit of unleashed instinct yields to the demands of civilization. Will Smith issues a formal apology. Others call for Chris Rock to do so. The Academy considers withdrawing Will Smith’s Oscar. Representative Pressley’s tweet disappears. A tiny few clamor to address the obvious: a crime has been committed, and documented pretty well. Where are the charges? The arrest?
In my fantasy, Will Smith is arraigned, convicted, and delivered a special sentence: to play Serf Richard, in the flesh, picking crops among migrant workers, hanging out with hood gangs, addressing meetings in union halls, counseling Silicon Valley tech bros on how easily the façade of civilization can fold when we fail to inhibit the toxic masculinity coursing through our inborn instincts.
The Oscar slap is an important moment for crystallizing the chaos of America today; a civilization in retreat as more and more of us refuse to inhibit our innate instincts. As for next year’s Oscar’s? I might not even tune in for an hour. Just go straight to WWF for a dose of more honest violence.
During my time in Haiti I witnessed the benefits of micro-lending first hand. The idea of providing low- or no-interest loans directly to small entrepreneurs appeals at many levels. It’s a direct person-to-person connection that sidesteps much of the bureaucracy of institutional philanthropy, and it fosters small-scale initiatives that are simultaneously rewarding, and useful.
I plunked a hundred dollars into a Kiva.org account over a decade ago, sifted through a range of fledging entrepreneurs, and designated $25 each to four different endeavors. Each time a portion of a loan gets repaid, I designate to a new endeavor. Today, my initial $100 has been lent and repaid eight times over. A very good return on investment.
I’ve also realized that I gravitate toward a particular loan-seeker profile: a person wanting to start or expand some kind of construction. This makes obvious sense for an architect, yet also appeals to my penchant for KIVA loans with a business focus. I don’t have a gender or geographic focus: I lend to women and men all over the world. I shy away from folks wanting money to build their own house, because, even though everyone deserves a house, I don’t see how it generates cash flow for repayment. And I don’t lend to people in retail. Retail is just not my thing.
Last Christmas I gave everyone on my (admittedly small) gift list a $100 KIVA gift card. Recently, I checked in with each of them and asked how they allocated their loans. The responses I received made me appreciate the infinite customization KIVA offers micro lenders.
I was not surprised by my boyfriend Dave, a gentleman farmer, distributed his loans for agricultural purposes. Or that my daughter, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Cambodia, selected businesses in Southeast Asia. But why did my son plunk his full amount on a woman in the Solomon Island to buy a piglet? While most KIVA loans include an aggregate of small amounts from multiple donors, he looked specifically for folks seeking $100 exactly, and fully funded one person’s dream. KIVA loans can be seriously, or serendipitously applied. One of my recipients—who shall remain nameless—admitted to lending money only to gorgeous men from the Middle East. Clearly, KIVA offers something for everyone.
KIVA has a four-star rating on Charity Navigator, 94 out of 100 possible points. That’s not perfect, but for me KIVA includes a worthy fun-factor: exploring potential borrowers and guessing how this loan might change their life. Not everyone will enjoy this: one of the people I gifted hasn’t used their card, thus reminding me of the hazards of gifts that require recipient involvement. No matter, if the card goes unused, the money will revert to KIVA administration: it must take some money to collect a world-wide array of aspirants. And worthy aspirants they are: KIVA’s repayment rate is very high; the default rate on my donations is less than 2%, ensuring a constant cycle of repayments to redirect again and again.
So if you are inclined to make a macro-impact on the life of a person you’ll never meet, consider buying a Kiva card. Better yet, give them out to the people you love, and let everyone KIVA in the way they like best.
I got a text from a friend last week: “Paid $4.09 per gallon today. A 30-cent increase from my last fill-up.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of the message. My friend knows I don’t own a car; the price of gas is immaterial in my life. Yet even I understand that pump price is the immediate barometer of our national psyche. As gas prices spike, our collective mood plummets.
The price of gas, at any given moment, is universally known down to the fractional tenth of a cent. It’s posted along roadsides in big, easily changed numbers. It towers over freeway interchanges. And it fluctuates in irrational yet immediate relation to demand, supply, and the news cycle.
Tankers queue, unloaded, outside the Port of Long Beach, and the price of liquid cisterned beneath pavement in Waltham, Massachusetts automatically shoots up. Shut off imports from Russia and the value of crude flowing through New Jersey refineries skyrockets.
The spontaneous correlation between the price of gas and perceived threats to our way of life is not new. Sixty years ago, in 1962, I recall my father dismissing a news report about Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. “What’s that got to do with the price of gas?” His subtext was clear. Science, environmentalism, harmony with nature. That’s all fine, so long as it doesn’t affect me. One iota.
The inverse relationship between our national well-being and the price of a slippery substance that we never actually see makes perfect sense in a nation enthralled with the twin idylls of constant movement and individual independence. Despite what Dunkin’ proclaims, American runs on gasoline, and the cheaper it is, the faster, farther we run.
Today, a trifecta of challenges is driving up the price of gas with record speed: supply chain issues as production awakens from the pandemic; overheated demand due to that same sad pandemic; and the brutal war in Ukraine. The number of media reports angsting over gas prices appears exponentially proportional to the number of fingers we can wag at the problem. My favorite recent headline: “Is $5 per Gallon Gas Worth the Price of Democracy?” That’s how literal we draw the connection between the price of gas and…pretty much anything we value.
Most prudent analyses of human society indicate that burning gasoline is the primary contributor to making our planet warmer, thus less hospitable to humans; that our short-term actions are undermining our long-term survival. We know, intellectually, that we could improve the quality of our planet by using less gas; and Capitalism 101 teaches us that a sure-fire way to decrease demand is to increase price. But the gap between awareness and action since Rachel Carson’s clarion call and today only gets wider. We say we want a fresh, green earth. But our actions betray that what we really want is to be able to drive, in private vehicles, wherever we want, whenever we want.
We are willing to pay handsomely for this privilege, in both time and money. The average American spends over an hour a day commuting, and 20% of their annual income on transportation. Me? A fraction of that. Yet I confess I must be a genetically mutant American, as my DNA simply lacks the love-of-automobile gene. I always preferred the lethargic ease of Ferdinand the Bull rather than racing frantic like Wiley E. Coyote.
My response to my friend’s text was as inadequate as it was expected. “I love you guys, but you’re probably not surprised I don’t have much empathy for the price of gas. We need to use a lot less of it unless we’re gonna burn this planet up.” The moment I hit ‘Send’ I realized how insufficient.
I may choose to operate differently from my fellow citizens, but I cannot dismiss the reality of their lives. Despite our kneejerk despair, the price of gas does have a direct effect on most Americans; and even if we wanted to rearrange our lives to be less auto-dependent, we can’t do it anytime soon. We have spent the last hundred years building a nation of suburbs and freeways that preferences easy, long-distance driving over any other mode of travel. It would take years of collective effort to restructure the United States from a nation of automobiles to one of trains and buses, bicycle and pedestrians. Yet I see no evidence that we even want to make such change.
Five dollar per gallon gas is a fact in the here and now. The fate of democracy—or of the earth—is too abstract to draw a reasoned comparison. And so we will complain. But we will also pony up and keep driving. Because we are creatures of habit who have built a world that offers no other option.
I have little faith in human ability to better balance the long-term consequences of short-term action. But I have tremendous faith in humanity’s ability to react to crisis. And if there’s anything I know for certain: over the next few decades, we’ve got a lot of crises coming down the pike.
So I hope that my friend accepts my response to his plight as honest rather than flippant. I’ve crafted a life immune to the fluctuating price of gas, yet I know that price hikes have real consequences for many, many Americans. I also understand that the price of gas is our totem for the mess we’ve made of our world. The higher it climbs, the deeper out despair.
On June 8, 2021, more than ten months after State Trooper Stanley stopped me along Huron Ave and ordered me to stop painting names of unarmed Blacks killed on the guardrail where we held our nightly BLM vigil, I received ‘Notice of Magistrate’s Hearing on Complaint by the Massachusetts State Police against Paul E Fallon.’ Malicious Destruction of Property; estimated damage $1200; hearing date: 9/22/2021.
After I read the legalese. And my hands stopped shaking. And I resolved myself to several nights and days of confused anxiety. I shared a copy with Peter Gately, a fellow kneeler at our vigil, who is also an attorney.
“I can’t believe the State Police are making a fuss about this. Surely, this will go away.” I said with the intonation of a question.
“Most likely, if you want it to.” Peter replied.
“Why wouldn’t I want it to go away?”
“Because this is harassment. You might want to take a stand.” Peter is a mostly retired attorney with a failing body and a brilliant mind. “Declare you were exercising free speech; refuse to admit any wrong.” He offered to represent me, pro bono. His eyes glistened at the prospect.
“Any chance I would go to jail for this?” Peter’s laugh alleviated my doubt. So I figured, worst case, I’d be out $1200. A worthy gamble for an opportunity to gum up the State Police, a notoriously scandalous organization.
I attended the hearing on 9/22. Trooper Stanley made a statement. I declined. The hearing officer offered to settle the charge if I did not pursue similar behavior for a year. I declined. She simultaneously sweetened the deal to six months, while warning me that the penalty amount could exceed $1200. I could tell she wanted this to simply go away. Yet again, I declined. The court agent acknowledged my right to trial.
I was arraigned in December. The pre-trial hearing was set for February 15, 2022. The first public hearing of the case.
Peter laid out the legal argument thus. Back in the 1960’s, protestors of the Vietnam War argued, successfully, that the only way they could exercise their free speech was through civil disobedience, since all of the mechanisms of law and governance were allied with the war. The same logic could be applied to protesting the actions of police against Blacks in 2020.
Our tactics were threefold. First, Peter would contact the City Solicitor and request that the city request the charge dismissed, since my painting of names occurred on city property and Black Lives Matter slogans festooned public spaces all across Cambridge. Second, he would encourage the District Attorney to invoke Nolle Prosequi, a legal position that declares the prosecution will not prosecute. In Nolle Prosequi, the judge has no say, the case is fully dismissed. The third leg—my job—was to contact elected representatives to weigh in on my behalf, enlist supporters to show up at court, and notify any media who might be interested.
When called to account, people—and politicians—show their true colors. The City Solicitor’s office dismissed Peter’s inquiries. So too the city councilors remained mute, including the one who’d sent me an initial note of support. Fortunately, my superb State Representative, Steven Owens, sent a meaningful letter of support to the DA’s office. Folks from SURJ Boston spun an elaborate Signal thread of how my case needed to be coordinated with other efforts, and therefore wound up doing nothing. No one from the media followed up, but a half dozen fellow vigil-kneelers arrived at court.
The Assistant DA for the case took Peter’s calls, and after coordinating with others, arrived at the hearing with a document declaring Nolle Prosequi. My day in court lasted less than a minute.
Afterwards, over coffee, I wondered what value the entire exercise delivered. Peter was philosophical as ever. “We can’t know whose mind we might have bent in this exercise. Did anyone at the city rethink their perspective? Did our fresh ADA come to see things differently? It is unlikely that Trooper Stanley will hear about the outcome. But if he does this again and again, eventually, he’ll be disciplined to allow citizens to express themselves.
“You should also realize you took a bigger gamble than you thought. I never actually said you couldn’t go to jail; I just figured it was wildly improbable. A much larger fine, even jail time, were possibilities, however remote.
“One last thing you might want to think about,” Peter added, “whether you want to have this expunged from your record.”
“My badge of civil disobedience?” I replied. “No way.”