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Guns and Cheesesteaks

November 22, 2015

s[r]headlineI have a new guest post on the “s [r] blog” from Superstition Review. Here’s the link.

The post is titled “Guns and Cheesesteaks,” and it’s probably not quite as silly as the title suggests. In fact, I believe it’s as meaningful as any recent utterances by Donald Trump.

This past weekend, my neighborhood in Philadelphia had the privilege of hosting Pope Francis. The Pope’s outdoor mass took place roughly two city blocks from my house. What a momentous celebration!

Reporters and bloggers have already published hundreds of commentaries and thousands of pictures about his visit (see, for instance, this post by the inimitable Liz Spikol), so I won’t attempt to talk about the religious, social or political aspects. This essay offers a micro view, focusing on snapshots taken within one block of my house—some within a dozen steps of my front door—to show how we readied the place for the pontiff. I hope our way of honoring a great dignitary will become a model for other localities.

Because this was the largest National Special Security Event (NSSE) ever, we took extra care to make our little community safe and appropriate for the Pope and his million-odd admirers. To begin, we closed the streets to traffic and towed away any parked cars left behind:

Before

Above: Before the preparations began. Below: Afterward.

After

We installed extra trash cans, and they were prettier than our usual ones:

Trash cans

We removed the mailbox, which might conceal bombs, weaponized hoagies or other dangerous objects:

Before: "this collection box will be removed.... This is Due to the Papal visit."

The sign says: “Please be advised that this collection box will be removed on Thursday, September 24th, 2015 and will be reinstalled on Monday, September 28th, 2015. This is Due to the Papal visit to Philadelphia.”

We blocked access from side streets:

25thSt

PAave

We also blocked the sidewalks of intersecting streets, leaving just enough room for pedestrians to squeeze through. This was to prevent terrorists from swooping in on golf carts or riding mowers:

SidewalkBlocked

We installed air-quality monitors to warn of chemical and radiation attacks (though some residents who tend to be gaseous worried about setting them off accidentally):

AirMonitor

We set up checkpoints:

Checkpoint2

We placed sharpshooters on rooftops. (Sorry, no picture. You know what guys with high-powered rifles look like.)

We brought in large groups of friendly young men in camouflage uniforms:

NationalGuard

We conducted constant surveillance from helicopters:

Helicopter

Looks like a spider up there, but it was much louder.

A little farther from our house, I spotted one low-flying Osprey, barely a hundred yards over the rooftops. This is an aircraft used only by the Marines and Air Force. Even the National Guard guys stared up at it in wonder, perhaps worried about its notorious crash record.

Of course we closed our schools and most of our small businesses. We detoured or stopped buses. To make room for the faithful, about half of our residents left town. Restaurants, if they stayed open, were empty.

Even the multigenerational Catholic family next door—a family that’s lived in the neighborhood for more than half a century—departed when they were unable to get tickets to the event. They planned to watch on TV from the Jersey shore.

So our neighborhood was all prepared to welcome Pope Francis. Proud of our efforts, we were ready to celebrate with him.

The only problem?

Our neighborhood wasn’t here anymore.

Our very empty block

Our thriving city block

 

VotingStickerWe had an election this week in Philadelphia. A special election to fill three vacancies in the state House, two of which arose because the incumbents quit after pleading guilty to corruption.

This event produced a grand Y-A-W-N in the city. The media ignored it, and the outcome was predetermined. (Local Democrats, with a huge registration advantage, automatically win any vote with such little publicity.) Besides, most of us don’t even know our representatives in the state House, and as far as we can tell, their only function is to send us a boastful newsletter just before the next election. As for corrupt officials, they’re as common here as in Iraq, and perhaps cheaper, and we don’t expect new ones to be any less venal.

Nevertheless, stifling my Y-A-W-N, I wandered over to my polling place about 11:30 in the morning. It was deserted. They told me I was the 19th person to come in since the polls opened. Explained one attendant who was eating a pastry, “We don’t even call this light turnout. It’s dim turnout.”

For the 30 seconds I spent in the booth, I received the sticker shown above—a more than adequate reward. I chose the Spanish version because I’m trying to learn the language. Combining this with the sign I encounter frequently, “NO TIRE BASURA,” I’m up to six words total. It’s a start.

But I was upset about being number 19. That’s worse than dim turnout, it’s like Milton’s description of Hell: “No light, but rather darkness visible.”

For an election pitting Luigi’s Pizza against Pete’s Famous Pizza, my neighborhood would have several hundred voters by late morning. Everybody knows Luigi’s would win—it’s predetermined by the crust—but people would show up at the polls anyway.

So I went into my typical funk about the trashing of American democracy. In my view, we can survive Donald Trump and Fox News (which treated the recent Republican debate like a game show), but what we can’t survive is indifference.

Okay, you’re heard that before. Everybody complains about the apathy of the American public. And the counterargument seems like a good one: If the choices are Tweedledum and Tweedledee—or, say, Trumpledump and Christiedweeb—indifference is a rational response, isn’t it?

I disagree, and here’s my reasoning.

Imagine your typical city neighborhood, which averages 60% turnout during presidential elections, 40% in midterms, 20–27% in mayoral elections, and way, way less in off-off-season polls like the one we just had here. On average, then, a lot more than half of the people don’t vote. Now suppose that, in the next election, the neighborhood’s turnout jumps a modest 15% for no obvious reason (no candidate from the dominant ethnic group, no hot-button issue on the ballot). What will happen?

The local politicians will suddenly get very interested in that neighborhood. They’ll start to ask what’s going on there. They’ll stop by and talk to people. They’ll want to know what issues the community cares about.

This imaginary scenario leads to my slogan, with apologies to Field of Dreamers:

VOTE AND THEY WILL COME!

It doesn’t matter if, at the moment, you can’t tell a Fiorina from a Cannoli. Vote in reasonable numbers and they will be forced to address your issues. Vote especially when the slick pols and the talking heads don’t expect you to.

After all, we citizens have just two things politicians care about: (a) votes and (b) money. For those of us with little cash to spare, votes are the only weapon, and if we don’t use that weapon to defend ourselves, we’re choosing to bend over and take it up the … wherever (to use a famous Trumpism).

Sure, I understand all the points about the influence of big money, the rise of the oligarchy or plutocracy or whatever you want to call it. I also sympathize with the rage that leads people into the streets to scream and throw rocks at the cops. But when we throw rocks, we’re not hitting the moneymen and asshole politicians who run the system. As soon as we go home, those bigwigs will go back to ignoring us unless they think they’re losing money or votes.

Thus, no matter how oppressed or depressed the community, I get upset with locals who complain but don’t bother to vote. Despite Republican efforts to suppress turnout, most people wouldn’t have any trouble voting if they made an effort.

It’s the one defense we have left. Nobody’s forcing us to be helpless.

According to Google Translate, the slogan is even simpler in Spanish:

VOTA Y ELLOS VENDRÁN!

Plus, you get a nice sticker. Feel free to print this one and glue it to your shirt. Do correct my Spanish if I got it wrong.

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