Tuesday, December 28, 2004

rat race

The crystalline skyline of a city is what defines it. It’s what draws a person in or pushes them away. Makes them stay or makes them go. Inspires or impedes. It grows slowly, almost unnoticeably, like a mould, a fungus - a cancer, certainly. The buildings awaken and push themselves out of the earth. They stand around in groups gossiping for centuries, telling each other secrets and spreading rumours, which trickle down to the masses and mutate, turning into folk tales and urban myths. The skyscrapers rise out of the ground to become glass monuments, our tributes to wealth, to greed, intemperance, and hedonism. They’re mysterious places - places the poor will never enter, and the rich will never leave.

More teeming than populated. More crawling than teeming. More infested than crawling. Yes, the cities are truly infested with life forms. Millions of humans inhabit these cities, from the destitute poor who inhabit the streets to the better off poor living in the projects. From the more adventurous students living in the bohemian downtown neighbourhoods to the homogenous middle class contentedly tucked away in their safe suburbs. From the rich secured in gated communities to the superrich encased high up in their glass towers. They’re all there. Somewhere.

Feral cats fight with rats for control over a pile of stuffed garbage bags in Chinatown. One pack of rabid dogs squares off against another in an age-old contest of dominance – at one time it was over a certain glade known to be the primo spot for scavenging; now it’s an alley known for the same. It’s ravens against crows, gulls against pigeons. The black squirrels versus the brown. Everyone trying to get ahead. Or at least stay afloat. Somewhere in the city, a neon Coke sign blinks out and in its place a Pepsi sign flashes to life. Not even the more civilised humans can resist the eternal struggle.

The corporations desperately guard their secrets with layer upon layer of bureaucracy. There are forms to fill out forms, charts to explain charts, procedures on the proper way to describe procedures, and spreadsheets to keep all of this in order. Rules, regulations, and guidelines ensure smooth boardroom meetings. Customs, manners, and etiquette ensure smooth lunchroom lunches. Workers are hidden away within a labyrinth of drywall and drop-ceilings, decaying slowly under row upon row of fluorescent lights. Cameras are everywhere, watching, unblinking.

When she leaves at the end of the day, the typical worker scans her hand to log herself out of the system and record her hours. Then she uses her pre-programmed pass-card to exit the building. Her security clearance allows her to open certain doors, and prevents her from entering certain others. Not that she’d even try, though – she knows better than to try to break the rules. She uses her pass-card to take the elevator to the company exit in the basement, and the door opens, revealing the subway platform. Everything has been designed for ease of use, for convenience, and for safety.

No longer are the Haves required to venture outdoors in the city and interact with the Have-nots. No longer are the Haves required to venture outdoors in the city and risk becoming a statistic. No longer are the Haves required to venture outdoors. Everything a Have could want is inside. She just follows the skywalk, crossing from her building to the one beside it for some lunch. She can simply walk through the corridors beneath the towers to get from corporation A to corporation F – that is, if her security clearance enables her to do so. The typical worker rides the train out to her suburb, gets into her automobile, and drives the remaining five minutes to her house. Then she watches some television, sleeps, wakes up, and has the same day all over again. Her life has been designed for ease of use, for convenience, and for safety.

She’s protected from the Have-nots: the Asian gangs fighting over drugs in the downtown core, the Russian gangs fighting over guns down by the harbour, assorted black gangs fighting over territory in the projects, and French, Irish, Italian, and Greek gangs trying to get a foot in the door. She’s protected from the pimps, hookers, and johns perpetuating their symbiotic relationship in the only way they know how, the junkies and pushers dancing their everlasting rhumba, and the homeless trying to keep ahead in an increasingly cutthroat industry. She’s protected from the club-kids and ravers, drunken pub-crawling students, and boozy suburban tourists out for a night on the town. She’s protected from murderers and rapists, muggers and pickpockets, burglars and carjackers, and other assorted rapscallions and vagabonds.

Most importantly, she’s protected from herself.

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