I know it’s fall because I’m playing Visions of Johanna all the time. It’s certainly not because of San Antonio’s breathtaking foliage.
Visions is one of my favorite Dylan songs, partly because it reminds me of fall in my home state of Indiana, when sharp, cold gusts come at you out of nowhere. I don’t know how the line “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” could make sense to anyone who never spent a Friday night in a high-school football stadium or walking around looking for a college party in Muncie in early November.
The studio version on Blonde on Blonde is fine, but I like better the recording of Dylan’s 1966 performance of Visions at Royal Albert Hall. This time of year, my favorite, I play it on my phone in the car, on the bus, at work, while I’m washing the dishes.
Dylan’s opening chords create this sense of warmth and intimacy, a richness only achievable when it’s chilly and damp outside. It’s like he’s walked you out of the cold and into a small, toasty room with a single yellow bulb that doesn’t take its job seriously. People sit murmuring on couches and folding chairs against the walls, but you can barely see them. It’s like a dorm-room party late at night.
You leave the room after a while, as the song’s tempo picks up and its field of vision expands. You meet up with Louise and her lover.
Johanna never materializes, even as the structure softens and finally gives way to hallucination. And Madonna, she still has not showed. There’s always the promise of grace, never grace itself.
But Louise is with us from the beginning.
Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near She’s delicate and seems like the mirror But she just makes it all too concise and too clear That Johanna’s not here
I don’t idolize women, and I’m not religious, so I never thought much of Johanna. But I like Louise a lot. She’s smart, gregarious, funny, and sexy. She’s great company. Dylan is just wrong about her.
He has this habit of sanctifying women and raising them up to insane heights. He’s done that with Johanna and the women of Shelter from the Storm, Isis, and scads of other songs. Fortunately, the landscape of Visions of Johanna is spacious enough to accommodate our disagreement, as big as it is.
That’s one of the hallmarks of a great work of art — you can reject the big idea at its core but still love its texture, moods, and rhythms.
And that’s the kind of experience we need most of all in this dry, hot fall of ours.
Donald Trump is a gross, malicious Tinkerbell that we clapped into existence.
I believed that on his election night one year ago, and I still believe it.
By “we,” I mean Americans who are sick of democracy because they never seem to get anywhere with it, except when they fall behind. They want to impose their will for once – and, in fact, feel entitled to do so. The Confederate statues and all the rest of it belong to them after all.
Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote about them as the Mass Man in The Revolt of the Masses in 1930.
“Once for all, he accepts the stock of commonplaces, prejudices, fag-ends of ideas or simply empty words which chance has piled up within his mind, and with a boldness only explicable by his ingenuousness, is prepared to impose them. [This is] the characteristic of our time; not that the vulgar believes itself super-excellent and not vulgar, but that the vulgar proclaims and imposes the rights of vulgarity, or vulgarity as a right.”
When Mass Man sets up Facebook and Twitter accounts, well, you know…
“We” also includes the meritocrats, free-market absolutists, technologists, and their promoters and apologists, all of whom are sick of hearing the dummies whine about losing their livelihoods to improved productivity. They shrug off the economic and social displacement of these workers, or they jeer. Learn to code, for Christ’s sake. Then, when their anger and resentment boils down to a reduction of racism, xenophobia, and proud know-nothingism, the elites tell each other, This is why we wrote them off.
We are the authors of this catastrophe. Donald Trump is just the character we wrote in to keep our plot moving along.
I’ve seen you in the news a lot lately, so I just wanted to check in and say how proud I am of you, little brother. It’s been a while.
You probably saw that “I love you tacos so much” mural goof I did in late 2015. Yeah, a lot of people liked that. God only knows how many have had their picture taken in front of that wall. Like I said, I did it as a goof, but also I meant it as a sign of respect for you and for tacos.
The other day I was trying to remember when the last time was that we really got together on something big. I think it was all the dreaming and planning we did for that commuter rail line that would’ve linked us together. Looking back on it, maybe I wanted it more than you did. But I could tell you wanted it too.
I hope I didn’t annoy you. If I did, I apologize.
Also, in case you heard about one or two news stories where it looked like I was bragging about poaching a couple of your tech companies — just so you know, the reporters took what I said way out of context. I called up them after the stories ran and gave them absolute hell. IT is really just a side hustle of mine. You obviously own that industry. You always had the head for that kind of thing, and the flagship university campus and the rest of the tech infrastructure.
Hey, along those lines, you’ve probably heard about the Adopt-a-City competition that Amazon announced a few weeks ago. Sounds like what they’re talking about is a complete makeover for the winner– a second corporate headquarters and 50,000 new jobs. I was like wow. But still, I didn’t think about it that much until the craziest thing started happening. Friends were coming to me and saying, “Hey, if you and your brother teamed up as a single contestant, you could win!” A couple of them said our pairing up would be “singularly disruptive.” They even came up with a name: San Austin.
Man, I laughed hard. So lame. But it kept coming up again and again and again, until finally I decided I should give it some thought. And you know what? It started making sense to me. Our populations are coming together along I-35 — fastest-growing corridor in the country! And our skills are complementary. I’m a back-office kind of guy — lots of call centers, plenty of high school graduates willing to do the work, lots of bilingual workers. I also have a bunch of server farms — always happy to build more! — and cheap electricity rates. And you — you’d be front-office all the way, the brains of the operation. You’d bring all that flashy IT talent and that cool urban thing you have down. (You know me — just beer and hanging out with friends and family.) The more I think about it, the more I think we’d be unbeatable.
And look, I know you wouldn’t really need me in order to compete. But, honestly, the money and exposure would help me out. You should know, though, I am doing better. I’m working on my weight problem. My high-school and college graduation rates still aren’t great but they’re heading in the right direction. Same with my teen pregnancy rates. Still don’t really have a mass transit plan or housing policy, but I do have SA Tomorrow, so there’s that. I know what you’re thinking: Make the improvements I need to make, take care of the fundamentals, and the economic growth will come…. Or I could compete for HQ 2 with you now, win it, and let the Amazon magic do its thing. That’s my preference.
If you have time to come visit to talk it over, I’ll take you to this place I’ve been dying for you to see — the Pearl. I think you’ll love it. Let me know!
In the meantime, keep thinking San Austin, San Austin, San Austin….
I say this out of love: The overwhelming majority of you have not had a single original thought about Trump or his particular brand of evil.
Which is fine. How often does anybody have an original thought about anything? The problem here is that hasn’t stopped you from taking insights you must know have been expressed a gazillion times already, and running with them as if what you’re saying will blow minds.
You seem to regard this as your sacred duty. If you do not personally “call out” Trump for whatever vile thing he tweeted at 4 a.m. over his crumpled Hustler and empty Old-Fashioned Vanilla quart container, you will have let him carry the day and push us a little closer to Nazism or Ayn Rand’s raunchiest sex dream or whatever.
If I’m wrong and you have thought something new about the guy, maybe you smudged up its finer points in your online outrage. Same difference.
Friends, you are not freedom fighters. Your cleverly-worded tweets aren’t pretty much the same thing as well-aimed bricks. Don’t think of your Facebook posts as IEDs.
Also, expressing something that nearly everyone you’re addressing already agrees with, but expressing it emphatically, with a hard defensive edge — that’s just bad writing.
Finally, not contributing to the angry noise on the left isn’t the same as giving in to despair. And it’s not the same as looking away when they come for your co-worker, then your grocer, then your neighbor.
You’re allowing Trump to drive you crazy the way so many of our conservative friends lost it over President Obama. Just seven months into this nightmare, you and your politics are already turning shrill and reflexive.
At every level of government, progressive politicans are at their most creative and passionate when they’re hammering out statements of outrage and condemnation. How much longer before, like the GOP, they give up on the idea of governing, by which I mean enacting policies that benefit large numbers of people? How much longer before fights over symbols, gestures, and process are more important than substance?
Their tweets and yours are getting to be as bad as his.
Pull yourselves together, and clean yourselves up.
You’re better than the president of the United States. Act like it.
You’ve been trolling for gasoline for your Jeep Patriot for five days without luck. You poured the last of your lawnmower gas into your tank this morning. You remember stirring some kind of oil into the lawnmower gas because that’s what Snapper ordered you to do in the owner’s manual. At first, you try not to think about what kind of mischief the oily gas is getting into in the engine. Then you realize you don’t really care as long as the Patriot starts.
If worse comes to worse — and worse is already within earshot of worse — you have a plan to beat your neighbor to death with a baseball bat, siphon the gas from his huge SUV, and steal his lawnmower gas. It’s a riding lawnmower. Yes, of course you know you could siphon his SUV gas and steal his lawnmower gas in the middle of the night without killing him. But the plan as originally envisioned just feels right. It would be both a statement and a way to get the gas you need to go on living the life you’re entitled to.
What’s the statement?
It is this: You would rather kill your neighbor with a baseball bat than ride a VIA bus.
The public service announcement comes on. Imagine it as a voice actress taking the seat next to you, and saying: “Thank you for choosing to ride VIA.”
That’s nice, you think. Plain-vanilla nice, but OK. What the voice actress lacks in professional gloss, she makes up for in politeness.
After a few minutes of silence between the two of you, the voice actress speaks again.
“For your safety and the safety of the VIA (bus) operator, cameras are installed on all VIA vehicles.” She also informs you plainclothes cops could be hiding in plain sight among the other riders, just waiting for the first little tremor of trouble.
She apparently wants to put you at ease. But you were already at ease. You were reading Tweets on your phone and eavesdropping on the lady behind you with all the drama about that asshole. Now, after this second PSA, you’re like, Huh?
You look up. Yup. There are the cameras. You look around for the cop, and catch the eye of the exhausted nurse in maroon scrubs. Probably not, you think.
A few more minutes pass, and you’ve gone back to the drama the lady’s narrating behind you. That guy really is an asshole. No joke. Why did she put up with that for so long?
Then the voice actress speaks again.
“Assaulting a VIA operator is a crime that can be prosecuted as a felony.”
Wow – there are so many things wrong with that sentence. But what bothers you most is its pointlessness. Its only discernible purpose is to spook anyone who’s about to punch, stab, or shoot the driver. Because of course anyone who’s about to punch, stab, or shoot the driver would stop at the sound of a cool, even voice explaining the legal consequences.
The message is clearly not intended to make anybody else on the bus feel safer.
You’re riding to work on the VIA Primo, the bus rapid transit line along Fredericksburg Road between the Medical Center and downtown. Started in December 2012, the service was supposed to attract people like you – professionals who’d never thought about riding the bus before. Part of the big BRT idea was to get these people to finally experience mass transit, to see that it’s not bad, and then who knows – maybe light rail and increased spending on our bus system wouldn’t seem so far-fetched. To reel them in, VIA offered Wi-Fi, more space than you’d get on a regular bus, frequent service, and speedy rides. Some of the seats – two rows facing each other near the midsection of the long, “articulated” (or “bendy”) buses – are even elevated so that they look kind of like thrones. You might be wrong about that, but maybe not.
None of that worked. You’re usually either the only one on the Primo who looks like they’re going to work in a downtown office, or you’re one of only two or three.
But VIA officials aren’t easily rattled. They won’t let failure stop them from doing the same thing elsewhere in San Antonio. At this very moment, they’re planning new bus rapid transit routes around the city.
Undoubtedly, this new service will launch with a beefy advertising and marketing budget, and therefore a lot of fanfare. That’ll initially attract a small crowd of higher-income, higher-education commuters.
But you really want to be there the first time the voice actress of doom sits next to them and hints that mayhem has a yearly bus pass and a lot of time on its hands. She might as well tell them the VIA bus fleet runs on compressed natural gas and the blood of drivers and innocent bystanders.
With their darkest fears about public transportation reinforced, you suspect the professionals will simply say nope and end the experiment. You have little faith in your tribe.
And you? You’re getting back into the habit of riding the bus because 1) you have a new job at City Hall, and it’s right on the Primo’s route; 2) you don’t want to pay a bunch of money for monthly parking; and 3) you tend to forget about your parking meters and therefore get a lot of tickets. You’re trying to reduce your financial footprint.
But those aren’t the reasons you originally took the bus. You started riding the Primo several years ago because you wanted to be a pioneer, one of the early-adopter professionals of San Antonio’s 2,000-year-old bus system. In other words, you didn’t want to be one of those cunt creatives prattling on about how San Antonio needs a real transit system, but who never sets foot on a bus.
You also had a gauzy notion that people from different classes should regularly share the same space, and sometimes make small talk, as they’re doing something as mundane as getting to work, home, the store, or wherever. You believe that without mass transit, whether it’s buses and trains or just buses, San Antonio will continue to bump along as the most economically segregated city in the country.
This is the kind of moment you believe is necessary for San Antonio to get better: Earlier this week, you watched a skinny guy in his forties lug two hampers of clean, folded laundry onto and off the bus. You remembered when you couldn’t afford a washer and dryer, and how much that sucked.
It’s only later that it occurs to you that you could’ve offered to help him with the hampers.
It’s even later than that when you wonder what the skinny guy thinks when the voice actress of doom speaks to him.