Saturday, December 19, 2015

Randomness in the city

It's a little difficult to pull my thoughts together into a coherent post right now -- there's simply too much going on.  Basically, one of the key features of a major city is that the sheer density of contacts between people leads to all kinds of interactions: some incredible and inspiring, many simply to be endured (there's something quite alienating about interacting and bumping up against (often quite literally) thousands of strangers) and some quite terrible.  This has been recognized for hundreds of years and more formally explored for roughly a century by urban sociologists such as Louis Wirth and even earlier, Georg Simmel.  I'm not one of those people who claim that without the bitter, we wouldn't enjoy the sweetness of life.  I think that there are plenty of difficulties already and that doing as much as possible to eliminate crime, particularly violent crime, would make living in cities even better.  I don't need the frisson of possibly being mugged to enjoy the positive fruits of city life all the more.  I was mugged once (in Chicago) and it sucked.  It mostly led to me hating my neighborhood and eventually moving.

That's one of the downsides of crime is that it does feel pretty random, particularly when it feels like it invades "nice neighborhoods."  If a few more people had been out in the evening (it was only 9 pm or so) or even if there had been more streetlights in that part of Chicago, then the mugger would probably have chosen a different location or certainly a later time, and I would have had a much less eventful/stressful evening (along with all the annoying follow-up that comes when you report a crime and have to put your life back together, as it were).  Just as with the biking incident from last week, a small change here or there would have made quite a difference.  (Of course, things might have taken a turn for the worse, though it was in both of our interests that no gunshots actually be fired, as it would have attracted a lot of attention in Lincoln Park.)

One can do what one can to improve the odds, but even staying home doesn't completely keep one safe, so one might as well take educated risks and enjoy the city.  (Still, the fact that guns are basically controlled in Toronto does make me feel safer, and is certainly one factor in why Toronto's per capita murder rate is less than one-tenth of Chicago's!)  It truly is that randomness that is so frightening, and Toronto has just suffered two fatal stabbings in one week that have people a bit on edge.  (Yes, I understanding taking away guns won't completely eliminate murder to say nothing about violent crime in general, but I would always prefer my chances in a city with fewer guns.)

The very unusual case of a woman stabbing another woman in what is truly an unplanned, random attack is so hard to fathom.  As best as the police have put it together, the accused (Rohinie Bisesar) was struggling with her mental health (as well as not being able to hold down a steady job, which surely contributed to her other problems*).  She thought that this attack would be a jolt (to the system?) that would somehow be "extreme" enough to fix her mind -- or at least get the attention of the authorities so that they would help her.  I have to say this comes across as Camus's The Stranger where the narrator really makes no meaningful defense of his crime.  (And of course, the true victim is Rosemarie Junor who simply ran across Bisesar at the exact wrong time.)  Anyway, I don't want to dwell on this sad event, other than to say it is one of the more tragic random events in Toronto over the past few months.

Returning to literature, I have just reread** Kafka's The Trial, which has aspects of the random all over it: one day, the authorities just show up at your house and tell you that you are under arrest.  They won't even reveal what crime you are supposed to have committed, and there is apparently no way to clear your name.  The best that is on offer is either an ostensible (conditional?) acquittal (which might be revoked at any time) or indefinite (perpetual?) postponement.  Either way, all the arrested parties in this book have a sword hanging over their head the entire time, and the best they can do is play out the string and perhaps die while their case is in abeyance.  No one is ever cleared.  This could be taken for a metaphor for life under a dictatorship or really just life in general.  We are all waiting for the sword to fall, or at least for the other shoe to drop.

One thing that really does worry me, though less in Canada than in the U.S., is to run across one of those difficult people who love to file lawsuits.  There are certainly a few times I can recall that I could have gotten crossed up in something like that (when I was dealing with tenants or even before that when I nearly bought an apartment building in Newark (now that was definitely a narrow escape when the mortgage company refused to issue a mortgage and the entire deal went south)).  Many people's lives have been ruined once they get caught up in the legal machinery, even for civil cases though certainly criminal cases are worse for turning one's life upside down.  It isn't simply a literary invention.  Add to that the seemingly increasing number of scammers who try to draw you into their court cases, often in an attempt to get a payoff from you or your insurers, and it is hard to remain unscathed.  My wife actually was in a minor car accident where the other party (the one at fault) committed insurance fraud, and we were lucky to remain out of any law suit at that time and haven't heard anything more about it (having moved out of Chicago has certainly helped...).  Still, it can be just as traumatic and feel as random as a mugging to get slapped with a law suit  In that sense, it is one of those risks that people run by living in cities.  All that said, I would still take urban life over the alternatives...

* While it might not have made a difference, I do think that in the tail end of the 90s (a relative boom time), Bisesar would have remained employed.  It just feels to me that, structurally, employment opportunities have gotten so bad that thousands if not millions of Americans and Canadians will never feel employment security again.

** I probably read this in my late teens, and while I was aware of social hierarchy and the abuse of power by authorities, many passages in the book now resonate more deeply, particularly how K. is trying to navigate office politics while still attending to his trial.  I was also a bit surprised at how much sex there is in the book, as that aspect did not sink in when I read it the first time around.  What else can I really say?  It is one of the masterpieces of 20th Century literature, and it remains so relevant in these lookingglass times when the authorities have decided to monitor every one of us to protect our freedoms.

† In that sense, when the authorities come to arrest Harry Buttle (instead of Tuttle) in the movie Brazil, they at least tell the victim what his crimes were, though because he dies of a heart attack, he cannot clear his name. Even if he had survived, it might have been just as difficult to be exonerated as it is today to get one's name off the Do-Not-Fly list. I assume that Gilliam was responding at least at some level to Kafka's The Trial, though I suppose it would have been more likely to be the movie version that Welles directed. Improbably, I've actually never seen that, though I have a copy on DVD somewhere. When I am back from my trip to Cleveland, I will have to watch it, particularly as Ebert gave it a 4-star review.

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