"...in extricating the city from preplanned
control, men will become
more in control of themselves and more aware
of each other.
That is the promise, and the justification,
-- Richard Sennett --
In my e-mail was a 1C message from Rainforest Mac. She
DuPont Circle, 12:00. Be there.
DuPont Circle is a real place in the heart of Washington,
D.C., about a fifteen minute walk from the White House. When L'Enfant designed
his city plans back in the 1790s, he created magnificent geometric forms that
had nothing to do with the substance of city life. Even back then, when the
District of Columbia was largely sparse forest and cow pasture, people
recognized this to be true. Looking at the plans, they bemoaned the odd
collection of triangles and parallelograms that resulted from an assortment of
avenues flying in every direction of the compass. The virtual city in the
mind's eye was magnificent; but for the people who would actually live there,
it was just a Republican pain in the posterior.
But there is another side to that story, which is that you
can't keep a good democratic people down. Despite the fact that L'Enfant's plan
was designed more to delight the eye than please the palate (or fill the
belly), the people made it work. Despite the introduction of the automobile,
they kept it going. The invention of the safety elevator and electricity
impressed them not at all; to prevent the symbolic castration of being
literally overshadowed, Congress merely passed a law insuring that no building
could be higher than the Capitol Dome. The first and last rule of city life is
to expect the unexpected and to roll with the punch. Democratic peoples do not
anticipate very well, and their reaction is sometimes painfully slow to
observe; but like a glacier they are capable of rearranging the landscape by
the sheer weight of their inexorable mass.
There is a third side to the story of D.C. (in a 3-D world,
there are always six sides to every story). which is that while the city
survived, it did not prosper. It survived into the 21st century about as well
as an old man survives prostate cancer, which is to say, with pain and
uncertainty and grumbling all the way about former years of glory. The city
achieved some stable sense of grace and function in the 1920s. All of this was
bent out of shape in the 1930s, when the federal government hurled Greco-Roman
architecture upon the city as Zeus might have cast lightning bolts from Mount
Olympus. The wartime demands of the 1940s bloated the city beyond recognition.
At the zenith of victory, the Wheel turned towards the nadir of despair. The
prosperity of the 1950s was a death sentence; the white middle-class fumbled
its chance to redefine the urban experience, and even as it expanded outwards
it turned inwards. Thereafter the District slowly sank into the stupor of a
crack addict, doing whatever it needed to do for another year's worth of
federal largesse. The fact that the federal government was there, drawing the
rich and the powerful towards the center, only prolonged the illusion of
well-being. The District had become a theme park, a fantasy island.
And there is a fourth side to that story, a side yet to be
seen. It is the time to come, the time of the great experiment. The city shall
be renewed, and though all things die, so also are they reborn.
"I'm sure glad you didn't wear a suit and tie 'cause you'd
be melted into a puddle of creamy white butter by now, and the dogs would come
and lick you away," says a voice. I look up from my introspective meditations
to see a figure on a bicycle. From the side profile she looks like a stick
figure -- a tall, thin, bony black woman about thirty years of age, with a
black vinyl headgear strapped closely to close-cropped hair. Yolanda "Yo"
MacKenzie. Rainforest Mac.
"My God, MacKenzie, you get any thinner and you'll
Resting on her bike, she leans over and we shake hands. A
few of the other couriers look at us with detached curiosity, as if it were
strange, but certainly not impossible, that a black woman and a white man
should know each other.
"There's karmic balance, 'cause if you get any fatter
you'll fill the whole screen," she said. "'Sup?"
"Well, let me see. My wife is pregnant."
"No shit," she beams. "That's great."
"You think so?"
"Absolutely. No kids, no wife, no life." She pauses. "Is
that why you T.I.ed?" This is slang for transfer interrupted,
it's an old Internet joke. Or maybe it's a new bicycle courier joke. Hard to
tell. It means to leave in the middle of something, to vamoose, or to fail to
bring a partner to orgasm. It's not an especially complimentary epitaph, let's
put it that way.
"Because she's pregnant? Hell no. That's got nothing to do
She gets off her seat and lays the bike gently on the
pavement, then sits down on the park bench next to me.
"Stupid bird shit," she says, wiping off the wooden bench
with a small towel that magically appeared out of her waist pouch. "So what's
"They don't want me there anymore."
"What?" she says, leaning back against the bench. "That's
"True, but that's where it is. Starting Monday I'm part of
some Vice-Presidential commission to study the ozone or something."
"That's plain BS," she repeats needlessly. She doesn't know
what else to say. This from a woman whose vCity eloquence cannot be
"I'll survive," I say. "What's new with you?"
"Hanging out, hanging in," she replies.
"Still working the streets, huh?" I say, teasing her. "When
are you going to get a real job?"
"Man, you don't know nothing. This is reality.
Welcome to the City."
"Oh, don't double negative me, MacKenzie. You can write
better than most people can think."
She looks through me with roughly the same look that
Alexandra Touissant gave me when I told her that she understood what was going
on. It is a dirty look, a look of annoyance, a look that reveals when something
secret has been revealed. Is this a female look, or am I just excavating things
that should better be left Belowtown?
"Yeah, that's true. But here I am who I am. The street . .
. well, it's just a different language. You gotta talk the talk if people gonna
listen, you know?"
"Well stop it, it makes me ill. And as long as we're on the
subject, why are you still wheeling? You're getting old, you're going to kill
yourself doing this."
"You could get a job writing at $50K a year easy."
She takes a swig of water. "You really don't know nothing,
do you? You think I want to sit on my ass all day and become a fat white man
"I'll tell you why I like this job. It's simple. I stay in
shape. And I meet lots of new men. See?"
"I have to admit I never thought about it that way."
"Yeah. And I been with the company eight years now, I get
full medical, vacation, you name it. I even got a 401k plan. Mutual funds."
"All right, so you've joined the club,
She is about to reply when suddenly the speaker in her
headset cackles, spouting gibberish. She touches a small box on her waist belt
and replies in equally meaningless gibberish.
So we sit there, she and I, lost in our own thoughts for a
minute. Finally I say to her, "So you called me all the way into the city for
"I needed to know what was going on. We needed to talk, but
I didn't want to do it over the phone or by e-mail."
"You think your comms are being tapped?"
"No, man, I think your comms are being tapped."
"Besides, it's easier to talk FTF, you know?"
"Body language, facial expressions."
"All programmable," I said.
"Oh shit, now don't start, please. You don't know what
you're talkin' about, you've never done an honest night's VR in your life, man.
A file that did that would be the size of New Jersey. Anyway, I don't want to
talk shop. I need to know why you T.I.ed."
"It wasn't my idea."
"Did they fire you? Because of the Exon?"
"No, they didn't fire me. I'm on extended leave to go join
"Then how come you resigned?"
"I can't call a referendum if I'm not part of the Zoning
Council; it's in the by-laws."
"But you can still post to the GD."
"Oh sure. I didn't say that First Citizen was committing
She puzzled over this for a few seconds. "I don't get it.
For all your stupidity, you're the only real thing they've got. Why are they
pulling you out?"
"Look, it's like a magic trick -- pull the table cloth
away, and the dishes and glasses still stay on the table!"
"Life goes on within and without you, huh?"
"Something like that."
"This is no good," she speculates. "Your corporation is
bound to fuck it up somehow."
"That's true," I reply. "Have you figured out what the
signal will be?"
"When they start charging for citizenship."
"Yes. And have you figured out what to do about it
"Not yet. We're still working on it."
"Who is we?"
"You don't wanna know."
"Okay. It doesn't really matter anyway. I figure you've got
five to ten years before the excrement hits the rotary blades."
"The vCity is still in an early growth stage. There's a
billion people on the Internet, but we've only got seventy million customers in
our registry. From now on that's going to double every two years, if my guess
is correct. It'll take us a while to get to one billion."
"But in ten years, won't there be three billion on the
"Sure. Maybe more. But not in the vCity. All the
internetworking corporations in the world can't build pipe and faucets that
fast. And even if we could, we can't give high-end stuff away. There's a limit
on how much people can afford to spend."
"So why do you think you won't start charging sooner?"
"Because the corporation won't do anything to put a crimp
in that growth rate. It's just not that stupid. As long as the rate is strong,
we'll give it away. When the growth slacks off, that'll be the time when
somebody will decide to put the squeeze on."
"If they do, they cut their own dicks off."
"Over time, probably. It'll start slowly. We'll decide to
test it with a 25-cent fee per month or something equally small. We'll tack it
right on to the monthly bill. We'll lose a few million customers, nothing
serious. We'll come up with some logical-sounding explanation for why we have
to cover costs, conveniently leaving out the fact that we're leveraging the
vCity through the wazoo for all kinds of other business. Most people won't
care. Then we'll turn up the heat, one quarter at a time. Like the frog in the
pot, you know?"
"Yeah. Frog boils alive because it doesn't feel the
"Right. But you know what, MacKenzie?"
"The frog jumps every time."
"Yeah," she said smiling. "The frog jumps."