Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
Recently, as I do every weekend except those weekends when I, and usually we, do something different, such as take a vacation or go to an academic or pseudo-academic conference at which one of us will perform and the other will be banished to the lobby so as not to make the performer nervous, I left Los Angeles to visit my lady friend where she lives in Santa Barbara, or, in fact, because rents are so high in Santa Barbara -- as a consequence of the city's on-the-surface-blameless
, two-decade-old, slow-growth initiatives, only rich people actually live in Santa Barbara while all of the people who work in Santa Barbara have overrun the nearby towns and commute into the city during the day, glutting the roads and highways as if twice as many people lived there -- in Goleta, which is the next town to the north. I traveled from Los Angeles -- in fact Glendale, just north of Los Angeles -- to Santa Barbara -- in fact Goleta -- by train, as I do every weekend that I go there, except those weekends when I don't -- on Thanksgiving weekend, for instance, which the assistant conductors refer to as "hell weekend," I drive to Santa Barbara in my car, figuring that if I'm going to be packed close to other unfamiliar people I might as well also be enclosed in the sanitized privacy of my own vehicle. By train -- when it is possible, and when it is not so crowded that the assistant conductors refer to it as "hell," and when you don't have a schedule to keep, since for the train to come in an hour late on a voyage scheduled for three hours constitutes an eminently respectable performance -- is really the only way to go. To begin with, since you don't have to concentrate on the road, you can use the time productively, and yet because you're on the train, you can't use the time too productively. I, for example, use the approximately six hours of train travel, to and from Santa Barbara in the course of a weekend, to do the kind of work that I spend the rest of the week putting off: reading and responding, for example, to the purple prose the students in my community college creative writing classes produce, some of it quite good despite its coloring; or trying to put grades to the inchoate babble the students in my community college intro level composition classes don't so much produce, it seems, as they do unwillingly secrete. In addition, the train, I have argued -- at least the train that I ride from Glendale, just north of Los Angeles, to Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara, which is the San Diego-San Luis Obispo Surfliner
-- might just be one of the last remaining spaces of truly free living left in this country: It is not unheard of, indeed not rare at all, for the fellow working the cafe car to get on the intercom, especially when the train is passing close to the ocean, and aggressively pitch alcohol. "Look at that beautiful ocean," I have heard him say on more than one occasion. "Look at the sun setting over that beautiful ocean. What a view. And what would go better with that view than a nice, cold beer, or a nice, smooth bottle of wine? We've got both in the cafe car right now. Credit cards and debit cards are accepted." And every time the train stops at a station for more than the time it takes departing passengers to disembark and new passengers to climb aboard, the conductor declares it an official smoking break: "Now," I have heard the conductor say on more than one occasion, and in precisely these words, "would be a perfect time to step on off the train and light one up." Since you put it that way. On one occasion, when we were stopped for twenty-five minutes in Moorpark, I swear that the fellow in the cafe car made the following announcement: "Unfortunately, due to a malfunction of our credit card machine, we are currently unable to accept credit cards or debit cards in the cafe car. However, as long as we're going to be in Moorpark for the next twenty-five minutes, there is a liquor store right across the street, and I'm sure they'll accept your credit cards and debit cards." On Halloween weekend, the train was filled with high school students from the Los Angeles area traveling up to Santa Barbara to participate in the wild debaucherous Halloween celebration associated with the university students there, and these high school students were permitted to imbibe alcohol without reproach while they were on the train. Walking to the cafe car to buy myself a sports type drink
-- I was parched -- I passed a group of four high school students, unmistakably high school students, who had literally brought a cooler filled with beer on board with them and were steadily making their way through it, almost workmanlike, and I waited in line then behind a girl with braces -- with braces -- who was buying two Coronas, and yes, with limes, please. In any event, on the occasion in question, which has nothing to do with the train in general and only to do with the fact that I had recently disembarked the train, my lady friend and I were driving from the train station back to the studio apartment she can afford to rent on her graduate student's salary, a guest house on somebody else's property -- one that she shares, moreover, with the cat the apartment's previous tenant left behind and which the landlord husbanded until, upon her arrival in his old home, the cat adopted my lady friend, but without forsaking the husbandry of the landlord, so that the two, my lady friend and the cat, are more like mutually independent roommates than mother and child or owner and owned -- and suddenly she pointed to a homemade wooden sign leaning against a fence along the side of the road and cried, "Look, free dirt!" Indeed, this is what the hand-painted sign was offering, and the reason this was of enough significance to be worth pointing to and pointing out is that I've had encounters with, and feelings about the notion of, free dirt in the past. Two years ago, or perhaps it was last year, when I was not in such a good place as I am right now -- or perhaps, now that I think of it, I was in more or less the very same place that I am right now -- I would spend a certain amount of time every day, or at least every week, perusing the listings for animals on the "free" section of the internet classifieds service craigslist
. I suppose I was to some extent entertaining the notion of accepting one of these free animals because to do so would have been to invite into my life a creature that, because of its utter dependence on me -- this would not be an animal who had, like my lady friend's cat, adopted me while remaining in the official care of another, but an animal I had adopted -- would not judge me on the same grounds on which the rest of the world might judge me. Such a creature would not base its opinion of me on whether or not I could say that my writing was being widely published or agents were lining up at my door to represent their own interests by representing my interests; or on whether those same agents were now losing or had already lost interest; and not even on whether or not I was solvent enough financially to keep pace with the latest denim wear fashions; but only on whether or not I was feeding it enough to keep it alive and giving it the attention and affection it sought, and of course how would I be able to keep myself from doing that, when it would be so unbearably cute and also it would be mine? At the same time, a free animal would not represent such a significant investment on my part -- as opposed to, for example, a child -- that it would in any way threaten my ability to continue to relentlessly pursue my own almost-purely-selfish interests.
I never ended up accepting a free animal offered on craigslist, although on one particular occasion, after having had a couple of glasses of wine -- perhaps my appetite for drink had been whetted by a recent train ride -- I came upon a posting from a fellow who, he claimed, was going to be evicted from the studio apartment he had just moved into if he didn't get rid of his four cats, and if he didn't find somebody to take care of them he was going to have to put them out on the street, which was going to break his heart but what could he do, he had to have a place to stay and he didn't have anywhere else to go. Even if somebody was willing to take them in on a temporary basis, he pleaded, while he looked for a permanent home for them... I suppose my heart must have been breaking, as well, or perhaps, only, I liked the idea of being able to accept an animal, or in fact a number of animals, on what was, from the outset, only to be a temporary basis -- an even smaller investment than the already small investment one makes in a free pet. Most of all, though, I think I must have been a little tipsy, and the cats looked awfully cute and playful, and so I emailed him that I would be happy to take his cats on a temporary basis, and that since he lived in Long Beach and I commuted to Orange County -- I am employed at the community college there that is perhaps the most well known community college in Orange County, and not only the place where young Orange County-ins, or County-ites, end up when they don't make it as high school students, but also the very embodiment of that failure ("You'd better get your grades up," I can imagine parents saying to their children, "or you'll end up at...") -- it would be convenient for me to pick them up, I told him, on my way home from work that Thursday evening. He returned my email almost immediately: his reply was overflowing with effusive gratitude, and he urged me to come as early as possible on Thursday, as Thursday was the deadline set by his landlord for him to get rid of his four cats and he didn't want any confusion, and what a tragedy it would be for him to be forced to put them out only shortly before someone arrived to salvage them. And, by the way, could he have my phone number
? I wasn't so tipsy -- it was only a couple of glasses of wine, after all -- that I was about to give my phone number to a guy about whom I knew nothing more than that he lived by himself with four cats in a studio apartment, and by the next morning I wasn't tipsy at all, and it was at about that point that it occurred to me that I was most certainly not going to be taking in the cats of this guy about whom I knew nothing more than that if he didn't get rid of the four cats with whom he shared his studio apartment he would be evicted from that studio apartment, and so for the next two days I remained stoic against the barrage of increasingly desperate and finally pleading emails, until at last, after the supposed deadline had passed, I never heard from him again. So be it: every day, in every town, there are people looking to cough up animals on the "free" section of the internet classifieds service craigslist, and there would be another chance if I so desired, which to this day I have not. But it turns out that more than anything -- more than animals, who as I've understood it are usually snapped up by cruel and degenerate people who then turn around and sell them to companies that do animal testing; and also more than used pornographic magazines and broken furniture and unopened baby food -- what people are offering for free on craigslist is dirt, and if people are offering free dirt, and continuing to offer it, and offering it more often than they are offering anything else for free, it has occurred to me, then there must be people out there who are taking it, and this has never made a lot of sense to me. Indeed, I have known people -- my best friend Jesse is one shining example -- who will take anything that is free, simply on the grounds that it is free, and I admire these people and would, if I were more disciplined, apply the same principle to myself, just on general principle, but dirt is not a substance or object like any other substance or object. Dirt is a byproduct
, and more particularly the byproduct of both production and consumption, the two activities whose very intersection comprises the economy of commodity capitalism which is, as it turns out, the very economy within which, like it or not, I am making this very piece of writing, perhaps in the hope that it will be worth more than dirt. From this, one might conclude that my argument here is that dirt represents a kind of absolute zero in terms of value within the economy of commodity capitalism, and that therefore to get dirt for free is as though to get nothing for free, but I would in fact argue that it goes much further than this: Maids and hauling companies make this argument for me. We pay people to get rid of dirt for us, to scrub it off and take it away in the backs of trucks. Much more than an absolute zero of value, then, dirt, within the economy of commodity capitalism -- an economy that springs up precisely at the intersection of the economies of consumption and production, both of whose byproduct is dirt -- is in fact a negative value, something that costs money, whose presence is a debt, and to offer it for free is in fact a most brazen attempt at robbery; and to accept it, therefore, is to be complicit in the very swindle of which one is a victim.