28 December 2010

Cycling Under A Sword of Damocles

This is one way you know you're in The South (and I ain't talkin' about the Bronx):

Between this bike/pedestrian path and the ocean is a strip of land about 200 yards wide, consisting of more trees-- like the one in the photo-- with moss cascading from them, interrupted by roadside ice cream and hot dog stands, biker bars, gated communities and a Publix supermarket. Between this bike/pedestrian path and the Inland Waterway are a couple of state parks, a couple of convenience store/gas stations, a couple more biker bars and a couple of "professional buildings."

I stopped in one of the convenience store/gas stations. The latter is owned by Citgo, but the store is part of a local chain called Jiffy. This part of Florida, like much of the US, has experienced its coldest weather on record for this time of year. So, I had a yen for something I never craved in my previous trips down here: hot chocolate. Also, I started the day with a headache, which I incorrectly thought I could pedal off. So I also wanted aspirin.

While there, I got talking with Sharon, the store manager. I can best describe her as a redneck wife, and I don't necessarily mean that disparagingly. She's somewhere between my and my parents' age and has lived all of her life in this area. Business was slow, she said, but that's how it is everywhere: "Nobody has any money."

She said she'd seen a report saying that the county in which her store is located--and in which my parents live--has the highest unemployment rate in the country. It's hard not to believe that: Everywhere I've pedalled, and every place I've gone with my parents, I've seen empty stores and condo buildings. A so-called European Village consists of a pedestrian plaza ringed with restaurants and shops, about half of which were vacant. When I last saw it, two years ago, all of the spaces were occupied and business, although not booming, had yet to be wracked by the ravages of the implosion of the local and national economy.

Sharon says she's never seen anything this bad. In a nearby town, where she sometimes has to go on business, she sees "kids with eighteen siblings, and none of them have the same father." And, she says, "They're white."

Five years ago, someone with no job, no income and no assets could get a loan to buy a house. Today, this county and other places are full of young people with no job, no education and no future. Now, if they had education, they'd be like certain young people in the Northwest of England nearly four decades ago. What did they do? They became the Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses of this world. If, instead of education, they had religious dogma, they'd be suicide bombers.

But those young men and women truly believe in nothing at all. At least, they're not willing to die for anything, and they're living, not for the future, not for (much less in) the moment, and not even for the present or the Eternal Present. Instead, they are in a chasm that cannot be filled with anything, not even their own deaths.

You can see it on their faces. In fact, during the time Sharon and I were talking to each other, three of them--the "rock-heads," as she called them, came into the store. One young man used the bathroom and left; a girl, younger, tried to buy cigarettes and another bought a case of beer.

"You've got to watch out for them," she warned me.

"They look pretty scary."

"You're on your bicycle. You're a woman riding alone. Around here, that can be dangerous, epecially between here and the bridge."

"What do you mean?"

"They attack people and rob them. And sometimes they do worse."

I thanked her for her advice and wished her a happy new year. And she wished me a safe trip, which I continued under the trees with moss hanging from them.