Canary in the Crosswalk

[I wrote this essay in February 2014, when I still lived in New York.]

According to the New York Police Department, motorists killed 178 pedestrians, and injured more than 12,000, in New York City in 2013. These numbers are tragic enough. But they don’t tell the whole story. They don’t count how often motorists terrorize pedestrians by speeding, or running lights, or failing to yield. They don’t count how many citizens have curtailed walking activity out of fear.

I am one such citizen. I suffer from Pedestrian Terror Stress Disorder. The symptoms? Let me walk you through them.

* * *

Around 10 A.M. on Friday, January 31, 2014 – a few days before I learned that the Tri-State Transportation Campaign had named Flatbush Avenue the deadliest street in Brooklyn – I approached the intersection of Flatbush and Carlton, from the north. I steeled myself as I set out, with the walk signal, across Flatbush’s vast expanse. I was relieved to see maybe a dozen other pedestrians in the crosswalk with me.

I was just steps from the far curb when a car driver started turning the corner in my direction. The motorist was neither careening around the corner, nor slowing or stopping to acknowledge my right of way. As that ton or two of steel advanced towards my unarmored body, the threat it posed fused with every other threat I’d ever felt in the presence of a motorist to send a jolt like an electric shock through my chest. My arms leapt up in a futile gesture of self-defense. I jumped back. I screamed. A split second later, the motorist slowed down. A woman behind me in the crosswalk asked, in alarm and disbelief, “Why is she screaming?” Gaining the far curb, I pulled my hood down to conceal my eyes, and cried.

* * *

I wasn’t always like this. Growing up in Park Slope from the late 70s through the early 90s, I walked without fear to Holy Name School, to the Park Slope and Central Libraries, to shops in Park Slope and Windsor Terrace. I circled Prospect Park like it was my backyard. As a young teenager, I made my first solo trek through Gowanus – then a post-industrial ghost town – and over the Brooklyn Bridge to visit the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library. I gauged my progress towards adulthood by how far I could walk on my own.

When I returned to Park Slope as an adult, in 2005, I committed to walking at least five miles each day. Sometimes I walked around Prospect Park, or explored nearby neighborhoods. Sometimes I walked to Manhattan, for work or errands, then took the subway back. By the time I started graduate school at Hunter College in 2012, I’d logged thousands of miles on New York City sidewalks, and successfully crossed thousands of streets. I’d moved, with my husband, to the Columbia Waterfront District. I figured I’d walk the seven miles to Hunter’s main building at East 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, then take the train home. As usual, I’d combine travel with exercise.

To reach Hunter with minimal motorist conflict, I tried every route variation I could come up with. I tried the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. I tried Broadway. I tried Park, Lexington, Third, Second, and First Avenues. It was only after changing my route a dozen or more times that I conceded: I would not find a peaceful walking route to the Upper East Side.

By late March 2013, seven months of escalated exposure to motorists had damaged my nerves more than I knew. On March 28, as I crossed Cadman Plaza West where Clinton meets Tillary, two cars, in two parallel lanes, careened in tandem towards me. I shouted curses at them; I flipped them off. Then I broke down crying.

But I didn’t give up. I made it – with more curses and tears – across the Manhattan Bridge, and across the gauntlet of Canal Street.

And then I reached Delancey, at the Bowery, where the walk signal seemed to have lost all meaning. How was I to cross, with the light, with speeding motorists swerving into my path, from both uptown and downtown? The traffic cop, standing at the median with her back to me, only made things worse, waving motorists on even when the light was against them. I made it as far as the median. There I sank onto a low ledge and sobbed. After a few minutes, I retreated to the south side of Delancey and called my husband, who picked me up in his pedicab. I took the subway home.

For a week or so after my meltdown at Delancey, any sudden movement, on street or sidewalk, sent a shock through my body. Even kids on scooters startled me. I had to take the subway round-trip for most of my last two months at Hunter. Since then, the shocks have diminished in frequency and intensity. But they haven’t left me.

* * *

A few hours after my recent outburst at the intersection of Flatbush and Carlton, I was walking home from Park Slope, by way of Gowanus, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens. Still raw from the morning’s run-in, I screamed in two more crosswalks – one at Union and Nevins, the other at Court and Union. Approaching Clinton and Sackett, I tried to soothe myself with silent assurances: It’s okay. You’ll make it. You’re almost home. I was about to cross Clinton, with the light, when a white van roared into – not up to – the crosswalk and stopped short at its far border. It seemed that the driver hadn’t noticed the light, let alone the crosswalk with walk signal. Much as I wish my version of PTSD could be cured with calming herbs and a course of talk therapy – much as I wish it were all in my head – it isn’t.

* * *

So what do I do, as a New Yorker afflicted with Pedestrian Terror Stress Disorder? Do I leave the city? Navigating on foot is not necessarily easier in small towns or suburbs. Do I get my own personal “YIELD” sign and thrust it forward, like a cross meant to ward off vampires, each time I cross the street? Do I adjust my routes – travel blocks, even miles, out of my way – to avoid the hairiest intersections?

The one thing I won’t do is address the symptoms while ignoring the cause.

It’s not me, New York. It’s you.

I’m just the canary in the crosswalk.

My Cult and Infinite Growth: A Tale of Two Stories

[I wrote this essay in June 2014. A month later, a man I met at the Northeast Permaculture Convergence became the first to respond to my admission of cult involvement with a version of, “Yeah, me too.”]

I spent most of my twenties trapped in a story. The story, roughly, was this:

The mass of humanity, also known as “the DeathKultur,” is destroying itself, its fellow creatures, our precious web of life. We few dozen Zendiks (heretics, outlaws, revolutionaries), homesteading on a hundred acres in the backwoods of Western North Carolina, are creating a new culture that forsakes competition and lying for cooperation and honesty. Once we’ve cleansed ourselves of our “DeathKultur conditioning,” our example will spread everywhere. Competition and lying will cease, along with violence and ecocide. In the meantime, any Zendik who deserts the cause is doomed to half a life. Her betrayal will haunt her till she dies.

In other words, I joined a cult. I was twenty-two; the year was 1999. But I didn’t say, “I joined a cult” until 2005 – six years later.

Since then, I’ve said it hundreds of times, to hundreds of people. Some, in turn, have recounted friends’ and family members’ cult episodes. A few have described living in cults as children, through no choice of their own. A friend said she’d spent time in a group some might consider a cult. The one response I’ve yet to hear? “Yeah, I joined a cult too.”

Why? Where have all the cultists gone?

Maybe the hurdle is the word “cult.” Nobody knowingly joins a cult, and no one in a cult would call it that. We join – we commit to – communes, new religions, meditation circles, personal growth programs, ashrams, revolutions. Saying “I joined a cult” means repudiating a story that’s given our lives meaning. Admitting we surrendered self-trust to a despot crowned by collective delusion. Opening ourselves to others’ judgments – however unfounded – that we’re dumb, weak-minded, naïve.

* * *

But we’re all trapped in a story – The Infinite Growth Myth. Here it is:

Economic growth creates jobs and increases wealth, along with health and happiness. It advances technology and security, nurtures the arts, and allows us to invest in luxuries like developing renewable energy sources and protecting the environment. When it slows or stops, we suffer. We lose drive and purpose; some of us lose access to basics like food and shelter. Someday we’ll discover how to keep the economy growing steadily, forever and ever, and life for all of us, in the United States and throughout the world, will improve exponentially. In the meantime, given a choice between growth and another good, we must choose growth, since it is the spring from which all good flows.

The first story I told – the Zendik story – doesn’t need debunking. Though it starts with a version of a valid observation about human behavior, it ascends, by the second sentence, into an obvious flight of magical thinking. The second story is no less absurd. The economy grows when we start wars, blow bubbles, and pay corporations to do and make more and more of the things we once did and made for each other and ourselves. These activities tend to concentrate wealth in the accounts of the one percent. The economy shrinks when we make peace, burst bubbles, and learn to rely on ourselves and each other for our wants and needs. These activities boost access to essentials – clean air and water, healthy soil, strong relationships – while giving the web of life a desperately needed rest. Finally, and most elementally, infinite growth dependent on infinitely accelerating “resource” extraction cannot happen on a finite planet. Yet, as you read it, The Infinite Growth Myth probably seemed plausible. Why? Because it isn’t some fringe phenomenon. Three hundred million of us live inside it, and help maintain it, every day. Are we all fanatics? Cultists? No, we’re normal. We’re just like everybody else.

* * *

In Combatting Cult Mind Control, veteran exit counselor Steven Hassan says that “the great majority” of former cult members he’s interacted with “were stable, intelligent, idealistic people who tended to have good educations and come from respectable families.” Many showed “a genuine impulse” to work closely with others for “social and religious causes” but had a hard time finding a community through which to channel that impulse. Most Zendiks I knew – myself included – arrived bewildered by the soul-numbing that seemed to be required for survival in a story favoring growing the economy over tending the web of life. So maybe “I joined a cult” also means, “I needed to believe I could belong to a tribe – a tributary – in which some of the mainstream’s insane assumptions could be revised.”

Maybe The Infinite Growth Myth helps drive traffic to cult stories.

What can cult stories offer The Infinite Growth Myth?

Hope for a happy end.

All of us who’ve joined cults and come out know how powerful stories are, and how much harm they can cause, running unchecked. We know how wrenching it is to lose stories that give our lives meaning; we know it’s possible to grieve old stories and weave new ones. If we can claim our knowledge – if we can share it – then maybe we can help lead our culture out of The Infinite Growth Myth and into a truer version of the more beautiful world we were always looking for.

These Wounds Won’t Seem to Heal

[This is a snapshot from the summer of 2005, when I was on my way around the world. Hunter is not the truck driver’s real name.]

These wounds won’t seem to heal/This pain is just too real/There’s just too much that time cannot erase….

I hear a woman’s cutting soprano keening these words, as I stride past the back entrance of a dull brown building just off the main quadrangle of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Inside a concrete-and-cinderblock utility room is a thirty-something Hispanic man, lounging against the wall, smoking a cigarette, listening to the music. Or perhaps not listening—perhaps counting the hours left in his shift, perhaps wishing the radio would switch to a tune not quite so bloody with heartbreak.

I met Hunter when I was hitch-hiking from West Virginia to Arizona, in the fall of 2004. I had just been kicked out of the cult I had devoted myself to for five grueling years, and was more completely adrift than I had ever been. He was a truck driver—unhappily married, with two teenage daughters. He seduced me, in the cab of his truck, on the Texas/Oklahoma line. I did not resist.

He was torn, and I was torn; he by his allegiance to his family, I by mine to the cult. I was willing to fall in love, but only with a man who would leave me crying, and thus prove to me that lasting romantic relationships were impossible—for me—in the outside world.

Hunter complied. After a couple months of weekend trips from Arizona to California and back, he disappeared. The last time I saw him he gave me a CD he had burned for me, titled “Something Soft.” It began with a woman pleading: Take me by the hand/Take me somewhere new/I don’t know who you are/But I—I’m with you. It ended with a man warning: You gotta leave me now/You got to go alone/You got to chase a dream/One that’s all your own/Before it slips away. Somewhere in the middle was the wild pain of that wracked soprano voice, grieving her loss that time could not erase.

* * *

I hurry on, past the dull brown building, out of range of the radio. I am headed for the main library, where I will meet a friend—recently accepted into graduate school at UH—with whom I used to work on an organic farm in California. After spending a few hours with her, I will take the bus to the airport, to board a midnight flight to Auckland. As I flee the siren’s song, my internal soundtrack segues from desperate lament to ironic encouragement: You can’t run away forever/But there’s nothing wrong with getting a good head start.

Trapped in a Forest of Little Chairs

[In spring 2006 – back when I was Helen Newman – I worked for a semester as an English teacher at a Korean cram school in Bayside, Queens. This is a record of a moment from that spring.]

Trapped in a forest of little chairs, I turn gingerly from Salina to Seule. I monitor my movements as I maneuver between the two rows of students, so as to avoid collision with heads or eyes or desktops, which all lurk far below eye level. The seven ten-year-olds in my Monday-afternoon English class insist on cramming their desks into the front half of the drab but spacious classroom. Which means that I must practice grace and agility, as I sidle from one desk to the next, checking written answers on worksheets.

As I pivot from Salina’s desk to Seule’s. Henry twists back and upwards to catch my attention.

“Miss Newman, what do you call animals who eat plants?”

Henry is a quiet, thoughtful child, with a slow but twinkling sense of humor and, often, a hint of a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. He plods through worksheets, while others gallop; he deliberates over his responses, printing them in careful, crooked letters. If Salina and Seule are racing ponies, Henry is a good-natured draft horse—accepting of the plow he’s harnessed to, and determined to turn over every square inch of the field he pulls it through.

“Herbivores,” I tell him, and then spell the word out, at his request.

“And carnivores are the ones who eat other animals, right?” he asks.

“That’s right, carnivores eat animals.”

My students’ task, at the moment, is to come up with an example of how plants and animals help each other. Salina says that sometimes animals carry seeds stuck in their fur, then drop them on nourishing patches of ground. Seule says that insects pollinate flowers. I move on to Catherine, who’s in the back row with the other two girls. Again, Henry twists back towards me:

“Miss Newman, you didn’t check my answer yet.”

“I know, I’ll be there in a minute.”

My response is automatic. It’s what I would say to any child importuning my attention when I am involved with someone else. But the moment slows…. I pause a beat longer on that sweetly serious face, alight with the luminous glow of ten-year-old childhood, before zits and adolescent truculence have taken hold. I note the straight black hair, the dark brown eyes, the smooth beige skin on this little human who is literally looking up to me. An intelligence close to my own slips into me, bearing the certainty that soon I’ll be gone; once the semester ends I’ll move on. Cherish these children, it says. Treasure them now, for their lilting exuberance, for their truths that surprise you, for their shrill, frank squeals of complaint. Give them your loving attention, while you’re here with them.

* * *

After I finish with Catherine, I head back to Henry. I am delighted to find that he has encompassed the entire cycle of life in his answer:

“Herbivores eat plants. Carnivores eat herbivores. Carnivores feed insects and bacteria when they die.”

“That’s a great answer, Henry,” I say. “Good job.”

Zendiks vs. Christians in New Orleans

[Mardi Gras was one Zendik’s biggest money-makers. Each year, a passel of us descended on New Orleans and sold ourselves silly. Fanatics of other stripes also saw opportunity. In early 2000, after I’d been at the Farm for a few months and sold a handful of far tamer scenes, I begged a chance at the big time.]

New Orleans doesn’t eat me alive, as Rayel predicted, but it does present me with new forces to be reckoned with. Here we are not the only ones vying for the attention of passersby. The other sellers warn me not to crowd the copper-coated cowboy, or the frozen ghost bride, as they won’t take kindly to my diverting eyes – or dollars – from their enterprises. Same goes for the quick, slight men using spray paint and dinner plates to concoct lurid, streaked cityscapes. But at least these two classes of street hustler are easy to avoid – not so the Christians. They’re almost as pushy, self-righteous, and in-your-face…as we are.

Many of the Christians make their allegiance obvious – groups of them haul huge wooden crosses through Jackson Square, chanting Bible verses and calling on the revelers to repent. They hand out pamphlets dense with earnest comic strips depicting young people ruined by alcohol, marijuana, and fornication. Others, however, prefer the sneak attack. And I – desperate at first to get someone, anyone, to stop and talk to me – am a prime target.

Early Saturday afternoon, on a sunny corner of the square’s main plaza, I’m approached by a sallow young man, in buckteeth and denim. He greets me with a wide, fake grin. “Hey, what do you got there?” he asks.

“It’s an underground art mag. And music. I live on a farm in North Carolina with a bunch of artists and we put this stuff out ourselves.”

He pages through the magazine. “What’s it like on your farm? Do you guys have running water? Do you have power?”

“Of course we do! It’s not like we’re stuck in the Stone Age! How do you think we produce our magazines?”

“How about a higher power?” His grin morphs into a smirk.

I’m beginning to dislike this guy, but I’m grateful at least to be engaged in conversation. So I answer him.

“We don’t believe in a god who’s outside us or above us – some white-bearded guy up in the sky telling us how to live. We think there’s a god-force pervading everything. We call it e-Me, short for ele-Mental energy.”

“What do you think happens after you die? Is there life after death?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been dead. We’re not all that worried about life after death, though, since most people haven’t even learned how to do life on earth yet. But if you’re an extraordinary person who’s starting a revolution then yeah, your influence is going to last long after you die. Like Wulf, who wrote our philosophy. He’s still living through this magazine and music – and the culture he created.”

The buckteeth reappear, as the centerpiece in a sly smirk.

“Don’t you think that to live a great life you need a great example to follow?” He cranes his neck into the space between us and narrows his eyes. “Like Jesus Christ, the Son of God?”

“We think Jesus was a great guy who did a lot of great things but he never meant for people to worship him. He was trying to show people how to be their own saviors.”

Just as I glimpse the plain wooden cross around the Christian’s neck, I notice Rave behind him, making the throat-slitting motion and yelling, “No beads!” Meaning, no Mardi Gras beads – a sure sign that someone’s come to poop the party, not join it. I need to extricate myself, quick. I won’t concede defeat by walking away, and I don’t have any stakes or garlic handy, so I resort to the best weapon I do have: asking for money.

“So you know, we get donations for our magazine. You can buy one if you want.”

“I don’t want to buy anything. I’m here to spread the Good News, that Jesus is Lord – “

“We usually get three to five dollars for a magazine, or if you throw in ten to twenty you get a CD and a bumper sticker. You want one? You want the whole deal?”

I want to know if you’re ready to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior, if you’re willing to let him into that God-shaped void – “

“D’you have a dollar for a sticker?”

No, but he has pink-inked pamphlets showing wayward teenagers getting mangled in car wrecks after indulging in premarital sex. “Trade you?” he says.

“No, thanks,” I say. “We get money for ours.”

He promises to pray for me, then tucks his buckteeth back into his mouth and trudges off in search of God’s more docile children.

Stuffed Station Wagon Man (or, The Trouble with Hitching in the Yukon)

[In the summer of 2002, about halfway through my five years at Zendik, I went on an “out.” Since I had next to no money, I traveled mostly by thumb. My desire to excise my Deathculture fantasies – and return, purified, to the Farm – spurred me to break my neck for The Land of the Midnight Sun.]

Halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, just short of Denali, I stand shivering, with my thumb out, in freezing rain. Fuck this, I mutter, I’m going home. I’m about to cross the road to the southbound side when an overloaded station wagon pulls up in front of me. The driver is a thin, bright-eyed, middle-aged man; his passenger, squeezed into one corner of the back seat, is a very large husky.

The man seems friendly, normal enough. He’s just wrapping up a three-week sight-seeing/picture-taking tour up north, and is heading back to Boulder by way of Fairbanks. I take this as a sign from the Psychic Realm that I’m meant to get the hell out of Alaska. I wait patiently as the man removes various items–an atlas, a flashlight, a cooler, a camera, a dog bowl, a roll of paper towels–from the passenger seat and footwell. Then I climb in, relieved to know that within a few days, if all goes well, I’ll be back at my brother’s house in Idaho–home, for now.

It takes us about five minutes to explore dusty downtown Fairbanks–a cluster of ramshackle frame buildings, half of which house saloons. Then we head south towards Chicken, where we’ll cross the border into Canada. On the way I learn a little more about Stuffed Station Wagon Man. Back home in Boulder, he composes actuarial tables for a living, and flips antique rocking chairs, on the side. “Buy low, sell high!” He used to have a girlfriend, but she dumped him. “She didn’t like how I kept my kitchen,” he says. “She thought I shouldn’t dry my socks on the stove, while I was cooking oatmeal. What’s the problem? Just conserving energy.”

At the border crossing in Chicken, it’s so cold and wet that the guard refuses to leave her booth. She glances quickly at our IDs, determines it would be impossible to search the car if she wanted to, and waves us on through to the Yukon. As Stuffed Station Wagon Man squints at the road ahead, which is vanishing into the gathering fog, he asks me what I think of the state of the world. “I think it’s pretty fucked up,” I say. “I think we need to create a culture where people are honest with each other, where there’s no money and–”

He cuts me off. “Nah, we just need to get rid of the electoral college,” he says. “One person, one vote. Solve everything.”

I scoff. “That’s not gonna do a damn thing! You’ll still have the same corrupt system, the same slimy politicians–”

He interrupts again. “Nope! Everyone’s equal, with one person, one vote. Y’ever hear of the Masons? You know, the pyramid with the evil eye on top, on the one-dollar bill? They got us into this mess…. Well just wait. Twenty-twelve.” He nods, and sucks a little ketchup out of one of the opened packets gracing the dashboard. “Twenty-twelve,” he says.

I desist. In my two and a half years of selling Zendik propaganda on the street, I’ve learned it doesn’t pay to argue with fanatics.

The dog–who seems remarkably well-adjusted, considering her upbringing–keeps trying to jump into my lap. Glancing behind me, I can see why: She is losing seat to an advancing tide. Of Stuff. Tarp, tent, thermarest. Fishing pole, galoshes, gasoline can. Bungee cord, duct tape, binoculars. The number of Necessary Items he has packed into his car is truly insane. There’s every possible thing you could need, to fix or fill or find something on the road. He is, apparently, traveling on a shoestring–and if that shoestring should break, he’s brought a replacement.

I’m no longer so thrilled that Stuffed Station Wagon Man is going all the way to Colorado. The proximity of our destinations means we could potentially be traveling together for days. That is, unless I manage to ditch him.

Early in the second evening of our joint sojourn–when I’ve been with him for about twenty-four hours–he mentions stopping and camping for the night, even though it’s still light out. I say I’d rather keep going. “But where will you sleep?” he asks. “And how will you get another ride, out here in the Yukon?”

I shrug. “I don’t know,” I say. “But I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Finally, he decides to stop and camp at a gravel pull-out with a stinky dumpster and no toilet. I hoist my backpack to my shoulders, and bid him farewell.

The problem is, as he has pointed out, this is the Yukon. Which means there are no people, just pine trees and more pine trees. A car passes maybe once every five minutes. None stops. I walk–mainly to get away from Stuffed Station Wagon Man–but I know walking won’t do me much good. Not in the Yukon.

Just when I’m getting worried–starting to scope out the sludgy tundra for a possible camping spot, without success–I hear the wonderful diminishing grumble of a car stopping behind me. What a blessing! A ride! I turn around, ready to grace this angel, whoever he is, with my brightest, most grateful smile–only to discover that my knight in rusty Subaru is, you guessed it, none other than Stuffed Station Wagon Man. That’s what you get, for trying to ditch someone in the Yukon.

What can I do? I get in. Or rather, I start to get in, but realize there’s a problem: In my absence, Stuffed Station Wagon Man has rearranged his gear such that some of it is filling the the footwell of the passenger seat. “What do I do with my feet?” I ask.

“You can sit cross-legged,” he says.

So I do. Laughing to myself, and fuming.

The next morning I do manage to ditch him, Yukon be damned. Partly I succeed because I get up very early, well before man or dog is stirring. Partly I succeed because I am now approaching the town of Whitehorse, where most of the Yukon’s population is concentrated. I am eternally grateful to get a ride with a normal young businessman, who’s driving as far as town, and no farther.

Past Whitehorse, it happens again. I get a ride from a snowbird in a camper, who’s going all the way to Arizona. Maybe this one won’t be psycho, I pray as I get in.