- It should have a city enclosed in a transparent dome, whether glass, plastic, a force field, or some exotic form of matter of energy.
- That’s about it.
- Really, yeah, give me a domed city and you can have just about whatever else you want in the story.
- Thank you.
OK, so my brilliant plan. I’m going to find one of those cities where people will invite me to events but not really care whether I show up or not, so that I don’t have to show up. However, when I do go to events I’m going to show up with a confederate. We’ll be ready with a stock conversation that we can make vamp as long as necessary, so that during a lull in the room chatter I can say as loudly as I can manage, “19th Century superclown Dan Rice”. Then my voice fades back into the background, letting people wonder what possibly preceded or followed that. All this will take some effort, because I’m a soft-spoken person. There’s people who’ve known me in real life for years and couldn’t pick out my voice from a collection of random voices or ambient sound effects. Two of them are my siblings. But I’ll rally my voice and find some way to do it at no less than one even per week. Done.
OK, so my brilliant plan. I’m going to find one of those cities that has just enough people in it that it can support the essentials of life, like a hardware store stocked full enough that it feels a little scary to be in because I can just imagine my father saying “it’s right next to the quarter-inch annular grommets” as if that’s any kind of guidance. But it’s small enough that it can be converted easily into a utopian colony. It’s not going to be one of those utopias that tries rejiggering all society and setting out rules like everybody has to spend time being one of exactly 810 kinds of cook. It’s going to be basically like life is now. The main difference is anyone following up a mention of something being “left-handed” with any kind of sentence about “thought there was something sinister” has to leave, and never be spoken of fondly again. Done.
OK, so my brilliant plan. I’m going to find one of those cities laid out in the decades right after the American Revolution. The ones that have their downtown streets named Washington, Adams, Jefferson, et cetera in this neat pattern right up to the point where they gave up, which was Monroe. Then, I take it over. (Some work needed on this part.) Next, I finish the renaming — “Quincy Adams”, guys, it’s not that hard — of streets to complete the Presidents set. And then I go pointing out to news-of-the-weird item types that this town, established 1802 or whatever, has a street grid that perfectly predicts the Presidents of the United States. And finally announce that therefore we can say with certainty that the next President will be Commerce Park Drive North. Done.
Over behind that neighborhood block they’re going to demolish was a parking lot. There still is. The construction plan as I understand it is that after the construction the parking lot will be a parking lot again. But it’ll probably be one of those new parking lots, where there’s little islands of trees so you can never pull forward out of your space. Parking lot designers hate folks pulling forward with the kind of intensity you’d expect for homoiousionism or how many spaces to put after a period or whether there were twelve or thirteen starships like Captain Kirk’s. I don’t know why. I suppose parking lot designers get frustrated, like any of us. And I guess they’re taking out their frustrations by putting trees into their work rather than going outside and berating squirrels or whatnot. That’s respectable. It’s more dignified, anyway, and maintaining your dignity is one of the best ways to make sure people have no idea when they’re offending you. I feel like something’s gone wrong somewhere, but we all do.
Anyway. All those buildings from a couple weeks ago that used to be things? Like the United Nations store that somehow existed? (That has to have been a front for something, right? But why not do their money laundering with something less obviously a front, like a used-quarters store or just a mass of burly men in heavy coats standing around saying “there’s nothing going on here”?) They needed parking, and the lot is still there. It used to be a pretty good space if you needed to park at the hipster bar or the less-hipster bar across the street. There was always lots of space and the parking meters stopped charging at 5 pm.
There’s a bit of parking space behind the hipster bar and all that, but not enough. This is important to city life. Cities drive innovation because they reach a critical density where folks can’t park. This gets people to think about ways to get enough parking in town. There’s no way to do this, but once the mind is focused on the parking hassle, it starts having other non-parking-related ideas, like:
- “Invent Google!”
- “Have uniform prices for a wide range of department store goods, streamlining business and allowing for hte hiring of more clerks than could plausibly become partners or proprietors of their own businesses!” (If it’s the mid-19th century and you’re one of the new class of department store managers)
- “See what it’d be like if you used conditioner on your beard!”
- “Be Henry Ford and build internal combustion motor-driven cars! (NOTE: BE HENRY FORD FIRST — MOST IMPORTANT!!)”
That third is a great idea, since my barber mentioned how soft and well-behaved my beard was last time I got it trimmed. It doesn’t make me any money. But any unsolicited compliment from the person cutting your hair is an apple of gold. The others were good bits of commercial and social progress too.
But in the last couple weeks, since the last restaurant closed, the lot’s lost its parking meters. Most of the metal poles are still there, like giant pieces of metal wheat, but there’s nothing on the tops. The easy thing to suppose is that the city figures there’s no reason to charge for parking as long as there’s nothing to park there for. But that implies the city figures it’s worth taking all the meters down now, months ahead of the construction starting. They must be in storage somewhere.
But then they’re taking an awful risk. What if someone loses the key to the parking meter storage locker? And you just know that sending the mayor in to straighten things out won’t work. There are two kinds of city mayor. One is the relentlessly polite boring type that couldn’t argue the fast food counter into taking an order. He’d be useless in settling a storage locker dispute. The other — the kind Lansing has right now — is the brash big-talking type that you remember because he might slug someone and you’d get to watch. That won’t work for the storage locker problem either because the clerk at the locker place would end up punched. I grant we have to take the risk of the storage locker key getting lost anyway. But why add unnecessary months for things to go wrong?
As I say though, that’s the easy thing to suppose. Too easy? Remember that we just learned how a whole road in Russia got stolen. What if someone’s swiping parking meters from lots that nobody would pay attention to? Someone with a couple dozen hot meters could very slightly starve mid-Michigan for nickels and dimes and even quarters. Without this small change what would we put in parking meters? I don’t know, but I bet there’ll be an answer from someone who was just looking for a place to park.
In the overnight hours of the 1990s there was a news broadcast called World News Now. There still is. Back then, they had regular appearances from a commenter, Ian Shoales. He was, as one of the anchors put it, an “amphetamined prince of darkness”, reading wordy comic essays at rapid-fire speed and signing off with, “I gotta go.” And so I encountered his writing at just the right moment for it to hit me, deeply. For a while I tried imitating his voice in my own comic writing, which resulted in my learning that whatever my natural comic voice was, it wasn’t very much like Ian Shoales’s.
Ian Shoales was, and I suppose still is, a character created by Merle Kessler, one of the Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater troupe, a comedy band you maybe remember from either Nickelodeon’s mock-talk-show Out Of Control or MTV’s Randee of the Redwoods, or possibly from the Ask Doctor Science radio/web feature. Obviously, I’m a fan; I also realize I’m learning still from his writing.
I’d like more people to be aware of his writing, though, and I’m somehow feeling a little too lazy just to look up what YouTube videos there must be of his World News Now appearances. So I’m making this a little Ian Shoales week, with essays from I Gotta Go, his 1985 collection. My copy is signed by Merle Kessler. I got it from the library’s used-book-store section.
For the first piece, let me offer “The Perfect City”, which I think gives a fine idea of his character’s cranky yet appealing personality.
Later in the decade Kessler would publish Ian Shoales’s Perfect World, a novel, which is only loosely connected to what’s described in this piece. It’s also kind of a weird book, although I haven’t had a copy to read in long enough that I can’t swear that reading it is necessarily a good idea.
The Perfect City
If this were a perfect world we’d have at least one perfect city. The perfect city would look a bit like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, without the worker problems and without the electronic music. In the perfect city, big-band jazz would be broadcast nightly on the streets, which would be paved with bricks and lined with elm and maple trees.
The only dogs allowed would be African basenjis, which cannot bark and would be trained to curb themselves. All cars would float on silent cushions of air. All the cops would ride horses. There are no pigeons and no statues.
In the perfect city, automatic tellers would spew cash at random every half hour or so, the concerts would all be free, all be reggae music, and never be crowded. Drinks are half price, and it is always early autumn in the perfect city.
In the perfect city, Woody Allen would be funny again, Steven Spielberg would take a vacation, and there would be a Kurosawa festival once a month. Westerns would make a comeback, and theater seats would be six bucks tops. Critics would be wise, enthusiastic, and fair, and so with the artists of the city. No art after 1900 would be displayed in the museums. Admission to museums would be free, and large groups of children would stay well away until I had left the building.
I would never be put on hold in the perfect city.
In the perfect city, all parties would be “by invitation only”, and guests would receive cash prizes when they went through the door. I would be invited to all these parties, and no matter how rude I became, I would never be asked to leave.
In the perfect city there would be a twenty-four-hour French restaurant but all the entreés would be under five bucks. The waiters would be named Mac and the waitresses would all call you Honey.
In the perfect city, clothing would be well cut, sharp, swell, and inexpensive. People would roam the streets in formal evening wear. In the perfect city, I would have a nickname like “Spats” or “Captain Danger”. Every newsboy, flower seller, and cabbie would know my name; even the muggers would know my name. The mayor would call me for advice, my quips would be legendary in the society columns, the library would be well stocked, and super heroes and heroines would drift lazily among the skyscraper peaks, seeking out wrongdoers everywhere.
The shower in my apartment would be hot and powerful, and all my neighbors would work nights. Women would laugh at my jokes, and men wouldn’t tell them. Guitars would stay in tune. I would have many friends, and they would not ask me for money. They would all have jobs, and their jobs would be good. I would have my own news program, in which I would bring bad news to the perfect city, but nobody would mind, because everybody would know I had a bad attitude anyway.
Women would stay with me longer than two months, or if they left they’d at least leave their record collections, which would include all recordings by the Ramones. And they’d leave me a record player. And some money.
All transportation is free, including tickets out of town. And down those mean streets a man would go, who was not himself afraid, and that would be me, the oldest pro on the block. Ian “Captain Danger” Shoales. In the perfect city.
— Watching the pigeons, 10/15/84.
The 1895 Bunker Act specifies a municipal government form to ease specifically the transition and merger of two municipalities into one. In this form, on the last January 1st or July 1st at least six months before the nominal date of the township merger, both municipalities begin holding their town council meetings in conjunction. These “junction” meetings are to continue for no more than eighteen months after the nominal merger date, or until the last person who remembers the communities being separate has died, by which time the new town council is to be in normal operation or will have to answer why not. The seats are occupied by the highest-ranking conjoined or Siamese twins from the respective municipalities’ Departments of Parks, Housing, Safety, Water, and War (the act’s terminology having never been updated since the National Security Act of 1947). In the event there is no qualified Siamese twin in the department then the highest-ranking available persons in each department will serve together having first strapped themselves together in the classic three-legged-race fashion. All meetings are to open with a song, but not the same song.
New Jersey municipalities organized by the McCormick Quiet-Mayor System were formed between 1880 and 1900 as the “Boroughitis Epidemic” was finally brought under control by new public health measure including “washing”, previously confined to the Shore towns around Big Sea Day. In these municipalities the Mayor is elected separately from the Town Council, and may not be in the same meeting room during the conduction of official business, thus the name. The name appears paradoxical as in practice the Mayor shouts all her or his opinions from just outside the meeting room, but the phrase survives from the days before the invention of shouting in 1934. While the Mayor has no official veto power in this organization, she or he has an effective one as to enact any resolution the Mayor and the Town Clerk must run to the county’s Board of Chosen Freeholders and show them the proposed resolution, only to be told by the Chosen Freeholders that “we have no idea who you are”. By identifying themselves to the Chosen Freeholders, the resolution is thus quashed.
One of the top 36 most popular ways of organizing a municipality in New Jersey is the Faulkner (1923) Huffle-Manager system. In this scheme, the municipality’s government is organized into a town council, elected in a nonpartisan manner based on who forgets to actually post any roadside signs insisting that they have a name until after the election. In this scheme the Mayor is selected at-large from the council, and is typically surprised when they turn up outside her or his home at 3 in the morning with a big net and tagging collar. The mayor in these schemes has no vote and cannot speak on pending resolutions, but is able to veto resolutions by arm-wrestling any of the councillors. The councillors serve as department heads, typically, the Director of Public Safety, the Director of Public Works, the Lord High Admiral, the Speaker-To-Vulcans, and the Designated Sneezer; in municipalities with seven councillors, one is typically the Alto Saxophonist and the other is responsible for keeping the garage cleaned.
[ On an unrelated note, over on my mathematics blog I do a regular bit of reviewing comic strips that mention mathematics subjects, and just posted one. It’s not deliberately meant to be funny, but for those interested in talk about comic strips with a particular theme it may be of interest. ]