Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Middle Class Sensibilities

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When I was growing up, I was sent to a magnet school up on the upper reaches of the Upper East Side. Later on, I was sent to a magnet school in the Upper West Side before attending high school near Lincoln Center. I remember at the time my concept of the Uptown crowd was that the Upper East Side was full of old money – the Gold Coast of Manhattan and thus America – and the Upper West Side was full of middle class ultra-liberals.

The Upper West Side, to me, was cheap pizzerias, candy stores, sidewalk book vendors, aging hippies and various interesting things for the middle school child that I was. The Upper East Side was the realm of doormen, boutiques and specialty stores. I distinctly remember one such place on a side street off of Lexington Ave that sold nothing but music boxes – you know, those boxes that when you open them up, they start tinkling at you. When I had to shuttle myself from the West Side to the East Side for rehearsals in the All City Orchestra, I’d be sharing buses with private school kids who were going from the East Side to the West Side to slum it. The West Side kids had pot. As I learned speaking to an East Side friend in 2004, the East Side kids had cocaine.

When I went to high school, to me Upper West Siders were the quintessential patrons of the arts. They were the ones buying up all the subscriptions to the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera and creating scholarships for bright young people to attend Mannes and Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, all of which were on the Upper West Side. They’d wring their hands about how many live American composers to promote within the playbills of dead Europeans.

This fit into their own crafted image of a middle-class Bohemia: They prized independent bookstores and craft shops and prided themselves on the notable artists and writers who had once dwelled in the Ansonia or the Dakota or other landmarks, and how many still live among them. They would themselves be perfectly keen on being recognized as the primary audience for the generally liberal New York Times, New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Nation, as well as being local consumers of The Atlantic, Guardian and Mother Jones. They were the intellectuals, in my eye, of the liberal movement.

By contrast, the Upper East Side had Museum Mile, which was certainly patronage of the arts, but the art itself was dead and so were the artists. The American Museum of Natural History was a place to let your kids go hog wild, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was where you went to witness the spoils of imperial conquest. In short, to my younger self, the Upper East Side could be typified in the guise of Leona Helmsley, whereas the Upper West Side was the domain of Woody Allen – though I have no idea where either of those two people actually lived.

At the time I vainly thought that the Upper West Side was the New York life I should strive for, where the Upper East Side was that other half of New York my liberal heart eschewed. I now know they’re birds of a feather.

For starters, they’re both rich. Before SuperPACs became a thing, those two neighborhoods comprised five of the top ten zip codes in the country of political contributions to political candidates (10021, 10065 and 10128 for the Upper East Side, 10023 and 10024 for the Upper West Side, rounding out neighboring districts 10019 and 10022 in Midtown for New York’s total of seven of the top ten). They still top the chart for straight donations to the parties, but DC has overtaken them recently in the different political game nowadays. They’re both liberal, too, as the contributions for both neighborhoods heavily favor Democratic.

However, as I’ve learned, rich trumps liberal.

A good way to drive the point home is this curious article in the Guardian, written two weeks ago, especially in conjunction with this curious article in the Post. The first article is how a white woman in an Upper West Side apartment noticed her doormen were harassing her Black friends but not her white friends. She then waxes philosophical about her own intrinsic racism, or at least the institutionalized racism of her doormen. The second article is about how two mobile homes spotted on the Upper West Side are now an “invasion” of unsightly poor people that have the neighborhood up in arms.

I’ll speak of the second first: The Upper West Side, due to various bits of emergency legislation from Dinkins and other mayors, has had a sizable number of Single Room Occupancy hotels, which tend to be used by the city to prove a stepping stone back to permanent quarters for homeless people. I say “had,” because ever since the peak of this program in the 90s, the community board has been diligently getting rid of as much of these units as possible. In the last decade, some 2,000 units out of 13,300 were removed entirely and more than half of the remaining have been illegally converted into market-rate hotels for tourists. This is part of the general decline over the last decade of some 13,000 units of affordable housing in the neighborhood.

Indeed, like their counterparts down in Greenwich Village, the Upper West Siders like the idea of Bohemia, minus the struggling. They like the idea of affordable housing, just not in their neighborhood. As academic liberals, actually seeing poverty is simply not polite. Oh, they’ll donate, and decry the concentration of poverty in ghettos and housing projects conveniently just beyond the reach of their community boards, but they won’t actually help. Thus, the idea that two enterprising individuals shacking out in mobile homes is enough to incur the wrath of Community Board 7 is not entirely out of character. Middle class sensibilities expose their liberal affectation.

I originally thought this was a result of the yuppified new developments, like Trump’s condos near the West Side Highway, wherein new residents in the neighborhood live in a bubble: Between their underground garages and their private streets, they get to live the suburban cul-de-sac lifestyle in the heart of the city. The first article dispels that myth entirely.

The story in that story is that the writer, a self-avowed liberal, was ignorant to the issue until her black friends pointed it out to her, and then having discovered it, used her position to write an opinion piece saying what they knew all along. That piece itself will be read by folks just like her who will go “huh,” and while they won’t disagree with her findings – where she cited a Columbia University professor’s anthropological treatise on doormen but neglected to ask her own doormen – they will forget about it almost immediately. The Guardian and other liberal periodicals have been on their reading list this whole time, after all; why should their habits change now?

It reminds me of a quote from John Oliver, who lampooned such affectation on the Daily Show: “For years opinion has been divided on stop-and-frisk, with Black and Latino residents of this city saying it’s an invasion of their liberty, and white residents saying, ‘Oh I think I heard a thing about that on NPR. Is that still happening?'”

At one point my trajectory was there: I could have been the one who buys NPR totebags and occasionally watches indie films about Bosnia so I can think of myself as good despite stepping over homeless people. That protective sheath of self-congratulatory liberalism, buttressed by money, is a real siren call. In a way, I’m thankful I’m too poor to be wholly sheltered from the inequities of the world, because it’s allowed me to see the divisions inherent, and in this economy I will likely be such forever. But those middle class sensibilities – they’re down in there, I feel them, I was raised in part on them, and they must be expunged.

The New York of the South

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Florida, with all its sunbelt glory, is slated to surpass New York in population come 2014. Much hullabaloo is being made in the press as to what this means. The obvious and immediate effects are that some Electoral College votes will be swapped from a deep blue state to a fairweather purple state, but also there is speculation in general for politics and populations getting away from the east coast and the rust belt. Some have cited low taxes, cheap housing and warm weather. Several articles quoted more or less the same statement: “I’d rather be poor in a warm state than a cold state.”

I think such a statistical reality was inevitable, but that it doesn’t reflect quite so much in terms of recent economic trends than surmised. It all has to do with the weird way the lines were drawn.

The top three states in population are now all sunbelt states, it’s true. But those states all share at least two other things in common: One, they were created due to political and imperial battles rather than settling patterns. Two, as a result of one, they’re larger on average than most states. In fact. most of the largest states in the country are to the south and west, and most of the smallest, barring Hawaii, are to the north and east. Assuming that America’s population evens out over the country, the south and west were destined to gain at the cost of the north and the east. By contrast, New York state is one of the largest in the east coast, but doesn’t even make the top half of states nationwide, listed as it is at number 27.

That happened more or less by design, or rather, by fault of original design. The original thirteen colonies are best thought of as situated like a pizza pie: The narrow wedge housed the main port city, and the outer section merely existing as a landgrab of rural expanse inland in competition with neighboring colonies. The Northwest Territories were subdivided out of those landgrabs based on settling patterns, but just everything else was more or less drawn on a map and decided that way.

It’s in that stead that the news made me wonder what the states would look like if they were drawn according to actual population, rather than an amalgam of colonies, purchases and conquests. It would make for a more interesting and accurate comparison than simply between Florida and New York, as currently the ways in which Florida and New York differ in history and growth is quite stark.

For the east coast, being settler colonies with big appetites meant that, aside from the states that effectively lost the initial competition for land, there’s a sharp divide between urban and rural within the same state: Philadelphia doesn’t look like rural Pennsylvania, Arlington doesn’t look like rural Virginia, and New York might as well end at Dutchess County (and that’s being generous.) Even tiny western Massachusetts seems to exist to counter Boston. They were territories meant to feed the Ur city, but they are not of the Ur city.

Superficially, Florida resembles this divide, what with Miami versus the panhandle, but it didn’t grow in the same manner. It doesn’t exactly resemble the southern colonies, either, whose growth patterns have trailed decidedly inland following the Civil War, what with feeding northern cities rather than exporting abroad. Florida was ceded by the Spanish and exists on a map almost exactly how the possession was purchased, with an economic reality that is suitably schizophrenic: The north looks like the South, the south looks like the North, and the middle doesn’t have a historical economic mainframe to plug into.

In so being, while all the coastal states to the north of it exist as colonies from the point of view of the colonizers, it exists like a colony would from the point of view of the colonized: The political borders don’t match the population. The Miami metropolitan area, in contrast to the northern conurbation it’s now being compared to, accounts for less than a quarter of Florida’s current population, which is constellated throughout the state. New York City is fully half of New York’s population. Metro Philadelphia is half of Pennsylvania, Metro Boston is more than half of Massachusetts. New York City and Miami are picking up people at close to the same rate, but the rest of their respective states make up the difference.

Indeed, picking on Florida isn’t to say that the northern states’ populations don’t also have a division between political and popular reality. New York is saddled with the great rural expanse of upstate New York, but its economy has spilled over to Connecticut and New Jersey. Philadelphia is saddled with western Pennsylvania, yet its economy eats into both New Jersey and Delaware. New Jersey is itself the most urbanized state in the country, but all that basically means is it exists between the economic spheres of NYC and Philly (and indeed, this is why I-95 is a toll road: New Jersey knows nobody’s actually stopping in New Jersey.) Maryland and DC might as well be one unit. Norfolk and Arlington are also part of coastal metro areas that straddle state lines with DC/Maryland and North Carolina, and exist almost independently of the rest of Virginia.

That massive eastern conurbation is at odds with its rural half, where the metropolis is subdivided but the rural areas are tied to it. Likewise, disparate regions are politically tied in the south and west. Dallas is the Kansas City of Texas but Houston is its own thing. San Franciscans and Los Angelinos are two separate people where New Yorkers and New Havenites are not.

Effectively, the statement “Florida is overtaking New York” is misleading. For Florida’s case, the growth is overstated because Florida’s political borders extend beyond its population borders. For New York’s case, the growth is understated because New York’s population borders extend beyond its political borders. Floridian growth is being buttressed by other Southerners. New York growth is diffused among its many neighbors.

So, what would the country look like if the states were divided by where people actually lived? You can imagine what the states would look like if the west coast were colonized rather than the east coast: San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles would all be in separate states, and the most populous state in the country would be New England, which would comprise the entire BosWash Megalopolis. But that’s just the same problem, reversed.

Luckily, somebody’s already produced a map:

(Click the map for a larger image)

There are other iterations to this map, but they all have something in common: Neither Florida or New York exist in these maps in any way similar to how they are now. New York is now New York City, Philadelphia is in the state of Philadelphia. New Jersey is still sandwiched between them, but the Poconos and the Adirondacks are now their own states. In both iterations, Miami, Tampa and the panhandle are all separate states.

This makes a whole lot more sense than figuring out what Florida has that New York doesn’t, because you have to ask which Florida and which New York. New York City isn’t shrinking, and Miami can’t grow fast enough to compete. Changing the lines leads to a better discussion.

Dens of Iniquity

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I just had one of those “I’m getting old” moments while playing a video game a friend gave me for Christmas. The game was King of Fighters XIII, and true to form it was a fighting game. More accurately it was the modern iteration of a series of fighting games that have been around since I was a child, having picked up a Russian novel’s worth of characters and a telenovela’s worth of intertwined storylines in the meantime. The gameplay is pretty similar, though.

Where I got my “old” moment was that it put names to the moves and would, helpfully, suggest you do them while in the midst of a fight. “Do a Drive Cancel,” it would say. “I don’t know what that is,” I’d say, and pause the game to look through the prodigious glossary of moves, where-in absolutely no mention of a Drive Cancel was made. So, I looked online through various fora, where people would say, “oh, just do a QCB and a HCF and LP+HP and before that’s even done, do a HJC and DP+LP.” I looked through a wiki glossary for those terms before finally coming to the realization that what it’s really saying is, “you do a bowling motion and mash both punch buttons, thereby completing a special move, and after the first hit of that move has landed but before the last hit of that move has landed, you jump up, thereby cancelling the first move, do a Z-formation motion and smack ’em with your lightest attack, thereby completing another special move. This all takes place in about half a second, for which you do incrementally more damage than if you just mashed the control pad with a boxing glove. You can repeat this task with a certain combination of moves, for which you’d have to make a doctoral study of the game to actually souse out.” To this I replied, “no, I’m not doing that,” and remain unrepentantly ignorant of the benefits of drive cancels, super cancels, ex cancels and max cancels.

“Do a Desperation Move,” it would then suggest.

Now, my history with fighting games stems largely from having been a middle school latchkey child with spending money in the big city; money that was ultimately squandered on dollar pizza, candy, or the sorts of arcades bad 80s movies seem to have predicted and bad 90s movies seem to have been based on – where you begin to wonder if Karate Kid was actually produced in a studio or just composed of whole cloth straight out of your psyche. Be it hole-in-the-wall joints in Flushing, hole-in-the-wall joints in Chinatown (rest in peace, old-school Chinatown Fair) or incongruously large hole-in-the-wall joints in Midtown, the decor in an arcade was pretty much always the same: All the walls were black or as close to black as you can get, be it by paint or just collected soot, and so were the ceilings and floors. The place would smell like sweat and sound like a modern pachinko concerto as written by Schoenberg. It made every effort in the world to impart upon you that what you were doing was a guilty pleasure, like a massage parlor for the sexless. It was awesome.

So once or twice a week I’d delve into one of these holes in the wall and plunk in quarters and get beaten in Tekken or Street Fighter or King of Fighters by the 11 year old Fujianese kid who smelled of rotted chicken, until I ran out of money, which was the mark that I should be heading home. This isn’t to say I never learned. The moves are all muscle memory, which is why, say, moving the controller in a quarter-circle forward (aka QCF aka Fireball) is a ranged attack in almost all major fighting games and moving the controller in a Z-formation (aka DP or Dragon Punch) is an uppercut punch in almost all fighting games. The scheme is simple: Don’t break the habits of your best customers. So I learned the basics and, for that time, a few of the super moves. But, through successive iterations building upon those basics, the rift between the basics and the skill level where most folks are currently playing is mighty wide.

To address this rift, the industry itself has been working through various means to entice new players into the fold. Each new game now comes with extended tutorials and practice modes, something sorely missing from my days in the arcades and on friends’ consoles. However, even the tutorials leave a lot assumed: “Here’s how to jump, here’s the four basic attacks, here’s what all the things on your screen mean. Now do a super ex combo,” and I’m like, “you didn’t even mention those words in the instruction you just gave me.” They assume the player has been playing fighting games nonstop since those terms were introduced, and would thus know them by heart. It would be as if a new button were added to the operation of a car every five years since the invention of the car, to the point where the entire dashboard is an array of buttons, but driving instruction and drivers’ manuals only mention the stuff that was on the original cars.

Fighting games have left me behind. This wouldn’t be an issue if it were still 1994, however. After all, I was new to the games, then, and didn’t even have the benefit of a tutorial. Back then, though I didn’t know what I was doing half the time, I could still remain competitive. The difference between then and now, on the other hand, is that the number of folks competing in fighting games, when I first got into them, were limited. The total number of potential competitors in an arcade is everybody physically in that arcade. The total number of potential competitors with a console not hooked up to the internet is everybody in that room. That Fujianese kid or your second cousin can only be but so much better than you, and neither you nor they have the will to fight nonstop all day. In my first foray into online play for King of Fighters XIII, by contrast, I apparently hesitated for a tenth of a second, because I was stun-locked by some ridiculous combo for three quarters of my health, and then the screen went black and a supermove of some renown finished me off. I wasn’t entirely sure I even had to be present for the fight to go much differently.

Effectively, what I saw was somebody who had clearly been practicing nonstop since long before this particular iteration came out, to the point where he could effortlessly do what it took me sixteen tries in practice mode to do the first half of. This man clearly was not limited by petty things like “life,” and I, out of practice as I was, dared to step into his domain. Prior to the internet, his domain may have been one basement in San Jose, but now it was the very game itself, and I was but grist for his mill. I have never felt so old.

Democratic Disappointment

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Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has chosen a Goldman Sachs exec as Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development, which sounds a lot like hiring a fox to watch a hen house, and re-frames his choosing of the blustery law-and-order police commissioner Bill Bratton as something perhaps not politically clever but more of the same calculated centrism that makes being a liberal Democrat so disappointing. It brings to mind Obama’s selection of Goldman Sachs flaks for various staffer positions in the federal government related to economic policy, where we suddenly wonder why we can’t hold banks and investment firms to task.

In discussing this and other aspects of politics in the epicenter of, as Woody Allen lampooned it, left-wing communist Jewish homosexual pornographers (rest in peace, Al Goldstein), I made a joke that of course stuff like this happens: Democratic voters don’t count.

A fellow questioned me as to what I meant. After all, he said, there are significantly more registered Democrats nation-wide than Republicans, and New York City in particular is by far the most liberal bastion of liberalism ever to be labeled liberal. How could Democrats not manage elect people to represent them? Well, the short answer for him was “clearly you are not a Democrat,” but to properly answer that would require an entire essay; one I intend to write by asking a related question:

  • Why is Democratic voter turnout so low?

To be a Democratic voter is to be disappointed. This state of being is built into existing in a two-party system. If you are more liberal than the liberal-most party, then there is no reason for the party to take into account your wishes. What are you gonna do, vote Republican? The party itself may represent a grand assemblage of viewpoints, but it only has to listen to those closest to its opponent, ie: The “swing” vote. Everybody else is held hostage by a lack of viable alternatives. Thus, the two parties move towards the middle ground between them, and everybody else is left in the lurch.

The courtship of centrism has had two general effects on politics: One, the Republican party, being better disciplined (a facet that comes with representing a more homogeneous constituency) has figured out that if it digs its heels in, the Democratic party must move towards it more than it moves towards the Democratic party in order to reach a middle ground. Two, everybody to the outside of this shrinking space between the Republican party and the Democratic party is disenfranchised and sees little to gain from voting.

That isn’t to say liberals are extremists, however. This nation has been marching inexorably towards liberalism in its entire history. But we’re talking about politics. When 96% of Black people vote party-line Democrat, regardless of who’s running for office, it’s fair to say that there isn’t much impetus for the Democratic party to see what Black people are asking for nowadays. That isn’t to say that Republicans have a snowball’s chance in hell of courting the Black vote, either: When 96% of Black people vote party-line Democrat, it’s not because they’re ignorant to the viewpoints of the Republican party. Effectively, if they can’t find a Democrat to vote for, they don’t vote.

For the past 30 years, the large number of disenfranchised Democrats have turned election politics into a consistent juxtaposition: High voter turnout – Democrat wins. Low voter turnout – Republican wins. But without a candidate like Jesus and JFK’s love child married to the Black Jackie O (and boy are Democrats disappointed in that one) the primary inducement to vote is to stop a disaster from happening (or more accurately in a referendum to a disaster that’s already occurred), and that’s not exactly rousing people to take time off work and wait in line.

Even in liberal, liberal New York, where the primary is often-times more contested than the general election, candidates do an immediate about-face the moment they secure the nomination: de Blasio started ponying up to the billionaires the second he was the Democratic pick in order to staunch a flood of money to Lhota, and then marched around Archie Bunker Queens cooing to conservatives that crime isn’t going to skyrocket and pandered to the orthodoxy that he was pro-Israel. He may have used his liberal credentials to beat Democrats like Christine Quinn in the primary, but that’s because centrists like her have a longer rap sheet, and even then the turning point was when the national party pulled its funding from her to him.

As it stands, however, most times inertia sets in. Chuck Schumer has been my senator for longer than I could vote. Charlie Rangel has been my congressmen for longer than I’ve been alive. Most prominent Democratic positions aren’t contested because the national party sees no particular point in spending money to in-fight and simply just selects one. Indeed, during Rangel’s last election, where he was even saddled with a scandal in the House Ethics Committee, he handily beat his competitors because he had the biggest war chest and they all split the vote.

Basically speaking, I don’t think I’ve ever been truly represented despite having voted in every major election. My vote, because it’s assumed, because I have no viable options (Third parties? Ha! Unknown candidate with no endorsements? Might as well play the lottery! Putting the current front-runner’s feet to the fire? I can’t bank on lip service!), doesn’t count. Lopsided elections, hand-picked candidates, gerrymandering, the electoral college… actual democracy is hard to come by. And the longer the politician spends in that game, the more like it he acts.

So how did Giuliani win in 1993? Liberal apathy and disaffection with Dinkins, resulting in low voter turnout (Jewish people hated him). How did he win in 1997? Inertia. Bloomberg in 2001? Liberal apathy and disaffection with Green, resulting in low voter turnout (Black people hated him). Bloomberg in 2005? Inertia. Bloomberg in 2009? Liberal apathy and disaffection with Thompson, resulting in low voter turnout (the unions didn’t open up their purse strings). De Blasio in 2013? WE HATE BLOOMBERG. How did Bush win in 2000? Liberal apathy and disaffection with Gore, resulting in low voter turnout (he wasn’t Clinton). How did he win in 2004? Liberal apathy and disaffection with Kerry, resulting in low voter turnout (he was even more wooden than Gore). How did Obama win in 2008? WE HATE BUSH.

And that’s how communist pinkos vote in one-percenters and a Democratic country votes in Republican candidates: Democratic voters don’t win elections, they only choose whether to lose them.

Unspoken Rules

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In this warm spring season’d day in mid-December, I decided to take the bus up through Harlem rather than the train so as to maximize my time above-ground, watching the world go by. It was a bus-related distance anyway: Too far to walk but still a single-seat ride.

I wasn’t disappointed. Every minute interplay was a small diorama of urban living, dictated by a numerous, intricate and ever-shifting list of unwritten, unspoken rules that we all obey so as to live with one another peacefully. You already know some rules right off the bat: On a five-seat public bench, for instance, the first person to sit takes seat 1, the second person takes seat 5, and the third person takes seat 3. To disobey this informal rule is to invite an informal enforcement of that rule, through the side-eye, eye-rolling, the sucking of teeth, an aggressively wide stance, et cetera.

But the rules get so very complex. For instance, even while waiting for the bus, I watched as a man in track pants and headphones bobbed and circled in place to his music, mouthing the words to the hip hop lyrics in his own personal reverie. He had mapped out the limits of social acceptableness to a fair degree: Just how loud he could be, just how much space he could allot for his little dance routine. While shuffling through his pockets, he dropped a dimebag of weed. I saw this, but he remained unaware. There were no cops around, and I don’t care about a bag of weed, but I didn’t want this guy to either lose that weed, or be implicated lawfully of having possessed it in the first place. How to react? You can’t just say “HEY BUDDY, YOU DROPPED YOUR DIMEBAG!”

So, I broke a minor social rule and stared at him. Everybody knows when they’re being looked at; it’s like a sixth sense. He came to attention through this social intrusion and looked back. I switched my view to his feet, and he followed my gaze. He wised up and returned the dime bag to his pocket, like a cat that had tripped and continued on as if nobody noticed. He couldn’t acknowledge my having witnessed such an event, and I couldn’t acknowledge that I had witnessed anything either, so we went back to ignoring one another while waiting for the bus.

The bus itself is situated in a strange social rulebook. Most buses in American cities are for people who can’t afford a car, so tend to weigh heavily on the lower end of the economic spectrum. Nobody wants to admit to being there, so nobody acknowledges anybody. In New York, however, mass transit is the norm, not the exception, so economics aren’t a major issue. What is an issue, on the other hand, is able-bodiedness. For any long distance, the subway is far more preferable, as it’s faster (due to not being in traffic) and cleaner (due to largely not tracking in the elements), but relatively few stops have elevators and as such are always down and up at least two flights of stairs. Furthermore, where subways may be inconvenient for short distances, younger people are more likely and able to walk or bike to their destination. Thus, buses tend to favor on the upper end of the age spectrum.

So, on this Sunday afternoon post-church, there were quite a lot of well-dressed old people, who had already by circumstance and necessity formed their own specific social compact: I watched as a woman with white hair gave her seat up to a man in a walker, only to have a woman in salt-and-pepper hair give her seat up to the white-haired woman. As there were too many old people and not enough seats, they had, on the fly, extended the “Please Offer a Seat” law (it actually comes with a $50 fine, but is rarely enforced) to something that kept in the same spirit but was a bit more pragmatic.

To even have something like this happen, it means that everybody is always watching who comes on the bus, doing the social math as to whether they should address those newcomers, and react. This little parable is repeated for every stop. A couple with two toddlers, for instance, came on the bus and located a free seat. First, they decided among themselves who got the seat: It’d be too crowded with both children sitting on a parent’s lap, and in the object of fairness they wouldn’t favor one kid over the other, and thus both parents stood while the children shared the seat. This lasted all of two blocks, for on the next stop the father pulled both children off the seat and offered it to an old woman who had gotten on the bus. The woman politely declined, so he sought the attention of another old woman behind the first one and offered her the seat.

Of course, all through these ministrations on this crowded bus, strangers had to make room for all the moving around and repositioning, so as to fairly and equitably reapportion all the seating to those most deserving, all while keeping a cool aloofness so as to maintain relative privacy for each person on the bus. “Move to the back of the bus” and “please offer a seat to the elderly/disabled” doesn’t explain even half of the metrics involved in “it’s socially acceptable to hover uncomfortably over this person for the time being so as to let this elderly pensioner past such that she may take the seat offered by another elderly pensioner, who had come equipped with a socially-acceptable excuse for getting up for a social equal, as she was ‘getting off in one stop anyway.'”

It was a dance. It was one very intricate, choreographed dance, with a participation rate of nearly everybody, improvised on the fly. The things we do just to live in society…


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I think a good benchmark as to how enlightened the video gaming industry is would be to take a sample of the line-up of new titles and apply Rule 63 to them. Rule 63, for those not enlightened to internet parlance, is:

For every given male character, there is a female version of that character. For every given female character, there is a male version of that character.

It is part of a meme called the Rules of the Internet, and means that, for any given work, somewhere, somebody has made fan fiction of that work where they have gender-swapped all the characters. It’s an interesting thought experiment, especially if you change nothing else besides the genders.

For instance, in the 1981 classic game Donkey Kong, Mario saves the Princess. Applying Rule 63 would mean the Princess saves Mario. In fact, it’s one of the first games in which this has actually been applied, where a programmer named Mike Mika hacked the game so that his three year old daughter could play as a female protagonist.

I have at times been concerned as to the tropes and biases in the games industry when it comes to gender roles, and there has for a long while now been something of a furor over how women, for instance, are depicted in video games and what is or is not palatable to the general gaming public. People like John Walker and Anita Sarkeesian have made the topic their causa belli and have caught flak for it from various sides, as have companies like Bioware, known for depicting strong women or canonically homosexual characters.

The dominant market demographic has a dark side when it comes to issues such as this. Bioware senior writer Jennifer Hepler quit her job because of the threats and hostility directed towards her and her family in part because of her sympathetic portrayal of homosexual characters in Dragon Age: Origins and her role as a woman in the industry. Gamers also targeted journalist Carolyn Petit because she dared call a game she liked – in this case, GTA V – misogynist. It regularly bubbles up to the fore like in a Capcom reality show in 2012 where male gamers openly defended sexual harassment by saying it’s “part of their culture;” that it really is their club, or a Blizzard convention in 2011 where performers felt no qualms in spewing homophobic epithets to a cheering crowd.

So, I say! Like the Bechdel test, let’s say we haven’t solved this problem until you could change the genders of the characters in a potentially controversial game and have everything be just as palatable as before. I’ll call it, unimaginatively, the Rule 63 test.

For this thought experiment, I’ll start with, well, Donkey Kong. Having Princess Pauline, as Mike Mika named her, save Mario is well enough, but we can go further. Mario is a pot-bellied, mustachio’d plumber canonically from Brooklyn, and Princess Peach is, well, a Princess. So I propose we have Maria: A rotund, middle-aged woman plumber with wispy facial hair and a Brooklyn accent. Basically, if you cast Roseanne Barr for the live action TV show:

She would save the dashing Prince Pear. In Super Mario Bros, she’d be joined by her sister Louise (played by Geraldine Barr), a gangly, awkward woman to serve as foil.

You can already see that some people would have problems with this. Some boys would have a hard time identifying with the protagonist, and would be positively repulsed by her assumed courtship with the prince upon saving him. What is kosher in the original becomes farce. Men can be any shape and size, but women must be attractive! A woman will fall for the protagonist regardless of her own feelings but men have standards! Or so we thought.

Let’s do another!

This year has seen the reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, with one of the few famed female protagonists in video gaming: Lara Croft. This new Tomb Raider was a coming-of-age plot that tried to explain her motivations for all the other games, largely by torturing her. A lot.

Now she’s a he. He’s Larry Croft, teenage amateur spelunker who gets into very uncomfortable, tense moments with more than a little sexual implication under Russian mercenaries. He’s basically halfway between Tintin and John McClane, except he cries a lot and spends much of the ten hours of the game whimpering to himself. He has three mother figures, all of whom try to save him from his own incompetence and instead end up dying to protect him. By the end of the game, he’s a shell-shocked, traumatized wreck, which is exactly the sort of bold characterization that sells games to our dominant market nowadays.

It’ll be a hit.

Okay, one more!

I’m gonna pick on Bioware for this one, because they set up some of the more interesting storylines. If you play Dragon Age: Origins as a city elf, you meet up with violence, racism and classist oppression in the first twenty minutes of the game, along with some good ole’ rape thrown in to really motivate the player.

Well, supposing you start as a female city elf. If you’re a male city elf, it’s your bride-to-be who’s sexually harassed by the lord’s son and kidnapped to be raped, and it’s your job to save her and exact righteous vengeance. If you’re a female city elf, it’s you who are sexually harassed and kidnapped to be raped, and you have to defend yourself.

So, let’s just reverse the gender: The lord’s son now fancies you, a young male city elf on his marriage day, for a bit of rough and tumble, leading first with a good ten minutes of harassment, groping and unfavorable power dynamics. How long do you suppose the average dudebro would last before shutting the game down and firing off angry emails to the publisher, assuming he didn’t just send his fist through the computer monitor?

Oh man, I should go into games design. I’d make a killing.

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