Streets in America are strange, but one doesn’t quite know this until going elsewhere. In other lands, heavily-populated cities existed many centuries before the advent of cars and often before the widespread use of carriages, and thus the streets within those cities are often narrower, the buildings closer together, and the life of the street radically different from what we have come to expect in North America.
One develops a strange and rather enlightening sense of what a city can be when walking through foreign cities. The shops and stalls on sidewalks, the vast outdoor seating, entire quarters closed off to vehicular traffic, and the very sense that it is a good and natural thing to be on foot, and that cars are an unpleasant interruption to the life of the street, rather than its purpose.
But this isn’t another grumpy essay about how greatly I dislike cars, but rather about the time I learned about disenchantment, Anarchy, and the radical power of one person giving attention to what others around her have forgotten to notice.
Why Did the Punk Woman Cross the Road?
Waiting at a crosswalk for a signal to change is a pretty damn good idea. I don’t drive, but I know enough about cars and physics and how stupid people get with their “smart”phones in cars to know it’s better to cross at a light (fun fact: 90% of the times I’ve had to dodge impending doom have been from a driver visibly thumb-scrolling their most holy and sacred of devices).
But there’s an interesting thing which happens sometimes. One particular crosswalk in Seattle is timed wrong, so that there will be a full two or three minutes when no cars are coming but the walk signal says, “no! you’ll die!“ (It doesn’t say that, but it probably should). What happened often when I encountered that intersection is this: a sizable gathering of folks on either side of the street would congregate at the curbs and stare listlessly across the expanse of pavement, waiting for a symbolic cue to beckon them across the asphalt and on with their day.
One day, 13 years ago, I waited with everyone else in the awkward silence of suspended movement in a lifeless sea of treeless concrete. It was chill–business folks wore coats over their suits, others wrapped their jackets closer to their skin to protect themselves from the cold wind from the sea. We all had our own destinations, but our lives intersected here briefly at the meeting of two roads. What each was thinking, I could not possibly tell you. I imagine it was a similar confusion to my own, a desire to be out of the cold, and an impatience with the light. Held there in abeyance, following law and manners and social pressures to obey a signal despite its clear irrelevance, the uselessness of its restrictions and meaning for us in that moment.
I’d noticed her more than others, as she looked more like the sort of people who tend to smile at strangers. Dyed black hair, torn jeans, hoodie–the attire that describes a punk or a goth in equal measure. She’d noticed the same as what I imagined the rest of us had noticed: no cars coming for blocks, crowded sidewalk, the deep chill of the air. She looked both ways, shrugged, and then crossed the street.
And then, so did everyone else.
With this very act, an “illegal” one, one that no-one else was willing to do, suddenly 60 other people crossed the street against a light, and no one got hit.
Breaking the Spell of Disenchantment
While disenchantment is an apparent lack of magic in the world, it can also be said to be a spell, a collective ensorcellement or thaumaturgy under which we labor and against which we strive. The magic appears to be gone because something prevents us from seeing it, the gods don’t exist because we’ve forgotten where to look, as if a veil is over our eyes or a hex over our thoughts.
When that woman crossed the street, she broke a spell we’d each suffered from, giving us back something we’d given away. She gave us the ability to make our own decisions, to see the truth of the matter before us, to address the received doctrines and unquestioned “truths” and influences to which we’d been subject. She saw something we all were partially aware of but didn’t confront, and, by acting on it, she showed us all, too, what we failed to notice around us. She didn’t need to do anything except act, and the spell around us was broken.
Liberating ourselves and others from the stifling and destructive bondage of disenchantment isn’t as difficult as we may fear. Little acts of “resistance” become radical acts which stay in the mind for decades (I remember this act 13 years later!) Our own liberation from Materialism’s assertion that there’s nothing but what the scientists tell us there is, from Monotheism’s insistence that there is only one god, from Capitalism’s lie that there can be nothing sacred in the world unless it can be bought or sold, and from Disenchantment’s unholy proclamation that the gods and spirits cannot be worlded into our existence any longer does more than just liberate us. It can liberate others, too.
Every single one of us can be that punk woman at the crosswalk, showing the rest of the world what is around us, what we see, what can be and what is possible.