Commonwealth: A Novel of Utopia, part 1, chapter 2
[Author’s Note: This is the fourth installment of my new novel, Commonwealth. Read the previous part here. If you like what you see and want to read the next part today, it’s already up on Patreon. You can sign up for as little as $1/month. —Adam]
Rae woke before her alarm went off, which was rare for her. In the quiet peace of the morning, she lay in bed, neither asleep nor fully awake. Her mind was pleasantly empty, free from thought or care, and she was content simply to experience: the rise and fall of the bedsheets with her breath, the patient throb of her heartbeat, the fleeting patterns that dust made in the sunbeams as it was swirled this way and that by air currents.
Then her alarm went off, jarring her out of the moment. The bubble burst.
With a pang of regret, she threw the sheets off and got out of bed. Picking up her credit card from the nightstand, she went to wash up.
The tiny bathroom was barely big enough for one person, between the toilet, the shower cylinder, the sink and mirror, the towel rack, and the wall-mounted wire shelves where she kept her toiletries. Everything was white tile and ceramic, slightly dingy with age and use but immaculately clean and scrubbed. The only thing that didn’t match was the card reader mounted on the sink, an ugly box of black plastic with a small, baleful red light.
Rae swiped her credit card through the reader. There was a faint chime, and the red light changed to green. The faucet unlocked with a clunk, authorizing the use of water for ten minutes, and she ran the tap to fill the sink.
After brushing her teeth, washing her face and brushing her hair, she went into the kitchen area. She took a packet of instant oatmeal from the cupboard, added water from a kettle she’d filled last night, and put it in the microwave. Another card reader was mounted next to the keypad. She pressed a button and swiped her card again. The microwave beeped cheerfully and hummed to life.
There was a ding! when her food was done. She blew on it to cool it and stood over the sink as she ate, glancing at her refrigerator. Its once-bright white paint had faded to a dull eggshell color; the metal was scratched and speckled with rust. A square panel on the front was covered over with duct tape.
I wouldn’t mind it so much, she thought, really I wouldn’t, if not for the exchange rate.
Rae’s salary was paid in U.S. dollars by her employer, the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Like most major employers, the MTA offered company housing to its workers, but she hadn’t wanted to live there. It was in a bad part of the city, near one of the downtown reclamation zones. Besides, she wanted to be near her friends.
She, Zoe and Michael had rented apartments in a slightly better uptown neighborhood, in a building owned by the Tri-State Consolidated Housing Corporation. Although housing was one of the few industries that weren’t fully consolidated into one monopoly, TSCHC was a behemoth, managing trillions of dollars of real estate in New York City and its outlying areas. The catch was that, again like most major employers, they had their own private scrip currency.
The metered and pay-per-use appliances in Rae’s apartment accepted that currency exclusively, which meant that every time she wanted to run the water or use the microwave or the oven, she was charged an exchange fee. The USD-to-TSCHC exchange rate fluctuated from hour to hour on the currency markets, so she was never sure exactly what she’d be charged for a swipe. It was rarely more than a few cents’ difference, but it was a tiny extra itch of irritation every time.
The one appliance she had put her foot down on was the refrigerator. She refused to pay an extra fee just to get at her own food that she had already paid for. She’d decided on an ad-supported model – and in a small spark of rebellion, she’d covered the display screen with tape and disabled the speaker. It was a violation of her lease, but she judged the risk of TSCHC doing an inspection to be sufficiently small.
Glancing at her phone, she realized it was time to go. She put the bowl in the sink, threw on clothes, grabbed her toolbox and hurried out the door. At the end of her hallway was an elevator, but the doors were jammed, the car motionless and scrawled with graffiti. It had been broken as long as she had lived there, so it was four flights of stairs or nothing.
When she walked out onto the street, the air was already hot, promising a scorching day. But Rae felt that something was different. It was as if a trace of her heightened awareness had lingered, causing her to notice things she had long since become habituated to.
It was the smell that struck her first, the olfactory background noise of the city. It was a revolting cocktail: the acrid ammonia scent of old urine that stained the sidewalks; the foul stench of a full dumpster, its sides orange with rust, swarmed by a buzzing cloud of flies; a distant hint of smoke and combustion; the noxious tang of exhaust from the automobiles that sweated and fumed in gridlocked traffic.Not for the first time, Rae felt incredulous that anyone commuted by car. Between streets ravaged by potholes, broken traffic lights that blinked erratically or had died entirely, the sky-high gas prices and the even higher tolls, personal automobiles had long since become an indulgence of the rich – or at least those who wanted to look rich.
As if to punctuate the point, she noticed anew the ruined car parked across the street from her building. It had hit a pothole big enough to crack its front axle, leaving its wheels twisted like a broken arm, and the owner had abandoned it on the curb. Looters had stripped it of glass, tires, upholstery, everything that might prove valuable. The rusting hulk had become a sort of billboard, covered in many layers of graffiti and pasted-on advertisements. Half-obscured beneath glittering gold and black stickers touting Apex Cigarettes (“Flakes of real gold in every puff!“) and Sweet Oblivion Vodka, Rae noticed a scrawl of green spray paint that read “—K THE GARD—”
She contemplated the sight with fresh eyes, musing on the folly of humanity.
Not only are the subways cheaper, they get you there faster! But Americans love their cars. I guess we always have.
And that thought led to another. Almost unwillingly, she found her gaze lifted up and to the east, where the dilapidated shadow of the Queensboro Bridge rose above the rooftops. She was reminded of her failure every time she saw it.
Mine, and all of ours.
The Citizens’ Coalition to Save Our Bridges, some years earlier, had been the last gasp of New York’s civic-minded liberalism. When the city’s emergency manager had announced a plan to privatize the bridges and tunnels, a protest movement had swelled, demanding that they remain public property rather than being handed over to private companies – which would inevitably raise the tolls to nosebleed levels, since it wasn’t as if they had to fear competition.
The marchers had picketed City Hall and filled the streets. It had been the top headline of every nightly news crawl. And against all odds, they had succeeded. The privatization plan was scrapped.
But it was a Pyrrhic victory. In a gesture of spite, the city manager had denounced the bridges as “white elephants whose maintenance costs should no longer burden hardworking, productive citizens” and cut their maintenance budget to zero.
After a few years of neglect, under the pounding of traffic, winter storms and summer heat, the Queensboro and the others began to decay. Before long, the bridges’ decks were riddled with yawning holes and buckling as their support cables rusted and frayed. Not even the most foolhardy drivers dared to cross them.
With no-bid permits from the city, the corporations had moved in, hastily building their own replacement bridges. The tolls on these new private bridges were even more outrageous, since they had to recoup the costs of construction plus guarantee a healthy profit margin for the owners. It was one of many blows from which New York had never recovered.
Rae glanced to the south. In the direction of Park Avenue, cranes were in constant motion, endlessly remodeling the skyline of Billionaires’ Row. Everywhere else, a sullen, quiet desolation had settled over the city.
Fire hydrants were uncapped and bone-dry. Streetlights were broken and dead. On the sidewalks outside boarded-up buildings and vacant storefronts, homeless people slept on mats of cardboard or pushed shopping carts that held their worldly belongings. A few blocks west of Rae’s apartment, a rusty crane perched, forever motionless, over an empty lot surrounded by plywood barriers.
But as she approached the entrance to the subway, she was heartened by signs of vitality. Perhaps one in four storefronts was still occupied and bustling with activity. In the early morning, the proprietors were coming outside, unlocking doors and rolling up security barriers.
There were small grocery stores, like the Songs’; pizza parlors and Chinese restaurants, barbershops and salons, bars and liquor stores, pawn shops and fortunetellers that promised in neon to reveal the secrets of the future. Some stores sold guns or chemical sprays or brass knuckles, their barred windows bristling with racks of intimidating weapons.
It wasn’t much, but it was proof the city was putting up a fight, proof that people were living and struggling to survive. And as Rae drew within sight of the subway entrance, she felt a fire ignite in her heart.
I don’t know why they haven’t done to the subway what they did to the bridges. Maybe they think the public wouldn’t stand for it. Maybe because it’s too much work to build a private replacement. Maybe they think it will fail on its own and save them the trouble. But we won’t let it, she thought, with fierce determination.
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