Dustan Stokes

The One Where I’m In The Mall And Indiana Jones Is Playing and I’m Feeling Like I Can Change The World But 20/20 Hindsight: I Didn’t

My neighbor told me the other day that she felt bad for feeling bad. She has more than most people. She gets water, filtered and then UV purified, at work. Her dad drives to get out of the house and to bring home ice; so they have cold beer. They stockpiled butane, so they can make hot food. She has a job, so she can afford to take her son out to dinner and she can afford to buy a small generator so that maybe eventually they can run their refrigerator. She is a mensch. She considers herself very lucky.

She considers herself lucky because there are many people who are completely screwed. She feels guilty for being so lucky because others are not. She feels guilty for being so lucky and feeling like shit anyway. Her son’s education is suffering. Nothing routine is normal. Every intersection at every street corner is terrifying.

Sam told me that her friend threw her phone out of frustration. This is a month after the hurricane. She threw her phone because the internet is slow. She also felt guilty for feeling bad.

I am currently sitting on the floor at the mall, downloading the old Blade Runner (which Sam has never seen) so that we can go to the movies and see the new one, which is supposed to be great, in spite of slow box-office returns. The download, 4.39 gigabytes, is now saying that it will take 23 hours to complete. Everyone is here downloading stuff. Everyone here feels bad because they are angry that they have to sit on the floor at the mall to download the old Blade Runner. There are people five miles away getting dialysis in a hospital that will almost certainly lose its power a few times in the next week. So you get to feel bad and then you get to feel bad for feeling bad. Isla del fucking encanto.

And here is where the “first world problems” discussion comes in. This is a strange subject that many people have touched on in the past. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it and articulating it, so bear with me.

I believe that these first world problems have a related concept, at least in the Puerto Rican context, and that is second class citizenship. I’ve been told that people here can gravitate toward this feeling of second class citizenship. Maybe this is because the island is the only former Spanish colony that never declared independence. Maybe it’s some combination of Catholic guilt and being robbed by the local government and utilities. Maybe it’s the fact that we have some of the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship: passports, armed forces, federal courts; but not all of them: a full-fledged member of congress, electoral votes, etc.

I’m not going to try to unpack the political, psychological and sociological roots of second-class citizenship a priori. But suffice it to say that this is a context that I’ve heard about on the island for the last couple years but have only started to see expressed post Maria.

And now I’m going to talk about mission creep, which is funny because my download now says that it is going to take 27 hours. At what point is this not worth it?

After the hurricane, things were insane. It was a singular experience shared by three and a half million people. We sheltered inside and listened to a jet-engine pointed at the house for eight hours. I sat in the bathtub with Sam, trying to identify the sounds we heard coming from outside. “That was glass.” “That was wood.” “That’s the aluminum awning peeling away from the porch and banging against the roof.” “That’s the silence of the awning giving up the final bolt and going ballistic, roughly west.” In the immediate aftermath, we went for a walk around the neighborhood. Ostensibly for reconnaissance in case we needed to get to the airport or something. No one knew what the airport looked like. No one knew anything that wasn’t laying in the street in front of their house, and there was enough of that to go around. So we got to it. We swept the muck from the drains and hoisted the fruit trees. We cleaned out the fridge of the neighbor’s mom on the 24th floor of a building now lacking its elevator. We all worked together. Puerto Rico se levanta. It was beautiful and inspiring and I feel that I have the best neighbors in the entire universe. I bet other people on the island feel that way, too.

And that’s just the thing about Puerto Rico. When my parents decided to leave their fancy downtown condo in Michigan for co-housing and then the country, Mom said, “I just feel like if anything went wrong in the condo, those people would eat each other.” She’s probably right. We didn’t eat each other at the funky intersection of – and -. We raised each other up and we made sure we were all okay and we’re still doing it. My neighbors were driving around buying ice-cream from the ice-cream man and then driving around more to find people who might want it.

Is that community oriented, we’re-all-in-this-together, no neighbor left behind inclination a liability? I don’t think it is, but I don’t think it’s a ridiculous question to ask, either. The communal sufficiency is a really nice, local oil for what might otherwise be a fairly squeaky wheel. I saw a really pretty FEMA graphic the other day about how much debris was ready to clear. And I was thinking about all the debris that I had cleared and that I had watched my neighbors clear. And I thought about an entire island of neighbors clearing debris and then seeing some government organization brag about how much debris had been cleared. Motherfucker, we cleared that debris before your plane was on the ground at my severely fucked up airport.

And there were, of course, notices that you should stay inside and should not attempt to do things that professionals should be doing like dragging power lines and the poles that used to carry them out of the street. But then if the whole island hadn’t ignored those warnings, what would the government stats look like? 2% of roads cleared? At best. I’d still be in my house and I live two blocks from a hospital. And then the death toll might even be high enough for Trump.

And here’s where, if you know me, you’re like, what!? Mr. Safety is advocating for ignoring well researched government warnings that are completely logical and will probably save your life? And of course I’m not. I think ignoring those warnings is idiotic, self-destructive, vigilante-aid-worker, more-likely-to-become-another-victim-than-to-help-the-first-guy bullshit–except when heeding the warnings would be even more idiotic and self-destructive–which in this case it clearly was. The whole island would have died of starvation. Some dark playwright should make a six hour show where everyone does what they’re told and dies an obvious, slow, horrible death because of it.

But where is the middle ground? How do you use your self-sufficiency in times of need but still convince the powers-that-be that you would prefer not to? I don’t know the answer to that question. Maybe with statistics? Maybe they’ll look at the numbers and say, wow, there sure were a lot of lacerations that walked in the door of the hospitals due to self inflicted machete wounds from attempting to clear fallen trees from public roads. Maybe we should have some more trained people out doing that next time? But then probably everyone treated their own wounds. The lack of 70% alcohol and hydrogen-peroxide on the shelves at CVS speaks to this. Maybe instagram? Maybe everyone who got hurt doing something their-own-damn-self should have posted it on social media and then convinced some twitter analytics asshole in the bay area to figure out just how bad it was. But then theres not a lot of power for social media. Or cell service. It’s a complicated problem. Maybe put it on the tax form. If you got a tax credit for hurting yourself in a disaster because FEMA wasn’t there, you might get some more reporting.

They just turned on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at a kiosk right next to me in the mall. It’s a very Harrison Ford day. I don’t remember this opening with the song-and-dance-routine. I’ll stay for the gross food scene but then I’m off to find better internet.

So okay, I was starting to talk about mission creep and then I started talking about self-sufficiency so it was a sort of meta-mission-creep. But it all has a point.

After the strong winds and the cleanup, there was no denouement where everything was just better. Things happen slowly, and that’s to be expected (I’m not going to say it’s okay, but it’s not surprising). But what happens when things go slow, is you get this non-adiabatic storm sort of thermalizing out into normalcy, and the heat-bath of normalcy is not strong enough here to totally thermalize the post-storm world. And I guess what I’m saying in English is that FUCK THIS TV IS LOUD it’s getting better so slowly that we don’t remember enough or care enough or think that it’s possible enough for things to be back to normal. So we have the slow creep from abnormal to new-normal. Goodbye Dr Jones.

And if the annoyingly or dangerously abnormal is the widely accepted new normal, we have achieved true second-class citizenship.

What is normal and are we asking too much? What does it mean to be high-maintenance?

I pride myself on being self-sufficient. I like knots and I like camping. I’d rather read a book on how to trap rabbits or write code or fly helicopters than the New Yorker. This has been pretty nice post Maria. I made my own fuel out of rubbing alcohol. In all honesty, I could probably do this forever and it wouldn’t be put out by the stuff I have to do. The problem is that you can’t really do much else. Self-sufficiency is time consuming. Sam and I spent most of our first month just taking care of ourselves. But now she is back at work and still expected to take care of herself. And now everyone is back at work and there are no stoplights, so traffic is a little rough.

This level of required self-sufficiency is unsustainable. On one hand, you can’t expect that everyone will enjoy learning how to distill ocean water. On the other hand, you’re talking about insane economic inefficiency. So it’ll get a little better. They’ll fix this, they’ll fix that–right up until the point that it becomes quasi-stable. And then it’s going to go one way or the other. It’ll either stall out and those who stay will accept the new normal, and those who leave will be numerous. Or it’ll pick up. The bums in office and running PREPA will be chucked off the island or in jail or both and we’ll all have underground power lines, Gbps fiber networks and solar backup systems. I think the only way to get the latter is going to be to be really fucking loud about it. I think the only way to avoid the former is to be really loud about it. I think the only way to keep from being second-class citizens is to be fucking pissed when the internet is slow, and to not feel guilty about it. Instead of comparing our situation to a tearjerker, compare it to Real Housewives. If someone in Beverly Hills would be pissed about it, we should be pissed about it. If someone in San Francisco would drop the power company and sue for the meat that went bad in the freezer, then we will drop the power company and sue. If the FBI can prosecute public corruption in the states, they will do it here. If they don’t, we will sue the DOJ. Let the CEOs, legislators and department chiefs quake in their shoes at our new-found audacity and litigiousness. If the political parties keep their corrupt friends and resolve only to blame each other, we will start new political parties and blame them both.

This is not a choice between feeling guilty about how lucky you are and dying because your ventilator lost power. This is a choice between full-fledged membership in the modern, developed world and second class citizenship. The only people who will try to make you feel guilty are the ones who will profit from your ability to be guilt-and-a-job pacification.