In our twenties, we moved to a city by a lake. The lake was dead, or perhaps in the final stages of reincarnation. The river was so polluted that it was legendary. And the city was the subject of jokes on late-night TV, which left the residents chronically depressed .
It was a bit like living in one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s factory novels. The air was hazy and the sky a dismal gray, but we tried to ignore the ring of factories around the city. We ignored the stacks, which emitted smoke and particulate matter. The Clean Air Act in 1970 had lessened the pollution, but it was still an environmentalist’s nightmare. It infected lungs with asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and cancer. URBAN LEGEND: there was an exceptionally high incidence of cancer in the city. Still, an elderly friend told us that the air used to be much dirtier, that his mother had to clean smuts off the door, windows, steps, and curtains, sometimes twice a day.
In the epic poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), Lucretius explains physics, the swerve of indestructible atoms, and Epicurean philosophy. I can’t help but think that if he lived today he would love the excitement of doom. He would write with gusto about the nature of particulate matter and air pollution, perhaps as an addendum to his intellectual epic.
Okay, so the lake was dead and the air was polluted. We still had the scruffy urban park. There were dead fish on the beach, but we sat far away from the water. A few mad men and women splashed around in the lake, which seemed unwise. If we got to the beach early enough, we could luxuriate on the sand and read the newspaper in peace, or the Village Voice, which truly had the best book review section.
But it could be noisy on weekends. That’s because people would bring their boomboxes and blast them at nine in the m0rning. Once I was utterly absorbed in Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer, the first of a quartet of lyrical literary SF novels, when R.E.M. (the best disbanded rock band in the world) nearly broke my eardrums with one of my favorite songs played at top volume:
Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk
I’ll see you in Heaven if you make the list
And then Tears for Fears:
In violent times
You shouldn’t have to sell your soul
In black and white
They really, really ought to know
I felt intense exasperation. “Let’s move up the hill.”
“It will be crowded.”
The hill was pleasantly populated with picnic tables and trees. There was usually room for readers. Not today. Groups of people in too-revealing swimsuits crowded the picnic tables, snapping open cans of beer, grilling chicken, and listening to terrible music = so bad I could not identify it..
We were much better off with R.E.M. and Tears for Fears!
We strongly felt it was our park, though, because we lived nearby. When we sat under a tree, it was our tree. We sat under a tree on the edge of the parking lot -hardly ideal – and read happily enough for half an hour…
And then- oh no- Queen. Déjà vu: a neighbor had driven us insane playing this song over and over:
We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting till the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions of the World
And this is why people read at home!