The Dark Thread

May 3, 1992
Tucker, Ga.

My pal Scooter brought me home, and I was able to relieve the family's anxiety. I was minus the Harley, but OK otherwise.

My brother Bryan listened to my story, and then surprised me with his comment. Normally he has a razor sharp eye for a straight line of thought. However, the goof in his logic was immediately apparent to me.

"When you're going outside", he said, "and you know it's raining, whaddya do? You may not like the weather, but you wear a raincoat anyway."

Saturday - 5:30pm

It was such a beautiful day.

My head was wound up as tight and tense as Tipper Gore's world view. I had just concluded a seriously pressurized 72 hour period of assisting Robert Roth in engineering development and drafting of technical plans for a brand new stage set. The project was an upcoming rock tour of America by a hell-raising bunch of nice Jewish boys from New York. The pressure stemmed from a series of lapses in communication and initiative on the parts of certain key team members, which put concept development far behind client expectations. The upshot was that Robert picked up a very heavy ball and began to run with it. With barely 4 weeks of experience at the company's AutoCAD station, I found myself turning Robert's ideas into actual working components in the drawings. I attended meetings with artists contracted to render concepts in perspective drawings. I was asked for my opinions on certain engineering and design details, which is something that can't be faked around Robert. He know's what he's talking about, and he knows what others are talking about. This means that you always have to have your head in the game and, at the moment, the opposite team (time) was on a fast break.

In the late afternoon that day, we felt like we had the project safely bagged. Robert was off to meet with the pop-stars, armed with a complete set of drawings. I emerged from the office into a bright, sunny day, quite ready to unwind. I went home and fell out on the couch for about twenty minutes.

When my eyes finally opened, I figured from the silence that Bryan and Jill had taken the kids out for a walk in the Saturday afternoon buzz of our quiet little neighborhood. They had been joined by the folks next door; Dee & Chad, as well as their year old son, Bryce. Stretching and yawning, I went out and cranked up the Sportster. Without a helmet, I cruised around the block in first gear. I came upon the little band of suburban hikers shortly. As soon as they saw me, Emily and Hillary began chirping their customary, "Bye-bye!!". Only eighteen months old, they don't understand what that means. However, they do know the sound of my 883cc V-Twin, and they know that when they hear it, it means that I'm traveling. So, they wave and say "Bye-bye" even if I'm pulling into the driveway. All of the adults present got a hoot out of this. Bryce, for his part, simply stared with eyes as big as they could be. I think that this was the first time he'd ever really seen the Harley. He didn't quite know what to make of the shape and sound of it. He didn't even blink. Occasionally, he'd look up at Mom and Dad. He'd note that they weren't running in stark terror from the awful flap and rattle, and that must have meant that there was no danger. So, he just stared in completely perfect amazement.

After listening, for a moment to Bryan (who doesn't get the Harley Thing) run his usual good-natured slam of my machine in front of the neighbors, I decided to take the kids up on their suggestion. I waved at one and all. Leaving them to their honestly charming domestic tableau, I headed back to the house to snag my helmet.

I had no real plan, other than to go out and play in traffic. My bike relaxes me. It is very effective in this regard. What happens is simple; dealing with the data processing challenges of staying alive on the streets clears my mind of anything that has been winding me up. There simply can be no room for anything in my head except the task at hand when I'm riding. The result is that when I get off the bike, my mind is very clear and relaxed.

I ran up Jimmy Carter Blvd. until congestion wouldn't allow for a single upshift to second gear. "What the hell?", I asked myself. With a quick U-turn, I reversed course on the purpose of gearing up for a full evening's cruise.

This meant stopping at home for a jacket and a scarf under my helmet. I was in and out again quickly, but not before announcing my intention to probe the South Side of town. This brought adult activity in the house to a brief halt. Scooter was quietly thoughtful. Bryan stated his doubts that it was a good idea. At this broach of the subject, Scooter mentioned the possibility that there was still a curfew in effect because of the recent civil unrest. Jill quoted news reports that the curfew had been lifted. There was a brief verbal tussle over this point. She and I agreed that even if there was a curfew, it would not go into effect for another 3 1/2 hours. I could burn off most of a tank of gas by then. Byran was still uneasy. Scooter, seeing that I was determined, offered me his pistol. I appreciatively declined. Jill, in her custom, urged me to be careful. I silently thought that their apprehensions, though honest and touching, were misplaced. Subsequent events proved me right, although even I didn't know where the difference would be.

I had it in mind to go out and get a feel for the streets. This is something I've not done lately, especially in the wake of the controversial verdict in the Rodney King assault case. My lapse in keeping a finger on the pulse was strictly a consequence of work imperatives. If I'd had the time, I would have checked out the street action at its height.

In all of my urban prowling, I've never really explored those areas which some would characterize as "the worst parts of town". However, prevalent media treatments of certain "under-privileged" neighborhoods made me curious. I've seen reports of police "Red Dog" (drug enforcement) activity in these areas. In TV news, I've seen the looks on the faces and heard the words of people who live there. There was a barely noticeable thread buried in these images. It ran through all of them with a consistency which is difficult to trace. That thread was laid there by hands which are, in Solzhenitsyn's words, "unaccustomed to physical labor but nonetheless strong and tenacious".

I often wanted to go out and see if I could get a feel for awareness of that thread in people who were tangled in it, but could not see it clearly in the broader cultural fabric. This would entail speaking to them and attempting to distill that awareness from the conceptual tangle manifested in the language of everyday people. I knew that this quest for a special, hidden awareness could be an edgy piece of work. In the places I would go to look for it I would also find a dense crosshatch of ethically admirable, sincerely defective, and cynically fraudulent ideological branches. Most of the people I would care to listen to would not really know which way was up. The thing that made me want to hear them was my impression that most of them seemed pretty sure about which way was down.

The main challenge, in my view, was the distinct possibility that things could get very personal, very quickly. I am not a fearful man. I am reasonably adept at gauging risks. So, I considered the effect of, and response to, a lone white man (like me) clearly looking for something that most people don't look for in a crime and poverty ridden black ghetto. I could not dismiss, with an idealistic flourish, the possibility that I would not get a good look at that hidden thread before I found a very different one, spun of the same fiber, wrapped around my neck. However, confidence in my own interpersonal powers of reason inclined me to the search.

I had not set a date to begin a series of expeditions. My focus on other personally pressing affairs (like earning a living) diverted my attention from recent events. But, I knew that the rash of rioting ignited in Los Angeles and flashing across the country was spectacular and historic.

What few glances I could sneak in that direction pained me deeply. I saw the institutional and flagrantly senseless destruction of values accented with every shattering blow of ancient and primitive weapons dressed up Newspeak (the policeman's "baton") starkly mirrored in rocks, bottles, and firebombs. I often felt overwhelmed by my own understanding of these events. It has been said that "Man has no choice whether or not to live according to a philosophy. The only choice concerns which one he will adopt." Even more challenging to a rational life is that certain facts of human cognition make it possible for us to behave in accordance with a philosophy which we don't explicitly understand. If people understood certain of their actions in their fullest implications, it is highly doubtful that they would act in these ways. So, watching the cops doing their thing on video, and watching "civilians" doing their things in the streets, and realizing that the same set of principles were present in both sets of actions, I felt dizzy, sick, and tired...perversely longing for some cosmic referee to appear and call a time-out, to make it stop...knowing that there is only one such referee on the scene: the human mind...which both sides had abandoned with shocking yet familiar conformity.

Such behavior can go on only so long, however, before the end of the road (fullest implications) becomes visible. The Cuban Missile Crisis serves as example. The logic of superpower behavior became starkly clear, and there was a moment when acts became referenced to authentic values. When this happens, whatever good there is in the actors becomes dominant. I cite as evidence the fact that the world did not get blown up.

The same process took effect this week in L.A. and other cities. When it became clear where events were headed, destructive behavior dwindled and ceased. I submit that this is due to a reference of acts to values. The realization of some kind of good in individual acts brought people under self-control. I cite as evidence the fact that people are not, right now, doing battle with Federal troops in attempts to burn the entire country down.

For a moment of days there was a vacuum of goodness. It was not long, however, before a large number of actors referring to values rushed in to fill it. People came from far and wide to begin the unpleasant task of cleaning up the mess. They did so without the dramatic flash point of motive which prompted the previous acts of destruction. Theirs was a response to that good which is natural and much more dominant in human beings than most social observers credit.

Here in Atlanta, appeals were heard from radio DJ's for people to switch on their car headlights in a universal plea for peace and goodwill. The effect was remarkable. I drove Robert's Mercedes for a short trip and was impressed with the numbers of people of all colors blazing away with high-beams. I switched on. Even though I was wrapped in the "bourgeois luxury of the oppressor class", I soon began receiving enthusiastic peace signs from everyone from rednecks in pick-ups, to bruthas in run-down Gremlins.

Some degree of The Good had returned. I figured it was a fine time to go for a ride.

Saturday - 9:40pm

They got me on Peachtree Street right in front of everybody. There were two of them working together. They were heavily armed and they set on me from behind. There was not even a chance of escape. I knew that my game was up even before I got off my bike. They came at me with cool detachment; no anger or passion...all business. I saw the move in my left mirror. It was so fast that there was not even time for activation syndrome to set in. One moment I was sitting at a stoplight, innocently curious at the plywood which covered the windows of downtown storefronts that had been shattered in rioting the day before. The very next moment, a bit tired and off my guard, I faced an act of authentic predation, unready but certainly willing to fight for my life.

By the time I got off the Harley and switched off the ignition, the first one was on me.

"Let me see your driver's license and proof of insurance."

All of the bloody details of the arrest need not be recounted here. It's familiar story...certainly to anyone with DMV experience, or to anyone who knows me. The "presumptive evidence of guilt" was the expired New York tag mounted to the rear end of the Harley. I often wonder how life would be in a free world where I wouldn't have to put up with this particular intrusion on my personal aesthetic. In any case, that was the least of my worries. Much more important and pressing was what the tag represented: the arbitrary sanction for any officer of the law to interrupt the peaceful conduct of my private affairs, at the moment of his or her choosing. The tag represented the extension of unreasonable powers of control over my liberty and property.

The bike was unregistered and uninsured. I told them these facts right away. The mood became relaxed and conversation was light while preliminaries were taken care of: running makes on myself and the bike. They were very smooth. I didn't realize, for several minutes, that they were going to write me on both charges.

There is a point in the procedure of any arrest of this sort where powers of discretion pass from the officer on the scene to a central commander and, further, to Vehicle and Traffic Law itself. This point is passed at the moment when the arresting officer informs command of the nature of the arrest. At that point, the arrest and its circumstances become a matter of public record, and events take an inertial course prescribed by what passes for law. This means that there is no longer any room for the individual judgement of the arresting officer. The practical philosophical implications of this procedural process are very clear: personal responsibility for impact on individual lives disappears. After this point is passed, the reality (metaphysics) of the act becomes distorted in a legal fog. Prior to this point the natural reality is that one man violates the liberty of another under the immediate threat of force. There is no difference between a police officer operating under the doctrine of "presumptive evidence of guilt" (a highly questionable doctrine even when checked against the seriously flawed constraints of the Fourth Amendment), and a simple highway robber. Each preys on unwilling victims. Both acts are unjust if it is an accepted premise that justice consists of allowing people to live their own lives, their own way, so long as they do not violate someone else's life. This ideal has been under development to various degrees in western culture for many, many centuries. It seems easy enough: live and let live. What could be more clear?

However, the point at which control of events passes to the law represents an institutional distortion of reality. The concept of justice consists of whatever has been written in a book of "laws". This concept may have been extended, circumscribed, compromised, and traded as political coin by those who write the laws. These days, they write laws according to standards which have very little to do with justice as defined above. As a result, the political sanction extended to "officers" stems from no objective principle. One tiny example in the vast patchwork of American legislation and law will serve to illustrate. A legislative rider to last year's transportation bill before Congress would have prohibited more than a prescribed number of motorcyclists from riding together at the same time. It was known as the "The Anti-Motorcycle Gang Act of 1991". Under the constraints of this law, officers in the field would have been able to initiate criminal proceedings against, say, a group of elderly couples enjoying a Sunday afternoon ride, or a gang of evidently dangerous marauders. Officers would not be encouraged, much less required, to discriminate rationally. Reference to the law would be sufficient, no matter what its relevance to justice might be.

The guy who wrote me up passed his control and responsibility in what I thought was a really sneaky and cowardly manner. I briefly laid out my circumstances as soon as we began. Shortly he told me to "wait a moment while I call this in". His partner engaged me in a discussion of my bike, comparing it to his Harley FXRP 1340. It wasn't very long before the first guy came sliding back over to us with his ticket book out. He was writing and chatting amiably all the while. I'd concluded on what was happening, and began to fall silent. I was figuring the impact of citations for expired registration and lack of insurance. It was not pretty.

Perhaps he would not have written me if he'd understood what $400 in fines, plus another $75-$100 in impound fees would do to me right now. The precarious balance of my recovery from two consecutive calendar quarters of business depression would be immeasurably damaged. My recovery would be set back by weeks. In fact, however, he didn't have to deal with such interpersonal considerations. He very slinkily attempted to dodge any personal sense of responsibility when he called his commander. Later on, his own statements attested to the fact that it didn't work for him.

Finally, he formally stated that I was charged with these two crimes. He did it very quietly, without conviction, and he didn't look me in the eye. Then, with a ruefully resigned motion of his head, he told me that he was going to have to impound my bike. He finally caught my eye with his last three words, and he saw what effect they had on me.

I'm embarrassed to have to admit that I was stunned. Wotta jerk...! I, with my crystal-clear understanding that they can do anything that they want to do, should never have been surprised that they were going to relieve me of one of my most valued possessions.

I turned away from him and took a couple of steps down the street. My mind was reeling from the understanding that I was suddenly, perfectly, marooned. My cherished personal independence of travel was thoroughly stricken from existence as effectively as if I had stepped out of the mall and discovered that the Sportster had been stolen. To complete my sense of ethical vacuum, this had happened without reference to the fact that I had harmed no-one.

The officer began taking great pains to ensure that I was not going to "take this personally...I didn't set out, here, to wreck your life." I walked over to a nearby sidewalk planter and sat down, barely hearing his words. Finally, he fell as silent as I was. After a few moments, I looked up into his very discomforted features and said, "You know, it doesn't surprise me at all that more and more people are losing their respect for law and order in this country."

A bit of The Cop returned to his look, and he asked warily, "What do you mean?"

"Let me try to make this clear to you", I said. "When there is authentic trouble, when someone is being hurt, the sight of one of you guys can be the most beautiful thing in the world. But that's not what's going on here. There is no trouble here except what you're creating for me. Believe me, you have no idea what this is going to do to my life."

I didn't bother to explain to him such intimately personal values as the pride and aesthetic excitement of looking out my window on a sunny afternoon and admiring the gleaming chrome sweep of the exhaust pipes...Or the precisely sculpted scale of the front fork rake...The knowledge that an expression of life which is very dear to me waits patiently at the curb, ready to transform the nature of my day at the miraculously rational press of a button. In an age when "authorities" routinely dispose of the actual, material conduct of our lives, the goal of that conduct means nothing. Who would care to bet that he would not have tossed my deepest satisfactions aside with a reflexive wave of his hand?

However, I believe that I hooked this guy just deeply enough to perhaps cause him to consider more tangible aspects of the case like, maybe, the money involved. He began to appear reflective. I pressed on, explaining the political similarities to authoritative conduct in the (former) Eastern Bloc: "Where are your papers?"

"Wait a minute", he said. "Think about what kind of papers they made people carry over there. They made them carry passports for travel in the country. (Doesn't he understand the implications of the fact that DMV laws of almost every state in America forbid a change of residence without informing the state of your new address?) "Listen," he went on, "I've been to Germany, and this country is nothing like that. Over there, they make you carry a driver's license, registration, and inspection certification on your vehicle." I almost laughed at the poor, simple, heavily armed bastard. "Why, over there, the police are empowered to take blood for DUI tests."

This was a new one on me, but I wasn't surprised. At this point I did make the effort to tell him that it wouldn't be too long before such things were commonplace here. He and his partner did laugh at me.

"Oh, no they won't..."

By now I wasn't listening any more. It was clear to me that he would never understand. He couldn't see that the political principle of reference was the fact that people were forced to carry state documentation of their lives...not what kind of papers they had to carry. In reference to that principle, there is no difference between the political culture of America, and the most repressive regimes of the 20th century.

"...Besides...Look: I'm only doing my job..."

By now, the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice made it clear that he thought he was dealing with someone who was not from around here. It was true. At that moment, in my mind, I was 8000 miles and 30 years away. I pictured a room which I have never been to, but one which I have seen on film and in the pages of those who wrote about what took place there. I pictured a small wormy man of furtive manner and synthetic bravado. He conducted himself with "a strange mixture of intellectual banality and self-righteous dignity right up until the moment he was hanged". The year was 1962. The place was Tel-Aviv. The man was Adolph Eichmann. As Hannah Arendt has related, "He did his duty, as he told police and the court over and over again; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law."

I realized that the image of that wormy little man would never leap into Officer Friendly's mind.

I sat down on my helmet, at the corner. These two armed men and I spent 15 more minutes in each other's company. I never said another word. I didn't respond when the guy who wrote me stated that he just wanted to "make sure that you don't dislike me personally." In my mind, I wondered, "What bloody difference does it make? For God's sake, man, don't you even believe in what you're doing?" The damned fool wanted me to make it easy on him. I did not speak. I said everything I had to say in one withering glance. He made no more attempts at conciliation: not even when he handed me all of my keys, except the Harley's ignition key, which he had removed from the ring. He did not even look at me.

Even so, I did not sit on that sidewalk unnoticed.

Peachtree Street was pretty busy that night. There were really very few signs of the rioting which had taken place shortly before. It seemed that, perhaps, the volume of traffic in and out of the downtown hotels had diminished somewhat. Otherwise, it wasn't outwardly apparent that the area had been a virtual battle zone.

I sat there waiting for the tow truck to come and pick up my Harley. It sat there under the streetlight, quietly gleaming in its special chrome and iridescent purple way. Of course, the traffic light was red from time to time, and traffic stopped right in front of me. The sight of two fat Harleys decked out in their police gear, as well as my trim and racy little Sportster, naturally drew the attention of folks in these stopped cars.

Heartbroken though I was, I watched these people. The patterns of their visual inquiries were remarkably consistent from red light to red light. They looked at the bikes. Then, they looked at the cops. Finally, they looked at me. Many of them repeated this circular scan several times, trying to figure out what was going on here. Everything seemed relaxed enough. I was not handcuffed. There was no evidence of any sort of a struggle. There was not even any belligerence of attitude. Yet, anybody could tell from looking at our faces (mine and the cops) that something was wrong.

A lot of people stopped and looked at us. However, there was one face that I will remember for a long time, for reasons of history.

There was something really odd in the air that night. People of different colors kept trying to look at each other, but it was hard. I'd noticed this effect all over town. Without headlights blazing in broad daylight, there was no ready indication of where anyone stood in relation to recent events and their racial implications. Glances were cautious and self-conscious, but somehow urgent at the same time. As the first peek was quickly averted one would, just then, notice the other person darting a small, searching look. Like the goofy off rhythm dance of two people who stumble into each others' way in an attempt to pass on a sidewalk, the rhythm would finally hook up. Many peoples' eyes met that night. Vastly more often than not, a flood of good-will would spill over the walls: peace signs, Hawaiian "hang loose" signs, thumbs up, and big smiles. There were great feelings of relief and insight in realizing that after all of the sad, sorry sickness that had raged through so many streets...after good people all over the country were untold millions of dollars down...after all of the horrible spilling of innocent blood...There really wasn't any reason why we had to hate each other. There really wasn't any reason why we couldn't look each other in the eye.

She looked me in the eye.

To hazard a guess, I'd say she was in her mid-twenties. She was a bit overweight and wonderfully beautiful. She had a wide, warm, brilliant smile, and a naturally vibrant manner which the frame of her passenger's side window and fifteen feet of distance could not conceal. She was black, and so were her four male and female companions.

They pulled up to the stoplight and ran down the scene. At last, as her gaze settled on me, I could see her concluding her reflections. Her focus became intent. We looked directly into each other's eyes for, perhaps, ten seconds. That depth of eye contact can be very memorable when conducted with a perfect stranger who will never be known to you.

I was feeling far too badly to endure something like that for very long. I pulled out my wool scarf and set about polishing a small spot out of the chrome of my air cleaner. This was something for me to do...something I could take positive control of. When I was satisfied that the spot was gone, I looked up at her.

Her eyes were right there. At the instant I looked at her, she held my glance with her wide-open eyes and made it very easy for me to read her lips: "What's wrong?"

I wanted to rush over to her, take her by the hand and tell her everything: How the paramount virtue of the human mind is being buried alive under a vast, monolithic slab of law...How the length and breadth of that slab is doing slow, certain, glacially ruthless murder to the species-specific attribute of free-will which enables individual people to make their own most out of their own lives. I wanted to tell her all about that dark thread which was now wrapped around my neck, and my bike. How in God's name was I going to tell her all of that? The light would turn green any second...

In response to this fact of futility, all I could do was roll my eyes with a small shake of my head. Then, in an inspired flash of humor which surprised me, I held up my left hand, limp at the wrist...and I slapped it with my right hand.

She got it. Very briefly, her face lit up in a dazzling, sympathetic grin. It didn't last long; she didn't want the cops to see it. Her face became stone cold, and she glanced back at them. Finally, she looked directly at me, and she winked.

I sat there watching my Sportster for as long as I could see it rolling down Peachtree St. When it turned a corner and disappeared, I stood up with my helmet and walked the other way.

I found a telephone booth a couple of blocks away and rang up Scooter at the house. Rock solid in a crunch, he dropped everything and started on the 30 minute trip downtown.

It wasn't long before some tattered street guy came trudging along. He stopped and said, "What's up man?"

I replied generally.

He looked me up and down, noted my helmet and asked, "Where's your bike?"

"The cops took it."

"Oh man, that really sucks. Why they do that?"

I told him. When I got to the part about the insurance violation, his countenance changed from empathic to paternal.

"Well, you know man", he said, "They gotta law against that."

I was perfectly dumbfounded. I couldn't believe that this beat guy, in this time and place, would lecture me about the law. When I finally came around, my patience was at an end.

"Look", I said. "Don't you get it? What if they had a law that said it was okay to go out and beat up niggers?"

This startled him. He stopped to mull it over. I could almost hear the clank and grind of mis-shaped gears in his head which passed for thought.

"Yeah," he said, turning away. "I guess the only way we're gonna get their attention is if we burn this motherfucker down."

That dark thread was tangled around everything, and everyone was tangled in it. I felt dizzy and sick and tired. But I wasn't ready to give up.

"You be careful, baby!", I yelled after him. But he was far down the block by then, and it didn't seem too likely.


All of this is why I had to shake my head when my brother tried his best to make me feel better: When a man is trying to stand up straight in a full-blown typhoon, a raincoat is of very little use.

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