Surely You Jest
13 March 2009 |
I’ve been reading D.T. Max’s profile of the late novelist David Foster Wallace, which appeared in last week’s New Yorker. Wallace apparently struggled — in his writing and in his life — to come to terms with what felt to him like an increasingly vapid and seemingly inane American way of life. He searched for and examined the space between society’s manic noise (Gabriel Winant’s Salon.com encounter with CNBC, “Why is Jim Cramer Shouting at Me?“ is an awfully succinct example) and the human heart. His point, as Max notes, is that “America was at once over-entertained and sad.” Wallace’s final, unfinished The Pale King, part of which will be published next year, is about IRS agents who are forced to master intense tedium. He hoped, Max thinks, that it “would show people a way to insulate themselves from the toxic freneticism of American life.”
Max had access to Wallace’s notebooks. In one of them, a plot for The Pale King emerges: an evil cell inside the IRS wants to steal the secrets of another IRS agent who has great powers of concentration. Here in Philadelphia — not so much over-entertained and sad as over-medicated, under-educated, and angry — something similar might be happening right now. I think a rogue cell in a hidden corridor of 1234 Market Street is plotting to take down the agency.
A couple of weeks ago, my good friend Peter Siskind was over for bagels and lox. “Check this out,” he said. He pulled out of his wallet his son Leo’s March “city-only” monthly pass, the one that costs $78. (Leo, 8, may be Septa’s most appreciative and knowledgeable rider. At 5, he had memorized the entire Septa system. You could call him from any location to find the best route to your next destination.)
It might be useful to remind ourselves of a few things before we have a look at Leo’s pass. Septa monthly passes usually promote annual events, non-profits, cultural and education institutions, museum shows, etc. The implied message: “You can get there on Septa.” It has the effect of reinforcing an urban dynamism. By advertising Temple’s Fox School of Business, my March “zone 1” ($84) monthly pass falls a little short of this cosmopolitan ideal.
It costs about a billion dollars to run the system (fares and passes cover two-fifths of the cost), and though Septa has secured increased and more consistent government support, by necessity it also has more aggressively pursued other sources of income. In this fiscal climate, every dollar counts; and despite the failure of the “free market,” public agencies are still wed to private sector management theories. So Septa chases every revenue source it can, among them, retail rent, parking rent, advertising, and the sale of scrap metal. All this amounted to almost $30 million in FY 2008. Revenue generated by the sides and backs of buses, the ceilings of trains, the walls of subway cars, and on weekly and monthly — and event — passes counts toward this $30 million (but exactly how much so is not revealed in the agency’s annual budget).
Septa over the years has survived strikes and economic downturns, the unending restructuring and decentralization of the region’s economy, and the uncertainty of public funding. Dedicated funding from the Commonwealth only came last year. But it’s seemingly always threatened by the possibility of accident, injury, and the death of passengers — there are 2.54 accidents, for example, per 100,000 miles traveled by city buses — and also by rampant unsupported claims of injury. Interning in Septa’s executive office during the summer of 1989, I remember when a call came in to the woman in the cubicle next to mine: a four-year-old’s head had gotten stuck in a subway turnstile. He was badly hurt — and I recall how seriously the event was taken, not just as a matter of safeguarding corporate liability but out of pure human empathy and care. That summer marked the final end of the 1980s real estate boom, and a recession was beginning. To long-time Septa veterans, it meant that the office would most certainly see an increase in false claims. There was easy money in suing Septa for whiplash.
In FY2008, Septa spent $39.7 million on injuries and damage claims, up from $34 million in FY2007; the agency also spent over $5 million on legal work related to litigation. (Source.)
So it can only be that a rogue cell operating in Septa’s entrepreneurial revenue department substituted the intended, community-supportive monthly pass art with this:
Septa Monthly Transpass
I will say that “Personal Injury” is only one of many categories of law this firm pursues. Wadud Ahmad and Joseph Zaffarese are both former assistant District Attorneys, and despite occasional trouble with a bloody homonym — they’ve “one countless cases,” for example — are “winning” lawyers who seem to be active participants in the civic life of the city. There is no reason to believe they are ambulance chasers employed by an evil group who has infiltrated Septa’s business office.
Ads like this do appear on buses and subways — the 47 this morning announced the legal services of “Your Harvard Lawyer” — among various offers of products and services.
But the pass — that ticket to ride — symbolizes everything, making this feel profoundly, achingly, hilariously, numbing. The flag propped up yet again to prop up someone, and pixelated to meaningless oblivion . . . the aggressive stance, the certain claims, the exhaustive pandering. They might have simply sold the ad space to a car dealership.
This, I guess, is something like a world of infinite jest; the harder you think about it, the sicker you feel.