Northbound and Down

Your workday dies a lingering death when you have a long commute. If you’re driving home, you may not think about it too much because you’re too busy concentrating on the car ahead of you and the slow crawl of rush-hour traffic. I ride a tech bus so I have plenty of time to think.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to own a car again. It’s been 24 years since driving my old one to death by not caring much about scheduled maintenance, including oil changes. I’m not very good at taking care of things, whether it be my car, my teeth, or my career path. I’m also not a very good driver because other cars on the road just aren’t all that interesting to me. While it may be true that driving a car would give me the freedom to go wherever I want, letting someone else drive gives my brain the freedom to go wherever it wants. I like that better.

It’s usually an hour and 45 minutes of my semi-workday purgatory before the bus gets off the freeway. I spend this time fretting about work, fretting about things that aren’t work, or losing myself in my fantasy world so I don’t have to fret about anything. The only thing I have to do is stay on the bus. Unless it crashes. Then I have to lie on the asphalt and bleed a lot. Either way, I’m still a prisoner.

The bus exits at Cesar Chavez Street, which was Army Street when I first moved here and its current namesake was still alive. I remember some of the older and more conservative (by SF standards) residents objecting to the name change. I didn’t mind. Sure, it took a couple of extra syllables to say, but Chavez was a pretty good guy and streets in this town have been named after far worse than him (e.g. Fillmore and Columbus).

I actually heard Cesar Chavez speak one time. I can’t remember what he said but he earned a lot of applause, being Cesar Chavez and all. It was 1988 and I had just moved up to the Bay Area and was living in Oakland. There was an event at Dolores Park that had the words “jobs,” “justice,” and “peace” in the title. I’m not sure of the order and I don’t think it really mattered. The three were all good things and the intended effect was to create a big, liberal umbrella that was welcoming to one and all.

It worked. Dolores Park was transformed that day into a veritable swap meet for progressive causes. Environmentalists, feminists, socialists, and “Where was George?” finger pointers had all set up shop on the grass. Bored by the overall nonviolent vibe, I gravitated toward the table with the pro-IRA swag on display.

The table wasn’t actually run by the IRA with some hatchet-faced Fenian hissing about the “durrrty Briddish” through a jack-o’-lantern smile. Instead, I was greeted by a rather fetching redhead who represented an organization calling itself Irish Northern Aid.

She informed me that their mission was to support the families of “political prisoners” in Northern Ireland and if I signed up for their mailing list and made a small donation, I could help myself to one of those nifty “Victory to the IRA” bumper stickers. It was just a few dollars so I handed her the money and put the bumper sticker on display in the front window of my apartment, where it received pointed disapproval from my English friend whenever he came by for a visit.

That’s as close as I’ve come to being a sponsor of terrorism. Irish Northern Aid, or NORAID, was accused of supplying the Irish Republican Army with cash to buy weapons. This was never proven outright and I did not know about the allegation at the time. Even if I had, I don’t know if it would have made any difference.

My ancestry is Irish as much as anything, but I had l no real kinship with the land of my roots. At the time, I never visited Ireland and had no strong opinion whether it should be united or not. Even now, I have no dog in that fight. For people in Northern Ireland, the IRA were a grim reality. For me living in California, they were a parlor game.

The only thing I ever liked about the IRA is that they got drunk and blew stuff up. To this bored and sheltered idiot, that was some punk-rock shit. I didn’t know the issues and didn’t care. When someone pointed out the ideological inaccuracy of writing “IRA” with a circle around the “A” to denote anarchy, I sneered at his attempt to stifle my creativity.

I wasn’t all that sympathetic either. I heard about the hunger strikers while I was in college and with a level of tact that hasn’t changed much, I wrote “Bobby Sands” on a piece of paper and taped it to a skeleton Halloween decoration at the frat house. Some guy who took the Troubles very seriously pitched a hissy over that. If he were actually in the IRA, I probably would have gotten kneecapped.

Real violence has always scared the piss out of me so to make the IRA seem more palatable, I half convinced myself that they were committing “A-Team” mayhem where there’s a lot of property damage, but nobody actually gets hurt.

Looking back, I was perhaps exhibiting a similar stupidity as some of my contemporaries were with their “Mao More Than Ever” t-shirts, which were a perfectly acceptable social and fashion statement if you were willing to ignore the fact that your beloved Chairman’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution killed people by the tens of millions. I’m guessing they were into it out of boredom as well. The 80s were a stultifying decade. We all had to amuse ourselves as best we could.

The bus stops at 24th and Guerrero Streets. I get up and make my way to the exit. I move past a number of seated coworkers, most of them millennials.  They look so committed, so earnest. I really have nothing in common with them at all.

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