Stephen Goldin's Blog
on the economy opened here Monday with tones of gloom and distress over
higher oil prices and the threat of world depression. H. Johannes Witteveen, managing director of the International
Monetary Fund, predicted continuing recession and inflation around the
world, along with unprecedented financial strains. World Bank President
Robert S. McNamara forecast mass starvation in the world's poorest
countries, containing populations totaling one billion, unless
industrial and oil-exporting nations alike sharply step up their aid--a
move few of these countries seem likely to make.
WASHINGTON--International meetings on the economy opened here Monday with tones of gloom and distress over higher oil prices and the threat of world depression.
H. Johannes Witteveen, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, predicted continuing recession and inflation around the world, along with unprecedented financial strains.
World Bank President Robert S. McNamara forecast mass starvation in the world's poorest countries, containing populations totaling one billion, unless industrial and oil-exporting nations alike sharply step up their aid--a move few of these countries seem likely to make.
Tuesday October 1, 1974
We sit on the lip of a precipice, daring the force of gravity to pull us into the pit. The bottom is unfathomable because we've climbed so high we've lost sight of it. It is nothing so trivial as a recession; even a depression similar to the one in the 1930s would pale by comparison. What we are facing as we stare down into the abyss is nothing less than the total destruction of our present civilization--and most of us, through a fear of heights, have shut our eyesÉ.
If you climb only a little way up a hillside and slip, you probably won't be hurt too much. Falls from greater heights can be fatal. We have climbed so high on the hillside of Progress that a fall will shatter us like a glass dropped from Mt. EverestÉ.
The sign over the desk read "Granada Hills Security Checkpoint," but that did not disguise the fact that this building was actually a deserted supermarket at the edge of a deserted shopping center. Aisle upon aisle of denuded shelves gave mute testimony to the bad times that had befallen the community. In fact, the empty cavern of a building seemed to Peter to symbolize the entire Collapse of civilization.
The guard behind the desk looked at him suspiciously. Peter didn't know much about guns, but the one in the guard's shoulder holster looked big enough to stop a herd of rampaging elephants. Peter coughed nervously and cleared his throat. "IÉ I'd like to join your community, if I could," he said. "I'm thirty-two and a good worker. I can do almost anything that needs to be done."
The guard's scowl was skeptical. "What did you say your name was?"
"Peter Smith," he lied. His own name, Stone, had acquired too many bad connotations in recent years, and he never gave it out any more. He had trouble enough going unrecognized without advertising himself further.
"Smith, eh? Can anyone in Granada Hills vouch for you?"
"Uh, no, I just got in. I've been bicycling down from San Francisco these past few months, and this looked to be a good place to settle."
"How are things up there?"
"Bad," Peter said. "It's bad all along the coast. From what I've seen of it, your area looks about average."
The guard grunted. "I'm afraid, Mr. Smith, that we can't accept you here. We've got too many people already without adding strangers. There's plenty of willing hands to work but limited resources to keep them fed, if you know what I mean."
"Sure," Peter nodded. The story was all too familiar to him. "In that case, I was wondering if I might buy some food from you. I've got money--"
"Granada Hills is on barter until the money situation settles down again. Unless you've got something to trade, you're out of luck. Got any bullets, batteries, candles, tools or copper wire?" Peter shook his head. "What about your bike? We can always use another bike."
"Sorry, I need it myself. Things aren't too safe for a man on foot; the bike gives me a slim edge, at least."
The other nodded. "Things are rough, all right. I never thought I'd see the day when this sort of thing would happen to us."
"Look, is there any place in this area that does take cash?" The sun was sinking and Peter wanted to settle in somewhere before nightfall. He'd had too many scary experiences in the dark lately.
"You might try San Fernando; last I heard, they were still taking money. You'd better watch them, though--they've got a rowdy bunch over there."
"How do I get there?"
"You take this street over here, Balboa, and go north about a mile to San Fernando Mission Boulevard, then east a couple of miles. Can't miss it."
"Thanks." Peter started wheeling his bike out of the supermarket.
"Good luck," the guard called after him. "I wouldn't want to be a stoner now for all the gold in Fort Knox."
Peter wondered idly as he pedaled along whether there was still any gold left in Fort Knox. There probably was, he decided; gold was not worth stealing at the moment. People had more immediate needs, like food, water, gasoline and electricity. Somewhere, he thought, the U.S. government may be trying valiantly to carry on as though nothing unusual were happening, guarding that gold and the wealth it supposedly represents like a virgin dinosaur guarding a nest of infertile eggs. And if they think about the Collapse at all, they probably blame it on me--as if I were anything but the messenger who brought the tidings of disaster.
Being a prophet of doom is not a rewarding career.
As he pedaled up Balboa Boulevard, Peter looked around him and tried to imagine how the neighborhood must have looked ten years ago, before the Collapse really got underway. On his left was another shopping center and a tall building that had once, according to a sign, been a hospital; currently it was being used as a series of apartments. On his right were more expressly designed apartments, once luxurious but now worn down and ugly. Rubbish that could not be burned had been dumped outside, lining the street and giving the air an unpleasant odor.
He passed another deserted supermarket as he crossed Chatsworth Street and continued north. There were houses on both sides of him, the ticky-tacky boxes that had been very popular in suburban communities at one time. They had little front yards that now contained gardens instead of lawns--lettuce, radishes, tomatoes and melons all seemed popular. The gardens were surrounded by fences--and some of the fencing, he noticed, had come from the center divider of a freeway. A stop sign had been stuck in one garden and dressed in tattered clothes to form a makeshift scarecrow. A couple of houses appeared to have been razed to make room for corn fields. The green stalks swayed proudly in the breeze.
Dogs roamed the streets and patrolled in front of the houses. They barked at him as he went past, but didn't bother to chase him when they saw he was no threat to their masters' gardens. There were several goats standing around and a large number of chickens, but Peter could see no cats running loose--they and rabbits would be penned up and used for food. Pets were no longer an affordable luxury. Birds, too, were scarce; no doubt the neighborhood children were improving their aim with slingshots.
Peter wondered what it was that made him hang around urban centers. The cities, he knew, were deathtraps, due to collapse of their own weight in the immediate future, and anyone caught in them would share in their destruction. It was the relatively small number of people living in the country who would fare the best, though they would be scarred as well. Any sensible person should see that and try to grab himself a piece of farmland before total havoc settled on the nation. But Peter was, and always had been, a city boy and was drawn to the cities even though he knew it might mean his death at any moment.
My problem, he decided, is that I give good advice but, like everyone else, I refuse to follow it.
Perhaps it had even been too late to do anything seven years earlier when his book, World Collapse, had hit the stands and fueled the controversy. Already the vast global forces he had foreseen were working to destroy civilization. Shortages of materials had become noticeable as early as the 1970s, yet the series of small crises kept escalating without any serious steps being taken to prevent them. The divisiveness of society, with group pitted against group, had shorn humanity of the cohesion it needed to deal with its problems. Inflation had crippled the economy and strikes had weakened people's confidence in the predictable.
Many books had been written previously predicting that conditions would become critical before the end of the Twentieth Century; they had all been dismissed as doom-crying and overly pessimistic by the vast majority of people, who had retained a naive faith in the abilities of Mankind to rise, Phoenix-like, from its own excrement. Then World Collapse had come along, with the most forceful and frightening arguments to date. The then twenty-five year old Peter Stone proved beyond doubt that civilization was doomed in just a couple of years unless radical steps were taken immediately. He even outlined what those steps were: mandatory euthanasia, mandatory birth control, immediate redistribution of wealth, immediate decentralization of society, an end to single family dwellings, an end to raising non-food animals as pets, forced movements of people to equalize population distribution, strict rationing of food and water, complete government takeover of industry and labor, complete government control of transportation, and a multibillion-dollar crash program for farming and colonizing the sea beds.
It was, to him, amazing that he could antagonize ninety-five percent of the country virtually overnight. While a few intellectuals hailed him as "one of the greatest minds of our time," the nicest thing most people could find to call him was "that damned socialist." Some were convinced he was the devil incarnate for simply stating the obvious truth. But the book sold, millions of copies. It was ironic, Peter thought, that his book would be one of the last bestsellers; shortly after the book's twentieth printing, most of the printers' unions had gone out on strike. For all Peter knew they were still striking.
He had amassed fame and fortune when both commodities were fast losing their rewards. He had appeared on numerous television talk shows, explaining and debating his beliefs that civilization, not just in the U.S. but around the world, was crumbling. He kept telling people that he didn't like his solutions, either, but that something drastic would have to be done to avoid an even worse fate. Nobody listened. His enemies called him an opportunist, making money off the world's misfortune, profiting on disaster. He was painted as a villain and branded a radical and a traitor.
In the meantime, everything he had predicted was coming true. Strikes by municipal workers brought about a breakdown of city services. The gasoline shortages he had foreseen were made even more acute by the final Israeli War, which devastated ninety-three per cent of the Arab oil fields. Overnight, the world faced its most severe energy crisis. Lacking power, radio and TV stations went off the air one by one. Lacking gasoline, truckers could no longer distribute materials, supplies and finished goods with their former efficiency. Everything was in short supply and getting shorter. Communication, transportation and distribution--the "Big Three" that Peter had listed in his book--were deteriorating with each passing day.
Peter turned right on San Fernando Mission Boulevard and continued riding. Telephone poles were spaced sporadically along the sides of the street; most had been chopped down for firewood. As he passed the houses he saw plenty of people working in their gardens. They would probably continue wrapping themselves in minutiae right up until the day the water stopped being pumped into their taps. Peter shuddered as he thought about the panic that was building under the surface, like a malevolent genie waiting for the inevitable day it would be set free.
He went under a freeway overpass, crossed a major street and finally came to an area that had once been a park. It was about three city blocks in length and one in width. An attempt had been made to grow corn here, too, but it was thwarted by the crowds that had moved in. The park was jammed with broken old cars that people had pushed there and were using as living quarters. At first, Peter wondered why they had bothered--housing was the least severe of the shortages at the moment. Then he saw what was across the street from the park.
It was the San Fernando Mission, one of the sanctuaries established in the Eighteenth Century by Father Junipero, Serra along what came to be called El Camino Real. As a Catholic church, it represented one of the few organizations still operating in the world today. The mission was acting as a food distribution point, probably feeding the indigent as part of its charitable work. The charity was what had caused the swarms of poor people to move into the park across the street.
Peter had mixed feelings about the churches. Not being religious himself, he tended to distrust them. True, they were doing very good work now, providing not only temporal care--such as food distribution--but also tending to people's spiritual needs and keeping up morale. As the situation got progressively worse, people would turn increasingly to religion as a source of comfort. That was fine as far as it went, but Peter could not help recalling how the medieval Church had grown into a mind-numbing monolith, encouraging superstition and ruthlessly crushing all individuality. If Mankind were to rise and grow again, freedom of thought would be an absolute necessity. Peter was afraid the churches were bringing short-term relief and long-term oppression.
He stopped outside the mission and dismounted. This looked like his best prospect for spending the night. He could be fed at the mission and then sleep through the night sitting up against the wall. The nights could be chilly in Los Angeles but usually weren't unbearably cold. One of his few possessions--aside from money, which was only occasionally useful--was the blanket tucked in his knapsack. That would be enough to keep him warm tonight.
He started to walk his bike over to the mission when he noticed something going on down a side street just to the west of the building's wall. A black man with a motorcycle was being hassled by a pack of young whites.
"I think he's from Pacoima," one of the rowdies was saying. "Coming over here to spy on us, find out where our soft spots are. Probably him and his buddies want to make a gas raid tonight. Come on, shine, where'd you get that chopper?"
The black was young, tall and angular; in happier days, he might have been a college basketball player. He wore a red tanktop shirt, blue pants and a red bandana around his forehead. His face was adorned with a crisp black goatee and mustache, and was topped with a short mane of curly hair. He bore an expression of smoldering dignity. "You touch that cycle," he said, "and I'll carve the Gettysburg Address in your lily-white ass." His voice was so quiet as to be almost inaudible, yet carried a feel of power with it.
The pack was startled for a moment, then the fellows laughed nervously. They outnumbered the stranger nine to one. "Who do you think you are, nigger, coming around here and giving orders?" asked the leader, moving a step closer. The rest of the pack did the same.
In one swift motion, the stranger reached into his pants pocket, whipped out a switchblade and flipped the knife open. His hand moved in a little circle in front of him, giving the appearance that the blade was floating on its own. "Not orders," he said. "Just sound advice."
The rowdies stopped again. The stakes were getting higher, and they were uncertain what to do. The leader was in the worst position--he didn't dare lose face in front of his buddies. So, after eyeing the switchblade for a moment, he calmly reached down to his belt and pulled his own weapon, an army surplus bayonet mounted on a wooden handle. "If you want to play games, we can do that too--right, fellas?" Inspired by his behavior, the others drew their knives.
Peter looked around. No one else in the park was in a position to see what was going on--or, if they were, they were doing a good job of ignoring it. He felt a queasy sensation in his stomach and the spit in his mouth tasted sour. He checked that his own knife was loose in its scabbard, should it be needed.
The pack was circling in on its prey, but with less confidence than it might ideally feel. The prospective victim was not some helpless stranger frightened by their bullying, but a powerful-looking man with a sharp knife and an apparent knowledge of how to use it. The gang moved in cautiously.
The black stood his ground, turing slowly to keep an eye on the people behind him as well as those in front. His knife hand stayed limber and pointed directly at the leader's throat
With a loud, bull-like bellow, the leader charged. The black sidestepped him easily and flicked his wrist in what seemed an effortless motion--yet, when the leader straightened up again, Peter could see that a deep slash had been cut across his left ear and was bleeding profusely. "Next," said the black, laughing.
Three others came charging from different directions. One received a quick kick to the groin that doubled him up in a hurry; the second found himself stabbing air as the victim had whirled away and brought a slashing blow down on the hand of the third. "Come on," yelled the gang's leader from the sidelines. "What are we, a bunch of chickens? Let's get him!"
They all converged at once, though showing a great respect for their victim's prowess. The black had a longer reach than most of them and was able to keep them momentarily at bay with his slashes, but he couldn't last forever against their superior numbers.
Peter was not a very good fighter, though he'd had more than his share of practice over the last year. He usually avoided fights if he could, but this was one he couldn't ignore if he wanted to live with his conscience. Drawing his knife and emitting a loud whoop, he rushed forward.
The gang was startled by this attack from a new direction and froze momentarily, giving Peter an advantage he badly needed. He incapacitated one of the foe with a quick stab to the side, under the ribs. Turning to the next man, he lashed out across the face, cutting just above the eyebrow. Blood streamed out of the cut and into the eye, blinding the fellow and making him think his eye had been put out. He dropped to the ground, screaming.
The black had not hesitated when the attackers did. His knife was busy slashing away at his opponents, making them put up their guard and fight defensively. But now they had recovered from the surprise of Peter's attack, and were launching a counter-offensive of their own. Peter found himself facing two big menacing types with murder in their eyes. Without the element of surprise on his side, the other two were undoubtedly the better fighters. Peter backed slowly away from them until he found that his back was right up against the wall of the mission. The other two kept closing on him, evil grins on their faces.
The one on his left lunged at him. Peter tried to twist away, but wasn't quick enough--the attacker's knife cut across the top of his left arm, sending a shot of pain through Peter's body. Blood poured out, staining his already grubby shirt, but he had little time for worrying about that--he was fighting for his life.
His twisting had put him in a bad position, because now he had his left side outward and his right side--along with his knife hand--towards the wall. He had to duck rapidly as the second attacker, seeing the opening, made a vicious swipe at his head. The blade whistled barely a quarter of an inch over Peter's hair.
In making that slash, though, the youth had left himself open. Peter charged forward and thrust his knife into the attacker's gut. The man let out a cry of pain and crumpled slowly to the ground. Peter pulled his blade out quickly, fell to the ground and rolled to get away from the first attacker, who was coming at him again.
When he got to his feet, he saw the man facing him in a low crouched stance. They circled one another for a long second, then the fellow charged. Peter tried to play matador, sidestepping the charge and parrying the thrust, but he was only partially successful. The other's knife cut through his shirt and scratched the ribs on his left side. Peter turned and backed away again.
The other, sensing a quick kill, charged again. He got only halfway to Peter, though, before. he screamed and fell forward. A switchblade was embedded in his neck.
Peter looked around, surveying the battlefield. Seven bodies were scattered around the ground, most of them alive but severely wounded. The remaining two gang members were fleeing down the street. In the middle of most of the devastation, the black man calmly admired his handiwork. He appeared unscathed. With a grin at Peter he walked over and pulled his switchblade out of the throat of his last victim, wiped it off on the man's shirt, folded it up and stuck it back in his pocket. Then he walked over to his motorcycle, prepared to drive off.
"Hey," said Peter, "aren't you even going to thank me?"
The other turned. "Thank you? For what? Doin' something that anybody with any guts should've done?"
"But it wasn't anybody, it was me, and I'm bleeding."
The black ambled over, grabbed Peter's wounded left arm roughly and examined it. "Sheeyit, man, that ain't nothing but a flesh wound. It'll heal up, 'less it gets infected." He stopped as an idea occurred to him. "You live around here?"
Peter shook his head.
"Oh, a stoner, huh?" Peter hated that expression. Since the Collapse had begun, a lot of people had left their homes and taken to roaming, looking for someplace better than the one they'd left. Supposedly the term "stoner" had come about because these people were described as "rolling stones," but Peter had more than a little suspicion that the word was also a play on his name.
"Look," the man continued, "how'd you like to settle down somewhere that's peaceful, where there ain't no shortages and everybody works together?"
Peter eyed him warily. "Sure, who wouldn't? Only where are you going to find a place like that? Your back yard?"
"Don't get cute, man, I asked a legit question."
"And I said yes."
"What's your name?"
"Peter Smith." The lying came by reflex now.
The black extended his hand. "Kudjo Wilson." They slapped palms instead of shaking. "Listen, if you really want to go on to somethin' better than all this," and he waved his hand to include the park crammed with junked autos, "I think you'd better have a talk with my man."
Peter shrugged. "It can't hurt, I suppose. Where is he?"
"Oh, he's a few miles away yet. If you want, you can hop on the back and hold on, and I'll take you to him right away."
Peter shook his head. "Sorry, but I've got a bike that I'd rather not leave behind--and we can't readily take it with us on that cycle."
"Right you are." The other thought for a minute. "Tell you what I'll do. I'll ride on ahead and tell him about you. He's going to be coming through here anyway, or damn close. Why don't you wait up alongside the freeway, the one over there." He pointed further east. "It's a couple of blocks that way. You wait just before the bridge of the overpass, southbound side. Do you have a watch?"
Peter shook his head again. "It was stolen a month and a half ago."
"Well, anyway, he'll be along in a couple of hours. It'll be after dark, if that doesn't bother you."
"Well.É." Peter began.
"Be there," the other advised. He started his motorcycle. "We won't wait." And he drove off.
Holding his sore left arm, Peter went back to his bicycle. After the fight with those toughs, the mission might not be the best place for him to spend the night, after all--they might come back with friends, looking for revenge. His stomach was rumbling from not having been fed since breakfast, but it would be better to stay alive than to try for a free handout here and later be murdered in his sleep.
He pedaled further east along San Fernando Mission Boulevard and eventually came to the overpass that Kudjo Wilson had mentioned. The sun had just set and the sky was getting ominously dark. He paused at the bridge and looked up at it. Should he believe what the black had said? He had long ago given up believing in fairy tales, and that story had sounded suspiciously like a modern-day El Dorado. A place of peace and plenty would be very hard to come by, and invitations to it just wouldn't pop into his lap so casually. Besides, how could a black man hold the key to Utopia? It didn't make sense. If there were such a place, what was that Kudjo Wilson doing here?
But then again, what did he have to lose? If this were an ambush, what could they take from him besides his bicycle, a blanket and some practically worthless money? It would be little enough loot for such an elaborately planned trap. Besides, Wilson could have robbed him of all that right on the spot if he'd wanted to. The whole affair was very puzzling.
Peter wheeled his bike up the on ramp and parked it by the side of the bridge.
He sat there in the dark, waiting. Traffic on the freeway was virtually nonexistent due to the lack of gasoline--only two cars in over an hour's time, and they whizzed by him in the fast lane without even slowing. He wondered whether the people he wanted had passed him by without even seeing him, or whether they would ever come at all. This whole thing could be an elaborate and incomprehensible practical joke.
You're a fool, he told himself sternly. Listening to stories of Never-Never Land at your age. You'd probably buy the Golden Gate Bridge if someone offered it to you right now. But he stayed, because there was nowhere else to go.
After what must have been another hour, he saw some headlights approaching from the north. These were traveling much slower than the cars that whizzed past, and as they came closer Peter could make out a whole string of cars in a procession. The leading vehicle stopped just before getting to the bridge and pulled off to the side of the road. The cars behind it followed its example.
A spotlight stabbed out at him from the top of the vehicle, blinding him with its glare. "Mr. Smith?" called out a strange voice.
"Yes," he answered.
"Come on in, we've been hoping you'd be here. Would you like some dinner?"
Buy books from Parsina Press
Stephen Goldin's online bookstore
Free samples of some of Stephen Goldin's work