Setting the Scene
In the centre of the Mississippi valley, near the head of natural navigation, stands a city. It is named St. Louis in honour of the medieval French king Louis IX, whose life was such a model of devotion that after his death in 1270 on his second unsuccessful Crusade he was canonised. Notable also for his promotion of culture, his most famous monument is a beautiful building in Paris, the Sainte Chapelle, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture and stained glass, built as a shrine to house what he believed to be the Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross. How strangely the current of history or fate has flowed to bring the name of this man and it's associations to this place. That occurred when 17th century French explorers of the Mississippi claimed a vast area in the middle of the continent and named it after their current ruler, the Sun King Louis XIV, and the town was founded a century later.
Quite unknown to Saint Louis, his life coincided with the peak of a city and a culture very far from his lands and his concerns. Only a few miles from what was to become the site of St. Louis, on the other side of the river, stood the largest city of the Mississippi Valley culture. We don't know what it's inhabitants called it or what they called themselves, but they left a lot of earth mounds, some shaped as step pyramids in the Mexican style and the largest such site north of Mexico. It seems to have been a centre of human sacrifice and the manufacture of stone hoes. Their culture fell apart and their lands fell to strangers some centuries before the arrival of European settlers, who destroyed and ploughed over some of these mounds, before preserving the remainder and calling it Cahokia after a tribe probably unrelated to the builders.
As the old hymn says:
'Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all it's sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.'
Time, and the Mississippi, continue to flow.
Do you believe that a building can tell a story, that it expresses an identity, that it can tell us about the nature and culture of the people who made and used it? Well if you look and listen quietly and respectfully perhaps it may speak to you.Here's one which lasted from one era into another, occupied by a variety of users for a variety of purposes redolent of the cultures of their time and place and resonant to a name which gave associations of much wider history and achievements. Let's try to learn something from it. By 'looking' through the spirit of the building, if we have 'eyes to see', we may be able to summon or at least imagine something of the ghosts or spirits of those who were or may be associated with the building or the city and country which were served by the activities in and around it.
Consider the American Brake Company Building in St. Louis, built in 1901 and since 2007 officially included in the National Register of Historic Places under the category of Industry. If you seek the Spirit of America this may be as good a place as any. 'Si monumentum requiris, circumspice!' If you seek a monument of the Americans, look around you. It was, after all, an American President who said that 'the business of America is business', so it's people may find this a suitable memorial.
The company manufactured brakes for freight trains. The building was it's factory and office, it's ornamental front built in the Romanesque Revival style popular at the time. In it's heyday, which was also that of it's city, country and society, it was part of a great industrial complex, a factory in a major industrial area in the most industrialised powerful and prosperous society the world had ever seen. In it's decline and decrepitude, which was also that of it's city, country, society and civilisation, it also attempted to stave off death by a succession of facelifts,denying mortality whilst tarting up the processes of decay and trumpeting them as Renewal amounting to Resurrection.
Has the spirit of the building been overshadowed by or subsumed within the spirit of the country and its people? Does the spirit rest easily? Is it's monument appropriate? Is the site treated with respect by courteous and reverent visitors? Do the descendants of the builders boast of the great works of their ancestors? What offerings do they leave? What tales does it inspire? Other people have left haunting stories, poetry and music, paintings, statues, pyramids, megaliths, cathedrals, castles, palaces, walls and roads. The Americans left a factory. Not a functioning factory of course, full of whirring machines attended by busy workers, drawing in inputs and sending forth products to the ends of the earth - those the banksters sent to China when they found it profitable to do so. No, an empty factory, of bare floors, columns and walls; an empty tomb from which no saviour arose although several imposters were acclaimed. A tomb for the spirit of America, soon thinly infested by scavengers ignorant or contemptuous of the past, like the ruins of Troy.
Let's look at it from the perspective of 2040.
2040 marked a century since the end of production there and the sale of the building from its primary use in 1941, which was also just before the height of it's country's power and greatness. There had been a long decline and attempts at gentrification of both the Building and it's city and country. 2040 might mark a recognition point that 'America' and its values or attitudes or culture was irrecoverably over. No one even remembered Humpty Dumpty accurately and few lovingly, let alone wanting or having the capacity to put him together again.
The Great Simplification
'The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.' As the caravan of world history slowly passed America in the early decades of the 21st century, the rabid dogs in Washington became hysterical and insane in their yapping and barking, their spittle slathered and eye-rolling threats and demands, gnashing their financial and military teeth in the face of the world, savaging weak countries and stalking the strong. They came close to being put down and taking much of the world with them. Fortunately for the rest of the world, the patient and mature statesmanship of the leaders of China and Russia enabled them to fend off the mad dogs of Washington until their caravan was out of reach and the Americans collapsed into their cultural and economic death coma.
After the most productive part of the American economy had been shipped to China by greedy financiers, the 'Homeland' was left to wither and stagnate, it's culture and society dissolving in an acidbath of corruption and perversion. Productive people slowly disappeared and their homes and workplaces decayed into ruin. At first the chattering classes were not much affected. The people who counted had no sympathy at all for the redneck hicks living in the 'flyover country' between the East and West coasts. Whatever happened to them, they probably deserved it, and it was of no interest to the beautiful, wealthy and important people.Their wealth, connections and interests were largely foreign. Wherever they went they were insulated and isolated from the misery and chaos affecting the lives of less fortunate mortals, whose lives their masters thought, were only of significance in so far as they served their masters' interests in enhancing their global power and wealth. When America was used up they fully intended to be elsewhere exploiting the people there.
Initially not much seemed to have changed. Capital and seed corn was used up and living on debt and the seigneurage of a reserve currency attached to powerful military and financial interests and the infinite printing of money to pay the cronies and beneficiaries of those who controlled government, made it seem as if the dream could continue indefinitely.
The Building had something of a respite at this time. It had attained official notice and protected status as an industrial building of historic interest. It had been somewhat tarted up and gentrified, and for a time housed little art galleries and trendy shops, although most of it remained vacant. It attracted some notice from fashionable urban renewal and town planner types. Photos of its frontage became relatively well known. It's own Indian Summer coincided with that of it's country.
Reality made a slow arrival. Gradually the rest of the world stopped using dollars to denominate and finance their trade. They already had far more dollars than they wanted. The exchange rate just kept sinking. Imports (almost everything) became much more expensive for Americans.Trust in American governments, banks, businesses, institutions and the basic honesty and decency of the people waned. There were too many scandals, too much hectoring, too much spying, too much 'do as I say, not as I do' hypocrisy, and the rest of the world fell out of love with America. No one with an alternative wanted to do business or invest there. As the 'lipstick on a pig' cracked, the porcine snout greedily inserted into other peoples' troughs became much more evident and much uglier. Even the much vaunted American military seemed much less impressive, unable to keep it's secrets or its morale and unable to keep up with Russian and Chinese developments despite its bluster and sabre rattling; unable even to defeat the Pashtuns in Afghanistan let alone introduce 'democracy' to Iraq, Libya, Syria or Ukraine despite destroying them. The eight hundred or so bases around the world became an expensive and sinister burden rather than welcomed envoys and assurances of freedom.
Domestically, the economy continued to contract, despite all the desperate political and statistical lies about recovery. Fewer and fewer people had jobs. Income levels were falling. More and more of the people were directly or indirectly dependent on government for jobs, handouts or contracts. Government and personal debt kept increasing with no prospect of repayment. Capital was not created and invested because interest rates were held too low, which was because government could not afford to pay higher interest on its debts. Only the 'crony-capitalists' of Wall Street who were given vast sums free of interest and with no reasonable expectation of repayment benefited. The dollar was being hollowed out as the 'full faith and credit' of the US government became exhausted. No one had faith in them any more. No one with real money could or would lend them anything. Their only recourse was inflation which eventually became hyperinflation eliminating any savings the populace may have had. It also eliminated the value of government obligations and left those in receipt of government pensions benefits and salaries starving. The dollar followed its predecessor and became 'not worth a Continental.' Most of the land and buildings and productive assets of America were bought up by foreigners, often Chinese, at first to get rid of their rapidly depreciating dollars, and then because they were cheap in foreign currencies. Americans very often became squatters in and on what had been their land.
The 2020's were not a good time in American history, and not just in the clarity of hindsight.Nor were the 2030's much improvement.
Nature also became unhelpful. California had been a major food producer until drought and the exhaustion of aquifers turned it into a replica ofthe 1930's Dustbowl of Texas and Oklahoma. No water for agriculture, and soon no water for cities. That set much of the population marching, first in placard waving and screaming protest demonstrations which Nature ignored, and then in footloose movement eastward, reversing and replicating on a larger scale the movement of the 'Okies' of almost a century before. Naturally, the drought and water depletion continued and spread across the Great Plains, so that almost all of the land between the Pacific and the Mississippi, with the exception of Oregon and Washington, became again the Great American Desert. St. Louis, (although not the Building) had seen much of the 18th and 19th century westward expansion pass through it, and now it saw the 21st century return wave of population receding from the high point of settlement. The first occasion was much happier.
Things got worse. Agriculture in the Mid-West was also in trouble. It was very dependent on oil and chemical pesticides and fertilizers and hugely expensive machinery and long distance transport. More variable weather coincided with the decline of the dollar,and the shortage of fuel and increased costs of machinery and all inputs except labour. Food became much more expensive. Social breakdown and floods of migrants worsened the situation. Trains and trucks suspected to be carrying food or products to and from food processing plants were liable to be attacked by mobs of looters and organized criminals, unless under heavily armed escort. Genetically modified crops and animals worsened the situation. They produced disease and hence were frowned upon by people not under the influence of those who controlled the big industrial interests and their bought flunkies in the American media and government. The decline of the dollar's exchange rate made imports, including oil, much more expensive but cheapened American exports in foreign currency. Food had been a major American export and so increased food exports would have been expected to help ease America's balance of payments crisis. It didn't work out that way. A short tempered public, already having to go short of food, was enraged by the export of food and made it difficult.
Foreign governments, influenced by their own food producers who did not want more competition from cheaper imports, and by the scary publicity of those who opposed genetically modified food,restricted and banned food imports from America. Thus, in the short term Americans got more to eat, but in the longer term their government got less revenue, their system of agriculture became less productive and the American public became more subject to disease both from the genetic modifications and from slow starvation.
The decline and fall of the American dollar had hugely disruptive consequences, domestic and foreign. Domestically, life and social and political organisation were drastically simplified. Accumulating bigger piles of almost worthless currency and admiring those who had the highest heaps soon lost it's attraction. The important thing became finding enough food to survive a little longer. Tens of millions of jobs remote from food production lost their point. Producing, protecting and preying upon those who produced food became the new or newly obvious, basis of the economy and society. There were far more mouths than could be fed. Many had to die. There was no immediate or smooth transition. Naturally, the politicians and parasites didn't curl up and die. They tried to maintain their grip and their privileges, but with diminishing success. As the productive base of the pyramid shrank, the number and height of the layers above it that could be sustained had to shrink commensurately.The three hundred million or so guns in the hands of ordinary Americans did not remain unused, nor did the heavier weapons available to those who wished to continue ruling them. By the time the flows of blood declined to trickles, the political culture of what remained of the country had also been simplified. It was no longer possible to maintain large classes of unproductive propagandists, academics, lawyers, jail bait tax consumers and bureaucrats to administer them and to tax and redistribute food and goods from the productive to these and to the political class, nor had such people any political influence. The whole banking and financial, media and advertising, legal and judicial, education and taxation systems had imploded along with the dollar. There was no general replacement for the dollar, just ad-hoc trade in goods using whatever 'near money', such as food or ammunition or booze or silver or scrip issued by local businesses or would-be-authorities was acceptable to those attempting to do business. Local gangs of crooks, politicians and gunmen were now in charge of areas where there was enough of a productive base to sustain a much simpler and arbitrary system of governance. They squabbled between themselves and with their neighbours, but lacked the resources for large scale or long range conflict. Washington was accorded honorific status as a sort of first among equals by the variety of Governorships, Mayoralties, Peoples Democratic Republics or warbands in loose and shifting alliances that tenuously controlled the remaining productive populations and resources, but the notion that they would actually obey or pay more than could be extorted from them by the rather small forces at the command of the self proclaimed President and Commander in Chief and his Congress of cronies, was quite risible.
At an earlier stage, when Washington still hoped to maintain control over the whole country there had been a 'military coup'. This was less than it seemed. The Kleptocrats whose 'democratic' and 'constitutional' public relations fig-leaves had tattered and blown away, leaving them uncomfortably exposed to the ire of the mob, had chosen a military front-man to impose martial law and enable them to remain in control of as much as possible of the remaining resources. He was quite obedient, almost as much of a mouthpiece for his owners as the Presidents had been. Unfortunately for them, the military had proved to be a sword of chocolate rather than of steel. It crumbled melted or broke under the strain and heat of civil conflict. As the dollar depreciated and the revenues of government declined their pretty pieces of paper which did not buy much, became insufficient to buy the loyalty of men with guns, heavier weapons and military training, who held a simpler and they supposed more effective means of obtaining what they wanted. At the same time, the social and economic dislocation revealed that threatening and shooting people was not a magic formula to make them obedient and productive, or at least it did not work unaided and all the time. Dead men grew no crops and baked no bread. The necessity of protecting and providing food for themselves and their dependents, along with personal ambition and the competing claims of would-be-authorities and the palpable inability of the nominal government to provide more than lying promises, broke the loyalty of the military and fragmented its personnel. They became supporters of various interests, including some who ranged as freebooters on their own account and some who tried to seize control of localities or merge their interests with other competing groups of criminals, businessmen and politicians to establish a more cohesive dominance of a region.
As the situation had started to slip away from Washington's control, and many voices around the country were raised in protest, defiance and despair, a group of officers in the Pentagon devised a cunning plan which they hoped would provide insurance against that occurrence. This was to create a controlled opposition to gather and lead dissidents and potential rebels. At the worst, this would ensure that any new regime would be controlled by people with the right connections. It was to notionally be headed by a mysterious figure called 'Washington' who would create a resonance of patriotism. The Pentagon still contained many well educated and well read officers. They knew that this was exactly what the Bolsheviks had done to infiltrate and spy on or gain control of groups opposed to them after they had taken over Russia, and they had read 1984, as well of course as remembering 'Al-cia-da'. The notion of 'Washington' versus Washington may seem a little too cute, an insider joke, but that was not the reason for it's failure. The forces of collapse and disintegration were too strong. It was soon no longer possible to maintain a central government as large and interfering as that of the USA had been, whoever was to run it. People found that they could only survive by concentrating on what was immediately around them.
The rest of the world watched the shriveling and simplification of America with a range of
reactions from amusement to horror, via contempt, derision, and even a little sympathy.The USA had become a ghost and fell away or was removed from its leading role in international organizations, including losing it's seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which went to India. After a generation, China, Russia and India combined to track down, buy and dismantle the remaining decaying and almost disregarded nuclear weapons in America, in case some of them might yet cause a disaster for the world.
And what of the Building during this time of turmoil and decay? It still stood, and during the Indian Summer of America during the couple of generations either side of the Millennium it had fared relatively well. It's principal purpose long abandoned, it had continued in partial occupation by a succession of gimmicky trendy users, small art galleries and studios for 'artists' producing kitsch and tat, coffee shops, storage spaces; it's outer fabric kept looking good by grants from cultural and civic bodies. Indeed, it looked better and cleaner and was a more pleasant place to visit than it had been in it's heyday. Anyone who had known it when it was a busy workplace, full of noise and bustle, urgent with shouted orders and the roar of trucks bringing materials in and out or passing on the streets outside, in the centre of a noisy, smoky, grimy factory district, would have been astounded by the calm clean and relaxed atmosphere, as well as by the cultural respect accorded to it, and by the change in the type of person who found reason to go there. Ghosts of the old days would surely have felt uncomfortable among the would-be-beautiful-and-significant-people who now congregated there, eating dainty pastries and drinking incomprehensible non-alcoholic beverages whilst chattering on mobile phones. Thus were the ghosts of the American past exorcised.
During the Simplification the days of ancient sunlight came to an end. No more was heard the purr of limousines, the growls of motor bikes bearing obese lawyers, aging financial executives and dreadlocked trustafarians garbed in expensively tattered imitations of the work clothes of working men, rather as savages might bear the skins and skulls of vanquished foes, or the coos and giggles of their clothes horse model escorts.
New people appeared in the vicinity and the Building was put to new uses.The storm winds of change stirred and blew, as a precursor of the wrath to come, not just dead leaves, but dead lives across the landscape. Not only the 'Cali-Okies', some of whom were as fierce and deadly as Kali; many people were in motion, abandoning old lives like old leaves, seeking new identities and fresh growth.
A commune of 'Greenies' sprouted in the old Building. A heterogeneous group of practical idealists, as they termed themselves, found themselves cast together into this eddy in the currents of fate, squatting in the Building. They attempted to make a living growing vegetables on abandoned suburban land and and performing handicrafts such as cobbling. They turned part of the building into living quarters and another part into a market. At first they had named themselves 'Green Shoots', but as the world around became more violent, the pacifist tendency among them insisted on changing the name to 'Green Leaves'.
Adrian Hennessy was one of them. He was a man who appeared to have done everything right. He had 'collapsed early', become a proficient vegetable gardener, honed his practical skills as a jack-of-all-trades, become physically fit, lived abstemiously, paid no attention to the mass media, practiced playing the harmonica and telling stories, was courteously friendly to people and traveled by bicycle. As conditions worsened he had found a nascent group with which he was sympathetic, hoping to ride out the coming storm, able to look after themselves and hoping to be accepted as assets to any community by the people around them.
At first they had been relatively successful.They were housed for free in an approximately functional city.Their produce and their skills kept them fed, made them customers and some friends, so their work enabled them to avoid much of the chaos whirling around them. At that point most people still expected some sort of 'recovery', no longer prosperity, but basic order in a more or less United States bearing some resemblance to the old ways of doing things, even if it had been Simplified and was under new management, a place where there was a sense of participation in a common order, where 'community' meant the ability to be productive and supportive under common standards of decency, not an assembly of murderous lunatics in an unguarded asylum.Things got worse.
Already they were living in interesting times. Now the second degree of the Chinese curse bit them. They came to the attention of important people. Initially this curse appeared disguised as a blessing. Praise from what was left of the media, complimentary remarks from the Mayor as he visited them, a positive example other people were urged to emulate. What was there not to like about that? Surely this validated and vindicated their efforts. They were performing a useful function, spreading the word, making friends and influencing people. Pioneers of a New America some called them.
Alas for the vanity of human hopes.They became targets for those, officials and criminals, who live at the expense of others. Making friends made them enemies, often the same people. Not only did they become increasingly the victims of opportunistic criminals and aggressive beggars, they were bowed under the mass of official and semi-official exactions, fees, expenses ,requisitions, quotas, taxes, voluntary-but-expected contributions, bribes. If the weather was bad and their crops poor, there was no remission, rather an intensification of the abuse. The people who grew the food got the least of it. As things got worse they were viewed with suspicion and hatred as 'hoarders' and 'kulaks'; ironic as most of them had been somewhat lefty.
The Green Leaves or Green Shoots were already withering fast when Adrian died. He had been out with his beloved bicycle to collect some cabbages from one of their garden plots, but failed to return. Next day his corpse was found by the roadside with a stab wound into his heart. Bicycle and cabbages were gone. Shortly thereafter a local gangster or public official, (the functions and concepts had blurred together), was seen riding the bicycle as his official transport. At least Adrian's corpse was buried rather than left to rot, shoved down a manhole or dumped into the Mississippi. His comrades buried him under a garden plot. Rachel Smith, who had some skill as a carver, and who had rather liked Adrian, made a small stone memorial for him and placed it over his grave amongst the growing plants. It took the form of one of the Green Men found in some old English churches - a head displaying Adrian's features peeking through the foliage of the greenwood.
No Way Back
After the withering of the Green Leaves, the Building, like the society around it, fell upon even harder times. The Building became a doss house for scavengers and itinerants, a den of thieves under the occasional and un-benign eye of the greater thieves around City Hall.
So much for a society and economy based on recycling itself. Some people failed to realise or studiously ignored for as long as possible that 'we' would not survive indefinitely by making ingenious arrangements to cannibalize the less immediately vital organs of the body cultural, social, economic and politic whilst fueling itself on hot air and debt. By 2040 the truth was becoming clear even to the Pollyannas. What had been destroyed in the process of being remade was 'us', the USA as it had experienced itself. It was like an old lion crippled by disease or injury being eaten alive by a pack of hyaenas, or even a column of driver ants. It's pieces were being processed though the stomachs of other creatures, giving sustenance and growth to lower forms of life. There could be no rebound, no further refashioning of it's identity, no miraculous resurrection. It was dead. 'America' was over.
Thus far, the old building although battered and neglected and put to uses for which it had not been designed by the sort of people who would never have been allowed near it in it's heyday, had survived. It's spirit had been demeaned but it was not yet extinct. Let's take a glimpse at a few of the people and events in and around it about this time or a few years later.
The old man appeared to have died peacefully in his sleep lying on a rough mattress, fully dressed with his few possessions beside him, as if prepared to resume a journey. Not that Joey cared. He had been quite prepared to stick a knife into the old man or anyone else who had interrupted his search for plunder as he slipped quietly along the stairs, corridors and sleeping areas of the old Building.Swiftly he went through the old man's pockets and his rucksack, finding disappointingly little to reward this effort. As he rummaged through the rucksack a few paperback books fell out. These did not interest Joey, who had never had any interest in books, and only scorn for the wussies who wasted their time reading. One of the books did however catch his attention because of the picture on it's cover. A huge man whose body was made up of lots of small people loomed from behind a hill with a town in the foreground. He was an impressively cool dude brandishing a large sword and some sort of club, wearing a fancy hat and smiling through his long hair and big mustache.This was someone not to be messed with, he demanded serious respect. Joey was sufficiently impressed by this to take the book with him as he slipped silently away.
Later in the day, as Joey went to meet his buddies Moro and Badass in the ruins of another old building, he wondered about the image on the book he had stolen. Was this a Superhero he had not heard about? He had seen comic books depicting the actions of Superman, Spiderman and Batman, and with the help of Moro, who was certainly no wuss although he could read a bit, he had made out some of the mercifully few words they contained. This book was different. It consisted entirely of words with no more pictures. That was disappointing, but Joey had a hope that they would tell the stories of a lot of adventures of this mysterious Superhero and reveal his Superpowers. After all, there were a lot of words, so there must be a lot of adventures, right? It would be really cool if he and his buddies could find out about these adventures and tell the stories before other people discovered them. Having special knowledge of a new Superhero might gain them some respect and help them to score.
When Joey arrived at the meeting place, Moro and Badass were already there arguing over a dead rat which they hoped to roast that evening. "Hey bro, what ya got there?" enquired Moro as Joey showed them the book. Joey pointed to the cover picture and explained about the Superhero. Badass glanced briefly at it before returning his dead gaze to the dead rat.
Moro's eyes gleamed with more interest as he reached for the book. " Le..vi..a..th..an" he vocalised. None of them had heard that name before. "Read some of it," Joey urged. Moro riffled through the pages and his eyes fixed on a paragraph:
'There is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of Time; no arts; no letters; no society. And, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.'
His brow wrinkled as he attempted to spell out the words, but most of them made no sense and the passage had no meaning for him, or for his companions. After another cursory scan which revealed no graphic account of sex or drugs or violence in the manner they expected of a Superhero, he closed the book. "You bin fooled man," he said sadly and a touch scornfully as he handed back the volume. "That ain't no Superhero, or if he is, he's too Super for you. Ain't ya got anything useful?" Gazing forlornly at the image of Leviathan, and his dashed hopes of cultural and social success, Joey shook his head despondently.
"I know wat dis be useful for" grunted Badass, as he grabbed the book and tore out several pages. "Next time I take a dump this will be a good asswipe."
Michael Malcolm the Mayor of the Democratic Mayoralty of St. Louis was a large and happy man. There he was seated on his mayoral throne wearing his best and most brightly decorated robe in vibrantly clashing colours, crowned with his gold and silver bead encrusted skullcap, waving his trademark flywhisk. Not that the flywhisk was altogether an affectation, there really did seem to be a lot more flies around than there had been. Something to do with blocked drains and the stench of corruption some might have suggested - but those who might have made such suggestions were not present, and the rotting bodies of some of them might be adding to the stench.
Hizzonner was a happy man today. His day of triumph was being seen by a party of observers from far away Washington and he hoped to impress them with a good show. His power for another period in office had been popularly reaffirmed by the most solemn Democratic ritual of voting. Every few years, or in fact whenever Hizzonner felt that his subjects or 'voters' might be flagging in their enthusiasm for his rule, or when he felt that they should be given an opportunity to express their love of him by making material donations to his well-being, he held an election. This was always a joyous and colourful and popular occasion. It had to be. Those who failed to appear and to appear extremely joyful were likely to be visited by members of Malcolm's Macoutes. These latter were the successors of the old social services and welfare bureaucracies, as well as of the taxation and judicial and police systems. They were perhaps more efficient and certainly more effective in making an impact on the needy, although their notions of service and welfare and need were different.
Each Election involved a choice of and between candidates. Michael and his senior Macoutes chose as candidates a few of those whom they suspected might be less enthusiastic over Michael's rule than was expected, or who seemed to be gaining popularity or prominence for any reason, or who seemed over educated, snobbish, or uppity in manner. If it was necessary to make up the numbers, people might be chosen at random 'to encourage the others'. As campaigning proceeded the Macoutes visited every resident and solicited promises of support. Those whose promises seemed niggardly in relation to their circumstances might risk their names appearing on another list. On election day the voters went to various designated premises where they were identified by the local Macoutes, who received and marked off the promised donations.This was done to public acclaim. Those who failed to produce the promised goods were harangued by the Macoutes and the crowd, and deficiencies compensated by blows. All present were then asked if they wanted Michael to continue as Mayor. A loud and prolonged acclamation was then expected, under the vigilant eyes and weapons of the Macoutes. The other candidates were then brought forward bound and the crowd was asked how they should be dealt with. 'Death!' was the expected acclamation, and the crowd was invited to beat and kick the candidates to death. The corpses were dumped on waste ground or down a drain or sewer, or simply thrown into the river. Late in the day Hizzonner would parade from precinct to precinct, borne aloft on his Mayoral throne by teams of not quite groaning voters, accompanied by his guards and teams of drummers and jazz musicians producing an infernal cacophony augmented by the cheers and acclamations of the crowd. That evening there would be a city-wide celebration, with food and drink provided for the public, partly by Hizzonner and partly by the edible contributions just collected from the voters.
Rough though such arrangements might have seemed to the more delicate sensibilities of previous times, Hizzonner was actually quite popular, not afraid to go amongst his people, and would probably have won elections run under previous arrangements, albeit not so overwhelmingly.
By mid century such arrangements were becoming usual throughout what had been the United States. Hizzonner's St. Louis was perhaps run with more efficiency and ruthlessness than some others, but allowing for personality and local colour, it was not atypical. Although some semblance of democratic and constitutional forms were preserved, these tattered fig-leaves did not conceal the naked truth that government was for the benefit of the governors not of the governed. Yet the bulk of the huddled populace was not yearning to breathe free. It was keeping close to nurse for fear of meeting something worse.
Hizzonner was determined to cling to his mayoral throne for as long as possible. He had very little interest in what happened outside his domain. He extorted money, goods and services from his people, redistributing much of the proceeds to his entourage to buy their loyalty. He accepted that the rulers of Washington did the same to him to pay their own supporters. He knew they could muster larger and stronger forces than he could, so he had no desire to oppose them, provided their demands did not seriously damage his own position. In any case Washington was very far away so they could not keep a close hold on him. If they wished him to swear loyalty to them as Rulers of the Universe under whatever flag and form of words they chose, he would happily do so. Actual performance would depend upon the circumstances of the time. Everyone understood that.
Go East Young Man
Some years and many tears later.
Li Chang sat outside the front entrance of the old Building and thought about his future. Realistically it was not likely to be much different from his past, containing little but ill-fed and painful toil. He had however consulted a diviner, who had cast the yarrow stalks, considered the pattern formed, and advised him to go east, to cross the Great Water. Here he was, only a short walk and almost within sight of the great river which flowed through the centre of the continent. When he had accumulated sufficient for the toll and to cover some days or weeks of travel he would walk across the bridge and seek his destiny in the shining east.
He thought he had been fortunate to have obtained temporary employment as a guard, cleaner and dogsbody at Fat Cheng's establishment. It had only been possible because he was already a very junior member of the Triad in which Chong held a more honourable place and he could demonstrate some competence in the martial arts. Li Chang thought that Cheng and the Triad must be doing quite well here. This large building was in fairly good shape although obviously aging and in need of renovation. Cheng ran several businesses here, gambling, prostitution, drug dealing, sale of alcohol, loan sharking, fencing stolen goods, forgery, jewellery, weapons, groceries, import and export - and probably others even more discreet about which it was prudent to know nothing. It was the hub of the settlement of the Black Haired People which was growing up near this crossing of the Great Water.
As Li Chang sat or strolled in front of the old Building during his rest breaks, he glanced at it's facade. It's reddish colour was a sign of luck, and Fat Cheng's enterprizes seemed to prosper there. He looked in displeasure at the gweilo writing on the sign above the door, which he could not read. He found the letters ugly, and hoped there was truth in the gossip that Cheng would soon have them removed and replaced with Chinese signs, probably including those for meiguo, 'Beautiful Country' the Chinese name for this continent. He had heard that Cheng was seeking the advice of feng-shui experts to maximise the favourable aspects of the property. Some people said that it would be luckier to have the main entrance on the sun facing southern rather than the northern side. He did not know much about such things, but he had a feeling that the huge river just to the east flowing southwards might be bringing luck through the northern entrance and might drain it away through a southern door. That would be up to Cheng and his diviners to determine. As he idled there he heard a hubbub of raised voices from several streets away. There were still a few feral gweilo slinking about in the ruins of the city and sometimes they attempted to steal things. It seemed that one of these had been spotted nearby and the people were chasing it down with sticks and stones and knives and nooses. Newly alert, he started to patrol the perimeter of the building.
Early one morning, just as the sun was rising ahead of him, inviting him to good fortune, he left behind the Building , where workmen were making the expected alterations above the entrance, and with a brief letter of reference in Chinese from Cheng, which he could not in any case read, in his pocket, Li Chang paid his toll at the bridge and walked slowly across the Great Water and into his destiny.
Here ends our tale. The character and identity of the Building has changed with the people in and around it. It's no longer The American Brake Company Building. It's people are no longer American. There's no longer an 'America'. On the huge stage of this continent the props and the cast have changed. The 'America' production has run its course and ended. Instead, the curtain has risen on a new production, 'The Beautiful Country of China East'.