The Utopian Megastructure

(this article was written for Milwaukee Tool. You can read the original version on the company’s blog.)

In his 2010 piece for the New Left Review entitled “Who Will Build the Ark?”, writer and urban theorist Mike Davis posited an intriguing thesis as a counterweight to the bleak climate science of our time: that cities are paradoxically both one of the primary causes of climate change and one of the best shots that humanity has at surviving it.

Grappling with the immense problem of a rapidly changing planet, Davis proposed a commensurately massive and radical solution: 

“…a new ark,” he wrote, “will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science and forgotten utopias.” 

If you were to go looking for forgotten utopias, a good place to start would be the notebooks and manifestos of a handful of avant garde architects who worked during the culturally and politically tumultuous period of the 1960s and 70s. Among their esoteric writings you would find peculiar sketches of colossal constructs and massive modular formations that—while diverse in their shape, appearance, and philosophy—share a common name: megastructures.

Given their immense scale and the soaring ideals that undergird them, megastructures cannot help but lean towards utopia like so many teetering towers of Babel. Their gravity can be felt in popular culture and every strain of modern architecture, yet few were ever actually built. Like utopia, most megastructures exist—as science-fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin once put it while meditating on the concept—merely as “blueprints of the head.” 

But “every utopia,” she warned “…has been both a good place and a bad one.”

This piece will explore some of history’s forgotten utopian megastructures, attempt to answer the question of why they didn’t catch on, and follow their lumbering tracks through the collective imagination into the uncertain future of a rapidly changing world. 

What is a megastructure?

It’s difficult to pin down a single definition and it depends on who you ask, but for our purposes, a simple explanation is that a megastructure is a whole city inside a building. While primarily associated with fictional depictions in popular media, the idea of titanic multi-purpose enclosures that house entire metropolises actually sprang from the minds of real-world architects and urban theorists. Early traces of megastructures can be glimpsed in the works of Le Corbusier, Antonio Sant’Elia, and the feverish drawings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Although not part of a cohesive movement, the various megastructural architects of the 60s and 70s shared in the conviction that their monumental creations could change the world for the better.

The influence of Buckminster Fuller

Of all the names associated with megastructures, Buckminster Fuller is perhaps the most familiar. Born on July 12, 1895, Fuller was a pioneering American architect, inventor, teacher, poet, and urban theorist. A freewheeling eccentric who pushed against the grain of institutional thought, he had 28 patents to his name, wrote more than two-dozen books, and received almost 50 honorary degrees throughout his lifetime. Fuller’s intellectual playfulness, deep concern for the environment, and compassion for society’s downtrodden made him an appealing figure to members of the 1960s counterculture who were fed up with the consumerism and nuclear militarization of the cold war era. Activists, hippies, and disaffected youth devoured his writings on “comprehensive design” and aspired to the sustainable futuristic lifestyle epitomized by his signature creation: the geodesic dome.

Buckminster Fuller holding a model of a “tensegrity sphere” from his Cloud 9 proposal. (Source:

A compressed tensile lattice of interconnected triangles makes up the skeleton of the geometrically curved or “geodesic” dome, whose surface can then be composed from a variety of materials. Some of the earliest versions were made of aluminum tubing and a skin of plastic stretched over the frame. Geodesic domes are lightweight yet incredibly strong and provide a great deal of open interior space. They’re also inexpensive and fairly easy to assemble.  

Geodesic domes are unique in comparison to some of the other designs discussed in this piece in that quite a few of them actually got built. Today, there are roughly 300,000 geodesic domes in existence, according to the Buckminster Fuller Institute. The majority of them are small single family-residences but a noteworthy few were tremendous in scale, including the 206 ft wide 250 ft tall Biosphere Environment Museum erected during the famous Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada. Another recognizable example is the gigantic geodesic dome featured at Disney World’s Epcot Center, which draws its name from Fuller’s environmental writings about “Spaceship Earth.”  Ever prone to wild flights of imagination, Fuller at one point proposed that a massive geodesic dome be dropped over the island of Manhattan. He even envisioned a flying city of interconnected spheres called the Spherical Tensegrity Atmospheric Research Station (STARS), otherwise known as Cloud 9. However, like the most magnificent of the megastructuralist dreams, neither was ever built.

Fuller was influential in his belief that society had arrived at a point where we could design self-sustaining structures that preserved nature while also providing for the needs of every single person on Earth. It’s a belief that was shared by a handful of others who around the same time were busily drawing up the blueprints for megastructures of their own.

Metabolism: the living city

Meanwhile in Japan, a small cadre of activist architects were laying the conceptual foundations of a revolutionary new kind of high-density modular architecture inspired by the laws of biology. They called it “Metabolism”.

The Metabolism movement sprouted amid the uncertainty and gloom of a defeated post-World War II Japan. It was in the long shadows of the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that a handful of architects began to radically reimagine the city of a brighter tomorrow. 

“I found it meaningless to attempt to revive an already destroyed city by means of a monument,” Metabolist architect Kisho Kurokawa once wrote.  “I felt that it was important to let the destroyed be and to create a new Japan.”

Led by Kenzo Tange, the Metabolists released their formative manifesto at the 1960 World Design Conference in Tokyo. They believed they could use architecture as a tool to elevate democracy and human progress in the midst of a dangerous world. Deriving their name (shinchintaisha 新陳代謝) from natural metabolic processes, the Metabolists thought of cities as massive living things capable of adaptation and growth. Much as an organism replaces its worn out cells with new ones, the Metabolists imagined gigantic structures that could expand according to their own interior logic and react defensively to cataclysmic changes in their surrounding environments. A typical Metabolist megastructure would resemble an immense steel tree festooned with “cells” or individual modules that could be clipped on or removed as their overseers saw fit. 

In their time, the Metabolists generated a number of awe inspiring megastructural concepts, including Tange’s eighteen mile long floating city for Tokyo Bay, Helix City modeled off the spiraling structure of DNA, and Arata Isozaki’s City in the Air.

Their utopian leanings were eventually swept away however as the world continued to change around them. Since its construction in 1972, the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Ginza has stood for decades as one of the sole remaining monuments to Metabolism’s lofty ideal of modularity. Composed of 140 capsule apartments, the iconic 14 story tower has fallen into disrepair over the years and is in danger of being dismantled

Nakagin Capsule Tower by Metabolist architect Kisho Kurokawa [1970] (Source:

Arcology: the city and nature in harmony

We come now to the granddaddy king of the megastructure, the “prophet in the desert” himself: Paolo Soleri. 

Born in Turin, Italy on June 21, 1919, Soleri was a visionary architect and philosopher known primarily as the inventor of Arcology. A portmanteau of “architecture” and “ecology”, arcologies are eco-friendly megastructures designed for the express purpose of minimizing humanity’s impact on the natural world. 

Mesa City by Paolo Soleri [1961] (Source:

A student of Frank Lloyd Wright and the environmentalist movement of the 60s, Soleri argued that modern cities are designed less for humans and more for cars. The result is the opposite of arcology: bloated, inefficient, environmentally destructive urban wastelands sprawling ever outward across a flat horizon. If left unchecked, Soleri warned, modern practices of urbanization would someday pose a direct threat to all life on Earth.

Soleri positioned his utopian arcology as an urgent alternative to the dystopian landscapes of suburbia, megalopolises, and even ecumenopolises on the farthest end of the theoretical spectrum. We are all well acquainted with suburbia—the sprawling mixed-use residential areas that surround cities—but these other terms are perhaps less familiar. 

The ecumenopolis covering the imperial planet Coruscant in the Star Wars film franchise. (Source:

Megalopolises are gigantic “mega cities” or clusters of cities with populations numbering in the tens of millions that spread across a vast region. Like arcologies themselves, this might sound like science-fiction but several megalopolises already exist, particularly in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Two prime examples are “BosWash”  in the northeast and “SoCal”, the enormous interconnected urban region stretching hundreds of miles between Los Angeles and San Diego in Southern California. An ecumenopolis is the next logical extreme: a city that covers an entire planet. Like arcologies, none of these of course actually exist—yet. If you’re a fan of Star Wars, you’ve actually already seen one depicted on the planet Coruscant, which itself is modeled off of the imperial capital world of Trantor in Isaac Asimov’s seminal Foundation Trilogy

This kind of planet devouring urbanization is exactly what Soleri wanted to avoid. Similar to the Metabolists in Japan, he talked about his sustainable megastructures as “hyperorganisms” brimming with transcendent potential. Instead of building out along a horizontal plane, the firebrand Italian architect insisted that we should build up into three dimensional space. Though themselves gigantic in stature, miniaturization actually lay at the heart of Soleri’s arcologies. He compared them to passenger ships (or arks) that contain entire cities within their compact frames, complete with everything necessary for human life: food, water, shelter, education, healthcare, entertainment, transportation networks, and the commons—all compressed into a single self-sufficient package. The car would become obsolete, as everything inside an arcology would be integratively designed to be within walking or biking distance. If needed, a person could spend their entire life in an arcology and never once have to step outside.

Meanwhile, beyond the arcology’s towering walls and vaulted apses, nature in all its vastness would be left alone to heal itself. Humanity would once again, Soleri dreamt, be “surrounded by uncluttered and open landscape.” 

Paolo Soleri at the drawing board in Arcosanti (Source:

“The compactness of arcology gives back to farming and to land conservation 90 percent or more of the land that megalopolis and suburbia are engulfing in their sprawl,” he wrote. “To be a city dweller and a country man at one and the same time, to be able to partake fully of both city and country life, will make the arcology a place in which man will want to live.”

Soleri died of natural causes at his home in Paradise Valley, AZ on April 9, 2013. He left behind dozens of stunning arcology designs in his book Arcology: the City in the Image of Man. None were ever built. The closest he came was Arcosanti. Crouched along a dried up riverbed in the Sonoran Desert 90 minutes outside the sprawling city of Phoenix, AZ, Arocsanti is a prototype arcology whose transient inhabitants have kept the flame of their founder’s unique architectural vision alive for the last 50 years and running. Begun in 1970, the earth-cast “urban laboratory” remains only 5 percent completed to this day. 

Archigram: the technological city

Plug-In City by Peter Cook (Source:

Our final entry in the megastructural canon—there are many others that go unmentioned here—burst on the scene in 1961 with the first pressing of a strange magazine called Archigram. In its pages, avante garde architects Warren Chalk, Peter Cook, Dennis Crompton, David Greene, Ron Herron, and Michael Webb railed against the dullness and conservatism of modern architecture. Hungry for fresh alternatives, they decided to follow in the footsteps of their hero Buckminster Fuller and began sketching exciting new cityscapes with madhatter megastructures at their heart. 

Their provocative designs were riots of color and complexity that leapt off the page with a cartoonish flair. While much was made of their irreverent humor, the Archigramists made it clear that they weren’t just kidding around. 

“A lot of our projects are highly serious and a lot of built buildings are a bad joke,” Archigramist Peter Cook once said in a 1970 interview.

One of their most quintessential creations was Cook’s “Plug-In City”. Bracketed by permanent cranes, its design revealed that, like their Metabolist contemporaries in Japan, the Archigramists had an affinity for modular megastructures composed of interchangeable parts. In an echo of the capsules of Kurokawa’s Nakagin Tower, prefabricated housing units could be added or subtracted as needed to Plug-In City’s massive honeycombed frame. Each unit would be designed by the occupant, allowing for a great deal of variety in living spaces. Another radical proposal came from Herron, who imagined a “Walking City” that could crawl across the land or float through waterways. 

As Simon Sadler puts it in his book Archigram: Architecture without Architecture, one of the primary aims of the Archigramists was “to bring architecture up to speed with leading, artistic, technological, and cultural tendencies—‘pop’ influences in particular.” Archigram is distinct from the other utopian megastructural schools of thought in that, as Sadler states, its practitioners were largely unconcerned with the health of the natural world. Nor were they particularly interested in architecture as a tool for uplifting society’s downtrodden masses. Their philosophy instead called for the harnessing of technology and the bounties of private industry to further the cause of individual freedom and expression. Archigram is remembered less for what it actually built and more for the rebellious style of its eye-popping urban designs.

Walking City by Ron Herron (Source:

The fall of the megastructure

There were many factors that contributed to the decline of the megastructure. For one thing, there’s the practical matter that projects of such immense scale are extremely expensive to build and would likely take many years to complete. What’s more, for all their effervescent writings and breathtaking designs, Soleri and his contemporaries were often light on details about how exactly their grand visions would work in the real world. Their naivety and failure to reckon more directly with the overarching political and cultural forces of history also played a hand in their consignment to obscurity. In his piece “The Tragedy of the Megastructure”, French architect Valentin Bourdon portrays the movement’s downfall in part as a matter of changing belief systems. The values of environmentalism, inclusive space, and cohabitation that once stood at the heart of the megastructure fell out of vogue and were eventually replaced, like so many Archigramist pods, with market driven concerns of commercialism and profit. Instead of being dismantled altogether, the idyllic concept of the megastructure was broken down and repurposed in the form of “big-buildings” like shopping malls and housing projects that conformed with rather than reimagined the modern urban paradigm. With Soleri as a near solitary holdout, many of the once starry-eyed architects of the 60s and 70s abandoned their blueprints of a better future and simply moved on with their careers.

Crystal Island, a commercial megastructure that was proposed for Moscow and abruptly abandoned around the time of the worldwide financial crash in 2008. (Source:

How the megastructure lives on

In his book Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past, architecture historian Reyner Banham describes his subjects as “dinosaurs” and “monumental follies”, a “whitening skeleton on the dark horizon of our recent architectural past”. 

Megastructures did indeed fade back into the landscape but Banham’s reports of their total irrelevance are greatly exaggerated. They live on to this day, primarily in science-fiction literature, comics, cinema, and videogames; albeit mostly as emblems of techno-dystopia, their original radiance cast into shadow. You can glimpse their hulking corporatist forms in the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson, Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, and Katsuhiro Otomo’s groundbreaking anime Akira. Familiar to some from their appearance in Sim City, dark versions of Soleri’s arcologies can also be explored in more recent videogames like Ascent and Ghostrunner. Notably, the Bioshock franchise features its own airborne and underwater megastructures erected as monumental havens of individual freedom that have since transformed into nightmarish playgrounds of violence and madness.

Short of vanishing from the real-world altogether, Banham would probably be shocked to learn that megastructures have actually re-emerged over the last two decades as viable urban concepts. The proposed durable pyramid of the New Orleans Arcology Habitat (NOAH) was a response to the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in the early 2000s. More recently, former Wal-Mart executive Marc Lore has unveiled plans to build a $400 billion Rapture-esque luxury city called Telosa somewhere in the American southwest. Meanwhile, Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has proposed NEOM, a project reminiscent of the Archigramist’s linear concept of a “Comprehensive City”. The controversial $550 billion automated megalopolis would have  flying cars, its own moon, and would stretch in a straight unbroken line across 170 kilometers of the Saudi Arabian desert.

The Comprehensive City stretching from San Francisco to New York as envisioned in 1969 by Archigramist architects Mike Mitchell and Dave Boutwell (Source: Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past, by Reyner Banham)

At their best, megastructures are beautiful Edenic bastions of democratic thought that prioritize the public good and the sanctity of the natural world. At their worst, they are entombed authoritarian police states that systematically degrade human dignity and stripmine the environment of its ever diminishing resources. The post-apocalyptic film Dredd (2012) based on the Judge Dredd comic series contains perhaps the most vivid summation of the zone that megastructures currently occupy in the popular imagination:

“America is an irradiated wasteland. Within it lies a city. Outside the boundary walls, a desert. A cursed earth. Inside the walls, a cursed city, stretching from Boston to Washington D.C. An unbroken concrete landscape. 800 million people living in the ruin of the old world and the megastructures of the new one. Mega blocks. Mega highways. Mega City One.”

Mega City One from the Judge Dredd comic books. (Source :

Mega City One is based on a real place. The so-called “BosWash” region “stretching from Boston to Washington D.C.” is the planet’s largest megalopolis currently in existence. Covering an area of almost 450 miles, it contains 50 million people and has an economy larger than the United Kingdom’s. Rocketing down BosWash’s mega-highways in the cursed future timeline of the Dredd-verse, one can spy through the smog perhaps the darkest vision of the megastructure: Absorbed into the Mega City, its sprawl banishing destiny is forgotten.

And yet.

It’s impossible to deny the exhilaration one feels when pouring over the schematics of megastructures from a more optimistic yesterday. What would it be like to live, work, and play in such radically reimagined built environments? Questions like this, if framed correctly and treated with delicate care, can spur us in the direction of more egalitarian and ecologically harmonious alternatives to our current way of life. 

For her part, Le Guin believed we needed to re-imagine the idea of utopia itself in the spirit of “impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth.”

In the age of climate change, the need to preserve the natural world and save people from disaster is once again being felt as an urgent imperative. Are megastructures the arks that will carry us to a more sustainable future? Or merely the fallen escapist fantasies of egocentric elites? One thing’s for sure: There is no silver bullet. Megastructures themselves may not be the key, but the utopian idealism and unfettered imaginativeness that originally birthed them ought to be striven toward if we dare hope to transcend the dystopian crises of our time.  


from Greenville to Lompoc

“Sometimes the gauges register a little when the buck deer fight in the autumn, or when birds fly over in the spring. And nearly a whole dial became active when your ship first approached from deep space.”

welcome to MINUTEMAN {!} BEACH
l  a  p  l  a  y  a  e  s  t  a  c  e  r  r  a  d  a
where nowhere else (we guarantee)
will you ever again feel this free
and March thru September
the Snowy Plover roosts and
violators are buried nose first
their chickenshit wingtips clipped
a harvest of commissary kicks
collected at 0500—right on
the bright red dot—by a chain
gang of skyless glassboned children
for an eyeful of wooden nickel
and some college cred, I guess

then mud grooves silken
shutter rainbow falls
unflutter each hissing
purple palantir
crashing chill as a
flamingo festive
down to the parking lot
where the signal
is not so strong
and that molten
glacier Kool-Aid
mirages off
our tongues

MINUTEMAN! your belly aches
this panicking Fourth of July
for Chinese BBQ
but I promise
we won’t make you
go to rehab

beyond her willow
tree skates the piss
fern jungle buzzed
burnt clarinet canaries
croon deep down
in the gayborhood
and baritone as fuck
at midnight struck
all the hotel ceiling

MINUTEMAN! cracka cracka
crackabrew and toast your nuke
packed sands while Morbius gives
his forbidden tour to a baby faced
Leslie Nielsen

20 miles
and 20 miles
a spaghetti sea
lion blooms
despite your
best apologies
in starfished tide
pools knelt

and a school of heat
composes concrete
across Ebenezer Baptist
and Black Elk Peak
straight thru
The Living Room—

—comes now again
the secret thought
thundering at
the door:

water will
where you
will not
the vessel is
and there are
no survivors
that you
can recognize

o fire forked vein
o god in chains
sequoias murmurous
in Mariposa County

MINUTEMAN! you wish you were
a firefly roadside rave
in the Mexican feather grass
fresh kicks ripe on
shell / spar / glass
but yours my fair
weather friend
is a different kind of
light show.



redshift | blues

There sat at the window a Happy Space Camper.

The therapist was a honey colored bear.

Steel and glass hummed within. Cold heat bled through.

“I burned some leaves in the yard today,” the Happy Space Camper began.

The therapist was silent. Pale flares of rocketry receded beyond the pane, where revolved in the starless black a luminous beam, thatwhen elongated on its axisspelled out with playful lettering: WELCOME TO HAPPY SPACE CAMP!


An unspooled horizon coiled back upon itself. The utopians who built the station were quick to the name ‘Happy’ because it’s what they claimed as their birthright and ‘Space’ naturally from the coordinates of their exile. ‘Camp’ had been the subject of some spirited discussion. The proponents pushed the idea that as a concept, camp is universally understood to be a respite, an escape synonymous with recreation; evocative of primeval remembranceslong thought null or inaccessibleof dusty paths, cicadas in the summertime and folksy songs beneath the stars. The less exuberant among them pointed out that the word also connotes fundamental unseriousness. Or something more akin to an open air prison. The ascetic types meanwhile nodded their quiet consent. For if there’s only one quality the word maintains throughout, it is that ‘Camp’ is temporary.

So okay.

I burned some leaves in the yard today.

The therapist’s tufted brow dimpled ever so slightly as the Happy Space Camper went on. Here it was again. Remarkable now its ordinariness.

A case of the redshift blues.

red•shift (noun)

a shift in the spectrum

of a celestial object

toward longer wavelengths

caused by the object’s movement

away from the viewer.

blues (noun)

low spirits.


a song of lament.

The diagnostic material was vague for insurance reasons. The irony being that the therapist liked to tell his patients (many of them “writers”) that he valued precision of language above all else. But it’s a big spindizzy world. And he was, after all, just one bear with a Master’s degree.

The signs, in any case, were plain. Restless feet. Concave posture. Metacognitive cycling.  The true giveaway was the eyes. That flicker of subjectivity out of phase. Nowhere near as serious as other maladies like the Space Crazies, Delirium Terpsichorean, or plain old Being Born In The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time. The stowaways who remained on every rung and span of this station had seen and done dreadful things in the interstellar night. Sometimes to each other. Always to themselves. Even in the goldenest of years. All had one thing in common: their lights had begun to shift.

Folding his paws over his belly, the therapist settled in.

The Happy Space Camper confessed: He’d never bought a rake.

A rake being the sort of object that isn’t bought so much as stumbled across. So the leaves from last autumn had lain where they fell. All winterlong, enameled in frostcrunch until the station swung sunward again. Until the Happy Space Camper decided, on one pleasant morning of despair, to call in sick to work and burn them.

How strange this gentlest of thrills as he watched the white leaf smoke unfurl into the motorways. It was, he thought, how an unobstructed clock must feel. And so, with the help of a rusted rake tripped upon in the ruins of a meteor struck wood shed, he merrily set about the yard rearranging more leaves into neat little piles. He raked and burned and raked and burned. The pleasure of the task soon turned, however, to the gnaw of an inconsolable sorrow. He recited the rest to the therapist in a torrent, his hands like terror birds when a freighter pierces the fog.

Was this the most perfectly correct way to go about the burning of his leaves? Were his piles too meager, his pyre badly placed? Rather than leisurely harvest a plurality of subsidiary piles, would it not be more industrious, more efficient, to construct a single heaping mound at the precise center of the lawn and ignite them on the spot? Or better yet―if only to preserve the grass from a citation attracting blemishdevise a cunning systematic method by which every last leaf might be conveyed in an instant to the sequestered ashpit and fed to the flames as one? And was it not true that he would know the answers to all these questions (and more!) if only he’d bothered even once before this day to show the slightest interest in lawn care?

He stood there for a long time. Thinking.

A conversation with his mother came to mind. After the flood waters subsided in faraway Sector F, she’d fought her way up the magnetic North with nothing particular in mind. As always, the ansible connection was strong but weak. He caught this much: Stay away from the Black Hole. It is the sort of advice one comes to expects from a mother in Space.

This should come as no surprise. Happy Space Camp was built on the edge of a Black Hole. Right smack on the fucking edge.

Suffering makes a funny little sound. A kind of soft fizz pop. Not unlike radiation being counted. Or milk poured over rice cereal. The Happy Space Camper knew he wasn’t unique in thisbut he could hear it coming from every corner of the station. He showed his empty hands to the therapist, and said in a put upon tone, “What should I do?”

The therapist had sat silent these last few minutes while the anaglyphic field grew more and more unstable around the little man across from him. He slowly rose now from his spot on the mandala embroidered carpet and crossed the room in a single lumbering stride. The honey colored bear, towering darkly with a small smile on his lips, then raised a giant paw and smote his patient on the side of the head.


The Happy Space Camper dropped the rake. Somewhere.

The yard billowed out before him. A broken bowl of green shadow and light. Wind and birdsong roared in the gaps between fern, sunflower, thistle, mint and a wild profusion of poa pratensis {¿deschampsia cespitosa?} jostling from the loam, a floriferous thundercloud (!) over cool stones as all the station’s poorly imagined surfaces and extractive protuberances melted away like ice. There. All around. In every little thing. Within one stem. A riot of resonance. A blinding shaft of silence. A boy in a yard.

The Happy Space Camper gazed out thru the prism of his visor.

“Oh,” he said.

Then reached up. Unlatched his faceplate.

And filled his lungs with air.

Sing into my mouth

“Hey, hey, hey — don’t be mean. We don’t have to be mean. ‘Cause, remember: no matter where you go… there you are.”
       -Buckaroo Banzai

I have a joke about the socialist meeting:  I went to the socialist meeting to meet people, but all anyone there wanted to talk about was overthrowing capitalism.

“I’m just a lonely person looking to socialize,” I go on. “Get it?”

My younger brother James is silent on the other end of the phone. I imagine him with a scowl on his face as he lounges in the shade of his one bedroom apartment, open window letting in sea breeze and a slant of warm California sun.

“You’re a socialist now?” he asks.

James has his own joke he likes to tell: how are a frog and a joke alike?


“Like a frog, if you dissect a joke,” he’ll say, taking a beat before the punchline, “it dies.”

Except that’s not the punchline.

“You see,” he continues, “in much the same way that blood is the lifeforce of a frog, funniness is the stuff that makes a joke work. Now—and try to stay with me here—I want you to think in a metaphorical sense about what happens when you cut into a joke, take it apart and reduce it to its most fundamental components; how if you over explain the precise mechanism by which a humorous premise successfully arrives at its chuckle eliciting conclusion, the funniness of the joke tends to come spraying out in sticky hot jets all over the walls. And like a frog—”

There will come a day when someone points out that the kind of frog who typically gets dissected is the already dead kind of frog. When that day comes, I know what James will say.

“I don’t think you get the joke. Let me explain.”

On rare mornings I put on the frivolous leather jacket. Even though it doesn’t do much against the cold. Iowa winters can get so cold it burns.

I bought it from a thrift store after talking the price down from $50 to $45. The purchase took a major toll on me. I’d stalked like a caged animal among the racks for what felt like days, wringing it in my hands, my lower-middle class mindset rattling against the bars.

At the counter I wore a pale grimace, the debit card in my outstretched hand heavy as a kidney. Later in the parking lot, I found a faded receipt in the pocket that showed the jacket’s original sale price. It was more than $200. Frigid air escaped my lungs in a howl of ecstasy.

In my best moments, I allow myself the thought: I look cool in this leather jacket.

I didn’t wear it to the socialist meeting. It was at the library in downtown Iowa City. I wandered in late, disheveled and bleary eyed after another day at the call center. I looked around at the fifteen or so people in the room and said, “Are you the socialists?”

After receiving several mumbled assurances that yes, they were indeed the socialists—were in fact the Iowa City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, risen from the ashes of a recent and hasty dismemberment—I took a seat among them. A paper went round the room. I signed my name and email address.

The guy to my right hadn’t forgotten to wear his leather jacket. I admired its silver zippers and punk rock epaulets, John Darnielle’s falsetto quavering in my head: “I’m pretty hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore.”

The guy to my left had a giant Chapo Trap House patch on his messenger bag. Chapo Trap House is an absurdist political podcast I listen to, the vanguard of “the dirtbag left.”

I pointed at the grinning skull on the patch and said, “Nice Chapo patch.”

His face lit up. “I intend to steal so much valor,” he said in a rough impersonation of Felix Biederman, one of the show’s hosts.

I gave a slow nod. “Right on.”

“Don’t,” James says over the phone.

I pause. “Don’t what?”

“Get involved.”

My brother is an engineer in the U.S. Air Force. This hasn’t stopped him from being funnier than me.

On the phone with him over a fifteen minute break, I take a seat on one of the public benches strewn about the Old Capitol Mall. The call center where I work is on the second floor. I spend most of my days here, encased in this carpeted fortress of artificial heat. I lean back on the bench and search the frosted glass ceiling for cracks.

The city council plans to install new public benches downtown, much like the one I am resting on. These new benches will have metal armrests built into their middles. When asked about it, the city manager said the armrests are there to encourage people to sit next to each other; to preserve their bubbles of personal space.

The truth is that these benches are designed this way to keep homeless people from sleeping on them.

At the socialist meeting we discussed committee assignments. The election of officers. Personal moments of radicalization. A grey haired child of the sixties pointed out the lack of diversity in the room.

“There isn’t a single person of color here,” she said with a peevish twitch of her shawl.

The guy in the punk rock leather jacket arched an eyebrow. “Yes, there is,” he said. “Two, actually.”

A pair of Asian men suddenly appeared at the table.

“Did you know that Gandhi didn’t practice nonviolence out of some high-minded moral principle?” I said to a co-worker one day.

She’d just finished reciting for the pod an inspirational Gandhi quote from a book of other inspirational Gandhi quotes.

“He only chose to be nonviolent,” I went on, “because it was the best strategy to defeat the British.”

My co-worker looked at me like I’d just farted out of my mouth.

It turns out that this thing I’d uttered with such dead eyed Cumberbatchian certainty is not, in the strictest sense of the word, true. I learned later that my narrow statement—based on something I once read in a narrow book—has been widely denied by many of the various Gandhian sects. I didn’t clarify the record because it would be inexpedient. It would also be quite awkward.

The Hindi word for Gandhi’s concept of nonviolent resistance is satyagraha. In English, the word means “holding to the truth.”

Sometimes I do actually fart in my cubicle. Nothing elaborate. Just a quiet little toot now and then. I don’t think anyone notices. I don’t think.

I also don’t want this to be mistaken for an apology.

“We live in a culture of stupidity,” my brother says. “I look at the conversations online and I don’t see much up side to engaging. Sometimes I feel like going full hermit and moving into the woods. But I’m afraid if I do, I’ll just find a bunch more people like me arguing about what sort of sweaters to put on the trees.”

My Facebook feed is filled with newborn babies and GodArchists. All of them are Russian bots. All their memes are dank as fuck.

I post something in a serious and authoritative tone. I get into an argument with one of my best friends about centrist versus leftist Democratic politics. I win the argument. He wins the argument. Then I pick a fight with a guy who I imagine enjoys making love to his AR-15 and openly fantasizes about getting into gunfights with “the commies”.

“What commies do you speak of???” I punch into his thread, feeling the acid of every keystroke. Later, I message the other socialists in town.

“Hey,” I write, “when is our next meeting?”

I’m the scrawny guy lifting weights at the gym. There’s a bearded man with bulgy neck veins who grapples and grunts with one of the machines across from me. The kind of bearded man whose elbows have armpits. He is already one version of the person I am working so hard to become. In the tiled vastness of the locker room, someone blows their nose. It sounds like a tiny elephant in a department store.

“I just want us all to be happy,” James says in distant California. “And by us, I mean me and a few friends and family members.”

Dad calls to talk about the Falcon Heavy launch; about the genuine human emotion he witnessed on the video feed outside the Kennedy Space Center as the most powerful rocket in history climbed into the stars. The retelling moves him to tears.


The SpaceX Falcon Heavy takes off on the afternoon of Feb. 6, 2018 from a launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The only reaction I can muster is anxiety about how many of us will be left behind, trapped on a dying planet in a future where outer space is no longer a wondrous frontier, but a tightly controlled dominion, packaged and sold to the fortunate few by trillionaire corporatists.

“The Voyager probe carried the recorded brain waves of a human being experiencing love,” I say to my starry eyed father. “The best we can do these days is a car commercial?”

I feel faraway as I hang up the phone. I go to Sarah, who’s reading under a pile of blankets on the couch, and ask, “Am I full of shit? Am I a total drag?”

Sarah can read a whole book in a single day. I wish I knew how to do that.

I retreat into Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and watch a Jewish Texan drunkenly cajole a jaded Marxist priest into joining the fight against the thousand year Reich. Deep down in New Orleans, the Nazi killing begins in earnest. The righteous bloody destruction of each simulated body brings me closer to a bright world that is, in the alternate universe of the game, only a fantasy.

It is the world in which we all live.


Screenshot from Wolfenstein II

There is a secret to the frivolous leather jacket in the cold. Underneath I wear a heavy button-up sweater. It belonged to my grandfather, who died in the summer.

Grandpa didn’t tell jokes. He told funny little stories. One night, after too much wine, he recalled for me how he once rescued a man’s ballpoint pen. He was always rescuing things in his stories. Mostly cows and horses. This time it was a ballpoint pen.

“I’d never seen one before,” he said, his voice slurring a little from the Franzia. “None of us had. They hadn’t been invented yet.”

The story takes place during the war. Grandpa was a young U.S. Navy boat pilot in the South Pacific. The kind of guy, he told me, who could get you anything you wanted. One time he stole a hundred pound bag of potatoes from the Army. Along with a bunch of their hot plates.

He was strutting down the beach on a sunny afternoon when he came across a man outside a building. The man had been writing a letter with his ballpoint pen—a precious gift from his parents—but before he could finish, the pen slipped from his fingers and somehow clattered down into the darkness between the walls of the building.

“Oh god!” the man shrieked. “I’ve lost my ballpoint pen!”

“Never fear,” grandpa rumbled. “I’ll get it for you.”

He turned. Walked into a barn. This being the type of beach where buildings and barns are. Inside the barn was a tractor. Grandpa turned it on and drove it out of the barn. He steered the tractor across the sand and came to a stop near the distressed and penless men. He dismounted the tractor and hooked it to the bottom of the building.

Grandpa then, in his words, picked up the building.

“And there was the ballpoint pen,” he said with a shrug. “The man reached in. Grabbed it. And I set the building back down.”

It was, he said, the funniest part of World War II.

He never got around to telling me the bad parts. He would sometimes tiptoe to their edges, right up to the bodies rocking in the surf off the Island of Tarawa. Then he’d stop and grow quiet.

Grandpa didn’t like Obama any more than he liked the Japanese, and he wasn’t afraid to let it be known. No matter how atonal his proclamations about race and politics became as he got older, it did little to dissipate the legendary well of kindness in his eyes. The ultimate truth about himself, which I’m convinced my grandpa sometimes tried but failed to hide from the people around him, is that he loved everybody.

It’s another frozen morning in America. I pull on grandpa’s sweater and clomp down the stairs to feed the cats. I drink too much coffee and twist myself into queasy knots trying to find an ending. I begin to wonder if the concept is inherently dishonest when one of the cats hops onto the table and spews his breakfast across my keyboard.

“This will have to do,” I say, spraying the keys with disinfectant.


Sleep drifting on Rochester Avenue

“What Eldritch did to Leo on Luna or Sigma 14-B or wherever he’s done to me, too. And eventually he’ll snare us all. Just like this. Isolated. The communal world is gone. At least for me; he began with me.” 
                 – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

One of the police officers smacks his flashlight with an open palm as we trudge across the yard.  It’s two in the morning.

“Have you ever seen the movie Seven?” he asks no one in particular. His partner is silent as we peer into a dilapidated tool shed, one of several scattered across the farm.  The broken lawnmower is a feral animal hunched in the flickering beam. There are no stars. Only darkness.

“What’s in the box?” the partner finally moans, dropping his hand from the butt of his pistol. I laugh a little too loudly.

It was the door that woke us. Not the first time an inexplicable and thunderous crash has startled us from sleep in the old farm house we rent on the fringes of Iowa City.

The door at the bottom of the stairs is made of heavy varnished wood and has to swing a full one hundred and eighty degree arc to close on its metal latch. Goddamn cats. My go to whenever something like this happens. But Remedy Wolfcat  is upstairs with us, and the only conceivable way Finn Tigerstar Antares could have managed to slam that door shut is if he was fired at it out of a cannon. Or if he was a person.

Or a ghost.

“You want to do what?” I said to Sarah, standing in my underwear with a baseball bat in my hand.  I’d just finished ninja jumping into every room, including the basement, where looms at a canted angle in one gloomy chamber, a refrigerator from the 1970s that we’d discovered tied shut when we moved in.

Halloween party activity number one: Cut open the refrigerator.

We’d gone home to the Chicago area for a few days over Thanksgiving. This was our first night back. Wrapped in a bathrobe, Sarah stared down at me from the top of the stairs.

“Mike,” she said in a resolute voice, “I won’t be able to sleep until I know for sure this house is empty.”

I grumbled and put some pants on and dialed the non-emergency number. The men with guns came and looked for demogorgons and lollygagging Kevin Spaceys but failed to find any. They left and we climbed back into bed, nowhere nearerand I draw your attention to thisto knowing what force had acted upon the door at the bottom of the stairs.

Cats. The wind. All unsatisfying. Here’s the working theory (barring the discovery of a resident psychopath): The house was angry at us because we abandoned it over the Thanksgiving holiday. As cold winds begin to blow, at a time when other homes all around are ostensibly filled with warmth, light and laughter, ours sat empty and darkalone.

So I start hanging out with the house. Putting in some real quality time. Want to go out for drinks, Mike? No thanks, I’ve got a date with a long porch and a steep pitched roof.

After a long day at work the real work begins. When Sarah’s away at class, I’m either locked in my office or skating around the kitchen in my socks, head banging to psych-rock and 80s inspired pop music. The weekend comes and Sarah’s at her crystal shop job. It’s just me and the house again, scrubbing dishes in the sink, drinking barrels of coffee, adjusting the thermostat up or down a crazy degree or two. I sweep the floors. I pace.

The ice caps continue to melt.  Soon the internet won’t be a thing. My ears are filled with blood and sand and nuclear bombs, the meteoric decline of the laboring class, maybe a pedophile in the senate. Everything is fake news, and everything is on purpose.

My latest attempt at writing science fiction has hit a snag. Probably because reality is weirder than anything I can come up with. For hours on end the screen is empty. Space delete. Space delete.

This is a job. You have to show up. And like any job, no less than your soul is demanded.

Wandering alone through the post-war wasteland of Boston, the realization dawns on me that I’ve completely lost my mind. I begin hunting bombed out city blocks for the ghost head of Wolfgang, a raider whose corpse I ritualistically dismembered and left in a pothole a few days ago in the name of the Great God Death. Radioactive ghouls crawl in through the windows, some wearing faces I remember. I run for my miserable life. Behind the trap of my gas mask, I mutter my brother’s  mantra as I sift through heaps of garbage: Disregard x, acquire currency.

I decide to take a break from politics and Fallout 4.

When I was still in school, I wrote a paper about one of Philip K. Dick’s many brilliant novels, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. I found it in my desk the other day.TheThreeStigmataOfPalmerEldritch(1stEd)[1]

In the paper, I brashly claim to have pinpointed the ultimate dread behind Dick’s chemical fueled obsession with the tenuous—perhaps meaningless—line between what is and what is not; the true force that propels his hypnagogic imaginings, like a door slammed shut in the night, down their chilling narrative tracks: The fear of being alone.

Here’s something Dick wrote in 1966, in an essay entitled Will the Atomic Bomb Ever be Perfected? :

“Loneliness is the great curse that hangs over a writer. A while ago I wrote twelve novels in a row, plus fourteen magazine pieces. I did it out of loneliness. It constituted communication for me.”

I wake up in a strange house.  I try to write twelve novels in a row.  It doesn’t happen. I learn again what I’ve always known: you don’t have to be a writer to feel lonely.

Space delete. Space delete.

Exhausted by the effort, I drag myself into the kitchen to make a frozen pizza for dinner and discover the baking stone is split in two, as if smote by a steely fist. I look up at the cracked ceiling and wonder.

The house was built in 1900. Turn of the century, 117 years ago. The shed where the broken lawn mower prowls was added in 1935. According to the county’s online records, the home used to have a built-in intercom system. I can find no trace of it.  

In 2003, a woman named Marie Lucille Svatos died here. Probably in our bedroom, “surrounded”, her obituary says, “by her loving family.” She was born on February 4, 1930. She was a lifelong resident of the area. And an avid baker.

So there’s that.

Personally, I think it’s a little too neat to blame Marie just because we know she happened to die here. Lots of stuff probably died here. Not weird enough.

We’ve tried all the normal white people things. Calling the cops. Burning store bought sage. Winterizing.  We even got a mystic from downtown to perform a ceremonial blessing on a stone, then placed it back in the foundations to act as a positive influence on its more rough and tumble friends.

Whatever it is, Sarah thinks the best way to keep our house in good spirits is to just throw more parties. I think Marie would like that.

“What do you think, Phil?” I ask, plugging in the Christmas lights.

He’s sitting by the window in my office with a cat in his lap.

“Am I invited?” he says.

It’s my party. Philip K. Dick can want to hang out with me if I say so.

“Duh,” I reply, and begin to type like the wind.


Philip K. Dick  (12/16/28 — 04/02/82)


Trade Runner

FootballRicky getting shot in the head cut my career at Yellow Cab short. That and the lies about money.

My trainer—let’s call him Frank—told me on the morning of my second day, which also turned out to be my last. Ricky, a nice guy, died behind the wheel of his taxi on a warm night this past June from more than one bullet to the brain. I listened as I buckled into the driver’s seat and lined up our first ride.

“Robbery gone wrong,” Frank explained with a regretful wag of his head.

I liked Frank. Puttering around town those two days, we talked about his favorite movies, his former life as a drug smuggler, the seafood dinner he was planning with his grandkids later that week, and a mélange of other wild stories from his years of driving cab on the streets of Iowa City.

Frank too had once felt the barrel of a gun pressed to the back of his skull. Some kid who came from behind and took all his cash. Robbery gone right. It happened to him on the redeye shift, which I was to be assigned to.

“Oh, the rivers of vomit you will clean out of this cab,” Frank said with a bark of smoky laughter, then unblinking in a low gravel, “You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes?”

Frank snapped his fingers.

A few weeks earlier I’d quit my newspaper job and moved back to Iowa City to help support my partner Sarah through grad school. Yellow Cab hired me. Many other places did not. I imagined speeding around back roads with attaché case wielding maniacs chattering into my ear from the backseat, windows rolled down, tunes cranked up and the sun blasting in. I was excited to get started.

The guy who hired me said that Uber had made only a small dent in the market. He went on to promise that if I worked hard the money was good, upwards of $18 an hour, more than I’d ever made as a college educated journalist.

The guy who hired me lied. Big surprise, I know.

Yellow Cab drivers don’t get an hourly wage. Instead, they get forty percent of their daily cab fare, which, even for an experienced driver like Frank, only amounts to about $100. That comes to less than $10 per for a twelve hour shift. Cab drivers often work twelve hour shifts.

Also, the company didn’t take out taxes or pay any benefits whatsoever. You try to set some cash aside for the feds, Frank said, but even so, he’d ended up owing $2,700 last year.

I was of course willing to go along with all this. The dismal pay, the vomit, and yes, having a gun held to my head. Because I’m just like Frank. I have bills to pay. It took my mom pleading over the phone to snap me to my senses.

The next place that hired me was the United States Postal Service.

The role I filled was essentially an understudy for a substitute to a postal carrier. If the postal carrier’s substitute couldn’t make it in, they’d call me. At best, I could expect work on the weekends. Maybe. My only guaranteed shifts would be every single holiday.

The postmaster told me not to fret, that I would soon be moved over to full-time.

“The U.S. Postal Service will never lie to you,” my trainer—let’s call him Howie—said to me one day as I watched him sort his case. “But they will misrepresent reality.”

Full time carriers like Howie work eight hours a day, six days a week. Six days.

Howie wore a backwards baseball cap and a Milk & Cheese t-shirt. Milk & Cheese are two comic book characters I recognized—Dairy Products Gone Bad—whose bread and butter are ultraviolence and drinking gin. They leered out of his chest, saying as one, “We hate what you hate. And we hate YOU!”

This made me smile.

LLV stands for “long life vehicle”. That’s what those boxy post office cars are. Long life vehicles. Most of the Grumman LLVs were built in the 1980s, and are still in use to this day. I bet you didn’t know that. The one I rode in with Howie had rusted out holes in the floor. In the back was an unnavigable sea of Amazon boxes.

“Without Amazon we’d be sunk,” Howie said.

Weeks of training went by. I quit when it became clear that I would never get more hours.

I ended up applying for more than a hundred jobs in the Iowa City area. I would set up camp at the library early in the morning and fill out applications and write cover letters all day. My years of professional experience. My expensive college degree. None of it seemed to matter.

There’s a studio in Fairfield that creates and restores intricately handcrafted stained glass windows, then sends workers out to install them in churches and schools and museums all over the world. They were hiring not too long ago.

In my letter I did my best to talk up all the set construction I’d done in high school drama club. I said that whatever I do next, I want it to be something beautiful. The owner, a woman with a kind voice, called and thanked me for my “lovely words.”

I never heard back from her.

I loved being a reporter. The crazy, beautiful people you meet, the never ending chase and slow burn of a good story. It filled up eight years of my life. The summer days and winter nights of 2016 that I spent with the brave men and women of the Oceti Sakowin resistance camp are seared forever in my mind. I have never felt as alive as I did then.

I also hated being a reporter. One day our editor’s body was found in the woods. We never found out why he took his own life, and only barely talked about it. Just as we barely talked about the constant drumbeat of corporate mandated budget cuts that regularly vanished other dear friends and coworkers from our newsrooms overnight.

Newspapers are dying. And watching powerless as something you love dies is a hard thing to do. I quit my most recent job at a newspaper. I was laid off from the one before that. I quit this time because I absolutely had to. Maybe someday I will go back. Maybe I never will.

I wrote most of this at work. During my lunches and fifteen minute breaks.

I schedule hospital appointments in a call center on the second floor of an old brick shopping mall in downtown Iowa City. The pay is better, the stress lower, and the hours more decent than what I’ve become accustomed to these last several years.

The guy in the cubicle next to mine—let’s call him Tim—spends his time between calls folding receipts into aerodynamic triangles and drawing designs on them with colored pens. He’s helpful and quick to a laugh. Before this he worked at Meals on Wheels, helping deliver food to elderly people until the day came he had to quit. Tim has a degree in microbiology.

It’s a job. That’s all it is. Something we do for money.

Trouble in downtown Gondolin

I found the lump in the shower.

It clung to the inside of my crotch like a flesh burrowing scarab from Brendan Frasier’s The Mummy. Frozen in the low pressure stream of Iowa’s nitrate rich groundwater, I gingerly pinched the robin’s egg sized knot between my fingers. Tributaries of searing pain forked through my groin.

Cancer then. I had turned thirty a couple days earlier so why not? One time I ate some magic mushrooms and glimpsed a blues singer in a vast red room, dancing slowly behind a churning curtain of hieroglyphic ice. The encounter imparted upon me a quiet moment of clarity: I was no longer afraid of death.

Psychotropics are, in my limited experience, good for those sorts of moments. As I limped around the yard after my discovery in the shower, I wondered what sorts of moments cancer drugs might be good for. I meditated on all the frozen pizzas I’d ever eaten, all the aspartame laced chewing gum my pre-adolescent self had ever swallowed. I thought about the inconvenience of dying and the awkwardness of a life without genitals. Maybe Pfizer could use the sanded off space to advertise for anti-depressants.

Baphomet knows I could use the money. I was, for the second time in three years, unemployed. My perfectly good health insurance lay abandoned in the Black Hills of South Dakota, along with the charred wreckage of a not so perfectly good eight year career in journalism. My boilerplate identity crisis was just one in a string of personal asterisks to the first long summer of our collective American nightmare.

A week after my grandfather passed away in late July, I quit my dead end newspaper job and scooched 700 miles east to be with my girlfriend in Iowa City, where we’d both graduated from college a few years earlier, and where she was now enrolled in the public health graduate program. The universe in all its terrifying glory was yawning in my face, daring me to do something interesting.

So I turned thirty and got cancer.

“Don’t be alarmed,” I said to Sarah one day in the kitchen, “but I think I have crotch cancer.”

“Marry me,” my partner of eleven years deadpanned, then on her way out the door, “Go to Planned Parenthood.”

Sarah is a sexual assault victims advocate, the kind of militant but affable feminist who punctuates her “good mornings” with dual middle fingers. She also used to work at Planned Parenthood, all of which is to say that I’m educated on the subject.

Still, I’m a cis-gender white guy of comfortable upbringing. As “woke” as I like to think I am, deep down I believed that Planned Parenthood wasn’t for me. It was for other people, mostly pregnant teenage girls and college kids who think gravity is a legit form of contraception. But Sarah told me to go, and I was fresh out of ideas.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about the hidden city of Gondolin, a secret oasis of light and hope in a world of doom and darkness, hell bent on its destruction. I didn’t know it yet, but that’s what Planned Parenthood is. Gondolin, but with Republicans instead of Orcs.

From the road there are no visible signs to mark Iowa City’s Planned Parenthood. A nondescript concrete building, its entrance is concealed from picketers and any would-be-fire-bombers behind a tall row of hedges.

In the lobby, gritting my teeth against the waves of pain emanating from between my legs, I steeled myself for the brand of economic agony unique to the US healthcare system.

It never came. Soul crushing debt wasn’t in the cards. My jobless ass would receive a 100 percent discount today, the grandmotherly woman behind the desk informed me. At Planned Parenthood, zero income means zero dollars charged.

The sheer madness of this premise didn’t sink in until later. In my mind, a 100 percent discount at Planned Parenthood wouldn’t get me far anyway. I expected only a cheap exam to identify the type and magnitude of cancer gnawing at my loins, then a curt referral to the far pricier university hospital shimmering on the hilltop, where I surely would be relieved of every penny to my name.

That’s not how it happened.

“It’s not cancer,” my doctor said in an apologetic tone. “It’s an infected abscess. And we have to drain it. Now.”

This is the part of the movie where we cut to the parking lot. Our stony faced hero hobbles to his car, his cancerless nethers feeling nonetheless looped through a fisherman’s hook and flailed all over the lake, to lure what weird quarry he cannot fathom as he twists the key in the ignition and sets his instruments couchward.

I returned to Planned Parenthood a few days later to be skewered a second time. It was a fun week. The exam, two procedures and a bottle of antibiotics; none of it cost me a dime. If I hadn’t come in when I did, the doctor told me, it would have required a costly surgery.

The lobby was packed during my second visit. Young, old, male, female, black, white, affluent looking and not so much. Some had children with them or a group of supportive friends. Others were alone. How many were here for a potentially life saving abortion procedure, to pick up affordable birth control pills, or receive treatment for a sexually transmitted disease?

And how many were just like me? Economically poor, scared and confused by their own bodies, never expecting they would end up here, yet feeling like they had nowhere else to go?

Empathy should not require such visitations.

I don’t know what caused it. I run a clean shop downstairs. But hey, apparently these things happen.

“Sometimes for no reason at all,” doc said with a glinting flourish of her scalpel hand. For her this was just another Tuesday morning.

There are people in this country who want to take this away, to see the hidden walls of Gondolin fall. As I signed out at the front desk, I thought about what a thirty year old unemployed writer could do about that.

Not much, I figured. Let’s be real. So I scraped my checking account for a meager $100 donation and staggered out the door.