Smog City Blues: Part I by Jose Cordova
Ray was dreaming of black specks darting through a blue plane The specks shook and moved gently, rhythmically. It was a long time since he had seen anything like it. It felt good.
The light of the sun had not broken through the smog at five in the morning. He had to spit out the metallic taste he woke up to every morning. The artificial sunlight of his alarm grew brighter and lit up the room, as the morning broadcasts made their announcements, “…eighty-five degrees with a bit of heavy smog today, we are still on advisory folks, so please keep children and pets indoors today just to be safe. In other news, boy, I hope you didn’t miss last night’s double overtime game…” Good, he thought, no rain meant another day of work. I hope it’s not Tuesday he said to himself as he went for his phone, the thin clear plastic rectangle lit up when it identified his hand. It was Tuesday, a water ration day. No shower for anyone in the city today.
In a blink the breakfast protein bars were gone, the coffee tasted decent, even in the grimy unwashed cup. The news feeds spoke excitedly through the tablet, they all reported the quarter’s high job growth around the country. Ray looked outside, remembering the dream of the black shapes weaving through blue moving blue and black shapes, but all he could see out the window was the same gray haze. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the blue sky. It was half a mile to the nearest company bus stop, which was not that bad. The cracked pavement and streets crawled with roaches and rats early in the morning, his boots reminded him of their value with each crunch. No cars drove on those streets, after years of disrepair, there was more pieces missing than present at that moment. Only the main boulevards were smooth enough for the company trucks and buses.
Ray arrived just in time as the shielded bus hummed its approach to the stop. Over three dozen people waited, lined up, with company badges hung on lanyards around their necks. The sweaty armed guards opened the door without a word, took out their scanners, checked every badge, and looked at every face one by one as the workers entered. The bus already reeked of sweat and grease, and still two more stops before they could step out to smell something other than armpit. Most of workers who managed to get seats were asleep, the rest stared at the news screens. “…the President will announce today the creation of five hundred thousand jobs this month, along with the opening of a new manufacturing mega-plant in Portland, Oregon. Many of you may recall, the Portland plant was plagued with local issues and sabotage, but after coordinating with authorities, the contractors were able to complete the plant not too far off schedule…”
“You think they’ll be willing to transfer some of us up there? I hear they don’t have ration days up in Portland like we do in LA.” Ray looked up and realized the man with the burn scar on his neck was speaking to him. “Nah, they have plenty workers out there already.” The scarred man scrunched up his nose, and looked at Ray’s badge “No offense, Ray, but I’m hoping for a day I get to meet people before I smell them.” They both laughed. The man continued asking people around about Portland. Ray looked out the small, barred windows, toward the city. It looked like the smog was endless, it hid everything, the sun, the sky, the city. There were black shapes zipping through the sky, he stared at them perplexed. Crows? No way! Before his memory could go any further, he realized they were small C-Class drones out on their patrol.
“…and finally, we bring you this heartwarming story of one of LAPD’s finest. You can say this K-9 cop has more brains than bite HA! HA! HA!” The noise of the mega-plant got louder as the bus approached, making the screens inaudible, waking everyone up. The workers put on their earplugs as the bus pulled into the unloading bay, and opened its doors. It was time for work.
Two minutes from stepping off the bus and everyone was at their posts. The army of machines made everyone deaf with their monstrous droning symphony. An ever present crescendo of metal grinding on metal, metal crashing and rolling into each other, every second, minute, hour of the shift. Those that forgot their earplugs, went home with ringing ears and aching heads. Huge machines the size of semi trucks straightened spools of thick wire, cut the wire at 20-50 foot segments which came out hot to the touch, and shot out fast enough to shatter any bones.
Benders, sanders, welders, drivers, cutters, thousands of people working like machines. Their movements controlled, from stepping to a machine, to how they placed the materials into the machines, were monitored and adjusted for efficiency. These were caught by hidden cameras and miniature drones, all feeding information to the center hive-mind computers, which processed all the information and calculated adjustments of the workers’ pace and movements, and fed to the line manager’s goggles’ heads up display.
The rate of production and profit could be traced to the speed of the fingers of the worker placing the soldering on any given piece, if the speed was insufficient, it was adjusted. “Hey you, you’re too slow. Move the iron closer. No, closer to the part! Pick it up as you move like this….” if that was still not enough, then the hand(or worker) would be replaced. It was dehumanizing, but everyone had to get used to the line managers coming every few minutes and adjust the workers’ posture, hand and arm motions and head-neck angle, 10 hours a day, 5 days a week. Mechanics keeping the organic machines moving.An ever present crowd of unemployed stood at the margins of the factory, always waiting for that too slow hand to come out with their head down, push past them and race to be the first in line for the application process. Day after day, the mind fuck intensified, pounding at the hearts that clocked in. The heart is not valued in this reality. Only measurements, calculations, the value of the dollar.
What was the name of that park?
That dream was still there in the back of his mind, reminding him of his childhood. Every day after school he would skate to the park just a few blocks from the apartment he called home. It was a small park with a few concrete steps and boxes with metal coping for anyone to skate on and become local heroes, or break a few bones. There were many palm trees, but what kept him returning was the giant oak tree in the center of the park. He always thought of the tree as the city’s oldest resident, the lone witness of the first migrations and formations which grew into the current gray metropolis. He remembered how he would climb the tree and wonder at the view, he recalled the time Veronica back in the 6th grade pushed against him hard on that tree and gave him his first kiss, and how she was the last person to call him Raymond. He remembered that as he grew older, he frequented the park less and less, and when the food riots happened, he stopped going all together.
His phone vibrated, signaling the end of his shift and which bay his bus back home would be. With each step to the bay, he recalled the feel of dirt, of grass, how it gave in to his weight and how warm and alive it felt on summer days. On the bus again, those with seats fell back asleep, those standing stared off into the distance and fought off sleep. Ray felt all the bones in his body had grown heavier at the end of his shift, the weariness covering him, taking him back to the days he skated for hours on end.
“Worms! I’m calling the cops” said the armed guard managing the infrared cameras, he pounded on the console, waking everyone up. Two of the rear guards pushed to the door at the front of the bus, lowered their face shields and switched their rifles to less-lethal foam rounds. Ray and the workers pushed up, trying to get a better view of the commotion outside. They all saw the flags. “LAPD, this is factory bus echo stroke five seven nine, we are coming in contact with approximately thirty Worms…”
The EarthWorms were described by the feeds as an anarcho-primitivist terrorist organization that grew out of the previous decade’s food riots. They were blamed for sabotaging the construction of the mega-plants, cutting power lines, busting sewage and water pipes, and blowing up several factory buses. Everyone in the bus looked outside, they could see the Worms’ in their ragged makeshift gear of old sports pads, some handcrafted leathers, thick denim wraps. All of them seemed to wear those masks painters used to avoid inhaling fumes.
“Catapult the flash bangs. Make them scatter, now!” barked the driver to the console guard, who shook his head “no, I’m launching the drone” he reached into his pocket and threw a small stick out the door, its propellers opened like an umbrella and spun, shooting it thirty feet above the bus. The two rear guards stepped off the bus, one stood by the door outside with his rifle up, the other took his position on the driver’s side, and scanned the rear.
“Stop working, start listening! Stop working, start seeing! Stop working, start living!” a lone voice chanted from the group outside the bus, her voice quickly growing hoarse. “We want to talk!” said another. “Talk about what?” an older woman from Ray’s neighborhood said to no one in particular. “Fuck you hippies.” the guard on the console hit a switch, a loud thump, a streak of smoke shot straight at the crowd, BANG! The flash bang sent half a dozen Worms to the floor, limp, with fresh burn wounds smoking.
The EarthWorms split into two groups, and surrounded the bus. “Oh my god I don’t want to die!” the older woman, clutched at the younger woman next to her. Screams and pleads all shot out from the workers, some took cover, others held up pictures of their kids at the windows. What’s that noise? There was a high pitched whistle, it grew louder and louder. Everyone inside the bus covered their ears. A small pop, like a balloon bursting, rang out and the whistle stopped. The lights in the bus went out, the phones and watches on the workers stopped flashing, just smooth black oily screens.
Ray was on the ground of the bus, huddled under a seat. He heard the rapid fire of the assault weapons the guards carried, and lots of screaming. They were screams of pain. I can’t be here, I can’t die here he thought. Reluctantly, he raised his head and looked out the window. The guards were shooting at the Worms, each burst tore bits of clothing off of the targets. The burst would drive them back, but immediately they would push forward. Some had makeshift shields made of broken table tops or boards salvaged from book shelves. Why do they look so small? Bricks flew from the crowd, one caught the guard’s neck, he stumbled, a Worm ran and dropped kick the guard, they both landed on the floor, the others swarmed and dog piled on top of them. Full of panic, Ray stood up and pushed at the cowered workers I have get the fuck out!
He reached the door and jumped out, one foot twisted under him, he had too much speed, causing him to stumble and fall. Looking up, he knew it was too late. the Worms had surrounded him. They grabbed him and pulled him into the mob. He flailed, and struggled as hard as he could, but it was useless, too many hands grabbed hold of him, he could not move. He was panicking, primal yells emptied his lungs, making him tired faster. The moving limbs and bodies disoriented him.
Then he saw the light, so bright and hot, it blinded him. He heard sirens and boots.
“This is the LAPD! Submit now!” the bright light said. They dropped Ray, he looked up, it was a police drone. Someone dropped a stack of papers, they blew in every direction, aided by the drone’s downward burst of air. The EarthWorms tried to run, but they could not out run the battalions of cops that poured in from every direction. Ray saw the flyers swirl around and away from him, one pushed itself against his arm. “WHERE ARE THE ANIMALS? WHERE ARE THE TREES?” The bold header caught his eye, but then his head hurt bad and his eyes lost focus. He saw as his hands dropped, and the concrete come straight at his face. He blinked, looked around and saw a cop stomping on someone’s head. Another cop was yelling at him swinging his baton Why is he yelling at me? Is he hitting me?
Then he went to sleep.
Jose Cordova is a writer and activist from Panorama City, CA. He writes at hoveringwords.com and can be seen taking public transportation all over Los Angeles.