The sound … and power … of silence

The Thinker by Rodin

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

From “The Sound of Silence”
Lyrics by Paul Simon
Simon & Garfunkel
1964

Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 of her classmates, may have delivered the most moving speech ever made simply by saying nothing. Make no mistake; her “speech” was devastatingly effective. People are moved by emotion. The sight of a woman silently weeping might make this “speech” the most effective ever delivered.

Which calls for a repeat of my 2013 post on why gun control is inevitable. Emma Gonzalez yesterday did much to advance the date. Continue reading “The sound … and power … of silence”

Gaithersburg thirty years later

The Thinker by Rodin

Some places where you live will haunt you. Some you will cherish nostalgically. Some places will leave only vague memories. Some places you will live in for a long time and still never feel attached to it. Gaithersburg, a city on the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C., in Maryland’s Montgomery County was a place I called home for six years (1978-1984), five in the same apartment shared principally with a guy called Randy who kept his distance.

Gaithersburg was my transition place. It is where I transitioned from college graduate to someone with a career. It was a place where I pondered my single status and eventually left to live with the woman who would become my wife. It was a place that felt sort of comfortable because it was suburban and up north. It was also uncomfortable, because for a few years at least I was among the working poor there.

I had visited Gaithersburg briefly about ten years ago with my friend Tim. Tim and I had shared a year or so as retail drones at the local Montgomery Ward. Last Friday, I visited it again. As I toured the city and my old neighborhood, I had the not terribly upsetting feeling that I was visiting this “home” for the last time.

Maybe that’s the way it goes with places you live while in transition. By definition transition is transient, even if you stay there six years. Transition by its nature is also uncomfortable, and I was uncomfortable in Gaithersburg. It was a largely lonely and friendless time. It would not last forever. My brother Mike moved in and out of the area as he tried to complete school without quite the resources to do so. DC’s strong job market allowed him to accumulate some cash to buy more semesters in Blacksburg, Virginia. Once I had moved to Reston, Virginia across the Potomac my sister Mary and her husband came to the area. Much later my parents would also arrive too. None of them chose to live anywhere near Gaithersburg.

It’s good not to get too attached to place, because the apartment I lived in is gone. Apartments are ephemeral housing. It got the wrecking ball to put in upscale apartments and condos along East Diamond Avenue instead. The new apartments look terrific, and something I would not have been able to afford back then. They are also mostly not rented yet, but doubtless will be rented in time. Across the street is a MARC commuter train station. Likely there are convenient buses that will take residents to the Shady Grove metro station a couple of miles away too. It’s thus gotten easier to live carless in Gaithersburg, but most residents will still want one. The Sam’s Club, next to what was my old Montgomery Ward store, is a couple of miles away. The nearest Giant is probably too far to walk to.

Downtown Gaithersburg is trying to blend the tired with the new urban chic. Historic building includes many of the storefronts along Diamond Avenue that I remember, including the Diamond Drugs at the corner of East Diamond and Summit Avenues. New urban chic includes many three or four story apartments/condos with brick facades, and small businesses like Subway on the street level that now are prominent in this “downtown”. It’s not quite like Paris, but it is something of a third-rate imitation. Missing for now are some of the other urban amenities typically found in these places: a theater and upscale dining. Perhaps they will come in time.

Patches of this new urban chic don’t really blend in well with the tired and fading suburban houses just blocks away. It’s probably a step in the right direction for keeping the city’s coffers full. It was not needed to color up the town. Thirty years ago of course it was principally white. Since then, Asians have discovered Montgomery County in large numbers, and they are much in evidence in Gaithersburg. It’s not just the well-educated Asians that also have discovered the city, but the less educated ones as well. I found them inside my old Montgomery Ward store at the corner of Perry Parkway and North Frederick Avenue, looking like they were probably mostly from Pakistan.

Returning to my old store, where I survived at just above the minimum wage, was not in the least bit nostalgic, just sad. Tim and I were newly minted college-educated men without better prospects at the time. We were appalled by the low pay, high turnover and bad working conditions. We surreptitiously sounded out fellow disgruntled employees about unionizing the place. We never got too far. Management kept an eye on us. Tim went for other opportunities and I eventually followed him. I’m not sure I would be a federal employee without Tim’s help. He figured out how to do it.

In any event the same haunted and basically impoverished faces were still there, just with no Montgomery Ward logo facing North Frederick Avenue and the faces of its employees were almost all colored now. The store is now mostly split between a Toys ‘R Us and a Burlington Coat Factory. A Ford Dealership is renting the old auto bay. At least that still retains its original use. And you can rent trucks there now too. The lot of retail workers looked as shoddy and ephemeral as they were thirty years earlier, if not worse. In real dollars, the minimum wage buys even less today.

I wandered both stores, remembering what was, not really mourning it (Wards had its demise coming) but sad that these new retailers were no better than the Montgomery Ward that preceded it. In one sense they were better: they had more customers on a Friday afternoon than I remembered. The interior of my old store was mostly unrecognizable. The snack bar windows had been bricked up. Only two things inside looked familiar: the creaky escalators and the dropped ceiling tiles, many absent, laid some forty years earlier and that the owners couldn’t bother to replace.

You would think some stores would have survived thirty years. Except for the Diamond Drugs, not much remained. Retail comes and goes. You would think that McDonald’s might still be across the street, but it was now a Boston Market. The McDonald’s relocated across the street. The People’s Drug Store had long ago been converted into the ubiquitous CVS. Suburban Bank, where I had an account, is now a Bank of America. Only at Lakeforest Mall to the east did I find two retailers that had survived thirty years largely intact: a JC Penny and Sears. Sears though isn’t doing too well. It may not be there in a couple more years.

The Sam’s Club just to the north of my old store was new to me, but simply made me feel more depressed. The chain is Walmart’s answer to Costco; it doubtless had most of its employees surviving on second or third jobs, plus likely food stamps too. Fortunately, Costco has also come to Gaithersburg, and could be found a bit past Montgomery Village Avenue to the north. Doubtless the dour faced employees in the Burlington Coat Factory I noted were hoping Costco would hire them. Costco pays employees a living wage.

But the cost of housing certainly had to be more in real dollars in Gaithersburg than I remembered. I could rent a cheap apartment for $380 a month in 1979, and shared with two people it was sort of affordable, even though it still took nearly two paychecks just to pay my half of the rent. I had no idea where these workers lived now. It was probably best not to know.

Gaithersburg still felt transient. I chose to live in Reston because it at least felt like a destination. There were bike paths, ponds, lakes and woods. Gaithersburg was just more unevenly dense, a city by charter, but a place lacking a soul. The city appears to be hoping it can build one downtown. Perhaps it will spread up and down North Frederick Avenue, but it seems unlikely. Route 355 seems destined to remain forever a forty-mile long strip mall.

Feeling melancholy, I decided not to dwell there too long. Soon I was high tailing it down the interstate and across the Potomac toward home.

Gun control is inevitable

The Thinker by Rodin

Americans are obsessed with guns, but appearances can be deceiving. Certainly there is a very vocal crowd of gun rights people in this country, so vocal in fact that it seems to be more important than any other issue. Many of these gun rights advocates horde guns and ammunition for the apocalypse, or at least the breakdown of civil society. They are ready to help insurrection at that amorphous time when they decide our government has gotten too uppity.

Polls show Americans pretty much split on whether guns should be controlled. A recent Pew poll put the numbers at 50% for gun control, 48% against. This should actually be encouraging to gun rights advocates, since it shows an uptick. In their polling since 1993, no more than 49% of Americans were against gun control. In short, over twenty years there never has been a majority of Americans, at least according to Pew that has supported gun rights. Back in 2000, Pew found 67%, two in three Americans, supported gun control.

Clearly there is a lot of variability in gun control support but also clearly over twenty years there has never been a majority supporting gun rights. It’s unlikely the dynamic will change and if it does it is likely to change marginally. The trends suggest that gun control may be inevitable. Why do I say this? Because America continues to urbanize and in urban areas gun control is a winner.

In 2010 according to the Census Bureau (via Wikipedia), 80.7% of Americans lived in urban areas. This is up almost two percent from 2000, and up ten percent over fifty years. In fact, America officially became an urban nation when the 1920 census was tallied. This trend has continued inexorably since our founding. The reasons for urbanization should be obvious: life offers more possibilities in urban areas. It’s likely that we would be more urbanized than we are today, had not the trend been held in some check by suburbanization. It was due in part to industries concentrated in our cities and their pollution, which made living in the city hazardous to health. Industry is now much cleaner, and so are our cities. They are attracting many people, including those who used to live in suburbs.

In urban areas, 58% of those polled were for gun control. If we assume that more people will continue move to urban areas than elsewhere, a good assumption since it’s been true since our country was founded then we’ll likely see a clear and sustaining majority for gun control in the future.

Then there are the age statistics. The trend has been that younger people are markedly more likely to support gun control than older people. Strangely, right now that trend is reversed. Right now those aged 18-29 are still for gun control, but just narrowly, 50% to 49%. Curiously at the moment support is highest for gun control among those 65+ and is at 54%. The general pattern though suggests that trends will continue although as young adults move into middle age they may be more receptive to gun rights.

Part of the appeal of guns is growing up with guns. If you went deer hunting with dad or grew up with a gun closet in the basement you will tend to think that gun possession is normal. And yet having a gun in the household is hardly the norm. The New York Times reported earlier this year that a 2012 government survey showed that guns were in 34% of households, versus 50% in the 1970s. There is probably a correlation between this and our increasing urbanization, up 8% since 1970. The number of households having a gun will continue to decline in the years ahead as well.

In rural areas a gun may have some practical use. It can provide food, at least during hunting season. A gun may make sense as a form of personal protection when any police are likely to be half an hour or more away. In urban settings you obviously don’t need a gun for hunting, unless you plan to drive quite a distance on weekends. If you live in a high crime neighborhood you may want one for personal safety. But if you call 911, you probably won’t have to wait half an hour for police to show up. Most of the people now moving into urban areas are upwardly mobile, younger and reasonably well moneyed. Most likely they are living in gentrified neighborhoods that used to be crime-ridden eyesores. They bring with them a culture where gun possession is frowned upon. I witnessed this transformation recently in Washington D.C. Last Wednesday I attended an event near U and 14th Streets N.W., the heart of race riots back in 1968, now nicely gentrified and upscale. Women walked around the streets at night without seemingly a care, and there was not a bum in sight. The neighborhoods were well lit and felt safe. The most aggravating aspect of this neighborhood was finding a parking spot.

These demographics and values trends are going to make gun control more okay. Certainly there will be pushback from the gun rights lobby and the Second Amendment is not easily repealed. It probably won’t be repealed outright but I do expect that gun control laws will come back in favor in these communities and those values will generally extend outward. The need for a gun will continue to diminish, and incidents like rampage mass shootings will eventually become too great to tolerate and force political change. People with guns will increasingly be seen as odd and out of the mainstream.

I probably won’t live to see the Second Amendment repealed but I do expect in about fifty years it will be repealed. It may also be changed to allow local and state governments to regulate who can possess guns, and sold as an issue of states’ rights.