Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Home and Office

Where I live in northern Virginia, a few miles from the Nation’s capital, is a vast, unincorporated tract of land called Tyson’s. The area was once farmland, and I assume Mr. Tyson and his family sold it piecemeal to developers for a goodly sum of money. Mr. Tyson apparently did not want to move too far from his ancestral grounds.  He and his descendants are buried some two miles away in a nondescript cemetery adjacent to a used car lot.

Very few people actually live in Tyson’s. There are two monstrous malls—one for the middle class, the other for the moneyed and two lesser strip malls from an earlier time; a dozen or so new car dealerships; uncountable franchise restaurants and fast-food outlets; three Seven-Elevens; stores selling furniture to make your back better or decorate your windows; gas stations without mechanics; several gyms; a Best Buy side by side with a Toys R Us; a multiplex movie house with eight screens; army surplus stores; a Radio Shack and at least one sex toys emporium. In short, everything suburbanites might need, if not want. But there are no schools, police houses, parks, hospitals or fire stations in Tysons even as there are acres of parking lots and on- and off-ramps to superhighways, traffic lights galore and traffic islands one would think were designed to cause accidents. There are no neighborhoods and a dearth of sidewalks or even places where one can safely cross the street, though there will soon be three separate metro stations to bring in a take away Tyson’s workers.

And there are office buildings; it’s only recently that I noticed their proliferation. They are prefabricated of concrete slabs and plastic assembled relentlessly by giant cranes that spear the horizon. Many of these buildings, dating a decade or so, are already tenantless; the space they occupy adds to the impermeable surfaces that reject rainwater and drain into the rivers carrying tar-based chemicals and other detritus. I imagine these shells, empty of people and equipment, serve a financial purpose; they allow large real estate holders to declare them as losses so as to minimize state and federal taxes.

It struck me then that the thousands of workers toiling in these cheaply built dungeons produce nothing of any real or lasting value. What we have here—and everywhere in the country, I suspect—are massive structures devoted to shifting money from one business to another.  This, more and more, is the commerce of America, a system devised to apportion money to a large segment of the population, with noted and accepted inequities that span the continuum—absurdly high pay for the shakers and movers at one end, state-sanctioned poverty on the other.

The more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. There is no manufacturing in Tyson’s, no smokestacks, no mom and pop stores save the ubiquitous dry cleaner/small necessities shops found in the lobbies of office buildings and often run by industriously smiling Asian families. No one on the upper floors makes anything. There is money—millions upon millions daily—transferred electronically from one desk to another by a host of white-shirted and mostly Caucasian people whose salaries depend upon the tiny percentages they earn every time they stab an Enter key. Much like Sherman McCoy, the lead character in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfires of Vanity, they survive on the crumbs of the cakes being passed around.

I wonder, in an idle sort of way, what that does to their psyche. We, as a species, are builders, tool users, makers of things to serve our families. In ages passed these things—houses, furniture, fields we had plowed and seeded, and other belongings—were passed from one generation to another. No more, I think, and this is unfortunate. Whatever is being accomplished in these office buildings is even more temporary than the structures themselves, and so inconsequential as to not be worthy of saving for a future generation.

That’s sad too.  





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