- Introduction and Coffee
- Why does Starbucks Coffee… um… maybe you should just read it.
- Why can we walk past beautiful artwork without noticing it?
- Calliope Jones and the Writer’s Cusp
- Why is the sky over Los Angeles that particular color of yellowish grey?
- What’s the real deal with gasoline prices?
- The Songs of Books
- Why do some people stay on the train past the end of the line?
- The Arrogant Writer and the Beached Mermaid
- Why do we get spam email that’s complete gibberish or random sentences from books strung together?
- Why does alcohol produce hangovers, and why doesn’t it produce hangovers consistently?
- Dog Reincarnation
- The Princess and the Wyverns
- Manannán mac Lir and the Isle of Ninjas.
- Why is there a disconnect between Art and Industry?
- Why are there Suburbs?
- Why do people check the time on mobile phones instead of watches?
- Prosperina: A Mythology of the Modern World Holiday Special
- Mythology of the Modern World: Aren’t I Just Ripping Off John Hodgman?
- Where do babies come from? I mean, really come from?
- The Souls of Toys
- The Fruit Fly and the Nymph of Time
- Why are the ideas of things scarier than the reality?
- Time Zones and the Witching Hour.
- Ball Lightning, Missing Socks, Drawer Crud and the Protectors of the Hearth
- Why do things break right as their warranties expire?
And good morning… to you.
Today’s myth comes to us from “zeruslord” (who, I am given to understand, is Lord of Zerus, and there is no doubt one does not want to be on the bad side of the Lord of Zerus, so you’ll understand if I answer the request, I trust. Mythologists have to err on the side of caution where Locii are involved). And zeruslord asks:
why do humans have cities and suburbs? I’m mostly talking about the outermost suburbs, like how all of New Jersey is a suburb of New York, and people are commuting from Front Royal into DC, and Los Angeles exists at all. Why are people willing to drive for hours to get to their job? why don’t the jobs move out faster?
It is a good question, really. After all, cities were meant to centralize humanity, giving them greater access to work, goods and services. So, why would men, women and families intentionally go farther afield, sacrificing convenience and adding hours to their workday in the form of “the commute?” Why would they restrict their potential mass transit options to what is in their suburb (or to their car), despite the price of gasoline and maintenance and the environmental impact and all the rest? What, in the end, is the deal?
Well, you probably shouldn’t be surprised to learn it’s all thanks to a jurisdictional dispute. So let’s leap right into it, shall we?
*** *** *** ***
We have already shown that there are half-gods who walk the Earth and the realms beyond it. Where there is a concept, there is often some being who represents that concept. We’ve met some of those folks in the past, of course. The Queen of the Baristas. The Viscountess of the Northwesterlies. The Manager of the Economy. Folks like that.
What may or may not be apparent is the innate hierarchy these half-gods — or Locii, as we have taken to calling them — exist in. Some concepts are naturally subordinate to other concepts, and it follows that there would be some authority designed to smooth things out. The Pub Sovereign can’t very well go on without the Master Brewer’s blessing, since a pub without beer is, in the end, a lunch counter. The Master Brewer, on the other hand, must answer to the appropriate Locii of yeast, grains, hops and the like, but truly works for the Aqueous Incarnate. After all, you can substitute lots of stuff and still call something ‘beer’ (or if not beer, some other brew), but take water out of the equation and you’re pretty well stuck. And, when the Master Brewer needs the good graces of the Preceptor of Yeast, he’s competing with the Dude What Makes The Bread among others, and there can be arguments between them — but since you need water for bread as well, the Aqueous Incarnate can resolve differences and set regulations when it is necessary to keep everyone happy, or at least quiet.
So it was with human habitation. We know that many cities have Locii of their own — we have met the Duchess of Los Angeles, for example. Naturally, the various Lords, Ladies and the like who hold dominion over the individual cities must themselves work with and under the City Planner, a position responsible for the development of urban culture through the ages.
But, that’s only one side of the City Planner’s dominion. There are common elements to all cities (and indeed to all human habitation) the City Planner has to coordinate. The Viceroy of the Cul-de-Sac, the Imperator of Sidewalks, the Street Lamp Guru and the like all have to report in too, because their components all come together to form cities as we know them. And when you need different Locii to work together, you eventually get into arguments. Sometimes for the highest and most noble reasons, mind.
And sometimes… well, not so much.
Benjamin walked into the back of the co-op. Up front, people were shopping for food. The prices were better than a lot of the supermarkets though of course they had to pay a membership fee. There was a lot of organic produce, a lot of hemp based soaps — stuff like that.
Benjamin looked like he fit in pretty well. Green tee shirt, flannel over it. Old worn jeans. Chuck Taylors. Short hair, slight sideburns. He looked almost angular as he walked. He was holding a paper slip in his hand — one torn off a flyer. It said to meet at the back of the store.
Sitting at a table in the back was an old woman. Heavyset and black, hair white. She was playing solitaire. Sitting next to her….
Benjamin stopped. He had no idea what that damn thing was. It was small — maybe eighteen inches. It had a humanoid body, but its head was disproportionate. It looked almost like a puppet — wood with fur or brown moss growing out of it, but it was… it looked alive. With a high, reedy voice he was making a running commentary. “–ust saying. The two goes on the ace of spades, then the three of spades from that column, you move the three of clubs up–”
“I know how to play solitaire,” she snapped. “I like to keep my cards in play. You play them too soon, you cut your options down.”
“Don’t play them at all, and the game never ends,” the little creature said, and looked up at Benjamin. “On the other hand, sometimes endings show up on you.”
“Uh, hi,” Benjamin said. He shook his head, as if to clear it. “Um, I’m… is this where the volunteer job is?”
“From the flyers?” the woman asked. “Serve your community and your community will serve you?”
“That’s the one.”
“You bet, sunshine. Congratulations. You’re Neighborhood Coordinator.”
Benjamin blinked. “Excuse me?”
“I’m tired, son. I’m tired and I want to retire. You’re the one who answered the flyer, so you get the job.” She smiled a bit. “You’ll like it, most days. Some days you won’t, but most days you will.”
Benjamin blinked again. “Um… I understood this was some kind of volunteer thing?”
“It’s the ultimate volunteer job, son.”
“Yeah, but…” Benjamin sighed. “Look, I’ll come clean. I thought there’d be a lot of people here. I’m new around here, and I thought this would be a way to, you know… meet people.”
“You thought you’d meet cute girls who wore oval glasses and smelled like patchouli,” the little creature said.
Benjamin flushed. “Well–”
“You’ll meet women,” the old woman said. “Oh yeah. But it doesn’t matter. I’m out of here, and you got the job now, son. Try not to screw it up too much.” She looked down at her cards. “Hm.” She moved the last six down onto the seven of hearts, letting her drop the five of diamonds and turn over the last card. She nodded, and began moving cards up onto the four aces.
“Look, what job? You said–”
“You’re the Neighborhood Coordinator,” the small creature said. “The spirit of the neighborhood is reborn in you. You are the most local manifestation of community, of people getting to know those around them, take pride in their home, and lay down roots.” The creature leaned forward. “You can feel it, can’t you? Feel your heart pumping it. Feel the home town spirit, the sense of the place where where young couples raise children and pensioners know the local greengrocer and everyone knows Mister Tyler the Phys Ed teacher was gay and no one cares because hey, they know Mister Tyler.” The creature smiled a toothy smile. “Mister Tyler is a neighbor.”
Benjamin opened his mouth to speak… but then he could feel it. Feel the thudding of his heart in his chest. Feel the thrum of community centers and neighborhood watches and midnight basketball and street gangs alike flooding through his veins. He could feel his perspective open, feel the sense of every street name, every mass transit schedule, every old tarmac basketball court and every crumbling tenement shiver through his being. Every locus is different. Some are immortal and eternal, but others pass their titles on, through many different means and methods. Benjamin could feel his individual cells expand and explode, his body shifting and altering within as he went from mortal to half-god — a lens for the very world, filtering the vision of the world through the ineffable concept of neighborhood.
Benjamin rubbed his brow. He was sweating. His eyes seemed to ache. “I… I never… never imagined….”
“I know,” the creature said. “I know. It’s all right, Benjamin. Take your time. Breathe it in.”
He looked around, seeing the co-op so differently now. He understood how each person fit into this place — how each shopper and each volunteer connected to all the others. The outsider who rarely spoke to anyone but who left money in every Salvation Army can at Christmas. The outgoing and enthusiastic organizer of Little League at the park who reined in his racism and forced himself to let even the little brown kids play. The pretty girl whose outer disdain masked a deep compassion she didn’t dare let out, lest her heart be broken by those around her again. These were the people in the Neighborhood — the people that you meet each day. They were Benjamin’s people now.
He was the Neighborhood Coordinator.
“This is amazing,” he murmured. “Miss — was it like this for you too?” he asked, turning–
The old woman’s hand was on the final king — the king of spaces, placed on the last pile. And anyone could see she was dead. Her skin even seemed to be sagging, her body shrinking in on itself. Becoming dust.
Benjamin’s eyes grew wide. “What…?”
The creature turned, and gasped. “Noa,” he murmured. And he knelt on the table by her game and cried.
Benjamin looked around. A woman was dead and falling into dust, and a wooden muppet of some sort was crying his grief out in the process, but….
“Why hasn’t anyone noticed?” he murmured.
“They can’t see us,” the creature said, getting his sobs under control. “Your nature prevents it. This is your business, not theirs. Even though they are your business.”
“What happened to her?” Benjamin asked softly.
“Noa retired,” the creature said simply. “She chose this. I didn’t… I guess this is what it looks like.”
“So… this is going to happen to me someday, too?”
The creature stood. Only a few wisps of dust and the card game remained, now. “Yes,” he said simply. “But only when you’re ready for it.”
Benjamin nodded. “Who… and what… are you?”
“I’m a Brownie,” the creature said. “A neighborhood spirit, who helps keep things running behind the scenes. I work for you. You couldn’t pronounce my name, but Noa called me Matthew.”
Benjamin nodded. “You’ll… have to help me get used to this,” Benjamin said. “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
“Yes,” he said, looking at the card game once more. “Yes, I’ll help you,” he said softly. “She would have wanted that.” He turned. “Come on. We have business in Saint Louis.”
“Saint Louis?” Benjamin blinked. “I’m going to Saint Louis?”
“Today you are. For just this part of today. I’ll get the clipboard. There’s a lot to do.”
“Okay — but I have to be back at Starbucks tomorrow for seven. I’m opening–”
Matthew looked at Benjamin for a long moment.
“I don’t work at Starbucks any more, do I?”
“Someone else will push the buttons to make the lattes,” Matthew said. “Come on. We might as well get started.”
Benjamin looked back at where Noa had retired. It was just a card table and a chair now, with a completed solitaire game. No dust, no sign there had ever been anyone sitting there. “Okay,” he said. He turned to follow the Brownie, who had hopped down and was darting through the co-op’s aisles.
At the door, he looked back. There were three neighborhood kids at the table, apparently ready to play cards. Benjamin felt his heart lurch as they scooped up Noa’s last game and began to shuffle, but he didn’t say anything.
“It’s all right,” Matthew said, sadly. “The cards are there so people can play. It’s neighborly.”
“Yeah,” Benjamin said. “Yeah.” They stepped out front.
And Benjamin froze.
Sitting there, in front of the co-op, was a giant red metal trolley car — like from San Francisco, or any number of cities from the turn of the century.
Matthew bounded up onto it, then looked back. “Come on,” he said. “You’re not going to walk to Saint Louis, are you?”
“No,” Benjamin said. “No, I’m not.” He stepped up onto the ramp.
“Token please,” the driver said quietly.
“I–” Benjamin said, startled.
“Check your pocket,” Matthew said, quietly.
Benjamin blinked, and pulled out a flat brass token.
The driver nodded to a dispenser, and Benjamin put it in with a clatter.
“Thank you, sir,” the driver said. “You’re the new Neighborhood Coordinator, then?”
“I… yes. That’s right,” he said.
The driver nodded. “Pleasure to meet you,” he said, though he was somber.
“You’re going to miss Noa?”
“A lot of people are going to miss Noa, sir,” the driver said. “Please take a seat, sir. I need to get going. I have a schedule.”
Benjamin nodded, stepping back. Many seats were taken up — there were fairies and dryads cradling bonsai trees. A minotaur was reading the Wall Street Journal. And there were several humans sitting, looking out at the neighborhood with slightly haunted looks. Benjamin recognized one of them from the grocery store he usually shopped at.
“What’s their story?” he asked Matthew as he slid next to the Brownie. He could more or less accept the mythological creatures on the Trolley, but the haunted men and women were disturbing.
“We take a run through Psychopomp Station,” Matthew said, as if it explained everything. “The Trolleys help cover those neighborhoods without other mass transit options.”
“Oh. So… this isn’t my Trolley?”
“Yes it is,” Matthew said. “But there’s no need to be selfish about it.”
“What’s Psychopomp Station?”
“I’ll tell you later.” He handed over a clipboard. “We have rather a lot to do today, sir. And we should really get to it.”
And so they did. And within a couple of weeks, Benjamin found himself settling into the routine nicely. It was pleasant, being the Locus of Neighborhoods. There was plenty of work, but there was always a sense it would actually be helpful to people — and sure, he sometimes had to manage so-called ‘bad’ neighborhoods too, and that was unpleasant, but he figured out early that you needed to have a contrast or people would take the good they had for granted. Besides, a bad neighborhood gave the people who lived there a chance to meet a new potential, to redeem and rebuild, and the cycle would continue anew.
And he had to admit, it was a pretty cool life. He got up in the morning, made a thermos of coffee, stepped outside his brownstone and the trolley was waiting for him. He swung up inside, nodded to Fred in the cockpit, respectfully acknowledged the men and women on their way to Psychopomp station, said his hellos to the mythological regulars, listened to the bell ring as he sat down, and read the paper while the Trolley pulled out and brought Benjamin within a few blocks of whatever neighborhood in the world he was working in that given day. That was pretty sweet, any way you looked at it.
It was on a bright spring day, stepping off the trolley a few streets down from Greenwich Village, that Benjamin accepted the clipboard from Matthew. “What’s the good word?” he asked.
“Galoshes,” Matthew said.
Benjamin blinked. “Excuse me?”
Matthew shrugged — an adorable move on his tiny little brownie body. “It’s an awfully good word.”
“I suppose so. What are we doing today?”
“The usual.” The Brownie artfully darted around trash cans put out for collection. No one seemed to notice the daemon as he walked through the streets, but then Brownies are rather skilled at not being noticed. “A few meetings. We need to inspect a few facilities. Perhaps have a conversation with the Neighborhood Spirit. Oh, and the City Planner is having an informal get together tonight. You should probably plan on showering and wearing something nice.”
“Why should I care what the New York City city planner does? I mean, is this an exceptionally good party or something?”
Matthew chuckled. “Not Amanda Burden’s office. No–”
“Wait. New York City’s city planner is named Amanda Burden?”
Matthew sighed. “Yes. Please work your way through the jokes quickly, sir. This is rather important.”
“What? Some party?”
“The City Planner’s party, sir.” Matthew stopped, looking at him. “You understand how important you are sir? Important and significant to the neighborhoods of the world, to the spirits of those neighborhoods, to the humans who need to rally and connect with those spirits? And to the world?”
Benjamin frowned. “I’ve sort of had to.”
“The City Planner is responsible for all the cities of the world in the same way. And the neighborhoods of those cities are her purview. She is one of the most powerful Locii the World has ever seen, sir. And while your influence spreads into all human habitation, not just cities, the greatest concentration of your neighborhoods can be found there.”
“So… this is a political thing?”
“To a degree. And a networking opportunity. There are a lot of Locii whose aspects are related to yours. A solid working relationship can only help everyone.”
“You don’t want to go?”
“It sounds kind of stiff.”
“Perhaps, sir. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible there will be one or two women there. Maybe even wearing oval glasses and smelling like patchouli.”
“You’re never going to cut me any slack about that, are you?”
“It seems unlikely, sir.”
Benjamin laughed. “All right. Have someone get appropriate clothes cleaned. Take them to that dry cleaner’s out in Seattle. You know the one?”
“Aubrey’s on Fifteenth, sir?”
“That’s the one.”
“Very good, sir. Do we have time to get a bagel before we begin today?”
“God, I hope so.”
The City Planner currently went by the name Isabella Hima, and her party was trendy and upscale, with sophisticates and piano music. Benjamin had a black silk shirt and jacket over slacks, and wondered if he was underdressed. He drank mixed drinks made with Ketel One and made pleasant noises to people like the Underlord of Sewage Treatment and the Viceroy of the Cul-de-Sac, and mostly felt like he was trapped in perdition.
He sat at the bar, a cold blue neon light reflecting off his face as he ordered a drink.
“These things are always so dry, aren’t they?”
The voice was pleasant and warm, and Benjamin found himself smiling before he even turned.
Her eyes were hazel. And she was indeed wearing glasses — almost more octagonal than oval, but he could make allowances. She wore tie dyed silk as a blouse and light capri pants, and her hair was almost alive around her face.
“Wow,” Benjamin said, blinking.
She giggled. “That’s hopeful.”
“Or really pathetic.” He chuckled. “Wow. I’m Benjamin.”
“Benjamin? I don’t think we’ve met?”
“I’m pretty new. I’m the Neighborhood Coordinator.”
“Oh! Of course. Noa retired, didn’t she. I’ll miss her.” She shook her head, her hair cascading. “It must be hard to… I dunno. End. I’m glad I’m eternal.”
“I’ll bet.” Benjamin chuckled. How could someone so… so… perfect not want to be eternal to boot. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are.”
She giggled again. “Probably because I didn’t tell you. I’m the Djinni of the Block. Call me Jen.”
They shook hands. “Wow,” he said. “We really should be working together.”
“Working together?” she asked, eyes twinkling. “Is that what they’re calling it these days?”
“Now now,” he said. “I didn’t mean it that way,” though of course he did. “I mean neighborhoods. In urban centers, the neighborhood is practically synonymous with the block — you have stores and places to live and schools and even parks all within that one little subdivision. It’s like every block is a single cell of the whole city,” he gestured with his hands, “but it has the whole city in microcosm.”
Jen giggled. “You used to smoke a lot of marijuana, didn’t you?”
“Well, I did major in Philosophy.”
“Same thing. We should talk.”
“We should.” He paused. “What’s that scent?”
“Do you like it? It’s a BPAL — Namaste. I love this perfume. It’s like, sandalwood and jasmine and cedarwood and patchouli.”
“Close enough,” Benjamin said, grinning.
“Nothing. C’mon. Let’s go get Chinese.”
The phone rang the next morning. Benjamin got it on the fourth ring. “Yeah?” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Matthew said. “I don’t mean to be a pest but the Trolley’s been waiting rather overly long and they’re getting concerned about their schedule.”
“Oh. Mrph. I overslept?”
“Astutely observed, sir.”
“Yeah.” He rubbed his eyes. “Y’know what? We’re taking this as a sick day, Matthew.”
There was a pause. “A sick day, sir?”
“That’s right. I’m not really feeling up to it today. Let Fred know he can move on. We’ll pick it up tomorrow.”
“I wasn’t aware you could get sick, sir.”
“Are you saying I can’t take a sick day if I want, Matthew?”
“Of course not, sir. I wouldn’t presume to say that.”
“That’s right. You wouldn’t. Because… um….”
“Because you’re the Neighborhood Coordinator, sir?”
“Exactly. So… um….”
“So I’ll see you tomorrow, sir?”
“That’s right. You will! Good bye, Matthew.”
“Good bye sir. Feel better.”
“Oh, I will.” Benjamin hung up.
Jen turned over. “That sounded funny,” she said, stretching. She wore a bedsheet particularly well.
“That was Matthew. He’s kind of my majordomo. He’s a Brownie.”
“Oh yeah — I met him once. I was working with Noa on some project. Midnight basketball or some shit.”
“Heh. You used to do stuff with Noa?”
“Well, not a lot.” She reached out, patting her hand on the nightstand next to her, finding her glasses and putting them on. “Really, I felt like we should do more than we did. I mean, in urban centers, the block is the heart of the neighborhood.”
“You know, I totally agree,” Benjamin said. “And you’re right. Your office and mine — we should totally work together.”
“Yeah,” Jen said, smiling more. “I think that’d be great. I think you and I — we could totally redefine the community within the city.”
“Totally. You want breakfast?”
“Cook me eggs, smart guy.”
It was nine weeks later that Matthew tried to talk Benjamin out of proposing. “You just met this girl,” he said. “And it’s not like you really know her.”
“Hey, I know her,” Benjamin said. “How can you say I don’t know her?”
“Sir, she’s thousands of years old. She rose up out of the concept of buildings bisected by streets. She is eternal. You don’t know her because you don’t begin to have her frame of reference.”
“I know her. She’s a part of my neighborhood! I know the people in my neighborhood!”
“Please don’t start singing, sir.” The Brownie rubbed his eyes. “And she’s not a part of your neighborhood. The Locii have a professional courtesy between them. Even if they should fall within each others’ aspects, by convention they do not.”
“Look, I’ve never felt like this before, Matthew. I’d like you to be happy for me.”
“I feel positively giddy that you’re having fun and improving your sex life, sir,” Matthew said dryly. “But as it works out, I rather like you and I want to be sure you understand what you’re getting into. There’s no need to rush, you know. She’s immortal and you’ve got at least a few centuries in you.”
Benjamin sighed. “Look, I’m not a child.”
“You’re not a human, sir. You’re a Locus. I’m not sure you’ve quite gotten your brain around that fact yet.”
“I thought I was doing a pretty good job.”
“You are, sir. And your work with Miss Jen has been excellent. You’ve had block parties, you’ve organized a real convergence of the neighborhood and the block in any number of cities. I respect that.”
“I wasn’t aware I needed your respect,” Benjamin snapped. “You work for me, not the other way around.”
“If I want to propose tonight, I will. And you’re going to do whatever I need you to do to make this a superior night for both me and Jen, aren’t you?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Good. I don’t want anything to go wrong, tonight. It’s going to be perfect. Do you hear me?”
“Deaf men can hear you, sir.”
“Damn straight.” He stormed out the door. “Get to work.”
Seven hours later, Benjamin was storming again. But not exactly the same way. “You unmitigated whore!”
Jen frowned. “What the Hell does that even mean?” she asked.
Benjamin slapped the table. “Don’t change the subject!”
“No, I want to talk about this. What is an ‘unmitigated’ whore? What is a mitigated whore? Is that a whore who lives in Nevada? Or one who whores in mitigating circumstances.”
“Jesus Christ, Jen–”
“And let’s stop and examine the ‘whore’ part of this.” The Djinn was angry now, her hair whipping around her head like it was caught in a cyclone. “When did it become okay to equate the sex trade with women acting uppity, anyway?”
“Jesus — if you’re not going to talk about this–”
“You’re not talking,” Jen snapped. “You’re shouting. And over nothing!”
“Nothing? Nothing? The Marquis of the Bridge was all over you. His hand was on your ass while you were introducing me to him!”
“Of course it was! I’ve known him for a thousand years! We’ve been married twice! Just because he’s got a sense of familiarity–”
“Familiarity? Familiarity? What would you consider intimate?”
“Jesus, it’s not like I was sleeping with him, Benjamin.”
Jen’s eyes flared. “That’s right. ‘Yet.'”
Benjamin blinked. “Wait, what?”
“I’ve been around the block a few million times, Benjamin! I’m thousands of years old! So have a lot of Locii! And sometimes we sleep together! Or we sleep with mortals! It breaks up the monotony of eternity a little! It feels good and it helps remind us we’re not the only half-gods in the universe! And since you’re one of the half-gods I’ve slept with, I’d expect you to appreciate that fact!”
“I thought we were building something together!”
“We are! We have a great working relationship! We have a lot of fun! And believe it or not, I haven’t had sex with anyone else since our first night together!”
“But you reserve the right to?”
“Jesus Christ — we’re not getting married, Benjamin!”
“Who says we’re not?”
Jen stared. “You have got to be kidding me.”
Benjamin sputtered. “What? You’re saying you–”
“We’ve known each other — what, five minutes? Talk to me in three or four years — a decade would be better!”
“We’re perfect together! Our aspects match up perfectly, our–”
“So perfect you’re calling me a whore for letting a man I have been married to touch my butt instead of being uptight about it?”
“That’s different! You’re with me now!”
“Yeah? About that? I think maybe not.” Jen spun and stormed out of the room.
Benjamin stared at her, then turned and threw a glass against the wall. He breathed hard for a couple of moments, then pulled out his cell phone, pushing the autodial for Matthew.
“Hello, sir. Shall I start the band playing?”
“No. You wanna go have eight or nine drinks with me?”
“Oh yeah. You don’t have to go drinking if you don’t–”
“I trust you’re buying, sir?”
It took less than fifteen minutes to meet up, in the bar across from the IHOP on State Route Sixteen, in the back roads behind the worlds. It was a popular hangout for Brownies and other urban spirits and daemons. And in this case, a popular place for a Locus to get drunk on well drinks. “I just… I feel like an idiot,” Benjamin said, looking into the bottom of his glass. “You know what the worst thing is?”
“Having a Brownie say he told you so?”
“Worse.” He waved his hand, at least somewhat drunk. “Much worse.”
“Tomorrow I’m going to go to work, and I’m going to have her stupid blocks thrown in my face over and over again! I mean, for weeks we’ve been building up neighborhoods all around her dumb — who even… I mean… who wants to live their life bounded by four streets? We have a world open to us!”
“It hurts,” Matthew said. “But you’ll get over it, sir.” His voice was soft. “You’ll even begin to understand her with time — understand the difference between your mortal life and your life as a Locus. Understand the ways–”
“You know what? Screw the Djinni of the Block! Screw her to the wall!”
Matthew sighed. “Get it all out, sir. You don’t want to let this affect your work.”
“The Hell I won’t let this affect my work! She used me!”
Matthew blinked. “Sir, there’s no conceivable way she used you.”
“Of course she did! She said she wanted Neighborhoods and the Block to work more closely together! She got what she wanted and she dropped me like… like butter!”
“You’re drunk, sir. And that made no sense.”
“It makes sense to me!”
“No one drops butter, sir.”
“Shut up! She’s not going to get away with this!”
Matthew blinked and looked at his employer. “Sir, I beg you to just drop this quietly.”
“No! Screw her! She wants the — she wants the block to replace the neighborhood! That’s what she wants! Well screw her! Neighborhoods are about something! Blocks are about… geography! No, we’re going to do something.” A light began to burn in the drunk Locus’s eyes. “We’re going to do something fantastic.”
“We… we are, sir?”
“Absolutely. We’re going to reclaim the neighborhood. We’re going to make it what it used to be! And it’s not going to have anything to do with her blocks.”
Matthew slowly looked down. “Of course we are, sir. But sir… do be warned. The actions of the Locii have impact. And even they can’t be certain what those actions will be.”
“Maybe. But I know one thing’s for sure.”
“Jen is not going to like this.”
Matthew sighed. “That seems certain, sir.”
Unfortunately for everyone involved, when Benjamin got his mind set on a grudge, he got his mind set on it. Now, time is an odd thing to Locii. I can say that he worked his plans over several weeks or even months, and it makes perfect sense from his point of view. But from the point of view of the world… well, history can show that the trends and movements he intended extend back decades through history. The universe has to cover for Locii, after all, lest it all become too obvious. So it’s hard to say how quickly the City Planner called the Neighborhood Coordinator into her office, except to say that enough time had passed that said City Planner? Was pissed.
“Sit down,” Isabella Hima said to Benjamin after he entered.
Benjamin sat. “You called?” he asked.
“Yeah, I called. You’re screwing with my cities, boy, and I want it stopped.”
Benjamin arched an eyebrow. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t play cute with me, child.” Isabella’s eyes flashed, with the sound of distant thunder — the sound a fully loaded semi made when it thundered across a bridge into a city. “People are moving out of the city. They’re citing crime, and danger, and congestion. They’re blaming bad neighborhoods.”
Benjamin nodded. “I know.”
“But you shouldn’t be mad.”
“In what universe shouldn’t I be mad. They’re leaving my cities!”
“Are they?” Benjamin smiled a bit. “They’re moving into the suburbs. Building new communities, bound by lifelines of road and steel into the heart of your cities. They have their neighborhoods they live in, but they work and play and shop in your cities.”
Hima narrowed her eyes. “Are you trying to tell me you’re doing me a favor?”
Benjamin chuckled. “Of course I am. These ‘bedroom communities?’ They usually end up organizing as cities themselves. Or they’re part of the ‘greater metropolitan areas of their cities. They extend your reach. They extend your influence. Are you going to tell me you’re diminished by this?”
Hima’s eyes remained narrow. “So what do you get out of it?”
“What else? A resurgence of the neighborhood as the basic unit of society.”
“And a lot of people driving around. Commutes of a couple of hours, sometimes….”
Benjamin shrugged. “It’s a price to pay but a small one.”
Hima leaned forward. “And if I told you I was unhappy?”
Benjamin smiled a bit. “I’d feel badly, of course, Madame City Planner. But to be honest, there’s not a lot you could do.” He shrugged. “A city without neighborhoods is a collection of buildings, not a home. You need me. You need my good graces. If you drove all the neighborhoods out of your cities, they’d fall silent, while people would still form towns and villages and communities. The neighborhood would still survive.” He leaned forward. “But this way, you don’t have to be unhappy. The definition of city expands. Urban sprawl still contains the core urban elements. We both win.”
Hima paused a long moment, and then smiled. “True enough,” she said. “All right, Benjamin. We’ll see what this does for a while. But don’t kid yourself. If you became my enemy, your existence would be miserable.”
“Then let’s hope I am never your enemy, ma’am.”
Hima chuckled. “All right. Good day, Benjamin.”
Benjamin stepped out of the office. He felt pretty good. He wasn’t sure how this meeting was going to go, but–
“Are you seriously this petty?”
The Djinni of the Block was standing in the outer office, staring at him.
“Hello, Jen,” he said amiably.
“I’m serious. You were so pissed off because I wasn’t what you expected you decided to drive humanity out of the city neighborhoods and into the suburbs?”
Benjamin shrugged. “I think I’m upholding the honor and responsibility of my office and my aspect the best way I know how.”
“By encouraging chunks of major cities to become demilitarized zones? By remaking humanity into commuter culture? All just to spite me?” She shook her head. “God, you’re so immature.”
“You’re the one who assumes this is all about her.” Benjamin smiled a bit more.
“I don’t assume anything, Benjamin. And you know it.” She shook her head. “I don’t know what this is supposed to accomplish, though. Suburbs still have streets and cross streets. They’re made up of blocks, just like cities are.”
“Yeah, but those blocks lack density.” Benjamin smiled a bit. “One block won’t usually have homes and schools and stores on it. They’re long streets of houses and yards, and a few blocks away there’s the school, and the grocery store is a few blocks in the other direction — and oh hey, there’s the KMart down the way….”
Jen snorted. “Meaning?”
“Meaning your streets and cross streets? They’re just waypoints in the suburbs, Jen. They’re just navigational aids so the pizza guy can find your house.” He shrugged. “Sorry.”
“I’m sure you are,” she said. “I’m sure you are.” And she turned and walked out.
Only this time, Benjamin was smiling when she did it.
And I could end the story here, I suppose — it answers the question. Thanks to pettiness and jurisdiction and a newcomer to the world of the Locii the suburbs rose and humanity would drive hours to get to its urban work. But that isn’t quite the end of the story. Because as we’ve said before, every action of the Locii has profound affect upon the world, and when a Locus is stymied, they find another way to make their point. And that’s what eventually leads our Neighborhood Coordinator to one more office — this time, to the Lord of the Road.
“Hey,” the Lord said, shaking Benjamin’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Yeah,” Benjamin said, “You too.” But the Neighborhood Coordinator didn’t look happy.
“Do you want me to get some coffee? Maybe some soda?”
“No. No thank you.”
“So. What can I do for you?”
“I’m not sure. But we have a problem.”
The Lord frowned. “We do?”
“Yes.” Benjamin sighed. “Neighborhoods are suffering. People aren’t shopping locally. They’re driving to WalMart in another town. Doing one big grocery run every couple of weeks. They’re…” He shrugged. “They’re not coming together. They’re not getting to know their neighbors or going to the community centers together.”
The Lord nodded somberly. “I know. But that doesn’t mean we have a problem. It means you do.”
“Well, yes, but–”
“Look, I feel for you, Coordinator. I really do. But when people began to gravitate out of the cities — but not return to towns — then they created a borderland. And they started living out of their cars. They spend hours in their cars. And they get used to them. They can’t run home for lunch, or down to the local cafe. And the stress of work and the stress of commute means either they stay at home or when they go out, it’s as simple to go out across town as across the street. This is the culture that’s formed around their lives and their livelihoods. This is the nature of a culture that uses transportation as its most basic tool.” He shrugged. “it’s nothing personal, but people like going to the Mall, or WalMart, or the Longhorn. They like going to the big theater with the surround sound and sixteen movies even if it’s a half hour away while the local theater’s five minutes. The world reflects their preferences. And if I benefit, that’s good for me. And if you don’t, I’m sorry but there’s nothing I can do about that.”
“Sure,” Benjamin said, “Well, I had to say my piece, right?”
“Of course. And look — the neighborhood’s hardly dead. There’s still plenty of places where it flourishes. I have every confidence you’ll bring it back in some new form.”
“Yeah. Of course.” Benjamin stood. And paused, seeing a picture on the Lord’s desk.
“Oh, you noticed her?” The Lord smiled. “My girlfriend. She’s amazing. You should meet her sometime.”
“We’ve met,” he said quietly. “I’m surprised you… have things in common, though.”
“Are you kidding?” He grinned. “Get us off the highway, and everything I do comes back to blocks. Heh — you know what she told me? She said that in the end, the street and its cross street is the ultimate navigational aid. It’s what tells the pizza man where your house is!”
“Yeah,” Benjamin said. “She’s right about that.”
And Benjamin left the office, and went down to the street. He handed his token to Fred, and nodded to those on their way to Psychopomp Station. He said hi to the regulars and he settled into his seat. Maybe it was time to do a big PTA thing — get people in the communities back into schools. Or recycling. Recycling was always big. Maybe start a new ‘keep our community beautiful’ campaign. There were lots of ideas.
And besides, that always brought out volunteers. Maybe cute ones.
But not oval glasses and patchouli. He was so off that. He was more into piercings and musk, now.
The bell rang, and the trolley rolled out. Off to another day, and another neighborhood.