Mr. Frodo Baggins, hobbit, left his house at Bag End in Hobbiton at the beginning of Tolkien’s celebrated trilogy for a series of incredible adventures that lasted over a thousand pages and exposed the stout little fellow to unspeakable horrors. Toward the end, through sheer guts he penetrated the inner fastnesses of Mordor, the country or continent that embodied all that was most evil, and saved everything that was good and everyone worth saving through his heroism.
I have not been particularly heroic this past weekend, but I could not help being reminded of Mr. Frodo Baggins and his travels. The fact is, I left Rappahannock Saturday, and proceeded by train to New York City, for an extended visit of rather less than 24 hours, during which I persuaded four fiddlers at the Mannes school of music to perform and record my string quartet. My purpose was noble, if less so than Frodo’s, and the fiddlers were fine, showing that good exists even in the heartland of evil. But New York was Mordor.
The trip up was depressing enough. The train is the better way to travel, better than air because it avoids the hassles at the airports, better than driving because you can read or snooze or just look out the window while in motion. But looking out the window ain’t all that great, on this route. There are patches of scruffy woodland down near the Washington end, marred by dumps and other detritus, but as you approach Mordor–excuse me, the Big Apple–the landscape becomes increasingly dominated by one theme–man’s destruction, rape, and total spoliation of a once-beautiful natural environment. Finally, when you think things can’t get any uglier, you are mercifully plunged into a series of tunnels.
Mordor proper begins when you emerge from the tunnels into a vast underground catacomb, lit by horrid red and orange lights, with steel monsters rushing all over the place and gnomelike figures scurrying around every which way. This place is known as Penn Station. You find what you hope is a main current of gnomes and move with them to an upper level, where the air and light is somewhat more terrestrial in nature. Some good elves in your earlier escapades have advised you to head north in something called the Subway, so you ask several gnomes how to approach this Thing. The gnomes all glare at you and rush on. Finally you find a kind of island in the middle of a vast flat ocean full of gnomes, and sitting in this island is a relatively benign gnome whose job it is to advise people like you how to find and use the Subway. You receive your instructions and walk a long way north past some red-rimmed hellhole called Dunkin Donuts. The passageway narrows; its sides are lined with benches, on which sleep recumbent trolls. You walk a little faster, take a wrong turn, and find yourself in a dead end full of discarded paper cartons. You hear a gentle snore coming out of one such carton, and see a human hand protruding from another. You backtrack hastily, almost all the way to Dunkin Donuts, and finally find a sign that tells you where you went wrong. You start down a long dank dirty corridor that seems to stretch on endlessly, all the time jostled and shoved by hurrying gnomes. Other gnomes, and more than a few authentic trolls, are sleeping along the side of the corridor, or sitting there with head held in hands, as though the harsh blue light that illuminates your way would do them physical damage if their eyes were exposed to it. The gnomes that are hurrying along do not notice; you are the only one in the crowd that looks from side to side as you move along.
Eventually the corridor ends; to the right stairs stretch up towards what might just possibly be the light of day; to the left stairs descend into a new underground labyrinth, somewhat similar to the hellhole called Penn Station, but different and in some ways even more menacing. At the entrance is a vertical machine that appears designed to shred people into horizontal slices; it turns out that it lets people out but not in. You actually have to pay to get in, quite a substantial sum. You pay the gnome behind the counter, a female polishing her claws, who eventually shoves a token at you, which you stick in a slot, and there you are, admitted to The Subway!
One feature of the subway is that whether you are waiting for a train to come by, or are actually installed in the train, hurtling through space at a breakneck pace, with incredible bangs and crashes assaulting your ears, you are more confined than in Penn Station in terms of the specific gnomes around you. In other words, you stay with the same ones for longer, you have opportunities you didn’t have in the other place to study them in some detail. This is not at all reassuring, however. On the contrary. A human being like me, who professes to humanism as a guiding faith, ought to feel a warmth, a sense of underlying community, with all the branches and categories of humanity, even including the gnomes of the New York Subway. Those gnomes, however, are for the most part singularly repulsive in personal appearance, and respond to your enquiring glances in ways that suggest that they are either lobotomized or deeply malevolent. Their dress is for the most part bizarre, and seems designed to repel more than to attract. Once removed from the long corridors connecting the Subway to other areas, they stop their scurrying entirely, and for the most part stand or sit entirely without motion, eyes glazed over. When the subway starts grinding to a halt at a station, however, some of them, the ones that want to get off, recover their animation abruptly, as though a switch had been turned, and start pushing and shoving their fellow gnomes, who seem to require this treatment before they can be persuaded to get out of the way. Throughout, the atmosphere reeks with malevolence, suspicion, and fear.
I survived my trip in the Subway and arrived at my destination, to be met by the Good Fairy Linda, who offered me a drink, which I badly needed. Linda and her consort lunched with me, I repaired to the Mannes School, and the following hours were memorable, but not part of this story. Eventually I escaped New York, took the train back to Washington DC, and this morning drove gratefully back to my own little Bag End in Rappahannock, where the local folks move slowly, speak softly and courteously, even to strangers, and are slow to anger but firm in their knowledge of the Good and the Bad. They firmly believe among other things that Rappahannock County is part of the Good, and New York City is right at the epicenter of the Bad. They are sooo right.
I am grateful for recent breakthroughs in communications, and the computer revolution in particular, because I believe these developments will make it progressively more feasible, more practicable, for most people to live outside big cities. It will be possible, that is, to reverse the trend of the past century or so towards urbanization. This question of urbanization versus deurbanization is for me a paramount issue, when I consider future alternative life styles for our species. As far as I am concerned, needless to say, deurbanization has it. Mordor is out.
Carl Coon, Aug. 1990