Right before the Collapse, everyone had free electricity, free Internet and free cable TV, and we all thought it was going to get better forever. Except for the headaches and barrage of advertising for the Meld clubs in Center City, things felt fantastic. I was in love, I had a job selling art at a gallery, and I had a garden.
Then inexplicably, it started getting worse. We’d had a mortgage on a place in an up-and-coming area of the city, and the bank started sending us foreclosure notices after they dropped our automatic payment, which caused us to pay late one month. The bank took ownership of the property within the year, and they put it up for sale while we still lived there. It got gobbled up by an investor from the Global South, we were kicked out like errant rental tenants by private bank security, and that was that. The courts were swamped, and it was no secret that the municipal and state governments subsisted on grants from the multinational finance-military-biotech-energy conglomerates, and we didn’t have a lot of faith that they would rule in our favor. More likely the case would be backlogged forever.
Our gallery’s lease owner faced a similar situation, which put me and my husband out of a job that same year. We heard rumors of civil wars all across the country. That was when the spate of headaches, nausea and depression began in earnest, and the TV provided a constant counterpoint. “Just come to the Meld. Things will be better. Get your medications, free!” On paper, everything worked with what they were offering. Positive reviews, good press coverage, that last puzzle piece. Everything you needed, wouldn’t cost you a penny, just the standard 10-hour workday. My husband wanted us to go, but my irrational distrust kept me from fully buying in, and he didn’t want to go without me.
I pulled us from couch to couch in the hard neighborhoods, picked up odd jobs, grew all my food, and helped out around random houses, living from the open hearts of strangers. Everybody knew something unknown and terrifying was on the horizon and that we needed to stick together or we would fall apart. In that year of rapid social transition, the humanity on the edge was heartbreakingly beautiful.
Then the welfare and unemployment checks stopped coming. A mass mailing with official letterhead stated, “in the Meld, it’s not just a check – the general welfare is a way of life! We’ve got a spot ready for you. Join us today!”
Government offices and civil services out on the edges shuttered. We all assumed that they’d retreated with business into the Meld. Once the government offices were gone, the police soon followed. “Regional enforcer bodies” cropped up, which was a polite way of saying armed gangs, some of whom included ex-cops with anti-terrorist gear and no semblance of law and order to hold them in check. That’s not to say that none of them had our best interests at heart; but there were so many different crews that it was hard to tell who was really for community protection and who just wanted to push up their egos and be the big men in charge. We kept to our gardens and didn’t stay out after dark.
The TVs and computers still worked, but we turned them off because the details of survival were more pressing than the endless drama in the media, and our health issues largely went away, which confirmed my suspicions that they had been beaming some sort of signal through our screens to make us all miserable. After the gas and the police disappeared, the gas and water shut off. The free electricity, TV and Internet were the last to go.
When the lights finally went out, a primal fear of the dark howled through my neighborhood. Hundreds of thousands of rounds of stockpiled ammunition were let loose throughout the city, resulting in a year of blood and broken glass, battles for control. I learned from an old gang head how to fight with a knife and how to shoot a gun. My pacifist artist comrades thought I was crazy, but then I shot a couple of ex-pigs trying to push my friend’s kid up against a wall, pants down, and they stopped talking trash about my shoulder holster.
We met in secret and formed garden collectives to work during the day in order to eat, to survive. Up to twenty of us showed up at a time during those horrific months. We laughed, cried, hugged each other and shared moments of silent terror in basements through dozens of explosions, gun fights and screams just outside our doors.
As the years went by, the daily violence quieted down and peace settled in. People gradually stopped coming to collective meetings. They got caught up in other things or succumbed to the Meld. We endured separately. I lost more of my friends to peace than to war.
Some days the Meld looked really attractive. The overheated climate brought new pests up from the south every summer. When my entire potato harvest was eaten by weevils the season after my husband left me for the Meld, it took a whole bottle of stiff drink I could barely afford to keep me from walking down the street and getting happy, mindless and caged for good. I passed out at the bar, woke up alone, and allowed my strong thighs to carry my anxious, exhausted mind home under the hot moonlight. “No, I can’t keep on,” I murmured as I walked. “No, I gotta. No, I can’t. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I will go on.”