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Archive for November, 2008

At a very happy dinner party on “Thanksgiving Eve”, each of us was invited in turn to name something he or she was grateful for.  It would have been rude of me to hog the floor for the sake of being thorough, so I kept mine fairly brief.  I’m going to expand on it here.

I think it’s common in Fairbanks — probably in the entire country; I’m unsure about other nationalities — to believe in the ideal of the self-made man.  In comments on the News-Miner website, people often deny the need for social programs (or even much sympathy) for the unfortunate, since the most difficult of circumstances can be gotten through by those of good character: certainly they pulled through tough times by their own grit, without help from anybody.

Hogwash.

Did you hitchhike?  You can be glad for the kindness of those who picked you up.  You can be glad that the car’s construction was built to some government standard of safety.  You can be glad for the civil engineers who designed the streets and roads.  You can be glad for traffic laws, as well as for both those who create them and those who enforce them.

Did you scrounge food from the refuse of a restaurant?  You can be glad that there are regulations about how the food-service industry must operate to provide safe food.  You can be glad for the agencies that exist to enforce those standards.  You can be glad for the medical and other scientific professionals from the present to back ages past for the research underlying the standards.

Did you sleep in an abandoned building?  You can be glad that the building was built to code — if not up to current code, at least it was probably built to some code — elsewise you might imperil yourself each night, if you even found the building standing.  You can be glad for building inspectors.  You can be glad for the work of the architects and engineers who have hammered out these codes over decades, if not centuries.  (Though I recognize that the study of architecture itself has been around since time immemorial.)

No, no, you don’t get away with saying you’ve done it all yourself and live in no man’s debt unless you’ve lived off the grid since your youth: fashioning your own tools, building your own dwelling, and hunting and harvesting your own food, all without any of the goods and services civilization brings.  (Even then, you might be glad for smokejumpers.)  But, more likely, you are in everyone’s debt, as we all are, omnes omnibus.

I’ve certainly never had to live such a spartan life: I’m lucky to come from a family well enough off (as most are), and to eke out enough of a living (as most can), to embrace the city’s material goods, like plumbing and electricity, and its cultural goods, like schools and libraries.

One of the civic goods I’m grateful for is the bus system — part material good and part cultural, I suppose.  Fairbanks is widely spread out: not only do many people choose to live far out of town where a car is every day required, but even in town I doubt there is any one neighborhood where all life necessities and civic needs can be met on foot.  (As I’ve said before, car ownership is our own unofficial citizenship tax.)  Without the bus system, many would be cut off from job prospects, church attendance, access to government, and even grocery shopping.

My own circumstances are not so dire.  Through a series of gratitude-worthy causes that I won’t recount here, my wife and I are lucky enough to own one car and to have use of another through the cold half of the year.  We can pay the citizenship tax, though we’d have less of the “scraping by” feeling if we didn’t have to.  So when I’m grateful for public buses, I’m grateful for a luxury (though it’s perverse that we should have to consider buses, not cars, the luxury).

Particularly:

  • Though my wife and I continue to pay monthly insurance on both cars, we are spared nearly all the cost of gasoline for one car.  Plus, there’s less risk of getting in an accident and needing car repair.
  • I get twenty to twenty-five minutes of down time each way.  Most of the time I read, but I’ve been known simply to think, and sometimes (especially on the way home) to snooze.
  • Watching the variety of company is fascinating.  Like most people, I see a fairly homogeneous group of people at work, at church, and among my friends.  But bus ridership cuts across professions, religions, and subcultures.  I enjoy the window into how other people live and think.

So I’m glad for the drivers — both for the training and skill they bring to the job, and for their having a temperament that allows them to do that work.  The vigilance they exercise every day, in driving safely and in making their scheduled stops as promptly as possible, would exhaust me.

I’m glad for the work of the Borough Transportation Department.  Their staff has to train drivers, designate the routes, budget for all the services, maintain and repair the buses (and other vehicles in the department), and keep a comfortable, dignified transit center.

I’m glad for the City of Fairbanks Public Works Department, for street-sweeping, snowplowing, and all manner of street maintenance and repair.

I’m glad for the Borough Assembly, which approves budgets for the Fairbanks North Star Borough and allocates money to fund transit operations.  For FY 2009, the Assembly allocated over 5.7 million dollars to the Transportation Department, under the critical eye of the often tax-averse Fairbanks-area public.

I’m glad for the property-tax-paying public, who for FY 2009 are shouldering nearly seventy percent of the Borough’s budgetary burden.  Of course, this includes most people, since even renters indirectly pay some portion of their landlord’s annual assessment.

It is true that many people would like to have their property tax lowered or eliminated, or would like to have their civic contribution steered toward something other than public transit.  Therefore, I’m glad I live in a culture where — more or less — cooperation is valued, public goods are embraced though they may not benefit each individual, and caring and kindness are considered not only personal virtues, but public virtues too, and are part of our civic mandate.

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