The circle of life is a beautiful thing, except when it’s not. Bloody-faced lions gobbling zebra guts, for example, are part of the circle of life, but I have to look away. (My middle-schooler loves this stuff.)
Ipswich has its own circle of life, which fortunately does not involve the gobbling of anybody’s guts. It’s a five-stage circle, and here’s how it goes:
Stage 1. We’re driving along, minding our own business, when suddenly a colossal thunk wrenches the steering wheel from our grasp, and we realize there’s a major new pothole where there wasn’t one before, and we’ll have to remember to steer around it next time. But we don’t remember, and we go thunk again, and we cuss. Then another pothole appears, not too far away, and then another. We learn to drive slowly on this stretch of road. We pick our way through the war zone, our Chrysler creeping among the land mines. Eventually, however, the plethora of potholes is so annoying that we actually pick up the phone and dial Town Hall and complain.
In this activity, we citizens are functioning as the bottom of the food chain, like mice, or grasshoppers, creatures that don’t strike fear in the heart of other creatures, but rather, for the most part, get eaten by them. We are almost entirely powerless. Most of us don’t have the wherewithal to fill our own potholes. We can’t protest by withholding our tax dollars, because it will wind up costing us even more in attorneys’ fees. All we can do is mutter, and soldier on, and — at the very most — squawk.
But this is not the end of the cycle. It’s only just begun. The Ipswich circle of life continues. Next, Stage 2. On the second floor of Town Hall, we find our intrepid Town Manager frowning into her computer screen. She has a million problems to worry about — it’s like flies harassing a wildebeest. The moment she shoos one with her tail, another lands on her nose. You just get FinCom settled down, and the Rec Committee is on you. Now, on top of all this, there’s the nagging little buzzing sound of citizens calling to complain about a certain passel of potholes. Finally, the buzzing reaches critical mass. The Town Manager grabs her phone. She barks into the handset: “Get me the pothole guys.” Soon, the pothole SWAT team descends on the much maligned stretch of street. The hot black glop oozes, the smoothing specialists do their smoothing, and the plague is finally over. You can glide on this street now. You could land a small plane. You can rollerblade in your sleep. You can speed.
Stage 3. We’re walking along, minding our own business, on our nice new level road, when a Harley roars past, doing about 55. A soccer mom in an SUV whooshes past you like a shark. A delivery truck roars by. Kid at the wheel, escaping chores, heading for his girlfriend’s house, passes in a blur. Old guy in an antique convertible: Raaaaaarrr!
This is the stage where drivers, freed from the menacing moonscape, put the pedal to the metal. It’s such a joy to sail over level blacktop without fear of rack-and-pinion ruination that you can’t stop yourself. You speed.
But this is not the end of Stage 3. Oh my, no. The Ipswich circle of life continues. On Elm Street, inside a very old building, on a massive multi-paneled console, tiny lights are lighting up, and a diligent young man in an Ipswich Police Department uniform is trying very hard to answer all the phone calls.
“Yes, ma’am, thank you, got it.”
“Yes, sir, thank you. I’ll let him know.”
The problem with the high-tech console at the Ipswich Police Department is that it doesn’t have a “Send to voicemail” button.
The young man finally rips the headset off, throws it aside, and lunges into Chief Nikas’s office.
“Everyone’s complaining about the speeders!”
Chief Nikas is a calm soul. Like the wise gorilla father overseeing his troop of little gorillas in the jungle, he knows what to get exercised about, and what not to.
“Well done, grasshopper,” he says to the boy. “Keep treating them nicely.”
He waves the boy out. The people complaining about speeders are probably the same ones who vote against new police cruisers and more police officers. How do you patrol 42 square miles with so few cops in such old cars? Resources must be expended wisely. Stop a speeder on School Street on Saturday, miss a murder on Mitchell on Monday.
Still, the cries of the citizens, squalling about speeders, are not without effect. Someone else hears them. Someone higher up than the wildebeest, higher up than the gorilla.
Stage 4. Mother Nature, sitting in an ancient La-Z-Boy on her celestial screen porch, finishes the last gulp of gin, plunks the glass down on a rickety side table, picks up a pack of Winstons and knocks one out. Lighting it, she rasps out of the side of her mouth: “Bring me another, will ya, honey?” Her husband grunts from the kitchen. She has the craggy look of a woman who’s been out in the sun a lot. Her duties don’t allow her a lot of indoors-time.
Soon St. Peter ambles out of the house in his undershirt. Most people don’t realize that Mother Nature is married to St. Peter. He hands her another gin on the rocks, drops himself into the rocking chair next to her, and takes a glug of his Corona. It would be a good life up here, except for the noise. There’s an almost constant array of noises coming up from below — sort of a buzzing, whining, clicking, ticking, clucking — the sound of human grievance.
“They’re making me crazy,” St. Peter mumbles.
“It’s the speeders,” Mother Nature replies, her voice scratching like steel wool.
“Well, do something about it!” her husband snarls.
Mother Nature sighs heavily, smoke streaming out of her nostrils. She groans as she leans forward to pull herself out of the lounger, and a string of gray hair slips down in her face. She stubs out her butt, shuffles to the door of the screen porch, pushes it open, and steps down to her front yard — which is basically a cloud. She crosses her arms, then arcs them out wide. The cloud-yard turns gray, then smoky black. She turns back toward the house, climbs the steps onto the screen porch, drops into the La-Z-Boy.
“Whadja do to ’em?” St. Peter asks.
“Winterized the bastards,” she snorts. “Snow, ice, sleet, hail, fog. Standard New England winter. Can’t speed in that stuff.”
“Hm,” St. Peter murmurs.
“What?” she grumps. “You don’t even thank me?” She picks up her glass. “Aw, hell. Get me another one, will ya, honey?”
Stage 5. Down on the street, winter falls. Snow howls out of the sky. Hail hails and sleet sleets. Ice stretches over the asphalt like deadly cellophane. Fog cloaks the danger in a secret shroud.
None of which slows the New England drivers a bit. They race through town, engines roaring, their death-machines flying over the slippery glare, doing 40 where the signs say 25, as if they’re brilliant mathematicians and simply assume the signs are written in base 16. The complaining continues, and St. Peter keeps grumbling.
But this is Stage 5 of the Ipswich circle of life, and well under the snow, well beneath the ice, well below the surface of the asphalt, things are not well. The black semisolid bituminous road-surfacing blacktop, which began life happily in a sizzling construction company vat at solar-storm temperatures, is now shivering pathetically under its frigid bedspread. The moisture trickles into every wrinkle, the freezing painfully presses every vein, the asphalt cracks and crumbles, its strength slipping, its spirit broken.
And in the spring, as the speeders dash over the fragments, the corpse begins hollowing out. A flaw opens into a gap. A crack becomes a cavity. Until soon we have something Mother Nature never intended — she was only trying to slow down the speeders. Now, once again, we have potholes.
Another unexpected thunk of that right front tire. Another unanticipated cussword. And the Ipswich circle of life is complete. Or rather, it begins anew.