Zach's PEN #10: Gently Ignoring The Rules

2020 Week 41

Dear PENpals,

I just drove out to Aunt Nancy and Uncle Hank’s house in Chestnut Hill with Allison and the kiddos. My cousin Anthony and my soon-to-be-cousin Jillian, Anthony’s fiancé, are in town. Sadly, their wedding had to be postponed a year because they got 2020’d. Anthony grilled some steak shish kebabs and Louisa and Wendell were on their best, cutest behavior. It was a delight to be with family.

The drive from Center City to Chestnut Hill is one of the prettiest drives in any city in America, up the Schuylkill River (pronounced "skookle") down Kelly Drive to Lincoln Drive…

I want to talk about Lincoln Drive.

Lincoln Drive is a four lane road that’s only wide enough for two lanes. It winds through a wooded valley along streams and under beautiful old bridges. It has about 748 sharp curves. The speed limit, amply marked, is 25 miles per hour.

Literally everyone on Lincoln Drive is doing 55 miles per hour. And there’s no real reason to go 55 on a winding, incredibly dangerous road like this except that a) it’s fun, b) everyone else is doing it, and c) because we’ll probably be fine.

Now, many people, Allison included, are not having as much fun as I am on Lincoln Drive because they’re terrified. And I’m sure bad things do sometimes happen on Lincoln Drive but I don’t read the local news and the truth is I don’t really want to know—because I love Lincoln Drive. Lincoln Drive, and other places like it, represent to me a kind of gentleness. A place where rules are gently, communally ignored.

As much as we Americans pride ourselves on being freedom-loving renegades, our society is largely differentiated by how much we follow the rules. We have lots of rules, many of them very complicated, and we dutifully follow them. For one, we pay our taxes more diligently than almost any population in the world (unless we’re really rich and therefore exempt from paying any taxes).

In a culture that worships competition, consumption, fame, fortune, and most of all, WORK, the added pressure of all these rules can be deadly claustrophobic. Some are fortunate enough to find healthy release valves but I’m sad to say most of us resort to pretty unhealthy copes.

But then there are these small, gentle moments in community when, innately, intuitively, everyone agrees that we’re not following these rules right now and there’s nothing whatever wrong with that.

If you look closely, you can find this gentleness all around you. Just staying on the subject of speed limits: We all know the speed limit is actuallyten miles per hour faster than the number on the signs. Why is that? Because gentleness.

Philadelphia can be an absolute wonderland of lawlessness and "25 on Lincoln Drive" is just one example.

Another example: In a large section of South Philly, the community has decided that it’s okay to just park in the middle of the street. There’s an etiquette to it, and the cops do sometimes participate in upholding that etiquette, but if there are no spots along the side of the road (there probably aren’t) you just pull into the median (of the main, biggest drag in the city, mind you) and leave your car there. No tickets, nothing. It’s glorious.

And my absolute favorite example of all: We have these huge convoys of kids who ride bikes (and sometimes powered bikes) around the city. At any given moment, 41-55% of them are doing wheelies or standing on their seats, and they’re often riding the wrong way against traffic, weaving in and out of cars and buses. My friend Jason Aviles, who owns an incredible social venture vegan restaurant in Wilmington (and now Philly) rode with them recently (all video credits to Jason).

Even Allison, forever afraid that someone is going to get hurt, has to love these kids. She smiles and gets excited every time they go by. And to be clear… Someone is definitely going to get hurt. But just look at them. That’s America right there. And the fact this goes on every day of the week all across Philly speaks to a deep warm gentleness at the heart of this otherwise cold, hard, cruel, cynical country.

Speaking of gentleness, they graciously let Jason, a grown-ass man, ride with them.

Some laws, even those that make sense, can have the effect of leaving the world colder and harder, but these negatives can be mitigated with just a little gentleness. The tricky part is that the gentleness itself cannot be forced. It has to arise peacefully, naturally, like Lincoln Drive and these spontaneous bike swarms.

When smoking indoors became illegal everywhere, that was definitely a good thing: for worker health, for further stigmatizing something that kills so many Americans every year while enriching a couple cartoonishly evil companies, etc.. And smoking rates have come down as a result. But—and hear me out—You can’t smoke in a bowling alley? In a billiard hall? That’s just, frankly, un-American (by which I sadly mean the opposite). Tobacco was a negative presence in my life for 15 years and I haven’t smoked in 8, but if I went into a bowling alley and somebody next to me lit up a cigarette, I wouldn’t say a goddamned thing.

In this culture of fully-internalized structures of coercion and rules and graft and power and domination, sometimes the most refreshing smell is a stale cigarette in a bowling alley.

There’s room for gentleness here.

Much love PENpals,


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