Bully Pulpit

Bulls 1, Runners 0.

This week a young man who went to the Pamplona Festival in Spain to run with the bulls rode into the Hereafter on the horns of a bull.  He is probably having drinks and cigars with Papa Hemingway even as I write.  Lucky bastard.

In the aftermath of this man’s death, many people have commented on the “safety” of the festival and whether the event is an example of animal cruelty.  I am, frankly, amazed by this discussion.  First of all, OF COURSE running with the bulls is unsafe — probably one of the most dangerous things that someone can willingly do!  Remember Hemingway and his masterpiece The Sun Also Rises?  People (and by “people” I mean men, though I imagine that there must be some women among the runners) participate in this activity to recapture what it is like to be alive.  Nothing focuses one’s attention on living in the moment like the prospect of an immediate and horrible death, especially in the form of an angry, snarling, and deceptively fast bull.

The considerable threat of death aside, the Pamplona Festival is, in many ways, a relic of a faded and heroic past in which life was more volatile and, perhaps, more precious.  We now live in a world where risk has been reduced to something on the financial pages of the New York Times.  Lawyers must remind us that the cup of coffee we get at Starbucks is — gasp! — hot.  Toys come wrapped in so many warnings that we are afraid to let our children play with them.  Soon cancer warnings will be printed on the side of cigarettes themselves.  And do not get me started on food.  The pounding heart of our civilization has become but a murmur.

So let us take a moment to consider the second claim of the aforementioned ridiculous discussion: that the Pamplona Festival is cruel to the bulls.  Even I would be hard-pressed to deny that it is.  But at least the bulls are doing what they were meant to do.

Are we?

Montgomery County Prison Blues

I hear the train a comin’
It’s rollin’ ’round the bend,
And I ain’t seen the sunshine,
Since, I don’t know when,
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison,
And time keeps draggin’ on,
But that train keeps a-rollin’,
On down to San Antone.

— Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”

I go to prison every day. For once, I am not speaking in metaphor; and I am not trying to be clever, which I certainly am. I do not own a car, so I ride the 93 Bus from my apartment in Collegeville to Norristown. One of the stops as the bus meanders through the countryside of Montgomery County (“Montco” to those in the know) is the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. The bus slows down at the checkpoint; and the guard waves it through: no drug-sniffing dogs or mirrors passed under the vehicle – a good thing, as we are on a schedule. The bus stop is just a few yards from the main prison building, a low brick structure that in many ways looks like a high school. Coincidence?

I watch the people who stream onto and off the bus and wonder about them. Do they work at the prison? Are they here to visit someone incarcerated inside? Is the prison a symbol of hope (i.e., employment) or a reminder of how their lives have gone tragically wrong? There are young African American and Hispanic men who laugh and joke with each other; and young White men talking loudly about how hard it is to get a job and keep making child support payments. There is even one guy in a wheelchair who reminds me of the Fonz: complete with the white T-shirt, leather jacket, and pompadour hairdo. There are also women: usually thin White women with bad teeth and stringy hair—modern-day molls who have seen much better days. Or have they?

I am seized by the sudden realization that these people have experienced a segment of life that has never occurred to me. And worse, for me at least, is the fear someone might assume that—because I am on this bus—I too might have some connection to or business at the prison. The very thought shakes my Ivy League-educated, card-carrying elitist self to the core. I clutch my laptop bag tighter, as if it is some sort of ancient talisman that will protect me from demons. I try not to look at anyone else and promise myself that I will start saving money to buy a car. Right after I get a Venti coffee at Starbucks.