Saturday, May 28, 2016

Dream Catcher: Awakening

My eyes open at six. I sit up, touch my tab up, and begin reviewing my dreams. I don’t remember them. I never do. I know why. They’re boring. There are a few good ones—sex dreams, dreams where I’m bouncing over trees and buildings, dreams of flying. Those are few and far between.

I call up my keyboard up and type in some basic descriptions as I review last night's dreams—shaving in a desert with sand and a rock, a ride on a bus next to a stranger speaking gibberish, in a laundromat waiting for a dryer. Mundane things. A waste of time.

A beautiful girl. I hope this is a sex dream. She stares at me. She says, “Be free,” and walks away. I want to follow her. I can’t. I have to go to work. I call up some music—top forty—and head for the shower.

One last thing,” says the man at the front the crowded room, “I was so sorry to hear that Macy’s has finally filed for Chapter Seven.”

The room breaks out in a loud, sarcastic awwww.

“I know,” says the man, “we’re all heartbroken.”

Someone raises a hand.


“Are we buying them out?”

“Excellent question. We made them an offer last year. They turned us down, but I’m sure we can snap up some of their inventory as they liquidate. Anyway, that’s enough gloating, for now—at least until The Wal goes under. 

"This is inventory weekend. We have a lot of ground to cover, as usual. Let’s make sure we keep everything in order. Nobody wants to count all this shit, as is. Let’s not make our job harder.

“Redshirts, move out. Somnian, if I could just speak to you for a moment.”

I make my way to the front as everyone else filters back to the sales floor. “You asked to see me?”

“Yeah, we got a report this morning from Tech. They need you to go in for a scan, maybe some maintenance.”

“Sure,” I reply, “I’m off tomorrow.”

“They want to see you, today.” he says, “It’s probably nothing, but you know how it is. If something goes wrong, it can go really wrong. They’ve gotten approval to let you use some personal time. Rolley’s going to cover your shift. You can leave now."

The ride to Tech is always interesting. I live within walking distance to work, so I don’t get to take the Red Line very often, except when I’m headed to the harbor. Shit at the Inner Harbor’s too pricey for someone like me. The only time I go is when I have company from out of town. Truth is, my friends can’t really afford it either.

I pick it up right outside the mall. Everything starts off very barren as the train passes through the the commuter corridor that connects the city to its western suburbs—Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the mall, of course. We drop into a tunnel at the city line and pop back up a couple of minutes later in Edmondson Village. This part of the city begins like a suburb, with its lovely little houses and their lovely little driveways. Any sense of loveliness fades as we pass Edmondson Village Shopping Center.

Lovely houses give way to blocks of cramped rowhouses, many of them boarded up. Security is thick at Allendale Station—men in riot gear spread out on the platform, batons firmly in hand. The same is true as we pass through Rosemont and the MARC station. The Red Line has only been in operation for seven years, and they’ve already shut down the stations in Harlem Park and Poppleton. Anyplace you need to get to between the MARC and Howard Street means a long walk, not that anyone in their right mind—anyone not already living there, if you can call it living—would walk into the Red Zone. Even I wouldn’t be that stupid, and I grew up in the Red Zone.

I graduated from Harlem Park Middle in 2018. Things were different. After years of decline, groups had come in to work with the kids—planting gardens, teaching music and art, treating us like we were normal people, filling us with hope, dreams. And then everything began to fall apart.

The decline was gradual, but it felt sudden. No More Free Rides was the slogan that replaced Make America Great Again. It spread like herpes among the Angry White demographic starting in 2020. No one was a victim of poverty. We were culprits, complicit in our own condition. We all wanted nothing more than to collect a government check, live in subsidized housing, and have babies that the government had to pay for.

By then, I was in my junior year in high school. By the end of my senior year, deficit reduction meant the "free rides" really were over. Social programs that weren’t cut were eliminated. The national wave of Personal Responsibility rolled over every poor, urban neighborhood hitting neighborhoods like Harlem Park harder than a Japanese tsunami.

The groups that had been working for those neighborhoods tried to reinforce their efforts, but having lost federal funding, too, there was not much they could do. As SNAP, what the old heads called Food Stamps, was phased out, soup kitchens and food pantries popped up all over to fill the void. Some voids are too big to fill. It wasn’t long before a new round of riots started.

Rioting happened all over the country. Baltimore wasn’t unusual in that regard. You could say that 
the Freddie Gray riots in Mobtown back in 2015 were a precursor of what was to come. But the West Baltimore riots during the summer of 2018 were epic, nevertheless.
I was one of the lucky ones. My high school, Baltimore Polytechnic, had been proactive, identifying which of their students had special needs, students whose parents had their benefits reduced, or had lost them, entirely. They managed, with the help of alumni, to get us jobs so that we could at least buy uniforms and supplies, even foster homes, in some cases.

I was on my way home, walking from the restaurant in Hollins Market where I washed dishes. I was making my way past a food pantry. What had started as a few people yelling in the unbearable August heat as I approached turned into everyone screaming at the top of their lungs, the crowd pushing, surging towards the doors of the pantry, the volunteers trying their best to hold them back. They had run out of food. I paused for a bit across the street, curious to how this was going to play out. I left as trash cans and tree branches began to fly through the pantry windows. When I heard the gunfire—repetitive, unceasing gunfire, not the sporadic gunfire you hear when the slingers are fighting for territory—my heart began to beat its way through my chest, fast and hard. I ran.

By morning, as I made my way back to work, so much of the old neighborhood was nothing more than burnt out husks; and it wasn’t over—not even close. Rioting went on for nights as the tired, desperate poor broke curfews to lash out against their own brothers and sisters, against the few businesses that had survived the government’s austerity measures. Within a week, the Westside was a war zone with National Guard troops patrolling the very corners that the drug slingers once held.

When the school year started, my senior year, I was forced to carry I.D. to get out and in of my own neighborhood. Much of the Westside had been fenced off. Everyone began to call it the West Bank. I didn’t bother with college after graduation. I got a job with Big Red and found a small place in Woodlawn where I could take care of my mother, where I could keep her safe, or as safe as I possibly could.

Bayview, the next to last stop. I get off and head to the Tech building, the same place where I’d had my Assistant installed. Inside, the lady at the front desk greets me by name. “Welcome, Mr. Somnian,” she says as she hands me a passcard, “You’re expected upstairs in suite 331.”

In 331, I’m reclining in a comfortable chair, the same type of chair I sat in as they installed my Assistant. The technician is on a stool on casters, rolling around me, tapping away on his pad. “Any problems with your waking protocol?”

“No. I’m awake at six every day, like clockwork.”

“Looks fine,” he says, “Let’s talk about your dreams.”

“My dreams? Why? I log them all.”

“Absolutely.” he says, excitedly, “I reckon you’re one of the most diligent dream loggers I’ve met. This morning. You logged a dream about a woman?”

“Yeah, but I dream about women all the time. It makes up for not having one in my life.”

“Right. Well, it’s never too late.”

“Have you seen my paycheck?”

He laughs at my lame joke. He goes on. “This woman, she mentioned something about being free.”

“That’s right. See for yourself. It should still be in the buffer.”

The technician picks up my pad, taps on it a few times. He watches, taps, watches. Finally, I hear the voice. “Be free.”

“Is there a problem?”

“I’m sure it’s nothing. We’ve experienced a few glitches with a some Assistants. All of them began with similar dreams. It’s a good thing you’re so thorough with your logs. It could have turned into a problem had you been neglectful. We’re just going to put you under for a few, make some preventative adjustments, make sure everything is shipshape. We wouldn’t want you to miss any important calls, right.”

“No sir,” I say, sarcastically, “I don't want any interruption to my busy social life.”

“Good. I’m going to step out for a few, see another client. A nurse will be in to administer a little anesthesia. Just sit back and relax.”

I do as he says, sinking deeper into my recliner as he exits. Within seconds, a young lady walks in dressed in scrubs. She’s familiar, attractive—auburn hair pulled back in a neat bun, thick lips drenched in glossy pink, skin like cafe au lait—but I can’t quite place her.

“Do I know you?” I ask, “I’m sorry. I know you must get that a lot. But you look so familiar.”

“That’s because I was in your dreams last night,” she says, casually, as if it were no big deal.

“That ain’t right,” I say, smiling, “Isn’t it unethical to fuck with someone like that, at least not if you’re not dating.”

She doesn’t smile. She either doesn’t get or doesn’t appreciate my attempts at flirty humor.

“Listen to me,” she says, seriously, “We don’t have a lot of time. The tech will be back in ten minutes, maybe less. That doesn’t give me much time to disconnect your Assistant—”

“What are you talking about? Why would you do that? How would I receive calls? How the fuck would I even get up in the morning?”

“Solomon, calm down,” she says, “Trust me—”

“Trust you? Bitch, I don’t even know you! How’re gonna just use my name like that?”

“Please, Solomon. Just listen. I know you think things are wonderful. You have your job. You’re mother’s safe. You’re better off than plenty. But you need to be free.”

“What are you talking about? I am free. Isn’t that what you said in my dream? How did you do that, anyway? Why?”

“I have a better question,” she says, “Why do people have to start logging their dreams when they have their Assistants installed?”


“It’s not a complicated question.”

“The tech who installed it said something about interference... certain dreams can mess with the system... it could break down. He said a replacement would be more a lot more expensive than fixing the one I got.”

“Right,” she say, picking up where I trailed off, “because your original Assistant was free, as long as you commit to a network.”


“So why are you here, now?”

“Because they caught one of those precursor dreams. Because they want to fix it before it gets worse.”

“And you believe them? Because something so simple, so internal, like a dream can be powerful enough to compromise something so high tech.”

“Who are—”

“That doesn’t matter. Not now. We don’t have the time for introductions. The reason they want you to log your dreams is because they knew that it would be a matter of time before someone would figure out how to broadcast right to your head. We’ve finally jumped that hurdle.”

“Who’s we?”

“Seriously, Solomon, shut up. It’s not important, not yet. What’s important is that you understand that we chose you. You grew up in the West Bank. You went to Poly. You have a unique understanding of life on both sides of the fence. We need you inside. We need people that understand that it’s wrong to isolate and ignore a whole segment of society just to balance a budget so that those who already have plenty can keep more of it, that it’s wrong to turn neighborhoods into nothing more than feeders for privately owned prisons 
to keep them profitable and hold wages down.”

“What do you expect me to do about it?”

“Solomon, are you happy?” she asks, casually, as if the conversation hadn’t just been frighteningly serious.

“I’m fine.”

“Lot’s of people are fine, Solomon. Are you happy?”

I can’t bring myself to answer.

“It’s okay. No one’s happy. We’ve all just been sold a hardline to permanent contentment. We’re given just enough to keep us from being miserable, just enough for us to forget those who live in misery. You can end this. All you have to do is close your eyes and let me disconnect your GPS and take you offline. Or I can put you under, and when you wake up, you can go back to your life of... contentment, if that’s what you want to call it. Decide now.”

It so much to process. “And then what?”

“Close your eyes, Solomon, and find out.”

My eyes close.


This chapter originally published in REDLINES: Baltimore 2028, [2012] edited by Jason T. Harris

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