In my motel during the first week in SLC, I was reading an article about changes to the city’s New Years Eve celebration. The locals were considering replacing the traditional firework show with a giant disco ball, because of something called The Inversion. I read the word again. Thinking that I had missed an important sentence somewhere, I searched the article for some sort of hint as to the nature of this ominous proper noun.
My mind began to spin. Could there be a more menacing sounding phenomenon? You might as well call it, The Event or the The Occurrence. What could it possibly be? My mind began to come up with bizarre explanations. Do people turn inside out? Do men turn into cats? Do dogs sleep with women? Does it rain salt? Does everyone wake up in a new body?
And most disturbing of all, why didn’t it like fireworks?
I chewed on this for sometime, always apprehensive that I might stumble into an alley somewhere and run into The Inversion.
After talking to people at work, I learned that the Inversion was not, as I was secretly hoping, some supernatural anomaly, but a rather mundane meteorological one. This local phenomenon occurs as a result of the surrounding mountains.
As we were all taught in high school science, hot air rises and cold air sinks. During the winter, a layer of cold air gets trapped within the valley. I was familiar with a similar temperature stratification happening in large bodies of water during the winter, so I guess Salt Lake City is essentially at the bottom of a large air lake. Supposedly, if you look down from the mountains you can see the layer of smog filling the valley like a vast fog sea. I can report that from the ground it just looks like a gross overcast day. The mountains do disappear, which is a bit disconcerting.
Because of this lingering pocket of cold air, airborne particles, such as the ones belched up by cars, linger too. Salt Lake City does not produce an unusual amount of pollution compared to other cities, but its location concentrates it. Because of this, the Inversion is a major concern for the city. There are times during the year that the air quality falls below federal standards.
As an obligate pedestrian, I do feel a twinge of pride about the fact that I haven’t contributed any further air pollution to this city. Well, except for the several airplanes I took to and from here. Oh, never mind, maybe I’m part of the problem too.
People are often surprised when I tell them I walk to work every day. Their surprise turns to disbelief when I tell them my commute is 30-40 minutes one way. Their disbelief turns into disgust when I say I regularly hit the arbitrary recommendation of 10,000 steps a day. Disgust boils over into abhorrence when say I don’t have a car.
How did I become this reprehensible person?
Of all the things that I thought would come to define me, I never thought walking would be one of them. Becoming a full time pedestrian started when I moved to Philadelphia. I had managed it there for two years without issue. It felt slightly less taboo because I was a grubby graduate student walking to class from my apartment. Here though, I feel like an alien.
It took me awhile to get used to full-time walking in SLC. After my first long walk here, I of course got lost, and returned to my apartment with a pinky toe that had swollen to the size of my big toe and a sense that my feet would never work again. But my feet adjusted. My body adjusted. SLC turned out to be a fairly walkable city. The sidewalks are broad, there are many crosswalks, and the drivers are generally considerate. Sure, the terrain starts to get a little steep around the periphery, but that can be exciting too.
Being a full-time walker has shifted what I consider to be a walkable distance. If I can walk to a place in an hour, I consider that to be walkable. More than that, I’m going to be hurting on the return trip.
You can’t traverse multiple crosswalks each day without developing some contempt for the ubiquity car culture. Watching the roads getting choked with morning rush hour traffic has made me think about the nature of cities in general. I’d love to see how the character of city could change if it was entirely carless. It fills me with a bit of sadness to see so much space dedicated to roads, parking lots, and parking garages. I keep asking myself, “Who was this city made for? People or Cars?”
Since I am not above hypocrisy, I think I will eventually get a car (Though I am secretly hoping the era of the autonomous car will peak its head out early). I would prefer to not have to use it for a daily commute, just for outings on the weekends. There is so much of this state that sadly can only be accessed with a car. I do dread having to trade in my MA license for a UT license. It feels like some sort of a betrayal of the last vestige of my New England identity. I do hope the let me keep my intrusive R’s.
I have really come to appreciate my daily commute, or maybe more truthfully, I have a lot of time to think of justifications for it. I like the intimacy I get with my surroundings, the exercise, the time to let thoughts swirl in my head, the time to mentally prepare for work or unwind from it, the satisfaction of being my own source of transportation, and the privilege of being able to smugly glare at drivers trapped in gridlock. I never run into traffic. I never have to feel paranoia about hidden police cars.
Sure, it can be inconvenient at times. Rain sucks. Snow is a challenge. Summer heat is gross. At the grocery store, I only buy what I can physically carry back. On several walks to work, I have forgotten something at home and had to make a return trip, doubling my miles for the day. I had once received a late night invitation to karaoke. To get there at a reasonable time, I had to book it across town at full speed. I arrived sweaty and entirely out of breath, which is a great state to be in for karaoke.
For a brief time, a bike fell into my possession. One day I noticed that someone had just left a bike on my apartment’s front lawn. There it sat for a few days. I eventually hoisted it up and brought it around back. It was missing a pedal and the gear shifting mechanism had rusted over, but it mostly worked. I like to think its appearance is connected to my bike that was stolen in Philly, a karmic balancing of the checkbook. Sadly, it too disappeared one day.
As I finally sit down to write this story, I notice my pulse quickening. My fingers are shaking. In all honesty, it might be the caffeine. Even after a year, the feeling of panic is still easily accessed. I had a lot of little positive gym experiences, and one catastrophically bad one.
The start of the new year in a new city seemed like a fine time to cultivate some good habits. I signed up for a gym membership at the downtown Planet Fitness.
I had been going to the gym for less than a month. The gym was divided into two sections: the street level entrance with the front desk and a basement level with the locker rooms and most of the equipment. I went in one Saturday afternoon.
I left my phone and my wallet in my backpack, put the backpack in a locker, and then locked it. I did a quick run on a treadmill and the returned to the locker room to check on my stuff, not because I thought something was wrong, but because by default I am a little paranoid.
My backpack was in locker 37. I examined my lock and noticed it was severely damaged. It looked like someone had taken a hatchet to it. I tried to unlock it. To my horror, I discovered that the mechanism was jammed. I felt a chill.
At this point, I was thinking that I had discovered an aborted attempt to break into my locker, and not an attempt in progress. More worried that I couldn’t get into my own locker, I left the locker room and went upstairs to the front desk for help.
I wasn’t sure what to say. I think I mumbled something like , “I uh… I can’t get my lock to open.”
The girl at the front desk smiled.
“Do you want the bolt cutters?” she asked.
“The bolt cutters.”
“Oh… Yeah. Thanks.”
That’s right. If you ask for bolt cutters at a Planet Fitness, they will give you a pair of bolt cutters without questions.
I had to wait for her to help another customer, before she went into the back and brought out a giant pair of yellow bolt cutters, but by then it was too late.
I ran back down to the locker room. Immediately, I saw that several things had changed in the interim. My lock was entirely gone. Through the grating of the locker door, I could see that my backpack had been flipped around. I could hear a thud as my heart hit the ground. I looked in my backpack. My phone and my wallet, which had my driver’s license, debit card, credit cards, cash, an Eagle Scout card, and a beloved library card, were gone.
I returned to the front desk, even more shaken, clutching the bolt cutters impotently.
“I was too late,” I stammered, on the verge of tears, “Someone broke in and took all my stuff.”
“You should call the police. You can use our phone.”
At that point, something in me changed, something snapped into place, something awoken. It was a sort of disaster mode version of myself. I call him Captain Adrenal. Rather than crumble into a mound of sobbing despair, as I was about to, the Captain calmly and coolly took the helm, cracked his knuckles, and did all the things that were in his power. I called the police and filed a report. I called my bank and shut down my debit card. I closed my credit card. In changed passwords.
It must have been a hell of a sight. The Planet Fitness employees were trying to help people set up new memberships, while I was standing behind them, still in my gym shorts, sweaty and disheveled, shouting into a phone, “Shut it down. Shut it all down!”
I was excited to finally have an excuse to use the Find My Device feature on my phone. I logged into my iCloud account and tried tracking my phones position. There was one ‘blip’, and it was a little ways south of the gym.
The employee looked over my shoulder at the map, her eyes sparkling with subdued excitement.
“Are you going to follow him?” she whispered.
I looked at her.
She shrugged, though deep down, I could tell she wanted me to chase the guy through an alley. I wanted to chase the guy through an alley.
The walk back to my apartment was harrowing. Captain Adrenal had called it a day, and a dazed emptiness settled back in. I felt so light. I felt so vulnerable. I was in a distant city with virtually no support structure. I felt like a slain buffalo, with all my parts being fondled by the hands of strangers. I played the situation over and over in my head. Someone had obviously been watching me at my locker. I had probably walked by the person who had done it. I had come so close to preventing it.
Not all was lost. I had luckily taken my keys with me while running. I had my passport and some emergency cash back in my apartment. The week before, I had a premonition to remove from my wallet all the Subway gift cards with $0.34 balances. I would survive.
I was assigned a SLCPD detective. We exchanged information over the phone and in person. One day he alerted me that two men had been apprehended. They had been caught, I imagine for a different crime, with my license in their possession. I imagine that right now, my old MA license is sitting in a ziplock baggy in an evidence locker at the police department.
I haven’t heard anything since then. Planet Fitness has been silent about it. I did notice they started enforcing a new card swiping policy to get in. It’s a strange feeling having one’s misfortune becoming the impetus for future security measures. Well, good for them.
Thinking about the event from the vantage of the present, I don’t know exactly what to think. I had trusted my lock, I had trusted Planet Fitness’ security, and I had trusted the general goodwill of humanity. Big mistake. After a month or so, I started going back. It was hard. I even used locker 37 again, to break the spell. I’ve made some changes. I no longer bring any valuables into the gym. I check the condition of my lock impulsively. I give everyone in the locker room a steely glare.
Importantly, I learned that even if you loose all your stuff, you still exist. Pretty much.