ON THE AVENUES: For downtown New Albany, escaping reality might soon be a bridge too far.


It transpired last weekend that the missus and I were walking eastbound on Market Street when we heard music loudly throbbing from the inside of a late model VW hatchback parked up the way.

As we got closer to the thumping, it became clear the song was “The Winner Takes It All” by the 1970s-era supergroup ABBA, which at this juncture was being rocked out from inside the hatchback by a respectably attired young male who probably was born during the last Viagra-propelled dregs of Bill Clinton’s administration.

Startled upon seeing us, the ABBA fan immediately lowered the volume, and this puzzled me. Personalized interior karaoke revelries like his are far superior to the public type, which require greater numbers of humans to be traumatized.

The experience reminded me of a warm day earlier in the month, when I gently steered my nondescript beet-red 2009 Ford Fusion into its usual parking spot on Spring Street in front of the house, front windows rolled down, as I belted out “Heavy Jacket,” a song by the Manchester UK rock band Courteeners.

It might be noted that my rendition of this exciting number enjoyed only a vague proximity to tunefulness.

But I had a strange feeling, and before disembarking shot a quick glance to the south, revealing two of the kids who live in the duplex across the street seated on their porch, both looking at me with mouths agape as though I’d just landed a spacecraft from Jupiter.

True enough; I hope they don’t seek refuge in harmful behaviors after witnessing the spectacle of my merciless butchering of those innocent notes. However, a little bit of escapism never hurt a soul, especially within the Gahanic confines of New Agony.

The moral of my story: without music, it wouldn’t even be worth owning a car.

Escapism isn’t a particularly difficult concept to grasp, being “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.”

Not to get overly philosophical, as doing so might send the Redevelopment Commission a-scurrying en masse for refuge in the bunker to be closer to mayor’s campaign petty cash box, but what’s the standard proportion of pleasant reality to unpleasant reality?

For instance, is being “bored” necessarily an unpleasant condition — or is it merely boring? Is there a ratio to be triggered making escapism desirable?

Which of the two conditions, reality or escapism, is expected to be the predominant factor in one’s life? Shouldn’t it be more reality, less escapism, or does believing so mark me as the sort of person who can remember a time before cell phones?

Because it certainly does seem to me there was an epoch when escapism meant a brief period of removal from reality as a whole, perhaps the hours required to take in a film, show, ballgame or church service; go for a bicycle ride, hike or swim; read a book, practice a craft, tend a garden or grill a steak.

Ever-popular forms of escapism like drinking, drugs, gluttony and onanism bear mentioning, too, but with your indulgence I’ll leave self-medication and addiction aside for the moment.

Also, to anticipate a potential objection, while it’s true that Thomas Jefferson made mention of “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence for Everyone Except His Slaves, I believe this is to be taken as “pleasure = absence of pain,” not ready access to streaming.

It strikes me that thanks to the changing nature of work, and surely also attributable to the pervasiveness of electronic and digitized entertainment options, American society is presently engaged in escapism far more often than it concedes to reality. To me, escapism has “trumped” reality.

Obviously there is a socio-economic aspect to this equation, and it isn’t my aim to evade it, either. The greater the number of lower-paying jobs one must work to survive, the less available time to escape the accumulated drudgery. My point is that when escapism becomes the norm, it doesn’t bode well for those human skills required to cope with reality, beginning with the ability to distinguish between the two.

I’ve read my share of fiction, and watch at least two movies each year whether or not they’re regarded as “must-see” (painfully seldom, in my view), but it remains that reality always has comprised the bulk of my entertainment: documentaries, non-fiction, conversation, activities like walking and (formerly) biking, political debates, and the like. I’m a literalist overall. All hail the untrammeled imagination, though what I really want to know is what’s true.

Music is an escape of sorts, I suppose; still, for the most part, genres like science fiction and fantasy don’t speak to me. I don’t play games, and mindlessness isn’t a state into which I enjoy descending.

Consequently I’m fascinated by the extent to which escapism has become the norm all around me, from which I’m forced to extrapolate that for lots and lots of people I know personally, reality is unpleasant … or else why work so hard escaping from it?

I was thinking about reality versus escape on Tuesday morning at the merchant meeting hosted by Develop New Albany.

Somewhat joyfully for me, the program was 100% reality-based: a fellow who had developed ways to assist in “preparing” home recycling objects so as to increase the likelihood they’ll actually be reused (for example, melting aluminum cans into ingots), and the SOS Pac’s presentation in support of the NAFC Schools’ referendum for safety and mental health expenditures. Whether yea or nay on the referendum, that’s as real as it gets.

And yet so much of downtown’s revitalization these past 15 years is predicated on a form of escapism.

In addition to a lineup of food and drink establishments, all of which survive to some extent because discretionary incomes are such that many people go out to eat and drink as opposed to cooking (and fermenting?) more inexpensively at home, downtown has a theater, a magic shop, an enchanted forest (outdoor frolic venue), a forthcoming marketing campaign designed like comic books, art-as-charcuterie-boards … not to mention Recbar 812, a 25,000-square-foot Super Bowl of  arcades with hundreds of pinball machines and video games to help adults be kids again.

More power to them all, and obviously there’s nothing wrong with any of these modes of escapism, except for this one relevant ancillary factoid, which may or may not be an 800-lb guerrilla perched around the bend, about to interrupt the reverie and impose reality: the 36-48 month long period allotted for Sherman Minton Bridge repairs, which are about to teach us a critical truth about America’s post-war development patterns.

Automobile supremacy giveth and taketh away in equal measure.

The toll-free bridge has been pleasant. Now we’ll see what happens when it operates (conceivably) with only one lane open in each direction for four whole years. In short, downtown might become a mere shrug of INDOT’s engorged bureaucratic shoulders; just collateral damage, not unlike those Vietnamese villages that we destroyed in order to save them.

What completely baffles me is here we are, about a year away, and during the past two merchant mixers I’ve attended nothing whatever has been said about the period of disruption to come. Nor has a peep emanated from City Hall. There is no visible sign of a planned coping mechanism, pre-marketing campaign or pro-active responsiveness. Rather pins drop, crickets chirp; somewhere a sad mutt barks.

Given the paper-thin profit margins native to most independent businesses, is it far-fetched to suggest that “Shermageddon: The Sequel” could close 30% of the indies located in downtown New Albany during the first two or three months? Perhaps I’m being an alarmist — or too conservative by half.

Wait, what was that?

You want to get away, to escape?

Amid a conditioned response of monopolistic automobile-centrism, and as ABBA segues into “Waterloo,” it’s a bummer to realize there’s no way for 95% of downtown New Albany’s customers to escape reality without using a car.

Recent columns:

February 13: ON THE AVENUES: War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

February 6: ON THE AVENUES Alas, New Albany is less of a place without a bookstore.

January 30: ON THE AVENUES: Dear Holocaust deniers: If you don’t like this post, unfriend me now.

January 23: ON THE AVENUES: Running over the same old ground.