This past Saturday, I walked around Lake Washington. It was 52 miles — the longest I’ve ever walked, or, likely, will ever walk, in a single day — and it took from 4 in the morning until 9:30 at night.
If you ever wanted to understand the great economic disparities in King County, I’d urge you to circle Lake Washington. The Loop Trail, which at times doesn’t hew very closely to the contours of the lake, will take you near some of the poorest neighborhoods in the region and through some of the wealthiest. The closer you get to the lake, the wealthier the homeowners become, until finally they fence everyone else out and you can only see the lake as a flash of blue through chain link fences.
For the first half of the walk, I listened to an audio version of A Tale of Two Cities that I bought from Libro.fm, which made the disparities in wealth I was witnessing feel all the more acute. Eventually, I had to stop listening to the audiobook because my attention became too scattered in the heat and the mindlessness of my body on the march.
But before I turned to music, I fixated on the opening paragraphs of chapter 5, “The Wine-shop,” in which “A large cask of wine had been dropped and broken, in the street.” Of course, people run to the spot and drink the wine, scooping it up with their hands and soaking it up in fabric and catching it “with little mugs of mutilated earthenware.”
“A shrill sound of laughter and of amused voices — voices of men, women, and children — resounded in the street while this wine game lasted,” Dickens writes ...
There was little roughness in the sport, and much playfulness. There was a special companionship in it, an observable inclination on the part of every one to join some other one, which led, especially among the luckier or lighter-hearted, to frolicsome embraces, drinking of healths, shaking of hands, and even joining of hands and dancing, a dozen together.
It sounds like a street carnival, an impromptu celebration. But of course, because it’s the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, there’s a hint of the horror to come:
The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled. It had stained many hands, too, and many faces, and many naked feet, and many wooden shoes. The hands of the man who sawed the wood, left red marks on the billets; and the forehead of the woman who nursed her baby, was stained with the stain of the old rag she wound about her head again. Those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth; and one tall joker so besmirched, his head more out of a long squalid bag of a nightcap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine-lees — blood.
And of course, because this is Dickens, as big a literary drama queen as there ever was, that blood-image is underscored multiple times and with great energy: “The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there.”
It's no mistake that I'm gravitating toward Dickens these days. The headlines lately always arrive with that same startling lack of subtlety. Our country is led by a buffoonish tycoon with a ridiculous name. That man just finished fomenting fear and anger in Europe either by ignorance or design, and the gap between the haves and have-nots is wider than at any point in nearly a century. Walking around Lake Washington, amidst the ugly mansions of the newly rich, it’s very hard to not notice how flimsy those fences really are.
The day after my walk, with my feet rubbed raw and my legs aching as much as they ever have, my mind wasn’t good for anything at all. It was as though walking those dozens of miles had reset my brain and I had to take 24 hours to learn how to be a human again.
But sometime that Sunday, when I was hobbling around on blistered feet and doing my best impersonation of a person, I opened Twitter and saw this tweet:
And it made me picture Ivanka Trump's popsicle cart toppled over, with dozens of ordinary Americans swarming around it, scooping up champagne popsicles with their sweaty hands and reveling in their momentary luck, their faces sticky from the melting sugar-water.
These are good times, and they’re also bad times. Perhaps most of all, they are Dickensian times.