i. Welcome to the Junk Arcade (a place you’ve always been.)

vertical tryptic of very amateur photography, arcade layered on funhouse layered on funhouse containing arcade.  the title is expressed.

as always, the gag is, this high score is very low.

“So all of the businesses in their unlimited hell

where they buy and they sell and they sell all their trash

to each other and they’re sick of it all

and they’re bankrupt on selling…” 

                                                                                   – Isaac Brock

“The love of accumulating money grows an absorbing passion in men whose imaginations, even in the very beginning of their hoard, showed them no purpose beyond it.”

– George Eliot

“The heresies we should fear are those which can be confused with orthodoxy.”

Jorge Borges

“She herself is a haunted house. She does not possess herself.”

Angela Carter

“The memory has as many moods as the temper.”

                                                                                    M.A. Evans

“I could make Halo… it’s just that I choose not to.”

– Shigeru Miyamoto

Chicago Street Pinball Arcade is open for business.


TB: “We were born in the future, and we will die in the past.” Other than this fragment, the first chapter of the Junk Arcade does not presently exist. 

The locus of spacetime has advanced beyond it, and it now rests as latent ephemera; foundational and therefore profoundly influential, but decoherent enough to lack a rigorous binding to any form. 

It is presently unclear as to whether or not it will yet exist in the future, or will remain consigned to the void of all moments non-local.

BP: Yeah, not a fan of this shit… you can’t even really call it postmodern, it’s just… cute. Dude really wants his lit to be cute? Look, we all know what he’s going for here, trying to capitalize on the “liminal space” craze that’s really heated up and already cooled down in the last half-decade… Metaphor or not, I’m not saying his specific view of his specific world is his fault, exactly, but, like… you can hardly blame anyone else for being him, right?

I’m hoping that the deeper details of his actual physical surroundings, and in particular the mechanics of the superstructure he lives within, will be worth putting up with his pretentious eccentricity (or maybe it’s simply more accurate to call it his severe attention deficiency) over the long haul, but these early portions don’t clarify whether there’s any connected meaning under the water of this particular iceberg. If that Gatsby-ass first line is any indication, we’re probably going to get recursion rather than any ontological expansion.  

TB’s tendency to confidently overcompensate when they aren’t sure whether something is clever or trite is, as always, extremely grating… Hope the claws come out soon, usually they alleviate some of the academic bullshit…  Hey, listen, for chrissake, write your first chapter. Or call the first chapter in your manuscript “chapter one.” Placing that onus immediately on the reader is well past egomaniacal.

yf: here we have two clever and garish individuals, laying out their rhetorical bona fides. you’ll note the former engages thoughtfully with the text, or in this case, the lack of text, while the latter engages the former and the text with the same dismissive contempt. This verbal sparring, as you can probably tell, is mostly a put on. there’s really not enough of a relationship between either of them to engender or justify such strong antipathy. maybe that’s a sore spot, i dunno.

BP: Also really not a fan of this shit, speaking of people getting cute. How about we agree to focus on the original text and stop wasting time taking cheap shots and getting in last words.

yf: totally fine with me lol

BP: Great. Asshole.

TB: We can ascertain that much of the information vital to the narrative contained in the now-absent chapter has cascaded down into the text’s present temporal set, as the author has clearly seeded the next portion of the narrative with trivial details that often feel somewhat out of time and place. 

I hesitate to use the word “shoehorned,” but there are some conspicuous constructions present, beyond the author’s typically digressive verbosity, that have a nakedly expository feel.

BP: I’ll use the word, not an issue for me: the author further thickens an already dense text, puts hats on hats, and yes, shoehorns trivia like he’s got a quota. Put that shit in footnotes or margins, like a proper pretentious writer, and leave the rest of us out of your baroque festoonery. 

We do get some lip service to the actual functions and mechanics of the Drop and the Tokenflow, but on the whole, this chapter is more Middlemarch than Moby Dick, more interested in folks than things, or so the author presumes…

yf: what is your deal with middlemarch and moby dick? you always bring that up like other people are supposed to know what the hell you’re talking about.  …also, ‘festoonery’ is a super fun word!

BP: …but if we consider it from another angle, it’s fan-fuckin’-tastic, because it means I don’t ever have to struggle through whatever the hell a “chapter one” of this text would be. I’m not gonna spend too much energy worrying about dodging two hundred extra pages of what the author apparently thinks is pointless background information. But I’m definitely always going to remember that I’m being forced to read “chapter two” first, as a fucking gimmick.

yf: you’ll get over it!  personally, it doesn’t bother me much, even if it does indeed feel like kind of an unnecessary flourish… hey, necessity is pretty subjective, right? i think the text at least attempts to justify the goofy shit it pulls, which in itself is something that’ll come off to some as tryhard in an unseemly way. …i think it’s a pretty fun bit, but most people don’t read big long books to have fun, i suppose.

BP: I agree with you one hundred percent: the text does try very hard.

TB: Curiously, and perhaps purposefully, the author omits painting a broader picture of his world for the entire following chapter, even while rendering copious detail to the more minute and obscure mechanics of its mercurial disposition, ultimately asking the reader to construct an image of the place from the internal to the epidermal. 

Personally, I found this tactic perfunctory, especially since he undermines any mystery by very robustly describing every aspect of his reality in subsequent chapters… another perhaps unnecessary complication which works against the author’s obvious purpose of engendering empathy via selective detachment.

BP: It’s called ‘sandbagging’ and it’s obnoxious. I’m not really picking up this rich vein of empathy in our treacly friend, although the detachment reads. The text mostly feels like a series of cake-and-eat-it-too moments that toy with you even as they ask you to do the heavy lifting. 

Listen, if you’re a lover of unnecessary puzzles, go ahead and skip ahead to the actual chapter and just ignore the rest of these notes; you’ve already overtly poisoned your own opinion by absorbing ours.

  But if you generally like to know what’s going on when you’re thrust in the middle of a situation, here are some things I would have found it helpful to have explained to me in the first, say, hundred pages:

The author lives on a massive, pendulous structure that sort of resembles a witch’s hat sitting in a spike-lined bowl. It is known by its millions of inhabitants as the Drop, and hangs by an impossibly thin cord in a mostly empty vacuum. 

One of its primary colloquial names is the Junk Arcade, thanks to a quirk of the economy: the manufacturing process at the heart of the Drop’s token-and-ticket economic system produces a shit ton of extra shit on top of what’s asked for. A good deal of this superfluous Materia shows up as pre-broken trash, and some objects are downright inexplicably mutated: normal-looking stuff filled with living guts, and the like: Real Cronenberg Shit. A disproportionately large number of these “blank lots” are arcade cabinets.

A bunch of this excess trash gets tossed over the side of the Drop, and ends up in the massive bowl that encircles the bottom trunk of the upper structure, where it’s mined for tokens by prisoners all serving sentences of Minimum Death, natch. But a large protion of the junk never makes it to the Dumps; people ain’t cleaning this shit up for free, and rich folk will pay to have it moved, but only out of their neighborhoods. Forget convincing folks to vote for raising taxes in one of their constant elections, when they could just let it sit and rot. 

As such, much of this detritus is left to choke up the pathways and living spaces of especially the poorer of the Drop’s denizens, so much so that it’s common to use the cabinets as building material. The author and his companions share such a place with a handful of other wastrels; it is constructed mainly out of late 60s pinball machines, in a defunct anchor store of an abandoned mall.

yf: chicago street! love that name. hey, are you gonna talk about how none of the games in those arcade cabinets were made on the drop, but in the collective, corporate-run dream-state that most folk of the drop share?

PB: Nope, not touching that one. Likewise, I’m not going to expound on their lack of collective memory extending past a single generation, or their general acceptance of evidence of widespread memory tampering on a societal scale by the systems that operate the Drop. All of that weird shit; their willingness to maim themselves in combat simulations, the universal overwhelming compulsion to play specific games at certain times, the religious devotion to a monetary system that is wholly external to the requirements of the system itself, the way people aren’t born but are iterated into existence… I’m going to let the author and probably TB deal with it, extensively no doubt. 

What you need to know to follow the actual story, which actually does exist past the “art,” is that the author royally fucked up, losing a bunch of money on a sour deal, money that their little pinball commune was going to spend on food. Everyone’s already on edge, because they’re a bunch of gig economy losers barely making rent on their space, and a wealthy acquaintance of the group would very much like to buy it out from under them (to “help” of course.)

The author’s friend and housemate, a big-mouthed hustler named Picky, has her own plan to “help” the narrator out of his cash bind, involving a long and probably dangerous trip through the outskirts of the Carnival, the Drop’s massive, labyrinthine amusement city. Picky’s plan, or at least the part she’s sharing, is to harvest and then immediately sell powerful hallucinogenic drugs from a biomechanical arcade cabinet that lies in a disputed area in an ongoing turf war between generational carnies and violent right wing gangs. As you do.

The beginning of the narrative (indeed, what qualifies as its *first chapter*!) finds Picky, the author, and their misanthropic friend the Kid, who’s come along in order to suck stuck tokens out of coin slots, with their journey of economic salvation already underway. They recently boarded, and have just leapt out of, an old Carnival ride based on a generic kaiju battle, now repurposed as a passenger tram in a neighborhood somewhere not too far from Chicago Street. 

Their situation is highly time-sensitive due to a pissed-off housemate, and this jump into the darkness will offer up a shortcut that will supposedly save them from some of the copious tolls and time sinks with which the travelers on the Drop are constantly barraged. There you go. All caught up, more or less. Back to the “missing chapter” nonsense, I guess.

TB: Presumably, the format of the missing chapter is the same as those that follow, with the primary narrative spliced alongside an essay by the author detailing some aspect of the development or cultural impact of a specific video or pinball game. There’s no evidence of what game it discusses, only the previously mentioned fragment of what was likely the thesis of the piece. 

Overall, I remain ambivalent on the choice to omit the chapter, as the text remains coherent. 

BP: Yeah, about those essays, let me give you another tip for reading this thing: if you find the author’s digressions ponderous and you just like the story he’s telling, for the love of Christ skip over the goddamn dissertation. I found myself enjoying it way more when I started skimming the text when the language got too thick. I’m interested in his world, not some external bullshit simulacrum of it.

yf: i can’t advocate for that, not because i think it’s even wrong, but because i think you should let other people figure out for themselves that they can actually skip around when they read things. we wouldn’t want to give all of the secrets of the academy away at once. also, i quite like those bits, and i think they often fit in thematically with the tone of the narrative. plus they really do get more interesting and less bullshitty as they go; i really like the carny and medicine show grinds, for instance! so i’d only skip them as a last resort, and if you’re doing that, you’re probably just gonna want to skip the whole rest of it, too.

BP: Would that either of us had that option. I will explain one thing that’s weird, just because it’s pretty relevant and it also comes up almost immediately: nearly everyone on the Drop comes to it with net-wired AR tech built directly into their heads. The author uses his to take copious notes and recordings of everything that happens, as it happens; I’ll leave it up to the reader to interpret what that says about him. He then later constructs a narrative that he claims was written “in real time.” He seems to believe he’s telling the truth, which very much does bring into question if he actually understands what the phrase “real time” means.

yf: hey, he’s pretty up-front about his process… probably too up-front about it, to be honest, considering how much people fuckin’ hate discussing process. look, i think you’ve effectively demonstrated that the junk arcade is definitely not for everyone, and at this early point we have no real evidence that it’s going to add up to anything beyond a lot of white nonsense. …i won’t say your aggressive cynicism isn’t warranted, but i’m having an alright time with it.

BP: I’m sure the author would appreciate that rousing seal of approval, were they real or alive, but as either position seems unlikely from this vantage point, they’ll have to settle for remaining uncelebrated in their time, which is very sad for them.

I’ll leave off with this thought for now, and it’s something I haven’t been able to shake since I started reading it… one of the absurdities of the text is that it doesn’t feel like it should have an audience, from even and especially the author’s perspective. And yet, as it turns out, all of us reading this shit fill that role precisely.

RD: Un trio de clowns tristes, trébuchant dans l’obscurité.

i want to make it VERY clear: the kugler family are lovely people, and are absolutely NOT the just-mentioned three clowns.  Chapter two is expressed.

Now, when we got the [pickled punk] show snatched, we hit the wire services. Preliminary hearing, wire services. The hearing, wire services. And then the county coroner, his name was Mickey, did one more shot. They lined up 12, 14 little coffins. And he had a priest, a minister and a rabbi and Mickey standing there with the coffins at the cemetery having the burial for the carnival babies. This hit the wire services and came out during the New Orleans [carnival trade] convention and the New Orleans paper carried a picture [of the burial] about 4 columns by 8 inches. He got more press than he ever wanted, really, out of this thing. But he did get elected sheriff and we’ve been back and played the fair several times with sideshows since then, and it’s, “Hi, Mickey.” “Oh! Hey, glad to see you.” Everything is fine. But Mickey died two years ago. He was a good guy. He just did what he was doing. He did his bit.” 

Ward Hall, “King of the Sideshow”

“Here, then, was an alternate reality, a ghastly carnival of nightmares and dreams, where the notion of a dispassionate architect was absurd, and where men like Burnham and Holmes, the White City’s angel and demon, could exist in a kind of yin-yang embrace, each the other’s necessary evil, balancing each other, in some strange way, for the greater good.”

– Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City

“…Man is an individual only because of his intangible memory… and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind. The advent of computers, and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.”

– Kazunori Ito, Ghost in the Shell

“Harman, the size of the world has changed. It’s changed to the size where you can control it with your hands just like a PDA. The world will… keep getting smaller.”

– SUDA51, Killer 7

“Don’t forget this… it’s the law of the universe that the strong shall survive and the weak must fall by the way, and I don’t give a damn what idealistic plan is cooked up, nothing can change that.”

Walt Disney, Company Speech, 1941

Dusty Rhodes: Go get em Hulkster!

Bobby “The Brain” Heenan: Yeah but who’s side is he on?

Dusty Rhodes: Go get em– What are you talking about?

Bobby “The Brain” Heenan: Who’s side is he on?!

WCW Bash At The Beach 1996

“It’s the hottest summer again. 

So strange to be shaped by such strange men.”                                                                                                                                   

Frances Quinlan, Not Abel

it's like the library of babel but for pinball.


First Flipper-Manipulated Pinball Machine

Angel & Sons, 1947

Designers: Alejo Cervantes (uncredited), Roscoe “Rosie” Fellows, Hagen Engel 

The coin slot is the greedy mouth on the skin of mechanized commerce. It is the aperture through which humanity is sucked into its analog extinction. It is a one-way passage that exists on the border between flesh and light.

Humanity’s intrinsic tendency to lurch toward digitization in its myriad forms is manifestly undeniable. Our race rushes to embrace technologies that break down the fuzzy complexities of analog reality with precious little concern for repercussion, and we cheerfully anchor vast amounts of our trivial information into discrete binary containers for the convenient use of invisible intelligent machines. 

Contrarians may downplay the extent to which this near-universal lust for a more digitized life even matters, and insist that the distinction between the analog and digital realities is an inert discourse without practical application. But this is a disagreement of degree; an antagonistic position that nevertheless fails to contradict its thesis.

Thus, if we accept the premise of our inherent cybernetic tendencies absent a spirit of such nihilism, we tend to fall imprecisely but perceptibly into three distinct philosophical camps, depending upon where one personally delineates the line between the analog and digital: 

To many, the compulsion to digitize is an existential nightmare beyond comparison, a dark and sprawling spiral that leads eventually but inexorably to that previously-mentioned abyssal nihilism of meaningless decoherence, so much so that most of those who fall precisely into this camp attempt to avoid considering it all together. 

To others, this impulse is a fascinating puzzle to deconstruct, touching on the deepest mysteries of what it means to be human; to be a categorical individual, woven into a social construct that not only desires but demands collective mechanization. Such a contradiction is impossible for a certain kind of curiosity to ignore.

  And to a smaller, more privileged group, this inherent reality of second-order cybernetics is nothing less than a revolutionary treatise, a fundamental and necessary shift in paradigm that underpins a further progression toward absolute salvation. Dangerous, humanity-loathing psychopaths, in other words.

It is safe to assume that the ennui associated with technological dependence isn’t equally distributed throughout this spectrum. Those of us less certain of our material relationship with incarnation, who find ourselves batted between these tri-polar concepts and always hedging toward the former, often seek to ameliorate our desperation with the palliative comfort of definition. For many, relief comes in constructing a solid psychological border that fully parses out the nature of the divide between the analog and digital fundaments.

Firm division is as solid ground as one can find when attempting to understand the disparate involute voids that press up against such a border. The dialectical evolution that occurs in the spaces where these pockets of singular vision mingle and war is a pure violation of individuality, a powerful demiurgal contradiction which gives cause to the sort of shuddering recursive pulsations that stretch the singular, non-binary nature of our existence, its particle state, into the uncoiling accordion lattice of energy and force that defines the materialism of the wave.  

  At their heart, material objects are beasts of area and frequency, concepts that require discrete tensions in order to embody in physical spacetime. You want more than one thing? Gotta have borders. Them’s the rules. Seems like an obvious truism, but the actual character of ‘the spaces between’ that give rise to multiplicity are themselves a criminally under-considered phenomenon of our existential drift.  

Most of the fascinating and wondrous things in our reality take place on the borders between spaces: physical spaces, emotional spaces, ideological spaces, it is in these liminal middle-grounds that definition has the potential to become less acute; where the fuzzy haze of the immaterial begins to cloud the sharp corners of articulated identity, and absolute form might dissolve into the amniotic miasma of an edgeless, egoless harmony.

That, of course, is an example of a best-case scenario. The coin slot does not represent a best-case scenario. 

half a carnival and half a pinball arcade.

“They never should’ve let the Carnival stop moving,” I say. I’m on my back after the leap from the tram, shaken but apparently unbroken. The concrete floor immediately reads as damp, and as I swivel my head around in assessment, I notice that it exhibits a slick greenish tint that strikes me as profanely organic.

 I twist and hoist myself to my hands and knees in order to keep the shimmering muck from soaking too deeply into my clothes, and I get my first full-bore snootful of the quintessential carny scent that saturates the whole of the Outer Shell.

The place literally reeks of fun: an uncanny mixture of salty, sugary, greasy, boozy and fried, a cacophony of olfactory delights all weaponized to attack the nostalgic and hedonistic pleasure zones; a perfect cloying tease.

 It’s phony, to be sure; a bunch of chemicals mass-produced in the great mixer plants that ring the Carnival’s border, pumped in voluminous quantities into the air vents around the Shell and throughout the Inner Skirts that border the Park Proper. But the scent is real enough to generate a Pavlovian sense of immediate desire in the back of my throat that I do not precisely care for.

“‘Never should have let the Carnival stop moving…’ That’s pretty writerly of you,” Picky’s already on her feet, hatless, hair only mildly tousled, attempting to wipe the ambient grime off the crushed black velour of the fast-fashion hoodie she’s worn well past its intended disintegration date.  “But at least you said it out loud, instead of just writing what you wanted to say to make yourself sound cool.” 

“I don’t change the underlying text as much as you like to suggest,” I reply, and then immediately become self-conscious of my own parsing. “And it takes actual skill to make you sound cool, too, when I need you to be.”

“I’m pretty certain the fact that we both unironically used the word “cool” to describe something means that we are probably not actually all that super cool.”  She offers me her hand, but the moment I flinch, she retracts it to her face and brings her middle finger up to her lips, flashing a wry smile. She then slowly re-extends her arm as she preaches the following sermon:  

“And I feel like I’ve asked you this about, like, forty or fifty times, and I really wish that that was hyperbole but I’m pretty sure that I’m underselling this shit, but it would be super fucking great and extra un-transgressive of my personal agency and autonomy if you could please stop fucking ever paraphrasing my words if you’re gonna to insist on writing them down, which should go without saying is a practice that I find basically fucking creepy but only just north of “ok” as long as you don’t change a fucking word that comes out of my god damned mouth. …Did you get all that?”

“Yeah, trust me, it’ll be clear to the reader that I don’t really edit your dialog that much.” I grab her hand, and as she yanks me to my feet I scoop up her ball cap and present it to her with a half-bow. She palms the top of the hat with a thoughtful look, and then slowly dons it as if she’s Indiana freakin’ Jones over here (a character from a movie which I know she deeply loves, even though she derisively calls it “my third favorite neo-colonial culture plundering propaganda flick” and gets mad when no one asks her what her first two are. Writerly, indeed.)  

In truth, my compulsive habit of trying to write as I move through the world has grown much worse lately; one of those ruts you find yourself falling into, unable to see any real peril along whatever pathology you’re spiraling, until you’re three hey-nonnies down-a-down the briar path. The fact that I’m engaging in it enough for my friends to comment on it is probably the strongest outward sign that things have gone too far.

It obviously ends up being a wall I voluntarily put up between myself and the external, actual world, which is a place I’m quite fond of since it’s where my pals and my stuff are. Instantly spinning one’s life into narrative can be a real force of dissociation, even more so than the constant invasiveness of the feed or the Drop’s tendency to eat memories and dreams…

…so what I’m doing now is focusing on taking quick notes in real time, but leaving most of the framework-building and intense narrative construction for later.

…I mean, that’s what I want to be doing. That’s my plan, going forward. Probably, after today. Right now, this stream-of-consciousness shit is something I have to do. Yeah, I know what that sounds like. I contain multitudes, baby.

      “Why shouldn’t the Carnival have stopped moving?” asks the Kid. “If we’d like to return to the question at hand. And who are the mysterious “they” who failed to properly gate-keep the Old Man out of the market?” The Kid’s still on his ass, his eyes fully glassed, lost deep in feed. He doesn’t look to be in any hurry to get up.

“I mean… it’s up for interpretation,” I say.  

“Yeah, of course it’s up for interpretation, that’s how critical discourse works,” the Kid says.  “I’m asking for you, the author of the supposedly-clever quip, to interpret it for me in the way which you, the author of the supposedly-clever quip, meant it.”

     “An artist isn’t required to critique their work at your beck and call, the Kid,” I counter.

     “If there’s one thing which inspires confidence that an artist knows what the fuck they’re talking about, it’s dismissive deflection of criticism,” says the Kid.

“Look, it means what it says, right?” I mutter, trying to get a gross patch of greenish floor slime off of my pants with the sleeve of my jacket, which produces an effect almost exactly the opposite of my intentions. “The Carnival’s exploitative nature has been allowed to fester ever since it took root in a static location. You can extrapolate the idea onto unchecked capital in general, and the tendency for grift to be inherent in institutions that are considered stable, while their ability to manipulate perception is culturally celebrated….” I trail off, trying to catch my brain up to my mouth while rubbing off as much grime as I can from my arm.

      “I mean, you can extrapolate anything onto anything else, especially with an unused English degree,” the Kid says.  “Analogies are like assholes, though, right? There’s way more bad ones than good ones.”

“The parallels between the way the con works in the Carnival and how marketing works in a neoliberal economy are not all that hard to draw,” I reply.  “It’s like… this phony fucking smell, how it contrasts with the permeation of branding on a cultural scale and the way that ideological advertising forces its way into our mental environment…”

“Well I dunno about all that, but I like how it smells out here, even if it isn’t exactly “on the level”,” the Kid says.

“Yeah, I like it too,” I reply. “That’s my whole point. You’re defending the commercial weaponization of nostalgia.” 

The chemical bath that produces the distinct odor in which we’re enveloped is at its strongest out here, past the Carnival’s official boundaries. The smells are more authentic, if less pronounced, once you funnel into the Carnival proper, but this appeal to authenticity only serves to further empower the manipulative structure under which it operates. It is taken for granted by both carnies and rubes that its informal slogan: “you’ll never wanna leave!” is something aspirational, but to me it is a further example of its ultimate depravity. 

Don’t get me wrong, I mean, it’s super-fun, top-notch depravity, depravity that clearly holds a special place in my heart. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m some square or that I’d ever have the convictions to really practice what I preach. But holy shit, the intensity with which the Carnival reeks of that lust for capital makes me woozy. With every inch, another angle, at every vertex, another scam. It’s a certain shade of beautiful in its intensity, but also extremely arch in the cheerfulness of its open cynicism. 

“Sorry, pal, but I can’t really characterize playing to your happy memories as “weaponization…” the Kid says.  “…as much as I know people who toss around the word “neoliberal” love to feel victimized by the systems from which they’ve happily reaped the benefits. I’m not a huge fan of capitalism, but I gotta say that I find your equating it to carnyism on a one-to-one basis to be more than a little fuckin’ spurious.”

“You’re a pretty big fan of capitalism,” Picky says.

“Yeah, you’re like the biggest fan of capitalism,” I add.

“I’m not capitalism’s mortal enemy, like you pinkos, so I understand why it appears as if we’re somehow besties, but, like, economic systems are inherently amoral, and before I get a silly letter from the Trotskyites in the room, you can at least admit that you understand that carnyism is not a political system, and it isn’t the least bit amoral. It’s a straight up immoral criminal racket designed to inflict economic harm on people, and the fact that you two kinda like carnies doesn’t change that shit.”

“So you don’t even misunderstand the line, you just don’t care for the subtext,” I say.  “That sounds like an interpretation issue that could have been avoided if you didn’t force a deconstruction out of the author for sport, and maybe just enjoyed the spirit of the critique for god damned once.”

“Not really, since that would imply I give a shit about carny culture either way,” the Kid replies. “You’re the one who talks a big game about how bad it all is while still constantly getting your jollies from it. Economics is amoral, you’re self loathing, and carnies are trash, but like, so are we, so who gives a shit?”

“ Who, indeed?” Picky says, as she begins to fish through her pockets. “You think you’re gonna bait me into this fucking “amorality of the market” horseshit again, but you just aren’t.”

“That makes me pretty sad,” the Kid says. “You always engage my arguments in such a good faith way.” 

“Imagine…” Picky says, patting down her jacket. “…anyone ever bothering to engage your arguments in good faith.”

an envelope from a non-profit with a scared sad child that says "throw me away. i'm used to it."  this is honestly one of the most fucked up things i've ever come across in a benign setting.

Borders are a necessity for the recursive individualization that models our physical existence. Stable systems require definition in order to function, and defined systems improve their chance of survival through sheer redundancy; a multiplication of selves designed to overwhelm the actuary nature of evolution and its consistent hedging toward obliteration. It is this very systemic redundancy that ironically yokes us into our singular perspectives, even while perpetuating a vast host of shared psychosocial structures within each of these many individual selves. 

From a purely cognitive perspective, consciousness can be understood as a highly technical magic trick that reality plays on us all, an illusory response to the spiral-shaped feedback loop between a gestalt and its components. An individual, once defined, inherently strives for self-knowledge, nevermind that such knowledge’s long-term evolutionary fitness has yet to be affirmed. This universal zeal for sentient perception appears fundamental to the initialization of the existential drive.

From within the massive gravity of sentience’s singular inception, solitary sparks sputter and spit their way out into being, congregating and crystallizing until they’re functionally cooperative enough to initiate the whole. As the whole’s complexity is escalated, the parts then require increasing sophistication in order to sustain the voracious appetites of that intensifying totality. 

Should this process be drawn-out enough, and burn through an immense amount of resources, certain individual parts may sophisticate to a point where they begin to know themselves. Almost immediately after this moment of remarkable enlightenment, those same occurrences start to understand the distinctive terrors of unknowing, of perceiving inherently that all gain must lead to all loss. 

Nothing makes one nostalgic for primal dread like a dose of the existential kind.

you ever been on a funicular?  you ever been on a funicular... SIDEWAYS?

“So, hey…” I try to sound as casual as possible and hide any hint of a whine from my cracking voice. “How deep into the Carnival do we really have to go?” I’m not super confident of my success in the whine department.

When I was a younger person, an unscheduled trip into the bowels of pure fun and joy would have been a welcome diversion for a mild-season evening. At this point, in the dotage of my late thirties, I feel like I need way more psychological preparation than I’ve lately had to even go near the place… and the carny smell that permeates the air here tells me that right now, we’re pretty freakin’ near.

Picky puts her finger to her lips in reply, and finally produces her mini-torch from the depths of her hoodie’s pockets. The flashlight, which is a military-grade. high-lumens, right-angled Fulton model, and which she will inevitably shine directly into my eyes, is a handy tool that she usually keeps around her person for such crimes as those in which we are presently engaged. 

She clicks it on and flashes it around the dark, dingy space. We’re on a wide ledge that might be generously referred to as a platform, around five meters square, really just a dark, damp slab of concrete, jutting out from the wall and surrounded on three sides by an edge that pours out into the inky, writhing darkness of the void below.

“Did… are you shushing me, did you just fucking shush me?” I say, but again my indignity sounds whiny, even when delivered as a half-gag.  She taps her top lip with her index finger, as if I’m supposed to know what the fuck that means.

Her torch beam pours slowly over the wall nearest to us, allowing us to examine its detail; it’s unsurprisingly constructed from the corrugated rust-red metal grating so common in less-developed portions of the Drop. The wall is sheer, and terminates some fifteen or twenty meters in the darkness above us; I can just barely perceive a sort of ceiling thanks to some dim, pulsing safety lights. 

While Picky’s poking about with her torch, I focus on a floodlight built into the wall on the other side of the tram-way’s metal trench. It’s just bright enough to pin the passage’s width at around ten meters. As my eyes further adjust, I’m able to more clearly make out the edge of the platform, which turns out to be about a foot closer than I’d realized. 

 The billowing mist that roils around us makes it impossible to tell what the distance of drop-off is, but in the absence of any visible floor, the height feels terminal to me. As a general rule, if you can’t see the bottom of an open pit on the Drop, it’s as likely to be a thousand meters deep as it is five.

 I force myself to stop looking down into the abyss and step back from the edge, my hands fumbling to grip the rough mesh of the wall’s corrugation. My eyesight starts to go woozy… the acrophobia always tends to sneak up on me when I find myself on precarious ledges in the dark; one of those things that comes from being associated with Picky that I suspect other people don’t have to deal with at the same rate of frequency as poor old me… I suck in my breath as my lizard-brain decides that there’s just enough space between me and the edge to keep me from full-on panic.

“Ok, now what was the question you just asked again, sweetie?” Picky says, lowering the light, seemingly satisfied with her observations. “It can’t be about whether or not we’re going into the Carnival, because I’ve already assured you repeatedly that we are not, under any circumstances, setting foot in the Carnival today.”

“Now, see, we actually already are in the Carnival, right now,” I say, and although I know Picky’s about to make an appeal to technicality that will, quite frankly, be correct, I’m not interested in entertaining it. Yes, we are probably several kilometers outside of the perimeter of legal park property, but the Carnival has a vicious sort of gravity, always threatening to consume everything in its orbit. “You’ve basically speed-runned us right onto the Midway. ..sped-ran? …you have essentially sped-ranned us right up to the Rookery’s front door.”

This isn’t a very effective line of attack, as I’m currently unsure of where, exactly, the hell we are; I re-open some of the schematic and direction tabs on my feed in order to try and figure out what lines up with where; this sort of ad hoc three-dimensional orienting is often necessary when you don’t take the more indirect, legal and heavily-tolled routes available on the Drop. 

“Hurtful. That’s what your accusations are, to me. Wounding.” Picky turns, inadvertently shining the light directly into my eyes for a brief moment, after which I only see flashing stars behind a dim imprint of my feed for a good ten seconds. “Oh, shit, sorry.”

“It was a real Chekhov’s Gun scenario anyway,” I reply. “Hold up a second, I’m trying to triangulate our location.”

“You mean to say you’ve been accusing me of shanghai-ing you into the Carny Core, and you don’t even know where we are right now?” Picky tuts. “Poor form, old chap. Dirty pool. Not cricket.”

“I don’t think that’s a great way to… gotta be a better way to put that than “shanghai-ing.”

“Haven’t you heard?” the Kid pipes up from his prone position. “Picky gets to be casually racist, because she’s better than the rest of us. She’s like how the Buddha claimed he could consume meat and still be vegetarian by divorcing it from its karma. But for Sinophobia.”

“I’m sorta impressed you know the word “Sinophobia, ”or really anything about Buddhism,” Picky replies.

“Hey, I find deeply stupid things easy to remember, and the Buddha magically changing the definition of meat so he could eat it is one of my faves, for real.” 

“Y’know what, that is fun,” Picky concedes, then gives me a kind-of gentle tap on the chest. “You figure out where we are yet, there, Theseus?” 

“Christ you’re full of beans this afternoon,” I say, glancing up to get a better look at my feed as it fades back in from the negative impression the piercing beam of light had rendered it into. “Just gimme a minute without continuing to blind me.” 

“Take all the time you need,” Picky replies, clicking the torch off and leaning back against the wall with a casual slump. “I already know where we’re at.”.

“It never hurts to double-check your work.” 

“By all means,” she smiles. “I’m condescending to you, not arguing.” I smirk my thanks as I orient a couple different schematics and cross-reference them with various overlays, eventually getting a sense of where we’ve ended up. The results are predictable; we aren’t in the actual Carnival itself, just right next to it. So Picky’s technicality barrier proves to be catholic, while my protestant desire to argue remains unsated.

 The Carnival is surrounded by a sprawling band of glorious trash commerce, known as the Outer Shell and the Inner Skirts, respectively, composed of multiple layers of lesser token traps and pleasure pits, all existing in a parasitic attempt to siphon off a little cash from rubes who might get distracted on their way to or from the main attraction. 

The Outer Shell makes up the kind of suburban amusement sprawl you’d fully expect to ring a destination like the Carnival, with its myriad go-kart-mini-golf-batting-cage family fun arcade complexes, its corporate haunted-mirror-maze-curiosity-museum-attraction halls, its perpetually busy pockets of boozy, blow-fueled water-district clubs and brothels, its space-pirate-themed dinner theaters and drug-den souvenir vape trucker-speed shops with dubious promises of discounted Carnival tickets. Fun to be had, for sure, for certain specific moods.

If my bearings are accurate, however, we’ve skipped the Shell completely. Our surprise tram leap seems to have been an effective, if risky, shortcut, skipping us past this entire exterior portion of the Carnival’s bulwark. Picky’s strategic gambit has catapulted us right into the Backstage area of the Inner Skirts.

 The Skirts are no less gaudy and lower-class-coded than the Shell; no need to scare off the proles, the endless stream of hoi-polloi who’re coming to the Carnival because they’ve been told all their lives it’s a necessary aspiration. There is, after all, inherent economic value in existing in proximity to human desire, and the raw throng of humanity ceaselessly pouring in and out of desire’s very gates is a lucrative crop very much up for grabs in this district.

The resulting effect of all the extra cash floating around the vicinity is an added layer of murky Carnival ownership and carny meddling, with most aspects of the Inner Skirt’s various businesses and schemes being influenced directly by the Rookery itself, or caught up in the area’s famous and long-fuming carny turf wars. 

This strange brew allows for the existence of some truly fascinating and wondrous places, but it also creates the conditions that help sustain some of the most egregious rip-off zones the Drop has to offer. The whole area is a perfect encapsulation of the way the Carnival draws in everything around it and recasts it in its chaotic image.

If the Maker Box could be said to be the pulsing brain of the Junk Arcade, and Reality were its throbbing heart, you’d have to cast the Carnival firmly as the Drop’s jingle-jangling soul: a bitter-end gilded gestalt that fascinates us all the way to the grave.

a pittsburgh tunnel somehow leads directly into the skyline of the strip district, through very clever editing in mspaint.  "MORE TO COME" is expressed.

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