The Urban Beautification Committee
Mr. Belisimo wears paisley but when the Head of City Walks suggests something khakier Mr. Belisimo considers combinations of paisley and khaki. Ha ha ha says the Head of City Walks when he sees this combination, surely Mr. Belisimo knows better than to combine paisley and khaki. The rest of the committee tee-hees and ka-has at Mr. Belisimo’s faux pas. How can a man be taken seriously after committing such an indiscretion in the presence of peers?
Mr. Belisimo drinks cool water. He believes it would be futile to explain this pushing of the fashion envelope to these troglodytes. He wonders where these troglodytes live, since there are no caves. They are quite short compared to him; he observes that the members of the Urban Beautification Committee are extreme cases. It is possible, he supposes, that the city draws the shorter person to its mass the way cats draw moles into a house. Mr. Belisimo drinks more water. The beer and wine which he drank shortly before the meeting are enhancing his personality and inventiveness.
The committee, having had its laugh, sits patiently. Mr. Belisimo concerns himself with the paper before him, the minutes of the last meeting and a highlighted list of keywords to guide the committee. Mr. Belisimo scoffed to himself at the words chosen. He tests the sharpness of his pencil on the tip of his finger. Sharp.
Then his headache starts when The Head of City Walks pipes up: “We will be focussing our attention on the following areas of urban beautification: streets, walls, people and banners. There were several subjects of concern raised at the last meeting; the cloudiness of the city, the sewage outflows into the harbour, the graffiti artists, the art college, the noisy clubs, the people with no fashion sense, new periodicals, ugly inbreeding, emotions and colour theory and city-wide Feng Shui. Good point, whoever brought up the Feng Shui, I think that’s worth concentrating on for a short time.”
Someone raises his hand: “I can’t quite remember, what is Feng Shui?”
A bell rings, as the committee has chosen to use a bell to isolate the speaker.
Ring ring. A small man sets out to describe feng shui: “Feng Shui is a set of principles developed by the Chinese in order to create balanced and harmonious environments in which the flows of energy are good. It has to do with yin and yang, and the five elements earth water gold fire and wood.”
“Jangle,” says Mr. Belisimo as he reaches for the bell, “I think that we’ve got a few different elements to deal with here: asphalt, cast iron, carbon dioxide, ground level ozone, sidewalk gum. Aren’t we trying to beautify the city, not mystify it?”
Unfortunately for Mr. Belisimo, no one is with him on this matter. No one even smiles at the “mystify” crack. He is beginning to feel his height.
The committee meeting room is vacant despite its twelve member occupancy. The room is confusing with its blue-green and pink speckled wall-to-wall carpeting, its dirty pink chairs and vertical blinds, its glossy white wipe-board. The chairs have adjustable heights too: by pushing a lever down the seat slides upwards and the seat is lowered by sitting on the seat while pushing on the lever. Mr. Belisimo had lowered his seat to the lowest that it would go. They are all so short, he is thinking. Troglodytes.
The Head of City Walks motions to Mr. Belisimo that he wants the bell, so he is passed the bell, securing his right to speak and have the rest of the committee silenced. Mr. Belisimo momentarily stares at the awkward flailing hand, but then he understands. The Head of City Walks takes the bell: “Let me suggest a few things. First off, here are some numbers for you…”
Suddenly a fire alarm rings unpleasantly. The people of Dominion Public Building leave their offices, dressed for commerce, typing, crunching numbers. The Urban Beautification Committee congregates on the sidewalk outside of the evacuated building, looking around at each other, looking at the building and then looking for the Head of City Walks.
“Here I am.”
Mr. Belisimo worries about the sun so he moves behind a flag pole
The committee appears anxious and directionless, lacking zizz. Several members of the committee wonder if there is a fire in the building.
The Head of City Walks searches the depths of his memory for the problem solving skills necessary to coordinate his committee, to maintain his leadership, to keep on track, to uphold the morale of the group. He forgets what he has learned. If he could find some point of reference then he would be able to remember, but there is no catalyst, no keyword to send him on the right path.
“Nice day out here.”
Silence harbours the committee; the city is quiet about them making their expectation build exponentially from moment to moment. The committee is aphasia-stricken. They stand beneath the sun, shifting restlessly, glancing up the buildings that surround them, tilting and squinting. Red bricks and shiny glass, nineteenth century buildings with twenty-first century hermetically sealed semi-mirrored windows. A few bank logos hang and jet streams dissipate. Drivers honk at the committee as they drive by; the new cars look curvy.
Pedestrians pass the committee on the sidewalk. They look at the committee as if the committee is an unusual sight to be had on a sunny day on the sidewalk. A woman in an electric powered wheelchair forces the committee to awkwardly compress and flatten.
There is a group shift. Mr. Belisimo encounters latent sensations within, sensations of confusion in the backroom of his superego. Other members of the committee appear to be on the brink of exposing inner turmoil, on the verge of upsetting the calm afternoon with unprecedented action. It is almost as if a festival is about to break out like those of peasant communities or those of post-revolution, in which desires rooted before the first grade. A short woman from the committee removes her olive cardigan and hangs it on a parking meter, singling herself out. Such a simple gesture; Mr. Belisimo is intrigued. It is hot. He stares at her. He imagines what she would look like dancing.
The building stops ringing. Opaque faces toast security. The committee enters the building and returns to the fifth floor, by way of the stairs. They arrange themselves in their swivels as before. An out of breath committee member asks, “Now where’s the bell?”
Guffaws all ’round, after a short silence.
“Good thing the building didn’t burn down, the city would be out another building.”
“Actually most of the downtown area is owned by corporations in Toronto, Vancouver, Frankfurt and Edinburgh.”
Mr. Belisimo finds the bell underneath a pile of paper that had scattered in the panic of the fire drill. He adjusts his paisley tie. He looks at the papers on the table. Who designed this? he is thinking. Why am I looking at this? He hopes to modify the throbbing in his head by drinking water. The bell is in his hand.
“What do you hope to achieve by holding the bell in a taciturn study?” the Head of City Walks questions. “Shall we get the meeting going again. Feng Shui I believe was on the table. Mr. Belisimo, the bell please.”
Mr. Belisimo is facing some basic ideological problems concerning the Urban Beautification Committee and his role within its mechanism: he thinks the committee is unthoughtful, weak-minded and driven by forces other than the desire to beautify the city. The “forces other than” look something like the abstract painting which hangs in the waiting room above the sofa. His dilemma is that if he leaves the committee then it will no doubt be worse off in his absence, but how could he stay with such a lousy committee? Shall it be self-sacrifice or civic-sacrifice?
He hands the bell over to the Head of City Walks.
A small woman raises her hand, the woman who had taken off her olive cardigan. “I left my cardigan outside, if you will excuse me…”
The Head of City Walks attempts to compose the committee. “We want to make this a pretty city. This year is the 250th birthday of the city and next year is the turn of the millennium.”
“Maybe we should put on some coffee,” Mr. Belisimo says.
“Are you drunk, Mr. Belisimo?” the Head of the City questions.
Mr. Belisimo had believed that sobriety was just around the corner until this outburst somehow bypassed his social inhibitors. So he sips some water, a foolishly revealing action. But there is no turning back. “No.”
“Mr. Belisimo, what are we here for?”
“To rearrange the avenues and redistribute the fairer views.”
The woman returns without her olive cardigan under her arm. “Someone’s taken my cardigan and thrown it around the top of the traffic light, out of reach.”
Mr. Belisimo finds that he is getting deeper and deeper into the complex inner workings of the city.