Brooklyn Bridge viewed from Manhattan Bridge

My diligent adherence to sporadic exercise having slacked off of late, I opted last Wednesday to forgo mechanistic transport in favor of walking from my home in Brooklyn to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, for an assessment of my ThinkPad’s growling fan by the mavens at the Little Laptop Shop. A bracing January trek, about 5 miles as the crow walks, to help clear the lungs and oxidize dietary transgressions.

Proceeding briskly along Flatbush Avenue through Brooklyn’s frenetic central business district, I felt at turns under- and overbundled, depending on exposure to sharp wind and brilliant sun. Likewise, my downloaded BBC podcasts provided inconsistent insulation from the ambient din. As I began ascending the Manhattan Bridge walkway, the roar of adjacent vehicles and trains completely defeated my feeble earbuds. This compelled me to disengage my mp3 player and to process, unmediated, the spectacular vista before me and troubled thoughts within.

The freedom to opt spontaneously for such a journey on a workday was thrust upon me just over a year ago, when the “promotional medical education” agency where I’d worked for most of the decade disencumbered itself of me and some 20 other employees.

I don’t begrudge them the downsizing. The pharmaceutical industry has undergone multiple upheavals in recent years, with shock waves impinging on the various ancillary sectors serving its needs. Our small, privately held agency had avoided a major contraction longer than most competitors, many of which have had to contend not only with objective economic pressures but the distorted imperatives of their publicly traded parent corporations.

Fortunately, my seniority and rank, plus a client-facing role on a key account, allowed me to negotiate a separation agreement that would cover my family’s needs for a decent portion of 2009. As part of the deal, I got to keep the now-growling ThinkPad.

The Manhattan Bridge walkway affords an extraordinary view of the East River’s true jewel, just to the south. As ever, gazing on the Brooklyn Bridge evoked meditations on the passage of time. I remembered the fireworks that illuminated the bridge in 1984 for its centenary celebration. I envisioned the bridge shouldering the mass exodus of dust-caked workers, with the plume of 9/11 still boiling behind them. And I recalled my 3-year-old son pitching a tantrum, refusing to step off the bridge after we’d crossed it together; I could calm him only by agreeing to turn around and walk the entire span back again.

The Brooklyn Bridge so perfectly elides aesthetics, utility, and resolve that it seems less a structure than a virtue. On this day, to me, it also seemed to taunt the corrupt nation surrounding it, an accusatory reminder of our lost capacity to audaciously hope the uncompromising into being.

I know, I’m quite the one to talk about compromise. Back in the bridge’s centenary year, as the editor of a consumer health magazine, I routinely brushed off recruiters attempting to draw me into the world of pharmaceutical promotion. A quarter century later, I’m a pharmaceutical sex worker, rented out by the hour (at least when there’s work) to companies looking to convince doctors to put chemicals into people that they might not otherwise put into those people.

I won’t lie: I have experienced pleasure and taken pride in tricks well-turned. But I draw the line at kissing my johns and adopting their politics. As I joked to a fellow single-payer advocate last summer as we entered the Rayburn building to lobby Congress, I try to be the kind of man who (contra Sinclair) understands things even when his livelihood depends on not understanding them.

The shop where I last worked had the saving grace of not expecting me to act like an “agency” guy or to pretend we were doing God’s work…except in front of clients. On home turf, waiting on batches of microwave popcorn, I would freely hold forth on how, in a just world, pharmaceutical marketing would not exist: compounds would rise or fall on the merits. Since those merits played no part in whether we engaged a client or not, I’d note, our work was pure amorality.

But, I would always add, let’s give our clients their due: they actually make stuff, test it, and sell it. Tangible stuff that sometimes even helps people. For all the many (many!) sins of Big Pharma, an even deeper rot emanates from those sectors that dishonestly call themselves “industries”—like finance, with its ephemeral “products” built on delusion and bravado, and health insurance, a superfluous, extortionate tollbooth between illness and care.

Deeper still lies the rot promulgated by sectors – public relations, lobbying, results-oriented pollsters and think tanks – designed to “influence the influencers” and sculpt conventional wisdom to suit the needs of power. Dark arts of the sort that seduce citizens over time into granting themselves permission to seek amusement rather than think, or that condition them to imagine it normal and acceptable, as in 1980 and 2000, that a simpleton might assume the Presidency. The transparent forms of propaganda in which I’ve engaged, where all participants know who’s footing the bill and what they hope to gain, are refreshing by comparison.

On the day of my walk, those darker arts were well evidenced in the spinning of the preceding night’s loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat to a Republican. Moneyed interests demanded urgent diversion from a simple truth: that the corporatized Democratic Party of 2010 had offered one of the most liberal constituencies in the nation nothing to vote for…only a buffoon to vote against. Those interests would instead arrange a flooding of the public discourse with the alternative, absurd narrative of a liberal/progressive overreach by Obama and supporters, which could doom the Democrats if not squelched.

That narrative’s absurdity is beside the point. In the United States, entities of means can purchase the manufacture of points of view. These need only sound credible enough, when repeated at high pitch by trained promulgators, to merit elevation to the status of “one side of the argument.” That suffices to flummox and pacify a large-enough segment of the public, preoccupied with daily struggles for sustenance and/or American Idol.

The Manhattan Bridge extends deep over Chinatown before reconnecting with the earth. A hundred feet up from street level, the aroma of a thousand woks rises to entice a pedestrian on the final stretch of walkway. Walking unaccompanied on a such bridge suspends one’s direct experience of urban humanity for a brief time; the bustle of Chinatown undoes this trance this abruptly.

Now in Manhattan, I chose one of the narrower and more atmospheric streets to make my way uptown. All around me Chinatown provided teeming evidence of the “real economy.” At one point, I shuffled past what I first thought was a sidewalk stack of carpet remnants, then realized they were pig carcasses. No derivatives they.

After further brushing against the district’s people and their activities, I came across a cramped storefront health center, its window covered mostly in Chinese writing except for the names of the many health plans accepted there. That, plus the center’s puzzling, perfect, English name: “Welling Life.”

Absorbed as I had been at the depths of our nation’s corruption, and the likelihood that I’ll need to at least dabble in some of it to put “food on my family” in 2010, “Welling Life” stopped me cold. Leave it to the Chinese to crack the English language in ways that allow deeper meaning to escape through the fractures. In the hubbub of Chinatown especially, the welling of life presents itself to direct experience and reminds one by extension of its global ubiquity.

This calmed and centered me, but only uneasily, for the welling of life requires equal parts creation and destruction. Plenty of both in the offing, soon. Of that little, and much, one can be sure.