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Pre-Occupy (2011)

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the WTO protests in Seattle. The memoirs and takes are coming hard and fast, a lot of them reflecting on the late 90s and comparing it to Occupy Wall Street, which led me to think back to that time—and how little of a dent it left on me—and about the slightly-younger generation whose identities were fundamentally shaped by it. Before Occupy, they were just unmolded clay, sacks of potatoes. After Occupy, they became literary-type-anarchists, communist-poets and normie-socialist-types, and now they shape the present moment and conversation. I ravenously consume all their cultural products and takes, but I'm largely uninterested in this group—I'm interested in that slightly older guard who are now coming out of the woodwork for the WTO anniversary. Anyway, I wrote this little thing about Occupy in 2011 for a literary magazine thats website now seems defunct, posting only so its not lost entirely.

Fall is the season for insomnia — the temperate weather coupled with the knowledge that Thanksgiving and Christmas are soon coming triggers a kind of physiological alarm, a manic desire to live the year-end. At 3:30 in the morning, after hours spent tossing and turning, I abruptly stood up and put on pants and a shirt. A magnetic tug called me toward the window. Yellow squares of light glowed from high-rise public housing buildings in the distance; the moon illuminated the low-lying cloud cover. 

For the first time since 9/11, New York felt restless, pregnant, as if something unexpected could still happen, as if at this late date we could still find new ways to live in the metropolis. I threw on my shoes and stood wavering, about to leave my bedroom, but not sure of where to go. A bar? Grand Central? Maybe a friend who’s still awake? But before a decision can be rationally made my feet took over, knowing where they want to go, animating the rest of the body to life like a stone golem. I locked my tenement deadbolt, knowing that I’m going to Zucotti.

The G train platform is always empty at this time of night, desolate like a Bergman movie. I sit on a worn-out bench. Waiting for the train, a song I haven’t thought about for a very long time appears out of nowhere. It’s a sweet little lullaby called “Sleepwalkers,” the last song on the final record by seminal North Carolina hardcore band Zegota. Named after the clandestine resistance movement to the German occupation of Poland, Zegota was a kind of magnet that young activists and radicals of the early-to-mid 2000s gathered around — the spiritual force to periodically rejuvenate the political will. The band toured the world, putting out beautiful handcrafted records on Crimethinc, the largest publisher of anarchist propaganda at the time. They played conferences, collectives, houses, and anti-globalization gatherings for around a decade before announcing that they were going on hiatus in the mid-2000s. What was billed as their last show was held in the linoleum-floored room of a church somewhere deep in Washington, D.C. after an event named the National Conference of Organized Resistance (NCOR.) The show turned out to be a cathartic moment for the hundreds of young radicals in attendance, kids too young for Seattle who would later be too old for Occupy. Their final song was a loud, exultant cover of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio.” The song left most of the audience in tears, the lyrics updated for the schizoid Bush years: Tin soldiers and Bush is coming / we’re finally on our own

I heard that after splitting up, the members each went on to do interesting things. The lumbering Nordic lead singer became a farmer. The bassist moved to Amsterdam and got involved in that city’s squatter’s movement. The petite, eternally-boyish guitarist (who always seemed to me like the quiet ringleader) moved to Stockholm to raise a kid. In short, they continued life on their own terms. But the quiet last song on the 2004 record Reclaim!, “Sleepwalkers” always stuck with me. It seemed like a premonition, the kind of what-will-come glimpse you get from Dostoevsky, where you can see the primordial discontent that would, 40 years later, boil over into a revolution. The soprano guitarist sing-speaks the lyrics:

I had a dream I walked the city in my sleep
and that I found my way home at last
and nothing could lead me there but the things that I believed 
and in the end it was all I needed 
to find my way back home

The night before, I had attended the occupation of Times Square with a friend, a fellow graduate of the post-Seattle anti-globalization movement — the years of the black mask, the affinity group, the pepper spray compound, the class action lawsuit. Since then, time had done its work. By tiny imperceptible degrees, we had transitioned from patchy, angry young people into dubiously-leftist adults. But the experience with the previous movement informed our view of Occupy. It was strange to look out on all the angry youth protesting for their first time without even realizing that they were just the latest segment in a lineage of angry youth that stretched back to the beginning of time, each generation isolated and alone, getting older at their own speed. 

Leaving Times Square, we ventured down to Washington Square Park. We had heard a second occupation would be opening up there. We entered the park and made our way into a General Assembly of mostly college-aged kids in the basin of the drained-out central fountain. The baby-faced facilitators were all crowded up on an elevated stone platform at the fountain’s center, like a hype crew at a hip-hop club. Hundreds of people fanned out in circles, listening and repeating their statements. The lit-up Washington Square arch framed the General Assembly meeting like a halo. There was where, late one night in 1917, Marcel Duchamp and a gang of friends had broken in and climbed to the top, releasing red balloons, popping bottles of champagne, and declaring Greenwich Village a “free and independent Republic.”

Aesthetically, something struck me as a little bit too perfect about this next wave of 21st-century activists. They had perfect, pore-cleansed skin; their clothing didn’t have any stains. These perfect embodiments of youth, brimming with confidence in their historical mission, looked like they belonged as much in a Levi’s commercial as a riot.

My impression of radicals and anarchists from the anti-globalization years was that we were demons, world-historical gargoyles, unshaven and filthy, crawling out from mysterious squat hovels to protest unaccountable international finance entities and then just as quickly disappearing, retreating back into the eaves.

A lofty, new-age rhetoric carries the Washington Square Park General Assembly forward. The facilitators repeat words like “beautiful” and “history” over and over, searing the phrases into the minds of those who’ve gathered. This moment is beautiful. This moment is history. It’s like a mantra. But even I am not made of wood. Later, when one woman says This moment is pregnant with possibility and the crowd repeats the phrase, a shudder passes through me, brought on by the truth of the statement. Donated pizzas are circulated throughout the crowd. My friend told me that the Zucotti Park occupiers get pizzas donated to them so often that the pizzeria around the corner has created a special pie named after them — the Occupy.

A constant problem for social struggles is that active participation is limited to those who have the time and energy to pursue it. There seems to have been a definitive generational rupture between the last generation and this one. The window-smashing black-blocker of 2003 is now the mellowed-out supporter of 2011, showing up at Zucotti Park only to drop off donations of books and toothpaste. In the short time that had passed since the Bush years, nearly everyone I had known (myself included) had given up activism and receded into grad school, a family, or intellectual or cultural production. Most of us burrowed into art, music, and careers, only to re-emerge from the cocoon as reluctant Obama voters in 2008. 

I remember well the sense of doomed futility in 2002, just months after 9/11, as we marched against the World Economic Forum in New York, knowing that the media would be unsympathetic and the effect would be negligible. I remember one thing in particular from the Miami Free Trade of the Americas protests in 2003. While running away from a phalanx of advancing police, I watched an unmarked van squeal to a stop in front of a guy running ahead of me. Police dressed like black-blockers jumped out, beat up the guy, and then threw him in the back of the van and drove off. His friend stopped running and became hysterical, screaming and asking where they’d taken him. The repression of popular protest in those years was brutally effective. Everyone I know left these protests with a feeling of subdued hopelessness, with a sense that none of it mattered. As a friend of mine from that time put it recently, “Now it feels like none of that stuff ever even happened.”
 
It should be noted that in terms of sheer numbers, the post-Seattle anti-globalization mobilizations between 2000-2007 were each larger than any single Occupy event thus far. Why were those years so futile while Occupy has so easily caught on? As one of the organizers of Occupy, David Graeber, recounted in a conversation he had with an Egyptian activist named Dina:

All these years,” she said, “we’ve been organizing marches, rallies… And if only 45 people show up, you’re depressed, if you get 300, you’re happy. Then one day, 200,000 people show up. And you’re incredulous: on some level, even though you didn’t realize it, you’d given up thinking that you could actually win.

But to put it bluntly, the anti-globalization movement had a serious image problem. There was no way  a movement that, from the inception, branded itself as fringe ultra-left and anti-American could ever attract masses of average, family-minded Americans. At nearly ever protest, some menacing-looking black-blocker ritualistically broke a window and set something on fire. There were plenty of signs that said “Fuck America” and the mainstream media usually clustered around a lone individual burning an American flag. It seemed like the anarchists were always more concerned with being morally righteous and portraying a strong outward image of anarchism than with collaborating with other groups or actually bringing about a change. The anti-globalization movement was inefficient in that it was about following the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and Group of Twenty around the globe and protesting cities where they met. This model undermined credibility — the city leadership only had to cry “foreign anarchist agitators” and “conference-hopping activists” to justify a police crackdown. 

Occupy seems to mark a significant evolution. It seems like the early-to-mid 2000s were like the grim, nihilistic, Narodnik late 1800s compared to the current populist 1905 moment. The anti-globalization movement possessed none of Occupy’s non-violent patriotic sheen. Occupy is about starting where you are — building up a community and working on your home turf. Affinity groups are much more cautious than they were in the anti-globalization years. They sit down and discuss what they’re going to do before they do it. Inclusion and a lengthy democratic process are emphasized. This is important because if the goal is democracy, then this has to be practiced throughout. As David Graeber put it in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, “the ends and the means have to be the same.” 

New York’s Financial District takes on an altogether different character at night. I find it bewitching to wander downtown streets in those quiet predawn hours when the brokers and marauding hedge fund managers have all gone home to Staten Island and Jersey. The narrow, labyrinthine streets are more Arthur Conan Doyle than Michael Lewis: storefronts shuttered, steam pouring from grates. You can almost feel the briny old New York rising up from beneath the cobblestones. You can sense the rhythmic waves beating against the Battery just a few blocks away. At Broadway, I turned South and headed toward the matte-black Death Star skyscraper that overlooks Zucotti Park.

Framed by low clouds and the gap in the sky of the missing Trade Center, the Occupy Wall Street tent city looked like Five Points reincarnated, the rough, rakish, homesteaders’ New Amsterdam revenging itself on the sleek, technocratic future. The cops standing guard at the edges of the encampment had glazed-over eyes; they looked like bored teenagers forced to do something they don’t want to do. A few scattered groups were awake, perched on the marbled benches throughout the park, sharing cigarettes and talking in whispers. Most were asleep. A huge Marine in stripped-down fatigues paced the perimeter of the square, chain-smoking. A young man with a fiddle and old-timey clothes played softly by the 24-hour concession trucks. 

Adults have so few opportunities to watch large groups of people slumbering together. There was something deeply comforting about the experience — long-forgotten memories of a nursery, of a lock-in at church, sleeping bags strewn across slick polyurethane-coated floors. The occupiers were strewn across the park in various states of improvised comfort, bodies rolled up in crinkly blue tarps or hidden in cardboard box castles. Most slept out in the open air on that perfect fall night, lined up in mummy sleeping bags, faces poking out, eyes closed. There was something mystically subversive about it all, as if they were spending the day in occupation, but were also all meeting each other again at night on the astral plane. I found myself staring at a man as old as my grandfather sleep in a nylon sleeping bag. His face was thin and gaunt, hair shock white, skin wrinkled to leather. He looked like a cadaver and he was smiling.  

After circling the perimeter of the park a couple of times (and giving out the rest of my cigarettes), I realized there was an undeniably strange cosmic symmetry in the fact that the agglutination of human warmth and positive energy that is Occupy Wall Street had materialized just blocks away from the festering wound of negative energy that is Ground Zero.

People like to go to Occupy Wall Street because it is a tear in the commoditized social fabric of New York City. It feels good to be there. Tourists snap pictures. Residents stop by after mimosas and brunch on Saturday afternoons. But mostly, I think people go down because they are lonely. The best place to go when you’re lonely is the Temporary Autonomous Zone. You might see someone you know. You might have an interesting conversation with someone you don’t. Normally frigid social relations are warmed up and people can interact with each other on an even playing field, without the monkey of hierarchy on their backs. It’s like the YMCA of yore, the place to go when you’re feeling down, where you can pick yourself of the ground. The sense of something bursting from the earth of Lower Manhattan, of something long dead coming back to life. You too can come and bask in the warmth of the Commune.

Unemployment

Specialists survive now. But we have, none of us, have a profession. That's why we aren't happy. Like being sober around drunks—its a curse. To walk out or to get drunk? 

                      -Jonas Mekas

[This pamphlet was written during a spat of unemployment way back at the beginning of the Obama era. It was printed and published by the good folks at Microcosm Press. I never put it up online for whatever reason, probably thinking at the time that it was cool for obscure print objects to exist out in the world with no corresponding online version. Here it is now. Print copies are available from Microcosm here.]

1.

There’s nothing quite like the nagging doubt that accompanies a period of unemployment. That horrible, slow-dawning realization that you won’t actually do all the cool things you said you would do when you finally got some free time. Instead of painting with watercolors or finally getting around to going to the museum, you sit in your room depressed, unable to give up judging yourself against society’s standards—LOSER! The voices of a million movies and television shows all seem to shout. Shifty-eyed looks from people come off as critical, as if to silently say, “Well if you aren’t working, what could you possibly be doing?” to which the answer might be, “Well, a lot”, but it’s hard to encapsulate the details—what to say? I ate, slept, shat and breathed like everyone else? I did some writing and then wandered the streets like a golem, animated to life by the search for a bathroom or a place to get some free food? Unemployment inevitably leads to a harrowing kind of self-questioning of your social worth and intrinsic value. The guilt and ultimate freedom of not working while everyone else does becomes unbearable, causing you to ramble on unnecessarily in an effort to explain what exactly it is you’ve been up to.

You begin to see the routinized lives of others through a foggy window, growing strange and Hunchback-like in your exile. “So safe! So secure!” you rasp as you shamble past their suburban front yards late at night, shaking your fists at their well lit, warm windows. The machinations of society grind on unhaltingly, abuzz with activity. The world has moved on by the time you drag yourself out of bed to eat a soggy bowl of Corn Flakes. It is this purgatorial, in-between place of not being able to stomach the humiliating process of finding another job but not really knowing what else to do that the unemployed find themselves trapped. The anxiety of not having a means to survive begins to devour all your time and energy, steadily creeping up as an obsession. You scheme and brood endlessly on new ways to make money, your efforts yielding no palpable results—the ideas contrived in the throes of financial necessity come off like propped-up cardboard, somehow tainted by the overreach. After all the scheming, you wake up one day to find yourself not only without a job but also four months in the hole with nothing to show for it—no beautiful, authentic painting, no onerous novel to justify the time. The days shuffle forward as you anxiously wait for some Human Resources person to phone and provide you a reason to live. Instead of waking up early and working diligently without regard for fads or social trends as you know you should, you leap out of bed and jump to the computer to see if anyone has responded to your desperate inquiries for employment. After seeing that they haven’t and momentarily fretting over your empty, spam-filled inbox, you spend the first four hours of the day firing off your resume like mortar into drain-like email addresses where it will almost certainly never be read. By the time you’ve consecrated this ritualized dehumanization, you’re no longer up for doing any work, and have inevitably been siphoned into multiple Gchat conversations with your friends—You should have hit ‘invisible’, Goddammit! Don’t they understand you’re trying to work? You’re hit with another Battleship-sinking realization, you unemployed dolt—they’re the ones at work, the ones sitting in cubicles and getting paid for it while you sit in your room and do it for free, postponing all efforts to make something of your life. This stresses you out so much that by early afternoon, dull and empty-headed, the day spreading out before you like an empty plain, why not start drinking? The morning has been so exhausting already you can no longer abide by your rule of not starting until after dark. This is the vicious paradox of joblessness—if you’re not in school and not working its generally assumed you’re up to no good. You can’t get a job without having a job or lying about having had a job and the curve is steep in working up the motivation to get something done without someone first giving you something to do.

It’s not just the material certainty that a job provides–the benefits, the means to continue paying for rent, bills, and a comfortable lifestyle. It’s also about the vital sense of stability that comes from serving a dedicated social function and having a regular schedule imposed on the otherwise looping and indistinguishable days. The production process has been streamlined, leaving us an infinite option of kinds of specialized workers we can be. We are all reaching to become something now—dilettantism has been routed as foppish and shameful. And yet, we flit about from one thing to another, becoming really good at nothing, left with a dispersed body of trivial knowledge that would make us great on a TV game show, but leaves us totally helpless when it comes to experiential skills. ‘Pick the thing you want to do’, they say! Once you’ve found it, allow the intoxicating feeling of trying to become a leader in your field will propel you forward. Unemployed, I am unable to immure my life with the most basic structure. Although I’ve always thought of myself as a ‘motivated self-starter’, most mornings I lie in bed wondering, ‘What’s the point?’ too existentially charred to get up and walk to the yoga class down the block. All the great plans and projects that I have unlimited time to undertake and empty days for are never started. The sense of being separated from society is at root—being alone while the rest are at work feels in some ways like being sent to detention back in school. The first couple of days of exile in the detention trailer carving ‘FUCK’ into your desk is pretty awesome, but the novelty quickly subsides, leaving the delinquent with a sense of horror at having been isolated from their fellow students. But is this the way unemployment has to be? Prolonged isolation, droning anxiety and purgatorial days spent lying around, wishing for someone to come and tell you what to do? I think about the laid-off Commodities trader I met in a medical study I did just after the economy tanked. I addressed him with all the empathy one would usually extent toward someone who’s just seen their career laid to waste.
“I’m sorry to hear you lost your job,” I said.
“Don’t be,” he chuckled, “I hated that job anyway—it was so cutthroat. All those Wall Street guys were assholes. Now I’ve started my own landscaping and exotic plants business, and do these medical studies on the side. It’s great—I just work outside and play in the garden all day.” Right now, over 7 percent of America is unemployed, and according to the cover story of today’s New York Times, that number is rising steadily, with companies announcing major layoffs every other day. The corpulent and cash-bloated 90s that spawned a zine and punk rock renaissance are officially over. Good–we can get back to working in secret, gaunt and mean, with no infusion of money or recognition to muck things up. My sympathies are not with the apocalypse-cheerleaders, but with the families who didn’t know this was going to happen and don’t know how they’re going to pay their rent, the people watching their retirement get wiped out after a life of servitude. We can’t help but stand in awe of our own destruction at the hand of this mysterious new Great Depression, like a pestilent wind cutting through our decadence like soft butter–where did it come from? Where will it end? The condos and subdivisions have been repossessed and sit empty, all construction grinding to a standstill. Development has halted. Unemployed of the world—we’re all sitting at home watching DVDs —Why not come together and try to do something cool?

2.

While uninspired, despair-filled unemployment totally sucks, on the deathbed, when you watch the retrospective montage of your life and have to face the question, ‘Was it worth it?’ it is probably preferable to the years-consuming forgetfulness of a long-term job. Without a job to daily provide you instant credibility, instant raison d'être, each day requires the remaking of your own reality. Dreams become not just something to forget as you’re getting dressed, but a major determinate in your thought process and mental state. You discover that you can lift yourself up from the quagmire of self-pity with positive reinforcement—Hey, you’re really good at this Sudoko game–and my, do you look handsome today! After a while you begin to realize that you can shape all the days by your attitude toward them. Something is only totally awesome as you think it is, if you fill it with enough of that invisible ether of enthusiasm that makes kisses feel tingly and makes certain bands really good. Things start to look like a wide-open vista of possibility—you can decide what time you get up, how much work you get done, and whether you stay in and mope all day or get out and ride the bus, drink coffee and explore. Life can be a prison sentence or an endless pleasure, depending on you. Unemployment presses you down to the metal of day-to-day existence, where you have the time to contemplate the big ethical questions that will later, in the heat of the moment, be put to the test. As an allegorical example, take the plot of the Spider-Man comic book—what if Peter Parker, with his newfound spider-like super powers, had never chosen to don the suit and mask, but instead had just focused on the freelance photo work that made up his mundane reality at the Daily Bugle? Parker was ambitious and talented—he was getting along just fine. But once bit by that irradiated spider, Parker chose to become the Spider-Man, rolling with the punches and abandoning his old dreams. Becoming a Spider-Man is obviously the kind of incident, like getting trampled by a horse or becoming sick that by its nature reshapes your concept of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ as they are narrowly defined in the blighted American present. So the curse became a blessing. Peter Parker was taken out of the marathon that everyone is running towards that nebulous something—career, happiness, success, the next cool town; and put on track to his destiny.

In donning the Spidey mask, and accepting his eternal duty, Parker voluntarily entered into a world of pain that would essentially ruin all his future relationships and happiness. But like Cliff Burton, whose fate was described in the Metallica song “Shortest Straw,” his destiny was predetermined. The Bugle wasn’t a bad gig—if he would have forgotten the whole Spider-Man thing and just focused, he probably would have gotten his stuff out there and become a name in the pecking order. But you can’t really ignore your destiny—a shunted sense of responsibility would have nagged him over the years, causing him to fail at all his other endeavors, like some kind of universal self-correcting mechanism. Luckily for comic history, Parker made the decision to dive off the bridge and fulfill his Nietzschian potential. Instead of just documenting the news, he started making headlines, snapping photos of his own work to make ends meet and bolster his alter ego’s renown. Instead of just being a spectator, he became a participant. He blazed a new path in fire, his invention borne of necessity and ingenuity. Spider-Man was a superhero because he gave up the selfish pursuit of his own happiness and normality to labor for the good of the entire human family. There is a myth of the perfectly balanced creative life, the fever dream of commercial success, intellect, family and friends, equally distributed—work time and play time equally balanced. But when you lean in heavily on one, the other parts of life inevitably suffer. This explains how many great writers have had a very difficult time ‘living’ at the same time. Some arts and pursuits are conjoined with life (the performance artist, the musician) but many are solitary endeavors in direct conflict with happiness, stability, and love. And let’s face it: touchingthe bottom has historically had some pretty serious consequences. The madness, failure, loneliness and xenophobia are well documented. Do you think Tolstoy put away his tome-like War and Peace at the end of the day, and could go out to dinner at Golden Corral? Would Nietzsche have been all right and laughed it off at the bar if someone had just given him a prescription of Paxil? The Puritans were right–work is its own reward. But work, like happiness, or travel, or gainful employment—isn’t enough to save us. There’s something at the root of the days that has no name. Time plows by violently, and soon enough it becomes unavoidably evident that every moment was a choice.

3.

Zane and I wander the city spending time as if it were an infinite resource, making poor choices. We consume distractions hungrily, trying to fill the void—movies, cheap food, art openings, drinks, blowing our money so we will be forced to get jobs quicker. Zane seems a little more settled into his life and manages to find a Zen acceptance of his current unemployed scenario, seeing it as a fleeting blessing.
“You just gotta be happy unemployed,” he smiles, “Man, I’m gonna have you read this pamphlet these squatters wrote about it—Happy Unemployed.  Look, I’ll pull it up for you.”

He finds a digitized version of the pamphlet on the Internet but I can only read a couple of lines before my vision blurs and I can no longer bear any life advice from these cheery German squatters, whose self-help advice emanates from some welfare-state parasite utopia. The pamphlet seems to serve the same purpose as Xanax, helping the anxiety-ridden reader lean back into life and accept their fate. But unlike Zane and the squatters, I just can’t be with it–I squirm unhappily without a job, desperately scanning the day for something that seems to be missing, browsing Craigslist job postings in hopes of stumbling upon a new set of chains. I panic upon waking to find no routine waiting for me, beckoning me out from bed. My mornings start off defiantly trying to ignore this fact—I get up early for no reason and lunge at the coffee maker, immediately needing a fix to continue wanting to be alive and not to crawl back into the bedtomb. Drinking coffee only serves to intensify the panic so that I can’t eat breakfast or hang around the apartment. I step out onto the icy sidewalk and stroll through the outer reaches of my neighborhood, wearing holes in the concrete. Hey, it’s not so bad. The sun in shining—I’m unemployed! My heart races—Why now, with the coffee, I don’t even want to die, but want to live! I dance down the sparkling streets of Brooklyn, paved in dreams, and lift my coffee mug, shouting the lyrics to Black Flag’s “Bastard in Love”:

You! Keep waiting for the love that you wanna feel! But you never believe it! My love is real! My love is real! My love is real!

The grizzled-looking guys at the flat-fix places and mechanic shops turn and stare. Having recently learned that Larry Livermore, founder of Lookout Records, lives somewhere along the route of my epic morning walk, I begin to harbor vain hopes that one morning he will be out on his front stoop getting the paper and will hear my clarion call, joining me in a chorus that would imbue my otherwise uneventful life with a kick-ass Broadway-musical production of Newsies quality. The walk calms me down and diminishes the effect of the caffeine so I can go back to my apartment and consider an austere breakfast of oatmeal before staring the day down from there. I blaze a path of righteousness through the morning, laying out new pamphlets as a way to ignore the blank, paycheck-less future, reaching into the blissed-out void of engaging work to lose track of time. 

By afternoon, I’ve gotten quite a bit of work done but begin to feel the kudzu-like creep of fear. My to-do list stares at me with cold pragmatic eye, and I slowly turn away from the fulfilling creative work toward duty. By midday, I’m throwing out applications and scanning Internet news; half-heartedly trying to fit into a world where people know things, have opinions and are ‘serious’. Walking home from the Library one afternoon, I’m struck by the trivial seesaw-ness of this existence. I’ve failed to reconcile the big questions that people have had to grapple with since the birth of art—How to live? How did the primitive artist justify his cave paintings to the rest of the tribe who ventured out on life-threatening missions to hunt mastodon? Should we find a place in their world or build our own? I remember reading somewhere that Walt Whitman spent the first third of his life as a newspaper editor for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle before he resolved to stop working for “the usual rewards” and become a poet. It’s this full-on-ness that seems to be key—to drop out completely, possessed by a singular driving passion that never relents. It doesn’t seem like there is a truly ethical path  because a balance is unachievable, each one fraught with its own pitfalls and benefits. Making zines is navel-gazing and microcosmic, but finding a place in the ‘real world’ is also lackluster. There’s a middle way, but that just seems compromised and blandly noncommittal—if you’re not going all the way, what’s the point of going at all. Is it possible to see shades of gray without becoming one? It seems best to just become a wandering bard, a philosopher-romantic, but how? 

Holding a book from the library that I don’t really want to read in my hand, I realize I am utterly paralyzed by what to do. While I’m unemployed and have infinite time to read and work, I don’t, because I’m too panicked about trying to land another job. Once I get a steady job, all I can do is daydream about the freedom I would have if I quit, all the books I would read and the time I would spend rolling around in the green grass. It appears that I am chronically incapable of balancing my life or accepting the present. There are a million places to go and a million things to do, but who’s going to do them? It’s a question of psychological freedom—freedom is no good if you’re under self-martial law and don’t want to use it, preferring instead to pace like a caged animal.

That night, Zane and I talk on the phone and agree that we’ve got to stop applying for jobs.
             “I’m done, man. I’ve applied for like twenty. If they don’t call me, fuck ‘em, I’m just done, completely over it.” He explains, “I’ve got enough money to live for two months. Then I can borrow some money for April and May and after that the comic book contract will start paying us off. And who knows then.”
 I admire his resolve to give up on the world of ‘usual rewards’ and bland pseudo-success, borrowing money like the artists of yore, to stay afloat until he can reach his ultimate goal. I’ve also applied for about a dozen jobs, and have enough to live on for a couple of months, but no comic book at the end of the tunnel, though my primary motive has become psychological rather than financial. At this point, my only desire is to wake up in the morning without a job and feel OK–for one single day, to not feel skittish and anxious, unappreciative of the freedom in the moment. This seems to be the first step on the path to wandering barddom—overcoming the psychological barriers. Why not dance at the party? I want to wake up and watch the sunrise and appreciate another day, guiltlessly thinking about how much ass it kicks to be alive and not have to clock in. On the recommendation of a new-age friend of mine, I’ve even taken to saying a strange little prayer before I go to sleep:

“Dear infinite—Please give me the strength to accept my life. Help me to be understanding and receptive and give me the grace to face tomorrow.”

But in the mornings, the Infinite still hasn’t spoken to me. Still marooned in the world! I’m standing on a precipice, overlooking an uncertain future like everyone else, but can’t seem to pull it together. This guilt, this puritan work ethic! To make more marketables, more 21st century blips? How many people are told daily through rhythmic social pressure to follow their dreams, but ‘to make money doing it’? Many of the driven and talented have already sold themselves into hackdom—I can’t help but think of that duplicitous ad on the subway for the college Digital Design program that shows a hip young man perched on a cliff, working away at his laptop overlooking a crystal-blue ocean and tropical islands. The only kind of scenery the people with Digital Design degrees are likely to see is a blank cubicle wall. How cleverly duped we were into thinking that we were following our dreams, only to find out that they led us to the exact opposite of what we originally wanted. Everything seems to say: get a job, start a successful website, fit your peg into the available holes, become a reputable independent contractor for the system. Buck the horse, sure, but not too much. The symbiosis of dreams of artistic grandeur with commercial aspiration has historically been a disastrous letdown. We knew this. There’s a horrible sinking feeling that rises when you stare into the busted face of the world and realize that, at bottom, the options are to sell yourself in a way that gets you paid or to pack your hobo bindle and leave it behind. It seems like the only ethical route for the artist was what I was already doing before I entered the world of fear—to continue just scraping by and surviving—making things, attempting voyages and living low.

4.

After submitting a resume and a cover letter for an editorial assistant position at a well-known online magazine, I scan idly over their website. It’s jam-packed with news commentary, opinion, perspective and daily columns by intellectual pseudo-stars. Looking over it all, I can’t find a single thing that I really want to read. My eyes flicker past the cardboard opinions and wasted words, lengthy diatribes delving into subjects of vital importance like whether or not Michelle Obama is overweight and a feature called Change We Can Taste: Bush's White House served terrible wine. Obama should do better! I let go of the mouse and wonder why I’m begging to be imprisoned in a cubicle for a couple of decades—only to be released when I’m old and mole-like from windowless years of staring at a computer, like an animal who’s been domesticated for too long and no longer knows how to survive in the wild. I would give away the fresh air all so I could afford nice dinners and go to parties and benefit from that glimmer of piqued interest in people’s eyes when they find out that you’re under the aegis of some notable employer. People lose years this way, crystallized in ice caverns of credibility. Morrissey condensed millions of our crushing personal histories into a few simple lines:

I was looking for a job / and then I found a job / and heaven knows I’m miserable now

5.

Niki has referred Zane and I as possible candidates for some temp work that they need done at her nonprofit. Upon hearing about this opportunity, Zane and I both rush to laptops to zap out our resumes and then sit twiddling our thumbs in metered anticipation for several days waiting for someone to get back to us. When they finally do, we’re broken down and desperate, at our lowest ebb and already sure we’ve been rejected. Zane gets his call first. I can tell by the look on his face that its bad news. He shakes his head dubiously and purses up his lips, a look of shocked disbelief passing over his unshaven face as he talks on the cell phone,
    “I’m sorry,” he drawls in his thick North Texas accent, “I just can’t do that. I just can’t do it. That’s not enough.” 
“What happened?” I ask once he’s hung up.
    “They offered me eight dollars an hour, that’s what happened!” he shakes his head disbelieving.
“So what did you do?” 
“I said Hell no, I won’t do it for eight dollars an hour. She was nice, though. She said she’d talk to Human Resources about getting me more and would call me back.” 

About thirty minutes later Zane got his callback—they offered him two dollars more, which he summarily rejected, being 29 years old and in possession of two Master’s degrees. If anyone’s time is worth more than eight dollars an hour, it’s his. But in the topsy-turvy nonprofit world, the amount a company purports to save the world seems to be inversely linked to the quality of life they assure their employees—they are regularly overworked and underpaid, and routinely expected to sacrifice their personal lives to toil away for the company’s vision. Apparently, they have no scruples about doing this to temps also, the hired hands that have no vested interest in their do-gooder operation.
My callback comes an hour later while I’m aimlessly browsing in a thrift store. I pick up and am greeted by a nice girl named Erin, who has a silky phone voice and sounds like she’s in her pajamas. She kids around with me and doesn’t bother to put on the veneer of professionalism that usually accompanies these kinds of calls.
“It’s just data entry work—soooo easy, probably a little dull for you,” Erin rambles on, “you can totally just bring in your iPod and zone out.”
    “Uh yeah, sounds great,” I say, suddenly uncomfortable with my lack of the seemingly indispensable iPod. Eventually the social niceties and chatting wears thin and we approach the Marxist heart of the matter—the question that lurks under the surface of every “Team Member” badge, every staff luncheon and every invocation to sacrifice–What will they offer you in exchange for a chunk of your life?
    “Eight dollars an hour” Erin says, sounding sober and straight-faced. I pause for a couple of seconds to give the illusion that I’m thinking it over, even though I have already waved the sword of righteousness against this lowball offer in solidarity with Zane. I hem and haw and politely refuse, explaining to her that I’m just used to making more than that, you know, how my other freelance jobs pay me $20-25 an hour. This is a boldfaced lie—but so is the entire poker-faced game of wage negotiations—like the casino and the gambler, the cards were rigged from the outset in the employer’s favor. Company’s saying they ‘don’t have the budget’ is subterfuge, because they would have it if their executives started flying coach instead of first-class. Although not seeming to really get why I wouldn’t just take the taxed $8, Erin is polite and explains that she will speak with the ignominiously named Human Resources Department to see if they could possibly make me a better offer. I turn off the phone and am left shaking my head like Zane, unable to believe their nerve—eight dollars an hour? That’s how they’re gonna shortchange me? How much you get paid for your labor inevitably leads to discomfiting self-questioning like, what is your intrinsic value as a human being. It seems like those who exude self-confidence and occupy a cozy little niche of the capitalist ecosystem have figured out the secret of being a specialist by demanding an exorbitant rate for their unique knowledge and skill. The rest of don’t have any profession—We slide around, uncertain of our worth, and are just happy to be offered anything. 

For a fear and anxiety-riddled week, I wait for Erin to get back to me about the job, and in the meantime think about the implications of my future temp-life scenario. I don’t even want the job at the nonprofit—if I can stay above depression, I have enough work to keep me busy for a lifetime. But opportunities, as far as survival, certainly become more attractive as they become more lucrative—lured by lust for money and necessity I become kind of attached to the idea of being chosen for an unflattering and mindless job that could sustain me for a while—new co-workers to smile at in the hallways, coffee in the morning, people to get drinks with. After almost a week and a half, I check my inbox and find an email:

Hi Aaron,

I just heard back today from our Human Resources dept. We can offer you $12 an hour, for approx. 30–40 hours a week, for 4 weeks.

12 dollars an hour? With all my faux-credentials? The stingy bastards! I consult a couple of friends to see if I should ask for more. They shrug their shoulders and say, wait Aaron, twelve is pretty good. It’s too late—my mind has been made up and it seems as good a time as any to take a stand. The problem with wages and economic necessity is that they have the money and we’re overeager to get to it. If everyone could somehow refuse and stop accepting their offers, all the wages would eventually have to go up. But after going through the exhaustive interview process, the drug tests, the paperwork and W-4s, most are so psychologically beaten down that we just want it to be done with. Temps, freelancers, jobseekers—Do they owe us a living? Of course they fucking do. I type out my righteous missive:

Dear Erin,

I’m sorry to be a hassle.
The absolute minimum I would need for the job is
$18/hr. I believe that's fair, given my experience and current
rates. Most of my other jobs pay $20-30/hr.  I get that my pay requirements might lead some to suggest just finding someone else on Craigslist–that's fine, but hey, you’ll be missing out.

Sincerely,
AARON

Well maybe it wasn’t so righteous, but it felt good. I had decided to retain some measure of dignity for once rather than begging for a job. I really expected to be called back by a cigar-chomping Rich Uncle Pennybags who would say, “Well, Son–You drive a hard bargain but you got chutzpah!” But later that night, in the wee hours of the morning, doubts began to creep in about my approach. Had I been too brash? Maybe I was too impertinent? I tossed and turned, sleepless, stewing in the uncertainty of it all, the empty-canvas future. The next afternoon, wandering the city on one of my nebulous errands, I received a text message from Niki: I guess your email backfired. What could it possibly mean? I ran home as fast as I could and checked my email. Waiting in my inbox was a note from Erin:

Hi Aaron,

Thanks for your email.

Unfortunately, while we would certainly appreciate your experience, we cannot stretch our budget beyond the $12.

Well, I’d certainly fucked up, hadn’t I? Asking for too much—the great fear of laborers and tenants everywhere, realized. And being a member of a fragmented and desperately needy labor force such as temps, there was surely someone in line behind me who would do the job for cheaper. I was utterly replaceable. It was like a Borges story with the battle of the wills—I had lost so easily. My pride was wounded but there was something relieving about not have to venture into the nonprofit salt mines. 

I didn’t write Erin an email back, harboring some delusion that at the last minute she wouldn’t be able to find anybody and would write me back, accepting my ludicrous wage demands and begging for me to come in on short notice. I waited and the first day of the job rolled around. This never happened.

6.

After hanging around my room most of the day, I decide to go to a free yoga class in the city to release some of the accumulated jobless tension. All this not working sure is hard work! When considering exercise, there are always those hesitant moments where you can’t possibly conceive of the point of it, even though you know from repeated experience that you will feel better if you just do it. The fusty old mind throws a tantrum, screaming,

“But what if I DON’T WANT to feel better?” and can only be shut up by turning off the brain and walking out the door as quickly as possible. I arrive in the vicinity of the yoga place a little early, and duck into a nearby bookstore to waste some time until the class starts. I am magnetically drawn by habit to the Zine/Small Press section to look for comfort and familiarity from the labors and anthologized efforts of my contemporary obscurants. Prominently displayed on the shelf at eye level is the full catalog of titles from Crimethinc, the incendiary anonymous publishing endeavor from Greensboro that has made an unmistakable imprint on the direction of DIY culture in the last decade. There’s been plenty of valid criticism about Crimethinc’s propaganda-cheerleader approach and primary cadre of disillusioned, angry suburban youth, but the material and mystique has undoubtedly caused a sea change in the ebb of the underground over the past years. The kids are stealing, dumpster diving, and living collectively more than ever before, like ticks silently riding their succulent hosts, sapping their blood and lifeforce over time.

Crimethinc has grown into a powerhouse, one awkwardly saddled with its stated mission of dismantling power. They’ve released millions of copies of books, newspapers, and propaganda into the nether, becoming an abstemious force on their own terms, a large unidentifiable blip far to the left of the cultural consensus. Given this massive thrust of effort and the seed-sharing nature of their approach, their critics genuinely beg to be asked, “Well, what exactly have you done?” Crimethinc is about the only real game in town, aside from some unmemorable polemics, and some over thought academic attempts, Despite their increasingly desperate open calls for competition and debate, they remain essentially unchallenged in the anarchist stable–winner and still champion of their nonhierarchical and champion-less sport. They are an interesting case, having cornered the market and become a kind of incidental monopoly in the world of radical propaganda, simply by the fact of their continued growth and refusal to call it quits or change the brand name or image. My eyes find a copy of Days of War, Nights of Love, the first and most indispensable Crimethinc publication. I haven’t laid eyes on in years. It’s an encyclopedia that rehashes the tactics and minor triumphs of anarchism over the course of the past couple of centuries, functioning as a kind of suburban guerilla warfare manual. It cries out to me, strangely prophetic and singular in a time of blog hype, depressing testaments to ‘indie’ fame like the movie Juno, and the “Don’t tase me, bro!” guy on Youtube who experienced his electrifying 15-seconds. I first read a second-hand copy of it in 2001, when I was a troubled seventeen-year-old in suburban North Carolina.

I was immediately captivated—it wasn’t anything like the books with barcodes on the back you could get at Barnes and Noble. The mailing address was less than an hour from my mother’s house and I liked the idea that there was a mysterious cabal of people living right down the road, who seemed to be actively working to destroy civilization. I read it carefully, in one sitting, and then put it down. There was fire in my eyes. The book had tapped into some hidden reservoir of anti-capitalist angst that undoubtedly bubbles under the surface of every teenager. Like a biblical convert, I shared the book with everyone I knew. I gave up meat and refused to pay for food, and began to live like a voluntary hunter-gatherer. I traveled on a bus for the first time, from Durham to a massive Mumia protest in Philadelphia, and marched with strange dirty people who looked like Ewoks (my first sighting of ‘crusties’ was bizarrely dissociative, not unlike how the Native Americans reacted at first sight of the colonists). I read and read and sat by the Raleigh train tracks baking in the hot sun and talking to hobos, pulling out a worn copy of the book to recite my new Gospels. Never work! Be defiant! Live free! Amen! The book had undeniably changed my life. I saw the world with new eyes, and could now realize the bubbling possibilities of existence. It shredded my ambitions, setting me on a path of aimless travel around the country, leaving a trail of photocopied zines behind me like breadcrumbs. But the sheen faded—I saw their collectives and met the authors and like a child who’s learned that there’s no Santa Claus, I felt bitter and magicless. It’s disorienting to look back years later to see a bit more objectively how substantial the effect of certain bands or certain books were—on one hand, you’re grateful to them for giving a voice to your anger, but on the other hand, you can’t help but wonder if they fucked up your life. What if I had never gotten a hold of that confounded Crimethinc book? Who cares? The time and life-lived can’t be taken back. The point of Days of War, Nights of Love wasn’t to be a step-by-step guide to utopia and a better world. It was just a catalyst, food for thought to get readers to develop their own survival system—a provocative illustration of some attempts that had been made. But instead of taking the hint and developing our own generational definition of resistance, we just lazily adopted theirs.
                 Now having lived and worked in the world, I’ve come full circle back to the original adolescent impression—the anarchists were right all along. Flipping through the book, I’m amazed by how many little details, how many prophetic pronouncements I missed the first time around, as if my virgin eyes weren’t ready to take it all in. But looking through all the Crimethinc stuff in the store, I feel a sharp pang of shame that I’m on my way to a bourgeois yoga class. And worse, I don’t even know where my original copy of this seminal text is. I wince to think that it’s probably packed up in a storage shed somewhere, its dog-eared pages gathering dust. What would the anarchists would think of me now, living in this city Babylon, melded in unholy daily symbiosis with the grinding capitalist apparatus? I’ve strayed from the original plan of just hopping trains and riding buses for the rest of my life, now dwelling in some questionable artistic nether realm of being a writer, trying to get jobs. They wrote their great work under pseudonyms, choosing to stay anonymous and sidetracking the question of literary success and infamy. Look at me—pitching stories, buying food, paying rent on a tiny room, owning a computer, giving up in all the tiniest ways. I feel a strong urge to steal a copy of Days of War, Nights of Love and somehow renew my creeds and prove to myself that I haven’t become reticent. But the ethical quandary of stealing from an independent bookstore is too much to bear. I shakily bring the book to the front counter and hand it to the hipster cashier, meeting his eyes, hoping to share a moment of common affinity. None occurs. I hand him my ten dollars—an hour of my labor at the Human Resources department offered rate—he judges my selection, and gives me a look that seems to say, ‘Aren’t you a little bit too old to be a crust-punk?’ It’s humiliating. Carrying my plastic bag out, I ball up the receipt and clench my hand into a fist. The motion feels familiar, nostalgic–like some piece of discarded adolescent wisdom being recaptured.
                       In a dream, the primary author of much of the Crimethinc literature appears to me like some anarchist Christ, bearded and with a long flowing mane. I am one of his disciples. He shakes his head at me in bitter disappointment,
“Aaron—why would you want to buttress their rotten institutions?”
    “I don’t know!” I gasp into the darkness, “Maybe some childhood shortcoming? The need to be loved? The fear of being forgotten?”
He looks pained, like an angry Zeus.
“You’ll never find self-respect and dignity in working for them. You’re wasting your time, and the clock’s running out…”

7.

I wake up early to a streaked sky and tiptoe around the apartment cautiously, turning off the lights and leaving. Down the street at the neighborhood café, everything seems much cheerier than usual—the music blaring over the café speakers is not the familiar despondent Cat Power, but something that sounds more like a cocaine-fueled soundtrack for middle-agers who are gathering to ‘get funky’. It’s Inauguration Day. The glowing counter people offer me free miniature cupcakes, “Cupcake?” “Obama cupcakes?” they titter excitedly. In the corner of the café on a loveseat a couple is making out and petting each other flagrantly, celebrating the victory of hope with the ultimate shameless PDA. I sit down and gingerly read through the notes I made the night before. Having spent my entire adult life under the yoke of the Bush Administration, it seems like it’d be nice to forget the last eight years ever happened. But my curiosity to be informed gets the better of me. I close the notebook and walk back home to watch the day’s proceedings. 
Transfixed sitting in front of a flat screen, I listen to the white-noise banter pouring from the commentator’s mouths as they attempt to fill the seemingly endless cable airtime. A Pepsi commercial, timed for maximum exposure during an advertising moment more coveted than the Super Bowl Halftime show punctuates the live coverage–minimalist flashes of text glow coldly, 
          We can. We did. We will. Come Together. Pepsi, a raspy voice reads the words, then the screen displays a new can logo bearing suspicious trademark-infringing resemblance to Obama’s ubiquitous HOPE logo. Former presidents in pea coats, flush-faced and jowly from too many pheasant dinners step gingerly through the marbled halls. Cameras scan and comment on George H.W. Bush struggling to get along with a cane beside his wife, and Jimmy Carter bounds by like a cheerful Golden Retriever, radiating the righteousness of historical vindication. Everyone shakes hands and hugs and smiles together, even the most bitter partisan enemies are united in oligarchic union, understanding each others burdens and struggles far better that the common people of this country ever could. Finally, after what seems like an eternity of staring at the little clock at the bottom of the screen, the coronation begins—the camera flashes over the millions of people crowded together in the cold watching an enormous flat screen that is set up in front of the Capitol. The screen bubbles and pops with plasma blasts of color and light, making it look like a black hole has been ripped in the space-time continuum and opened up on the Mall. The camera cuts to an image of President Bush walking through the halls alone, sad and shifty eyed (no doubt mulling over his impending war crimes prosecution) behind an escort of smiling politicians and spouses who look like they are on their way to a church service. Barack Obama walks alone too, but was somehow more noble, a Washington ghost, the reluctant Savior of American mythology who seems to carry a secret vindication pursed inside his lips, totally aware that he’s moving into a house built by slaves but has prepped himself with a secret plan. Barack Obama, God’s lonely man, closes his eyes and savors his last moments of non-presidency. I feel for him, thinking back to the earnest requiem he gave for his solitude and anonymity in a Sixty Minutes interview after he won the election:

Kroft: How has your life changed in the last ten days?
Mr. Obama: There's still some things we're not adjusted to.
Michelle Obama: Like what?
Mr. Obama: Like–
Michelle Obama: What do you want?
Mr. Obama: Me not being able to take a walk.
Michelle Obama: Oh, well, you know.
Mr. Obama: No, I mean, though those are things that…

The cadence of Rick Warren’s red-blooded penitential prayer is hypnotizing until he gets weird and starts talking about Obama’s family, 

“Of course there’s Michelle, and how could we forget…,” his tone changes abruptly as if possessed,
“Sashhhhaahhh and Maliaaahhh” he rasps, saying their names like he’s announcing a pair of Amazonian jungle cats.

The Obamas’ humility, their genuine averageness amongst the gathered American aristocracy makes them stand out notably. It is reassuring in some fundamentally cinematic way, like watching a heartwarming Hollywood movie where the humble good guy triumphs. Obama seizes the podium and calls for the renewal of the spirit of service, for a new puritan work ethic. He manages to convey the sense wordlessly that America is just a fragile experiment, a burning ember that has to be blown on and kept burning in the palm of the hand. How do you describe watching a President publically acknowledging the frail, damaged state of his empire? “Historic?” Don’t worry about the government, he seemed to say; put your faith in yourself and your community. 

But what does remaking America even mean? In the short 232-year history of this country, we’ve spread across the continent like a creeping virus, leaving no land undisturbed—our ancestors chopped down all the forests and pioneered the plains, interned all the Indians, built all the cities and towns, and manifested a civilization which seemed to hasten for no lesser goal than to see every inch of the country poured over with concrete. Could we unmake this country? Could we roll back the roads and melt down the buildings? Could we reestablish some kind of stalemated trust with nature and other sentient creatures? Do we really need more wireless Internet access? This is the sad state of the dream that we’ve come to, where we’ve already dreamt too much. The new highways floats invisibly around us, inundating us with an infinite supply of irradiated information, a seemingly endless supply of potential parties and friendships and careers. The goal now seems to be to maintain our lifestyles, to put the tourniquet on and slow the bleeding of American dominance. 

A crumpled and fading empire—A make-believe economy in shambles—Starbucks franchises shuttering their doors by the hundreds. An anti-capitalists dream, made reality. So why does it feel so bad to be right? Like that asshole who scoffs, “There’s got to be massive die-offs of the world’s population to get it back to sustainable levels. That’s got to happen soon.” And who’s going to die? Certainly not the rich, bunkered in padded compounds with five-year supplies of Trader Joe’s organic food. “Isn’t the Depression great? —So many possibilities to radicalize the people!” End of the world 2012, blah blah blah, return to scarcity and primitivism, blah blah blah, apocalypse fantasies of the last four thousand years. It doesn’t take much of a seer to talk about ruins and predict that everything falls apart, as it always has and always will. But it’s sad to think about all the other empires and how little remains of each—the Mayans, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Ottomans. They were each so mighty, like Rocky, like us, thinking they would always be on top. We popped open the champagne and celebrated a new era of HOPE to magically vaccinate our young American attempt against FAILURE, but what if the candle has already blown out and we are the last to know? We’ve had a good run of it, and damn, it’s been a lot of fun—but how long could we have expected to be-in-the-world where we have anything we desired delivered? A world where we can drive across the country in two and a half days straight and cross oceans in under four hours in thin metal hulls, where the floodlights stay on all night every night? It’s been a rough eight years. We’re on the ropes. Maybe it’s been a rough eight hundred—we won’t know. The downloadable history books of the future will condense our complex story into a couple of sterile sentences, “The American empire slowly waned in influence in the 2000s, its outposts periodically attacked by barbarians” or something like that. But Hope, in spite of all the reasons to not have it, somehow manages to just give people more hope. And when people are hoping and laughing and smiling, it’s good. Definitely better than despairing and doom-saying. I’m hoping with them—for whatever. For another cup of coffee, or for a secret kiss. For Spring to come. For us to fix our world before the sand runs out of the hourglass. And if the story has already been written and it’s too late–for fragments of our beauty to be found in the rubble of this civilization.

 

 

The Medicine

This essay was published in a print fanzine a while back, as Big Hands #9. I figured it was about time—time past, passed, passing—to put it up online.

We strap my brother into the back of the handicapped accessible minivan and the door telescopes closed with a satisfying pneumatic whoosh. Cliff, Ben’s caretaker most weeks, paid hourly to hang out and play video games but also to help develop basic life skills, jumps up in front of the wheel. Cliff is a big teddy bear of a guy with a thick Southern accent, built like a linebacker, but with a gentle and compassionate spirit. He’s from Rutherford County, largest town Rutherfordton, up in the North Carolina foothills. Like so many young people from the rural edges of the state, he came to the metropolitan Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area to go to college and stuck around to suckle at the cash teat of the Research Triangle Park. Metica, the company that Cliff works for, employs college guys with Medicaid money to work in home with the disabled throughout the area. Cliff gets assigned one or two clients, like my brother, and sticks with them for years at a time. The caretakers assist with basic physical needs like helping the clients eat, go to the bathroom, get out of the house—they use small steps and a goal-based, familiar routine to march toward the ultimate goal of self-sufficiency.

Inevitability personal relationships and preferences develop. Cliff often talks about how lucky he is to have gotten Ben as a client, telling horror stories of the other folks who came before—kids who threw up on him all day, autistic youth who would scream and punch him. While Ben, 22 years old, was born with cerebral palsy and is physically handicapped (he is always in a wheelchair) he is relatively well off on the spectrum of disabilities because he is high-functioning and his intellect is fully intact. He’s also more optimistic and hopeful than most able-bodied people I have met, who tend to be preoccupied with their own petty misfortunes. I often wonder if his emotional life and the sense of native wisdom he possesses is a byproduct of his physical disability—like how the blind have a more refined sense of smell and character judgment, an ability to wholly assess the feeling of the person that approaches them. Ben is a movie and pop culture buff, able to reel off actor’s filmographies, entire oeuvres, always able to identify the directors of photography and gaffers in the credits. He looks on the bright side—major surgeries, unemployment, the uncertainty of the future, it all seems to roll right off his back.

Take for instance, a conversation I overheard in the kitchen between Ben and Cliff while they were making pizza. 
          “Cliff, aren’t you excited for our trip?!  Come on, get excited!”
“I am excited, buddy.  But I think it’s going to be stressful.” 
         “Why don’t you just hope for the best? Try to have a positive attitude.”
“Well buddy, I’m a realist about things.”
         “Why are you a realist?”
Cliff pauses for a moment, giving the question serious consideration.
          “Well, it’s probably so that when things don’t turn out well, I don’t get so disappointed.”
Ben looks at Cliff compassionately, and without speaking exudes a sense of peace. If anyone needs to be realistic, it would be Ben. But he manages to hold onto his hope, joy and enthusiasm.

In his sweetness, Ben manages to charm every person that he comes in contact with.  Like how in the business bestseller 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the author says you have to be a golden goose to lay golden eggs. You can’t just buckle down and push yourself hard to be something that you are not—you have to embody it, to possess the purity of spirit within you. Ben lives it and the energy he has irradiates the world—enduring positivity and joy in every interaction with other people. He’s a magnet, drawing the good, the desirable, the ever-smiling toward him. He can’t go through the mall without girls and old friends saying rushing up to say hello. 

Cliff spends more time with Ben than I do, his own older brother. Every afternoon Cliff drives over to our house and sits at the bottom of the cul-de-sac, waiting for my brother’s school bus to roll in from community college. Because of all the stops and the time it takes to drop off other kids in wheelchairs, it is usually an hour and a half ride. But still, life takes on a Sesame Street quality—everyone knows his name. All the red carpets roll out, the bus driver smiles and says, “Have a good day, Ben!” assuring him that he’ll be there early the next morning to pick him up again. Cliff opens the door of his old clunker and shuffles over to meet him. They wheel over to the mailbox and it’s Ben’s job to reach out and open it. His right arm is folded up like a birdwing, but his left arm, the dominant one, unfolds as he reaches out to pry open the mailbox door. Cliff helps him lift out the stack of mail and catalogs and sets them in his lap. Then Ben mashes his wheelchair joystick forward and charges up the steep hill. At the top of the driveway, he comes to the screened-in porch, and plows into the screen door, pushing it open with the brunt force of his chair (The doors don’t last long with this kind of daily pounding. The last one collapsed in on him one afternoon, like a pre-broken piece of movie set furniture.) 

Inside the house, the air-conditioner runs at full blast. Ben whirs past his window to his world, a large flat screen loaded down with all the most recent satellite equipment and video game systems.  Cliff ushers him into the kitchen to place the mail on the kitchen table. As Ben reaches out with his dominant arm, a couple of pieces of mail drop out onto the floor. Cliff sighs reassuringly because pieces are always getting dropped like this, and it just can’t be helped. Patience, patience.  
            “It’s alright, Buddy.  Let’s just feed the cat.”
Cliff picks up the cat food dish and puts it up on the kitchen table for Ben to reach. Cliff roots through a drawer to find a can opener. He then struggles to get the black can-opener to grip onto the lip of the can. Once he’s done he hands the cylinder of compacted meat to Ben to finish, like a mother bird chewing baby’s food.
           “There you go, Buddy”.  Ben gingerly grasps it in his left hand and presses it toward the plastic cat dish, dumping the mushy meat in.
           “Good job, man,” Cliff smiles wearily. Cliff has just graduated college and seems preoccupied—a post-graduation slump, perhaps troubled by existential questions of what to do with the rest of his life. Ben has noticed his ennui. But Ben has worked with so many caretakers that he is learned how people are and how to treat them, and knows its better to just not say anything. Maybe it will just go away. Maybe they can just be friends and have fun. 

Cliff careens down US-1, that little half-mile stretch of well-maintained highway behind our house that goes out to Goldsboro, Pinehurst, Siler City, and Wilmington. A stretch of highway like any other but somehow syrupy sweet and comforting, having carried me to all the places that made up my life. The road our bus would go down to get to elementary school. The road to the neighborhood where my girlfriend lived; the road I drove down when I got my first car; The road we would take to go to the grocery store, to get ice cream, and rent movies at Blockbuster on a Friday night, before the Redboxes came and shut down that one gathering place in the suburbs where people could browse George Clooney movies while voyeuring other people in the store from behind the mattress of geographic isolation. Then in the later years, the highway I took to dumpster dive at the Food Lion, dredging expired birthday cakes, half-rotten veggies, and packages of mashed potato flakes up from the Stygian depths of the bin to take back and feed to my friends. I stare out the window as Cliff drives past the dead memories, the futuristic, EPCOT-looking strip mall Waverly Place where we used to skateboard and ride the plaza escalators up and down. We crawled all over the bronzed statues of white-collar businessmen on benches at the shopping center, giving them kisses, grabbing their crotches. And late at night after the roving security patrol left, we put detergent in all the fountains, and then went around to the Whole Foods dumpster and had massive food fights with rotten tomatoes and fruit. We were just teenagers wasting time in what seemed like a life sentence. No respect for anyone or anything that had come before or that had been built by money or human sweat. The suburbs were our playground.

“I’m glad you’re coming with us Brother!” Ben shouts, high-pitched, his excitement unrestrained and honest. I used to get excited like that. I used to dance around in the living room just to expend the nervous energy. I used to feel unconstrained by the expectations of the world that now weigh me down like bricks on my ankles. The world wants you to be poised, to be cool, to not get to excited. The world wants you to walk tall, wants you to always smile, wants you to be friendly, wants you to be a charming and awake and playful. But at the same time, the world doesn’t want you to step out of line—it wants you half-dead, shambling to some job, it wants you to want to afford things you don’t need. And finally, when you’ve given up completely—when you’re crumpled up and your spirit is broken, the world welcomes you back with its cold, clammy embrace.  Late at night, in moments of despair, it whispers its soft refrain into your ear: Do what everyone else does, talk like everyone else does, interact with people like everyone else does, suffer like everyone else does. My brother, being born different, was never quite beholden to their strange expectations—not expected to grow up, to be mature, to ‘make something of himself.’ And having been exempted, I am happy to report that his zeal for life has remained intact.

“I’m glad I’m coming too, Ben!” I smile, sticking my hand out the minivan window to feel the breeze.
            “Man, getting outdoors …” Cliff seems rejuvenated to be outside, out of our house where he’s cooped up five days a week. We coast through the leafy spring overgrowth, passing fields and valleys, cows, and emu farms. Cliff’s inner country boy is showing now that we’re out in the country, and he starts talking about where he grew up in Rutherford County.  
              “Grandma had some debts to pay back and without thinking too much about it, she clear-cut her land. Those were woods that her and me used to walk through just about every day. The earth doesn’t just magically grow back what you cut away. Half of what she cut was taken over by kudzu before she could even replant. The other half, she replanted with just regular pine trees; The pine needles were so acidic that when they dropped they made it so no other species of plant could survive on the forest floor; So that was the end of the ecosystem—if you go there now it’s just these mechanically spaced rows of pine trees. Sad part is, most people don’t even notice that there’s something lacking. There’s no biodiversity anymore, we’re missing all kinds of plants and animals. That perfectly sustaining, diverse natural ecosystem is now pretty much gone around here in the South, except when you see it at on a nature preserve or on some private conservation land.” 

I can’t help but imagine how wonderful the land we’re driving past used to be: hidden away in the glorious full-grown backwoods, old ivy-covered barns that smell of tar slowly decaying back to dirt.

In elementary school, we would go on field trips out to the nearby Sharon Harris Nuclear Power Plant. I found the place fascinating—it was packed with glossy cardboard cutouts of atoms and clear vacuum tubes. Our class would sit up on the carpeted steps of a little theatre and watch flickering propaganda films about the incontrovertible good of nuclear energy. The company even built a park beside the nuclear plant for the community.

Harris Lake Park is set back behind several gates that creak open and shut at sunrise, some distant bureaucracy regulating the open hours of what was once-wild. Cliff parks in a handicapped space. With the press of a button, the ramp gracefully unfolds out onto the pavement. We’re going to take Ben off of the familiar asphalt, down an unpaved trail. I don’t doubt that his wheelchair can handle it—its built for rugged durability, with gyroscopes and rubber tires, but the pavement has always been his river. 
                     “Time to go off-roading, Boy!” Cliff harangues him and puts him in a headlock. Ben gets riled up and excited with the roughhousing. As he motors forward onto the unfamiliar terrain, he tenses up, unnerved by going off the sidewalk. We meander slowly down the trail, Cliff and I on either side of him to stabilize his chair if he hits a rut. We are all grinning at his first encounter with the raw world of nature—that world that in the recent past would have been off-limits. I think about how, in all the eras of history, how lucky it was for him to be born after the time when people referred to the disabled as “crippled”, in the spring-bloom of civilization and technology and great society programs like Medicare and Medicaid. I also think about how in this new era of austerity, how devastating it would be to handicapped citizens if these programs were systematically dismantled. Medicaid helped him along, paid to have his wheelchair modernized, paid for physical therapy, got him the leg and back surgeries he needed, and provided daytime caretakers so that my mom could continue to work.

And the fact that my brother was born in the late 80s, right when disabled people were  engaging in the direct action that led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1991, also seems fortuitous. To be born in a time when a culture of acceptance and assimilation was on the rise and disabled people had choices and could determine the course of their own lives. 1991 wasn’t that long ago. The rise of consumer electronics has provided unprecedented access to worlds previously inaccessible—Nintendo Wiis, iPads, a whole array of new tools and accessible entertainment. The world of nature is janus-faced and cruel—its beauty is thorned, its gift is also its curse. Until the discovery of fire, life was a short, cold brutal affair. Nature has not been so good to us. Like Prometheus, when humans finally wrested control from nature, they took their revenge on God—they penetrated his dark starry night with electric lights, they paved over his naked soil with our roads and cities, they hunted down the predators that attacked and intimidated us for thousands of years. We saw to it that this violent thing called Nature was tamed, left as only a shadow of it’s former self. I often wonder about people I have known who have advocated some half-baked theory of “primitivism” and hold a utopic vision of the return to some ideologically perfect pre-industrial society—these warm-hearted souls who earnestly believe that living in tree houses, shitting in buckets and printing our own pamphlets could ever be enough to rectify the human. Their ‘community’ is a niche undertaking, a youthful art experiment. Their better world isn’t for everybody. King Kong will remain shackled and caged.

We continue through an opening in the trees. There is a wide clear-cut of high-tension power-lines receding into the distance. From there, the colossal gray, cooling towers rise in the distance, big puffs of steam spilling out into the blue sky like a mushroom cloud. Nuclear power—dark nature, yes, but oh how dark is Prometheus! Still, it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.  There is a placard sign there in front of us, put up by Sharon Harris to reassure a skeptical public. It reads something to the effect of, “Don’t worry! That smoke coming from the reactors is just steam–totally natural and healthy!”
                    Cliff and I talk suspiciously, wondering why, if it’s so healthy, they built it so far away from the city. Ben motors out onto a scrubby little isthmus that juts out into the lake. The further we get away from asphalt, the more nervous he looks. But still, he’s Christopher Columbus—probably the first disabled to come this far. Cliff and I are chatting away when we hear Ben shouting for help. We rush over. We find him stuck, wheels of his power chair spinning futilely, flinging mud everywhere.
                    “Don’t worry, we’re not going to let anything happen to you, Bud,” Cliff reassures him. We push with our shoulders to pry him out of the rut. When his chair finally gets some traction, he immediately zips off back down the trail to the comforting asphalt of the parking lot.

Like polar magnets, nature and civilization repel each other with a strange, unknowable force.  Nature cuts him off, saying “no more”, as if unnerved by how close he has come. As we walk back through the beautiful woods, I think about how the cool breeze is no more natural than the billowing chill of an air-conditioned indoor mall. Human adaptability is the great engine of our power, but also the source of our tragic fall. There’s nothing to be done when things get too far off track, no one to press ‘stop’ on this life when things get to be too much.

Later that night, I put Ben to bed. Wheeling his cybernetic wheelchair into his bedroom he sits there, looking uncertain, waiting for me to move all the clutter from his bed.  We both know this is an important moment and that it needs to be treated delicately—since I’m not home so often, he prefers my mom to put him to bed. I have to feign confidence, act like I know what I’m doing in order to make him feel comfortable.  I pull the harness out from under a pile of clothes and slide the big nylon belt around his waist. He’s gotten so used to being manhandled by strangers—big college guys who come over every day and put him on the toilet, lay him on the floor to exercise, more his big brothers than I am. I unstrap his seat belt and wrap the harness around his waist gently and pull the motorized pulley system along the ceiling. I press the button and the pulley magically lifts him up in the air out of his wheelchair. He dangles in mid-air over his bed. 
                 “You look like Peter Pan!” I smile.
He laughs, weary-sounding.
                  “Has anyone ever told you that?” 
"Yes” he says, curtly.  I lower him onto a towel and undo the straps and slings. Success! Ben’s bed is still outfitted with the same racecar sheets as it was when he was 10.  Take off his shoes and socks.  His cute little gnarled hobbit feet—I pull off his gym shorts and grab the adult diaper from the pile in the corner.  Rip the plastic and pull out the adhesive wetness protector and affix it inside the diaper. Then rip the sides of the diaper he’s wearing and yank it off, urine-soaked. Whenever I do this, I think about—most parents have to change diapers for a few short years. She’s had to be the evergreen mother, doing it for over 20 years. My mom still looks like she’s in her 40s. Has having her youngest son so close, so dependent, kept her young, kept her from stagnating? Is the key to not getting old having a purpose and knowing that people need you? I brush away unresolvable thoughts and pull out the box of WetWipes.  I wipe around his crotch and he looks away ashamedly, seeming to like it even less than I do. I make small talk about what he wants to do the next day and wheedle the new diaper on him, careful, careful not to rip it. Then throw away the dirty diaper and pull the towel out from under him like a magician pulling out a tablecloth. Voila! Arrange the pillows around the edge of his bed, a clock nearby so he knows what time it is, put a single pillow on his head.  I get everything just right for once. I kiss him on the head and say goodnight.  Goodnight Ben, my eternal brother, cozy and comfortable in your little nest. Something about my mother shepherding him through life, protecting his innocence moistens my eyes. Just the way it is. Happy families are all alike, Tolstoy wrote. For the rest, not necessarily something therapy should fix.  

The rides at Disney World develop cracks and tears, metal rusts and colors fade.  VHS movies and cassette tapes sit in dumpsters and on spider webbed driveways across the country.  Sitcom characters dance around all night on turned-off flat screens, recorded by TiVo.  Malls slowly crumble to dust, their Coptic exteriors pulled down by kudzu. My brother’s room remains the same after all these years—a museum piece where time stopped in the mid-90s. This is the best way for life to continue—laden with mystical layers and coincidence–cryogenically frozen in the comfortable and familiar.  A librarian who works for 30 years in the basement of the same building. My grandfather built his own house with his bare hands and spent fifty happy years there. His cells bound themselves up there, and the day it burnt down a part of him died. He passed away just over a year later. Everything is constantly re-shaping everything else, like a lathe—consciousness melding to cells, bodies melding to geographies and locations, people melding to one another. The cocoons that we build around ourselves are time warps to the future—when one day they break, we wake up, as if roused from a long slumber. The world chugs forward, in its harshly, mechanistic way. The near past is gone, the future is here, and the person you thought you were has gone missing.   

Posted above the coffee maker, on the kitchen cabinet, my mom has affixed a little poster printed out on computer paper that reads: Don’t Worry Be Happy! Take Your Medicine! Just Wait And See What Happens! Love and The World Will Love You Back! The very need for a poster of this kind, a cheery reminder with the morning cup of coffee seems like an intimation of warning. Yet, when I hesitantly ask my mom if there was something wrong that warranted putting up the note, she just smiles and says  ‘You know, your brother likes it—and I like it too.’ We live in a topsy-turvy world in regards to mental health—it seems like those with the most to lose are also the most upbeat and optimistic—they are like surfers, gliding on the briny wave of the world’s misery. Upbeat, smiling people, so locked into their situation and their lives that they don’t have the time or the luxury to get depressed about it. They listen to inspirational music, they try to stay busy, they smile and look for the positive and the life affirming in the day-to-day. They go through life cultivating a well-maintained mental landscape, pruning out grim thoughts like stray weeds. Conversely, middle-class suburban white boys tend to form the primary listenership of aggressive, ‘depressing’ music and the most steadfast producers of dark, contorted postmodern literature. 

It’s easy to be preoccupied by the emptiness of existence when you don’t have to concern yourself with day-to-day survival. Perhaps suburban youth love aggressive, depressing music so much because they have so little to lose by letting darkness into their lives. It’s fun to splash around in pain when all you have is a shallow wading pool, rather than a dark substantial reservoir. I often find myself often thinking about those people whose experiences have inspired horror and suspense-movie plots—like the ‘73 Uruguayan rugby team whose airplane crashed and ended up having to eat the bodies of their friends; or the Chilean miners trapped underground for weeks; or Aron Ralston, from 127 Hours, who sawed off his own arm with a pocket knife; I’m talking evening-news blunt force trauma. It’s a testament to the human spirit that people can recover from this stuff. Strange too, how the near-death sometimes can clarify your priorities—after you’ve survived a plane crash or have dashed out of a collapsing tower as your co-workers are incinerated, you realize how much is at stake in this life and start treating people properly. You reunite with estranged family members. You stop going to bars. You pursue your dreams. With the adrenaline shot of a little death, you remember that you are alive. 

I fidget and count the seconds as the Target register lady scans my socks, toothpaste, and floss, and puts them in a bag. To this twenty-year-old cashier with tattoos and lip piercing and a faded 21st century demeanor, I’m just another indistinguishable adult man, 18-40, no history, no context, no personality. The possibility of friendship—that possibility offered by every interaction—dissipates with every passing second like a shot clock running down as I stand there sweating and frowning, anxious for her to bag my products so I can leave as soon as possible. Oh well—no human warmth, no human connection, not today. Life gets repetitive—friends, relationships, parties, jobs all begin to resemble the ones that came before. And it just goes on and on, but not forever—a limited time offer. And the need to get excited about the conversations–
“Have you seen that movie?”
 “Have your read that book?” 
“Have you heard about what happened between those two?”
 “Well let me tell you…” 
Endless shit flowing between endless mouths. And the time just rushes by unabated.

Getting older, preferring isolation, building up walls against the world. The process of aging, “growing colder and less and less warm” as Stephen Merritt put it. The last reserves of magical youth energy are fast dissipating. I’ve been seeing the world as if behind a mattress, looking out onto cultural events, parties, and potential new friends with the dull ache of loathing. I’ve been noticing myself holding my breath when I’m put in situations where I have to interact with strangers—at a cash register at Target, my heart pounds out of my chest as the cashier looks up at me and says, “How are we doing today?”
Beads of sweat coarse from my forehead…”I’m doing fine…how are you?” Nothing comes naturally anymore—I have to remember to smile, to put ‘good vibes’ out there in the ether. Humans are great mimics, like parrots, and when you smile they always smile. Smile—try it sometime–mild conspiratorial human connection established. When you frown your way through a conversation, people leave you feeling ill at ease. Smile. Use exclamation points in text messages. Stay upbeat—talk about the ‘good things’ happening for you. Discuss movies and plots to books. Avoid dredging up the unresolvable. Old pains. But still, even this measured positivity can’t quite bridge the distance gaping distance between these bodies moving through the world. 

My mom has gone to sleep after a bottle of wine shared with church friends. After putting my brother to bed the house grows still and evening-quiet. Something about the quality of these suburban nights–low cloud cover, soft breeze, like a ghost wafting through. I take my mother’s little Subaru out onto the dark empty highways.  Islands of civilization, floodlit parking lots pock through the impenetrably dark wilderness of central Carolina.  The quiet, moisture-filled air whispers through the country’s empty corridors, nature slowly retaking what once belonged to it. I drive through Cary, past the mall, past my old high school, under the harsh glow of the big Carolina moon, the lush green landscape of meadows and evergreen trees like a plush mattress to sink into; the wrought-iron town clock at the edge of town by the highway on-ramp, always keeping time.

Orderly, everything in such perfect order! a network of sprinklers set to come on at night and keep the patches of astroturf grass by the sidewalk fresh and neon green. All the lights of the stores on hours after the employees have left–squares of illuminated blues, pinks, yellows like a Mondrian painting. The moon bright and clear and in the distance and the white monolith of an Embassy Suites like the Arc de Triumph shaded back in the pine trees. The trees shake in the wind, making wispy noises in the friendliest way. The employees are shutting down the glowing Starbucks across the street, the windows all fogged up, a girl with a hat and apron standing out on the curb shaking out a rubber mat. I drive down the Beltline and park my car in a gravel lot set back in a student-housing neighborhood, the houses partitioned into ramshackle apartments. Somewhere downtown, a lonely train whistle. I have been coming to this spot for a decade now, like a Christian to the river, to dunk my head and be reborn into new life. I make my way into the thin copse of woods that divides the gravel lot from the hidden world of the train tracks below. The woods have grown wild in my long absence, and are now choked out in kudzu. The clay looks blood red, everything looks bigger and more fertile now. Prehistoric-looking neon vines climb up to my waist. Looking down at the tracks, I regret all the time I’ve sold away—all that invaluable, irretrievable youth, given away at bargain basement prices. So many things have happened over the years—the negative, cyclical patterns repeated over and over while the worthwhile potent memories recede until they become foggy and shadow-like. 

The train tracks remain a hidden world, persisting quietly in the 2001: Space Odyssey future—a wayside relic from a time when iron behemoths carved through the inky black primeval wilderness on a diesel-stained voyage through the night. The world of the train tracks is completely different from the world seen through the window of a speeding car—this network of disused lots, shadows cast from backyard floodlights, stray dogs howling, underpass bums drinking, concrete monoliths and telephone poles engulfed by kudzu. A string of rusted old freight cars sit off to the side, like a commuter waiting for a bus that will never come. Walking alongside the forsaken string, I find a grainer with a porch and pull myself up on the cold metal latter and sing a little song to myself, Johnny Cash. Then I jump down onto the rocks and do a kind of a jig, The rock island line is a mighty good road the rock island line is the road I ride, and hope that no one is watching—some hoboes were probably laughing at me from the bushes. I feel the leathery exoskeleton that I show to the world, all wrinkled and blanched from years of waste, begin to crumble away and reveal the smooth untouched thing underneath. The blood pumping through my veins feels warmer, more full-bodied. Then it all floods back—the early years—the broken glass, burning sunset, the hope that slowly boiled down to a simmer. I lay down on the gleaming quicksilver tracks in the moonlit Southern night, and remember…

After a while I get up and march towards the emerald-lit skyscrapers of downtown Raleigh. Down the line, a wide-open empty junction—the dusty little five corners is a kind of stage set, the trash and gloom coming together to form a shanty city in the nook of the overpass. The kudzu and graffiti have grown wild over the years, fed by moonlight. The old central prison has been replaced by a shiny, sterile new white structure. The NO MORE PRISONS graffiti piece that once faced the structure has since been removed. 

I hear the sound of a train horn blaring and then see the light plowing down the track and jump out of the way as a bullet-like Amtrak barrels past—I look in the windows of its bright lit-up windows of its cars, people inside clamoring for their luggage as the train pulls into Raleigh. They look out the windows at me, lonely figure in the littered Golgotha switchyard, as the train speeds past, Afterwards it becomes silent again. I look around and see the tracks splitting off in several directions. 

I ask God for some sign of which direction to go. He said nothing—he no longer spoke to me. The silence in my head is deafening. There was a track that went out under a crumbling stone bridge, and in that direction were clouds, white in the dark sky, that looked like snow-capped Northwest mountains risen on the horizon—those mounds looked so beautiful, so perfect and picturesque framed underneath the green ivy and the stone, like a portal to a different world. I headed that direction. The air smelled like honeysuckle. I walked under the old stone bridge feeling possessed, my feet no longer my own. The damp underpass was filled with abandoned shopping carts and mattresses and red clay like giant anthills. On the other side of the bridge, the landscape opened to reveal a garden of hidden verdure—vines hanging from trees, a freshly mowed meadow, streetlights and a cabin against the track gravel. Continuing, the track eventually came to a long trestle bridge over Western Boulevard. The headlights of vehicles passed underneath, where were they all going? Stepping forward to cross a bridge I looked down and felt dizzy. Wasn’t I too old to be tempting fate? The safe thing to do would be to walk down to the road and cross. But a hidden voice told me to dare. 

So I started across the creaky, tar-smelling bridge—the maw of asphalt yawned between the irregularly spaced rail ties. And as I crossed I looked down at the cars passing below and the rows of quaint little shotgun-style houses, and dreamed about how nice it would be to live in one of them, to settle down in a place where you would always knew the river was flowing right outside, a river that would carry you across the country—so nice to know that you could leave anytime. And with the option to leave always there, you could just stay put forever and savor it all. How nice to buy bookshelves and accumulate cats and finally have a place to put all my books and records and art that has for years been gathering dust in a shed behind my mom’s house!

I tiptoed across the bridge, praying and mumbling the entire way. Upon reaching the other side, I felt unabashedly proud and alive, as one does when one tempts death and emerges unscathed. The big pine trees swayed gently, as if congratulating me, and there were fresh cut meadows and cicadas all over. The air above my waist was hot and humid, while the air below my waist was cool. The landscape eldritch—Fireflies swarmed all around me, little neon lights and sunset lit up red clay hideaways. 

A streetlight flickers on and off in a strange syncopated rhythm as I run out of the estate, coming to a little dirt path in the woods beside Western Boulevard. I follow the path toward some distant glow and the dirt slowly turns into fresh asphalt. Car headlights zoom by in both directions and I see the whites of drivers’ eyes staring out at me like a fugitive or hitchhiker. The road comes out of the dark woods—a bright fluorescent blooming BP gas station sign is lit up like a green beacon—I stumble up into the parking lot, drawn like a moth to incandescence. Dark green wilderness and trees surround the light green and white BP plastic. Soft radio muzak plays from hidden speakers. I walk in through the automatic sliding glass doors. Inside the gas station, the air-conditioner freezes sweat to my skin. The lights perfectly illuminate the products in the aisles, each of them appealing and necessary in their own way, each designed to be desirable. A tired-looking Indian attendant slouched behind a digital screen, fiddles with his iPhone, looking bored. I shuffle over to the cooler, lit up with appealing blue lights, and open the case. I look over the dozens of beverages and grab a bottle of Sprite. The attendant rings it up, not looking—both of us lost in our own heads. Back in the blanket-humid Southern night, drenched in fluorescence, I open the bottle with its perfect carbonated hiss and gulp it down, satisfied to live in no other place than this one, no other time than right now.
Nightshade, my face buried in neon roses, dark green twilight all around, the sound of insects buzzing around the closed-for-the-summer elementary school. Security floodlights illuminate the schools tiled hallways, a large bulletin board decorated with tissue paper shaped into little flowers, and those metallic string-up craft letters “WELCOME TO MS. KELLY’S 3rd GRADE CLASS!” There is the smell of azaleas in the night, as if the breeze was blowing through some giant sheet of fabric softener at the edge of town. Walking in the dark past all the little garden cottages set behind white picket fences, I feel like a drifter prowling. Their windows of the cottages are lit up and familial warmth radiates out from inside–Wooden bookshelves and pianos and antique lamps. Moss and ivy covering the roof and the smell of burning wood coming from the chimney—a fire in the hearth!

In front of one house with a long stone porch and two wobbly porch fans, through the half-drawn shades I spy an old man standing beneath the fluorescent kitchen sink light, looking down at his old hands. Deeper in the womb neighborhood, I come to a massive cul-de-sac—homes draped under trees and in the center a green lawn, like The Shire–two men who look like grad students walk through the park absorbed in a conversation about institutional grants. The City of Oaks—majestic trees and churches with white, paint-scraped steeples. Coming out from the neighborhood, I emerge onto Hillsborough Street, the spine of Raleigh’s college district. All the buildings and commerce looks industrial and faded, trapped in the 90s. Ramshackle bead stores and independent record stores and an old comic book store. There’s even functional factory, noises of industrial saws and radio blaring from inside. The Cup-o-Joe, that stalwart coffee shop—open late and filled with conspiracy theorists and goths and punks and weirdos of every stripe—its glowing sign is a flypaper beacon for anyone looking to loiter. It’s 2011, but the windows of Cup-o-Joe are still filled with photocopied fliers, for house shows and parties. There are Elvis posters on the wall, a Mrs. Pac-Man table in the corner, an old guy reading a book about Maoism. Raleigh remains a kind of atomic fallout shelter for genuine freaky weirdness, a place where subculture and an authentic way of life have been exquisitely preserved. This is what I’ve searched all over the country for and have not found—oh yes, the real thing. As Billie Holliday sings, back home in your own backyard. 
 
Tornadoes have been sweeping through the South for the past week, killing hundreds, nothing like it seen since the early 1900s. People sit at home in their living rooms watching TV then the sky glows green and out of nowhere, like a stray bullet from God, they are crushed and killed. Homes in rubble, pets missing, weeks on the cot at the shelter, all of them saying, “It was so unexpected, I never saw it coming.” The ongoing lottery of suffering—the dice fall where they may—natural disasters, metastasized tumors, abject failure. There’s no choosing, only getting chosen. Until the time when you’re picked out of the line-up, all you can do is go through life with the serene self-confidence of the righteous. There is a look on the face of a person who is in love with life and knows they are living on borrowed time. It’s been storming day and night, the clouds moving swiftly over the little roof of my mother’s house. I open the screen door and step out onto the back porch—the faded white deck is bathed in golden sunlight. Inside, Ben sits in his power wheelchair in the living room, in front of a fold-out table littered with Playstation and television controllers, watching Boardwalk Empire.
              “Do you want to go for a walk?” I ask. He readily agrees, seeming eager to get out of the house. I open up the screen door and he powers out onto the porch. All of a sudden he is zooming down the driveway, spinning around in circles, his wheelchair making little pneumatic sounds. Venturing down the steep driveway, I keep one cautious hand on his chair the entire time. When we get down into the bottom of the cul-de-sac, Ben shifts into a faster speed and drives up the green, suburban street.

“Stay on the right side,” I say, having a horrible vision of some iPhone-wielding teenager driving down the road and plowing into him, the wheelchair and the car, both machines smashing into each other, Ben caught in-between. This haunts my dreams—his wheelchair falling off a cliff, or getting caught on something and tipping over, or the two of us getting separated in some vast public transit system and him being trapped alone down there with no way out. As we head down the street, our neighbor Mike is getting up into his boxy SUV. His wife has just recently been diagnosed with cancer. Mike, who before always seemed so lively and excitable, looks tired, his hope for a happy endless future dashed up against the rocks. Still, he manages to summon his reserves of enthusiasm and shout down from the top of the driveway.
                  “Howdy, Ben!!!” he shouts down.
“Hi Mike!” Ben waves and smiles. 
The sky has opened up and a soft spring wind blows. The only clouds in the blue late-afternoon sky are three-dimensional and scenic looking, like in a Charmin toilet paper commercial. Occasionally, I tense up at the sound of a car coming—but as the cars approach, one by one they slow down to a crawl. I look in the windows and see that they’re driven by elderly suburban couples, a population subset extremely cautious and sensitive to safety of individuals in wheelchairs. They smile and wave as they pass. As Ben and I wave back, I think about how funny it is that nobody ever waves or smiles at me when I am alone, but when I’m with Ben, the world opens up and becomes generous and friendly. It’s as if with the absence of physical mobility, Ben has developed an excess of charisma and social grace, like tree roots growing inexorably around objects in their way. 
“Beautiful out here huh?” Ben grins up at me. 
“It sure is.” 
“It’s like we are in France or something.”
“North Carolina is at least as pretty as France. It’s kind of the France of the United States, really.”
“We are really lucky.”
“Much prettier than New York. And sure is prettier than Mississippi.”
“New York smells like a sewer. And it’s too damn hot in Mississippi.”
Ben is wearing a white V-neck t-shirt, khaki shorts and cute little clunky brown shoes that are strapped into the legrests of his wheelchair. I look him over approvingly. He is strong and healthy, his arms big and muscular. I can’t help but think about how if he had been born without a disability, he would have been taller, more athletic than me. 
“How about we go to the new park?” I ask. 
“The one up on Debra?” 
Ben cruises down past all the familiar houses and blocks. 
“There’s Ryan Whalen’s house.” Ben points, “And down there…Eric Krauss’s parents still live down there by the pond.”

I look towards Ryan’s house and nod, pretending that it was the first time I had considered it. In truth, I thought about him and his mom and dad every time I rounded the corner. Young couples with children tucked into car seats sit staring at flat screens in cumbersome SUVs—vehicles purchased with the same mentality that drives the nuclear arms race—that one can’t go around in a violent world defenseless.

“Do you think people should get married?” I ask Ben.
“When they’re in love, I suppose…” 
“And have kids?”
“Mmmmm,” he demurs, “Already so many kids in the world.” 
“But part of getting married is the having of kids. Even if the couple doesn’t want kids, they eventually give in to social pressure, right?”
“I hope one of us has kids.” Ben says indignantly.
 “What about a dog?” 
“I want a dog too!”
“Yeah, why don’t you get one?”
“Mom doesn’t want me to get a dog. She says she’ll end up having to take care of it.”
“One of us has to have kids. To carry on the legacy.” He says.
“What legacy?”
“The blood legacy.”

I furrow my brow and look over at my brother in the wheelchair. Same blood, same veins. Same hawkish yet handsome features. The blood legacy. What’s his is mine. A vision comes to mind of the happy ending: cute kids and a wife who smiles and hugs my brother. She wraps her arms around his neck and ruffles his hair in a playful way, “Oh, Ben!” The kids call him Uncle Ben and hang out all day grilling out and playing Nintendo Wii. Strange future, not-so-distant future. The real “community” we talked about building so many years ago comes about eventually through an organic process. And after so many years and all that we’ve been through, staring down the rifle of the rest of my life, I now know the only legacy is the blood legacy, the only community the giving-in. Everything else is so much selfishness, the soon-to-be dust of accomplishment, the coffin-smell of worldly ambition.

We reach the park as the sun is going down. All the curbs are perfectly molded, handicapped accessible. Ben checks out the lift of a handicapped van, comparing it to his vehicle. The lot where the park stands was a chemical storage facility when I was in elementary school, but it burnt down one night. Everyone in the neighborhood came out to watch the flames leaping into the sky. After years of sitting abandoned and dusty, the town decided to build a park there—everything in the park was state of the art shiny plastic, fresh astroturf, gentle, ergonomic playground equipment. It was nothing like the parks I went to as a kid where everything was made of metal and the swings creaked and kids broke their arms on merry-go-rounds and got their fingers smashed between links of chain. 

Going down the park’s fresh, yellow-brick path, up ahead I see a young-looking girl in an electric wheelchair and an older middle-aged woman sitting on the bench beside her. From the way the little girl lolls her head around, it looks like she might have an intellectual disability. As they see Ben and I coming up the path, the girl straightens her head up and her caretaker beams at us with a warm smile. One of us. A barely-audible frequency transmits openness and warmth–Friend. “Good afternoon, young man!” the caretaker says to Ben as we meander past. “Good afternoon to you!” Ben says. Blood warming up in the veins, human interaction killing the cancer of loneliness. Everyone is searching for some commonality, some connection and friendship in this endless sea of humans. 

A leaf rolls down the street, making crackling noises as it flips headlong into the trees. The sounds of birds pouring in through my open windows, blue-dark out on the lawn, dew reflecting off the cul-de-sac; I rise from bed and brew coffee. When Mr. Coffee hisses to completion I pour it into a Thermos, adding a dash of organic milk, blooming through the blackness—and then leave the house and go out into the front yard where the moon looks down in the ever-blue sky. I kneel and give thanks for such a beautiful day, after having for so long been imprisoned in cramped apartment in a cramped and overcrowded city, after having been shuttled back and forth from work to home in claustrophobic underground subways, after having spent my days in temperature-controlled cancerous offices in a place where no birds sing and no grass grows. 

I hear the pitter-patter of my feet down on the quiet dark road, past all of my neighbors mailboxes, their little daffodils planted below the mailboxes and their trucks parked out on the road; their old dusty boats parked up at the top of the driveway; freshly-tilled vegetable garden beds with the red clay dirt bunched up around young tomato plants; little pewter bird and little-girl lawn sculptures; American flags hanging from flagpoles; senior citizen joggers, running by in the morning light and waving and smiling—and I hold up a salutary arm to them and smile like a Folgers commercial, steam pouring out of my aluminum coffee mug. I veer through a little copse of trees down into a green-smelling gully. There the grass is lush and thick like a shag carpet and I go up on the mossy banks of a little stream. There in the gazebo in the back of the woods are the flowering bushes and the wooden swing. I jumped from one side of the stream to the other and don’t feel the least bit upset when my shoe plunges into the water and gets soaked up to my ankle. I just shake it off, laugh at myself, and move on. 

The Antifa Whisperer

Its no secret that the taxonomical spread of the American far right is longing for an apocalyptic confrontation with antifa. Like the kid in The Sixth Sense, like Louise Mensch and her agents of Russian influence, they see antifa everywhere. This is developing into an obsession. They think about antifa at the shooting range. They think about antifa at the gym. The nazis overestimate antifa, the antifa overestimate the nazis, and a general ratcheting up occurs until some moron fires the first shot. Large scale conflicts and civil wars often creep up this way, insidiously, everybody waiting for John Brown to pop out of the bushes and “accelerate the contradictions.” Fire the first shot of the race war, BABY! 
 
It has been bizarre to watch the American right discover and latch onto antifa in the past two years, as if they actually understood it or its premises. To hear Trump shout Aunttttieee-fa! with stank on his breath at a Phoenix rally and listen to the crowd of several thousand previously-normal suburban Republicans go wild, it’s hallucionagenic. For most previous presidential administrations, anarchists were a mosquito-like annoyance to be left to the police, but the Europe-watchers at Breitbart have imported that most "cosmopolitan" of European phenomenons across the pond and now Trump is talking about “black clad goons.”

Antifa as a thing on the US left is also a relatively new development. In the long hangover between the WTO riots of Seattle and Occupy, only a small clique talked about antifa; those that did were largely expats returned from extended European squatter vacations with mullets and St. Pauli t-shirts. Last August, 350,000 people signed a Whitehouse.gov petition calling for antifa to be re-classed as a terrorist organization. Politico has published a report citing anonymous sources that claims the Department of Homeland Security quietly put antifa on a domestic terror watch-list during the 2016 presidential campaign. About a year ago, a monument in Wisconsin to the republican volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, was graffiti’d with Antifa Sucks, Trump Rules and swastikas. 

Antifa has no reliable social base. In spite of all the videos and memes and the suddenly-fascism-obsessed Trump Resistance, they are self-marginalized, making them an easy scapegoat for an administration that has fought an uphill battle in their efforts to squeeze other groups.

Since Trump’s victory, we live in a golden age for totalitarianism experts. Previously-hermetic fascism scholars and commentators have been mainstreamed as sought-after public intellectuals and cable talking heads. Liberal commentators now casually debate the Weimar Republic and the abortive Spartacist uprising with red-rose DSA avatars on Twitter. 

Into this sewer, this state of social sepsis, enter Dartmouth antifa scholar and former Occupy organizer Mark Bray. After the riots in Berkeley and Charlottesville, the liberals badly needed someone to explain antifa for them. The antifa, of course, were unwilling to do this themselves. As a telegenic young lecturer with Ivy credentials and a perfectly timed book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, he was tapped by the producers to be the Official-Antifa-Whisperer. As both an ethnographer of the faction and a true believer himself, he offered a glimpse into the thrilling subculture of masked heroes, ‘brickbats’ and rationalized nazi-punching. He took on the unenviable task of explaining the motives of a media-allergic tendency to the liberal commentariat.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single expert appear and debate and be interviewed on such a wide range of media platforms in such a short amount of time. Bray performed his duties as unofficial antifa-spokesman admirably, sparring with skeptical magazine editors and pundits. The discourse around antifa’s tactics has been predictably binary, basically a re-hashing of the “black bloc anarchist” debate under a new names. Now that we live under “fascism” there’s a bit more public sympathy for “resistance.” Still, little interesting gets said and the bulk of commentary falls into two categories: condescending liberal pedantry (There’s no excuse for violence, the Civil Rights movement is a preferable model, these people are not representative) or dyed-in-the-wool triumphalism (brave antifa! brave nazi-punchers! Remember the Battle of Cabal Street!) “No platforming” is what the most vocal and angry ultra-radical faction are into, so who the hell are we to criticize the stupid things they do? Diversity of tactics!

There is nothing liberals like more than being explained a previously-unknown underground culture or tendency by an insider; they feel like they are getting in early on the Next Big Thing. And liberal public opinion compulsively assumes that whatever the telegenic young ultra-radicals have coming down the pipe must be cool new thing, must be correct, because its new and exciting. The ultras, being the youngest and farthest to the left, and most vocal, are automatically assumed to have the coolest and most exciting analysis.

Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook is intended as a breezy historical primer for the uninitiated, who want to brush up on the origins and rationale behind antifa. Anti-fascism before 1945 is given a quick gloss, while the bulk of the book is dedicated to a lower-frequencies oral history of the subcultural skirmishes between the international, mostly Western-European antifa and neo-nazis since the 1970s. Even for someone familiar with the concepts and history, it is interesting to watch and read Bray, for how he so studiously toes the antifa line. There of course is no “official” antifa line, but you basically already know what it is: present antifa as a “self-defense” vanguard for marginalized people (using the relative diversity within coastal, insurrectionary anarchist circles to claim antifa speaks for the subaltern),  explain and rationalize their tactical decisions or lack thereof.  If there is an argument to be had, it is probably with a strawman non-violent liberal rambling on about Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and democratic norms. When all else fails, just shrug and say: its autonomous, no one is in control, mistakes get made because people are angry. 

Bray claims that antifa’s hyper-vigilance springs from the fact that they’re aware that many leading fascists started out as laughable, marginal figures and they want to to reckon with them while they’re still in utero.

He also fetishizes the noble left-wing failure: Occupy, Paris 1968, Italy’s Autonomia, the banlieue riots, the periodic militant solar flares bursting out from Athens’ anarchist-controlled neighborhoods. The anecdotes and stories all follow a similar utopian story arc: some brave, autonomous souls in Italy, Germany, Utah, or Indiana anti-racists got together in their city and violently resisted fascists in the streets. By putting undecided local people into a polarizing situation, they even garnered a modicum of support from local shopkeepers and youths, who joined in the throwing of cobblestones and dumping of chamber pots. Then, they melted back into the alleyways and punk clubs, having driven the neo-nazi scourge back into their hives of villainy. Like a good movie plot, it pulls the heartstrings and checks all the boxes that make you feel good. 

Then, a brief, muttered footnote, like the ultra-fine-print at the bottom of a contract: The far-right actually temporarily harvested political gains from the aforementioned action or endeavor. The aftermath and success of these fleeting nazi-bashings isn’t seriously analyzed or reflected upon because the unpleasant truth is that it made fascists stronger. Oh well, onto the next barricade.

For many people with faith in antifa and nazi-punching, there is a premise that reactionary hate is a nearly protean force—it periodically rises inexplicably in society, like a malignant tumor, and the job of antifa is to be the white blood cells that put it down before it spreads. “How many murderous fascist movements have been nipped in the bud over the past seventy years by antifa groups before their violence could metastasize? We will never know,” he writes, with enviable optimism. This argument smudges and blots out the fact that reaction can be spurred forward by the political and strategic failures of the left.

Small groups of punks and skinheads beating and stabbing each other outside of Utah punk clubs in the 90s is interesting to me personally, but in this time of great political earthquakes and re-alignments, should the small and obscure be focused on and reified in such a way? The little skirmishes between pro-nazi punks and anti-fascist anarchists of the last 30 years are the faint burning embers and smoke in the aftermath of a great conflagration. It is unfortunate that Bray breezes so quickly over the most important period of anti-fascism, the 1930s and 1940s—when the stakes were the highest and anti-fascism ascended to the level of mass armed guerilla resistance and in certain countries was made official state ideology.

Fascism emerged in direct response to the tsunami of revolutionary ardor after the success of the Bolshevik revolution. All roads to fascism lead back to a panicked desperation of desiccated old regime elites, nationalist veterans, and industrialists as they struggled to contain the Soviet bacillus to Eurasia. Its hard to overemphasize the impact the Bolshevik revolution had Western European and American revolutionaries and the fear that must have gripped the hearts of elites when they realized that this problem wouldn’t go away in six months. The Bolsheviks were gambling and spending heavily so that Germany, Italy, Poland,  China, Hungary would all overthrow their regimes and the world revolution could link up in the rubble of empires. In 1920, Lenin wrote to Stalin that the “revolution in Italy should be spurred on immediately… Hungary should be Sovietized, and perhaps also the Czech lands, and Romania.” 

As Russia fought a grinding civil war and made pushes into Poland and Ukraine, a wave of strikes and uprisings tore across Europe in 1917-1919—the Spartacist uprising, Bienno Rosso in Italy, civil war in Finland, Hungary—it was precisely in this moment that what we know today as ‘fascism’ was born. The Bolsheviks were waiting on German revolutionaries to take over, opening the door to the rest of Europe. Armed young Great War veterans threw themselves into desperately snuffing out their local revolutionists, making inroads with old regime conservatives and industrialists; Social Democrats sold their erstwhile comrades down the river in an attempt to maintain order. Even after the German and Hungarian revolutions were put down with the help of proto-fascist World War I veterans, Lenin kept looking for a door or a window to ignite the Soviet wave in Europe. 

Just as there could be no Civil Rights Act without the black power movement, there would be probably be no modern European social democracy or its perverse doppelgänger—corporatist fascism—without the implicit threat of armed communists linking up with the Soviet colossus and taking power. Modern social democracy as we know it emerged directly from big bad Bolshevism banging at the door—suddenly, the industrialists and bosses were willing to share profits, make a class compromise with workers—it wasn’t out of the goodness of their hearts, it was heart-rending fear.

Strangely, Bray claims that left-wing violence played no part in the rise of fascism—this is a kind of whitewashing to make the modern antifa a bit more palatable to the faint of heart. Embedded inside of the communist risings was, of course, violence, the threat of violence, expropriation, armed communist bands and reactionary bands were in the streets. Fascists preyed on widespread desire for law and order. When push comes to shove, most average people want peace and stability and aren’t ready to get totally on board with revolutionary left-wing risings—they turn back towards moderates and reactionaries, back toward the warm embrace of comforting stability. Bray claims it wasn’t about left-wing violence, it was about communist electoral success. But fascists fed on both real and perceived fears of armed left-wing violence like yeast feeds on sugar—it was their central plank, their raison d’etre. Desiccated old regime elites and industrialists made a devils bargain and were ultimately outmaneuvered, blackmailed and won over by populist-fascist outsiders. Our populism is your best bet for survival. This was the reasoning and the implicit threat, and its not much different from the way the “good Republicans” are presently being held hostage by the Trump base.

Accordingly, the first partisan fighters and first victims of fascists were not just random citizens, they were communist party members. Other groups were smeared and subject to hate, but weren’t directly targeted and hunted until later, and at first for the reason of being potential communist collaborators. 

Fascism and communism were and are bound together in a cycle of action and reaction, that reached its Wagnerian crescendo in the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, a bloodbath unlike any the world has ever seen. Bray seems to think that part of the image issue antifa face is that people don’t understand they are socialists, communists, and anarchist revolutionaries. This doesn’t give people enough credit. People know what antifa is about behind the “anti-fascism”—they just don’t like it. 

Bray’s argument is at its weakest when he mounts a lengthy defense of “no platforming” fascist free speech and against legally restricting hate speech: Why be all worked up about antifa restricting nazi free speech, he seems to be saying, when American history is a history of speech denied to the marginalized. In the space of a couple of pages he goes into a relativistic rabbit-hole of American horrors: COINTELPRO, slavery, Dred Scott, the genocide of Native Americans, the Palmer Raids, Guantanamo Bay, Citizens United, Facebook, corporate control of media…did these not restrict speech? Its not that Bray is wrong. It’s that this argument is as politically unconvincing as going after Christopher Columbus. “America was never great” is almost as bad a rallying cry as “America is already great.” 

As Joseph Goebbels’ Brunhilde Pomsel said in a documentary just before she died in 2017: “People nowadays… say they would have stood up against the Nazis – I believe they are sincere in meaning that, but believe me, most of them wouldn’t have.” Despite its shortcomings and an overall sense of whitewashing antifa as a knight in shining armor, Bray has done good yeomen work as an educator and popularizer with his books and public appearances. It is all food for thought, and given that the tit-for-tat media and street war between the left and the far-right in America is only growing more polarized, these are important questions to mull over. But the elephant in the living room is avoided: Did it actually do anything or did it just make people feel good? Did it build anything long lasting? ​Does this hurt or help?

In Sighisoara

I had finished reporting in Bucharest, and in the familiar anxious dance—like a prissy dog looking for the perfect spot to piss—was looking for a place to hole up and crank out a draft. “Why don’t you just write it here?” the people at the journalist collective in Bucharest where I was staying on a mattress by a big window in the attic said. The three-story house was cozy and familiar, like a big wooden pirate ship swaying in the waves, and each night in my weeks there I fell asleep comforted by the sounds of people living their lives below—smoking and drinking downstairs, the smell of food wafting up, sirens fading in and out of the open window. It was tempting to stay. I have long dreamt of being a mouse in the collective house, surrounded by but seperate from nearby human beings living their lives in common.

I wanted to see Transylvania. “Transylvania?” the Romanian journalists rolled their eyes. “Whatever you want to do, man.” I had never had any interest in going to Transylvania before, but a visit to the museum of medieval maps—most of them depicting the vast swaths of forest villages that made up Transylvania—piqued my curiosity. In his book In Europe’s Shadow, Robert Kaplan described spending a night in a 12th century clocktower, in a village called Sighisoara—it wasn’t as touristy as Brasov or as bleak as Sighetu Marmetei.

It sounded peaceful and quaint, a functional medieval village on an ancient hillock. I pictured myself there on top of the mountain, in some cheap garrett under the clocktower, my face glinting beatifically in a mote of morning sunlight like that painting “Wanderer in Sea and Fog.”

In the collective’s smoke-filled kitchen, Valentina advised against it. “It’s a weird medieval tourist town.” I asked her where I should go instead. “Sibiu,” she said. But Sibiu sounded to me like the constellation of a bear, and in Google images it looked surrounded by snow-capped mountains of madness, while Sighisoara looked peaceful and quaint, and I loved the way the name sounded in Romanian, soara, Schwaaaaraaaa, rolling off the tongue, lacivious, like an old rug. In Sibiu, I imagined checking into a pension on the industrial edge of town with a grumpy old man—I imagined him monitoring my comings and goings and yelling at me about how to properly drain the water from the tiny plastic shower. I would end up in some cool little bar with strange but friendly young people. I wanted to hole up against the world, shield myself from the world, not meet anyone.

Sighisoara it was. It was cheap, hidden, and exotic-sounding, like Fes, Cipango—I wanted to go to those places too. When travelling blind, you make spur-of-the-moment decisions like this, based on ridiculous illusions and intuitive caricatures. I left Bucharest’s Gare du Nord on an old, half-empty train at noon. The seats were blood-red and stained, and the only other passengers were elderly people in a kind of fugue, as if in suspension fluid. The gray early spring flew by out the window—shacks, cloddy flat fields, and one-eyed factories. We pulled through Brasov, a depressing-looking too-large town, and then left the mainline into alpine wilderness, where the escarpment of the mighty snow-covered Carpathians rose like the Paramount Pictures logo, behind the wooden Transylvania-style houses. At each village station we passed a handsome train signalman standing stoically in white gloves with his colored-paddle, like in the movie Closely Watched Trains. Transylvania really looked like Transylvania. Like a Hollywood sound stage of Transylvania, the Carpathians as awe-inspiring as the Rockies.

On trains, you often know you’re arriving at the destination by the stirring sense of anticipation that rises from the other passengers. We chugged into Sighisoara’s four-track canopied station. There is something eternal in it, the weary traveler arriving in the provincial train station at dusk, carrying a heavy backpack. Locals streamed onto the platform, the old train wheezed and croaked, and the fading light illuminated the dome of an Orthodox church set back in a fallow vineyard in just the right way. As Vasily Grossman wrote in Armenian Sketchbook:

Your first minutes on the street of an unfamiliar city are always special; what happens in later months or years can never supplant them. These minutes are filled with the visual equivalent of nuclear energy, a kind of nuclear power of attention. With penetrating insight and an all-pervading excitement, you absorb a huge universe—houses, trees, faces of passerby, signs, squares, smells, dust, cats and dogs, the color of the sky. During these minutes, like an omnipotent God, you bring a new world into being.

The journey had been long, and I felt tingly and expectant. I was relieved that it seemed to be a town of substance, with real neighborhoods and a river, not just a one-horse village. To get from the platform to the train station, I walked through a dark underpass that reeked of stale piss. This was the first thing I found strange about Sighisoara—in a provincial village, surrounded by eldritch woods and mountains, why did the tunnel reek of piss?

The tunnel came out in front of the stolid neoclassical little train station, like Jefferson’s Monticello. I set off walking, magnetized towards the mountain at the center of town, through empty neighborhoods where teenage boys stood on street corners, an old man bar, a sad little in-between graveyard, eventually arriving at a plaza and church by a reedy brown river. Parents pushed strollers and morosely watched their children stomp around. A footbridge went across the river and at the sheer base of the mountain, I found the little crumbling staircase up to the fortressed old city, passing by several empty tourist restaurants. Painted plastic waiter figurines were posted outside all the restaraunts like sentries. 

At the top of the fortress, I caught my breath. The center of town was completely empty. There was a BMW parked beside a wide-eyed statue of Dracula’s father, Vlad Tepes. There was an empty bar with a neon red sign. It was a tourist town I suppose in the summer but everything was closed down. When I did stumble on a resident opening or closing the door to a 12th century home, they averted their gaze, and went about their business—there was no provincial friendliness, no curiosity, no ‘are you lost.’

It is rare that one gets to experience UNESCO heritage completely alone, with no signs and audio tours and museums and guides and touts. The bells of the clocktower, an incredible gothic structure with painted figurines, rang out across the smoky valley. I wandered the perimeter of the fortress, inspecting the old walls and wooden guard towers at its corners.  I felt lucky and happy to see it, if a bit ill at ease. It was too quiet. 

As night fell, I wandered the entire old town as a completionist, feeling like I needed to cover every alley, every inch of its four corners. When I was done I stepped into the creaking wooden floors of the one open hotel, Hotel Sighisoara, and looked into its restaurant, considering having dinner—it was completely empty, all the tables perfectly set with glasses and silverware, but nobody was there. I have a phobia that there should really be a word for—“fear of empty restaraunts.”

Certain places all of a sudden become frightening—while technically you could adapt and stay put, you ache to leave immediately, to be someplace more soothing, if not some place more soothing, then on a train, that beloved in-between neutral place.Having seen the entirety of the old fortress in an hour and not seeing a soul I had to admit to myself that there was no way in hell I would stay for one night, let alone several days. I hate rural emptiness—empty restaraunts, empty plazas, the freezerburned bovine Midwest of the sol opening up a void of dread inside. The stone walls of the buildings would be unable to keep out the emptiness outside and the emptiness would slip in and overtake me. I realized that Valentina was right, and reproached myself for not knowing myself better, for leaving Bucharest, where life had been warm and interesting and had a point. 

 I descended the steps back to the new town, thinking that it might be better down there, hoping to find some more energy, more life. The new town below was completely different—cars, pedestrians, restaurants. Life, culture! There were glitzy pizzerias and patio bars with outdoor couches and firepits, provincial nouveau-riche spots, where bald men in track suits tried to impress their girlfriends. Through the windows of a business hotel, middle-aged men ate steaks and grew red-faced. But the whole place eaten through with a why-would-you-come-here-I’m-trying-to-escape-this-place attitude. Without my input, my feet started carrying me back towards the train station. I didn’t know where I would go or why.

The little white train station, which had seemed neutral at dusk, took on a more sinister look in the dark. The dimly lit marble lobby was empty except for two stone benches by the door, the kind of benches they have in graveyards. On each bench was an old person—a man and woman—in the fugue who stared into the nothingness and silence. The monitor displaying the train times was broken and flickering. The eyes of the old woman and old man followed my every move. I went over to the ticket window and tapped on the glass. A woman in her thirties or forties was sitting back on a couch in an office doing her nails. There was a train to Bucharest at two AM she told me, and a train to Budapest in a couple of hours. I thanked her and walked away to think about it. Overwhelmed by the empty strangeness of the room, I walked over to the train station bar, where I thought I might find some clarity.

The bar was a kind of still life, an Edward Hopper painting. There was no music. The woman behind the counter stopped polishing her glass and glared. A beaten down traveler sitting with a bottle of beer and a shot jerked his head up. There were three video poker machines all turned off. 

At a table littered with empty bottles and half-smoked packs of cigarettes were a rail-thin young Roma girl and two menacing-looking older provincial Romanian men, who all looked fucked up and had the eternal air of petty criminality about them, the bad guys in the Goonies—they were not travelling anywhere, just hanging out. They stepped out onto the patio to smoke. I went outside to smoke as well. The girl started talking to me in Romanian. “I don’t speak Romanian,” I told her. “Ah,” she wobbled, “English…Where you from? Cigarette?” she smiled, putting her hand to her lips. 

I gave her one and she turned back to her guys, who eyed me suspiciously, and the three of them went back to their table. Back inside, I sat down and nursed a bottle of beer, trying to decide what to do. I wanted to go back to Bucharest but the shame of having come all the way out to Sighisoara and going back in the same day seemed like too much—no one would say anything, but it still struck me as wrong. The beaten-down traveller and the bartender kept looking between the table of three and me with disturbed looks on their faces. They looked scared of them.

I went out for another cigarette. The night was dark and the train station was set back from the road. Everything seemed moldy. A middle-aged man and an older man came up a staircase from town to the train station. The young man was berating the older man. Then they both disappeared. I looked inside the fluorescent grim little train station bar from outside. The three sketchy individuals were whispering to each other around the table, it looked like a painting.

From the trees came an insane racket of night birds, birds with a horrible cackle unlike anything I have ever heard before. It was like a foghorn ringing out, saying leave this place, leave this place. Sighisoara had been normal in daylight—what happened? Now it felt like a strange noir, the provincial fear of an eerie little place where children sit around decapitating butterflies. I did not know where to go or what to do but I felt a strong urge to flee—new town was too far of a walk, I had a terrible feeling at the bar, so I went back inside the main train station, taking a seat on one of the benches beside the elderly woman, who hadn’t moved.

The light was very dim and it was quiet. The old man stared at me and I stared back and he turned away and when he turned away I stared at the huge purple scar running from his temple to his jaw. The older woman seemed kind—she chattered to me in Romanian and I shrugged my shoulders. She made more space on the bench, but I waved her away, no, no, I don’t need more space, thank you so much. I lay my head against the wall and she moved further, making space for me to lay down, then came over to me and tried to say something I couldn’t understand. The old man watched. 

She got up and walked around then came back and tried to show me something, then seemed to ask me to watch her bag that she had hidden behind the bench, and I nodded yeah, I’ll watch your bag. A middle-aged man with dark hair and black circles under his eyes came into the station with his suitcase and sat beside the old man. All of us stared at the old woman who was pacing the floor and muttering to herself, then she came back to sit beside me—she pushed her bag into my face then pulled it away. I shrugged and made my best, “I’m a stupid American,” face, but she seemed to want to explain something very urgently. The middle aged man made eye contact with me from the bench on the other side and indicated, with the universal hand symbol, that she was “crazy” or not well. This made everything make more sense. 

The middle age man and elderly man began gesticulating and waving to me that I could come join them on their bench, but I waved them away, staying with the elderly woman but looking away as she talked to me. After a while, I got sick of this and paced the hallway, then went into the bar where the criminals glared, then went back outside where the evil birds mocked me, round and round in this circular round until I felt I couldn’t wait until two AM and had to leave as soon as possible and that Sighisoara was against me. I bought a ticket to Budapest at window. 

When the headlights of the train came out of that misty Eastern European darkness, I jumped aboard and settled in, grateful for a neutral place to exist for a while even if it was under bright fluorescent lights, and fell asleep. But all night, every hour or two, ticket controllers came by and jabbed a finger into my shoulder to check and recheck my ticket, even after it had already been scanned. They seemed to take a perverse pleasure in shaking the passengers awake, the way sadistic security guards do with homeless people sleeping in public places where you’re not supposed to sleep. People by and large do not want the best for one another.

The lights in the train wagon were very bright and it was hard to see out the window, but I drifted in and out of sleep, the landscape outside a kind of empty Martian landscape of a few dim bedraggled lights of factories or houses in the distance. It was misty and sad, the central European blood lands, the in-between zone of empires.

The train arrived in Budapest at 10 AM. The temperature but also the ambiance was much colder than warm, Latinate Bucharest. The coffee was four times the price of coffee in Romania. I hadn’t been to Hungary for years. I had fond memories of spending a night in a grand old worn-down hotel at the center of town, with a wonderful wood-panelled newspaper room in its lobby. I decided to go there. It was familiar. 

I arrived to the lobby under a slate grey sky and got a room. My room was not so different from the room all those years before, but as I got in and lay down my bag, I looked out the window, which looked on a concrete cornice of a nearby building that blended with the sky, and felt sad and ridiculous. The bathroom faucet sputtered brown water. A couple of gnats circled by the headboard of my little single bed-tomb. I lay down on the bed and watched the circling gnats. I pulled out my tape recorder and notepads and started the familiar work of composing a draft.

Bog Person

saw my first bog person on the windswept, rocky West Coast of Sweden.  Inside the white walls of a candleabra-filled, Valhalla-like bastion where Swedish kings had duked it out with the Danes for hundreds of years, I stumbled on Bocksten man.

He died sometime in the Middle Ages. The first thing you notice is his hair—lush, curly red locks on a skull, preserved as in life. Like most bog people, he suffered a gruesome death. First, he was killed by a blow to the head. Then, a stake was driven through his heart. Then someone impaled him so he would stay at the bottom of the lake.Thats right, they had gone through the effort of impaling him with spikes so his body would stay at the bottom. The reconstructed wax model of him was the spitting image of Frodo Baggins—the hooded cloak, the sheathed dagger. His brown, hair-shirt cloak survived in perfect condition. He was about six foot one and probably thirty five years old when he met his ignominous end. The idea was clearly to double-kill him so he wouldn't come  back to life and haunt or take revenge on his killers.

You respect him more when you think about the lengths they went through to keep him down even after death. A massive piece of building timber juts out of his exposed ribcage. And that beautiful hair. I wanted to break through the glass case and run my fingers through it.

Poor Bocksten man. What did he do? Why go through all that? Was he some kind of witch and they were worried he was going to reanimate if they didn’t fasten that body down with spikes? If you had stumbled onto this scene, you would have asked: What exactly is going on here? 

Bocksten man was discovered in 1936 by a Swedish scholar on his way to a midsummer party in the seaside village of Varberg. According to the Danish scholar P.V. Glob—whose name is so perfectly suited for his authorship of the seminal monograph The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved—he could have been a rabble-rouser killed by local peasants for trying to agitate against the Danish king. “The bog is the meeting point of four parishes and according to old beliefs he would not be able to escape from such a spot to revenge himself on his murderers,” Glob wrote.

After that I was hooked. In this time of Jamal Khashoggi, it is not hard to find oneself musing on the permeability of the human form. One day, you leave your wife and walk into the Saudi Embassy to deal with some bureacracy. Several hours later, you leave in the back of a black van, entirely reconstituted. Horrifying. Unconscionable. But real. Without the benefit of time travel or an Encino Man scenario, what other opportunity do we have to see a person from two thousand years ago in the full? For the body to survive almost totally intact over the centuries, tanned by bog acids, seems almost like a miracle of permeability. As the sweet, ever-sensitive and curious Glob wrote, “Death is the inescapable lot of man, and it comes in many guises. Among the Iron Age people from the peat bogs we have seen the signs of death in its grimmest forms… Yet these are the ones the bogs have preserved as individuals down to our own day, while all their relatives and contemporaries from the eight centuries of the Iron Age have totally vanished or at most only survive as skeletons in their graves.”

Bog people have been found across a broad swath of Northern Europe from 1450 to present. Many were discovered during the years of World War II, when the war-exhausted populations in Northern Europe were forced out into the bogs to cut peat for home fuel, like their ancestors from the Middle Ages.

Bog peoples hands and feet are delicate and smooth—they were unaccustomed to labor. The last meal found in their stomachs is often a specific combination of spring grains and seeds, lending support to the hypothesis that they’re sacrifices to spring. Many also have a special twisted noose tied around their necks, which serves no clear function.

The ancient historian Tacitus, in his writings on the Germanic tribes, suggested that bog people were human sacrifices. The victims were possibly chosen by drawing straws. He added that, according to Germanic law, “traitors and deserters are hung from trees; cowards, poor fighters, and notorious evil livers are plunged in the mud of marshes with a hurdle on their heads.” This theory was taken up and utilized for other purposes by nazi antiquarians.

The most stunning of all bog persons is Denmark’s Tollund Man—his perfectly marbleized form, his serenely sleeping face, his well-kempt fingers and toenails, the delicate bit of stubble on his chin, the perfectly preserved noose around his neck that was used to strangle him. Nothing compares to him in terms of sheer preservation of an ancient person—not Pompeii, not the Egyptian mummies. At 2,300 years old,  the bog acids have made his head the best preserved in the world. 

I wasn’t necessarily seeking them out, but the bog people found me again in a dimly lit corner of Dublin’s National Museum.The Irish bog people were a different breed altogether. They were also around two thousand years old. But many had suffered unfortunate encounters with peat-cutting machinery or been otherwise decapitated or rearranged before their discovery. This has left them undefined and protoplasmic, chunks and sections of person, like grindhouse horror, or the thing coming out of the TV in that David Cronenberg movie.

Still, what is human is still discernible—Clonyclaven man’s flattened face is as immediately shocking and horrifying as coming upon a person who has just been hit by a car. You are hit with an immediate wave of empathy and worry for a fellow human. And that striking pile of beautiful red hair on his head, undying and ageless, not so different from our president’s. Researchers have found that he was wearing imported hair gel at the time of his death.

Old Croghan man too, reduced to just torso and arms. And yet, the arms are held out and flexing in a power pose of defiance—the skin is deflated and leathery, but you can make out all the strength that was there in life. There is even a lovely woven band wrapped around his left bicep.

I stood in the little altar-like nook with Clonyclaven man for a long time. Onlookers and children streamed past, each group shocked and awed. I felt like I was paying my respects to a dead relative. Reluctantly, indecisively, I exited the chamber and went to find my girlfriend. As soon as I left, I heard a little whisper over my shoulder. Thinking it was her, that she had gone in there and was looking for me, I went back into the prayer nook. It was empty aside from the man lying there in the glass case, mutely crying out, trying to send some message from across the millenia