web analytics

The Tracks (2012)

I used to take long walks
Now I just try to finish reading long books
I used to plow deep into the woods
And emerge in a clearing with the sunlight on my face
Now I just peruse the 10 cent shelves
Looking for the rare, ragged Dwight McDonalds,
Histories of ancient mariners, histories of the PSUC-CNT-FAI conflicts in ‘37
I aimed to take an autumn walk down the tracks
The tracks I’ve been walking down for 13 years
That have never let me down
That have always been the bedrock of my life
Repository of all known memories and feelings
But I find I can’t do it this time
I don’t want to take any of my long walks to secret beautiful places
Hidden between the highways and the malls
I’ve walked them all too many times
All symbols of indulgence and indolence now
And indecision

I wanted to be the last to say this
But I think I know this place too well now
It just reminds me of a graveyard of memory
I want to walk somewhere strange and different where
I feel no feeling, no attachment or homesickness
A blank canvas far from every memory I have gathered thus far
Preferably somewhere warm
A place away from the bad habits and patterns that no longer serve me
The indulgence, indolence, and indecision
The thinking too much about it
Feeling the same feelings I’ve felt every time for all time
Tired of myself and no longer receptive to my own foibles

A harsh headmaster emerges
Who no longer wants to tolerate the behavior of this listless youth
Wandering on and on
Living in dead memory
Photographs from not too long ago

Travis, Pt. 1

When I think about the MFAs
I think about my dead friend Travis
An old friend from the old guard
Who had been through the wars and went back to school in his later years
Some smarmy pig-head running the MFA program
Someone probably accustomed to shaping younger writers in his image
Had the nerve to read his stuff and ask 
if he had considered doing something else with his life
That is
Stop writing

I try (as hard as it is) to see the best in people and their intentions
He probably said that in passing
Probably just preoccupied with his own shit and having a bad day
Trapped in the maw of his own grind
"I'm too good to be running this MFA program”
"It really should have been me that got the Man Booker"

Everyone is quietly thinking
I’m too good for this
And they see someone who’s their own age
But who’s the Pupil
Who hasn’t climbed all the ladders and kissed the right asses
Who’s been touring in bands like Reactionary 3 that no one remembers now
And making an obscure zine that people are too hurt to read anymore
And working in a library helping Salvadoran teenagers with their GED prep

Ha, ha
Travis loved that damn record
And everything by old Dan Whatshisname
the Lungfish guy

These little literary fiefdom-chiefs just can't handle it
It actually pains them that they run such-and-such MFA program
Such-and-such university-funded literary journal
And they're not Zola or Proust
or running the goddamn Paris Review (we must never forget who funded that one)

They're also grateful because we’re all grateful for a good job that mostly lets us be ourselves
But they thought they would end up like Junot Diaz or Colm Toibyn
Didn’t work out
Maybe for the best, they're thinking to themselves now
Didn't want it bad enough I guess, they think to themselves

Professors don’t really want old students
Or students their own age who have seen a bit too much
It’s unsettling
Their very presence exposes their big lie

The con they’ve pulled that they have the taste and cultural authority
The con of having attained a position of power they didn’t need or deserve

As the Mountain Goats sang
When you punish a person for dreaming his dream
Don't expect him to thank or forgive you

I don't know that MFA guy or care
But I do know he helped send Travis Fristoe down the river of oblivion
It was a million little things and decisions and sleights that did
Many of them self-inflicted
As is the way of the world

I associate him totally with Florida
With the neon record cover of ye olden 2002 band 
“The Night Life, the Tight Style”

Pulling into the sand Greyhound parking lot
In the shining ever spring morning light
I miss his little pointy beard
And his beady eyes
And his high voice and how much he nodded

He clearly sought approval from the world
He had been raised Southern
Smile when you're with company
If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all
Was better at all that than I am
Concealed a lot of things he thought and felt
That shit builds up
Creates a perforation in the personality
He compartmentalized

And I think
That made it harder to say some important certain things
That create a perforation in personality


There is a certain vibe and look to the town I came from. It’s changed over the years but it also stays the same. Its based around the town of Raleigh, North Carolina and the college N.C. State, an engineering and big ag school that has had moderate fame with college basketball and the charismatic coach Jimmy V, who famously got up on stage with his late-stage cancer said, “I’m up here with tumors all over my body, and they think I care about that timer they’re flashing in my face." My high school was on Jimmy Valvano Drive. When I got older and started listening to punk, it brought tears to my eyes when the DIY punk band Underground Railroad to Candyland sampled Jimmy V on one of their records—"Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.” He was so loved. I grew up in the suburbs about 10 minutes from Raleigh, and when I was a kid my dad took me to NC State to see the Wolfpack play. It was a small little arena deep in NC State campus, inside the rickety old wooden bleachers went almost vertical up the sides—there weren’t many people that showed up to these games—and the perfection of the polyurethaned court is seared on my memory. We lived in Raleigh, we were NC State people not Duke people or Chapel Hill people—a different kind of people entirely, and still today that’s a fact. I go to Durham, I go to Chapel Hill, I feel foreign.

The Wolfpack is the team, the Wolf is the mascot. The colors are red, the vibe is red and white. NC State is a brick school that looks like a former factory. At the center of NC State is a wide open space called the Brickyard. Everything is red and everything is brick, and the town and the university are both cut in half by the railroad tracks surrounded on either side by mighty pine trees. Pine trees, railroad tracks, brick, shopping centers, woods. There is a certain feeling to our bars and restaurants, at least those of the old vintage, to our people—even the Italian restaurants and pizzerias have this Wolfpack-y vibe. It is brick inside all the bars, brick and wood, there are pennants and stuff on the walls, and TVs—the people here don’t look country but they don’t look sophisticated either, they wear white or red hats and not so flattering clothes, their facial hair isn’t perfectly manicured, the women look tough, but not truly country tough like they look in Clayton and Johnson County and Cumberland County, they still look a bit urbane. Just a touch. Old men wear red hats, they have little trimmed beards. People are friendly, but they are not country friendly.

I lived my life in these brick houses set back in woods near the railroad tracks and I’ve always heard the train horn in the distance in the morning and in the middle of the night, in Raleigh, in Cary, in Apex, in Fuquay. This is Piedmont. In the mid-2000s there was a short-lived electro-clash band called Piedmont Charisma, and I still think about the lithe singer (who was kind of trying to channel the Make-Up) singing “Apex, Cary, Fuquay-Varina…Bunkey’s Car Wash,” something like that. I think about it all the time even though the Piedmont Charisma CD-R I had has long oxidized.

I think about the feeling when my dad took me to downtown Raleigh to go to his “office” or a bank or something—he worked at home, so I’m not sure where we were—but he took me to a big tall gray building in downtown Raleigh, it had an escalator going up to it, it had an elevator, people in suits, it was so exciting! But even then, I could sense that the “downtown” of Raleigh with its little smattering of tall buildings, the Wells Fargo building, was somehow a put-on, it wasn’t real urbanity no matter how much the people dressed up, the endless ever-dark forests were pressing in on it from all directions. The view from the top of any parking garage or the NC State Bobst library, it’s just pine forests in every direction. I’ve spent my life walking these piney tarry railroad tracks around Raleigh in every direction.

The bars around here, they have no character. There is a dart board. There is a TV. Even bars in the Rust Belt have a “Rust Belt” character. The central North Carolina is a blank palette on which others are writing their history, even our accent is a blankening palette, the twang is disappearing.

It’s strange, the bars around here fill me with a dread, horror vacui. For a while in the suburbs there was an Irish pub with dark wood booths and books and a fireplace, I loved it, I spent as much time as I could there. Now it’s gone and all thats left is a kind of empty room with chairs and flatscreen TVs that they call “bar” but repels personality, is anti-character.

I know everything about this place deeply, by feeling. After high school, my friends went back to the strange woods that punctuate NC State campus, the strange woods that I noticed when I was 10 and my dad was taking me to see the Wolfpack, and back in those little splotches of woods between the parking lot and the train tracks, there was a manhole with light coming from it. We opened in the manhole and inside was a network of steam tunnels. It was like a sauna down there. The nazis had graffitied it. We went so many times, following the claustrophobic little tunnels through campus, popping up in some building here or there, a janitors closet.

I know the vibe and taxonomy of Raleigh people. There are the basic Raleigh dudes with the white hats and the trucks, there are the hipster Raleigh dudes who have beards and bellies who are protective of whatever little indie rock or metal fiefdom they’ve built in a corner. I understand the Raleigh straight-edger, whether they came to it through Christianity, whether they’re headed towards pseudo-fascism, or they’re headed towards drinking and drugs. I understand the Northern transplant who came to the Triangle and their motivations for getting away from the Tri-State area, the immigrant, whether white collar or blue collar, and the reasons they came to the area (ease, a bigger house, a middle-class life).

And I’m carrying all this around and I’m not sure what to think about it—it’s familiar but I still feel like an outsider, I still don’t like setting foot into a Raleigh/Apex bar, I still feel like the stranger even though I have deeper roots here than others in that bar, and neither do I feel at ease in a Carrboro environment or a Durham environment, which are often built by and for transplants to re-create the worlds they came from.

I feel the multi-colored brick and the swaying pines and the late night empty 440 Beltline with the big moon.

Jacob Frey’s Tears

What an amazing moment. Affluent white liberals can’t stop themselves from desperately seeking the approval of BLM. As I’ve written elsewhere, we are at a strange moment where tryhard liberals have decided that they need to win over whatever is the most zealous, unwinnable group, at this point, the farthest sect within BLM. The more the anarchists shun attention and the light ("What we do is secret"), the more the liberals feel the urge to venture in and discover them—pure negging quality, pure obscurantism—they need the approval of those mysterious anarchists, those they've decided represent The-Most-Righteous-And-Most-True. So they donate massive sums of money. They read all the books. They cave to every demand, whether it makes sense or not. Frey was booed when he wandered into a BLM protest. Now he cries but what is he crying from, true empathy for others or his own career? The politician needs absolution from his sins—he needs Greta Thunberg, the anarchists, he needs the pure and the good good—he doesn't need boring old "social democratic" healthcare. It reminds you of the boring, bad old days, the Cold War, the screaming hammer-and-sickle beret person on the campus. The politicians seem so very-lost and out of their depth. They keep upping the ante and will now do or say anything (even if they consciously don’t know whether or not they mean what they’re doing, or if its performative) in order to appear on the “right side of history.”

The more late coming, the more zealous and radical—as if to make up for the previous tenuousness and hesitation. (This is why so many people who were moderate or liberal suddenly seem to reinvent themselves, coming out of nowhere swinging).

Three Guys

When I was in high school, there were these three guys that were a sort of gang. Two of them were pretty big and tough—one of them was Indian—but the “leader” was this short, lithe little guy. He had a bit of a tragic James Dean vibe. He scowled a lot but had a strange kind of charisma, and it was clear that his crew would die for him. He always gave me the feeling of being some kind of bookish, prematurely wizened veteran of the wars. If you watch old videos of Hitler, he gives off the same vibe—former soldier, self-taught scholar, foppish eccentric who takes himself very seriously.

My set, we were stumbling around in the dark towards being leftist. We were half-ironic anarchist Satanists. We hated God and homophobes and racism and the military and wanted everything to burn and to skateboard through the ashes. We stole all the Noam Chomsky books one by one, and half-read them. This other group, they were very, very intelligent.  They discoursed at length whenever the teachers asked them a question, and they would sit at the back and smirk and make fun of how stupid the teachers were, and how stupid we were.

Somehow, they had developed a half-ironic reactionary view of history—war was good, the CIA killing people was good, Machiavelli was right, dictators weren’t as bad as everyone made it out to be, etc, and they had read enough to back it up, and teachers didn’t know enough to rebuke them. They would challenge every left-leaning or even tolerant view, and somehow win. They knew a lot about history. Any kind of angry plea for morality or tolerance went nowhere with them. Moral outrage was impotent because it was just moral outrage to them, it didn’t follow the logic of history. I felt intensely that they hated us and thought we were stupid—we couldn’t counter them or match them in knowledge. When they saw us, they called us faggots. I got the feeling that they thought we were doing something that was all aesthetic, that we were being needlessly showy, while in their mind blending in, being smart and understated and reserved was the way a person should be. I couldn’t understand what they were up to or what their energy was directed to, it just seemed to be this blind, nihilistic use of an intelligence that had no use or nowhere to go. It was always unclear whether they “meant” their reactionary views or whether it was just to provoke.

A decade or so later, I was still wondering what became of them politically. So much had happened in the early and mid-2000s. One afternoon, I remember driving in the Crossroads strip mall to REI or Dicks Sporting Goods and this car pulled up beside of mine. I looked over and it was the three guys—still rolling together in the old Honda Civic after all this time. Amazingly, they recognized me too, and in awe pointed, and the Indian guy said, “Hey look! There’s that faggot!” 

The world has gone past them and me—but I still wonder if they feel themselves to be some kind of harbinger and whenever I see ironic provocation, I still think about them directly—a good intelligence, put to no good use, impotent and flailing in search of a home.

“A Nullity…An Empty Void”

Stalin is the outstanding mediocrity of our party…Stalin is a nullity..an empty void
​    —Trotsky, 1932

Anyway, what is Stalin? Stalin is a little person.
​    —Stalin, 1927


“Thank you mama, for your kind letter,” Stalin wrote to the 70-year-old peasant woman, offering over her cow. “I do not need a cow because I do not have any farmland—I’m just a white-collar employee, I serve the people the best I can, and white collar types rarely do their own farming.” [emphasis mine.]

“I have just come from seeing Koba. Do you know how he spends his time?” Nikolai Bukharin wrote Trotsky in 1922. “He takes his year-old boy from bed, fills his own mouth with smoke from his pipe, and blows it into the baby’s face. ‘It makes him stronger,’ Koba says.”
“That’s barbaric,” Trotsky replied.
“You don’t know Koba,” Bukharin said. “He is like that—a little peculiar.”

By the end of the first two volumes of Stephen Kotkin’s monumental Stalin trilogy, an image, like a half-developed Polaroid, begins to emerge of the kind of person we are dealing with here.

He is the hardest worker. He takes on the most responsibility, makes sure the paperwork is filed, deadlines are met, makes the trains run on time. He advances rapidly within the institution, perhaps becoming the managing editor or the editor-in-chief.

He is easy-going, personable, and very, very reliable and accountable to the higher-ups. He strives to appear selfless and to be a mere executor of the will of the CEO and the spirit of the corporation—he is the all-around fixer and doer. 

When the CEO or founder of the company gets sick, he goes to his house more than anyone else to cheer him up with jokes, to reassure him, to receive his instructions. The boss relies on him. He is the one that puts in the emotional labor. By bringing the boss’s instructions back to the underlings from on high, he leverages his personal relationship to grow his stature within the organization.
His own will is singular, he is not split in any way—his will is to execute the founder’s will and stated principles. He lives for the job, nothing else. It is his life. He has never had any other dreams or goals or paths he could have taken. This is it.
He takes no vacations, never leaves town. The other leaders always seem to be convalescing at some nervous ailment health spa or reading French novels. He becomes indispensable to the company. His will melds with the company’s will, they become one.

He likes people and cultivates relationships with everyone around him, particularly his subordinates, who adore him. With each passing day, he creates more dependents, loyalists, people who rely on him for their positions and livelihood. In this way, he builds a no-bullshit organization within the organization. “Stalin’s power flowed from attention to detail but also to people—not just any people, but often new people,” Kotkin writes. He himself comes from nothing, a dirt-road backwater, and he has a bawdy sense of humor. The back-slapping, chew-chaw faction he builds resent and relentlessly mock the more pretentious, intellectual Harvard-Yale faction within the organization. This other group of Bolsheviks have lived in Europe. They've discussed philosophy in the coffee houses. Stalin and his team have never left Russia.

It’s not hard to see how Stalin’s ascent within the Bolshevik organization happened. He is cunning, works very hard, presents himself as insignificant. During the interminable meetings, he lets the people with strong views speak first and wear each other down fighting. At the very end, the view he puts forward is a middle-of-the-road synthesis, a compromise of all of the positions that have already been expressed by others. If you want to survive in a hierarchical, white-collar office environment, you learn to play the game, to keep your head down. You sublimate your ego, you keep your superiors happy, you appear busy and important, you flatter and undermine your colleagues—that’s it. That’s office politics.

A nobody, the one in charge of the paperwork. No one particularly resents him or views him as a threat. His job is administering the bureaucracy and chairing the meetings.

He is a working-class ethnic minority from the periphery of empire—a diversity hire for the Bolsheviks, brought in to pad the ranks of the mostly white, urbane, and bourgeois leadership. He is simultaneously underestimated and tokenized. “Every time [Stalin] attended a major Party Congress in the company of his Bolshevik faction, he would be confronted with a thoroughly Europeanized culture, against which his Georgian features and heavy Georgian accent stood out,” Kotkin writes.

No one ever expects the quiet, back-of-the-room functionary, who makes sure the records are kept, to be put in charge. But really, who better to be in charge? Who better knows the organization and can make sure the deadlines are met and trains run on time? The one who has put in the most work, the one who has made themselves most indispensable. No one wants an ambitious, self-focused person to run their organization. A leader is expected to be selfless and stabilize the ship, not be a preening, mercurial egoist.

Lenin, on his deathbed, receiving an affectionate letter from Stalin, brushes it off, telling his sister: “He is not at all intelligent.”                  


Let us take a closer look at this person, get to know him through his own words, in his unguarded moments.

Letter to Voroshilov, 1932: “Have the bombers been sent to the East? Where, exactly, and how many? The trip on the Volga was interesting—I’ll say more: magnificent. A great river, the Volga. Damn.”

On the value of human life: “The loss of airplanes is not as scary (the hell with them) as the loss of living people, aviators. Live human beings are the most valuable and most important thing in our entire cause, especially aviation.”

On being asked to promote literature: “I am decisively against writing prefaces only for pamphlets and books of literary ‘big-shots',’ literary ‘names’…We have hundreds and thousands of young capable people, who are striving with all their might to rise up from below.”

On conflict with the imperialists: “We would be the bottom of the barrel if we could not manage to reply to these arrogant bastards briefly and to the point: ‘You won’t get a friggin thing from us.’” [emphasis mine.]


He has a face you immediately like. When younger, he was very handsome. But very short. The swarthy bankrobber with the famous haircut. Paralyzed in one arm. He worked nights at Tiflis Observatory, attempting to organize the meteorologists. He had been a poet, even got published. Was he still thinking about poetry, watching the stars and the planets cycle overhead until daybreak, up in Tiflis Observatory? Or had he already determined to give up on the path of art, the true path, and venture into the grubby world of organizing and polemics and politics?

In old age, his face is preferable. It is expressive, cratered with smallpox scars, the comically sloping mustache. A warm smile. His eyes are dense animal black. “In the Kremlin, on the ancient throne of orthodox czars, sat a small man with short arms and shiny black eyes,” Curzio Malaparte put it.

The face of a feline man. Intelligent, cunning. More cat than man. A cat who has somehow become a man. A person who has learnt how to play the game of life.

It is not a decadent and artistic face, like Hitler’s, the over-artistic Wagnerian conductor. It is the face of a person who views life with a bit of distance and irony. He loves cowboy movies, thermal baths, and novels. He understood that life was not some grand performance art. It was work. Just endless work. 


It is hard to tell whether his self-pity was an affect, to garner sympathy, or if he genuinely believed that he was insignificant and small. 

“Anyway, what is Stalin? Stalin is a little person,” he said, during a critical politburo showdown against Trotsky. When his fixer and flattering loyalist Lazar Kaganovich suggested that Stalinism should replace Leninism, Stalin would violently rebuke him. “What is Lenin? Lenin is a tall tower! And what is Stalin? Stalin is a little finger. Sometimes when he made this remark he substituted an analogy, which, shall we say, isn’t suitable for recording here,” Nikita Khruschev remembers. He referred to himself as “shit” next to Lenin. Did he mean it?

A nothing. A chode. A nobody, a non-entity. 

Then there were his constant threats to resign as General Secretary—a job nobody wanted to do. When cornered on some issue, he always offered up his resignation. At one point, Stalin asks to be relieved as General Secretary and sent to Kazakhstan. With all this, he seemed to be saying: this job is terrible, it's just white-collar drudgery, I’d rather be doing something real even if it meant being relocated to the periphery.

On the left, and specifically within Bolshevism—where all values and morals are inverted—there was much power to be had in appearing small, marginal, just a hard worker, just quietly do what you do, contributing in your small way, anonymous, without egoism or pride or approval or adoration-seeking. Leaders were expected to live modestly, work insane hours, and shun personal recognition. 

These constant threats of resignation were a way for them to stress-test their political and social capital. To see who their friends and enemies were. They kept track, they remembered everything.


The paradox of power is, of course, that power repels those who grasp for it. People shrink from neediness, ego, and big personalities. 

In this cruel world, there are hard people and there are soft people. Take for example, writers and editors. Writers work on the outside of institutions and editors work on the inside. They are symbiotic with each other, they need each other. Creative people with creative temperaments can be soft and sensitive, but to work on the inside of an organization requires a person to sublimate their ego and become hard. There is an attraction of opposites and mutual appreciation between these two groups, the hard and soft. Hard people often find themselves repulsed by other hard people—in fellow careerists and glad-handers, they see their own artifice and manipulation reflected back at them. But they tend to have a soft spot for soft people, for those who’ve managed to stay a bit on the outside and uncorrupted by the world. 

Many he would later have killed seem to have earnestly appreciated him, even looked up to him and relied on him as an editor and a friend.

 In 1928, Nikolai Bukharin and Lev Kamanev still felt like they were close friends with Stalin. They had been on the same team for a long time. Bukharin was the prolific theoretical wunderkind of the party. Stalin was the organizational head and editor. There seemed to be a little bit of a kid-brother dynamic to their relationship (you could imagine Stalin giving Bukharin a noogie) but Stalin clearly admired the younger man’s talents, before taking a position, always asking “Which way did Bukharin vote?”

Stalin moved Bukharin and his family into the Kremlin apartment next to his. Their wives and kids were close. Bukharin rode around in Stalin’s Packard. Their families were close. Bukharin thought they were friends, until they broke over collectivization—then Stalin began to sadistically manipulate his affections and trust. First, he gave him the silent treatment. Then he helped break up his marriage. Then he began to break the brilliant writer and theorist by tasking him with the most mundane assignments possible like drafting party program documents, crossing them out in red pen and rewriting them from top to bottom. 

Yet, when Bukharin was threatened to be expelled from the Central Committee, Stalin became his protector. This was his customary move—two steps forward, one step back to show mercy. It seems that for Stalin revenge was a slow process of pushing people down and then pulling them back pretending to be their savior, like a medieval torture device. 

There was a manipulative component to this friendship. In 1930, Stalin wrote Bukharin, “I have never refused a conversation with you. No matter how much you cursed me, I have never forgotten that friendship we had… We can always talk, if you want.”

People need each other and want different things from each other, but in the end, editors need writers less than writers need their editors.Writers can sometimes put their editors on a pedestal, respect them too much, see them as a father figure. Bukharin was the editor of Pravda, but sometimes the true interpersonal dynamics between people defy official status and position in the world. 

Bukharin never quite shook the kid-brother-to-his-older-editor dynamic—even at the very end, when Stalin had him in prison, awaiting the Show Trial after which he would be executed. In 1937, he wrote many letters to Stalin, keeping him apprised of his literary efforts. He even asked Stalin to write the preface for one of his prison works. This is the editor as a cruel sadist. In the end, he resorted to begging his old friend to preserve his last book for posterity:

I fervently beg you not to let this work disappear…Don’t let this work perish. I repeat and emphasize: This is completely apart from my personal fate. Don’t let it be lost!… Have pity! Not on me, on the work!

After being shot in 1938, Bukharin’s four prison manuscripts were sent to Stalin for inspection and then deposited into his vast personal archive, where they sat and gathered dust for nearly sixty years, until being exhumed by an American scholar.


There is an old Soviet joke about the 1920s leaders of the Central Committee. They go out together and have a picnic. Once they get a little loose and day-drunk, someone asks, “What’s the best thing in the world?” 
“Books,” says Lev Kamenev.
“A woman, your woman,” says Radek.
“Cognac,” says Rykov.
and Stalin?—”revenge against your enemies.”

For Stalin, revenge was everything. To never forget a slight, to live long enough for the tides to shift and be able to destroy someone who tried to break you. Before they both ended up on the chopping block, Bukharin wrote to Kamenev: “Stalin knows only one means: revenge. Let’s call it the theory of ‘sweet revenge.’” 

Kamanev and Stalin had known each other since 1900. They had been in exile together. It was Kamenev who, in 1904, gifted Stalin a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Malaparte, the archcynic's droll assessment: “Kamenev was a harmless man, but one doesn’t have the right to be a harmless man when among the leaders of a revolution.” 

In the end, they couldn’t find the ruthlessness within themselves. In a 1926 politburo meeting, when Kamenev said that he could have destroyed Stalin years before, Stalin shouted, “Why did you not say it?” Kamenev said, “Because I did not want to employ such methods.” The big secret about the Old Bolsheviks is that they lacked nerve when dealing with their own. They still believed in friendship and good faith, even when unbeknownst to them, they had a wolf in their midst and the time for that had long since passed.

The virtuous and the jokerfied

On the one hand, you have well-intentioned white people, who want to be and appear as the most empathetic, radical, and having the right line, no matter what the circumstances. Oftentimes, these people are somewhere midway through their political evolution, politics hasn’t been the main thing in their lives, so they are open to all sorts of new ideas and approaches that they haven’t engaged with so much. When the Thing of the moment is “Stay home, fight COVID,” they change their profile pictures to “Stay home,” and they strive to isolate better than anyone else, some even refusing to go to the grocery store. Those that deviate or even question are scolded and punished. When the moment changes to #GeorgeFloyd and rioting, they change their profile picture to reflect that, and they begin explaining and scolding on that issue, being the best white allies they can possibly be. They surf on a wave of reacting to the present, as we all do, and at root they want to do the right thing. They deeply fear going against the grain or swimming against the current. For reasons of their worldview being one of being “allies” and “politically good”, they are the punishing foot-soldiers of any of those who deviate. Those that they follow are allowed a more heterodox ideology, they don’t so often get involved in the nitty-gritty of meting out punishment.

But then, on the other end of the spectrum, you have the Jokerfied, the contrarians, the dissident. These are people who, by dint of their independence, are very attached to thinking for themselves. They don’t follow the group. Often they’ll do the opposite of the group to provoke the group. Contrarians. On the left, examples of these people would be Malcom Kyeyune, Michael Tracey, Aimee Terese, Angela Nagle. When these people started their intellectual journey, they had already gone quite far in a political evolution and probably believed in free intellectual debate, in the good-faith exchange of ideas. They thought there was room for them on the left. But early in the game, they were disciplined and punished for thinking for themselves by the virtous. The first experience of discipline probably came as a big shock—they thought they were going to get an open hearing and open intellectual debate for their ideas, but instead they were severely reprimanded or told to just shut up and fall in line. This left a scar. The pain of being rejected or tossed out with the trash is something that everyone fears. But over time, the scars heals and people harden and feel a renewed sense of dedication to their original purpose, free and open debate, now coupled with a desire to continue to provoke those who caused the original pain. This becomes real contrarianism—these people begin to think of themselves as “bad” “heterodox” or “renegade” and after the initial pain of being an outsider fades, they might even come to enjoy this new image of themselves. They push the envelope even more, do more things that provoke. They now love nothing more than to provoke the virtuous, to be a real contrarian, it becomes an identity. But the difficult thing is that, they’ve positioned themselves against a certain type of “virtuous” liberal white person, and sometimes events and world developments happen that have absolutely nothing to do with those people, and the contrarian is left somewhat speechless. Everyone’s identity is set up to replicate itself, to intensify—the virtuous get addicted to appearing more and more virtuous because of the rewards they receive for appearing virtuous, the contrarian becomes more and more attached to the hate-fuel but also the applause they get from being contrarian, and each continues along their own track.

Tryhard Latecomers

These past years, I have been witnessing a strange thing. A hidden subculture that shaped me and my friends, our politics and entire worldview, has been discovered and embraced by a new class of people. There’s no other way to put it: tryhard latecomers, second and third-generation zealots, late-adopters, everywhere. People who the day before yesterday were politically-speaking, babes in the wood. They have quickly picked up the appropriate subcultural language and learnt to weaponize the language of identity. In the darker recesses of the recent past, when it was all being formulated, these are people who just weren’t there. And all these decades later, they’ve turned over a rock and found a thriving little ant colony, and they’re amazed. But they don’t act amazed; they act as if they are now and have always been. 

Only the weary old weirdies who have been around the block long enough to get a bit tired—who now look and talk the way they, the fresh converts, used to look and talk—take notice. And who would listen to them anyway? Like Narodniks who stayed in the village too long, they were changed by the mass, rather than the other way around, as they had intended. They fell into the gravitational pull of common life. They have families. They wear white t-shirts and watch football.  By contrast, the latecomers seem and look so much more like the rebels now: they talk and act and dress in the appropriate way. It’s incredible, really. They caught up, finally, and blended in, and only an asshole would point out that they were drawn mainly by the subcultural magnetism—society had to get to a certain point for them even to consider it as a possibility for themselves, you see, these latecomers.

And yet, it is annoying. They talk loudly, saying things that you’ve heard a million times before. Talking loudly and not thinking deeply, they quickly ascend to leadership positions, and have the same immediately fall into the same battles that have been occurring for decades. The old guard linger bitterly in the backs of the rooms or at home, having their lives, preferring not to have the same debates and fights they’ve already been through with a new generation.

As Jenny Holzer put it: chasing the new is dangerous to society. 

They have been drawn into the tractor beam of something that was not theirs; they are new and they have that new sheen of self-righteous dogmatism because they discovered it just yesterday. Time hasn’t yet worn out the novelty of this new plaything for them.

They are not tired, because they were late. They were late because they were not on time. For whatever reason, they were politically and developmentally delayed. Being late is not a crime. They were somewhere else: working, paying off debt, a libertarian party, campaigning for Hillary, in the army, in the church—just being a person in this world. There is no shame to just being another person in the world.

Then the world changed and all of a sudden they saw the Pauline light. And the light is brilliant and blinding.

Of course, any decent person's first reaction should be: “Good! I’m glad our ideas are contagious and peoples’ consciousness is changing, the more the merrier—we wanted to be a mass movement all along.”

For these fresh recruits, this plaything is so exciting. A whole new language. A whole new world of decolonizations and pronouns to correct and power to deconstruct and redirect into horizontalist non-hierarchical autonomist insurrectionary peoples movements. So many Verso books that must be read. Uncovering a new hidden world to get absorbed in.

While there is nothing wrong with being delayed with finding your true calling, it is extremely annoying to be very late, and then be shouting from the hilltops. There is a reason Jesus's Twelve disciples were the Twelve disciples, and the Old Bolsheviks were the Old Bolsheviks—they were there when it was difficult, when they were persecuted for being what they were, through thick and thin, from the beginning.. When the situation becomes clear and a winner becomes apparent, the opportunists pile in: they want to be Christians now, they want to join the political party that will clearly predominate.

Like living, breathing human beings, ideas and movements have a childhood and an adulthood. They start out as larvae, enclosed in a safe cocoon, and one day emerge out into the mainstream. This process can take months, years, or decades. In the larval stage, ideas are nourished in small, supportive microcosms. This is called subculture. The ideas forged in subculture are often years or decades ahead of their time. The participants are below the radar. They know they are ahead of the curve. They are marginal, yes, but this superfluousness gives them a sense of superiority.

The subculture is ahead of its time and is aware of it. The subculture does not want to subordinate its will to the majority. It wants to pursue its own quixotic independent path, forging ahead, far ahead of everybody else. That's its preferred state.

The anarchists, always being young and ahead of the curve, have always been the advance guard of society. They push the farthest, adopt the earliest, take to the farthest periphery. Long before Me Too, before “accountability,” before “Latinx” had been incorporated into the mainstream liberal framework…long before “trans rights” or “transphobia” had become household words, the anarchists built callout culture from nothing—they built it to protect their own world from cops, womanizers, manarchists, crypto-fascists, careerists, and police agents.

Today, your average former liberal has learned to speak anarchist, without even knowing they’re speaking anarchist—these ideas have flumed up from deep underground. If you had told them “in fifteen years, Hillary Clinton will be talking just like you,” they would have laughed in your face. The legitimate world didn’t care about this stuff. The bad things you “couldn’t say” within anarchist communities in the late 90s and early 2000s—you can’t say them now if you’re a CNN host or a Kentucky Republican. Poor whites, completely outside this world, are caught on social media and judged based on this now-dominant framework. Its a framework that dominates the great Western cities. It’s a remarkable achievement of “hegemony.” You would think the anarchists would be happy.

But like anyone who is before their time and doesn’t get full credit for it, they are mostly bitter; besides, being anarchists they’re constantly on the move, they’ve already moved on to the next thing. The indignities that those before their time have to suffer are endless. There is no benefit for those who shout, “we were quietly way ahead of our time!” No one cares. It’s mostly a psychological strategy for combating irrelevance. People don't care who was first, they adapt begrudgingly to what is. 

The old guard never coalesced, it dispersed into a diaspora and went back into the normal world of jobs and life and became more normal and mostly ceded the territory—aside from a few of the most committed elements which have clung on like barnacles to give a sentimental education to the new recruits. The old guard—not just the particular generation I feel affinity with, but also the silent old weirdos from the 1940s, the 70s, the 90s—have a similar outlook to that Viktor Frankl noticed among his fellow concentration camp survivors: “We dislike talking about our experiences. No explanations are needed for those who have been inside, and the others will understand neither how we felt then nor how we feel now.”

A box of unique generational experiences, locked, chained and cast into the sea., Because of the shame of being involved in a lost cause, a dissipated and ineffective prequel to the far more impactful future events. It would lead any humble person to silence.

Its a tragic fact that in politics (just like in love), people are irresistibly drawn towards elusive objects of desire—they always want what they can't have. For the cubicle-bound professional class, the anarchists exuded a persistent cool and mysterious and sense of being ahead of the curve in all things. As they they do, the liberals—mostly online professionals working in culture industries—fastened onto what the anarchists had built, a little too late, and fetishized what was marginal. They secretly felt like losers, who had ventured in the labyrinth of bureaucracy and compromise, and wanted to be as cool as the anarchists, but did not have the courage to live their ideals the way the anarchists did—for whatever reason, their lives had forced them to watch from the sidelines. They came to represent the elusive object, the path not taken.

They picked up through the anarchist leftovers with ardor, five or seven years too late, and like vultures devouring entrails. They embraced what they found there: call-out culture, trans liberation movements, cultural anarchism in the vein of Chris Kraus and zines. These latecomers birthed a new liberal call-out culture and wider cultural program that was not entirely understood, but having been vetted by the professionals, was then embraced by the Democratic Party, which knew which way the wind was blowing. Whatever plays to the kids. Whatever the liberal leadership's PMC sons and daughters informed them was going to be the Next Thing.

Before the first Bernie campaign, socialists and communists were considered the leftover dregs of a previous era, so obsolete and marginal as to be a joke. A nursing home. Anarchists were still considered the icebreakers of all social progress. But the tractor beam of the Bernie campaign shifted the terrain—socialism was in, electoral politics was in, pure anarchism was out. Both the old anarchists and the new PMC former liberals ventured into the cool new “socialist tide” moving it in their direction with a hodgepodge of tendencies and deviations that they brought with them into the big-tent of "socialism."

And that’s how the ultras have become superimposed on the media and culture mood, and influenced the political left and center. Being normal, sublimating oneself to the vast mass of humanity, is far less appealing than assuming an exciting new identity as a rebel. The complicated, subcultural worldview is built to be unappealing to the vast majority of people—it tends to repel the reasonable-minded and uncommitted—but it attracts intellectuals, grad-students and other marginal, cottage-industry types who find themselves almost instictively drawn toward what is small, hidden, obscure, or unpopular. Its like catnip for the fully-invested, freshly minted "radical" who is looking for a way to define themselves personally and socially through politics, in opposition to the embarassing masses of humanity they just escaped from. That's the paradox: the people from the masses of humanity are flowing into ultraleftism or "anti-fascism" to escape their blendedness and anonymity, and lots of the old guard has left the subcultural realm of political work and disappeared into the realm of normal working people. And so you have people looking to actually disconnect from their class or previous community to join a subculture, coming in the in door. They see being strategic and normal or "being popular" as a pivot toward the center—the place they are running from—they are looking to let the flag fly. They have no interest in making their ideas palatable to vast numbers of people. To do so, they would have to admit the unpopularity of their ideas, which they refuse to do. They think they're right, and the framing is fine, which it is, among the set of people they run with and regard as valid and legitimate. Its hard to remember that its never the forerunners or the old guard or the embittered and weary who are the most zealous and sadistic. Its always the tryhards…the second-generationers latecomers who truly missed the boat, and feel they have something to prove, who end up being the most dangerous.

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.


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.]


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?


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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…”


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.