Work or Riot?

“So what you’re telling me, Gabriel, is you’re an artist in your mid-thirties with two master’s degrees, and you don’t make enough money to live on. Now, how does that make you any different from anybody else up there in your neighborhood?”

I was on the phone with James back in Richmond, and from the depths of my loft at the corner of Broadway and Union in Brooklyn, I had to concede his point. James was going through a rough patch back then. He’d been setting some of my poetry to music recently, and the poems themselves appeared to be driving him insane. He was explaining to me how he had to wipe his hard drive before a cross-country flight because he didn’t want to get arrested by TSA for the things I was saying. But I knew there was more to it than that. As far as I could tell, it all had something to do with the “Occupy” movement. James had gotten heavily involved with it in Richmond. He was as excited about the possibilities as we all were. But somehow, he’d concocted this story about how it had all happened before exactly as it was happening now. He’d been with these people, in these places, doing these same things. Only, it was before. The whole scenario smelled of psychosis to me, but I wouldn’t tell him that. I just listened.

The poem I’d set James to work on, he’d already heard. But I didn’t remember that when I’d sent it to him. He reminded me I’d recited it to him and a friend of his while I was in a manic, drunken state at a diner in Richmond before we were really friends. We didn’t actually become friends until about six months later, when I stabilized and the two of us wound up spending our tie at the same Richmond café. James admitted he’d liked that poem even all the way back then. I was a little intense, but he’d thought I was a good poet. He could relate. The guy he’d been with, though… I’d scared the shit out of him. He was convinced I was insane. James had simply told his friend I was going through a rough patch.

“Really? That’s what he called it?” Cora asks me two and a half years after James pointed out my predicament in Brooklyn to me. I’m reading her this story again at her apartment in DC.

I set my pages to the side, and I slip my glasses off to rest them on the arm of Cora’s couch. Rubbing her bare leg, I smile and say, “Yeah. Why? What would you call it?”

“I don’t know. I’d say it was a little more serious than a rough patch, though…”

I didn’t think much about Occupy Wall Street the first week it started. I heard there were people setting up camp in Zuccotti Park, right in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district, but I wasn’t interested anymore. When nearly 100 people got arrested the following weekend and when I remembered how not too long before, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I’d spent all day in a rage decorating my Facebook page with anarchist rock videos off of YouTube, I realized maybe I should check it out. That first night I went down there, I completely changed my mind.

I’d been putting together a massive punk rock playlist all that past summer. Grad school had ended for me in the spring, and my last class was on Michel Foucault and his concept of “governmentality.” I was saturated with political deconstruction. Preparing to apply to law school in the fall, I’d been working as assistant to an international human rights attorney throughout that last course and since. It was the apex of a worldview for me. My loans hadn’t come due yet. By the time late September rolled around, I was ready to give the playlist a thorough hearing. I figured the subway ride out to and the stroll around the protestors’ campground would provide me ample listening time. I was calling the playlist “Schizoanalysis” after a phrase the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze had coined in the early 1970s. I didn’t realize how prescient all that actually was.

Work or Riot by The Business was blaring through my earbuds as I got off the train in Lower Manhattan wearing my usual fall attire – a pair of jeans and a black hoody. But I wasn’t prepared yet for what Zuccotti Park had already become.

It was the look in the protestors’ eyes first struck me… like a bright, morning sun had dawned inches from their faces. The atmosphere burgeoned with the crispness of over a thousand people rapt in a state of patient anticipation. I quickly cut off my music. I didn’t want to miss the cacophonous symphony of hundreds of people shouting their words in unison to spread the ideas the unheard speaker herself was trying to communicate. At that precise moment, their discussion concerned whether or not there was going to be an “Occupy” platform… what were their demands, were there any objectives? It was a crowd of anarchists, college kids, journalists, union members, lawyers and even Wall Streeters. I wound my way past the library and podcasters, beyond the free food and free tobacco tables and through all the tents – medical included. Thousands of flyers littered the ground. They raised concerns about everything from the prison system to environmental degradation. While staring at cardboard signs declaring protest against the United States’ and the world’s 1%, I settled down at the base of the park next to a gyrating drum circle. There was a brick sitting wall there from which I could view the construction site for the new Trade Tower.

Some college kids in their early twenties wound up sitting next to me, “It’s cool here, huh?” one of them said.

“Man, I’ve been waiting for something like this ever since I first saw those buildings over there go down ten years ago,” I said while pointing at the skeletal base for what would soon become the 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower.

I left those kids as they returned to dance in the drum circle, and I strolled back up through the tents looking for someone to strike up a conversation with. I wound up listening to this guy in a bandana from the Bronx who looked to be probably in his early fifties. “It’s the fucking government, man,” he said to me. “When Reagan was president, back in the eighties, there were jobs. I could make a living as an auto mechanic. As it stands, now, I’ve been out of work over two years. So I’ve been camping down here for a week now. This whole ‘Occupy’ thing, man, this is where I belong today,” he said while slopping more vegan gruel onto another hungry protestor’s plate.

I nodded and said, “Right, right…”  But I only agreed with part of what he had to say.

Eventually, I settled down on the concrete to eat my own meal with a group of two girls and a guy. One of the girls, a dreadlocked woman in flannels, was roughly my age. She’d hopped a train from rural Illinois. The other girl and the guy were a twenty-something couple who’d come up there from somewhere down south.

“It’s spiritual, man,” the woman in flannels was saying. “We’re raising the levels of consciousness on this plane.”

“I have a hard time believing there’s anything spiritual about this world,” I told her.

The twenty-something girl, her boyfriend staring off blankly at the floodlights and building tops surrounding us, asked me, “Have you ever dropped acid? Because if you don’t believe there’s anything spiritual to this world, you need to drop acid sometime.”

I told her, “I’ve dropped acid, but I never found anything.”

“Then, you must not have dropped acid in the woods,” the girl went on, winding a piece of trash through her long hair. “That’s when you know there’s something spiritual here.”

I nodded. “I’ve dropped acid in the woods,” I said.

“You should join us for meditation tomorrow,” the woman in flannels said as she gently touched my leg, which was crossed over the other Indian style. “Because this is how I’ve always believed society should be… thousands of people living together with no money, no rivalries, just a shared belief in our reason to exist. This is the future.”

“I might take you up on that,” I said with regard to her invitation. Even though, I didn’t meditate any longer, and I didn’t know if I wanted to live in a future world where we all slept in tents on concrete in the middle of an urban jungle. But as I said that I glanced around the periphery of the camp, and for the first time, I took note of the ring of stoic policemen surrounding Occupy Wall Street. They were all union members, and they each had more in common with every single protestor there than they would ever have with Mayor Bloomberg. At that moment, I no longer believed those policemen were there to keep the protestors in. Instead, I believed they were there to keep the rest of the city out.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Cora interrupts me.

I set my story to the side again, and I say, “I don’t know. I mean, don’t get me wrong… I wound up donating copies of all of Israfel Sivad’s books to the OWS library. So, I guess, if my stories and poems aren’t traveling around on a freight train right now with some anarchist somewhere, they’re in a garbage dump outside New York from after the police raided the camp. I mean, I marched through New York City with everybody else, carrying signs and chanting things like, ‘Banks got bailed out. We got sold out.’  But it wasn’t until I was talking with this friend of mine, sometime around November of that year, right around when this whole thing was coming to an end… He and I had gone out for dinner in Brooklyn. He’d been getting really involved with OWS’ General Assembly. To tell the truth, we never really saw eye-to-eye on much. He owned a mail-order bookstore, but he hated philosophy and postmodernist writing… everything I was really into back then. He thought it was all pretentious bull shit no one could relate to. But we got along pretty well anyways. I guess because even though we didn’t always agree, we respected each other’s opinions since we’re both pretty well read. Something we both seemed to care about at the time. But that night we were out for dinner, though, he was telling me all about how the plan was to have Occupy camps sprout up all over the United States as an alternative means for community organization, which was already happening by then. ‘That’s cool,’ I told him, ‘But how do you build a larger society out of all this?’

“‘That’s not what’s at issue,’ he said. ‘All we’re trying to do is allow for the possibility of something different here.’

“‘But a simple possibility won’t change things,’ I told him.

“‘But don’t you see, it will. Once there’s an alternative, who knows what people will choose…’

“‘I don’t know, man. I think you need something a little more concrete than just everybody camping in public spaces.’

“‘That’s where you’re wrong. We don’t need anything more concrete. There’s no goal here, man. This is just about offering an alternative community.’

“‘That’s bull shit,’ I said. ‘We don’t need an alternative community. We need a whole new society.’

“‘This is a new society. Can’t you see that?’

“‘This is nothing,’ I said. ‘And unless you offer people a concrete answer, this whole thing’s simply gonna disappear.’ Which I’m pretty sure you’d agree is precisely what’s happened since then, Cora… regardless of whether or not OWS still has a presence on Twitter.”

My Chicago grandmother was telling me how Occupy needed a strong personality to rise up from out its midst, someone who could truly lead a revitalized political left. That was my mom’s mom. She’d taken my mother to her first ever Vietnam War protest before my mom had even started college in 1968. My stepmom was telling me how even though my dad had always voted Republican, he’d also been a bit of an anarchist at heart, and he probably would have thought the whole Occupy thing was pretty damn cool. The rest of my dad’s family, however, were sitting out by the pool in Southern California, sipping mimosas while discussing the many problems with Obama’s presidency as they meditated on whether or not I was spending any time myself in Zuccotti Park.

My mom was on the phone. I was strolling in front of the Hassidic warehouses around the corner from my apartment in Brooklyn. The air was getting cooler by the day. I’d been thinking about my own time spent on the streets, and I was starting to wonder what would happen to the protestors’ camp once snow started falling. “I don’t know,” I said to my mom. “I thought it was pretty cool the first couple times I went down there, but now I just don’t know. I mean, I was down there again last night, right? I bump into this guy with long hair in a cowboy hat, probably about my age with a girl in her early twenties. He says they just drove out here from somewhere in the Midwest. I don’t know, like Ohio or something. And he’s wondering if I know anywhere they can score something. Of course, with where I’m at in my life right now I have absolutely no idea. But it isn’t just that. It’s that so many of these people, I don’t know if they really even understand what’s at issue here. I mean, maybe, it’s because I just finished this master’s degree. But I’ve spent so much time thinking about what’s gone wrong in this country, and all I hear coming out of Zuccotti Park are utopian fantasies.”

“Sounds like the same things I went through in college,” my mom said. “Why do you think I decided to go into education eventually rather than stay radicalized?”

Right now, I’m sitting out on my stoop in DC with this notebook open on my lap. I just finished going over everything you’ve just read once again, and I’m still thinking about it. It might be overcast today, but it’s a little warmer than it was yesterday. Cora’s out of town at a festival in the California desert with her younger sister this weekend. She’s been sending me pictures via Snapchat all morning, and every single one of them makes me smile. With Cora out of town, I’m heading over to Luc’s tonight for dinner, which is a welcome relief. I recently started contributing to my 401(k), and ever since then, I’ve been dead broke at the end of every pay period. I need to quit that contribution. One of the guys from my building steps out with a cigarette and a soda to join me. As the metal grate clangs closed behind him, he tells me he’s waiting on a phone interview for a new job. I can tell he’s nervous. Today is Good Friday, and I have the day off while he’s been out of work going on two months now.

I like this guy. Sergio’s his name. He just moved into one of the first floor apartments in our converted row house a few months back. He might not look it, but he’s only a couple years younger than me. He spent most of his adult life working at the various music venues I’ve been frequenting in the District since high school. More recently, though, he’s been working as a legal assistant. It’s Washington, DC. He grew up in the Baltimore suburbs, but he also spent some time in Brooklyn in between the two times I was there. Last time he and I talked, I left him with one of my penname’s self-published books to peruse. He studied English in college. So I thought he might appreciate it. He asks what I’m up to today.

“Working on this new writing project,” I tell him.

“That’s cool,” he says. “What is it?” I notice he and I are wearing the exact same outfit, which is the same thing I told you I was wearing that first time I showed up at Zuccotti Park – a pair of jeans and a black hoody. The only difference is our shoes. He’s wearing Puma’s while I’ve got on an old, beat-up pair of black and white, shell-toe Adidas… a remnant from my first stay in Washington, DC back in the mid-2000s.

“Oh, well, I’m really into it. It’s a memoir, basically, but I don’t really think of it like that. I’m telling it backwards. Starting from the other week and going back in time as far as I can remember.”

“Sounds interesting,” he says. “Where are you at right now?”

“Not too far yet. I just finished talking about Occupy Wall Street. So I’ve only gone back about two and a half years so far. But at this rate, I could conceivably finish a first draft in about six months.”

“Nice. I didn’t realize Occupy had happened that recently, though.”

“I know. It’s crazy when you think about it. No wonder I had such a hard time with this gig I’m doing now when I first started a couple years back. I mean, it had only been like six months since I’d been carrying around a sign and shouting about how we are the 99%. And before that, man, I can’t even begin to tell you…  Nowadays, I spend most of my energy writing marketing copy, trying to sell people on a financial newsletter.”

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