Three incidents in my life had become linked in my head. I felt like they were connected, but I couldn’t explain why. Whenever I talked about it, I ended up rambling. At the same time, the editor at Morpheus asked me if I’d written anything recently he could use. So I sat down and wrote an essay that allowed me to clear my head, articulate my thoughts, and get something over to the editor. I’m pretty pleased with how it came out. You can read it here.
I wrote this column for the Razorcake web site a few days after the presidential election. It fell from the front page of the site and into obscurity, but I like this article and I want to share it here. Hopefully, it’s the last thing I post about Trump for a while.
It’s hard to keep from freaking out right now. We live in a country where a candidate who ran a genuinely fascist campaign was elected president. None of us know how this will play out. A wall between the U.S. and Mexico, a nuclear war, and mass deportations are all unlikely. Still, the fact that these scenarios are back on the table sucks. A lot of us feel devastated by this. A lot of us don’t know what to do. The corporate media is offering suggestions, but this is the same corporate media that spent the last year treating a fascist as a legitimate candidate. Your social media feeds have suggestions. Some of them are good. Most are just links to more content generated from the corporate media. And we can’t ignore that social media exists to sell advertising, not to foster discussion.
So what do we do about all this?
Well, by “we,” I mean punk rockers. And my suggestion is that we keep doing what we’ve always done. I’m not here to offer advice. I’m here to offer encouragement.
If you’re a musician, write a song about this moment. Bring that song to band practice. Make it sound good. Record it. Release it. Send it to Razorcake. We’ll spread the word. Then tour. Go around the country and nurture this scene. And don’t doubt that it’s a worthwhile way to spend your time. I think of myself as an adolescent in Reagan’s America, living in a backwoods Florida town where the adults around me voted straight Republican tickets and the kids around me would grow up to support Trump. When those first Dead Kennedys albums made their way to me, I felt like I’d grabbed a lifeline. They got me interested. I went to the library and flipped through the card catalog to find out what a Pol Pot was. Around that time, I also got my hands on a Maximum Rocknroll compilation of hardcore bands, which taught me about the El Mozote Massacre and CIA-trained Central American death squads.
One great record (or, really, cassette dubbed from a friend) led to another. In the late eighties and early nineties, I listened to The Clash, Minor Threat, Stiff Little Fingers, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, Hüsker Dü, X, the Minutemen, and bands like that nonstop. This music helped shape my life. It made me a better person. It put me in the world around me, helped me understand that my concerns are just a small part of this greater social animal, that I have responsibilities toward others, and that my anger is valid, but it needs to be directed in positive ways.
When Bush was elected in 2000, everything sucked but the music. This was the height of Avail, Anti-Flag, the Unseen, Strike Anywhere, Dillinger Four, and so on. I remember being on a book tour and hanging out in a punk house in Milwaukee in the second year of the W. presidency. Someone put Reinventing Axl Rose into the stereo, and by the time “Those Anarcho Punx are Mysterious…” came around, everyone was singing like their life depended on it. The album had been released two weeks earlier, and we all knew every word.
I’ll never again doubt the power of punk rock music.
Now, we’re poised for another wave. I can’t wait to hear it.
I also know that a lot of Razorcake readers aren’t musicians, but they’re just as active. I want to encourage that, as well. If you’re not in a band, make art. Make a zine. Paint. Draw a comic. Write a book. Do whatever it is you do. Now is the time to do it. History is on your side. I always go back to this idea from Harold Cruse in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Cruse argued that effective social movements need to be fought on three fronts: an economic one, a political one, and a cultural one. In response to this, a bunch of black activists in the late sixties formed the Black Arts Movement. They originally conceived of themselves as the cultural arm of the Black Panther Party. They set up community theaters and put on plays. They started book publishing companies and published poetry and prose. All of it was under the banner of black art for black people. BAM theorist Larry Neal said that protest art was masturbating for white people. Don’t protest, he said. When you protest, you legitimize a racist system. Work outside of the system. Define yourself. Control your own art.
Most readers of Razorcake aren’t ready to take on the next fascist administration on political or economic fronts. But creating culture is what we do. This is one of the reasons why I migrated to L.A. a few weeks before W. took over as president in 2001. I moved into a termite-infested sweatbox with Todd Taylor. Together, we gathered dozens of punk artists, musicians, writers, graphic designers, and computer programmers and we started Razorcake. It was never just a magazine. It was and is a community. We did what we could. We’re still doing it. And you’re a part of us.
So while we’re doing it, let’s not forget a couple of things.
First, life is better face-to-face. It’s easy to fall into social media rabbit holes where you only communicate online with a narrow group of friends who all agree with you. That can be valuable for a short time. We all need to process what just happened. These social media spaces allow us to do that. But to move on, we need to spend time physically together. We need to go to shows, to readings, to protests, to parties, to zine fairs, to whatever events allow us to really interact with each other. Nothing tests your views like having to say them to people who can look you in the eye when you talk.
Second, before we get all caught up in what will happen, let’s pay attention to what just happened. We were just given a choice between an eminently qualified woman and totally incompetent sexual predator who says incredibly racist things, but is at least a man. More than fifty-nine million Americans decided that the incompetent sexual predator is the right choice. Let’s remember that.
Let’s acknowledge that we live in a country where more than fifty-nine million people may not think it’s okay to grab a woman “by the pussy,” per se, but they have said that if you do grab a woman by the pussy, if a dozen of the women you’ve grabbed by the pussy file charges against you, well, that shouldn’t keep you from being the leader of the free world. And maybe these fifty-nine million people don’t necessarily agree that Mexicans are mostly rapists and murderers or that Muslims are mostly terrorists or that African Americans turn their communities into war zones, but they think it’s okay for the leader of the free world to think that.
There’s no reason to accept this. Instead, let’s try to reshape our culture into one where this doesn’t happen again.
I’ll be in Minneapolis this week, reading at Magers and Quinn on Friday night (June 3, 7:00). Bizarro author, Razorcake contributor, and part-time drag queen MP Johnson will read with me. I’ve never had a dull event in Minneapolis. Hopefully, this one will be as fun as readings in the past. Here’s a link to the bookstore’s events page.
Scroll below the picture to get a Replacements song in your head and read a vignette I wrote about reading in Minneapolis in 2008.
After I finished my reading at Arise Bookstore in Minneapolis, the God Damn Doo Wop Band took the stage. And, by “stage,” I mean the empty area in front of the chairs in the backyard of Arise. It was one of those perfect Minneapolis days that apparently don’t happen all that often but seem to happen every time I’m there. It was sunny, temperatures in the low eighties, an even cooler breeze. The sun was starting to set behind the bookstore. The band sat on a low wall.
The God Damn Doo Wop Band: three women who know how to spend their money on boots and tattoos and hair dye, who, more importantly, know how to sing doo wop songs. They launched into three-part-harmonies about boy troubles. On the one hand, they seemed like an authentic throwback to the Staten Island doo wop of the fifties. On the other hand, it was something totally fresh and original.
One of the band members is named Annie. She used to be in the Soviettes. She didn’t wear boots. Her Vans were worn through just above the big toe. As she sang, her big toe popped out of the hole in her shoe. A little red toenail kept the beat.
The supervisors of San Luis Obispo County tried to attack free speech this week. I happened to be in town to witness it.
The crux of the problem, according to county supervisors, was the Occupy movement. The county’s chief administrative officer, Jim Grant, claimed that the Occupy encampment presented a hazard to public health and safety, though he didn’t clarify exactly how. He suggested an ordinance that required any group assembling on public or vacant lands to obtain a permit from the county before doing so.
As he should have expected, a shit storm followed.
I wasn’t involved in the shit storm. I just happened to be doing some work in San Luis Obispo County that day. I was in and out of my truck a lot, and my radio was tuned to the public station. I listened to meeting of county supervisors addressing the issue. This may sound like a dorky thing to do—listen to a county supervisors’ meeting on public radio—and maybe it is, but the meeting was exciting on this day. A couple dozen people came to the meeting to scold the supervisors and Jim Grant in particular. Each person had an opportunity to speak for a few minutes. The beauty of this came in numbers. As a citizen, we can all speak at public meetings like this. We’re all allowed somewhere between three and five minutes. When twenty-four people come to the meeting and use all five of their minutes, supervisors have to hear about this shit for over two hours. Suddenly, you have an effective protest on your hands.
The protestors struck me as interesting. Sure, there were a couple from the Occupy movement who spoke. They were the ones being targeted. They needed to be there. But also members of the Tea Party spoke against the ordinance. They realized, of course, that if Occupy has to get a permit, so does the Tea Party. One former Republican congresswoman from the area approached the podium to say that, sure, she knew what it was like to be protested. She wished everyone agreed with her all the time, but democracies are built on dissent. One incredibly nervous guy from a former Soviet bloc country stood up to say that, prior to immigrating to the US, he’d been imprisoned for ten years for speaking out against the government. “Free speech is the most beautiful thing in America,” he told the supervisors. His anxiety seemed to be stealing his breath, but he found enough air to add, “Don’t touch it, for God’s sake.”
Finally, after two dozen people from across the political spectrum castigated the supervisors, they voted to toss out the ordinance. Jim Grant apologized.
The whole debacle gave me the urge to write a column about one of the greatest moments in American history: the Wobblie free speech protests in Missoula, Montana.
In 1909, a team of organizers from the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) traveled to Missoula, Montana in an attempt to organize the workers in the lumber and logging industries there. As part of their organizing strategy, the Wobblies set up soapboxes or other makeshift stages on corners in the business district of Missoula and just started talking. Passersby would sometimes stop and listen and sometimes not. From a contemporary perspective, the Wobblies may seem a bit crazy. At least, from my perspective, when someone is standing on the corner of the street speaking to no one in particular, I assume the person has a mental illness. In the early twentieth century, this type of soapbox preaching was common. Think of it as a direct action blog. The Wobblies weren’t the only ones preaching on corners. The Salvation Army had their own soapbox in downtown Missoula, as well as a couple of other organizations. The speaking on the corner wasn’t exactly the problem. The listening was.
According to a few accounts, the first wave of Wobblie speakers didn’t generate much interest. That changed when a woman who called herself “Gurley” came to town.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was nineteen years old and six months pregnant when she hit Missoula. She’d been agitating for workers’ causes since she was a little kid and her parents took her to socialist meetings in Brooklyn. In her autobiography, The Rebel Girl, she traces her activism back to her four great-grandfathers, who’d all taken up arms to fight the British occupation of Ireland. Her presence in Missoula was one more incident in a long heritage of actions geared toward social justice.
Even at nineteen, Gurley was famous among the workers. She did two things differently than other speakers. First, she drew a crowd. This shouldn’t be ignored. People in power will always let you say whatever you want as long as no one is listening. When others gather around to hear what you have to say, those in power lend an ear to hear if their power is being threatened. And it was. In particular, Gurley attacked the local employment agencies. These agents were in cahoots with various lumber and logging companies to hire migrant workers for a week or so, charge them a finder’s fee for the job, split the fee between the agency and the company, fire the worker after a week, and hire a new sucker. Not only did Gurley criticize this, she set up her soapbox in front of the three most prominent employment agencies and criticized them to their faces. The migrant workers, hearing how the scam worked, hesitated at the doors of the employment agencies.
The second thing Gurley did was attack the soldiers from Fort Missoula. They walked past during one of her speeches. She accused them of being hired thugs for corporate interests. They went to city leaders and threatened to “clean out the whole bunch” of Wobblies. The sheriff intervened to keep the peace.
The peace didn’t last for long.
Under pressure from employment agencies and local industry leaders, the City Council passed an ordinance restricting free speech. Three Wobblies—including Gurley’s husband, Jack Jones—were arrested. A fourth man who wasn’t a Wobblie was also arrested. A guy named Herman Tucker was working in the U.S. Forestry Department office upstairs from the soapbox when one of the Wobblies was pinched for reading the Declaration of Independence. Tucker was so incensed at the Missoula police that he came downstairs, got on the stage, picked up the copy of the Declaration that the Wobblie had dropped, and started reading where the last guy left off. Tucker went to jail with the rest of them.
At this point, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and her fellow Wobblies developed a strategy that they would employ in free speech battles throughout the western US for the next decade. They put out word for all “foot-loose rebels to come at once” and aid in the fight for free speech. Loggers, miners, migrant workers, and other activists hopped on trains from all over the country (though mostly from Butte and Spokane) to join the orators in Missoula. Gurley picked several spots throughout the town’s business district and sent speakers to all of them. The sheriff and his men chased them all down and nabbed them. When one speaker got arrested, the next one took his place. The Wobblies were careful to give their speeches before dinner time at the jail so the City would be forced to foot the bill for feeding them. The City, for their part, made sure to release the Wobblies before breakfast time.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was arrested at this time. For some reason (perhaps because she was so young, famous, and pregnant), she wasn’t housed with the other inmates. She demanded a jury trial. Charges were dropped. This triggered the next step in the rebellion. When speakers were arrested, they started demanding jury trials. This meant that the City would have to foot the bill to prosecute dozens of “disturbing the peace” cases. They’d have to populate dozens of juries. The activists added to this problem by refusing to leave jail—even when the jailors tried to kick them out—until their trials. Suddenly, the City had to foot the bill for housing and feeding these protestors.
Meanwhile, the Wobblies kept up their speeches. Before long, the Missoula jail was overcrowded. Speakers were imprisoned in the basement of a downtown building. The Wobblies, never a quiet group, spent so much time in jail singing, arguing, yelling out the window, and generally raising a ruckus that local businesses started pressuring City officials to resolve the situation. The mayor first tried diplomacy. He sent the chief of police to meet with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. He offered to stop harassing the speakers provided they just stay off a couple of downtown streets. The Wobblies refused. They had the City against the ropes. There was no reason to back off. The next day, city officials gave up. All of the charges were dropped. The orators were all released. The Wobblies were able to continue speaking and organizing.
This became the pattern for larger free-speech fights in a handful of cities from San Diego to Spokane. A whole host of anti-free-speech ordinances were defeated. Workers were able to organize to bring about social changes that built the American middle class: the eight-hour workday, the five-day work week, employer-sponsored health care, minimum wage, child labor laws, overtime compensation, Social Security, equal rights for women and minorities in the workplace, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining, employer-sponsored pension plans, etc.
Perhaps this is why, when we study American history in high school, we all spend so much time studying Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Wobblies, and the freedoms that unions have earned for us. Perhaps this is why, when we talk about heroes who have fought for our freedom, we talk about activists like Gurley and the twenty-four San Luis Obispans who showed up at the county supervisors’ meeting. Perhaps this is why I always see bumper stickers that say, “If you value your freedom, thank a protestor.”
Okay, maybe I’m being a little facetious with that last paragraph.
I do want to take a few seconds, though, to recognize that sometimes activism does work. Sometimes, we do affect positive change in our lives. Sometimes it only takes twenty-four people to do it. Sometimes those twenty-four people couldn’t sit down and have a conversation about politics for three minutes without wanting to strangle each other, but if they can recognize when they do agree and focus on that one specific thing, they can get something done.
It’s easy to feel jaded about contemporary politics. It’s okay to feel that way. I look at my whole list of freedoms that American workers earned during the twentieth century, and I can’t ignore that most of those things are being threatened today. It bums me out. I also recognize when cynicism becomes a dead-end street. At those moments, it’s helpful to consider the paths people have blazed out of that cul de sac.
Author’s note: This is the twenty-fifth and final chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #70. For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.
A group of senior citizens out on safari descend on the downtown post office. They wear wide brimmed hats—the same kind Curious George’s keeper wore—and huddle together close. One member of the group is clearly the guide. I can tell because he wears a vest and speaks with authority. He points out the post office mural, which was painted in 1936 by a local artist named Gordon Grant. The ceiling of the post office is about sixteen feet high, and the mural takes up the seven feet of wall from the ceiling down. It shows workers engaged in the various industries that drove the economy of this area back in the thirties: they farm; they pack oranges; they work on oil rigs; they operate machines in factories; they load trucks. “Notice,” the tour guide says, “that all the faces of the workers are exactly the same.”
I look up at the mural. What the tour guide says is true if you discount the fact that most of the faces have different noses, different chins, and different hairlines. The hues of their skin varies, also. The faces do all seem to conform to the artist’s style. The eyes and mouths look pretty similar.
The tour guide adds, “And they’re all looking down.” Which, again, is true if you discount the fact that several of them are looking up.
Perhaps because I’ve spent so much time looking at this mural, I start to really pay attention to the tour guide. I turn my gaze from the mural and to the guide. I notice that all the faces of the senior citizens on safari are not the same. While they do wear big hats that protect them from the sun, their faces differ. Some show that loose elasticity of someone pushing or perhaps even beyond eighty. Some stare intently at the mural. Some don’t regard the mural at all, instead checking out the people in line or the homeless dude camping by the front door. The tour guide doesn’t seem to be looking at the painting. His eyes focus inwardly, on a memorized passage about a mural that he doesn’t bother to glance up and see at all. He has a thin, gray beard, slumped shoulders, arched back, and a round belly. If a cartoonist turned him into a character, the tour guide would likely morph into a tortoise.
He says, “Most of all, you’ll notice that the workers all seem unhappy. This is because the artist, Gordon Grant, was a communist. So all the workers are communists. That’s why they’re so unhappy.”
This makes me want to leave the line and ask the guide a few questions. First, if an artist is a communist, does that mean that everyone he paints becomes a communist, too? When Diego Rivera painted Mussolini, a Klansman, and the Pope in one of his murals, did Mussolini, the Klan, and the Pope all become communist? And what about being communists would make the workers unhappy? My understanding of communism—which comes from having actually read The Communist Manifesto—suggests that, under a communist regime, the workers would share equally in the wealth produced by their labor. Wouldn’t that make them happier than the real farm workers of the thirties who were divorced from the wealth of their production, who were frequently beaten or arrested or starved out for attempting to organize, who were paid wages that either barely allowed them to feed themselves or weren’t enough for them to feed themselves?
I don’t walk over to the tour guide to ask him any of these questions. I just keep listening.
“And how did the town react?” the tour guide asks himself. “Well, this was a Republican town. They were not pleased at all with this socialist painting.”
Again, I want to ask questions. What makes a town Republican? Was there some halcyon past when entire towns agreed on a political standpoint? It seems to me that most people don’t wholly endorse one party or another, but pick and choose based on specific issues and candidates and their limited choices in elections. Was that not the case in the thirties? And what did it mean to be a Republican in the thirties? Did the town stand behind Hoover, despite the fact that his policies were part of the reason the nation was flung into the Great Depression, despite the fact that he called upon McArthur to violently suppress World War I veterans who marched on the White House looking for pay that they’d been promised but never received?
And was Grant a communist or a socialist? I know that communism is a socialist platform in the same way that a square is also a rectangle, but just as not all rectangles are squares, not all socialists are communist. The terms are not interchangeable. Communism has, as one of its principle tenets, the abolition of private property. Socialism is simply a community or government project that seeks to enrich the community without turning a profit. The examples of socialism we could see on this safari, for example, are the post office that we’re standing in, the street that runs in front of it, the park across the street from it, and the city-funded tour that the tour guide is leading. So, when the community railed against socialism, did they rail against the post office itself? Did they rail against the public road that led to the post office? What was their united opposition?
The tour guide chuckles as he describes the sad descent the artist, who ended up committing suicide. When he’s done, he leads the safari out of the post office and onto further points of interest.
My poor wife has to hear me ramble about everything wrong with that tour guide’s thirty-second presentation.
Part of what chaps my ass about this tour guide’s presentation is his total dismissal of the painting. I love that painting. I live downtown. I run the mail order of a non-profit book publisher, so I spend a lot of time mailing books at that post office. A lot of that time is spent standing in line. Which makes sense. I live in a heavily-populated region of an overpopulated world. In a lot of cases, more than one member of the population wants to do that same thing at the same time, in the same place. So we have to wait for others sometimes. It’s no big deal. Still, I greatly appreciate Grant’s mural at the post office. It’s a respite from all the advertising clutter that surrounds me. Instead, here’s a piece of art that gives my thoughts a field to roam around in. I like that the art matches the landscape of my life. I love that it focuses on workers—both men and women—in their daily activities. I wish I lived in a society that supported more of this art. I wish that our public spaces would offer more things like Grant’s mural and fewer things like billboards.
I also love that, if you had the time to stare for hours at this mural, you’d probably come up with different ideas about it than I do. We could talk about our different interpretations. All that I ask is that, unlike the tour guide, you actually look up at the painting before generating your ideas. Art is so much better when you actually look at it.
The other thing that bugged me about the tour guide was how much his presentation mirrors our cultural discourse. He works exactly the way that much of our media works. In short, you have someone who knows very little about the issues he’s presenting, has almost no concern with whether the information has any bearing in fact, uses language that he does not have control over, discusses an issue devoid of the context surrounding the issue, and delivers the information in a way that is needlessly simplistic. And, like the rest of the safari, we spend too little time asking questions about the information. Instead, we tend to either accept it because it’s easier to accept the opinions of others than to do the research necessary to form our own opinions, or we get frustrated that so much of our information is delivered by dubious presenters like the tour guide, so we largely tune out. In both cases, we lose opportunities to understand our world better. It’s a shame.
After leaving the post office, my wife and I head into downtown. The safari is now at the corner of Chestnut and Main. The tour guide points at the old downtown theater building. He’s too far away for me to hear what he’s saying, which is lucky for my wife, because that means she won’t have to hear my rebuttal. Our former neighbor Shirley is on a collision course with the group. Shirley lived in the section eight housing that was next to the first apartment my wife and I shared here. She’s crazy. She has some sort of dissociative disorder. Some days, we could hear Shirley screaming at her empty apartment, using the voice of an angry older male. Sometimes, she would pace up and down the stairs, talking to herself in another voice. Sometimes, she sat on the steps and talked like a very young girl. We lived next to Shirley long enough for me to recognize five or six distinct voices she used. One of those voices was of sane Shirley. I’d frequently chat with sane Shirley. Nothing too specific. Just the typical neighbor chat: stuff about the weather or day-to-day activities. One time, she baked me cookies.
Shirley approaches the safari. It’s clear she’s out of it. I can tell by the way she’s charging toward the group like she might sack the tour guide. My wife and I get closer. Shirley charges past the group, then stops to wait for the traffic light. The group heads east toward the library. My wife and I cross Main. Shirley doesn’t recognize us. She doesn’t even react to me when I wave to her. Instead, she cocks her hips and waves her hand at the traffic light with the type of flourish a model uses at a car show. She talks about the traffic light. I can’t make out what she’s saying, but I recognize her teenage girl voice.
We end up following Shirley for a couple of blocks. She keeps up her routine, flourishing her hand at points of interest downtown in her own dissociative mimicry of the tour guide. She points out benches, an ATM machine, an Italian restaurant, a white lady in yoga pants who’s walking a dog. I can’t make out a word Shirley is saying. Still, I think she’s so much better at this than the tour guide.
Author’s note: This is the twenty-fourth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #63. For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.
A few weeks ago, an old buddy of mine from my undergraduate days at Florida State University rolled through town. He told me he was coming ahead of time. We made plans to grab a burger and a beer at the local brew pub. I knew there would be some problems, largest among them the fact that people who are my age are getting old, which I cannot understand because I’m staying the same age. And this buddy, I’ll call him Dane—because that’s his name and he doesn’t read Razorcake anyway—has belly-flopped into middle age. Suburban home. SUV with a McCain/Palin sticker still on it. Christmas cards with pictures of his kids on them. Kids named Hunter and Aspen. He has a hairline that looks like the toilet seat in a public restroom and a belly that rubs the finish off the bottom of his belt buckle. He’s gonna hate me if he ever reads this. Still, when I see him, I have to squint real hard to see the guy who, when I knew him, was living with his girlfriend, started having an affair with her best friend (who, not-so-incidentally lived with them), completely fell for the best friend, and moved his stuff into her bedroom (two doors down the hall). As you may have guessed, neither girlfriend became the mother of Hunter or Aspen.
As you may not have guessed, it was good to see Dane. We shared some stories that I love to relive through the retelling. He told me about what some of our old friends are up to. I told him about old friends he’d lost touch with. The beer was good. I gave him no shit about ordering a salad and much shit about his bald noggin. He tried to come back at me with some crack about my gray hair and couldn’t figure out if I was serious or not when I told him I die it that color. We talked about politics and it didn’t matter that we were on opposite ends of the spectrum because the world’s not gonna change the way I want it to and he doesn’t act on his political beliefs, anyway. And then he pushed my buttons.
He said, “Are you still doing that magazine? What was it? Razorcookies?
“Kinda,” I said. “I still write a column for it.”
“But you’re not the guy anymore? What did you do? Sell it?”
It took a while for me to explain to him that, yes, ten years ago I moved out to California to help start the magazine and that, for four years, I did half of the work on it: editing; proofreading; working with writers, artists, photographers, bands, and labels; laying out columns and interviews; adjusting the resolution of photos so they’d look okay in newsprint; wrestling with distributors; mailing subscriptions; dropping the originals off at the printer and picking up the thousands of copies in a truck; loading and unloading them; so on and so forth. There are even a couple of early issues where, if you look real closely, you’ll see that I wrote about a third of the content. For the next few years of the zine, I gradually backed off. I did a little less and a little less until I now only write a column. Amazingly, volunteers have come along to take up all the slack I left. In fact, volunteers now do almost everything that Todd and I used to do in that ratty old Razorcake HQ of old. I told him that I was never the guy and the magazine was never mine. That Todd and I had started it together, so technically, the two of us would’ve been the guys. But we never were. Even from the first meeting, it was way bigger than me and Todd.
Dane got hung up on a few points. How could we have volunteers? Who got paid? Who made the money off it? He was particularly pissed off that I didn’t sell “my half” of the ‘zine to Todd. He kept asking me what would happen if the magazine got big. “Like Rolling Stone big” were his exact words. What kind of money would I be entitled to? He looked at me like I was retarded for never getting paid money for my labor, for not holding on to some sort of future entitlement to money. He thought the whole idea of a not-for-profit magazine sounded vaguely socialist. I’m pretty sure Dane, like most Americans, doesn’t really know what the word socialist means.
Dane is not the first person I’ve had this conversation with. I could kinda see where it was going. And, sure enough, he said, “Anyway, at least you finally joined the real world.”
This statement, this sense of the “real world,” is what gets me worse than anything. I did the only thing I knew to do. I pointed to the pub TV, which was tuned to ESPN, and said, “What do you think about ol’ Jimbo Fisher.” Because Florida State alumni will always be willing to talk about Florida State football. And this is the real reason I pay attention to football at all: so I can have something to change the subject to when I get stuck in situations like this.
I guess I should be vaguely pleased that a someone like Dane would acknowledge my job—teaching literature at a state university—as real. Most people of his ilk see English as a waste of time. The fact that most people of Dane’s ilk are functionally illiterate doesn’t seem to matter to them. Though, in fairness to Dane, he’s not functionally illiterate. I’m projecting characteristics of others with whom I’ve had similar conversations onto him. Either way, I know that what I teach has nothing to do with his definition of real. I know that the only thing that makes my job real to him is the fact it pays me a middle-class salary and it’s a job middle-class people can understand as being middle-class. And middle-class, to him, is the real world.
This magazine, on the other hand, is somehow unreal. I mean, obviously it’s real. You’re holding real paper in your hand as you read this. That’s real newsprint ink sticking to your real fingers. It’s as real as the crap you’re taking while you read this. And this magazine was even legitimated—not by Dane but by others with whom I’ve had this “real” conversation—by being sold in Barnes & Noble. But the situations that allow this magazine to become reality are unreal. Volunteers. Community. Not-for-profits. Twenty-first century punk rock. If I’m to understand Dane, these are not part of the real world.
When I explained the reality of Todd to Dane, things became even more unreal. How could a man in his late thirties spend all his time in his basement, running a magazine that has no aspirations to make big-time money? How is he going to retire? How can he raise a family when he’s doing that? When is he gonna join the real world?
And this is what is so difficult for me: that even now, even among my friends, I’m still being sold only one way of life. It was bad when our parents were telling us that we had to grow up, go to college, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, work for a company for forty years, and retire with a pension. It’s worse when you’ve already grown up and your friends, the very same people who rebelled with you in your youth, are telling you the same thing. It’s even more ridiculous when we look at a world where some of those things cease to be an option. Buying a house may have been a good idea once upon a time. It may be a good idea again sometime in the future. But right now, putting down on a mortgage that’s gonna cost twice as much as rent for the same place, just so I can own it when I get to be in my seventies is a little ridiculous. Working for a company for forty years—dull as that may have been for our grandparents’ generation—isn’t really even an option for our parents. No company keeps their employees that long. When your salary gets too high, they lay you off and hire someone who’ll work for less. And there are no pensions anymore. I mean, there are. I’m paying into one. I’m just not so naïve as to believe I’ll get any money back out of it. And the alternative, something like a 401K, seems like even more of a sucker’s deal to me. I don’t believe for a second that, if you let Wall Street handle your retirement, you’ll be able to retire. That seems the ultimate unreality to me.
So I think of Dane and his real world seems a fantasy to me. He thinks he owns a home, but he doesn’t own it. The bank does. They will until at least 2030 or so. He thinks he drives an SUV. There’s no sports. There’s not much utility. It’s just a station wagon with a high roof and an effective ad campaign. He thinks he lives in the real world, yet most of his free time is spent watching television or playing around on the internet, which are both modes of escape out of the real world. Nearly everything about Dane’s life is a fantasy he’s bought into. Even his name is a fantasy. He’s not Danish. Even his son’s name is a fantasy. Dane isn’t gonna take Hunter hunting.
And it’s not that I’m trying to make myself feel superior to Dane. My name is a fantasy, too. Sean is as Irish as they come, and I’m not Irish at all. My life is not much more rooted in reality. I spend most of my time reading fiction and teaching about fiction. Everything about my life is about making sense of the fictions that surround us. So I’m not trying to get on a high horse. I just think about where Dane and I met in the first place, which was a creative writing class. I remember Dane writing hilarious short stories. He’s embarrassed about that now. And I think of him rejecting a world of creativity and self-expression so he can hole up in some corporate marketing twat’s mundane fantasy version of a reality… Which is fine. He can make his choices. But I think of it and what makes me most upset is not that he gave up his own creative outlets to do it. It’s not even that Dane thinks Todd is somehow unreal because Todd never gave up his creative outlets.
What makes me most upset is even the possibility that I’ve somehow entered this world of reality with Dane.
Author’s note: This is the twenty-third chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #61. For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.
I headed west on Sunset Boulevard, straight into the heart of Beverly Hills. The motor on my truck’s air-conditioner had just gone. I needed some music that would sound good through the rush of air and the roar of traffic, so I popped in a Banner Pilot CD. Banner Pilot—with all their songs of working shitty jobs, getting drunk, going nowhere, not really knowing where to look to go, even—in Beverly Hills. It’s an odd combination. Two weeks earlier, I’d seen Banner Pilot play, well, not exactly in Beverly Hills, but at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, and if you stand in front of the Troubadour and sneeze in a westerly direction, your spit will land in Beverly Hills. And the thought of me—with all my stories about working shitty jobs, getting drunk, going nowhere, not really knowing where to look to go, even—in Beverly Hills, twice in two weeks, it’s even more odd.
So what was I doing there this second time? I’d met up in Hollywood with Jim Ruland, talked about books, picked up a couple of novels at Book Soup, then headed west to the freeway that would take me home. A woman in a very expensive car with a very expensive haircut tailgaited me, whipped around me, offered her middle finger for my viewing pleasure, then sped off. Her bumper sticker read, “I save lives, what do you do?”
I hadn’t really done anything to incur the wrath of her middle finger besides drive through Beverly Hills in my old pickup. I didn’t care about that woman or her finger anyway. Banner Pilot’s song “Skeleton Key” came on. I turned it up and sang along.
I like this song because it tells the story of the novel that the songwriter, Nick, wants to write. It opens with a woman who’s beaten down by the weather and a man who stumbles out of a bar. It’s a beautiful scene, but it’s all he has. He doesn’t know how it’ll all play out but he knows that, in the end, she’ll save him and herself. I love that idea of a novel that’s only an opening scene and an ending, no more than a hundred words spent on it. As I drove through Beverly Hills, singing along and thinking about novels, I thought, I could write that book for Nick. I know what it’s like to stumble out of bars and ally myself with beaten-down girls in a search for redemption. The song swears that it would have to take place in Minneapolis, but if I were to write it, it would have to take place in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Because that’s where I know about being lost like that. And thinking these thoughts, it occurred to me that I wrote this novel already. I called it Train Wreck Girl. It came out a couple of years ago on Manic D Press.
I kept thinking about Banner Pilot and books, though, because there’s something kinda literary about them. At the end of side A of their album Resignation Day, they sample a Jack Kerouac reading. This mirrors the sample of Kerouac at the end of side A on Jawbreaker’s 24-Hour Revenge Therapy. I like Banner Pilot’s sample better. Jawbreaker samples passages from Kerouac’s “October in the Railroad Earth.” Lonely, self-absorbed passages that match the lonely, self-absorbed songs of Jawbreaker: “the clarity of Cal to break your heart.” Banner Pilot samples passages from The Subterraneans, from the part of the book where everything goes right before everything goes wrong: “a tableful of beers a few that is and all the gang’s cutting in and out… the booming drums, the high ceiling.” This sense of things going right before they go wrong is part of what I like about Banner Pilot’s songs. Though Nick writes the songs, they remind of the stories Banner Pilot bassist Nate used to write in his zine Pick Your Poison. Stories about working shitty jobs, getting drunk, going nowhere, not really knowing where to look to go, even. And, of course, there’s Kerouac to think about, with all of his stories about working shitty jobs, getting drunk, etc.
So there I was in Beverly Hills—a city where nothing of value is produced, a city known only for its spectacle of opulence—once again thinking about class in America, thinking about one more lost generation and where it all comes from and what it adds up to. I’ve been reading these stories and singing along to these songs for more than twenty years, for more than half of my life. I’ve been writing them for about as long. Between my two trips to Beverly Hills, I even went to Flagstaff for the book release of James Jay’s The Journeymen. It’s a book of poetry about working shitty jobs, getting drunk, etc. His reading could be nowhere else but in a bar. It was packed with people who lived the lives that James Jay put into poetry. It was one of those unique literary events where the crowd spent almost as much time laughing, hooting, and hollering as James Jay spent reading, one of those unique events where this kind of behavior is welcome. Even encouraged.
With all this in the last two weeks, I drove home among the rustle and roar of the L.A. freeways wondering what conclusions I could draw from more than twenty years of reading novels and listening to songs about working shitty jobs, getting drunk, etc. Here’s what I came up with.
The first question I asked was: what’s behind all these shitty jobs? Of course, there’s the system of neoliberal capitalism and all that, but I want to stay focused on a topic small enough for this column. One of the books I’ve read recently that can help answer this question is Iain Levison’s How to Rob an Armored Car. It tells the story of three guys—a manager at a Wal-Mart-type store, a cook in a corporate restaurant, and a dogwalker—who decide to enter into a life of crime. The emptiness and futility of the two corporate jobs are familiar to most Razorcake readers. What’s interesting about the book is the dogwalker because he has dipped his toes into the American dream. He has a bachelor’s degree, a wife, a child, a house with a mortgage, his own business, everything he’s supposed to have. It all feels empty and insufficient to him. As I read the book, it was easy for me to root for these guys. I hoped they would take the step of getting away from the TV and actually rob an armored car. Because a quick survey of their options showed that life in twenty-first-century America can be empty and meaningless and there can be reasons for throwing it all away. Not that I want to throw it all away. I don’t. I just want to understand why throwing it all away is understandable.
This is why the dogwalker was interesting to me. I recognize his relationship with money because, like him, most of my money is spent on getting by rather than on exciting purchases. I earn enough to pay my bills because I want a roof over my head and water in my pipes and electricity for the computer and record player and light at night. I don’t buy much beyond that. But most jobs are only worth the ridiculous hours and chronic humiliation if you make enough money to buy shit that makes you happy. And most shit that I could buy doesn’t make me happy. I get exhausted thinking about all the things I don’t want to buy and don’t even want in my house. Here’s a short list: a cell phone, a digital camera, a new car, a suburban house, insurance, bottled water, a diamond ring, any kind of jewelry, anything that’s advertised during a football game, a blackberry, a meal at a corporate restaurant, a soda, new shoes, furniture, window treatments, clothing with logos on it, disposable cleaning products, anything sold at any big box store, anything for sale at my local mall, or anything else, really, except for a new air-conditioning motor for my truck so I can go back to traveling the freeways of L.A. bourgy-style.
So, if you’re not someone who likes to buy the poorly-made, largely disposable goods that drive our economy, if you’re someone who has learned that the purchase of nearly every item gives you a brief jolt of happiness followed by at best empty clutter and at worst crippling debt, then your typical job is unsatisfying and you may as well work a job that covers only the bare minimum. Whether we’ve articulated it this way or not, I think a lot of us has recognized this. Hence, the second part of the familiar plot: getting drunk.
But this is a real problem. For so many of us, the punishments of society (anywhere from being broke and eating Top Ramen to being homeless or in jail or carrying a lot of debt) are real, but the rewards (a bluetooth, leather car seats) aren’t rewarding. I wouldn’t want a house in Beverly Hills even if I could afford it. My neighbors would be assholes. I prefer the junky who lives next door now. He may blast heavy metal so loudly that I have to leave my apartment until he’s done, but he’s not all bad. Sometimes he plays the Misfits.
Beyond leading us to getting drunk, this relationship with work and money also leads us to that feeling of being lost and not knowing where to go. There’s no real easy answers to this one. It’s not easy to find what you’re looking for when you’re not even sure what it is. I don’t want to offer platitudes like be true to yourself or find something you love and pursue it. Going from lost to found is difficult, and it’s different for everyone. You have to figure it out for yourself. One way to figure it out is to write stories or songs. Another way is to listen to these stories and songs and decide what works for you and what doesn’t.
For me, luckily I don’t feel so lost any more. I have a pretty good job. It may not be perfect. I may not make a huge salary, but I only work thirty-two weeks a year. When I am at work, I feel like I’m doing some good for society. When I’m not at work, I can do the things that make for a richer life: hang out with friends, spend time with family, write, surf, ride my bike or my skateboard, volunteer for causes I believe in. It’s not for everyone, but, for me, it’s not bad. It beats being a stressed out asshole flipping off people on Sunset Boulevard or robbing an armored car, anyway.
Author’s note: This is the twenty-second chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #58. For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.