Thursday, December 8, 2011

Author's Note

Author’s Note

Both of these pieces are part of a larger project I’ve taken to calling Old Hippie in Training. Earlier this year, I racked my brain for stories, knowing I’d have to write them up in the near future. I kept on coming back to my experiences with, well, old hippies. I realized how much they had influenced me and that some of the most important knowledge I’ve gathered over the years came directly from them.
The first piece deals with one of the few remaining bastions aged hippie community, what one Village Voice comic called “The American Association of Retired Potheads,” the bizarre world of #9, a building inhabited by a man I’m calling Willard Deal. The piece deals with an issue I’ve always dealt with, and something I consider a defining characteristic of the so-called information age. Ours is a time when we pick and choose historical trends at will, whipping them up together stripped of all contexts. There are moments when I really don’t know where I am chronologically. At #9, time stood still. It’s so easy to get lost in history when one loses their frame of reference. It isn’t until a cell phone goes off or a video off YouTube is casually mentioned in conversation that you’re reminded what present day even is. Let’s face it, when we talk about modern art, we’re talking about something that happened a century ago. We’re living in the future, and it’s a mind-fuck.
The second piece, “Make More” deals with the emotional toll of intergenerational, mentor/protégé relationships. My good friend Mayer, who taught me how to copyedit, how to write news stories, and so much more is just as flawed as he is brilliant. He was also a major point of contention between me and “Willard”. Depressed since the late 70s, and unable to breathe properly since the early 90s, Mayer deteriorated into a serious alcoholic and addict. Often using the refrain “codependent and proud of it,” he insisted that those closest to him not only enable his vices, but enable his depression. Between moments of pure human misery, though, his genius shined through. That’s what kept me coming back, kept me running his errands, and listening to his stories: a nearly-complete oral history of the Yippie movement as well as forty-plus years working in the underground and mainstream press. In both stories, time stands still. I didn’t plan this, but through the editing process it became clear that time is at the center of these stories. It may seem obvious now, but so does all of the past.
There are other stories and other old hippies who I’m seriously gun-ho about documenting. The world keeps changing, they grow even older, and a lot are dying out. I have no grand illusions about preserving their legacies, all of these people are public figures anyway, but still I feel obliged enough to write these stories.

-          December, 2011, NYC  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

“Anarcho-Punk” Swims Most of E. River, Returns Naked, Filthy

“Anarcho-Punk” Swims Most of E. River, Returns Naked, Filthy


            A self-professed “Anarcho-punk” skinny dipped the majority of the East River on Friday. He told the Associated Press he “did it for punk rock.”
Following the monthly environmental protest bike ride Critical Mass, numerous participants gathered by the rocks of Socrates Sculpture Park in a post ride party. Apparently, a number of which opted to strip naked and take a swim in the river. “I saw like maybe ten dudes and a couple girls too, they all got naked and jumped in the water.” said Billy Beer, a 28 year old Critical Mass rider and “revolutionary.” “I said to my friend, dude, we gotta go see what this is all about. It was cool, it’s really bad ass if you think about it, that water is, well it’s pretty gross.”
One swimmer, who was only identified as Jon decided to see if he could make it from the banks of Socrates to nearby Roosevelt Island. “He was just sort of sitting there hanging out when me and a friend or two came over to him. I think he could have been on something because he was really staring at that water.” Said Danielle “Tiny Fists” Rivera, “and all of a sudden we see these people jumping in the river, and we figure, ‘hey Jon’s wasted, I bet he’d do it.’ We said, ‘hey - do it for punk rock!’”
He reportedly swam out towards Roosevelt Island but did turn around once it became clear the currents could prove dangerous. “Actually there was a minute we thought the whole Hell’s Gate currents would take him,” said Harvey Stevens, 29, who calls himself a nomad tattooist “I’ve seen some crazy shit in my time but that guy is always taking it to the next level. When he got out of the river ass naked he was covered in some sludge man! Who the hell knows what kinda Ninja Turtles ooze is up in that water. If he goes and like grows another arm and shit, you’ll know why.”
Critical Mass bike rides occur on the last Friday of every month. They are a protest against petroleum and in favor of more bicycle travel. Riders stop traffic along their root from Union Square to a different location each week. Critics of the Iraq War are prevalent in the protests and draw a connection between our dependence on oil and the 2003 invasion. Time’s Up, the environmental organization based in the Lower East Side which sponsors Critical Mass said in a statement that they did not sponsor the after party. “I guess people are free to do whatever they want in a safe environment, though. But seriously, what 3,000 people participated in that ride in a show that bikes are in fact traffic. We’ve got wars for oil going on; ending war means ending the oil economy and Friday’s ride was one of our most successful in years.” Said Bill DePalo, the founder of the organization. “Punk rockers are going to do some outrageous stuff, good for them.”
Jon, sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park said he had some recollection of the event on Friday but that the idea that he’d commit a stunt such as swimming in the river is completely viable. “Look, I may have been tripping… I guess sometimes I let things get out of hand, but hey, up the punks right?”
Asked if he’d ever do it again he laughed. “Next month I think the ride is ending in Brooklyn Bridge Park, let’s see what happens.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tompkins Square Riot, 1988 (photo by Clayton Patterson)

                This photo was captured by Clayton Patterson, the Lower East Side’s hometown historian and archivist. In 1988, the NYPD covered their badges and violently attacked the denizens of Tompkins Square, which had throughout the 80s developed into a tent city. The Reagan years saw a massive rise in homelessness, and Hoovervilles like the one in Tompkins had popped up around the country. But Tompkins was a special place. It was the nucleus of a community filled with radicals, squatters, artists and activists. Some likened Tompkins and the squats to a modern day Paris commune.
                In August of 1988, the riots lasted for several days. The cops were brutal, beating on neighborhood people and protestors alike. It was clear on whose behalf the NYPD was working: the real estate speculators and developers who had swarmed on the neighborhood like KBR on post-invasion Baghdad. For a few days, the people who actually live in this city rose up against City Hall and the developers, the NYPD and the invading Yuppie hordes. In this photo, Clayton puts a red Squatter’s Rights flag front and center. It’s an iconic image, reminiscent of a third world revolution. As my friend and riot instigator, Jerry the Peddler has put it, “the squats owned more land than any progressive movement in history, and owning land is what revolutions are all about.” The unnamed protestor waving this flag stands for the end of an era. Soon after the riots, New York would undergo a mass transformation culminating in Giuliani Time and then the Bloomberg years of slipping wages and rising rents.
                I look at this photo whenever I give up hope that we can take our city back from the robber barons who prosper from our need for a roof over our heads. This is one instance of a true people’s uprising. It’s also just a beautiful picture.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tahrir on the Hudson

            It’s been dubbed “The People’s Mic,” a call and response system devised to circumvent city rules banning amplification devices in parks without a permit. “If you are interested…” belts out one protestor, a woman around 25 wearing a black hoodie, jeans, and thick glasses.
            “If you are interested,” we, the 500 currently occupying Zuccoti Park, answer in turn.
            “In canvassing for tomorrow’s march…”
            “In canvassing for tomorrow’s march…”
            “Please come to the information desk for materials…”
            “Please come to the information desk for materials…” The people’s mic has been used in the general assembly, an experiment in direct democracy ala Athens or Chiapas. We use the mic to carry the voices of speakers. I’ve seen Michael Moore, Nobel Prize winner Joe Stieglitz and even the great pop-philosopher Slavoj Zizek stand up and address the crowd using this genius call and response system. It’s now Week 4 of #occupywallstreet, the world’s first social movement born with a hash-tag. Bucking dismissals by the main stream press and low expectations by a jaded and defeated public, the “other 99%” are still here and no one plans are giving up. Preparations are already underway for winter. For the first time since 2004, when the Republican National Convention invaded our city, there is palpable, organized outrage on the streets. Sitting in Zuccoti, we can feel a movement growing under our feet. Occupations of bankster strongholds are popping up across the country. Here on Wall Street, there’s talk of people leaving to join the fledgling protests in their home towns; Boston, DC, Wilmington, Raleigh Durham, Seattle, LA, even Honolulu! This is growing into a movement and we all understand that it could actually materialize into something revolutionary. Now up to 900 cities worldwide are being occupied. The 99% is making itself known, and that in itself is exceptional.
            But walking through the park, taking part in the marches, we are putting ourselves in harm’s way, and this has become more than apparent: it’s in the red eyes of mace victims and the bandaged night stick wounds on our foreheads. The NYPD which has been conscripted as a private army on the behalf of Jamie Dimon’s JP Morgan-Chase is breaking heads and casting nets. There’s a 24 hour guard standing in front of Dimon’s Park Avenue apartment. Like the Republican National Convention of 2004, we know whose side Ray Kelly and his goon squad are on. They might belong to a union, but they have nonetheless forsaken the working class, they’re defending Wall Street with violence. The more veteran activists in the park all bear scars from previous social movements. Those who have been maced or beaten this time around compare their wounds with those from the Vietnam era, the protests against the WTO in Seattle and Geneva or the RNC. Zuccoti Park is beginning to resemble the Paris commune, as more and more activists are learning the true meaning of political violence. The people’s mic system has been used in nonviolence training and is a tool in rounding up the injured to provide medical care.
            This place is incredible, it’s radicalizing, it’s essential, but will it dismantle corporate greed? The short answer is no. The whole problem goes back to repressive tolerance. As long as we hold onto the park, our issues will be discussed, but at the same time no one here is storming the Bastille (at least yet). The people occupying wall street and public spaces around the world, a mix of longtime activists and newbies; mostly of the left but some even identifying as tea-baggers, are not yet a large scale social movement, they are the roots of one. As beautiful an act the occupation is, like the labor protests in Wisconsin, the billionaires still win at the end of the day. They still go to bed comfortable while activists sleep under tarps and the growing number of homeless sleep in subway tunnels. Not one billionaire’s life has yet been disrupted.
            This is not yet a full blown movement. Zuccoti is a petri dish for democratic action and one day soon a movement will arise out of the encampments. Like any march, demonstration, or direct action, we protest not necessarily to be listened to but to stand up and be counted. Only the most naïve in this park believe that the occupation alone will bring about economic and environmental justice. But, those who have actually slept in the park for a month now, they have injected radicalism back into the body politic, and that in itself is a secular blessing. There’s no place any of us would rather be.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Demetria Martinez' "The Things they Carried"

                I’ve always been fascinated with the immigrant experience. I live with immigrants, am engaged to an immigrant, all of my neighbors are from someplace else be it Mexico, Croatia, or Egypt (to name a few). Depending on what part of the world they come from they’ve either been welcomed with open arms or chased away be the xenophobic hordes that lack the most basic sense of history. Either way, our society is dependent on immigrants be it to do the work too degrading for “Americans” to do themselves or to simply replenish the country’s wealth of knowledge because we’re getting dumber and dumber every year.
                Demetria Martinez’ Inherit the Earth / The Things they Carried speaks of a particularly dark facet of the American experience: people crossing the unforgiving US/Mexico border in search of something better. But unlike many who seek to reduce the horrors of this type of immigrant experience to a sentimental story of poor but noble and hardworking people, Martinez grabs the nuance of the story head on. “To speak of an immigrant’s plight only in terms of desperation fails to honor his or her full humanity. Of course there is desperation; everywhere it uproots and drives masses across boarders in swelling numbers.” In other words, there is a larger story: there are forces much larger than any individual at work forcing people to leave their homes to take bad jobs from a country that hates them. Everything from climate change to narco-violence to neoliberal structural adjustment policies have uprooted people and forced them here.
                Too often, the immigrant experience is over- mythologized. In The Things they Carried, we’re forced to remember that individual human beings were forced into becoming nothing but statistics. Martinez’s lists of items they carried and dropped in the desert show the banality of suffering. This piece serves as a testament to a harsh reality: people are risking their lives to cross the border. We can’t forget the dead, for once we do, and we too will have lost yet another piece of our collective humanity.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Pulaski

Jon Spiegler

                We’re looking at the graffiti written on the guard rails between us and the “creek,” a sludgy mix of sewage, toxic runoff, and fresh water. It’s mostly written in sharpie, though one guy seemed to have used his key. TITO ‘N NENA 4EVA.
One schmuck, using a fine tipped sharpie wrote out some terrible poetic verse, something about the sunset and “her” eyes. I turn around and look out at either direction, the cyclists coming from one direction, the Polish grandmother from the other. She’s wearing a scowl on her face. She hates the kids who took over her neighborhood and I don’t blame her. More than anything she hates dodging bikes.
 I turn back and look out forward, squinting my eyes because the sun is getting ready to set and therefore bright as all hell. A cool breeze hits my face and blows the ash off my cigarette. This is one of the few places I can relax, suspended over the “water” and essentially floating in the air. I’m looking at the hospital I was born in from our bench, this amalgamation of wooden blocks that make for a clever seating arrangement. This is the Brooklyn/Queens version of a Lover’s Lane, I guess. You never really see anyone but couples on this bench, and besides that hipster poet, no one but couples are really marking up the railings. There’s BRAD AND ASHLEY for LIFE! There’s ANNIE AND JACKIE 2010… The surface under our feet begins to shake, there’s a tug boat coming from behind us, the horn cuts through you like a knife, we were so accustomed to the quiet white noise of cars and bikes zooming past us while we just sat, had a smoke, and took in the view. I take out my sharpie and think of what to write.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Make More

This is the vignette due on Thursday. I figured I'd put it up the second I finished it just for the hell of it. This story is true, the names have been changed of peripheral characters who are still very much alive and cognizant, unlike my subject who's only technically living.

Make More

“Make more,” said Mayer [Mayo Vish-nugh] as he tapped the bong with his shaky hand. I’d bought it for him one Christmas after he cracked the very expensive vaporizer I’d bought him. It was a shatter proof purple plastic with an ergonomic pistol grip design, impossible for him to break. “Make more, Jon.”
I grabbed a nugget off the quarter pound that sat piled on top of a back issue of WIN Magazine and packed it into the bowl. I lit the thing and let the smoke collect before passing it over. “Here, man… you were talking about Tom Forcade right when he was raising the money for High Times.
“Yeah, well we had umm, passed the pinnacle of our relationship… already starting to not get along. He trusted me a lot more than I did him, and he didn’t mind. He didn’t care about honesty. If he needed something from you he’d say anything and then turn around when he couldn’t come through and say ‘yeah, man, I lied.’ Well he uh, he was just a dealer then, or at least more than anything. And he rang me up at my storefront on 6th street and Avenue A and he, uhh, asked me to come over to this office he’d rented off of Union Square. When I got there he offered me a job as the managing editor for his ‘new magazine.’ I laughed him off and said ‘are you kidding me, man? I have a 25 dollar a week job managing a magazine with a 50,000 a month circulation and I’m gonna go and work for a Playboy rip-off about pot?’” He stopped to slap his knee and then shake his head and look down at his feet. “I’ve never been known for making the best predictions.”
“What did you call Springsteen?”
“Oh… uh, too frantic... At his New York City debut... Upstairs at Max’s Kansas City. I said he wouldn’t last.” He laughed again and looked up at the ceiling this time. “Yeah, well I laughed at the guy, Forcade…” He took his palm off the top of the bong which had miraculously stayed full of smoke. He raised his fist to the ceiling while he held the smoke in and then let the smoke out in a furious wet cough attributable to COPD. I grabbed his Advair off the table and handed it to him, taking the pipe with my other hand it putting it safely back on the table, far out of flailing distance. The bowl was already nothing but ash. “Jon, make more.”
It was a recent development that Mayer couldn’t light his own bong. For an old hippy, who’d lost most of his friends, his career and liver function; this was a final cruel insult. I hated the idea that one of the man’s few remaining joys was slipping away from him. Never the neat freak, he’d stooped to a new low: he’d only used the shower in the corner of his kitchen as urinal for the past few months and the whole place had therefore taken on a thick amonia smell. Compounded with the still bong water in the bottom of the sink, the smell smacked you in the face and held onto your clothes on the train ride home. His long yet pattern bald grey hair was starting to dread. He’d been wearing the same off-white Greenthumb T-shirt for a week, tucked into piss stained tighty-whities. His stomach was distended. His five oclock shadow was developing into a beard. The circles under his eyes took up a third of his face. The shaking was getting so violent that it necessitated his closest friends to meet one night at Veselka to come up with a schedule, ensuring he never spent a whole day unattended. We jokingly called the meeting our “Borscht Summit.” My days had become packed with errands. When I worked the night shift it was farmer’s market at 10, community garden to water the plot at 11, eggplant pizza from Arturo’s at 12:30, pick up his many prescriptions of benzos, antidepressants and inhalers from the drug store on Bleecker. I’d spend a few hours hanging out in his cramped apartment on MacDougal Street and then go to work stoned and already exhausted. This particular day I had off and didn’t have any plans until a little before midnight. I was content to sit in the kitchen and watch MSNBC until it was time to go. We were drinking fresh apple cider I’d just picked up in Union Square, his spiked with Stolichnaya. He’d been telling his greatest hits all day, in slightly higher spirits than usual; this is to say far enough from catatonic to entertain company. The place wasn’t looking too awful either, at least by Mayer standards. The week before he’d blacked out and “trashed” the apartment. I figured Elaine (one of the participants in our Borscht Summit at Veselka) had cleaned up as best she could. She had offered herself up to do the lion’s share of the cleaning, [historically] having the most intimate relationship with him, she had a way of moving the mounds of trash, papers, and laundry Mayer would generally protect with his body that would shame the most seasoned hoarding expert.  I “made more” in the pipe and repeated the process. “The place looks good,” I said to him with only a twinge of sarcasm.
“I think Elaine came over… my laundry’s done.”
“I did it.”
“Oh… Well I guess she packed it in the bag. I, uhh, don’t remember. You’ve been over here…”
“Since two. I worked the morning shift today.”
“Yeah, man. What time is it now?”
“7:30, the second Hardball. What, you want me to leave?”
“Not yet. I need you to look at something” He extended his hand, trembling wildly. “Help me up.” Once Mayer was on his feet he made it way past me, past the shower and into his bedroom. There had at one time been a wall between the kitchen and bedroom but the landlord and Don, the third member of the Borscht Summit, had demolished it in the 1980s when Mayer was living in LA, “turning around” the LA Weekly. All that was left was the frame. Though it was initially to open the tenement apartment up, it wound up suiting the retired alcoholic perfectly twenty five years later. The open space made for a perfect view of the TV from his preferred perch in the kitchen. Mayer sorted through papers stuffed into his underwear drawer and produced a Xeroxed packet held together with a binding clip. “I want you to read this... Then I want you to tell me your honest reaction.” He came back over, using the wall for support and dropped the paper on my lap, pivoting off my chair and back into his seat.
Anita and the Blowup Doll” I read out loud.
“By Paul [Krasner]…”
“Anita Hoffman?”
“Abbie’s first wife.”  
“I’ve read this before.”
“What did you think?”
“Are you asking me to kill you?”
“Then why the fuck did you just give me this?”
“Because I want you to be there... like Paul did for Anita.”
“She had cancer.”
“And I’m dying too,” tears welled up in his eyes. “I’m in just as much pain...”
“This isn’t legal, man.”
“Neither is the pot... make more,” he pushed the bong over to me and I packed it and lit it for him. I went one toke over the line and signaled that I was done smoking for the time being. “As you can see, things are falling apart over here.” I looked over at the wall behind Mayer, it was stained yellow like his underwear. Paint was peeling off the walls. An old clock was hanging onto a nail for its dear life, waiting to fall, yet another milestone in the decline of a brilliant man.
“It does smell like shit in here...” That’s all I really could say.
“Thanks, Jon.” Mayer stood up and reached over to his pantry next to the stove which was packed with vintage health food and bochilized cans of tomato sauce. He grabbed a massive bottle of aspirin and chucked it onto my lap. “I’m not ready yet... that’s why I bought this bottle as opposed to the travel size. But I want you to keep this in mind. I’ll finish these eventually.”
“So the aspirin is some sort of... you go when the pills go?”
“Something like that,” he sighed, resigned to the fact that he’d keep living a while longer. “You wanna stay a little longer?”
“Is this some sort of test of loyalty?”
“To see if I’ll stand by you until the end.”
“What if I said no?”
“Wait before you do.”
“Fuck you man, I’ll have to live with this. Not you.”
“I’m tired, Jon.”
The cramped tenement apartment was morphing into a prison cell. The smell was getting overwhelming.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why I Write

I’ve always been writing. It’s the way I process information, it’s the way I organize my head. I love the written word the way some love their god[s]. It’s the linchpin of human history, it’s helped define us. These days it’s under attack, or transitioning, or collapsing on itself (depending on who you ask). All I know is it’s never been easy to make a living as a writer, but these days it’s damn near impossible. I know a lot of people who try to write. We kill ourselves to do it. We don’t eat, we pay the rent late, and we’re always tired... I hate being this way. Some don’t, but they were born lucky and just enjoying the ride.
 Paraphrasing Richard Price, kids come to the city to become writers or actors and they become writers/bartenders/waiters and one day are simply bartenders/waiters… it’s a modern tragedy and it happens every day. Every last one of them were promised by someone they were special, or talented. Somewhere along the line they started to believe it, schmucks that they are, and they moved here. Well, I grew up in this damned city and have watched my share of failures, those starry eyed little bastards from who-knows-where who come here to join the beat generation and wind up junkies. Somewhere between OTB Suburban and Williamsburg Casualty they work as bartenders and bike messengers, maybe dominatrixes or escorts [sometimes for “research,” sometimes not]. One or two gets published. Some get editing jobs. Some don’t and just keep working. Some move on, some like I said before get strung out and bitter. Those are the ones who never got over Burroughs, and Dr. Thompson, they live in Bushwick and blow rails off their copies of Infinite Jest or that Toa Lin book. Those people may have blogs or Flickr's. They may work at their novel while I make them coffee and try to chat them up about Bolano. They go home and feel terrible, I go home exhausted. No one wins, no one gets enough writing done.
So why the hell would someone do this to themselves? In the age of Twitter, who’s backwards enough to research something? To take the hit? It’s because writing may just be the last moral profession out there. I’ve watched true heroes give their lives to the written word. I’ve seen retired editors; shaking from Devil’s Springs, Boxed Wine, and blow from the Bronx, shut the whole world out because we loved him too much to help him die. That man was my hero. He was a founding Yippie, lifelong anarchist, and pathological editor. He was so damned anal that he wound up alone, an Abbie Hoffman memorial T-shirt tucked into piss stained tightie whities in an apartment on MacDougal Street that hadn’t been painted since the 1980s, (when he was in California to turn around the LA Weekly). I write and edit because the only honest people I’ve ever known were writers. They keep the bullshit on the page. I’m not saying I want to end up alone, such a grammar Nazi that I drive away my friends, but let me put it bluntly: I don’t believe in hell (and barely suffer people who do), but the closest thing I could ever imagine to hell would involve ending up that Richard Price case study, working at a coffee shop, telling the twenty something new hire about my great novel that I never published.
I write because there's a chance I won't be that unlucky.