“It Took Us Years to get over the Sixties”

3 Jun

           

There’s a nod to revolution in the image of Che Guevara on a T-shirt. But it’s an empty gesture, vacuous of meaning as the place where it’s worn: Berkeley, California. Both Berkeley and Che are dead.  

The graffiti on the streets has been blotted out, save the sanctioned murals of historiographical importance, paintings venerating the sixties. They keep like photo props for tourists who pose for pictures flashing peace signs. Perhaps a flower in their hair. An unmarked cop car orbits the campus, yet its presence is less to quell an uprising and more to garner tax money for a bankrupt state. The police reach deep into students’ pockets during routine traffic stops.

On the corner of College and University Avenue, I make pizza. After ten years abroad, it’s as if I’ve dug a tunnel through the earth and fell out the other side back where I began—asking, “what can I get you? in the restaurant industry. I try recall the affection I once had for this city but it’s like trying to rekindle a love affair with a ghost. I sniff for a mixture of weed and tear gas, waiting for a girl to walk by, long-haired and braless, an ideal. I get nothing. Reaching for the reputation that precedes the city, I haunt the past.

On my lunch break, I watch a documentary in the office, Berkeley in the Sixties. The narrative begins in ’64 with the Free Speech Movement on the University of California campus, a protest qualified as a civil rights panty-raid by a college administrator. As I eat a slice off a cardboard plate, I learn that a block north from where I work, the fledgling Black Panthers sold Mao’s Little Red Book at mark-up prices to purchase shotguns, in order to police the police of Oakland. And at the draft office in Oakland, running full-bore for the Vietnam War, the super glue leaked out of the keyholes. The work of Cal students, no doubt. Fifty years later, it seems impossible that this place was ever the epicenter of sex, drugs, and radical politics in America.

Berkeley now looks less like a place of rebellion and more like a playground. The kids in the street are just that—several boys wear suits but their starched collars frame hairless faces. Two girls in high-heels walk into the restaurant awkwardly. Virginly. They look as if they’re barely used to their bodies. I eavesdrop while they flip-flop on choices for pizza. I note a particularity about Americans, especially marked in younger people, which gives us the airs of indecisive children. Our ideas rarely seem complete before we open our mouths, forcing us to splice our sentences with a hundred “likes” to buy time. We throw around the superlative as if it’s the least of things and we do this loudly because Americans are loud, like children are loud. One of the girls points for pepperoni. She says, “It’s, like, the best pizza in town.” I thank her and smile because I’m in a good mood, mostly because business is slow. She hands me her Hello Kitty debit card. She doesn’t tip, but I assume she doesn’t understand tipping as she’s never worked behind a counter a day in her life. She’s lucky. She’s still a kid. I slide her pizza into the 450 degree oven. I look outside and spot another hint of revolution in the work of the prophet Steve Jobs. Four college kids walk by waving their smart phones, just like that Little Red Book during a Mao Tse-Tung speech. Although Mao and Steve were both great prognosticators, it’s apparent who has won out. The recipe was simple: Steve Jobs left behind toys, not ideas, and in Berkeley kids love toys.

Today, the most visible practitioners of past ideologies are the drop-outs and street kids. The former have been here since the sixties and the latter have flocked to the city to wait on history to repeat itself. They both do a lot of waiting. While they wait they hock hemp necklaces or ask for change. They’re a mishmash of every spiritual or political movement that has washed up in the Bay Area—one part moveable bacchanal, one part Zen minimalist. The young ones are nursed on nostalgia for something they’ve never lived, like the Grateful Dead, like free love. They remind me of myself ten years prior when I believed in the power of conversation to change the world and if I didn’t have exorbitant rent I would spread out a blanket with them for a chat. In the time it would take to regrow a headful of dreads, we could have a working theory for peace on earth. But no. Instead, on my way to work this afternoon I met my former self (the one that never left town) in the form of a panhandler. With the smiling tenacity of a Greenpeace fundraiser, a disheveled white guy asked for a cigarette. I shrugged, told him sorry. He asked for dollar. I placed a quarter in his palm. “I got a hole in my bowl, you got a nugget to plug it?” he said. I laughed and we made eye contact. We had an inside joke. A decade ago I would have ducked into an alley with him, but today, I told him sorry, no nuggets. It had been a while since I heard that joke and I wanted to retort with another, “What’s the difference between a street kid and a homeless person?—ten years.” I didn’t, because I don’t begrudge the unemployed just because I hate my own job. Continuing, I repeated the joke in my head. The punch line is particularly fitting for Berkeley. It translates to a homeless population ranging from starry-eyed idealists to shell-shocked veterans. They, the homeless and future homeless, live in their very own park one block off Telegraph Avenue, the closest commercial artery to the university. The park was created in the sixties when students tore up a campus parking lot to build a garden. They named it People’s Park; it was evidence of what a better world would look like if the youth took over. It now resembles an open-air psych ward. Perhaps it was the effect of tuning-in too much on psychedelic drugs but I’ll bet it also has something to do with former Governor Ronald Regan decreasing federal spending for the mentally ill in the eighties. Way back when he ran for governor of California in ‘66 he itched to “send the welfare bums back to work.” Almost fifty years later they’ve yet to clock in. Cut a diagonal through the park at three p.m. and you’ll see Food-Not-Bombs, a non-profit, truck in soylent-green flavored confection for those who never joined mainstream America. Or for the adherents of dying ideologies. Or for those with mental problems. Or for those who just don’t want to make pizzas for college kids at ten dollars an hour. Can you blame them? After lunch, the street kids and veterans return to stroke Schrödinger’s cat in the shade of the John Lennon Memorial Plum Tree.

The second sign that the heart of the sixties still beats like a drum circle, albeit distant and dwindling, are the people who lived it and didn’t end up sleeping outside. Before meeting my former self in the park, I was at a poetry reading at an art space in South Berkeley. I showed up late. I didn’t have any cash for a donation so I told the doorman, a senior, that I was unemployed. He looked at me and nodded in respect. I took a seat, noted the lava lamps on the piano, and scrutinized a poet at the microphone over rows of grey and white hair. Four poets read, some bad, some great. The lexical field included George Bush, Xanax, and cats. Crop circles, chem-trails. There were political poems and light sexual innuendo and several poems about mortality, perhaps because of the poets’ advanced age. During intermission I made a tea. While admiring a gallery of beat-poet photos, I overheard and caught glances of two older people conversing. She just came over to say how much she appreciated the poems, especially the line, we don’t have to take back the night because we never lost it. They talked past each other, like drunken students at my pizza joint, although it was different. I recognized it. It was how people on LSD speak, in broken affirmations. She listened, and, like an evangelist, made piercing eye contact as she caressed a poetry chap book. She wore tied-dye. Nearly pulled into the kaleidoscopic spiral, I had a flashback—in the millennium there were still more tied-dye t-shirts than American flags in Berkeley. The shirt was ungodly bright and distracting. I thought that it was for the better the things were out of fashion, and besides, the American flag is far more harmonious, more ordered, esthetically speaking. I also thought perhaps I’d spent enough time during my twenties in the sixties.

I left early. I biked past the house where Patti Hearst was kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army. In front of 2603 Benvenue, now a brown shingle four-unit apartment, in an otherwise home-owner neighborhood, sat a beat up Honda Civic. On the street SUVs were parked. There was a hybrid car. I expected to see a bumper sticker for gun control. I imagined the surveillance photos of Patti Hearst at the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, wielding a M1 Carbine.

 

 

hearst2

 

Back to the pizza. To the students. And the future of the sixties. At work for an eight hour shift, during our transactional relationship, I ask our customers why they chose to attend UC Berkeley. My hypothesis was that somebody gave a shit about the past. My hypothesis was wrong. The reasons students give me are—the quality of education, or, I wasn’t accepted to Stanford, or Harvard, or, it was close. While keeping tally of replies, I remember something that a university professor once said—you can’t give a percentage based on a sample size under 100 respondents. It’s not representative, she said. I can safely say that, of the 110 students I questioned, 0% attend Berkeley for its past of activism or for nostalgia. They came because it ranked sixth in the world in the 2014 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings. It makes sense, though. Why would you want to pay 50,000 dollars for an undergraduate degree from a school that was cool in the sixties? But it goes further than that. The students of Berkeley want to get rid of the rare vestiges of the sixties—People’s Park and the street kids. In a survey conducted by Berkeleyside, 65% of respondents said they would visit Telegraph Avenue more often if there were fewer panhandlers. Likewise, an Op-ed in the Daily Californian relates what is a common sentiment on campus: People’s Park, despite its history, should be run over with a bulldozer. It seems it took us years to get over the sixties, but we finally did.

 

Sometimes in the restaurant I hear the languages of countries where I’ve lived in the past decade. Pretending to be elsewhere, I speak a fluent French to an exchange student. Tell him I went to school in France. I converse in a clunky Arabic to a Middle Eastern Computer Programmer. Tell him I learned it in Palestine. I practice my Spanish with a coworker. “My major was languages…of course I should use my diploma… I’m looking for another job…don’t mention it to the boss.” I ask him what he thinks of California. The weather reminds him of his native Mexico. “And Berkeley?” I ask. He says the girls are cute. I agree. “No, I’m not from here,” I say. “I’m from Texas, although I could never live there. It’s too conservative.” Why the Bay Area then? “It’s one of the most picturesque cities I’ve seen.” Speaking in a language I don’t master, I employ vocabulary like favorite and best. I use hyperbole. “Great nature.” Spreading ingredients across a pizza, I want to tell him the truth—that like the street kids, the Beats before them, and the Okies before them, I initially came west looking for something. Guided by hippie clichés, it was a promise of reinventing oneself, and that, as soon as the high school graduation cap hit the ground. The San Francisco Bay Area carried that promise, and perhaps it still does for some (although you meet far fewer people who have renamed themselves “Tree” or “Wind” than you used to). Instead, I censor myself from waxing nostalgic and repeat what’s in the mouths of so many my age—“San Francisco is too expensive now.” I switch back to English to better articulate. “Oakland, on the other hand, is at a crossroads between affordable, beautiful, and busted.” He asks if I like Berkeley. “Not particularly. But I used to,” I nod to the customers, “when I was their age.”

 

Out of the corner of my eye I see the girl waiting for her pepperoni pizza. I check the oven to see if the oil has begun to gleam. “Five minutes,” I let her know. I tell the boss I’m going for a smoke and ask him to watch the oven. Clocking out, I listen to him, under his breath, attempt to wrap his brain around the day’s poor sales. “Well,” he says as he shoves his fists into his pockets, “Cal’s not playing today.” He stares longingly out the window. “I’m sure when football season starts things will really pick up. Plus it’s been raining quite a bit…” He scans the clouds on the horizon, perhaps trying to discern in the weather a sign from a Protestant God. Is he predestined to succeed? Everything that happens in the known universe somehow relates back to the success of his business. He makes calculations, projections; he remembers the great amount of money made last Saturday night. I nod. What he can’t understand is that whether business is boom or bust I still get paid the same amount of money, which is a little too close to minimum wage for comfort or for the six years I went to school. More business means more college kids snapping their fingers at choices for pizza. They live the best years of their lives on the other side of the counter where I’d rather be. They grin over the menu. Their future is bright. It is tethered to no past.

 

Outside, smoking at a reasonable distance from the restaurant, I can see straight across the San Francisco Bay to Marin. Behind me is the promontory of the Berkeley Hills. It’s gorgeous but unaffordable to live in both places. Us peasants, if we have homes, pile up in valleys. That class hierarchy should express itself through the language of geography is an unchallenged argument in Berkeley. It’s nearly feudal when you look at it from certain angles. The landed gentry—perhaps the people who lived through the sixties and came out moneyed on the other end—descend the hills in the evening. I watch a couple step out of an electric car, a Tesla. She wears alpaca. He’s bald with a pony-tail and donned in hi-tech hiking gear. He holds the door for her at an all-organic restaurant. As I take yawning drags on a cigarette, an etiolated man digs through the trash for pizza. He moves as slow as a mummy. History seems to be his burden.

 

I flick my cigarette and return to work. The girl, who I’ve completely forgotten and who my boss has completely forgotten, is still waiting on her pepperoni pizza. When I step behind the counter she licks her lips. I look in the oven. I’ve burned it, while I thought of the present, while I dwelled on the past. I offer her another pizza, for free this time.

 

“Like, we’ll be late for class,” she says between sighs. I notice a tone of revolt in her voice.

 

The Leisure Principle

3 Jul

 

I am at a conference in Palestine hosted by USAID, the United States Agency for International Development. By extension, American taxpayer dollars afford the apple Danish I stuff in my mouth. I am hungover and mope around the refreshment stand. A base creature, I am foraging for the two things I desire when sweating out a night-before: food and sex. I stave off the urge to fall asleep with an instant coffee that shakes in my hand.

In front of me a man traipses across a platform; his lisp is amplified through a cordless microphone. He’s shaped like a pear, or, given the belt that runs a fat black stripe above his generous belly, perhaps he resembles a bowling pin. His white bald head shines in the florescent light. In brief, he’s a person you can’t imagine ever getting laid (again). He asks us to sit. I pull out a chair near a woman thumbing through a pocket sized book. At first I thought it was Civilization and Its Discontents but it turns out it’s only Harry Potter. I think it’s magic how I find myself here, pouring a large glass of chilled water from an Evian bottle.

I used to believe the dichotomy of developing versus developed countries came down to using one’s left hand to wipe or using toilet paper, wearing or not wearing a seat-belt. However, Palestine is a gray zone with enough rampant consumerism to make your average American middle class family jump for joy, yet shaking someone’s hand with the left (wiping) hand is considered insulting.

In this gray zone, in militarily occupied Palestine, the order of the day is announcing a generous envelope of dollars for Palestinian non-profits. The twenty odd representatives of organizations listen attentively to the rules of the grant to be disbursed. Women are discriminated against in Palestine, the man says, therefore the kind Americans seek to remedy this by increasing women-run small businesses. The same goes for youth, who, in a patriarchal society virtually speak only when spoken to. To wit: politicians rarely listen to young people until their hair falls out like the man on the stage. The jargon is noted on papers made for the occasion, empowerment, capacity building, and income-generating activities. As the conference is in Arabic I understand only half of what the man says, particularly the jargon and the pronouns they and us.

Then I see her across the room, the only girl white enough to be a foreigner. We lock eyes.

During the coffee break I drag my heels over to her. My nonchalance is studied. She is dressed to the nines with a blouse open at the throat. Upon closer inspection I am sure I could make myself small enough to slide down between her breasts. When she speaks she closes her eyes, allowing me to survey her face without feeling self-conscious. In front of her folded hands she hasn’t even doodled marginalia on her papers. In sum, she looks professional, a co-worker you would mentally undress at the office. A two minute fantasy at the water cooler never to materialize.

The golden rule of conversation between two foreigners here is to talk about where we are from and the ridiculousness of choosing to live in a country where all the locals would leave if they could. She is from Lithuania, arrived last week, and found a job doing exactly the same thing as me. I try to remember a detail about Lithuania but come up short. I tell I’ve been here for two years. In candor I say that I would have never imagined the job description entailed so much bureaucracy, so many useless meetings in lavish conference halls. I confide in her, because that’s what I do when I feel like shit, that I am ready to leave. She said that her roommate told her this: The first year you hate the Israelis, the second year the Palestinians, and the third year you’re gone. I tell her it took me half that time. She touches me lightly on the hand and giggles. She has a silver molar.

The conference begins again. I take my seat at the other end of the hall. It’s cold. In Palestine, a developing country they say, air conditioning is seen as a luxury. Therefore pumping it in full blast denotes class. I shiver and think how her two small nipples must be hard across the frigid and sexless expanse of the room.  

We make eye contact several times, especially when others laugh at the jokes told by the bureaucrat with the microphone because we don’t understand them. She forces a laugh, her smile wreathing her perfect, un-hungover face. I complete the outline for this story between furtive glances at her breasts and the door.

In conclusion the man asks: Any questions?

I ponder the injustice of it all. How can a band of Americans waltz in here and dictate policy to a knot of note taking Palestinians? Why am I sitting in an air-conditioned room as the country is being colonized, while America slips an envelope of money into the pockets of several Palestinians and turns around and arms Israel to the teeth?

Finally, I question why I must get so drunk at night to stay sane in Palestine. I think of the absurdity of why she is over there and I in my pants with all these people and layers of clothes an obstacle between us.

After the conference I get her number and never call her.

 

 

 

 

In what decade was the 60’s?

3 May

Wall 3 Wall 1 Wall 2The first time you graff this wall you feel like a real bad-boy.

Then you realize that no one gives a fuck, especially the Israeli soldiers who are too busy doing keg-stands or water-boarding.

All the Pretty Martyrs

20 Dec
In the occupied Palestinian territories the line between art and propaganda is a thin one.

In the occupied Palestinian territories the line between art and propaganda is a thin one.

Naturalist landscapes are painted from the collective memory of a diaspora. The gold of the Dome of the Rock mosque shines in the background. The green, red, white, and black of the flag snake through the foreground. It could have been a peaceful motif with shepherds in the shade of olive trees eating oranges from Jaffa.
But history has never smiled on the Palestinians. Theirs is one of dispossession and occupation. There art is one of struggle.

Those masters of agitprop left their imprint with the hammer, sickle, and fists. Harvesting the grain became synonymous with mowing down the enemy. The Soviets were the greatest champions of the world’s underdogs! In their propaganda, which was rivaled only by Goebbels or Edward Bernays, symbolism was the key.

Once there was a Soviet flare. Those masters of agitprop left their imprint with the hammer, sickle, and fists. Harvesting the grain became synonymous with mowing down the enemy. The Soviets were the greatest champions of the world’s underdogs! In their propaganda, which was rivaled only by Goebbels or Edward Bernays, symbolism was the key.

Today the theme of apartheid is omnipresent, with the 20 foot high wall that separates Palestine from Israel providing the shared claustrophobic experience that is living under military occupation.

Today the theme of apartheid is omnipresent, with the 20 foot high wall that separates Palestine from Israel providing the shared claustrophobic experience that is living under military occupation.

Then we come to the martyrs. In Palestine the narrative of resistance is written on every street corner; murals and posters depicting shaheed stare out from the dirty brick walls.

Then we come to the martyrs. In Palestine the narrative of resistance is written on every street corner; murals and posters depicting shaheed stare out from the dirty brick walls.

It is almost an iconic art; In Gaza you can buy photos of the fallen. They hang on the walls in houses and are venerated as modern day saints.

It is almost an iconic art; In Gaza you can buy photos of the fallen. They hang on the walls in houses and are venerated as modern day saints.

It begins when they are young; instead of sketching private parts on the wall like the youth in more stable regions they draw filthy little machine guns. In Palestine children grow up quickly, their rites of passage involve slingshots. But they don't hunt squirrels.

It begins when they are young; instead of sketching private parts on the wall like the youth in more stable regions they draw filthy little machine guns. In Palestine children grow up quickly, their rites of passage involve slingshots. But they don’t hunt squirrels.

Always one to steal from those around me I thought I would try my had at propaganda

Always one to steal from better artists around me I thought I would try my hand at propaganda.

It reads: Heroes are Born when Heroes Die.

It reads: Heroes are Born when Heroes Die.

Ram'allah baby.

Ram’allah baby.

All posters except “Heroes are Born” from the Palestinian Poster Archive project www.palestineposterproject.org

Foiled escape plot

25 Nov

 

X

5 Nov

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Control

23 Sep

Accidents Happen

6 Sep

The American Political System

31 Jul

“Gay yoga? What do yoga and being gay have in common, I mean other than stretching?” Bill asked.

“If you’re not a part of it you will never understand. It is a way to meet, to be a community, you know. We are a minority after all.” Chris replied as he was finishing his succulent steamed snapped pea soup on the corner of Castro and Market Street in San Francisco. He loved words that begun with the letter “s”. He repeated his order as the sun was setting.

“What are you talking about? You guys practically run this place! They might as well call it Gomorrah!”

“You mean Sodom silly.”

Chris adjusted his push up bra and shot a look at himself in the reflection of the cafe window. Bill did the same, although his hair was typically masculine, even vanilla they might say in this neighbourhood. His clothes paled in comparison to Chris’ fluo suspenders and his crotchless shorts. It made Bill slightly queasy but it worked miracles: on night’s out he tagged along with his flamboyantly gay high school friend so as to disarm women in nightclubs. Women loved gay guys and he would pull up quick after their laughter at his antics subsided.

“And besides why does everything have to be about where you stick your dick? All that comes through of your identity is a dick.” Bill said sipping his moccachino. He found it was disgusting for the price alone.

“Like in a glory hole, you might say,” Chris giggled. He had heard it all before, out in his hometown in North Dakota. Besides he was on his grounds now and he intended to play on them. “That is just the way it is. We were ridiculed growing up. The guys you see here come from all four corners of the country. They were beaten into the pavement as adolescents and finally they get here.” He said inspecting his nails.

“I just don’t understand all the ass pinching, the lisp thing, and…and fucking gay yoga.” Bill said wadding up the pamphlet. The two men in the photo were closer than they ever had been, crumpled up in the ashtray.

He continued, lighting a smoke. Chris lit a Virginia Slim. “I mean isn’t degrading to be so…so stereotypical?

“I find comfort in it.” He exhaled in Bill’s face. “You know that is the way the system works. People get together in groups and there are codes, whether it is gang colors or rim jobs, and they exercise their rights as members of groups, in the political process.”

“Yeah I know, we took the same Organization and Representation class in school” Bill interrupted. “So what you are saying is that back rooms are a sort of representation by population?”

“Yes I am, because people get together in there, sometimes it is an orgy, and you don’t know who is really fucking you but if you are in on it, I mean fucking someone else too, then it all works out. It’s just the way the system works.”

 

 

Gettin’ up in the ghetto

24 Jul

Painting on the ghetto walls between the West Bank and Israel. In the background are the watchtowers where Israeli soldiers eat the lunches their mothers packed them and play with automatic weapons.

Analysis of Historiography

12 Jun

If you concentrate hard enough you can read between the lines of history, but it’s difficult, what with the sound of gunfire and all.

The War on Tourism

17 Apr

Poem for a resort town in Egypt that was bombed in 2005 and yet didn’t learn its lesson:

She had seen the sublime kaleidoscope of coral in the Red Sea

but when her oxygen tank emptied and she emerged from her dive the resort resembled a war zone.

Instead of the guided segway tours down the artificial boulevards,

with more flags flapping than a miniature golf course

and about as much soul…

Instead of the nouveaux riches

retired and tired in their chaises longues,

lounging under electrified palm trees

with no more than five stars in their sky…

Instead of the valet parking

and the bubblegum handshakes

of touts pawning counterfeit clothing,

the gated community of their smile

opening at the scent of money…

Instead of the cream filled bikini things

born in the jacuzzi of some other country

with a kinder fate than this one,

where new colonies are created every day

at the snap of their fingers…

Instead of the insignificant sound

of the hammering

of the gavel

in the form of this poem…

she exhaled, and saw the explicit damage tourism could take on a landscape

when the vengeance of the poor, embodied in a bomb,

questioned the wandering sovereignty of the monied.

The Limbic System

8 Apr

My grandfather, more of a father than my father himself,

taught me to shave before the age of eight.

I was in a rush as always

adding a half or a quarter to my age.

 

He rubbed the cream between his fingers.

They were cracked and worked

like the earth on the playground.

He was bowlegged from riding the ideal of a cowboy.

 

I took the  mirror seriously

for the first time in Texas

my faced wreathed with a fake beard

as the odor of sandalwood heralded in

a new age.

 

Two decades and a handful of continents later

I was on the other side of the world

in a chair as usual and not so hurried this time.

The barber sharpened his razor.

 

And as he applied the acrid lather

the olfactory happiness short-cut back,

and I fell out of the mirror

and into the memory of my ancestors.

I smiled at the mere thought of my grandfather.

 

“Don’t move or I’ll cut your throat” the barber cried.

 

-Nostalgia can be fatal if you let it get the best of you.

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