The Trip that Changed My Life | Part Three

And we headed down south with just spit and a song
But they said “Sorry son it’s gone gone gone”
-Bruce Springsteen
Seeds

 

April 1st – 3rd
The first of April, 1982 found me and Mark making our way toward Hobbs, NM, thumbing it out on Interstate 10 in the Arizona desert, reading our Gideon Bibles and hoping for a ride from the ever more seldom-passing drivers.

From a spot near Benson to another somewhere on the hundred or so miles to Lordsburg, we whiled the better part of two days. Finally we got a ride, but got dropped once again at a spot well short of a human population center. This time we were taken to rest area 25 miles west of Lordsburg, with nothing in between. The sun was going down. We slept under concrete picnic tables.

In the morning we were awakened by one RV after another making their morning stops. After talking about it, we decided it made no sense  go back to the road, when everyone inclined to stop was doing it right here. We couldn’t just stick our thumbs our, though. We’d have to ask for a ride. We split up and began walking up and down the long line of motor homes, looking for friendly faces. I found a man in his sixties and his wife and asked if we could at least go as far as Lordsburg with them. As he looked me up and down, I waved Mark over. The man was thinking about it, but wanted a feel for us, to make sure we were safe. He had us sit a spell and chat.

Stagecoach

One of the rich experiences of hitchhiking is that a surprisingly diverse range of people will pick up a hitchhiker, but they all have this in common: they want to give a ride to a stranger. It’s remarkable when you think of it. The inside of a car, or the cab of a truck, is such an intimate space, and inviting a stranger to share it with you is a generous, even a friendly gamble. Sometimes drivers are tired of driving alone. Or they are paying forward the rides they got when they were on the road. Sometimes they want to save your soul, or share a joint or a sandwich, or add a little spontaneity to a routine drive. Whatever the motive, they have this little albeit sufficient bit of trust, enough to reach out to a stranger and help out. It’s a beautiful thing, and I’m sad the psycho killers have all but ruined such an honored custom.

After he had a sense of us, he said we could ride with them. He was a retired rancher, and they were spending a good part of the year on the road. They were solid, conservative, Midwestern Protestants taking on a couple of Northwest lefty drifters, and what a fine time we had! This was one of the nicest rides we got. It came right after we had spent the last of our money, and we didn’t know how we were going to eat, or how many days we were from Hobbs.

As it turned out, we traveled in their motor home for two days. They drove us about 350 miles, to within  70 miles of Hobbs. The first day we went as far as Guadalupe Mountains National Park, where we stayed for the night. Along the way we stopped at a KFC, and when they realized we didn’t have any money left, they bought us lunch, and fed us thereafter.

lone-highway-to-guadalupe-mountains-texas-292824

Interstate 10 dips south at Las Cruces into Texas. I remember my shock as we swung near the Rio Grande and I could see across the rail tracks, fences and the river what looked to me like a shanty town in Ciudad Juarez: the houses of paper and tin and others of bare, crumbling cinder block. The contrast between the two cities, where the houses on one side were only a thousand feet from the houses on the other, was stunning.

And then there was this land we were driving through. As I crossed the Western and Plains states in 1978, I fell in love, deeply in love with the American landscape. Now, cruising across the great desert Southwest, entering Texas and then New Mexico for the first time, I was falling in love again. This was the land that starred in the old westerns I grew up watching with my grandpa, and my dad, who shared this romance. Open, hard, dry ground – red and yellow dust – sprinkled now with green –  against a blue and white sky. There is history here, and timelessness, air that can choke or drown you, but let you breathe deeper than you ever have; land that fights you but also frees you.

At the Park, I believe we pitched a tent outside the RV. The next day they dropped us at Carlsbad, NM. We were one ride away from Hobbs, a roof over our heads, some food and the next chapter of our lives.

By Boston Public Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With any kind of luck, Troy lives at the Barton Motor Court!
(By Boston Public Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

As we set foot in Hobbs, I looked around. Picture west Texas, just six and half miles away, and you’ve got Hobbs. It was a flat, dusty town, and there was only one reason I could think of for having a town there, or any place like it: oil. That’s just fine by me. Oil is why I’m here.

I pulled out the Rolodex card with notes about how to find Troy. Eventually we made contact. Troy found us at the Totem Grocery, a convenience store on the main drag. (The building is still there, with the Totem sign over the door.) After all the introductory remarks were dispensed with, I said something like, “Well, what do you say you take us to your place so we can drop our loads?” I was thinking of a cool, shaded room, and some real food.

“Yeah, let’s do that.”

We were on the western edge of town. A few sparse businesses, like the Totem and the Caprock Lounge, open fields of scrub, pump jacks – little more. Troy led us in a straight line north and west out into the middle of the field next to the Totem. In a few minutes we came upon a 20-foot canvas army tarp spread out on the ground, with a backpack, a sleeping bag, some empty food cans, some books, and some pots and pans. All around us were pump jacks bobbing up and down. Troy stopped.

“What’s this?”  I asked.

“My place.”

“Your place? This is where you’re living?”

“Yes, it is.  I guess it’s where you’re living, too.”

“You told me you had a place to live. I mean, indoors.”

I looked at Mark, expecting him to be as incredulous as I was. He wasn’t.

“You knew? You knew he was – ? Oh, crap.”

Troy had moved to the field because rent was costing too much money, and money was tight because…

“Well, the work has kind of dried up around here.”

“Dried up? That’s why we’re here – to work. Dried up? You haven’t been working?”

“Not as much.”

“But you made a lot of money. You saved your money.”

“I did. I had some money. Until a few days ago. Somebody came through while I was gone, and ripped me off. I had a little with me, though.”

My heart sank a little. When Mark and Troy first talked about this, they knew they wouldn’t get me to come down here if I knew we were going to be camping in an oil field. That was probably true. But if I had known that work on the rigs was falling off – never. Never. I felt betrayed. They had both lied to me. White lies to them; to me, black.

There was no shelter, no shower, no refrigerator, toilet or sink. No water or electricity. No food, no money, and who knows, maybe no work.

Welcome to Hobbs, the Oil Capital.

April 4th – 21st
Now my grievances against my friends were having a cumulative effect. But what could I do with them? Me, not much. So I filed them away in my overstuffed file labeled, “Crap I don’t want to keep but can’t get rid of.”

And hey: the Alliance was re-allied, after all. And that was great. Together again. I rather marveled at where our friendship had brought us in less than a year and a half: from our homes back in Missoula to Seattle, then dispersed in opposite directions, only to reunite in this of all places. Being homeless and nearly destitute was a small thing. In fact, in light of our travel plans, it was funny. We were back to laughing at our self-made predicament.  Situation normal.

And there was an amusing irony here, that only now occurs to me. What did we do back in Missoula? We griped about our small-town captivity and longed for the freedom and opportunity to make our lives what we wanted. No parental constraints, no demands from school or jobs to hamper us. We didn’t want our lives mapped out for us by family or teachers or society. Freedom, baby.

Well, we got what we wished for. And you know what that freedom looked like? Eating VanCamp’s pork and beans out of a can on a dusty piece of canvas in the middle of an oil field. No jobs or school or parents to pin us down, push us around or rob our time and energy. All the time in the world, in fact. Freedom, baby!

* * *

Not a lot happened in Hobbs. The three of us lived on the tarp for the rest of April. Every weekday we rose early, dressed for worked and went to the Totem Grocery. There we waited as the roughneck crews stopped for coffee and food on their way to work. If a crew was short a guy or two, they’d pick someone up. This is what Troy had been doing. The more work, the  more likely a guy wouldn’t show, so when the rigs were hopping, Troy would get plenty of work. Problem was, the big oil boom, which had been going since 1978 or ’79, was going bust. Just in time for our arrival.

We went every day, but weeks passed, and we never got hired. We would spend the rest of the day on the tarp, or at the library, two miles away. At night, or when the weather was bad, we often took shelter at a place across the road from the Totem, which was a service station with a cafe and a store. (Also still there, under new owners.) The girl who worked there like to flirt with us, and we’d flirt back. We’d drink coffee, and occasionally drop a quarter in the jukebox.

It is no exaggeration to say that every week I spent in Hobbs felt like a month. This is how it had been for me since El Centro. It wasn’t that nothing happened, or that I was particularly bored. It’s that time, every hour, every day, crawled. It moved so slowly because, apart from going to  the Totem Grocery every morning, the notion of time grew irrelevant. I looked at my watch only out of habit, but next to nothing we did needed to be timed by anything more than the rising of the sun. Never again have I experienced this, but I remember it well. I believe it is not possible for this to happen if I have any sense of my current situation being in any way defined or delimited by time. The fact is I live with this time-definition every day, and the only way I know to be rid of it is to not know what is happening next or when. That doesn’t happen on a camping trip or a even a meandering vacation, if you have a job or family to get back to. I was floating, drifting through the days, as if I were in a raft on a river without any oars. I didn’t know where or when I could or would put out.

I only know three dates from that month. The first two are the day we arrived, and day we left. The third is April 21st.

That morning Mark and I woke up to Troy rousting us.When I looked at him, I couldn’t believe what I saw. He was standing there, wearing his army coat and his backpack, ready to go.

“What are you doing?”

“Guess.”

“You’re leaving? You can’t be serious!”

“I am leaving,” he drew out like a carefully worded announcement. I sat up, my mouth open.

“Just wanted to tell you guys: So long.”

The Trip that Changed My Life | Part One

Kids
When their imagination bids
Hitch-hike a thousand miles to find
The Hesperides that’s on their mind.
– W. H. Auden

How big is a hare-brain, anyway?
My friend Troy left Seattle in October of 1981, breaking the Alliance. About five months later I left, too. So did my friend Mark. He returned to Missoula, and I went to my hometown of Portland. A lot happened during those five months. Mark and I went our separate ways because of what happened. I didn’t know what was next.

I left Seattle in early March 1982, angry over a falling out with Mark that led to both of us leaving town, and feeling guilty and disappointed in myself and my friends. But I arrived in Portland with some hope for a fresh start. After three years I was coming home, and I didn’t feel the embarrassment I thought I would had I gone back to Missoula. I had no idea what I would do. How did I veer so far from the expected high school-to-college trajectory I was on only 15 months before? What now?

Two very generous people, friends of my sister, let me stay with them when I got to Portland, even though they didn’t know me. They asked for nothing from me (I had next to nothing) and fed me. Immediately I hit the streets, going from business to business, asking about jobs and asking for application forms. The answer was ‘no’ at almost very turn. One older man told me unemployment was the worst he’d seen since the Great Depression. I thought he must be right, but I kept looking.

I lived in the Beaumont neighborhood the few weeks I was in Portland.

After a week or two, Mark called me. He had a proposal for me, for us. Even though I was still mad at him, I listened. He said he had been in touch with Troy, and they both thought that the two of us should go join him in New Mexico. Since leaving us in Seattle the year before, Troy had been working the oil fields of the Permian Basin, in SE New Mexico and West Texas. Now living in a oil town called Hobbs, about 90 miles northwest of Odessa, he was earning around $16 an hour working on the rigs (That’s almost five times the minimum wage we were making at our theater  jobs. In 2013 dollars, it would be $38.59 an hour.), and said we should come down. The two of them made the same argument that Troy had made before he left: making that kind of money in a short period of time was the only plausible way of fulfilling the original dream of the Alliance: a trip to Europe.

After hearing all this from Mark and Troy, I reluctantly agreed to go. Mark would come to Portland and we’d leave from there. If what they said was true, at the very least it would be an adventure. But it wasn’t true.

I have an old Washington County tax record Rolodex card, and on the back I wrote, while talking to Troy:

2201 W. MARLAND
TRAILER NO 8   CAPROCK BAR

TOTEM GROCERY

SAN DIEGO   #10
LOS CRUCES
EL PASO

Troy was telling me where he was living in Hobbs, in a trailer park by the bar, and where to meet him when we got there, at the grocery. He also suggested the route for us. Already you can see we’re off to a shaky start: I-10 intersects the 5 in central LA, not San Diego. At the bottom of the card, I’d also written, CORNELL OUT: MAY 22nd. That’s when Anna would return to Missoula from Ithaca. This would have been a major reservation about leaving Portland: that I would be in New Mexico through the summer and not make it over to see Anna while she was home from school.

How was it, after the bitter end to our Seattle sojourn, the acrimony, the ways in which we had disappointed one another – how was it that I was willing to turn around a few weeks later and go traipsing into the unknown with this guy? Why didn’t I tell Mark and Troy to take a hike, without me? First, it was impossible for me to not think of  these two as my friends, the best of friends, regardless of what had happened. Did I hold a grudge? Yes. Was it enough in my mind to disown someone, to walk away and have nothing more to do with them? It wasn’t in my nature. Second, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t really know if it would work out. I thought it might. It would be a venture of discovery, a romantic beatnik quest, to “make the road my home,” to just head out and see what happens. To do here in the States what we had planned on doing in Europe. Third, nothing was happening for me here. In the near field, it looked like another dead end.

Last and foremost:  just like that, the dream I laid to rest was resurrected, the dream of the Old World, of ancient ruins and medieval towns, French cafes, art treasures, Gothic cathedrals and fairy-tale landscapes. It had such a strong pull on me, stronger I thought than on Mark and Troy, stronger than they even knew. It was the very thing that had drawn me into their hare-brained schemes in the first place. Did I want to go? I was already there.

Passport to Nowhere: March 1982

I went downtown and, in a quaint gesture of my faith, had a passport photo taken – but did not submit an application. I didn’t have any valid picture ID for it.

March 25th
We had a flawless plan. Mark arrived in Portland with $30. I had fifteen dollars, but as I was saying goodbye to Nana and Pop, Pop slipped me a $20 bill, so now I was flush, with $35. With our financing secured, we set off to hitchhike the 2000 miles  to Hobbs, New Mexico, make a small fortune as roughnecks and then hitchhike across Europe: yes, a solid plan indeed. What could go wrong? As it turned out, I was beginning what would become for me a journey of over 3000 miles that changed my life more radically than I could have remotely imagined.

My sister Marji drove me and Mark to a truck stop, where we thought we would have a good chance of catching a ride south. We figured we would go down to LA, then take the 10 east across southern California, Arizona and New Mexico.

This was it: we were leaving; I was leaving home once again, even before it had really become my home again. I had a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer. Could the Alliance be put back together after having been so harshly broken? Would we really trust each other? Did we all share an equal commitment to our stated goal, or would would one or two of us walk away again? I was uneasy about all of this, but I decided to leave anyway. Who knew where this road would lead us?

THURS
NORTH PORTLAND TO EUGENE 3/25/82

Electrical engineer from Vancouver on business trip to Salem & Eugene picked us up 10:30. Nice guy about 35. Talked about the best ways of ‘making it,’ real estate, investments, etc. He had an interest in finances… He said frankly that “If I was a few years younger I’d probably go with you guys.”…

“It must be really great to be able to just pick up & take off, go wherever and not have to worry about any responsibilities tying you down.”

“That’s our philosophy.”

Take off, go wherever. That made me feel epic, hearing that in the very first hour of our journey.

He dropped us off at the U of O campus, where we planned to look up one of my best friends from Missoula. She was out of town so we decided to move on. We’ve must have had some trouble getting a ride, or worried that we wouldn’t make it to a good stopping place for the night, because we chose to stay in Eugene for the night. It was raining, so we looked for a place to stay indoors. Neither of us had ever slept in a mission, but we learned that that was one of the few options when staying in town at night.

We ended our first day on the road at a street mission in a house. It was late when we came in. Someone recited the house rules to us and we were told that if we wanted to eat breakfast in the morning we would have to hear a ‘message’ first, something I recoiled at, as tempting as free food sounded. It was a wretched night. There must have fifty men crowded into a living room and dining room without furniture. When we came in, it was already dark and the lights were out. Somehow we found places to wedge ourselves in between the bodies of strangers. I couldn’t sleep. The room stank. Listening to dozens of men snoring, I lay there, cramped, tired and awake for most of the night.

In the morning, we got up early and learned as quickly as possible what we would have to do to get some food. We would have to wait some time. Then we would have to sit through a sermon, then get in line for some grub.

The free breakfast was too expensive, so we left.

March 26th-27th
We got a ride from some scruffy, friendly biker types who dropped us near Curtin, 33 miles south of Eugene.  There, cold and wet, we caught a break: a guy in a pick-up who was driving non-stop all the way to LA. He wasn’t a talker. He drove 75 mph, kept the radio on and stopped every so often for coffee, gas and and a restroom. Twelve hours later (early Saturday morning) we were at his house in Sunland. He said we could crash at his house and later in the morning he would drop us at the 10.

So we woke up in Southern California: golden, promised land, famous, murderous, dreamed-of, end-of-the-Continent California, opposite in so many ways from where I had grown up.

My home is green and rainy, this is yellow and bright. We are towered by firs, well-watered and meet a cold gray Pacific. This is the place of palm trees, dry lands, burning hills and warm safari surf. This was my first real look around, and the beginning of my love-hate dance with the hazy megalopolis built on paved-over, sweet citrus groves. Starting the day in Sunland, met by clear skies and heading for the desert, I thought I was done with the wet. I was wrong about that.

Where we were dropped might as well have been a foreign country. It was Boyle Heights, east of downtown. I remember seeing  the famed LA Corner’s Department, where ‘Coroner to the stars’ Thomas Noguchi worked, and only three weeks  earlier had been asked to step down, on the same day he examined the body of John Belushi. We were dropped from I-5 South on North Mission Road, walked under the overpass to Marengo Street, where we would have spotted the Coroner’s. Heading southeast and then east on Marengo, we would have looked for an on-ramp to the 10. I don’t remember getting a ride. The highways of LA, right near Downtown where we were, are not really the best for hitchhiking; drivers just can’t stop to pick you up. We may very well have decided to forget about the highways, and hitch a main thoroughfare. I think we walked all day.  In any case, by early evening we found ourselves about 10 or 12 miles away, past Alhambra, past Rosemead, deep in the heart of East LA, and now feeling very much – in fact, too much – out of our element. We couldn’t get a ride to save our lives. We felt stranded.

It was clear to both of us that as we walked, or stood with our thumbs out, that our rift a couple of months before was hanging between us. What had happened was serious, it was painful.Two days had passed, and we didn’t talk about it. But it was there.

LA Map 1982As nightfall approached Mark and I got into an argument about how and where to spend the night. Mark wanted us to use most of our remaining money to get a motel room. I couldn’t see spending our food money to get off the streets for one night. After storming off in different directions, and finding each other again, we kept walking east. I believe we were lost, or rather, unsure of where we were. I had a crude motel map with few street names. I guessed that we were in South El Monte. Perhaps we walked east on Garvey Avenue,  a major street south of and running parallel to the 10  – or perhaps it was Valley Blvd., which is north of the freeway.

At some point we gave up on getting an eastbound ride out of the barrio. We decided to head further south. I thought we were near Whittier when we quit for the night. Now I can look at Google Maps and Street View, and I believe we were at Durfee Avenue and Peck Road by the Pomona Freeway – next to Whittier, but still in South El Monte.

We laid out our sleeping bags on the edge of a McDonald’s parking lot. The temperature was dropping, but it wasn’t especially cold. A few hours later Mark tried shaking me awake. I am a light sleeper, and normally just speaking to me would be enough, but not tonight. I looked at Mark and suddenly realized I was chilled to the core. I was alarmed, thinking groggily that if he hadn’t woken me I might have frozen to death. He roused me so we could find a warmer place to pass the night.

It was probably unwarranted, but as I silently rolled my bag, trembling hands brushing away the dew, I was shivering all over and thinking, “I could have died.”

If it’s freedom you want

It was Stacy Gruby’s fault.

He’s the one who gave Troy, and later all of us, the next hare-brained scheme.

In August of 1981, my girlfriend returned to school in New York. I was going to Portland to visit my family before returning to Seattle. There was something I wanted to do before I left Missoula, though. All summer long I had been looking longingly through a music store window on Higgins, at an electric bass guitar. I wanted to learn a rock ‘n’ roll instrument, and this was it. I had been really taken with the bass while listening to bands over the last two years with great bassists: notably The Who (John Entwistle), The Police (Sting), and Cream (Jack Bruce). This one looked just like the Hofner bass Paul McCartney played in the early days (and still uses, for old time’s sake). It was only eighty dollars. I decided I wanted that bass more than I needed my bike, so I sold it – for eighty dollars.

Meanwhile, in Seattle, Troy had grown restless. He was annoyed when both of us left  for the summer, letting him hold down the real (but mind-numbing) job and pay the bills. Over the summer, I believe that grew into a resentment, if not toward us, then toward his situation. He quit his job and planned to go hitchhiking for awhile. For some reason that I do not recall, Troy ran up a huge phone bill and a total of $1000 in debts. Right before I was going to leave for Portland, Troy showed up in Missoula, and he and Mark decided they would hitchhike to Oregon. They needed some money for their trip. Even though Mark and Troy had earned money all summer, and I hadn’t, I was the only one of us who had any money.

Eighty dollars, to be exact.

You gave them your music money? Are you daft?

Yes, I let them talk me out of that Paul McCartney bass. They hitchhiked to Corvallis, Troy’s home before Missoula, and I went to Portland. In ‘Corn Valley,’ as Troy used to call it, they met up with an old grade school friend of Troy’s, Stacy Gruby. Stacy told them how he and some friends had gone to west Texas, gotten jobs working on the oil rigs, and made mounds of cash. To say that Troy was fascinated by this story would be putting it mildly. The wheels started turning in his head that day and didn’t stop.

At mom’s house in Portland, I answered the door one day and was surprised to see Mark and Troy, fresh from their Corvallis trip. We took a walk up through the neighborhood, where my family had lived since 1974. At the Irvington School playground, where I had played when I was ten, they told me what Stacy Gruby had told them about roughnecking in Texas, and how much money was to be made there. Troy thought we should go there, and proposed a Texas Plan over the Seattle Plan.

One thing the both of them always ragged me about was my cautiousness. (Steve ‘Life-in-the-Slow-Lane’ Dehner, they had dubbed me.) It was true. I had been a little daredevil as a kid, but as a teen I developed an aversion for what I considered unnecessary risks. I did not apologize for it, though, because in my mind, without my caution to balance their impetuousness, I’d have been jailed or dead several times over just in the last year.

Irvington School playground today.  In the ’70s it had a playground in the corner area to the right. It included a high slide and I loved to jump off the top of it. As a kid, I was always jumping off of things.

So, not surprisingly, I balked at the Texas Plan. I said no. Mark leaned toward no, so the Texas Plan was shelved.

I returned to Seattle by train on September 4th, in time for the Kinks concert that night. Before I left, Nana took me shopping for my 18th birthday, which was coming mid-month. She bought me a brown knapsack, which, while a little ragged,  I still have after over 31 years and thousands of miles on the road.

When we were all back at the 20th Avenue apartment, we partied for a couple of weeks, around the Kinks show, visitors from Missoula, and my 18th birthday. But after the fun, the outlook was bleak. There was no food, no money, and there was back rent due. Mark and I had to work two weeks before getting a check. We resorted to shoplifting for food. Even then, we subsisted mostly on water, potatoes and butter. (Troy wouldn’t eat margarine.) We owed debts we could not pay off. The goal – a trip to Europe, our reason for moving to Seattle in the first place – was as remote as it had ever been.

It was time to rethink our plans. By the end of the month, Troy had another job, but for the last four weeks he hadn’t stopped thinking about Texas. What was calling to him, tugging at him? Was it a walkabout, an escape, a quest? He hated the feeling that his path was being carved out for him by his attachment to us, to a job. Whatever else he was after, he wanted to break free.

He made his decision. He was going to Texas, whether we came or not. He wasn’t interested in being talked out of it. Mark and I still considered it too uncertain. Troy moved out.

If it’s freedom you want, come to Texas. No one there tells you what to do and how you have to do it.
-Edna Ferber
Giant

Thus the Alliance was broken. Mark and I moved into a studio apartment on First Hill. We all walked away from our debts, the bills, the back rent, all of it. Troy stayed with his mom for a few weeks, then left for Odessa, Texas, and a long, lonesome trail.

Before he left, the three of us got together to bid him farewell. Troy was a forever-friend, smart, lovable and reckless. It was Troy in the first place whose easy friendship with Mark and then me had made this triad we called the Alliance, and now he was breaking it. He seemed to be breezing away just as easily. I was sad and disappointed to see him go, and I wondered when our paths would cross again.

As we parted, Troy said to us, as we had heard him say dozens of times – and just as casually –  “See ya on down that road.”

“See ya.”

The God Question | Part Three

[Moral] practice has not been able to keep pace with the mind. Man has begun to say, “This is wrong, that is wrong.” Whereas previously he justified his conduct, he now no longer justifies his own or his neighbor’s.  He wants to set right the wrong but does not know that his own practice fails him. The contradiction between his thought and conduct fetters him.
-Mohandas Gandhi
Non-Violence in Peace & War, II-76

I don’t really understand myself,
for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.
Instead, I do what I hate.
-Romans 7:15

The Problem of Me
In the summer of 1981, at the same time I was reading my friend’s pharmacology textbooks on LSD, I was also reading Gandhi. This was in part my Looking to the East phase. But it was also my looking within. I had begun to suspect myself as possibly my biggest problem.

That probably reaches back over my entire life up to that point. But over the last nine months I had come up against some unsettling indications that I was perhaps not the person I thought or hoped myself to be. The one I remember best had been the previous fall, when my friends asked me to help them with a proposed pot-growing operation. My gut told me was it was stupid and wrong, but the money that could be made turned my head. I was quite disgusted with myself over that. Why would I not only think but also act in a way so at odds with my self-professed values?

If I could be hard on myself in a very selective way, I was even harder on others, and also extremely defensive. I couldn’t take any sort of criticism; to me, it was always personal and never welcome. As a harsh judge of others, it seems I always assumed the same sort of harshness must have been behind the least bit of criticism directed at me. Underlying my assessment of myself and of others, was a complete lack of insight. I really did not get people. It followed that I didn’t get myself.

When I looked in the mirror, seemingly every part my persona had an opposing aspect. I was a clown who made others laugh but actually took himself far too seriously. I was violent yet peaceful, sensitive yet capable of being really mean, even to friends; serene and patient, yet plagued by anxiety and frustration; compassionate yet judgmental; wildly gregarious but often a loner, vain yet at times overcome with contempt for myself.

It wasn’t a pretty picture, fractured into these paradoxes, and obscured by shadows of unknowing. I wondered what do with myself. That summer I picked up a compendium of Gandhi’s writings. I thought initially that he could inform a decision I had already made to personally adopt a nonviolent lifestyle. Up until the age of 14, violence was part of my life. I chose that it would not be anymore. But in Gandhi there was more, a philosophy of living and working in the world that resonated with me. Non-violence does not sufficiently convey in English what he meant by Ahimsa. It was something greater and deeper than merely refraining from physical violence. It was peaceful and just action, not mere pacifism. It required much of the individual, from within the heart.

This is the only permanent thing in life, this is the only thing that counts; whatever effort you bestow on mastering it is well spent.
-Non-Violence in Peace & War, I-114

It also answered the militant Left and any others who saw violence and destruction as the only means to their utopia –  something I had only awakened to in the last few months in Seattle. And Gandhi insisted that freedom was for all, regardless of their beliefs or station in life.  Ahimsa met me where my desire for personal betterment intersected with my desire for social and political change – inner peace and world peace, so to speak.

However much I was taken with these values, reading about them and pondering them was as far as I got before I was distracted by life and the tumult of the next twelve months, and events that would send me in a very different direction.

* * *

House on Ronald AvenueI stayed with my parents for the summer, who had rented a daylight basement just across Bonner Park from the house on Hastings. Right away I started looking for a job. I had hoped to get on as a YCC crew leader, but was notified in March that I hadn’t been selected. I ran around to all the movie theatres in town, but couldn’t find a job. Dad told me that if I couldn’t get a paying job, I had to line up enough volunteer work to stay busy. That was the deal. I readily agreed, and right away went out to do it.

Missoula Art Museum

Missoula Art Museum

First I lined up a few shifts on the welcome desk of the Missoula Art Museum. We were showing a fantastic exhibit of the photography of Philippe Halsman. Between the exhibit and the hours I sat reading art magazines, my knowledge and appreciation grew, especially for painting and black and white photography.

Then I started serving at the Poverello Center, a NPO that served the hungry and homeless of Missoula. I would come and help with the food line they had every day at lunch. This proved a revelation to me. First, the admonition Gandhi made that we ought to live in service to others, that helping the poor was a special obligation, was now something I was suddenly able to practice every week. It also happened to have been what my parents and Church had taught me since I was little.

Second, it had a lasting effect on me. It was Christianity in practice. It was a direct and effectual expression of the way that Jesus said his followers should be in the world. I was struck by how I felt, giving my time and labor on behalf of others. It was awesome. I didn’t feel so bad about myself. In fact, while I was there, I didn’t think about myself. A year later this sense would revisit me and change my life forever.

The back of the Pov in 2012. A planned new building is scheduled to open in 2014.

The back of the Pov in 2012. A planned new building is scheduled to open in 2014.

I argued a lot with Mark. Daring to relate my dalliance with Gandhism, I was met with exhausting objections: it isn’t practical, it doesn’t work, they are hopeless ideals. I wasn’t able to defend something I had just begun to read about. I felt deflated. Back in Seattle (before or after the summer, I don’t recall) Mark also contended vociferously against altruism, that nothing humans did was truly selfless. I believed that we could act for the benefit others and against our own.

Well, of course I did. I hoped I was doing good, and not solely to satisfy myself. Just a little bit of good work did a heck of a lot to counterbalance how badly I felt about myself most of the time. It suggested that I had at least some good impulse, that I wanted to serve some higher purpose. Sometime in the past year, I had what I considered a revelation. I don’t know how it came to me, but it was the realization that bad people – selfish, mean, violent, treacherous – must be unhappy people. Which was the cause of the other, I couldn’t say, but happiness and badness couldn’t reside together.

I had read enough to know that according to Buddhism, human suffering comes from selfish desires. When I turned for a few hours a week from my selfish desires to the needs of others, to help feed the hungry, I felt perhaps that was true. At the Pov I also met some Children of God who lived a vagabond lifestyle as ‘missionaries,’ denying themselves many physical comforts ‘for the sake of the Good News.’

This was not the end of the variety of spiritual paths I was presented with. In Seattle the Church of Scientology spotted me as a promising target, and I couldn’t seem to get away from them: three or four of my co-workers were Scientologists. In fact, I seemed to be wearing a t-shirt that signaled to all the major cults: “Easy Mark. Proceed with Confidence.”

Yes, the religious smorgasbord was spread before me. Yet for all my searching over the last couple of years; all of the different religious people, ideas, groups and cults I had encountered; the books I read, the hallucinations I had, the hours of pondering and debating, I was still in the dark. Neither the Catholics, the Protestants, Gandhi, Camus, Aquinas, the Scientologists, the Mormons, nor the Children of God had shown me the way out of my questing and confusion. And, right or wrong, I hadn’t latched onto anything that seemed to answer the problem of me. I was no better off, as far as I could tell.

One day I was standing at a bus stop in Seattle, wearing my Easy Mark t-shirt. A girl approached me with a clipboard and a pen. I knew right away that she was a Scientologist, and I knew exactly what she was going to say. This had happened a couple of times before. They ask you questions, and don’t even pretend to mark down your answers. The questions are meant to make you emotionally vulnerable to their recruitment pitch: “We can help you with that.” One thing leads to another and a few months later you are penniless and insane, awaiting the big alien invasion. In Portland once, I went as far as being walked to the downtown Church to get a personality test. But I got the heebie-jeebies and left.

“Hi! I’m taking a survey,” she said, flashing a friendly smile and standing about six inches closer than a complete stranger would. “Could I ask you a few questions?”

I am constitutionally incapable of telling someone to get lost. And saying no was just plain rude.

“Okay.” How was I thinking this was going to turn out? I don’t know, dear readers, I don’t know.

“If there was one thing about yourself you would like to change, what would it be?”

Only one? I thought. “Hmm, I’m not sure,” I lied. Now I just wanted her to go away.

“Isn’t there something about yourself you’d like to change?” The smile was fading.

I squirmed. Without even knowing me, she had my number. How’d she get it? I had a fresh incision from my chin to my belly button, and she was tugging at the stitches.

“Probably.” But I’m not telling you.

Her tone became impatient. “Like what?”

“Um…”

“Come on, all of us have something!”

I shook my head. Angered at my failure to comply, she walked away in a huff.

There were a lot of things I would change if I could, including knowing how to talk to someone like that without becoming flummoxed, and letting myself feel guilty for making her mad. Weak, slow on my feet, not knowing what a boundary was between myself and another person, not even a stranger. “No, thank you, I’m not interested, have a nice day,” would have sufficed. But no, one question from her and I need some medication.

Worse was the real answer to her question. I couldn’t have begun to put it into words, but the feeling plagued me of not being good, or good enough, or knowing what to do about it. I never killed anyone, or raped or tortured anyone, but what if what’s wrong with me is what’s wrong with other people, the people I judge, the people who anger me, shock me and repulse me with their outrages against my sense of moral order? If I can’t change, then how can they? I have no interest in becoming some kind of saint, but something is wrong with me. Maybe it means I’m in the same fix as the people who make the world so wrong. The people who made the world wrong a thousand years ago as well. In other words, the people who made me question the faith of my mothers and fathers. Where do I look next?

Who knows?

The Road to Emmaus #2 by Daniel Bonnell

The Road to Emmaus #2 by Daniel Bonnell

Part Four (coming soon)

Laugh Your Life | Part Two

Kick over the wall ’cause government’s to fall
How can you refuse it?
Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
D’you know that you can use it?
-Strummer/Jones
Clampdown

Free Radical

Situated with my friends, with a job and nice apartment in Ballard, I wanted to do more than work and watch movies. First,  I wanted to find and join some leftist activists. In particular, I wanted get involved in the No Nukes/antiwar movement. Somehow I was dissuaded. I became disenchanted by the prospect, or distracted, somehow. I only remember two small incidents; I can’t help thinking there must have been something more that I can’t recall. On May 3rd, there was a huge anti-war rally, and all three of us went to it.

Seattle Rally May 3 1981

At the rally, I talked with a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the same group that had been at the center of a melee I was in the day before at First and Pike.The RCP’s stated goal: the violent overthrow of the US government by the end of the 80s. I wasn’t a communist, but I was certainly leaning toward socialism and was adopting an anti-capitalist attitude that made me at least somewhat sympathetic to ‘mainstream’ communists.  But the RCP’s  program of violence, even civil war, elicited no such sympathy. As my thinking became more radical with regard to change, I also was beginning to see the further one moved from the center, the less freedom was valued. The radical, the ideologue, far enough to the left or to the right, is no friend of the Bill of Rights. Those rights stand in the way of burning down the City and remaking it according to the Perfect Plan. My opposition to violence and basic belief in the Bill of Rights wasn’t going to make me a very good radical.

“Let me ask you something,” I said to him. “You want to take over the government. Make a new constitution.”

“Yes.”

“What’s your position on freedom of religion?”

He hemmed and hawed. “Well,” he said cautiously, “religion is one of the major problems in the current power structure.”

“People in this country wouldn’t  have religious freedom under your regime, would they?”

“No.”

That means forced renunciations or – for those won’t – prison, re-education, death.

“That’s what I thought.”

Turning away, I said to Troy, “At least he’s honest.”

I was thinking, Crap, I’m marching in the same rally with this goon. Someone who’d put a bullet through the head of everyone in my family, if he had the power.

It’s funny. That was a conversation that could just as likely have taken place in 1969. As in Missoula, there was this subculture frozen in time, as if Nixon were still president and bombing Cambodia, and J.Edgar Hoover was spying on them. The world was changing around them and the agents of change had parked themselves in a timeless echo chamber, with street theatre puppets, Grateful Dead concerts and Marxist dogma.

Around that time, I went to the office of the historic underground newspaper, Northwest Passage. I told a guy there my newspaper background and said I’d like to help out. Without showing the least interest, he said maybe I could help with production. I could check back later and he offered a time I could do so.

“Actually, I’m interested in writing, too.”

“Yeah, well, we’ve got plenty of writers.”

I went back and worked an evening on production, although I don’t remember it; I just havenorthwest_blog_pic2 crop letter that says so. In it I also say that all three of us wanted to work there in the fall. We never did, though. I suspect I didn’t really believe that I would get the opportunity to write. Even though the paper was known for accepting articles from readers, and getting a lot of submissions, now I got the impression they had more than they needed.

By themselves, I don’t think either of these events dissuaded me from activism. Perhaps they damped my enthusiasm, though. At 16 I had been welcomed warmly by the small cadre of peace activists at the University of Montana, even though all I had to contribute was my enthusiasm and commitment. But Seattle had thousands of activists, splintered into their little constituencies, none of whom, I thought, would care that I wanted to write for their cause. That’s what most of them were already doing themselves.

That's right: Katherine Hepburn. Letter to Dad & Jane.

That’s right: Katherine Hepburn. Letter to Dad & Jane.

Another factor was the anger and pessimism I sensed. Perhaps I was projecting, but for a town that was firmly of the left, where they held political power and cultural dominance, Ronald Reagan really had a lot of folks in a lather. Things seemed pretty rotten, I suppose, if your goal in life was turning America into one big petroleum-free food co-op with no national defense.

But not so bad if you concentrated on the positive, like getting high and doing The Pogo.

Prior Engagement
My interest in writing wasn’t in any way diminished, and I have a note recording my first serious thought about filmmaking. On April 22, Mark and I had a conversation about writing and making a film. I got very excited about the idea, but I had no idea what it would involve.

April 1981

April 1981

That conversation never developed into a script or anything beyond. But it was the impetus for me to start some screenwriting, which I believe I first put my hand to in the fall. What’s most interesting about my note is that I immediately worried that if we went forward with such an idea (making a film), it could scuttle or delay our Europe plan, and interfere with my seeing Anna. I was trying to stay focused, but having such a hard time!

Mark and Troy both knew that regardless of what I was doing in Seattle, come summer I was going back to Missoula. Classes let out at Cornell, and Anna would be returning on Memorial Day weekend. At some point though, Mark decided he was coming back for the summer as well. Troy and I didn’t care for the idea. We thought it might be hard to make ends meet, especially if we didn’t land summer jobs as we hoped. But he wanted to go, and felt sure he could at least get some work from his mom.

We returned to Missoula on May 28th. Our manager at the King Cinema said we could have our jobs when we came back. She probably couldn’t have promised it, but we did go back to work there when we returned to Seattle.

We had been in Seattle for only little over three months. Already it looked as if our plans had little hope of success. Our earnings did not exceeded our expenses, and our whole plan depended on saving money. Beside that, without any of us knowing it, our resolve was so precarious that only one change of circumstance would be enough to chuck the whole idea aside: something like a falling out, or a girlfriend or another idea.

A better idea.

Laugh Your Life | Part One

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine's Day! I couldn't resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you're taking the steps too soon. And - there is a safety net, don't forget. Much love from all of us - Mom

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine’s Day! I couldn’t resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you’re taking the steps too soon. And – there is a safety net, don’t forget. Much love from all of us – Mom

Living in Seattle is like being in love with a beautiful woman who’s sick all the time.
-Anonymous

But oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Nowhere to go
-Lennon & McCartney

In mid-February, 1981, I dropped out of high school. The plan my friends and I had hatched was this: move from Missoula to a big city, make a lot of money, then travel around  Europe until it ran out. Pure genius, right? A high school dropout like me would find it a cinch to make and save loads of money in a short time. The only puzzle is why others don’t follow this simple sure-fire plan.
Cosmo Motel SeattleAt first we thought we would move to Boston – I don’t remember why. But we settled on Seattle, in part because Troy’s mom lived there. None of us knew much about Seattle, but that only added to the sense of adventure we had about the move. It was anticipation that distracted me from the consideration that at only 17, I was leaving a place I loved more than I realized, for a place I didn’t know, away from parents and friends.

Cosmo - 1976 map

Before shouting, “Hi, Seattle,” make sure you’re in Seattle. -Mick Jagger

We drove the 480 miles to Seattle on February 19. None of us had a car, so a fourth friend drove us. Between us we had $400. We stayed 3 nights at the Cosmopolitan, at that time a cheap downtown motel situated along the Monorail line on 5th Avenue. (It’s a King’s Inn now, and not to be confused with the condo tower on Virginia Street.) We took acid and walked around downtown, then back to the Cosmo where we passed several hours that swirled with hallucinations, buffoonery and maniacal laughter. My only previous visit of note to the city was in 1978 for the King Tut exhibit that was confined to the Seattle Center. Thus my first look at my new home was through a kaleidoscopic window of imaginary color and light, melting, erupting and shimmering in the cold winter night.

* * *
After the Cosmo, we stayed in the apartment of Troy’s mom, Sharon,  and his younger sister. We were there about five weeks. It was crowded. Sharon was gracious, but it must have grown annoying having us at such close quarters for so long.Troy was first to land a job, and I was second. The difference between the job he was able to land and mine ought to have glared at me as the obvious first clue to the consequences of quitting school. Troy began work proofreading multimillion-dollar contracts for a re-insurance company. It paid an excellent hourly wage for an 18-year-old just out of high school. I went to work at the Ballard McDonald’s. A couple of weeks before that I had been hired to call people while they were eating dinner, try to sell them frozen meat and fish, get yelled at and hung up on. I was humiliated and relieved when I was fired after my first shift.

Mark got a job at a downtown movie theatre. Once one of us had a job and a paycheck, we got our own place. We rented a 3-bedroom walk-up in a four-plex in Ballard, on 20th Ave NW near 58th Street. At $345, the rent was on the steep side, but it was spacious and we each had our own room. Our landlord, whose name was Wen Lee, spoke little English and would come to regret renting to us, we dubbed Obi-Wen, the Jedi Landlord.

Thurs. Feb. 19 – Missoula-Seattle/Cosmo Motel
Fri.              20 – Cosmo Motel
Sat.             21 – Cosmo Motel
Sun             22 – Sharon’s – Dave (our driver) left
Mon            23 – Job hunting begins – slowly.
Fri               27 – Hired – Pacific Meat Co.
Mon  March 2 – First nite – fired
Mon             9 – Troy started work/ my interviews
Thurs         12 – McDonald’s – orientation meeting
Fri              13 – First day. Grueling and grubby.
Sat             21 – Mark starts work at theatre selling concessions.
- my notebook, 1981
* * *
I found Seattle in 1981 glittering and gritty, grass-green and pavement-gray. I saw similarities to my hometown of Portland, but it was bigger and in some ways better: It rained less, at least in that year. It was circled by water and mountains, and I was intoxicated when I caught the salt-sea air. Downtown clubs like Wrex and the Gorilla Room shook with local bands like Student Nurse, the Refuzors and the Fartz. There was so much more than we were used to, especially for Mark and Troy, who hadn’t lived in towns bigger than Missoula, MT or Corvallis, OR. There were art-house movie theatres, restaurants of every kind, music stores that blew our minds with thousands of records. There were Broadway shows, big rock concerts, under-21 clubs and bookstores I could lose a day in.
Seattle Ent 75
But we were broke. So, living in Seattle, for me at least, was like being invited to a banquet but not permitted to eat. I remember standing around outside the clubs, but I don’t recall ever going in. There was a cover charge, and I wasn’t about to pay money to get slam-danced.  I probably missed some good music; mostly I missed the early 80’s Seattle pre-grunge punk scene. Almost any of the interesting things we would’ve wanted to do cost money and we didn’t have much of that.

Theatres & the Absurd
I hated working at McDonald’s. Mark told me I could get on at the theatre, so in May, I applied there and quit McDonald’s after five weeks, when I was hired by the King Cinema. It was a single, 900-seat movie house, supposedly the biggest in Seattle, at 6th & Blanchard (currently the King Cat Theater). I worked concessions mostly, sometimes tearing tickets and cleaning the lobby. We were open all day, opening around noon, and usually not busy until Friday and Saturday nights. The rest of the week, it was very slow.
The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974.

The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974. It’s the laughter we will remember.

When I started, we were showing Roman Polanski’s Tess, certainly one of the most visually beautiful movies I have ever seen. Two, three, maybe half a dozen patrons would come in, and once the concession counter and lobby were clean, we kicked back until they emerged 3 hours later. It’s good thing we liked movies, because it was the one form of entertainment that was wide open to us, any time we weren’t working. It was at least one table at the banquet we could eat from. All we had to do was have Gigi, our manager, call the manager of most any theater in town, and ask them if we could have a pass into their show. We could see about anything we wanted. Good and bad, we saw dozens of movies. I saw more new movies that year than any other in  my life: Reds, Gallipoli, Prince of the City, Body Heat, Blow Out, An American Werewolf in London, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Time Bandits, True Confessions, Pennies from Heaven, American Pop, Excalibur, Whose Life is it Anyway?, Ragtime, The Hand, Wolfen, Eyewitness, Fort Apache the Bronx, Taps, They All Laughed, Arthur, The Border, Cannery Row and more. If we really liked a movie, we went back and watched it again. We must have seen Breaker Morant five times. (I saw the big summer movies when I was back in Missoula.) And the ones that showed at the King Cinema Mark and I saw over and over, until we could recite large sections of dialog: Tess, Absence of Malice, On Golden Pond, Bustin’ Loose.

We also made it to art houses like the Harvard Exit where we were dazzled by stunning and strange foreign films, including some foreign and Hollywood classics. The two that stand out in my memory: Lawrence of Arabia, and a truly bizarre, wonderful and labyrinthine 1965 movie from Poland, The Saragossa Manuscript. (For a great slide show of Seattle cinemas, go here.) We saw some lesser known films, like Breaking Glass and McVicar. I saw a great documentary on James Agee.Nineteen Eighty-One, in my mind, was and remains the year of the movie. In the year and a half after I left the King, I saw only two movies.

* * *
I’m a little lost lamb
in the heart of the city

-Nick Lowe

At the outset we had no friends in Seattle. The only people we met were those Mark I worked with at the theatre, and they became our new friends. It was a diverse group of people who ranged from about age 17 to their mid-twenties. We had the good fortune of meeting some excellent people who made our lives richer than they would have otherwise have been. Some of them we only saw at work, but at least half-dozen we saw after hours all the time. We went out to shows, and sometimes partied together. Interestingly, of our dozen or so co-workers, three or four identified as Christians,  a young married couple were LDS, and another contingent hailed from the Church of Scientology, including a guy who taught Scientology classes. There was no shortage of lively and stimulating discussions about religion and the meaning of human existence.

In fact, I was thinking about these things all the time. For that, I needed some mental space – a lot of space – and time alone with the these thoughts I was wrestling with. I would not happen upon that kind of space until a year later, but as long as I kept these thoughts to myself, I could manage some reflection.

But Mark, well, he crowded me. He didn’t mean to. He would draw me into long debates that lasted into early morning hours in which I would put up lame defenses of things I may have wanted to believe, but which crumbled under his persistent and unrelenting arguments. When we first arrived in Seattle, Mark had given me Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which I read the first week at Sharon’s. This essay was nothing less than a blitzkrieg against my liberal idealism and fuzzy agnosticism. I came face to face with the flat-out assertion that our existence is absurd, a result of the collision of our desire for reason with an unquestionably unreasonable world. In a godless and absurd universe, the only real question is suicide. Life, death and everything in between leave us without any claim on hope. But suicide is not an option: paradoxically, the absurd man must reject the “invitation to death” in favor of a life lived on his own terms.The only thing to do is rebel against the absurdity of the world, and live life to the fullest, in “my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.”

Of course I could not begin to accept the premise, even if his solution sounded fine. The world is insane and nonsensical on its face, but that does not force upon me a surrender to this fact as the ultimate and defining truth of my existence. Not everything is absurd. Some things do make sense. Many things are beautiful and good, and if nothing else, as rational beings we have survived by constructing a reasonable reality – if even in our minds – that we can cope with.

If I were certain there was no God, then this premise of the absurd might make sense. But if I am not certain, I cannot choose to live as if this absurdity were inescapable: it might be have an escape. I just don’t know what it is. Knowing about God, if that were possible, would sure help.

Despite my rejection of Camus’ statement of the human problem; despite the apparent seriousness of my thoughts; despite the high unlikelihood of success in Seattle; despite my occasional loneliness and fairly constant confusion, I was, in my day-to-day life, taking Camus’ advice: I was kicking at the wall, I wanted to kick it down, I was taking everything life had to offer, I was trying new things, I was looking for a girl to keep me company, I was feeling my passion and letting it rise, I was drinking whiskey and smoking the herb, I was laughing, laughing every day, laughing down the dead-end street, laughing my life.

We all were laughing, that’s just how we were, how we are, the three of us. We looked at the situation we had put ourselves in, saw the absurdity of our own mistakes and missteps, and we thought it was funny. We laughed our lives.

Down? No, not yet, anyway.

sisyphus-1549 titian

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
-Albert Camus

Mobs | Part One

Warning: strong language, violence and communism.

I have a special disdain for and fear of mobs and the irrational behavior they engender, especially violence. It is not a phobia, it’s more like the healthy fear you should have of the lion’s den.  Outside: ooh look, a lion. Inside: yikes-a-hooty.

I have had two opportunities to witness street mobs in action, from formation to mayhem to dispersion. The experiences didn’t provide me much in the way of insight. But did they did make an enormous impression on me, and confirm for me what is commonly understood of mob psychology.

Marketplace of Ideas

The first incident happened on May 2, 1981, shortly after I had moved to Seattle from Missoula, Montana. I had a Saturday off from my new job at the cinema, and walked down to the Pike Place Market. It was a clear, cool, sunny day.  At the entrance to the Market, at 1st and Pike, there was a small group of demonstrators from the Revolutionary Communist Party. I knew the RCP. They were very active in Seattle. They were serious communists, who called for the violent overthrow of the US Government by the end of the 80s. They meant to wage all-out war on American soil, killing everyone who opposed their violent imposition of a Worker’s Paradise.The American Communists were lame. The Chinese and the Soviets were pikers. The RCP were going to really crack a few eggs.

But, for today, this was a peaceful group of maybe fifteen comrades, more than half of them women, in their twenties and thirties. They had their red flags, Revolutionary Worker newspapers , and a bullhorn. I walked past them, past a man on the sidewalk playing a flute, past the florist into the Left Bank Bookstore, with its door propped open.

The scene of the riot today

After I browsed for about ten minutes, I heard one of the partisans start up on the bullhorn. I walked over to the door.

“Listen up, America! Your time of complacency is coming to an end! The working people will no longer tolerate the oppression by the ruling class! The bourgeois Reagan regime will not survive the coming upheaval!”

I walked out the door to listen. My complacency was already over. It had been, for two years. The man with the flute played on.  Some other people stopped to listen. The speaker gathered some steam. He quoted Marx, from the Manifesto, nothing to lose but their chains, blah, blah, blah, and then handed the bullhorn off to an African-American comrade. He brought the anger. More people gathered as he rained the wrath of the proletariat on the heads of the dirty, racist, honky capitalists who were going to die in the Revolution.

Understand: I was sympathetic to my communist brothers and sisters. But I was strictly for non-violence. I winced at the thought of a revolution by force of arms. Any sensible person knows that’s a dead end, especially in a country that provides for the peaceful change in government.

The crowd began to feed some of that anger back to the RCP. I don’t think it mattered much who these demonstrators were. Their message was angrily anti-American, and the growing crowd didn’t like it. I was close enough to see their faces, and the partisans were sorry they had let this guy on the bullhorn. Someone took it back, as the crowd grew more hostile.

“Hey, listen. Don’t let us do all the talking. I know there’s a lot of people who have a different point of view—“

“Damn right, commie $#@?!”

“Okay. So the horn’s all yours. Come over here and speak your mind.”

Too late for that, Phil Donahue.

“We want an exchange of ideas here, not a shouting match.”

Yeah, violent revolutions are all about exchanging ideas.

Across the street was the legendary 52 Donuts, a grubby, yellowed cafe peopled by lost boys and hoods. They all emptied out, joined the mob, and immediately became the most hostile and violent people on the street. After all, how could you could pass up a little ultraviolence, especially when you’re in a mob? And mobs don’t get arrested until the cops show up — by then the mob is no more. But now, there was crowd of about two to three hundred people.

Here’s some advice from a former radical. If your rhetoric for overthrowing the oppressive capitalist system evokes anger and violence from street kids at 52 Donuts – scroungers, thieves, pan-handlers and hustlers – it’s time to furl your red flags and call it a day. If the struggling masses want to break your head on the pavement, they probably can’t  be counted on to break bourgeois heads at your request.

Well, you know
We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don’t you know that you can count me out
-The Beatles
Revolution

Yep, it turned out the street kids loved America, and not the Revolution. The following year I wrote about this incident for a composition class.

The people (in the crowd) hurled their worst insults at them, and they retorted with Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Then the violence broke forth. It began when a few people went into the Market and bought some vegetables (and eggs), which they threw at the communists as the crowd cheered.

“Hey! Why are you afraid to talk? If you disagree with us, get up here and we’ll have a debate like civilized human beings!”

At the time the irony was lost on me of a group that wanted a peaceful environment to launch a violent struggle in which thousands if not millions of their fellow citizens would be slaughtered. I have since learned this is in keeping with RCP strategy to remain safely on the right side of the law, until the day arrives they can oversee their revolutionary bloodbath.

With that, the speaker received a raw egg squarely in an open eye with such force that his eye started bleeding. At that point I was standing about ten feet away. I knew that staying in that particular spot might soon became dangerous, but I couldn’t persuade myself to leave. Part of it was the excitement…

Then a man, mid-twenties, appeared at my side, said he was a reporter and started interviewing me. I told him how it started. The crowd was pushing in, pressing more tightly around the demonstrators. There was no pushing my way out now. I was in it.

Our talk was interrupted by some confusion behind us. I heard the rattling of the chain-link fence that encased the market newsstand. A tall young man scurried up it and climbed onto the roof. After shouting and whistling, he got everyone’s attention.

“Okay, everybody, listen up! This whole situation is goddamn ridiculous! It’s stupid, and it should stop right now. These people out here – now, I don’t happen to agree with them personally. But dammit, they got a right to be here and have their say.”

A few cheers.

“I think you’re all a bunch of cowards if you don’t have the guts to talk to them like they want. (Booing now) And this bullshit of throwing stuff just shows what chickenshits you are! Now knock it off!”

Some scattered cheers, but mostly anger still. His effort to elevate the discourse didn’t help, other than indicating that, like me, not everyone there was with the mob.The crowd was now a mix of bystanders, trouble-makers looking for a fight, and some persons who would defend the demonstrators, either peacefully or by obliging the trouble-makers with a fight.

People armed themselves. They took the flags from the communists and used the sticks to batter them. They grabbed the newspapers and made a pile with them and the flags and started a bonfire in the street. I saw a young woman being kicked and beaten with a flag pole by a 10 year old kid. The other women had their hair pulled, were slapped, kicked and pushed down. The sticks were broken to give them sharp ends…

Fists started to fly. The reporter and I put ourselves between as many people as we could (holding our arms out and pressing backwards against the mob) to prevent fights. There was little we could do. It was becoming a riot…

There was sheer mass confusion. Shouting, flying objects, fist fights, and the whole crowd pressing closer to the center. Finally the the communists were completely pressed in… and were forced to start retreating. Then the cops arrived, about six or seven of them. They forced their way through the crowd, breaking up fights.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned the blood. There was blood.

One cop broke up a fight and one of the fighters tried to grab him. He got a serious thwacking across his thigh.

“Hey, we saw that!” someone yelled. “Somebody get his badge number!”

“Don’t worry, I got it!” yelled someone else.

(Side note: The police broke up the melee when the communists were utterly hemmed in, kept it from getting worse, and made possible their retreat. Red Papers 4 (1970), part of the RCP’s founding manifesto, advocates and celebrates the murder of police officers at every opportunity. Yeah, you’re welcome, comrades.)

The crowd began to withdraw toward the street again, and disperse, while the demonstrators ran into the Market. I helped a woman off the ground and told to her to beat it – as her brave brothers already had. I stayed until the place was completely cleared. The man playing the flute was gone. The pavement was littered with produce, eggs, and pages from the Worker newspapers. I picked one up, smeared with egg, and kept it.
When I wrote about this in 1982, I saw the episode as a defeat of American values (freedoms of speech and peaceable assembly) at the hands of thuggish American patriotism. I thought the mob should have known they were stepping on rights which were central to our national greatness. But I didn’t consider that mobs don’t know anything. They don’t think. Now I look at the incident more as the confused collision of bored and violent kids feeling the resurgent national pride ushered in by the new president (along with the release of the hostages from Iran and the first space shuttle launch), with incendiary, strident America-hatred – all mashed into the forward, unthinking, unfeeling momentum of a street mob: which more than anything acts likes a mindless, furious lunatic.

Next: Mobs | Part Two

A free flag! Already the Party pours its blessings on a grateful proletarian.