Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Street Years: Part Three

The Davis Square Street Magazine house was a second story apartment in a house where the landlord, Larry, lived downstairs with his wife. She was nice enough, but Larry was a boozer. He soon decided, given the traffic through our apartment, that we must be dealing drugs. It was a tense relationship.

Every few months or so we'd get an issue together. Between Jon's manic-depression and perfectionism, our poverty, and my own chronic distraction, it's a wonder we published at all. Every once in a while though, a truck would come, and we'd get ink all over our fingers as we carried the precious bundles upstairs.

The times of no money continued. I remember standing near a Burger King in the Northeastern University student union. A volunteer was driving me around to drop papers at the distribution points. I was starving. Literally. I smelled the greasy food and longed for a dollar to buy french fries. I read Knut Hamsun's Hunger that year, and knew just how he must have felt.

I would later come to think of this as my boiled potatoes and shoplifted cheese period. Jon was the thief. I'd lost my nerve for that sort of thing by thirteen. He specialized in string cheese and cigarettes, reserving most of his actual money for 12-packs of Rolling Rock. At least we kept the rent paid.

I lived upstairs in a roughly finished attic room across the stairwell from our photographer David, who converted a closet into a darkroom. Jon was downstairs with two of my friends that I knew from college. Doug and Claudia were Central America activists and ran a teeny non-profit called the Student Central America Network. I was hired to run their phone bank.

This was, without question, the most pathetic fund raising operation in the history of half-assed non-profits. We'd cold call from the phonebook, and anyone unfortunate enough to pick up would be treated to an "update." This would begin with the latest atrocity of that blood-soaked time and end with an earnest plea to support student organizing to change U.S. foreign policy.

It's amazing that anyone ever gave us anything. A strong night would bring in around $100. Doug weaved and dodged every time I asked to get paid. The three of us would sometimes visit Al Sais, a friend of Doug's in Cambridge, who would cook a nice dinner and get us high. By this point, eating a real meal was a rare treat.

During one especially desperate week, where I had no money even for bus tokens, Al wrote each of us a check for $100. Mine bounced.

Al Sais would later be fired from his long time job as book keeper for the Central America Solidarity Association in Cambridge. It turned out that at least some of the much discussed string of "FBI break ins" that plagued Old Cambridge Baptist Church during the sanctuary movement were really just Al covering his tracks.

Doug eventually skipped out on his rent and we confiscated his guitar and amp in retaliation. Jon got good at surfer licks, and could slay me every time with his cover of Sargent Barry Sadler's Ballad of the Green Berets. The irony thing was very in.

By then, my focus was turning more and more toward homelessness. It was 1988, and Bennett and Harrison's The Great U-Turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America offered a framework for understanding the incredible growth in visible poverty that occurred over that decade. Homelessness in American cities had tripled or quadrupled, and a politicized grassroots movement had arisen along with a still nascent sheltering industry.

Boston's Kip Tiernan was running around quoting Walter Bruggeman, talking liberation theology, and asking qui bono? "Situations of cultural acceptance breed accommodating complacency," she would say. A bag lady doll went on the market and Kip went ballistic. I found this irresistible.

A few years before, a chapter of the Union of the Homeless was founded in Boston. While there were a few radicals running around acting like this was a real organization, it was clear that there wasn't much there. The happening place was First Church Cambridge, where Jim Stewart and Stuart Guernsey were leading the direct action revolution.

Jim was a cynical divinity school grad who dressed in black, wore James Joyce glasses, and read Adorno and Horkheimer. He was a CD junkie, and ran a small shelter in the church basement. Guernsey was a soft-spoken southern minister who'd somehow come north to run another small shelter in Dorchester. They acted as Northeast lieutenants for Mitch Snyder, and would regularly go on some sort of extreme fast in solidarity with their hero.

Around them were a mixture of politicized homeless people, church folk, and shelter line staff who were down for the revolution. I found myself in the First Church function room more and more often, drawn in by the drama and the people. At the conclusion of every meeting, Guernsey would offer a little benediction. After awhile, Jim took pity and gave me a job doing overnights.

The summer of 1988 brought the CCNV's "Take off the Boards" demonstrations. Mitch Snyder had a genius for mobilizing coordinated direct-action events that kept homelessness in the papers and turned up the heat for action. Take off the Boards was a week of housing takeovers in cities throughout the east coast. There was a boarded up house in Boston's South End that Jim and Stuart chose as a target. A group of around 60 met up at Boston's City Hall for a brief rally, and marched toward our destination.
"What do we want?"
"When do we want it!"
This chant would be good for at least another 20 years. My favorite variation would come at the 1989 Housing Now! march more than a year later. My Boston affinity group came up with "Hey you's guys! How's about a house!"

Much better.

Only a few leaders actually knew where the house was. We came to a stop at a boarded-up Victorian, and a half dozen guys raced up the steps with crowbars to pry at the plywood. An advance contingent was to have taken care of this. They were there and inside, but hadn't managed to loosen the nails.

Within a minute there were about ten cop cars on the street and a couple of horses. These were Boston cops. They don't fuck around.

The plywood came off just as the police swarmed the house. The crowd lost it as cops started throwing bodies down the stairs. No one was prepared for a police riot, and things escalated within seconds to full-on pandemonium, which only made the police more aggressive. They pushed us back to the street, and then to the sidewalk on the other side.

I was stalking back and forth on the street and sidewalk, alternately screaming chants and yelling at cops. I saw one near by catch another's eye, point to me, and say, "him." They closed in.

For me, nothing brings on hyper-focus and a sense of calm like the prospect of getting my ass kicked. I locked eyes with the lead cop, raised my hands loosely over my shoulders, and slowly backed away.

Suddenly, they turned and ran. My scrawny hippy ass was saved by dumb luck and distraction.

The media had arrived, and several cameras were trained on a police horse as it trotted straight down a crowded sidewalk to bowl over a septuagenarian former nun. The cops seemed to know this was the end. The de-escalation was immediate. An ambulance arrived, and she was taken away for treatment of minor injuries. A few arrests were made, but most of us just huddled for awhile in small groups and walked away.

The story played the same way in nearly all of the media. Peaceful protest turns violent. The violence was blamed on the cops, and the TV stations found their footage of the horse running over the old lady irresistible.

This, I decided, was the revolution I was looking for. I'd found my people.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two
The Street Years: Part Three


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this and your other offerings. As the late 80's get father away I sometimes find it difficult to recall exactly how things were and why I have such nostalgic feelings for "those days."
You also helped me remember how "I" was and I have to admit that I sometimes suspect I read, and talked about, Horkheimer because I found Adorno an effete, tiresome pain. You, unfairly and inaccurately discount the important role you played in all of this. Even when you and I disagreed or were being unpleasent to each other, I never anything resembling "pitty" for you and was grateful for what you brought to the shelter and the larger work. You are/were right. Those were days in which many of us "found" our people and ourselves.

Tim Harris said...

I owe you a debt of gratitude for being a friend and mentor during a time when I formed the resolve and convictions that would carry me through the remainder of my life. As I recall, our admiration for Horkheimer and disdain of Adorno was mutual. And pity probably wasn't the right word. But still, this was the job that came at the right time, and allowed me to do the work I was coming to love while elevating me to a more sustainable level of poverty. To me, it didn't feel like pity. Mercy and grace, maybe, would have been better words.

Those days, as I return to a more grassroots style of organizing, have come back full-circle for me, and the passion and conviction of the late-80s seems more necessary than ever. We desperately need a revival of the legacy of Snyder. The ripples created by his work are still spreading.