Four Polaroids

Photo: Clyde

1.

When your best friend manages a rock band you sometimes get to do things like go to a three-day music festival in Asbury Park and pretend to be a tour manager, sleep in the band's hotel room, run around backstage with a plastic pass on a lanyard around your neck. The band was playing with Portishead and with Public Enemy, who I imagine you have heard of, and with Silver Mount Zion, who you maybe have not.

I guess Flavor Flav has not been a revolutionary for a while now--I did not actually know about his reality-television career, which he referred to from the stage--but still; it's Public Enemy. They were amazing. I had seen maybe two cops the entire weekend, but suddenly I was surrounded by them, all of them creeping up on the crowd as if this arena full of almost entirely white people, most of whom had paid nearly three hundred dollars for a weekend pass, was going to be incited to violence simply by being exposed to black people. Instead Public Enemy kept talking about love. "I want you all to take care of each other," Flavor Flav said to us, arms outstretched. Public Enemy dedicated a song to the ninety-nine percent.

The first time I heard Silver Mount Zion I was living in a little town on the North Olympic Peninsula, and my cabin did not have any electricity so I would bicycle over to my friend's cabin and we would listen to records and drink sweet tea with whiskey in it. I can still remember that room, which smelled of the herbs that she always had drying in the windows, and she had put scarves over all the lamps so the light glowed red and amber. I saw Silver Mount Zion play in Portland years later, and it was the kind of show that pulls your guts out, the kind of show that is real and more than real and shows you a thing about the world that you did not understand before you went. It's music that is despair made into something beautiful. Every time I listen to them I want to take everyone I love someplace safe and wait, there, for the end of all things.

I had seen Silver Mount Zion's singer in the hotel restaurant, although I did not know it was him then, and we had looked at each other with the kind of look you give someone you think you know and your mouth starts to form the word "hello" and then you realize, too late, that it is no one you know at all. Some hearts are true: this is a line from a Silver Mount Zion song. They sang it that night, their voices raw, standing in a circle on the stage. "Take care of each other," they said. They dedicated their last song to the ninety-nine percent. Before we went back to the hotel I ate all of the apples out of the fruit bowl in Jeff Mangum's dressing room. "You can take his Perrier, too," said the security guard.

I got up early the next morning and went swimming in the hotel pool. In the elevator a lady gave me a horrified look and clutched her purse tighter to her, and I started laughing, and she got off at the next floor. On the train ride back to New York I looked out at the shimmering wetlands that edge even the ugliest and most industrial patches of New Jersey. Cattails undulating in the breeze, egret stalking through the marsh, white against gold, ripples on the water.

2.

I took B. to Beacon for his birthday. Three months late, but I was too broke this summer to take anyone much of anywhere. We went out to dinner at a Thai restaurant--"I think Brooklyn," said the woman next to us to her date, looking at us, loud enough for us to hear--and after that to a bar, one of those funny old-man bars that small towns always have. The front window had a halloween display, plush bear emerging from a plastic pumpkin and a child-sized plastic skeleton dressed in a suit, with a cigarette in its teeth and its bony feet propped up on a chair. At the back of the bar the Beacon volunteer firefighters were drinking vodka shots and playing a raucous game of pool. There was a television at either end of the bar, one set playing a show about zombies and the other the news, both without sound. On the zombie show some white people were walking down a freeway filled with stalled and driverless cars. One of them turned and pointed, mouth open in a silent shout, and the camera moved back so that we could see the lurching mass of zombies approaching. The white people began to hide under cars. The camera cut to a lone black man, standing and looking about him, bewildered. "Well, he's going to get it," I said, and even as I said it the black man somehow cut his arm on a car door. Blood spurted. The zombies turned and began to shuffle toward him. The door to the bar opened and the couple from the Thai restaurant came in. "We finally did it," they said to the bartender, showing her their wedding rings.

On the second television, the news cut to the video clip of Qaddafi being beaten to death: fists descending, camera jerky, the mouth open and working, the face slick with gore and blood. I looked away, and then back. Away and back. The way sometimes, when you are watching a horror movie, you cannot decide if it is worse to know or not to know, and so you cover your eyes with your hands and then peek through the cracks in your fingers. The clip repeated: once, twice, again, again. "Don't look," B. said, and then when I turned my head again, "I said, don't look." On the other screen, a zombie had got hold of a pretty lady who was hiding in an RV. "I don't know how anyone could think that was scary," said the new husband.

Outside the night was clear and cold and still. On the bridge over the Fishkill I started to cry. It comes at different times for different people but sometimes the sorrow is so great it overtakes you and it is all you can do to stay upright. I tilted my head back to look at the stars, which I never get to see where I live now. The woods around us were alive with crickets and the stream hummed to itself below our feet. I could not erase the image of the head, the blood, the real blood, the fists striking, the open mouth. All of us watching, rapt, waiting for the credits to roll.

3.

The other night I walked from Sixth Avenue to meet a friend in the East Village. The evening was warm but there was a toothiness to it and you could tell the weather was about to change. I walked through a protest--half a block of people carrying signs and shouting slogans about health care, bookended by clusters of bored-looking cops--and cut over to Tenth Street. When we first moved to New York B. and I would walk down that street together and point out the townhouses we'd buy when we got rich. One of them was for sale, once; we looked up the listing. Fifteen million dollars. Planter boxes spilled a veil of green vines down the facade of a building. Through a bay window, I could see a woman at a grand piano, playing scales while a man with a serious face watched over her. Before I came to New York I thought of very wealthy people with a kind of generalized contempt; it was not until I had lived here for a while that that contempt coalesced into a bright hot kernel of hatred. But the trick, of course, is that if someone were to offer me that apartment, that life, that quiet evening at the grand piano, I would not even dream of saying no.

Later, at the bar--my favorite bar, whose name I can never remember, a tiny place where all the lightbulbs are pink and cast your features in a gentle, flattering glow--I had gotten to the place of being drunk where you do not realize yet how drunk you are and it will take another three or four whiskies to really sink in. My friend was giving me advice about my manuscript. The advice grew more grandiose as the night wore on. "Congratulations on your book," said the bartender, when I got up to buy the next round. "My book?" I said, confused, and the bartender pointed to the manuscript where it sat on our table. "Your friend said you wrote a book," he said. "Oh," I said, "right. My book." I wobbled a little at the bar, gazing at the bartender's sweet, generous face, and thought of saying something sententious about how his whole life was unspooling before him now in this magical city, this place we had all come to together to be artists, to make work that would alter the course of the world; something about how any moment could be the moment where everything would begin. Thankfully, I kept my mouth shut, and tottered back to my table.

4.

All of this was before. Before the videos of police beating protesters started circulating; before an armed officer walked down a line of seated students on a public college campus, blasting them with pepper spray as casually as if they were cockroaches; before the seams began to split. The whole world, as they say, is watching. I am sitting now in a cabin in the woods in New Hampshire, playing Brian Eno's Music for Airports, and all those youtube videos are like a bad dream, a thing happening far away. I can hear the distant crack of gunshots; it's hunting season. The weather is warmer than it should be, this time of year. That's a thing we'll get used to.

I am tired. This is something you have to understand. Tired so deep in my bones. I have watched my friends struggle for a very long time. I am a little jealous of the people who see hope in what is happening now, the people who believe that this time, this time they will have to listen. This time will be the time that changes everything. I remember taking the bus into Seattle in 1999, the evening of the first day of the WTO protests, and the air stunk of tear gas and the streets were empty of anyone who looked like a human being. Squadrons of riot cops marched past, face shields down, rifles strapped to their backs. Helicopters circled overhead like flies. I had just started working in domestic violence shelters, a job that I thought then was going to be my life. That turned out not to be true.

When you say the ninety-nine percent, do you mean me? Do you mean you? Do you mean the women I used to work with, most of whom did not end up okay? I don't know. It's not a number I feel safe in, to tell you the truth; I have spent too much time around activist men. But here is the thing you have to understand as well: there are different kinds of ways to live with despair, and giving up hope is not the same thing as giving up. As a writer once said to me, you do not leave the people you love in a burning house just because there is no way to save the building. You go into the flames and hope you are strong enough to get someone out, before there is nothing left at all.