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Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge, New Orleans

To call it a hole in the wall would be generous. Its interior was as well distinguished as it’s dilapidated, ivy-covered exterior, and was lit only with strings of Christmas lights, hence its name. It’s sobriquet were five nonsense words, printed on its sign post and on the $1 beer coozies it sold: Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge, followed by the city in which it was to be found: New Orleans, Louisiana, where I earned my Bachelors Degree cum laude in English. It pains me to recall the name of one of my best college friends, Adam Cola, who was murdered there in February, 2019 in some kind of traffic dispute; just another black kid, one amongst many of NOLA’s victims. While there has never been a place like New Orleans, and never will be, to romanticize it would be to do it a dis-service. I came to be thinking of these things while watching David Simon’s HBO drama Treme, which, among other things, addresses the difficulties of life in NOLA post-Katrina, focusing particularly on the legendary music scene there. I couldn’t get through the whole thing. I found it a frustrating experience unevenly executed. I liked the second season, but couldn’t stand the third and fourth, in which Simon seemed intent on depicting New Orleans as magical and accepting. The characters took their traditions so seriously that they seemed hardly to live any lives outside of them. I, for one, do not remember Mardi Gras as an annual, inspiring outburst of creativity, but rather as a kind of drunken tailgate without the sports. Of course I could be wrong. Tulane University, my alma mater, was known for existing in its own bubble. Still, watching Treme I came to wish to correct the misconceptions Simon perpetrated, and to offer my own crack at a treatment of New Orleans, LA, numerous as those are. Admitting that it’s hard for me to resist such a temptation surely serves to validate Simon’s somewhat pretentious fascination with such cultural heralds as the Mardi Gras Indians, but I can’t help it. Chief among Treme’s crimes of inaccuracy was the impression that everyone in New Orleans seemed to love living there. In this series the ugly specters fear, racism and prejudice hardly rear their heads at all, but I experienced these as defining characteristics of the city, and I think they should be acknowledged. That is the only way we can ever hope they will be expunged, by regarding them with unflinching honesty.

I can see the temptation to make more of what you see. There is certainly a visceral beauty to the city, even, or even especially, as it emerged from its post-Katrina wreckage. Yet one must resist the temptation to sacrifice story and character development in favor of over-explaining that process. The show should concern itself first with the people trying to live their lives, second with the environment around them. They should talk to each other about romances and frustrations and ideas, and only get to the rest of it when they feel like it.

I was in New Orleans from spring of 2004 to the fall of 2008. In this time I only attended one Mardi Gras, and I didn’t feel particularly guilty about that. In Treme the holiday figures heavily in each and every season, almost as a religious observance: to put on weird costumes and run around the city indulging in odd edicts and as if performative eccentricities. I’m not positive, not being a local, but I think this is not exactly accurate. I’m pretty sure that plenty of New Orleanians found Mardi Gras a colossal pain in the ass, and some even went so far as to make themselves scarce on its worst weekends. In the French Quarter the crowds are all tourists, but that’s true of the French Quarter at any time of the year. Me I found Mardi Gras a bit idiotic: you line the curbs of St. Charles Avenue shouting at the parade of floats, contrived of admittedly creative sculptures of wire and cloth, and manned by impenetrable social clubs called Krewes, exclusively peopled with New Orleans’ white elite, who throw you strings of plastic beads that become absolutely useless ten seconds later. I thought it mostly a white holiday, except for the Zulu parade, which traverses some of the city’s rougher neighborhoods, and is manned by black people. I never went to this one either: I believed, while living there, that, as a white person, you truly approach New Orleans’ black social gatherings at your own peril. I don’t think I was alone in this sentiment, although from watching Treme you might come away believing I was.

Adam Cola was black. He grew up in New Orleans and was one of my roommates from Fall 2004 until Fall of 2006. He grew up in a neighborhood located somewhere between New Orleans East and middle class Gentilly, though even he didn’t seem completely positive which neighborhood it was. I think I remember him once even saying it was the Ninth Ward. He was a good guy, easy-going but insightful, smart and unaffected. After Katrina his dad ended up in Washington, D.C., where Adam spent some of his post-Katrina semester. I came back to the city in December, 2005, a few weeks before Tulane’s campus opened. I stayed with a leftist collective called Common Ground, which focused on setting volunteers to work gutting flooded houses — that is, tearing out their walls’ ruined drywall — and delivering supplies to those that needed them. This was my sophomore year, and my first significant foray beyond Tulane’s bubble, so-called because it was entirely possible to attend school there without interacting at all with the rest of the city. Through Common Ground I got to know parts of New Orleans I surely wouldn’t have had Katrina never happened. I’m proud of the work I did there. I did more of it after classes resumed, as there was an untapped sentiment among my fellow students to help out in some way. The university didn’t offer any volunteer opportunities. Me and my friend Jim thusly organized students to go down to Common Grounds’ warehouses on the weekends to get some work done. I like to think I made a difference, that I helped, because it was such a disgusting thing that happened there, so unfair, and neither the local nor federal government seemed either able or willing to do much about it. Certainly shows the meaning behind one of New Orleans’ many monikers: “The city that care forgot.” Everyone around the world saw as much on television. I was glad to put shoulder to the idea of proving that sentiment wrong. However, again, as a white person, I do not believe my attitude of wishing everyone able to come back home was universally shared. There was a brief period of time when the whole city was safe to enjoy at all hours of the day, and all night if you wanted. That changed dramatically, and suddenly. Again, “the city that care forgot.” No one had a plan. Crime was out of control. The police were mean, incompetent and unhelpful. Treme does a good job dramatizing these problems in its second season, which I think was the show’s best. But then here comes the fourth season, which begins with 2008’s election night, the launch of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the strange sight of seeing black and white people celebrating our first black president’s victory with equal fervor. That’s just not accurate! I know as much from my vantage here in Oakland, where I witnessed black people who, for once, didn’t seem to mind being around white people very much. I don’t think it was as big a deal for white people. Racism in the crescent city is impossible to ignore as soon as you leave the French Quarter. From my perspective I saw two sides that did not easily mix to say the least. Worse than it is in Oakland, which, of course, is bad enough. I found black New Orleanians downright scary a lot of the time, and I think this was by design. Treme seemed to have completely missed this ugly facet of life completely. One white character’s wealthy parents exhibit some prejudice, but it seems almost an idiosyncratic affectation, not the symptom of an intractable division lacking all solution. Most of Tulane’s blue collar employees, that is, the administrative staff, the cleaning men and women, and the cafeteria workers, were black. You know what the cafeteria workers called the cafeteria they worked in? “The Plantation.” New Orleans used to be known as the worst place in the U.S. to be a slave: Being “sold downriver” was a serious threat. That’s the history NOLA comes from, and, in the 21st century, I challenge you to find a place where the gap between rich and poor, black and white, was more extreme. You could feel the weight of all that memory, particularly in black neighborhoods. The place was tragically, impossibly flawed, like every American city is, though, in my opinion, more so. I was so sad to hear that Adam had become a statistic. Another friend of mine almost joined his company too: some crazy person wielding a hammer attacked him one night in the French Quarter and bloodied him up; certainly gave him something to think about. Me, I only lasted a couple months after graduation before coming back home. I do not think I would want to raise a family there.

It is interesting how often NOLA appears as if at random in so many instances of popular culture, from Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun to a song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The place oozes with originality and creativity. It’s kinda fun to live amongst so much adversity. There were a couple months in early 2006 where it was actually safe to walk around at night. Adam and I did this once, traversing the neighborhood North of Tulane which, at any other time, is infamous for its patrols of muggers looking for easy college-student targets. This was probably the peak of our friendship. We even hit up Snake & Jake’s, this essay’s namesake. Walked around all night without worry. Two months later this would have been impossible. That year there were 162 murders, almost 80 per 100,000 people. If that had been Oakland it would have come to 320. That number rarely cracks 130 here (not that this is a small number, of course, but I’m dealing in relatives). Perhaps part of NOLA’s beauty is, despite its troubles, its citizens’ fierce defense of the culture and traditions that make it so unique. You certainly don’t see Mardi Gras Indians anywhere else. And even amidst their garish feathers and embroidery they always have such serious looks on their faces, as if they have no idea how odd they look. Treme, in my opinion, seems to have made this practice into a humorless obsession of several of its characters. Me I bet the Indians have a sense of humor about themselves, and that’s why their expressions are so serious. They are pretty awesome to see, and I can imagine cheering them on with a smile on my face. The last time I was in New Orleans, April of 2019, I saw a couple of them walking down the street while I was having a smoke. To this day I regret not running down the stairs and taking a picture of them. They also make really good music. Of course, there is plenty of that to be found, which is why I believe that the Jazz Fest weeks are the best time to visit, not Mardi Gras.

I’ll always be mad at New Orleans for taking one of my best friends, but who to blame? How to fix it all? It will always have a special place in my heart. I believe I’ll make a point of seeing Jazz Fest. If only we could just wave a magic wand and make everyone get along with each other. If only… right?

The Prophecy

It was the last Sunday before the beginning of the semester. The four of them shared the same floor of their dorm, which is how they knew each other. It was a friendship of convenience, as they all knew their social circles would evolve organically with the passage of time.

Berkeley’s South Campus neighborhood centers around Telegraph Avenue, crowded with students and shoppers on the best of days. On Sundays its density was further intensified by street vendors, who would take over the street entirely, barring it of automobiles. It was a fun place to explore; there were worse ways of passing the time than getting a burger, CD, DVD, or pair of earrings. Esme, for one, had not yet seen the place for herself. It was a long way from suburban Michigan to be sure. She’d looked forward to attending college ever since she’d started applying. She and her parents had considered UC Berkeley a reach school, and yet, here she was. Kimmy, Marissa, and Cecilia would tell the police officers later that Esme’s bizarre behavior began with the old woman, who had made them all pause, but singled out their pretty, blonde friend in particular. But, for the most part, the episode occurred as an absolute mystery.

They’d just had pizza at Blondie’s and were walking South on the sidewalk when Esme heard her name.

“Esme Winthrope?” came the question through the air.

She paused to look around, but saw no one she knew.

“You heard me, girl,” the voice came again.

Taking the cue from Esme, the rest of the group stopped too.

Esme kept looking. She hadn’t liked the sound of what she’d heard: the tone was raspy and imperious, as if it had an edict to impose.

Her eyes settled on the only person looking at her: a white-haired old woman seated at a simple card table with a red tablecloth, a crystal ball, and an un-dealt stack of tarot cards. She wore a plain, wash-faded green T-shirt and a similarly worn pair of jeans. She wasn’t smiling, exactly, but there was mirth in her eyes.

“Do you know her?” asked Kimmy, perhaps recognizing Esme’s discomfort.

“I don’t think so,” she answered. “I’m sorry, do I know you?”

“Not at all,” came the response.

“Then how do you know my name?”

“I suppose reality works in mysterious ways. But believe me when I tell you, I only want to help.”

“Whoa,” said Marissa. “Let’s go.”

“Some kind of stalker maybe,” said Kimmy. “Come on, Es, let’s go.”

But Esme wasn’t sure she wanted to. She’d felt fear a few times in her life, when a high school love interest became too handsy, when she and her father had gone to an art opening in downtown Detroit, but this was something else… The woman truly looked at her as if she had a favor to give.

“Please,” said the woman, “have a seat.”

“What do you want?” Esme asked.

“For $20 I’ll tell you.”

The girls looked at each other. None of them knew what to say.

“What do I get?” Esme asked.

“I might, possibly, be able to save your life.”

“Oh my God, what are you talking about?”

“For $20 I’ll tell you,” the woman repeated.

Marissa took Esme’s hand, a worried look on her face. “Don’t worry about it, Es. She’s crazy. Let’s go.”

“But how does she know my name?”

The old woman’s smile grew. There were gaps in her teeth.

“It’s a take it or leave it proposition, silly girl. I’m only going to be here once.”

Esme was quite dismayed. There was much callous wisdom in the slate-grey eyes staring at her.

She looked at her new friends: “You guys go on ahead of me. I’ll catch up.”

“Are you sure?” asked Marissa.

“Yes, please, I have to find out what this is. Just go to La Val’s without me. I’ll catch up.”

The three of them exchanged a glance, then Cecilia made a motion with her head and urged them on. Finding Esme apparently decided, they left.

“You’ve made the right choice,” Esme heard. “Twenty dollars please.”

The woman put out her hand.

Esme sat down at the table and went into her purse.

“If you want to save my life what do you need $20 for?”

“The spell only works if it is paid for. Sorry, but I’m not in this for my health either.”

Esme found the money and handed it over.

“I understand you’re starting class soon,” said the woman.

“Yes. I mean, in a couple of days.”

“I know you’re thinking about pre-law.”

“Oh my God.”

“That means maybe an English major.”

“Jesus Christ, do I know you?”

“No one knows me, but I know everyone. I’m something of a supernatural being, and I’m at odds with a group of warlocks who have decided to make your body a playground.”

Little thrills of fear kept traveling up Esme’s spine. If she was a con-artist why had she only asked for $20? None of it made sense.

“You’re going to have a dangerous experience today.”

“I’m sorry, what’s your name?”

“My name’s Jacqueline. It doesn’t matter, this is the only time we’ll meet.”

“Okay.”

“They’ve been watching you all day. They’ll be here soon.”

“Okay.”

“Listen carefully, Esme Winthrope. No matter how bad it gets, you have nothing to be afraid of. Even your friends might turn on you, but if you keep your wits about you you’ll be absolutely fine.”

“What…”

“I know, what am I talking about? Don’t worry, you’ll know when it happens.”

“Why me? I mean, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“It’s your friend Marissa. Did you approach some boy a few days ago?”

“Boy?”

Jacqueline nodded, still smiling. She was playing with the $20 bill, rolling it and unrolling it with both her hands.

“Exactly. Boy. Someone Marissa liked.”

“I… I guess so. Donny Harmon. He lives next to our suite.”

“Well, there you go.”

“There I go what?”

“I’m sorry Esme, but that’s as much as I can do for you. Just don’t be afraid. That’s the trick. No matter how scary it gets, it won’t last forever. Don’t do anything rash or crazy, and I think you’ll survive.”

“You think? You’re not positive?”

“That’s right. I think.”

“What, do you want more money? I’ll give you more money if you’ll make it go away, whatever it is.”

Esme held her purse up like an offering, though she wasn’t sure how much more money she had.

“Goodbye Esme, I wish you all the best.”

Jacqueline put the $20 bill in her pocket, smiled again, more sympathetically this time, and then clapped her hands. With that she disappeared, and Esme found herself seated on a fold-out chair without a table in front of it. She looked around, but the apparition was nowhere to be seen.

Esme was breathing hard and fast. A cold sweat had broken out on her forehead. She wiped it with the back of her hand, distractedly. She tried to get her nerves under control. The worst thing about what she’d just heard is she’d believed every word of it.

She thought of how put out Marissa had seemed to find Esme successfully flirting with Donny Harmon. But it was Marissa’s own fault. She’d called the boy “cute.” If you down’t want the cradle robbed why would you announce your feelings for all to hear? Esme had done it almost out of a reflex.

She realized she’d lost track of time. The sun was setting and the street vendors were beginning to pack up. The usurpation of crowd noise around her was expectedly incoherent.

She took her phone out of her purse and called Marissa. After several rings she answered.

“Hey Esme, where are you?”

“I might ask you the same question.”

“We’re at La Val’s. How did it go with the old lady?”

“Oh, you know, about as can be expected.”

There was silence on the other end. Esme was afraid her tension was palpable over the phone, but didn’t know how to hide it.

“I’m on my way,” she said. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

There was another pause on Marissa’s end, then: “Like what?”

“I’ll ask you when I see you. Don’t go anywhere, I’ll be right there.”

Esme hung up and put her phone back in her purse. She stood up, heart beating harder than she wanted it to. When she heard her name again, from another unfamiliar voice, she spun around, but saw only a pair of Asian students walking towards her. But there was something strange in their eyes, as if they knew her and expected her to look at them.

They went past her and were swallowed up in the crowd.

Indeed, Esme felt something wasn’t right. Somehow, she was in danger. She wished the old woman would come back and tell her how best to handle her current incorporeal, ill-defined predicament. It was fair to say she felt exposed somehow.

She decided to continue on to La Val’s anyway. Maybe the feeling would disperse on its own. It was only a block away. She tried not to meet anyone’s eyes as she went, but she kept thinking of Jacqueline, and, turning left on Durant Avenue, thought she heard a piggish squealing that almost resembled words. It came from right behind her, loud and primordial. She felt a warm breath on the back of her neck.

Letting out a scream she spun around, but there were only more unfamiliar people behind her, yet, like the Asian students had, they looked like they knew her.

“Are you talking to me?” Esme called out.

The pedestrians simply walked around her, giving no answer.

Stay calm. Stay calm. The old woman had told her not to be afraid. That’s what Esme told herself, but found it harder to accomplish than she would have wished. The thought of Marissa and Donny Harmon came back to her. She had to find her friends. Maybe they could help. At least she wouldn’t be alone. The thought of going back to her dorm room alone was not comforting: she was so far from home, after all.

La Val’s was a bar and arcade in a basement under a Tower Records store. As Esme descended the stairs another person came through the doors looking right at her. Esme let out another shriek: it was a smiling, pink-skinned pig-looking thing, with a fringe of wispy white hair, beady, button eyes, and a big, flat nose. That explained the strange grunts she had heard earlier.

He grinned cruelly as he walked past. Esme closed her eyes and went on down the stairs. Marissa. It had to be Marissa. What would she have to say for herself?

She saw her friends gathered around a pool table near the back of the bar. They all had plastic cups and were sharing a pitcher of beer.

Esme approached.

“I hope you have enough for me,” she said squeakily, with an unconvincing grin on her face.

“Go get a cup from the bar,” said Cecilia. “Since I’m the only one here with a fake ID give me your dough when I go back for seconds.”

Esme’s eyes met Marissa’s, and she was horrified to see that there was indeed something there: an interest, as if she didn’t know whether to be slightly afraid and slightly guilty. Apparently the old woman hadn’t been lying.

Esme took off her blue Cal sweater and dropped it over the back of a chair. She heard the strange pig noises down here too, but was too frightened to get a detailed lay of the land.

She walked self-consciously through the crowd to the bar and eventually got the bartender’s attention. He gave her a plastic cup and she took it back to the pool table, butterflies in her chest.

She poured herself a glass of beer then sat down, crossed her legs, and drank.

Marissa had a pool cue in her hands. The game was between she and Kimmy. Marissa lined up a shot and fired, missing badly.

“Oh man, that was terrible,” said Esme. “My grandma could’ve made that shot.”

Marissa looked at her, with that same mysterious expression. She looked like she was at a loss for words.

Esme grinned toothily, then, over Marissa’s shoulder, saw a heavily-haired thing pass by and disappear into the dark. She put a hand over her mouth to silence a shout, then she took another swallow of beer. Perhaps if she pretended it wasn’t happening it would go away on its own.

Kimmy took a shot and sunk it. She was a good looking girl, tall and full-figured, out-going and confident. Esme became envious of her fearlessness. She didn’t want to face Marissa with all the questions she had. Was it possible she was going crazy? She hadn’t felt that way last night, talking to Donny Harmon, though she’d sensed the jealousy in Marissa. Esme didn’t even like the boy that much. Why had she felt the need to inspire such feeling in her new friend?

Cecilia sat down next to her.

“Are you okay?” she asked as Kimmy circled the pool table and the Ramones came on on the jukebox.

“What do you mean?” Esme asked.

“I don’t know, you look kind of pale.”

“Really?”

“That old woman sure was creepy.”

“Yeah?” Esme asked, raising her voice so everyone could hear her. “What’s Marissa got to say about that?”

“Who? Me?” Marissa said, pointing at herself.

“What are you talking about?” said Kimmy.

“I don’t know, ask her. The old woman said it was her fault.”

Great, Esme thought, I’m making a fool of myself. But at least Marissa was listening.

Cecilia missed her shot then approached Kimmy and Esme. She poured herself another glass of beer.

“What are we drinking?” asked Esme.

“Trumer Pils. Only the best.”

“Thank you, so much. I wish I had a fake ID.”

“There’s a part at Alpha Omega tonight. I’m sure somebody there would be happy to make something like that happen for you.”

“Yeah?” Esme went on, voice still raised. “Someone like Donny Harmon?”

There was an unsatisfying crack from Marissa’s botched shot.

“Shit!” Marissa shouted, then walked quickly to the opposite end of the pool table where she found the chalk and began grinding it into her cue.

The pig noises sure were getting loud, and Esme covered her eyes so as not to see another one walk right past Marissa, grinning loudly. Could her friends not see them? What on Earth was happening to her?

Cecilia sank the 8 ball then came over and poured herself the last of the beer. Marissa sat down alone at another table. Kimmy kept looking between she and Esme. Esme, for her part, knew she looked every bit as terrified as she felt. It was like someone was playing a joke on her and she was falling for it. But what could she do? The animal people were everywhere, laughing at her.

She finished the beer in her plastic cup, then she fished around in her purse and brought out a $5 bill, which she handed to Cecilia.

“Here,” she said. “For round two.”

“Thanks,” said Cecilia, who then headed for the bar.

Now sitting alone, Esme forced herself to look out at everyone else. The animal people were everywhere, grinning or openly laughing. There were regular people too, but they seemed completely unaware that anything was amiss. The more Esme looked at the demons the more they looked back at her. They started coming towards her, and formed a semi-circle around the pool table, with cruelty in their eyes and mugs of beer in their claws.

Esme began to hyperventilate as Cece came back. Only Marissa, perhaps, seemed uncomfortable, but when Esme met her eyes Marissa quickly turned away and knocked back another draught of beer.

“Jeez, Es, are you okay?” asked Kimmy, but, when Esme turned towards her, she too began to change: her eyes yellowed, her skin darkened, and hair began to grow on her arms and shoulders. Her mouth morphed into a snout, with two wet nostrils at the end of it, and her hands became paws with leathery pads and big, protruding claws. She placed one of these paws on Esme’s knee and the lips on her snout pulled back into a snarl of equal parts mirth and menace.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” said Kimmy in a growling, guttural voice. “This is almost the end of it.”

Cece, now pig-shaped, imposing, loomed over her.

Esme began to cry. She pushed Kimmy’s hand away.

Then Marissa appeared before her. She still looked human. She took Esme’s empty cup out of her hand. The expression on her face was one of shame and apology.

“I’m so sorry, Esme,” she said. “I think you should get out of here. I think you drank too much.”

“How could you do this to me?” Esme shouted.

Marissa looked a little longer, then turned and began racking the pool balls for the next game.

Esme let out a full-throated scream as Cece and Kimmy closed in on her.

She shot out of her chair and kept her head low and pushed as violently as she could through the furry or pink-skinned bodies around her.

She ran out of La Val’s into the early evening night. She forgot to look both ways as she ran across Durant Avenue, completely missing the 18-wheeler barreling down the street. There was a loud honk and an unsuccessful squealing of brakes. Esme never knew what hit her. In this way, bloody and final, the issue was decided.

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It Depends on the Imponderables

This story was originally published in the Autumn 2019 issue of CultureCult Magazine.

The woman who walked through the front door of the coffee shop looked just like her Facebook picture. It had been the only picture she had posted of herself. This fact alone had struck Jonas as strange enough that he thought he might have struck gold. Maybe she didn’t have any friends. Or maybe, like him, one night in a fit of lonely frustration she had deleted all her old pictures. You never know.

When she noticed him he waved at her with a sudden, nervous smile on his face, like he had just pasted it on. He was probably about thirty, had a dirty mop of unruly brown hair on his head and wide brown eyes. Marilyn thought he looked nice enough, which was too bad: it was easier when she didn’t like them.

Instead of going to his table she went to the counter and ordered a double cappuccino. The ruse wouldn’t work if she made it too easy. The barista took her name. Marilyn stood with her back turned towards Jonas while she waited at the counter.

Jonas watched her. Standing still, composed, there was a quiet to her, a mystery, with deep dark eyes and her long black hair. A dark, solitary lady. In the time it took for her drink to arrive, he found himself making her into the woman of his dreams. But he had been doing that since they’d messaged each other, when they’d spoken to each other on the phone, and on the long drive here. He had to stop himself sometimes and remember how he had been disappointed in the past, how high expectations were meant to be dashed, that his best chance to find romance or fulfillment was to take risks. But he had been doing that already. This was all quite uncharacteristic of him.

The barista brought Marilyn her cappuccino but did not meet her eyes. Marilyn had been coming to this Starbucks for years, yet no one recognized her by sight. In the light of day the eye simply slid over a woman like her. That was by design, part of her power to disappear.

Her thoughts shifted back to Jonas when she turned and saw him looking at her, not smiling any more, perhaps struck suddenly shy. But the conversation they’d had on the phone had been quite… invigorating. She’d sensed on the other end of the line a person who was enjoying the thought of taking a chance.

She walked towards him and told herself that she was not inherently evil, she just did what she must to survive.

He stood up when she reached his table and he extended his hand. His grip was soft and considerate.

“Are you Marilyn?” he asked.

“I sure am.”

“I’m Jonas. And you are even lovelier in person.”

“Thank you.”

Marilyn pulled a chair out and sat down. Jonas followed her lead. The nervous smile was back on his face when he asked her why she’d chosen to meet here.

“I don’t know, familiarity mostly. It’s close to my apartment and I’ve been coming here for a long time.”

“Do you know the employees by now?”

“Not a one.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re pretty. People notice the pretty ones.”

“They don’t notice me.”

“Why do you think that is?”

Because I don’t want them to, she thought.

“I don’t know,” she said instead. “They just don’t.”

Jonas took a sip of coffee. Marilyn noted that there was a newspaper on the table open to the front page. Most likely he hadn’t been here long.

“People tend to notice me,” he said.

“You’re a good looking man.”

“But they also tend to think I’m just another Bay Area yuppie.”

“And that’s not the truth?” she asked, as she found herself feeling him out.

“Sure isn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Well I guess I’ve never quite fit in with the typical bridge and tunnel crowd.”

“You’re quite up front about that.”

“Well who else would have started something like this, with a total stranger?”

“Don’t worry, I’m weird too,” she said. “And it’s true, you’ve strayed a little far from your nest today.”

“Fresno is a long drive,” he acknowledged.

“You must not see ladies much.”

“I thought we went over this in our telephone conversation,” he said. “I went to college out of state, and I didn’t have many friends in high school. Now I’m working nights. Therefore I don’t know many people any more.”

“So chatting up randomly friended women on Facebook is your best shot at meeting someone?”

“Well it was worth a try.”

“Even if they live three hours away?”

Jonas shrugged.

“Anything’s possible,” he managed, with a note of defensiveness.

Marilyn smiled. A lonesome soul. Perhaps she couldn’t have picked a better mark. The only people that would miss him would be his coworkers, and she would bet good money that none of them knew a thing about him either.

“So what’s the plan?” she asked.

He shrugged again and grinned. “I don’t know. Like you said, I’m on unfamiliar ground.”

“But you’re supposed to have a plan. Don’t you know that?”

“I thought we’d finish our coffee first, get to know each other.”

“What do you want to know?” she asked, leaning in, arms crossed on the table.

Jonas noticed that she was wearing a dark shade of lipstick. It matched her hair and eyes, which, twin black moons, were fixed on his own. She was very attractive. She also seemed very interested.

“Where were you born?” he asked.

“Israel.”

“That’s unusual.”

“Thank you.”

“Did you grow up there?”

“I grew up there, and around Europe, later America. My mother and father worked for an international consortium of sorts.”

“So you’re a world traveler?”

“I have traveled the world, yes.”

Jonas improvised a quick set of questions in his mind.

“When did you come to America?” he asked.

“When I was fourteen,” she lied.

“Funny, you don’t speak with an accent.”

“I learned the language earlier,” which was true.

“What was the first city you stayed in?”

“New York.”

“I love New York,” said Jonas.

“So do I.”

“Chicago too.”

“I’ve been to Chicago.”

“Sounds like you’ve been just about everywhere.”

“Sounds like it.”

“So I have to ask, how did you end up in a crummy little town like Fresno?”

“That,” she said, turning her face slightly, mischievously, to the side, “is a story worth telling.”

“Well I’d love to hear it.”

“I don’t want to wear myself out. Besides, we’re getting uneven: you know far more about me now than I know about you.”

“Trust me, I’ve already told you everything worth knowing.”

He checked his watch.

“It’s five o’clock,” he said.

“Okay,” Marilyn answered.

“Is there a park of some kind nearby? I’d love to take a walk.”

“Sure there is. That sounds like a fine idea.”

“Here, let me help,” he said, rushing to his feet and circling the table to hold her chair for her while she stood up.

“Thank you,” she said, touched despite herself.

“Let me help you with your coat,” he said, and held it for her so she could put her arms in.

“What a gentleman,” she said.

It’s making me sorry, she thought. He seems like a really sweet guy. But she was so hungry. It had been far too long. It was again those familiar, hollow pangs of remorse that bothered her.

They walked to the front doors and exited into the cool Central Valley evening.

They were in the most fashionable part of Fresno, the Tower District. There were record stores and restaurants. Trees lined the median that divided the street in two. Light traffic cruised past them as Marilyn led the way down the sidewalk.

“I take it you’re the lonely type,” she said.

“I guess I am.”

“It’s easier to open up to strangers, isn’t it?”

“Strangers who live three hours away from me.”

“I bet you don’t even know why you’re here.”

“Of course I do.”

“What?”

“Like any man would, I came for romance.”

“I don’t know why I came,” she lied, and badly, putting pitches to the words, surprising herself.

Jonas looked at her. He might have caught it.

“Maybe we’re something like each other,” he said. “Only I live somewhere more cosmopolitan than you do. There’s much more happening in Oakland. I don’t know why a person like you would live here.”

“I don’t either.”

“I bet you’re well read.”

“You’re right, I am.”

“Do they even have bookstores here?”

“We have a few. There’s a Barnes & Noble’s right over there.”

“You could do better.”

“I probably could.”

They reached an intersection and waited for the light to change. The sun was setting beyond a line of trees in front of them. There was a slight breeze.

“Is it dangerous here?” Jonas asked.

“No it’s not. Especially not with me around.”

Jonas laughed. Marilyn hadn’t been joking.

“It’s dangerous in Oakland,” he said.

“Its reputation precedes itself.”

“Maybe next time you can come visit me up there.”

“Maybe.”

“I’d show you a good time.”

“I’m sure you would.”

“Aren’t you having a good time with me?” he turned to her, grinning.

She looked at him and nodded.

“Then this shouldn’t be the only time we do this.”

“Come on, Jonas. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” But she had felt warmth at what he’d said.

The light changed and they crossed the street. Jonas’ steps had grown noticeably lighter.

“The park I’m thinking of is a cemetery,” Marilyn explained. “It’s past the zoo, which is closed. It’s nice, but unimpressive. It won’t take us long to walk through it.”

“What about getting a drink afterwards?”

“You keep pushing me, Jonas!” she piped, an unfortunately musical trill to her voice. Even a creature such as herself was not immune to flattery.

There was neither foot nor motor traffic on the block before the cemetery. The zoo’s greens were to the north and an empty school building lay to the south. Marilyn realized that if she wanted to she could probably do it now.

Her stomach growled. She shivered.

“What do you do for fun?” Jonas asked.

“I wander the streets.”

“That doesn’t sound like fun.”

“I’m not a very fun person.”

“I’m having fun with you.”

They reached the cemetery, a short, blocks-long plot of land bristling with graves and dotted with trees. Twilight had fully descended, the sky a deep aquamarine. Stray wisps of dirty gray clouds passed overhead. Marilyn looked up at the moon and was not surprised to see that it was full. Her meals usually coincided with a full moon.

Jonas was talking about himself, about the things he did in his spare time. He was an amateur writer, had a couple short stories published and hoped one day to write a full book.

“Writers are loners by nature, aren’t they?” Marilyn asked.

“A lot of them are.”

“I used to be a writer,” she said.

“Oh yeah? What made you stop?”

“I was never published.”

“That’s no reason to stop. If anything that’s a reason to keep going.”

“You don’t understand. I wrote about some messed up things.”

“I’d love to read some of it.”

“No you wouldn’t.”

“Yes I would.”

“You’re sweet.”

“Did you like it? I can help you get back to it if you want.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

They were on a walking path traversing the cemetery. From where they were you couldn’t see the cars parked on the streets. There were no lights here. It was almost perfectly silent. She couldn’t have picked a better place.

Jonas, perhaps appreciating Marilyn’s pensiveness, had stopped talking. She looked at him. He walked with a slight stoop, as if he were checking the path for cracks to step over. There was a self-consciousness about him, but also a kind of boyish determination. If she didn’t kill him tonight he might go on to lead a full and worthwhile life. Then again she had never been too astute an observer of the human scene, they being, for her, more a source of nutrition than of comfort or inspiration.

“I like you,” she said. “I get a good feeling from you.”

“Thanks.”

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You’re not going to hurt me. Why do you think I’ll get hurt?”

“I just do.”

“Women have thought that about me in the past. It must be my boyish nature.”

Marilyn smiled, but beyond his words she could hear blood pumping in his arteries.

“It’s not just that,” she said.

“What do you mean then?”

“You never should have come here.”

Jonas stopped walking, and she turned fully to face him, looking up at him. They looked into each other’s eyes and Marilyn felt her breath pick up.

“I’m glad I met you,” Jonas said.

“You’re too nice.”

“I’m not being fake.”

“I don’t care.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I might ask you the same thing. Drive three hours to meet a strange woman in a strange town. That’s how bad things happen. How do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

“I didn’t have anything else to do.”

“Walking through a cemetery at night.”

“That was your idea.”

“But you came along.”

Jonas cocked his head to the side. He couldn’t tell if she was pushing him away or drawing him in. Maybe she was doing both.

“I know we just met,” he said, “but I have to ask. What’s wrong?”

Marilyn clenched her fists, hanging by her sides. She didn’t want to do it.

“You wouldn’t understand,” she said, a small part of her, perhaps, wishing that he would.

Catching her unawares, Jonas stepped forward, and took her left hand in both of his. He looked into her eyes earnestly, and Marilyn saw a twinkling in his.

“I should cheer you up, shouldn’t I?” he said.

“What’s that?”

“Yeah. You need to be cheered up.”

“I do not.”

“You need a good luck charm is what you need.”

“A what?”

He let go of her hand and took a quick survey of the cemetery. Then, like a dog chasing a squirrel, he bounded off in the direction of a towering pine tree. He picked up speed along the way, and with surprising athleticism, ran up the trunk far enough to catch hold of the lowest hanging branch. He pulled himself up and swung a leg over the top, then hoisted himself onto it. He looked at her and grinned.

“What the fuck are you doing?” she yelled.

He picked something off the branch above, then dropped down onto the lawn. He trotted back towards her, and, without missing a beat, stopped in front of her and clasped that something into her hand.

“What the hell?” she laughed.

She found herself holding a smooth green pinecone.

“It’s a pinecone,” he said.

“It sure is.”

“It’s good luck.”

“What planet do you come from?”

“Think about it,” he said, breathing hard. “That tree I took it from is huge, it had to have been there for decades, maybe longer. All it took was one seed off one pinecone. Now its roots are so deep you’d need a backhoe to get it out of there.”

“You have quite an imagination.”

“You hold in your hand thousands of years of pine trees, if you are so inclined to travel the country planting them.”

She laughed again and the smile stuck to her face. Jonas’ own smile, the slightly nervous one she’d seen at the coffee shop, was back.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get a drink.”

He tried to pull her down the path. He was still holding her hand.

Marilyn resisted.

“You have no idea,” she said.

“I like you too,” he answered. “Maybe I want to learn.”

He kept pulling her. His hand was warm. When she finally let him guide her away she didn’t know whether it was because she wanted to eat him or she wanted to fuck him.

“It’s a crapshoot, meeting people,” he said. “You never know what might happen.”

Both fell silent while they left the cemetery. Jonas led them back the way they came, to a seedy looking Mexican bar they had passed.

Marilyn put the pinecone in her purse. She resolved that, whatever happened, she wasn’t going to kill him.

The bar was dimly lit, illuminated by a pair of dusky yellow lights. There were two men who looked like construction workers playing pool in the back. There was a line of two men and a woman seated at the bar. Other than them and the bartender the place was empty. She and Jonas would have privacy. Jonas found himself confident and optimistic, while Marilyn wondered why she had let him bring her here. She should know better. Being alone was the cross she had to bare. She saw people with families, people with friends, and she envied them. She even envied Jonas, and the moral life he could choose to live. She didn’t want to be the reason his was cut short.

Jonas ordered two martinis at the bar, leaning forward with his wallet out. He was quite skinny.

When the drinks came Jonas led her to a table by the grimy street-side window. Marilyn rushed around in front of him and pulled out a chair.

“My turn,” she said, smiling over her shoulder at him. “Have a seat.”

“Ah, a role reversal,” he answered and sat down.

“Chivalry isn’t dead,” she joked.

Marilyn sat across from him. It was like back at the coffee shop, only darker.

She smiled again. She set her purse down beside her chair and thought about the pinecone. She drew from it a kind of energy that to her was wholly unfamiliar.

“Are you happy?” she asked him.

Jonas had been taking a drink from his martini. He coughed slightly, looking at her eyes, whose expression she was afraid she couldn’t control.

“Right now or in general?” he replied.

“In general.”

“No I guess not.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“How about you?”

“Not at all.”

“So we have that in common too.”

“It’s hard to be lonely and happy at the same time.”

“It certainly is.”

They both took a sip from their martinis. There was a loud clack of a pool break starting a new game.

“Why do you ask?” said Jonas.

“I don’t know. I was curious.”

“I think you like me.”

“I do like you, I just don’t want to hurt you.”

“I’m not afraid.”

“You should be.”

Jonas shook his head. She’d said this several times now. Why should he be afraid? It must be a part of her defenses. He wouldn’t let it deter him. She was beautiful, and he liked her.

“You came here to treat yourself, didn’t you?” Marilyn pushed.

Jonas nodded. “To do something out of character.”

“But I could have been anyone.”

“I think we’re getting along. Don’t you like your pine cone?”

She laughed.

“Are you being coy?” he asked.

She was. She was even flirting, in her way, obviously interested, obviously craving companionship. She remembered vividly the last time she had allowed herself to indulge in such. It had ended in blood and tragedy, just as it always had before. But look at him. He was enthralled!

“You know,” Jonas was saying, “I can tell you’re strange.”

“I am.”

“It always surprises me, the things you don’t expect about people.”

“That’s a pretty vague way to put it.”

“I didn’t know what to expect coming here.”

“I know.”

“I still don’t.”

“I know that too.”

“Can you read my mind?”

“No.”

“So how do you know that?”

“Because you’d be a fool to think you know what to expect, and I don’t think you’re that.”

She crossed her legs angrily. She brushed her hair back from her face, leaned in towards him, tense, holding his eyes with her own, finding him to be just as transfixed as he’d seemed all night.

Her voice quavered when she said: “I’m a monster.”

“Say what?”

“I eat people to stay alive.”

“I don’t even know how to interpret that.”

She started to grin, and Jonas watched her lips part to reveal a set of perfect white teeth. She did look kind of frightening, taut and unpredictable. There was certainly danger about her.

“You’re not taking me seriously,” she said.

“That you’re a monster?”

“I am.”

“Oh my God, I’m so disappointed.”

“If there’s one thing I’m not,” Marilyn said, “it’s disappointing.”

“See? You’re flirting with me.”

“For you all it takes is a pretty face.”

“Not for me. You’ve charmed me out of my shell.”

Marilyn believed him, and found herself flattered anew. Maybe she wasn’t hopeless. Maybe she could be with a man without eating him.

“Do you want to go?” she asked.

“Go where?”

“Back to my place.”

Jonas’ heart started pounding.

“As long as you promise not to eat me,” he joked.

She shook her head.

“I can’t make that promise.

Their eyes still locked, hers so hungry and searching, Jonas found himself of a sudden wondering if there was any truth to what she was saying. It was such a strange thing to say, inexplicable really. At the same time that she liked him she was trying to push him away. Was it for his own good?

“Don’t try to get inside my head,” Marilyn said.

“I wasn’t.”

“Yes you were.”

Jonas picked up his martini and took a healthy swallow. Marilyn watched him. Maybe she could last a little while longer.

“Okay let’s go,” he said.

“Really?” she answered. His response was a burst of sunshine. It made her feel happy. Happy.

He put a hand out on the table, palm upwards like he was asking her to give him her own. She looked at it, at the prominent vein on his wrist.

“It’s your funeral,” she murmured, keeping her hands to herself.

Jonas felt a tingling in his chest, the pleasure of the unknown, the break with routine, maybe even the chance for conquest. Her voice had been low and seductive on the telephone. Now it was soft and inviting, and their conversation had been animated. She’d let him touch her, even if now she was sitting rigid.

“I think I’ll take my chances,” he said.

“There you go, just like any man, thinking with your dick.”

“That’s not true.”

“Are you hard right now?” she asked, shocking him. And he was. He had barely noticed.

“I plead the fifth,” he answered.

He leaned in and put his other hand on the table. He thought again about her strange defenses, but the lure of adventure was proving more potent than his fears.

“Go ahead and finish your drink, and don’t say another word,” Marilyn said, watching him watch her lips. “There could have been another way this night went but this way might be better. Maybe we’ll really like each other, you never know, but let me tell you that it’s been many years since I’ve let anyone get close to me, and I’m famished for attention.”

Jonas raised his martini and took another drink. Marilyn mirrored his action with her own, and found herself contemplating, with horror, how juicy tender his neck would be when she tore out his vocal chords so he couldn’t scream; how he would try to fight, but would find her stronger than he; the look of mortal fear and knowing that would become fixed to his eyes as he died.

She tried to shake the thoughts away but they wouldn’t go. Not him. Not tonight.

The two finished their drinks, staring at each other.

She thought she could see, in real time, a resolve building in him. He was not to come away tonight empty handed, no matter what she threw at him. He was telling himself that.

This man had come here in the spirit of hopeless adventure, and he thought his actions might be vindicated by success. But he had no idea how real the threat was for her. She was the ultimate hopeless romantic.

The night was silent on the way to Marilyn’s apartment, which was situated in a two-story complex a few blocks away.

On the darkened street Jonas tried to kiss her, and she let him for a little while, then pushed him away with a hand that betrayed her strength. They looked at each other and Marilyn licked her lips, tasting what he’d left behind. Jonas saw in her eyes what was different about her. She looked at him, indeed, how an animal might sight its prey. He felt his desire, his will to get what he’d come here for, to be at war with what might have been a genuine instinct for self-preservation. There was something wrong with this girl.

He took her hand. It was cold.

They went on walking. Marilyn’s heart was beating fast. Which did she want more? Which urge could she control?

They reached her building and ascended the stairs, walked down the second story landing to the corner unit and Marilyn fished her keys out of her purse, underneath the pinecone. Her mind was in a fog, but her body was alive as if with electric fire. When she looked at him he was staring at her with an alert expression.

She opened her door.

“Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly,” she joked.

Jonas was silent. He saw every detail of the night with startling clarity. The little mole at the corner of her lips, her hair blowing slightly in the wind, and the closest corner of her apartment, where he could see the edge of a flat-screen television. Nothing unusual there. But the sense of conflict surrounding this woman was palpable.

Marilyn’s breath caught in her throat. Was he trying to convince himself of?

Jonas looked at her a little while longer. Her ferocity.

What if it was true? No. It couldn’t be.

“Come on,” she said. “Come on in.”

Now that he was here, at the precipice of something, he wondered if maybe he shouldn’t have driven all this way after all. Disregarding his usual caution, perhaps he’d acted foolishly. People don’t meet other people this way, not normally.

“Are you afraid?” she asked.

Jonas slowly nodded.

“Good.”

But she was afraid herself. She didn’t want him to leave her.

“I’m ready for you,” she said, and took a step towards him, eyes turned down now, suddenly shy, fearful that she had gone too far, been too successful in insisting on his fear.

“What if you were telling the truth?” he said quietly.

She shook her head.

“It’s just too ridiculous,” Jonas continued, but his words fell flat.

Marilyn said nothing, stood there as if guiltily, and that didn’t help her case either.

“How could you survive? Getting away with it.”

“I’m very good.”

“Can you even do it?”

“Do what?”

“You know what I mean.”

She nodded. “Yes I can.”

“Are you good at it?”

She nodded. “Yes I am.”

He enjoyed the subservience in her manner.

“Look at me,” he said.

Marilyn raised her head. The fire was still in her eyes, but it was held in check by something else, and it took a moment for Jonas to pinpoint what it was: desperation.

“You really like me,” he said.

“I do.”

“But we’ve only just met.”

Marilyn shrugged. There was a light sheen of sweat on her brow.

“You can tell it’s not a good idea,” she said.

Jonas didn’t say anything. He could neither nod nor shake his head.

“I told you. You shouldn’t have come.”

Jonas didn’t say anything.

After a few moments Marilyn turned and walked into her apartment. She closed and locked the door.

Jonas leaned back against the railing and let out a long breath he found that he’d been holding. He put a hand to his heart.

Should he knock on her door? She would be most glad if he did.

He didn’t know what to do. He stood there for perhaps ten full minutes in indecision. He had never felt anything like what he was feeling now. In her absence his fear had turned to exhilaration.

Is this what it feels like to have a near death experience, or was it something more imponderable than that?

With some effort he got himself moving. He walked back to his car parked in front of the Starbucks, and drove back to Oakland thinking about an encounter that had made him feel alive and important, like something big could have been accomplished.

During the drive he kept turning the night over in his mind. What had happened in the end? Had he really met someone who could complete him?

But what if she were to get bored with him? Would she eat him then? Maybe he should just make sure that she never got bored with him.

Over the course of the next week he couldn’t get her out of his mind. The taste of her lips. The wildness in her eyes as her reserve broke down.

He analyzed every moment.

He believed that she was a monster, that she had had experiences that his paltry existence couldn’t begin to quantify. But what was he? Nothing?

Jonas hated his life, being alone, being at work, the alienation that sucked him in more fully with each passing day as his relationships with old friends receded further and further into memory.

Time passed. Days and nights came and went. At home in his apartment and at work in his cubicle, Jonas was alone. Just, he assumed, like Marilyn.

Had she eaten yet? He wondered. Could he help her if she hadn’t? Dark fantasies began to circulate in his mind.

The more he thought about it, the more he convinced himself that the woman had been perfect for him, just like he’d hoped in the beginning. He couldn’t let a thing like fear get in the way. If you allowed yourself to live in fear then you didn’t allow yourself to live at all.

When he called her at the end of the week, she was overjoyed to hear his voice.

How Much Is It Worth?

When Leroy was a child he would sometimes go to sleep praying that one of the girls he had a crush on would come into his room. Of course it never happened. It was impossible. Most of them were barely aware of his existence. He’d grown up shy, accustomed to watching from a distance. Some day, perhaps when he least expected it, this would happen, he told himself. He just had to wish it hard enough at night, and apply himself during the day. He had no idea why he was thinking about this now, as Peter brought his Toyota to a stop in front of Pasta Pomodoro on College Avenue. This was a foreign land full of wealth and white people. Leroy had never wanted anything to do with them, and had found the world’s apparent demand that he feel otherwise mildly insulting. White people were the key to everything, according to society. Fine, Leroy silently replied to them, they would be his gateway, but not how they wanted it to be. Quite the opposite. They would be compelled to give up what they took every day. That’s what the three in the Toyota were there for tonight. It had been Leroy’s idea. There had recently been a wave of restaurant takeovers across Oakland, and he thought it was a brilliant idea. It was better than work, demeaning and frustrating as it could be. They wouldn’t see his face, but they would know what he represented. Over the years he’d grown to have much anger in him.

“You ready?” Peter asked January, who was sitting in the passenger seat.

“Born ready,” she answered.

She took her pistol out of her pocket and held it in her lap. Leroy noticed that she was trembling. A case of the nerves. He felt it too, but didn’t think it showed. None of them had ever done anything like this before.

“We goin in,” said Peter, talking to himself.

“Yes we are,” Leroy loudly insisted, believing it to be necessary. He had broken a sweat. He had his pistol in his hoodie pocket.

“Let’s put our masks on,” said Peter.

They took out their scream masks and put them on.

“You ready?” Peter asked, echoing his sentiment, weaker this time. It seemed none of them wanted to be the first out of the car.

Fine, it’ll be me, Leroy thought, and got out.

It was a cool winter night. College Avenue was lit up with Christmas lights. It was around 10:00 pm on a Thursday. Most of Oakland was getting ready to go to sleep. Those still in Pasta Pomodoro were going to receive a hard awakening.

Jan came out of the car. Peter got out on his side. The three of them approached their target. There were still a lot of customers in there. Fat lambs with bulging wallets. Leroy preferred thinking of them as quarry rather than the masters of the universe. From what he’d learned of them they had plenty to go around.

He was first in the door, and he held it open for Peter and January to go past him.

“Everybody on the motherfucking ground now!” Peter yelled, brandishing his shotgun.

There was a thud as all conversation came to a stop. As Peter and January moved out into the crowd there were a few screams, but most of them immediately did as they’d been told.

Peter continued: “Ain’t nobody get hurt if nobody do nothing funny!”

Leroy was to coral the employees. He walked quickly into the kitchen in the back end of the building.

“Come on y’all,” he shouted. “You know what this is.”

There were wide eyes amongst the overwhelmingly Latino cooks. Leroy chose one of them, a small guy wearing a hairnet, put the gun to his temple and grabbed a fistful of shirt collar.

“Come on, y’all first, into the big room.”

The employees, about ten of them, dressed in white, did as they were told. One by one they filed past him with their hands in the air.

There were probably about 25 customers, five or six servers, one host and one cashier. Except for the cashier they were all lying on the floor while Jan and Peter patrolled them.

“Listen up everybody,” Peter called. “I’ll be walking past with a garbage bag. Drop your wallet in and don’t do nothing else. You do that you leave here fine. Something else and it’s your funeral.”

“You too,” Leroy told the cooks. “Get on the floor and give us your money.”

The employees did as they were told and Leroy stood over them. Peter continued to circle the restaurant, taking victims one by one. Leroy watched Jan interact with the cashier. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but if anyone would have asked him to point out the weak link he would have said it was January. He wasn’t convinced she had the stomach for cruelty.

“No one try nothing fancy,” Peter went on. “No one call the cops.” Leroy thought it good that he kept talking to maintain his presence. Leroy would be surprised if anyone tried to cross him.

They would be out of here in a few minutes. Good thing they wore masks, because there were certainly cameras.

Jan was still talking to the cashier. There seemed an unnecessary abundance of animation between them.

“You okay sweet pea?” Leroy asked as he walked by them.

“Bitch can only give me what’s in the register,” January answered. “Says she doesn’t have the key to the safe.”

“Who does?” Leroy shot back, disappointed.

“Boris, the manager,” pleaded the cashier. “He went home already.”

“You ain’t lying to us is you?” Leroy asked.

“Not on Earth. Why would I?”

This was unfortunate. Some things were beyond planning for.

“Okay, take the register, baby,” Leroy said to January. “We’re almost done here.”

“Got it,” Peter said, approaching the front of the restaurant. “We good here.”

January, noting her partners’ impatience was quickly emptying the contents of the register into her garbage bag. The cashier got down on the floor, handed over her wallet, and folded her arms over her head.

The robbers left Pasta Pomodoro not two minutes later, apparently victorious. There was not a police car around. They got into the Toyota and fled the scene for a safe place to count their earnings.

It hadn’t been worth the risk. The haul was about $7,000 altogether, $2,330 dollars each. Leroy would be able to settle his rent a few months and pay his phone bill. Beyond that it would go fast. It wasn’t enough. They’d risked years of jail time for this payout, as if the white man had even factored in such considerations when creating his eating establishments.

The three went their separate ways home and that was the end of it. They heard nothing further about their adventure.

One of the first things Leroy spent his money on was his girl, Sally. He took her to a fancy Uptown restaurant. He ordered them a bottle of champagne and they made a night of it. Sally didn’t ask where this money had come from, but she did badger Leroy about getting a job, something sustainable. He told her that he was looking, which was, after all, the partial truth, though he’d long ago decided against going back to offloading trucks at Target.

He took her back to his apartment east of the Lake and they had a good fuck. Sally fell asleep and Leroy went into the living room and turned on the TV. He settled on Jay Leno.

All his life he’d never been happy. Today was no exception. None of his problems were solved, despite all he and Peter’s planning.

Then a commercial came on for a store in Redwood City called the Jewelry Exchange. $299 for a pair of 1-carat earrings, $399 for a 2-carat ring, $1,599 for a diamond necklace. Seeing this caused a moment of inspiration in him. Some place where the earnings were worth the risk. The Bay Area was swimming in wealth, just not where he lived. Those people could certainly take a hit or two. Perhaps Leroy was the kind of man to give it to them.

Days passed into weeks and the police never came to his door. Crimes of opportunity, such as what he, Pete and January had taken part in, happened all the time. Many of them remained unsolved. It was simply the nature of a dangerous city. A lot of people were hurting, and took such actions with a dash of desperation. Not Leroy. He wasn’t desperate. He was just getting started.

One day he met Peter for lunch at a burger joint and told him about the commercial he’d seen. Peter knew people, that’s how he’d gotten the guns. Leroy wanted to meet them. If he was going to do what he had imagined he would need more than his .22.

Unfortunately Peter wasn’t into the idea. He was still paranoid from the restaurant. He was willing, however, to set Leroy up with someone.

“I want an AK,” Leroy told Pete.

“I’m sure they can help you with that.”

“And why not you? Come on man, these are victimless crimes.”

“Less the police get you, then you the victim.”

“Just wear gloves and a mask. Park around the block. Ain’t nobody gonna find shit on you.”

“And what if traffic cameras see your car?”

“Ditch it somewhere, nigga.”

“I guess you got it all figured out.”

“Maybe I do.”

“Them’s rich folks you messing with. Society folks. They want consequences for things like you saying.”

“Good advice.”

“I ain’t in on it.

“Then just let me meet the folks that are.”

“Give me $100 and we have something to talk about.”

“Oh yeah?” Leroy smiled. “That how it is?”

“I ain’t in this for charity, nigga.”

“Fair enough.”

Leroy took another bite of his burger and washed it down with a swallow of iced tea. Then he went into his wallet and took out five twenties. He handed the money to Peter, who took a business card out of his pocket and slid it across the table.

“This guy can help you,” Peter said. “I wash my hands of it. Don’t mention my name.”

“Then mention what?”

“Say these words, exactly: ‘Today’s a cold day in hell.’”

“A cold day in hell?”

“Yup. ‘Today’ first. Just like that.”

Leroy put the business card in his pocket. It was simply a name, Jesús Benzinos, and a phone number.

“Who is he?” Leroy asked.

“I never asked. He’s the one got us our guns. Please don’t mention my name. Just agree to meet him.”

“How he know I ain’t police?”

“I don’t think they’re that worried about it.”

“Huh. Funny. Easy.”

The waitress came back with their check, and Leroy offered to pay for it.

When they finished eating they embraced warmly before parting. They would never see each other again.

They met at midnight at a park on the waterfront, next to a building Leroy knew to be the home of KTVU Channel 2. His mother had been a typist there for a spell when he was a kid. He’d been inside a few times. If Jesús, the man who had answered his phone call, thought the park was safe he was probably right. He had sounded Mexican. Maybe he was with the cartels. A better class of criminal.

Leroy parked his car and got out. He walked into the park, which had a green area and a set of picnic tables near the water. He saw dark figures standing next to these. They stood at what looked like attention as he approached.

“Policia?” one of them called out.

“No not me,” Leroy replied diplomatically.

“I believe you,” said another.

Leroy came to a stop. He didn’t have a good view of any of them.

“What do you want?” Leroy heard.

At first he didn’t know what to say, and told himself to be honest.

“I got an idea,” he said.

There was a pause.

“Tell us then.”

Leroy took a deep breath: “I’m gonna knock off a jewelry store in Redwood City. But I need a bigger gun to do it.”

“Which store?”

“The Jewelry Exchange. They have commercials on TV. Thousand of dollars in diamonds. I’m gonna take all I can get.”

“And how you going to do this?”

“With a gun and a bag, how else?”

One of them laughed.

“This is not a plan, amigo.”

“Well I’m gonna visit them first. The whole point is just not to get caught afterwards, and I don’t think I will be.”

“What makes you sure?”

“Gangsters and kids playing with this stuff are scared and stupid. I won’t be.”

“Will you kill someone?”

“If I have to.”

“We hope you won’t.”

“So do I.”

Leroy’s heart was racing and he wished it wasn’t. He was sweating in his coat. Perhaps he wasn’t as cool under pressure as he wanted to be.

The figures turned towards each other and spoke quietly in Spanish. This went on for maybe a minute.

“Okay, young man,” said one of them. “We help you. We have people and weapons. What do you want?”

“An AK-47,” he said without hesitation.

“This we have. Do you have $1,000?”

“I do.”

“And why don’t we just take it from you?”

“Because I won’t give it up without a fight.”

“You are quite brave, no?”

“Sí.”

“Do you need people? A driver? This we have also.”

“Maybe so.”

“And who will buy the diamonds once you have them?”

“I guess I don’t know. Maybe I’ll have them for a while. Pawn shops, piece by piece.”

“So there are some things you don’t consider.”

“Only what I think I have to.”

“Why don’t you ask us?”

“Ask you what?”

“If we will buy the diamonds.”

“Will you buy the diamonds?” Leroy thought prudent to be as up-front as possible.

“We may. We might. Is something we will think about, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Now, let us see about your brand new weapon. AK-47. We have it.”

One of the figures produced a duffel bag, unzipped it and brought out what Leroy could tell even in the dark was a rifle.

“We have this and clips of ammunition, which we pray you do not use.”

“So do I.”

“Give us money.”

“Put the gun down on the ground. I won’t run off with it.”

He tried to control his breathing. He didn’t think his nerves were obvious. He took a wad of cash out of his sweater pocket. Almost half of what he’d gotten at Pasta Pomodoro.

“Here is your new weapon, señor. Give me money.”

Leroy handed him the cash, knelt down and picked up the gun.

“So you want a driver?” Leroy heard.

“Depends how much he costs.”

“Let’s say this. One quarter of what you take.”

“That sounds fair, and useful.”

“We have your phone number. He will call you tomorrow, and we believe no policia will know any of this.”

“I hope so too.”

“They are plague. We hate them, but we can’t kill them.”

“Probably a good idea.”

His eyes were adjusted to the dark, but he still couldn’t see their faces.

“You leave now. We see you soon enough,” one of them intoned.

“Just don’t shoot me in the back, okay?”

“We don’t deal in death so lightly.”

Leroy turned and left the park. When he got home he puked his dinner into the toilet bowl, and prayed that he was making the right decision. Of course the only way to know was to try. And what did he have to lose, after all?

The next day he drove to Redwood City to get an idea of the store. They had a young Asian man working security, but from what Leroy could tell he was their only layer of protection.

He browsed the displays. While much of their wares were laid out in the open, begging to be taken, some of it was behind glass, which made it only marginally more difficult. He found himself enthralled at the retail prices: $699, $1,799, $2,299. The diamonds glittered in the mix of lamp and natural light. Why had no one done anything like this before? Why hadn’t the store wised up? He supposed this quiet town on the Peninsula was a world away from East Oakland. Perhaps he was to be a pioneer of a kind: the first man to bring a place down. And then he could lay back with his riches, maybe for years. None of that small change bullshit. He would be good for quite some time. The worst thing that could happen would be if he were arrested or if he killed someone. If he went in tough and singular of purpose he was reasonably confident he could avoid both. And this, as opposed to the restaurant, would be worth the risk.

Sally came over that night and he made dinner. They sat next to each other watching TV on the couch while they ate. After the news was over The Simpsons came on. Leroy liked that show.

When the commercials came on he said: “I’ve got to tell you something.”

“What’s up?” she answered.

“Me and another guy, we’re gonna try something.”

She looked at him and said nothing for a spell, then: “You want me to worry?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. Might be a little… ambitious.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t think I’m gonna tell you. I think you’d try to talk me out of it.”

“What, is that what you want?”

“No.”

He dipped his toast in the clam chowder and took a bite. Now he wished he hadn’t brought it up. But, perhaps more than he would like to admit, Sally was important to him.

“Is that how you took me out last week?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“You’re right, you shouldn’t have told me.”

“What’s it to you? I’m just your side nigga.”

“You think I don’t care about you? I do.”

“I go away you find someone better the next day.”

“So now you going away?”

“I told you, I don’t know. Call it possible.”

“You stupid?”

“No I ain’t.”

“Then why you do shit you don’t have to?”

“Because I fucking want to. What, you happy working at Safeway?”

“It’s what you do. People work. They do things they don’t want to. They don’t do things just to do it.”

“I’ve got a plan.”

“I bet you do. But why even tell me if you don’t want me to say something?”

“Let’s just drop it.”

“You seem resolved.”

“I am.”

“Well whatever it is I’m keeping my conscience clean. Whatever it is, don’t do it.”

He sighed. He took the mute off the commercials when the show came back on.

She was looking at him, but he didn’t know what to say. He looked back at her for a little while, then dropped his eyes. Perhaps she didn’t care that much, because she didn’t say anything further to him, but, after they finished eating, she left without saying another word. It weighed on his spirit to wonder if that was the end of them. He’d spoken the truth: she was a good looking woman. She could easily find someone more deserving.

He jerked off to porn then went to bed, but he couldn’t sleep. The big day was tomorrow. Somehow your body always makes things as difficult as possible. He would make himself a big pot of coffee before he went to pick up Martín. That would have to do in place of sleep.

Before he knew it the early morning sun was shining through his window. Time to get going.

Eyes heavy and puffy he made breakfast and coffee, then he gathered his scream mask, his AK-47 and .22, and a large duffel bag. He wished himself luck, as there was nothing further to do.

“I don’t know why I brought you,” Leroy said while they were on the San Mateo Bridge. “I can drive just fine myself.”

“Then why did you?” Martín asked.

“I think I just said. I don’t know. The presence of a partner maybe. No one likes facing danger alone.”

“I promise I won’t let you down.”

“Have you ever done something like this before?”

“I have.”

“And how did it turn out?”

“I’m still here aren’t I?”

“I’m not sure that answers my question.”

It was a beautiful, sun-soaked day. The waters of the Bay sparkled when Leroy looked out over them.

He began to pray. He told himself to be prepared to inflict violence, but not to seek it out. That might be a very important step, though he knew from movies and television that these sorts of stores were heavily insured, and the staff was trained not to put up resistance. It wasn’t any of their money being taken, what did they care? Leroy would take the security guard first. That was probably enough.

“I’m gonna ditch this car once we’re done,” Leroy said. “In case you wondering.”

“Is it in your name?”

“I bought it off Craigslist last week. Ain’t no problem.”

“Good thinking.”

“I’m gonna be rich after today. I’ll afford a car or even two easy.”

“You seem to have thought of everything.”

Martín’s impeccable manners were moderately disturbing. He was made of a different breed than Peter or January. Maybe for him this was just another Monday. A true professional. You needed a steady hand. He offered that, if nothing else.

Before long they’d crossed the bridge, and Martín turned them onto Highway 101 South. Traffic was relatively light.

They reached Redwood City. Martín seemed to know the directions. The Jewelry Exchange was located in what passed for the suburb’s downtown, a glorified strip mall. There was parking just down the street from the store.

Leroy pulled the duffel bag up onto his lap and put on his mask. He held the AK-47 in his lap and fondled its stock.

“Keep the car running,” he said.

“Of course.”

Leroy drummed his gloved fingers on the gun. These next few moments might well be the most important of his life. He had to do it well.

“Thanks for coming,” he said.

“Just do it, man. And quickly.”

“I will.”

“Hurt someone if you have to.”

“I’m way ahead of you.”

Then Leroy got out of the car and jogged down the street, past several pedestrians, to the glass doors of the Jewelry Exchange. He went through them, brandishing the gun. On a whim, and perhaps unwisely, his finger found the trigger and he let off several shots into the air.

“Get the fuck on the ground!” he yelled at the top of his voice. “Ain’t nobody got to get hurt!”

Five minutes later he crashed back into the car.

“Go motherfucker!” he yelled, and Martín pulled out onto the street and accelerated through the green light.

Leroy was panting heavily, trying to recreate the last five minutes in his mind, which were already almost lost to him.

“Did you hurt anybody?” Martín asked.

“I hit the security guard in the face with the AK. I think I busted his nose.”

“That might have been wise.”

“I took everything I could. Broke some display cases and just swept it all in. We’re gonna be some rich motherfuckers.”

“That’s what we came for.”

Martín got them back onto 101.

“Where you goin?” Leroy asked.

“We’re gonna drive down to San Jose then get on 880 North.”

“Better than the bridges?”

“Just to be safe. There’s no escape on the bridges.”

“This what I’m paying you for, huh?”

“I know what I’m doing.”

“You better. Twenty-five percent ain’t gonna be pocket change.”

Leroy rolled down the window and stuck his arm over the side. The cool air felt good. His breathing became steadier. His heartbeat began to moderate. It had gone about as he felt it should have.

He stripped off the mask and dropped it out the window.

“Have you ever been to prison?” Martín asked.

“No.”

“Despite our precautions it’s possible it will be in our future.”

“I know.”

“You never know what might happen. You fired shots. You hurt someone. That will add to your sentence.”

“How they gonna catch me now? No one knows shit about me. I think it went well.”

“Still, it’s best to keep an open mind.”

“I’ll take that under consideration.”

He wondered how much was in the duffel bag. So many diamonds.

Martín said, “What you doing with what you took?”

“I don’t know.”

They found I-880 North. They’d passed a few cops already, and Leroy had felt a minor panic every time.

The two were silent for most of the rest of the drive. When they passed through San Leandro into Oakland Leroy asked where they were going to leave the car.

“Near the park where we met you the other night. Don’t come back to it. It’s tainted.”

“And how am I goin to pay you?”

“Our people are meeting us there. They’ll tell you.”

“And the gun?”

“Into the Bay it goes.”

“Good idea.”

“Trust us. We know better than you.”

Martín took the 5th Avenue exit onto Embarcadero, and then a right. The park was only a few blocks away.

Leroy opened the duffel bag and looked into it. It sparkled with wealth and broken glass. It was hard to tell the two apart.

Martín brought the car to a stop on Embarcadero in a neighborhood of factories and warehouses. There were three Mexican-looking figures standing nearby. They turned towards the car.

“These are my brothers,” said Martín. “Come join us.”

Leroy felt his nerves again.

“What are they doing here?”

“I told you. Selling the diamonds. We can help.”

Martín got out of the car, walked forward, stood in front of it, then turned towards Leroy, who had still not gotten out of the car. Martín put on what Leroy believed to be one of the least friendly smiles he’d ever seen.

“Come on, my friend,” said Martín. “We’re here to help.”

“Drop your gun into the Bay,” said a voice that Leroy recognized from the other night.

This is not right, something in Leroy’s mind whispered, causing him panic.

“Come on,” said Martín. “What are you waiting for?”

The AK was too big. Leroy would need something more subtle. Fortunately he had the answer.

He got out of the car, pulled out his .22, and fired at the Mexicans.

One shot hit Martín in the chest, another shot hit one of the Mexicans in the shoulder, driving him back. Another Mexican pulled out a weapon but Leroy shot him in the head before he could aim it. The third one took off running, and Leroy quickly lost track of him.

The one he’d hit in the shoulder was down on one knee, and as Leroy approached he turned up his face, revealing a grin.

“Smarter than you look,” he said before Leroy shot him in the face.

He found himself alone, standing over three dead bodies with a smoking gun in his hand. He took it and the AK to the water and threw them in. Then he gathered the bag of diamonds and walked quickly up 3rd Avenue. Now, he told himself, he had some packing to do.

Despite her best efforts Sally found herself thinking of Leroy. She’d missed not fucking him the other night. Somehow she was unsurprised to find him sitting on her stoop when she came home from work.

“Hey girl,” he said simply, looking at her with kind eyes. From that look alone she began to wonder if he loved her.

“Hey yourself,” she answered.

She walked past him and unlocked her front door. She turned back towards him and found him standing. He was wearing what looked to be a heavily packed backpack, and was carrying a black duffel bag. Now he looked mildly self-conscious.

“You coming in or what?” she asked.

She held the door for him and he went past her. She shut and locked it behind him. Something about this was not right, not like Leroy. She quickly found herself becoming angry.

“I’m leaving town,” he said to her as she turned to look at him. “I just wanted to say goodbye.”

“How romantic of you.”

“Shut up,” he said. “I know how I look.”

“Did you kill somebody?” she shot the question without thinking too much about it.

He didn’t answer, and she was horrified at her intuition. He seemed to be trying to smile at her, and that, of course, just made it worse.

“My God,” she said. “Get the fuck away from me.”

“They had it coming.”

“They? They? Why didn’t you just get a job like anybody else?”

“I’ve tried that before.”

“Where you going?”

“It’s probably best I don’t tell you.”

“You right. It probably is.”

He pulled his duffel bag to his front. She turned her head away so she wouldn’t see what was in it. She heard him unzip it and there was some quasi-musical clinking as he shuffled through its contents.

“Look at me,” he said.

She did as he bid and there he was, holding a pair of diamond earrings.

“Pretty ain’t they?” he said.

She was furious. This really was his goodbye.

“I don’t want them,” she fired, fury in her eyes.

“Just take them. Ain’t no one gonna know they from me.”

“I know where they from.”

“No you don’t. You ask me the folks I took it from had it coming too. I’m a rich man now. Now I call the shots.”

“Not here you don’t. Put that shit away.”

She spun on her heel and stormed into the kitchen of a house honestly rented, and poured herself a glass of milk, bought honestly. A voice in her mind, mischievous, asked her if she really cared so much about that.

Footsteps came up behind her. When she turned around he was only steps away from her, kindness still in his posture.

“You sure you ain’t want em?” he asked. “Something to remember me by?”

“I’ll remember you on my own. Don’t know if that’s good or not.”

He was still holding the earrings.

“Put them away,” she said, and, with a hangdog expression, he did as she said.

She put down the glass of milk, then reached out and put her hand behind his neck and pulled him to her. From there on the afternoon was a bit of a blur.

Except for Sally there’d been nothing keeping him in Oakland. Except for Sally it wasn’t hard saying goodbye.

He worried a bit that the Mexicans might have someone waiting for him at the Greyhound station, as it was perhaps an obvious place to find him. He was relieved to buy his ticket and board the bus without incident.

It was uncomfortable and smelt of farts and mildew. It was about 15 hours to Las Vegas, down I-5 through the Central Valley, a transfer in Bakersfield, and then East on I-15.

This was his first time he’d left the Bay Area. He stared out the windows at the changing landscape, first the East Bay suburbs behind, then through the stockyards, cows, smelly, packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Beyond Oakland there were strange sights to be seen indeed.

Before long he was in Vegas. He had kept the duffel bag on his person rather than trust it to the luggage compartment.

He didn’t know where to go next. He supposed the obvious thing to do would be to get himself a cheap hotel room, one thing he had felt confident he would be able to find in Sin City.

Indeed it was no problem. He rented out a room in a building attached to the Luxor just around the corner from the flashing technicolor Strip.

Once established there he put a fistful of diamonds in his pocket and left to explore his near environment for pawn shops. He found one, staffed by a swarthy man with black hair and an accent, who took this part of his haul off his hands for $2,000. That should last for a while, Leroy thought.

The smart thing, he realized, would be to buy himself a computer, a laptop, so he could research the value of the rest of the jewelry, and also find himself more permanent housing. The information desk receptionist told him where to find an Apple store. By the end of the day he had a brand new iBook. He knew nothing of computers, had never owned one before, but he was particularly proud of himself for this acquisition. He returned to his room with a smile on his face. After all, he was rich now. The thing to become next was intelligent. He would be careful with how he handled what was left.

As if to spite this realization he spent the next day losing $250 in Luxor’s casino. When in Rome. There was something extremely liberating about his current situation. He could do whatever he wanted. How much was the rest of his haul worth? He felt little remorse for the Mexicans he’d killed. Maybe, someday, he would see Sally again. That too was something to look forward to.

He got to know his computer and searched Craigslist for nearby rentals. He found one on the north side of town, a room in a townhouse for $500 a month. He sold a few more pieces at another pawn shop so he could afford first, last, and deposit. He liked the place. He would be sharing it with a black couple whose kid had just left home. They didn’t ask many questions of him and he asked few of them. It was perfect. He took his few belongings there and then lay in bed, staring at the ceiling.

That night, once again, he couldn’t asleep. What would he do with himself, in this unfamiliar place? When the diamonds ran out he might look for a way to get more. But that was a problem for another day. For now, he should just try to relax.

He rolled onto his side, thought of Sally’s beautiful body and how she’d looked at him, so disapproving, the last time he’d seen her. It was not exactly a comforting thought.

Then, gradually, he was asleep, and the world before him scared him less than it ever had before.

The Earth Will Survive Us

We may think we’re winning,

We may think we have the advantage,

We may think she can’t survive us

The hell we’ve inflicted on her,

But she can

She will

She’s bound to it.

She has no choice but to fight back.

Desolation shall become her name

And she will survive us.

 

Did we believe it would be death by six billion cuts?

Nuclear holocaust?

The depletion of precious ozone?

She will decide

Before we do.

She shall enact the test of survival, and we might fail it,

It’s in our blood.

We had a pretty good run though, didn’t we?

Thriving at her expense

Took more than we should have

But she will survive us.

One day we’ll be gone, to take our troubles elsewhere.

We didn’t even mean it.

We can say it was in our nature.

 

Eight billion cuts

Nine billion

Fifteen

We will accept the brutal limitations she hits us with.

Does she know

How bad we are for each other?

More than we do, at least,

But that’s not saying much.

 

She is waking as we speak.

Fire, rain, avalanche,

Heat, wind and smoke.

We underestimate what to expect,

That’s what they tell us any way.

 

Five billion? Three?

Farmland? Nuts and berries?

There’s much less of her than there used to be.

Not enough to go around.

 

I hope we can live together.

I don’t think there’s a choice.

Only time will tell what we have,

And what we have to lose.

Tagged , ,

Why Is It Always the Same Everywhere I Go?

Marilyn, Judith, Kevin and James had been meeting here at the cafe weekly for over a year now, and at this point, they hated each other about as much as they valued each other. They arrived within ten minutes of each other, and they took their seats. Kevin was pensive, James was anxious, Judith anxious as well and Marilyn too depressed to care either way. James produced his short stack of manuscripts. So did Judith and Kevin, but it was James’ turn to go first.

“Well,” James said, and cleared his throat. “I wrote this mostly because I realized that all of my stories started the same way.”

“How’s that?” Kevin asked, smiling.

“Well, there’s always one person sitting somewhere thinking about something.”

He stopped, then, understanding that he hadn’t yet made his case, he continued:

“Well, it’s not always just one person. Sometimes it’s two people. I mean, my stories always start with silence, and either with someone sitting somewhere, or someone arriving somewhere. Sometimes there’s more than one person.”

“You’re saying that there’s usually one or more people, either sitting somewhere or arriving somewhere, and they’re usually thinking,” Marilyn repeated.

James shook his head.

“No, really. It always starts that way. Even when I try to start different, I end up deleting the opening paragraphs because they turn out to be unnecessary.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Kevin yawned, then stretched.

“Anyways, I wrote this piece specifically because I was trying to break the trend.”

“Well go ahead then,” Judy said.

“It’s just… I’m not sure it’s very good. In fact, I’m pretty sure the first few paragraphs are unnecessary and I’ll end up deleting them and having the same sort of story that I always do.”

“So you need help breaking your routine,” said Kevin.

“Honestly, the routine sounds so vague that I’m not even sure it is a routine,” said Marilyn.

“Just let him read,” said Judith. They had made a small habit of bullying James, mostly without even meaning to. Judith was his most common protector.

“Okay,” James said, with finality.

He passed around his story.

He started reading.

Marilyn followed his words along the page, but she didn’t remember any of it. Kevin followed along with a pen, and marked words or punctuation or lack thereof that disagreed with him, and he had already formulated his primary argument before James had finished his first paragraph. Judith was too preoccupied worrying about what they would say of her own work to care overmuch whether she came up with insightful criticism for James or not. At this point it was politics more than literature that kept them together. A healthy sense of competition.

When James finished reading, Kevin was the first to speak. This time, Marilyn was the first to stifle a yawn. But, as the evening progressed, she was sure not to be the last.

The Bears’ Lair, Part 2: Group Interview

I got the call late the next week. I was in my room, and I stood up from my notebook laptop, where I was losing a Yahoo! Chess game. I recognized the UC Berkeley exchange. I remained calm. I willfully closed my mind to the sounds of laughter and argument in the rooms down the hall.

I opened my phone and brought it to my ear.

“Hello?” I said.

“Hello Johnathon, this is Dagoberto from the Bears’ Lair.”

Time for surprise and gratefulness: “Dagoberto! How is everything?”

“Everything’s fine. Listen, are you still interested in the floor position?”

“Yes I am, very much so.”

“Fantastic. I wanted to invite you in this Sunday for a group interview. We’ll take you and a few others through the introductions and the basics of the position. How does that sound?”

It sounded awful.

“It sounds great.”

“Good. You got a pen and pad?”

I was back at my desk and scrambling for the pens and pencils I knew I had somewhere.

“One second, one second. Okay, I’m ready.”

“Take this down: We want you to wear slacks and a blue shirt. Tan slacks and a long-sleeved dark blue shirt. Put yourself up how you think you should look if you were coming in to do the job. Be here at 8:00 AM on Sunday. We won’t be open, but you’ll see us, we’ll be at the entrance.”

“Okay, okay, will do.”

“I’ll see you then, Jonathon.”

“Yes you will. With bells on.”

“Very good. Have a good day.”

“Okay ‘Berto.”

Dagoberto hung up. I put my phone down on my desk. I could already feel it. I was already smiling, I was already feeling the rush, I was already becoming proud of myself for a job well done, and I was already anticipating what I would do to myself should I fall short. By the time Sunday came around I would be a nervous wreck.

But no. Not to get ahead of myself. Not to worry about how I might worry. For now, relax. For now, breathe. Draw confidence from the success so far for what it is. For now, back to the chess game.

 

7:15 AM, Sunday. I arrived about forty-five minutes early. I wanted to have time to  psyche myself up, and to make absolutely sure I was at the door at 8:00 on the dot. Not too early, nor too late. Perception was everything in these situations, that much I remembered. Nothing worse than a lazzy, tardy hippy, but an over-eager, wild-eyed early bird was only slightly better.

I pulled a figure eight around the blocks. I checked the time as I went, and I enjoyed the scenery. I breathed deeply the fresh air of the place I knew, and the place where I was now determined to grow. Already, even before the interview started, Berkeley seemed a smaller, less daunting place. I circled back to campus. I arrived at the Bears’ Lair exactly at 8:00.

Trevor, Dagoberto, and a short Asian girl were waiting in front. They smiled predatorily as I came down the stairs. The lights weren’t on in the store behind them.

“Hello, John,” ‘Berto said with a wave of his hand and cursory brush of his powerful eyes.

“Morning,” I said, reaching the bottom of the stairs.

“Go ahead on in, we’re still waiting for everybody to show up.”

“Okay, ‘Berto. Thanks.”

He nodded. The doors were open behind them. Trevor did not turn his head to acknowledge me as I passed by him.

There was a small group of applicants, five boys and three girls, standing uneasily in the dimness on the other side of the door, engaging in abrupt and fitful conversation. They were young, they were clean, and they looked like college students. They were awkward, and clearly unfamiliar with situations such as these. Some of them might never have had a job before. In this regard, I might have had the advantage.

There was also an older black man who stood a little off to the side. He looked sorrily out of place.

Me, I’d had a hair cut. Me, I’d showered. I knew, at least until I opened my mouth, that I could probably if I tried pull off a ‘belonging’ attitude of sorts.

“How’s it going?” one of them greeted me, a crew-cut wearing blonde kid. His eyes didn’t know if they should be hard or accommodating.

“Morning,” I said.

And I didn’t say any more. Neither did he. I fought the inclination to blame myself for the conversation’s premature abortion. I assured myself that I was blending in perfectly.

‘Berto, Trevor and the Asian girl were speaking to each other on the other side of the glass doors, but we couldn’t hear them. The smell of competition was thick in the air, the pressure to hold our own, to show no weakness however it might manifest. One of the male applicants struck up a conversation with the prettiest one of the girls, perhaps in advertisement of his ready ability to do so. She accepted his advances much as she would had he approached her in the school cafeteria, with the careful calculation of the shrewd but intrigued female wondering how to turn the situation to her advantage. I made a mental note to avoid those two if I could.

The analog clock above the door reached 8:07 when ‘Berto, Trevor and the Asian girl came in and shut and locked the door behind them.

“Okay,” ‘Berto said, walking through us and disrupting our circle. “Let’s get to the testing site.”

Scattered murmurs of friendly assent and “sure thing’s” followed him. He and his flunkies led us into the store. On the other side of the main room a hallway extended deeper into the building. Trevor flicked a switch as he passed it, and a line of soft white fluorescent lights buzzed into life overhead. Wooden office doors flanked by glass walls marched down the hallway into the distance.

I found myself walking next to one of the girls. She was very pretty. Long black hair, blue eyes and creamy white skin that probably rarely saw the sun for extended periods of time.

She looked at me briefly, and smiled.

I was taken aback.

I shook my head, and I pulled away from her.

I was her enemy here, didn’t she know that? Why should she smile at me? Didn’t she know how serious it was to get a job? But they were always like that, the kids my age. Somehow, to them, even in a battle field situation such as this, social interaction seemed as important to them as getting the job. Were they really so naive? Did they think we could be friends here? Or were they so many leagues ahead of me that they could actually engage this way even knowing all of the already? This was dangerous territory I was entering into. Pretty girls that smiled at me and reached into my pocket only half-aware that they were doing so.

Relax. Relax. RELAX.

‘Berto brought us to a stop at an unmarked door with glass walls on either side. He produced a jingling fistful of keys from his pocket, fingered one of them out, unlocked and opened the door, and charged in. He turned on the lights. Trevor and the Asian girl followed him, then stood against the walls, to allow we applicants to choose our places amongst a grid of combination chair/desks.

“Have a seat, have a seat,” ‘Berto said, gesturing with a sweep of his arm. He walked to the front of the room and stood at the white board. He dropped an armful of manila envelopes on the desk in front of him and smiled out at all of us and none of us.

As chance would have it, I ended up next to the pretty black-haired girl who had smiled at me, and a dark-skinned boy who might have been Indian. Blond crew cut took the desk in front of me.

Trevor and the Asian girl walked up and stood at ‘Berto’s side, hands clasped behind their backs like Naval officers at ease. Smiling and cool, comfortable and distrustful. Trevor hadn’t made eye contact with me once yet.

“Okay!” ‘Berto called out and clapped his hands. “Thank you all, so much, for being here. Let me begin by saying that you here today are the few from the many. The many many many. You wouldn’t be here if we didn’t feel that you would bring something special to the position. That being said, there is only one position to fill, so in the end only one of you is going to take it. So, first of all, don’t take it personally. We’re looking for a very specific kind of person with a very specific temperament. You’ve most definitely got something good about you already to have gotten this far, so take comfort in that, at least.”

Don’t worry, ‘Berto, I already have. I have I have, really I have.

I leaned forward and set my elbows on the table and tried to watch him with steady and open-minded interest.

“Okay,” he went on, clasping his hands together. “So I take it you all want very much to work for the Bears’ Lair.”

“Yeah!” somebody said.

“Good. Enthusiasm is good. It’s not an easy job, but it’s not the hardest job in the world either. Your responsibilities will include stocking shelves, managing inventory, and manning cash registers. You have to interact with customers, and you have to move quickly with grace under pressure. You have to be good with math, and you have to be good with your hands. So. Show of hands. Who here has prior retail experience?”

Except for one of the male applicants, we all raised our hands. The guy who didn’t raise his hands looked about the room and flushed.

“Who here has retail experience in a bookstore?”

I raised my hand, as did the pretty brunette girl and the older black man.

“Who here has customer service experience?”

This time we all raised our hands. We’d learned quickly.

“You see? What a well-qualified group.”

We laughed with an unconvincing rattle of collective hiccups. My own laughter embarrassed me, but it seemed that everybody else was embarrassed too, so I was still doing okay. I was trying. That in itself was something, right? But would it be enough? I was here, sure, but didn’t I also need to enjoy myself? It sure seemed like the guy who’d talked to the pretty girl had been enjoying himself.

“So, why are we all here today? Because it’s faster to have a group interview than individual interviews. And because we want you all to get a feel for the skills you’ll have to have. So, we’re going to give you a short written skills and aptitude test. Trevor, would you do the honors?”

“By all means, boss,” Trevor said, opening one of the manilla envelopes and producing a stack of papers. He criss-crossed the room, laying the tests face down on our desks. Clarissa followed him with a box of brand new blue Bic pens, dropping them in front of us with ceremony and sweetness.

‘Berto went on in the meantime: “You have twenty minutes to complete the test. Don’t be nervous. When you are finished, turn your test over and raise your hand. We’ll come by and pick them up, then you can wait for the next stage in the interview process. Okay. Any questions? No? Everybody ready?”

We looked back at him, poised and expectant and eager to please.

It could have just been me. But didn’t all of this seem a bit excessive for a basic clerks job?

“Okay, turn your tests over and begin.”

A collective shuffling papers. Indeed, the test was as ‘Berto had described: a basic arithmetic, filing, and short answer customer service aptitude quiz. It would pose no problem to me at all, but then, my skill with the pen and deductive mind had always been far superior to my skill with the spoken word. As I leaned forward and got started, I realized with a thrill that my spirits had gone high again. The people around me were no longer as intimidating, the world no longer as impenetrable. Here I was, becoming a part of it again. It was possible. I could do it.

I was the first one to finish the test. I knew that this was important. Because the test was so easy, time had to be a factor.

I sat back and shot my hand into the air. Trevor, ‘Berto, and the Asian Girl all looked at me at the same time, and, unless I’m wrong, they all looked impressed. When ‘Berto came forward and took it from me, my neighbors, blond crew cut and pretty brunette, eyed me with naked envy. Them. Envy me. How about that?

I leaned back in my chair, clasped my hands together on my desk, and began tabulating my future earnings. $12.50 an hour, thirty hours a week. Easily covering my rent, my food, my PG&E, and even leaving a little left over. And best of all, I’d be busy again. I’d be tired. I’d be accomplished. I’d be a member of society again.

But, of course, it was no good getting ahead of myself. Then, of course, came the hard part. Then, following the termination of the timed skills and aptitudes test, ‘Berto re-claimed his space at the front of the room: He announnced that we would now be splitting into groups.

I believe that I effectively masked my truly visceral internal reaction — that queer little feeling in your throat when your heart suddenly feels like it’s been soaked in ginger ale. Sweaty and sticky and nervy in my chair, I stood up noisily with the rest of the classroom. I stepped stiffly into the aisle and waited for my group to form, per ‘Berto’s instructions, around Clarissa, just to the left of me, clipboard in hand and smile on her face. Beautiful brunnette, and hostile crew-cut blond joined me, along with one further person who I hadn’t fully noticed before. Sure enough, I broke into a sweat. I waited to wonder how I was going to hold onto my air of ‘belonging’ once I opened my mouth.

I wiped my brow quickly with the sleeve of my shirt.

“Hi everybody,” Clarissa chirped.

I tried to grow a sweaty smile, and was horrified at the difficulty.

“So, how’s everyone doing today?” she asked.

Heads bobbed in unison, and there were collective murmurs of “Well!” and “Great!” and one “Not too bad.” I tried to say something but all that came out when I opened my mouth was a (hopefully) inaudible “Meh.”

She jotted notes on her clipboard as we spoke. She went around the circle with her questions, beginning with crew cut, proceeding to brunette, to kid I hadn’t noticed and terminating with me.

She asked us what we expected from this job, what our ideal job was, how we approached customer service, and why we had left our last positions. Pretty much the typical questions you would expect an interviewer to ask a potential stock clerk. Still, I was caught off guard.

And sure enough, as soon as she asked me a question, there came the unmistakable sound of my Achilles’ Heel snapping. Yep. There it was. You could probably hear it across the room: When I told her that my ideal job was “working in a bookstore,” that I approached customer service as a way “to serve the customers” and that I expected to get “job satisfaction and employment references” from my time at the Bear’s Lair. When I informed her (falsely, quite falsely) that I had left my last position because I had graduated from high school, and “I hoped to pursue a career in a second level retail or educational environment.” The words had just come out of me, because every other muscle in my body had been so focused on keeping itself from embarrassing me. I spoke in a monotone, and I’m not even sure that I blinked.

Everybody gave me weird looks, even Clarissa, who scribbled opaquely on her clipboard. I sweated and I stared and I held onto that composure for dear life. Somehow, right then and there, humiliation seemed a fate worse than death, but I could feel it coming, nonetheless.

And then, before I knew it, the interview was over. Clarissa thanked us for our time, and said that we were done. She’d finished her questions, and we left in a disorganized clump that dispersed in the hall and headed for the exit of the now open Bears’ Lair. I walked home down University Ave. on legs stiff and jerky like undersized circus stilts. It was about a forty minute walk, but it went by in no time at all. I made it back to my room, to my familiar little cave, surrounded by dirty walls and dirty traffic. I took off my blue shirt and tan slacks, dropped them on the floor and kicked them under the bed, mopping up dust and debris from the floor along the way. Then I crawled into bed and waited for the sun to go down. I breathed through my dispirit, through fantastic effort so recently expended to fight down the ginger ale in my throat, to fight back the panic so close to hostility.

I stayed in bed for a long time, half asleep. Some time later, I got up to go to the bathroom. I saw that I had missed a call on my cell phone.

I walked out into the hallway. The lights were on under my neighbors’ doors, but the bathroom was empty. I peed and washed my hands, then I went back to my room, and I opened my laptop. I checked my e-mail. I’d received a message from the Bears’ Lair. I opened it.

I’d gotten the job.

Impressions from May Day, Part 2: Brooms Collective Goes to the Mission District

There was this… (okay, i guess)

But as far as my own May Day Occupy experience, the most interesting was to come the following weekend. While I’ve been working, I’ve been living something of a double life, with my weekdays dominated by 9-5 office work, and my weekends by Occupy and the Occupy-related. It’s interesting having a foot in both worlds, but I think it’s important. We should be able to speak intelligently and calmly with those who disagree with us. We should remember that to a lot of people out there, in a lot of ways, we’re still speaking Greek (pun intended?). We should remain open to differing opinions, and we absolutely must keep a study eye on the temper of the community. We ignore it at our peril, which, I’m sorry to say, I believe we have done. In our diminishing levels of support, numbers, and expectations, we are now reaping the consequences.

As a case in point: the Mission District on the evening before May Day, when an evening march from Dolores Park, sponsored by Occupy Oakland, turned violent down a stretch of Valencia Street. A group of marchers, ostensibly Occupy Oakland members, smashed storefronts and the windows and windshields of parked cars, and they spray-painted anti-gentrification and anarchy symbols over any flat surface that could accommodate. During the next week, Wells Fargo donated $25,000 to a community fund to support the cleanup effort. The day following the Brooms Collective received this e-mail from a Mission District resident:

“I was a staunch supporter of the Occupy movement until this morning. This demonstrates the sad truth that history has repeatedly demonstrated: given a little power, the oppressed will become the oppressors. Affluent multinational thieves or mindless local vandals–not much of a choice, is it? I find them equally repugnant and I don’t want to live with either. Thanks for destroying not only a load of property but my own personal faith that anything in this world will ever change for the better.

Don’t bother emailing back to say Occupy Oakland bears no responsibility for this. You have lost all credibility so nothing you can say will make a difference. To anything.”

I couldn’t think of an adequate response. Because, if you ask me, she has a point. We can’t say we have no responsibility for what happened. Of course we do, and of course it’s wrong and she has every write to hate us for it. The prevailing wisdom, and my first knee jerk response to her anger, would be to divert the blame — I can’t imagine how the vandals were Occupy Oakland members, it’s just too crazy, too out of character. If you ask me, it’s a textbook case of the work of agent provocateurs, one to be remembered and catalogued and used for future reference. Here is one account by another Occupy blogger, in which he corroborates what I’ve heard elsewhere, that the vandals were unfamiliar faces, well-organized in their actions, and just a little too beefy and crew cut to convincingly pass as your average anarchist (though perhaps some of the regulars joined in as well, you can’t put anything past people). But in a movement as absolutely inclusive as Occupy, the risk of outside agitation should never be an excuse. We should never have had space that would allow something like this to happen in the first place. I understand the frustration in wanting to smash banks, but if we can’t even make the distinction between the property of the one percent and those of our fellow struggling citizens than I don’t know how we could ever hope to offer any kind of coherent solution to anything.

… and there was this

So, we the Brooms Collective, with our friendly and positive and community-minded sensibilities, took it upon ourselves to claim responsibility. After our weekly cleanup at the park on 32nd and San Pablo, we headed over to the Mission District. I’d only posted the event on OO’s website the evening before, so I wasn’t expecting us to get many. A few of our regulars had other obligations. One person met us at the 16th St. BART Station so, in the end, there were only four of us. But we put on our Brooms Collective T-Shirts (which my mom made during some of the GA’s — my mom is a pretty important part of this group, making for a, well, interesting dynamic), carried our brooms and our buckets, and started off down Valencia. Of course, most of the damage had already been done, and had already been cleaned up. We only found one circled Anarchy ‘A’ to clean off a wall. But we made our concern felt. We went into the restaurants and asked the managers if they’d been affected, and if there was anything we could do to help. We expressed our concern, and we gave them our e-mail, brooms@occupyoakland.org, in case anything like this ever happened again. Most of them thanked us. Some of them did not. Generally, I felt little anger from any one, mostly bemusement and even thankfulness. There was a degree of understanding and acceptance, as if this sort of thing was but yet another of the times’ many crosses to bear, that you can’t help for a few stray whackos (because that is how many people see us, I’m coming to realize). I don’t know, if you ask me we can do better than that. We do have a message, and we do have a purpose, and if we act with just a little more direction and sensitivity and self-control we could reach, and speak for, a far greater slice of society than we are right now. Thanks to events such as those in the Mission District, and a general environment of hostility to conflicting opinions, we risk falling into irrelevance. We risk becoming a fringe group, easily isolated from a populace that fervently wishes that they could support us, and which, in the end, is our only hope for protection from a state which will otherwise systematically intimidate, arrest, discredit and destroy the few hard core who remain. This process has already begun. It would be a huge tragedy if we proved unable to do something about it.

Thinking Global, Acting Local: Occupy the Farm Takes Gill Tract

In my opinion, the Gill Tract takeover, hands down, was the most well-planned, well-executed, and worthwhile action that any segment of Occupy has taken in some time. At least any that I’ve heard of. The weekend prior I was invited to a planning meeting at the home of one of the organizers, attended by perhaps thirty to forty fellow comrades. Supposedly each member of this group was personally connected to at least one of the original organizers. We were all told to keep the action under wraps. This is polar opposite to the strategy taken for the January 28th Move-In Day, which was all about publicity, press releases and flyers. The prevailing wisdom in Occupy seems generally that if you know about it, chances are the cops do too, because, chances are, at least one of those you see around you at any given moment are one of them. At least in this case, the prevailing wisdom stands corrected.

The next Sunday we gathered at the Southern end of Ohlone Park for a pre-march rally, complete with speakers, music, and even a belly dancer (and of course, free food, a reliable constant at every Occupy event). A friend of mine told me that she’d heard a rumor that we were taking a UC Berkeley plot of land, and I assured her, that if this were the case, then I wouldn’t be staying. Only a select few of the core organizers knew our final destination, therefore the rest of us were putting a lot of faith into the strength of their choice. If it was a poor one, than there was a chance that we all could end up spending the weekend in Santa Rita.

The march got started at about one o’clock. And we didn’t head towards the UC. Instead we snaked West and North through residential streets of single-family homes. Comrades on bikes criss-crossed our flanks, helping to divert traffic and direct the march. People came out onto their porches and watched us from their windows. I didn’t see a single cop along the way. Not one.

And when we arrived at Gill Tract, which occupies a generally desolate stretch of San Pablo Avenue in Albany, near enough to the waterfront that you can almost smell saltwater in the air, there was a phalanx of pick-up trucks, flat beds, and 14’ semi’s waiting for us. Some protesters began handing out a thoughtful, well-written and well laid-out information sheet on the plot of land. After some people in the front line broke the fence, they took us in, and as soon as we entered into the tract itself, a vast expanse of shoulder-high weeds and forgotten planting projects, they put us to work. They’d developed a system of arm-bands, green for the gardeners, red for the carpenters, etc., so that we inexperienced urban farmers would know who to turn to for direction. Within an hours time, we’d cleared enough space to begin tilling the soil and setting in the seedlings and infant plant starts. The action was coordinated and methodical, in such stark contrast to the chaotic and ultimately disastrous Move-In Day on January 28th. If nothing else, this action demonstrates the good of a little unashamed leadership.

But of course, that isn’t all that this action demonstrates. If you ask me, this is exactly the direction that Occupy should be taking: that is, actions that are locally relevant, yet systemically significant. Think global, act local. Rather than attempting to manufacture interest in an arbitrarily chosen date (such as the upcoming May Day, which many of us seem more apprehensive about than anything else), we should set our efforts to the small, nearby, worthwhile fights. Identifying those places where the rage under the surface runs deepest, and is only waiting to find an outlet. The Gill Tract fits the bill. Urban farming is huge in the Bay Area. Development, well, that’s huge too, but in far more conflicted and divisive a fashion. The tract had been purchased by UC Berkeley (hence my friend’s relative misinformation), but it is pristine farmland, and over the years has been haphazardly employed for genetic research and small scale grow projects. The next slated project: a Whole Foods supermarket. So, in a word, in this case I believe that even your many average joes will have to agree that we Occupiers here have a pretty good point: the Gill Tract had sat pointlessly vacant for years, and yet in just a few short hours we had put it to productive use, transformed it absolutely, testament to the power of protest and positivity — the wonderful feats that “we the people” can accomplish when we get together and put our mind to it. The Wells Fargo action the other day seems to have been another general success. I wasn’t there, so I can’t speak to it personally, but this is welcome news indeed.

Me myself, I had begun to worry a little about our movement. Worried that we were losing direction, that we were pulling off message. The General Assemblies had become increasingly, consistently frustrating — little more than a churning mill for rally after un-related rally. The same faces every week, over and over. Occupy Oakland seemed to be losing the support and patience of the community — I never used to have to work so hard to defend this movement. Increasingly, people were wondering what we were doing, what we were trying to accomplish. I was beginning to wonder the same thing.  But perhaps this is just the direction that Occupy will have to take, where the regional offshoots, Occupy Oakland, Occupy San Francisco, become increasingly irrelevant to the autonomous actions that we can take from within the framework and networks that Occupy has established. After all, without the camps, there is little reason to feel tied down to any particular town or city, but as long as we all keep showing up, keep coming to the meetings, and keep trying, again and again, to support one another, than the possibilities will present themselves. We can go wherever the fight takes us.

So, what next? If I might put forth a modest proposal: more of the same. Well-researched, fully understood local issues with system-wide significance. More foreclosure defense. More bank protests. Perhaps a few of us could take it upon ourselves to learn more about the Goldman Sachs credit swap scam, whereby the city of Oakland has been trapped into paying one of the worst villains in the system millions of dollars a year through financial trickery. Perhaps we could identify a way to inform, and apply the public pressure. We could find out if other cities are facing the same problem. Or, perhaps we could start thinking about education. The teachers union could be an incredibly powerful ally, and with the advent of charter schools and school closures perhaps there’s something there that we could tap into. Perhaps, and this is just a suggestion, we could start thinking about Lakeview Elementary, one of five schools slated for closure at the end of this school year. I remember receiving “Save Lakeview” fliers and petitions long before Occupy started. What could we do with that? We’ve started a free farm. What about a free school? Is that idea outlandish? I wonder. Maybe it is. But perhaps it’s also worth thinking about.

Occupy Oakland Rises Up, Part 3

Armchair Radical

Fuel to the Fire

It had been about 22 hours since I was arrested on Broadway. Dublin is about 45 minutes drive from Oakland. They were here to take us home. It would have been a long walk to the BART station without them. I requested that we stop by an In ‘N Out Burger on the way. The faster I forgot what the Santa Rita bologna sandwiches tasted like, the better. I was driven by a couple who I vaguely recognized, and shared the ride with a fellow Occupier who I didn’t.

Then we drove home. They took me back to my apartment, not far from the plaza. One of the first things I did when I walked through the door, after emptying out my backpack, was to check the local news coverage. The first thing I found on the Oakland Tribune’s homepage was an image of a small group of Occupiers burning the American flag. The next, was a picture of Mayor Jean Quan, looking down at the vandalized model of the City Hall. Over 300 people had been arrested along with me in front of the YMCA. About 100 more would be arrested before the night was over. The narrative that the mayor and the council and their allies would push over the next few days was of a group of outside agitators who had targeted Oakland, for use as their “playground.” Ignacio de la Fuente, council representative of the Fruitvale district, went so far to call us domestic terrorists. When I read that statement, I wondered what he would have said to the assertion that arresting 400 people on dubious charges was probably a fantastic way to produce them. I thought of the Earth Liberation Front, the environmentalists who vandalize Hummer dealerships and oil derricks. Classified as the most dangerous domestic terror group in the country, though they’d never caused bodily harm to a single person in all their years of operation. I wondered then at the real danger that Occupy Oakland could end up falling somewhere on the same rubric.

There was a weird sort of energy in me, being back. People in Santa Rita warned about trauma from teargas or beating, or indeed arrest in general. I didn’t feel traumatized. I felt wired. Exhausted and drawn and confused. I couldn’t stay in my apartment. It was too small and it was too quiet and too much had just happened to me. I knew I had to re-charge. I would soon have real world responsibilities to attend to. But I just couldn’t sit down and relax, watch TV or read a book. I couldn’t call up some friend who wasn’t sure about Occupy in the first place. I didn’t want to explain what had just happened. I needed to be around others who knew what I had been through already, who would be just as confused and furious as I was. And when I checked the Occupy Oakland website, I saw that, as luck would have it, the GA which is usually held earlier in the day, was in fact just about to start. I got on my bike and headed for the plaza through the streets of my so-familiar hometown, which had never seemed more alive and proud and dangerous. I found over 250 people seated in the plaza amphitheater in front of the recently vandalized City Hall, and more were arriving. This was the largest GA I’d seen in months. And when the speakers spoke about state repression and police brutality, familiar terms casually employed at nearly every OO assembly and working group, their words reached me in a way they usually didn’t. What’s more, I could hear them reaching others. Spontaneous chants started up in the crowd, while we voted to endorse an upcoming Occupation of San Quentin, and another General Strike on May 1st. A donation basket was passed around for the bail fund. When it completed its circuit, it was stuffed to the brim with crumpled green bills.

If there was one general, overall emotion that I felt there, in the crowd, and in myself, it was of defiance. We had been wronged. They had tried to take us down with brute force. They were trying to scare us. But we were still there. More of us than had been in a long time, and we were all fucking pissed. We wanted to tell them that we weren’t going anywhere. We wanted to give them one, giant, collective “fuck you.” In fact, that’s exactly what we did to the four cops standing nervously in front of City Hall’s doors. I am not a rabid anti-capitalist. I do not condone vandalism or inciting confrontations. But I do not like what they tried to do to us. We have grievances, and they will be heard. Many will wonder where the Occupy Movement, and the Occupy Oakland movement, because it is probably worthwhile to distinguish between the two, will go from here. If we will be drawn into a tit for tat with the police, lose our way and lose our support. That is a fair question. But, if I may say so, it is something of an amazing thing that this question is even being asked. In this, Occupy has already had a victory. Now that the right questions are being asked, we must decide how best to answer them. How best to survive and grow and avoid being put down.  So, in a word, what will happen next is truly anyone’s guess.

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