Archives For Alley Valkyrie

“In the practice of mutual aid, which we can retrace to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find the positive and undoubted origin of our ethical conceptions; and we can affirm that in the ethical progress of man, mutual support – not mutual struggle – has had the leading part.” – Peter Kropotkin

I.

It was a maddeningly hot afternoon in August, and I had just spilled some cat food on the living room floor. I instinctively reached for the vacuum, momentarily forgetting that the air conditioning was already on, momentarily forgetting that I lived in a hundred-year old brownstone with a fragile electrical system. I hit the button on the vacuum to turn it on and, at that exact moment, I realized my mistake. The power went out.

Losing power was a regular occurrence in that house, and I didn’t think much about it at first. The breaker panel was in the basement, which could only be reached by exiting the house at the ground floor and re-entering the house again through the basement door. As I stepped out the front door, my next-door neighbor stepped out of her house at the same time, a confused look on her face.

“Our power just went out. Did your power go out?” she asked.

“I just blew the power out,” I told them. “Your power went out too? Shoot, my bad, sorry about that. I’m on my way down to turn it back on right now.”

I ran down to the basement, confused as to how and why the circuitry in my house could possibly affect the house next door. I swung open the door on the breaker panel and shined a flashlight on the panel. To my surprise, the circuit switch that was usually at issue had not flipped to the other side. I reset the entire panel, to be sure, but the power still did not come on. I ran back upstairs, dreading the call I was going to have to make to the landlord.

When I surfaced on the ground floor again, there was a small crowd on the sidewalk, and other neighbors were starting to exit their houses. “We have no power,” yelled a man from across the street. “Do any of you have power?”

I looked around at all the brownstones and realized that the entire block was out.

For a split second I tensed up, briefly paralyzed with the possibility that my little error had inconvenienced the entire neighborhood. How could one overloaded circuit knock out the whole street? I then glanced down the block and saw a few folks from the next street over walking towards us and, at that moment, it finally hit me that the outage had nothing to do with my running the vacuum cleaner and the air conditioner at the same time.

But with that realization, my guilt was immediately replaced by fear, and as I looked into the eyes of my neighbors, I saw nothing but fear in their faces as well. We stared at each other for a moment in silence, eyes wide, suddenly feeling as though we were in a Twilight Zone episode or a Ray Bradbury story. It was one of those strange moments where despite the fact that we were relative strangers to each other, every single person knew exactly what every other single person was thinking: terrorism.

It was less than two years after 9/11, and the trauma associated with living through that experience was still a fresh wound for most people in the neighborhood. Since the tragedy, the city’s inhabitants had been collectively walking on eggshells, waiting for the other shoe to drop. The emotional climate was such that an event as ordinary as a power outage, which would not necessarily engender fear prior to 9/11, suddenly took on a new and terrifying potentiality.

At that moment, another neighbor emerged from his house, cranking up an old weather radio as he walked towards us. “It’s a grid failure,” he yelled at the crowd. “Newscaster says that the whole Northeast is out. Everything is down.”

I witnessed a sigh of collective relief and a release of tension that immediately transitioned into a breath intake of differing anxieties. The fear of the unknown and the fear of potential terrorism had quickly morphed into a fear of violence, of looting and of rioting. Everyone suddenly started to intently study each other, deeply searching with their eyes, seeking out potential levels of trust or distrust. We stood there uncomfortably, the residents of a Brooklyn block who before this moment had the privilege of never needing to know or trust each other, who suddenly realized that we were in a situation where our safety and well-being might depend on each other. Eyes darted around from person to person, with the silence ever deafening as the seconds ticked by.

“Do you think we’ll be safe?” one woman asked, breaking the silence. “The last time this happened…”

In the late 1970’s, riots, looting and arson broke out throughout the city, especially in Brooklyn and the Bronx, after a power outage caused by a lightning strike kept the city off the grid for just over twenty-four hours. Nearly 5,000 people were arrested; hospitals filled up city-wide as a result of the violence. The incident is well-remembered among the city’s residents. Many of the folks on that very block had lived through those riots, and the tension in their faces signaled that they were bracing for such chaos to potentially occur again. I looked around, somewhat tense but determined not to be overly affected by the worry of others.

Eventually the immediate crowd scattered, and I nervously headed indoors. As soon as I entered the house, I hunted down every candle, flashlight, and spare battery that I knew of, put them in a pile in the middle of the floor, and looked out the window at the sun. We had three to four hours of sunlight left, at which time the entire city would be facing a night of blistering hot temperatures and no power. No power meant no traffic lights, no subway trains, no running elevators.

Crowds walking home in NYC during the 2003 blackout. Photo by Glitch010101.

Crowds walking home in NYC during the 2003 blackout. [Photo by Glitch010101.]

My partner texted me from uptown Manhattan, letting me know that he was walking back with a huge crowd of people and would not be home for several hours. Not knowing what to do with myself, and increasingly becoming affected by the heat, I decided to lay down for a nap.

II.

I woke up as the sun started to set, and my heart immediately began beating as I remembered that we were in the middle of a blackout. The house was sweltering, and I quickly pulled my shoes on, armed myself with a knife and a flashlight, and headed towards the front door. I walked past the refrigerator, and it occurred to me that the food in there would be spoiled by the morning. I opened up the fridge, gathered all the edible food into a bag, and continued out the house, figuring that I might run into someone else who needed food.

I stepped out the front door and could not believe the sight before my eyes. The same neighbors who were so fearful only a few hours before were engaged in what could only be described as an impromptu block party. There were several tables filled with food, a man was cooking on a propane stove, a few folks were playing music, kids were kicking a ball around, and several women were standing around in groups with drinks, obviously engaged in meaningful conversation. I thought back to my instinct of sharing food only a few seconds earlier, and realized that everyone else had the same instinct. Everyone was sharing, cooperating, working together to make the night a little easier.

It was a miserable and muggy night. A night that, in Park Slope, would be inevitably spent in front of an air conditioner, in front of a television or a computer, isolated from others and walled-off by design without much thought to the intent or consequence behind that arrangement. But in the absence of electricity and the inability to amuse oneself with all the various devices that run on electricity, everyone was out of the house and engaging in person with each other in a way that I had never witnessed before. And as I stood there and watched, I realized that what I was witnessing was probably not confined to this block.

I made my way down towards the commercial strip on Seventh Avenue and, as I turned a corner, I noticed that the bar, which sat catty-corner to where I was standing, had its doors open and the sides rolled up. There was a large crowd out on the sidewalk. I walked over and found that the place was packed. The restaurant was giving away everything they had, and everyone looked like they were having the time of their lives. Not only was everyone merry and conversational, there were several people among the affluent crowd who were visibly poor and homeless, and they were being welcomed and loaded up with food and drink just as everyone else.

I stood there at the entrance to what I always considered to be one of the snobbiest bars in the neighborhood, and watched as class lines evaporated before my eyes in the face of an unexpected situation. Firefighters were chatting with bankers, wealthy housewives were sharing food with dishwashers.

Continuing down the street, nearly every house had people sitting out on the porch, talking, sharing food or drink. The entire neighborhood was alive and bubbling with activity. Tables were set up all around with people playing card games and board games on the sidewalk in front of their houses. Down the road, the grocery store was handing out ice cream and bags of ice to everyone who walked past. A man was cooking hot-dogs on a charcoal grill. Grandmothers were sitting together knitting under the light of a gas lamp, and children of varied backgrounds who had never met before were playing together in the street.

From the open containers to the open street fires, laws were being broken left and right, and yet civility still held firm and there was not a single police officer to be seen. I walked up and down, the entire length of the neighborhood, taking in the miraculous beauty that had unfolded over dozens of city blocks. I met and spoke with a countless number of people. I was offered food and drink dozens of times and was invited by complete strangers to play music and card games. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was actually experiencing what it means to be a ‘community’.

III.

After what seemed like endless hours accepting all the hospitality that I could possibly stand, I decided to wander out past the immediacy of my neighborhood. I headed towards Prospect Park, which among many other functions served as a barrier of sorts between the wealthier white neighborhoods in the western half of Brooklyn and the poorer, immigrant and minority neighborhoods to the east. It was in those neighborhoods that the majority of the damage occurred during the riots of the late 70’s. Yet I had a strong feeling that the atmosphere unfolding in Park Slope was somewhat consistent throughout the city.

As I entered the park, I was taken aback by the sudden darkness. My own block and several others were still lit with gas lamps and that, combined with the candles and flashlights being used, kept me out of touch with how dark complete darkness actually was. I made my way across the park toward the east side, relying much more on my previous knowledge of the terrain than what I could actually see in front of me. I stuck to the paths that wound along the southwest corner of the park and, as I walked, I heard the sound of music coming over from Ocean Avenue. When I got to the corner where the park meets the street grid, I saw a nearly identical scene to the one I had just left behind. Music, food, community, laughter.

Nearly identical, but with one glaring exception. While I didn’t see a single police officer in the dozens of blocks that I walked in Park Slope, on this side of town, the police were everywhere. There was practically an officer stationed at every corner, and it was apparent from their stance and their demeanor that they knew full well that their presence was unnecessary to the point of absurdity. They were painfully out of place, standing awkwardly among the people communing on the sidewalk, knowing full well that they were only creating tension in an otherwise safe and joyous atmosphere. They looked as though they wanted to disappear.

I re-entered the park several blocks north of where I had exited and, as I crossed the street toward the path, I saw what looked like a group nap occurring in a patch of grass just to the right of the path. I headed towards the grass, and saw at least two-dozen children of various ages, spread out like snow angels, staring intently at the sky.

I looked up at the sky and gasped aloud. The sky. The stars.  They were larger and clearer and more mesmerizing than could ever have been thought possible in New York City. I was immediately taken back to my childhood, to summer camps in the Catskills where the stars seemed so close that you could almost touch them. I hadn’t seen such a sky since then and, as I stared at the sky and then at the children on the ground, it occurred to me that most, if not all, of these kids had spent their entire lives in New York City and had never been to a summer camp and had never seen the night sky before.

Night sky. Photo by Michael J. Bennett

Night sky. Photo by Michael J. Bennett

As my eyes darted back and forth between the sky and the children on the grass, one young boy saw me and sat up in excitement. “You need to lie down and see it from on your back,” he said to me urgently. “There must be a million stars up there. It’s amazing.”

And so I lowered myself down to the ground next to him and flattened myself on the grass under the large, waning moon, taking in the pure wonder that was the night sky at that moment. I forgot about everything but the stars, and I lay there for what seemed like hours, in complete awe, allowing myself to melt into both the sky above and the earth below. The experience was a rare gift, a gift that I was sharing with a grateful and hypnotized group of young stargazers. I pointed out as many constellations to the kids as I could find and remember, and then, after a while, I simply zoned out into the sky.

Eventually the kids got up and headed back toward the crowds on Ocean Avenue and, after the last one left, I stood up and wiped myself off and headed for home. I took a long, meandering route home through the park and, by the time I was back in my neighborhood, the sun was just starting to come up. There was still a group of guitarists perched on the stone wall that enclosed the park and a few random stragglers were slowly making their way home.

IV.

The power went back on the next morning and, on the surface, everything went back to normal rather quickly. Yet there was this resonance, a certain shared magic between neighbors that never quite faded. For many months afterward, every time I ran into or made eye contact with one of the others who I remembered from that night, there was always a pause, a smile, a sparkle in both of our eyes as we briefly remembered the joy and wonder in that experience.

There was something incredibly healing about that night, both collectively as a neighborhood and as a city, on a deeply personal level. Witnessing such kindness and cooperation, such an instinctive and widespread expression of both mutual aid and merriment in such stressful circumstances, greatly restored my faith in humanity and strengthened my belief in the feasibility of a decentralized, cooperative society. It was a night where love triumphed over fear, where beauty was unexpectedly revealed both within us as well as above us.

In a world of increasing uncertainty and dwindling resources, where the future may be technically unwritten but hints strongly at bleakness and tragedy, I still retain a bit of hope whenever I think of that night when we temporarily swapped out the streetlights for the stars.

 *   *   *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.  

The first time I ever drove cross-country, my only real objective was to get it over with as quickly as possible. I was moving from the East Coast to the West Coast, and I wasn’t looking forward to the long hours and days behind the wheel. I mapped out the quickest route that I could find, and took off in a precariously packed minivan full of my worldly possessions with the goal of reaching Oregon in five days.

It turns out that the route that I thought would be the easiest was also the route that those who blazed trails long before me found to be the most practical as well. By the time I hit Nebraska, I quickly realized that I was following the general route of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Following the railroad, with the train in my constant line of sight, it occurred to me that there was an entire history there that I knew very little about, a history that was crucial to the successful settlement of America. Prior to that moment, I had understood the importance of the railroad in theory, but there was something about literally keeping pace, face-to-face with that history that emphasized its significance in a way I had never considered before.

It wasn’t long after I diverted from that route north into Wyoming that I discovered that I was traveling the same route as the Oregon Trail. Similar to the railroad, I was again faced with an essential piece of American history that I knew little about. The farther west I went following the Oregon Trail, the more the rest stops started to double as historical markers. By the time I approached the Blue Mountains in eastern Oregon, learning about the horrors of westward migration become synonymous with stretching my legs. A layer below the initial digesting of that history, the colonial perspective of that telling also gnawed at me, as I knew that there was a whole other story within the saga of westward expansion that had not been inscribed on state-owned plaques at rest stops.

The Oregon Trail. [Public Domain]

The Oregon Trail. [Public Domain]

There was also something in the land itself that was commanding my attention– something unexplainable, a pull entrenched in the power of the wounds and stories and spirits of America. In connecting briefly to the history of the land, as one-sided as it was being reflected, I was quickly realizing my overall disconnect to these places as a whole. They themselves seemed to reflect that disconnect to me quite clearly, and the closer I got to my destination, the more I felt the urge to backtrack and explore.

By the time I made it to Portland, I felt like a stranger in my own country, but a determined stranger who wished to understand and befriend the unknown. That small taste of America had suddenly stirred up an enormous yearning, and my new surroundings in Oregon quickly started to relate and reflect the same themes and realizations that I had stumbled upon during the trip. Immersing myself in history wasn’t enough. I needed to meet the land, to understand these places from the bottoms of my feet. I wasn’t sure exactly what I needed to find, but I knew that I needed to search for it, and that need only grew stronger as time went on.

A few years later, time and money finally conspired in a way that was too precise to ignore, and I threw an old mattress into the back of my van and hit the road. I left with the intention of connecting with place and with history, of trying to understand my own complex relationship to the America I felt that I didn’t really understand. I wanted to learn from the places that made me feel as a stranger. I wanted know this land by its nooks and crannies.

I decided that my path would be dictated by both fate and curiosity, by signs and invitations alike. I was guided by paragraphs and articles in books and magazines, by roadside markers, by suggestions from friends and strangers and gas station attendants all the same.

From the time I first started out, those same people often asked me where I was going and why, and I quickly found that, while I understood my intent and motives, I didn’t necessarily have the language to express that to others. It was part pilgrimage, part adventure, part surrender, part obligation, part reconciliation, part sequel, and yet none of those things sufficed on their own as an explanation. After a few days of trying to explain it a variety of ways and seemingly failing every time, I simply told folks that I was “searching for America”, which seemed to be an acceptable answer no matter where I went.

Astoria, OR

The mouth of the Columbia River has been known among sailors for well over two centuries as the ‘Graveyard of the Pacific.’ One does not have to be schooled in sailing to sense its treachery; simply standing at the edge of the mouth on a windy day puts one quickly in touch with the intensity, the enormity and mortality that emanate from this crucial intersection of river, sea, wind, and sky.

It is a notable place of both power and history, both as a port in itself and as part of the story of American expansion as a whole. The Lewis and Clark Expedition spent the winter of 1804 bunked down at this spot, and a few years later a party funded by fur magnate John Jacob Astor founded Fort Astoria, the first permanent American settlement on the West Coast. Reminders of that history and the wealth that accompanied it are reflected in the mostly well-preserved Victorian architecture dotted throughout the town. The town reflects both history and modernity, feeling neither gentrified nor stuck in time.

Mouth of the Columbia River as seen from Astoria, circa 1912. [Public Domain]

Mouth of the Columbia River as seen from Astoria, circa 1912. [Public Domain]

As I stood at the mouth, watching the bar pilots guide a cargo ship through the treacherous channel, I thought back to something I had read about Concomly, the Chinook chief who served as the original bar pilot for the Columbia in the early 1800s. Aside from the obvious technological advances, what I was currently witnessing on the river was essentially an unchanged ritual that had been performed regularly in this same spot for over 200 years now.

Thinking of Concomly, the question that approached me seemed to come from outside, from the mouth itself. What did Concomly call this river? This graveyard, this mouth of ghosts – what was her name?

I was only a few days into my trip, but it was already apparent to me that actively decolonizing my surroundings whenever possible on this journey was both a challenge and an obligation on my part, an obligation to the land and the ancestors as well as to myself. I knew from prior research that there was no single indigenous name that the Columbia was known by, and most of the names that had been recorded were badly translated and phoneticized. Nonetheless I wished at that moment that I had one of those names at the tip of my tongue. I wanted to greet the river properly without also invoking the name of a colonizer, but I resigned myself to the fact that I didn’t have the ability to do so at that moment.

But while that specific name may not have been known or available to me at that moment, I also knew that the indigenous place-names of numerous lakes, rivers, and mountains throughout the country were well-known and were easily accessible information. From that point onward in my travels, I took it upon myself to revert to the indigenous names of the places I visited whenever possible, and to make notes and research specific places and place-names when the information wasn’t readily available.

Fargo, ND

“We’ve been staying here for well over two months now. My hope is to get back to New Mexico by the time school starts.”

She paused for a second, looking over at her two daughters across the table, who were distracted by a set of crayons and the activities on the diner placemat.

“But we need to stay for long as there’s decent work. School will do them no good if we can’t afford to eat.”

I had met Marcela and her daughters the night before, at a rest stop right outside of Fargo. Their family had been sleeping in the van next to mine, and it had been immediately obvious to me that they had been living at the rest stop for quite a while. I saw the father leave on foot before dawn and, instead of taking off immediately, I felt pulled to take Marcela and her kids out to breakfast.

I learned over breakfast that her husband was a migrant worker who was currently working in the local sunflower fields. She also worked in the fields on days when she could find someone to watch her girls, but she hadn’t been able to find anyone for at least a few weeks. They had been living out of the van for nearly two years at that point, with brief periods spent on and off with relatives near Santa Fe.

The sunflowers were the focus of my attention the day before, stretching for miles as I was driving down I-94 towards Fargo. When I first saw the sunflowers, I had spotted a few people out in the fields as well, and I had been thinking about the relative invisibility of migrant labor in this country on the drive into Fargo. So it seemed fitting that Marcela was the first person I found myself interacting with when I stopped.

Sunflower fields near Fargo, SD. Photo by Hephaestos.

Sunflower fields near Fargo, SD. [Photo Credit: Hephaestos.]

I knew that there were an untold number of families just like Marcela’s, skirting on the edges of existence and survival, but there was something in listening to Marcela’s story that brought that struggle home for me. Hers was a story that so many know abstractly and yet so few actually hear. I was grateful for the opportunity to share this space and time with this family, as heartbreaking as it was.

After breakfast I took them back to their van, said goodbye, and headed back out. A few miles down the road, I stopped at a roadside stand to buy a bunch of sunflowers. I looked out towards the farm and saw small dots out in the fields that I knew to be humans, and I couldn’t help but to wonder if one of the men out in the field was Marcela’s husband.

Sparta, WI

The first time I drove past the sign I though I must had read it wrong. I did a literal double-take as I passed it, somewhat convinced that I had just seen a sign for an astronaut and bicycle museum and concerned that my eyes were playing tricks on me.

A half-mile later right before the exit, I saw the sign again, and it was no mistake. “Astronaut Deke Slayton and Bicycle Museum”, the sign said. I laughed out loud and turned off towards the exit.

Neil Gaiman has suggested that America’s roadside attractions are America’s most sacred sites, and I was finding more and more by the day that there was a deep truth to that sentiment. I had passed up on several other similarly quirky roadside attractions prior to that morning, but I had no immediate destination. It seemed the perfect day for such a detour. I wasn’t sure what bicycles and astronauts had in common and how or why this was being presented to the public, but I was curious to find out.

It turned out that what the two had in common was the town of Sparta itself. Sparta, Wisconsin was the birthplace of Deke Slayton, one of America’s first and most famous astronauts. Sparta is also known as the “Bicycling Capital of America,” and the museum was a rather impressive (and surprisingly cohesive) expression of those two aspects of transportation. I spent the afternoon unexpectedly immersed in the histories of both bicycles and space, appreciative of both the actuality of what was in front of me as well as the process that led me to this point. While the phrase “only in America” is so often reduced to meaningless cliché, it was the defining thought on my mind as I walked back from the museum to my van.

In finding that museum, not so much the exhibits themselves but the very existence of the museum itself, I found a piece of the unexplainable that I had been itching to immerse myself in.

Lincoln, NE

I pulled up at the gas station, parked in front, and went inside the convenience store to grab a bottle of water. The front door was partially propped-open, and taped to the door was a huge sign. “No hoodies. No exceptions.”

I was wearing a hooded jacket. I pushed open the door the rest of the way to enter, and I immediately started to take off my hoodie as the bell on the door sounded my entrance. The woman behind the counter spotted me and waved me off. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said with a smile. “I’m not worried about you.”

I stood for a moment in discomfort, wondering who she was ‘worried about.’ I then walked to the back of the store to grab a beverage and as my back was to the door the bell went off again. I looked over behind me, and a young Hispanic man was walking into the store. The woman looked up at him sternly and immediately pointed to the sign on the door. “Please remove your hoodie”, she said to him firmly.

I looked at her in horror, gave him a sympathetic look, and quickly made my exit without purchasing anything.

Back in the van, I tried to shake off my anger. I had been on the privileged end of racial profiling before, but there was something about the bluntness of that experience that caught me off-guard. I zoned out on the highway, driving what was quite possibly the straightest stretch of road that I’ve ever driven, to the point where my elbows started to ache for lack of movement. My heart ached along with my elbows, albeit for a different reason.

Pike County, KY

The roads are quite narrow through Appalachia, and navigating them requires a very specific attention to detail that I wasn’t used to in my travels. I spent so much time hyper-aware of my position on the road that I nearly missed a key aspect of my surroundings. Winding through the heart of Hatfield-McCoy country, I was quite taken by the stark contrast between the various rock formations and the lush green beauty.

It wasn’t until I pulled over to stretch my legs that took a wide-range inventory of the terrain that I noticed that I was at the base of a mountaintop mining operation, surrounded by what used to be mountains. While I had been aware on some level that mining companies actually remove the tops of mountains, it had only affected me as an abstraction until that moment.

This is ‘progress’, I thought to myself. We remove the tops of mountains.

Mountaintop removal in Pike County, Kentucky. Photo by ilovemountains.

Mountaintop removal in Pike County, Kentucky. [Photo Credit: ilovemountains.]

I walked up a gravel path into the woods at the base of the mountain, and I was quickly overcome by how angry the woods felt. It was as if a mist of despair and sadness and rage had enveloped this place around me. I felt angry back; I also felt absolutely heartbroken and disgusted. The actual brutality in how this practice affects not just the land itself but the people and the creatures who live here was all I could focus on as I stood there observing the the beauty around me, a beauty which emanated so strongly despite the sadness of the woods.

Later that afternoon, I stopped off for lunch. When I parked the van, a woman was getting into the car next to mine. She had a bumper sticker that read “I Love Mountains”.

“Are there any mountains left?” I asked her, nodding towards the sticker.

“Not for long at the pace they’re going,” she replied, the sadness evident in her voice.

Medora, ND

The distance from the parking lot to the comfort station was less than fifty feet, but by the time I got to the entrance of the building, I had seen at least three separate signs warning me not to try to touch the bison. Inside the restroom, there was another prominent sign, and by the time I made it out of the building and up to the main patch of land overlooking Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the number of bison warning signs I had seen had approached the point of repetitive absurdity.

Who in their right mind would try to touch a bison in the first place? I shook my head in amusement as I climbed up and looked out upon miles of badlands, the untouched wilderness peppered with picturesque herds of bison.

Then I noticed people out on the bluffs, trying to touch the bison.

And I realized that a dozen signs are no more effective than one or none or a hundred when it comes to overcoming the mentality of entitlement that so many feel in terms of our wild places and the creatures that inhabit them. I was furious, watching the display of utter ignorance and disrespect in front of me, not to mention the danger. Suddenly I had no desire to stay and explore this place.

Bison at Theodore Roosevelt national Park. Photo by Matt Reinbold.

Bison at Theodore Roosevelt national Park. Photo by Matt Reinbold.

Walking back, I remembered a talk I had seen by a Native woman who spoke of the prevalence and pervasiveness of ‘settler mentality,’ especially in the American West. I glanced around at the parking lot, at cars bearing the license plates of at least a dozen states and thought back to the bison and what I had just witnessed. That entitlement, that defiant exercise of blatant disrespect, right there was a painful example of the pervasive behavior that she had spoken of.

Rock Springs, WY

I’ll admit that there wasn’t much that caught my eye as I drove into Rock Springs, but I also wasn’t there for the scenery. I was there to pay my respects to the victims of the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre, where at least 28 Chinese immigrants were murdered and mutilated among an ugly backdrop of racism and greed. While the West is dotted with countless massacre sites, the Rock Springs Massacre had always stuck out in my mind as especially significant both in its barbarism and its political implications, and Rock Springs was one of the destinations that I had in mind from the very beginning of the trip.

My mistake was in assuming that there was a memorial.

I asked first at a gas station, and then I asked a few residents who had no idea what I was talking about at all. Eventually I came across the local history museum, where the man at the front desk embarrassingly assured me that there was no such memorial, although he “personally felt that there should be”.

I came here looking for something that did not exist, and the fact that it did not exist was extremely unsettling. Outside the museum, I watched the people walking to and from, realizing that they were mostly clueless about the horrifying carnage that once took place on these very streets.

I thought again of history and of colonization, and of the oft-repeated adage that history is written by the victors. I suppose that going to work each day is much easier when you’re completely unaware that there was once a massacre in the middle of your downtown. I suppose that to publicly recognize such a history would be more than a little inconvenient and uncomfortable, to say the very least.

The wind suddenly blew rather harshly as I stood there, and I could feel something extra in that wind. It was as though the land and the spirits themselves were screaming for recognition, screaming for justice.

Afterword

I spent nearly six weeks on the road, visiting at least twenty states and traveling over 10,000 miles. When I finally got back, it took nearly as long to recover. I spent the next several months processing what I had taken in over the course of the trip. To this day, I find myself often drifting back to some of the people and places that I had come across along the way.

While I can’t say definitively that I found all the answers to my questions or discovered all I was looking for, it was an eye-opening and life-changing experience that greatly influenced my understandings and attitudes about this country, for better or for worse. Looking back, part of what I was searching for was a unifying energy, a linking thread of sorts that I never did find, but in not finding it I also came to see why it was not there in the first place.

More than anything, I came into and remained in touch with the anger and trauma of this land itself, one that is continuous throughout with so many of her wounds unacknowledged. That trauma, and the strong undercurrent of denial that feeds and sustains it, quietly expresses pain and consequences in ways that no history book could ever truly convey.

*   *   *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

Column: Invisible Among Us

Alley Valkyrie —  December 26, 2014 — 6 Comments

“Without the sleeping bag I’m just somebody up early in the morning, sitting under a tree. With the sleeping bag I’m nobody up early, sitting under a tree: a slight, but important difference in how I’ll be perceived.” – Craig Stone, The Squirrel That Dreamt of Madness

I.

“Hi, do you have a moment for the environment?”

Very seldom could I get the entire sentence out. More often than not, my attempts at interacting with passers-by ended somewhere between “Hi, do you…” and “Hi, do you have a moment…” On the busy sidewalks of Manhattan, very few people were willing to grant more than a few seconds of their time to anyone trying to get their attention; let alone someone working as a street canvasser for Greenpeace.

Of all the thankless, minimum-wage jobs that I cycled through when I was in my early twenties, the canvassing gig was by far the most brutal. We spent four to five hours a day on the sidewalks of New York City, trying to convince people to sign up for a monthly donation subscription with a $15 minimum. We went out in teams of four, a different intersection every few days.  If we didn’t meet our quota of two sign-ups a day for three days straight, we were automatically fired. It was an uncomfortable, stressful, pressure-filed job, where one’s income, as well as their status as ‘employed’ altogether, was completely dependent on an often hostile and skeptical public.

Prior to landing the job, I had spent lots of time on street-corners, both as a busker and a tarot reader. I knew full well that trying to solicit money from the public was often a frustrating and futile task. When folks would ask me how I fared as a street performer, I would usually tell them that if smiles were a form of currency, I’d be very well off. I never made much money, but at least I had the smiles.

I usually had the smiles as well while on the street corner on behalf of Greenpeace. That is, until one day a few months into the gig when our director decided to send my four-person team down to Wall Street, an area that had been avoided up to that point due to the perception of political hostility. She warned us that it might be tough. I thought back to my days reading cards and playing music on the streets and figured that I knew what I was in for. I can handle this, I thought to myself.

Oh, how wrong I was.

“Hi…”

“Hi…”

“Hi, do you…”

After the first hour, not only did I realize that I was probably going to have a zero day, but I was starting to feel desperate for even a smile. Very few people would even make eye contact with me, let alone stop. Over the next four hours, I couldn’t get a single person to actually pause and listen to my pitch. A few folks gave gave me nasty looks, one man even spit at my feet as he passed. A woman who worked for Exxon took it upon herself to scream at me, telling me that I should get a “real job” and stop trying to “destroy the oil industry.” But mostly, I was completely ignored. I couldn’t even get people to look at me, let alone open up their wallets.

For the first time in my life, I literally felt invisible to everyone around me. And by the end of the day, not only did I not sign up a single person for the first time since landing the job, I was so psychically numb that the only thing I wanted to do was go straight to the bar afterward. I had many unsuccessful days before but at least I got the smiles; I experienced human interaction and my humanity was acknowledged. But that day, I had never felt so invisible, and I was taken aback by how deeply it affected me, especially considering that I had only experienced it for a single afternoon.

The next day I was sent back to Wall Street again and, as I walked downtown toward my destination, I was overtaken by feelings of anxiety and dread; feelings that only increased over the next few hours. I stood there once again, completely invisible, and as the hours passed I felt every more desperate. Thousands of people walked by me, almost no-one would look me in the eye, and at the end of the day, once again, I headed straight for the bar.  At that moment, drink was the only thing I could think of that could possibly numb the indescribable feeling that grew throughout the course of the day.

800px-Lower_Manhattan_Aerial

Lower Manhattan [Public Domain]

By the third day, I knew as I was walking downtown that it would be my last day on the job. I was already so broken that I didn’t even try. At that point, I actually looked forward to name-calling and insults. The experience of being ignored for the past few days was so psychologically stressful that the insults at least served as a reminder that I actually did exist; that I actually was seen; that I was really standing there in the flesh and was not in fact an invisible spirit.

Toward the end of the afternoon, knowing that I was going to be fired anyway, I simply couldn’t take it anymore. I felt I was about to break, and I abandoned my post on the corner and walked a few blocks away, looking for somewhere to sit with my emotions.

I walked past another corner and saw a homeless beggar sitting in a doorway, an older man that I realized that I had walked by dozens of times before, and yet I had never actually seen him. I stood there, staring at him, processing what I had experienced in the past three days. I realized that not only did this man experienced that same invisibility every single day, but for him it was a fixed condition, not something that ended when the work day was over. Had I always done to this man what others had just done to me? How could I not have seen him before the way I saw him now? He looked up and caught my eye, and I walked over towards him.

“How long have you been out here?” I asked.

“Thirteen years,” he answered. “I’ve been in and out of housing a few times, but those periods were brief. I used to hang out up near Times Square for several years until it gentrified, but I’ve been down here in the Financial District for a few years now, since the late nineties. ”

Thirteen years. And here I was, on the verge of a mental breakdown after only three days of experiencing what it was like to be completely invisible. I stared at him for a moment, and then sat down next to him and started to cry. He didn’t understand why I was crying, but he put his arm around me nonetheless. After a few minutes, I wiped my tears, stood up, reached into my pocket, and gave him every dollar I had on me. I looked into his eyes and started to tear up again.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I wish I could do more.”

“You’ve done more than you think,” he replied. “Most people who hand me a buck or two don’t even look me in the eye. Nobody actually wants to talk to you when you’re on the street. You’ve just given me more of your time and attention than any stranger has in days.”

I thought about my prior interactions with street folks, and it hit me that I had usually done the same thing that he just described. I would give them a dollar or two, but never really look them in the eye. I suddenly felt like a horrible person for not understanding how dehumanizing it was to ignore the presence of the poor and homeless. It hurt me so greatly to realize that I had inadvertently made others feel the way that I had felt over the past three days. I stood there for another moment, looking down at the man, and silently vowed to the Gods that never again would I walk past someone who sought my attention in good faith without at least looking them in the eye and acknowledging them as a person.

To this day, I have never consciously broken that vow.

II.

I walked out of the grocery store with a croissant in my hand, and ran across the street to the corner where a man was sitting, back towards me, wrapped in a blanket.

“Hey, Sam….” I said softly as I approached.

He turned, our eyes met, and we both grinned at the same time in mutual recognition. Wordlessly, I broke my croissant in two and held out a half towards him. He took the half, and we both looked down at what we held in our hands and bit into our half of the croissant at the same time. We chewed slowly, enjoying both the taste of the treat as well as the moment itself.

I don’t know much about Sam’s life – I know he’s on the street due to mental illness and has been a fixture in the neighborhood for years. Over time, I’ve noticed that his lucidity and his ability to function varies greatly from day to day. Some days he barely seems to recognize me, which is why I always approach him cautiously. But despite the challenges, I make a point of breaking bread with Sam on a regular basis.

The corner where I often find Sam.

One of the corners where I often find Sam.

In a world of deep and painful socioeconomic divisions, creating moments of equality and communion wherever possible is one of the few antidotes I know of; one of the few ways that I can reach across the ever-widening divide between the haves and have-nots and reach out to those who have been failed by the system. Breaking bread on the street corner was a simple but powerful gesture, one that often creates ripples beyond the immediate reality of the two of us standing around munching on pastries.

“All day I stand here, but nobody sees me,” he told me once while we were sharing a donut. “It’s as if I don’t exist. But then you stand next to me for a few moments, and suddenly I’m real to them. Suddenly I’m standing here too, as though I wasn’t just before.”

I felt a powerful wave of sadness and empathy with an undercurrent of rage as I digested his words, as I knew that what he was saying was all too true. While I cannot personally cure or mitigate the experiences of Sam, and so many others like him, I keep them in mind in my actions and my navigations. When I break bread with Sam I always hold close the intention of fighting for a world where I do not have to hand a croissant to someone like him in order for him to be seen in the eyes of others.

III.

“Can I tell you something? I need to tell somebody.”

I nodded. It was a common request, more common than some might think. I had seen Daphne sitting on the ledge earlier that day, and ran back home to bring her socks and hot coffee, sensing that she was in need of someone to talk to.

“I think I see the dead. And on some days, they’re everywhere.”

I nodded again. Street folks who see spirits are also more common than one might think. Sam had told me the exact same thing only a few days earlier.

“I never saw them before I was out here, but now I see them all the time,” she continued. “I think I’m going crazy, but I know a lot of other folks out here who see them too.”

“You’re not going crazy,” I quickly answered. “I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve talked to who see similar things. What you’re speaking of goes far beyond just the street population of downtown Portland.”

She looked up at me, and I could tell by her expression that I had just greatly helped in validating her reality.

“I think that the more invisible I become, the more I see things that others consider to be invisible,” she said after a moment.

I stared at her, taken aback. She had just perfectly articulated what I had always considered to be the most plausible explanation. Being ‘othered,’ being cast aside, ignored and treated as though one doesn’t exist, inevitably drives one closer and closer to being in touch with all else that is invisible and unseen – that other world that many believe also doesn’t exist.

“Yes, I do think that’s the case, although you just put it better than I ever could,” I replied. “And even if that’s not the reason, you’re still not crazy,” I added. “To tell you the truth, sometimes I see spirits too.”

She suddenly grabbed me for a hug, spilling the coffee in the process.

“Thank you,” she said as she hugged me. “I needed to hear that.”

I returned the embrace. In a sense, I had needed to hear what she just told me just as much as she needed to hear what I had just told her.

Walking home, I passed by Sam, who didn’t even notice my presence. He was deep in conversation with something – something I couldn’t see but could definitively sense. I thought of what Daphne had just told me and simply shook my head as I walked away.

IV.

I said a quick hello to Sam on the corner and walked into the coffee shop. I was in a sour mood that day on top of an already stressful week. I had nothing left in me other than to grab a latte and sit at the window of the coffee shop, staring out at the corner where Sam stood with his blanket and a cup.

While trying my best to tune out the Christmas carols playing in the background, I couldn’t help but to keep my eye on Sam, partially out of guilt that I was too tired and broken to engage in either conversation or croissants that day. I sat and watched as he stood there, wearing only sandals on a near-freezing windy day, holding out his cup and trying to engage those who walked by.

Person after person passed without even looking at him. One man literally bumped right into him as though he wasn’t even standing there. A woman walked by with her dog, and her dog nipped and pulled at Sam’s blanket,. She pulled the dog back and scolded it without even apologizing to Sam.

After a while, my sourness turned to rage. I continued to sit at the window, visibly shaking in anger, watching him on the corner. Suddenly, I realized that everyone else in the coffee shop was starting to notice me. A few women on the couch behind me were staring and whispering. A man came up to me and asked what was wrong and if I was okay. I didn’t hold back in my reply.

“Right now, what’s wrong more than anything is that this entire coffee shop is more concerned about what’s wrong with me than the fact that there’s a man begging on the corner wrapped in a blanket who doesn’t even have shoes. No, I’m not OK, but that has nothing to do with my own needs. It has to do with the fact that someone else in such need is literally begging to survive in a community of great affluence and people are acting as though he isn’t even standing there. If you want to help someone, I don’t need help. He does,” I said, pointing out the window towards Sam.

The man just stared at me, as did everyone else within earshot.

“Tell me,” I continued, my voice rising with my anger. “How many times have you walked past that man out there? Have you ever even stopped to say hello? Have you ever acknowledged his existence? Have any of you?” I asked, turning towards the others who were listening. “Does his life even matter to you? Does his suffering affect any of you at all?” My voice had started to shake along with my body, and I was on the verge of tears.

The man nodded. “I hear you,” he said. “And you’re right. I’ve never said a word to him. And I probably never would have thought to do so. And I don’t even know why that is, but again, you’re absolutely right.”

I watched as he turned around and walked out of the coffee shop, walked right up to Sam, and held out his hand to introduce himself. Sam looked up, surprised, and enthusiastically shook his hand. They started to talk, and as they did, the two women on the couch also got up and walked out of the coffee shop. They went right up to Sam while the other man was still talking to him, and each of them dropped a dollar in his cup. As the three of them stood there with Sam, other people started to look over. Another woman then came and dropped a dollar in his cup. And then another. Suddenly, Sam was seen, he was visible, and people were reacting to his presence.

As I watched Sam talk with the man from the coffee shop, I thought back to that night on the corner down on Wall Street years ago, and how that interaction with the homeless beggar there forever changed my perception of and behavior around street folks. Perhaps he’s learning the same lesson, I thought to myself. Please, I silently wished, let him learn the same lesson.

V.

A day or two later, I was walking down that same block when I saw Sam on the corner again with his cup, but instead of sandals on his feet, he was wearing a sturdy pair of lightly-worn boots. I smiled, pointed to his boots, and asked him where they came from.

“The other day, a man walked up to me out of the coffee shop and shook my hand and we started to talk. He asked me what my shoe size was and then mentioned that he wore the same size. A few hours later, he came back with these, and wished me a Merry Christmas.” He looked down at his feet and grinned. “They fit perfectly. And he’s walked by a few times since then, and he says hello to me every time now.”

I grinned back. Not only was I indescribably happy for Sam, but my own wish had come true as well. I reached in my bag for the croissant I had bought a few minutes earlier, ripped the pastry in half and handed the bigger half to Sam. “Merry Christmas, Sam,” I said.

“Yes, Merry Christmas,” he replied, and we ate our croissant on the corner together.

800px-Croissant-Petr_Kratochvil

[Public Domain]

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This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

Column: What Lies Beneath

Alley Valkyrie —  November 21, 2014 — 21 Comments

“My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and fought and gobbled until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first.” - Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

A Fire in the Earth
I’m not sure what was on my mind that morning, other than hoping I could reach Columbus by nightfall, but as I drove west on I-80 through eastern Pennsylvania I started to zone out. It wasn’t until I hit Bloomsburg that I realized that I had missed the exit for I-81. I pulled off at the downtown exit with the intention of turning around, but after I got some coffee and walked around to stretch my legs a bit, I was seduced by the beautiful, sunny day and decided that, rather than head back the opposite direction on I-80, I would take the back roads southward through the country towards I-81.

I pulled out the map from under the passenger seat, which by the design and typeface looked as though it had been printed at least fifteen or twenty years earlier, and quickly found what looked like the most sensible route to take. It looked easy enough. Keep heading further down 487 towards Catawissa, where the numbered route would change to 42 and, then, continue on through Numidia and into Centralia. In Centralia, the route would then again change to 61, which would take me down through Ashland and, then, through Gordon, where I could meet up with I-81.

Route 42 over the Susquehanna River into Catawissa. Photo by jakec

Route 42 over the Susquehanna River into Catawissa. [Photo by jakec, via CC lic. Wikimedia]

I started driving south through the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. My attention was equally captivated by the natural beauty of the area and the ecological destruction throughout, when out of nowhere something about my surroundings felt very wrong. I glanced down at the map and up again at the road. According to the map I was still on 42, approaching the north end of Centralia where the road changed to 61, and the size of the typeface matched up with the map’s key, indicating that Centralia was a small town with at least a few thousand people in it.

And yet, the town was empty. There were streets and intersections just as it showed on the map, but very few signs of civilization. Curious, I took a right turn onto what was supposed to be the main drag, and drove slowly in silent horror as the abandoned emptiness continued on and stretched all the way to the end of town. Driveway after driveway led to nothing but empty lots. Sidewalks were overgrown and obviously hadn’t been tended to in years. Mailboxes sat in front of bare foundations. The few houses that still stood literally looked terrified in the midst of their abandoned surroundings. There was not a single person in sight.

I parked the car on the side of the road and got out for a moment. There was a strange, acrid smell in the air. The silence was deafening, and yet amidst that silence I could literally hear the land screaming. The ominous feeling in my gut grew stronger by the second. I quickly became overwhelmed, got back in the car, and turned around to return back to my intended route. I looked at the map again. My faith in its accuracy was already shaken, but I needed to make sure I knew how to get out of this place. According to the map, Route 61 would take me straight out of town, and I needed to fork right just after the cemetery in order to stay on the highway.

The fork didn’t exist, however. Instead, the road forced me left, onto another road that was marked as a side-road on my map but according to the signs in front of me was now also Route 61. I glanced at the map once more, and then again at the highway in disbelief. My eyes were not playing tricks on me. The abandonment of a town, the re-alignment of a highway, something had definitely happened in this area over the years.

A few minutes down the road, I arrived at the next town, which I was relieved to find was no different than any other small Pennsylvania town, complete with buildings, people, and commerce. I parked and walked into a pizzeria and ordered a slice to go. As I was being rung up, I caught the cashier’s eye and decided to ask him about what I had just seen.

“Hey, why is the town just north of here deserted?” I asked, calmly and politely. “And is that related to why 61 is in a different place than what is marked on my map?”

He looked at me somewhat surprised, as though he couldn’t understand why anyone had to ask such a question. “You’re not from around here,” he said slowly as he handed me my change. It was a statement, not a question.

I nodded in affirmation. He continued as he started to cut my slice.

“There was a fire, its still burning. It’s a ghost town. The authorities forced just about everyone out over the past thirty years or so. There’s a few stragglers, but it’s not safe to live there and they know it. It’s dangerous to even walk around there. The ground, its hot to the touch from the fire. ”

I remembered the acrid smell in the air, but I hadn’t seen any fire. “The fire? Where’s the fire?”

“Underground,” he said, gruffly. “There’s a fire in the earth, in the mines, it started in the mines but they say it goes even deeper now. Its been burning since I was a kid. “

Smoke seeping out of the ground in Centralia, PA. Photo by jrmski

Smoke seeping out of the ground in Centralia, PA. [Photo by jrmski]

From the early 1800s onwards, Pennsylvania and West Virginia were at the center of the nation’s coal industry, which fueled the Industrial Age and continues to help fuel “progress” in the modern day. The first anthracite mines in Centralia opened in the 1850s, and the town became quickly populated by mine workers, who were for the most part of Irish Catholic ancestry. At its peak in 1890, nearly three thousand people lived in Centralia, and the coal deposits in the area were mined continuously until the Depression. A limited amount of mining continued through the early 1960s, right up to the time of the fire that would eventually lead to the evacuation of the entire town.

While the origin of the fire has been somewhat debated over the years, most agree that it was caused by an intentional landfill fire that was set in a former strip mine at the edge of town. The fire accidentally ignited an exposed coal shelf that extended underground to the numerous abandoned mines, some which had been dug nearly a century earlier and had long since collapsed. The fire quickly spread underground, and a few months later all of the area mines had to be permanently evacuated. It continued to spread further over the years, and by the early 1980s, residents started to experience health and other environmental effects. In 1984, Congress allocated money in order to relocate the residents of Centralia, and many residents accepted a buyout in exchange for moving to nearby towns while others stayed despite the ever-growing danger.

Nearly a decade later, thirty years after the fire started, and after four separate excavation attempts and untold millions of dollars were spent trying to put out the fire, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania decided to invoke eminent domain in order to displace the remaining residents. Aside from eight residents who fought relocation and were eventually allowed to stay until their deaths, the town has been completely abandoned. The buildings were razed, much of the infrastructure removed, and what remains is crumbling and overgrown.

Some of the trees have turned white from the fumes. The ground is so hot that in some places, a match will light if you drop it. Smoke seeps out of cracks in the earth and the smell of burning coal permeates throughout. Route 61 had to be re-routed due to cracks and fissures that appeared in the original road over time.

Overgrown and destroyed segment of Route 6 in Centralia. Photo by navy2004.

Overgrown and destroyed segment of Route 61 in Centralia. [Photo by navy2004.]

Centralia is a cautionary tale, but it is far from the only one. Currently, at least 100 documented coal shelf fires are burning beneath nine states, and experts believe that there are many more burning that have gone unreported. Nearly two centuries’ worth of coal mining has scarred and devastated the earth beneath our feet, and yet the mining still continues with our nation’s current need for sources of commodified energy. And from that need, the consequences remain long after the coal is gone. Massive ecological destruction and widespread unemployment and poverty remain throughout the regions of America where the mining industry once flourished.

Experts estimate that the fire beneath Centralia, Pennsylvania will be burning for the next 250 years.

Black Gold and Bleeding Veins
In addition to coal mining, nowadays we rely mostly on conventional oil drilling, hydraulic fracking, and most recently the extraction of tar sands in order to fuel our march towards “progress”, our march towards our eventual extinction as a species. Tar sands oil has been described by climate scientist James Hansen as “one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet,” and it is the extraction of tar sands from northern Alberta that is driving the push for environmentally devastating projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline.

I hear lots of talk of “the pipeline” lately, as though it was a singular entity, as though there weren’t already 2.3 million miles of pipeline laid beneath American soil. It’s a positive sign overall that the average person is finally paying attention to pipelines and, while Keystone XL is undoubtedly the most widely-publicized and controversial pipeline project in American history, the focus on Keystone XL as though it is a singularity distracts from the fact that pipelines are already everywhere, wreaking environmental damage and destruction throughout the nation.

For all you know, there could be a pipeline directly underneath your own local, sacred refuge.

Millions of miles of metal veins criss-cross the country, with black gold coursing through on the journey from source to destination. Metal veins that lie under streams, across fault lines, through watersheds, beneath farmlands and cemeteries, shoddily-built metal veins that often bleed out that black gold that runs through them, seeping out through uncountable leaks and fissures, poisoning the land we live on in the name of “profits” and “freedom.” From 2008 to 2012, pipelines beneath American soil have spilled an average of more than 3.1 million gallons of toxic liquids each year, causing at least $1.5 billion in property damage. Potentially leaky pipelines are literally in our backyards.

Pipeline warning sign in a residential neighborhood in Woodbridge, NJ, circa 1974. Photo by Ike Vern.

Pipeline warning sign in a neighborhood in suburban New Jersey circa 1974. [Photo by Ike Vern.]

Although not one has ever received the level of coverage that Keystone XL does, current pipeline projects are scattered and numerous throughout the country, and many of those projects have been met with fierce, but often unsuccessful, opposition. In Oregon, several inter-related proposed pipeline projects, including the Oregon LNG project, the Pacific Connector, and the Jordan Cove LNG terminal are intended to expedite the transport of liquefied natural gas to markets in Asia. These projects are still in the early stages of development, but the Pacific Connector project has so far received the go-ahead from the federal government.

Earlier this year, an energy company known as Williams Partners announced its intention to place a natural gas pipeline in the ground through eastern Pennsylvania in order to cheaply move liquefied natural gas (acquired by fracking) from the Marcellus Shale across the state to the Eastern Seaboard. The pipeline, dubbed ‘Atlantic Sunrise’, would stretch through eight counties on a north-south trajectory, connecting two pre-existing pipelines that run across the northern and southern ends of the state. Local residents and Native groups have mounted a significant challenge, and some local government officials are also against the project, but the project is still under review and no decisions have been made either way.

The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline is slated to be built less than twenty miles to the west of the still-burning Centralia mine fire.

An “Act of War”
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would be the final section of a multi-phase pipeline system that has been under construction since 2008. The first phase, completed in 2010, delivers tar sands oil from Hardisty, Alberta through Saskatchewan and the Dakotas to Steele City, Nebraska, and then on across Missouri to refineries in Illinois. The second and third phases connect to the first pipeline in Steele City and carry the oil south through Oklahoma to a refinery in Port Arthur and Houston, Texas. The Keystone XL pipeline, which still awaits government approval, would duplicate the route from Hardisty to Steele City, but would go through Montana in order to transport Bakken crude, as well as tar sands, through the Midwest.

Keystone XL is slated to cross active seismic zones, fracking wells, the Ogallala Aquifer, and numerous indigenous lands and sacred sites. Opposition to the project has been steadily increasing among the American public. However, support for the project remains strong in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Keystone XL vigil in Portland, Oregon, February 2014. Photo by Brylie Oxley.

Keystone XL vigil in Portland, Oregon, February 2014. [Photo by Brylie Oxley.]

Last February, the Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota passed a tribal declaration opposing the Keystone XL project. In March, over a thousand college students representing 80 different schools marched on Washington. Approximately 400 were arrested after they marched on the White House, with many of the protesters chaining themselves to the fence with zip-ties, and others re-creating an oil spill using black plastic sheets in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. A month later, an organization known as the Cowboy Indian Alliance, composed of tribal members, farmers and ranchers, marched on Washington, some on horseback, and held a five-day gathering near the White House in order to draw attention to their opposition of the Keystone XL pipeline and to lobby Congress. At the gathering, Oglala Sioux Tribal President Bryan Brewer stated that “Keystone XL is a death warrant for our people,” and he urged the U.S government to reject the pipeline and to respect Native treaty rights.

On Friday, November 14th, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline by a 252-161 vote. In response to the vote, Rosebud Sioux Tribal President Cyril Scott stated the following: “We are outraged at the lack of intergovernmental cooperation. We are a sovereign nation and we are not being treated as such. We will close our reservation borders to Keystone XL. Authorizing Keystone XL is an act of war against our people.” Scott added that, not only does the Keystone XL pipeline violate the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, but also the Sioux Nation has not been properly consulted on the project by either the U.S. government or TransCanada, who owns the Keystone Pipeline network.

Four days after the House voted to approve Keystone XL, the proposal lost by one vote in the Senate, which is currently controlled by the Democratic Party. However, the Republican Party will gain control on January 1, and the Keystone XL proposal will undoubtedly be approved next spring. Whether or not they will have enough votes to override a presidential veto has yet to be determined. In the meantime, other pipeline proposals are in the works, and alternative plans to move crude oil are already being discussed should the Keystone XL proposal fail.

Whether its Keystone XL or the Atlantic Sunrise project, a war is indeed being waged against the land; against the gods and spirits that inhabit that land; against the health and well-being of the animals and people who inhabit that land and against all life as we know it. This war is not over a cause nor a belief, it’s a war being waged in the name of greed and profit. It is a battle for the fate of the planet itself.

Our addiction to oil and gas is literally destroying our ability to live on this planet, and yet it continues undisturbed and unfettered over the objections of many, but nowhere near enough, people. Despite the limited successes of pipeline resistance movements such as the Tar Sands Blockade and Idle No More, the extraction still increases and the poisoning of the land and its people still continues at an unprecedented rate, with no end in sight.

How much more does the Earth need to burn and bleed before we change our ways? How many more towns will we be forced to be abandoned, how many more oil trains must derail, how many more pipelines must leak before finally decide that enough is enough? How many more must die, how many more must be poisoned before we finally realize that the land that we live on is more important than profit?

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This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

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It took me a few hours to find the girl whose face had appeared to me so clearly that morning, but as soon as I spotted the figure sitting on the bench out of the corner of my eye, I immediately knew that I had found the right person. She had a pile of cards, a handwritten cardboard sign, and, as my eyes met hers, she broke into an impish grin. She was definitely the one.

I handed her five dollars and sat down on the blanket.

“What is your question?” she asked me.

“I need to know what story to tell,” I answered.

She drew three cards, turned them over in front of me, and started to study them. As soon as I glanced at the cards, an old friend flashed through my mind, and instantly my question was answered. I quickly glanced at the cards again, snapped a picture of them with my phone, and then gently interrupted her thought process.

“No need,” I told her. “All I needed was to see the cards. I’ve got everything I need to know now.”

She looked at me, puzzled. “If all you needed was to see the cards, why did you pay me for a reading?”

“I was supposed to seek you out,” I answered, momentarily drifting back to the vision I had on the riverbank that morning and remembering that I had neglected an important detail. “I was also supposed to compensate you twice what you asked, so here…”

I reached into my pocket, handed her another five dollars and started to get up.

“Wait,” she said. “I have to ask. What’s the story? What are you writing about?”

“Its about the dead,” I quickly answered, realizing as the words left my mouth that she deserved more of an explanation than that. I took a breath and tried again. “I’m being nagged to write about the dead. But I’ve got too many possibilities in my head and I was drowning in an indecisive fog. Those three cards made it perfectly clear who and what I need to write about.”

She smiled and nodded. I thanked her again and headed home, ever so grateful for the simplicity of that exchange.

*  *  *

It was Samhain, and we had dedicated the day to honoring the forgotten.

We had started the afternoon at Washington Square Park, on the east side of the park where an estimated 20,000 bodies were buried and forgotten beneath one of New York City’s most well-known landmarks. The park was packed that day with children and adults alike in Halloween costumes, milling about in anticipation of the parade that would pass through Greenwich Village in just a few hours.

Jim and I stuck out for our lack of costumes and, yet instantly, attracted attention as we spread flowers throughout the east side of the park and sang songs and left offerings for the dead, purposefully ignoring the confused and questioning stares from passers-by. The crowds of people dressed as ghouls and ghosts hadn’t a clue that they were atop one of the city’s largest graveyards, and observing the depths of that ignorance only fueled our energy towards the task at hand. If only they knew what lies beneath, I thought to myself as I sprinkled flowers along the perimeter of the park.

From Washington Square, we walked uptown to Madison Square Park and then Bryant Park, performing the same ritual again in both places, and then briefly over the pedestrian bridge to Ward’s Island and back before taking the 6 train up to Pelham Bay in the Bronx and hopping a bus over to City Island.

The day before, I had arranged to borrow a boat from a friend whose family lived out on the island. It was a rickety old skiff, perhaps 12 feet long with a sputtering old Evinrude motor, that had seen better days but was sufficient for the purpose of our voyage. I was given a quick lesson on the boat’s quirks and operations before dragging her on the dolly down to the dock. I looked out into the water and focused my eye towards our destination in the distance.

City Island (left) and Hart Island (right). Photo by Bjoertvedt.

City Island (left) and Hart Island (right). Photo by Bjoertvedt.

The sun was just starting to set as we strapped on our life jackets, grabbed a few flashlights and a set of oars, and headed out into Long Island Sound with a large plastic bag filled with fresh-cut flowers. It was a clear night, the water was still, and Jim piloted the boat while I helped navigate us northeast past Rat Island, the nautical map of this stretch long committed to my memory. I had been out on the Sound only a few times before in years past, but I had taken this trip many times in my mind, to the point where I felt a definitive déjà vu while we crossed the sound, despite the fact that I had never taken this exact route before.

A short time later, we stopped the boat and shut the motor off a hundred feet or so away from the shoreline near the northernmost tip of Hart Island. We carefully stood up in the boat and gazed out towards the island, immediately noticing that the land formation before us was literally shrouded in mist against an otherwise clear sky. Without a word we each grabbed an oar and slowly rowed closer in silence, drawn to the eerie, numinous energy that was emanating from the shoreline. Before us was a literal island of the dead, a 101-acre tract of land that held the distinction of being the largest publicly-owned burial ground in the world.

Over a million of New York’s indigent, forgotten, stillborn, and otherwise unclaimed dead are buried on Hart Island. The island has served as New York’s potter’s field since 1868, when the city purchased the island and designated it as “a public burial place for the poor and strangers.” Prior to the city’s acquisition of Hart Island, potter’s fields had been maintained throughout Manhattan from the time of the city’s inception. The area that is now Madison Square Park was the first large-scale potter’s field, until the city purchased the area that is now Washington Square Park in 1797 and designated that tract as a potter’s field until 1825. Bryant Park was used to bury the indigent from the 1820s until just before the Civil War; Ward’s Island was then used for burials for several years prior to the purchase of Hart Island in 1868.

In addition to a potter’s field, Hart Island had also alternately housed an insane asylum, a drug treatment center, a boys’ reformatory, a tuberculosis sanitarium, prison dormitories, and a Nike missile base. The island was dotted with ruins from these various incarnations – ruins that were left crumbling and unexplored as the island had been closed to the public for as long as anyone could remember. The burials on Hart Island were performed by prison inmates from nearby Rikers Island. The inmates and employees of the New York City Department of Corrections were the only living souls legally permitted on the island. Signs warning the public not to land ashore were scattered all around the perimeter of the shoreline, and anyone who did step foot on the island was potentially subject to arrest.

A trench at the potter's field on Hart Island, circa 1890. Photo by Jacob Riis.

A trench at the potter’s field on Hart Island, circa 1890. Photo by Jacob Riis.

Before I had met Jim, I had never even heard of a potter’s field, let alone had any thoughts of ever visiting one on Samhain night. I had occasionally wondered in the past what became of those who died and were unclaimed, or those whose families could not afford a burial. But I had never taken those thoughts to their logical conclusion until I started spending time with the segment of society that tends to end up in such places. I understood why nobody ever spoke of potter’s fields, as poverty and death are equally uncomfortable subjects as far as society is concerned. And yet, I found that once it truly sunk in – that there were untold thousands of the forgotten dead scattered throughout New York City – I couldn’t ignore or look away from the implications of that knowledge. I felt a need to honor them, and I wasn’t alone in that feeling.

Jim was unusually familiar with Hart Island, having worked as a prison laborer on the island during his last stint at Rikers some years back. A long-time petty criminal, he consistently credited his experiences at Hart Island with scaring him straight and setting him on the right path. Burying the indigent dead had moved something in him, forced him to examine his life and the hand that he was dealt. He spoke of the dead redeeming him in the same emotional manner that so many others spoke of Christ and, while I hadn’t known him prior to his prison experiences, I could regularly sense the deep changes that were continually occurring within him. He was homeless, struggling with sobriety, and stumbled regularly in that struggle, and yet there was a consistent fire within him that lifted him through his struggles, a fire that was deeply connected to the sense of purpose that he found while working with the dead on Hart Island.

“I got at least ten or eleven friends out there, that I know of, anyway,” he had said to me a few weeks prior to our trip. “Two of them died while I was locked up that last time, and for all I know I helped to bury them. It’s literally an island of forgotten souls out there for the most part. Most folks don’t even know its there.”

He told me of the memorials that the prisoners would build after they finished filling a trench. Altars of sticks and rocks, left in corners and crevasses throughout the island, built out of a sense of solidarity and empathy with those inside the simple wooden coffins that they stacked into the trenches day after day. “After a while, you feel a responsibility, an obligation to the task,” he told me. “Being locked up is a lesson in what it means to be forgotten. and most everyone who ends up on Hart Island is forgotten, whether you’re out from your cell for the day or freshly arrived in a wooden box. The forgotten in boxes, after a while, you realize that you’ve got perhaps a little too much in common with them.”

I thought of Jim’s time out on the island as we rowed close to shore and, as I looked over at him, I had a feeling that his thoughts were in similar places. We steered the boat eastward through the still water, and slowly started to circle around the island. I grabbed the bag of flowers and started to sprinkle them out of the side of the boat as we moved through the water. Jim rowed, and I sprinkled flowers, and we sang songs and prayers, rowing a full circle around the island of the forgotten dead as the sun set behind us.

As we made our way around the island, serenading the dead, the mist over the island started to glow in the  moonlight. We felt shifts in the air as the island seemed to respond to our presence. A whistling breeze picked up, and it was almost as if the dead were singing along with us. The veil was thin, time and place started to blur, and there was a sense of ever-strengthening connection as we slowly rowed through the water.

By the time we had completely circled around Hart Island, it was well after dark and both of our voices were hoarse. The island was pitch black, the moon was half-full, and we sat in the boat staring out at the island, watching as a sudden gust of wind stirred the mist that had been hovering throughout our journey around the island. We looked at each other and without a word spoken we decided it was time to depart. Jim started up the engine, which promptly sputtered and died, and we took it as a sign to maintain our silence as we gently rowed back to City Island without a word said between us.

As we landed back on City Island, the sky opened up and it started to pour, and as we looked back towards the opposite shore, the island of the dead was still eerily glowing.

*  *  *

In the time since our trip out to Hart Island, which took place in either 2002 or 2003, the island’s existence and the mystery around it has become much more well-known and widely publicized.

Among those buried at Hart Island are an untold number of stillborn children who died in city hospitals, many whom were buried at Hart Island without the knowledge or permission of the mother. Many of those mothers, along with the help of a local filmmaker and advocate, steadily fought the city and the Department of Corrections for the right to visit Hart Island. The department had always refused all requests to access the Island, from grieving relatives to filmmakers and journalists alike, but over the years their fight has gained traction, and the department gradually started to soften their position. In 2007, the department allowed ‘closure visits’ for the first time, which they granted only to family members who could legally prove that they had a relative buried on the island. The families were restricted to a gazebo next to the dock at Hart Island and had no view of the actual gravesites.

After eight women threatened to file suit against the Department of Corrections in 2010, seeking to visit the actual grave sites of their children, the department finally relented and allowed the women to visit the graves under tight security. The Department simultaneously lifted the overall requirement that visitors to the island need to legally justify their request through burial records. According to the Department of Corrections website, Hart Island is currently open to the public on a limited basis, although the visits are still restricted to the same rules that govern visits to Rikers Island, which means that no photographs, flowers, or mementos are allowed.

I lost touch with Jim a few years after our trip, and learned from an acquaintance several years later that he had died of cirrhosis in the hospice ward of Bellevue Hospital after a long battle. I was told that his body was unclaimed after his death, which means he was undoubtedly buried on Hart Island.

I put this story to words in the spirit of honoring his memory, and in the hopes that others will take it upon themselves to remember and honor the otherwise forgotten dead. What is remembered, lives.

[Alley Valkyrie is one of our talented monthly columnists. If you like her stories and want to support her work at The Wild Hunt, please consider donating to our fall fundraising campaign and sharing our IndieGoGo link. It is your wonderful and dedicated support that makes it possible for Alley to be part of our writing team. Thank you very much.]

I came across the marsh last spring on my very first walk through the new neighborhood.

Three blocks from my building I stumbled upon it, flourishing within the confines of a city block in sharp contrast to its immediate surroundings. Overshadowed by condominium complexes on three sides, a vacant lot sits to the north, and then another park on the other side of that lot which stretches to the riverfront. The vacant lot allows for a breathtaking view of the Fremont Bridge gracefully arcing over the Willamette River.

Tanner Springs Park, as the marsh is officially known, is a modern recapture/recreation of the creek and wetlands that flowed through this area up until the late 1800’s. The original creek was filled in to make way for industrial development, which dominated this area from the turn of the century until approximately twenty-five years ago. When the industrial cover was eventually stripped away in order to plan the neighborhood as it stands today, the city was presented with an opportunity to restore a small piece of the natural topography, which eventually manifested as a thriving, swampy ecosystem contained within the boundaries of a city block. The park is not only specifically designed to capture storm water as the native environment once did; the storm water is then treated and pumped back into the spring as opposed to simply being directed back into the river.

Since that first encounter with the marsh, I’ve visited the spot nearly every day, sometimes only for a minute or two and other times for the better part of an afternoon. The marsh feels very tucked into itself; there is something very grounding and psychically cohesive about the block that is not felt among its surroundings. There are strange spirits among the grasses and ponds here, spirits both old and very, very new, and their presence seems to magnify the more I pay attention to them. The marsh is both beautifully out of place and also completely fitting as it stands. Its surroundings protect and isolate it while highlighting it at the same time, and the open space between the block and the river creates a positive aesthetic flow that opens up the surrounding neighborhood in a very distinctive and pleasing manner.

The wonderful marshiness of Tanner Springs Park. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

The wonderful marshiness of Tanner Springs Park

At the marsh, I can hide in plain sight. The more I pay attention to the everyday details, which are contained within its borders, the more the everyday details outside of its borders become more obvious to me. I have developed an energetic reciprocity with this spot, and the spirits have made it clear that they welcome my presence. In a sense, it’s the only block in this neighborhood where I feel at ease.

*  *  *

For the past seven years, I had been deeply engaged in a close relationship with a small section of the Willamette River, specifically the curve that defines the border of Alton Baker Park in Eugene; a spot that the State of Oregon defines as River Mile 183, and that I could never quite define myself.

Nowadays, I live exactly 172 river miles north of that spot in a building that sits a few hundred yards away from the west bank of the Willamette in Portland at River Mile 11. While the mile markers of the Willamette generally don’t carry a specific connotation, River Mile 11 is significant and often referred to by name due to the fact that it marks the furthest point upstream where the Willamette has been designated as a Superfund site. From the Broadway Bridge downstream several miles to Sauvie Island, the river suffers from highly elevated levels of toxicity due to well over a hundred years’ worth of industrial activity on the waterfront. The banks and waters of River Mile 11 are specifically noted for their toxicity apart from the rest of the Superfund site. The area from the Broadway Bridge downstream to the Fremont Bridge is the only stretch of the Willamette in Portland where swimming is not only ill-advised but advisory groups caution against even walking barefoot on the riverbank.

The toxic effects of a century’s worth of industry was not confined to just the water itself. The housing complex I live in was built on top of formerly toxic brownfields, as were many of the surrounding buildings and current features of the neighborhood including my beloved marsh. But while the toxicity on the land has been cleaned up to an extent over the past twenty years, any substantive cleaning of the river itself has yet to begin.

The view at River Mile 11.

The view at River Mile 11

I have learned that she is both the same river I knew in Eugene and a completely different character at the same time. I feel as if I’ve gotten to simultaneously know her in two separate stages of her journey. The youthful exuberance of the Willamette at Mile 183 is largely absent from the river that now sits across the street from my building. Here, the river has been altered into submission, industrialized to a point where the energies that I easily sensed in Eugene are almost unrecognizable.  And yet, she is my old friend all the same. And, while I miss dipping my feet in, the understandings and lessons that I am quickly gaining from living on this stretch of the river far outweigh what I used to take for granted.

*  *  *

I stood in front of the statue, keeping in mind that the imposing woman before me was the second-largest copper repouseé statue in the country after Lady Liberty herself. Hunched down, she reaches out to me with her right hand as she wields a trident in her left. I take in her essence, both fierce and inviting.  In the tradition of Columbia and Brittania as well as Lady Liberty, she is intended to embody the persona of this city. I feel that she does in many ways, although not necessarily in the ways that were originally intended. For me, she is a powerful symbol of what is held back as much as what she inspires to push forward.

Symbols hold tremendous power, and one of the reasons that the Statue of Liberty is such a powerful symbol is that she can be seen everywhere. One does not have to visit her in person to quickly conjure up her likeness in the imagination. She appears on everything from birthday cakes to snow globes, and to step inside of any New York City tourist shop is to be visually assaulted with countless versions of her likeness.

The statue I stood before at that moment, however, is barely a recognizable symbol at all. Her likeness is restrained under threat of litigation. Despite the fact that the statue was built with public funds, the statue’s creator retains the copyright to the statue’s image, in contrast to most publicly funded art, which is generally in the public domain. Not only does the artist retain the copyright, he aggressively enforces it, which means that commercial reproductions of the statue’s image are practically non-existent. You will not find a cheap postcard with her image in a tourist shop.

Interestingly enough, despite its failure to become a symbol of any sort, the statue’s name is instantly recognizable among the American public, albeit the association is far removed from its original source. When people hear the name “Portlandia,” they generally think of a television show, not the beautiful copper goddess that kneels before me at that moment.

Standing before her, it struck me as strangely fitting, in a depressing sense, how the name of this statue has come to be primarily associated with a show that satirizes the very real tendencies and excesses of hipster capitalism, as opposed to being associated with the statue itself, a powerful and potentially iconic image that has been intentionally repressed and held back from mainstream recognition on account of its creator’s excessive love affair with capitalism.

Portlandia

Portlandia

I left a flower for Portlandia at the entrance to the building that she hovers over, and bid her adieu. As I walked away, I deliberately tried to picture her in my mind as I had just seen her, but strangely enough, or perhaps not strangely at all, her specifics had already become a bit of a blur.

 *  *  *

The cargo trains are often close to a mile long, and several times a day they slowly roll past less than a hundred feet from my bedroom window. When the cargo is mainly lumber, my throat occasionally tightens as I think of the forest, but my throat tightens much more when I spot the ominous black tanker cars that I know to be carrying crude oil, mostly from the Bakken region of North Dakota en route to a refinery near Clatskanie, Oregon.

The oil trains have been a subject of controversy, especially since a tragic accident in Quebec last year when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed, killing 47 people. Oil trains started running through Portland a few years ago without public notice or input, and oil train shipments have increased 250% just in the past year. Railroad companies are not required to report the entirety of their oil shipments through Oregon; only trains that are carrying over a million gallons of Bakken crude on a single train, the equivalent of approximately 35 cars, must report.

Oil trains crawling past my building complex

Oil train crawling past my building complex

Aside from the dangers of transporting crude oil in the first place, the frequency and slowness of these cargo trains creates additional environmental and quality-of-life issues on a local level. Vehicles are stopped several times a day for the trains to pass, and dozens of cars sit idling, sometimes for the better part of an hour, while stopped in a narrow traffic corridor lined on both sides by residential apartment buildings. Especially in the summer, and when the air is already stagnant, the build-up of car fumes as the train crawls past is noticeable and unpleasant.

There’s a cruel irony in witnessing all the refined oil being wasted as cars just sit there in frustration. These cars, which are often covered in pro-environment bumper stickers, idle away, waiting for the trains carrying Bakken crude to pass on the final stage of the journey towards becoming refined oil.

*  *  *

A block south from the marsh, I walked down Lovejoy Street and once again couldn’t ignore how new the corridor felt. The entire neighborhood feels new to an extent, which makes sense in that most of the development is less than thirty years old. But Lovejoy Street radiates newness in a way which truly captures the feel of the neighborhood.

In relation to the surrounding neighborhoods, I can’t help but to liken the Pearl District to an ultramodern bathroom in an otherwise old Victorian house. From the turn of the last century until the late 1980s, this area was simply known as the NW Industrial area.  Then rezoning and the removal of the viaduct that towered over Lovejoy Street opened up the area for development. The classic gentrification pattern followed: artists moved in, developers followed, artists were then priced out, and today the Pearl District is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Portland. It’s a neighborhood that reminds me more of SoHo in New York City than anyplace else.

Portland Streetcar one block north from Lovejoy Street

The Portland Streetcar one block north from Lovejoy Street

I did not choose this neighborhood — this neighborhood chose me. My ideal vision of living in Portland consisted of a cute little bungalow in the southeast with a garden in the backyard, but the Gods had other plans. I surrendered once I realized what was at work and, while there is something awkward and distressing about both the newness and the lack of standing history in the area, the why part of the “why here?” question is starting to become clearer to me by the day. Right now, within that one question, my task is to simply bear witness and take notes.

*  *  *

I was sitting at the edge of the dock at the marsh last month when I first heard the sound of the pile driver. I looked over at the vacant lot in horror, and noticed that overnight the lot had been surrounded with fencing and filled with construction equipment. I realized immediately that my beloved view of the Fremont Bridge was about to disappear.

And though I’ve only lived here since last Spring, it feels very personal and very raw in its effect upon me.

My view, interrupted by construction

The view, interrupted by a wall and a pile driver

Every day since, I’ve watched as the hole in the ground expands, and the pile driver has just recently been replaced by a crane as concrete paneling is quickly ushered in. Most who walk by seem much more affected and upset by the sound of the construction itself than the fact that another huge mega-building is about to go up in the vacant lot, destroying the open feel of the park. Part of me, the small part that tends to envy the bliss inherent in ignorance, wishes I was as unaffected as everyone else who walks past. But I just can’t shake the inevitability and the reality of the impending loss.

Slowly but surely, developers are stealing a little piece of my sky.

The spirits in the marsh seem unsettled and anxious; their feelings mirroring my own, affected by not only the construction but by the utter disenchantment in everyone around us. Sitting in the marsh, it feels like the spirits and I are the only ones who feel that there’s something subtly disturbing in the acceptance and normalization of urban development as it occurs before us. For everyone else, it seems to be business as usual.

This neighborhood has many impressive features: three well-designed parks, several coffee shops, countless yoga studios and art galleries, Portland’s first dog gym, a spiffy new streetcar line, and more “sustainable” restaurants than one could possibly track. But what it notably lacks is what stood out for me the most at that moment.  It lacks both a collective memory as well as a cohesive community spirit.

construction

 *  *  *

I came back from lunch to learn that activists from Portland Rising Tide had temporarily blockaded the train tracks leading to Clatskanie as a protest against the shipment of crude oil.

I sat with this for a moment, silently honoring anyone and everyone who potentially puts themselves in harm’s way in the name of environmental justice. At that moment, I heard the train signals clanging outside my window, and I could tell from the sound against the tracks that it was a cargo train.

Quickly, I ran out of my building to see the black oil tanks snaking their way down the tracks towards the Steel Bridge. At the end of the side street, I saw vehicles backed up over a mile in each direction from the tracks, most of them idling away as the oil train crawled past. I looked behind me, and something on the light-post caught my eye.  It was a faded sticker that read “Portland: America’s Greenest City.”

I glanced out across at the river and, as the sun reflected off the water, I remembered hearing that there was currently a rare and toxic algae blooming on the Willamette. The advisory not to enter the water now reached far past the confines of River Mile 11. The oil train made its way across the Steel Bridge as I looked on; an ugly feeling grew in the pit of my stomach as I watched the dangerously toxic train cross the dangerously toxic waters.

I walked back in the other direction and headed over the pedestrian bridge that crosses the tracks at Union Station. On the bridge, I looked out at the train. Its black cars stretched eastward as far as the eye could see. A few tourists walked by, snapping pictures from the overpass, and then stopped to stare at a map for a few moments. I asked them what they were looking for.

“Do you know where we can find that big statue, the one that you see in the intro to ‘Portlandia’?” they asked me.

I pointed to a spot on the map. “Just so you know, Portlandia is actually the name of the statue itself,” I told them. “That’s where the show got its name from.”

They looked at each other, surprised. I smiled and nodded and continued walking across the bridge. At the bottom of the stairs, I paused for a moment. My original destination had been the marsh, but I suddenly felt the urge to bring a flower to Portlandia once again.

I took off in the direction of the statue, tuning out the sound of the oil train in the background as I conjured up the image of Portlandia in my mind’s eye and, for the first time, I was truly able to picture her clearly.

 

 

I still can’t believe you’re moving there. That neighborhood is dangerous.

At that point, I had already had this conversation way too many times, with way too many well-meaning friends who simply couldn’t see past their prejudice. It seemed that every cup of coffee over the past month came with a free intervention attempt. It was getting quite tiring, and my patience was wearing rather thin.

I took a deep breath, preparing myself to once again engage in the same line of arguments that I had gone through countless times over the past month.

“Actually, it’s not much more dangerous than this neighborhood, and when it comes to the kind of crimes that I’m most concerned about, its quite comparable to this place. According to the latest NYPD statistical breakdown, I have just about the same chance of being mugged in the heart of Park Slope than in the five-block radius of my new place in East Flatbush.”

I paused for a moment, knowing full well that the next thing I was about to say would not go over too well. “Your beliefs around safety are based on a flawed perception, not reality. This neighborhood is not any safer than the one I’m moving to. Its just much fancier and much whiter.”

She bristled. “What, now you’re suggesting that I’m racist? I just think you’re making a bad choice, that’s all.”

Choice, I thought to myself. As though this move was a matter of free choice rather than of economic displacement. And while my friend was not a conscious racist, I knew her opinion on this issue was based on prejudicial fear much more than she realized or would ever admit. It was the exact same reaction that I had gotten from all my white, middle-class friends over the past month.

She continued. “I know you need more space, and I know your place isn’t ideal, but I just don’t understand why you would move there.

There. She simply couldn’t hide the distaste in her voice. She didn’t understand. She had said so numerous times, and the depth of that lack of understanding was becoming quite evident. And such a lack of understanding definitely wasn’t limited to her. Apparently the entire neighborhood felt a need to warn me of the bad “choice” I was making, a neighborhood almost exclusively made up of white, liberal urban professionals where the average person made well over four times what I did in a year. The friends so concerned about my well being were all college-educated with jobs that paid well enough to be able to afford market rate rents in the Slope. They never quite figured out over the years that I had been expertly “passing” as one of them by virtue of my whiteness and my middle-class roots while in reality I had been barely scraping by from paycheck to paycheck.

I was tired of maintaining that illusion, and once my living situation took a turn for the worst it was clear to me that I needed to move on. Moving on meant I had no choice but to move out of the neighborhood. While my reasons were primarily economic, I also felt a strong need to get away from a community atmosphere that I had come to regard over time as an insular, privileged bubble. I may have passed for years as just another one of the Park Slope locals, but I had realized over time that their values were not synonymous with my own, and my recent interactions with well-meaning friends had driven that point home in a very painful way. I was more than ready to move on. In fact, I was greatly looking forward to it.

I. Displacement and Divine Intervention

It was the spring of 2004. For the past four years I had been living in a falling-down Victorian-era brownstone in the heart of Park Slope, Brooklyn, the one shabby brownstone on a million-dollar block that had been renting for less than half of what the apartment was worth on the market due to its condition.

The “deal” had come with many downsides, tolerable at first but which worsened over the years: little to no working heat combined with drafty windows, broken appliances that were rarely repaired, and a landlady with schizophrenia who had recently taken to sneaking into our apartment on multiple occasions and snipping the phone wires in an attempt to quell the voices in her head. While the intermittent inconveniences such as no stove, no flushing toilet, and no heat were things that I had been willing to put up in exchange for a front-stoop view of Prospect Park, the unsettling invasions of my privacy was the straw that had finally broken the camel’s back.

Park Slope, Brooklyn. Photo by Gregory Kats

Park Slope, Brooklyn. Photo by Gregory Kats

Finding somewhere else to live proved to be much trickier than I had expected. Gentrification had already taken hold in previously affordable areas such as Williamsburg, Fort Greene, and Prospect Heights, and the rents in those neighborhoods were far out of reach. I had very few criteria for a new apartment: I wanted to stay in Brooklyn, I needed to be within walking distance to a subway line within an hours commute into Manhattan, I needed a bodega within walking distance, and my preference was to feel safe when walking at night, though I was also quite aware of the relative nature of that last piece. I had been looking at places in surrounding neighborhoods for over a month, and I was starting to feel quite discouraged. I wasn’t sure where to look next and I was worried that my realistic options were few to none.

The brownstone next door to me in Park Slope was occupied by a husband-wife architectural duo that worked at home and employed two Haitian nannies, one for each of their children. One night, I had been driving home late after a day of unsuccessful apartment searching when I saw one of the nannies, walking in the opposite direction, south down McDonald Avenue. I assumed she had missed the last bus and was headed home on foot, and I pulled over and offered her a ride.

She refused at first, not wanting to be an imposition, and as we went back and forth through the open car window an overwhelming feeling came over me, one that was too sudden and intense to simply ignore. I felt very strongly that I needed to take her home, that I was supposed to, on a level the reverberated far beyond the motions of kind gestures and good deeds.

“Please, I insist. Driving past you was no coincidence. I’m supposed to take you home. Really. Please.”

I got the impression that she hadn’t quite understood everything I said, but something in the urgency of my voice caused her to relent. She opened the passenger door and climbed in. I asked her where she lived, and she told me to head “towards Flatbush, near the crossroads”.

“The crossroads? Do you mean Flatbush Junction?”

She nodded. “Yes, I’m sorry, I forget the name sometimes,” she said in steady, careful English.

“Nothing at all to be sorry about,” I answered. “I just wanted to make sure I’m driving to the right place.”

As we drove towards her destination, that feeling grew even stronger, a feeling that I had long ago come to associate with aspects of divine intervention. As we neared the junction, it occurred to me that in all the neighborhoods I had searched for apartments in, I hadn’t yet considered this one. I was vaguely familiar with the area, as I had applied to (but never attended) Brooklyn College a few years back. It was a working-class Caribbean neighborhood, and as I pulled up to the “crossroads” I remembered that it was at the end of a subway line, just about an hour’s distance from Manhattan.

She got out of the car, thanked me profusely, and walked eastward down Glenwood Avenue. I drove a block or so in the other direction, parked my car, and proceeded to walk the entire neighborhood for the next several hours, staying out all night long.

A block past the commercial strip that constituted Flatbush Junction, I discovered a quiet, modest, working-class neighborhood, with residential blocks that alternated between a mixture of Victorian and post-war homes and 50’s-era five and six-story apartment buildings. As I walked around, I became increasingly charmed and captivated by the energy and aesthetics of the neighborhood.

As the sun rose, I realized that not once had I felt unsafe at all while walking the streets at night. Heading back to my car shortly after sunrise, I encountered the first wave of morning residents, and noticed immediately that Kreyol, not English, was the dominant language in the air. I briefly felt as though I was in a foreign country, and there was a great appeal to that feeling. I stood at the corner of Flatbush Junction, and recognized it for the first time as the true crossroads that it was. There was some deep magic in that neighborhood, and the pull I felt was indescribable.

Flatbush Junction, looking north, Summer 2004.

Flatbush Junction, facing north, Summer 2004.

A day or two later, the very first ad that popped up on my morning apartment search was for the first floor of a house in East Flatbush, only a few blocks away from where I had dropped the nanny off. I called the number, and went to look at it the same afternoon. It was literally everything I had been looking for. The house was a beautiful old Victorian with a handsome front porch, a driveway, and a front and back yard. The price was right, it was near the subway, and it was bright and spacious. I knew immediately, this was the place. Best of all, the landlady seemed quite eager to rent to me.

“I just rented the second floor to a young Puerto Rican couple,” she told me as I walked through the house. “There’s a small studio up on the third floor, but I’m not trying to rent that out right now. All I ask is that you all split the yard work.”

We talked out some details, and a few days later the papers were signed. I started to pack, broke the news to my current friends and neighbors, and after a month’s worth of well-meaning folks trying to dissuade me from my decision, moving day could not come fast enough. I left Park Slope without much fanfare, relieved to be free of that environment and looking forward to a new experience.

II. White House, Black Street

I was an economic refugee of sorts, trying desperately to carve a little hole for myself in a quickly gentrifying city that seemed to have less and less space for folks like myself. Many of my new neighbors, on the other hand, were actual refugees. A significant portion of the neighborhood population consisted of Haitian immigrants who had fled the regime of “Baby Doc” Duvalier and settled in Brooklyn in the early-to-mid 1980s. The rest of the neighborhood was mainly composed of folks of Jamaican or Trinidadian descent, many who had been born in the Caribbean and had settled in the neighborhood a few years after the first wave of Haitians.

My new landlady, Leslie, was a second-generation Jamaican-American. She had grown up in the neighborhood, had become the first in her family to graduate from college, did well for herself in the business world, and had bought the house as an investment property. This distinguished her from the other homeowners on the block, the vast majority who were all Haitian or Jamaican-born working-class folks who owned their homes and lived in them with their extended families. I could sense immediately upon moving in that the neighbors were not thrilled with her decision to rent the house out to “white folks”, and I also learned quickly that the neighbors considered my upstairs neighbors to be “white” as well, at least white enough to be regarded as outsiders in their eyes.

Within the first week of moving in, I was buying some fruit at one of the corner markets when a tall, college-aged Black man came right up to me and introduced himself.

“Hey there, I’m Karl,” he said. “You must be the girl who just moved into the White House.”

“The White House?” I asked, baffled. “It was mauve the last time I checked.”

He laughed. “That’s what my momma calls your house, as does most everyone else on the block. It’s got nothing to do with the color of the paint.”

My face must have revealed my sudden discomfort, as he immediately tried to put me at ease. “Don’t take it personally,” he said. “If it helps, they were calling it that even before you moved in. The moment that Miss Leslie bought that house, we all knew she was gonna try to rent it to white folks. She’s just trying to make money off that house. I get it, I don’t blame her, but many folks around here think she’s a sellout. They’re worried about gentrification, and the last thing they want to see is wealthy Blacks who don’t live here buying up properties to rent to white people with money.”

“But I don’t have money,” I countered. “That’s why I moved here in the first place.”

He laughed again. “What you actually have don’t matter much. It’s the perception. You ARE money, even if you don’t have money.”

I looked down, not sure how to respond. “Hey, look, I don’t care,” he said reassuringly. “I think your presence here makes it all a little more interesting, to be honest. But I thought you should know what’s what as far as the neighbors are concerned.”

I learned later that Karl was the son of one of the local preachers. He was the son of Haitian immigrants, born and raised in the neighborhood, and he was a student at Brooklyn College. He lived a few doors down, spoke both English and Kreyol fluently, and was the only person on the block who actively made a regular effort to be friendly toward me. From our very first conversation onward, I understood what his role was and would be: as a middleman and mediator between the “White House” and the surrounding neighbors. In the beginning, our exchanges began and ended at simple courtesies, but he soon became a trusted acquaintance, always willing to talk about anything. Karl was never afraid to ask hard questions, would always give honest answers, and had an uncanny way of reflecting my truth back to me when I couldn’t see it for myself.

“My friends think that my living here is dangerous,” I mentioned to him one afternoon a few weeks later. He laughed. “HA! Dangerous? For you? You’re the safest soul for miles. Nobody’s gonna touch you with a 10-foot pole.”

I looked at him, puzzled. “I don’t quite understand,” I said.

“Its easy. If anything happens to the nice little white girl, this place’ll be crawling with police in about five seconds flat. And nobody, absolutely nobody wants to bring that around here. I’m not saying bad things don’t happen around here sometimes, they do. But crime around here is driven by disputes, and those disputes tend to be interpersonal, and when they do happen its usually kept on the down low and dealt with by the community. But you, nobody dare mess with you. I can promise you that. We all got 41 reasons to make sure nothing happens to bring the police around, if you get my drift.”

I was silent. While it was a slight relief to be assured of my safety, the implications of what Karl just told me were very unsettling for several reasons. I had experienced police oppression as a political activist in the form of pepper spray and riot gear, but I did not fear police violence as an everyday reality in the way that I knew so many Black residents in the city did. Karl’s mention of “41 reasons” was a well-known reference to the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea, shot to death in the vestibule of his Bronx building. He was pulling out his wallet to show the police ID, and police mistook his wallet for a gun and shot him 41 times. I was now living one block from the border of the NYPD’s 70th Precinct, where Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, was brutalized and sodomized by police in the bathroom of the stationhouse in 1997 after being arrested at a nightclub. The beating led to the indictments of five NYPD officers, four of whom were found guilty.

The murder of Amadou Diallo, as well as the deaths of Patrick Dorismond, Ousmane Zongo, and the brutal beating of Louima, were still fresh in the minds of New York’s Black community. Those deaths were still fresh in my mind as well, but I did not personally walk around in fear as a result. For the first time, I truly understood the meaning of “white privilege” as it applied to my life.

III. Invisibility, Racism, and Unwanted Attention

There’s a thin yet definite line between cordial and friendly, a line I had always been aware of but learned to sense very quickly around my new neighborhood. The neighbors were mostly polite to me, but not always welcoming. They were understandably wary, not so much about me personally, but about what my presence in the neighborhood meant on a larger level. I accepted their wariness and understood it very deeply, always sensitive to my position as an outsider in the community, and I never took it personally when I was met by aloof behavior. I considered myself to be a guest in the neighborhood, and the last thing I ever wanted to do was wear out my welcome.

There was a wide range of reactions to me from various business owners, from outright coldness to an over-emphasized politeness. While some shopkeepers would often pretend not to notice me and deliberately pay me as little attention as possible, one of the Korean women who worked at the produce market would go out of her way to wait on me every time I walked in, deliberately ignoring all of her other customers in the process. I found that while being ignored at the deli counter brought a certain discomfort, the preferential treatment I experienced at the produce market felt much, much worse.

The simple act of buying food quickly revealed certain cultural differences that stood between myself and the rest of the population. The man who owned the meat market around the corner took a liking to me immediately, and we were equally fascinated and respectful of each other’s ways and mannerisms, but he made it clear to me that I stuck out as an anomaly in ways that went far beyond the color of my skin.

“Why you always in such a hurry?” he asked me one day.

I hadn’t been in a hurry at all, or so I thought. But instead of answering him immediately, I took a moment, looked around, and really thought about his question while taking in the environment around me. It was true, there was an impatient edge to my energy that was absent amongst everyone else in the market. There was a certain patience that most around here seemed to exercise that was not easy for me to tap into. I also realized that when I had lived in Park Slope, I always saw myself as the patient one, constantly having to deal with the arrogantly rushed nature of time-obsessed business types. Oh, how the tables had turned.

“I’m not really in a hurry, but I’m starting to realize that I do need to learn to slow down a bit,” I finally said to him. He smiled and nodded while handing me my purchase.

A few blocks down was a Caribbean carry-out restaurant with a smell coming out the door so intoxicating that every time I walked past I slowed down to enjoy it. The first few times I peeked inside, it struck me as being as much as a social club atmosphere as it did a restaurant. People gathered together and talked while waiting for their food — loud, animated conversations that carried across the entire room. Going inside felt intimidating, but eventually the smell of curried goat overtook my feelings of hesitation, and I opened the door and walked in.

The entire place immediately went silent at first. I froze for a second, and after what seemed like a very long moment, everyone went back to their conversations, and I walked up to the counter and ordered some curried goat. I paid and stepped to the side, looked around for somewhere to sit, and finding none I leaned up against the wall and waited. And waited. And waited.

I looked around, and the social aspect suddenly became very clear to me. The wait was part of the experience, and a very enjoyable and anticipated part for everyone else in the room; time spent catching up with friends and relatives after work. But I didn’t know a soul in the room, I didn’t understand most of what was being spoken, and I felt both like I stuck out and yet was completely invisible at the same time. It was unlike any feeling I had ever experienced. It felt alienating and lonely, and yet it was also fascinating.

I felt so impatient, and yet was militantly determined not to show it. After what literally seemed upwards of an hour, my name was finally called, and I walked back up to the counter as slowly and calmly as I could. As I was handed my food, the woman behind the counter looked me in the eye and gave me a warm, genuine smile. “I know it can get rough and loud in here,” she said to me. “But thank you for coming in, and thank you for waiting. I threw some extra plantain in for you.” She smiled again, maintaining eye contact. I returned the smile and thanked her for the food.

It was one of the best meals that I’ve had in my entire life.

* * * * *

A few months later, one of my friends from Park Slope came to visit for the afternoon. She had stopped to buy a soda at the deli while walking from the subway to my house, and when she arrived at my door she expressed her anger at the experience.

“They completely ignored me in there,” she said. “I’ve never experienced such racism in my life.”

“That’s not racism,” I said to her. “Its aloofness, its arguably prejudicial, but its not racism. If you want to really experience racism, go buy a soda at the produce market down the street from the deli.” She looked at me quizzically. “Come on, I’ll even go with you. You’ll see what I mean.”

We walked the few blocks to the Junction and went into the produce market. I grabbed a soda and walked up towards the front counter. And just as I expected, the shopkeeper saw us and immediately waved us over to the front of the line while shooing away several Haitian women who had been waiting patiently to pay for their groceries.

“No,” I said firmly to the shopkeeper. “They were first. They are waiting. Please serve them first.” The shopkeeper looked at me with anger and frustration, and reluctantly went back to ringing up the Haitian women, already in line. I looked over at my friend. She was frozen with disbelief.

“That happens every time I walk in there,” I told her after we walked out. “Every single time. That there, that’s what racism is, and that’s what it means and what it feels like to be on the beneficiary end of systemic racism. A few grumpy old-timers at the deli counter just don’t compare. What you just witnessed happens every single time I enter that produce market, no matter how many times I voice my disapproval to the shopkeeper.”

“Is it because she thinks you have more money than everyone else?” she asked.

“I think that’s a part of it. But I also think it runs much, much deeper than that.”

She nodded. I could tell that she had firmly grasped the point I had tried to make, but I knew that she was also having a very hard time processing what she had just experienced.

We still spoke once in a while after that day, but she never visited me again.

* * * * *

I was sweeping my front porch one afternoon when Karl waved me over from the sidewalk. I put down the broom and walked over.

“You’re being watched, just so you know”, he said to me. “Or someone in your house is, anyway.”

“Watched? By who?”

“I don’t know who, men in suits in an unmarked car. They’ve been watching you for at least a week. Not sure how you missed it, but I can tell you that the rest of the block is quite aware of the situation and more than a little uneasy about it.”

“Why are they…” I started, and immediately stopped and swallowed the rest of my words. I was asking a question that I realized I already knew the answer to. We stared at each other for a second as the weight of the situation sunk in.

I knew full well why my house was being watched by men in unmarked cars. It was a only a few weeks before the 2004 Republican National Convention, and my place had become a hotbed of activist organizing over the past month. Other activist friends had experienced police and FBI surveillance in recent days, so it was no surprise to me that I was being watched as well.

But I immediately realized that while I wasn’t bothered by this, my actions were bringing law enforcement attention at the expense of everyone else’s comfort, and while I had no control over that reality, I was responsible nonetheless. My very presence brought police surveillance to a community that held a deep-running fear and mistrust of police, due to the history of police brutality in NYC as well as the significant number of undocumented residents living in the neighborhood. My lack of fear was a testament to my privilege, and the reactions of my neighbors were a testament to their lived reality. I did not fear the police the way my neighbors did, but I also did not have reason to fear the police as they did. I had always understood this in theory, but nonetheless, when it hit home for me, it hit quite hard.

I stopped holding organizing meetings at my house. It was the least I could do.

IV. Gods, Ghosts, and Ghede

I had never been surrounded by so many churches, and never any that piqued my fascination quite like the storefront churches near the house. The “Apostolic House of Prayer” on Nostrand Avenue was but a tiny brick front with bars on the doors and windows, but the singing in that church on Sunday mornings was so powerful that it would often wake me up from a sound sleep. Equally fascinating was the Haitian Freemason lodge right next door, which bore the name “Respectable Loge Les Frères Unis, Orient de Brooklyn”. The “Mistical Order of St. Gabriel’s Spiritual Church Inc.” down the road was often shuttered, but when it was open the line to get in stretched halfway down the block. But more than anything, I was drawn to the energy emanating from the “Yoruba Orisha Baptist Church”, further down on the same block. Every time I walked by, I felt a distinctive pull, and resisting the urge to satisfy that curiosity was a challenge. Once, I placed my hand on the door, and while I felt the pull even stronger, I sensed that the very doorknob itself recognized and regarded me as an outsider. Stepping through the door felt quite inappropriate, despite my gnawing curiosity.

But I soon learned that one did not have to step through the doors of a local church to experience the local gods, however. I had been working with various Lwa and Orisha long before moving here, but being in a place where my neighbors granted them strong attention greatly elevated their presence in my everyday affairs. I had always perceived gods and spirits as real, independent beings, but in East Flatbush, the Gods themselves were literally my neighbors. The Gods were everywhere; their voices and opinions were often louder than the sounds of the neighborhood itself. I felt them in the sidewalks, heard them in the streets, and after a while, their presence became normalized, a part of everyday affairs. I would find myself regularly conversing aloud with spirits on my treks around the neighborhood, prompting a few of my neighbors to start quietly referring to me as “Le Fou” as I walked past.

One afternoon, I was approaching the house when a gleam from the third floor window drew my attention. In the window, stood an elderly white gentleman and a young girl in a bright red dress. Both looked out towards the street.

That’s funny, I thought. Leslie had given me the distinct impression that the third floor was vacant. I thought hard, racking my brain for her exact words. She had said to me that she wasn’t trying to rent it out at the moment, which I had taken to mean that it was uninhabited. Perhaps I had misunderstood her? I looked up again, and the man and the child were gone. A split second later I spotted a fleeting image of a smallish-looking man in a top hat. As soon as I realized what I was seeing, he disappeared from the window.

Le Fou indeed, I thought to myself. Perhaps I am going a little crazy. I deliberately put that last image out of my mind, making a mental note to introduce myself to the old man sometime. I saw the old man and the little girl a few times after that, but their existence had a tendency to fleet from my memory. While their presence remained a lingering curiosity, its one that I left lingering instead of chasing it down.

One afternoon, I opened the main door to the house to find a young man struggling to move a small loveseat up the stairs. “Hi, I’m Sam,” he said to me as I entered. “I’m moving up to the third floor.”

I thought back to the old man and little girl whom I had seen at the window. Had they moved out without my noticing? I drifted off in thought, then quickly snapped back and offered my assistance with the loveseat. As we rounded the top of the stairs through the door to his studio, I suddenly felt an immediate shift in energy, as though I had walked through an invisible barrier. The apartment felt slightly claustrophobic, despite being spacious and nearly empty. It also felt old and stuck in time, though the paint was fresh and the floor had a polished shine to it. Sam seemed oblivious to everything I was feeling, and as I stood there taking in my surroundings, he excitedly started to show me around.

“It was just refinished,” he said to me. “Everything’s new, except for the bathroom sink and tub. Leslie said she’s pretty sure that nobody’s lived up here for a long time.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t trust my instincts at the moment, and I was overwhelmed with conflicting thoughts. Subjectivity and rationalization were battling in my brain, and I tried to tune the fight out as I followed him around, nodding in approval as he showed me the bells and whistles. When I walked into the bathroom, I noticed that the fixtures were original to the house, unlike the bathrooms on the other two floors. The beautiful, claw-foot tub took up more than half the bathroom, and the sink had a quaint, 20’s vibe that made me just a tad envious. Other than the strange energy that I couldn’t quite shake, the apartment was quite the sweet space. I complimented him on the find, and he beamed. “It’s my first apartment away from home,” he said. “This is a dream come true.”

A few weeks later, I was sitting at my kitchen table, putting the finishing touches on a series of sketches, when I felt a drop of water on my head. I looked up just as the first ceiling tile started to fall, and I pushed my chair back just in time to avoid a whack on the head. Within seconds, the entire ceiling started to fall, and after the water-soaked tiles all fell, water started to pour through the holes onto my kitchen table, destroying my work.

The ceiling as it started to fall

The ceiling as it started to fall

I ran upstairs to the third floor and knocked on the door as hard as I could. I could hear the water running. I knocked again and started to yell, but no answer. I tried the handle but the door was locked, and as I stood there debating whether to whack the handle off with a brick, a bleary-eyed, barely-conscious Sam opened the door. I ran right past him into the bathroom. The tub was overflowing, and there were at least four inches of water on the floor. I turned off the faucet and turned around. Sam was standing there at the doorway, aghast.

“I don’t even remember turning the tub on,” he said, both his voice and body shaking. “I mean, I guess I must have and just forgot, because, well, obviously it was on, but I’ve been sleeping this whole time as far as I know. I went out drinking last night, and I’ve been out cold for hours.” He pointed to the couch next to the door. “I didn’t even make it to my bed,” he said, sheepishly.

We were equally in shock, for very different reasons. By the amount of water, I estimated that the tub hadn’t been on for more than an hour or so. But I could also tell by Sam’s lack of responsiveness when I entered the apartment that he had been in a deep sleep. Something didn’t add up, but I couldn’t dwell on that at the moment. The entire house was flooded, and it needed to be dealt with.

The next day, I was dragging the wet mess of ceiling tiles and debris from my kitchen out to the street when Karl ran up to help me. “What happened?” he asked, as he grabbed one of the bags of tiles from me.

“New kid on the third floor overflowed the tub and it flooded down through all the floors as a result,” I told him. “My kitchen’s a disaster. He’s been up there less than a month, and he just caused at least ten grand worth of damage to the house. He says he doesn’t even remember turning the tub on, and for some reason I actually believe him, but at the same time I want to slap him senseless. The only thing that keeps me from doing so is keeping in mind that my anger is nothing compared to what he’s going to get from Leslie.”

I paused. “I feel like the house was much better off when the old man and the little kid were living up there. What happened to them, anyway?”

Karl immediately froze in his tracks and turned noticeably pale. He looked at me, eyes wide and round with fear. “You’ve seen them too?” he whispered quietly.

“Yeah, once or twice. They were real quiet up there, I never spoke to them, but….” I trailed off when I noticed that Karl was literally shaking. “What is it?” I asked. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Have you see the Ghede as well?” he asked, his voice still barely above a whisper.

“Ghede?” I asked. “Do you mean the man with the top hat?”

Karl nodded. “Momma’s been seeing them all since before I was born. Papa won’t let her speak of it, says it’s the devil’s work.” He pointed to the house across the street. “I talked to Emmaline about it once. She says something bad happened, years ago. She’s not quite sure what, but she sees them too. She told me that the man in the top hat is one of the Ghede. I always wanted to ask her more about it, but Papa doesn’t like me talking to her.”

Emmaline was an elderly Haitian woman who lived down the street. I knew very little about her overall, as she had made it clear to me at the beginning that she was not interested in meaningful interactions with me, but she was well-known around the neighborhood as a competent and powerful vodouisant, much to the displeasure and distaste of some of the more Christian neighbors. I could only imagine how Karl’s strict Baptist father would react upon finding out that Karl was learning about ghosts and Ghede from Emmaline.

“That answers a whole lot of questions, even ones I didn’t know I had yet,” I replied.

Karl nodded. “Every time someone else says they’ve seem ‘em, I feel a little less crazy,” he said.

It all made a little more sense now, although I was still unnerved. Sam was evicted from the apartment due to the extent of damage he caused, and once Leslie received the full estimate for the damage, she chose to only repair the bottom two floors. The third floor apartment remained vacant from that point forward.

I still felt a need to tie up one last loose end, however, to remove any lingering doubt I had about the facts of the matter and what I had witnessed. The next time I saw Leslie, I innocently asked her again about the third floor apartment. “You know, I hadn’t even realized that apartment had been vacant and for rent until I ran into Sam in the hallway that first day. When did the other tenants move out?”

She looked at me surprisingly. “There’s been nobody living up there since I bought the place,” she told me. “I told you that when you moved in. It’s funny, though… one of the other women down the block just asked me the same thing the other day.

V. The Green Goddess of Gentrification

I was walking towards the bagel shop next to the Brooklyn College campus when a panhandler stopped me at the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Hillel Place. He pointed to the next corner over. “Look, missy,” he exclaimed, his voice equal parts excitement and sarcasm. “They’re building you a coffee shop!”

“Me? What?” I looked where he had pointed and my heart sank. The vacant restaurant next to the bagel shop had hung a huge sign in the window overnight, impossible to miss. “Coming Soon: Starbucks Coffee” it said.

“Yep, missy,” he continued. “That’s for you there, that’s there’s the honey to attract all the flies with money. Some are gonna say ‘there goes the neighborhood’ right there.” He paused, and looked down at his can, empty but for a few quarters. “But for me, I’m rather looking forward to it.” He grinned.

I walked off with a knot in my stomach, thinking about his words and how they had made me feel. You, he had said. That coffee shop is for you. Me, the gentrifier.

A few weeks later, the Starbucks was open for business. And sure enough, over the next several months, I watched with fascination and horror as the signs of gentrification became more and more apparent around the neighborhood. Businesses were opening where storefronts had been vacant. New construction projects started to break ground. “For Rent” signs appeared on phone poles and bulletin boards in English, where previously Kreyol or Patois had been the norm, and the posted prices made it clear that the landlords were marketing towards a more affluent crowd. While I had been one of the only female white faces around the neighborhood until that point, over time I started to see more and more white folks in their twenties and thirties during my daily outings.

The Starbucks, a few months after it opened

And with that change, my relationship with the neighborhood changed, both with the people as well as with the place itself. In proportion to the signs of gentrification all around me, I started to feel a resentment that had previously been absent. While my presence in the neighborhood had been accepted or at least tolerated as an interesting novelty by most, more and more I felt that I represented something else, something that my neighbors understandably found threatening. I had moved there due to continuing gentrification of my old neighborhood, and two years later I was filling the position of the invasive gentrifier, through no fault of my own. I was once a casualty of the problem, and now I was on the other side, a part of the problem.

Just as the neighborhood beckoned me there, I strongly felt that it now coaxed me to leave. As the months passed, the feeling became unmistakable. The sidewalks, the trees, the buildings — everything subtly suggested to me that it was time to move on. In desperation, I abandoned my requirement of being within an hour’s commute of Manhattan. I found a barely-affordable place at the south end of Bay Ridge, trading the last stop on the 2 for the second-to-last stop on the R. It felt right, and I was just as confident in this decision as I was in my last decision.

But though leaving Park Slope felt like a mutually agreed-to breakup, leaving East Flatbush felt different. It was sentimental, painful, necessary yet sad. Never had a place taught me so much, lessons that centered on myself as well as what it means to be both Black and white in this “melting pot” that is Brooklyn and America. I was sad to go, but I felt satisfied with what I took away from this experience. I was supposed to move here, I thought to myself, and now I’m supposed to leave, and I completely understand why. I understand all of it, and I’m thankful for every moment of it, and I’m ready for the next chapter now.

Karl walked over when he saw me loading my van. “Good luck to you,” he said to me, with a bit of sadness in his voice. “I get why you’re leaving, but its been nice having you around. I know not everyone thinks so, but I do.”

“Thank you,” I said, and gave him an unexpected hug.

After the house had been emptied and swept clean to my satisfaction, I bid the house goodbye, and tipped my cap to whoever or whatever was upstairs. But as I started to walk down the porch steps for the last time, I was hit with an unexpected wave of sadness. I suddenly felt an urgent need to leave some small part of myself behind. I turned around back up the stairs, took out my knife, and hastily scratched my initials as a sigil-like design into the back of a set of vintage theater seats that sat on the front porch, seats that I had placed there when I first moved in and was now leaving behind due to space constraints. I placed my hand on top of the scratching for a moment, noticed the warmth of my flesh against the metal in the sun, and felt satisfied. I walked back down to the stairs and started up my overloaded van.

As I pulled away, I glanced back at the window on the third floor. Standing at the window, staring at me as I drove off, was a figure wearing a top hat.

VI. Afterword

According to a recently released report from the NYC Comptroller’s office, the average rent in New York City rose by an average of 67% in the period from 2000 to 2012, compared to a 44% rise nationwide. The steepest rise was seen in Brooklyn at 77%, with Manhattan rents averaging 65% more. The average low-income family in NYC currently pays around 41% of their income in rent, and the poverty rate in NYC currently stands at over 20%.

After moving from East Flatbush in the summer of 2006, I held on in Brooklyn for another year or so, but I finally accepted that I was fighting a losing battle in terms of affordable rent. I left New York for Oregon in the fall of 2007, and I’m now sadly bearing witness as Portland undergoes the same patterns of gentrification that took hold of Brooklyn a decade ago. The scenery is different, but the script is the same, and it’s painful to watch such a play when you already know how the story ends.

I met up again with the smallish man in the top hat once I settled in Eugene, and we made formal introductions and got to know each other that time around. He’s quite an interesting character. I still see him out of the corner of my eye on occasion, and his appearance never fails to have meaning within the context of whatever is occurring when I spot him.

Despite the gentrification that I witnessed and experienced in the area around Brooklyn Junction, which nowadays features a Target and an Applebee’s in addition to the Starbucks, the East Flatbush neighborhood as a whole is still around 90% Black, and relations between police and citizens are as tense as ever. In the spring of 2013, a Black teenager named Kimani Gray was shot seven times and killed by police on the streets of East Flatbush, resulting in several days’ worth of protests and rioting. The officers involved were cleared of all wrongdoing.

Although I have lived in ten different apartments since moving from East Flatbush in 2006, the house is still a frequent subject of both my waking thoughts as well as my dreams and visions. Last month, the initial-sigil that I had carved into the back of the theater chairs drifted back into my memory for the first time in many years, and it put me in touch with a very strong link that I still feel towards both the house and the neighborhood itself.

Out of curiosity, a few days before I finished this piece I looked up the house in East Flatbush on Google Street View, and it turns out that the theater chairs are still on the front porch of the house, exactly where I had left them.

(Author’s Note: Names and identifying details of people and places have been changed to protect privacy.)

Two summers ago, I was standing in the central plaza in Arcata, California, admiring some flowers when a small bee landed right on my wrist. I looked down and cautiously said hello, and the little bee looked up at me, and then turned around and made itself comfortable, literally nestling into the cuff of my coat. For the next hour or so, the bee stayed firmly planted on my cuff.

Prior to that moment, I had never interacted much with bees, and had always gone out of my way to give them respect, but more importantly their space. As a child, I had been badly stung on the inside of my cheek when a bee had landed on my lollipop as I was putting it into my mouth. My face swelled up and stayed that way for over a week, and my childhood peers taunted me endlessly over what had happened. I walked away from the incident resenting other children much more than I resented the bee, but nonetheless, from that point on, I was extremely cautious and wary whenever I saw a bee in my presence.

But when the bee landed on my wrist and decided to stay, I immediately felt obligated not only to host it, but to protect it as well. For the next hour or so, I went about my normal business, but completely aware at every second that there was a tiny little creature on my wrist, one that could sting me if it chose and one that I could crush if I wasn’t careful. Within that hour and in holding that balance, twenty years’ worth of fear and caution around bees completely melted away and transformed into a feeling of fear and caution out of concern for the bee itself. When the bee finally turned around, looked up at me again, and flew off, I was truly sad that it had left.

A few days later back in Oregon, I was at a gathering with friends in downtown Eugene’s Kesey Square when, once again, a bee landed on my cuff – on the other wrist this time. And, once again, it made itself comfortable and stayed for quite a while. The second time it landed on me, I noticed that the caution and fear that was usually present in my gut was absent. Instead, it was more akin to visiting with an old friend.

Another old friend of the human persuasion walked up to me at that moment and quickly snapped a picture of the bee on my cuff, expecting it to immediately fly away. He then stared at the bee incredulously upon realizing that it was staying put, looked up at me, and grinned.

“What are you, the bee whisperer?” he asked.

A bee on my cuff. Photo by Gregory Walker

A bee on my cuff. Photo by Gregory Walker

I walked off with the bee for a moment for a little privacy, and then thanked the bee out loud for both the visit as well as for the lesson on fear from the first bee. A few minutes later, the bee flew away just as the first one did, but the bees definitively tagged me that day and never truly left me from that moment forward. Since that day, I constantly see bees; I regularly talk to bees. The bees have staked out a permanent place in my thought processes, and bees are a recurring theme in my dreams.

*   *   *

I found the sheet at a Goodwill in downtown Eugene, searching for patch material at a hurried moment during the beginning of the Whoville encampment last summer. It was a queen-size vintage bed sheet from the 60’s or 70’s, ivory-colored with yellow and orange flowers on it, and was a pink-tagged item that I happened to find on a day when the pink tags were half-off. Score, I said to myself.

As I walked to the register with the sheet, a wild-eyed homeless man started shouting loudly right outside the entrance on the sidewalk. As the cashier rang up my purchase, his screams became louder.

“Blessings and curses, loaves and fishes, loaves and fishes, blessings and doom,” he screamed, over and over, pointing a stick at passing cars. I left the store and, as I walked past him, he turned directly toward me. I froze and smiled at him. “FISHES!” he hissed at me, and immediately turned away. “DOOM” he then screamed at a passing car.

I’ll take fishes over doom, I thought to myself as I walked to my car.

I don’t know exactly where coincidence, enchantment, and belief intersected in this specific instance, but I slowly noticed, over the next few months, the vintage floral sheet, which I had paid less than two dollars for, seemed to multiply again and again. I printed series after series of patches, ripping strip after strip off the sheet, and every time I opened up the sheet again it seemed to be the same size as it had been the last time I ripped fabric from it.

I often have nicknames in my head for the different kinds of patterned fabric I buy, usually in reference to the design and/or color, especially when I have a large amount of any one print and it ends up hanging around for a while. The flowered bed sheet quickly became known as the “sheet of fishes”.

Patches from the sheet of fishes. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Patches from the sheet of fishes

*   *   *

I knew that I was dreaming and, yet, I couldn’t force myself awake. In the dream, I was hunched over a whirling pool of water, in a trance, staring into the abyss. Suddenly a spirit-woman appeared in the whirlpool. She opened her eyes at me, opened her mouth, and swarms of bees started to fly out. As they flew away, the spirit-woman started to rot away before my eyes, quickly turning to bones and decomposing flesh.

I suddenly snapped awake, my heart pounding. Death has never been a stranger, but themes and thoughts of dying and the underworld have been much more present in my dreams since being tagged by the bees. I looked at the clock. It was the middle of the afternoon and I had overslept by many hours. I made my way to the kitchen for some coffee and, as I fumbled with the machine, I heard my landlady talking loudly on the phone outside my window.

“Twenty-five thousand bees?” she said alarmingly. “How? What? How could that have happened?”

I immediately felt a knot grow in my stomach, and my thoughts went to the dream I had just snapped out of. I ran to my computer and quickly learned that there had just been a massive bee die-off that morning in Wilsonville, right outside of Portland. A landscaping company had accidentally sprayed neonicotinoid pesticides on linden trees, in violation of state regulations and labeling instructions, and as many as fifty thousand bees were dead or dying. Ironically, it was the first day of “National Pollinator Week,” which was designed to bring public awareness to the issues around pollination and bee deaths. News reports said that it was the largest known die-off in the United States.

Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed a piece of chalk, went downtown, and started drawing little bees on the sidewalk near Kesey Square, in the same place where the bee had visited me. At one point, a man stood over me as I drew, watching me carefully.

“They say we’ll be dead in four years if the bees disappear,” he said to me.

I looked up and nodded. “Most folks don’t understand what’s at stake,” I said.

He nodded in return. “Keep drawing those bees,” he said. “We need those kinds of conversation-starters. It’s the only way we’re ever gonna wake people up.”

I need to start printing bees, I thought to myself.

*   *   *

I finally sat down and drew the bee for a silkscreen last January, and it took me still a few months after finishing the first screen to realize that the “sheet of fishes” was the perfect fabric to complement the bee graphic. Not only in terms of the visual, but also in the spirit of multiplying and never running out. As soon as I printed the first bee, I immediately decided to dedicate the rest of the sheet to printing small bees. I methodically tore square after square, three inches by four inches, printing well over two hundred bees in an afternoon.

I divided the bees into three piles. One pile I gave to Rhyd Wildermuth with the request that he disseminate them among the attendees of the Polytheist Leadership Conference. The second pile was set aside for randomly giving out to strangers I ran into on the street. The third pile was initially left undecided, until I saw a bee land on a tree in front of me the following day, and immediately pictured my bee patch where the actual bee was. I decided then that I was going to simply pin the last pile of bees onto trees throughout downtown Portland.

*   *   *

I was pinning a bee to a tree near Union Station in Old Town when I heard a small voice behind me. I turned around to see a very small woman who had been obviously living on the street for a long while.

“I think I’m going to die today,” she said to me calmly.

I did not quite know how to respond. “Is there anything I can do?” I asked, and she shook her head no.

“I was supposed to tell you, that’s all,” she said.

I looked down at the disabled transit pass around her neck. The name on her pass said “Melissa”. She looked at my bee on the tree and smiled, nodded in the affirmative, then turned and walked away.

The bee on the tree near Union Station. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

The bee on the tree near Union Station.

I spent the rest of the day out and about with my bees and finally arrived back home many hours later. When I logged onto my computer, I was horrified to learn that, while I was out pinning bees, there was another massive bee die-off at an apartment complex in north Eugene caused by yet another erroneous application of neonicotinoid pesticides. It was almost a year to the day after the Wilsonville die-off, and it was yet again the beginning of National Pollinator Week.

I immediately thought of the street woman, and suddenly her words took on a different meaning. Melissa was the Greek word for honeybee, and I realized her message had truly been a premonition.

*   *   *

Four boys were killed on the beach in Gaza.

I headed out to photograph a protest and “die-in” at Senator Merkley’s office in downtown Portland that was being staged in response to the senseless carnage in the Middle East. I walked south from my building under the Broadway Bridge into the heart of downtown and across the parkway from the river.  Glancing at the Willamette and the beautiful blue sky, I tried to distract myself from the images seared into my mind of the tiny bodies on the beach. I pinned bees to trees, and as I stuck each pin into the bark of the tree, I whispered a brief prayer for the dead.

Among the sky and the glare of the sun, I looked down for a moment. A baby bird was lying dead on the sidewalk directly in front of me. I picked it up and it was still warm. I stood up and looked around. The sidewalks were empty and I was surrounded by concrete. There was nowhere to bury the bird in the immediate vicinity; nowhere to set it aside respectfully. I looked up at the bee on the tree, and down again at the bird. I scooped the bird up in my left hand and continued on toward the protest.

The bird in my hand.

The bird in my hand.

I arrived, and quickly mastered the art of maneuvering my camera solely with my right hand. The energy of the bird in my left hand was calming, centering, anchoring me in the moment as I stood and snapped photos among the emotions and passions in the square.

Suddenly, I needed water. I walked into the closest coffee shop, slightly opening my left hand as it had become clammy in cupping the bird. As I was filling my bottle, a group of tourists behind me looked at my left hand.

“Oh, my”, a woman said. “That bird looks like it could be real!”

I simply smiled and made a quick exit.

I went back to the protest for a moment, said goodbye to a few friends, and then walked back toward my building along the riverbank, looking for a suitable spot to bury the bird. As I walked, images of birds and bees and dead children kept flashing through my mind. Overwhelmed, I tried to shake off the thoughts and concentrated on finding a place for burial, the bird in my hand still grounding me in the moment.

I eventually stopped at a landscaped area on the bike path just north of the Steel Bridge on the west bank of the Willamette River. I sat down in the dirt, placed the bird next to me, and started to dig with my hands. Bikers and joggers going by turned and stared at me as I calmly finished digging the hole, placed the bird in the makeshift grave, and covered it. I whispered prayers into the mound and then got up and dusted myself off. I started down the riverbank path again toward home.

Only a few feet down the path from where I had buried the bird, I stumbled upon a breathtaking display of cairns on the riverbank. I stopped and stared at the piles of rocks, and something in the moment simply broke me. I collapsed in front of the cairns and sobbed – for the bees, for the dead children, for Melissa and her message, for all the folks on the street, for all the tragedies in which I am functionally helpless and yet still bear witness. I let everything go in front of the cairns; everything I had been holding for months.

Cairns on the Willamette River

In the midst of my sobbing, I heard a buzzing sound. I looked up and saw a single bee circling the cairns. Have your moment, the bee said very clearly to me, but then you must keep going forth with your work.

I nodded toward the bee and wiped my tears. After a moment, I pulled myself up, left a bee patch under a rock at the base of the cairns, and slowly made my way home.

Tying the Knot

Alley Valkyrie —  June 27, 2014 — 15 Comments

Starla and Birch both came running up to me, grinning from ear to ear. “We’re getting married!” they yelled in unison, and grabbed me into a group hug.

I embraced them back, trying not to allow my racing thoughts to distract me from showing them love in the moment. She was barely eighteen; he was maybe a year or two older; they had both been living on the streets for several years, and they had known each other for less than a month. And yet I also knew that such a ‘marriage’ was quite typical in their world.

“Congrats,” I said, smiling. “Where and when?”

“Tomorrow, at 3, at the park,” said Starla. “You can come, right?”

“Of course,” I assured them. I was actually supposed to be elsewhere, but those plans had suddenly become meaningless. I had never been invited to a street wedding before.

“It’s going to be a pirate handfasting. You know, old school. Arachne’s gonna marry us.”

“Pirate handfasting?” I asked. “Is that anything like a Pagan handfasting?”

They both shrugged. “Never seen a Pagan handfasting before,” said Starla.

I had been to a wedding that had been billed as a ‘pirate handfasting’ in the past, but that was a typical Pagan-style handfasting with a friendly pirate theme. Arachne was one of the primary leaders in their family, a group that passionately self-identified as pirates. I knew that whatever was to occur the next day would not so much be a simple handfasting in pirate-themed costumes, but a ceremony put on by and for folks who literally considered themselves to be pirates. But I also had a feeling that the ceremony would inevitably be much more like a Pagan handfasting than Birch or Starla realized.

“We’re going to need some skull-and-crossbones flags,” said Birch.

I immediately knew that in this instance, “we’re going to need” was code for “could you provide.” Birch had been to my studio a few times in the past and had taken quite a liking to my skull-and-crossbones prints, and he also was a seasoned expert at nudging me into offering assistance without actually asking for it. “I’m sure I can make that happen somehow,” I said. “Is there anything else you think you’ll need?”

“Yeah, actually … can we use your place before the ceremony to get ready?” asked Starla. “We don’t really have anywhere with a shower … unless you know any other housies who could let us … I mean…”

“Of course,” I interjected. “No worries.”

“And could you be our driver?”

I nodded and smiled. I realized at that moment that I was the probably the only ‘housie’ that they knew well enough to ask for assistance with this event. And with that realization, it occurred to me that the next 24 hours of my life would most likely be devoted to handling most, if not all, of their wedding-related needs. While the social backdrop and implications around this “marriage” were distressing to me on a certain level, I felt a strong obligation to temporarily surrender myself to their needs in order to help make their handfasting as special and as true to their vision as possible.

“Just come by if you need anything else,” I told them before heading home.

Wedding decorations, pirate-style. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Wedding decorations, pirate-style. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

I had been home for a few hours, and was just starting to tear strips of black canvas for the flags when Arachne showed up at my front door. “I need a proper staff, for the handfasting ceremony,” she said. “I just found the right branch, but I don’t have any tools or a space to do it. Do you have either of those things?”

At the time, I was living in a converted garage in the back of a house, with a tiny studio across the yard that I used for dyeing and printing. The building’s previous occupant had left a decent collection of woodworking tools in the desk drawers; tools that had sat unused and mostly forgotten until that moment.

“Yes, I have both of those things. Let me grab the tools and you can carve it in the yard.”

I brought a stool and the drawer of tools out to the yard, and set Arachne up on a flat part of grass next to my studio. I looked at the branch she was carrying, an impressively straight piece of wood that was perfect for a staff.

“Do you know what kind of tree it is?” I asked her.

She smiled. “Of course. It came off a birch tree. Birch for Birch.”

“You knew where to find a birch tree?” I asked.

“I know where to find any kind of tree,” she replied.

I nodded and went back into my studio, watching her work while ripping strips of canvas. A few minutes later, I heard Arachne shout to someone across the yard. I looked up, and saw two street kids who I recognized as part of Birch and Starla’s group of friends. I came out of the studio and looked over at Arachne. “That’s Ocean and Forager,” she said. Her voice lowered to a whisper. “I think they need space to make something as well.”

I walked towards the couple. “Hey there,” one of them said. “We’re friends with Birch and Starla, and we wanted to make them a handfasting cord, and we were wondering if you had any yarn or string or a place where we could make one.”

Handfasting cord, I thought to myself. I thought back to a time years before when I had made a few handfasting cords for some friends. I still had the tub of yarn somewhere. “Yep, find yourself a place in the yard, and I’ll dig you up some yarn.”

I again went back to my flag-making, leaving the studio door open as staffs were carved and cords were woven just feet away from me. I finished tearing the fabric and as I started to print, suddenly there were three more people in my yard. I looked up at them.

“We need to gather flowers for bouquets,” they yelled across the yard. “Do you have scissors, and a basket?” I pointed them towards the house.

A few minutes later, a kid who I knew as Diamond ran into the yard with a cake-sized box. “ SCORE! We dumpstered a cake!” he yelled to the group, holding the cake above his head victoriously. He looked over at me. “Do you have room in your fridge?” I pointed him towards the house as well.

The studio, the house, and the yard in between.  Photo by Alley Valkyrie

The studio, the house, and the yard in between. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

By the end of the evening, at least a dozen people had come through the yard, and an enormous pile had amassed in my tiny living space: sticks, staffs, cords, chairs, stools, drums, cups, plates, tapestries, water jugs, several baskets of flowers, a bundle of wild sage, and an unusually large amount of Chex Mix. The flags were drying in the studio, and I managed to get some cleaning done and a decent amount of sleep in before I was awoken in the morning by the phone.

“Hey, this is Forager. Can you meet us at The Pines? We need your help with something.”

The Pines was a motel downtown, one of many that is primarily occupied by the homeless and transient population. “Help with what?” I asked.

“We all pooled together money so that Birch and Starla could have a honeymoon, and we’re here trying to reserve a room for them for tonight, but they won’t rent a room to us because none of us have valid ID.”

My annoyance at being awoken immediately faded upon hearing their intended plans. The amount of generosity that was consistently displayed by this group towards each other despite having so little to nothing themselves never ceased to amaze me. “Be right there,” I said.

As I walked towards the motel, I reflected on the ‘honeymoon’ I was about to help arrange, and the larger similarities and differences between this handfasting and many of the others that I had experienced in the past. I remembered distinctly that the last couple whose wedding I attended spent a week in Florida for their honeymoon, and it occurred to me that most people I knew from middle-class backgrounds wouldn’t spend a night at The Pines even if I had paid them. And yet, in Starla and Birch’s case, not only was it was a simple and brilliant gift, but they would undoubtedly be overjoyed. A night indoors is a special occasion for them no matter what the lodging situation, but to have privacy of any sort, let alone a room of their own, was a rare and unexpected treat.

When I arrived at the motel and looked at the group gathered in front of the window, I immediately cracked a wide smile. They were downright giddy despite their frustration at not being able to rent the room themselves. It was obvious that they knew the value of their gift. It was not only the most meaningful and thoughtful thing that they had in their power to give, but the personal sacrifices that they made in order to make it happen gave the gift a whole other level of significance, one that I knew would not be lost on its recipients.

I rented the room, dropped several of them off at the service center to do some laundry, and, when I got home, Starla and three of her friends were on my front step waiting to get ready for the handfasting. I looked down at what they were carrying, and somehow they had managed to round up an impressive assortment of hair care products, accessories, and makeup. I walked them around back to the bathroom, which was fixed to the rear of the garage, and went back into the studio to give them room and space. After a few hours I came back in through the front door, and the four of them were posing in the mirror as I walked in. All four of them looked like they were ready for a faerie festival.

We loaded the large pile of handfasting-related contributions into my car and headed over to the park, where the ceremony was already in the midst of setting up. I saw Arachne standing in the center with an elaborately decorated staff and a small altar in front of her. Behind her was another woman with what appeared to be a bowl of sage. Two others were tracing and pointing out the boundaries of the circle.

Starla and I unloaded the car. I handed the skull flags to Birch, and I immediately made myself disappear as much as possible. At that moment, I felt a strong need to simply observe. I stood slightly towards the back, jotting down the details of what surrounded me in a pocket notebook while keeping one eye on what was transpiring in front of me all times. As I quickly scanned the group and scribbled down the names of everyone in attendance, it occurred to me that the list of names read nearly identical to the guest list of any typical Pagan handfasting: Sage, Willow, Raven, Leaf, Cinnamon, Ocean, Forager, Storm, Juniper, Scout, Arachne, Diamond, Starla, and Birch.

One of the very first things that ever struck me as a strong similarity between the Pagan and street communities was the way that folks typically adopt another name upon entering that other world. Street names and Craft/Pagan names were not only nearly identical in the types of names that are typically chosen, but the intent and motivations behind such a choice were strikingly similar as well. Both Pagans and street folks often have a legitimate need to hide and/or protect their legal identity, albeit often for very different reasons. Both groups also often regard the taking of a new name as an act of taking one’s power back and/or cutting ties with their former life. Especially in the case of runaway youths, their legal names are often a closely guarded secret, keys to their old life that they often fiercely protect, and they see those names as potential weapons in the hands of others that can be used against them. And once in a while it is; referring to one by a legal name instead of a street name in public is considered to be among the greatest insults and can often provoke a violent response.

I looked up from my list of names and realized that the ceremony was beginning. As I watched what was taking place, I was unsurprised and, yet, fascinated by how similar it all was to a typical Pagan handfasting. As I watched Arachne expertly tie the handfasting cord after wrapping Starla and Birch’s wrists together, I made a note to ask her where she had learned such a ceremony.

“I learned that from my brother Fern,” she told me later. By ‘brother,’ she was referring to street family, not blood family. “I’m not sure where he learned it, but I’m pretty sure that whoever he learned it from was the pirate who created it, and he spent a lot of time down near Shasta so I think he might have learned it down there. But I taught it to several other people, so there’s probably a few more out there who know it as well.”

I paused for a moment, as it hit me that she was unaware that the ritual she had performed was actually quite well known and widespread within the Pagan community. What I had witnessed was so passionate and true to its origins, which stood out for me even stronger as I realized that the person whose energy drove that ceremony wasn’t even aware of its history or origins. At that moment, someone yelled her name, and she nodded to me and ran off in the other direction. I looked over at Birch, holding the staff that Arachne had carved with an overjoyed expression on his face. I scanned the crowd again, and marveled at the time and sweat and love that they poured into this, all with one day’s notice.

As the crowd started to disperse, Birch and Starla walked towards me. “Ocean told us that you’re supposed to take us somewhere,” Birch said. I nodded and escorted them towards my van, and drove them to their surprise honeymoon suite.

A room at The Pines. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

A honeymoon at The Pines. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

A month or so later, I ran into Starla downtown, sitting on a planter, alone. “Heya,” I said. “Where’s Birch?”

She sighed, looked up at me, sighed again, and looked away.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m okay, I guess. Birch went back to Cali… his mom is sick and so he took off, although she’s been sick for a while, and that’s kinda just his excuse, but … well, you know how it goes…”

Sadly I did know how it went. It was a story I saw play out far too often.

“But you know what, even though he’s gone, I’m still glad we had the handfasting. It was awesome. Thanks so much for letting us use your house and driving us and all that. I can’t believe what everyone did for us, how you all pulled it off. That was the nicest day I had in a long, long time.”

She got up and gave me a long hug. I nodded and hugged her back, and as I felt my throat tighten up, I thought back to the strong feeling of obligation I had towards helping them with the handfasting. What I instinctively understood at the beginning was just confirmed and clarified before my eyes, and despite the profound sadness that I felt at that moment, I was deeply grateful that I had been able to help facilitate that memorable day for her. It was a powerful reminder that, when one is mostly helpless in the face of the larger tragedy at play, creating meaningful moments within, despite that larger tragedy, is a powerful and often crucial act.

(Author’s Note: Names and minor details have been changed to protect privacy.)

Long before Ken Kesey was an author or a Merry Prankster, he was a farm boy from Springfield, Oregon, and the old hippies I often encounter never let me forget it.

While most outside of the Willamette Valley know Ken Kesey best for either his books or his psychedelic adventures, much of what is remembered about Kesey on a local level comes not from his years in the spotlight as a 60s counterculture figure, but from his role and actions as a generous, community-minded family man who spent the vast majority of his life in the Eugene/Springfield area. Kesey was a wrestling star at Springfield High School, a graduate of the University of Oregon and had married his high-school sweetheart prior to embarking on a decade-long adventure that began as a creative writing student at Stanford and culminated in a six-month sentence for marijuana possession in 1967. After his release from prison, Kesey returned to his family’s farm just outside of Springfield, where he lived until his death in the fall of 2001.

I’ve heard Kesey referred to jokingly as the “patron saint of Eugene”, and sometimes I feel that such a sentiment is more accurate than most care to believe. The spirit and influence of Ken Kesey is woven deeply into the counterculture tapestry of Eugene, through everything from the Oregon Country Fair to the legacy of the Grateful Dead, from the history of the Springfield Creamery to the still-continuing adventures of the Furthur bus. The most obvious reminder of and tribute to Kesey, however, is the plaza that bears his name, the only public plaza in downtown Eugene.

The plaza, set in a downtown corner lot formerly occupied by a building, has been a city-owned open space for at least forty years. Alternately called either “Kesey Square” or “Kesey Plaza”, the plaza was originally conceived as part of a pedestrian “downtown mall” that existed from the late ‘60s through the early ‘90s, and the area was dedicated to Kesey not long after his death. A statue of Ken Kesey titled “The Storyteller” was installed in the front of the plaza, which depicts Kesey sitting on a bench reading to his grandchildren, serving as a powerful reminder of Kesey’s legacy and influence in the heart of a city that was deeply shaped by his spirit.

Statue of Ken Kesey. Photo by Cacophony.

Statue of Ken Kesey. Photo by Cacophony.

But despite its ideal location, and despite the energy and spirit of its namesake, the vibe of the plaza itself is stagnant and stuck. Kesey Square has always suffered as a place due to a combination of significant design flaws, a constantly shifting intent of usage, a reputation as a “problem” area, and the fact that it is the only public space in the commercial district. It’s obvious to most that these issues are interconnected and, in fact, feed directly into each other. But approaches taken by city officials to improve the area have always focused on the symptoms instead of the underlying causes and, as a result, the plaza has been the site of longstanding conflicts and disagreements between city officials, business owners, neighborhood residents and the regulars who hang out in the square.

As the only public plaza in a city that suffers from a significant lack of open space, Kesey Square is a magnet for those who have nowhere else to go. There are no publicly-owned benches anywhere throughout the downtown core, and sitting on the sidewalk can result in a citation, which leaves Kesey Square as the only public place where one can stop and sit, rest or relax. Consequently the plaza is primarily occupied by the poor and homeless, and the area is often strewn with backpacks, dogs, and other personal items, which is considered to be “unsightly” from the perspective of local businesses and certain residents. People gather around the statue, often dressing Kesey up with their own possessions, as they share food, play guitar, sell art or jewelry, or simply socialize.

Street youth in Kesey Square. Photo by Visitor7.

Street youth in Kesey Square. Photo by Visitor7.

Kesey Square is also the only place in downtown Eugene where people are legally allowed to congregate in public at night. All local parks are under a 11pm curfew, and to linger in the parks even a few minutes after curfew is to risk arrest, which means that the crowd in the plaza at night is often even larger than the daytime crowd. Negative perceptions around the homeless lead many people, especially the barhopping crowd, to complain that the Kesey Square crowd makes them feel unsafe. And while such complaints historically haven’t been met with much action, the “downtown revitalization” efforts over the last decade or so have lead to increased strategies and tactics on the part of the city to displace those who regularly inhabit Kesey Square, but such actions have only added to pre-existing tensions while failing to chase away the targeted population.

In 2008 the City of Eugene enacted and began to enforce a set of ordinances that were officially known as the “Downtown Public Safety Zone,” but more commonly referred to as the “exclusion laws.” The DPSZ ordinances allowed police to ban people from downtown who had been cited for certain “quality of life” offenses for up to 90 days, at their discretion, without requiring approval from a judge. The bans were immediate, meaning that the person was excluded from downtown before guilt or innocence had been determined in a court of law. Violation of the exclusion would result in an immediate arrest. The ordinances were controversial from the onset with the ACLU as well as community groups expressing concern that the discretionary aspect of the law would lead to widespread profiling and that the ability to ban someone from public space prior to their conviction was a violation of due process. The ordinance and its effects sharply divided the community with those concerned about human rights and discriminatory treatment positioned against those who felt that the homeless affected downtown business and were a threat to public safety.

The controversy steadily raged on with the issue being revisited regularly by the City Council in packed meeting halls. Over time, the city’s own data demonstrated that the ordinance was disproportionately being used against people who lacked a permanent address, while others who committed identical offenses were not being excluded. A homeless person smoking a joint in Kesey Square would lose their right to come downtown for three months, while a bar-goer a block away who had committed the same offense would only receive a citation or a warning. As the local economy went into further decline and the street population became larger and more visible, the police increased its usage of the DPSZ laws to the point where I would hear stories of exclusions on a regular basis. As enforcement increased, so did the time I was spending in Kesey Square, often sitting right next to Ken himself while witnessing the arrests of homeless people for violating the DPSZ.

Raising awareness about the DPSZ. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

Raising awareness about the DPSZ. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

One afternoon, I was sitting next to the Kesey statue when a young man suddenly ran across the plaza, a man who I knew suffered from severe mental illness. He had been recently excluded under the DPSZ laws for “disorderly conduct” that occurred within the context of a psychotic episode. I watched as the police ran towards him and overtook him, as they tackled and arrested him for violating his exclusion and as I looked at the Kesey statue again the tragic irony of the situation suddenly struck me on a very deep level. People with mental illness were being banned from a plaza named after the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and were being subdued and arrested directly in front of a statue of the author himself.

How did a plaza named after a counterculture hero become ground zero for socioeconomic conflict and class-based exclusion policies? Kesey himself would have been excluded under these laws, I thought to myself. He would have been sitting right here, smoking a joint while dressed like a hippie farmer, and they would have banned him from downtown for ninety days if they caught him. So much of this city’s reputation was built off the influence of Kesey and his kind, and I strongly felt that what was currently transpiring was anathema to what Kesey represented. As I sat there, this realization spread through me like a fire, almost as if the spirit of Kesey himself was fueling my rage. Kesey Square might be a troubled, dead space, but it was the commons all the same, and the person whose name is invoked in the title of this specific place would never have stood for what I was witnessing.

From that point on, I looked to Kesey as a spiritual guide of sorts, a wisdom-based reference point in my political navigations of the DPSZ issue. What would Ken do, I asked myself regularly. What did he stand for, what did he believe in? What is the intent of this place, what are the implications of excluding those who don’t “fit in” from the commons? How does one respect the needs of all and act in the best interest of the community in an ethical manner? I quoted and mentioned Kesey often, especially when pointing out the hypocritical gap between theory and practice in a municipality that has dubbed itself a “human rights city”. Ken would have been excluded, I reminded everyone.

Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Finally, after five years of advocacy, lobbying, protests, and consistent statistical evidence that made it undeniably clear that the DPSZ not only encouraged profiling but failed to significantly decrease crime or improve public safety, the DPSZ laws were finally sunsetted last fall, with city officials quietly acknowledging that the ordinance had been disproportionately used against the homeless and/or mentally ill. While on one hand it was a powerful example of a community successfully coming together to fight and eventually defeat an unjust ordinance, it did not feel like a victory in the traditional sense. When one enforcement tool is rescinded, another is always developed and enacted in its place, and we all knew that it was only a matter of time before yet another criminalization policy was enacted. The threat of exclusion may have been lifted, but the atmosphere of hostility remained and could literally be felt as one walked through Kesey Square.

And sure enough, earlier this month the City announced that it was considering a proposal to enact a 11pm curfew on Kesey Square, with the specific intent of displacing those who use the plaza at night. Such a curfew would essentially ban the homeless from downtown Eugene at night under threat of arrest, and both city officials and local business owners were very candid about the fact that ridding the downtown of the homeless at night was their intention. Excluding specific people may have been legally questionable in the past, but police expressed confidence that banning everyone from the square at night would not only pass legal muster, but was the only feasible solution for dealing with the “troublemakers” downtown.

After I heard the news, as the intent sank in and I started to come to terms with the battle ahead, my thoughts kept drifting back to Kesey himself. I have heard many times that Kesey was a solutions-oriented, common sense thinker, and I thought about such a mindset in contrast to the short-sighted madness that was directing the City’s intended actions. A few days later I walked down to Kesey Square, paced back and forth for the better part of an hour while wrestling with my thoughts, and as I finally looked up from the ground to the statue I noticed a sticker on an old VW bus that was stopped at the corner. The quote on the sticker was from Ken Kesey:

“You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.”

I immediately refocused, realizing that the weeks ahead would be spent making that case. A case for the commons, for the importance of public space, for procedures and policies that help to bring people up, not kick them while they’re down, for better services for the homeless and mentally ill. A case against restricting people from public space, against criminalization policies that target the already disenfranchised, against prioritizing commercial interests over human rights. I believe in a better future for both Kesey Square and its inhabitants, and in the potential for a positive, vibrant public space that truly reflects the spirit and values of its namesake. I also believe that addressing the problems that lead to conflicts in spaces such as Kesey Square and crafting viable solutions is of a much greater benefit to the community than the current course that is being taken. Standing in the square, I looked at the statue once more and felt with certainty at that moment that making the case is exactly what Ken would have done.