voces


She’s always been a criminal. The rules never really applied to her. If she could think her way around something, she could justifiably ignore the rule. She wears this conditioned confidence like an invisible sweater, something people feel but can’t really see or understand. It does not endear her to others.

She loves to trespass. That breathless feeling of dropping from the top of the ferris wheel every time she slides under a fence keeps her hooked. That jolt of discovery, of finding a hidden spot. Of finding a presence in what’s been left behind. The wonder of the new, of the never seen, of what seems meant just for her.

She hunts for art. For voces. For underground meaning.

She finds the warehouse by accident. On a cold, wet hike along the Point Richmond waterfront. Middle of a Monday. Grey skies. She walks quickly, no running. Head up, shoulders back, direct eye contact toward the goal. She walks like she owns the place. Her breathing picks up, but she stays calm. Her heart bangs like a triphammer. Clear NO TRESPASSING signs everywhere.

She takes a controlled, casual look around. No law enforcement. No one else here, either. Weird. About 200 more feet to go before she’s in the warehouse, free and clear. A sound from her left. She lets her eyes move to see, keeping her head forward, walking steadily, with purpose. The sound was nothing.

She’s in. Her eyes adjust to the low light. And what she sees changes her life.

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rally

“Hi! So, what’s the messaging for tonight? Will we mention Roger Goodell’s decision to force the players stand? Will we show the people of color here that the dems have their back? I’m so ready to add my voice!”

She’s excited. The GP Democratic party chair texted her with info about a big anti-hate rally. Said she could stop by the dems HQ to meet others, then head over. After the militia meeting in the park and the white supremacist posters all over town the last month, we’d finally say something, loud, so that the people who are targets in this county know we’re not passively standing by. That we have their backs. That we will stand and say so publicly. Her body and spirit cannot bear another day of silence.

She walks alongside the woman from HQ, whose pace forces her to jog intermittently. The woman shouts her response.

I don’t know!” She’s smiling, eyes forward, setting the pace.

Okay! So, do we have an overall theme? A focus, maybe? The Goodell decision connects to all the stuff in town. Maybe we could focus there?” 

I don’t know!” The HQ woman repeats. This time she also offers a shoulder shrug.

They’re coming up to the stairs of the city hall building. There are 30-35 other people here. That many people could really make some noise, get some attention, if they wanted to. Such a good turnout for this place. (A protest a few years earlier drew militia members, who stood around the 7 or 8 protestors, intimidating them into silence.) Her heart starts to rev up. She turns to the HQ woman again, but she’s veered off to meet up with some other folks.

She stands in front of the protestors at the second rally of her life. (Her first was last month in CJ; it changed everything). Little groups are gathered on the landing in front of the building, loosely forming a semi-circle around a man passing out flyers to them. She walks up to the man, who seems to be in charge.

Hi! I’m Cathy! Brian texted me to join you. I’m so glad we’re all here! Can I ask what the messaging will be tonight? How we’ll do this?”

He’s probably late 60s early 70s, maybe more years. She notices now that they all have some years. Lots of white hair. That’s cool. She also notices it’s only white people. That’s par, and not so cool, but we’re in this county. Whatever. She’s ready to stand alongside anyone who will publicly object to the blatant white supremacist politics inflicted on the NFL players who kneel in honor of dead black men, women, and children who have been murdered by white badge-carrying men and women.

What do you mean” he tosses back. Not really a question, and wrapped in that familiar “here comes the kid” tone. The “slow it down missy” tone. The “she’s just overwrought” tone. The “she’s been watching too much cable tv news” tone. She’s heard this tone literally thousands of times since moving here. The people with years here lead with it.

She smiles, tries to make eye contact, reaching to connect with him. She looks around at the others, smiles. “I thought we might reference Goodell, you know, and show the people of color here what the dems and Joco Indivisible is all about. Maybe we could stand on the corner where all the cars are driving by. We could raise our fists, shout our support for the players, shout our support for people of color, for free speech.” She looks back at the man, hopefully, waiting.

He doesn’t respond to her. He finally meets her eyes, and looks at her as if she’s speaking another language, one he doesn’t understand. His face looks like it hurts his head to listen to her. He turns and starts handing flyers out again. He ignores her, a tactic that stalks hand-in-hand with the dismissive tone, over and over, like waves crashing against rocks, eroding and eventually annihilating a sense of existence.

She notices now that they’re all just kind of looking at her, all the people with the years. As if she’s from another planet.

Her rage rises. The months and months and months of silence she’s been forced to endure. The disconfirmation. The wall of NO she slams into on a daily basis. At this point, she doesn’t really give a fuck what they think of her. It simply does not matter.

Isn’t this an anti-hate rally? Rallies are where people raise their voices and bear witness. Let’s raise our voices. Let’s speak truth to power, even if power isn’t listening. Because it’s good for us. Because it empowers us. Even here. Especially here! We need to raise our voices to show support to the people of color in this community. We need to join hands with them, empower them, show them we’re here. We are responsible. If we don’t speak up, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves as white people and dems and Indivisible people. It’s our job to speak up!”

They look at her. They say nothing. The man passing the flyers stops a second to squint at her again, then walks with his bag of flyers to another group, away from her.

Come on! We have a responsibility as white people in this community! We have a responsibility to speak up and support those who are targets of white supremacists in this community! The posters. The militia barbeque last week. We need to say something. That’s what the good guys do. That’s what dems do. That’s what we’re about. That’s who we are!”

Why, so we can be like them?” A woman’s deep disdain unexpectedly punches her in the gut.

What?” She looks around. She doesn’t know who actually responded to her. They just stare at her.

Who?” She asks no one in particular, searching for the owner of the voice. Stares.

She’s confused. It’s like they can’t hear her words. They feel her, but it’s like they can’t see her or hear what she’s saying. Like being in a nightmare where you can’t move, can’t run.

It is slow. As she expresses her outrage, her shame at being a white person like these people who won’t stand up for what’s right, the loose circle of groups begin creeping backwards. Like, the whole circle of groups is moving in the opposite direction. They are looking at her and backing up, very slowly. 

She realizes they think she is mentally ill.

brothers

This is where they push the leftover people, the “problems,” the people without money or property, the mentally ill, the addicted. From the top of the county to the bottom, the leftover people are scraped, like table scraps from a picked over dinner plate. Into the disposal that is their little town in the bowels of the county. Literally no help exists for them here and they know that. It’s the way the county likes it.

Nick, Jack’s brother, knocks softly several times, hears his brother’s voice, then opens the door to the garage. She stands behind Nick, reading the warning messages scrawled on the closed door. The opening door reveals a scene that has existed since she moved to her new property; this is a condition she has lived next to for months, without knowing it. She can’t take in all the detail. It hits her in the face, the hard cold dark concrete reality. Buckets full of urine, foamy on top, line the walls. Garbage everywhere, some in weirdly neat configurations. Partially eaten food. Lots of soda cans and cups. Feces. An illuminated lamp on a small side table otherwise covered in cups and napkins and wrappers. (No drugs; Jack’s disease is mental illness and severe neglect, not addiction.)

Jack slowly, almost inexplicably stands up, his tall thin frame emerging from behind a big open umbrella lying on the concrete, which creates a little private spot where it appears he spends most of his time covered in blankets. He is wearing badly ripped fishnet stockings and ancient high-heeled strappy flip flops. A filthy short denim skirt hangs under a tee-shirt almost as long. In this hard hypermasculinist place. Jack is skin and bones, literally a walking skeleton. Nick told her that Jack has started walking into traffic again on the Redwood Highway. She hears the roar of trucks about 25 feet to their right as she meets Jack for the first time. 

During their short conversation, Jack keeps his head tilted down while his long curly hair covers his face. (Nick quietly left as soon as he opened the door. He is walking in a square now, around and around the four sides of a large manhole cover, next to the highway. He will do this for the next 2 hours. Sometimes he heads to the market in town and smiles and flaps and sings like a small bird for the shoppers going in and out of the Shop & Save. This started last month.) Jack twitches, jerks, peeks through his long curls a couple of times—eyes quickly darting up at her, then back at the floor. Jack is present, Nick is mostly not, and they are in hideous circumstances. There is no help for them here. None.

These brothers are her new neighbors. Turning away is impossible.

junkyard

shrouded sleeping shadows

darken lacey rusted hides

skins drip dark oil

staining gravel pocked soil

 

the old, the used up, the tired

the stuck, the blind, the deaf

home in their junkyard of ideas

selfishly assuming ancient power

 

they guard, police, gatekeep

they discourage, mock, condescend

they ignore, minimize, annihilate

they stand dying

 

a gold sun rises

pixilating pale pink-orange beams

that illuminate a hiding place

reflected in a dead scooter’s silver fender

 

the young sparkle under there

quietly softly luminescent

waiting for the fighting and terror and killing to stop

we live dreaming

power

Being rural poor here is a whole lot harder than not having money. Healthy relations—the very basis of being a healthy human—are mostly nonexistent. Not relationships. Those are big complicated things; they are nouns. Relations are everyday events, momentary happenings between people. Relations are verbs. We do relations, and they are the stuff that hold human existence together. The everyday authoritarianism expressed in rural relational patterns are created by top-down systems and processes. Those severe power imbalances destroy healthy human relations by dissolving human connection in a bunch of ways.

Power scarcity produces extraordinary defensive measures if you happen to have just a little. Tiny centers of power are fierce, policing what little territory’s been gained. Eye contact that excludes; lack of acknowledgement at first approach; addressing only old people by their names; no response to friendly small talk; stealing time with imposed history lessons; feigning important distractions during the conversation; intentionally slowing things down; the “you’re new here, aren’t you?” question; whatever the opposite of curiosity is. Passive aggressive warfare’s casualty is acknowledged existence. Every day. For whole lives.

It’s not just talk that’s so damaging. It’s how people are forced to relate with one another, one-on-one, in a power-scarce culture. Passive aggressive maneuvers dominate; without power, passive aggression protects intention, doesn’t give anything away. Keeps the exercise of personal agency quiet and safe from those with the power to punish.

Overwhelming power intimidates into retreat and silence. Be small and quiet around power. Don’t appear too obvious. Don’t stand out; stand out without power, get smashed. Do not take chances. Do not make yourself vulnerable. Avoid changing your mind at all costs. Do not appear weak or unsure; it is dangerous to do so. Supplicate to power, even as it offers only crumbs, grudgingly. Submit to power that demands obedience for support, dignity for care. This power-scarce orientation is second nature in this top-down rural culture—it is a pose, a posture, a way of being that’s like air. It’s everywhere, and it pushes to isolation.

Rural isolation is devastating. Connect a bunch of isolated people’s anger and fear—people whose pain and resentment keeps them company in their dark worlds–with a person who makes them a friend, who plays confidante and savior, and they will do anything for him. Anything. They will believe anything. They are not alone anymore. They have someone. They have seen the light, and now they exist in more than their own world. A friend with power who seems to listen to them, and now they affect the world, too. It’s like magic, and it changes their lives for the better. It lifts out of their ugly actualities, at least for a little while, into something that feels like belonging, like usefulness. Purpose.

The powers that be are pleased. And that is worth everything here.

 

why

The idea was to plant and grow better people. She knew they could change, the people here. She’d seen it first-hand. A phrase dropped here or a word placed there; an idea left lingering after an interaction. And then she would come back and hear the word or phrase used by someone who’d found it there and the whole world lit up. She could see how to get in, how to be useful. She imagined what they might be able to do with an idea or two, radically different than what they’d experienced their whole lives. Ideas that could lift human beings out of toxic actualities.

Top-down, power-scarce systems and processes isolate human beings. Education is limited and curriculum controlled by authorities. Information is also limited, often outdated, and recirculated like stale air conditioning air. Internet access is scarce, and the only company in town shuts its tower down on Sundays. Television content is served up only by Sinclair. Nothing—what they know, how they know it—is in their control. And that’s normal. It’s the way things have always been done here. 

Enforcement of top-down power traumatizes human beings. Punishment styles range in severity, but each punishment or threat relies on re-triggering the cause of the trauma: isolated helplessness in the face of overwhelming power. Enforcement threats often paralyze adults who, as children, lived in families where all the power was the father’s to use as he pleased, to punish. Childhood punishment serves to enforce authoritarian power when its trauma is re-triggered. Authoritarianism functionally recycles the trauma it creates to force human beings into compliance with top-down structures and processes. And tyrants.

Why don’t they just stand up, speak up, take care of themselves? Why can’t they just resist? Why don’t they see how cruel their leader is? Why don’t they see he’s betrayed them? Why can’t they change their minds? They’re adults—why can’t they act like them?”

Why, indeed.

accident

she checks in–dips into the poison–so she knows the sea she sails

she will not–cannot—stay in that poison for long

her body will not let her

her heart races; she revvs like a mf

then the rage guns it and pins her against the seat

 

she started rationing news when she was trapped in the other world

she had no power, no position, no voice

she ingested daily passive aggressive hate for the outsider

for the californian

for that damn smile, for the fucking energy, that grating optimism

 

she learned to disconnect from what was killing her there, what is killing everyone

she learned how to be an island activist

she watches now as the addiction of the daily drama ravages users

how the accident spreads

how it takes us all down if we let it

 

looking at accidents has never interested her

she’s never seen any point

it’s already hurt or killed someone

she refuses to let the accident spread to her

flat. fucking. refuses.