New Yorkers bask in the hallucination that they dwell at the epicenter of the universe. 9/11 only confirmed that they are the chosen most of the Chosen People. “We are standing here at the center of the universe” Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer addressed a few hundred affordable housing protestors outside 47 3rd Street between first and second avenues at what used to be called the lower east side when my grandmother Mamie Jew (that’s the name they gave her at Ellis Island when she got off the boat) tied up here.
Stringer was the last in a long queue of Democratic Party hacks to mount the stoop of the 15 unit rent-stabilized building, many of whose tenants have three decades in residence and now are being pushed out by landlord Alaister Economikas who wants to convert the five story tenement building into a private mansion. The floor plans for this duplicitous “owner-occupancy” were displayed by the resistant evictees and included a billiard room, a cutting-edge gymnasium, a library and den, a master chef kitchen, and several stories of bedrooms.
The bloodsuckers responsible for this colossal exhibition of avarice and greed now dub themselves “apartment liberators.” Such appropriations of revolutionary sloganeering to put a happy face on savage capitalism for center-of-the-universe dwellers is not confined to the housing market in lower Manhattan.
A not-so-funny thing happened to me on the way to the newest avatar of the Brecht Forum. Stumbling down Bank Street in the old Village, I came across a shiny, candle-lit boite whose nicely-coiffed clientele tete-a-teted conspiratorially over immaculately white linen tablecloths. The joint had the unspeakable chutzpah to call itself “The Paris Commune.” One recipe I’d like to add to the overstuffed bill of faire: charbroiled yuppies (the secret is the Molotov cocktails.)
Manhattanites will line up half a night to dine at such upscale troughs. There are even lines outside Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston these days where you can’t get out of the joint for less than a c-note and annoying out-of-towners take each other’s pictures on cell phones to prove to their loved ones back in Muskogee that they have actually dined with Semites (the place is reportedly now Puerto Rican owned and operated.)
Haute cuisine is as much of an issue for the four-footed in and around the center of the universe. The current dog food panic that garnered above-the-fold headlines in the New York Times, the official publication of the Masters of the Universe Inc., had pet owners going organic in herds. While half the human race goes to bed without dining, the pets of New Yorkers wolf down more chow than feeds whole African nations.
The eats were for free at my sister’s liberation Seder across the Brooklyn Bridge. Isaiah, her favorite grandchild, and the seven year-old son of a stern, strong Trinidadian woman and my nephew who until recently was convinced that his life was a reality show (he’s better now) read the Questions and found the Matzoth. Some at the table thought liberation only applied to the Jews. Others included the Palestinians. I put in a good word for the Zapatistas.
The Lower East Side of Manhattan is my birthright- Grandma Mamie sold newspapers on Ludlow Street and when I escaped my parents’ west Village digs to return to the old neighborhood she became apoplectic and guilt-tripped me about giving her a heart attack. My son, a self-described OG, grew to punkdom on 2nd Street and Avenue A and still lives a short skateboard run away.
What the apartment liberators are doing to the Losaida breaks my heart. The squats and the community gardens of the ’90s that linger on here and there were a kind of Zapatista beachhead as flamboyant anarchists like Brad Will, murdered on the barricades in Oaxaca last October, sought to create autonomous spaces to hold off the yuppie flood that has overrun the barrio.
Perhaps the nadir of my meanderings through lower Manhattan was the alleged Anarchist Book Fair staged at the Judson Memorial Church just off Washington Square Park where I misspent so much of my youth. Observing covens of youthful Caucasian anarcho wannabes shelling out fistfuls of shekels for grossly over-priced radical tomes, I whipped off my beret, scrawled a sign, and tried to beg “one dollar for one pair of dollar glasses to help older Iraqi sewing women stranded in Jordan earn a living” – the campaign is the latest brainchild of Sasha Crow, the locomotive behind the Collateral Repair Project in Seattle.
But here at the center of the anarchist universe, my pleas were universally dissed, rebuffed, shrugged-off and I was threatened with arrest by a nun who was nuzzling the eminent publisher of Narco News Al Giodorno – His Eminence deigned to toss a few coins in my begging chapeau.
I guess the moral of this cautionary tale is that it’s not easy to be a Zapatista at the epicenter of the universe.
Next stop on my zigzag slalom up and down the right coast was Philadelphia, the city of brotherly hate, where, much as in Frank Rizzo’s glory days, the police lead the nation in killing civilians and Mumia’s still alive on death row. At an autonomous space in West Philly, I spoke to a roomful of radical rabble and compas from Puebla state. Ruben was from a village high on the slopes of Popocateptl, the great volcano whose rumblings presage cataclysmatic changes in the Mexican power equation. Half of Puebla lives in the New York metropolitan area now and the population is rapidly spreading north and south, trying to stay a step ahead of ICE. The Poblano activists check in with each other all day on the cell to keep from being picked off, speaking in a Nahuat-Spanish-English “calo” (slang.) They were plotting a May 2nd “event.”
The neighborhoods around the University of Pennsylvania where the Ivy League collides with one of the most desolate ghettoes on the North American mainland, feels a little like New Orleans. There’s enough tension there to hook up a thousand wirelesses on every corner. There’s been some ugliness and Penn students are now being ferried around in fleets of city buses, American apartheid at its institutional finest, so they won’t have to fraternize with the people of many colors whose habitat the University is omnivorously devouring. With Springtime for Hitler in the air, can a long hot summer be far behind?
These are the final miles for Willie Loman and lugging suitcases of slow-selling “Making Another World Possibles” through New England just about mulched my back, a process begun upon three years ago by club-wielding Israeli settler youth during the olive harvest in the Nablus Valley (the boodle I’ve accrued on the road will finance a return visit this fall.)
A Christian Korean “resident alien” had just carved out his 15 minutes of Andy Warhol mayhem on YouTube and Myspace, Yourface, and the front page of every paper on the planet, by massacring 32 fellow Hoakies at Virginia Tech, and the copycat killers were surely on the prowl at the nation’s universities. The disgust of the future leaders of Latin America when I laid out the devious twists and turns of last summer’s electoral fraud in Mexico was thick enough to slice. As they zipped up their book packs and abandoned my talk at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center, I kept a sharp eye out for the muzzle of an automatic weapon. I am indeed a shooting duck for any neo-liberal wingnut packing a Glock when I step out from behind the lectern.
Yale, where ex-Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo pulls the strings at the Center for Globalization Studies presented similar dangers. A few days after Cho cut down the decadents in Blacksburg, no sooner had students in Gil Joseph’s Contemporary Mexican History class donned ski masks for a re-enactment of a Zapatista meeting, than four campus cops stormed the classroom with guns drawn.
There were other than academic pit stops on my flagging odyssey through the backwaters of New England. At Doyle’s tavern in Boston’s Jamaica Plains where images of iconic felons James Curley and Joe Kennedy hang on the memorabilia-strewn walls, I watched the Sox come from behind to bury the Yanquis and I felt like I was seated on a barstool at the very center of the anti-universe.
And at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield Mass., a kind of one-stop shopping center for NBA schlock, I shot air balls and exhibited my less-than-Kareen skyhook. But a relentless hunt for images of the hallowed Magic Johnson yielded blanks. When I inquired about their whereabouts, the attendant (dressed as a ref) filled me in – Magic had donated none of his stuff, not even a sweat sock, to the establishment and thus had not been granted a special niche in the rotunda of immortal hoopsters. “Everything’s for sale here” the ref winked.
I traveled the northeast on a Peter Pan bus, the Greyhound subsidiary in that historic pocket of the republic. Bus travel is the great equalizer in this lopsided society. Behind me a gentleman from Nepal and a comrade from Ghana disputed recent Caribbean World Cup cricket matches while threadbare passengers peered at the passing scenery through hollow eyes.
Lucy Parsons is my political role model. For more than 50 years after her martyred husband Albert was hung by the capitalist state, she traveled the country from sea to stinking sea on trains and buses, packet boats, motorcars, and on the thumb preaching subversion and revolution, hauling around her pamphlets and her books to raise enough spare change to move on to the next place. Her back must have ached as much as mine does.
I spoke at the center that bears her name in now fashionable south Boston to a scattering of folks seated on sofas and folding chairs or maybe I was just talking to the sofas. The numbed attendees didn’t even blink when I challenged them to be Lucy Parsons where they live.
I pushed into Vermont on a Peter Pan bus christened the Crocodile, a cute touch in a cute state. The rivers and streams were running fast with snowmelt and the blood of the maple trees was pouring thick enough to top off America’s pancakes. The state senate had just voted to impeach Bush.
I declaimed in Burlington at a memorial for the late revolutionist Will Miller who I met too late in his short life, when he was too sick to even share a joint. Jim Page, a legend on the radical troubadour trail, joined me to pump up a packed room. But performances are one thing and taking it to the streets another. At the diminished May 1st immigrant workers marches as I backtracked across America, the most pertinent sign asked simply “whose next?”
JOHN ROSS is heading back to Mexico. This is his penultimate dispatch from the road. Contact him at email@example.com