Sunday, November 29, 2009

"What the Oh?!"

Well, here we are: the 10-year anniversary of the WTO’s ill-fated meeting. Does anyone outside of Seattle even remember or care? For that matter, do many of us in Seattle remember or care?

Well . . . yes, I expect. I mean, it was no 9/11 or 2009 Iranian election. But it’s probably the biggest thing to happen right here in our city, at least since I’ve lived here. Some of us got harassed by police or even sent to jail just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The city itself was a punch line for weeks, maybe months afterwards, and is still a one-word cautionary tale to other cities hosting controversial events: “We don’t want another Seattle.” The news media tied it up in a neat little package called “The Battle in Seattle” – that rhymes! (Incidentally, the movie of the same title does a great job retelling the story.)

I remember being very excited about the whole thing in the weeks leading up to it. Everyone knew it was coming. The local papers brought us up to speed on what the World Trade Organization even is and why people were organizing protests in the first place. On our annual Thanksgiving drive home from Oregon, we passed a bunch of Seattle-bound activist hitchhikers. One local news station was running a promo with footage of the pre-meeting protests and a goofy voiceover better suited to a dog food commercial saying “Protests! Traffic! Changes in your bus route! What the oh?!!”

I was tempted to participate in the AFL-CIO’s rally but, in the ultimate irony, I really couldn’t miss a day of work. Mr. Black wasn’t planning to participate either, but some of his fellow law students were donning gas masks and “Legal Observer” t-shirts to jump into the fray. I couldn’t help feeling like I was missing out, driving over the bridge to complacent Kirkland to work on my little magazine layouts while history was being made just a few blocks from our Capitol Hill apartment.


I kept checking the news all day, reading about the marching sea turtles and French dairy farmers handing out raw cheese samples in front of McDonalds. Somehow, the activists had actually managed to shut the WTO opening ceremonies down. A little less amazing and a lot more cynical: some protestors were smashing shop windows and looting downtown. Where was this going?

Mr. Black and I snapped on the news the minute we got home and watched the massive, unmoving crowd facing down police officers downtown. Huge white waves of pepper spray would inch the crowd only slightly backward. Another face-off. Another burst of pepper spray. And another. We watched with near-simultaneous feelings of “Power to the people!” and “Oh shit, here come the people!” Because we could see the direction the police were pushing the crowd: right up the hill, east on Pine Street. Right up the hill to our neighborhood.

photo by Eric Draper
Photo by Eric Draper

Surely the police would let up before they got that far, we agreed. There was a curfew in effect downtown, but not all the way up in Capitol Hill. I set off for my writing workshop in Eastlake without giving it much further thought.

Driving home just an hour or so later, I realized I’d made a big mistake. Two blocks from our building, a lone specter of a man stood right in the middle of Bellevue Street holding a rag to his nose and mouth, surrounded by a spooky haze. I inched cautiously along the road and found the next block swarming with neighbors and protestors packing the sidewalks in front of the mini-market, laundromat, and apartment buildings.

I parked the car in the little lot behind our building and impulsively hurried down the hill toward the action, ready to shake my rolling pin at somebody. Because, seriously, get the pepper spray out of my neighborhood. We live here. All at once, a misty cloud of hot peppery goodness wafted up the street and hit me in the face. Quick little sneezes came one after the other, followed by an unbearable burning in my eyes and throat. I was livid and wanted to kick the ass of whoever did it, but instead I ran watery-eyed back to our apartment. (Luckily, that news report we’d been watching earlier had told us what to do if you happen to get yourself pepper-sprayed.)

When I’d sufficiently doused my face and the noise outside died down, Mr. Black and I went up to the roof to see what was going on. The neighborhood was now eerily desolate, except for a group of police officers in full riot gear marching in ominous formation down Bellevue Street.

My suburban co-workers wanted to hear all about it the next day, especially the conspiracy-theorist guy who was always hepped up on “coffee.” We were driving to a meeting together and he talked excitedly about it all – how President Clinton was due to arrive that day and that’s why the city cracked down so hard on all the protestors last night. He enthusiastically insisted that Clinton wasn’t really staying at the Westin downtown amid all the chaos; he was probably right here in Kirkland. The words had barely left his mouth when we saw two low-flying helicopters, apparently departing from the nearby big fancy waterfront hotel. The guy nearly peed his pants with tinfoil-hat vindication.

The big boss sent me home early that night to beat the next round of neighborhood riots. Mr. Black and I sat cooped up in the apartment, uneasily watching TV, when we heard helicopters overhead. And lots of angry-crowd sounds. And more helicopters. And . . . gunfire?

The most unsettling thing was that the noise wasn’t coming from downtown or anywhere near the newly imposed “No Protest Zone.” The noise was coming from Broadway, east of our apartment and further up the hill from downtown, well outside the WTO area. Why? More helicopters. More gunfire. More shouting. Explosions. We didn’t dare go outside after my little pepper spray incident the night before, so we kept changing the channel in the hopes of finding a news report. Nothing. Hours later, we found out the gunfire and explosions were actually rubber bullets and concussion grenades fired by police in a riot whose origins are still unclear.

We never did see much about the Capitol Hill riot in the news, but there were lots of first-hand accounts from our neighbors suggesting there’d been nothing unusual going on that night until the police showed up and started sweeping the streets. Matthew Amster-Burton sums it up nicely in his essay:

A police helicopter buzzed overhead, and as we looked down the street, a line of riot cops materialized from out of the gas to look back at us. They were three deep marching up the street, flinging countless canisters and grenades at everybody nearby. A pair of armored personnel carriers pushed through, four cops hanging off each side. . .

[N]ot only was there no evidence of civilian violence, but I didn't see any protesters at all. . . . We watched out the windows as the police parked an armored vehicle on our corner and flanked it with officers. When our neighbors started to gather on the sidewalk across from them, we went back out to join in shouting for the police to leave our home. Ten minutes later, the police pushed back down the street, again beating and gassing as they went. The last battery of gas and grenades didn't end until 2:20 a.m. . .

An officer kicked a pedestrian in the groin, stabbed at him with his baton, then shot a beanbag point-blank into his chest. . . A man came out of his home to shout, "We are residents here!" He got a heavy dose of pepper spray to the eyes, courtesy of his local peace officer. A cop ordered two art students with a video camera to roll down their car window so he could talk to them, then sprayed them directly in the face.

Anyway. Things unraveled pretty rapidly in the days that followed. The WTO talks failed. The protestors and bystanders who’d been imprisoned were released. The police chief resigned and the mayor went on to lose an election. City council meetings were held, committees were formed, lawsuits were filed. But a few days after it was over, I was Christmas shopping downtown as if the whole thing had been some sort of vacation; the Disneyland version of life under occupation.

At the end of it all, I have no firm conclusions. The whole mess was just ten different flavors of bad. Egregious violations of civil rights, police officers thrown headfirst into a dangerous situation that they’d barely been prepared to handle, citizens attacked on their own streets. In a way, it strikes at the heart of what human beings are really capable of. All that ferocious insecurity and conviction. And where does it leave us? It ends with confusion and a series of anecdotes, and then it’s all but forgotten. What the oh.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Shambling After Kerouac


Jack Kerouac almost caused me to drop out of graduate school. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. I wasn’t chasing any falling stars or yearning to follow some holy road. Not really. I just didn’t want to write a paper about the guy. And by “didn’t want to,” I mean I was seized with anxiety and self-doubt about the damn thing. (Ah, graduate school.)

I’d never read On the Road before. Somehow in my dreamy, bookwormy adolescence, I’d missed it. Maybe it’s not the sort of book a high school English teacher hands to a promising girl-geek. Flannery O’Connor, yes. Kerouac . . . better save him for those awkwardly brilliant golden boys. Somehow Kerouac and I never crossed paths in college, either, although I’d picked him up on my zeitgeist radar by then.

So, my first encounter with On the Road was in one of those early-1990’s hardcore take-a-book-you-love-and-obliterate-it classes which was the style of the time. It was a lot easier to do this with old familiar favorites like Shakespeare and Hawthorne. With a book that I’d never read before – especially this one – it was a frustrating venture.

Sure, there’s plenty of against-the-graining to be done in On the Road. But on some level I just had to say “so what”? There’s misogyny all over that book, upside down and backwards. You know what else? That book is printed on paper, too. And sold in bookstores. The misogyny just seemed so obvious, was all. Pointing it out felt redundant. Maybe if I’d kept at it I could have come up with a more interesting angle. But something else was holding me back.

Yes, I was a woman reader; a feminist reader. But somehow I couldn’t write about Kerouac without writing about myself. I knew there wasn’t a place for me in his late-1940’s world of gritty Benzedrine-and-jazz-fueled spontaneity. Heck, there wasn’t even a place for me in the 1990’s version of that world where scores of Gen-X boys wandered off to find themselves, leaving us girlfriends to heal our broken hearts and make our mix tapes. Forty years later, men still left and women still waited. And in my own way I was as screwed as Camille or Galatea or any of those On the Road gals.

“[She] would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop . . . I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”

Still, I identified with the protagonist in spite of myself. Kerouac’s Sal Paradise – Kerouac himself, really – was drifting, brilliant, and stuck; trying to be a writer but coming loose at the seams; struggling to find his voice as he “shambled after” his mad and wildly inspiring friends from one road’s end to the next. Minus his actual talent, there was a lot there that reminded me of myself.

I went to graduate school straight from college because I had no idea what else I could do. It was a safe choice, prolonging studenthood for another two years while enhancing my employability. I thought it was a passionate choice, too. I loved literature. I loved being a student. This was exactly what I thought I wanted to do. But the minute I set foot on that campus, it all came crumbling down.

Everything – the classes, the people, the unfortunate architecture on SUNY-Binghamton’s campus – felt so stark and alienating. I couldn’t focus on my reading or pay attention in class, and the slightest setbacks would fill my eyes with tears. I was as strong, wise, intuitive, and spiritual then as I am now. But it was all so raw, so wild, so untested and full of self-doubt. I had no idea how to be in the world quite yet.

So what did I do? I drove. I had my parents’ old Oldsmobile sedan and I was behind its wheel at every opportunity. I’d drive three hours south to visit my parents or three hours north to visit my boyfriend, planning different routes every time to keep it interesting. I’d drive to other SUNY campuses to track down the books I needed in their libraries. I’d drive to Ithaca for cute-college-town window shopping. I’d drive nowhere in particular, through the hills and trees until it felt like I could be anywhere. Everything felt okay as long as I was in motion.

At the end of October my boyfriend set off to follow a road of his own, slacking westward toward Austin. I couldn’t quite follow him, but I couldn’t quite let him go. I wasn’t ready to embrace my new independent lifestyle, but I had no desire to abandon it, either. Months of limbo lay ahead. And driving. Lots more driving. The weather was rainier and colder, snowy at times, but that didn’t stop me. I could go for hours in my merry Oldsmobile, maps on the floor and cassette tapes all over the seat – REM, Throwing Muses, Morrissey, Lush, Jane Siberry, Concrete Blonde. Somehow I managed to pull off good grades anyway. Don’t ask me how.

And that’s pretty much the state I was in when I decided to write a paper for my “Narratives of Travel” class on On the Road. Given my current state of drifting, it seemed like a perfect fit. Unfortunately, I found myself enjoying the book way too much at face value to successfully pull off some “colonizer/colonized” reading. I’d sit down to work on it and get swept away by the wild, seamless flow of words; mired in the fantasy; outraged by the foreshadowing of 1990’s male angst bullshit depicted so unapologetically.

Still, I didn’t have an academically useful word to say about the book. The more I learned about Kerouac himself, the more I found myself genuinely liking the guy. I can’t say that I loved the book. But I loved its spirit and mythology, and at the time I wanted desperately to believe in that mythology even as the narrative itself eventually dispels it. My deadline drew nearer, the workload in my other classes increased, and I started to panic. Driving back from a weekend at my parents’ place one freezing cold afternoon, I felt my throat seize up with anxiety and a fierce impulse to drop out of school once and for all. Instead, I decided that I was simply not going to write that paper. In fact, I decided to drop the class altogether.

My only regret was that my On the Road experience was muddled in all that unpleasantness. Any enjoyment I might have found in the book was overshadowed by my gawky attempts at scholarship and a steady undercurrent of anxiety and doubt. I promised myself I’d read the book again someday, purely for entertainment this time. My old copy of On the Road is one of the few books that’s moved with me to every subsequent apartment and city with the best of intentions.

Well, here we are – seventeen years later – and I finally got around to picking it up again. The funny thing is, when I decided to blog about it I found myself just as blocked as I was back in grad school. I certainly wasn’t expecting that. What is it about this book? Maybe it just doesn’t want to be written about.

I’ll tell you one thing, though. Reading it now . . . oh, it’s incredibly sad. So sad. All that madness and frenzy; the starving; the left-behind children and women and friends; how it all goes zooming by with barely a pause. Time and again the protagonist himself gets left behind in a broken heap while his friends move wildly on. And then there’s this heartbreaking bit of insight about how children see their parents:

“I realized these were the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road.”

How did I miss this sadness the first time? Too mired in my own story, I suppose. Too wrapped up in my nascent scholarship and too eager to believe the mythology and dream of some magical “road” unfolding endless possibilities in my own life. I was more hopeful then, in spite of all the chick angst. How could I sense the weariness and regret in this book when I’d barely ventured into the world myself?

On the Road is simply a beautiful narrative and I’m glad I finally read it again. I’m also kind of glad I never tried to turn it into a paper. I mean, look at this guy. How can you academic-paper that?:

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