Freddy Went to Afghanistan....

I took part of the day off to tend my garden down along the UP tracks. I ended up spending about 2 hours digging around, gathering stones and building new beds for flowers that I’ll transplant soon. As I was searching for chunks of sandstone I noticed a man sleeping beneath willow trees near the garden. He apparently noticed me also because as I was crossing the tracks to gather up more stones he approached me and waved. I waved back.

He came over and awkwardly asked, “are you bored, or uh….?”
Clearly he was wondering why I was wandering around this lonesome section of rail between the freeway and lagoon.
“I’m tending my garden,” I answered. He looked relieved. The last thing he probably wanted was for me to be some creep or sketchy character.
“So you’re the one who does this!”
“Yeah, I’ve been working on this little patch of land for a few months,” I said.
“I’d been wondering who was doing it. Now I know. It’s real cool. Sometimes I hang out down here, but mostly I notice other people using it. It’s making a difference, you’re doing something good.”
“Great,” I glowed. “That’s what it’s for. In fact, if you want to work on it, plant anything…. Anything, go for it.” It was good to hear that people are enjoying it and respecting the space.

The man stuck out his hand and said, “Freddy, my name’s Freddy.” I told him my name and we shook on it. For some reason he felt compelled to now explain himself, why he was down here in the rough. “I was in the service,” he began. The military; somehow I knew right where this was going.
“I went to Afghanistan and got back in 03’. I seen thing over there that ain’t right. I was in Nicaragua in the 80s, I went to Bosnia, and a few other places where I saw combat. There ain’t nothin’ that can compare to what’s going on over there in Afghanistan, and Iraq too. It’s fucked up.”

Freddy had a purple bruise under his left eye from a punch that must have landed on his cheekbone weeks ago. I didn’t ask him about it. His face was weathered and he had dark tired eyes. But he didn’t look like a drinker. He said he liked coming down here because it was quiet, because he could “escape from society.”

“I can’t deal with society sometimes, so I’ve gotta just come down here and be alone. I like it down here. There’s not too many workers nor too many other people like us down here, so I get left alone. There’s nobody doing drugs or getting drunk. It’s a good spot. I’m glad you’re keeping this garden up.”

Freddy and I talked more about Afghanistan. Freddy said his whole life he’d been patriotic and believed in America. But after what he’d seen over there, after he war he said no more.

“I love my country, hate my government,” I told him. He said he agreed with that. We shook hands again and he walked off down the tracks toward town. A few minutes later a big freight rolled by with dozens of box cars toward the tail end. At least five of them had doors open on both sides, primo rides. The train slowed down enough to hop on, but I didn’t have the right clothing nor any supplies to catch out. Just my luck a perfect boxcar rolled by at about a soft jogging pace. Inside were three traveler kids, anarchists. One eyed me and beckoned to hop aboard with a wave of his hand. I flashed a peace sign and yelled, “maybe next time.”

No maybes, I’m hopping out in a few weeks for sure.


State Street TAZ

On Halloween we took over State Street in downtown Santa Barbara for 2 hours. The temporary autonomous zone produced by hundreds of us included music, dancing, art, free food, kisses, and joy!



See you in the streets!


Guerrilla Gardening on Stolen Land

All this land is stolen, so why not squat every last inch of it?

Down on the Union Pacific tracks nestled between the rails and the 101 freeway I've squatted a little plot of land for a garden. As of today I've got a fig tree, two nopale cacti, cape and tree mallow, some hollyhock and a blueberry bush growing.

In a month or so I plan to plant some peach trees, the sort that do well in mild climates. I hear there's a variety called the Santa Barbara Peach. Perfect.

Here's some pics.
My littler plot of land bounded by the 101 freeway, a little creek and the UP tracks. Water is year round, relatively clean.

Islay berries, sometimes called Holly Leaved Cherry. The Chumash used to eat these by boiling the pits and mashing up the soft nut in the center to remove tannins. I cooked a few pounds this year. They grow near my plot naturally. I'm planting more over the winter around town.

A houseless man's camp, one of about 2 dozen that were raided by cops a month or so back. The little community that lives along the tracks has only slowly started coming back.

Lavender! It grows well and can tolerate a few weeks without water, perfect for my style of gardening in SoCal.

Cape Mallow, produces beautiful flowers that attract bees, butterflies and humming birds.

The train zips by every few hours, mostly AmTrak, but also freighters.

Poor pit bull that got hit by the train years ago. He mummified under his makeshift grave and is now exposed to the air. Perhaps I'll rebury him soon with a proper grave...

I like flowers. Soon I'll plan fruit trees galore and have a beautiful and practical guerrilla garden.


In the slow moments I can still feel the pounding in my head, the pulsar beat of iron wheels on iron rail. Chit-chattering, clanking over track sending short hot taps of sound about and thickly underplayed with dense bass thumps and violence. When a quiet sets in and surrounds me with stillness the power of the train comes back, beating back from the bottom of my joints, reverberating in my body. It grinds me up. It is as though the machine is still propelling me forward, even though I’m at rest.

The machine is love and hate to me. No, hate and love. Hate comes first. Can we not forget the horrible things it has done? The pillage of people and land made possible by locomotives along the iron rail, by their brutal force? And can we ignore the base fact that the rail even today, no, today more so than ever is the hard line down which it all flows? So much wealth, power, so much horrific abundance of material from south to north, east to west. But as with all we are born into, all the things not of our choosing, the rails can be loved if you approach them right, if you recognize. I love them because I embrace them as have countless others, from below, criminally, we’ve held and had the metal conveyors in a way that might very well undermine their very being and symbolism, their first sinister purpose. I love them in an outlaw approach to transform what is into what can be, a new line of attack. I love the rails as has a million hobos, migrants and back lot kids have. I love them as an escaped slave, a jump-ship mutineer, a class traitor, a pure indolent man pissed at the world not living up to itself.

I love the rails because I can imagine a world someday without trains as we know them. I can envision a world that doesn’t’ need to move so much produce and so many people about. It’s a saner place. It’s a utopia maybe, but it’s part of a bigger constellation of qualities that on a different planet earth could make me feel whole and stable, not this sick and anxious creature I am now who quivers in his own body and can’t handle the idea of what others call “success” and “normalcy.” As I am I love the rails and the whole subterranean world that surrounds them, just like I love other infrastructures of the submerged. I love the bridges and tunnels and overpasses. I lust after the concrete walls filled with tags. I tromp through broken glass and industrial waste and rest my tired feet under the cool shadows of grain towers and stacked bricks. In this strange way the machine has only been half winning these past several hundred years. The megamachine might have conquered the land into its expansive grid. It might have sucked the imagination and magic from the world and clamped down upon it a rigid metal break under hot sulfur and tungsten spotlights, measured, harvested, poisoned and consumed. All the same though, this very machine is run by men and women who are dissatisfied on many levels. Lurking below the scaffolds and engines exist a silent world of travelers and poor people, criminals and modern day saints, insane prophets, houseless but don’t call them homeless, riff raff and migrants, all who flux about in ways that defy the linear logic of the computerized monster. Subversion. A true kind of beauty and hope offered up from way down.

I had been watching the Norfolk Southern’s yard in New Orleans since not long after the mighty hurricane blew over and provided cover for the city’s plunder. My first foray across those tracks was with a friend who led me hazardously through one long string of cars after another. We were too impatient to walk around. We climbed through several trains caring not if they were powered up and about to jolt or smash together. Honestly at the time we didn’t know any better. Later that week I stood above the yard on the Robertson Avenue bridge peering down at the longest link of piggy backed flat cars carrying the now infamous first delivery of FEMA trailers. I remember those hundreds of trailers. They sat in that damn yard for a week or so. I crossed through there daily to and from the Marigny and 9th Ward. This was December 2005. New Orleans had just been fatally stabbed in the back, by the USA, by the savage mega-machine. By the fucking C-word.

It’s the only city in which I love the night and can’t wait for the rain to fall on, this low-down, so low-down river bend. The highest vantage point is a bridge or building that will in all likelihood teeter over in the mud-quick earth someday. My beautiful city, I walk through her streets, thick with blood and violence, intoxication, love, warring tribes and crooked cops, pissed face drunks and pit bulls, Indians and clowns, parades and trash mountains. Nobody really thinks any of this will change for the better, or even what “the better” would look like, just that it will change like the course of a river eventually does. And my heavy city drifts down that river, further down on a slick of oil and cash money, cotton, sugarcane and cracked corn through ravaged cypress swamps till maybe someday it’ll slide right off the edge of the edge for good and leave this betraying continent behind. What would be sweet and tearful is if the praline dropped into the bourbon and spilled alcohol on our laps. Then we could lick it up, dance, say fuck the rest, north, west and east of the big river, and we could float on off into the sea of black and neon lights and laughter.

I haunted about the Norfolk yard on every return visit to the city which has been quite often. Something about its location – right along the 9th Ward’s center from where the rough Desire and Florida housing projects used to be to the foot of St. Claude Avenue, and really all the way to the big river. It made the yard feel like an important place. When Nola was still an industrial city with a megaport, before the 1960s and 70s, how much wealth, labor, material, how much of the city’s hard work and soul was tapped from this vein? And how many sad saps and eager kids hopped in and out of Nola through this big riotous portal? This has been such an important place of entry and departure for those black and white country kids coming down from the sticks here along Rocheblave, unhappy southern boys and girls looking for some kind of way out, or at least further in.

Summertime now, two years to the day after the disaster that destroyed Nola and I sat upon the footings of the Almonaster bridge by Florida Avenue at the yard’s north end watching a conductor and brakeman hump a train together. (Humping a train means assembling strings of cars together. Technically this yard can’t operate a hump system because there’s no literal hump build into the switch over which cars can be propelled, cut and sorted onto varying tracks. However the process is still similar. The engine shifts strings of cars up and down while the yardies switch, cut, break and couple trains together and apart.) In from the north came a fresh train rumbling into the city. Halfway down it a lone hobo seated on back of a hopper car crosslegged looked wearily out the side and toward the front into the switchyard. Looking back he saw me perched on the big concrete pilings. Our eyes met. We waved at one another happy and momentarily relieved to see another human being under these massive mechanized shadows and structures, under but by no means crushed by them. His train rolled through down the public belt, a railway beyond the yard that connects the length of the Mississippi riverfront through Nola, from downtown to the uptown.

After a few more minutes the crew finished humping together the train they had been working on and within no time it was off, all horns and speed, but with this whole neighborhood of the city so abandoned, so closed off to its former residents not many motorist were passing by up the line to be scared off the tracks with this show. In the past when the Desire projects were around the residents, thousands of them, used to be cut off from the rest of the city for considerable time as trains like this passed by or assembled themselves in the yards. Now the empty houses, door-less with gutted insides and big gaping hole windows looking all like great square faces were the only ones around to see this freight off.


More train hopping pics

That's right, somebody knows what's up. "Live free or die."

Norfolk Southern's yard in Nola seen from under the Almonaster bridge, as good a jungle as there ever was.

Poor dead opossum in Nashville. Death haunts the tracks. Railroads can be dangerous and dark places.

Some beautiful rail side graffiti, "Harsh" featuring Winnie the Pooh. I love it.


Train hop...

I recently train hopped freighters from the 9th Ward of New Orleans to Bakersfield, California. It took 6 days, 6 nights. Here's an excerpt from my post jump journal and recollection.

Chattanooga is a train town. Coming in on the edge of the city, slightly up the foot of a mountain with a good view a prominent billboard downtown advertises Chattanooga and the “choo-choo” with a profile of a giant old time steam locomotive. Norfolk Southern’s yard is right on the edge of the downtown. The train slows enough coming in for me to pack my bag and skip off its side. I climbed up an embankment and walk out onto 11th street. Chatt. Looks to be a small city, compact but with a very tall and busy central skyline. Walking down 11th I make a bee line for the high rises. I need to refill my water, get more food, explore and use my legs some.

Six or seven blocks from its center on 11th I approach a long line and scattered groups of tired looking men and women waiting around outside a homeless and poor people’s center. A sign on the door says there’s a free breakfast, lunch and dinner among other services. Hopefully the fare is better than that in New Orleans. The weeks prior I had been living on the streets of N.O. without cash money, mostly without a roof to sleep under until I broke into a boarded up luxury apartment building and squatted. I visited the Ozanum on several occasions. Affectionately called “the Oz,” it’s a Christian institution in the city that rooms and feeds homeless men. For several nights I went for their “dinner.” Dinner consisted of a bologna sandwich: two slices of wonder bread, a hint of mayonnaise and one slice of meat. To wash it down they poured one small styrofoam cup of water per patron. Outside of this center in Chatt. I asked the security guard about breakfast and lunch. “You missed it,” he said bluntly about breakfast. “Ended at 8:30. It’s 45 past now. Lunch is twice daily. Ten and Eleven.”

“Thanks sir.” The number of folks outside this city-run center for the poor seemed incredibly large for city the size of Chatt. I’ve rarely seen groups this large in LA, San Francisco and New Orleans outside of mess halls and clinics.
I hiked several blocks over and found myself on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. A sign on a trash can promoted the neighborhood as the MLK area. Faces from passing cars, from windows and passers by on the streets, all black. I’m on the black side of town. A loud train is whipping by in the distance from where I’ve come. The houses are beat up, weathered, un-repaired. There are no new cars. The streets are pot-holed. Of course the railyard runs through here. Railyards and busy tracks were long ago either run through the black sides of cities or else the noisy dangerous urban zones around the tracks quickly became redlined, segregated and home to America’s racially oppressed. And then of course in the aftermath of the black, brown and native civil rights movements, periods of legal and institutional struggle of the long and still going freedom movements, during this time feel good measures were made by well-meaning whites and civic leaders to name streets, parks and portions of the cities after notables like King, Chavez, Castle-Haley. Cosmetic. A slap. Knee, face? Wrong side, we’re still on the wrong god-damn side the proverbial tracks.

Lurking around several back allies I discovered some of the beautiful and thoughtful graffiti which would cover the concrete-brick-iron canvasses that line the tracks everywhere across the earth. Big intricate tags of swirling psychedelic letters. Faces, bodies, sex, power, anarchy, gangsterdom, insults, jokes feminism, animals, politics, it’s all up there on the walls beneath America’s overpasses, in the grimy dim lit streets and aross abandoned buildings and fence lines. My favorite tag in Chatt., a simple question written out in neat little spray painted letters with sharp ends and smooth rounded sides: “WHAT’S UP MY NOOGA?”

I spent the better part of the day wandering around town. School just having started it seems, at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, UTC, college kids are milling about the streets around the campus. The city has an unusually large number of coffee shops. Curious about possible routes out of Tennessee I decided to get on the internet at the university’s library, to look and see if there’s any information on the CSX yard. In UTC’s library I have to circle like a vulture around the computers to eventually find one will logged on with a student’s passcode. For a society that talks big about liberty, freedom and the importance of open information for democracy I increasingly find libraries, public, private, city-run and at colleges to be very proprietary and secretive, almost punitive for those who haven’t purchased their access in one way or another. You simply can’t use the internet unless you’ve paid your fees, paid for your card, have a local address, etc.

Finally jumping on an open computer I realize that the CSX corporation’s website itself has excellent maps and explanations of their routes and yards. CSX has tow yards in Chatt. The bigger one is actually in Wauhatchie, a little hamlet a few miles beyond the city to the southwest. Here is where I’ll hop out of town and head west. I decide that I’ll aim for Memphis and see what happens. From Memphis I can either head north to connect up eventually with the big Union Pacific routes that go west, or I can transfer over to the BNSF mega trains that scream across the continent from port to port, through forest and desert, day and night, no stopping for anything. Either will be fine I figure.
After failing to find a bookshop selling maps and striking out in my attempts to bum some spare change for a cup of coffee I decide to walk to Wauhatchie. Sparing change is a depressing experience that everyone should try. Make it an experiment. Go out to a busy street, sit down and ask passersby for quarters and dimes. Or walk through shopping districts and transit malls. Americans are infected with a bizarre guilt and shame/anger distrust complex when it comes to giving and receiving pennies on the street. It really makes no sense, but virtually no one wants to give and unless you’ve ever truly been poor and desperate, depending on lot in life, few can ask for change without feeling a profound sense of shame and loathing. It makes zero sense. People are willing to shill out serious cash for complete garbage, junk food, shitty films, clothing, and all the other wash-ashore consumables that get bought up and disposed of faster than they feeling of helping another out would dissipate, and yet people don’t share. No sense whatsoever. My attempts to raise a dollar fifty cents reminded me of some things an old friend taught me a few years back. I went out with her to raise money for a political cause by going door to door in rich neighborhoods in a small coastal California city. She remarked to me after a few hours work that I had trouble, “a problem” asking people for money because I only would ask once and then give up. And they way I asked was all wrong. I asked as though it really didn’t matter if they gave or not. “It’s your class, man,” she explained. “You’ve never known true need and never been in that position where you have to ask someone else for something you’ve got to have, can’t live without. You’ve always been on that end of things with the change rattling in your pocket, the money in your bank, and the beggar looking up at you.” A few years later this same friend and I yelled at one another, a little drunk in some stupid argument with a not so stupid lesson at the end of it. Outside an all night burger joint on San Pablo Avenue we had been eating and handing out spare change to the endless procession of homeless men, junkies and forlorn types shuffling out of the West Oakland darkness. I was annoyed and made it known. “You and them and I, we’re all here right now together. What’s it hurt, what difference does it make, who cares what they need it for? Give the change man! Be thankful. Be humble. We’re together,” she said. I never quite figured out what she meant in full, but the episode had an enormous impact on me. It made me finally and more fully realize that money is a relationship, not a thing. No matter how green it is and how crumply it feels, it’s a vector between us, not an object or thing in its own right. It measures power. It means inequality. Nothing more, but I ain’t say less. This much, these things of power and inequality are life and death, crime and so-called law.

“Spare change sir?,” I asked the single men walking down the street toward their office in white collars and shiny brown dress shoes. They look away with a bizarre expression on their face, as though they can’t figure out fast enough whether to chastise me, a young fit white man, to “get a job!” or whether they want to just hand over a buck. “Got any extra change?” I ask the small groups of men and women heading into and out of the cafes and restaurants. No response at all. The only man who gave me change, thirty cents, was a black man walking toward a bus stop, still in his work uniform, a janitors jumpsuit. “I’ve got to keep enough for the bus home though, bro,” as he counts the dimes and nickels and hands me as much as he can.

My same friend, so wise in the ways of money and how it fucks up our humanity, she once told me straight up that, “it’s always the poor, the working folks who give the most.” It truly is. To be rich in this world is to horde in greed. To be truly wealthy in health friends and community is to share unabashedly, to be as my friend says, “in this together.” Some of us, most of us on these streets, Chattanooga, New Orleans, where next? We’re all in this together.


Clearing "them" out...

Down on the UP tracks in Santa Barbara along the stretch where my guerilla garden grows there used to be a community of houseless folks. It appears that the city and the cops have cleared them out. All that remains of their campgrounds are scattered piles of trash and the things they couldn't bring along, where ever they've been forced off to.


Detox, cops, death in jail....

I was dumpster diving in Santa Barbara, easy pickings. Stopped by a deli and found dozens of tamales, chicken fajitas, sandwiches neatly wrapped, priced, expired not one day and tossed out with the trash. I packed em' in my black backpack and headed off down the street.

"Food N ot Bombs! Dinner deliveries, are you hungry tonight?" Lots of the folks on the street were happy to see me, took some food. In a parking lot down by the only SRO hotel in SB I stopped and handed food to a man and woman, Alice and Michael. They were happy, but Michael looked worried.

"Brother, let me ask your advice," he started. "I'm detoxing but I need to get up to Cottage Hospital. I don't have a way to get there. The walk is too far." Michael holds his hands up. They're shaking violently. He's undergoing alcohol withdrawal. It's the only cold turkey that can actually kill someone. When a hard core alcoholic goes off the bottle she or he experiences such a fantastic stimulation of the nervous system used to the powerful depressant effect of booze that it's possible to die, die horribly.

Michael explained that the paramedics, when he called, told him that they couldn't pick him up unless something was wrong with him. "I'm shaking and feel sick. Something's very wrong." Apparently the medics disagreed and would not transport him to the hospital miles away. He called his detox program and they told him to come in with a police escort. Michael thinks he has warrants out. He also drank two beers earlier in the evening. It was Alice's idea, and a good one at that. Small amounts of beer will keep the withdrawal from killing him. But Michael tells me for the last ten years he's been used to a fifth of vodka per day followed by countless beers. Two drinks lasted a couple hours but the shakes and pain is coming on strong now.

What to do? I ride off on my bike after telling them to wait for me. When I return I've got a plan and a little cash. It's simple. I'll slip a cabbie twenty bucks and he'll drive Michael to the hospital. No medics, no cops, no bullshit. But when I get back Michael is gone. Alice says the cops rolled up and he took off, afraid that they would lock him up. "In jail they'll just throw him in a cell on the floor. No attention. He'll be in there for time. He'll die in jail."

Alice tells me where Michael might have gone. I ride off looking for him to no avail. While coasting up and down State Street I hand out a few more meals to street folks sitting on benches or walking through the crowds of Friday night party animals. The street is crowded wtih the drunk men and women who frequent the meat market clubs and shitty bars. When I get back to the spot I left Alice she and I talk for a while. She's really concerned about Michael. "Where'd he go?, I hope he didn't just lay down somewhere."

She wonders, "maybe he'll call me? I've got to go in and get my room straight though. I'm afraid the manager will come up and kick me out. I wanted to sneak Michael into my room, look after him, but they charge us $20 a night for guests. I don't have that kind of money. They saw me trying to sneak him in tonight, knew he was in there last night I think. I should go up and clean, prepare in case they try to punish me." She goes up but before she's gone she turns and says, "you know, for all thier good intentions, all these cops and programs and shelters, they really set the odds against you, make it so you gotta break the rules to do right."

"Yeah, yes," I reply.

I ride off and take one last stab at finding Michael. I spot him walking, sort of stumbling up the street not too far. He sees me and smiles, "I left when the cops came. I might have warrants."

"I know." Here, let's get you in a cab. It takes several tries but we finally flag a cab over. The driver eyes Michael suspiciously. Michael is holding a blanket and large bag. He's clearly homeless. The cabbie is being a fucking prejudiced dick. I tell mike to get in the cab and hand the driver $20, way more than the ride should cost. Probably double the price. Take him to Cottage Hospital, I direct the driver. "Goodnight brother," Michael thanks me.

"Good night brother." Tonight you're good. No drinks, no cops, no death in jail, no shaking and suffering in the street. You've got scirrosis of the liver. You're an alcoholic. You've lived hard. How many more nights ahead?


Deserving Poor

How does one survive in a strange city with few friends and no money?

You take what you can get. New Orleans is easy to live in because of one simple fact: the hot-plat- to-go. The to-go plate is everywhere, of course. It's that styrofoam or paper box - the "doggie bag" - the package you can take the rest of your food home in after eating at a restaurant. But in Nola it's a bit different. More than half the meals consumed in this city are to-go, served in a styrofoam plate. Only the tourist eating at the nicest restaurants actually eat on a real ceramic plate with metal knives and forks. Working class Nola along with the white collar stiffs of the Central Business District largely get their lunches to go and eat them out of the disposable dish with plastic utensils.

I suspect this partially evolved out of segregation when blacks had to get their food at separate windows or the back door of the kitchen. There was a time, not too long ago (the 1960s) when most establishments in the city did not serve blacks except perhaps in to-go plates. Not that most blacks could even afford the cuisine or had the time to dine in. Many were on the run to get back to work. The vast majority of blacks were so impoverished that spending money on a fancy meal was out of the question. So goes the American racial hierarchy.

The to go plate nowadays is everywhere. Even the best restaurants will hook up a container for diners when leaving with leftovers. This makes eating in New Orleans a treat for homeless people like myself. By about lunch time everyday, especially after 4pm the curb-sides fill up with bags full of ordered food, some of it half eaten, some of it not even touched, in to-go plates. Much of it is fried potatoes or bread, but it's not hard to score a large dish of jumbalaya, spaghetti, or a chicken salad. You can either dig through the trash, or else you can ask every tourist you see with a dish if you can have it.

Ah, New Orleans cooking! The best.

So today I was rummaging through someone's trash, a condo-dweller of the Warehouse District (a recently gentrified portion of the city) who has thrown out some very nice items over the last few weeks looking for lunch or else some laundry detergent, candles, electronics, golf clubs, cell phone accessories [all things this person has tossed away]. As I was digging through this persons refuse a truck pulled up. The man behind the wheel called out, "hey man!" I half expected to be accosted for going through someone's trash, perhaps his? Instead he handed a five dollar bill toward me. I took it and thanked him. He said little and drove off.

Why me? I'm a young white guy. I am perhaps thought of by many who see me digging through trash as a member of the deserving poor. I don't drink on the streets and I look relatively clean. Many who see me must think I'm just a young good ol' boy down on my luck, so they want to help me. I find this ironic because physically I'm obviously in my prime, so how could I be deserving? Why don't people label me as a lazy bum?

Race, class, gender.... I meet a dozen homeless black men everyday who are shunned by most. I give away much of the change I come across because truth be told I really don't need it, even though my privileges allow me to accumulate it more easily. So I'll stick to digging to-go plates out of the trash, cause we all deserve better than this........


Squatting in Nola

I skipped my "hometown" and came to New Orleans a few days ago to take my mind off some things.

New Orleans is fucked up, and so am I, so we fit real good right about now. I spent the first night sleeping on a warehouse's roof. Luckily it didn't rain. Last night I found an old apartment building just west of the Central Business District on a very prestigious street. It's damn hard to get inside of, but that makes it very nice for me.

It'll keep me out of the rain and safe from some of the meaner tramps and crackheads who are wandering about this crippled city on the post-Katrina Gulf.


He picked me just outside of Shonto, a little town on the Navajo Nation’s western edge. The first thing he said was, “this is some revolutionary stuff, man!” He was waving his hands excitedly to the music blasting out of his stereo. “Stever Earl, The Revolution is Now.”

His name was Ron. First appearances – besides the initial talk of revolution – had me fooled. I thought he was a dyed in the wool, god bless America, good old boy type. But his words immediately gave a different impression, with talk of revolution, peace, and stories that show a more profound respect for all things and people.

As we ride toward Page he flips CDs in and out of his trucks stereo. He’s in two bands, one of them, Lake Powell City sounds like a twangy country-esque get up. The songs are about everything from bad break ups to river rafting down the Grand Canyon. His other band, called Justice and Faith, or something like that sounds much heavier, more metal. His girlfriend is the singer. He plays bass and does the arrangements. He says he’s lucky to be in a couple of bands because Page is pretty boring.

Page is boring. Ron drops me off at the library, bids me farewell and hands me a copy of his Lake Powell City. I’m in the town for no more than 1-hour. Getting out seems damn near impossible. The tourist on their way to Lake Powell or the Grand Canyon just roll by and stare at me. About one third of them look at me scared, another third laugh, and the last third work hard trying not to make any eye contact. Ron pulls up after a while and saves my day. He’s got to drive out beyond the lake, drop some parts off at the Ranger’s station, so he can give me a lift out of town he says. On the way to the lake we get a great view of it from above.

“See the water level?” he asks me.
“See how low it is? Global warming man. Maybe those cats in Washington think this stuff’s made up fairy tale, but it’s real. The water’s dropping and has been for some time now. Here, well stop at the damn so you can see that.” We pull up right before the Glen Canyon Damn, the massive wall of concrete that plugs the canyon and creates the sprawling Lake Powell. It’s terribly hot. Down below water rushes out of the turbines at the base of the enormous structure. Power lines dangle about all around carrying electricity far and wide.

After Ron drops me off on the edge of town I only manage to catch two rides which take me a very short distance. Finally a guy named Dan pulls over and offers me a lift all the way to the highway 9, where the road splits off through Southern Utah toward Zion National Park. Dan is wearing full army fatigues. The first words out of his mouth are, “you carrying any weapons or drugs, knives, or anything like that?”
“No,” I assure him.

“Iraq is fucked up,” he says. But he seems to believe that the USA can win it. Dan launches in and out of long monologues about military strategy replete with numerous anecdotes from the field. Never once does he discuss the legitimacy of the war. He says several times that he believes like the President says, “if we don’t fight the terrorist over there, we’ll have to fight them here. People don’t understand what we’re dealing with over there. These people are raised to want to die for their crazy religion. Well, like Gen. Tommy Franks said, ‘we’re [the American military] here to give them that opportunity!’”

Dan says the Iraqi people are subservient and sheepish and that it’ll take two or more generations to change this. As an example he describes a scene he was aware of. Two hundred Iraqi soliders and police freshly trained were on buses outside of Baghdad. Six men with AK-47s pulled their buses over. The men on the buses had no weapons, but they far outnumbered the six hooded men. “Nevertheless,” Dan explains “All two hundred men let themselves be lined up and shot. These people aren’t fighters, they have no sense of individual responsibility. Their religion and culture have trained them to want and need authority.”

“Iraq is a clusterfuck.” Dan says foreign nationals have largely been hired out to drive the trucks around the country to supply the war effort. Turkish men, Bulgarians, all sorts of wierdos from all over. He says these men are insane. To make his point he tells me, “I seen this one time, this guy was amazing, he had Afro-rigged, no, no, Hadji-riggeed a line with shoestring and a belt to his engine’s throttle switch which had broken. He’s leaning out the window opening up his throttle by pulling on this string. He’s doing this at night in a heavy downpour, wind whipping against his face, you can just see him gritting his teeth in pain.”

He asks me what I think of hurricane Katrina after I tell him I’m a sociologist who’s studied it. I tell him a few things, mostly critical of the federal and local government responses. He says, “okay, not to be racist,” but those black people have hurricane parties and they just wait till everyone else leaves town, then after the storm comes through they just go out and loot everything.”

Dan drops me off at the highway junction. I’m glad to be finished with his company. But I know this nation is full of young men like Dan. It’s a frightening thought. I climb a small hill above a wash overlooking a gas station and several motels. On top I spread out my sleeping bag and lie down beneath the stars of southern Utah.


Tuba City, Dino Tracks, Uranium...

Truckers rarely ever pick me up. Mostly it’s because they’re on a schedule and need to make good time to their destination. A few more than usual picked me up on this trip. Out of Flagstaff a young trucker named Cody gave me a lift into the Navajo Nation past Cameron.
“Where you headed?” he asked me early in our conversation.
“Tuba City.”
“What’s in Tuba?”
“I’ve never been in that part of the Navajo Nation, I want to meet some folks, see some things. They’ve got this new interactive museum out there and some historical sights I need to see…”

Cody must have thought I was crazy. “Be careful in Tuba City, I’ve heard some horror stories from other truckers about those crazy Indians out there, drunks and weirdoes, you know….”
“I’ve never had a problem,” I replied. I wanted to say a little more, I wanted to call him out on his bullshit perceptions of the Navajo, but I rarely challenge anyone who gives me a ride. You know, it’s all smiles, uh-huhs and laughs. I rarely do or say anything to upset the driver, to let him in on my views about the world and my brothers and sisters, black, brown, queer and colorful. But it’s hard to let so much racist and sexist bullshit fly. I’m sorry to say it, but truckers that have picked me up have for the most part fit their stereotype: white men who are quick spit on “niggers, Indians, and Mexicans,” and even quicker to crack a joke about rape or women’s inferiority and call any man who doesn’t fit their model a “fag.” And they usually expect their hitch-hiker to laugh and concur. I mostly just nod and bit my tongue, change the subject.

Cody dropped me off at the junction to the 160 to Tuba City. I only had to wait 10 minutes before my next ride. A young Navajo man named Luke, about my age, stopped for me. He said he’d take me into Tuba city, but was also surprised to see me headed there. “There ain’t much in Tuba,” he explained. On his center consol sat a glass pipe and lighter. Luke smoked weed. He asked me if I did. I said sometimes. He said it’s natural. I agreed. He said alcohol is poison, he stays away from that stuff. It’s killed and fucked up too many Navajos for him to touch it. Besides, it’s banned on the reservation, and marijuana is practically easier to come by.

Luke turned down a tiny dirt road off the highway. “Here, I’ll show you the dinosaur tracks,” he said playfully. Sure enough a sign on the road advertised “Dino Tracks!” We stopped by a few roadside stands where some elder Navajos sat under shade selling rugs and silver turquoise jewelry. Just a few meters away were large tracks embedded in the sandstone, some kind of enormous three toe-ed monster from the past.

Luke and I got back in his truck and headed to Tuba. “See, on this side,” he said pointing left to the North, “this is Navajo land. On that side, that’s Hopi,” he explained. You’ll see, it’s funny. The Hopi don’t have anything on their side, not even a store. They’re always complaining, trying to get more land from us, but they’re not going to.” Luke said there was tension between the tribes over land, always had been. He said the Hopis were angry because the government left the Navajo with more land, some of it that was Hopi.

Sure enough, on the Hopi side of the highway there were only a few scattered houses. They were farming corn on the banks of Moenkopi Wash. On the Navajo side were stores and many more houses, little to no corn, and a few corrals holding sheep and cattle. “They complain, but they’re not getting any of our land,” Luke said bluntly. I asked Luke about uranium mines and mills. He said there were a few mines close to town, now closed up, sealed off with concrete. The old mill was beyond the edge of town. “Man, as a kid we used to play in that, in those buildings, in the dust and stuff. We didn’t know any better. Nobody told us not to.” Luke looked about my age, mid-20’s. So if only 10-15 years ago he was playing in abandoned uranium mills, around tailings, dust, radon and other elements, how big and unknown a crisis is this still brewing in and around the Navajo Nation?


Day one began in Flagstaff. I wandered around town mostly looking for a free lunch and dinner. Flagstaff is a great western rail city. The trains scream through the town every few minutes crying out loud with whistles and the squeaking wheels over iron rods, twenty-four-seven, non-stop. Flag is full of travelers making it a pretty fun town to drop through. The cops are mean, but easy enough to avoid if you take care. The city’s tourism and university economy make it easy to live on the cheap or for free. And Flag is surrounded by beautiful pine wooded forests making camping out at night a pleasure. In the summertime it's a hobo's paradise. Watch out for the winters, they're bitter cold.

Up and down the main strip of Flagstaff, the old Route 66 that has become built up with shopping centers and corporate stores I wandered looking for food or other freebies. There’s few good places to rest, but a lot of places to look for a meal, and many places to steal from. I like to steal. I shoplift from corporations only. I never steal from individuals or small businesses. My kleptomania is for the sake of anti-capitalism, not for the sake of itself. WalMart, Target, Barnes and Noble, Safeway, Walgreens, fuck em’ all. I steal from them like no other. I mostly take food, but also other necessary supplies like maps, tools, medicine and whatever else I can use at the moment.

Flag’s houseless population is composed of two main groups. One group is mostly older white tramps and hobos. The other is mostly Dine men, young and old, alcoholics mostly wandering off the res, looking for something they can’t find. Then there are travelers like myself who bounce through town. The jail in Flag is full of Navajos and Chicanos. I’ve met a few white men who’ve given me rides around the area, men who’ve been in the jail for drunk driving and other crimes. The first thing they all remark about is how the jail is filled with “Indians and Mexicans.” The racism of the police force is notorious among people of color who live on the streets around Flag. Unlike me they cannot rely on racial privilege to blend in, to avoid being stopped, interrogated, locked up, brutalized.

The next several days I spent wandering about Flag, dumpster diving at several bakeries and food stores and resting and reading near the old town tourist district….

The painting in this post, "Flagstaff Bound," is a work by Shonto Begay: “Born on a Navajo reservation sheep camp to a weaver of Tonalea storm patterns and a respected medicine man, as a boy Shonto was removed from his Hogan home and forced to attend a government boarding school away from his family and culture. Now he reclaims his identity through his art, balancing the harsh realities of reservation life with the amazing beauty found among its canyons and mesas. “I am very mindful that painting has saved my life many times over,” says Shonto. “It is how I’ve been able to dilute and even heal my own personal tragedies.”

The bug

Every now and then the bug hits me, the bug, the thing… it, that urge or feeling beyond anxiety, beyond need. It’s a feeling that propels me to travel, to seek it out, whatever it is. It usually leads me to hitch hiking. Thumbing rides from state to state, park to park, city to city with nothing but a sleeping bag, change of clothes, maybe a few books and a harmonica. Sure, it’s silly and romantic, but I’m shameless about it. It’s my one white/male privilege I abuse and use beyond reproach. It’s my absurdly beatish and wannabe bluesy past time. My thumb, backpack, a few dollars, and a smile cracking on my face as I skip down the road, place to place.

There’s no greater feeling to me than riding hundreds of miles a day through desert heat, high mountain passes and dense forests, landing in some unknown countryside or town, meeting random folks, experiencing the kindness of strangers and the all to familiar sting of the mean and distrustful hordes. It’s real. It’s tiring. It’s thrilling.

The next few posts are about a recent trip I made through the US Southwest.... Enjoy....