Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shoulder to Shoulder: An Album of Industrial Action

FGPlex is always on the lookout for cultural documents that memorialize key historical moments. Such is the presently ongoing public workers’ strike in Wisconsin against Gov. Walker’s effort to deprive public workers’ unions of their collective bargaining rights. A great deal is at stake: the leverage of unions nationwide in a time of quasi-fascist (classical definition) ascendancy, the successfulness of Walker’s bait-and-sink budget strategy, even the Republican presidential candidacy for 2012. For if Walker pulls a PATCO on the unions, he’ll look more demoniacally conservative than any other current GOP candidate. He’ll be the Reagan Revanant.

Which reminds me of great union-busters gone by: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. As I understand these, Reagan didn’t want to allow the federally-employed air traffic controllers a 32-hour workweek. He gave the striking 13,000 (of 17,000) 48 hours to return to work or get the sack. They didn’t, and he did—so we spent years training up new ones and there could have been monthly plane crashes, but luck held. This bold gelding set a precedent that continues to this day, of corporate revanche over FDR’s “welfare state.”

Thatcher did the same thing with striking coal miners, around the same time. Her government wanted to close coal pits all over the U.K., and laid up supplies in anticipation of a coal miners’ strike. The country did not go dark, the police stood firm with Thatcher, people were beaten and jailed (a few killed), the strike dragged on forever and lost momentum, finally crumbling.

Reagan had quoted Coolidge on public safety; Thatcher used military language and referenced her successful little dirty war: “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.” Welfare benefits were withheld from the families of striking miners, and they slowly starved despite the aid of NGOs.

During those benighted times, the socialist industrial band Test Dept. collaborated on an album with the South Wales Striking Miners’ Choir.  Some exhortatory standards (Comrades in Arms, Stout Hearted Men, Take Me Home) are delivered with bracing style:

“Give me some men who are stouted hearted men/Who will fight for the right they adore/Start me with ten, who are stout hearted men/And I'll soon give you ten thousand more” —Stout Hearted Men (a propos, considering WI’s demonstrators number in the tens of thousands)

…rounded out by a couple monologues by Welshmen about Welsh vs. English culture:

“[The English, on trains] will put up their newspapers as a fortification against familiarity.”

…and the strike (video above): “I’ve been arrested twice and now the bail conditions are that I can’t go out again to go picketing. There’s a conspiracy by the police and the magistrates to stop us from winning this strike…now they’ve come for the trade union movement! You’ve got to get off your ass to help us!”

All this is rounded off by some industrial percussion and effects work pieces...must be the only album of industrial action about industrial action (haha). The whole package is a time capsule, timely yet. Listen in the spirit of Wisconsin, birthplace of the first public workers’ union, for I suspect this is no less a rubicon than PATCO or the mine strike.

Download the album (out of print) HERE

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


A Commute’s Commutation: Or, From Transit Flatlined to Guyanese Prostitutes Discussed in a Humvee

The routine indifference of the State towards its “constituents” is most evident during crises. At best its posture oscillates between indifference and impotence, as in Bush II’s Katrina response or the 2010 Pakistan floods. Sometimes it costs elected officials: Mayor Bilandic of Chicago lost in 1979 after two feet of snow went uncleared; New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg has suffered the worst approval ratings since he took office in 2002 over NYC’s snow dumps. And citizens complain, often while shirking their own duties.

The blizzard that hit New York City the week of January 23, 2010 closed all transit routes. I was supposed to get a car home from work at 2330 as usual, but there were three-hour delays as the wet, sticky snow piled up outside. By the time I left my office at 0030 without a car, four vehicles clogged the intersection beside the building. Helpless New York drivers spun their tires and the streets stank of burned rubber.

At the station I ran to catch the train because I still hadn’t heard from the car service and cabs were obviously out of the question. The snow was stinging and fragmentary, literally blinding and driven through clothes.

Having never taken that train back home, I was surprised when it was local, and worried about getting to the commuter rail station on time. I was three minutes past the rail’s departure time of 0200 when I dashed up the stairs and past a bank of monitors reading “NO PASSENGERS”, ending in a huge monitor announcing a system-wide shutdown.

This station is a rare meeting-point of commuter rail, subway and light rail to an airport. As such it’s bright, loud and huge 24 hours a day, a poster child for eminent domain laws. So is the neighborhood that it occupies, notwithstanding the blandishments of the city that Subway, Old Navy, Bank of America and Chase are improvements following on the station. As I was to discover, it was nice of Bank of America to provide housing.

The light rail entrance was too complicated to rest at. A man bent in half smoking a cigarette was there, and so was a man asleep standing up. A Transit Authority employee chased people out of areas cordoned off without clear reason; two women tried to sit where it was clean, and one screamed at this impassive man about being paid to chase people off clean areas. He muttered expletives. They went off to huddle in a muddy sandy corner. You couldn’t even pay to pass the cordoned turnstiles to sit at the light-rail station.

In this museum of civilized inhumanity I thought it best to slog 6 miles through the snow and turned on my phone GPS, zipping up and ripstopping everything to stay warm. This trek proved foolish, especially when I provided entertainment for some gentlemen of leisure lingering around the 24-hour McDonalds, across the street from a 24-hour Burger King. I made it about 15 blocks before I started looking for an ATM to call my fiancée, who could pick me up. The first one was a homeless bunker with cardboard, the second was open during daylight, the third was a homeless bunker, and the fourth was a Bank of America full of mud. The beep that tells you to open the door after swiping your card was busted at “on,” and so was the door, so I called from there.

Outside a car had been stuck against the curb, spinning its wheels against an incline and a sunken drain grate. I thought of my fiancée doing that halfway through the call (right around when she actually woke up) and told her never mind. A call to our local car service showed they’d packed it in too.

Walking back to the station past my McDonalds audience, one started screaming. My sunny disposition was starting to dim and I was soaked through. A man shoveling out an industrial garage with gusto made a joke about riding my scooter as I passed, and I was instantly cheered because he obviously wasn’t fussed that he had to shovel out parking for a Bradley.

On returning to the transit megaplex, I looked for someplace to sit and be warm, but there was none because that would have encouraged people like Bent Smoker and Sleeping Standing to move in. You could stand and be warm or sit and be cold, so I toggled between them—discovering when my nose thawed that Bent Smoker had last bathed when “Yes We Can” meant something.

I learned from a cop talking loudly to a still louder Jamaican gynaecologist (he volunteered this to all and sundry) that Bent Smoker, Sleeping Standing and some ball in a corner were waiting for the nearby methadone clinic to open, which explained why they could fall asleep leaning on trash cans. They had probably started on smack around the time that the “jazz musician heroin death” stereotype was minted.

HUMVEE EVAC…the punchline

Two hours later a kid in Louis Vuitton shoes waved at me near my headphones, which were drowning out the Jamaican gynaecologist so I could read. He asked me if I wanted a ride for ten or fifteen bucks. I had always been annoyed at the indie cabs, but couldn’t have been happier to see this one. Unfortunately his jeep was full, so he said he’d be back in an hour to get me if I were still there.

At 0600, I was still there, sitting on a marble counter only slightly warmer than the stone floor. The only commuter rail trains were running to the same station in the city I’d come from, already serviced by the subway. The kid led me outside to a sky-blue Humvee that had slammed itself a place in a snowdrift. His brother was driving, and I was the only taker for the ride. Typical of the neighborhood, a little rearview-mirror flag announced their ethnicity: Costa Rican.

They’d been driving since 1230: 17 hours. During the NYC Christmas snowstorm, they’d gone out for a snack and seen people huddled at a bus stop. They’d been there for 3 hours, and the brother thought to offer them a ride for a pittance. “They were practically climbing on the car,” the kid recalled. His brother said they made $40. As if to illustrate, they stopped by a guy dressed like a laborer and asked in Spanish if he wanted a ride. He hopped in for five dollars and we were off again.

It was striking how few people took them up on their offer. They would rather wait for buses that had been cancelled. But they were risking their lives and expensive car to give rides to broke strangers! Beer-bonging gas, the Humvee moved and stopped effortlessly, and I savored the irony of being saved by a conceptual enemy. An old man got in and we were full, but he didn’t speak anything anyone understood. The Costa Ricans were puzzled and discreetly amused at his ramblings.

I’ve listened to a lot of dub poetry in fairly deep patois over the years, and after this one-toothed oldster jabbered away for a while I realized he WAS speaking English—but creolized. “You’re wearing four pairs of pants?!” I exclaimed, and while the Costa Ricans laughed he said it was so much warmer in his country, he couldn’t live in this cold. This scion of English was almost as hard to grasp as a French Creole:

“You know what time I been out there since four o’clock I’ve been out there…Four pants I’ve got on me and I’m still feeling fucking cold.” / “You’re wearing four pairs of pants?” / “Yeah yeah four pairs of pants I’ve got on me!” / “It’s not so cold, you don’t need that now.” / “NOT COLD? …You fucking American you…your fucking country not cold?” / “Where you from?” / “From Guyana.” / “It’s hot there.” / “Hot hot hot!”

It was only when he combined monologues on drinking too much rum and “poosey” that we realized we had picked up the dirty old misogynistic Granddad who tells nasty jokes, complains about the man exploiting him and brags about how much money he has (in Guyana of course). He had the foulest mouth of any pensioner I’ve met, and I worked for years in a retirement home—even the foulest mouth I’ve heard bar none. Apparently Guyanese prostitutes are the best, but “dey na suck dick ova deyah in Guyana.” I have more video, but this is some of the more intelligible. It was still night and I was trying to be stealthy, so hardly a thing can be seen. He almost cracks up at one point, so you have to suspect this is all some deep theater. This translation is sketchy too.

“They not suck dick over there in Guyana. Only them fucking nasty ones…you give them thousand dollar, come man and clean it out (?)…Anything you care for you give a fucking twenty dollars them, you forget and fuck them all over suck them you hard, you suck them all over they fuck you.”

He was telling us a yarn about a traffic stop in Guyana for watching porn on an overhead DVD while driving when we got to my place at 0645. My Korean neighbors, ever industrious and shoveling instead of snowblowing like all melanoid locals, were astonished at this personnel carrier pulling up in front of their driveway. The Korean mom just gaped, shovel in midair. Nasty Gramps thought they wanted a ride, so he started to roll down the window—but the kid quickly talked him out of that. I got out as quickly as I could to reassure them, and paid the brother $30 for a ride that might have cost that under normal circumstances. Breaking practice and principle, I told them "God Bless."

I don’t truck much in “the [value] of the human spirit,” but sometimes the individual exceeds/accedes the state.