Despair has replaced hope in America. Which doesn’t mean activists are sackcloth-and-ashing it, but those who work for equity are discouraged. “American dream”? The elimination, a few years ago, of stop-and-frisk, a racist go-to of New York City cops, was going to suffice as a dream achieved until grander dreams of equality were crossed off collective bucket lists. Lefties dream big, but they understand the implausibility of utopia, and the plausibility of effective movement toward change. From each according to each they live with open eyes and want to at least “fail better,” per Beckett. They are the writers and artists included in From Somewhere to Nowhere: The End of the American Dream (Autonomedia, $19.95, 584 pages, paper). They are the Unbearables.
From Somewhere to Nowhere is the sixth anthology from the Unbearables. A handsomely produced and thoughtfully arranged tome, this book is, in effect, a collection of weaponized creativity; a mammoth arsenal of poems, stories, essay and art which takes shots at the pomp and outrageous circumstances of late-empire capitalism, racism, sexism and gentrification. Who better to do so than than the opinionated yet self-unimportant mongrel hoard rising from the depths of Bohemian New York—the Unbearables. Ever in flux, this loose assemblage interprets the crazy of our times in bars, bookstores and on the page.
Ron Kolm, one of the original members, serves as the collective’s disorganizer and is co-editor of this volume, along with Jim Feast and Shalom Neuman. In his foreword, Kolm discusses the volume’s sections, among them 9/11, Occupy, the big orange “stain on the wall” of the White House—which must be written about, Kolm urges, “with all the energy we can muster, before they rub it off and say it never existed.” Co-editor Jim Feast attitudinally sums up in “The iPod: or the end of Self Knowledge As We Know It.” To wit, “Readers of this book (if not many others) would probably agree that the mass media has one overriding message: Bow down.” It goes without saying that the Unbearables don’t.
In a book of this large size only a very few of the many excellent artists can be singled out in a review of this small size. Among those are Samuel Delany, Elaine Equi, Steve Dalachinsky, Larissa Shmailo, Amy Holman, Chavisa Woods, Bud Smith, Jeffrey Cyphers Wright, Michael Rothenberg, Nancy Mercado, Jennifer Blowdryer and the invaluable Bob Holman, to name a few—just a few.
I let the pages themselves guide me as my book fell open to a trio of contributions, the first being “The Time John Farris almost Got Me Arrested” by B. Kold, wherein unfolded a tale of drugs, race, age and a cop who worked the Jacob Riis Houses on Avenue D. Kold, then 25, another pal and John Farris, twice Kold’s age, and Black to Kold’s White, were questioned by the cop. It was the sixties, when stop-and-bully was part of the NYPD charm offensive. The cop thought he was onto something, and he was—the giggling threesome were loaded on cocaine and whiskey. He was frustrated at every turn. It’s a funny story; the presence of John Ferris adds moment and weight. As Kold writes:
I didn’t know it at the time, but he’d [Ferris] been one of Malcolm X’s bodyguards, was actually standing next to Malcolm when he got shot, and felt guilty ever after about not stopping the bullet. Which might explain his love of whiskey and cocaine. Why we were friends, what we had in common, despite our age and demographic differences, was literature. And whiskey and cocaine.
Ferris has thus earned a monumental participation in history. He speaks for himself in the next piece, the beautifully written, “Losaida,” also in the sixties “when the demographics of Third Street were in a state of convulsion of a magnitude not seen since that first great incursion from the other side of the Atlantic.” Where “so much poverty was wealth.” At least for “the sailor,” a character so-named for his acrobatic feats. The guy scouts “neighborhood lots between fixes with the hopping gait of a wounded crow.” The imagery is spectacular. For additional imagery and illustration see Daniel Kolm’s photo of an abandoned, busted-up, burned-out auto, a perfect refuge, maybe, for a crow without standards. It’s appropriately sandwiched between Kold and Ferris’ work.
As mentioned, many themes in the anthology are big ticket items such as economic struggles. The delight is when those issues trickle down to the every-days, such as apartment shares and roommates. For a tickle, read Susan Weiman’s microfiction, “Roommate #3” which I include in full. “The day after Lili moved in, she burst into the kitchen to show me the diamond ring, necklace and earrings that she purchased for $12,000 with her school loan money. The woman in the store told her it was a good investment. I hoped she could pay the rent.” I’ve read it ten times and I’m still laughing.
The poet Sparrow is often a minimalist, as evidenced in “The New Working Class,” which I also post in full: “sexworkers // sportsworkers // casinoworkers.” Enough said.
Patricia Carragon addresses the issue of employment in “Behind the Glass.” Carragon worked in Bloomingdale’s art department for twenty years. She had a nice-sized office. When laid off she found less prestigious work. “My new job doesn’t require a college degree—just more comfortable shoes to withstand the abuse.” I like the merging of glass, the glass ceiling women face and the windows of a department store where Carragon later worked. Of course, the corporate death blow isn’t limited to N.Y.C. Meg Kaizu’s “Tokyo Kills” offers more evidence of the battle to maintain individuality and feed your art self, while keeping a roof overhead. Kaizu moved from Alaska, where “clouds broom broom over the glacier, houses, forests, lakes and sea,” to “Tokyo where “there’s money to spend and egos and desires to feed.” This piece is short, a three-page read about her experience. There are many such bon bons in the anthology, thus allowing for many pleasing reading moments. From Somewhere to Nowhere will make a great Xmas-akah gift. Ahem.
In the Occupy section, writer, teacher and performer Ama Birch tackles the megillah of issues, stirs the stone soup of inequalities in “Who Is the Bad Guy? Race, Class, Gender and Occupy Wall Street.” Birch was interested in Occupy because the “movement was addressing issues that are close to my heart: healthcare, housing, access to food, education and wealth redistribution.” Makes sense. She quickly noted, however, that the movement presented as mainly White in the mainstream media. When she joined Theater for the 99%, she was encouraged to develop a character played in whiteface. Birch is Black:
In hindsight I wonder why the director desired a whiteface clown aesthetic
on a play that reflected a movement that is made up of so many diverse
races, genders, and classes.
Yikes, that’s bad. But it is a very good thing this essay is in the anthology. Birch chides more gently than is deserved:
I like to believe that a minority in North American society does not need
to wear metaphorical or literal white mask to be relevant and seen as not
different in the that we live in. It would be horrible to think that only wealthy
Americans, indifferent to race, are rightfully entitled to healthcare, education,
housing, and organic foods while they are also creating and regulating the
policies that reinforce a discriminatory system based on race, gender and
class all the while claiming to be victims within the same exact society.
However, my experience with the Theater for the 99% makes me feel
that this just might be the case.
A communal elegance pervades From Somewhere to Nowhere. It is an imperfectly democratic anthology. The selections represent a specific yet capacious community, one I’ve appreciated since my early explorations of what some refer to as the downtown scene. Give thanks to the editors and contributors for giving us so many stories which are telling, playful and sobering. Did I mention that this would make a lovely Kwanza-Christo-Kah gift?
Purchase here: https://www.akpress.org/from-somewhere-to-nowhere.html