The July 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

Oakland Youth Organize

Hate Crimes Against the Homeless

Food Bank Helps Ease Hunger

Food Bank Keeps Growing

San Diego's Economic Cleansing

Psychiatric Abuse and Repression

Transit Activists Win Victory

Technology for the Poor

Violent Arrest at City Hall

The Dream of People's Park

New Richmond Shelter to Open

Street Spirit Vendor Tony McNair

Bush's Tax Cuts for the Rich

Corporate Benedict Arnolds

Rain Lane's Photographs

"Say Something" A Short Story

Poor Leonard's Almanack

Poetry of the Streets


ARCHIVES

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

 

 

 

 


 

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Say Something

Short fiction by Eileen Corder

On TV, more and more segments and commercials popped up with long streams of nonsense. ID badges were no longer limited to government buildings and banks; you put them on in department stores, even the bigger groceries. In the suburbs, more and more businesses had a self-serve lane where you could scan your own ID.

I live on a busy street, two patched and narrow lanes hemmed in by junky storefronts and aging apartment houses. Diesel buses of four different lines run every hour of every day, sometimes three in a row, dodging double-parked cars and running stop lights. Just blocks away, the old buildings are being torn down and, with surprising speed, replaced with poorly built and overpriced condos. With the new housing come new residents, well dressed, disciplined and young. In the mornings, some of them tiptoe over to my street to catch the bus to work, and from inside the walls I'd never know they were there.


What I hear is almost a memory, a bus braking with squeaks and accelerating with roars from the stop on the corner. As I thumb through old magazines, I count to ten and the big oak door in the front of the building swings open, then clunks shut. Up the staircase crashes a wave of college students bragging and joking. When that dies down, the lonely voice in 104 goes back to its drama on the phone, the couple across the courtyard can again be heard fighting, and TVs blubber nonsense like broken toilets.


Voices fly and fall and spin, and from them a thousand million words swirl up in clouds above my head. But what are they saying? Maybe they're not saying anything. At first I thought I was going crazy or the city was just becoming too much. I beat my brains for months in search of the first word, the first to strike out like a silk scarf in a mirror. But what can memory accomplish? If I could say with certainty, "Here, this one, this began the deception!" What then? Would it bring back anything?


The Year of the Horse was fast approaching and, like every year, my plans were to take the day off. But something worried me and at the last minute I changed my mind and went to work. When I walked into the office wearing a new dress I half-wanted someone to grab me and yell "Happy Birthday!" But after all, what would that lead to but the dreaded cheap cake and perfunctory wishes, a scribbled-out card that was circulated at a staff meeting or in the lunchroom the day before.


J and I were going out to dinner in the evening and that would be worth more to me than an entire cake factory and a greeting card company rolled into one. Our visits went beyond the fluff, the eternal complaints. Toward the end of a few cups of coffee or a few drinks, we always seemed to end up on a subject deeper than paychecks, politics, and bestsellers.


Wanting quitting time to quit taking so long, I think I looked at the clock more than usual that day. Having an ordinary job, a job that watches the years go by with little changed but the cars outside, I know and trust the inevitable end, because the end is just the beginning when PM becomes AM again. I got used to it, used to believing that someday I'd make a change, find something different, a new job, that ingenious, absolutely novel way to make money.


I was probably caught up in such musings when P slipped through the door. His rambling monologues grind through extravagant theories on evolution, advice on the stock market, new gossip from the washroom. He's senior staff and has a key to more doors than the director. Looking in P's direction, I honestly tried to listen, periodically bobbing my head up and down. After about twenty minutes, I found myself losing focus; and at that point, I was only trying to catch a break in his long-winded tale where I could tactfully end the conversation.


Then it caught me from the side. A short sentence, a long phrase? Was it a question? His far-off stare suddenly caught my eye, and we silently acknowledged one another. I got hot as I always do in embarrassing situations. As I said, I wasn't paying the best attention and felt awkward admitting it, asking him to repeat himself. Why didn't I just blow it off? Other people can slide right out of such situations with wit, with a lie. Forcing a smile I laughed, "You're kidding!" P's expression slowly changed from suspicion to satisfaction. Then he lapsed back into his monotonous chatter.


Around six, I finally made it through the door of my apartment, dropped my bag in its chair, and put on some coffee. I just couldn't get my mind off P's strange words. Why had I gotten so damn embarrassed? I should have just stopped and asked him what he'd said. What on Earth had he said?


I took the pen from my shirt and stared at a scrap of paper. On it I saw P's eyes that always stare at a point high on a distant wall, the razor cut of the hair around his ears, and the funny print tie he had on. What was it today - little gramophones?


Slowly I began to remember the sound of P's words, but my pen wouldn't budge. How do you write down something that's not even the least bit familiar? Spanish, German, Russian, even Japanese: I could catch the phonetics, but his were words with no sound I could recognize. An African dialect? Hawaiian? It sounded more like, like -- gibberish. P sometimes jokes but he laughs at his own jokes -- and he hadn't laughed. Looking at the clock, I remembered dinner. To hell with P. I put down the pen, undressed, showered and put on comfortable clothes.


The night was cold but clear, and the walk warmed me up. Christmas lights had already sprouted all over. A few houses looked like Broadway on Parade. Some boasted a brilliant tree in the front room. It was Hanukah and a few windows displayed simple menorahs.


In a cheery mood, I walked into my favorite spot, a modest Indian restaurant, one room filled with tapestries, rich smells of curry, and a dozen tables. Something made me sit at the one in the middle, and soon a thin man in a long, clean white apron moved toward me and lit the candle. I didn't recognize him, but waiters come and go there quite often. Speaking in polite English he handed me the menu, then returned to his spot near the kitchen where he relaxed into Hindi with the others.


No, the words P spoke were definitely gibberish. As was her custom, J rushed in twenty minutes late, all smiles, with a cone of irises. She greeted me with, "Happy Birthday!" We kissed on the cheek and settled into our chairs for an overdue visit.


After we ordered, she let me ramble on about my family, then she launched into the story of her latest lover, his great sex, his problems with alcohol. What should she do? When dinner came, we got off the subject of L and talked about our jobs. J was thinking of going back to school for a degree in psychology. "But certainly you've read how drugs are replacing talk therapy." She sadly agreed.


Predictably, we wove our way to the topic of religion. How did guilt and regret compare? Should we take responsibility for others, and if so, how much? What was God's responsibility? She confided in me her renewed interest in Judaism, said she was taking a class that would prepare her for conversion. I told her I was learning to levitate. Immediately, a pain shot through me. Why had I said that? Sure, I was a little shocked at her decision to convert, but that didn't excuse my stupid comment. Could I blame the Indian beer?


To my relief, she went on talking as if she hadn't heard. Then, the smile that usually adorns her face dipped for a fraction of a second. I suddenly raised my glass and said, "Salud!" Her smile grew back and she held her glass up over the table. "May this year bring understanding!" At the time I couldn't even begin to fathom the irony.


By 9:30, the plates and dishes had long been removed and the candle was wavering desperately in the glass cup. Tomorrow was a workday and when we caught each other looking at our watches we both laughed and reached for our coats. As was J's custom, she had driven. We walked out into the cold night, and she insisted on taking me to my door. Double parked, engine idling, I thanked her again for the lovely meal, the flowers, our time together.


Something brought P back into my mind and I wanted to relate the story to J, wanted to ask her opinion, wanted her to say, "It's nothing. Forget it!" A bus passed close to her door and her little car shook with the pressure. Would she think me insecure to worry about a little thing like that? Was I? For Chrissakes, say goodbye and let her get home. We kissed on the cheek and, as we always do, promised to get together more often. I said goodbye as I shut her door.


The next day I avoided P completely. On my way to lunch, I saw him coming toward me in the hall and cut quickly into the women's room. Ironically, he snagged M just outside the door. I could hear him rattling on about so-and-so on the fourth floor and about the poor job the renovators were doing. Then his voice got low. Was he telling M about our visit yesterday?
Stuck in the washroom, I waited a full ten minutes and still they gossiped. M was probably waiting her turn; so until I left, she would continue to stand there. Taking a deep breath, I put on an innocent face and opened the door. P and M turned toward me with wide stares. I lost my composure and just stood there. Unexpectedly, they waved me over and began whispering about one of the workmen who was reportedly using the building as a place to sleep at night. You've got to be kidding! I almost laughed out loud.


My next encounter came a month later when my sister, expecting her fourth child, wanted me to visit and finally see birthing in action. I couldn't refuse yet another time, so after getting a week off work in the middle of winter, I was finally packed and all set with a ride to the airport. Going through airport security, well, I was already braced for the wait and demands. Those in my line were asked to remove their shoes, though the people in the next line weren't. Upon request, I put my big coat on the conveyor belt along with my keys and carry-on, then shuffled through the electronic arch.


Gathering together all my possessions and thinking I was free to find my gate, I was startled when a hand touched my shoulder and directed me into a roped-off area. I told myself to stay calm. I expected the uniformed woman to look in my bag again, or my shoes, but no, she motioned me to sit in one of two chairs. With her short arm tightly wrapped around a clipboard, she asked me predictable questions: What is your destination? What is the nature of your trip? How long will you be staying? Where will you be staying? Do you have any stopovers planned? Then she looked up and a stream of nonsense escaped from her mouth.


I hesitated a moment, certain I must have looked sufficiently confused, because she turned away and got on her radio. Another guard showed up looking tired. They conferred privately for a moment, then I was led to an office and the door was closed.


Seated in the line of a camera eye, I was asked the same questions, but the man put them in a different order. In my mind, I ticked off each question the woman had asked. They were all there, none extra. While the official looked at my ID, I stared at the displays of surveillance cameras. The way they capture people from up high, everyone looks downcast or in another world. People never look into the camera eye. Abruptly I heard my name and, with no expression, the officer returned my ID and bid me a pleasant trip. Lifting off from the runway, I stared at the seat ahead of me.


After dropping into a white world of freeways, big cars and gated communities, the nuances of small town and suburbia threw their arms around me as if I were a germ. Red, white, and blue rainbows filled in all the spaces, and the people, certainly nice enough, either scanned me with slight suspicion or a silent sort of get-me-out-of-here plea.


Beyond the rows and rows of fast food signs, my sister lives in what is still the country in an old farmhouse. When I pulled up her gravel drive in a rented car, my niece and nephews in their jackets and boots ran to show me their icicle pops. You could either eat them or stab someone with their pointed end. For the next six days, I thought, these transparent little people will erase the dog-eat-dog world.


On Monday, S had, by her own terms, an easy birth. C came out quick and quiet, nursing by the time I came back from the bathroom. On Wednesday, while my sister picked up her other children at school, I sat "on guard" as C slept, watching her nap, her body completely relaxed, her face so peaceful. I had brought in the local newspaper from the kitchen and was reading through the news section, folding pages as quietly as I could. Then, right in the middle of an article on government fraud, and it wasn't an ad, appeared a paragraph of nonsense words, the spelling all crazy. A computer must have scrambled the text.


I gave it no thought until the next day. Same scenario: I was reading the paper when, and this time it was in a report on border relations, I caught another jumbled-up section; this time it was two paragraphs. My insides tensed up and, forgetting everything, I ran to the recycling bin. Fishing out yesterday's paper, I compared the two. They were different. Well, that didn't prove anything. The stories would have been different.


When S came out of the bedroom I immediately showed her my findings. After inspecting the two pages she looked at me, shrugged her shoulders, said she'd seen it before and hadn't the slightest notion what it meant. Probably an accident in typesetting: "You know, hit the wrong key and all hell breaks loose."


On Friday, I scoured the paper from one end to the other and found absolutely nothing unusual. Sunday morning I had to say goodbye. I took a few pictures, kissed and hugged everyone, then drove back onto the corporate fairway. At the airport bookstore I bought both dailies. After surprisingly little hassle at the checkpoint, I found a seat and waited for my flight to board. Thinking back on my sister's easygoing attitude, I wondered whether I was just being paranoid. Maybe that's why I have no children and now she has four!


Leafing through the papers, the headlines silently blared: "23 Civilians Killed in Iraq," "Father Murders Family of Five," "58 People Killed in Train Blast." Finally my plane was ready to board. I rented the plastic headphones, plugged them in and closed my eyes. Eventually the movie began, "Holiday Happy," starring Renee Bremmer. Passengers pulled down their blinds and either tried to sleep or watched. I wasn't interested in the film, and a hundred or so miles later I was just about to nod out when Renee found herself across the counter from Robert Rox. What was he doing there? Ok, I thought, let's see him get out of this one!


Then, high above Earth, something happened. The two of them started talking nonsense, gibberish, Drows, whatever you want to call it. My eyes opened wide as I choked on my complimentary beverage. Around me everything seemed painfully normal. No bells rang. The plane didn't crash. The man at the window seat was asleep and the seat between us was empty.


I looked at my neighbor. What was he hearing on his headset? I looked back at the pale uplifted faces behind me as the nonsense continued in my ear. Absolutely no reaction. Then, as if nothing had happened, Robert laughed, Renee laughed. Never in my life will I forget the flickering light on their blank faces as laughter erupted throughout the cabin.


All the way home I kept my eyes from the other passengers on the airporter bus; but still I listened to their conversations, or lack of them. For the entire ten miles into town, two tourists droned on about where they were going to eat that night, the shows they had tickets for, and the stores they were planning to shop. Another couple said nothing except, "The big yellow house on the left."


Getting off in front of my building, I was relieved to see that life in the neighborhood was as unorthodox as ever. A neighbor held the door for me as I struggled with my bags. After lying on the bed for a few minutes, I remembered to call my sister and tell her I was home. When she answered the phone C was crying and she couldn't talk, said she'd call next week. I put down the receiver. Somehow everything got lost in getting ready for work the next day.


On Tuesday I woke up with a headache. I must have picked up a bug on the plane. The secretary at work said she'd fix things. Then all the way to the neighborhood drugstore, I was reminded how different my street looks on a weekday morning. The only people on the sidewalk were kids playing hooky, drunks, nannies with strollers. Of course there was the virtual army of delivery and work trucks: Pepsi, Miller, WorldCom, UPS, Budweiser. On the side of one white van was the name "Tdorlmi." I almost didn't notice it. My brain had immediately cataloged it as an acronym. But the letters weren't all in caps. Only "T" was capitalized, like it was a name.


I stopped, turned around and looked at the van up close - no phone number, no icon, no driver. Completely forgetting my headache and runny nose, I snooped around the back of the van. From out of nowhere something sped around the side toward me. Flipping skateboards into their hands, two little punks wanted to know what I was doing. "What am I doing? You're supposed to be in school." They rolled their eyes and asked if I wanted to see inside. Well, I had them on that. It was locked. To my astonishment, one of them, no doubt showing off for his girl friend, picked the lock, then motioned me inside. My curiosity got the better of me.

Quickly stepping up through the back, the girl followed behind and quickly shut the door. The boy scanned the sides of the little room with a flashlight. A circle of light flew over two counters full of monitors, keyboards, earphones, and a lot of intricate, unidentifiable electronic equipment. Forgetting I was just with some kids, I whispered, "Do you know what all this is?" While the girl pocketed a few gizmos, the boy remarked, "We thought it was some kind of cable company but now -- gotta go!" They jumped out the back, plunked down their boards and were gone. The bright light hurt my swollen eyes and my hands shook as I got the door fastened. I thanked God I made it home without getting arrested.


Lying in bed, I just wanted to sleep but my conscience kept talking. Now I was breaking into vans! Was I crazy? No one else seemed very concerned with these strange events. Those kids, were they seriously sleuthing or just lifting toys? I read the paper every day and had not seen one news report about any new language. With the covers pulled up over my head, I shielded my eyes against the sunlight that bounced from my neighbor's wall into my room. Why didn't I have curtains or shades like other people?


As is often the case with me, I fear things more when I'm falling to sleep. Slowly the cold medicine changed all that. Sounds of traffic pushed away my thoughts and became pictures of trucks and buses like in the kid's books at my sister's house. Below the pictures were big block words driving back and forth at the bottom of the page. Then, in slow motion, two words crashed, blood sprayed everywhere, and the letters that were left alive drove off together.


Changes began unrecognizably and proceeded gradually, so gradually that few really noticed and the number of affected persons at one time was never so large as to amount to much resistance. After a three-day weekend in May, an alarm went off but I felt like a lone voice. You see, the show was quite rare and only 100 people were allowed in at a time. I was lucky to have gotten a ticket at all. Museum visitors were given a halter badge to wear which was supposed to identify the wearer as number so-and-so. After you left, another visitor was admitted, their ID subsequently scanned in with a badge.


As I passed the coat check, I saw several people in line to rent headsets. I quickly said to myself, "Oh, no! I'm not going to ruin this show with another fit over funny voices." The show wasn't endless, but the ten or so big rooms filled with papyruses, mummies, slabs and statues became a sort of labyrinth. The lighting was dramatic and people moved like they were under water. Some exhibits were small and hung behind plexiglas barriers. Looking so hard and so long at the intricate artwork, I got a little faint, and so when I passed the women's room, I ducked in.


Seated in a big plush armchair, I watched as women came and went, flushing toilets, chatting, washing hands and reapplying makeup. My hands started playing with the little badge and I pulled it from around my neck. It was an oblong metallic plate fastened to a plastic-coated, twisted wire cord. Number 74. Carelessly turning it over, my dizziness came back. There on the back were six nonsense words arranged in a design. I sat up, looked at them carefully, and unconsciously reached for my pen. Then I remembered, they made me check it in with my bag.

There was no way I could memorize such a weird arrangement so I slipped it into my pocket.
Back in the museum I found it hard to concentrate. I became more interested in the badges. Did they all have the same inscription? People began giving me dirty looks when I stared at their chests. Absorbed in this detective game, I didn't at first feel the hand that hooked into the crook of my arm. But soon I felt a slight jerk and a guard firmly asked me to come along. He led me to the exit and asked me if I had checked any items. "Is there a time limit?" I asked.

He answered that everyone must be wearing a counter to remain in the show. "Oh, the little necklace?" I tried to explain that I must have lost it somewhere. Probably dropped it in the restroom.


Two men approached, and one of them waved his security wand up and down my sides. Promptly, I was taken into an office and asked to empty the contents of my pockets. When the badge came out in my hand, I tried to look relieved, and told them about my dizzy spell, which was true. At the bus stop I sat stunned. I don't remember whether my anger was more for myself or for authority.


A well-dressed older woman came up and sat next to me on the bench. After a few minutes she asked whether I had come from the Egypt show. I turned to face her and began to tell her my story. She quickly turned away and interrupted me with, "Wasn't the audio tour clever? You know, I thought those little picture words could only be read, not spoken too. Hieroglyphics is the funniest sounding language." Her next words came out all giggles. When the bus came we both boarded and she sat in an aisle seat.


Over the summer, unfamiliar spellings began flooding the papers. People at work began saying things that didn't make sense, at least not to me. I would be in the lunchroom and hear two or three people talking in Drows and they seemed to understand each other. And what was stranger, each person seemed to speak their own individual language. No two had the same sound. Just as when I first caught the strange talk from P, it all sounded like gibberish. What were they saying? If you questioned them, they either laughed or suddenly got quiet and turned away.


On TV, more and more segments and commercials popped up with long streams of nonsense. Badges were no longer limited to government buildings and banks; you put them on in department stores, even the bigger groceries. In the suburbs, more and more businesses had a self-serve lane where you could scan your own ID. Of course, there was a surcharge.


What suddenly struck me was that I had seen the spelling "Tdorlmi" on the van near my house but never saw it again. Getting out my growing collection of Drows clippings, I compared them to see what spellings repeated themselves. I looked and looked but couldn't find any patterns. In August, I was opening my bills and noticed the words "Lkanpo jmev" on the same line as a charge for $9.95. I called the utility company and was on hold for at least twenty minutes before I got though to a live person.


She greeted me with my name. How did she know that? Then she apologized for the inconvenience. There was no inconvenience, I told her, I just wanted to know what the charge labeled "Lkonp jmev" was for. She said it was for a special service I had ordered. I hadn't ordered any special services, but she assured me their records indicated that I had.

When I asked to speak to a supervisor I was put on hold, then after a few minutes, disconnected. I called back twice but only reached an automated system which sent me around in circles from menu to menu. What, did they all suddenly go to lunch? After a full hour, I dialed my sister instead and downloaded all my grief. She laughed and said ten dollars wouldn't even get me into a movie, "So relax!"


When her birthday came around, J suggested we try a new restaurant. Being all the way across town I had to take a bus and transfer. I ended up getting there quite early, and not wanting to walk around, I went in and sat down. It came as little surprise that the menu was all in Drows. Curiously enough, names like Coca-Cola and Coors remained the same and numbers hadn't changed at all. My stomach flipped when I saw the prices.


Two big crowded dining rooms were filled with nothing but subdued noise, and when a waiter came up I had no idea what he asked. I nodded my head then quickly shook it. Why did this new talk make me so nervous? The city was filled with foreign languages which I loved to hear. My foot started circling under the table. I hadn't seen J since early spring. What if she began talking funny?


The waiter came back and even before he said anything, I shook my head and blurted out loudly, "No, not anything, not yet, can you understand me!" People turned their heads. Maybe I imagined it, but they all seemed to have a blank stare on their faces. Again I was on the plane wearing headphones and hearing laughter. I got dizzy, put my head down. No, that would draw more attention, someone might call an ambulance. Knocking over my chair, I bolted for the door.


Outside waiting for the bus, I suddenly crossed the street. When the 14 pulled up, it was filled with people going home late from work. Some were asleep, propped up by their briefcases or big grocery bags. Some were glued to books. I sat behind two men in suits. What were they saying? I stood up and drifted to the rear. Three teenagers sat on the back bench going on about something that seemed important. Typical, except I had no idea what it was they were talking about.


Drifting back to the front, I stood near the bus driver. As people boarded he spoke to them and they responded. Why couldn't I get it? At the next stop I got off. Now it was getting late and I was way out near the beach. Fog was coming in. Never had I felt so alone in my city. So many, many people, but who could I understand? I wanted to grab somebody and shake them, rattle old words out of their mouths, but in this neighborhood at this late hour almost no one was out. My skin began to feel like a single smooth steel bar incarcerating me in a cell.


I crossed the street again, and when the 48 pulled up I got on. The bus wasn't even half full and the people looked shabby. Not wanting to be alone, I walked back and sat next to an older woman. Something kept me from speaking to her. Instead I surveyed the bus advertisements. One said "Ntrs," no phone number, no address, no explanation, just the letters, dark blue on a dullish gold background. As I stared at the ad, I could feel the woman next to me lean over.


"What the hell does 'eN-tors' mean?" she mumbled. "City council's behind it. And you know who's behind them, doncha? The big corporations. Millionaires and billionaires wagging their tails and knocking down the old houses on the old people." From out of stained sleeves peeked her sunburned hands which clutched a dirty bundle of old magazines.


Across the aisle sat a man with crutches propped up on the empty seat. Was he missing a leg? When he caught me looking at him, I looked away. Behind me I heard someone giving directions to little markets where you could still buy food without an ID.


The woman next to me started up again: "Yeah, what's all this ID crap about? Does it matter who I am, if I'm hungry?" Just when I stood up to change seats, she grabbed my arm and pulled me back: "Can't you say something?"


STREET SPIRIT
1515 Webster St,#303
Oakland, CA 94612Phone: (510) 238-8080, ext. 303

E-mail: Spirit

© 2002-2005 STREET SPIRIT. All rights reserved.

Published by American Friends Service Committee

Editor : Terry Messman

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