An activist writes on inner strength and squat life in this excerpt from the memoir “Maps to the Other Side.”
Like clockwork, or maybe something more divine, the leaves just started cascading down from the sky on the equinox, carpeting the ground in a layer of burnt orange, blood red, and mustard yellow. There’s a chill in the air, and word in the Hudson Valley says the first ground frost is coming any day now. The last apples, corn, and pumpkins are mostly harvested and the fields are being put to bed until next year. It’s the end of the growing season for all the plants that aren’t frost hearty. We’ll wake up one morning soon, and the vegetables and herbs we lovingly grew from seed in the spring will be frozen and dead. Just like that. You can feel it in the air— the end is near.
But with the end always comes a new beginning. Last week we cut half a dozen heirloom striped German tomatoes in half, horizontally down the middle, their thick, juicy sweet flesh a marbleized swirl of reds and yellows. You won’t find tomatoes like these in big supermarkets anywhere, but people all over the world have been quietly saving and trading their seeds for generations through family and friends. The fruits we chose were the largest ones off the most productive and healthy plants. We squeezed the seeds into a glass jar, their gelatinous coats settling into a thick layer of juicy pulp an inch deep. We let the jar sit for three days until it was smelly and moldy, filled it up halfway with water, stirred the whole mess and poured off the rotting gel and pulp along with the infertile, empty seeds, which floated to the top. We continued to pour the remainder of the murky water through a metal strainer until we were left with only the glistening seeds and then spread them on a plate to sit for a few days in an airy place out of the sun. When the seeds were dry enough to snap, instead of bend, we put them in labeled packs, and stored them in the freezer to wait for next spring, for another chance at rebirth and life.
My friend Donny just dropped dead completely without warning, last week, at the age of 32. The doctors say he had a rare, undiagnosed condition that left him with an enlarged heart. His death is one of the most horrible and confusing things that’s ever happened in my community of friends, and we’re all still in shock and trying to make sense of it. It feels so unfair and wrong and somehow meaningless. Donny seemed perfectly healthy and was the proud father of three beautiful children. He always had a big smile and a kind word for those of us who crossed his path. There are a lot of grieving people walking around right now, feeling the huge loss in their lives that his death has created.
Donny and his partner, Lisa, lived with their kids on the Lower East Side of New York City at 7th Street Squat, one of the places that has felt like a second home to me since I was a teenager. A building full of rebels and artists and activists, the residents of 209 E. 7th are a group of people who have managed to carve a life for themselves in a city that has become less and less hospitable over the years to dissidents and radicals and anyone not willing to drink from the poisoned waters of the mainstream. The physical building itself is one of many old six-story tenement walkups in the neighborhood that was a burnt out, neglected and uninhabitable shell when the original homesteaders moved in more than two decades ago. So much has changed on the block, in the city, and in the world since those days, but all these years later and, against the odds, 7th Street’s proud walls are filled with families who have beautiful children that go to the local public school together and play down the street in Tompkins Square Park. The building is a solid rock in the community and the epitome of everything I love about my hometown in all its diversity and fighting spirit.
Eight years ago when I stayed at 7th Street with my friend Fly, we would sneak into the abandoned synagogue next door to scavenge bricks for patching up the holes in her walls. The windows of Fly’s space were framed by cut up 2 x 10 pieces of stolen blue and white police barricades. The electricity and water were pirated from the city. People kept their windows shaded and the front door was always locked. But it still felt so warm and welcoming inside. That fall there was a constant flurry of activity in the building as a group of dedicated people banded together to get one of the spaces upstairs ready for the birth of Felix, Stefane and Arrow’s baby girl. In those days Donny and Lisa lived down the street at Bullet Space, one of the other squats in the neighborhood that was part of the scene.
At that time it felt like the squatter subculture on the Lower East Side coexisted as some mysterious, shadow-like parallel universe amidst the rising tide of real estate, which eventually ended up flooding everything, sending a diaspora of my friends all over the city to the outer boroughs. A couple dozen old squatted buildings quietly sat among the newly built cheap condos as every morning the sound of pile drivers digging foundations for more condos shook the whole neighborhood. Community gardens and underground art spaces quietly kept their gates and doors open as more and more cafes and bars and restaurants full of hip dot-comers made their way down the alphabet streets. A pirate radio station broadcasting radical news and underground hip-hop and punk rock existed a few blocks away from the building site of the enormous new police station. Those were strange days, for sure.
But the roots of the squatter community go way deeper into the history of the neighborhood, and the intersection of so many incredible lives and stories. The intense friendships and alliances forged amidst battles with the city— at the community board meetings, at eviction watch meetings, in the courts, and mostly in the streets— brought together an incredible group of people. The Tompkins Square riots of the late 80s were the most visible manifestation to the outside world of the battle that went on for living space in the Lower East Side. But over the years, and outside of the larger public eye, dozens of inhabitants were evicted violently and dramatically, leaving hundreds of people angry and homeless. It’s a battle that changed the course of a lot of peoples’ lives, myself included, and it’s just been within the past two years that the city finally struck a quiet deal with the last remaining inhabitants of the squats. After all the fighting in the courts and on the streets, 209 E. 7th, along with about a dozen other buildings, finally became legit in the eyes of the city.
Amidst this whole backdrop, Lisa and Donny were solid members of the community, survivors who had stuck it out without ever really knowing what would happen to their home or the homes of their friends. They moved into 209 East 7th after the birth of their son Benjamin, Donny went to school to study computer programming so he could make as much money as he could to support the family, and they built their little nest. As many others retreated over the bridge into Brooklyn or up north into the Bronx, they were some of those who stood their ground in the quiet battle with the city. They had proudly created a life worth fighting for— for themselves and their children. And while they could have easily chosen a much easier path, their high ideals and vision allowed them to see the larger importance of living a radical life, challenging the system that their kids would eventually have to take on themselves.
The Critical Mass rides in New York City happen the last Friday of every month. We all meet at Union Square with our bicycles, and at approximately 7 p.m. everyone pours out into traffic and takes over the entire four-lane street, sidewalk to sidewalk. It’s such a glorious sight. The Masses have been getting progressively bigger every month, there were probably a thousand of us at the last ride when we took over the upper level of the Manhattan Bridge and were finally dispersed by the Brooklyn police when we stopped to have a party by the river. Critical Mass is a protest of car culture, part of a larger alternative transportation movement pushing for more bike lanes and better traffic laws in the city. There are Critical Mass rides that happen all over the world. But at its heart, the Mass is really a celebration. It’s a celebration of community and autonomy from the oil companies and corporate monsters who try to stranglehold our lives. It’s a celebration of the simple beauty and freedom of riding a bicycle. It’s also where so many of us come to see our friends and feel the power of numbers— the power of The Mass.
Weaving around each other, feeling the joyful unity amongst the strangers and familiar faces, Critical Mass is a big roving street party that takes the city by storm every month. We ride a different route every time, but at some point we always end up blocking traffic in Time Square, the center of Manhattan, amidst all its corporate Disneyland, Blade Runner-like madness. We hold our bicycles over our heads and scream at the crazy tourist techno-nightmare that 42nd street has become; we’re carving a space for the real people of the city, so that the tourists see that New York has become more than just a huge digital billboard advertising the end of the world.
There was a moment at the Mass a couple weeks ago when we all rode straight through the tunnel under Grand Central Terminal, a surreal visual cacophony of off-time red blinking lights, and then emerged and took over Park Avenue in a flurry of hoots and howls. I suddenly felt like I knew all of these people I was riding with, friends of friends of friends, through however many degrees of separation. And it felt incredibly peaceful, the sense of momentarily losing individuality among a friendly mass in a sea of blinking red lights While it was happening I thought to myself, “If it exists, this is how I imagine the afterlife— a million wandering souls floating in and around and through each other, strangers and friends, crossing paths over and over forever.” In different shapes and forms, what we are doing has been happening for a long time, maybe since the beginning of time, and will continue to happen for a long time to come.
When you see a red flashing light at the end of a freight train sitting in a yard, you know that train is soon going to be taking off for somewhere else. When you’re trying to get out of town in the middle of the night, sneaking through a train yard with a pack on your back, that flashing red light is the sweetest sight there is to see. People who ride the rails call those blinking red lights “freddies” which is an anthropomorphic slang-play on the acronym FRED (Flashing Rear End Device).” Back at the end of the Summer, a crew of train hopping old-time musicians, calling themselves the Blinkin’ Freddies, blew through New York City and played a free show in the middle of Tompkins Square Park. They had ridden freight trains together all the way across the country from Portland, Oregon with their fiddles and banjos and guitars. They communicated their whereabouts across the country through a free 800 voicemail line, stopping along the way to play shows, busk on the streets, and hang out with their friends.
I was one of their friends. I’d known most of that crew for years and was proud to see, as I had suspected and hoped, that many of us are actually just getting cooler as we get older. Which is a good thing, cause time sure ain’t moving backwards. When I hang out with certain crews of my friends I feel very much like I’m part of a secret culture of freedom and hope and adventure. And I have so much respect for my people, who aren’t afraid to follow their dreams and live loud the vibrant poetry of the universe in their day-to-day lives. A I feel happily bound to a lot of these people for as long as we’re all around and I’ll shout it for the world to hear. A bunch of us even all have the same little tattoo on our wrists: two interconnected circles, an old hobo sign that means never give up. I look down at my wrist all the time when I feel myself forgetting.
The night the Blinkin’ Freddies played in the park there were about 50 dirty punk kids doing some beautiful and ridiculous mix of country dancing and slam dancing. There was something so pure and raw about the whole thing, all acoustic and loud, it felt like we were waking up the rebel ghosts of the city with our joy and fire and song. I was one of few people in the young crowd that night that had been around to remember when Tompkins Square had been the last park in the city not to have a curfew and I carry that history with me wherever I go. To this day when I’m standing at the entrance to the park on St. Marks and Avenue A, I see the fancy restaurants and boutiques and people, but super-imposed over it all I still see a huge bonfire in the middle of the intersection and hundreds of people reclaiming the streets from a retreating army of police in riot gear. Then I blink, and it’s gone.
The cops kicked the whole dancing, dirty lot of us out of the park that night the Blinkin’ Freddies came through town, but we just paraded down to the East River and danced some more to their old-time rebel music. I could feel so many layers of history all around me on that walk down to the river, stories like coats of peeling paint on the old tenement buildings falling on the bloodstained streets, old traditions I’m a part of that connect my friends to something a lot more powerful than our own individual lives. On the way to the river I proudly pointed out 7th Street Squat to a couple of my younger friends. “Some of the most amazing people I know live behind those walls. They’re the reason we’re still walking down this street.”
Back in the springtime, me and some of those younger friends I danced with planted a garden at what was to become Jane Doe, the new anarcha-feminist infoshop in Brooklyn. Last Saturday I went back to Jane Doe for the first time since the May and found a forest of collards and kale growing in the backyard. Most of them were from seedlings I grew and transplanted up at the farm in the Valley and now they were huge healthy plants thriving in the middle of the city. It made me really happy. This is about the time of year that collards and kale start to taste good, because the cold weather stimulates the carbohydrates in their leaves to turn into sugars, and they suddenly become sweet. These are the little things that give me hope. I harvested a big green and purple bunch and brought them to Lisa back at 7th Street.
We sat shiva for Donny at the Squat. There were warm rooms packed full of good people and good food. There were little kids running around everywhere. Even a couple big kids and teenagers. It was a forest of people; the kids were like the understory and mid-story. We were the trees. There were lots of old familiar characters from my life. We all had more lines in our faces, more stories on our skin and tongues. There were lots of long embraces and tears. On Saturday night we sat in a room on the floor and each took turns telling stories and grieving, sharing our memories and holding each other up together.
While we sat as a group I kept thinking about all the work that’s gone into keeping the building alive all these years: from the battles with the city in the courts and the streets, to the years of sweat and blood equity; all the sheetrock carried up five flights of stairs and every last scavenged brick. I started thinking about how we become like the spaces we inhabit, how we grow together in complexity and beauty. Then I started thinking about how when someone as amazing as Donny dies, it’s like they become the mortar that holds the walls of the community together. Like we’re the bricks, all us people who are left standing. When someone as amazing as Donny dies, they become the spiritual glue that bonds us together for life, until it becomes our own turn, one by one, to silently play that role.
It’s Monday night and a group of us are sitting outside the building smoking and drinking and telling stories. There are flickering red, yellow, and green candles on the sidewalk lighting a memorial shrine to our lost friend. His haunting photo compels passersby, strangers and neighbors, to stop and pay their respects. Lisa’s at the center of our crew. Everyone knows this is hardest for Lisa. We all know it’s getting cold out, that winter is coming, that this is the easy part of a tragedy, when everyone gathers in mass to give support. The struggle is always in the long haul: raising the kids, paying the bills, finding the vision to always move forward when times get hard. We all know that Lisa and Donny had dreams of one day building a house on a piece of land up in Vermont and spending the rest of their lives together. We all know that the weight of lost dreams and responsibility that’s just been placed on her shoulders would crush many people with a weaker spirit. We also all know that if there’s anyone who can handle the weight it’s our friend Lisa. She is as strong willed and tough as they come. And when all is said and done, there’s a whole pack of us that’s going to stand by her and grow old with her together. I close my eyes, listening to the sound of my friends’ voices in the quiet late night street, and just for a second I see blinking red bicycle lights. I’m momentarily overcome with a sense of calm and a feeling that I’m part of something much bigger than myself that I don’t really understand. And somehow I know it’s going to be alright. We’re so lucky to have each other.
Lisa smiles her beautiful smile by the light of the candles as she holds her sleeping two-year old daughter, Leila, in her strong arms. “See how Leila looks just like her father? Same nose. Same lips. Same eyes. It feels sometimes like I’m holding Donny in my arms. Some people would look at my life right now and feel like giving up, feel like this is the end. But I look at the face of my child and know that, in so many ways, this is just the beginning. This is just the beginning.”
To read more, pick up a copy of Maps to the Other Side: The Adventures of a Bipolar Cartographer, now available from Microcosm Publishing.