When I was about 16 or 17, I read every book I could get my hands on by or about the hobo. As a result I became acquainted rather early with the poems of Robert Service, as well as tales of and quotes from many an anonymous bard and philosopher. I recall one hobo in particular, someone who was going by the name “Red”, offering the following critique of modern industrial Capitalism: “Work has wasted more human life and happiness, and cemented the foundations of more inhuman wrong, misery, and oppression, than ever did the combined forces of War, Physics, and bad whiskey”. You can imagine how much this impressed me, since I recall the quote I believe verbatim, some 18 years after reading it. I ran into the same thought a few years down the line in a poem by Octavio Paz (sadly, I can’t recall the name of the poem, though again I believe I’ve still got the part I memorized down word for word):
“mejor ser lapidado in las plazas
que dar vuelta a la noria que exprime la sustancia de la vida
cambia la eternidad en horas huecas
los minutos en carceles
el tiempo en monedas de cobre y mierda abstracta”
or, in english:
“better to be whipped in the public square
than to tread the mill that grinds out into nothing the substance of our life
changes eternity into hollow hours
minutes into prisons
time into copper pennies and abstract shit”.
and I recall Ginsberg also (speaking of eternity): “who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade”…
And now I’m older, and I still have these what consider to be truths etched in my brain. I’ve been reminded recently because I’m reading the collected writings of T-Bone Slim, who was a hobo/itinerant laborer/tugboat captain, who wrote a regular column for the IWW (Wobblies/Industrial Workers of the World) newspaper in the 20’s. Here’s T-Bone in 1926:
“Only recently I read a statement that ‘Truth, alone, will set you free”, and being of an inventive turn of mind, I got to wondering if “Truth” could be harassed so’s to lift one of those heavy hand-cars on the track. My partner suggested I’d better stick to perpetual motion (he’s a sarcastic cuss). That’s what comes of having too many chestnuts in the fire. But I couldn’t very well give up the idea, because if truth can set me free, there must be power- and power certainly ought to put that car on the track. Once on the track we could take it off the track by using a little falsehood. It occurred to me that it isn’t enough that truth sets me free. We got to hitch it up some way so that it will do some of the work.”
And as I’m reading T-Bone, I’m also watching news of the protest against a pipeline on Dakota-Sioux land in South Dakota, and reading of a group of activists in Oakland who were arrested and are now facing up to a decade of jail time and fines of up to 100,000 dollars for daring to live in (and make improvements to) a long-abandoned house.
I am wondering how, when and why human beings have turned (or been turned, more accurately) from the logical common holding and stewardship of land and resources (see the IMF and World Bank offering bribes to the governments of developing nations all over the world in exchange for the privatization and monetization of what has been commonly held indigenous land since the beginning of time). Take a person’s land away from him (or his right to use the land, or as with the Dakota Sioux, destroy the ecosystem, groundwater, etcetera, of the land), and you will almost certainly force him or her to sell hours of life in exchange for the means of mere survival. Through the (quite new and modern) hex of landlessness, you have effectively produced a wage slave- a human being yoked to someone else’s profit incentives, and forced to tread the mill that Paz speaks of….
Here’s a final unedited quote from an e-mail I sent to a good friend this week, just to sum it up in the most bare-naked way I can:
“It’s been such a long time since I was in school for anything, and I’ve never really been in school for writing, although I guess in a way that is what all my reading is for- to inform and shape the writing I do- but my adult life involves so much pressure, mostly financial pressure, and time constraints, that the magical feeling I had at at Sarah Lawrence where work for pay was a minor fraction of life and most of what I had to do was learn and read and think and yes, write…. it’s so far off now it seems like a fantasy. Part of me (a large part) despises capitalism and the pressures it puts on people including myself to essentially waste their best years, the years that should be the most creative, the richest, the most personally productive, just trying to fend off homelessness and hunger. Part of me is grateful that I personally am not homeless or hungry (at least for now), and thinks that it is absolutely crazy and amazing that I got to spend so many years in high school and college essentially just doing what I enjoy, reading and learning and making things, not worrying about food and shelter, which is more than most people on this planet will ever get, so I have nothing to complain about. Why should I be entitled to more than what I have? Why should I have the leisure to think and write? maybe I only deserve it because everyone deserves it. But what are the chances of everyone getting it?”