“Mother’s Day”

Lately, I’ve been thinking about babies. No, not because I have them. Also not because I want them, though as a 35, soon-to-be-36 year old woman who is not a mother but who is married to a man, 99% of the world seems to assume that I do, that I must, and quite pointedly that I should want to be a mother, and should be pursuing motherhood as an urgent imperative second to none. No, I have been thinking about babies because my friends are having them, because the children of my mother’s friends and of my parents-in-law’s friends are having them, and because there is a lot of heavy existential shit wrapped up in choosing a life without children, in accepting a life in which your children choose not to have children. There also seems to be a whole other load of heavy existential shit wrapped up in choosing to have children, but that’s not my area of expertise.

The other, bigger-picture reason why I’m thinking about babies, and about women’s reproductive choices and access to family planning is because I am living in the U.S.A in an era when fewer and fewer women have access to health care at all, and when access to resources such as contraception and safe and legal termination of unwanted pregnancies are specifically further and further out of reach for huge numbers of women. I could conceivably wake up one of these days to discover that my health insurance provider has been forced by the government to stop covering the benefit that allows me access to the birth-control pill that’s allowed me to avoid an unwanted pregnancy for almost 15 years of having sex with men. The pill could become a luxury- an out-of-pocket cost I can’t afford, if it’s available to me at all, to the inevitable detriment of my emotional well-being and my stable and happy (voluntarily child-free) marriage. And I live in deep-blue California. This lack of access to reproductive health care is already a reality for women all over this country and is bound to become more and more dire. I read something a couple days ago about what “back-alley abortion” could mean in a potential (dare I say “probable”?) post-Roe world. Very likely it would not greatly resemble what was commonplace pre-Roe. More likely it would mostly involve drugs ordered off of the internet to chemically induce miscarriages. One would like to claim this would be safer, however, many women who have miscarriages, self-induced or otherwise, require medical care and support. A few months ago I read an article about El Salvador, where all abortions, self-induced miscarriages, etcetera are legally framed as homicide. Even a miscarriage that is suspected to be in any way self-induced can lead to a woman doing years of jail time. This situation basically results in women whose pregnancies terminate avoiding those who could give them medical care they need for fear of being turned over to the authorities, slapped with homicide charges and railroaded through a criminal justice system rife with misogyny where they are presumed guilty based on nothing more than the testimony of neighbors, bitter exes, abusive partners, family members or physicians who can have no presumed objectivity (and don’t need it to be taken at their word). I hear some of you saying “but that’s El Salvador…poverty…corruption…backwards… ” and so on. Here’s the thing though. If (when?) Roe is overturned, we could easily find ourselves in a not dissimilar situation. The difference is there may be wild variations from state to state or even county to county. Example: two college women in post-Roe America. One is a Sophomore at University of California, Berkeley. One is a Sophomore at Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Both wind up with unplanned pregnancies and for any number of legitimate reasons (lack of resources, desire to finish education and establish career, income, stable, healthy relationship before having a family, or simple lack of desire to be a parent), both of these young women use the internet to order pills to induce miscarriages at home. Both develop alarming symptoms, fever, hemmorhaging, etcetera, get scared and seek medical help, whether at a campus clinic or a local E.R. Chances are any doctor is going to look at this scenario and know immediately what is going on. The question is, are any of the medical personnel involved in stabilizing this woman- keeping her alive and healthy- going to call the cops on her? Is this more likely to happen at Bob Jones or in South Carolina than at U.C Berkeley or in California? And lastly could there be a mental affect- a fear of criminal proceedings- that could prevent either of these young women from seeking medical help, thus potentially risking extremely serious lasting complications or death?

Are we going to see a whole branch of the FBI dedicated to cyber-surveillance of purveyors and purchasers of the drugs that are used to induce miscarriages? Are we going to see sting operations to round up and arrest those staffing underground warehouses that ship these drugs to desperate women all over the country? are we going to see women spending years in jail for ordering these drugs on the internet?

These are the things I think about around Mother’s day. The never-ending war on the rights of women to decide if and when to have children. The tiers of pressure and coercion. The first tier is the soft coercion of the way girl-children are socialized. The dolls and the “playing mommy” and the toy kitchen, and the expectation of play-caretaking which is designed to lead to a life of caretaking, i.e unpaid work, in particular the unpaid work of motherhood. Incidentally, if my mother wanted me to produce grandchildren for her, the first mistake she made was basically allowing me to be a genderless feral child and do whatever the hell I wanted to do when I was very young. I didn’t have an inborn interest in playing at being “mommy”, I was never made to or even especially encouraged to play “mommy” and I never developed an interest in being “mommy”. I think these things are related. I don’t doubt that there are some children, and some people, who have a natural gravitation toward the role of being a parent. I also feel fairly sure that there are many many people who only become parents- and specifically women who only become mothers- because of a combination of early coercion in their socialization as children combined with enormous pressure to become mothers in their child-bearing years, all topped off with lack of availability and/or affordability of reproductive health care. Put it this way- the fact that I have a cat and I love her does not mean that I want to have a baby- (though I wouldn’t mind a possum. Or better yet, a baby sloth).

So why does the government want to force me to have a baby human being? It has occurred to me that there may be a simple answer: economics and demographics. Late capitalist economies require constant growth. Economic expansion is not possible without demographic expansion. You get demographic expansion in one of two ways: Babies, or immigration. In countries that are sour on immigration for any number of reasons (hewwo, Brexit, hewwo, Trump’s America), the attempt of legislators/pols/patriarchal stringpullers/old white guys to keep the old engine of capitalism chugging away and hopefully stave off fiscal disaster as the baby-boomers come into their long stretch of waning dependent years is to stimulate demographic growth by taking away women’s access to reproductive health care and forcing us to have children whether we want to or not. 

and we find ourselves full-circle, right back where we started, pre-womens movement, pre-suffrage, pre-enlightenment, pre-mass female literacy, pre-women in the professions… right back to the beginning of civilization where a woman is nothing but a uterus to be locked up, guarded, bought and sold and discarded if not in proper working order and so on and so on. This is the premise upon which all these efforts to pressure or force women to have children (and to groom little girls for motherhood) are based: the premise that for women, biology is destiny. You are not a human being. You are an object. An incubator/milk machine. A Uterus that will serve at the pleasure of state and patriarchy, which happens to exhibit some very human characteristics at times. The ideology is so pervasive (and so important a component of the algorithm of capitalism) that it even has girls and women pressuring each other, using the ancient instruments of ostracism and shame to coerce compliance. I feel grateful that I actually live in one of the least oppressive places in the world (reading this article today about the situation my sisters in Saudi Arabia find themselves in snapped things back into perspective), but I see the erosion of what’s been built up over centuries of progress and I regularly experience the toxic effects of continued patriarchal and capitalist control of society’s ideas about women’s autonomy and about the legitimacy-and legality- (or lack thereof) of the choice female-identified humans may make to not be mothers. We cannot afford to harbor any illusions about how very far from innocent and how dreadfully consequential the ideology of required motherhood is.

Back at the beginning of this post, I mentioned the heavy existential shit. I intended to talk more about it, but then I started going on and on about all the other stuff. Luckily, it can be summed up briefly. It is tempting to have children because we human beings are the only animal (as far as we know) with an awareness of, and therefore an unshakeable fear of, our own mortality. We are going to die, and we know it, and this scares the shit out of us. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could at least create another person who looks a lot like us, who will still be alive after we die, who will remember our stories, pass on our legend? wouldn’t that be kind of like not dying? Better yet, if that person could make another person who might look kind of like us, who will be alive even longer… We do it all “for the children”, but hey, they were saying that back when I was a child! (As Norm Macdonald says on this topic in his new standup special, which is hilarious: “I recognize a Ponzi scheme when I see one”).

yup, the problem is having children doesn’t actually solve the human dilemma, which is awareness that we are going to die and ultimately, everything we do will disappear without a trace. Knowing that, how can we attribute meaning to anything we do in life? Having a child may make you too busy to think about it, at least for a couple decades, but it’s not going to make it go away. Having grandchildren is not going to make it go away, either. Personally, I’m hoping that reading and re-reading Epictetus and Lao Tzu and Yeats, for 80 years if I’m lucky, may help me to make a dent in this smooth hard wall of nothingness. But if it doesn’t, that’s okay, because none of it matters, anyway, and I’ve got this furry zen master curled up in my lap right now, showing me (again, but it’s a lesson that bears repeating) how to just fucking relax.

 

 

End Times report 2/9/17

So much has happened since I last weighed in on the state of the world that I hardly know where to begin. Plus, you are all glued to your array of information sources, just as I am, juggling words and images in your brain, shifting from panic to numbness to moments of sweet forgetting. You know how bad it is. Here in Berkeley the rain is coming down like mother nature is trying to cleanse the earth of the foul stench of moral rot. It’s not working. At the beginning of the week we saw the confirmation of Betsy Devos as secretary of education after Senate Democrats actually did their damn job and stayed up all night fighting tooth and nail against it. Not because they’re saints, mind you. Because they want to get re-elected and they know that the huge majority of Americans send their children to public schools and are much more aware of and impassioned over the handling of public education than almost any other issue. Yes, the constituency is quite aware that Devos is a woman who seems to have no appreciation for education, learning, and literacy as good things in and of themselves. Nor does she have any grasp on the role public education can play in creating some socio-economic mobility, some possibility for the realization of big dreams for children who are not born to wealth, as she was, and who do not have access to financial resources. She wants to privatize public education. Which means you can get a voucher for 7000 dollars a year (that’s taxpayer dollars that have been siphoned off from their previous allocation to support and improve Public schools) to send your kid to a private or parochial school. The only problem is most private and parochial schools annual tuition, even for kindergarten, is 15 grand or more. So if you don’t happen to have 8-13 thousand dollars a year lying around (according to multiple recent studies, including this one in Forbes, most Americans can’t come up with 500 dollars in an emergency, no less 8,000 every year) you are shit out of luck. Your kid is going to be one of those shunted off to a public school system that’s been catastrophically defunded. Considering how difficult it is to deliver anything resembling a quality education in the U.S public school system with the current levels of under-funding, over-crowing, teacher shortages, underpaid and overworked teachers and staff, etcetera, it is difficult to imagine the Devos plan leading to anything other than public schools that are little more than holding pens (read: Prisons) for the very poorest of children and teenagers. And even these public schools will be privatized, the way prisons are now. You see where I’m going with this. The whole thing is basically a neat way of transforming our public schools into an expansion of the for-profit prison system. The public schools will become for-profit prisons for poor, mostly black-and brown children and teenagers. And it’s an even better business model than the for-profit prisons, because they don’t even have to do anything wrong (aside from being born poor) to be there! there’s no need to criminalize particular behaviors, substances, ways of dressing, etcetera. These children are forced to be the prison population simply because they’re poor and their families can’t buy them out of it. Furthermore, most families rely on public schools to be the only free child care that exists in our country, enabling the parents to go to work. The dream of pulling those beautiful little people out and taking them for a hike and teaching them to read the best books and ask questions and think critically under the big blue sky is just that- a dream that could only be reality for those priveleged enough to not need to go to work to put food on the table every day. And last but not least, delinquency/failure to attend school can lead to interventions either from DSS or from law enforcement, which leads to those other hells of the foster system and the prison system.  Now if this is not sophisticated coercion, I don’t know what is. Isn’t it disgustingly clever? I’d like to think that Betsy Devos is stupid and doesn’t realize the massive profit potential of privatizing public schools, but the functioning part of my brain is sure that she has holdings in private prison companies and whoever manages her portfolio has made her fully aware of how much money can be made by turning the public schools of this country into for-profit private prisons for poor children. I imagine many of the contractors behind the private prison industry are standing in the wings, eager to step in and place their bids as this new business opportunity opens to them.

As I said in my Post ‘Don’t Tread on Us’:The collective contributions of the good, dutiful, obedient American taxpayer add up to a huge pot of money. After all, there’s a lot of us. It is infuriating to those who want to play with or pocket some of this money (and are used to getting what they want) that we’ve managed to keep their hands off it for so long.”

That, my friends, is the beating heart of the drive to privatize all that is public. It has driven them crazy for too long that they haven’t been permitted to put their hands in this money. Privatizing is just inserting a middle-man who will take a cut for himself and his share-holders (of which Devos is sure to be one), and who in so doing will pull even more of the meager resources allocated to poor families away from them and into some Cayman Islands account far out of the reach of the IRS.

Then there’s the confirmation as A.G of Jefferson Sessions, one of the most KKK-loving, black vote suppressing, power-abusing, white supremacist motherfuckers to ever be refused a seat in the federal judiciary of the United States due to the aforementioned KKK-protecting, suppressing of the black vote etc.

The day this man became the head of the Federal Justice Department should be regarded as a day of national tragedy, shame, and sorrow. To think that we will need to fight AGAINST the USJD to secure equal protection under the law- to secure JUSTICE- for all our people. Whew. Excuse my language, but that is fucked up. We are living in some dark and twisted times when Jeff Sessions is Attorney General. It’s so mind-bogglingly messed up and infuriating that I can’t even be articulate about it.

And to top it all off, 45 has another executive order coming through today or tomorrow, which is worth taking a look at. It’s just a couple pages, so you can really read the fine print. The thing to focus on (I think), is the huge discretion given to the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, notorious racist and supporter of white supremacist terrorist groups in this country, to determine what constitutes an insupportable level of resistance to “local law enforcement”, and to alter the criminal codes in order to “protect local law enforcement” from what he feels is an undue amount of resistance, lack of compliance, lack of cooperation etcetera. That sounds to me like drastically expanded criminalization of protests, marches, and resistance activism generally. In particular resistance to White Supremacy in this administration (such as, I dunno, the Justice Department halting it’s investigations into local PDs all over the country murdering unarmed black people with impunity?) We are about to see the new COINTELPRO. We are about to see Black Lives Matter surveilled and brutally attacked the way the Black Panthers were in the 70’s. This Executive Order is just one of the things- this designation of authority to the racist A.G – that might just make it all “legal”. We must remain vigilant and be prepared to fight. If you’re Black, start thinking of yourself as a warrior (you probably already do)- if you’re White, start thinking of yourself as a human shield, and get good and comfortable with the idea of putting your body on the line to do all we can to protect our Black family. There will be no sitting this one out.

Oh, just one more thing. Every Authoritarian regime needs a propaganda arm, and 45 took care of that (or at least laid the groundwork) with his stealthy, Putin-esque re-structuring of the Voice Of America. This one is gonna be a slow burner, folks, but the importance of an entirely regime-controlled broadcasting arm has never been a thing to scoff at, from Hitler to Pinochet from Rwanda to North Korea to the USSR to Putin’s Russia, so it’s probably a good idea for all of us to pay attention to this. Hats off to Rachel Maddow and her team at MSNBC for this invaluable piece of real reporting.

 

Also, just in case these assholes are over there, making a file on me- put this in there, will ya?

 

 

*painting by Hans Memling, 1470

 

 

don’t tread on us.

I should start by saying I am indebted to a couple of things I read recently for the brain-storms behind this post: Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st century, and the Wall Street Journal of Monday, November 14, 2016.

So… “Make America great again”. Let’s dig into that for a minute. What does it mean? Sure, to many it means a return to a world in which straight, white, cis-gendered, gentile men ruled over us all and didn’t have to worry about anyone successfully elbowing in on their hoarded stores of power, money, respect, freedom, and basic physical security. Maybe some of those people would like to re-live the thrill of the rest of us stepping off the sidewalk, curtsying, and hiding in the shadows in shame. But there is more to that time, that time that is so great in the collective memory of these former masters of the universe. In fact, there were some things in that time- the middle of the 20th century- that did hold a promise of greatness, if yet to be fully realized in equitable distribution, particularly to non-white people. Specifically, as Thomas Piketty shows, it was the only time in history that wealth has been re-distributed from the top percentiles of earned income and more importantly from the greatest inherited fortunes, to a middle 40%- the much touted great American Middle Class, which has been in decline since roughly 1980. During that great time in the mid 20th century, Private Capital, through unprecedented high post-war tax rates on the top decile that has always held a great majority of the wealth of all nations, became Public Capital in the form of subsidies and support- the G.I Bill and all of it’s provisions being an important example- in Social Security, Medicare, a well-funded public education system that was affordable to all, through the University level, a well-funded and powerfully unionized Public Sector from Teachers to The Postal Service, to Public Utilities, and on and on. The Quality of life and broad prosperity of that era were due almost entirely to the transference, through taxes, of Private Capital into Public Capital. During this same era, and again, in large part due to government aid as part of the G.I Bill, a significant number of American families were able to build equity through home-ownership.

The middle class in America lost a huge part of the equity that differentiated it from the bottom 50% (those with no equity, no capital, nothing they can pass on to their heirs) in the subprime mortgage/foreclosure crisis of 2008. A massive amount of housing stock at that time became bank-owned and was then auctioned off to already-wealthy venture capitalists, leading to a boom in the rental-market for these re-couped single-family homes. Many Americans now are not even given the option of owning a home, even a fixer-upper in an undesirable neighborhood. They must rent, and the main difference between renting and home ownership is that through home ownership one can build equity and potentially have something of value to pass on to one’s heirs, improving the lot of the next generations, if not ones own. In the rental scenario, one is forced to pay and pay to a (increasingly likely to be corporate) landlord just to stay housed, while building no equity, and probably not saving anything for future generations.

The loss of equity in home ownership left the middle 40% (and even the bottom 50%) with one precious resource. Increasingly the only thing we, the bottom 90%, own. Though we own it collectively, and not individually, we do own it. We paid for it, and continue to pay for it, together. That is our “Public Capital”- Social Security is our collective savings account for retirement. Medicare is our collective safety net for our medical needs in our old age. Our Public Education system is a collective investment in the care and education of our children. When we look at our paystubs and see certain dollar amounts accruing to these programs, we have a level of confidence in that investment. We are okay with handing over that money, because we feel confident that we are going to see that money again, that it will be properly safeguarded, will accrue a little interest, and will do us a world of good someday when we really need it. Enter the Republican Congress intent on “privatizing” Medicare, Social Security, The U.S Postal Service, our Public Education system, etcetera etcetera. The argument, as far as I can gather, is that the private sector will far more efficiently manage our money. If we turn the huge well of taxpayer money in Medicare and Social Security over to portfolio managers on Wall Street, they will most certainly maximize returns in morally defensible ways, and we will all benefit. Never mind the bailout they so recently required for their recklessness. Never mind the 401Ks so recently reduced to crumbs by their shitty greed and life-lived-in-blinders-made-of-money. Supposedly the Postal Service will benefit from privatization. Really though, The idea seems to be a brilliant way to (As with the privatization of public schools and elimination of the Teacher’s Union) phase out one of the last good forms of public-sector employment, one that offers job-security, good pay and benefits, and enable the replacement of employees one is obliged to take care of with temporary workers to whom one has no such obligations. I’m sure it is an added enticement that privatization of the Postal Service can happen simultaneously with the selling off of Post Offices themselves, since they are public property- one piece of the physical infrastructure that is part of our “Public Capital”- the things that all the people, including you and I, own. Our Prison system has already been largely privatized, which has led only to an impetus to grow the prison population through racist policing practices, to keep that federal money flowing into the pockets of investors and the private prison industry. Our State-funded mental hospitals were privatized by Ronald Reagan, and the result is that we have a huge and ever-growing population of homeless individuals with untreated severe mental illnesses on America’s streets. Our Public Universities have been largely privatized, and the result is annual tuition hikes that make higher education a giant debt-trap for anyone whose parents can’t fully foot the bill, if they’re even able to get there at all.

All of this push to privatization means a fire-sale of public capital- all we, the people, have left of the middle-class equity built in the mid-20th century, to the highest private sector bidders. In other words, to the people who already own everything else. We will continue to need these services (or at least to want them. I guess we’ll find out how much we need them when we no longer have access to them), but from the moment they’re privatized there will always be a middle man taking as large a cut as he can get away with. There will always be some asshole on Wall Street playing with a chunk of your paycheck and my paycheck, and maybe giving some of it back to us down the line. Or maybe not. It depends on how he’s feeling.

The collective contributions of the good, dutiful, obedient American taxpayer add up to a huge pot of money. After all, there’s a lot of us. It is infuriating to those who want to play with this money (and are used to getting what they want) that we’ve managed to keep their hands off it for so long.  If they do get their hands on it, what will they do with it? An article in the Wall Street Journal on The Alaska Permanent Fund, which manages Alaskan Oil Revenue, gives us a clue. As global oil prices have plummeted, Alaska’s oil revenue has declined 80% over the past 2 years, but the fund made a lucky bet four years ago when it put major funding behind a company (now publicly traded), called American Homes 4 Rent. This company is one of those (mentioned above) that swooped in after the 2008 crash and scooped up huge numbers of foreclosed homes at bank auction. It is now permanently operating as a corporate landlord for single-family homes that, if on the market for purchase, would have been an opportunity for working americans to build equity through home-ownership. The headline for the article is “Alaska’s bet on Housing Bust Pays Off”. My point is, an increase in risky mortgage swap-type financial instruments are the almost inevitable outcome of a de-regulated financial industry (virtually guaranteed under a Trump presidency), and we should have learned our lesson from 2008: investments of this kind, as profitable as they may be in the short term, are risks that cannot be taken with people’s retirement and healthcare savings. Particularly since risky financial instruments are certain to be damaging working Americans in myriad other ways, as the foreclosure crisis shows. Privatization of our public capital and de-regulation of the financial sector, taken together, can only lead to utter ruin for millions of people.

Which leads me to my conclusion. I am fucking pissed. I am fed up to here. I thought I had reached a zenith of fury during the Bush/Cheney war profiteering years, when it was completely clear to me, and I believe, to most Americans, that these guys had illegally invaded and destroyed a country halfway around the world so that they could pillage that country’s oil reserves (Geneva Conventions be damned) and award massive government contracts (read: TAXPAYER’S MONEY- OUR MONEY) to their buddies, or in the case of Halliburton, to themselves, to “rebuild”(not very well) the country they had illegally destroyed. The Iraqi people and all the U.S Military and civilian personnel, including relatives and friends of mine, who were and continue to be traumatized, injured or killed in Iraq, are collateral damage in a massive transfer of wealth from the bottom 90% of American people to the top 10%- mostly to the top 1%. I remember thinking at the time “god-damn them, they really will not rest until they get it all”, because the scheme was so transparent. I had already considered going off-grid to avoid paying federal taxes at that point, due to my deep discomfort with war profiteering and my natural resistance as a being with a modicum of self-respect and some healthy moral fibre to the idea that a chunk of my hard-earned and meager paycheck was going into the pockets of the slimy greedy pigfuckers at the top by way of foreign plunder, rape, and murder. I just couldn’t figure out, logistically, how to do it. But if they pull off this privatization crap, I have to figure out how to do it. WE have to figure out how to choke off their money at the source. As long as we all sit down every April and obediently send our few coins down the chute into the pool of grease and blood and deep dark shadows, they will not give a flying fuck that we’re protesting every night. They will wipe their satanic buttholes with all of our petitions demanding equal rights and respect and dignity and an end to wars for plunder and “regime change”. The only way forward is to just stop giving them our money, because if they privatize what is left of our public capital, the collection of federal income taxes will be reduced to mere naked, bald-faced robbery of the poor by the rich. Will we stand for that?

I think it is interesting to ponder the realities of other countries, where rulers and governments are known to be entirely corrupt, leaders known to be eager thieves with fat offshore accounts and golden mansions far from the common thoroughfares: In those places, a majority of economic activity takes place on black markets, thereby entirely surpassing the corrupt government intermediary, and choking off the flow of tax dollars that would be pocketed by the oligarchs in power, never to be seen again. There may be systems of barter and trade in place, and all sorts of under-the-table informal economic arrangements. We here in the U.S would do well to study the informal economies people around the world have designed to bypass the groping hands of a greedy and corrupt central government and its tax authority. We would also do well to remember that the initial inspired rebellion that led to this country’s independence was a refusal to bow under the yoke of unjust taxation.

The Ballad of Seamus and River

In the crumbling East Oakland public schools he attended as a child, Seamus had been a pariah. He was invariably the only white kid in his class. He had never learned proper hygiene from his depressive unkempt mother or his mostly-absentee drunk father. He was not funny, or smart, or in any way talented. If you had been standing on the corner back in ’96 as Seamus walked by, slump-shouldered, his pimply face with the too-long jaw lowered so as not to make eye contact, you probably would have heard someone say “Stupid retard”, someone answer “Man, that’s just sad”, and someone else laugh.
One day when he was 15, Seamus stood for about five minutes looking at a bottle his father had left on the coffee-table, looking at the overflowing ashtray beside it, hearing police sirens wailing, looking at the T.V where the A’s were down three in the 8th inning. Then he picked up the bottle and got his first taste of whiskey. The burn travelling down his throat and into his gut was almost the only pleasure and was the only relief he had ever felt.
Seamus stopped going to school. His mother kicked him out saying he was a piece of shit like his dad. Four years after that, he had become a fixture on Telegraph Avenue. He sat alone, cross-legged on a ragged blanket in front of Amoeba Records, a crumpled paper cup before him, a water bottle full of cheap vodka beside him, his forearms crossed over his belly, rocking slowly forwards and back, occasionally mumbling “spare change”. He wore dirt-encrusted blue jeans and a ragged army-surplus jacket. His dull brown hair was long and hung down over his downcast eyes, and his beard was long and scraggly. The tight community of street people avoided him.
It was a bright, clear September day when a young traveler came striding, long-legged and curiously peering up and around him through his brown eyes, down Telegraph. He had a pack on his back with a bedroll, and carried a cheap, battered little guitar, on the body of which someone he had written with a sharpie, in unself-conscious imitation of Woody Guthrie, “this machine kills fascists”. He sat down beside Seamus. “Hey, man”, he said, “I’m River. What’s your name?”
On the day they met, River had just gotten a ride over the bridge from San Francisco, where he had been sleeping in Golden Gate Park with some meth-heads who he said were too negative for him. He said he grew up in New Jersey. He got hooked on heroin when he was a teenager, and his mom had sent him to Washington State to stay with his dad, who she hoped would beat some sense into him. Instead, they started doing heroin together, which was great, because his dad was a former army medic, and could always find a vein. Eventually, River had hopped a freight to Portland. He was pretty sure it was there, sharing needles with hobo kids in the train-yard, that he’d been infected with HIV. He didn’t figure it out until months later, when he got a cold and instead of getting better he began to waste away, so he went to the E.R. They told him he had AIDS. After he found out his status, he couldn’t see any of the people he’d been hanging out with in Portland without wondering if they had infected him, or if he had infected them, so he came south, thinking it would be warmer in the Bay, easier to stay healthy. At first it was. Through September and October River went to the methadone clinic, he and Seamus spare-changed and often got enough for Chinese food or pizza, and they slept up on a hill above campus where nobody bothered them and they could look out at the twinkling East Bay and San Francisco and the Golden Gate beyond. One warm night as they lay there just a little bit drunk gazing out on the constellations of streetlights down in the flats River said, “Hey man, Isn’t this amazing? Aren’t we lucky? We’re the kings of all this.”
But then, after almost five years of drought, the sky opened and day after day and night after night of freezing cold rain came down. The blanket and the sleeping bag and all their clothes were soaked. There was almost no foot traffic on Telegraph, and after buying vodka at 7-11 there was no money left over for food. There was no shelter on the hill, so they stayed, huddled together and constantly drunk, under the awning on the sidewalk. River started to get sick. At first he had a little wheezing cough. Then as the rain continued, He coughed harder. Fever set in. He lost weight so quickly it would have alarmed Seamus if he’d been sober. Then one day Seamus woke to see his friend’s face a whitish-blue beside him, and if River hadn’t been shaking so hard, Seamus would have thought he was dead. He didn’t know what to do, so he lay on top of River to try to warm him up. He lay his head on River’s chest, heard his heart beating faintly.
A girl on her way to work at the herbal apothecary saw them, and noting the blue tint of River’s face, decided to call 911. The ambulance arrived and several uniformed, efficient EMTs jumped out. They pulled Seamus off of River, whose unconscious body they lifted and strapped to a stretcher. As they loaded River into the ambulance, Seamus sat cross-legged, rocking himself, eyes downcast. A ponytailed, scrubbed-clean female EMT bent from the waist, and barely heard Seamus mumble, “That’s my best friend, man. He’s dying.”
“What’s his name? He doesn’t have any I.D on him”
“River.”
“Is River his legal name? What’s his last name?”
Seamus seemed to shut off, drift away. The woman seemed impatient.
“I don’t know”, he mumbled at the ground, finally.
The ponytail straightened up, and scoffed to a male EMT who had joined her,
“That’s his best friend he says, but he doesn’t even know his name.”