In light of recent adventures, I’m gonna try this book thing again. This time, with the added benefit of a ‘focus’…ha.
Life in oZnog: Odyssey of an Outlaw Pen describes the first ‘phase’ of the Occupy Wall Street movement, from before the ‘Day of Rage’ to the aftermath of #N17, seen through my experiences in New York, Washington, Raleigh, Atlanta and New Orleans.
This blog will follow the writing and publishing process through notes, thoughts and a few sample chapters. I’d like to say there will be an update every day, but I am sometimes lazy, or too sober to think straight…
So this is Day One.
And here is Chapter One, subject to massive and disfiguring changes:
Introduction: Hunting the Spotted Cat
Midnight had just settled into the damp New Orleans air. It was a Halloween midnight and pure hedonistic chaos had us surrounded in every direction. We were wading down Frenchman Street, on the edge of the ‘Quarter, through thousands of costumed faces and a circus of flashing electric colors. A public masquerade of sex, drugs and high-proof alcohol feeding on wild instinct, moved by the sweet complexity of music washing out of the famous old Jazz clubs. There was criminal debauchery in the alleyways, although no one was sober enough to notice or care – everyone was too busy hunting for their own slice of evil. Neon clouds of smoke mixed into the crowd with cannabis’ unmistakable scent growing stronger with every deepening breath.
A few steps ahead Eric Bonney, my host here in The Big Easy and leader of the local punk band Interior Decorating, was streaming through the crazed jungle atmosphere the way a leopard prowls for a specific flavor of prey. Bonney lived for this city…but it wasn’t necessarily about the uninhibited and available nature of women and narcotics. He was in it for the music, the street art and being in a culture of life that simply tasted better than anywhere else in the country did.
While generally focused on our primary destination, Eric’s navigation was also easily distracted. Any concrete wall we passed bearing traces of Grey Ghost earned an intense dissertation on modern graffiti virtuosity.
“See…Banksy did this first, right? He’s all over New Orleans…you see down here; you can still see the boots of the original work? And a little bit up here. This used to be, like, a government soldier, brainwashed into killing his own people and it’s up for like, a week. And then Grey Ghost covers it up and boom! now it’s twice as…beautiful. He uses this mix of silver and gunmetal and leaves these pieces behind so you know who he did it to…it’s fucking brilliant…”
Eric went on to break down the rivalry as if he were writing a thesis for the Doctorate program at Krylon University. Your father probably would have referred to the work as petty vandalism, or “a big fucking spot of paint,” and ended the lesson right there.
And then, snap, just like that, we’re movin’ again…you couldn’t stand still too long or you might end up disappearing into the surreal cacophony surging down the street.
Not that any of this was a bad thing. It was my first night in town after two maddening weeks on the road and this was exactly the kind of scene necessary to get my mind back in proper working order.
I was on assignment covering the month-old Occupy Wall Street movement in cities outside of New York, working for an unknown internet news site whose editor suddenly dropped out of contact three days prior.
The relationship had been frustrating and choppy from the start but I needed this gig to work out. Facing the prospect of serious domestic mutiny back home, my kamikaze sense of adventure traded new and stable employment for the risky chance at getting some traction behind this foolish ‘writing career’. If things didn’t go well on the road, there might be an empty apartment waiting for me in New Jersey…and by the time I’d rode into NOLA, at dawn on an overnight Greyhound from Georgia, things were not going well.
Luckily, less than an hour after Eric woke up and found me on the front porch, on a broken office chair staring into the creative abyss, we were working towards insane drunkenness and standing in front of a divey-looking joint called The Spotted Cat. The kind of place you can only appreciate after-hours, when any concerns regarding hygiene and lighting are below the daytime’s absolute minimum.
“You remember that piano player I told you about,” he called over to me.
He’d only told me about one. “The guy who they sent to Afghanistan?”
“Yea, yea, that guy. He’s back. This is his band. You wanna go in?” Bonney’s ID was already in the bouncer’s hand. Didn’t matter; I was down. Anything except writing – a mutually parasitic activity I was leaning towards banishing from my life altogether – or talking about the Movement was on the table that night. If anyone asked, I was in town selling unregulated Chinese shrimp to the local restaurants that didn’t exactly trust what was coming out of the Gulf those days. And business was horribly good.
“Let’s do it…”
Once inside, I went right to the bartender. Eric made a break for the line to the men’s room.
“Get me a pint, I’ll pay you back,” he yelled from the long end. I ordered three good whiskeys and two cheap local beers. There’s not a lot of Guiness in the south, so I decided to invest where it counts.
That first shot of Jameson didn’t put up much of a fight, I’d been practicing, and after a couple of seconds, I realized that you are still allowed to smoke in New Orleans’ pubs – fucking brilliant! I lit up a Perique-blend American Spirit and investigated the crowd. Everyone was jumping, finding his or her own scattered rhythm to a sound that twisted and accelerated like a coke addict on a high-speed police chase, trying to get rid of the evidence as fast as possible. The place was a total adrenaline rush. And, of course, the dude on piano was pretty damn amazing.
The second shot of Irish pride had a bit more kick in him. I gulped down half a beer to chase the burn and that’s when I noticed her. A young lady who must have just come in with her friends, Rainbow Bright and Frankenstein’s monster. They immediately started dancing, falling right in line with the energy bouncing through the room. The Monster came by the bar and went back to the dance floor with three red cocktails, handing one over to the girl at the source of my gaze.
She was wearing the clothes of a banker from the 1920’s – high wool pants, grey with white pin striping, held up to her navel by cream suspenders. Her shirt was starched, checkered and unbuttoned down to the middle of her cleavage. She was a tall redhead with speckled alabaster skin, my only weakness, and had drawn a thin black mustache plus goatee around her lips in the style of a silent-movie villain. Two little black horns jutted out from the sides of her forehead…
I was still alone and completely mesmerized by this woman, moving around to the steady pounding from the upright bass. As every other occupant seemed to be speeding up, her motion was slower, more deliberate…almost erotic. She stretched a hand far above her slicked auburn hair and turned in my direction. I was caught staring, yet still couldn’t look away. She smiled. Over her left breast, a nametag was pinned to her shirt, explaining what the costume was all about. It read:
I couldn’t help laughing to myself in that sad, “I can’t believe this shit” kind of way. On any other night, the idea would have been funny, and creative; a perfect talking point for someone in my position to start a flirtatious conversation.
“So, you know…I’m a journalist from New York, in town for a few days. Covering Occupy Wall Street down here…Yeah, it’s great…I’d love your thoughts on what’s going on…” In a parallel universe, this kind of situation might have brought me to a difficult moral dilemma. I was about to be a married man.
At that particular moment, however, it was ironic proof that OWS was everywhere. It followed me no matter where I went, no matter how much I was trying to disconnect from it – even if just for a night. I was plugged-in deep to a movement based on connection.
A hundred people had asked my thoughts on the Movement in the past few weeks. My answer was always connection. It was one constant in every city I went to. Coalitions were forming between groups of people who would have never even spoken to each other only two months ago. Across the public spectrum, the People were overcoming all the superficial differences exploited by those above to keep us divided – political views, religion, income, sexual identification and, most effectively, the idea that skin tone is more important than recognizing first that there is only one true race – the human one. Communities that were still imperfect, of course, yet bonded by a powerful, shared realization. Local strangers coming together with global compatriots to show our ineffective and disinterested leadership that their plan is not working. On any level.
The ‘99%’ are starting to realize that we are an expendable commodity by the high-stakes, high-risk gamblers whose criminally selfish decisions ultimately determine the society’s quality of life. The masses can see from the building insanity of the past thirty, forty, a hundred years that the world is quickly hurtling down a dark, destructive path to a future that few conceive to be prosperous for anyone – except ‘them’. And the People are tired of being cashing out a lifetime of hard labor every time the Wall Street Private Casino and Resort cluster-fucks itself into a frenzied orgy, pre-ejaculating the progress of civilization to a sudden and frightening halt.
But I refused to keep thinking about it. I wasn’t going to get all worked up, not on that night…
I remembered Bonney saying he didn’t really like whiskey – at least, I convinced myself he said that – plus he was nowhere to be found. So, I did him a favor and shot the final dose of what the Gaelic would call uisce beatha …the ‘water of life’. When my eyes came back, I saw Eric already outside. He was just kind of standing there, staring up at the waxing Mississippi moon. Utterly oblivious to the pandemonium devolving all around him. I secretly put his can of beer in my coat pocket (once outside, no one would give a shit), paid the check and carefully avoided the sexy ginger girl on my way out the door.
Eric saw me and nodded his head. He instantly continued to lead us in and out of other bars with other shots and other slow-dancing girls. I kept my distance and focused on the booze. Eventually we headed back to his place, half of a rented channel house near Audubon Park, a few miles away. Eric shared it with a band mate (Jack, their drummer, who hadn’t “been exposed to secular music” until he was 15) and an old friend from Cranford, NJ. Some dude named James. They both went to high school with my fiancé. An innocuous old connection that eventually offered me an alternative to another lonely hotel room.
I did have to sleep in Interior Decorating’s makeshift practice studio, however. A spray-painted back room made nearly soundproof by old mattresses and thick carpet padding lifted from a vacant lot across the street. It was one of many deserted gaps in the neighborhood, filled with only the scattered household remains of old Katrina victims…little slices of the American Dream lost and forgotten due to a storm that happened six fucking years ago.
At any rate, I cleared a spot on the floor next to half-empty paint cans and an impressive collection of drained Budweiser bottles. It actually wasn’t the grungiest place music had ever been made, I’d been in worse, and in my estimation was light-years superior that damned Marriot in Atlanta.
Finally, I was able to close my eyes and sleep until the better part of the next afternoon had come and gone. When I woke up, the first thing I did was reach for my notepad and begin jotting down thoughts. Then I opened my laptop’s Word program. It looked like me and Writing had gotten back together again. That was good, despite still getting no communication from my editor.
Jack the drummer came in after an hour or so, holding a small tin box. He smiled as if expecting me to be there.
“Hey, what’s up man? Heard you were in town for Occupy Wall Street.”
“Yeah, I went by yesterday but things were pretty messed up…”
Jack set up a collapsing table and pulled a chair from out of I-don’t-know-where. He sat down, pulled a tiny glass pipe from out of the tin box and asked me the best follow-up question I’d heard in forever.
“That sucks. So, Eric told me you like to smoke herb?”
God damnit, I loved New Orleans.