I’ve been in denial about this month’s column (or lack thereof) for some weeks now. Flirting halfheartedly with a few disjointed themes, I tried exploring the depths of a recent spell of nihilism, but no narrative form ever came to fruition. No dark matter coalesced out of the nothingness to incite the literary equivalent of the Big Bang. This is due partially to my particularly insular proclivities these past weeks, the highlight of any given day vacillating between a solitary bike ride or movie screening on our projector (some recent gems: Billy Elliot, I Love You Phillip Morris, The Matrix and Christmas eve tradition Reindeer Games). Truth be told, December saw its share of social outings—multiple “punk” holiday parties, a rumored “last” Thou show at Mudlarke, a warehouse graffiti exhibition/free-for-all aptly named Bombthreat. But lacking was a certain cohesiveness I could flesh out for a wide readership.
So with 24 hours to my deadline, I wracked my brain—nearly succumbing to the wretched condition of writer’s block—until hitting upon the purrr-fect anecdote: an amazing encounter I had in the most unlikely of places—my workplace! It was an evening in mid December. I was holding down my spot outside the Green Room door on house right, trying to knock out a chapter of this book chronicling the exploits of convicted armed robber Jose Vigoa. It was a challenge, though. Normally I gobble up books of this caliber in a matter of days, but this was one of those distinctly cop-valorizing true crime stories. I hate those. They really deserve their own subgenre within the annals of crime literature! I mean, seriously—by no means am I a proponent of violent crime, but does this mean I’m supposed to shake my head in lamentation at the murder of some armored truck courier who thought it’d be noble to defend someone else’s millions at the cost of their own well-being? Sorry, but I don’t think so…
On top of this annoying plot device, the event I was working was a concert—a country concert, no less—which brought with it a bevy of distractions. One of which transpired earlier in the night, when a young woman walked up and asked—in a peppy “country” accent—if there was any way she could, you know, meet the performer Amos Lee who’d just left the stage. I politely told her there was no permissible way other than waiting outside the stage door after the show, but she was persistent. There was a detectable earnestness in her request. The kind of earnestness I might reserve for, say, Fiona Apple or Kathleen Hanna. I tried to be helpful.
“Um, there’s no real ‘meet-and-greet’ happening,” I said, “but it would hypothetically be possible for you to have a letter delivered to him backstage…”
She promptly asked a nearby patron for pen and paper and proceeded to compose a note. It read, simply, “Dear Amos, I came here from Arkansas and would love to meet you,” and was signed with her full name in a wavy cursive. Then, as an afterthought, she scribbled the number of the section she was sitting in at the bottom of the sheet. I wanted to be like, Um, are you kidding? But whatever. My word is my muthafuckin’ bond, and I’d told her it would get to dear ol’ Amos. So I asked the next person who exited the Green Room—the wife of one of the musicians—if she could deliver this precious passage, this long-winded offering of admiration, to the man himself. She obliged.
I had redirected my attention to my book some time later when the young woman, whom I’ll call Jamie, returned. Did I deliver the note? she asked. Yes, I replied. Expect him to meet you in “Section 3” any minute now, darlin’! (Ok, I didn’t say this last part; that was just me being a mean jerk. Sorry.) She thanked me profusely. “You know, I’m not really one of those people who cares about celebrities,” she continued. “But I dunno. Something about Amos Lee, I just connect with his music…” At this she launched into a humble monologue about how most artists these days write pointless lyrics about “wearing Gucci” and “driving Escalades,” while Amos deals with “real life” straight from the heart. Love, loss, pain, hardship… Amos had been a guiding voice in her life, helping her cope with a world that seemed, well, not quite right. Funny thing, the subversive potential of music: one kid’s Minor Threat is another’s Amos Lee!
“Every one around me seems happy, but sometimes I just feel so dark,” she explained. Mm-hmmm… A momentary temptation to act unnaturally happy and ask, dumbfounded, what on earth she meant flashed through my brain, but I hadn’t the heart to mock her. This was deep! “I have these questions—like about god. I was raised Catholic…” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “But I’m not anymore.” Preach it, sistah! I found myself merging with the role bartenders and barbers know well—that of the de facto psychiatrist strangers latch onto for validation. Kind of the way hitchhikers, in a fleeting near-anonymous encounter, become the recipients of philosophies and dilemmas their drivers couldn’t appropriately impart to any one else in their daily life.
And here we were, standing in a shadowy hallway by ourselves partaking in this profound dialogue. “I look around and no one else seems to feel the way I do. Sometimes I wonder if something’s wrong with me,” Jamie confided. Not only had she questioned organized religion, but she also distrusted those in power and was disgusted at the workings of a classist system unacknowledged by most in America, let alone Arkansas. But she had been quietly trying to right the wrongs of inequality in her day-to-day life however she could. She even admitted to misgivings about her relationship. “My boyfriend, he’s one of them,” she said, referring to the Wall Street snakes ruining the lives of many. “He’s an investor, and sometimes we get into these… discussions. I ask him, ‘How could you do what you’re doing?’” This was too much! Was this stranger from Arkansas, standing before me in heels, really engaging me in a discussion of politics?! Or could this unassuming woman be a federal agent, another informant like the infamous “Anna” paid to bait trusting anticapitalists? Would this blossoming acquaintance end with my discovering I was being ensnared in a plot to help her, you know, blow up a government building or something?! Yikes!
But my optimism remained intact. The most powerful aspect about this chance interaction for me was the shift of perspective it imbued. Perhaps even more on my end than hers. Working at a theater catering predominantly to the petit bourgeois, I meet a lot of folks in the course of a night I purportedly have no affinity with whatsoever. Standing before me was someone appearing completely normal by all conventional– albeit superficial– standards. Someone who 30 minutes earlier—though I may cringe at the admittance—I had maybe even subconsciously filed away in my brain as “ignorant,” not worth even talking to. But after 5 minutes of conversation, I started to reconsider these preconceived notions. Five minutes after that—they were shattered. Jamie had mentioned how she openly challenged the judgment with which her friends and family members regarded the poor. “They don’t see it because it doesn’t affect them,” she said. “I mean, it doesn’t affect me either. I shouldn’t care. But I always think about it.” If she could undertake such de-conditioning, perhaps I could rise to the challenge of checking my own unfair judgment and categorization of others. After all, was this not the modus operandi of the rich in relation to the lower castes? While they scorn those subjected to material poverty, I have found myself as an anarchist also regarding others based on their lack—of awareness, analysis or willingness to “fight the system” in this case. How quick I have been, I reflected, to subconsciously assume this logic, doing myself and others the disservice of failing to contemplate their unique humanity, and instead viewing them through the simplistic and narrow lens of radical identity markers. What a loss.
Before we parted, I assured Jamie that she was definitely not alone in her questioning. I told her that there are many out there, myself included, who yearn for a more livable world. I applauded her courage up till this point and encouraged her to be exactly the person she wants to be, despite what those around her might think; and that however frightening and isolating such a step may seem, there are those out there who will be waiting to accept whatever choices she makes for herself. The more evangelical me of years past might have at this juncture suggested some radical titles—maybe some introductory CrimethInc propaganda, with a little Derrick Jensen thrown in for good measure—in response to Jamie opening up in this incredibly vulnerable way; but at the present time, such an idea seemed trite and patronizing. This interaction felt so much more dynamic and mutual than simply proselytizing anarchist ideas to someone outside “the milieu.” It was more like the interaction of two vastly different individuals stranded on an island finding connection in their shared adversity. What I mean to say is, the exchange of radical perspectives seemed implicit in the exchange itself.
We all have so much to learn from each other, if we could just listen. If we could internalize the notion that we deserve a world better than what is perpetuated daily. That’s the lesson I took home that evening. It hurts to admit that aspects of my radical ideologies these past six years could have been motivated at times by a need to feel different, perhaps even superior, to others rather than a genuine desire for community and equality. Or that I have flaunted these ideologies in a veiled ploy for validation, by trying to “convert” others rather than seeking to grow with them and engaging in something actually resembling mutual aid. That’s kind of the main perk to nihilism: if I’ve given up all hope of ever “winning,” then I’m free not to worry about who’s joining me on the Crusade to Abolish Capitalism—which, make no mistake, I fully support—and can instead focus on putting the values of anarchy into practice in my every day life. Which is what I was gonna start doing, like pronto. That’s about the most definitive New Years resolution I can think of.