So in a little over a week, I’m riding a freight train to New York City. I’m going to visit my friend Lark. New York is her new home, and I have never once visited her there. I’m sort of excited but also sort of apprehensive, because I do not love cities and because Portland is about as big of a city as I can handle, and I only come here because this is where my friends are, and because no-one really lives in the woods anymore. but I do love Lark and I want to see her, and also I’m curious. I’m also excited because I’ve ridden a freight train from here to Chicago but never from Chicago to New York, and Lark, who once taught me everything I know about trains, like what sorts of beans to bring and how handy a monocular can be, is going to tell me how to get the train for that last leg of the trip. I’m going to get a digital camera before I go, if I can, because I think this blog need pictures; pictures of trains, and pictures of the incredible people I know/meet. And thinking about this trip I’m taking to New York has got me remembering the last time I was in New York. And so here is a story for you, of old buildings and mummified cats, and about how I became the Ultimate Bitch.
The only time I have ever been to New York is in August of 2004 for the republican national convention. I drove across the country with some friends, listening to Eastern-European fiddle music, our bikes strapped on the back of the car in a jumble, pulling the car down on its axle. I was just recently ex-vegan wild-salmon-eater (I had been working in a cannery) turned cheap-meat lover on an all fried-chicken and pizza diet, and we stopped frequently along the way to ironically eat chicken thighs and sausage. We ran out of gas once and slept in a field under the stars, but other than that nothing really out of the ordinary happened.
There was a big protest going on in New York, but I didn’t want to be in it, because I’d already been in some big protests and it was kind of like the ferris wheel- only fun a few times around. Instead I did legal support, sitting in a big glass building with other volunteers and feeling important, answering phone calls from parents who’s children had been arrested.
I stayed in New York for three months. I lived in a squat in the South Bronx, a five-story apartment building with empty holes in the brick where much of the window glass had been. These square spaces let in light and air and all of the city that blew on the wind, light and air that filled the still, dusty rooms, which smelled of old linoleum and mummified air-jordans and led one into the other like a sort of treehouse labyrinth, sometimes ending darkly in an unlit cavity boarded up with sheets of plywood that had been spray-painted all over with strange symbols, leftover from the eighties when the first squatters had taken peyote and had vision quests, painted whatever they could with seeing-eye triangles and then crashed in the teepee they’d erected in the garden. Now the place had been re-occupied with good industrious punks, most of us, and we pulled off the plywood wherever we found it, to let in our friends Light and Air, and if we had a little money or a window we put in some new glass, made a wall on the bare studs, brought in an armchair and called it ours. The place was called Casa Del Sol.
I made some great new friends, and they showed me around the city after dark- we’d bike the streets of Manhattan on those steamy, August nights, sitting to eat steamed bean-paste buns, from black trash bags on the sidewalk in SoHo, biking back to Casa Del Sol to sing pop songs and teach each other step routines, finally falling asleep at dawn in a sort of wood-floored ballroom on the highest floor, big and open with windows that looked out at the Manhattan skyline.
This was also the time I got in my first bike accident. I was biking up one of those big one-way streets in Manhattan, on my little blue road bike, in the bike lane of course, which is also the door-opening lane. Everyone I knew was always getting doored, or almost getting doored, in these horribly-designed bike lanes/door-opening lanes. I was biking along fairly quickly without a helmet, and I got doored. I got doored by a slick black cab-thing, and this door was the type that didn’t have a window frame, just a window that rolled down into the door. This door opened and I ran straight into it and I flew off my bike, went over the door, and landed in the street on my side. I was wearing a green tennis skirt and shimmery gold leggings with the feet cut off, and a pair of those cheap cloth mary-janes everyone used to wear, the kind with the buckle that was like a soda-can tab, thin and sharp enough to cut your fingers, and the shoes cost four dollars, and sometimes you could find them with dragons embroidered on the toes. I landed in the street and the skirt went over my head and the wind had been knocked out of me, and I couldn’t breathe. The man who had been driving the car grabbed me by my shoulder and said, Get up! Get up! But I couldn’t say anything, because I couldn’t breathe yet. And then I got my lungs back and I stood up, and boy was I sore. Turns out I’d bruised a couple ribs, and I was sore for almost two months, but I never went to the doctor so I never had any bills to make that guy pay, and my bike was alright. I just took the subway back to the squat and cleaned the pieces of rock out of my hands, and I haven’t been in a bike accident since. But I am afraid of car doors.
At Casa Del Sol, there were thirty of us. The building as a whole contained maybe fifty apartments, but many of them were still locked and boarded, and mostly we lived on one or two floors. Now and then a new apartment would be opened, and we would find all sorts of treasure, wonderful and sad- it was like a time capsule straight from the eighties. We would find a suitcase, some photographs, a letter in Spanish, a doll- what was left behind when some long-ago occupants of the building had been forced to leave, to who-knows where. We found old furniture, mummified cats, and once I found a triangular leather jacket exactly like the one Michael Jackson wore in Thriller, only instead of red it was a glossy, silverish grey.
We had a kitchen in the basement of the building, the only place on the property where there was any electricity or running water. The kitchen was lit with Christmas lights and stocked with wax-boxes of dumpstered food, and opened onto a dirt yard where we kept our bikes and the bikes we planned to fix up, dozens of them in total, all leaning one against the other in a great tangle. The yard was surrounded by a fairly high chain-link fence, but the gate was loosely chained and locked with a padlock, and one could simply push the two sides apart and step over the padlock, which we often did. Our building was surrounded by the Projects on three sides and an overpass on the other, and we were supposedly in a “real bad neighborhood”, but no-one ever stole our bikes, ever, or harassed us when we walked from the subway at two a.m., because they liked us, and we actually felt really safe. Everyone knew who we were and why we were there, and also the squat had been there for decades, and had a long-standing relationship with the neighborhood. The FBI would watch us from the roof of the Projects and then the residents would tell us about it, and laugh. Not that we ever did anything but eat and have meetings and go on late-night dumpster missions so we could eat some more, and some of the more un-savory among us, the seventeen year-old scumfucks with something to prove, would sit in the courtyard and drink forties, even though we had asked them not to.
Casa Del Soul is where I developed the reputation of Ultimate Bitch.
We were not all good and industrious. The scumfucks, for example, cared nothing for the hopeful, sober work of scrap-plywood building renovation, or for the endless stripped-bolt surgery that is vintage bike repair. All they wanted to do was drink. And drink in the courtyard, specifically, because it was the one place we had told them they COULD NOT drink, because they were underage, and because we were living illegally in a squatted building, and because the cops were watching us already. But did they care? No. And not only did they drink, but they told rape jokes.
Rape jokes. (sound of record screeching to a halt.)
I mean, I could tolerate the fact that these people even existed, and I could sort of stand the fact that they were living in the building with us- I mean, they were punks, right? And it was a squat, right? They had sort of come in with the initial rush for housing during they RNC, and afterward, they had stayed. It’s not like we could just kick them out, right? That, at least, was the general attitude. And I went along with it, up to a point. The building was big, and I could just ignore them. Until they started telling rape jokes.
I mean, it may seem simple, among activist communities nowadays. You just don’t do that. But at Casa Del Sol, the collective cry of outrage never came. There was a lot of shoulder-shrugging. Among the Scumfucks, a lot of straight-up denial. Or bitter, devil-may-care defensiveness. So what if I told that joke. Fuck you! Or a sort of oscillation between the two.
I was pretty much the only one who took up the battle cry. And once I had done it, other collective members had to admit that, yeah, I was probably right, the scumfucks did kind of, now and then, cross the line, and some of them took up the battle cry too. And we went to battle the way all good activists go to battle- we had meetings. Long, maddening, directionless meetings, which effectively split the whole squat into two vehemently opposed camps, one side being mine, zero tolerance for scumfucks, and the other side being theirs, scumfuck support because scumfucks are people too.
In the end, the scumfucks lost, and the worst among them were driven out of the squat, to hitch-hike and train-hop away to their destinies. By this time the sort of ring-leader and I had developed a deep, personal grudge against each other, and I told him if I ever saw him in Portland, that I would stab him with a spoon, or something. He ended up, oddly enough, in Santa Cruz. And every few years a young person will blow up on the wind, and we will meet in a living room or coffeeshop somewhere, and I will introduce myself to them, and a look of recognition will come to this person’s eyes and they will say-
“Carrot- I’ve heard about you! You’re the Ultimate Bitch!” And then we’ll laugh.