Monday, September 24, 2012


This first appeard in Post Road, a magazine that comes out of Boston College:

I think crime fiction is almost like a product of capitalism. It's about social inequality.” Ian Rankin

     If America ever sees a successor to Steinbeck (and we need one) I think he or she will come up through noir. What we call “literary fiction” can’t seem to grapple with the silenced near-majority that makes up the underclass: the unemployed, the underemployed, the dirt poor. MFA infused journals, the New Yorker, and mainstream publishers mostly address the problems of the “middle class”.
     The Indy presses, especially those with crime fiction lines, offer a tougher alternative to the soft focus “problems of the rich” aspect of mainstream fiction. If you want to read smart and you’re willing to look around the scene is teeming with Steinbecks, Zolas, Dreisers… except that their work usually involves a murder. Although come to think of it those other guys dealt with murder, too. Maybe they were writing genre.

     My nomination for the Next Steinbeck award is Benjamin Whitmer. His first novel, Pike (PM Press, Oakland) is plenty tough, as you’d expect from noir. But it’s more than that.

     He won’t let us believe that his characters are losers. Beaten down, prone to quick violence, but not without dignity. Whitmer draws them with great heart and a lack of pretension. You won’t exactly like these characters. Pike has a coiled snake quality, Wendy made me shudder with the depth of her anger, and they are surrounded by thieves and perverts. You will come to some understanding regarding them if you pay attention. And, forgive the word but there is a universal quality there—what they do to survive is what we all do, or will do when circumstances turn against us.

     All good crime writing must have a sense of place. Hammet’s San Francisco, Chandler’s LA, and so on. Whitmer brings us to the slums of Cincinnati. Neighborhoods like this don’t get written about much anymore. Whitmer nails it with a painful elegance:

     The Long Drop Center is the first place you look when you go hunting for bums, especially if it’s wintertime and the bum’s a junky. So says Bogie. The staff makes a policy of not bothering to check the bathrooms when it’s cold out. Unlike most of the other charitable spots in Cincinnati, they’d rather bums get high on their toilet than turn into an icicle in some alley.

     Grave, but precise and in its way, poetic.

     I can’t imagine this appearing in a Review or a Quarterly. But, then, where would Steinbeck publish now? Perhaps in crime fiction magazines.

Monday, August 29, 2011

working writing fighting

The Poetic Labor Project Presents :

A Gathering on Labor, Art & Politics
this Sunday, September 4, 1pm to 6pm
at the Niebyl Proctor Marxist Library
6501 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA

This labor day weekend, please join us for a convocation on the intersecting themes of writing, work and activism.

Confirmed participants include : Brian Ang, Jasper Bernes, Lindsey Boldt, Chris Chen, Chris Daniels, Owen Hill, Tim Kreiner, Bill Luoma, Melissa Mack, Sean Manzano, Michael Nicoloff, Steve Orth, Margaret Rhee, Jill Richards, Wendy Trevino, Dana Ward, Brian Whitener, and Laura Woltag.

We'll meet for presentations at 1pm, have several panels interspersed with breaks, take a break for dinner, and then those who wish can reconvene for a facilitated collective conversation on the day's themes.

This event is free and open to the public. Please distribute this announcement as widely as you see fit.

Any questions ? Write to David Brazil at

Friday, June 10, 2011

on Clyfford Still

This first appeared in Try magazine. Thank you, David and Sara.

I was between apartments and Simmons, a painter friend, knew another painter friend who had once dropped out of SFAI and had moved into a house in Santa Cruz, or actually out on the road to Felton. Simmons did what he jokingly called tchotchke art—gathering up trash and gluing it together. He’d gone to Davis and had lived in Humboldt—the kind of artist that drives a truck and listens to Merle Haggard.

The SFAI dropout was a different sort, I’d been told. He was following his wife to Japan, some sort of residency. Had dropped out of art school after a row with a painting teacher. This was years ago, when people were more apt to let big ideas interrupt careers. We could live cheaply, then, and MFA’s didn’t mean as much. He did big paintings that I probably wouldn’t get. Or so my De Forest/Wiley trained friend said, with a smirk. I didn’t take that well. I knew a little about art. I read High Performance, I went to openings, saw student films…

Do you get them, Simmons ?

I get them. I just don’t like them. I’m not saying you’re stupid—but he came up through minimalism and most of the canvases are like that, although now he’s taken things in a different direction. More content. But probably just colors to you . Anyway they need a cat sitter and they’re partial to poets. If you don’t get the work just pretend it’s the wallpaper—that’s not much of a stretch.
I thought about arguing, but at that point I was playing Boswell to Simmons’ Dr. Johnson. I let it go. He’d hooked me into a free place and all I had to do was feed a couple of cats. I was grateful.

The house was pretty ramshackle. Getting the toilet to flush was a real project, and the water was hot and then cold at minute intervals. The cats ran with raccoons and other small mammals—everybody used the cat door and shared the food bowl. The painter’s wife did something with performance—pieces of costume were everywhere, things that were probably used as props, in that performance-artist/theater way. A kind of friendly squalor covered the floors and hid in the corners.

But the walls!

You entered through a side door, the kitchen. No art there—then, around through the living area, the minimalist stuff. Gray-blue, big—the thing (I learned, looking for hours) about minimalist canvases is that they are always changing, not just with the light but with changes in mood, or whatever feeds perception. That speck becomes a bird, becomes a big idea, becomes…until there’s this constant state of becoming, and then not, and back again. I’d play at naming the things that I “saw”, as a writer that came natural. And then, a state beyond naming. The paintings allowed me to go there—they had this openness.

There were a couple of bedrooms. No Studio. I don’t know where he painted.

The bedrooms had what I assumed was the newer stuff. He’d changed, completely. He was taking control. Through jagged lines and dramatic changes in color he pushed my brain where he wanted it to go. I never got to know him, have run into him a few times through the years, but amateur psychology is impossible to avoid here. He was in his thirties, pushing forty, and he wanted control—wanted to lay down the law. The bedroom paintings possibly weren’t as good, but I found, to my surprise at the time, that I was more drawn to them. Surprised, because at the time I thought of myself as leaning in some vaguely Zen direction—and here I was drawn to the more “western”—in that awful west coast pop usage of the word—type of art. Not so much balance—a knife fight! And I wanted to see more art like that, but even more dramatic—and the best of it. If you’re going to free the doors from their jambs, I thought (had been reading Whitman), you have to push, pull, and kick…hard.


The old SFMOMA on Van Ness was a strange-ass building for an art museum—galleries that looked like hallways, weird little side rooms, and that huge light filled center that was too big for just about everything. I loved it—so obviously inappropriate, but dramatic, and the shows were great. This particular visit we were going to look at the Manuel Neri that they had in the stairwell—no, really. It was just there on a landing, where nobody looked. A painted torso, pretty indicative of his work, which is to say, exquisite.

I told Simmons that I wanted to look at something big, dramatic and abstract.

Well you know the players. But the best stuff’s in New York, except for the Stills.

They gave Still a room, off to the side, kind of on the way to the cafeteria. Bench in the middle, not too many paintings. And it was like a Sistine Chapel—that same catch in the breath and a dizziness. When I walk into places like that I’m so grateful to be an atheist. Because, once free of theological baggage you clearly see the coupling of imagination and action that makes the work bigger than the one. From the artist, out…


Frank O’Hara called him a force of nature. There’s that ambivalence that comes out of the “artist as force of nature” idea. Oh, come off it…but then, how do you work big? You kind of have to think of yourself as big, too—involved in that struggle for immortality. Especially embarrassing, in these self-consciously unpretentious times.

I admit that I hate that the paintings aren’t really titled. I’m a writer, I want a clue in words. I understand—the Grand Canyon didn’t name itself. But I’m bothered by it, and begin each looking “session” trying to name and describe before succumbing to awe.
I guess I’m in love with them (“I think I am in love with painting”) and the struggle is part of that.

I look at those paintings and they beat me up—or I fight them, fight even appreciating them, fucking jags of color. There’s a real abyss there, Grand Canyon sized drop—but also the possibility of flight. Reading interviews with Still—kind of opaque. Not much patience with other artists—their lack of integrity. But knew he was one of the great ones, so, here it is, take it or not. Makes me think that great art is always somewhere out beyond caring. The ocean does not mean to be listened to, as the poet said.

Difficult paintings , overwhelming, and cruel sometimes, but not stingy. Singular and great—is anybody doing that, now?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Union Steward (conclusion)

I was in the yard playing with the dog when the phone rang in the kitchen. I ran in to catch it—this was pre answering machine. It was Ernie, sounding a little nervous. First the good news—the Op Manager had been fired. Then-and I’ll never know how this was worked out-- he said that my back pay would include severance pay, but that I really wasn’t being fired, I could just call it a leave of absence and after a year or so I should call him and he’d fix me up with something. “Finish school, travel, have fun. Hell, you’re not even twenty-one yet. Why work full time?” I decided in a second that I’d had it with the airlines. I must have been mad at Ernie but that’s not what I remember most—I remember feeling relief, and a funny kind of pride. I’d been blacklisted. A real revolutionary!

I decided to drop out of school and travel until the money ran out.

My last act as a lame duck was to call people and strongly suggest that my friend the Brit anarchist be elected the next steward. She was, and she raised hell, from what I heard.

The crew threw a nice goodbye party for me and I was presented with something that I kept for years—God, I wish I could find it now. Why didn’t I frame it? Someone in middle management—I think I know who, but she never copped to it—had broken into the personnel files and found my application for employment. Scrawled across the front, in red letters: DO NOT REHIRE! UNION TROUBLEMAKER!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Union Steward (part five)

The airlines seemed intent on firing my co-worker.

Things went back and forth for a week or so. When the Airlines agreed to allow a grievance hearing I thought we had them on their knees. We still didn’t have a contract, but management had agreed to negotiate and things seemed to be moving. Raises were coming soon, we were assured. The crew was happy—morale was high. I remember some great parties during that period.

We met with Ernie and the lawyer at a Marriot in Century City. Went over strategy—that the clocking in rule was a form of intimidation and that employees tried in good faith to show up on time. I was to argue the case but Ernie and the lawyer would be there to watch my back. Were they grooming me, or throwing me to the wolves? I’ll never decide.

The rules regarding the grievance process are pretty ambiguous, at least with regard to transportation workers. Common sense would call for an arbiter, or at least a referee. This was backroom stuff—a couple of union reps, management, the accused, maybe a witness. No rules of order—you scream it out. And management makes the final decision, or at least they did at that point since we had no contract. I blew up when Ernie sketched out the “rules” a few minutes before the meeting, but I calmed down. What could I do? The accused just shook his head, leaned over to me, said, “I’m getting out of this bloody fucking country”.

That ride out from the terminal to the office in the blue and white tram then into a conference room that seemed too big for the occasion. We waited, then someone came in and said that the plans had been changed and that the meeting would be in Mr. Harlen’s office. Down a hall and up one flight of stairs. Big window facing the Pacific. The beach, the ocean, big planes heading off toward Asia. Very nice. We waited awhile—such an obvious strategy but the obviousness makes it more effective. Something like, “this guy is fucking with me because he can.” And the psych worked on me—I remember thinking, “we’re dead”. But Ernie chuckled and smiled that horizontal smile, said, “this is so fucking bush league”.

Harlen came in looking like The President of the United States. I’d never seen an expensive suit close up but I knew he was wearing one. Tall, with graying temples. A Skycap had told me that he was once a ticket agent and that he’d worked his way up the ladder. I’ve learned since that they’re the worst kind. Scab mentality. Think and grow rich, win friends and influence people. We all shook hands. I caught an eye roll from my defendant.

I mapped out my case and made my argument. Ernie backed me up but it seemed that his heart wasn’t in it. Harlen didn’t present any kind of argument. There was lots of sage-like nodding, ahems and uh-hums. At times he’d look out the window and nod, or follow the flight of a 747. I wanted to ask him what he was thinking but I didn’t, I just kept talking. First, I tried to show that a superhuman attempt was made to comply with the rules. I asked the accused a few questions, got the answers I expected, but there was no attempt to cross-examine, or whatever you’d call it in this situation. Then I questioned the rule itself. Harlen leaned forward, slowly, half-smiled, said, “but we make the rules Mr. Hill.” I got a blank look from Ernie. Instinctively I put a hand on my comrade’s shoulder. I figured he’d blow soon. But he didn’t. We’d been hung out to dry. I quickly reached that kind of anger where you feel steely and calm. This must be where people start shooting, I thought. Harlen straight at me, said, “Do you think I’m wrong, Mr. Hill?” and I felt, still feel, the ramifications. Morally wrong, destructive, evil, but correct in his statement. They made the rules. But I looked back at him, said, “yes, you’re wrong” and started a speech. Ernie cut me off with a look that could kill. Harlen said he’d “reach his decision” in a day or two.

The tram was usually a quiet place. I mean, it was noisy on the runway but people didn’t talk much. They were on their way to or from work, that funny transitional time. Lean back, rest your head against the window and enjoy a few minutes of freedom . We probably made that tram pretty uncomfortable for the others—yelling at Ernie Mogg. A double tirade—me calling him a trader and my friend bringing Kropotkin into the fight. Ernie waited it out, rope-a-doping us until we were out of insults. The word that seemed to wake him up was “scab.” I don’t remember who said it. He shook his head. No. He was big to begin with and he seemed to get bigger, and the lawyer, who had been playing the “I don’t know these people” game, joined the fray. They’d both been through hell for the union, really, and they lets us know it. Lost jobs and fistfights and jail time. The phrase I remember is “this is how we survive”. They hated the game too but they knew how to play, and if we’d just shut up and listen…

A few days later Ernie called me at home. “Harlen’s going to tell you that nobody will be fired over the rule, that he’d ease up on it. There will be a two week suspension without pay. When you talk to him, thank him. “ And he hung up. The call came and I did what I was told. My friend went back to England but his sister stayed on. She said she liked the states despite the sorry politics.

Contract negotiations dragged on for months but the intimidation eased off. Ernie would call occasionally and asked what I thought of this or that point. Mostly I agreed with him—happily surprised by some of the accommodations. They hadn’t gotten around to flight benefits but the proposed raise was substantial, also more sick and vacation pay and a more structured grievance procedure. Finally I got the call that a contract could be signed. The union rented a large suite at the Marriot, really swank, and called staggered meetings so that the whole crew could show. I was given a sick day to stay all day. The contract was good, solid. It included back pay dating from the day we signed our cards. The flight discounts were small and hard to obtain. Still everybody, even the “scabs”, voted yes. Money talks.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Union Steward (part four)

I feel bad that his name escapes me. Thirtyish, working class Brit accent—a young Michael Caine would play him in the movie. He had moved to LA with his sister. I don’t remember what brought them over. The first anarchists I’d met—this was a couple of years before my punk period. Together they were a terror. Calling the bosses on their games, disgusted with us for being such wimps. Management put up with them, I think because of their accents. Gave the place some class. And they were white and I may as well say it—you could get away with more if you were. It was all about presenting at the airlines. Still is, but it was clunkier then. You could see the strings. The Corps are smoother now. They know how to use tokenism and when to cover their tracks.

He’d clocked in late after missing the tram. The Op Manager had taken a lot of shit from him, had had it. His paycheck had been stamped Termination. But not mine, this week. I gathered up my quarters and called Denver. Funny how memory works—I still remember the phone booth, graffiti’d and stuffy in the LA heat. Ernie wasn’t in but a woman on the phone gave me the rote instructions. Stay cool, send him home, wait it out. But my anarchist friend didn’t want to stay cool. He wanted to take the tram out to the office and bust some heads. I couldn’t physically restrain him, he was tougher than me. I suggested we go out and get a drink, cool off and make plans. I risked going home early. The shift supervisor was on the clock, pro union so I could get away with playing sick.

We knew an unlicensed limo driver. Nice guy—we’d steer people to his car and get a five buck kickback. He drove us to a Hyatt that had a nice hotel bar. We needed to get out of LAX. My comrade was livid. I was pretty scared. I don’t think “going postal” was a term we knew yet, but I feared that. I decided on a dubious strategy: I’d get him settled into the bar and feed him drinks. Of course alcohol can have any number of effects—I prayed that it would work as a sedative. He raved on and I bought the drinks. It must have cost me a week’s pay, and, get this: a few weeks later Ernie had the BRAC pay me back for those drinks. I’d done the right thing.

I was trying to protect what we’d put together. I knew if we got to the office we’d rip it up, probably get arrested. Me too, because I would have felt obligated to stand with my co-worker. No questions, either. I think, once, it was in people’s blood to feel loyal to co-workers. Well, many people. And I think that’s a lost value now. God, I hate this—sounding like an old fart, complaining that the world has gone to hell in a hand basket, but as I try to wrestle with the decline of organized labor I keep coming up with this, that it’s a character issue and something is missing, at least in the USA.

We were drinking well drinks, whatever they put in the gin and tonics. They started to do the trick. We reached that point where alcohol is a truth serum and we told our life stories. I wish I could remember the details but I think it was all pretty hardscrabble. I do remember him telling me that he liked animals better than people. He had a couple of dogs. He did have a passion for politics that came out of some love, or lost love, of humanity. I’m from a blue collar background myself so I’m loath to romanticize the “working class”. But this guy was the real thing. Perhaps we should have gone in there, torn up an office, knocked some heads…
We moved beyond the confessional phase and into something sloppier. He agreed to try things my way, to let the union pull him out of the fire. They’d done it for me. I trusted them.

I called our limo friend. He took us home for the cost of a tank of gas. Dropped of my co-worker first, in Inglewood, then took me southeast on the freeway to my house in Gardena. I was feeling that elated type of drunkenness, top of the world. I’d headed off a nasty situation and here I was, back seat of a big black Lincoln Continental, a labor leader.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Union Steward (part three)

They threw out their nets—that is, they enforced every rule and wrote new ones. We were ordered to clock in ten minutes early for every shift. Difficult, because the trams didn’t run that often. I’d either clock in a couple of minutes late or come in half an hour early and hang around. Doesn’t seem like much but if you work five days a week you don’t want to waste that much time. People would try taking the later tram and running to clock in. They’d miss by a couple of minutes and find themselves on suspension, or fired. We were still negotiating a contract and it was tough to defend people while we were in that gray area. A couple of our best people just gave up, quit, and of course that played into management strategy.

I was fired, repeatedly, and I’d have to call Ernie Mogg and take the tram out to the office. Next day I’d be back on the job, but the intimidation was eating at me, at all of us. Pay checks were “lost” or “delayed” and managers from the offices staged surprise “inspections”. Pro-management workers were taken out for pricey dinners and given extra vacation days for “work well done”.

I was outside of baggage service on my break, hot late summer LA night, beautiful, people rushing by to catch a midnight flight to Dallas. Just enjoying the urban-ness of it all, even the scent of gas and jet fuel held some romantic mystery. All that movement! A Sky Cap came by and gave me a signal that said Let’s walk and smoke and we went out to the restaurant that looks like a Disney vision of some future that will never come. He lit up a joint and after he passed it he looked me in the eye and said “now you really have to watch your ass because Harlen is coming in from Chicago. He has one job in the system. He breaks unions. Listen, man: That’s ALL he does. He flies around and crushes people like you. We’ll back you up where we can but we’re facing layoffs. We can barely keep our people. Same with the mechanics.” I was young and na├»ve and therefore shocked, but also pissed off and as I write this years later I’m still pissed off, and I can feel the tension that I felt and that my rank and file felt that summer and fall.

If you work for a living you’ve felt that tension.