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 naïve 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.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Union Steward (part two)

We were contacted by the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks.

For some reason we were allowed to have a meeting at LAX. I think the union worked this out, possibly as a way of showing their influence. We sat at a conference table in the office building. There was a coffee urn and pitchers of water. That stagnant air and those funny acoustics. Everybody looked nervous. Our union rep had just flown in from Denver, Ernie Mogg. He was too big for his suit and had a horizontal smile—kind of Buddha-like. Next to him sat the union lawyer. Can’t remember his name but he was quite the stereotype. Unlit cigar, barrel chest, red-faced. I’m not making this up. They went through some set speeches and promised a few things—raises of course, and some sort of flight benefit. They were vague on that. I arrived at the meeting a little pissed off because the manager had been riding me, had threatened to “have my job”. I proposed that we not sign off on anything unless the BRAC promise to have the Operations Manager fired. To my surprise they readily agreed. I felt powerful—revenge is sweet.
Ernie and the lawyer collected our cards and just like that were in the Brotherhood (although there were more women than men in our rank and file). Ernie told us to elect a steward and three vice stewards, one from each shift. Everybody looked at everybody else then everybody looked at me. Ernie said, “just do it now since we have a quorum. You don’t need speeches. You all know each other.” One of the guys with a Muslim name nominated me. He said, “they’ll listen to Owen because he’s white and he doesn’t have a record. If I go in there we’re fucked.” A backhanded compliment if there ever was one but it was true.

And so I was elected. My deputies were plenty tough. A British anarchist for the day shift, a tough-as-nails dyke (haven’t seen her in years but I think she’d be pleased with that description). Her brother also worked the shift, and somehow they kicked the day people into line—by intimidation, mostly. Swing shift rep was a theology student at Loyola Marymount , my introduction to lefty Christianity. He was soft spoken but he was happy to fuck up management. I often wonder what happened to him. Graveyard shift belonged to my Muslim friend, who I can only remember as Gary because I met him before went for the skinny ties, shiny shoes, short hair and wrap-arounds.

The airlines stalled even though the law was on our side. A few weeks went by before the union called to say that negotiations had begun and that a meeting had been planned.

The day before the meeting we were fired. Me, the vice-stewards, one brother and a couple of fellow travelers.

The Op Manager approached me as I entered the locker room. Handed me a check. TERMINATED/LAST PAYMENT stamped across the front. I almost punched him—and as I write this I wonder how that would have changed my life. Another drop of adrenalin and I would have killed him without remorse. I had never felt the weight of that kind of power structure before—at least not in a personal way. And lashing out is, I think, a sane reaction. But I guess we don’t want to kill people…
He had me turn in my blazer and go home. I handed it over and boarded the employee tram back to the terminal, unemployed. I stopped in baggage service to inform my comrades. Borrowed a bunch of change, went to a phone booth and called the BRAC. Stay cool, go home, wait it out. Last thing I wanted to do but I went back in, took the tram out to the lot and drove home.

Getting fired sets up a strange psychology. Even if it’s management’s fault, a form of intimidation, whatever, you’re left with that kicked in the chest feeling. I shared an old house on the Torrance/Gardena border. We had a dog, a black lab mix and I remember walking the dog and feeling really low, then saying it’s not my fault then it is/it isn’t/it is. So strange, that we identify with our oppressors and give them all that power. But it happens, it’s a human trait.

The union acted, fast. I got an early morning phone call from Ernie Mogg, everything was fixed, we could report to work that evening. I guess they had some muscle, back then.

I got to work a little early and one of the mechanics met me as I entered the locker room. They had threatened to walk out, and so had the Sky Caps. The place was swarming with union reps. Coming from a union family I knew about strikes but I’d never encountered this—it certainly wouldn’t have happened at the Taco Bell in Redondo Beach. I clocked in and went out to baggage service and one of the Sky Caps—the union steward—shook my hand.
“ You may get your tires slashed and you shouldn’t take the tram alone. And record everything—write everything down!” and I have to admit that I was a little smug, didn’t believe him. And I was young and felt strong—could take care of myself.
But, just like he said, next morning, 3am I’m in the Employee lot changing a tire. At least they’d only slashed one. And I was scared and didn’t fell so young and strong.

From then on it was a war.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Union Steward (part one)


I was nineteen when I was elected union steward. Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks. I had been hired out of high school to work in baggage service, checking claim stubs, tearing the tickets off bags, filling out lost luggage forms, taking guff from bagless passengers. After that first wave of hijackings—mid- seventies—the FAA had x-rays and metal detectors put in. The airlines needed cheap labor to run the operation. They hired fly-by-night security companies to handle things, then bought the companies and gutted them. For the cost of a few cheap blazers, some minimum wage workers and a couple of managers they could check bags well enough to satisfy the FAA. The old baggage service crew was laid off, but we were told that we could apply for jobs with the new company. Lower wage, cheaper suit, more work, no benefits. The latter cut was the hardest. We lost our flight discounts.

I wasn’t real employable, and needed something that fit with my school schedule—so I re-applied, picked up my cheap red blazer, and became a PSR (passenger service representative is what they called us). This meant spending half my shift in front of an x-ray machine, looking for weapons. I had never seen a real weapon, and the training session was an hour long joke. A bunch of us shared a joint before hand, hiding behind that stupid looking restaurant in the LAX parking lot. We were the first wave in the anti-terrorist army.

I reported for work at 6pm and worked ‘till 3am. An interesting time to be in an airport. It was tough work early in the shift. Lots of flights, lines of cranky tired people. After midnight there were two flights, outgoing to Dallas and incoming from JFK. A quiet airport is a strange and desolate place. I liked it, then, romanticizing everything like you do at that age.

A crew of about fifty covered all the shifts at Terminal 4. A ragtag group. I remember being shocked, and I have to say a little excited that there were so many ex-cons. Wasn’t there a screening process? I got along well with them. They were earnest, and, understandably, afraid of getting fired. Most of them were taking classes, nursing, business, the trades. They were surprisingly respectful of my literary pretensions—they loved poetry, or at least the idea of poetry. Odd that it was a place where I felt perfectly comfortable being a poet, unlike the office and retail jobs that followed. There was another faction on the staff—people who wanted to go up the ladder, become flight attendants and ticket agents, then move into management. They didn’t have a chance. It was like jumping from semi-pro softball to the major leagues. Management didn’t take us seriously—they saw us as a drain on profits, part of a boondoggle, a product of government regulation. Who needs the FAA? And they knew we were various brands of loser—Junior College students, ex cons, older folks who couldn’t afford retirement, artsy types. All the same to them.

If you do something every day you find a way to take pride. With no help from management, we got to know the x-ray machines. A dark bar at the bottom of the screen could possibly be a knife, especially if it showed lighter at one end. A co-worker with an interest in guns tutored me on the various types, shapes and sizes. We developed a system of signals, mostly to identify troublesome passengers. This wasn’t discussed, but over time I guess people decided that it was just better to do a decent job. I’ve seen it a lot in my working life—an esprit de corps that develops at the low end of the pay scale. Helps make things tolerable. Management tries to promote that, of course, with their pizza days and casual Fridays but when it’s fake it’s fake and everybody knows it. I didn’t, still don’t, like the idea of working in law enforcement but this seemed different. Who wants guns on an airplane? We moved the passengers through quickly and we confiscated some weapons, and at the end of the shift when we stopped at the Jolly Roger Coffee Shop we felt OK about the work.

If you work for a living you experience these clampdowns. A new middle-manager, a drop in profits, or just somebody bored at the top—the reasons are often a mystery to the working stiff. It’s like a stretch of bad weather, it passes but when it does things are a little worse than before. This guy had one of those typically ambiguous titles—call him Operations Manager. I imagine now that he had a military background—just back from Vietnam? The time would be about right. It wasn’t my first experience with the breed. In high school I worked frying tortillas at the local Taco Bell. My manager was a typical dumb-ass spit and polish type. One morning, after giving the prep crew some shit about shining fixtures, he had a war flashback fueled breakdown. Should have burned that draft card.
Our new Operations Manager was a little more polished on the surface but also kind of brittle. He fired a couple of people in his first month, picking off people who weren’t quite making the grade. Flexing his muscles. Then he hired a few people who seemed like old friends. Not really a strategy, just something that you expect out of a new boss. We complained amongst ourselves, and at first it didn’t go anywhere. Then things got closer to home. Good people were fired. People we counted on to show up and get the job done, friends. The airlines lost money and the company was fined a few hundred thousand for making illegal campaign donations—bad economy, bad publicity, nervous execs. Layoffs without notice or severance, increased work load, if you work you’ve been through it.

I’d like to say that my entry into union organizing came from some deep concern for the worker, or that I had worked out some sort of Marxist based philosophy, but, really I did It for love. The woman I was living with was in a car accident. Not too serious, but scary. I called in sick from the hospital, but I was too late. We were supposed to call in at least twenty-four hours in advance. Somebody in the personnel office transferred me to the operations manager, who gave me a good, military style dressing-down. I started to try and explain, then decided, what the fuck, and told him to go to hell. It felt pretty good so I elaborated a little and finished with a healthy fuck you. Didn’t wait to hear “you’re fired”, but I assumed it would be like that.

Next evening I showed up at work, thinking it would be my last day. Somehow word had gotten out—a hero’s welcome! Then a call from the office, and a ride on the employee tram out to the headquarters. I loved that ride, even if it meant going to some boring or painful meeting. The tram wound through the runways, under the wings of the big jets and the smell and the noise represented movement, world travel, escape. I felt afraid but also a little proud. An exciting job, and now I was getting fired. A true rebel.

But they didn’t fire me. I think I know why now—I was a workhorse, took on extra jobs, volunteered for overtime. Mostly to cut the boredom, but also because I was green. I thought it mattered, I guess. I think their idea was to break me, make me into a valuable asset. And I was a good candidate—the supervisor sensed this. So I got off with a lecture and some sort of demerit—don’t remember what system they used. Probably meant that I’d have to stay on the 3am shift, which didn’t bother me.
The guy who came in with the union cards was a student at The People’s Law School in LA. It really exists! He said I inspired him, but he was probably flattering me to get me on board. It worked—and it was easy to get my shift mates to sign up. The 3am shift was like the group W bench. A tough bunch. Cynical, too. They didn’t expect much to come of it but they appreciated the effort. Me either, at first, but I was pissed off beyond caring. They “elected” me to represent the shift at our early meetings.

The meetings were drinking and/or smoking sessions early AM, between graveyard and the morning shift. Lots of complaining, then, what do we do now? Followed by arguments and, sometimes, agreeing to disagree. The day crew was toughest. They were itching to move up in the world. But eventually, mostly, they came around. The Op Manager had made too many enemies, and maybe they sensed that there really wasn’t much for them to lose.

We didn’t have to hold elections. We just needed to get a majority of the employees to sign union cards. Old law—a nineteenth century victory by the porters’ union. They died for our sins—union elections are nasty affairs. Getting people to sign the cards was pretty easy. A little argument, a little bribery (free drinks), perhaps a little intimidation. Conditions were terrible and the boss was mean, so everybody was disgruntled. Still, there’s this anti-union sentiment that I believe is uniquely American. “I’m not a joiner.” Everybody’s John Wayne. I guess that’s our heritage—a blessing and a curse.

American Airlines was-is-known as anti-union in the extreme.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"There'll be times...

... when the only refuge is books. Then you'll read as if you meant it, as if your life depended on it."

Ken Bruen (The Killing of the Tinkers: A Novel)

Monday, January 24, 2011

F.A. Nettelbeck (1950-2011)

Hermosa was a surfer town, still is, but now the surfers work well-paying day jobs. They have to—property values shot through the roof in the 80’s and they haven’t come down much. In ’76 I was sharing a house on Eighth Street—one of those cheap rent stories that old bohemians brag about. I was paying about a hundred a month for a nice room in a falling-apart beach house. Fireplace, enough of a yard for Emily, my lab mix, eight blocks from the beach and about three blocks from the bookstore.

I began my education in the Either/Or bookstore on Pier Avenue. I was attending classes at El Camino College and sneaking into others at Long Beach State (poets taught there), but I fed my head at Either/Or. Marx, Paul Goodman and I.F. Stone for my agitator side. McClure’s Meat Science led me out of the mainstream—thank you, Michael. I’d come in from the bright LA light and hit the politics sections, check out the fiction section for Bukowski or Bowles, look at poetry—Wanda Coleman was a favorite then. But I gave these shorter shrift--I was headed back behind the register, to a dimlit (nice contrast to all that beachy sunshine) small press section. An alcove, really. Mimeo, local stuff, handmade limited editions. Issues of Invisible City edited by Paul Vangelisti and John McBride, a long poem, The Burning of Los Angeles, by Jack Hirschman, mimeo edition with illustrations. Bertrand Mathieu’s translation of Season In Hell, intro by Anais Nin, illustrations by Jim Dine—I hear that translation in my head when I think of Rimbaud, “I sat beauty on my knee and I roughed her up…” SoCal poets some nearly forgotten—Locklin, Koertke, Steve Richmond, Stephen Jama. But also some that went on to “bigger” publication—Amy Gerstler, Dennis Cooper, Tom Clark, Elaine Equi…

I don’t remember the book, or the poem but at some point I stumbled onto F.A. Nettelbeck. Some permeation of Bug Death, in some mimeo, probably. I read it before I’d read Burroughs, possibly didn’t know about cut-ups—I met Harold Norse a year or so later, I think. That’s ok. I didn’t need historical context to appreciate the poems. Either way they would have taken the top of my head off, as the poet said. His filtering process was scary perfect. The thing that most sours me on “experimental” poetry is that, with most, there are so many more misses that hits. Too much wasted time, too many wasted words. Too much ego—why did they leave that in? I think, as I try to read. Nettelbeck never wasted time. Staccato little lines, hard hitting, a film-noir kind of feeling but not at all retro or clichéd: tribes rehearse the /ritual for the/videotaping/(the raper.) forcing/pink legs apart-after/this instinct settles/slowly like mud into/a dried out skull. Leafing through his work now I’m amazed at its rigor. Rigorous isn’t a word you’d usually associate with his “type” of poetry—the “road to excess” school. But, really, it takes a kind of stubbornness to stay on the road—it’s a long way to the palace. The street signs fly by. Who can read them, let alone choose those that matter and set them down in discernable (sublime!) order? One hell of a job—a life’s work.

Something like eighty per cent of Americans see themselves as middle class, which is a lie of course, there’s the oppressor class and then there’s the rest. I think, among the “middle class”, there’s a sneaky realization of that lie, like an itch you can’t scratch—or maybe a cancer. Some become more aware of the lie—and for some of us, at a certain age—late teens? Early twenties? There’s this search for authenticity—often embarrassing—white boys trying to sing the blues. Most give it up—possibly not a bad thing—society needs ballast, and it’s tough to keep up mortgage payments when traveling the road to excess. But I’m fascinated by those that stay true, or try. I’ve had long stretches on the road, but I’ve also stayed too long at the rest stops. Nettelbeck’s work had that blues singer/jazz musician/pirate quality, fascinating yet embarrassing to the middle class. Should we leave it be and stay bland? Appreciate from a distance? Jump right in and risk a life on the outside? Authenticity is a tough nut.

warm alcohol glow known
as god we are almost
home they say
repeat, give me something
warm—your arms clinging

I was working at Logos Books and Records in Santa Cruz when Americruiser came out, early eighties. After work I’d go to the Teacup Bar, in an old Chinese restaurant on Pacific Avenue. The earthquake of ’89 flattened the place. Nettelbeck drank there, but we didn’t talk that much. We had a mutual friend, Bill Simmons, a visual artist and if Bill was there I’d join in on group discussions. Mostly, I think, Nettelbeck went there for quiet drinks—me too—so we sat at opposite ends of the bar. It’s strange but kind of great to be immersed in the work of an artist, to see him or her in passing, watch from a distance. Possibly more to learn that way than from asking direct questions. He had a nice way with the bartenders—the Teacup hired young women, mostly of the punk persuasion. Those were Big Book years for me—athletic reading. Russian novels, Melville, lots of Gertrude Stein. And Joyce. A good way to go for awhile, until it becomes like too much rich food. Nettelbeck seemed to chew that stuff up and spit it back out at you. Not that those others haven’t stayed with me, and often nourished me—but, in a way, Nettelbeck has had a bigger effect. Or, more visceral at least—I saw what he was seeing. Living in Santa Cruz sans car meant taking Greyhound a lot, to San Francisco or Oakland to get a little taste of the urban. Nettelbeck sucked the poetry out the greyhound rides, the stations, and all that “real” stuff. And, reading back the previous sentence I realize how clichéd it can seem—“the only ones for me are the mad ones”. That searching for the real in the dark corners is, perhaps, an inauthentic practice for those who will probably return to the “middle class”. And, yet, the alternative is to ignore what’s going on—all that awful unruly stuff, all that depth. What’s a middle class boy to do? I don’t think Nettelbeck wrestled much with that one—he seems pretty aware that he’s part of the oppressed class, probably never thought of himself as middle anything. At least, that’s what his poetry says—more like, look at this sucker! Isn’t that an interesting bug?

'I have talked to mentally crippled idiots, holding good jobs.'

I imagine he never had a “good job.” The road to excess probably doesn’t allow for that. Another tough nut of an idea. Occurs to me that I’ll probably never enter the palace of wisdom—I worry too much about my retirement.

I think beginning in the eighties his poetry just didn’t get considered. I think people who did know about him saw him as a kind of Burroughs knock-off. I know they were pals, but I don’t see too much overlap, stylistically. But, mostly, I don’t think people of the eighties avant ilk read or thought about his work. I find this really fascinating—that he wasn’t picked up by the avant or post-avant. There was a fork in the road, somewhere, and the cutting edge became less edgy, more refined maybe but the visceral was given a wide birth. There was a lower gross out factor. And the pros and cons of having a good job didn’t get discussed. The cutting edge didn’t threaten the man in the gray flannel suit. Real life issues were left out of focus—like trickle down or the foreign wars. Nettelbeck’s poetry points to the elephant in the room. Hell, he scared me! To stretch the zoo animal metaphor, he was like those monkeys that throw their own shit at the patrons. Take that! The message being: I’m in a cage, fucker. Let me out! (or, Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!). This is dangerous stuff—enough to make most get off the road to excess at the next off ramp. One good way to avoid the issue—marginalize the whole thing by declaring it out of fashion—or doing a Gertrude Stein—“that doesn’t interest us”.