This is the third in a series of excerpts from Jim Gober’s book titled “Deep in the Heart of Occupy Austin.” A new excerpt will be published at OccupiedStories.com every Wednesday, so come back next week to follow Jim though the evolution of Occupy Austin.
The next day, as I clustered with a group of strangers waiting to cross Lavaca Street on my way toward the plaza, there was a sculpture of an armadillo on the sidewalk, which is Austin’s unofficial official mascot. A little girl asked her daddy, a 40 year old tough-guy with jail-house tattoos and a mullet, what it was. In his most authoritative voice he announced to her, and everyone else waiting to cross the street, that it was an armadillo, and it also has leprosy, a terrible disease that you get from armadillos. And in fact, he boisterously informed us, the last great epidemic of leprosy in the US was in Louisiana where a whole bunch of people got it from eating armadillos. When the walk sign came on and we started moving, he topped off his story with a “go figure” as if all the people in Louisiana are so much more stupid than himself they must all eat armadillo, and of course we were all supposed to go along with it, and I imagined some of us did. But at least he was being a good dad, which is more than I can say for a lot of men. And I’ll bet that’s not the first bullshit story a father ever told to impress a child with his worldly knowledge, however flawed it might be.
Since I wrote most of the day, it was about 4 p.m. as I neared the plaza. It was swarming with people and the scene was chaotic. The first thing I saw was a dreadlocked young man I recognized from one of the first meetings. He came across as a trustafarian; expensive “hippie” clothes, dreadlocked hair- the works. I watched as he charged up to a group of bored policemen slumped against a piece of art, commissioned by the city, that must have cost a quarter million dollars. It was of a uvula carved out of granite. Yes, it was a large piece of grey granite with a hole cut in the middle and a highly polished uvula hanging into the center of the circle. The entire 10-foot tall monstrosity was mounted on thick hand-hewn wooden skids.
As the trustafarian approached the policemen, he demanded they stop all people from smoking, “over there and over there and over there,” because, “the wind is blowing the smoke toward my pregnant girlfriend.” The police let him know that smoking is allowed as long as it’s 15 feet or more from the building. The police didn’t move nor change expression much as they offered this disappointing news to a young man who looked like he was used to having what he wanted. As I started to make a note, the trustafarian came over to me. I said, “Hey Mon!” as a thinly veiled insult to his Rastafarian/rich boy appearance. He pointed his nose at me, and with his pupils no larger than molecules in the center of two blue pinwheels, asked if I was the guy with the beer and with a lot of passion at the meeting in Zilker Park a few days before. I didn’t know where he was going with it, but the vibe was negative because no one of the younger set liked me comparing Facebook and Apple to fascist mega-international corporations who operate sweatshops in China. I wasn’t sure if he wanted to engage me intellectually or let me have it because the police told him to buzz off.
Thank goodness, my cell phone rang. It’s one of those tiny pay-as-you-go jobs and was all tangled up in my pocket. I told Hey Mon I would get back to him in a second, and to please go sit back down and I would catch up with him. I got back to wrestling the phone from my pocket and in the interim missed the call. Since I couldn’t figure out how to get the number back on my cheapo cellie, I went ahead and sat down under a tree next to Hey Mon who introduced himself as Joshua, then introduced me to my new best friend for the night, John. I mentioned the grassy lawn area and landscaping we were sitting on was going to be destroyed in a few days, and Joshua said, “Yeah, we should protect the environment or something.” Then he got up and walked away and I didn’t see him for the rest of the evening. After a while, Joshua’s girlfriend came back and gathered up a few things. She was brilliantly beautiful even while pregnant, and I liked the idea of the occupiers procreating. Somehow, it gave me a tiny ray of hope.
My new best friend, John, was a cool guy-a perfectly shaped 5’ 7.5” middle-aged male full of intelligence and insight mixed with the most mischievous laugh you ever heard. Although childlike, it had a patina of maturity and enrapturing finish. He offered it freely without being disingenuous. This guy had plenty of good light to share, which was amazing since he was going through a divorce, had 2 daughters and had to pay mortgages on two places. He is in the building business and it’s not going so well right now. But as he explained to me, you always look at the world from the inside out and not let the outside get in and mess with you. The inside must remain at peace. This is how you should look at the world; from a peaceful place. I could tell he had been on a long personal journey and was seeing the light after a long time in the rough.
John shared his blanket with me for a minute or two, but I couldn’t get too relaxed, because although I really liked him, I didn’t want to miss out on all the other fun. The plaza was overflowing with exciting and interesting people. And besides, I had to find a bathroom. And I did find one in fast order. It was clean and air conditioned, right beside the city hall plaza. You just can’t beat that. After the bathroom visit, I poked around the plaza. One lady had a huge sign that said, “It is well that the people of the nation do not understand our banking system. For if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning-Henry Ford.” It must have taken her forever to make it because the words were made out of some sort of tissue and thick glue. I was thinking it was a long quote for a sign, and Henry Ford was more loquacious than I thought. The number of people holding signs along the sidewalk was also quite impressive and cars coming from all directions were honking in support.
I found myself listening to a guy who recommended that someone-he didn’t say who-should take all the money out of the banks and buy gold with it. I turned to a man next to me and said, “That doesn’t make sense.” Lucky for me, a hippie girl about 16 and still full of baby fat turned and explained,” During times of hyperinflation, people buy gold and silver as a hedge. But that’s what they did in the eighties and it crashed and everyone lost a bunch of money.” I asked, “You mean like the Hunt brothers?” But she didn’t know who I was talking about, and her eyes crossed a bit before she looked back at the speaker, who I had listened to long enough. I turned my attention to an achingly Asian guy dripping with acne who was explaining the difference between dialoguers and monologuers in a mix of languages so foreign some of them must only be spoken on the sun. About then, a rough-looking woman walked by with dyed jet-black hair that fell into her face to make her almost unrecognizable. Emblazoned on the back of her pink t-shirt with the arms ripped out was the handwritten statement, “This is only the beginning.”
A group of cute young girls hula hooping on the corner were definitely attracting attention. So much attention that two cops had to saunter over to their location to make a phone call. A middle-aged lady next to me pointed out, “See-the cops are going over there because those girls are attracting too much attention on the corner with those hula hoops and might cause a wreck.” When it was obvious the men in blue had no intention of stopping the show, but were in fact getting a front row seat to look down the tube tops of those little cuties, I felt the older woman shrink a bit. But, I didn’t look. It would have been too painful to watch.
Then it was time for a meeting and we had to go over even more hand signals than back at the Thinking Tree. Not only was there twinkle fingers in the air if you like a comment, medium height twinkle fingers if you feel mediocre, and down low twinkle fingers when you don’t like something, there was a shape you make with two hands resembling a vagina, which means you have a point. And there was crossing your arms at the wrists, which means you are blocking a motion, and there was making pointy guns with your forefingers and shooting them in the air used to shoot down an idea. Making a “C” with one hand means you have a concern. Then there was “Mic Check,” which is how occupying camps without a PA system communicate. It works by someone yelling, “Mic Check,” then everyone yells “Mic Check” to get everybody’s attention. Then the speaker tells everyone what to say-or yell-and they repeat it so everybody down the line hears the message. Since we had a PA, we didn’t do too much of the mic check unless something very important needed to be heard way across the plaza. It is a painstakingly slow way to communicate, but keeps the speeches short and sweet. If someone is not acting correctly, everyone is supposed to clap loud three times. And there was a bunch of other signals I didn’t catch, because all of a sudden there was a chaotic scene.
A small group of people decided to erect a tent on a grassy spot at the edge of the plaza. Occupy was told by the police only one tent was allowed, and that was to keep the protest signs dry if it rained. But these guys wanted to set up another tent and were hell bent about it. There was a round of mic checks, a series of three loud claps, pointy guns, down low sparkly fingers and people just flat out yelling at them to take it down, but nothing mattered. They set it up right in front of the facilitators while the hand signal lecture was being given for the millionth time. Those hand signals were meant to control everything, but these damn tent people were screwing everything up and no amount of hand signals had the slightest effect on them. At one point, everyone surrounded the tent and started pulling on the poles. The four interloping instigators, one of them a tow-headed child of 4 or 5, all managed to wiggle inside the tent and hold on for dear life until they exhausted the crowd. You had to hand it to them-they were the real deal. When everything settled down, they propped up the tent, repaired the damage with a roll of duct tape and hung out a sign that said “Tent City.” And that was that.
Then there was a dust up where somebody locked their bike to someone else’s, which resulted in at least a dozen mic checks until the police cut it off with a bolt cutter. After a while, it looked like everything was settling down for the evening. The smell of high-grade marijuana, incense, alcohol and burning ether from meth pipes wafted by in the warm and heavy evening air. A few people carried in stacks of donated pizza and people eagerly lined up to grab a slice without being pushy. There were lots of bottles of water and just about anything else needed to stay comfortable on the hard floor, steps and mezzanine of the city hall plaza, which was now home to hundreds of occupiers. As the night progressed, the mood became edgy, and in the darkness I couldn’t tell who was friend or foe, but it didn’t matter. I chatted endlessly with drifters, occupiers and curiosity seekers about philosophy and economics until I thought my head would explode. Tonight I could feel Occupy breathing as one, and I was finally part of it. About 3 a.m., I was down to just enough energy to make it home and collapsed on the couch with the front door wide open. I was so happy.