Let me start this off by totally clarifying my position by simply stating, “Fuck Nazis.” Okay, now that that’s out of the way let’s do this.
Until recently it has been extremely unclear as to where or what I’m supposed to be doing, supporting, or fighting within this “evolving” political landscape we all find ourselves in. Not “unclear” as in should I just reverse everything I believe in and start supporting the rightwing agenda. But still unclear as to where I fit in today. Technically I’m registered as a Green. But on all the BIG elections I end up voting Democrat because there is ALWAYS that last minute (and well calculated) fear-mongering that whatever rightwing candidate is running will win if I don’t fall in line and support the status quo: the Green candidate could never get enough votes, you’re splitting the ticket, blah, blah, blah…. And guess what? I voted Democrat, it didn’t fucking work, and we got a racist/fascist in the White House.
Now normally this is where everyone talks of taking the government back with grassroots getting the vote out and democratic change through the normal tried and true political process… Only the megalomaniac that won the election is systematically dismantling everything (but mostly everything his predecessor accomplished because, well, because Obama’s black) and the bigots are strutting around the henhouse large and in charge. Meanwhile what are the Greens and Democrats doing? Nothing. They’re wringing their hands and crying foul while doing shit all. But what’s really telling is that after the election Nancy Pelosi was asked what the Democrats were going to change in order to come back from such a huge defeat of losing the senate, congress, and the presidency and she said, “I don’t think people want a new direction.” Shit, hearing that just knocked what little hope I still had right out of me. Unfortunately the Greens suck just as bad, Jill Stein is still pointing fingers of blame and completely ignoring what is really happening. And if you’re waiting for the Republicans to suddenly come to their senses and find those “Christian values” they are always yammering on about then you’ll be waiting a very long time. The Grand Old Party is so goddamn stoked to be doing their masters’ bidding they’d let Satan himself run the country and call it God’s work.
Sadly after the election I stopped reading newspapers, which was something I have done everyday for my entire adult life. I just couldn’t stand to see what atrocities were being implemented against the American people on a daily basis. And then there’s the president’s pompous face, his bullying demeanor, calculated inflammatory statements, and condescending attitude, and I just couldn’t start every morning looking at that. If I did my day was ruined. I wallowed in depression, and EVERYTHING felt futile. So my reasoning was that if I just ignore it all I’d be okay.
But when you have an avowed racist in charge and the media sucks up to his untethered fascist swaggering and the opposition cowers… well, it emboldens all the other racists that usually hide behind hoods and websites. Plus it further empowers the already empowered racists, the ones with money and political influence, or the ones in government, or that have infiltrated our police forces and local communities. Not that they weren’t always there. But with the president’s endorsement they now feel comfortable enough to come out publically. And when those images of tiki torch bearing angry white guys burst onto the media it was a total symbol that this had gone from obscure fringe to fully becoming a dangerous element that should not be ignored. As ludicrous as those images were—grown men in matching polo shirts and khaki pants fervently screaming about how their heritage and civil rights were being attacked—they brought home the message that the Nazis are here and worse, they’re feeling bold enough to show their faces.
So how did this happen? A moment I can’t get out of my mind was a conversation I was having with a friend of mine at a local literary event. We were talking about the elections and how racist America really was and I said, “I didn’t realize it is was this bad.” And the look of disdain on my friend’s face was like a punch in the gut because what I was really saying was: as a white person America’s racism isn’t affecting me personally—which is literally the definition of white privilege. Looking into her eyes I saw myself and it wasn’t pretty. How had I gotten so complacent, so avoidant, so uninvolved, so fucking milk-toast-middle-of-the-road-can’t-see-it-from-my-house indifferent? Because that’s “how it happened.” You stay silent when you should speak up and act against. No, let me rephrase that; “I stayed silent when I should have spoken up and acted against.” I left that event questioning what I could do to make a difference, to instigate change, and not sit back and avoid it all until it was too late.
Which brings me right back to where I fit in politically. Up until recently I haven’t been secure enough with my legal status to be politically active. I realize that this might sound like an excuse to many of you, but I’ve been in the firm grip of the criminal justice system before and I do not trust them enough to have my best interest if a demonstration did go terribly wrong and something violent or illegal happened and I was accused and/or involved. So I haven’t been there for Black Lives Matter, or immigration marches, or pro-LGTBQ rallies, or Occupy Wall Street, or anti-Trump demonstrations, or any public displays of civil disobedience. Yet what was self-preservation before had turned into complacency. But I wasn’t always like that.
In the early days of punk rock I worked for a lot of bands that for the most part were radically left wing and politically charged. Our shows were flashpoints for confrontation with the authorities, but also Nazis and skinheads, and I was in physical confrontations with them on a nightly basis. We didn’t tolerate their shit. We fought back. We shut them down.
Years later I was incarcerated in the California Department of Corrections and once again experienced racism and white supremacy on an entirely new and intenser level. The criminal justice system is teeming with white power gangs, prisons are segregated, mixing of the races forbidden, and the pressure to join in is intimidating. Out of the need for support and solidarity I sought out like-minded-non-racist cons, joined a writing group, attended recovery meetings and sat in meditation sessions, all of which were not segregated. In the words of one of my colleagues, “you leave that shit out in the yard.” By not participating in the CDC’s race baiting discriminatory policies I opposed the system and stayed sane, although it took some time to get my head right afterwards.
So really for me this Nazi shit is nothing new. It is just unnerving that right now this very vocal and visible minority feels so empowered. But yeah, if a left-wing anarchist was running the country I’d feel empowered too. Only she’s not and we’re fucked, and I’m stuck looking at images from South Carolina of neo-Nazi storm troopers with shields and clubs, and that shit sends a chill up my spine, and I’m in fear for those I love and hold dear. My community is vast and diverse; a multitude of races, genders, sexual orientations, identities, religions, and beliefs. My wife is of Lebanese descent, which translates to A-R-A-B, and for a lot of those racists, Arab is the hated flavor of the moment, and now this Nazi agenda of hate is coming at me in a multitude of levels, personally and globally, affecting those near to me that I love and surround myself with—and I’ve had enough.
During the election I posted a video on social media where this new Amerikkkan Nazi spokesperson was speaking to the camera and got sucker punched in the head and I immediately received several condescending comments and numerous private message—interesting that most closet racists want to talk to you in private—that basically said this is America and you can’t punch people for their beliefs. Ironically I was horrified by this misconception of what it is we’re actually dealing with here. Yes we have the 1st Amendment. But what part of history has shown us that Nazis just close up shop when logically reasoned with, or given a warm group hug? This is not the time for amicable communication because they are not listening. I have friends who are pacifists. I respect them; they’re beliefs, and their peaceful protest. And while it is good to get out there and represent, I’m convinced that with this new era of white nationalism we’ve got to be more proactive.
So if that’s the case, then what is the solution? For me, right now, it’s using my white privilege for the right reasons, making a stand, speaking up, and sending the message that no matter what name you label this racist faction it’s the same old diatribe of hate and it will not be tolerated. If you preach that fascist shit, you act out in violence, and you inflict your will and beliefs on others I will not stand by silently. I am not afraid of you, and you do not represent me or my values and ideologies. I am not under the illusion that we can all live together when your agenda preaches exclusion, fear, prejudice, and genocide. So do not be under the illusion that because of the color of my skin I’ll hesitate, for even a second, to confront you with whatever means necessary. There are too many people I love, respect, and believe in that you are threatening and when you threaten them, you threaten me. As for those that say, “okay, but what about the big picture, what do we do about the Republicans in charge?” Well, this Nazi shit IS THE BIG PICTURE. We take them out. Then deal with the aftermath. But being silent, letting or hoping that someone else will deal with it, and waiting for it all to just go away, is not the answer.
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I don’t mean there’s a crackhead outside that I can see through the window. I mean there’s a crackhead pressed against my office window. He’s up on the ledge, a few feet above the bushes, his face pressed flat against the windowpane, one eye staring down at me, the other wandering. I hear him talking, watch his lips as they move, his breath fogging the glass. I can barely catch what it is he’s saying – the noise of the passing traffic on the street below is loud. But when it subsides I can hear him describing, in detail, a litany of problems, talking about all the people who are out to get him: the police, the FBI, the terrorists and something about an unholy, immoral, Jesus-hating Jahad.
From the pained expression on his face, it’s like I’m looking at a cornered animal, only he’s the one outside, nothing but the sky at his back. I’m the one caught in a room with only one way out.
His wandering eye stops moving. For a millisecond we make eye contact. Then he begins mumbling again.
My phone rings. I answer. It’s the front desk.
“Mister O’Neil?” asks the receptionist, “is there somebody outside your window?”
There’s a crackhead at my window. I can hear his fingers beating an unhurried melodic rhythm against the glass, the rumble of this morning’s traffic accompanying him like a throat singer’s slow vibrato. I can hear the receptionist breathing in my ear, the phone receiver cold and impersonal against my face. There’s some sort of static, there’s an annoying hiss, there’s people talking in the lobby. I want to hang up. I want to ignore everything that’s going on.
“Hello?” she says, “you still there?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m still here.”
“A neighbor from across the street, actually the bartender who works at the bar on the corner, called to report someone lurking on the side of the building. Just to be on the safe side, I had someone from maintenance go outside to check. He said that there’s a man on the ledge outside your office. Is that true?”
There’s a crackhead at my window. He’s busy drawing stick figures in the mist his breath leaves when he blows on the glass. The tip of his finger turns white as he moves it against the window in a circle forming the stick man’s head. I’m wondering if he’s drawing his life story, or maybe it’s a sketch of those people who are out to get him. Either way, before he can finish, the figures disappear, leaving small greasy circular marks.
He looks down at me. I look up and wave, point to the phone, mimicking that I’m busy talking. I get the feeling that he understands, because he goes back to breathing on the window while drumming his fingers. Tap, tap, tap, and then this little double da-da, like he’s dashing out Morse code.
“There’s a crackhead at my window,” I say and listen as the receptionist holds her breath.
“Yeah, I do believe he’s a crackhead. He’s certainly not a speed freak, definitely not a dope fiend, too spaced to be just a pot smoker, and way too coordinated to be a drunk. So yeah, he’s a crackhead alright.”
“What should I do?” she asks.
I hear a phone ringing in the background. Apparently she’s too preoccupied wondering what to do about the crackhead to answer the incoming calls.
“What do you mean, do?” I ask.
“Do you want me to call the police, the firemen, the paramedics…?”
There’s a crackhead at my window. His shadow hovers across my desk blocking out the sun. With one finger he points at me, then he points at his head. There’s so much pain in his eyes, it’s unnerving. He shakes his head and repeats the same cycle, pointing first at me, then his head, me, his head – over and over again.
I put the phone receiver down, stand up, and walk closer to the window.
“What? I’m in your head?” I ask.
He nods yes, blows on the glass, writes “hepl” on the mist his breath has left. I pick up a pad of paper and write the word help and show it to him. He breathes on the window, writes help backwards, and smiles.
I sit down at my desk, the pad of paper still in my hand. I’m thinking maybe I should be feeling all warm and fuzzy after having shared such a tender moment with a stranger, but I don’t.
Looking through the smudged glass I see the crackhead’s scabby face, dried spittle forming lumps at the corners of his mouth, the whites of his eyes, bloodshot and yellow. Behind him the San Francisco skyline: the new federal building, the Holiday Inn, the high-rises of downtown.
There’s a crackhead at my window. He’s standing there and I don’t know what to do. After all what are my options? Give him money so he’ll go away, probably to buy more crack? Call the cops and let them deal with him? Keep smiling, waving, ignoring him until he loses interest, leaves on his own accord? None of these are feasible options, none of them the right thing to do.
The clock reads eleven forty-five. Fifteen minutes until lunch. Fifteen minutes of us staring at one another. I get up, face the window, shrug my shoulders and wave goodbye. The crackhead looks puzzled, like he’d never expected this to happen. I can’t sit here with him standing over me any longer. My office feels strange and I’m beginning to feel self-conscious. My window is now a mass of fingerprints and smudges.
Stepping out into the hall, I run into one of my co-workers.
“How’s it going?” she asks.
“There’s a crackhead at my window” I tell her, then turn and walk into the lobby.
Originally published in Blood Orange Review Volume 2.3, June 2007
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Recently I found myself backstage at a show. I’m not really into shows anymore, especially not large ones. I used to work in the music industry and I have attended more than my fair share of loud rock and roll concerts. But last week when my friend invited me and I tried to make an excuse not to attend, she countered with, “come on, it’ll be fun.” And even though I knew that it wasn’t going to be fun, I somehow let her talk me into it. It’s not just that I don’t really go see live music anymore, it’s also that I’m not the social type. I don’t really enjoy standing around making small talk in a room full of people. And yes, my friend is here, and so are her friends, and friends of friends, but it still feels awkward. And now here I am stuck in the corner a of a crowded dressing-room, surrounded by people drinking a ton of alcohol, as some wannabe Hollywood scriptwriter that I have just been introduced to, yammers away about herself. Feeling trapped and disingenuous I try to nod my head in response at the appropriate moments, yet all the while wishing I were anywhere else but here.
These types of situations are why alcohol was invented. And years ago if I was stuck at such an event I would have headed straight to the booze and after a few quick shots, none of this would have mattered. Only I no longer have that card to play. I used up my “getting loaded” allotment a long time ago. Besides alcohol just wasn’t doing it for me, I needed something much stronger. I needed to feel the warm rush of heroin, and only then was I comfortable enough to deal with life and all the people in it. Yet, the same old story prevailed, my addiction took over and what had once helped me cope was now ruling me. I went from being a musician/artist to junkie/criminal, and then my addict career abruptly ended when I was arrested and incarcerated.
I make some lame excuse to free myself from being corralled by the wannabe scriptwriter and slowly back away. But when I turn around I’m face to face with a table full of junk food. Band riders always call for snacks, and this one is no exception. There are bowls of chips, cold cuts, pizza and the customary cookies and candy. And herein lies my other addictive behavior—eating. Years before I ever discovered drugs or alcohol I learned to abuse food as a way to suppress my feelings. My parents were more involved in their lives than they were in mine and I was left alone a lot. This led to many hours spent in front of the TV while shoving copious amounts of food into my mouth in an early attempt to lessen the pain of abandonment. Yet something about overeating triggered a self-loathing that was years ahead of my then adolescent self, and I soon found myself purging the junk food I was eating. This led to a learned behavior that I didn’t even realize others suffered from. It was something that I thought I had invented. Only my binge eating and purging faded away when I found that drugs and alcohol worked a lot better. Yet now here I was an adult in his fifties with fourteen years clean off drugs and suddenly I’m dealing with bulimia all over again.
It was quite a shock when my “dormant” eating disorder returned. I had switched careers and moved to a different city with the idea of reinventing myself. Although I had no connections and little in the way of support, I had high hopes and many expectations that I would be able to piece it all together. Luckily things did come together, but not without a lot of stress. Plus I was attempting to achieve greater goals in my life than I had ever tried before. And with this all came an anxiety that I was ill prepared for. I experienced panic attacks for the first time in my life, and then, seeking that old familiar solace, I started abusing food. Segue to four years later and I was purging on a daily basis, only with years of recovery from drugs and alcohol under my belt I figured I should be more evolved than that, which led to even more guilt and shame, and instead of seeking help I pretended it just wasn’t there. But my teeth and gums were suffering, I was not losing weight, I was gaining, I was getting more and more depressed and I constantly felt that I was living a lie.
Eventually I was so stressed out that I told my Narcotics Anonymous sponsor. He has worked with me for years and even though this wasn’t about drugs, it was about my addictive behaviors. Surprisingly, well at least to me it was, my sponsor totally understood, in fact he himself has issues around overeating. Yet when he pointed out that the first step of NA states: “We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction; that our lives had become unmanageable.” I realized just how powerless and unmanageable my life had once again become. But this also gave me hope. I have fourteen years clean off drugs and alcohol and I have kept clean by attending meetings, working the 12 steps, and maintaining a rigorous involvement in the program. My situation had originally seemed so hopeless, yet here I was years later still off drugs. I could do this with my eating disorder.
A week ago I went to an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. It had been years since I’d attended one, and unlike that first time when I was new to the idea of recovery, and not quite able to grasp the concept that it could also help me with my bulimia, this time I felt totally at home. Instead of just being a silent observer I introduced myself and shared my struggle. I was given a newcomer packet and phone numbers. And I walked out of there with a renewed sense of hope. I have yet to implement an OA plan of recovery, but I am taking it one day at a time, and feel like I am finally in the solution.
I survey the food table and spot a platter of crudités, arranged around a bowl of gloppy blue cheese dip. I fill a small plate with broccoli florets, celery stalks, and baby carrots and slowly start eating them. Having something healthy to munch on takes my mind off the junk food, which lessens the cravings, and I am able to not indulge in any of the other snacks that I know will trigger another episode of purging. A quick glance across the room and I see that the wannabe scriptwriter has captured another victim, and the crowd by the liquor has grown considerably. The show is now over and the backstage area has become incredibly even more crowded. I casually make my way towards the exit and walk outside. The cool air hits me and I toss the empty paper plate into the trashcan. I have another day of not eating badly or purging, and I know I can do this.