"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
They drove over at speed, Andrea wedged into Lester’s frankensmartcar, practically under his armpit, and Perry traveling with Francis. Lester still wore the same cologne as her father, and when she opened the window, its smell was replaced by the burning-tires smell of the fire.
They arrived to discover a firetruck parked on the side of the freeway nearest the shantytown. The firefighters were standing soberly beside it, watching the fire rage across the canal.
They rushed for the footbridge and a firefighter blocked their way.
“Sorry, it’s not safe,” he said. He was Latino, good looking, like a movie star, bronze skin flickering with copper highlights from the fire.
“I live there,” Francis said. “That’s my home.”
The firefighter looked away. “It’s not safe,” he said.
“Why aren’t you fighting the fire?” Andrea said.
Francis’s head snapped around. “You’re not fighting the fire! You’re going to let our houses burn!”
A couple more firefighters trickled over. Across the river, the fire had consumed half of the little settlement. Some of the residents were operating a slow and ponderous bucket brigade from the canal, while others ran into the unburned buildings and emerged clutching armloads of belongings, bits of furniture, boxes of photos.
“Sir,” the movie star said, “the owner of this property has asked us not to intervene. Since there’s no imminent risk to life and no risk of the burn spreading off his property, we can’t trespass to put out the fire. Our hands are tied.”
“The owner?” Francis spat. “This land is in title dispute. The court case has been underway for twenty years now. What owner?”
The movie star shrugged. “That’s all I know, sir.”
Across the canal, the fire was spreading, and the bucket-brigade was falling back. They could feel the heat now, like putting your face in the steam from a boiling kettle.
Francis seethed, looking from the firemen and their truck back to the fire. He looked like he was going to pop something, or start shouting, or charge into the flames.
Andrea grabbed his hand and walked him over to the truck and grabbed the first firefighter she encountered.
“I’m Andrea Fleeks, from the San Jose Mercury News, a Knight Ridder paper. I’d like to speak to the commanding officer on the scene, please.” She hadn’t been with the Merc for months, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to say, I’m Andrea Fleeks with fleeks.org. She was pretty sure that no matter how high her readership was and how profitable her ad sales were, the firefighter wouldn’t have been galvanized into the action that was invoked when she mentioned the name of a real newspaper.
He hopped to, quickly moving to an older man, tapping him on the shoulder, whispering in his ear. Andrea squeezed Francis’s hand as the fire chief approached them. She extended her hand and talked fast. “Andrea Fleeks,” she said, and took out her notebook, the key prop in any set piece involving a reporter. “I’m told that you are going to let those homes burn because someone representing himself as the title-holder to that property has denied you entry. However, I’m also told that the title to that land is in dispute and has been in the courts for decades. Can you resolve this for me, Chief …?”
“Chief Brian Wannamaker,” he said. He was her age, with the leathery skin of a Florida native who spent a lot of time out of doors. “I’m afraid I have no comment for you at this time.”
Andrea kept her face deadpan, and gave Francis’s hand a warning squeeze to keep him quiet. He was trembling now. “I see. You can’t comment, you can’t fight the fire. Is that what you’d like me to write in tomorrow’s paper?”
The chief looked at the fire for a moment. Across the canal, the bucket-brigaders were losing worse than ever. He frowned and Andrea saw that his hands were clenched into fists. “Let me make a call, OK?” Without waiting for an answer, he turned on his heel and stepped behind the fire-engine, reaching for his cellphone.
Andrea strained to hear his conversation, but it was inaudible over the crackle of the fire. When she turned around again, Francis was gone. She caught sight of him again in just a moment, running for the canal, then jumping in and landing badly in the shallow, swampy water. He hobbled across to the opposite bank and began to laboriously climb it.
A second later, Perry followed. Then Lester.
“Chief!” she said, going around the engine and pointing. The chief had the phone clamped to his head still, but when he saw what was going on, he snapped it shut, dropped it in his pocket and started barking orders.
Now the firefighters moved, boiling across the bridge, uncoiling hoses, strapping on tanks and masks. They worked in easy, fluid concert, and it was only seconds before the water and foam hit the flames and the smoke changed to white steam.
The shantytown residents cheered. The fire slowly receded. Perry and Lester had Francis, holding him back from charging into the fray as the firefighters executed their clockwork dance.
The steam was hot enough to scald, and Andrea pulled the collar of her blouse up over her face. Around her were the shantytowners, mothers with small children, old men, and a seemingly endless parade of thug-life teenagers, the boys in miniature cycling shorts and do-rags, the girls in bandeau tops, glitter makeup, and skirts made from overlapping strips of rag, like post-apocalyptic hula outfits. Their faces were tight, angry, smudged with smoke and pinkened by the heat.
She saw the one whose father had reportedly been pushed under a bus by his mother, and he grimaced at her. “What we gonna do now?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Are you all right? Is your family all right?”
“Don’t got nowhere to sleep, nowhere to go,” he said. “Don’t even have a change of clothes. My moms won’t stop crying.”
There were tears in his eyes. He was all of fifteen, she realized. He’d seemed much older on the roof. She gathered him into her arms and gave him a hug. He was stiff and awkward at first and then he kind of melted into her, weeping on her shoulder. She stroked his back and murmured reassuringly. Some of the other shantytowners looked at the spectacle, then looked away. Even a couple of his homeboys — whom she’d have bet would have laughed and pointed at this show of weakness — only looked and then passed on. One had tears streaking the smoke smudges on his face.
For someone who isn’t good at comforting people, I seem to be doing a lot of it, she thought.
Francis and Lester and Perry found her and Francis gave the boy a gruff hug and told him everything would be fine.
The fire was out now, the firefighter hosing down the last embers, going through the crowd and checking for injuries. A TV news crew had set up and a pretty black reporter in her twenties was doing a stand up.
“The illegal squatter community has long been identified as a problem area for gang and drug activity by the Miami-Dade County Sheriff’s office. The destruction here seems total, but it’s impossible to say whether this spells the end of this encampment, or whether the denizens will rebuild and stay on.”
Andrea burned with shame. That could have been her. When she’d first seen this place, it had been like something out of a documentary on Ethiopia. As she’d come to know it, it had grown homier. The residents built piecemeal, one wall at a time, one window, one poured concrete floor, as they could afford it. None of them had mortgages, but they had neat vegetable gardens and walkways spelled out in white stones with garden gnomes standing guard.
The reporter was staring at her — and naturally so; she’d been staring at the reporter. Glaring at her.
“My RV,” Francis said, pointing, distracting her. It was a charred wreck. He went to the melted doors and opened them, stepping back as a puff of smoke rose from the inside. A firefighter spotted it and diverted a stream of water into the interior, soaking Francis and whatever hadn’t burned. He turned and shouted something at the firefighter, but he was already hosing down something else.
Inside Francis’s trailer, they salvaged a drenched photo-album, a few tools, and a lock-box with some of his papers in it. He had backed up his laptop to his watch that morning, so his data was safe. “I kept meaning to scan these in,” he said, paging through the photos in the soaked album. “Should have done it.”
Night was falling, the mosquitoes singing and buzzing. The neat little laneways and homey, patchwork buildings lay in ruins around them.
The shantytowners clustered in little groups or picked through the ruins. Passing cars slowed down to rubberneck, and a few shouted filthy, vengeful things at them. Andrea took pictures of their license plates. She’d publish them when she got home.
A light drizzle fell. Children cried. The swampy sounds of cicadas and frogs and mosquitoes filled the growing dark and then the streetlights flicked on all down the river of highway, painting everything in blue-white sodium glow.
“We’ve got to get tents up,” Francis said. He grabbed a couple of young bucks and gave them orders, things to look for — fresh water, plastic sheeting, anything with which to erect shelters.
Lester started to help them, and Perry stood with his hands on his hips, next to Andrea.
“Jesus Christ,” he said. “This is a fucking disaster. I mean, these people are used to living rough, but this — he broke off, waving his hands helplessly. He wiped his palms off on his butt, then grabbed Francis.
“Get them going,” he said. “Get them to gather up their stuff and walk them down to our place. We’ve got space for everyone for now at least.”
Francis looked like he was going to say something, then he stopped. He climbed precariously up on the hood of Lester’s car and shouted for people to gather ’round. The boys he bossed around took up the call and it wasn’t long before nearly everyone was gathered around them.
“Can everyone hear? This is as loud as I go.”
There were murmurs of assent. Andrea had seen him meet with his people before in the daylight and the good times, seen the respect they afforded to him. He wasn’t the leader, per se, but when he spoke, people listened. It was a characteristic she’d encountered in the auto-trade and in technology, the ones the others all gravitated to. Charismatics.
“We’ve got a place to stay a bit up the road for tonight. It’s about a half hour walk. It’s indoors and there’s toilets, but maybe not much to make beds out of. Take what you can carry for about a mile, you can come back tomorrow for the rest. You don’t have to come, but this isn’t going to be any fun tonight.”
A woman came forward. She was young, but not young enough to be a homegirl. She had long dark hair and she twisted her hands as she spoke in a soft voice to Francis. “What about our stuff, we can’t leave it here tonight. It’s all we’ve got.”
Francis nodded. “We need ten people to stand guard in two shifts of five tonight. Young people. You’ll get flashlights and phones, coffee and whatever else we can give you. Just keep the rubberneckers out.” The rubberneckers were out of earshot. The account they’d get of this would come from the news anchor who’d tell them how dangerous and dirty this place was. They’d never see what Andrea saw, ten men and women forming up to one side of the crowd. Young bucks and homegirls, people her age, their faces solemn.
Francis oversaw the gathering up of belongings. Andrea had never had a sense of how many people lived in the shantytown but now she could count them as they massed up by the roadside and began to walk: a hundred, a little more than a hundred. More if you counted the surprising number of babies.
Lester conferred briefly with Francis and then Francis tapped three of the old-timers and two of the mothers with babes in arms and they crammed into Lester’s car and he took off. Andrea walked by the roadside with the long line of refugees, listening to their murmuring conversation, and in a few minutes, Lester was back to pick up more people, at Francis’s discretion.
Perry was beside her now, his eyes a million miles away.
“What now?” she said.
“We put them in the workshop tonight, tomorrow we help them build houses.”
“At your place? You’re going to let them stay?”
“Why not? We don’t use half of that land. The landlord gets his check every month. Hasn’t been by in five years. He won’t care.”
She took a couple more steps. “Perry, I’m going to write about this,” she said.
“Oh,” he said. They walked further. A small child was crying. “Of course you are. Well, fuck the landlord. I’ll sic Kettlewell on him if he squawks.”
“What do you think Kettlewell will think about all this?”
“This? Look, this is what I’ve been saying all along. We need to make products for these people. They’re a huge untapped market.”
What she wanted to ask was What would Tjan say about this? but they didn’t talk about Tjan these days. Kettlewell had promised them a new business manager for weeks, but none had appeared. Perry had taken over more and more of the managerial roles, and was getting less and less workshop time in. She could tell it frustrated him. In her discussions with Kettlewell, he’d confided that it had turned out to be harder to find suits than it was finding wildly inventive nerds. Lots of people wanted to run businesses, but the number who actually seemed likely to be capable of doing so was only a small fraction.
They could see the junkyard now. Perry pulled out his phone and called his server and touch-toned the codes to turn on all the lights and unlock all the doors.
They lost a couple of kids in the aisles of miraculous junk, and Francis had to send out bigger kids to find them and bring them back, holding the treasures they’d found to their chests. Lester kept going back for more old-timers, more mothers, more stragglers, operating his ferry service until they were all indoors in the workshop.
“This is the place,” Francis said. “We’ll stay indoors here tonight. Toilets are there and there — orderly lines, no shoving.”
“What about food?” asked a man with a small boy sleeping over his shoulder.
“This isn’t the Red Cross, Freddy,” Francis snapped. “We’ll organize food for ourselves in the morning.”
Perry whispered in his ear. Francis shook his head, and Perry whispered some more.
“There will be food in the morning. This is Perry. It’s his place. He’s going to go to Costco for us when they open.”
The crowd cheered and a few of the women hugged him. Some of the men shook his hand. Perry blushed. Andrea smiled. These people were good people, they’d been through more than Andrea could imagine. It felt right that she could help them — like making up for every panhandler she’d ignored and every passed-out drunk she’d stepped over.
There were no blankets, there were no beds. The squatters slept on the concrete floor. Young couples spooned under tables. Children snuggled between their parents, or held onto their mothers. As the squatters dossed down and as Andrea walked past them to get to her car her heart broke a hundred times. She felt like one of those Depression-era photographers walking through an Okie camp, a rending visual at each corner.
Back at her rented condo, she found herself at the foot of her comfortable bed with its thick duvet — she liked keeping the AC turned up enough to snuggle under a blanket — and the four pillows. She was in her jammies, but she couldn’t climb in between those sheets.
And then she was back in her car with all her blankets, sheets, pillows, big towels — even the sofa cushions, which the landlord was not going to be happy about — and speeding back to the workshop.
She let herself in and set about distributing the blankets and pillows and towels, picking out the families, the old people. A woman — apparently able-bodied and young, but skinny — sat up and said, “Hey, where’s one for me?” Andrea recognized the voice. The junkie from the IHOP. Lester’s friend. The one who’d grabbed her and cursed her.
She didn’t want to give the woman a blanket. She only had two left and there were old people lying on the bare floor.
“Where’s one for me?” the woman said, more loudly. Some of the sleepers stirred. Some of them sat up.
Andrea was shaking. Who the hell was she to decide who got a blanket? Did being rude to her at the IHOP disqualify you from getting bedding when your house burned down?
Andrea gave her a blanket, and she snatched one of the sofa cushions besides.
It’s why she’s still alive, Andrea thought. How she’s survived.
She gave away the rest of the blankets and went home to sleep on her naked bed underneath an old coat, a rolled-up sweater for a pillow. After her shower, she dried herself on t-shirts, having given away all her towels to use as bedding.
The new shantytown went up fast — faster than she’d dreamed possible. The boys helped. Lester downloaded all the information he could find on temporary shelters — building out of mud, out of sandbags, out of corrugated cardboard and sheets of plastic — and they tried them all. Some of the houses had two or more rickety-seeming stories, but they all felt solid enough as she toured them, snapping photos of proud homesteaders standing next to their handiwork.
Little things went missing from the workshops — tools, easily pawned books and keepsakes, Perry’s wallet — and they started locking their desk-drawers. There were junkies in amongst the squatters, and desperate people, and immoral people, them too. One day she found that her cute little gold earrings weren’t beside her desk-lamp, where she’d left them the night before, and she practically burst into tears, feeling set-upon on all sides.
She found the earrings later that day, in the bottom of her purse, and that only made things worse. Even though she hadn’t voiced a single accusation, she’d accused every one of the squatters in her mind that day. She found herself unable to meet their eyes for the rest of the week.
“I have to write about this,” she said to Perry. “This is part of the story.” She’d stayed clear of it for a month, but she couldn’t go on writing about the successes of the Home Aware without writing about the workforce that was turning out the devices and add-ons by the thousands, all around her, in impromptu factories with impromptu workers.
“Why?” Perry said. He’d been a dervish, filling orders, training people, fighting fires. By nightfall, he was hollow-eyed and snappish. Lester didn’t join them on the roof anymore. He liked to hang out with Francis and some of the young bucks and pitch horseshoes down in the shantytown, or tinker with the composting toilets he’d been installing at strategic crossroads through the town. “Can’t you just concentrate on the business?”
“Perry, this is the business. Kettlewell hasn’t sent a replacement for Tjan and you’ve filled in and you’ve turned this place into something like a worker-owned co-op. That’s important news — the point of this exercise is to try all the different businesses that are possible and see what works. If you’ve found something that works, I should write about it. Especially since it’s not just solving Kodacell’s problem: it’s solving the problem for all of those people, too.”
Perry drank his beer in sullen silence. “I don’t want Kettlewell to get more involved in this. It’s going good. Scrutiny could kill it.”
“You’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about here,” she said. “There’s nothing here that isn’t as it should be.”
Perry looked at her for a long moment. He was at the end of his fuse, trying to do too much, and she regretted having brought it up. “You do what you have to do,” he said.
The original shantytown was astonishing. Built around a nexus of trailers and RVs that didn’t look in the least roadworthy, the settlers had added dwelling on dwelling to their little patch of land. They started with plastic sheeting and poles, and when they could afford it, they replaced the sheets, one at a time, with bricks or poured concrete and re-bar. They thatched their roofs with palm leaves, shingles, linoleum, corrugated tin — even plywood with flattened beer cans. Some walls were wood. Some had windows. Some were made from old car doors, with hand-cranked handles to lower them in the day, then roll them up again at night when the mosquitoes came out. Most of the settlers slept on nets.
A second wave had moved into the settlement, just as I arrived, and rather than building out — and farther away from their neighbors’ latrines, water-pump and mysterious sources of electrical power — they build up, on top of the existing structures, shoring up the walls where necessary. It wasn’t hurricane-proof, but neither are the cracker-box condos that “property owners” occupy. They made contractual arrangements with the dwellers of the first stories, paid them rent. A couple with second-story rooms opposite one another in one of the narrow “streets” consummated their relationship by building a sky-bridge between their rooms, paying joint rent to two landlords.
The thing these motley houses had in common, all of them, was ingenuity and pride of work. They had neat vegetable gardens, flower-boxes, and fresh paint. They had kids’ bikes leaned up against their walls, and the smell of good cooking in the air. They were homely homes.
Many of the people who lived in these houses worked regular service jobs, walking three miles to the nearest city bus stop every morning, and three miles back every evening. They sent their kids to school, faking local addresses with PO boxes. Some were retired. Some were just down on their luck.
They helped each other. When something precious was stolen, the community pitched in to find the thieves. When one of them started a little business selling sodas or sandwiches out of her shanty, the others patronized her. When someone needed medical care, they chipped in for a taxi to the free clinic, or someone with a working car drove them. They were like the neighbors of the long-lamented American town, an ideal of civic virtue that is so remote in our ancestry as to have become mythical. There were eyes on the street here, proud residents who knew what everyone was about and saw to it that bad behavior was curbed before it could get started.
Somehow, it burned down. The fire department won’t investigate, because this was an illegal homestead, so they don’t much care about how the fire started. It took most of the homes, and most of their meager possessions. The water got the rest. The fire department wouldn’t fight the fire at first, because someone at city hall said that the land’s owner wouldn’t let them on the property. As it turns out, the owner of that sad strip of land between an orange grove and the side of a four-lane highway is unknown — a decades-old dispute over title has left it in legal limbo that let the squatters settle there. It’s suspicious all right — various entities had tried to evict the squatters before, but the legal hassles left them in happy limbo. What the law couldn’t accomplish, the fire did.
The story has a happy ending. The boys have moved the squatters into their factory, and now they have “live-work” condos that look like something Dr. Seuss designed [photo gallery]. Like the Central Park shantytown of the last century, these look like they were “constructed by crazy poets and distributed by a whirlwind that had been drinking,” as a press account of the day had it.
Last year, the city completed a new housing project near to here, and social workers descended on the shantytowners to get them to pick up and move to these low-rent high-rises. They shantytowners wouldn’t go: “It was too expensive,” said Mrs. X, who doesn’t want her family back in Oklahoma to know she’s squatting with her husband and their young daughter. “We can’t afford any rent, not if we want to put food on the table on what we earn.”
She made the right decision: the housing project is an urban renewal nightmare, filled with crime and junkies, the kind of place where little old ladies triple-chain their doors and order in groceries that they pay for with direct debit, unwilling to keep any cash around.
The squatter village was a shantytown, but it was no slum. It was a neighborhood that could be improved. And the boys are doing that: having relocated the village to their grounds, they’re inventing and remixing new techniques for building cheap and homey shelter fast. [profile: ten shanties and the technology inside them]
The response was enormous and passionate. Dozens of readers wrote to tell her that she’d been taken in by these crooks who had stolen the land they squatted. She’d expected that — she’d felt that way herself, when she’d first walked past the shantytown.
But what surprised her more were the message-board posts and e-mails from homeless people who’d been living in their cars, on the streets, in squatted houses or in shanties. To read these, you’d think that half her readership was sleeping rough and getting online at libraries, Starbuckses, and stumbled wireless networks that they accessed with antique laptops on street-corners.
“Kettlewell’s coming down to see this,” Perry said.
Her stomach lurched. She’d gotten the boys in trouble. “Is he mad?”
“I couldn’t tell — I got voice-mail at three a.m.” Midnight in San Jose, the hour at which Kettlewell got his mad impulses. “He’ll be here this afternoon.”
“That jet makes it too easy for him to get around,” she said, and stretched out her back. Sitting at her desk all morning answering e-mails and cleaning up some draft posts before blogging them had her in knots. It was practically lunch-time.
“Perry,” she began, then trailed off.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I know why you did it. Christ, we wouldn’t be where we are if you hadn’t written about us. I’m in no position to tell you to stop now.” He swallowed. The month since the shantytowners had moved in had put five years on him. His tan was fading, the wrinkles around his eyes deeper, gray salting his stubbly beard and short hair. “But you’ll help me with Kettlewell, right?”
“I’ll come along and write down what he says,” she said. “That usually helps.”
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is the author of "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town" and other novels, including "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom." His latest short story collection is "Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present." He is the co-editor of Boing Boing (boingboing.net).More Cory Doctorow.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)