"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)
Kodacell is supposed to be a new way of doing business. Decentralized, net-savvy, really twenty-first century. The suck-up tech press and tech-addled bloggers have been trumpeting its triumph over all other modes of commerce.
But what does decentralization really mean? On her “blog” this week, former journalist Andrea Fleeks reports that the inmates running the flagship Kodacell asylum in suburban Florida have invited an entire village of homeless squatters to take up residence at their factory premises.
Describing their illegal homesteading as “live-work” condos that Dr Seuss might have designed, Kodacell shill Fleeks goes on to describe how this captive, live-in audience has been converted to a workforce for Kodacell’s most profitable unit (“most profitable” is a relative term: to date, this unit has turned a profit of about 1.5 million, per the last quarterly report; by contrast the old Kodak’s most profitable unit made twenty times that in its last quarter of operation).
America has a grand tradition of this kind of plantation living: the coal barons’ company towns of the 19th century are the original model for this kind of industrial practice in the U.S.A. Substandard housing and only one employer in town — that’s the kind of brave new world that Fleeks’s boyfriend Kettlewell has created.
A reader writes: “I live near the shantytown that was relocated to the Kodacell factory in Florida. It was a dangerous slum full of drug dealers. None of the parents in my neighborhood let their kids ride their bikes along the road that passed it by — it was a haven for all kinds of down-and-out trash.”
There you have it, the future of the American workforce: down-and-out junkie squatters working for starvation wages.
“Kettlewell, you can’t let jerks like Freddy run this company. He’s just looking to sell banner-space. This is how the Brit rags write — it’s all meanspirited sniping.” Andrea had never seen Kettlewell so frustrated. His surfer good looks were fading fast — he was getting a little paunch on him and his cheeks were sagging off his bones into the beginnings of jowls. His car had pulled up to the end of the driveway and he’d gotten out and walked through the shantytown with the air of a man in a dream. The truckers who pulled in and out all week picking up orders had occasionally had a curious word at the strange little settlement, but for Andrea it had all but disappeared into her normal experience. Kettlewell made it strange and even a little outrageous, just by his stiff, outraged walk through its streets.
“You think I’m letting Freddy drive this decision?” He had spittle flecks on the corners of his mouth. “Christ, Andrea, you’re supposed to be the adult around here.”
Perry looked up from the floor in front of him, which he had been staring at intently. Andrea caught his involuntary glare at Kettlewell, before he dropped his eyes again. Lester put a big meaty paw on Perry’s shoulder. Kettlewell was oblivious.
“Those people can’t stay, all right? The shareholders are baying for blood. The fucking liability — Christ, what if one of those places burns down? What if one of them knifes another one? We’re on the hook for everything they do. We could end up being on the hook for a fucking cholera epidemic.”
Irrationally, Andrea burned with anger at Rat-Toothed Freddy. He had written every venal, bilious word with the hope that it would result in a scene just like this one. And not because he had any substantive objection to what was going on: simply because he had a need to deride that which others hailed. He wasn’t afflicting the mighty, though: he was taking on the very meekest, people who had nothing, including a means of speaking up for themselves.
Perry looked up. “You’ve asked me to come up with something new and incredible every three to six months. Well, this is new and incredible. We’ve built a living lab on our doorstep for exploring an enormous market opportunity to provide low-cost, sustainable technology for use by a substantial segment of the population who have no fixed address. There are millions of American squatters and billions of squatters worldwide. They have money to spend and no one else is trying to get it from them.”
Kettlewell thrust his chin forward. “How many millions? How much money do they have to spend? How do you know that any of this will make us a single cent? Where’s the market research? Was there any? Or did you just invite a hundred hobos to pitch their tent out front of my factory on the strength of your half-assed guesses?”
Lester held up a hand. “We don’t have any market research, Kettlewell, because we don’t have a business-manager on the team anymore. Perry’s been taking that over as well as his regular work, and he’s been working himself sick for you. We’re flying by the seat of our pants here because you haven’t sent us a pilot.”
“You need an MBA to tell you not to turn your workplace into a slum?” Kettlewell said. He was boiling. Andrea very carefully pulled out her pad and wrote this down. It was all she had, but sometimes it was enough.
Kettlewell noticed. “Get out,” he said. “I want to talk with these two alone.”
“No,” Andrea said. “That’s not our deal. I get to document everything. That’s the deal.”
Kettlewell glared at her, and then he deflated. He sagged and took two steps to the chair behind Perry’s desk and collapsed into it.
“Put the notebook away, Andrea, please?”
She lowered the book and tucked her pen into a back pocket.
“Guys, the major shareholders are going to start dumping their stock this week. A couple of pension funds, a merchant bank. It’s about 10, 15 percent of the company. When that happens, our ticker price is going to fall by 60 percent or more.”
“They’re going to short us because they don’t like what we’ve done here?” Perry said. “Christ, that’s ridiculous!”
Kettlewell sighed and put his face in his hands, scrubbed at his eyes. “No, Perry, no. They’re doing it because they can’t figure out how to value us. Our business units have an industry-high return on investment, but there’s not enough of them. We’ve only signed a thousand teams and we wanted ten thousand, so 90 percent of the money we had to spend is sitting in the bank at garbage interest rates. We need to soak up that money with big projects — the Hoover Dam, Hong Kong Disneyland, the Big Dig. All we’ve got are little projects.”
“So it’s not our fault then, is it?” Lester said. Perry was staring out the window.
“No, it’s not your fault, but this doesn’t help. This is a disaster waiting to turn into a catastrophe.”
“Calm down, Lionel,” Perry said. “Calm down for a sec and listen to me, OK?”
Kettlewell looked at him and sighed. “Go ahead.”
“There are more than a billion squatters worldwide. San Francisco has been giving out tents and shopping carts ever since they ran out of shelter beds in the nineties. From Copenhagen to Capetown, there are more and more people who are going off the grid, often in the middle of cities.”
Andrea nodded. “They farm Detroit, in the ruins of old buildings. Raise crops and sell them. Chickens, too. Even pigs.”
“There’s something there. These people have money, like I said. They buy and sell in the stream of commerce. They often have to buy at a premium because the services and goods available to them are limited — think of how a homeless person can’t take advantage of bulk-packaged perishables because she doesn’t have a fridge. They are the spirit of ingenuity, too — they mod their cars, caves, anything they can find to be living quarters. They turn RVs into permanent homes. They know more about tents, sleeping bags and cardboard than any U.N. SHELTER specialist. These people need housing, goods, appliances, you name it. It’s what Tjan used to call a green-field market: no one else knows it’s there. You want something you can spend ungodly amounts of money on? This is it. Get every team in the company to come up with products for these people. Soak up every cent they spend. Better us providing them with quality goods at reasonable prices than letting them get ripped off by the profiteers who have a captive market. This plant is a living lab: this is the kind of market intelligence you can’t buy, right here. We should set up more of these. Invite squatters all over the country to move onto our grounds, test out our products, help us design, build and market them. We can recruit traveling salespeople to go door to door in the shanties and take orders. Shit, man, you talk about the Grameen Bank all the time — why not go into business providing these people with easy microcredit without preying on them the way the banks do? Then we could loan them money to buy things that we sell them that they use to better their lives and earn more money so they can pay us back and buy more things and borrow more money –”
Kettlewell held up a hand. “I like the theory. It’s a nice story. But I have to sell this to my Board, and they want more than stories: where can I get the research to back this up?”
“We’re it,” Perry said. “This place, right here. There’s no numbers to prove what I’m saying is right because everyone who knows it’s right is too busy chasing after it and no one else believes it. But right here, if we’re allowed to do this — right here we can prove it. We’ve got the capital in our account, we’re profitable, and we can roll those profits back into more R&D for the future of the company.”
Andrea was writing so fast she was getting a hand cramp. Perry had never given speeches like this, even a month before. Tjan leaving had hurt them all, but the growth it had precipitated in Perry was stunning.
Kettlewell argued more, but Perry was a steamroller and Andrea was writing down what everyone said and that kept it all civil, like a silent camera rolling in the corner of the room. No one looked at her, but she was the thing they were conspicuously not looking at.
Francis took the news calmly. “Sound business strategy. Basically, it’s what I’ve been telling you to do all along, so I’m bound to like it.”
It took a couple weeks to hive off the Home Aware stuff to some of the other Kodacell business-units. Perry flew a bunch, spending days in Minnesota, Oregon, Ohio, and Michigan overseeing the retooling efforts that would let him focus on his new project.
By the time he got back, Lester had retooled their own workspace, converting it to four functional areas: communications, shelter, food and entertainment. “They were Francis’s idea,” he said. Francis’s gimpy leg was bothering him more and more, but he’d overseen the work from a rolling ergonomic office-chair. “It’s his version of the hierarchy of needs — stuff he knows for sure we can sell.”
It was the first time the boys had launched something new without knowing what it was, where they’d started with a niche and decided to fill it instead of starting with an idea and looking for a niche for it.
“You’re going to underestimate the research time,” Francis said, during one of their flip-chart brainstorms, where they had been covering sheet after sheet with ideas for products they could build. “Everyone underestimates research time. Deciding what to make is always harder than making it.” He’d been drinking less since he’d gotten involved in the retooling effort, waking earlier, bossing around his young-blood posse to get him paper, bricks, Tinkertoys.
He was right. Andrea steadily recorded the weeks ticking by as the four competing labs focus-grouped, designed, tested and scrapped all manner of “tchotchkes for tramps,” as Rat-Toothed Freddy had dubbed it in a spiraling series of ever-more-bilious columns. But the press was mostly positive: camera crews liked to come by and shoot the compound. One time, the pretty black reporter from the night of the fire came by and said very nice things during her standup. Her name was Maria and she was happy to talk shop with Andrea, endlessly fascinated by a “real” journalist who’d gone permanently slumming on the Internet.
“The problem is that all this stuff is too specialized, it has too many prerequisites,” Perry said, staring at a waterproof, cement-impregnated bag that could be filled with a hose, allowed to dry, and used as a self-contained room. “This thing is great for refugees, but it’s too one-size-fits all for squatters. They have to be able to heavily customize everything they use to fit into really specialized niches.”
More squatters had arrived to take up residence with them — families, friends, a couple of dodgy drifters — and a third story was going onto the buildings in the camp. They were even more Dr Seussian than the first round, idiosyncratic structures that had to be built light to avoid crushing the floors below them, hanging out over the narrow streets, corkscrewing like vines seeking sun.
He kept staring, and would have been staring still had he not heard the sirens. Three blue-and-white Miami-Dade County Sheriff’s cars were racing down the access road into their dead mall, sirens howling, lights blazing.
They screeched to a halt at the shantytown’s edge and their doors flew open. Four cops moved quickly into the shantytown, while two more worked the radios, sheltering by the cars.
“Jesus Christ,” Perry said. He ran for the door, but Andrea grabbed him.
“Don’t run toward armed cops,” she said. “Don’t do anything that looks threatening. Slow down, Perry.”
He took a couple deep breaths. Then he looked around his lab for a while, frantically muttering, “Where the fuck did I put it?”
“Use Home Aware,” she said. He shook his head, grimaced, went to a keyboard and typed MEGAPHONE. One of the lab-drawers started to throb with a white glow.
He pulled out the megaphone and went to his window.
“ATTENTION POLICE,” he said. “THIS IS THE LEASEHOLDER FOR THIS PROPERTY. WHY ARE YOU RUNNING AROUND WITH YOUR GUNS DRAWN? WHAT IS GOING ON?”
The police at the cars looked toward the workshop, then back to the shantytown, then back to the workshop.
“SERIOUSLY. THIS IS NOT COOL. WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”
One of the cops grabbed the mic for his own loudhailer. “THIS IS THE MIAMI-DADE COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT. WE HAVE RECEIVED INTELLIGENCE THAT AN ARMED FUGITIVE IS ON THESE PREMISES. WE HAVE COME TO RETRIEVE HIM.”
“WELL, THAT’S WEIRD. NONE OF THE CHILDREN, CIVILIANS AND HARDWORKING PEOPLE HERE ARE FUGITIVES AS FAR AS I KNOW. CERTAINLY THERE’S NO ONE ARMED AROUND HERE. WHY DON’T YOU GET BACK IN YOUR CARS AND I’LL COME OUT AND WE’LL RESOLVE THIS LIKE CIVILIZED PEOPLE, OK?”
The cop shook his head and reached for his mic again, and then there were two gunshots, a scream, and a third.
Perry ran for the door and Andrea chased after him, trying to stop him. The cops at the cars were talking intently into their radios, though it was impossible to know if they were talking to their comrades in the shantytown or to their headquarters. Perry burst out of the factory door and there was another shot and he spun around, staggered back a step, and fell down like a sack of grain. There was blood around his head. Andrea stuck her hand in her mouth to stifle a scream and stood helplessly in the doorway of the workshop, just a few paces from Perry.
Lester came up behind her and firmly moved her aside. He lumbered deliberately and slowly and fearlessly to Perry’s side, knelt beside him, touched him gently. His face was grey. Perry thrashed softly and Andrea let out a sound like a cry, then remembered herself and took out her camera and began to shoot and shoot and shoot: the cops, Lester with Perry like a tragic Pieta, the shantytowners running back and forth screaming. Snap of the cops getting out of their cars, guns in hands, snap of them fanning out around the shantytown, snap of them coming closer and closer, snap of a cop pointing his gun at Lester, ordering him away from Perry, snap of a cop approaching her.
“It’s live,” she said, not looking up from the viewfinder. “Going out live to my blog. Daily readership half a million. They’re watching you now, every move. Do you understand?”
The officer said, “Put the camera down, ma’am.”
She held the camera. “I can’t quote the First Amendment from memory, not exactly, but I know it well enough that I’m not moving this camera. It’s live, you understand — every move is going out live, right now.”
The officer stepped back, turned his head, muttered in his mic.
“There’s an ambulance coming,” he said. “Your friend was shot with a nonlethal rubber bullet.”
“He’s bleeding from the head,” Lester said. “From the eye.”
Ambulance sirens in the distance. Lester stroked Perry’s hair. Andrea took a step back and panned it over Perry’s ruined face, bloody and swollen. The rubber bullet must have taken him either right in the eye or just over it.
“Perry Mason Richardson was unarmed and posed no threat to Sheriff’s Deputy Badge Number 5724 –” she zoomed in on it — “when he was shot with a rubber bullet in the eye. He is unconscious and bloody on the ground in front of the workshop where he has worked quietly and unassumingly to invent and manufacture new technologies.”
The cop knew when to cut his losses. He turned aside and walked back into the shantytown, leaving Andrea to turn her camera on Perry, on the EMTs who evacced him to the ambulance, on the three injured shantytowners who were on the ambulance with him, on the corpse they wheeled out on his own gurney, one of the newcomers to the shantytown, a man she didn’t recognize.
They operated on Perry all that night, gingerly tweezing fragments of bone from his shattered left orbit out of his eye and face. Some had floated to the back of the socket and posed a special risk of brain damage, the doctor explained into her camera.
Lester was a rock, sitting silently in the waiting room, talking calmly and firmly with the cops and over the phone to Kettlebelly and the specially empaneled board-room full of Kodacell lawyers who wanted to micromanage this. Rat-Toothed Freddy filed a column in which he called her a “grandstanding bint,” and accused Kodacell of harboring dangerous fugitives. He’d dug up the fact that one of the newcomers to the shantytown — not the one they’d killed, that was a bystander — was wanted for holding up a liquor-store with a corkscrew the year before.
Lester unscrewed his earphone and scrubbed at his eyes. Impulsively, she leaned over and gave him a hug. He stiffened up at first but then relaxed and enfolded her in his huge, warm arms. She could barely make her arms meet around his broad, soft back — it was like hugging a giant loaf of bread. She squeezed tighter and he did too. He was a good hugger.
“You holding in there, kiddo?” she said.
“Yeah,” he murmured into her neck. “No.” He squeezed tighter. “As well as I need to, anyway.”
The doctor pried them apart to tell them that the EEG and fMRI were both negative for any brain-damage, and that they’d managed to salvage the eye, probably. Kodacell was springing for all the care he needed, cash money, no dorking around with the fucking HMO, so the doctors had put him through every machine on the premises in a series of farcically expensive tests.
“I hope they sue the cops for the costs,” the doctor said. She was Pakistani or Bangladeshi, with a faint accent, and very pretty even with the dark circles under her eyes. “I read your columns,” she said, shaking Andrea’s hand. “I admire the work you do,” she said, shaking Lester’s hand. “I was born in Delhi. We were squatters who were given a deed to our home and then evicted because we couldn’t pay the taxes. We had to build again, in the rains, outside of the city, and then again when we were evicted again.”
She had two brothers who were working for startups like Kodacell’s, but run by other firms: one was backed by McDonald’s, the other by the AFL-CIO’s investment arm. Andrea did a little interview with her about her brothers’ projects — a bike-helmet that had been algorithmically evolved for minimum weight and maximum protection; a smart skylight that deformed itself to follow light based on simple phototropic controllers. The brother working on bike-helmets was riding a tiger and could barely keep up with orders; he was consuming about half of the operational capacity of the McDonald’s network and climbing fast.
Lester joined in, digging on the details. He’d been following the skylights in blogs and on a list or two and he’d heard of the doctor’s brother, which really tweaked her, she was visibly proud of her family.
“But your work is most important. Things for the homeless. We get them in here sometimes, hurt, off the ambulances. We usually turn them away again. The ones who sell off the highway medians and at the traffic lights.” Andrea had seen them, selling homemade cookies, oranges, flowers, newspapers, plasticky toys, sad or beautiful handicrafts. She had a carved coconut covered in intricate scrimshaw that she’d bought from a little girl who was all skin and bones except for her malnourished pot-belly.
“They get hit by cars?”
“Yes,” the doctor said. “Deliberately, too. Or beaten up.”
Perry was moved out of the operating theater to a recovery room and then to a private room and by then they were ready to collapse, though there was so much e-mail in response to her posts that she ended up pounding on her PowerBook’s keyboard all the way home as Lester drove them, squeezing the bridge of his nose to stay awake. She didn’t even take her clothes off before collapsing into bed.
“They need the tools to make any other tools,” is what Perry said when he returned from the hospital, the side of his head still swaddled in bandages that draped over his injured eye. They’d shaved his head at his insistence, saying that he wasn’t going to try to keep his hair clean with all the bandages. It made him look younger, and his fine skull-bones stood out through his thin scalp when he finally came home. Before he’d looked like a outdoorsman engineer: now he looked like a radical, a pirate.
“They need the tools that will let them build anything else, for free, and use it or sell it.” He gestured at the rapid prototyping machines they had, the 3D printer and scanner setups. “I mean something like that, but I want it to be capable of printing out the parts necessary to assemble another one. Machines that can reproduce themselves.”
Francis shifted in his seat. “What are they supposed to do with those?”
“Everything,” Perry said, his eye glinting. “Make your kitchen fixtures. Make your shoes and hat. Make your kids’ toys — if it’s in the stores, it should be a downloadable too. Make toolchests and tools. Make it and build it and sell it. Make other printers and sell them. Make machines that make the goop we feed into the printers. Teach a man to fish, Francis, teach a man to fucking fish. No top-down ‘solutions’ driven by ‘market research’” — his finger-quotes oozed sarcasm — “the thing that we need to do is make these people the authors of their own destiny.”
They put up the sign that night: AUTHOR OF YOUR OWN DESTINY, hung over the workshop door. Andrea trailed after Perry transcribing the rants that spilled out of his mouth as he explained it to Lester and Francis, and then to Kettlewell when he called, and then to the pretty young black lady from the TV who by now had figured out that there was a real story in her back yard, then to an NPR man on the phone, and then to a CNN crew who drove in from Miami and filmed the shantytown and the workshop like Japanese tourists at Disney World, never having ventured into the manky, failed strip-mall suburbs just outside of town.
Francis had a protege who had a real dab touch with the 3-D printers. The manufacturer, Lester’s former employer, had been out of business for two years by then, so all the service on the machines had to be done on the premises. Francis’s protege — the one who claimed his mother had pushed his father under a bus, his name was Jason — watched Lester work on recalcitrant machines silently for a couple days, then started to hand him the tool he needed next without having to be asked. Then he diagnosed a problem that had stumped Lester all morning. Then he suggested an improvement to the feedstock pump that increased the mean time between failures by a couple hours.
“No, man, no, not like that,” Jason said to one of the small gang of boys he was bossing. “Gently, or you’ll snap it off.” The boy snapped it off and Jason pulled another replacement part out of a tub and said, “See, like this,” and snapped it on. The small gang of boys regarded him with something like awe.
“How come no girls?” Andrea said as she interviewed him while he took a smoke-break. Perry had banned cigarettes from all indoor workshops, nominally to keep flames away from the various industrial chemicals and such, but really just to encourage the shantytowners to give up the habit that they couldn’t afford anyway. He’d also leaned on the shantytowners who’d opened up small shops in their houses to keep cigs out of the town, without a lot of success.
“Girls aren’t interested in this stuff, lady.”
“You think?” There was a time when she would have objected, but it was better to let these guys say it out loud, hear themselves say it.
“No. Maybe where you come from, OK? Don’t know. But here girls are different. They do good in school but when they have babies they’re done. I mean, hey, it’s not like I don’t want girls in the team, they’d be great. I love girls. They fuckin’ work, you know. No bullshit, no screwing around. But I know every girl in this place and none of ‘em are even interested, OK?”
Andrea cocked one eyebrow just a little and Jason shifted uncomfortably. He scratched his bare midriff and shuffled. “I do, all of them. Why would they? One girl, a roomful of boys, it’d be gross. They’d act like jerks. There’s no way we’d get anything done.”
Andrea lifted her eyebrow one hair higher. He squirmed harder.
“So all right, that’s not their fault. But I got enough work, all right? Too much to do without spending time on that. It’s not like any girls have asked to join up. I’m not keeping them out.”
Andrea jotted a couple of notes, keeping perfectly mum.
“Well, I’d like to have them in the workshop, OK? Maybe I should ask some of them if they’d come. Shit, if I can teach these apes, I can teach a girl. They’re smart. Girls would made this place a little better to work in. Lots of them trying to support their families, so they need the money, too.”
There was a girl there by the afternoon. The next day, there were two more. They seemed like quick studies, despite their youth and their lip-gloss. Andrea approved.
Lester stayed long enough to see the first prototype printer-printers running, then he lit out with a duffel bag jammed into the back of his modded Smart car. “Where are you going?” Andrea said, as Perry looked on gloomily. “I’ll come and visit you. I want to follow your story.” Truth be told, she was sorry to see him go, very sorry. He was such a rock, such an anchor for Perry’s new crazy pirate energy and for the madness around them. He hadn’t given much notice (not to her — Perry didn’t seem that surprised).
“I can’t really talk about it,” he said. “Nondisclosure.”
“So it’s a new job,” she said. “You’re going to work for Tjan?” Tjan’s Westinghouse operation was fully rocking. He had fifty teams up the eastern seaboard, ten in the Midwest and was rumored to have twice as many in eastern Europe.
He grinned. “Oh, Andrea, don’t try to journo me.” He reached out an hugged her in a cloud of her father’s perfume. “You’re fantastic, you know that? No, I’m not going to a job. It’s a thing that’s an amazing opportunity, you know?”
She didn’t, but then he was gone and boy did she miss him.
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)