"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)
“You do not represent me! I am the 1 percent!” shouts a gray-haired man in a suit pulling a wheeled suitcase down Broadway past Zuccotti Park. “If it wasn’t for the 1 percent, the 99 percent would all starve!”
The crowd ignores him, save one lackadaisical retort: “We are starving.”
Well, perhaps figuratively; the Occupy Wall Street protesters, now in their fourth week of encampment in the park, are quite well-fed, in an ecosystem that so far belies the classic Onion article “Marxists’ Apartment a Microcosm of Why Marxism Doesn’t Work.” But like most people, I had received the bulk of my information about the protest from the media, which tend to focus on the sexier or more risible sound bites of rebellion: video of violent police skirmishes during marches; photos of dreadlocked drummers; quotes from burned-out hippies or the occasional liberal-arts grad. But what’s a day like in Zuccotti Park? How does the operation sustain itself? And who, exactly, constitutes this 99 percent? On Friday, I spent a day inside the occupation to find out.
In the morning, the 33,000-square-foot concrete-paved park, wedged between towering buildings, could be an establishing shot from “The Grapes of Wrath 2: The Joads Take Manhattan,” with gutter punks cast as the migrant laborers. On Friday, organizers estimated 400 people sleep out each night in the cramped space, in clusters of sleeping bags and on mangled mattresses. As the day progresses, more people filter in. It is believed that at least 1,000 regulars are at the site daily; the number swells each morning with supporters, curious passersby and throngs of media members bumping into each other as gawkers on tourist buses snap pictures. To paraphrase Don DeLillo’s “White Noise,” it is currently the Most Photographed, Live-Streamed and Tweeted Park in America.
Among the campers is a 26-year-old Wiccan man who goes by the name Natalie Kobra Puke. A long shock of hair springs from his shaved head, metal cuts through the bridge of his nose, his makeup wouldn’t look out of place on Halloween, and a cat’s-eye lens rests unsettlingly in his left eye. The back of his leather jacket reads “Kill Me Now.” (“It’s not a joke,” he tells me.)
Natalie, who has been sleeping in the park for two weeks, is Fox News’ dream protester, someone whose appearance seems to delegitimize all liberal politics since FDR. But he’s intelligent and lucid, and in a rapid monotone he tells me about running away from his Seattle home at 13 to become a musician, writer and filmmaker.
“Primarily, I’m here against police brutality,” says Natalie. “Corporate greed is a serious issue, too. We’re just trying to make this world a better place by setting a good example. It’s not that anarchy can work, it’s that it really does work. This is a microcosm of what could happen on a larger level. Of course, there’s a lot more variables that could come in, but it could all be dealt with. We’ve had people coming in drunk, selling drugs, fighting, but we’ve dealt with it very successfully ourselves without having the cops come in.”
If Natalie represents one extreme of the protesting spectrum, 87-year-old Dave Silver, a native Brooklynite and World War II veteran whose hat proudly proclaims his participation in the Battle of the Bulge, stands at the other. Silver taught social studies in Brooklyn and Harlem high schools for decades after the war, and his business card now bills himself as a “political analyst/writer with a Marxist perspective.” He’s seen a few other WWII vets at Occupy Wall Street over the last few weeks, and was active in protests in the 1960s. How do they compare to this occupation?
“In the ‘60s, there was leadership; this is mostly people with an anarchist perspective and they shun any hierarchy,” Silver says. “They’re not focused, they don’t have specific demands; most of the signs are feel-good signs like ‘Fuck Greed’ that are not sending a coherent political message.” He’s unsure whether Occupy Wall Street will survive, but cautions against Natalie’s philosophy: “There’s been no movement in history, to my knowledge, that was anarchist in its politics that achieved revolutionary change. Without a sound theory, you can’t have very effective practice.”
I drift over to the ledge at the southern barrier of the park, where teams of construction workers from the nearby World Trade Center site are on lunch break. Carlos, a Staten Island carpenter and father of three who emigrated from Puerto Rico 35 years ago, has been coming to the protests every day for lunch and lingers an hour or two after work. His union endorses the cause and he believes everyone he works with unofficially supports it — and assumes the other construction workers who eat lunch in the park do, too.
But it’s not so simple. Down the ledge, a construction foreman, Eric, is irked by the protesters’ lack of patriotism. “I support unionized labor. I will not support anyone who desecrates the American flag, though,” he tells me, pointing to various flags hanging upside-down, the official signal of distress. “There’s a better way of doing it instead of camping out in the middle of Manhattan. Vote out the people that have fucked the system up.”
As a small group marches past us, a 30-year-old general contractor laborer in Eric’s cohort — a Queens native and five-year Army veteran with two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan (where he hopes to be redeployed in the future) — is more ambivalent.
“I understand their cause, I understand their movement, I agree,” he says. “I’m ex-military, I have a college degree, and look what I’m doing: dirty, sweaty, making hardcore money — yet I get taxed crazy. I agree with everything they’re doing, but this is something out of ‘Lord of the Flies.’ I’m waiting for the conch to come out and people to start burning pigs.” He looks around at the more bombastic characters on the scene — a tear-streaked man angrily yelling “I need money!” while banging an empty white bucket, a woman in a Marie Antoinette costume holding a platter of cake. “This is so unorganized,” the laborer says. “The protesters aren’t doing anything that people are gonna listen to and say, ‘You know what, they’re right.’”
Boycotting corporate America, he argues, would be more effective. “Watch these people during the day,” he laments. “They go to Starbucks, they go to McDonald’s. Educate, learn how the system works, and then cripple it. That’s how you start a movement.
“I’m just one person,” he says. “I play by the rules. I come to work every day, I’m here at 5 in the morning to start work while they’re sleeping. I come out on coffee break, they’re still sleeping.”
It’s true that not everyone is up with the dawn. Drum circles with dancing keep the protesters energized at night, when, says Noah Fischer, an artist who has been coming from Queens since the third day, the younger crowd shifts to one side of the park to let others sleep. “It feels a little summer campish,” he says. “There’s a tinge of romance in the air.” Has he observed any sexual activity? “Well,” he admits, “we are only human. We’re flesh and blood. You can’t really tell what’s going on under the sleeping bags. But I think everyone is generally respectful of each other and discreet.”
But despite some Burning Man elements, Occupy Wall Street is fairly organized on a functional level, and for every anarchist in a “Kill Me Now” jacket, several earnest-looking youth in H&M apparel who could pass for Oberlin grads working at a nonprofit are pitching in. The central cog in the machine is the food area, near the middle of the park. Servers lay out three vegetarian or vegan meals a day, from pizza to stew-like concoctions, with a bucket of granola bars and packaged snacks available around-the-clock. The occupation receives food and monetary donations on-site and on the Web, and score price breaks from area stores on bulk orders. Carts — many of which are halal — lining the park have generally seen an increase in business, with the exception of the smoothie vendor (perhaps because fruits and vegetables, but not meat, are available for free in the park). Volunteers wash dishes, with a gray-water filtration system cleaning out enough contaminants to reuse the water for the park’s plants and flowers. Others sweep and pick up trash.
Personal hygiene is more bare-bones. Like John Travolta’s character in “Pulp Fiction,” activists eschew the Burger King on the west side of the park for the restroom at McDonald’s half a block north on Broadway. A custodian there reports that management has thus far frowned only upon people sleeping in the stalls. A signup sheet for showers from volunteers opening their homes can accommodate just five or six people a day. To make up for this, donated boxes of clean clothing sit in stacks.
Free Wi-Fi comes from networks labeled owsnyc and owsnyc-guest; a charging station run by a generator lets people plug in. “The People’s Library” provides hundreds of free left-wing books, journals and magazines to share, with authors from Adorno to Zinn. Small teach-ins pop up during the day; I watch one on stereotyping in the media.
The rest of the “working groups,” about 15 splinter organizations, focus on other needs. The medical center is staffed by nurses and a few doctors who put in time after work. Most of their medicine is homeopathic, but early in the day, under a doctor’s supervision, they administer insulin to a protester in diabetic shock. Legal aid members seek out protesters who have been arrested. The media group facilitates interviews; Jeff Smith, a freelance media planner who has scaled back his own work, has been arranging and conducting about 50 interviews a day for others and himself.
Brian Harris, a bartender in the East Village, works in outreach. Like most members of working groups, he doesn’t seem enamored of the prevailing free-floating ethos. “It would be great if we could have it more organized — that’s what we’re trying to do,” he says. “Get everything in a database, get it on the Web, have complete transparency. But that takes a lot of people and time and an infrastructure that just hasn’t happened yet.”
The infrastructure, such as it is, comes in the form of the General Assembly, an open meeting held every day at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., in which one person speaks at a time, grabbing the “people’s mic” by calling “Mic check!” and waiting for an affirmative response of “Mic check!” from the crowd (I confess that, when I first heard it, I thought they were chanting “My check!” as a way of demanding their own federal bailout). As has been well-documented, to overcome the law against megaphones, listeners repeat each snippet of speech in booming unison, and agree or disagree silently by waving their hands above or below. During the nighttime General Assembly, a striking amount of attention is paid to the concept of voice, metaphoric and literal; how to make one’s voice heard is a frequent subject, one woman who has lost her voice has another speak for her, and an actual voice coach offers a training session on protecting one’s larynx.
If nothing else, the General Assembly serves as a corrective to outside perception that the movement is too anarchic, and without its existence and the working groups, I doubt the protest would be gathering steam. Vans from national news stations — which largely ignored the protests until the union-endorsed march on Oct. 5 — arrive in the afternoon to supplement the local (NY1, PIX11) and less familiar (mtvU, Current TV) stations that have been present since morning. Noted Columbia economics professor Jeffrey Sachs and “Nickel and Dimed” author Barbara Ehrenreich make speeches. The Granny Peace Brigade, 18 women ranging in age from 66 to 96, have been coming for weeks. And it wouldn’t be a New York City tourist attraction without an appearance from the Naked Cowboy.
At sundown, I walk over to Isamu Noguchi’s giant Red Cube structure opposite the park. In what might be the surest sign of mainstream acceptance, several hundred observant Jews are gathered there for Yom Kippur services, with congregants reading Hebrew prayers off their iPhones. Police reinforcements, who don’t enter the privately owned park, mill about nearby, gearing up for the evening shift. Any anxiety I might feel at the sight of cops twirling nightsticks is quelled; if ever there were a place not to fear police violence at a protest, it is in the middle of Yom Kippur services in Mayor Bloomberg’s Manhattan.
Though the movement is expanding each day, the majority of occupiers are white in a city that, according to the 2010 Census, is only 44 percent Caucasian. Where’s the diversity of the so-called 99 percent? Carolina, a Latina woman studying literature and politics at Manhattan’s Baruch College who has come to the protest for the first time, points out that minorities have suffered from economic injustice and police brutality long before 2008. They may feel little motivation to protest alongside middle-class whites who are just now waking up — and may even feel resentful.
And architect John Lowe, an African-American who has been coming to the park for several days, says he’d hoped for a larger minority presence as well. “I expected to see more — I wanted to see more.” He moves on to President Obama, who he thinks is doing “a decent job under the circumstances.” But as he discusses the president’s Clinton-vintage and corporate-friendly Cabinet, he becomes less apologetic. “Paulson, Rubin, Summers, Geithner — he hired them and has to take some of the blame,” he says. “He needs a couple of brothers up in there, and I ain’t talking about Clarence Thomas.”
Lowe roams into a thicket of tangents, which hints at the key criticism levied against the movement: that it lacks a defined platform. But by not focusing on a single issue, people are discussing a multitude of concerns, all of which are relevant to economic inequality — as occupier Jesse LaGreca recently made clear. A blogger for Daily Kos, the Queens resident shot to fame after adroitly turning the tables on Fox News producer Griff Jenkins in an unaired interview that other protesters captured on video. LaGreca, who said he hadn’t slept in 44 hours and who had 28 messages on his phone at the end of our five-minute chat, has since been contacted by a large number of news outlets. “My life has changed dramatically,” he says. “I am astounded by the outpouring of support. It’s elation from people who want to see us be able to fight back against those who would attack us.”
Were LaGreca, and others like him, to receive more attention from the media and a more visible position in the protest, maybe the laborer I spoke to would have a higher regard for the occupation. But while more than a few Zuccotti Park protesters do fit his stereotype of Washington Square Park denizens — each time I pass by Natalie’s friends, I see them doing nothing but hanging out and smoking cigarettes — the movement would have fizzled out by now if it weren’t manned by responsible, hardworking people. Even Natalie seems weary of signs of too much anarchy when I run into him later at night.
“I’m depressed,” he says. “I mean, I’m depressed all the time, but some guy was smoking pot around us. It just makes us all look bad.”
“It’s a protest,” he adds. “It’s not fucking Woodstock.”
Teddy Wayne is the author of the novel “Kapitoil.”
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)