Destiny doesn't know Daniel. But she finds him fascinating to consider.
One moment he gives off the air of a rock star, wild and confident, talking out the side of his mouth and drawing on his Wildhorse filters, the smoke curling about his lips, a look in his eye, a look that hints at loose gears. The next moment he seems entirely struck-down, civilized, infirmed with minimal coverage. One thing is certain, however. The cap on his head says so, in gold threaded letters. Vietnam Era Veteran.
The two are sitting at nearby benches outside a coffee shop, so what the hell. Destiny decides to talk to the man.
Daniel speaks openly, quickly finding his subject.
After the war, Daniel tells her, he'd fallen in love with Christine. Though, it's unclear if Christine was a steady girl or a one-night stand. Destiny can't figure it out. Regardless, at some point, his true love disappears without a trace and it drives him to madness. His family takes notice, they circle wagons, and the next thing Daniel knows he's gone medical and is on a regimen of medication. The little pills scurry like ants, covering everything.
Staring in the mirror for hours every day does nothing to make this kind of problem go away. And now here he is. All Daniel wants for his life is to be let go, to run free. But they won't let him.
"Who are they?" Destiny asks.
Family, doctors. The institutions. That's what he claims. And Daniel is emphatic: he's trapped. But something in his story is foggy. It's hard to tell if Daniel is being saved from himself or prevented from being himself. Or somehow—both.
Daniel takes Destiny for a short walk to show off his residence, a small room in a facility up the street. The apartment key hangs from a chord about his neck, forcing the man to lean drastically forward to unlock his door. There is something endearing about this, though it's hard to put one's finger on just what. Destiny feels safe, however, so she ventures inside.
"Would you like coffee?"
Watching Daniel scour the apartment for the next ten minutes, however, looking for his coffee cup in places that include under the bed and in his sock drawer, she begins to regret her answer. But only sort of. Daniel gives up on coffee, eventually, and plops comfortably into a stuffed chair and submits to being photographed.
As she focuses through the lens and chooses angles, Destiny notices for the first time how high the man's pants ride at the waist, cinched by a belt that pulls too firmly at his shirt, which is bunched and tucked at what could be described as a somewhat misdirected angle. It's an improvised affair barely covering the unhook of the gentleman's fly.
At the coffee shop, Daniel is likewise agreeable to Destiny's camera. Through the viewfinder, she sees the sunlight flare, casting an aura about his head. She shoots. He stands and he sits and he stands and he smokes. He salutes the U S of A. She shoots. He spreads two fingers into a "V" that might be for peace&mcash;or for victory. She shoots. He takes a pull on another cigarette and makes a claim.
"There is an era after every war," says the man.
And he should know. For Daniel is a veteran. And life hasn't been kind.
I'm not asking you to go to church, to go to class, to stop smoking, or to change your apparel.
Two women are talking, one young, one old, when the elderly woman has something to say regarding her deceased husband.
"If he weren't already dead—I'd've killed him by now." She gives the young woman a hard look. "You think I'm kidding?"
They stare at each other for a moment, in silence, when suddenly the elderly woman, peering over the top of her glasses, abruptly laughs. The young woman responds uneasily, shifting her stance. Sensing the discomfort, the older woman waves her arm in the air, vigorously, as if to wipe away any residual seriousness.
"Ahhhh…no, no," she exclaims, dismissing once and for all what's been said.
See… that's Martha. And she's checking your responses. Young or old, you'd better be on your toes when this woman comes your way.
Martha is the Falcon Arts Community apartments matriarch, and residents here understand just whom they are dealing with, if they know what's good for them. The title of matriarch is unofficial: she's not the building owner, there's no sign on her door, but there's no other word for it. In a three-story building with 47 apartments and 25 art spaces, Martha keeps tabs on thing, see. She knows what's going on, even if she appears exasperated to know, even if the knowledge came without her asking, even if she'd rather not know, Martha knows. And on those occasions when she doesn't have a clue, the pitch of her voice rises defensively, as if you expected her to know. Which, likely, you did.
Martha sports a keen shock of red hair that is as bold as the woman beneath it. Her speech is direct and to the point, and it shows, her face flushing, when she holds her tongue, which is not for long or often. Eyeballing an interlocutor, she takes your measure, watching for your acceptance or rejection of what she puts forth. Though not exactly intimidating, the woman is formidable: when she means business, she means business. Which is not to say that the Falcon Arts matriarch is unfriendly. Quite the opposite. Her talkativeness, her neighborly friendliness, her interest, is central to Martha's effective delivery, her peculiar charm.
While she may be blunt, the thing is, Martha cares.
RUNNING UP THE TAB
Killingsworth and Albina is an intersection infamous a few years back for gang banging and drug crime. It has since adopted a more elevated personality, something quite like an alcoholic nervously off the sauce yet not far from the nearest bar. It's at this intersection that you'll find the Falcon (as it is affectionately known to tenants), a block-long mustard-colored building with the kind of construction reminiscent of gulag administration, stoic and gloomily outward looking, with sad-eyed window frames. But that's only the outside. Inside are quaint and charming apartments with slanting wood floors, tall window casements, elegantly high ceilings, tiled kitchen sinks, baseboards that don't always meet the floor, and no two apartments boasting the same floor plan. Inside are patterned red, green, and gold carpet-runners, which run along hallways and up three flights of stairs. Inside are artists, musicians, and writers, doing their thing. And rounding out the picture are the remaining tenants: a few random professionals, students, working stiffs, a half dozen old timers, and the occasional eccentric.
The surrounding neighborhood is urban—though hardly urbane, resembling more old school Brooklyn than cosmopolitan Manhattan—with bus stops that run east and west, north and south, intersecting at Killingsworth and Albina. The intersection sponsors a variety of habitué, some of whom wait in abject resignation, quietly restless, while others, less subdued, make a point of talking loud and conspicuously, littering the sidewalk with their fast food trash, scattering crushed white bags and catsup-stained wax paper for the wind to toss end over end, like a drunken Bukowski poem, up and down the sidewalk.
In the parking lot of the corner convenience store—the In N Out Grocery—a street tough in a wifebeater and porkpie hat stands smoking a cigarillo for hours, jiveassing, like he's got business to conduct, though hours pass and none materializes. Sucka! A low-riding red Toyota truck, with four Latinos in the front seat, parallel parks, the truck bed filled with furniture, wicker chairs, and end tables. Vámonos, a mi casa! A homeless white woman trundles past, pushing a shopping cart, nearly soundless but for the slow grinding wheels on pavement grit, the cart piled above her head, brimming with tin cans and bulging black plastic bags. She grumbles. Whatevers.
On a typical day, these are the things Martha sees. As the Falcon Arts matriarch, a woman with a comprehensive worldview, a strategic window ledge, and a small corner of the world to preside over, Martha knows. She knows what's going on. And sometime last year, as she watched, the street fell off the wagon of clean living. The scene quickly got tougher and tougher, dirtier and dirtier, then completely soured. Killingworth and Albina, the dry drunk, crashed the gates, hitting the bar with cash in pocket, and doing so with a vengeance. Quickly running up the tab.
It begins months before with a contingent of teens at lunch hour. From the Falcon, they can be seen descending on the perimeter, like birds hailing from all directions to alight on a single tree. Only these birds saunter on two legs, and do so with the slow motion nonchalance of smokers to their den, their tree nothing other than the Falcon's sidewalk boundary, where the youth spend afternoons in congress, engaging in an hodgepodge of prurient activities.
Their congress is easily ignored, though difficult to overlook, at first; school kids wanting to smoke, mack on each other, and not be seen; a venerable tradition of cat and mouse with authority. But soon the street is attracting something more extreme. It's no longer just kids playing at grownup, it's grownups playing at fuckups, then it's real crime making the scene. And they're not playing at anything.
With greater and greater frequency, drug dealers cruise the Falcon's perimeter in their cars, stopping long enough to exchange words, cash, and folded plastic bags through the passenger window. They never get out. It's a street version of a desk job, business from your nubby-fabric chair. Gangs of four or five or six, never more, mostly men, stroll past throughout the day: the street contingent. In a series of quick gestures, tightly folded dollars and "product" are passed back and forth. It's the street version of a commercial handshake: money and drugs are hidden, tucked behind extended fingers and straight palms, held in place by a stylistically bent thumb. Magicians palming cards.
Inexplicably, as if a citywide bulletin had gone out regarding hassle-free seating on a laissez-faire avenue, itinerants join the lawlessness parade. In smaller parties of ones and twos, homeless people get skunked, drinking from paper bags in the very spots vacated early in the day by the crackheads and the kids, tossing bottle and bag into the shrubs and onto the curb. Killingsworth and Albina are now nearly non-stop with all manner of illicit activity. Cops cars become an increasingly frequent sight and sound, adding to the diversity of visitors in the social soup, until the flashing of the blues and the growling throttle of white cop cruisers racing to the scene becomes more regular than sunrise and sunset.
A No Trespassing sign goes up in the Falcon's southern alcove.
The sentiment feels both archly defiant and fearfully desperate. The effect is nil. As a for-instance, one day, two middle-aged and well-dressed crackheads share a pipe while standing directly in front of the sign. Addressing tenants who nudge passed them to get the apartment door, the crackheads speak cordially to the tenants. Howya doin'? Wha' sup? Evenin'. And so on. Palming the pipe is their sole concession to guilt. The everydayness of it, along with the tenants' polite surrender, says everything. The whole scene is resigned, sordid, and dismal. By any measure, it seems that Killingsworth and Albina, the drunk, has captured the barstool and will be closing the joint, night after night. But then something happens, something out of the blue.
It went down like this.
One afternoon, just before the lunch hour, Martha appears, a blaze of red hair beneath the sun's glare. She steps out from the Falcon's side door and onto the sidewalk. Although she doesn't look entirely comfortable with the role—she is glancing this way and that, pacing the sidewalk, eventually standing and waiting at the corner, arms stiffly crossed—Martha is in fact taking a stand.
Okay, see, just imagine for a second what this really means. We're talking about a solitary woman in her seventies, deciding to face down whatever serious characters the street has to offer, starting with the young toughs. Martha, of course, does get into things, people would say, that's what she does. She has been spotted standing in the street directing the apartment building's business, or shuttling the across-the-hall neighbor who, though adroit with engine repair, needs help getting to and from his doctor appointments. In the right season, you can catch Martha returning from her patch in the Falcon's garden, dispensing unsolicited advice on growing plants (when to start tomatoes, how much to water), or dumping spleen on the numbskull who has left the sunflower stalks to collapse under their own weight. Coming and going from the south entrance, Martha can often be found at the sidewalk chatting up the gay boys from the first floor about the spotty mail delivery by the substitute mail-carrier, the guys laughing, smoking cigarettes, and demonstrably agreeing with her pronouncements on the carrier, who, Martha says, needs to hang up the phone and deliver the fucking mail, 'cause otherwise she gonna give 'em a piece of her mind! But this High Noon standoff that she is instigating, this challenge facing the Falcon matriarch, this is of a different order. Yet, for Martha, right is right.
THE LUNCH HOUR
And here comes round one: the lunch hour. And there is Martha, waiting. Red hair beneath the yellow sun, arms crossed. And here comes the gangs and the groups and the free-agents, on schedule, gravitating toward the Falcon, wearing their tough-guy and dirty-girl faces. Yet, today is different for them, today they pull up short, collectively, their swagger slowing. One by one, they see Martha approaching, stepping off the sidewalk and into the street, straight backed, a stern expression, that cropped red hair blazing in the sun, and you can sense their confusion, you can sense the wheels turning in their heads. And, moreover, you can almost hear their thoughts, the thoughts of these street toughs, and it's almost funny. They are calculating, with sidelong glances at their peers and back to Martha, just what they would be willing to say to their own mother.
Martha is sympathetic to the plight of the down and out, she understands how lives can get beyond our control, can grow dark. But what are you going to do? And, more immediately, what is she going to do now? Well, Martha does what she always does: talks to people. And she talks to this crowd the same way she would talk to anybody.
"I'm not asking you to go to church, to go to class, to stop smoking, or to change your apparel. Just to move along, please. And don't pee in the doorway. You wouldn't pee on your mother's porch, would you?"
And they move along, all of them, each and every one. And Martha calls after them: "Thank you."
ON THE CAT WALK
In the early evening, Martha comes round the bend in the hallway, walking her cats, a loyal crew of adopted felines, rescued from abject circumstances, some caught feral, others liberated from neglected homes. Memphis and Handsome Jack are always in front, scouts at the vanguard, accompanying Martha at the onset, then striking out on their own, a loose prowling team. The other cats prefer to remain inside the apartment. Izzy occasionally peeks out the door and around the corner to see what's what, only to scoot back inside at the slightest commotion. As Martha ambles along, heading to the hallway's end, she is often seen sporting a cut-glass tumbler. Sometimes she gets only halfway down the hall and, sliding down the wall, takes a seat on the floor, exhausted at the end of the day, sipping that drink.
If you happen to be in the hall, Memphis will find you first. Memphis greets with a grand gesture, dropping to the floor and rolling onto her back, exposing her belly, begging for attention. Handsome Jack, an entirely black cat with a good physique and strikingly bright yellow eyes, is a close second with his own ploy, a strong rub at your shin, playing a familiar and friendly cat game of who-do-you-love.
Martha knows this performance, as well as the others they smoothly deploy. She comments dryly on their various stratagems, a wry voiceover on the cat competition, like a judge raising scorecards for each arabesque.
How is she such a good judge of the cat dance? "Years of practice," Martha informs you. That's the advantage of age. Years of practice.
Our story begins with the smell of coffee in the morning. Ahhh.
Only, the coffee is cold and no one is sipping it. As a matter of fact, everything about this scene is wrong. There is no warm coffee mug, no croissant on a serving plate, no stained paper napkin. The coffee itself is sloshing about in a brown ceramic jar that might better store dried linguine. Oh, and here's the kicker, yo. The coffee is sloshing because it's being dipped into by a paintbrush, from which the dripping liquid is then slathered, in steady strokes, back and forth, up and down, onto a large sheet of bone white watercolor paper.
"For the most part, there's not really a set plan for laying down the coffee," says Ray, the wielder of the brush. "There"s a lot of push and pull with the coffee."
Ray is a comic strip artist, a good-sized fellow, his chest filling out a black tee that shouts out Chi City in red letters. That's Frank Miller for Chicago City. That's hometown to Ray. The man is fun loving, easy to smile, thoughtful with an elliptical inflection to his reflections, sneaking in the verbal punches. He's a stone illustrator. But an illustrator who also takes a serious shot at painting. And has something to offer. The magic mixture in the jar is paint. Well, acrylic paint and coffee. Drip coffee—to be exact. Though, sometimes, Ray gets his painting going on with nothing but coffee grounds, for texture, like an Old Master sculpting with oils, thick and silty. Ray dips the brush once again into the jar and daubs off the excess onto the lip.
"Some areas are a little more blotchy, some are more faded," Ray continues, lazily watching the paint roll about. He looks amused. And there's that smile again, opening a curtain on those ample incisors. "I just look and see what I wanna do."
Ray insists that a piece of advice be inserted into his story. To wit: "In the wee hours of the morning—between two and four A.M.—make sure that the actual cup of coffee that is keeping you on the work is completely separate from the coffee you mix with acrylic."
The paper is tacked to a reclining cork bulletin board, the kind you'd use to pin up your utility bill. Clearly an improvisation, it works to perfection: the paper stays put. The liquid washes sweetly over the surface, pooling in some places, escaping in long streaks across the paper in others. As the paint runs away in zigzagging rivulets, Ray addresses them with sharp, chimney-sweep strokes of bristles. Increasingly, the entire paper takes on the appearance of an overcast day. A day of brown haze. And leather clouds.
THE KNOCKOUT PUNCH
Ray attacks art like a boxer in the ring, and he's not hanging on the ropes. It's a big swing coming at yah from the right. Or is it the left? Too late! Ray admires the knockout punch. It's an approach to style, and Ray takes pride in an artistic count-to-ten, the moment when his work has dropped you to the canvas. POW! Yet, as a black man, he's uneasy about what images this might bring to other people's minds, whites in particular. Ray shifts from side to side, restlessly contemplating the notion until, at last, he comes up with idea, and begins to imitate the daft thoughts of someone concerned about a black man whose art is deeply inspired by notions of boxing.
"What's really in the mix of his paintings?" Ray exclaims, mimicking a fearful person, paranoid about his motivations. "What am I plotting? —The revenge of the black man! Yeah, we'll come back, and come back strong. Not Folgers Choice!" Everyone laughs, heads titling back, including his white audience. Ray laughs, the black man, a full row of dazzling teeth. Yet, you can tell that he's thought about this—thought seriously about this. And wishes it weren't so. "You know—I probably shouldn't even say," Ray continues. "I don't even know if people know I'm a black man. I don't wanna put any more attention on myself than that."
The thing is, we're off-topic. Hell, a knockout might come from the painting's fragrance alone. Ray isn't using Folgers Choice in these painting, that's for sure; it's something stronger. Every one of them brims with speed and energy and anger and frustration and fire: figures leap, palms arch, fingernails spike out, humans fling themselves into the air. A halo of serious electricity sparks off a man wielding a hammer… or, possibly, it's a T-square. No doubt about it, Ray's a stone illustrator, the real thing. In spite of the strong evidence of the painting's visual punch, Ray gives us a whiff from the ceramic jar, as an example of just what the smell can do. It stinks. Lord how it stinks, like a coffee imbibing skunk. And Ray has a few words about that, about the possibility of that the smell alone could knock out an art gallery patron.
"Like my self-portrait—the one with the huge tongue lashing. Just the sight of that piece," says Ray, figuring rightly that the punch goes way beyond the fragrance. "Yet, having smelled what was used to make that painting in the first place! It is bold!"
A DIARY OF EMOTIONS
Our story continues with emotions.
That ceramic jar is not the only way in which Ray is mixing up coffee. Ray's job is in the mix, too. You see, he's in the coffee business: no surprise there. Day to day, year after year, you could say that, as a barista, the experience of coffee has gotten under his skin. It has become part of him. Far from a gimmick, painting with coffee is a manifestation of Ray's inner conflicts, about life and art and work. And, naturally, about coffee.
"The coffee art is mostly depictions of me," says Ray. "They're symbolic depictions of what I'm doing, or what I'm going through. You know, when I'm working in this field."
Crazed inner conflict reigns in a Ray Johnson picture. Rather than actual moments, the scenes are caricatures—although real people may, at times, actually star in them. Even the security of work, the steady paycheck—things that make the job for most people—can rub Ray the wrong way. It all gets limned in the art. While his day job has kept Ray afloat financially, and he appreciates that—appreciates it a lot—at the same time, it's been an Achilles heel, even a crutch. As Ray puts it, it causes him to just get-by, and not focus on the inevitable, which is the art. And the artist.
In this way, while Ray's paintings are inflected with an illustrator's sensibility, a sensibility of caricature and high style, fedora hats and weaponized feet, these paintings are personal and raw, portraying genuine feeling in surreal settings. The coffee paintings are a diary, really. For Ray, a diary of emotions.
"It's a conflict that I deal with every time I start my shift to the end of my shift. The conflicts with the company, the customers, myself. It's just a constant struggle."
In the diary of emotions, even the small scenes have significance. Serving people who don't know your background, and who may see you mostly as a tool, Ray wonders, what are you suppose to say to them? And more profoundly, what do you represent? When a customer approaches the counter, and Ray greets them with a "Hi, how are you?", somewhere in the back of his mind, he wonders about all this. Does that customer really care? Do I care? The whole thing can feel like a shuck, writ large.
"If people haven't been on both sides of the counter, they can't relate. And they doubly can't relate, based on not being a minority, or someone of ethnic background, or sexual orientation. You're not in the know, you're not in the know. Experience is everything."
With each shift at work, Ray is mixing himself into coffee every bit as much as he mixes acrylic with coffee in his ceramic jar. After a fashion, his life has become one big sheet of watercolor paper, awaiting his special paint, the touch of brush, and the day's new subject.
"I like engaging my customers. I mean, I don't have to make them dinner, but I like to understand personalities and know how they work. As an artist, engagement is an important part of the work, of your character. And that's what makes a storyteller, whether that person is a writer or a illustrator or a fine artist."
There's a light irony in all this. In a manner of speaking, Ray's painting series is coffee that is commenting on—well— Coffee.
DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME
Our story ends with comics, a samurai sword, and something like sanity.
Ray's studio is filled with pencil sketches and comics that are lying about or pinned to the easel. A long horizontal painting, newly minted, stretches across the art table, drooping over the sides.
"I like how crazy I look!" Ray exclaims excitedly about the coffee series. "I like that I can look at myself in a different light. And that it's naturally related to a place that I work. And that I'm using a medium that is foreign to the typical medium that artists use. I'm not saying I'm the first, or that I'll be the last. But having that combination: I think is pretty rad."
When all is said and done, however, what keeps Ray sane is comics. Comics, comics, comics. In part, the sanity comes from being skilled. A fellow illustrator had this to say about Ray from Chi City. "Even though I've seen a lot people do comics—that was like my first love—you can tell when somebody has a unique angle. Even in a very common job—some people do backgrounds, some do ink, some do coloring—you can tell when someone is just trying to do their own thing. That's what caught my attention about Ray." High on the list of keeping Ray on the up and up is also his friends at Chibi Comics PDX. These are the very same folks who coaxed Ray to Portland. For better or worse. At Chibi Comics, Ray co-plots and illustrates a comic called Meanwhile, and an anthology called Ash Can. And he is frank about what it does for him.
"Chibi Comics helps keep my coffee on the canvas, you could say."
BLACK AND WHITE
Ray wanders outside his apartment with us. He has put down the paintbrush, and in its place Ray is wielding a samurai sword, with every intention of giving us—and the camera—a demonstration. He's obviously feeling a bit self-conscious, but we egg him on. After several quick action poses, in which, each time, he lacks heart and falls immediately out of character, Ray finally busts out ---moments with the sword that look seriously legit. Now, now. Take it easy folks, the man is simply horsing around. Though… Ray is not taking any chances. Striking a samurai pose and holding it, sword held high over his head, Ray turns to his two white companions, and, emphatically, has this to say.
"You folks gotta vouch for me. Cause I'm a black man with a sword in this neighborhood!"
Right now the universe is playing the song of the Big Bang…
It plays all the time, yesterday, today, tomorrow, the day after. This song goes on and on and on, saturating space, bombarding earth. Huge and always in-rotation, you could say it's the cosmic disk jockey's favorite tune. Only, this song is not particularly tuneful; there is no discernable melody. It's more like a portable radio stuck between stations, out of tune, broadcasting static, hiss, and fizz: ssssssssssssssssssssssssssss!
We strive to stay on station, resisting the in-between. Our signal is aimed. It has targets
Man-made radio is different. Unlike cosmic radio, human radio is meant to be tuned, and, when done right, it is tuneful. We strive to stay on station, resisting the in-between. Our signal is aimed. It has targets. Someone is meant to receive. And we send and receive all the time. Radio, television, phone calls, computers, GPS, all are forms of radio.
Case in point, on a chilly night in Oregon, pulling down a particularly strong signal, his receiver aimed, is one Portland resident, Santiago Diego Carmona Barrenechea.
Call him Santi.
Santi steps outside into the night and adjusts a homemade antennae. The device, stuck atop a plump shrub, is cobbled together from scraps of metal, wire, and, most strange, strings of red beads. Although it looks every bit an art object, Santiago reassures tonight's house guests that the thing is functional. That "yah yah, it works." Inside his apartment, as proof positive, the receiver grabs radio signal from the antennae, and out the stereo speakers rages the message of punk rock. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!
A REVOLUTIONARY VIEW
Pirate radio is the sexy title given to unlicensed broadcasting. Santi, born and raised in Argentina, spent his early adult years in Mexico working on just such bootleg radio stations, a very real and romantic cause.
Sharply contrasting the image of blood-thirsty marauders dedicated to plunder, the pirate in pirate radio can many times actually be an honest-to-goodness do-gooder. These well meaning souls are often motivated by little more than an inability to afford the economic price, or, sometimes the seriously costly, political price of legit radio. A radio Robin Hood, a pirate gives rather than takes. And what the pirate radio jockey gives can be of real benefit to locals. A home for ideas and music and culture and outreach, a hookup for the homespun, a rallying point for community.
...Menacing automatic weapons and rubber shoes that came in a variety of jolly colors
Santi was fascinated by exactly that. So much so that he spent years building and maintaining stations all over Mexico. Working with other Mexican pirates, Santi became a crackerjack pirate radio engineer. He and his friends amassed a reputation. Their celebrity carried far enough that Subcommandante Marcos, a real outlaw, risked a visit to them. Marcos, leader of the Zapatista Liberation Army, a movement defending Oaxacan peasants against powerful and longstanding oppression, is a man used to leveraging limited resources. He and his rag-tag army brought about some of the most significant changes in Mexican politics in the last century. Hearing about Santi and company, the Subcommandante rationalized his traveling north, which included being followed by secret police in many colored rubber boots, with a solid compliment. "I hear from many people that they can make a radio transmitter out of a tree branch."
Well, not exactly, according to Santi. But close enough.
While the visit struck Santi as serious, to say the least, the rebels rather jovially spent time buying phone cards and booze. While the police, who followed the rebels constantly, they wore, along with menacing automatic weapons, rubber shoes that came in a variety of jolly colors. Orange, red and blue.
A SWASHBUCKLING PIRATE
This wasn't the only time Santi got swept into serious Mexican politics. An occasion in 2007 was the closest he has come to feeling like a swashbuckling pirate. During this episode, after having entered the city in a somewhat clandestine manner, Santi was performing a radio installation, in middle of the night, on the roof of a building, overlooking Oaxaca City. In the streets below, the city sparked with scattered fires, protests, riots.
Santi did the only reasonable thing under the circumstances. He bought a six-pack.
Eerie silhouettes scuttled about the surrounding rooftops. Eyeballing the shadows, Santi hesitated to begin, thinking to himself, This is fucking scary. He stared down at the transmitter gear awaiting his attention. He grumbled to the night air. "Do I want to be climbing a radio tower," he said, "if there are snipers about? What have I got myself into?"
He'd got himself into a lot. The year preceding, Oaxaca City police attacked protesters during a teachers union strike. As many as one hundred people may have been injured. Citizens rebelled. The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), a citizen group, took over part of the city. The APPO challenged city government authority, which they considered corrupt, and continued to do so over the course of that year. The nation's president got involved. People died in the conflict. Radio communication had been important to the APPO cause, and Santi, who had received a request by them to set up a radio station on the conflict's one-year anniversary, was flown into the city under special auspices, snuck through customs, along with his equipment, in quasi secret.
And now he was under deadline, and, if unlucky, possibly under fire. The first broadcast was scheduled for early morning. Given that was already after midnight, and he was just getting started, Santi did the only reasonable thing under the circumstances. He bought a six-pack. Returning, Santi cracked a beer, looked out toward the fires in the city below, and set to work. The beer performed its magic. Hours later, with the sun coming up, the job was complete. Santi paused and considered the situation in a new light.
It's nice view, really.
Then he got the hell outta there.
Oaxaca City was the culmination of seven years in pirate radio. Santi felt due for a change. Fleeing the radio tower before things got too hot, when the broadcast went live, he was about to get that change.
Later that evening, decompressing in bar, Santi meets a girl, Mary-Rain O'Mera of Portland, Oregon. Mary-Rain is attracted to the stranger's blend of the serious and the free-spirited. The feeling is mutual. They dance. A romance begins. As fortune would have it, they are both living in Mexico at the moment and are able to spend a lot time together. But time passes, and Mary-Rain must return to Portland. Cell phones allow them to stay connected. The calls are radio waves, signals with a target, signals aimed at someone, someone who is meant to receive.
Man-made radio transmissions are escaping, all the time, through the earth's atmosphere, where they continue into space, on and on, passing asteroids, planets, stars. Out there, in vast enigma of the universe, are commercials for wedding dresses and posture-correcting mattresses, fast food and hair removal, old broadcasts of AD/DC and the Wipers, talk show vitriol, news of the world, reruns of Frazier. Among the cosmic flotsam, too, are personal communications: gossip, disputes, seductions, happy birthday to mom. While the universe bombards us with its programming, its static's song, it seems that we, in turn, shoot back with our own programming, a farrago of human noise.
Also among the noise are the many calls between Santiago Diego Carmona Barrenechea and Mary-Rain O'Meara: calls that began by bridging a sizable distance, between Mexico and the U.S., until, one day, calls were placed from close range, and there they remained… in the same city. Portland, Oregon.
Other people's trash is Santi's source of inspiration
In a Portland living room, Mary-Rain, moved-in-with and married-to Santi, leans over a vintage sixties-era stereo console. Opening the polished wood lid, and, reaching in to the place normally housing the record player, which has been removed, she chooses music from a makeshift tablet screen, picking out songs from a long list of artists and albums on a digital display screen. She hits play. Out of the cabinet comes blasting an assortment of Spanish language punk rock, funky Cumbia, and lesser known alternative acts. Mary-Rain adjusts volume using the original plastic knobs.
Santi, his pirate radio days behind him, has metamorphosed into inventor of devices conceived from salvaged junk, scraps, and the second-hand, a reuse artist. The hybrid stereo console is one of his trademarks: a Frankenstein mongrel mixing older discarded technology with newer discarded technology. Other people's trash is Santi's source of inspiration. Whether it's resurrecting straight razors using silicon chipboards for handles, distilling motor oil out of spent restaurant vegetable grease, cobbling together electric guitar amplifiers out of stereo cabinets, or reanimating and reconfiguring a lifeless lead-burning Mercedes into diesel daily driver, nothing gets wasted.
The living room tonight is replete with guests, the music plays festively. It's Santi's birthday. Santi carries in a homemade Argentine-style pizza, fresh from the oven. He smiles. "Here's some pizza," he says, setting the pie on the coffee table.
"Santi has been making hats!" Mary-Rain announces, amused and amazed, to the people in the room, pointing at her husband's head. The hat is a red and black plaid, made from reuse fabric.
It's a great hat, someone tells him. Everyone agrees.
Santi is a deceptive character. It takes time to get a bead on him. The man can be untalkative, responding to questions in clipped syllables. Yes. No. Maybe. Seeming a stoic. Yet, get him talking, and he has a lot to say, and is eager to say it. He can appear phlegmatic, slow moving, introverted. Yet, as a steady and relaxed laborer, he is productive and nimble, his long and slender hands constantly moving, his mind musing on the next project. In appearance, garbed in loose fitting clothes over a thin frame, somehow reminiscent of a scarecrow on his stick, patient and drowsy, Santi exudes an air of immateriality, the kind of weightlessness common to daydreamers. Yet, with all manner of material objects as his playground, Santi is one of the most industrious people you'll ever meet.
Possibly his most mystifying attribute, however, is a curious sense of humor.
"Probably a false statement," he says, nodding, indicating the message on the door
Sitting on a sidewalk bench outside of Roots Organic Brewery, Santi wears yet another newly constructed hat, this one of tan cloth and long brim, shading his eyes from the hot sun. In his hand is a dinged up trumpet that he repaired and has been learning to play. He stares across the street, where there is an auto transmission shop with an accordion-style garage door. Painted on the door are the words SOUND HORN TO OPEN DOOR.
Pointing the trumpet at the door, Santi blows hard, sounding a splay of random notes with no particular pattern. Lowering the trumpet, he waits for a response. The door does not open. He sets the trumpet in his lap and sips beer. After a while, he nods toward the garage, saying, "I'll try again—the door." And puts the horn to his lips. The pub patrons at the surrounding benches glance at Santi, repeatedly, but quickly turn away. Unfazed by the attention, Santi blows again, this time calling out a single screeching note, loud and long. The trumpet blast echoes off the wall of the garage, reverberates crisply, and disappears.
After a long while of intermittent door testing, a number of beers, and a long conversation, Santi surrenders. "Probably a false statement," he says, nodding, indicating the message on the door. He retires the trumpet to the tabletop, where it gleams, pock marked and greasy, in the sun. Not once during the trumpeting did Santi crack a smile. And he does not smile now.
But you easily could. And, looking up, you could just as easily wonder about the blue sky. About people. About radio… And its targets.
Who are those little people made of clay? For that matter, who is that animator behind the mask? We'll tell you.
It's Bartek, a Portland one-of-a-kind animator, and some of his creations.
What is it about the woods that brings his creativity all together? We're not sure. But enjoy the photo essay: only Bartek knows for sure.
TURN UP THE VOLUME AND HEAR LESTER GO!
(Yes, there's audio.)
Opposite Day stars Lester, an animated columnist. He might look primitive, but Lester keeps on eye on the human animal. Each month, Lester makes a report — about the funny business, the niceties, the hypocrisy.
There's something about driving that can make your day—or break it. Lester ventures out and discovers just what kind of driving day it's gonna be.
James Yeary explains what it might mean to be "drinking vinegar in the chalice of valor."
Colin Green and Destiny Lane interview James Yeary: poet, artist, actor, and performance artist. A funny and smart guy, James explains some of the whys and whatfors of the following poem.
Poem by James Yeary
-though its theoreticians useless (myself included)
corresponding to anthropic principle, and 2nd
to physics 1,000 and 1/1000th sloppy
Christ my brethren's memory of aluminum included:
streetsigns and glass in the roads are patron
matriarch, bizzare. Our calling card, index of fashion
collectors and though the street has its creditors
also it has medics and mediums, and a pithy
detachment whose is the only sorrow
with drive and whose torture is the only torture
that releases its prisoner with its blows
Flappin along the show are the only people
Who're their very own soul in technicolor
still on a spinning glass world shattered, alas...
Sometimes I can think only of water even
when the poison they offer sets in reeling vision
the world behind the world.
There is a lot of talk about Jesus, but
mercury in my neck rises and all I know for sure
is they lock the pearly gates behind me
and I'm drinking vinegar in the chalice of valor
When I left the school of law for the rioting
legion of voices for peace, I found an unlocked
dumpster, a garbage bag full of assembled
hamburgers and fries, dragged it all the way here
sandwiches falling by the wayside and like
the pied piper I led all you rats to the promised land.
All the urchins on clam beach are grateful.
You can see by these pearls in my mouth
and cops aren't come splashes when
I'm lighting this, it's a hell
of a lot easier to watch me cook on the beach
than rent me a hotel with bars in the windows
you see what I'm sayin?