SOMETIMES THE GIG CHOOSES YOU. This time the gig was the Occupy SF camp at the foot of the cities’ Embarcadero in Justin Hermann plaza.
I’d been invited the week before by an unlikely performer for the occupiers, Literary Death Match producer Alia Volz, who informed me that a performance series was being put on for the occupiers. It was too short notice, but automatically I was intrigued that someone would undertake such an effort. Knowing Alia from the spoken word scene, I couldn’t imagine street activists being terribly interested in poets or storytellers. They barely paid attention to musicians or stand up comics who always carried far more cache’. I couldn’t see a literary type having much of a satisfying experience doing such a thing.
But Alia knew my material; knew I could be very politically agitated with it. I spoke with her the next day, and she confirmed all the things I’d heard other people say: the vibe of the encampment is scruffy, like upper Haight Street kids being their typically transient and agro-hippy selves, but with tents. It was weird for her, but she encouraged me to go regardless and perform for the encampment with the sincere belief that they would be more receptive to my type of material.
A week later I found myself ascending the BART (our version of a subway in Northern California) escalator with nothing more than an address to text. The Occupy SF camp was only a block away, and the average tourist or pedestrian normally wouldn’t know it was there until they turned the corner to see a powerful albeit makeshift statement of…no question about it…rage. If one is to believe in “vibes,” then the feeling emanating from around a perimeter of SFPD squad cars and television news vans was one of suspicion, disenfranchisement and a nervous anticipation of looming violence, for certainly all these people must have known that just that morning, the Occupy Oakland camp had been evicted and were currently rallying and marching on the other side of the bay.
I checked the cell number I had written down for the series producer, a mysterious but energetic go-getter named Hiya Swanhuyser who had been encouraging me to come out since Alia had put me in touch with her. My text quickly was answered with a brief and terse “south side of the camp, by the MUNI trolley rail.”
I was on the North side, and feeling like a tourist in a place I normally felt at home, I decided to make my way to our meeting spot by plunging into the heart of the encampment, walking through huge waves of smoke comprised of sage, cigarettes and pot. It felt a little like being back in a Grateful Dead parking lot without the promise of a rock music spectacle but quite possibly a rock throwing spectacle.
Some of the residents lying in their open tents eyed me with a kind of resigned weariness. I was amazed to see kids and dogs throughout the tent village, as if it really were a state authorized campsite or park. Half way to my destination on the center patch of lawn, I noticed a large group of campers holding a “round table” meeting and I wondered if this was the fabled General Assembly meeting that I heard served as the daily glue by which the campers kept in touch with each other. If so, it meant I was either late or my set had been pre-empted. I was so taken by the spectacle of this meeting that I nearly stepped in a huge pile of dog shit. A young man quickly brought out a small cat litter scooper and a plastic bag saying “Sorry! Sorry!” to me.
“It’s okay really,” I offered with a tepid smile. Another person quickly joined in and helped him pick the offal up, and then as he made his way back to his tent, he smiled at his dog and said “Harpua, get over here and occupy this tent right now!”
I could see the concern city health officials might have with not just the human logistics of waste, food and hygiene, but the introduction of pets into the equation could certainly complicate matters. Still, no one was harshing on pet owners in the tent city and indeed, seemed to be supporting the notion that animals could share in the occupying statement as much as humans.
The occupation had begun during the waning days of September, but this was now October 25th and there was a cold bite in the air now, and I also began to wonder how well this particular group would hold up in the approaching storm season. I shuddered to think of the activists currently ensconced on Wall Street and what they would be facing during a NYC winter.
I shortly reached the South end of the camp and still wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be looking for, other than what I imagined to be a young woman with a determined gleam in her eye. It didn’t take long for me to find her though, since she was carrying a sandwich board and a sign advertising the performance series. She was talking to a young male activist who was asking her if she was a Laker’s fan because of the sign’s color scheme.
“Are you Hiya?” I asked. She gave me a quick, but brilliant smile and answered “That would be me! And I’m guessing you’re Paul?” I extended my hand and with a sheepish look said “Hiya, Hiya. I guess you get that a lot?” I was relieved when she didn’t look at me like I was an imbecile but merely said “oh yes, all the time.”
by Bill Pieper