Monday, May 10, 2010

The People's Parade of Skeletons

When life at the Anarchy House becomes intolerable Robert and Kim sleep in a broken down 1968 VW bus with a bed built into the back. The bus has a cracked windshield and one flat tire. The brakes have not been serviced in 15 years and there is no way to know how many miles are on the engine since the speedometer broke before Robert took possession of it when several kids found a ride on a sailboat to Hawaii and gave him the keys. So Robert and Kim move it around the block and park it in front of abandoned lots, parks and dead end dirt roads in the forest. The flat tire is a problem as the lack of power steering already makes driving nearly impossible.
“Robert! Watch where you’re going!” Kim would cry as the van headed toward the curb or a mail box or telephone post.
“I’m watching! It’s like steering a bathtub!” Robert would shout back as he threw his weight into the steering wheel to miss the obstacle, a man pushing a shopping cart or a teenager pulling his pants up in front of them.
“When are we going to fix that flat?”
“When we get an impact wrench to remove the rusted lug nuts.”
Kim turns in her seat.
“When is that going to happen? We can’t just hope a fairy is going to…Hey…look out!”

Robert is a good driver but it takes all his skill and strength to safely navigate the rusting van around the block, playing the accelerator and clutch pedals like Bach on the pipe organ, leaning over the steering wheel and turning like the captain of a runaway steamship with both hands spinning madly, sweating and biting the tip of his red mustache, Kim presses her white knuckles into the torn ceiling cover, her feet pounding for a ghost brake as they grind past a parked car or startled pedestrian, sparks flying from the bare wheel rim, a thin rut carved in the pavement. They only need to do this every few days for street sweeping or to avoid the wrath of the traffic nazis with their chalk and orange tire boots. The periodic flyers they find on the windshield saying “Get out of the neighborhood! No Hippies!” and the nightly harassment from gangs and the police (who separately have issues with people living in their vehicles in residential areas.) does not bother them. The Police care because the residents complain, the gangs in turn target the van because when the police responded to the resident complaints it made it harder for them to tag the walls with cryptic initials and to sell stolen bicycles and overcut cocaine.
Robert and Kim understand these social dynamics and do not care enough to be upset. Their main concern is the public display of poverty to set the record straight on the woeful performance of American social services. The gangs, being self-governed, sovereign entities are admirable augmentations to conventional ruling bodies and can not be faulted. Their reliance on drugs, Kim explains, is not a devotion to recklessness or corruption, but the natural decay of a people in chronic psycho-emotional and physical pain. They need the drugs because the society has barred any other kind of gainful employment. Everything is manufactured and federally controlled so it is no surprise that when people resist assimilation into the corporate machine they must turn to drugs as both a method of employment and as a way to numb themselves against the untenably oppressive regime.

“Hey, is that Oggy and Isabelle over there? What the hell…”

Robert is concentrating on steering the out of control vehicle through a maze of parked cars but he can not ignore the scene unfolding on the sidewalk. Nor can Kim suppress a gasp of shock.
Oggy is laying on his back on a lawn, his arms flailing in defense as Isabelle kicks savagely at him. A stray dog is biting Oggy’s right leg. Mary and a shaggy, agitated man stand nearby smoking cigarettes and tap dancing the junkie two-step. An overturned peasant’s cart lays nearby and the lawn is strewn with old clothing and a ragged pop up tent.

“We have to help,” says Kim while Robert’s response is to pull the van to one side and tug the emergency brake lever until they come to a screeching stop amid the trash and leaves in the sidewalk gutter.

Earlier in the day Mary, Isabelle, Oggy and Mary’s latest trick, a man with no left arm whose nickname is Lefty, embarked on a mission to collect Lefty’s disability check at the social services complex. Isabelle’s spastic dog and Oggy’s insistence that no fossil fuels be used in the trip complicated this monthly journey though not in the predictable way. Since they were all broke, the fossil fuel boycott was not a major issue until Oggy decided to dedicate the journey to the undernourished of the world. Despite strenuous objections from Isabelle and Mary and resigned indifference from Lefty, Oggy made a cardboard banner with the words “People’s Parade of Skeletons” and mounted it on his brightly decorated push cart. The banner also included a series of small print indictments of the global oil industry such as "exploiting the land at the sake of native cultures" and "Being evil". The timeline of events leading up to the collision with Robert and Kim is as follows:
The “Parade” left the crack hotel at 11am, an hour after they intended to depart (They were delayed by an argument with hotel management over the quantity and quality of residents in the single occupancy room.)
At 11:05 Mary had a violent spasm of her colon that required the entire company to return to the hotel room. Oggy remained on the sidewalk, talking to pedestrians about the dangers of oil exploration and tolerating a warning from the police concerning the blockage of a public sidewalk. Lefty sat in the hotel room staring at his reflection in the black television screen. Isabelle danced naked with the puppy while Mary’s bowels erupted loudly into the toilet.
At 11.52 Mary had recovered enough to smoke the remaining pot from the waterbong and announce, “I just shit a Caesar’s Salad.” Soon thereafter, the party rejoined Oggy on the sidewalk and commenced to walk at a death march pace down the sidewalk as Oggy chanted a capella, “We the hungry of the earth, denounce the practice of oil exploitation!”

At 12:20 AM the single file column of misfits crossed River Street and were verbally assaulted by a truck driver.

At 12:21 AM the truck driver stepped from his truck to physically confront Oggy, who had accused the driver of, among other crimes, murder and corruption of the earth.

At 12:22 AM the driver fled the scene after having two knives pulled on him by Mary and Isabelle.

At 12:38 AM the group of four paused at a taco stand to ask the sales associate if he could spare a burrito or taco or “Anything that you were going to throw away.” The associate said no. Mary insisted that there must be something that they could eat. The associate reiterated his position and was subsequently called an “asshole”

At 12:50 AM Mary convinced a young man to give her fifteen dollars for a sack of weed. She took the money and met up with Isabelle and Lefty and Oggy (who was sitting atop a trash can, commentating on everything thrown into it) Mary bought four bean and cheese burritos and, since Oggy boycotts all fast food establishments, she split the extra burrito with Isabelle while Lefty inhaled his.

At 1:09 PM the People’s Parade was halted by a patrol car near Memorial Park, responding to an anonymous call about a domestic disturbance, and everyone was searched for drugs. Oggy accused the police of “dishonor and corruption” as he was cited for failure to display a parade permit. Isabelle was cited for allowing her dog to roam off leash. Mary had a silver ring confiscated and was warned about her health. Lefty sat miserably nearby half listening to a lecture concerning the company he keeps.

At 1:49 PM the police departed but Oggy decided to organize a sit down protest as he announces, “Until global injustice ceases I will not move.” Mary attempted to be diplomatic and said they will return for him after they pick up Lefty’s disability check (fully intending to abandon Oggy at the park). Lefty said nothing. Isabelle, on the other hand, insisted that Oggy is either with her family or against them. Oggy countered that there were bigger issues to consider and they should all protest the injustice because “in solidarity we’re stronger. We can’t be beaten. They’re trying to divide us. They…”

At this point, 1:50 PM, Isabelle advanced on Oggy and proceeded to kick him. This provoked the dog to attach Oggy also and his cries drew the attention of a nearby dog to leap a fence and descend on Oggy with his fangs gnashing.

Soon thereafter Robert and Kim squealed around the corner in their search for a more secure parking spot and saw Oggy being kicked by Isabelle.

“Let me handle Isabelle,” says Kim. “You make sure Oggy is ok. And if Mary comes at you then watch for needles.”

The two homeless heroes jump out of the VW van and divide Oggy and Isabelle.

“Stop it! Both of you!” Yells Kim in her most assertive, take no shit tone. She is practical when it comes to physical attacks and has learned to channel the dominant parent to get adult children to respond. In this case, Isabelle’s will to inflict as much injury on those around her enables her to ignore Kim’s command. Isabelle kicks Oggy with the might of a place kicker in the NFL.

“I will not fight back!” Yells Oggy. “You are only hurting yourself.”

“Am I? Does this hurt me?” she stomps on Oggy’s bad foot, the one that is deformed and crippled. Oggy yelps in pain as Isabelle nods triumphantly.

“Why don’t you care that I love you?”

“I hate you!”

“I’m in so much pain!”


Kim times her attack to a moment when Isabelle is distracted by Oggy’s howls. Kim knows that Isabelle is beyond diplomacy. Only physical means will resolve the battle. She takes one slow step toward Isabelle to make sure she has a clear route of attack and then she moves cat-like and low, taking Isabelle out at the knees with a shoulder tackle. Robert determines that Oggy is not the provocateur of the conflict so he assists Kim in subduing Isabelle. This takes both of their full efforts as Isabelle swings wildly and Mary suddenly awakes from her daydream and notices two people are wrestling her daughter.

“Get off my baby!” she screams and douses Robert’s face with the remaining pepper spray in a can she carries for encounters with unpredictable limp dick speed hustlers under the railroad trestle. Lefty quietly takes this opportunity to slip away into the bushes and vanishes from the scene, grumbling and discontent with his lot in life, stumbling over a pile of aluminum cans left by some luckless hobo, and lurching toward the social services office.

Meanwhile, Oggy has rolled away and comes face to face with a wrapper of some discarded. He reads the ingredients: “Thiamine Mononitrate, Tocopherols, Chicken Fat…” someone, he think briefly before another kick to his crippled foot disrupts his pondering, someone is responsible for that chicken fat, some human awakes in the morning and wanders through a city of sleeping bodies, driving a car to some factory or farm where chickens are dismembered and their fat is dehydrated and added to an ingredient package. Someone does that every day in many places. And another person is responsible for printing the words “chicken fat” on a package that will surround an item that contains chicken fat. And so that person types it into a computer that is serviced by another team of people in a building that is services by hundreds. Maybe they’re sick with cancer and are working in a chicken fat related field to pay hospital bills. Is that possible? Is chicken fat an equivalent to cancer treatment? The ramifications of chicken fat are astounding, Oggy decides. Thiamine Mononitrate is probably…

Oggy yelps as Isabelle’s heel lands on his shin.

“Enough!” shouts Robert as he blindly wrestles the pepper spray away from Mary. Mary loses her balance and falls to the ground bawling like a shorn sheep.

“You keep away!”

“What the fuck? Why did you spray me in the face with acid? My eyes!”

“Teach you a lesson.”

“I wasn’t trying to kill her. Fuck!”

Robert rubs his face with his shirt as he holds Mary on the ground.

Kim finally wins the upper hand despite her small size as she gains an advantage by grabbing Isabelle’s farmer overall suspenders and pulling her center of gravity away from the moaning Oggy. Kim thinks this is all she needs, a wrestling match with a raging lunatic. At the sign of any needles or blades, she decides, she will have to call the police even if that means Isabelle being sent to a mental hospital by the trigger happy police psychologist.

“Isabelle, you will stop now!”

Isabelle struggles to free herself from Kim’s grip but can’t turn around. So she unbuttons the suspenders and drops her overalls to the ground. She’s wearing white waffle weave long underwear, salvaged from the free clothes pile at the Food Not Bombs meal along with her sweater and socks and a book on poisonous snakes of the Amazon.

“Robert! Get her!”

“Can’t see! Ah!”

Kim acts quickly and uses the overalls as a net to tangle Isabelle’s legs. Then she runs with Isabelle so their momentum carries them over Oggy’s writhing body (their feet trampled the chicken fat package and brief headline popped into Oggy’s brain “Chicken fat stomped by homeless wrestlers”) until they both fall into the grass near an overflowing trash can.

“Get the fuck off me you bitch!” yells Isabelle as she tries to untangle her legs, scratching a jagged trail in her own leg with a broken suspender clasp.

“Get off her!” yells Isabelle’s mother in solidarity from her position under Robert’s forearm.

“Stay where you are, Mary. We’re here to help. We were driving past and saw Isabelle kicking Oggy.”

“He deserved it. We’re trying to get Lefty’s disability check (he’s had four major operations on his back and can’t walk without morphine and the damn government has denied his claims for two months so I’ve been hustling for rent money and I myself have liver problems from a car accident when I was six) and Oggy doesn’t think about anything but some damn protest on affordable housing or some shit.”

“It’s the displacement of native populations,” says Oggy as his wobbling chin returns to normal. “We can’t ignore them.”

“Fuck them Injuns,” says Mary. “I’m on my own and so are they.”

“But their lands. Their sacred lands. We’re destroying everything! We have to raise awareness. And the wolf is…”
“Oggy!” Kim tries unsuccessfully to distract Oggy’s building rant. “Oggy, not now!”

“…the wolf is being driven to extinction. It’s on the brink of death because no one cares!”

“Wolves! I hate wolves,” screams Isabelle from the grip of Kim’s hands. “All he talks about is wolves and the melting ice caps and global pollution.”

“You aren’t even listening. You think I don’t notice? You’re smoking cigarettes and eating at Taco Taco. I know where their chicken fat is trucked in from. Do you? Do you know how their trucks are killing wolves five thousand miles away?”

“Oggy, can you not bring up wolves right now? It’s bothering Isabelle.”

“Well that’s tough shit. The wolves are being killed, their whole habitat is disappearing and if Isabelle is bothered by that then she should do something about it instead of smoking pot and dropping acid.”

“I hate you!” yells Isabelle. “I’ll kill you.”

“Kill kill kill. That’s all you’re good at. Why don’t we all kill each other so the wolf has a chance at survival?”

“No one is going to kill themselves,” says Robert.

“But the wolf is dying. The wolf is dying and the chicken fat will completely drown civilization. Don’t you understand? We’re…we’re drowning in chicken fat!”

Kim does not try to understand Oggy’s reasoning as her experience with paranoid schizophrenics has taught her that one will never completely understand the source of such crazed pronouncements. From Oggy’s vantage point, the world is drowning in chicken fat. He may be crazy but denying his conclusions is equally crazy if you expect to make a difference. Therapy begins not from the world of the sane, but from the askew world of the insane. With media corporations buying every news outlet the line between fact and fiction is so blurred that an insane declaration may hold a clue to the final truth and thus the clue to aiding the mentally ill.

“We can’t debate that right now, Oggy. We’re not going to debate the extinction of wolves.” Isabelle tries to bite Kim’s hand and she finds a different spot to hold her arm securely.

“Maybe not. Maybe we won’t debate it. What’s there to debate? The wolf is dying. Chicken fat, fucking chicken fat, is everywhere and the…” Oggy chokes up and swallows before he can continue, “…there’s trash everywhere. It’s everywhere. Could we be further from a sustainable mode of living?”

Oggy rises to his feet and picks up the one piece of trash with the ingredients list that includes chicken fat. He limps to another piece of trash and then another.

“Chicken fat…” he says to himself as he gathers most of the loose trash from the grassy lawn where the wrestling match had been held. The trash has blown from a garbage can that has been scavenged for aluminum and food. Oggy tries to push all the trash into the can but more falls off the sides of the mountain and he has to bend down and pick it up also. He holds up a cardboard box, “Toasted Crackers? Eat toasted death and kill all the wolves. What? That makes sense? We’re toasting the polar ice caps out of existence!”

The spectacle Oggy makes as he limps around the park picking up trash chills Kim’s heart and magically transforms Isabelle from a raging lunatic into a teary-eyed romantic.

“Oggy?” she moans as her muscles relax. “Love?”

Oggy turns around with his hands full of litter, tears dripping from his long eyelashes into his matted mustache and beard.

“We have to lead by example. Yes? Gandhi said we have to be the change we want to see in the world. And his point wasn’t that the world would change but by that he meant that only by representing the change we wish to see would we find peace. The man was gunned down and he probably knew he would be shot but he also knew that his life had to represent, actually embody his beliefs, not just espouse them fruitlessly to his audience. The grain…” here Oggy’s voice cracks because Isabelle gently removes herself from Kim’s grasp and rises with love in her eyes. She moves on bare feet through the long blades of grass over the litter-free lawn toward Oggy. “…the grain, the seed, the source of all action is our own personal choices. Isabelle, we have to be strong.”

“I know, Oggy.”

Robert, Kim and Mary watch in awe as the two embrace over a cardboard pizza box.

Mary says, “I thought you was raping my daughter. That’s why I sprayed you.”

“Why are you even carrying pepper spray?”

“You go deal speed on the levee and you’ll know why.”

“How long have I seen you on the streets, Mary?” asks Kim as she joins the other two.

“Couple months.”

“It’s been longer than that. At least two years.”

“Oh, I wasn’t on the streets the whole time. I’ve had apartments. I was married once.”

Mary begins to pick at the scabs on her legs. She is agitated and restless. Her tongue probes the toothless regions of her raw and bleeding gums.

Kim says simply, “I think your lifestyle is damaging to you and your daughter.”

“Oh, that’s bullshit. You been listening to those social service workers too long.”

“I am a social service worker.”

“Where’s your badge.”

“I don’t have one. I’m independent.”

“Then you don’t count for shit. Tell me what I am. Tell me who damaging who. Bullshit.”

“There are rehab programs.”

“I’m teaching my daughter how to survive! Who else is going to teach her that?”

“You can teach her that in a more sheltered environment. You can get advice.”

“Advice? From a dike sitting in an office? What does she know about living on the street?”

“She knows that you can’t do it for long. She knows that you can take steps to get off the streets to get an apartment.”

“Bullshit. They only want a paycheck.”

“I don’t get paid and I’m telling you the same thing.”

“And if something happens to Isabelle?” says Mary with a nod in the direction of her daughter and Oggy who are tenderly kissing each other’s hands.

Robert rubs and blinks his eyes as he regains his vision. “It’s just going to get worst on the street, Mary. I’ve seen those junkies you hang out with.”

“And she’ll learn to take care of herself. I’m all she’s got.”

“I understand that you want to protect her. I hear you saying you don’t want to abandon her. And I’m telling you that you can have it both ways. Taking her off the streets, getting into rehab…”

“I don’t need rehab. The worst thing for me right now would be staying sober. I’ve got to be awake 24 hours a day to protect Isabelle.”

“What about Oggy? He loves her.”

“Oggy? That kid is a basket case. He was up in the hotel room writing out his ‘manifesto’ and talking to our neighbors about birth control and solar power. Our neighbors are four hookers. His waves don’t reach the shore. It’s that simple.”

“Ok, but you have to sleep. I can tell you’re not sleeping.”

“I’m doing it for her, for Izzy. She needs me.”

“I want you to enter the day shelter program.”

“They drug test. I’m not going there. They drug test and they steal shit from you and they open your mail and they check your possessions. You don’t have privacy. They treat you like a little kid and then wonder why you act like one.”

In a rare display of anger Kim blurts out, “Damn it, Mary, I want you in that shelter.”

“No way in hell I’m going to let you take my child away from me.”

The two women face each other for a moment of tense emotion. Kim knows enough not to burn bridges. She will speak no ultimatums.

“I won’t give up on you. If you need anything you can talk to me. I’m not your enemy, Mary.”

“I’m glad we understand each other,” Mary says with suspicion before turning to Robert and in her most elegant and deliberate tone of voice says, “And I apologize sincerely for spraying you in the eyes with the mace. I was protecting my child and see now that you mean her no harm.”

“That’s what I get for trying to break up a fight,” says Robert miserably.

From where they are seated the three, Mary, Kim and Robert, watch as Isabelle helps Oggy find a discarded cardboard box. She folds it into shape and together they begin to fill it with litter.

Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.