Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Garden of Forking Paths from 42nd Street to Sunset Park with Rev Billy, on the Way to Paterson and the Communities Strike over Colonialism

Billy on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, recalling 42nd Street.
A lost treasure. 

A cellphone opera with LA Kauffman

Billy and a lost scrapbook, a cellphone opera in 1999, and a civil disobedience in the Disney Store, 
bottom photos by Diane Greene Lent. 

This writer in Sunset Park.
Photo by Erik R McGregor

We all have a Paterson in us.
Everyone who walks here.  
Each person who makes her way out of the Port Authority bus terminal,
Or a train arriving Grand Central Station,
Exiting the underground and out onto the street at 42nd Street.
Into the city from
Parts unknown,
Often with nothing but stories.
Some from Cuba,
Reinaldo’s “farfetched hopes…
born of despair…desperate.”
Or Wisconsin.
That was Billy,
Armed with Bible stories, Howls clashing.
Reinaldo with his journal,
 “burdened by … uprootedness.”
Creating his Pateron before night fell.
Magic spaces where we learn about each other.
Where we see each other, 
In between days and months.
Summer into fall and winter.

I first met Billy two decades ago on 42nd street.
Standing outside the Disney store,
with the other street preachers.
Lamenting the fall of man.
Preaching about our sins,
Shopping ourselves do death..
False idols luring,
Tchotchkes calling.
Plastic gods of soma.
Drawing us into a world where we forget.
A suburban sea of identical details, spreading around  us,
Expanding in concentric circles.
At first we laughed at  ourselves.
And then we acted.

We entered the store
Began a cellphone opera,
Screaming into the speakers of our phones,
Pleading with our family members to put down the mouse.
Retail interventions spreading from NYC to Seattle,  Quebec to Chiapas.
Stopping the flow of the cash register.
It’s my right not to live in  a shopping  mall,
I screamed as the police dragged  me away.
The store had become a  theater.

Only in  jail for a  few hours,
We went for liverwurst sandwiches and beer.
Walking through the old neighborhood,
Mesmerized by the Broadway Boogie Woogie.
Where stories began.
Telling a few.
Still a magic place at an intersection.

He kept fighting the flow of cash into the register.
The national addiction.
“You don’t have to do this!” Billy screamed at the shoppers at Macy’s, 
Nearly crushed on buy-nothing day.
Each year a different story.
First Amendment rituals performances,
Defending the Poe House.

We kept on talking about the city,
With its sailors coming in from Sands Street,
Bohemians staying at February House in Brooklyn Heights,
Truman C making Brooklyn home.
Immigrants pouring in from parts unknown.
Migrants here, bringing stories of past lines.
Building gardens reminding them of San Juan.
Defending magic spaces.
Coney Island among those dancing, finding a home.
The arteries of the city pumping,
Us through the subways,
Biking the streets,
Last stop Stillwell Avenue.
Route bullet colored orange,
Ejecting us from the underground out into the beach.
Bodies pouring into the water,
Ideas, colors,  lights. music,  sound,
Forming lives, art, stories.
Opening and closing.
Peace protests.
Bombs dropping.
Each taking a bit of our souls.
Detention centers opening.
shuffling bodies to private jails.
For profit detention centers, modern penal colonies.
New underground railroads.
Disney Stores erasing.
Places where Samuel found cross class contact closing down.
Theaters disappearing.
Magic places shuttered.
Social ties unravelling.

I learned more from Samuel than anyone,
Billy tells me.
We’re standing at the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.
Not far from Truman’s old basement room on  70 Willow St,
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.
No need to apologize for enjoying contact.
For  feeling,  for  sharing, for connecting.
Elizabeth and Dom working  down the street at Show World.
Sharing a space.
Samuel getting a hand job in the theater.
With friends and strangers he’d known forever.
A dollar and a dream at Show World.
Ambitions clashing, lost stories.
Silence death.

We talk about the poets and musicians.
The San Francisco scene,
A conversation evolving through the years,
As the concentric circles expand out from 42nd street,
Identical details bulldozing difference,
 Moloch howling.
Moloch whose buildings are judgment!”
Laments Allen.
Glass buildings expanding  along the waterfront,
From Williamsburg to Brooklyn Bridge Park.
The whole city becoming a Disney store.
Its ok, get back to shopping Rudy counseled after the bombings.
But the city had other plans and ghosts.

 “I love that group from Monk to  Coltrane,” gushes Billy.
“Monk let Trane take over his band for six months.
Monk built a sound with deliberate pauses,
That Trane bellowed over.
Monk let him,
Creating something extraordinary.
That line from Monk to Miles and Mingus
Billy Carter to Nina Simone.

I still see a Paterson in it all, I reply.
In all these arteries you trace through the neighborhoods,
Connecting us all.
In one cosmology of the city.
The street corner societies linking ourselves,
The snap shots and murals, the places we make home.

“Paterson is a long poem in four parts – that a man in himself a city,” explains William Carlos Williams, “beginning,  seeking v achieving and concluding his life in ways which  the various aspects of a city may embody….”
I see it when I hear you talk remind us that the Emma Lazarus  is all of us.
This is our story, you gush.
Give us your tired, your poor.
Our stories.
Outsiders arriving, pouring into the corridors of the metropolis, through the tributaries, tilling the urban farms, creating, conflicting, clashing, cruising, connecting.

Billy smiles looking out.
After a week of immigration organizing, there is nothing so refreshing as a walk through Coney Island, wondering about which immigrants made it.
Our aliveness shimmering with the light reflecting in the water,
together in time.

When Baldwin writes to his nephew, I think of Coates’ letter to his son,
Billy continues.
                                    I see your father’s face when I walk through Paterson.
Walking the streets, looking  at the people on  the trains.
There’s only one Baldwin. 
His sentences breathe like jazz.
The center of our Paterson.

For Whitman, a verb becomes an ingredient, Billy continues.
A recipe for a richer engagement with democracy.
A space, where we commune with Luc Sante’s Ghosts of Manhattan…
“…not the spirits of the propertied classes… the unresting souls of the poor, the marginal, the dispossessed, the depraved, the defective, the recalcitrant. They are the guardian spirits of the urban wilderness in which they lived and died. Unrecognized by the history ….”
We all have our histories,
At war with ourselves.Egos clashing.
Separating from past lives,
Memories that  linger,

Ideas forming.Beginning, seeking vs achieving,  That’s where Paterson starts.
It’s an early chapter.
We get lost in the garden. 

Kurt V saw it;“The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes… Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new….When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals.”
The old man’s fingers trembled as he read to us.
We roared in applause.
Before he departed, making his way to parts unknown April 11,  2007.
The retail interventions continued.
Beginning, seeking vs achieving.
Allen took me off  stage in  1976, Billy laments, Howling.
It was Max’s Kansas City.
I think Patti Smith was there.
I’d spend months and months in a squat in Philadelphia learning the lines.
It was hard.
Wearing  a t shirt, screaming:“starving hysterical naked,”
All the way to the Moloch part.
“Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money!”
I was just about done and when came up on  stage.
I upset Allen.
He took the mic from me.
It was more  than poetry,
That was a scene.
I was  blown away.
People stopped talking to me,
After the show,  I let this sex cult take me and have their way with me.
I rolled around all night.
Got up the next day and drove West to Cole Valley in San Francisco.
And licked my wounds.
Found some old friends in  Bolinas, Ca. 
Doing odd jobs.
On the edge of the poetry scene. 
With Lawrence F. and company.
Everybody knew what had happened. 
He tried to read Howl and Allen  stopped him, they  whispered.
Trying to cure myself.
I talked with this woman at dinner who’d seen this guy performing Howl with Allen.
My friends looked up but didn’t say anything.
They didn’t know it was me. 

The stories were everywhere
Life on the Water.
The theater we started.
Swimming to Cambodia was about to come out.
““I knew I couldn't live in America and I wasn't ready to move to Europe so I moved to an island off the coast of America - New York City,”  gushed Spalding.
Spalding performed it with us for six weeks,
At the peak of his power.
He was generous,
Sharing that with us.
He was faithful to where he came from.
You can’t go home.
But he harkened back to the Performing Garage.
On 72 Wooster in SOHO,
Where he got his start.
He filled our theater for a long time.
And then we had David Cale and Reno and the other gay revolution monologists.
On a seven-year run.
Until it crashed.

Lay low,  
You’ll figure it out, counseled Sidney
Once he was back Times Square.
Another 42nd Street hustler.
Sidney L said this was a character
He could play, the drunk preacher.
A combination of
Jimmy Swaggard crying and
Bill Clinton dodging  Paula Jones.  
Taking on the  devil, 
Disney in Times Square. 
The forking paths lead us there. 
Magic spaces looming in the Naked City. 
To this corner of the world where Sidney found a home,
At St. Clements,

Billy brought me to perform there.
Recalling a Gap add that stole my novel.
Consuming it, turning it into a commodity.
A story it would take decades to recover,
Retracing lost texts, notebooks and journals
Left strewn through the garbage,
Scrapbooks and messages.
“That gap add stole my novel,” I screamed.
Moloch raging, ravaging.
It would take me years to find her. 
There were other stories to explore here. 

We met there before we went to the Disney store.
To take that bust.
There will be ballet dancers performing in the store, recalled Billy,
Surrealist fantasies and NYC sleepiness competing,
The dancers never  appeared.
But the idea was
All a part of the congregation,
Spending the day in the store, fighting Moloch, and then jail.
A young cash register  attendant kicked a few  of us.
A shopper pointed us out.
And out, back to 42nd street,
The Disney Six, out eating liverwurst sandwiches, drinking beer. 
Dancing with the high culture and low that make the city.

And then it was all gone.
That old deli where we got the liverwurst closed.
Reification looming in  the flatted out,  one dimensional city.
Cleaner than a dentist’s office.
Safe for everyone.
Hustlers and preachers gone. 
Sex shops shuttered out to Sunset Park.
No sex here.
If a sailor shows up on shore leave he’ll slit his wrists warns Bill D.

Outside Howard Johnson’s we met in Times Square February 15, 2003.
Sitting out the riot.
Taking a break,
Eating grilled cheese
Colin Powell lying at the UN as the world said no to war.
Millions of us in the streets around the world.
As riot police roamed the area,
Cracking down on dissent. 
“We’ve been here a long time,” a homeless man grumbled outside.
Bombs dropped.
And we protested,
Pissing in the wind.

The storyline changed.
We don’t need another comedian, another Saturday Night gig, they told Billy before the anti war shows at  St Mark’s Place.

I feel the vapor trails of my life,
Recalls Billy.
The seven weeks in Union Square after  9/11
When we had a public conversation about what had happened.
It was our Hyde Park,
Our commons. 
That pause between 9/11 and War,
Between Fall and Winter and Summer.
Stretching from Spring to Summer into Fall.
It happened with Standing Rock and
Climate Strike,
Summer turning to Fall.

The toxins still within us. 
In US militarism.
Militarizing the police.
There is a necessary violence, his father told him.
Send the bombs back into their planes
Wrote Kurt V.
Reading at St Mark’s Church,
Recalling bombs retreating from Dresden:
People make their meaning out of Bible Stories. 
Talking about a space that was unknowable.
A citizenship outside of shopping.
Random and interconnected at Theater 80 on Saint Mark’s Place.
Show after show.
Taking countless stories that go together.
Culture jamming a narrative.
Saints marching. 
Ricardo and Barbara and Imani.
Finding a new story in it,
Recognizing the activists.

Rejecting the Dutch Calvinist logic of his father. 
There are other stories.
Watch High Planes Drifter
Counseled Sidney.
Clint wanders into town
He dreams the evil and the good.
Helps the locals fend off a group of criminals.
Leaves on his horse,
Riding into the sunset.
Learn from this story, Sidney told Billy.
Tracing a new theology of community.

Tells the story of his  father,
Rejecting that necessary violence that his father called for.
That helped me get away from the Calvinistic story of death and  revenge,
Recalls Billy.
The necessary violence Dad described.
I wanted it to be political.
There are too many individual stories.
We need larger collective narratives.
Walt Whitman stories of bodies flowing  across this river, 
Flowing to and from. 
We are they
They are us.
I am you, you are me.
Increase reduce.
Looking out at the East River.

I didn’t sacrifice myself on the alter of Allen or my father.
Fighting for Union  Square, 
Remembering Emma,
Fighting the sweatshops.
We are all prostitutes.
Union  Square is not for sale.
Where Emma preached and we earned the eight hour day.
Running for mayor, arteries clogging.
Chest aching.
To the hospital.
And out.
Back home.
Back to bed.
With Lena and Savitri 

Stopping buying and selling gardens and people and neighborhoods.
He preached.
Savitri conducted.
Lena wore pink boots.
Put down the mouse.
Stop Mountaintop removal.
Learn from the earth.
Summer turning to Fall and Winter.
Along with our activism.
An action a day for decades,
From gardens to Seattle,
To Times Square to Los Angeles,
A week in jail.
Battling Wall Mart and Police and displacement.
Occupy Wall Street.
Fuck Tom Morello, he screamed,
Vanity getting in the way.

Don’t make it about the past,
Asks Billy.
We’re still going into Chase lobbies.
We’re meeting
In Sunset Park for the Communities Strike over Colonialism.
Later today.
Riding home.
Picking up an old album someone left behind,
With old postcards.
Another lost story to learn from.
Clues and magic in the garbage.

That Billy, he has become his character said Guillermo Gómez-Peña
GGP is one to talk, laughs Billy.

In 1958, William Carlos Williams wrote his publisher explaining that Patterson would not end.

We all had to.
“…as it is to me.”
Trying to keep it whole, our Patersons, our selves.
Billy and the choir still breaking out into public space.
Stories whirling,
Becoming a city.
Barbara and the squats.
Teddy and dreams.
Laura and Monica and Benjamin,
Donald and Stonewall,
Dereck gone.
Benjamin Barber off  to points unknown.
Reflecting on the sea of identical details that enveloped 42nd Street, 
Moving outward.
Tides rising.
Story after story, 
From Kurt Vonnegut’s bombs moving backward,
 Baldwin’s letters,
Coltrane’s saxophone explosions,
Billy’s cell phone operas, 
Allen’s  Howl’s.
Savitri’s love and rage.
Lena’s summersaults.
Stories of immigrants
Regrets on Hudson Street.
Outside of Immigration  Customs and Enforcement.
Occupations out of control.
From Standing Rock to Union Square,
Zuccotti Park and Ferguson.
Exiled from Max’s Kansas City,
To Life on the Water.
To St Clement’s.
From Anti-consumer to Peace movements.
Sermons and holy cyclists
Critical masses and Earth Riots.
The arteries of this body,
Looking at the city,
Hoping for openings,
Making connections.
From Sidney to Spalding to the young activists.

“Paterson is a long poem in  four parts”
So is this one,
Billy howling,
Preaching about shopping,
Singing about the planet,
And sharing immigrant stories.
Railing against the detention centers.
Love has no border!

Riding my bike to meet the choir,
Past the sex  shops exiled to Sunset Park,
 at 44th and 5th Ave across from Key Foods Grocery! Ramps to park are on 44th & 6th Ave and 41st & 6th Ave!

Another fight, another story.
There are still magic places  here. 
Billy in orange.
Savitri and Lena
And the gregarious choir greeting us,

Back  into  public space.
The garden of forking paths taking us past the Greenwood Cemetery.
Into a majestic fall.
“We view the fight against climate destruction as just one part of the fights against racism, colonialism, fascism, and capitalism. We believe that frontline communities must be the most audible, visible, and powerful people in that fight. And as a tool in that fight, we're starting to build the power of the ultimate direct action: the general strike.
Our Demands:
End Climate Imperialism
Reject Fascism
End Gentrification
Prison Abolition
Community Ownership
Intergenerational Leadership
Animal Liberation
Climate Reparations
On this day, there will be no work, no bank support, or capitalism. We have waited long enough for climate action to be taken. Scientists have warned that we do not have much time left before we can reverse the consequences of going over 1.5C. Sadly, people are already facing the consequences of the climate crisis today. Climate change has been happening, but the climate crisis is already here. 
This strike 1 week after the youth-led strike on September 20th, and on the last day of the UN Climate Summit, to show that the people will not be silenced. 

Sunset Park and other magic places.  


  1. ben! this is such a joy to read, what a ride it has been. so much time together, UNION SQUARE! CRITICAL MASS! all of it, the first amendment. we love you.

    1. love you guys! lets keep it going friends! UNion Square is not for sale!