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The (Orange) Groves of Alienation: Day Of The San Diego Locust

Habeas Mentem

In the post November 2nd world, Habeas Mentem returns to find a Brave New U.S.A.

(San Diego, CA) The re-election of Shrub had a bizarre and unexpected effect on Ocean Beach, a small ocean-side community of unaffordable apartments, old hippies, bikers, shop owners, tow-headed surfers, and crack heads. The day after that Heinz catsup millionaire conceded defeat was as if a bomb had gone off—dead quiet. A hush blanketed the town (not that I was a big Kerry fan, or even a Nader one for that matter; I like the old saw, "Whoever you voted for, the government won"). Normally cheery and rambunctious leftists were in a definite, palpable state of mourning... the frat boys had won! — again! — and we couldn't quite believe it... Didn't anyone see the hip t-shirts we wore denouncing the Bush regime, months, years earlier? Shirts that made use of clever graphics and outlandish pictorial juxtapositions; shirts with trenchant witticisms and searing declarations of out-right rejection??

No; I didn't see it coming, this strange malaise... a week before the election, an overweening and middle-aged computer programmer told me he was "predicting a Kerry landslide", and for a while I believed him!

Yes, I lived in my own squalid universe too long, didn't connect the dots, and when I look back, I see it all started with the GOP convention and Arnold Swarzenegger's speech...

Yes, I have to begin where it started...Have to trace it back to the terrible day of that insipid televised GOP confab...a life time ago...Tuesday, August 31... if I can summon the courage to mentally retrace those footfalls and the difficult personal encounters of that night...a night full of real police violence, drawn guns, helicopters, arrests and the harassment of homeless Mexican nationals, all encoded by my optic nerve while streaking by on a crudely spray-painted teal-blue K2 mountain bike at top speed...


There is an overpriced Lebanese cafe for yuppies, tech-nerds and word-struck drifters on F St. downtown, a district with an upscale European flavor. Restaurants and shops mostly staffed by pretty, earnest Brazilian girls and lean, scrappy Eastern Europeans on the make. The girls who work at this café all seem eager to get their degrees in English or Chinese or interior decorating or film metatheory, and go back to Brazil and really live... this American money-grubbing culture they've discovered here just wont do...better to squat in a tin shanty favello in Sao Paulo, a few mutter, than serve another fudge-ripple ice-cream cone to a porcine and Prozac-dependant "expediter" for Home Depot...

The walls of this particular cafe are hung with large, highly-detailed, Fantasy-genre paintings of busty medieval women scantily clad in Siberian wolf fur; their high Slavic cheekbones and set jaws betraying anguish or ecstasy as they engage in extreme action with whips. Or else they are depicted as languidly, helplessly, falling over each other in the seraglio of some plush medieval dungeon in, say, Addas Addaba; and otherwise portrayed in attitudes of what a relative of mine, with retrograde values from another era, decried as incipient "Lesbianism!" Loud house music plays continuously there, some of it excellent, but you do always feel a little taken, "Eight bucks for tea and a lousy piece of cake!" belly-ached my aged relation . . .

But properly speaking, my odyssey started and finished at this sybaritic cafe, a span of eight trying hours, an odyssey commenced, sign-posted and basically augured ill, by the odd appearance and uncommon antics of—


That scorching noon of Tuesday, August 31, disheveled and limping, his arms an archipelago of scabs, his face streaked with wet concrete dust and his body wrapped in a brand-new, giant, obviously stolen American flag, like a superhero or sixties hippie, a Latino man careened by the mullioned windows of the café; drunkenly importuning a tall computer tech seated out front for a cigarette and maybe some spare change. After he got the cigarette he indulged himself in an energetic monologue that I couldn't hear, punctuating his speech with violent gesticulations. The tech had given him his own lighter and I remember wondering if the guy would ever give it back (nope; he walked off with it. Tech stood up and pointed to the orange Bic lighter in the man's hand, then snatched it back).

If it weren't for that bright-spangled flag, and the grayish mud flecking his face, making him seem like a costumed figure from the Mexican Día de Los Muertos, I might have ignored the scene altogether and kept on plowing through Stuart Walton's cultural history of intoxication, Out Of It (2002, Random House), full of recondite insights into British and continental drug history and culture (he calls his field of study intoxicology) and ranges, maybe a little too smartly, from Kerouac to Ketamine; cultural references about modern-day British drug consumption soaring over my brain-pan—mostly in the form of obscure E-gobbling indie rock bands of little celebrity, crooked cabinet ministers from the House of Lords, London tabloid in-jokes, the possible inebriate origins of the Magna Carta; bibulous burghers, besotted lords, and a sub rosa sect of autoerotically asphyxiating preppies.

All reminding me once again of the enormous gaps in weltanschauung between the two countries. "Two peoples separated by a common language," to quote Churchill (Kaufman, 2000).

But I was struck by a passage from Walton's book, and wrote it down as an odd counterpoint to the wino's sidewalk tomfoolery: ". . . . we make a fundamental mistake in seeing intoxication as a sad substitute for real fulfillment, instead of what it simply and irreducibly is—an integral component of a life fully lived." In Vino Veritas Olé!


That night, while hunting for wrinkle-free fabrics distantly related to polyester at the Baras thrift store in Hillcrest, (occasionally patronized by transvestites ransacking the place for second-hand make-up, depilatories, wigs, costume jewelry and purses) I watched part of Schwarzenegger's GOP speech on an old Trinitron color TV propped alongside the cash register on a dilapidated chair upholstered in cracked rufous naugahide. Arnold was delivering his stand-up routine, a speech full of easy platitudes and glib jingoism to a gushing mob of thousands upon thousands of condo time-share agents, dentists, market-research and hair-care consultants, presidents of high school student councils, Starbucks employees, FBI gumshoes, soccer moms, classic rock DJs, droves of on- and off -duty security guards, Methodist tax attorneys, "pre-owned" Lexis dealers, surfing nurses, journalists for Variety, and Barbie dolls majoring in accounting and minoring in abnormal psychology at UCSD...

The vapidity of the speech, coupled with the mob furor gave me the willies, but I shrugged it off and bought a used black rayon shirt with the atypical pattern of an optician's eye chart printed recursively on it in white block letters. A shirt like Philip K. Dick's "Scramble Suit," a garment that somehow renders the wearer invisible to passersby and the world at large, sort of like a graduate degree.

Exiting the store and biking down University ave., I turned on 5th st and locked my bike to a meter. A glamorous girl in her early twenties, tall, long blond hair with a harsh-looking face walked past me, fiddled with her cell phone, then turned around and sat down at the table of an outdoor cafe. There was something off-putting, indefinably strange about her appearance. I looked closely at her and found she was cross-eyed.

"Did you see Arnold's speech?" I asked, to get a feel for her.

"Did I ever!" she said rapturously. "It made the hair on my neck stand on end!" she said with an enthusiasm I found menacing. Conversation can be very strange sometimes, it can add an unexpected dimension to a new person that you would never have imagined...In just a few sentences I grasped her entire mindset, social class, political allegiance—all at cross-purposes to mine.

"Why do you like Arnold?" I asked evenly, genuinely interested in the phenomena of his appeal. She seemed almost amazed someone wouldn't know—

"Like...He's Arnold!"


"He's sooo coool!" she crowed, looking like a child talking about a roller coaster ride. People like this send me groping for authoritative studies of Nazi Germany. Was Hitler's contempt for the masses any different from Schwarzenegger's? From, gulp... mine?...

But as Hakim Bey once told me, we are the masses... and if my bank balance is any indication of my pack status, then I'm lockstep in with the proles anyway...

To return to this young Pollyanna: her unthinking enthusiasm for a populist heart-throb and crypto-fascist bullyboy summoned up images from Day Of The Locust, Nathanial West's prophetic 1939 novel about Hollywood film culture—the discarded human wrecks and failures of that system, starlets and has-beens and never-weres trapped in delusional day-dreams of success and power, people who "came to California to die", But also, and related to them, the brutal crowds that throng the streets and thoroughfares of giant extravaganzas, first-screenings, glitzy political rallies — the zombified multitudes who crave their own oblivion:

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible... every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars... Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies...

"I was at his election rally," she went on, her eyes tracking towards each other, " I was one of the people who held up a sign for him, screaming Arnold! Arnold! Arnold!" She half stood up, and mimed frenetically waiving a big sign. I could only gape in astonishment, almost enjoying this chance encounter with a true-believer . . .

What gets me about American political culture is despite all the hip technology, fiber optics, Yahoo instant messaging for singles, 3G cell phones, Stealth Bombers, Ipod knockoffs, Holo 2 video game best-sellers, the entire Gilligan's Island DVD sit-com series auctioned on EBay—reactionary populism is still the order of the day (or maybe because of all those things). This shit's been going on since the twenties at least, identified and satirized by such writers as Sinclair Lewis (Babbitt; Elmer Gantry; It Can't happen Here, about a Nazi-style populist takeover of the U.S., as well as the inspiration and refrain for a Frank Zappa song) and H.L.Mencken ("the Holy Terror of Baltimore") the u.s. populace never fucking grow out of it... must be a reason... Could it be that Shrub is doing a nice job keeping all of our SUV's thrumming down the interstates? And that's all that matters to an advanced technological society... and other interesting peripherals like how no one really needs to look too deeply into what the exact definition of a man or a woman is?...


I left that half-wit to resume programming numbers in her cell phone, a new form of meditation practiced by millions and similar to the zazen exercise of sitting in a lotus posture and facing three inches from a wall, but with even less mental focus. I unlocked my bike and rode over to a bank of phones near the parking lot of a Rite Aide, close by on Robinson Avenue in between Fourth and Fith. It was then the police helicopters, two of them, finally etched themselves into my awareness. I now dimly recall they were there hovering over Hillcrest for most of the evening, and only when they were directly above me, their sixteen million candle spot-lights training over disparate sections of a three mile area, did I note their menacing insectoid presence (in Los Angeles they call them "Ghetto Birds" to exemplify their use as powerful intimidating agents in a perpetual class war that crested in the Los Angeles riots in '91 and still continues).

But I noticed too late, these two Jetranger helicopters (or possibly the new super spook MD500E, fancied by Southern California law enforcement, crammed with thermal imagers, FLIR cameras, and other bells and whistles folks living in gated communities drool over and vote to finance), because now two cop cars raced into the parking lot, not ten feet away from me. . .


During the idle days when I first started coming over to SD from my dive in Tijuana, I struck up the casual acquaintance of a spunky Vietnamese woman, a retailer of donuts in her mid forties, a famous "boatperson" who detailed to me how greedy and voracious her country folk were, the countless petty thefts and purse snatchings she and myriads of other earnest citizens endured in the corrugated tin, open-air markets of Ho Chi Minh City; the junkies and prostitutes and limbless "landmine" beggars, and how everyone and their grandmother rides a motorcycle, people apparently even get married on motorcycles... and somehow this woman made me promise to give her some English lessons. Possibly in exchange for donuts. I was now trying to call her to arrange a time to meet.

But that call was cut short.

With no indication or formal warning, seemingly oblivious to me, two officers jumped out of their cars, drew their guns and started to run towards the Rite Aid entrance. The two cars were parked at a 45 degree angle to the doors, one flanking each side. At the sight of those guns and the fierceness of the expressions on those cop faces, ("Playing cops for real! Playing cops for pay!") my adrenal release system was kicked into high gear, an unpleasant experience when it gets rushed on you. Cops hovering above in suserant helicopters. Cops to my left and right with drawn guns and running for god knows what reason, my trembling hand barely holding the phone, I slam the receiver down into the cradle and bolt. I don't know what the hullabaloo was about, possibly a gangsta kid stole a king-sized value pack of Reeses peanut-butter cups and skedaddled.

Not far from the crime scene, I passed a group of tourists with southern accents—big boned guys with buzz cuts and polo shirts. In lieu of panic, and showing not the slightest signs of unease, to the contrary actually enjoying the spectacle, they actually hurried towards the cop cars, hoping to see some guns discharge and bullets lodge in the seeping guts of a teenage shoplifter with the wrong skin tone, type O drenching the sidewalk. A perfect post-prandial entertainment, a cherished memory to tell everyone at the water cooler back in Memphis...

Or maybe another scenario was taking place—an insane man with a ninja sword was holding the photo department hostage. Such things happen at Rite Aid everyday. And why shouldn't they? Graft and insanity were part of the birth of Rite Aid, whose top execs have recently been criminally indicted on multimillion dollar stock fixing charges. The largest in U.S. history after Enron, according to the SEC.

But I'm not thinking about white-collar crime while streaking down 4th avenue, past the enormous Balboa Park and stands of crepuscular ceders, and massive Magnolias whose spidery branches writhe through the torpid night; the hellflare of the helicopters slowly receding, along with the feeling of being in a war zone, I breath easily, and feel the breeze through my toes generated by the precipitous descent of "banker's hill."

I suddenly emerge downtown, but the scene there is none less disquieting. Four cop cars with their chase lights flashing are blocking the street in front of the Sam Goody. Traffic is backed up and there is an enormous group of on-lookers. Five cops are circling the Mexican wrapped in the American flag! He has lost whatever garments he was wearing when I first saw him, and is now nude under the flag—perhaps the only reason the cops allow him to wear it. He's about half their height, mostly skin and bone, a veritable ectomorph from south of the border. They have him jacked over the trunk of one squad car. The police are making a public show of force and the crowd on the sidewalk are loving them for it! Perhaps the people are already galvanized by the televised GOP convention, Swarzenegger's horripilating speech, a speech inspiring millions to be more like him, buck up and be can-do, and looking for that next stage of mob frenzy—human sacrifice...

A cluster of urban teens, hat bills positioned at raffish angles, mill on the curb, not sure of what to make of this, wondering when it will be their turn to be worked over by america's finest.

Did Denny's call in the missing flag? Did our caparisoned hombre insult a meter maid? Empty the cologne testers at Nordstroms? The list of his potential crimes seem endless...

Confused and unnerved by yet another police rout, I wander aimlessly, automatically, back into the chi-chi café I started at on F St. Thinking I will be safe among the luxuriant trappings of the nouveau riche, I order an unpronounceable imported tea from South East Asia — obviously cured by slaves.

I tell the beautiful barista about my recent travail. A solitary individual confronted with the deadly machinery of the state. She asks me if I want room for cream. I compliment her tattoo.


A few days later I see the same guy on the streets! He's hobbling drunkenly and wearing that same flag! Four cop cars and five cops couldn't put him away!

He came weaving towards me, his eyes unfocused and full of impersonal menace; his mind in that terminal blotto-zone beyond the present.

But I managed to dodge him pretty well.

Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2004-12-07 00:00:00