Friday, March 28, 2014

Confronting The Gentry

The other day, as I was walking home from the library, I passed by a rich guy making bogus claims to the police about a harmless old man, and decided to give him some shit about it. As you might expect, he didn't take it very well. 

The neighborhood I live in a ditch on the outskirts of is expensive and upscale. On the plus side, this gives me a lot of promising garbage cans to root through on my way home at night, but on the down side, one can feel the animosity of the carpetbaggers in their mansions as though it were a lite, but steady, rain.

The upper class of any city tends to bare some hatred for the downtrodden, and in Austin, this feeling is especially pronounced. The sense of loathing is palpable; almost a physical thing. This constant, never ending, stream of disdain has shattered the self-image of many homeless people to the extent that they never recover. Relatively normal folks, who have simply fallen on hard times, find themselves crippled and demoralized by the callous disregard of their fellows, and begin to slip into a morass of self-hatred. They learn to accept society's judgement of their value, and as such, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Egomaniac though I am, I, too, must fight constantly to maintain my sense of self-worth in the face of this onslaught. (Thanks for the help.)

On this particular day I was in a rush to get to camp, because I knew they were having a high school soccer game that night at the stadium that borders my ditch. I wanted to get there before everyone arrived so it would be easier to sneak down without being detected. While passing through an especially booshie section of the neighborhood, I saw I guy I knew walking from the opposite direction.

Christopher is a peaceful old man who sits on the same bench every day at the corner of Wooldridge Square Park. He's there right now. The park used to be a hangout for every derelict in town until the city closed it for "renovations" that took the better part of a year. They did plant some bushes and paint the gazebo, but the real reason for the closing was that it was getting embarrassing having an open air drug market that close to the courthouse. After the park finally opened up again, the drug trade had moved across town to the homeless shelter, where it remains still.

Through all the changes, from drug bazaar, to fenced off ghost town, to it's current state as an open park that no one visits, Christopher sat stoically on his bench in the corner, seemingly oblivious to the contrast. I asked him one day if he liked it better before the people left, or after, and he said, "Doesn't make any difference to me, really. I guess there was more food around when the people were here." A quiet man with a gentle nature, I have never seen Christopher get drunk or cause trouble of any kind.

Which is why I was taken aback when, after passing him and crossing the street, I ran across another old man who I overheard making a phone call to the police.

The guy was short with white hair and had a giant gut sticking out the front of his, way too small, Polo shirt. He looked like he could have been sixty, but I got the feeling that he was maybe fifty five, and only looked older because of his affiliation with The Dark Side. He had a grizzled, red face and wore a baseball cap, along with the obligatory aviator sunglasses. Which is all to say, he looked like a real asshole.

And he was. As I passed him I heard him making scurrilous claims to his phone about the monk-like Christopher, "Yeah, this guy's obviously drunk. He keeps falling over and he just threw up on someone's lawn. He's like an animal, ranting and raving at the sky....Yeah?....Yeah?....He's got long hair and a beard. He's probably wearing everything he owns. OK, no problem."

Now, what he was saying, and the truth of the situation, bore no resemblance. I've already described to you Christopher's tranquil demeanor, and verily, I had just seen the man myself: as reserved and non-threatening as ever. He was bedraggled, yes. He would never be mistaken for a member of the neighborhood association. But does a person deserve to be jacked up by the cops just because they wear dirty clothes and practice questionable hygiene? If you live in the downtown area of a major city, does it make sense to call the police on every homebum who walks down your street? Don't the police have more important things to do?

Of course they do, which is why I knew they would be unlikely to follow up on this concerned citizen's helpful tip. Even if the police did show up, the second they saw Christopher, they would realize they were wasting their time. The man sits, statue-like, seven days a week, a block away from the police station. He probably knows every cop in town, or, more importantly, they all know him. There would be no baloney sandwiches for Christopher that night.

But I was pissed. Oh, the anointed gentry and their sense of entitlement. What misguided concept of social responsibility could lead one to believe that visiting undeserved hardship on random strangers is a charge of the virtuous? How easy it must be, to live is their insulated little world, summoning mercenaries to deal with anything that makes them uncomfortable.

But the thing that really got me angry was the way he said, "He's probably wearing everything he owns," as if the poverty of another man was the most distasteful thing he had ever considered. Also, I detected a subtle hint of laughter in his voice.

It was that subtle hint of laughter that stopped me in my tracks. I turned and walked up to the guy, stopping maybe ten feet away from him, "Hey buddy, were you just talking to the police there?"

Stammering, surprised by my sudden interest, "Wh...What? Uh...that guy fell down just a minute ago. He's a drunk."

"I know that guy, dude. He doesn't drink. He has trouble walking because his feet are messed up. I heard you telling the police that he was ranting and raving at the sky. He seemed completely lucid to me."

The guys started to recover his wits at being confronted and began to take umbrage, "Look, you just walked up here. That guy fell over. What business is it of yours? I own property in this neighborhood."

"I heard you telling them he was throwing up on people's lawns and ranting at the sky. That's bullshit. You're trying to get that man arrested because you don't like the way he looks."

At this point the guy started to buck up and advance towards me in an aggressive manner. For a split second, it felt like he was going to hit me. If he had, I would have knocked him to the ground, stomped his cell phone, and snapped his glasses in half, before sprinting to the woods just a few blocks away. But of course, all he had was bluster, "So are you trying to start an altercation with me, huh?!? Are you trying to get in my face? Are you trying to start something?!"

"No, I heard you LYING TO THE POLICE and I'm confronting you about it, VERBALLY."

Now, it was a subtle thing, but when I said the words, "Lying to the police," I saw a faint, but unmistakable, glimmer of fear in his eyes. He dropped his aggressive stance and backed up a few feet, going back into his, "Concientious Property Owner," routine, "I own several properties in this neighborhood. (Could tell he was exaggerating. Probably owns one.) Do you own any property in this neighborhood?"

"What, do we live under the fucking Magna Carta? Who gives a shit if you own property? By that logic, if I did own property in this neighborhood, would that validate my opinion of you MAKING FALSE STATEMENTS TO THE POLICE?"

Lamely, "I saw him fall down."

"You saw an old man fall down in your neighborhood and you called the police on him? You think you're a good citizen? You have NO CONSCIENCE and NO CLASS."

I could see having a vagrant call him out on his lack of class was hard for him to take. He turned and walked down the street, presumably towards the property he owns, and started to say something over his shoulder, "That's your o..."


He kept walking. His demeanor was utterly defeated. I watched him 'till he turned the corner before continuing home. I felt like a good citizen.

As I lay in my tent that night, I imagined him telling the story to his wife, "Yeah, I called the police on a drunk animal who was throwing up in people's yards, and some homeless guy came up and tried to start an altercation with me. He backed off when I threatened to call the police on him. I told him he was white trash with no class."

But however he's dealing with it, I'll bet he's still thinking about it. I'll bet he's still thinking about the guy in the tattered, dirty clothes who called him "Unsophisticated." Deep down, he knows the truth. And now, so do you.

(By the way, if you are reading this and are not friends with me on Facebook, I would encourage you to send me a request. I write many short pieces over there, and it is, by far, the best way to keep up with what I'm doing.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Never Confess

If you take anything from me, take this: Never show fear when dealing with the police. It is a hard thing, easily said, but not so easily done. The police are trained to instill fear in you, to take you by surprise in a moment of silent repose, and use your confusion as a weapon. There are laws designed to protect you, of course, but none designed to protect your mind from manipulation. All police desire one thing above all others: For you to willingly confess to a crime. It is wise, then, to prepare yourself in advance; to play out in your mind how you will react when you are engaged in some innocuous, though illegal, activity, and the pigs roll in to jack you up.

After I found that phone the other day, (The first one, for which I received 40$ reward from the owner, and 10$ reward from Baby Jesus) I was in the mood to party and relax. I went down to the homeless shelter, and, after a few short moments of bartering, scored three joints of weed and three sticks of K2. Then I went to a convenience store and bought some wine. Not some fancy-ass shit, but not Wild Irish Rose either.

After gathering my supplies, I headed to one of my favorite places in Austin: A hill where kids often gather to skate and spray graffiti. The location to which I refer is historic and steeped in mythic resonance. Kids have been skating, spraying art, and getting fucked up in this spot for many an idle summer. The sensitive mind, open to exploration, could easily be inspired to transcend into a state of pure bliss simply by virtue of proximity. I climbed up to a secluded nook of this natural gallery, cracked open my, not-quite-rotgut-swill, lit up a joint, and sat contemplating my roll in the greater scheme of existence.

I smoked for maybe an hour, watching the sun go down. I drank the wine and doodled in my notebook. Inspired by the high quality painting all around me, I tried to draw some comics about homebums living in a ditch. The writing was pretty good, but the draftsmanship left something to be desired. I finished my joint and got up to stretch and walk around a bit. I felt fantastic.

Like an alien manifesting itself from the mother-ship, he was on me. A jar-headed emissary of justice; a wife beating angel of consternation and inconvenience. APD materialized out of nowhere, flashlight blinding, and accosted me in the night, "Hi there. So what are you doing up here?"

My blood turned to ice, but I did not show it. If I had panicked at this moment, I would have been destroyed. I had, not one, but two, illegal drugs on me, and an opened container of alcohol in my backpack. The cops know that you probably possess such things, as is only human, and they rely on your shock at potential capture to get you talking. But I had run through this scenario many times in my head. If he wanted to mount some kind of criminal case against me, he was going to have to work for it, "I was just sitting here, soaking up the ambiance."

"Just soaking up the ambiance, huh? Sitting here just to sit here?"


"I find it a little hard to believe you're sitting up here in this dark, secluded area, just enjoying the night." He said it like it was the most ludicrous thing he had ever heard of.

This is an important point: I just wanted to be by myself, but that, alone, is reason for suspicion. The herd mentality of this society is so deeply ingrained that a desire for solitude is considered subversive. (Of course, I was smoking a joint, but it is the prohibition against smoking marijuana, not the act itself, that is evil.)

"I'm hanging out, drawing in my notebook and enjoying the night." I said, "That's what artists do."

"Drawing in your notebook, huh? Let's see."

The cop actually demanded to see my notebook. That was a new one on me. I pulled it out and opened it to show him my pages of chicken scratch and crude drawings. I looked at him and said, "Now, you're not going to judge me on the quality of my drawing, right? This isn't an art critic thing?"

"No, I'm seeing if you're telling me the truth."

Just then, another cop arrived. I guess when the first one saw that he had a sensitive artist to deal with, he figured he was going to need back-up.

"This guy says he's just sitting here, enjoying the atmosphere." trying to get the other cop into his mind-set. This is another tactic they love to pull: Talking to you for a moment, and then getting another cop to come in and hit you from a different angle. The most famous variation of this ploy is "Good Cop, Bad Cop."

I could see from the expression on the new cop's face, though, that he wasn't buying this weak bullshit. The fact was that, unless I admitted to some crime, there was nothing they could do. I was on private property that is opened to the public, so if they wanted to search me, they needed probable cause. Even more important, they knew from the way I was handling the situation that I knew this too. You must always let the police know that you are aware of your rights. If they think you're not, they might be tempted to forget about them also.

"You sure you don't have any drugs on you or anything?" said the second cop in a world-weary, resigned manner.

"I don't have any drugs. I just wanted to relax in a quiet spot."

"OK, get on out of here. Don't let me catch you here again."

And, with that, I hurried down the hill and into the night. I was ecstatic. Not just because I didn't get arrested, but also because I had stayed firm to my core philosophy and it had proven correct. The police have a certain degree of latitude, but they also have restraints. Understanding those restraints is your key to defeating them.

As for being banished from my favorite spot in Austin, I got on the internet with the owners the next day and got written permission to visit any time I want. I just had to promise not to vandalize the artwork of the professionals that spray there. (I would, of course, never entertain such a thing.) In my letter to them I said, "What is the point of having such an outdoor gallery if people like me are prevented from visiting? It's like a trap for folks who are interested in art, visible for miles around, luring us in. It's true, I do look like a street person, but it stands to reason that street people should be allowed to look at street art."

What could they do but agree? Now I have an unambiguous letter of permission to show the police if they ever jack me up there again. I'll update this post with new developments as they arise.