I’m sitting in the friendly A&W in Atascadero, Calif., just a hop, skip and a gallon of gas down the historic El Camino Real from Paso Robles. They’ve got one plug-in available here, which is one more than the McDonald’s across Morro Road.
“Bennie and the Jets,” track No. 7 on Elton John’s Greatest Hits, released in the autumn of 1974, fills the room. I got the album for Christmas that year, the month before I turned 12. I fish out my earphones, running from the past, and cue up Jefferson Pepper’s “Crucify,” track No. 12 on American Evolution Vol. 2, (2008), on iTunes. I’m also scuffling mightily to tie together the loose ends of our visit to San Francisco.
“What if Jesus came back to the earth
and lived like an ordinary man
with no wealth or power granted him at birth?
I’ll bet they’d crucify him again”
As we wander the highways and cloverleafs, the parking lots and city streets of 21st century America and cross paths with a motley gallery of disenfranchised wretches, old pal Jefferson Pepper is providing the soundtrack to the journey.
Already the days are blending in a confusing welter. I can’t remember exactly when it was last week, after a harrowing search for parking and subsquent 45-minute jog downtown, we left San Francisco’s Railway Museum and the tourist-friendly Embarcadero and ran blindly into the Occupy Wall Street encampment in the shadow of the Federal Reserve Bank on Market Street.
As the “99 Percent” protest struggles to gain a foothold in the collective consciousness, it struck me that Jefferson Pepper’s “One Percent” would be a perfect choice for the movement’s anthem:
“I’m all alone, cradled by the low-droning hum of the city.
In the empty streets lives a melancholy presence I cannot describe.
I feel it most in the lonely, golden beams of Sunday evening light that
warm the crumbling brick wall by the soiled sidewalk where I sleep each night.
“In my dreams I’m floating above the world with a noiseless voice in space
I strain to see myself and these insects we call the human race
striving for material lives, striving in vain
Because one percent of the people own 50 percent of the wealth
One percent of the people own 50 percent of the wealth
Where do you fit in? Take a look at yourself.
One percent of the people on 50 percent of the wealth.”
Aside from the stridently leftist bent of the lyrics, the song sounds nothing like the Jefferson Pepper critics and fans in Europe have come to know and love. It does not fit into any of the genres Mr. Pepper likes to blather on ad nauseum about. It’s not alternative-country or any variant of Americana.
With its dreamy, electronic surge, techno drum beat and ironically delivered lyrics, it’s one part Jim Morrison circa “An American Prayer,” one part Gil Scott-Heron, one part something else entirely.
Something else entirely, something delicious, was awaiting us on Market Street. Only minutes after we had walked into the little tent city, we had plates in our hands and forks in our mouths and were devouring grassroots pasta marinara with beans and a delightful tzatziki salad. Our corporate overlords, for all their faded pretensions to noblesse oblige, had never treated us half as well.
As anyone who has endured my tiresome and spluttering broadsides will attest, I stand second to nobody in my jaundiced view of our corporate masters. In a sense, I was with my people here. Even though most of them were young enough to be my children from a previous marriage.
I talked to a handful, and if I ever figure out how to upload videos to this site, maybe I’ll post their thoughts. I talked to Stephen Green, a sweet kid from Dothan, Ala., who was on a mission of Christian decency. He received the call, and next thing he knew he was here, working to document the fledgling movement.
Carlos Cruz is another sweet, thoughtful kid, and from perspective 29 is plenty young enough to retain kid status. He had dabbled in organic farming, employing composting toilets and aquaponics, before coming here from San Diego after a friend had seen a notice in Adbusters.
To a man, they exuded a doe-eyed idealism I struggled to recall.
All except Ronin. A cross splashed across his face in warlike red. Ronin, he said, was a nickname. So was “Watcher,” which was ominously scribbled on tape and pasted over his heart.
Watcher! I wondered if this upstart opposition to the colossal callousness of corporate greed had already adopted the rigid structure of the pre-October Revolution Bolshevik Party. All power to the soviets!
It’s not hard to envision a scenario where, should this embryonic movement miraculously surmount the insuperable odds it faces, the Ronins would serve as their Cheka, keeping watch against counter-revolutionary tendencies and fellow travelers with insufficiently doctrinaire bona fides.
Ronin approached later to ask what organization I represented. I was relieved to be able to say I had none. I asked about the cross on his face. He said he was a combat medic who got kicked out of the Army before he could do his time in “the sandbox.”
He seemed disappointed by that turn of events, though I had a hard time fathoming why.
My only regrets were that I neglected to ask him whom you had to kill (or fuck?) to get booted from the United States Army, and if he had any professional suggestions for the festering gash that has taken up residence on my right leg since I stumbled on the stairs more than a week ago.
Ruth Maguire, a walking, talking, smiling little-old-lady from anarcho-syndicalist breeding grounds of Berkeley, Calif., was there to offer her support. Ruth proudly wore buttons from her own subversive organization, Grandmothers Against the War, and said she was glad to see kids finally breaking away from wiis and playstations, smartphones and laptops, iPads and iPods, to take stock of things.
“I’m thrilled to death that the youth have finally decided to do something about the world they’re going to live in,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of demonstrating in my time, and I find it’s usually around people my age. It’s delightful to find that the young are finally deciding to worry about their own future.”
Soon it was time for the daily general assembly, a town meeting-style exercise in direct democracy that was held under the colonnade of the Federal Reserve Bank.
The call-and-repeat format lended the procession a bit of a cult-like feel, but it was about time for us to get moving, anyway.
As we walked off in what we hoped to be the direction of our faraway home on wheels, I despaired about what an old cynic couldn’t help but see as the hopelessness of the cause.
They, or we, might represent the 99 percent, but together we’re nothing but the tiny vanguard of that 99 percent. The 99.9 percent that make up the rest of the 99 Percent were milling about everywhere, going about their lives, as oblivious to the pernicious ways and black dreams of their corporate masters as they are to the hopes of the protestors. Some just want to become part of the club, others just want to make it through the day, clock out, have a beer, a cocktail, forget about this shit until tomorrow.
All along Market Street, the sentinels of corporate power stand impassively. Bloomingdales, its majestic beaux arts palace born as The Emporium in the late 19th century and rebuilt after it was consumed by the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake, rises in alabaster glory between Fourth and Fifth streets. Larger-than-life posters of Lionel Messi and Dwight Howard glower from second-store windows, peddling adidas and hinting that circuses will always be more attractive than chataquas.
More worrisome: As our footsteps carry us farther and farther from the idealistic encampment and into the confusing heart of San Francisco, I began to wonder more about the ill-fated Phillies, who had played Game 3 of their playoff series in St. Louis that evening, and less about the future of mankind.
Then again, I’ve never been much more than an underachieving narcissist. Perhaps it’s not an accurate or fair barometer to predict the fate of a nonviolent, hopeful revolution by my own sorry standards.