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Name: Loon Dog

Bio: A mental health researcher motivated by self-self-defense; has likely dedicated too much of his life trying to define lunacy. Presently travelling through the USA seeking out mental diversity activists to help trace the threads between brilliance and madness.

Photos: Mad America's photo libraries

Hate in the Heart of People's Park ( 22nd Oct, 2010 )
Mad America: The Great Alternatives Conference: Intro ( 15th Jan, 2010 )
The Beat Gen, 90s Hip Hop legends and Oriental Zen Lunacy ( 17th Dec, 2009 )
Australian Shame ( 1st Dec, 2009 )
Entering the Great American Fruit and Nut Bowl: War Diaries, Inherited Madness and Other Things ( 16th Nov, 2009 )
Stuff in America you don't see on the TV ( 9th Nov, 2009 )
Sierra Nevadas: Clarity, purity, PBJ's ( 4th Nov, 2009 )
Road to Cedar Valley ( 3rd Nov, 2009 )
California Dreaming ( 3rd Nov, 2009 )
Library of Dust ( 23rd Oct, 2009 )
Consumers, Survivors and Mad-Pride: Burrito's and Bears. ( 23rd Oct, 2009 )
Begginings. ( 19th Oct, 2009 )

Hate in the Heart of People's Park

"The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained"
- John Stuart Mill

A cultural landmark of Berkeley, People’s Park is an inner-city park-turned-refuge of sorts for local people, mad folks, radical activists, drag rats (who’re wandering tramps, generally young, white, boozey and lower bourgzhie [as in a derivation of bourgeois]), and people without a home. It’s a famous contested space in the wealthy heart of Berkeley where street people hang around, eat, sleep, drink, and generally live community. There is a spirit of celebration, rebellion, and grubby charm that smells like sweat, stale piss and Northern Californian weed. The site, which is no more than a half a residential block, is legally owned by the University of California but was squatted by students in the seventies when it was a vacant lot, set for development. Activists planted trees, put in makeshift play equipment for kids and broadcast a handful of pumpkin seeds. Montage cut of a long story short: police remove impromptu settlement, a protest swiftly generates and almost as swiftly it is stormed by the National Guard. A UCal student is shot dead. What started as a relatively low-scale community occupation suddenly burst into a full-fledged uprising against university administration, state authorities and federal forces, and the park bloomed into THE battle ground for the sum total of infuriated activist energy in the Bay Area – which is no small spark.

I wandered over to People’s Park on a cloudy afternoon to check out Food Not Bombs, which serves every day at three o’clock. It was the kind of overcast that made a silver mood-ring swirl of the sky. The park energy was jubilant. Some old guys tapped on drums and buckets, and a long line of all-sorts people were licking their lips, some tapping their empty plates on their legs, as the line slowly shifted toward the steaming pots of free food. The child-sized aluminium pots were lined up on grimey hardwood picnic tables. Others sat scattered around the open grass areas of the park in groups, eating and chatting contentedly. Occasionally some fellow or other wandered around on his own, humbugging people for cigarettes or raging loudly in a lonely language.

“There’s only two times it gets ugly in this park,” warned Joe, the worn guy spooning out the black beans, “when the cops come and start wailing on folks, or when Food Not Bombs doesn’t show up. Hungry people are angry people.”
A white bearded dude in a fine blue woolen beanie chimed in, “Right, people get crazy up here when they’re bellies ain’t full. We’re used to the best in this town. A homeless person can stroll through Berkeley and Oakland, and if he strolls the way I know how, he can eat every four hours. I’ve seen obese homeless people here man!”

A spoonful of warm peach cobbler with a sticky brown-sugar oat crisp topping slops unceremoniously into my plastic container and I sit on the grass to talk to the guy with the beanie. He’s early thirties maybe, quite congenial, and fields my eager travel queries politely, though occasionally tunes out and rants about fossicking for gold in Humboldt County.

Kyle is his name and he teaches me about moving cheaply through American cities. His recommendations and warnings are variable in their use to me. It was somewhat compelling to learn of Texan backcountry marshals locking up vagrants who languish for years in county prisons before even seeing a lawyer [Kyle’s advice: bribe early], but it was perhaps more educational to learn that there are now beans AND rice in a can, $2 for swish organic ones even. Also, seventy cents well-spent at an army disposal will get you this remarkable little can opener called a P-38 which is just a very nifty little two-inch tab of metal with a cutter hinged to the side and a spoon indentation at one end and a little hole so that you can attach it to your dog tags which is what Kyle’s dad did in the Vietnam war apparently. His knowledge of surviving the cold nights is imparted with automatic, slightly absent recall: keep warm material beneath your body and only wear cotton in the summer; a cotton singlet beneath two wool sweaters is worse than none with only one. And apparently bandanas are the vagrant’s best friend, a morsel of advice that arrived with a list its various uses: coffee filter, sling, burn wrap, makeshift jockstrap, toilet paper, handsome hat, belt, etc. I wasn’t sure if the detail that arse-wipe was listed prior to ‘awesome hat’ reflected Kyle’s faculties of recollection, his boredom with talking to me, or the practical priorities of - if that was the case - his troubled life.

A young woman in grey overalls with a road bike cap pulled tight added that “when you roll into a new town, just look for Food Not Bombs. They’ll hook you up with the local scene and they’ll feed ya. And they’re all over the world!” Her name was Felafel.

I asked them if the global financial crisis had led to an increase in the number of people coming through People’s Park. The Food Not Bombs co-ordinator said the numbers had increased by about a third but that largely Berkeley low-income workers were not so badly hit – certainly not so hard they ended up on the streets.

“It was up in Santa Clara where it went to shit,” he said. The circle of listeners nodded and I slopped cobbler on my chin. “Up there, whole suburbs of people lost their homes to the sub-prime mortgage stink and a few weeks later they lost their jobs! So they were double fucked! There were whole families homeless and clumped together in tents in a major part of the city.”
Felafel chimed in, “We were gonna take Food Not Bombs to feed them all but the cops got in and scattered them off. Now there’s no central point to distribute food and we’ve no idea where they all went.”

We chatted about the local dramas unfolding between activists and the UCal administration - which policeman beat up who, when - and as we spoke people came and went from our circle till the sun fell away. Felafel told to speak to ‘Hateman’ if I wanted to really learn about the park and I was left sitting with Kyle.

Kyle was proud of the jumper he designed and kept laughing randomly to jokes I wasn’t hearing. His white hoodie, remarkably fresh for a guy whose bed lies beneath a city park tree, was spray-painted red with sketchy motifs and the random words, “fuck off” and “Hate Camp,” and a poorly executed image of a marijuana leaf that looked like a cartoon hand. He looked like a sketchy surfer, from Santa Cruz maybe, only he had a beard, a paunch and a face with lines of fixed consternation arranged around a single point between his squinted eyes.

“‘Hatecamp’ is our crew and we head into the university and stir shit up. Last time, yesterday, we were banging pots and pans and screaming and shit and someone even had a flute and Hateman was telling it like it was. Yeah, Hatecamp. Hatecamp man.”

He’d introduce me to Hateman.

We strolled over to the section of the park with all his gear and passed a fezza-looking man with a pink mohawk and a day-old black eye. He was irritably tossing a rope, weighted with a rigging clip, into a nearby tree, attempting to retrieve a boomerang that had caught in the trees.

The two of us stood in the scrubby northwest corner of the park and Kyle chatted about his jumper while he smoked a joint. His speech became mostly incomprehensible to me. Oblivious to my eager presence, he started nattering distantly about digging for gold.

“Up in the streams of Arcata Bay, that’s were you can find it. You gotta find the boulders in the sand banks, the ones with red rust at the base. Then you gotta dig about one foot below – no, no two feet below, where you’ll find black sand, and then you have to dig four feet below that, and that’s where you start finding gold nuggets the size of burgers.” He continued in a manner that is impossible for me to recall, so random were its tangents, but it somehow turned into a life story revolving around a bad acid trip he once took and the words ‘dad’ and ‘disappointment’, and then returning to the gold.
“I got three feet below the boulder then I just stopped... and I went home, well, I came here at least.”

Applause rang out from across the park and we turned to see the boomerang tumbling from the tree. It was swiftly thrown into another pine, the small crowd groaned, and Kyle returned his gaze to an indeterminable point in the middle distance.

“But I just know it man, those nuggets woulda been this big.”

By now the sun had dissolved to dirty blue-black, bringing cold and, for some reason, arousing the damp smell of trodden, city-park soil. For a moment Kyle and I stood silently under one of the few streetlights which lit the park in circular, carroty spotlights. You could sense movement at the edges of the grainy orange glow, out in the dark, but the streetlights radial edge seemed to mark a darkness of unnatural solidity and obscuration.

A general quiet had descended on the park. I heard the murmurs of a crew sitting beneath a tree and the schfff of their beer cans; the spark, spark of a cigarette lighter producing mini-worlds of colour and form – the shimmering orange of faces, hands and crouched figures – before fading to the blindness, studded only by the dot-ends of pulsing cigarette draws. There was a quietly muttered lovers’ blue between a couple who lay restlessly propped on elbows, smoking nearby. Further off in the darkness, laughter cut short by a hacking cough. It didn’t seem silent. It felt disquiet.

I let my head roll back to rest on my hood and scarf, looking for stars maybe. I closed my eyes and stopped thinking completely. My own exhaustion met the night-air frost at an intersection of blank numbness. I rubbed a spot above my eyebrow, as if it might house my lost resolve.

Suddenly, a hooded jumper, oversized, staggered beneath the lights toward us and a human inside launched the words ‘fuck you!!’ as if to line his path with something vivid and familiar. The overhead light cut against the arc of the hood and illuminated first a nose, a glistening lower lip, a brow, but just before eyes materialized the face retreated to cover of darkness and his shoulders hunched over in a boxers stance as he met us. ‘Hey! I said fuck you!’ he taunted, sending jabs in the air between the three of us, which just as soon filled with the pungent whiff of semi-metabolized grog. Kyle met the guy with a look of surprise I can only describe as a ‘yawn of the eyes’ – the look you get after eating too much and straining lazily to listen with attention. He may have even rolled back slightly on his heels.

Turning back to the shadow boxer and seeing him properly under the light, I realized that this shadowy fiend was, in fact, a small child, or thereabouts. The thin fur on his upper lip suggested he might have touched adolescence but I wasn’t entirely sure it wasn’t a smudge of coca-cola and dirt.
‘Whachew always hangin’ round Hateman for anyway?’ He directed the accusatory challenge to Kyle.
Kyle stood indifferently, staring out. The child waited for all of, say... 0.03 of a second before landing the air with a sneaky one-two and dismissing Kyle, ‘Ah fuck ya,’ with words that carried equal parts disappointment, boredom and a vapour of ethanol concentrate, body odour. Hoodie turned his attention to me, planted his grubby shoes into the soil in a sort of warrior stance, the side of his body positioned forward, his upper arm held against his chest, to make something of a wall of his hip and shoulders.
‘Push!’ he cried.
When he realized my bafflement matched Kyle’s lack of interest, he sent his fist flying toward me in a slow-motion jab which cut a foot short of my chest. His knuckles were extended in a... pound? (For the unaware, it is the soft contact of clenched hands in a gesture of greeting) I met his pound with my own fist and he pushed hard against my whitened knuckles.
‘Ah fuck ya,’ he lamented, and he turned, swiveling his ragged trainers in the soil, and staggered off, melting away into the darkness.

II: Enter Hateman

There was a rustle beneath a tarpaulin nearby, a pile that appeared to be a shroud of loose tarps and rubbish bags. It was, however, the movement of a small, elder, white-bearded man. His head popped out from beneath the clump and I was astonished. This man was such a striking looking human being I’m going to describe him in detail, even at the risk of romanticizing him with the Dickensian eye of a bourgeois traveler (and here, I must add, that I arrived at People’s Park with a trekking backpack, a new thermarest, a blanket, and a sheet of tent material, on the off chance I’d sleep down there, only to return to my co-op after the cops kicked us out at ten thirty, where I sipped a warm cup of kukicha twig tea and nestled into bed with a heated wheat bag).


He lifted his blankets and assorted covers off his slight frame, shifted into a crouch and gradually sprung up, lifting his be-shorted stick-thin legs into a pair of odd, old runners. On his head was a turban of sorts - an old white t-shirt wrapped neatly around the noggin, with a black poker-dealer visor sitting rakishly ontop of that. His overall headdress sat mushroomy, like a helmet, and made his frame appear even slighter. His black jacket had started to fall away in parts but the large ‘Rancid’ patch stitched full across its back kept its integrity. He appeared to be shrewdly examining the world behind a pair of dark, bikie-style wrap-around Ray Bans. Maybe it was the detailed map of creases on his forehead, the thin splinters of age charting intersections of hard physical living, a worn intellect, and a strange sense of serenity, whatever it was, I imagined the shaded eyes were sharp and multifunctional; able to scan the entire scene with the alert, streetwise intensity of a seasoned tramp, but overlaid with a secondary and more dominant ocular priority for reposed curiosity.

The long tufts of grey nose hair betrayed the modesty of his diminutive beak.

As I sat down next to him and introduced myself with a hand outstretched, he stopped me mid-way through intro and held up a hand as if to say, “quiet you” or perhaps a repeat of the Child in the Hoodie’s catchcry, ‘ah, fuck ya.’ I quietened.
‘Tell me you hate me.’
I paused, thought little, and did just that.
‘I hate you.’
‘Good. I hate you too.’ He relaxed. And after a soft pound of bony fists, we started on a friendly old chin waggle. I noticed the long masterly beard on his waggler was at least 87 times better than mine.

‘I was a writer too you know, for the New York Times. They wanted to put me in the army and it was still in the days of conscription so I had no choice. So I bargained with them to spend three years in the air force rather than two in the army and they agreed. I polished my writing as a hobby and, well, the US military departments are all competing for funds so they got whole PR departments dedicated to lobbying government, so I was taken for my writing skills and put to work vyin’ for the purse of the feds.
When my three years were up well I got the hell outta there and started as a copy boy for the New York Times. I worked hard – you know, I was a real square then – and I started moving toward the top, but then Peacecorp started and, well, I was a fan of JFK so I signed right up and I taught English classes in Thailand. When I got back, I married, had a kid, bought a house, the lot. I was a square then man... but something wasn’t right, I was leaking energy out everywhere. It was getting into the late 60s by this time and one of my colleagues turned my onto a joint and BOOM that was it for me, my mind was opened up to all sorts of shit. It was like everything suddenly fit. It was like falling of your bike and thinking “it doesn’t matter. It’s all gonna be ok. I know exactly where I fit.”’

We were interrupted by the Kid accosting Hateman with callous demands for tobacco (‘Hateman, gimme a cigarette on my tab!’). The Hoodie Child stumbles at me for a second time, apologizes at the near fall, turns to the elder: ‘Hateman! Gimme a damn cigarette!’ Hateman gleefully rolls one for the guy, kindly receives a quarter in kind and politely retorts ‘Asshole’ and Hoodie wanders off into the dark, departing with a friendly, ‘fuck you,’ mumbled through the side of the mouth unoccupied by the poorly rolled smoke.

‘So it all started with Judy over here in the East Bay. At that point in time I was hanging by the fountain on the west side of the University and working as a secretary. I eventually started weaning myself off paid work and began sitting under the fountain cursing out passersby. There was this fake-friendly kindof culture happening around then. It seemed that everyone, suddenly, felt compelled to be extremely... polite. And it’s something that persists today, maybe more than ever in human history. You don’t see that in the old timers, they’re more hardcore. But if they think you’re an asshole they’ll let you know. But also, they’re more genuinely kind too, somehow. But back in the 60s, this pleasant crap was beginning to creep in. Those ‘have a N-I-C-E day’ stickers were popping up everywhere and well, I know it’s important that everyone be ¬N-I-C-E to each other but really, something wasn’t right, there was somethin’ unreal about it. Something fake.
So, I thought, fuck it, I don’t L-O-V-E these people, well maybe I do, but maybe by saying N-I-C-E things then I’m depleting that feeling... now bear with me here alright, I’m only just at the beginning.

So one day I meet this broad, Judy, right? Now, she is super cool. She’s like ten years younger than me, a student at UCal - twenty when we met or something - and she’s on the same trip as me. She feared for the endangered species right beneath our nose that no one but us could see --- ‘honesty’ man!

I remember the day I first made it with her. We were sitting in this coffee shop on Shattuck Avenue and we’d been hanging around together for a while at this point, anyway, so here we were, drinking a cuppa joe and talking - a real conversation you know - and all of a sudden we wake to the same trip: it’s all bullshit, all this niceness is a royal fucken joke; a mass-level, Janus-faced façade to maintain this terrible internal oppression where people are forcing themselves to be K-I-N-D to one another on the outside but inside they are this scathing bundle of unexpressed rage about the true nature of this... this heaped up violence that springs from a collective lie about who and what we are. Well there I was, ranting about my ideas, which I am wont to do, and I remember at that point she leapt up and cried ‘I HATE YOU!!’ cut me off mid-sentence, really burst out with the words and you know, I can talk, and she even spilled her coffee over in the excitement and people around us were staring, maybe thinking we were fighting, but we weren’t, it was the opposite. And I remember the glimmer in her eye as she yelled, and her ecstatic grin, and she musta seen that glimmer in my eye, you know the one that comes when you realise something big, because I said it right back without thinking, ‘I hate you too’. I nearly whispered it at first. But then, she said it aloud one more time and I repeated it, and we had hot coffee on our legs and we were yelling at one another: ‘I HATE YOU!!!!’ And we left immediately and ran straight up to my apartment on Telegraph and we made it. Well, then we became a thing you know.

It was around the “Summer of L-O-V-E” but we went the other way.

Then thankfully, the punk movement came along and I knew other people in the world were sensing the same shit. That’s when I realized I had a family. And then I started going through the history books and I found more examples. I’m even picking up what the Bible’s putting down. Jesus of Nazareth said it straight: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” That’s Luke 14:26 and my understanding of it is this: If you spend too long pledging allegiance to the narrow confines of you own life, starting with yourself, next your family, and friends, and your clan or small community, and then what have you got? Your race? Your State? Your country? It’s all bullshit. Artificial separation from every living being on this planet. So Jesus was suggesting that to follow him and to truly pledge an utmost love for G-O-D- and I understand G-O-D to mean the great swirlin’ swill of time and space – then you had to renounce your clan, your family, to ‘hate’ your mother and father and to expand the thinking beyond the narrow confines of your own life to the larger greatness of being. It’s the execution of ego.”

I had to interrupt him here. I told him I was following the story, which was only partly true. Because to be honest, I was slightly confused on a number or points, particularly on the strength of his strategy of convincing strangers to be more honest with themselves and each other by telling them, out of the blue, that you hate them. As for the unfinished tale of his New York wife and child, and his identification with a new family of haters, I thought it best to let that side of the story fade. I was also getting cold and I thought it best to continue the conversation, like Kyle, who kept interrupting to bot from Hateman on his accumulating tab, with a smoke. I asked politely if I could buy a cigarette and cover Kyle’s 75 cent tab before he continued.

‘Nope. I will not please give you a smoke. Don’t ask, tell me to give you a damned cigarette.’

I aske- told him to ‘give me a smoke you motherfucking cunt’, which startled him (and me) a second before he nodded and deftly reached into the depths of his plastic shopping bag of tobacco shag, and we made our exchange. As I rolled a cigarette and demanded the lighter which was sticky-taped to a string tied to his jeans, I lit my cigarette, gestured for him to continue, drew on the cigarette and nearly spluttered blood from the ripped lining of my esophagus. I don’t know where Hateman sourced that jail-trade broken-glass tobacco but I am sure it was laced with the shavings of truck-tire rubber. It was just foul.

‘Yeah, I know. I don’t smoke it myself, I got my own stash here of Virginia cut. But it started getting too expensive to dole it out. So I got a deal going with a tobacconist nearby – he sells me bulk pipe tobacco in a half pound block and I sell it here in increments, a quarter a smoke, and there I get back my cash: three quarter to the dollar. Not a bad caper for gaining those extra perks.’

After my one and only inhal- violation, I dicked the cigarette under my boot and invited Hateman to continue and while it was unlikely he gave two pennies, I doubt he noticed as he was most certainly engrossed in his own storytelling, which I had to admit, had its charms.

‘So where was I, oh yeah, the punk movement came along and that’s when I weaned myself off closeted living. Me and Judy broke it off and now she’s some high-flying professor over at the university. I see her every now and then when I take these guys into the University and set up our hate camp.’

Kyle, who was standing by the two of us, smoking a cigarette and looking out over the park, like a security guard on the ready, asked, ‘When are we doing Hatecamp again Hateman?’

“Let’s do it tomorrow! But anyway, where was I. So yeah. I developed other ways to deal with conflict of it all. Cause you know, these words carry a certain angry energy, a kindof fearful intention, which we need to rid from our system. So that’s where the physical pressure comes in.”

At that he extended his fist and invited me to put pressure back to him with my own fist.

“Now push.”

And our hands quivered under the pressure.

‘And that’s how we diminish the force for conflict. Where does it go? I dunno man, but I’ve looked deep inside and I assure you, it disappears. In fact I seen it fall from Luiz, the boy who comes over here humbugging me for cigarettes. When he gets real worked up, we have to push with our whole hip and shoulder. That usually settles him down. These are strong kids out here. They’ve seen some shit, lemme tell ya’.

But you’re right, it was no good telling people I hated them, because they didn’t get no cold relief from my truth, just the opposite, they got worked up! One guy was even threatening to beat on me and I tried to respond but he went wild, and that night I went home in a stink ‘cause it wasn’t working. Bu then I realised you just can’t come at people just outta the blue like that. So I tested something. Instead of searchin’ them out you see. I’d let them come to me.’

‘“Tell me you hate me,” I’d ask ‘em. And once they did, the seal was broken, the ice was cracked and they’d invited me in. We were on neutral ground, I’d express my hate in turn, and a conversation could flow.

Then the nineties came around and man and that have a N-I-C-E day mantra amped up even more... it just kept getting worse. My piece de rah-zist-once in the face of this rising tide of bullshit - which was also an act of self-preservation I must admit - was to never utter those N-I-C-E words, which I began to spell out in full, because they are abused beyond repair. I realized energy was leaking right out of them. Do you realize our times are ridden with the sapping cancer of bullshit? Your generation particularly, do you realize how likable you are all striving to be? It’s a very very dangerous habit. Out there, in television land, they’re afraid of us! Well, let me tell ya, I’m afraid of THEM, well not so much of them, but for them. But of them too. Do you know how much damage a person can do when they can’t tell if they’re lying or truthtelling? Please, my friend, keep an eye out for the rising tides of bullshit, or alienation or whatever you wanna call it. Every false nicety you hear is a tick toward the twelve in a time bomb that explodes every single day, all over the world, in one way or another. A heartattack, a housewife’s afternoon vino, a lonely pop flicking channels alone in a house designed so its occupants can spend as much time as possible in opposite rooms.

That’s why I don’t say those words man. I don’t mean ‘em so I’m not gonna say ‘em. A waste of energy. I’m telling ya man, its not the gulf in Iraq we gotta look out for, its not even the gulf between rich and poor, what we gotta really worry about, the cause of the most misery in this circus-mirror era of human history, is the gulf between truth and bullshit. It’s getting wider and wider every day. It’s a hideous, fucking gaping chasm.’

Kyle interrupted with a lonely whine, ‘Hateman goddamit, my back is keeeeiiillllin’ me.’
His began wheedling Hateman or I, or both of us, to walk across his back in some kind of street-style orthopedic massage.
‘From the bottom of my spine to the neck,’ he moaned, ‘at a medium pace!’

As I sat there with Hateman I must say I was struck on a number of fronts: (1) there aren’t many genuine eccentrics around, or so it seems (now, while there are many willfully zany people in the world, who are often falsely ascribed eccentricity - and doubtless they are a curious, if trying, people - but I would submit that they are so far from camp eccentric that they look on longingly, if not with a faint scorn, through a telescope from another planet); (2) Hateman L-O-V-E-D language and speculated golden flecks in the pathways between language and reality in postmodern-day America (some cool shit, you’ll agree); (3) he was a community organizer who clearly drew respect from Kyle, Luiz and other street people around the park (including cops), and especially the younger men, for whom he seemed to offer a sage reckoning that the train wreck of their life was a minor scratch in the larger, thermonuclear gamma-ray obliterating explosion of mainstream American society at large. And while one could perhaps deride him as a ‘cult leader’ (he certainly had something of a Rasputinesque appeal) he was cultivating in his disciples a certain transcendent self-respect in the face of an environment of stifling hostility, where the conflict was entered with a detailed rationale for survival (as well cheap smokes for the battle) whose content was decidedly crass, but whose form was not at all unsophisticated; it had rules and guidelines, biblical signposts, and even a guild: Hate Camp!, which stormed elite universities and cried foul its phony core, like jesters in a 15th century Royal Court, and they’d drum on saucepans and wear colanders on their heads and they’d spray paint their jumpe- sweaters with wobbly doodles of contraband, and they’d scream obscenities, and rag on college kids softened by modernity and they’d raise a plastic sword and bellow in mourning for the slow decay of language and human truth... So it was fascinating stuff. But for me, despite all that, despite being impressed by his ascetic existence stirred with a smart-arse mix of indomitable fury and cool indifference (like some dirty old patron saint of punk rock music) despite all that... I held some deep down unshakable feeling - one which cannot be explained rationally - which prevented me from doing what was now being asked of me. I just did not fancy a foxtrot with Hateman on the back of another man.

I politely declined Kyle’s offer. (And it was, I want to make this clear, through no fear of willful zaniness, though I see why it might be assumed).

Hateman sprung to his feet, clamped a cigarette between his thin lips, adjusted his holey pants, and removed his Ray Ban’s to inspect Kyle’s back, puffing his Virginia Cut with an air of wisened contemplation. His eyes had the deep inward focus that led poets to paint the quivering hinge between madness and sainthood.

I looked at Kyle. He was now laying face down on cold dirt and I secretly felt a quiet anxiety over the muddy corruption of his bright white sweater. The obscured stars and the acid glare glow of streetlights and a gust of wind combined with some deep down, subconscious kernel of inspiration and lent me an exit cue. There was also the cry of the policeman on the other side of the park, ‘Orright everybody, it’s time to clear out!!’ And the obligatory retorts of ‘asshole!’, and the muttering groans of comfortable folks and nodding drunks beleaguered to move on – a timeless and universal human reverberation.

I said my goodbyes to Kyle, who offered a desultory ‘Bye man,’ distracted as he was with the pressing issue of his tree-root mangled back.

Hateman bid me farewell with warmth and congeniality. He stood, perched on Kyle’s back, balancing nimbly with noodle arms reaching through raggedy black tee sleeves, hands propped on a bin and a tree, supporting himself either side.

‘Fuck you Piers. Come back anytime you wanna hear the end of the story.’
At this he commanded that Kyle, ‘Breathe out!!’ and launched himself fiercely downward. The foul cracking noise buckled somewhere within the whshhh sound of Kyle’s outward breath which combined with his animal cry to stir small plumes of dust and leaves from his face. Kyle’s eyes were red and watery, and he rested one cheek on the cold, trodden soil.
I walked away.

Mad America: The Great Alternatives Conference: Intro

On October 16th I flew from Oakland, California (thriving hub of cultural production in the modern world), to Omaha, Nebraska (...?), to visit a conference called Alternatives '09. The conference is a federally funded meeting of national mental health service user/ psychiatric survivor organisations. And so it was that on the last week in October 2009, the small city of Omaha, which lies smack bang in the centre btw the East and West of the USA, was to house the largest concentration of psychiatrically labeled people in the world. Although, that said, there's likely to be a more densely populated 'psychotropolis', the grimly titled clusters of psych-facilities, somewhere in the world, probably in China, India or NYC. So. Let's say instead, Omaha was to be the temporary home of the largest concentration of ORGANISED psychiatrically-labeled individuals in the country and, at that moment, the world. This invariably meant that whatever happened it was going to be, at the very least, the most interesting Halloween of my life. This was a big reason I came to the States; to connect and to contribute.

Over four days, activists and advocates and mental diversity thinkers showcased and discussed a range of peer-led responses to mental meltdown and explored other cool expressions for extreme emotional crisis, or so-called mental illness. (I don't at all mind the term, 'chucking a spazz', although it might be steeped too far in the peculiar idiom of Australian kids in the 70s and 80s. And anyway, to 'chuck a spazz' refers more to an angry, irrational tantrum that is hilarious to watch. Scrap that). The theme for this years Alternatives conference was 'Unity', a topic set to address the scourge plaguing all marginalised and oppressed groups: in-fighting, conflict and division; an ugly cancer that is fomented somewhere btw the anguish of the abused and disempowered, the violent jostle for table-crumbs of power, and the straight-ahead catty personal politics of individuals. Certainly, I am aware of splits in the movement back home and I could already sense tension in the US movement. I knew a number of the more radical US activists simply refused to attend Alternatives.

But for me, given my nooby status in this movement, the conference was going to be deeply interesting and informative however it played out. And in the end, it turned out to be one of the most politically and personally soul-replenishing weekends of my trip/ life, and not necessarily because of the content. Aside from the invaluable knowledge I gleaned from the broad range of expertise, I was more importantly able to link into a network of activists throughout the USA who generously shared their knowledge and wisdom - much of which was spurred and informed by their being seriously abused in mental health services themselves. Some particularly generous souls even fed and housed me for much of my trip and generally treated me as a distant, sorrowful family member passing through town.

The conference also set in motion a series of unlikely adventures over the next three months that saw me, among other places, at a thanksgiving dinner in Utah w/ a 54-strong Mormon family; to a despairing hour in a seedy desert-town motel carpark strewn with the belongings of an unhappy activist; to a flight over the Grand Canyon (that glorious shattered rift in the earths surface and just possibly the fabric of space); to Austin, TX, for a week of two-stepping to western swing and other shits and giggles; before a 20-hour car ride with three lunatic recovered-junkie non-recovered-poets. And then there were the five greyhound buses, the trans kids in LA, mad-hero meetings in the rainy verdent forests of Oregon, and the lessons in Shamanism from a radical madness radio host in Portland. I must also nod my head to the food that fueled all of this given that I have eaten the weight of, let's say, my whole family, in southern food alone (Texas BBQ [Jumbalaya, white bread, and {sorry vegan friends...} 11 hour stone smoked {organic, long-eye-lashed, happy cow} beef with pickles], not to mention a tonne of Soul food [grits, black-eyed peas, and collards greens] and Mexican [deep-fried avocado and plantain tortillas - O to the mofo MG), which have all helped, in their own way, to propel me here to Brooklyn, where i now write as I wait in a deli on new years day to have a cup of joe w/ an activist who spent ten years as a patient in NY State hospital before escaping and informing the New York Times who then wrote an award-winning expose on mental hospital abuse that prompted significant reform in the early 90s. Phew. (I'm holding a hot tea in a blue and white paper cup in a lame attempt to vacillate blood to my possibly gangrenous fingers. I'm also quietly hoping that George didn't slide off a bridge on his way here through the sleet covered bridges from Long Island. Outside, the sludgey snow heaps at the edge of the sidewalk like boiled newspaper and dirty streamers lay wet and soggy on subway grates with their cliched purls of steam drifting from the subway by 9th ave Station). Whatever it is that led me here, much of this was spurred from the Omaha conference which was attended by some of the greatest activists and thinkers in the movement that are alive today - in particular, Judi Chamberlain, Sheri Mead and Daniel Fisher - as well as countless others i hadn't heard of but was eager to connect with.

And so it went that the Alternatives Conference in Oct '09 was, I now recognise, a deeply significant week in my life.

Now, I'm a little uncertain of how to share the knowledge I gained from the conference. It's very important to me to get it out there. After all most of why I came here - aside from seeing a wild black bear (check) - was to synthesise all this complex business of MH politics into something accessible to non-mental health nerds or psych-abused citizens, and particularly to better inform other community organisers and activists. It is clear that the whole 'mental health' subject is completely confusing and UNCLEAR and that it is a complex (not to mention, taboo) issue that is very often intentionally mystified by a professional body nervously trying to maintain expertise over the damaged human mind/spirit.

So. How do I begin to simplify the major issues?... First, I'll be self-reflexive and ask myself how I should do this (check), then I'll tell some possibly hilarious but mostly tragic snippets of my own earnestism and foolishness (check), and then I'll launch into a day-by-day recounting of my time in Omaha prefaced by a brief criticism of Australia's pitiful equivalent. Hopefully that will do it. If not, I'll return with a zine of more serious political intention that cuts straight to the major points I'm trying to make. Or I'll write a PHD thesis.

Ok. Here goes.

In Australia, sadly, there is no real equivalent to the American Alternatives conference. The only barely comparable event is neither survivor-led nor alternatives-focused and is, instead, a 'consumer and carer day' tacked onto the front end of a five-day, government-/ pharmaceutical-sponsored mental health services conference for Aus and NZ. It is referred to as the TheMHS conference, an acronym for the equally uninventive (but apt) title: The Aus. and NZ Mental Health Services Conference. This patronising affair sidelines precisely those most affected by the system (i.e. those that use and are abused by it) and organisers are at pains to avoid the, ahem, uncomfortable term, 'psychiatric survivor'. The most prominent speakers at the Australian conference are psychiatric clinicians and policy-advisors followed by the occasional psychologist or social worker. Most participants (even so-called 'carers' and consumers) are firmly locked within a medical model of disability and the whole thing is entirely devoid of progressive political discussion. Actually, a few years ago I was asked to present my thesis at one of these conferences and I had to sneak into my own presentation to avoid having to pay over 400 dollars(!) registration. They are sponsored by zyprexa for gods sake! At one tragic moment in my brief dalliance with TheMHS I was chased through the Auckland Convention Centre by both a journalist, who came at me from one end seeking my comment on Auckland's homelessness issues (?), and a conference organiser running at me from the other end of the building trying, and ultimately failing, to simultaneously hold her clipboard, run in heels, and politely request my credit card details. It took months of curt emails to get out of paying for that rubbish.

By contrast, when I emailed some US activists and advocates who were going to be in Omaha for the conference and told them about my wish to connect and learn and share with the US movement, not only did some of them quietly suggest I crash the conferece, others went a step further and after hearing about my hopeless intention to hitch to Omaha in two days to save costs - it would take 24 hours of straight driving to get there from San Fran - they encouraged me to pay for a cheap flight and as recompense they would, they assured me, 'sort something out' viz. accomadation. As it happened, 'sorting something out' translated to a bed in the HILTON for every single night of the conference. When I arrived at Omaha airport at midnight I simply had to make a free call to a hotel porter to be then shuttled to the Hilton... for free! Egad. The only small aside to the accommodation was this: I would have to sleep in a different room each night, which meant a different roommate each night, which meant a different person who had used or been abused by the mental health system, which meant a new eccentric/ mad/ traumatised/ openly, tragically, spirited human being as a new roommate every single night, from every part of the nation, for five days, in the Hilton, in Omaha... Nebraska.
Yes, it was going to be a trip.
The first night I was welcomed by a painfully kind Hilton staff who handed me an electronic swipe key and encouraged me to make use of the complimentary hot tub, sauna, and pool pass. I shuffled bewildered down Coen Brothers'-esque hotel hallways, creepy and repetitive, while my befuddlement drummed to the hotels' constant broadcast of fine 50s bebop, itself sapped of creative integrity by the removed listening environment. It smelled like soap, bodies and laundry bleach. It felt seedy and exciting. I tried out my card on room no. 2033. A green light blinked, latch unhooked and there I was standing in a room with a sleeping stranger. I set my bag down, removed my clothes and crept silently into the free bed, freshly made, impersonal, warm. After what seemed like, say... ten minutes of listening to a strange man's heavy breathing, I drifted off.
A real trip.

Day "1","2","3", and "Halloween", forthcoming.

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