This chapter is dedicated to the incomparable Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, California. The Mysterious Galaxy folks have had me in to sign books every time I've been in San Diego for a conference or to teach (the Clarion Writers' Workshop is based at San Diego State University in nearby La Jolla, CA), and every time I show up, they pack the house. This is a store with a loyal following of die-hard fans who know that they'll always be able to get great recommendations and great ideas at the store. In summer 2007, I took my writing class from Clarion down to the store for the midnight launch of the final Harry Potter book and I've never seen such a rollicking, awesomely fun party at a store.
Mysterious Galaxy: 7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Suite #302 San Diego, CA USA 92111 +1 858 268 4747
The Xnet wasn't much fun in the middle of the school-day, when all the people who used it were in school. I had the piece of paper folded in the back pocket of my jeans, and I threw it on the kitchen table when I got home. I sat down in the living room and switched on the TV. I never watched it, but I knew that my parents did. The TV and the radio and the newspapers were where they got all their ideas about the world.
The news was terrible. There were so many reasons to be scared. American soldiers were dying all over the world. Not just soldiers, either. National guardsmen, who thought they were signing up to help rescue people from hurricanes, stationed overseas for years and years of a long and endless war.
I flipped around the 24-hour news networks, one after another, a parade of officials telling us why we should be scared. A parade of photos of bombs going off around the world.
I kept flipping and found myself looking at a familiar face. It was the guy who had come into the truck and spoken to Severe-Haircut woman when I was chained up in the back. Wearing a military uniform. The caption identified him as Major General Graeme Sutherland, Regional Commander, DHS.
"I hold in my hands actual literature on offer at the so-called concert in Dolores Park last weekend." He held up a stack of pamphlets. There'd been lots of pamphleteers there, I remembered. Wherever you got a group of people in San Francisco, you got pamphlets.
"I want you to look at these for a moment. Let me read you their titles. WITHOUT THE CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED: A CITIZEN'S GUIDE TO OVERTHROWING THE STATE. Here's one, DID THE SEPTEMBER 11TH BOMBINGS REALLY HAPPEN? And another, HOW TO USE THEIR SECURITY AGAINST THEM. This literature shows us the true purpose of the illegal gathering on Saturday night. This wasn't merely an unsafe gathering of thousands of people without proper precaution, or even toilets. It was a recruiting rally for the enemy. It was an attempt to corrupt children into embracing the idea that America shouldn't protect herself.
"Take this slogan, DON'T TRUST ANYONE OVER 25. What better way to ensure that no considered, balanced, adult discussion is ever injected into your pro-terrorist message than to exclude adults, limiting your group to impressionable young people?
"When police came on the scene, they found a recruitment rally for America's enemies in progress. The gathering had already disrupted the nights of hundreds of residents in the area, none of whom had been consulted in the planning of this all night rave party.
"They ordered these people to disperse — that much is visible on all the video — and when the revelers turned to attack them, egged on by the musicians on stage, the police subdued them using non-lethal crowd control techniques.
"The arrestees were ring-leaders and provocateurs who had led the thousands of impressionistic young people there to charge the police lines. 827 of them were taken into custody. Many of these people had prior offenses. More than 100 of them had outstanding warrants. They are still in custody.
"Ladies and gentlemen, America is fighting a war on many fronts, but nowhere is she in more grave danger than she is here, at home. Whether we are being attacked by terrorists or those who sympathize with them."
A reporter held up a hand and said, "General Sutherland, surely you're not saying that these children were terrorist sympathizers for attending a party in a park?"
"Of course not. But when young people are brought under the influence of our country's enemies, it's easy for them to end up over their heads. Terrorists would love to recruit a fifth column to fight the war on the home front for them. If these were my children, I'd be gravely concerned."
Another reporter chimed in. "Surely this is just an open air concert, General? They were hardly drilling with rifles."
The General produced a stack of photos and began to hold them up. "These are pictures that officers took with infra-red cameras before moving in." He held them next to his face and paged through them one at a time. They showed people dancing really rough, some people getting crushed or stepped on. Then they moved into sex stuff by the trees, a girl with three guys, two guys necking together. "There were children as young as ten years old at this event. A deadly cocktail of drugs, propaganda and music resulted in dozens of injuries. It's a wonder there weren't any deaths."
I switched the TV off. They made it look like it had been a riot. If my parents thought I'd been there, they'd have strapped me to my bed for a month and only let me out afterward wearing a tracking collar.
Speaking of which, they were going to be pissed when they found out I'd been suspended.
They didn't take it well. Dad wanted to ground me, but Mom and I talked him out of it.
"You know that vice-principal has had it in for Marcus for years," Mom said. "The last time we met him you cursed him for an hour afterward. I think the word 'asshole' was mentioned repeatedly."
Dad shook his head. "Disrupting a class to argue against the Department of Homeland Security —"
"It's a social studies class, Dad," I said. I was beyond caring anymore, but I felt like if Mom was going to stick up for me, I should help her out. "We were talking about the DHS. Isn't debate supposed to be healthy?"
"Look, son," he said. He'd taking to calling me "son" a lot. It made me feel like he'd stopped thinking of me as a person and switched to thinking of me as a kind of half-formed larva that needed to be guided out of adolescence. I hated it. "You're going to have to learn to live with the fact that we live in a different world today. You have every right to speak your mind of course, but you have to be prepared for the consequences of doing so. You have to face the fact that there are people who are hurting, who aren't going to want to argue the finer points of Constitutional law when their lives are at stakes. We're in a lifeboat now, and once you're in the lifeboat, no one wants to hear about how mean the captain is being."
I barely restrained myself from rolling my eyes.
"I've been assigned two weeks of independent study, writing one paper for each of my subjects, using the city for my background — a history paper, a social studies paper, an English paper, a physics paper. It beats sitting around at home watching television."
Dad looked hard at me, like he suspected I was up to something, then nodded. I said goodnight to them and went up to my room. I fired up my Xbox and opened a word-processor and started to brainstorm ideas for my papers. Why not? It really was better than sitting around at home.
I ended up IMing with Ange for quite a while that night. She was sympathetic about everything and told me she'd help me with my papers if I wanted to meet her after school the next night. I knew where her school was — she went to the same school as Van — and it was all the way over in the East Bay, where I hadn't visited since the bombs went.
I was really excited at the prospect of seeing her again. Every night since the party, I'd gone to bed thinking of two things: the sight of the crowd charging the police lines and the feeling of the side of her breast under her shirt as we leaned against the pillar. She was amazing. I'd never been with a girl as… aggressive as her before. It had always been me putting the moves on and them pushing me away. I got the feeling that Ange was as much of a horn-dog as I was. It was a tantalizing notion.
I slept soundly that night, with exciting dreams of me and Ange and what we might do if we found ourselves in a secluded spot somewhere.
The next day, I set out to work on my papers. San Francisco is a good place to write about. History? Sure, it's there, from the Gold Rush to the WWII shipyards, the Japanese internment camps, the invention of the PC. Physics? The Exploratorium has the coolest exhibits of any museum I've ever been to. I took a perverse satisfaction in the exhibits on soil liquefaction during big quakes. English? Jack London, Beat Poets, science fiction writers like Pat Murphy and Rudy Rucker. Social studies? The Free Speech Movement, Cesar Chavez, gay rights, feminism, anti-war movement…
I've always loved just learning stuff for its own sake. Just to be smarter about the world around me. I could do that just by walking around the city. I decided I'd do an English paper about the Beats first. City Lights books had a great library in an upstairs room where Alan Ginsberg and his buddies had created their radical druggy poetry. The one we'd read in English class was Howl and I would never forget the opening lines, they gave me shivers down my back:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…
I liked the way he ran those words all together, "starving hysterical naked." I knew how that felt. And "best minds of my generation" made me think hard too. It made me remember the park and the police and the gas falling. They busted Ginsberg for obscenity over Howl — all about a line about gay sex that would hardly have caused us to blink an eye today. It made me happy somehow, knowing that we'd made some progress. That things had been even more restrictive than this before.
I lost myself in the library, reading these beautiful old editions of the books. I got lost in Jack Kerouac's On the Road, a novel I'd been meaning to read for a long time, and a clerk who came up to check on me nodded approvingly and found me a cheap edition that he sold me for six bucks.
I walked into Chinatown and had dim sum buns and noodles with hot-sauce that I had previously considered to be pretty hot, but which would never seem anything like hot ever again, not now that I'd had an Ange special.
As the day wore on toward the afternoon, I got on the BART and switched to a San Mateo bridge shuttle bus to bring me around to the East Bay. I read my copy of On the Road and dug the scenery whizzing past. On the Road is a semi-autobiographical novel about Jack Kerouac, a druggy, hard-drinking writer who goes hitchhiking around America, working crummy jobs, howling through the streets at night, meeting people and parting ways. Hipsters, sad-faced hobos, con-men, muggers, scumbags and angels. There's not really a plot — Kerouac supposedly wrote it in three weeks on a long roll of paper, stoned out of his mind — only a bunch of amazing things, one thing happening after another. He makes friends with self-destructing people like Dean Moriarty, who get him involved in weird schemes that never really work out, but still it works out, if you know what I mean.
There was a rhythm to the words, it was luscious, I could hear it being read aloud in my head. It made me want to lie down in the bed of a pickup truck and wake up in a dusty little town somewhere in the central valley on the way to LA, one of those places with a gas station and a diner, and just walk out into the fields and meet people and see stuff and do stuff.
It was a long bus ride and I must have dozed off a little — staying up late IMing with Ange was hard on my sleep-schedule, since Mom still expected me down for breakfast. I woke up and changed buses and before long, I was at Ange's school.
She came bounding out of the gates in her uniform — I'd never seen her in it before, it was kind of cute in a weird way, and reminded me of Van in her uniform. She gave me a long hug and a hard kiss on the cheek.
"Hello you!" she said.
I'd been waiting for this. I'd marked the passage with a finger. "Listen: 'They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"'"
She took the book and read the passage again for herself. "Wow, dingledodies! I love it! Is it all like this?"
I told her about the parts I'd read, walking slowly down the sidewalk back toward the bus-stop. Once we turned the corner, she put her arm around my waist and I slung mine around her shoulder. Walking down the street with a girl — my girlfriend? Sure, why not? — talking about this cool book. It was heaven. Made me forget my troubles for a little while.
I turned around. It was Van. In my subconscious I'd expected this. I knew because my conscious mind wasn't remotely surprised. It wasn't a big school, and they all got out at the same time. I hadn't spoken to Van in weeks, and those weeks felt like months. We used to talk every day.
"Hey, Van," I said. I suppressed the urge to take my arm off of Ange's shoulders. Van seemed surprised, but not angry, more ashen, shaken. She looked closely at the two of us.
"Hey, Vanessa," Ange said.
"What are you doing here?"
"I came out to get Ange," I said, trying to keep my tone neutral. I was suddenly embarrassed to be seen with another girl.
"Oh," Van said. "Well, it was nice to see you."
"Nice to see you too, Vanessa," Ange said, swinging me around, marching me back toward the bus-stop.
"You know her?" Ange said.
"Yeah, since forever."
"Was she your girlfriend?"
"What? No! No way! We were just friends."
"You were friends?"
I felt like Van was walking right behind us, listening in, though at the pace we were walking, she would have to be jogging to keep up. I resisted the temptation to look over my shoulder for as long as possible, then I did. There were lots of girls from the school behind us, but no Van.
"She was with me and Jose-Luis and Darryl when we were arrested. We used to ARG together. The four of us, we were kind of best friends."
"And what happened?"
I dropped my voice. "She didn't like the Xnet," I said. "She thought we would get into trouble. That I'd get other people into trouble."
"And that's why you stopped being friends?"
"We just drifted apart."
We walked a few steps. "You weren't, you know, boyfriend/girlfriend friends?"
"No!" I said. My face was hot. I felt like I sounded like I was lying, even though I was telling the truth.
Ange jerked us to a halt and studied my face.
"No! Seriously! Just friends. Darryl and her — well, not quite, but Darryl was so into her. There was no way —"
"But if Darryl hadn't been into her, you would have, huh?"
"No, Ange, no. Please, just believe me and let it go. Vanessa was a good friend and we're not anymore, and that upsets me, but I was never into her that way, all right?
She slumped a little. "OK, OK. I'm sorry. I don't really get along with her is all. We've never gotten along in all the years we've known each other."
Oh ho, I thought. This would be how it came to be that Jolu knew her for so long and I never met her; she had some kind of thing with Van and he didn't want to bring her around.
She gave me a long hug and we kissed, and a bunch of girls passed us going woooo and we straightened up and headed for the bus-stop. Ahead of us walked Van, who must have gone past while we were kissing. I felt like a complete jerk.
Of course, she was at the stop and on the bus and we didn't say a word to each other, and I tried to make conversation with Ange all the way, but it was awkward.
The plan was to stop for a coffee and head to Ange's place to hang out and "study," i.e. take turns on her Xbox looking at the Xnet. Ange's mom got home late on Tuesdays, which was her night for yoga class and dinner with her girls, and Ange's sister was going out with her boyfriend, so we'd have the place to ourselves. I'd been having pervy thoughts about it ever since we'd made the plan.
We got to her place and went straight to her room and shut the door. Her room was kind of a disaster, covered with layers of clothes and notebooks and parts of PCs that would dig into your stocking feet like caltrops. Her desk was worse than the floor, piled high with books and comics, so we ended up sitting on her bed, which was OK by me.
The awkwardness from seeing Van had gone away somewhat and we got her Xbox up and running. It was in the center of a nest of wires, some going to a wireless antenna she'd hacked into it and stuck to the window so she could tune in the neighbors' WiFi. Some went to a couple of old laptop screens she'd turned into standalone monitors, balanced on stands and bristling with exposed electronics. The screens were on both bedside tables, which was an excellent setup for watching movies or IMing from bed — she could turn the monitors sidewise and lie on her side and they'd be right-side-up, no matter which side she lay on.
We both knew what we were really there for, sitting side by side propped against the bedside table. I was trembling a little and super-conscious of the warmth of her leg and shoulder against mine, but I needed to go through the motions of logging into Xnet and seeing what email I'd gotten and so on.
There was an email from a kid who liked to send in funny phone-cam videos of the DHS being really crazy — the last one had been of them disassembling a baby's stroller after a bomb-sniffing dog had shown an interest in it, taking it apart with screwdrivers right on the street in the Marina while all these rich people walked past, staring at them and marveling at how weird it was.
I'd linked to the video and it had been downloaded like crazy. He'd hosted it on the Internet Archive's Alexandria mirror in Egypt, where they'd host anything for free so long as you'd put it under the Creative Commons license, which let anyone remix it and share it. The US archive — which was down in the Presidio, only a few minutes away — had been forced to take down all those videos in the name of national security, but the Alexandria archive had split away into its own organization and was hosting anything that embarrassed the USA.
This kid — his handle was Kameraspie — had sent me an even better video this time around. It was at the doorway to City Hall in Civic Center, a huge wedding cake of a building covered with statues in little archways and gilt leaves and trim. The DHS had a secure perimeter around the building, and Kameraspie's video showed a great shot of their checkpoint as a guy in an officer's uniform approached and showed his ID and put his briefcase on the X-ray belt.
It was all OK until one of the DHS people saw something he didn't like on the X-ray. He questioned the General, who rolled his eyes and said something inaudible (the video had been shot from across the street, apparently with a homemade concealed zoom lens, so the audio was mostly of people walking past and traffic noises).
The General and the DHS guys got into an argument, and the longer they argued, the more DHS guys gathered around them. Finally, the General shook his head angrily and waved his finger at the DHS guy's chest and picked up his briefcase and started to walk away. The DHS guys shouted at him, but he didn't slow. His body language really said, "I am totally, utterly pissed."
Then it happened. The DHS guys ran after the general. Kameraspie slowed the video down here, so we could see, in frame-by-frame slo-mo, the general half-turning, his face all like, "No freaking way are you about to tackle me," then changing to horror as three of the giant DHS guards slammed into him, knocking him sideways, then catching him at the middle, like a career-ending football tackle. The general — middle aged, steely grey hair, lined and dignified face — went down like a sack of potatoes and bounced twice, his face slamming off the sidewalk and blood starting out of his nose.
The DHS hog-tied the general, strapping him at ankles and wrists. The general was shouting now, really shouting, his face purpling under the blood streaming from his nose. Legs swished by in the tight zoom. Passing pedestrians looked at this guy in his uniform, getting tied up, and you could see from his face that this was the worst part, this was the ritual humiliation, the removal of dignity. The clip ended.
"Oh my dear sweet Buddha," I said looking at the screen as it faded to black, starting the video again. I nudged Ange and showed her the clip. She watched wordless, jaw hanging down to her chest.
"Post that," she said. "Post that post that post that post that!"
I posted it. I could barely type as I wrote it up, describing what I'd seen, adding a note to see if anyone could identify the military man in the video, if anyone knew anything about this.
I hit publish.
We watched the video. We watched it again.
My email pinged.
I totally recognize that dude — you can find his bio on Wikipedia. He's General Claude Geist. He commanded the joint UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti.
I checked the bio. There was a picture of the general at a press conference, and notes about his role in the difficult Haiti mission. It was clearly the same guy.
I updated the post.
Theoretically, this was Ange's and my chance to make out, but that wasn't what we ended up doing. We crawled the Xnet blogs, looking for more accounts of the DHS searching people, tackling people, invading them. This was a familiar task, the same thing I'd done with all the footage and accounts from the riots in the park. I started a new category on my blog for this, AbusesOfAuthority, and filed them away. Ange kept coming up with new search terms for me to try and by the time her mom got home, my new category had seventy posts, headlined by General Geist's City Hall takedown.
I worked on my Beat paper all the next day at home, reading the Kerouac and surfing the Xnet. I was planning on meeting Ange at school, but I totally wimped out at the thought of seeing Van again, so I texted her an excuse about working on the paper.
There were all kinds of great suggestions for AbusesOfAuthority coming in; hundreds of little and big ones, pictures and audio. The meme was spreading.
It spread. The next morning there were even more. Someone started a new blog called AbusesOfAuthority that collected hundreds more. The pile grew. We competed to find the juiciest stories, the craziest pictures.
The deal with my parents was that I'd eat breakfast with them every morning and talk about the projects I was doing. They liked that I was reading Kerouac. It had been a favorite book of both of theirs and it turned out there was already a copy on the bookcase in my parents' room. My dad brought it down and I flipped through it. There were passages marked up with pen, dog-eared pages, notes in the margin. My dad had really loved this book.
It made me remember a better time, when my Dad and I had been able to talk for five minutes without shouting at each other about terrorism, and we had a great breakfast talking about the way that the novel was plotted, all the crazy adventures.
But the next morning at breakfast they were both glued to the radio.
"Abuses of Authority — it's the latest craze on San Francisco's notorious Xnet, and it's captured the world's attention. Called A-oh-A, the movement is composed of 'Little Brothers' who watch back against the Department of Homeland Security's anti-terrorism measures, documenting the failures and excesses. The rallying cry is a popular viral video clip of a General Claude Geist, a retired three-star general, being tackled by DHS officers on the sidewalk in front of City Hall. Geist hasn't made a statement on the incident, but commentary from young people who are upset with their own treatment has been fast and furious.
"Most notable has been the global attention the movement has received. Stills from the Geist video have appeared on the front pages of newspapers in Korea, Great Britain, Germany, Egypt and Japan, and broadcasters around the world have aired the clip on prime-time news. The issue came to a head last night, when the British Broadcasting Corporation's National News Evening program ran a special report on the fact that no American broadcaster or news agency has covered this story. Commenters on the BBC's website noted that BBC America's version of the news did not carry the report."
They brought on a couple of interviews: British media watchdogs, a Swedish Pirate Party kid who made jeering remarks about America's corrupt press, a retired American newscaster living in Tokyo, then they aired a short clip from Al-Jazeera, comparing the American press record and the record of the national news-media in Syria.
I felt like my parents were staring at me, that they knew what I was doing. But when I cleared away my dishes, I saw that they were looking at each other.
Dad was holding his coffee cup so hard his hands were shaking. Mom was looking at him.
"They're trying to discredit us," Dad said finally. "They're trying to sabotage the efforts to keep us safe."
I opened my mouth, but my mom caught my eye and shook her head. Instead I went up to my room and worked on my Kerouac paper. Once I'd heard the door slam twice, I fired up my Xbox and got online.
Hello M1k3y. This is Colin Brown. I'm a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's news programme The National. We're doing a story on Xnet and have sent a reporter to San Francisco to cover it from there. Would you be interested in doing an interview to discuss your group and its actions?
I stared at the screen. Jesus. They wanted to interview me about "my group"?
Um thanks no. I'm all about privacy. And it's not "my group." But thanks for doing the story!
A minute later, another email.
We can mask you and ensure your anonymity. You know that the Department of Homeland Security will be happy to provide their own spokesperson. I'm interested in getting your side.
I filed the email. He was right, but I'd be crazy to do this. For all I knew, he was the DHS.
I picked up more Kerouac. Another email came in. Same request, different news-agency: KQED wanted to meet me and record a radio interview. A station in Brazil. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Deutsche Welle. All day, the press requests came in. All day, I politely turned them down.
I didn't get much Kerouac read that day.
"Hold a press-conference," is what Ange said, as we sat in the cafe near her place that evening. I wasn't keen on going out to her school anymore, getting stuck on a bus with Van again.
"What? Are you crazy?"
"Do it in Clockwork Plunder. Just pick a trading post where there's no PvP allowed and name a time. You can login from here."
PvP is player-versus-player combat. Parts of Clockwork Plunder were neutral ground, which meant that we could theoretically bring in a ton of noob reporters without worrying about gamers killing them in the middle of the press-conference.
"I don't know anything about press conferences."
"Oh, just google it. I'm sure someone's written an article on holding a successful one. I mean, if the President can manage it, I'm sure you can. He looks like he can barely tie his shoes without help."
We ordered more coffee.
"You are a very smart woman," I said.
"And I'm beautiful," she said.
"That too," I said.