Tommy, Can You Hear Me?


I flew into the Bay Area October 15, and rehearsed my speech. When the Migra began to interrogate me about Zapatista dolls with guns and masks, I would talk to them about NAFTA and corn and racism. But I must have looked a lot more like a disoriented senior citizen than bin Laden’s general from the south; the Migra man kindly asked if he could help. You can imagine my consternation when I emerged a free man in North America with no federal goon on my tail. I had fit no profile and was free to wander the streets of San Francisco.

The made-in-Taiwan Stars & Stripes were aflutter on the Mission Miracle Mile where immigrant merchants felt obliged, by their uncertain dossiers as possible deportable aliens, to demonstrate their patriotic zeal, a sort of talisman against seriously malicious racist mischief. Meanwhile, I read the writing on the walls: “Piss on Bin Laden fucking traitor to the CIA gringos,” it read in the unisex Muddy Waters (24th Street) restroom.

Although I was determined to traverse the heartland close to the ground, scheduling forced me to wing it from San Jose to Minnesota on Halloween. The highly policed terminal was teeming with counter workers in fright wigs, clown paint, witches‚ hats, and vampire fangs, but none of the bin Laden masks that were so popular in Mexico City. Once again Tom Ridge failed to recognize me as a likely terrorist. To Homeland Security’s boys and girls, I remained a toothless senior citizen hauling my sample suitcases across the country, a sag-shouldered Willie Loman dying the death of a salesman. And so onward to Greater Minneapolis-St Paul, which remains an island of liberalism and where a new population of immigrant aliens was melting into the Twin Cities social mix: Somalis, Hmong, and Mexicans all have carved out enclaves here.

My host, a professor named Tomás, and I had went to a spectacular Day of the Dead concert by the Oaxacan-born, Minneapolis-bred singer Lila Downs. “When did you come to America?” Lila kept asking in a plaintive refrain. When we climbed into the pickup in a parking lot staffed by young Somalis, three young men smoking cigarettes in an adjacent car began to salaam and sahib us: “We respect the Americans!” they chanted. “Piss on bin Laden!” “Osama is a bad Muslim!”

It was like a macabre poem, an embarrassing expression of immigrant hysteria. (“When did you come to America?” as Lila would say.)

My first presentation in the heartland was set for a small Catholic college due north of St. Cloud, Minnesota, a transformed monastery crowned by a great abbey that soared dramatically into the big northern sky. The nervous professor explained that the VCR was functioning erratically. It had locked into CNN and the six o’clock news was being projected silently on the big auditorium screen behind my back. Just as I was hitting my stride in my talk about the Zapatistas, I noticed that the students were universally fixated at a spot just over my right shoulder. Behind me on the big screen, Osama bin Laden hovered like a giant evil genie.

The Greyhound driver wore an American flag tie the size of his swelling chest. The only other passenger between St. Paul and Red Wing, Minnesota was a silent, paralyzed black man whom the driver gingerly off-loaded at the train station in Northfield, a town once visited by the James and Dalton gangs. We followed the curving shore of Lake Superior into Wisconsin cheeselands. In Milwaukee, I stayed with a woman who was mourning the death of her Tibetan lover in a Rwandan truck accident. She kept a lightly rouged yak skull she had bought on E-Bay from a Lhasa merchant prince on her wall in memoriam.

My host moved in the company of nuns and priests, many of whom were preparing for the annual School of the Americas shenanigans at Fort Benning, Georgia. (It sometimes seems that only the nuns and the priests remember that history did not begin on 9/11/01.) I spoke at a meeting of eldering Dominican teaching sisters in a Kenosha, Wisconsin church. Everyone around the table was growing grayer by the minute. Suddenly the door flew open and a handful of Chicano high school students burst into the room. Alfredo postulated that the Zapatistas were Mexicans and Indians and that their government was criminally corrupt.

“I know because I have gone to Cancún,” he said, telling about an encounter with an old Mayan man who called him “m’ijo.”

“How old was the old man?” asked one of the sisters.

“I think 60,” he replied, an estimate that did not impress the seniors gathered around the table.

Then I spoke at another high school, Lane Tech in northwest Chicago–8,000 trainee inmates, metal detectors at the doors, cops with walkie-talkies in the hallways, picture ID required, the national anthem blaring over the public address system at eight a.m. sharp.

Since I was show and tell for three first-period social studies classes, I held up the Zapatista dolls, asked if the kids thought they looked like terrorists, and explained why the Indians wear the mask to unmask Mexican racism. When I slipped in the video of the Zapatistas’ march to Mexico City last spring, Ms. Renteria objected. Was this going to be about overthrowing the Mexican government, she wanted to know. And so it was on to Chicago, where I worked the Heartland Café, Mike James’s venerable venue in the far north of the Windy City.

A bearlike presence who had once organized a white hillbilly project for SDS back around the time of the infamous 1968 Democratic convention, Mike is now a leftish entrepreneur with many neighborhood projects in the fire. After 9/11, he wrestled with flying the flag and lost the fight–over good, greasy mezcal in one of his several saloons. In the bar, I talked with old lefties who maintained that things were different now. “They have attacked America; they have killed Americans in America!” they declared, offended by my chickens-coming-home-to-roost rap.

They have been killing Americans in America for a long time. Some of the dead are interred at the end of the Blue Line on the Chicago metro in Forest Home cemetery. The four Haymarket martyrs, hanged by their government for demanding the eight-hour day back in 1887, sleep here surrounded by the cenotaphs of a hundred more martyrs of the American Left. All around the great marker (now a national monument) to August Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, and George Engels (Louis Lingg was blown up in his jail cell, probably by his keepers), are sewn the remnants of Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, “the Rebel Girl,” and Lucy Parsons, Albert’s determined widow. The ashes of Big Bill Heyward and Joe Hill are scattered in the surrounding grass. I knelt and kissed the simple, worn stone that bore Lucy Parsons’ name. For 60 years after the government strung up her husband, this ramrod-straight black woman with a honeyed voice traveled white working class America to spread the gospel of revolution.

The starched flags in Cincinnati are fluttering high these days, a warning perhaps that the poor ought to stay far away from downtown. I learned that lesson when I accompanied distinguished labor scholar Dan LaBotz to a conclave of local writers at the presumably public library.

Having used this literary interval to investigate my e-mail on the free screens these institutions now make available to low-rent travelers, I paused in the Reading Garden to rest my failing eyes. I was brusquely jarred from my reverie by a sharp blow to the balls of my feet, aimed by a burly officer’s nightstick.

“No sleeping! Library policy!” barked the gendarme, who wore an exceptionally crisp white shirt. When I remonstrated with the library lady who was hosting the authors’ klatch upstairs, she apologized profusely. “We have this problem with indigents,” she smiled at me before I caught the Lakeshore Limited out of Cleveland for a Thanks-giving rendezvous with my sister in Brooklyn.

“All aboard!” hooted the conductor at 3:30 in the morning. The only seat in sight was by the coach door under a bright nightlight. The door kept sliding open to breathe in the frigid November outside. I chattered and groaned until dawn when my seatmate, a bulky, bald-domed Samaritan offered to exchange places, and then tenderly covered me with his warm overcoat, a gesture that suffused me with a sudden surge of love for my fellow Americans. Joe was a retired fireman from Lima (as in the beans), Ohio. He and his wife were taking the grandkids up to New York to bear witness to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and shop America as their president had ordered. By way of social exchange, I offered them my new book, The War Against Oblivion, and spoke of how the Mayans had taken up the gun to defend their language and their culture, their corn and their forests. Beth, an ob-gyn nurse, had been a volunteer after the devastating 1985 Mexico City earthquake. When we arrived at Penn Station, Beth stopped another passenger and asked her to take a photo of the three of us for their family scrapbook.

Back in September, my sister, the artist, was all for nuking bin Laden back to the Pleistocene era. “What do you want us to do? Send him a nasty note?” she wrote. But by Thanksgiving, Sis was thumbing The New York Times’s “A Nation Challenged” section for the absurdities that were beginning to distinguish Bushwa’s war. The crates of Pop Tarts that had just smashed in the roof of a shrine to an ancient Persian poet touched a nerve. Pop Tarts? My sister has raised four kids and was irritated by such nutritional genocide. On Turkey Day her table was laden with enough comestibles to feed an entire village in Chiapas for a year.

The next day I strolled across the Brooklyn Bridge on the busiest shopping day of the Greco-Roman calendar. Scanning the lower Manhattan skyline, you know something is missing. But for those of us who grew up in a pre-twin towers Gotham, where the spires of the Empire State and the Chrysler Buildings were cherished expressions of architectural grace, the absence of the World Trade Center is not immediately palpable.

I joined the pedestrian parade to Ground Zero on the west side of City Hall. As the line of marchers thickened, it soon became evident that there were precious few New Yorkers on this pilgrimage. Ground Zero was now the nation’s most pertinent patriotic icon and those out-of-towners who usually take in Miss Liberty out there in the harbor now came to pray at this new mecca of mindless jingoism. The mob moved ponderously slowly past walls strewn with portraits of fallen firefighters, kids’ drawings, teddy bears and peace cranes, wide-screen flags and bedsheets upon which the mourners inscribed “God Bless America” or I “heart” New York, I “heart” the USA; the kitsch scrubbed clean of such raw sentiments as “Piss on bin Laden fucking traitor to the CIA gringos.”

The road took me next to New England. There I zigzagged through the northeast quadrant from Vermont to Maine to New Hampshire to western Massachusetts where radical students housed me at the Lord Jeff Inn (Lord Jeffrey Amherst was a pioneer of bio-terrorism who handed out smallpox-tinged blankets to the local Indians. I checked my armpits for pustules.)

In big green Maine and the granite state of New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die!”), the populace seemed to be turning inward, insulating itself from the daily horrors of the new war. I stayed with a couple, professors at a state university who were both on sabbatical. They had just adopted a baby girl and the central heating was intense in their quiet glass house by a fringe of forest; they had gone inside until the ugliness out there dissipated.

A few evenings later back in Manhattan an old comrade whom I often refer to as the Class Enemy invited me to dinner. The Class Enemy came to Mexico in the mid-1980s as a correspondent for the long-lived, long-dead, leftist weekly, the National Guardian. Now he is a senior vice president at one of the brokerage houses that rule the earth.

After calling the Argentinean default, he scents fresh disaster. While the Class Enemy is usually sanguine when others cry calamity–last spring, he saw the U.S. downturn as a mere flyspeck on the screen of the world’s lustiest economy–he was now sorely down in the dumps. Over scaloppini in a candle-lit ristorante, he waxed eloquent about deflation: the psychosis of over-production, the capacity to over-produce, the over-stockpiling of natural resources, the economy’s addiction to over-consumption as a survival mechanism. It was now all grinding to a shuddering halt–the factories closing down, the workers rioting in the streets a la the Argentine, commodity prices plummeting below rock bottom, the money markets moribund, no more moolah to be made. Only my suggestion that war-time profiteering might heat up corners of the economy buoys the Class Enemy’s cheer. We clink glasses. The last Merlot is superb.

Back in California for Xmas, it has been the warmest autumn in 140 years, a phenomenon that appears to be related to the fact that more SUVs were sold in October than ever before in the history of man–and womankind–low gas prices and zero interest on financing. A butcher in New Jersey tells the Times that his gold-trimmed, 12.4-mpg Ford Explorer is a mandatory accessory for the New Patriotism.

I wander out to the Trinidad town cemetery to see my old compañero, E.B. Schnaubelt, 1855-1913. “Mur-dered by Capitalism” reads his tombstone–E.B.’s brother Rudolph is alleged to have thrown the bomb in Haymarket Square, and he himself was an enthusiastic anarchist. He knows better than most that the world did not begin on 9/11.

I plant the cold kiss I have carried on my lips all the way from Lucy Parsons’ simple stone in south Chicago on Schnaubie’s equally gelid tomb. Then I put my arm around the old man’s cenotaph, which seems to shrink every year, and we both glance up at the great redwood trees towering into the tumbling dusk above us and wonder if Tom Ridge is listening in.

After his whirlwind trek across the United States, preaching the gospel of Zapatismo, John Ross is back in Mexico City.