The Day of Outrage

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance


That was what I thought, but I wasn’t the only one who cared about Swan. Josh had reported his disappearance to a friend who worked for a nonprofit housing-rights organization, and they decided to use the disappearance of Swan and Mr. Babylob and other homeless residents of the Mission as an occasion to protest the city’s policy of harassing homeless people and driving them out of gentrifying neighborhoods. They were going to have a rally and a march. The Day of Outrage, his friends called it. Josh asked if it was something I wanted to get involved in and I said yes, even though I was skeptical about the power of any protest to accomplish what I wanted, which was not the modification of city policy, but Swan’s return. More generally, I was skeptical about protests as such, in particular about the ones Josh and his activist friends staged. I’d been to a couple of them right when I moved to San Francisco and they struck me as being almost completely self-enclosed, as though the world they were changing was uniquely that of the people who took part in them. Still, I felt like I owed it to Swan to do something. And in the back of my mind there was, if not the hope that the protest would bring Swan back, at least the superstitious belief that doing something was better than doing nothing at all.

Josh’s friend had printed a stack of posters, and I volunteered to hang them. I mixed up wheat paste in one of Alex’s Tupperware bowls and went out at night, slathering sticky white stuff on the sides of newspaper vending machines, construction hoardings, and utility poles, and pressing posters into the paste to let people know the Day of Outrage was coming. My pasting technique was not good and often as not the posters went on crooked, part of their message swallowed by creases or torn off in my clumsy efforts to get them to stick. It didn’t matter, I hoped. I was spreading the word. The strange, or not so strange, thing was that, as I worked, I came more and more to believe that the Day of Outrage would not be in vain. How could people see the posters I had spent hours putting up and not take action? I imagined a crowd of thousands, a march on City Hall. The mayor would speak to us from a window. We have a sane and reasonable policy, he’d begin, and we’d drown him out with our simple, irrefutable chant. Swan! Swan! Aides would be dispatched to find out what it meant. Records would be searched. Swan! Swan! Sooner or later a clerk would find the file of David Somebody, a.k.a. Swan, transferred from the Mission District to who knew where, on such and such a date. Advisors would tell the mayor to leave him where he was. An old man, in poor health… But by then the chant, Swan! would have become perpetual. swan would be spray-painted on the columns of City Hall; banners reading swan would hang from windows all over the Mission; airplanes would write swan over the city in ice crystal letters half a mile high. The only thing to do, the advisors would finally admit, was to send him back. One day without ceremony an unmarked white van would stop outside Java Man and Swan would get out, unbowed, making “V for Victory” signs with his nicotine-stained fingers.

If this sounds delusional, you have to understand, first of all, how badly I wanted Swan back, and second, that I was now not alone. Everyone I knew was doing something to get ready for the Day of Outrage, except of course Victor, who had vanished into MySky. We met at the Blue Study with our notebooks, and Josh gave us assignments; we e-mailed each other frantically, asking where the microphone stand was, who had the poster paint, who was going to choose the route our procession would take once it left the park. Erin’s friend Neil volunteered to make puppets that would represent the people who had vanished, and suddenly puppet-related tasks sprang up. A week before the Day of Outrage I was drafted to drive to Hunter’s Point to buy plaster of paris from a wholesaler. He didn’t want to let me go with less than five hundred pounds; I convinced him to sell me two hundred, and got halfway back to the freeway when I drove over a bump and heard something in the engine go snap. I was staring into the tangle of hoses under the hood of Norman Mailer’s car when two men came up and asked if I needed help.

Hunter’s Point was a rough neighborhood and these guys looked rough, but in this case need trumped prejudice and miseducation. I said yes, please, help if you can, and the three of us pushed the burdened car a block and a half to an auto-body shop, where a Mexican mechanic diagnosed the problem as a broken fan belt and sent his friend to get a replacement from another garage. The two of them installed it in my car, asked me for twenty bucks, and went back into the shop. I looked around for someone else to pay, but no one wanted my money; even the guys who had helped me push the car were gone. The whole process had taken an hour and a half and no one even wanted to be thanked. I drove back to the freeway, full of courage and hope: it was as if I’d just moved to San Francisco all over again, as if I had stepped over a wall that kept me from experiencing the mercy of the world. I delivered the sacks of plaster to Neil’s house in Bernal Heights, we grunted together as we carried them up the driveway to the garage where the puppets were being made, already some of them had giant heads and recognizable if unpainted faces, they looked up at us benevolently from the floor. I rubbed my eyes as though to wipe away sweat, in fact tears, small tears.

The Day of Outrage began as every day in San Francisco did that season, wrapped in a dense white fog that smelled of the ocean. By the time I finished breakfast, though, the air was warm and still. It was spring, but it felt like summer, real summer, as though we’d stolen a day from the world of seasons. I thought it was a good omen, and Alex agreed. We took the bags Josh had told us to pack, with water and chocolate bars and a list of phrases we were supposed to say if we were arrested, a highly improbable contingency. Dolores Park was full of people sunbathing; the tennis courts were full, the soccer field already churned to mud. Two kids were throwing a Frisbee back and forth, leaping in the air, running, catching it between their legs. After all the rain we’d had that winter, the grass shone emerald like a patch of wet Scotland hung out to dry here on the coast. Josh and his friend Todd, the organizer, were in the park already, talking on handheld radios to their distant minions, who, to judge from their voices, were not doing as they should. When Josh ended his conversation, I asked if I could do anything to help. Josh looked at my folded banner and emergency bag with distaste. “Not unless you have a sound system and a truck.” This was at eleven o’clock. The rally began at noon. As the remaining hour passed, the story of what had happened to the truck and the sound system came to light, phrase by angry, garbled phrase. Erin’s bassist Tristan had set off in the wrong direction, toward Berkeley; he got stuck in traffic at the entrance to the Bay Bridge, then the van overheated; it was an old van, it didn’t like to idle. A tow truck was summoned; the van was dragged across the bridge and fixed, provisionally. Now the traffic was on the Berkeley side of the bridge and Tristan was afraid of another breakdown.

Erin and Star arrived with the literature table, and arranged the pamphlets and flyers published by the various organizations that were sponsoring the rally. We sat on the grass and waited for the crowd to arrive, while Josh and Tristan shouted at each other on their radios, and Todd called people who might own microphones and speakers. I lay back and closed my eyes. No speakers had arrived by noon, but on the other hand no spectators had arrived either. The sound system was back on the Bay Bridge, but now there was an accident on the bridge and nothing was moving. Alex and I drank beer and talked about Stanford.

“Did you know that Schönhoff used to be a Jesuit?”

“Sure.”

“Did you know he was defrocked?”

“No.”

“Absolutely. He slept with a seminarian.”

“Is that a defrockable offense?” And so on.

One o’clock, one-thirty. Todd and Josh conferred on the stage. A small crowd had gathered, drawn by the illusion that something was about to happen.

“OK,” Josh announced, “we’re going to go ahead without the sound system.”

“How is anyone going to hear us?” Erin asked. She had agreed to sing, and Tristan would in theory accompany her on the guitar.

Todd took one of the posters and rolled it into a tube. “Hello,” he said into the tube. “Can you hear me?”

Three or four people sitting in front of the stage nodded yes.

“Welcome to the Day of Outrage,” Todd said. “I’m glad you could join us. Now let’s talk about what this is all about.”

No one was listening. This is a fiasco, I thought, and worse, it was just like every other protest I had ever been to. How could I have believed that it would be otherwise? I opened another beer.

“OK,” Todd shouted, “we’re going to have some music now. Sing us something, Erin!”

“No way!” Erin shouted from the literature table.

“You promised!”

“I promised when there was a microphone.”

“Whose fault is it there’s no microphone?” Todd yelled through the rolled-up poster.

“What do you mean, whose fault?”

“Why did your bassist go to fucking Berkeley?”

“I don’t know, Todd. Why don’t you ask him?”

“Because he’s apparently switched off his fucking radio!”

Josh and I went to buy more beer, and came back with a fifth of Jameson’s, which induced a slight wobble in the rotation of the earth, a periodic dip, like cardiac arrhythmia. At some point Todd called to me to talk about Swan. I stood on the stage, overlooking the crowd, which, at this point, consisted of Erin, Star, and Star’s knitting friends. The makeshift megaphone was wet with spit, but I didn’t mind, I pressed it to my mouth and spoke about Swan’s plan to bring vegetarianism and the love of animals to San Francisco. I spoke about Saint Francis of Assisi and some aspects of his biography known only to a few enlightened souls, and how important it was to know these stories, the stories that only a saint could tell you. Then I said, “Holy shit, there he is.” There he was, all right, twelve feet tall, colorful and impassive as a god, wobbling down the hill toward me at the head of a line of like-sized deities, coming down the hill in silence. “Motherfucking puppets,” I called into the megaphone. “You’re just a bunch of motherfucking puppets!”

There would be no procession. We finished the whiskey and used the banners to sit on. The puppets lay on the grass like passed-out revelers, their arms splayed and their faces turned to the sky. Now and then people who had heard about the Day of Outrage showed up, and we yelled at them to sit and drink with us. Some of them did, and as the sun went down our numbers grew, until there were thirty or forty people gathered in front of the empty stage. We had failed utterly to organize a protest, but something else was happening, something remarkable. Strangers were speaking to one another. Alex knelt by Erin, picking blades of grass and tossing them over his shoulder. Star was talking to Neil. I lay on the ground, my ear to the earth. This was good, this was very good. People were joining with each other. Even more than a protest, this was what we needed, for everyone to be joined together by many threads, we needed each person to be entirely surrounded by people, because we had seen what happened when you were at the edge of the crowd, like Swan and Mr. Babylob, you could be plucked from the world at any moment, you could vanish. By this measure the day was a success. We were bound to each other now; we could not disappear. We would remain in this place forever.

The sun went down; the dog people called their dogs homeward. Tristan appeared just after sunset, his hands and face streaked black with motor oil. He looked at our little drunk crowd and howled, Bastards, you bastards, but it was no use, Todd tackled him and forced him to roll through the grass until he was happy. “We’ve at least got to set the fucking thing up,” Tristan said, so we ran to the truck, which was parked illegally between palm islands on Dolores Street, and hauled speakers and cables from the back. Tristan and Todd carried a generator between them, and Erin danced around them, plugging things together while there was still light to see by. The generator roared like a failing car; we had power. Erin sang a song about being so much in love that she wanted to kill us all, then someone hooked up a portable CD player and put on one of Pearl Fibula’s mixes. I pulled Star to her feet and we staggered toward the speakers. You could hardly call what we did then dancing. It was pure autonomous motion. I held on to Star’s hand, because I was afraid if we were separated in that darkness we would never find each other again. If no one held my hand I might become one of the unattached people, one of the people who could be made to die. We staggered back and forth; someone elbowed me in the stomach; I tried to kiss Erin but bit her eyebrow instead.

The music got louder, its beats and bleeps building toward something utterly magnificent, a universal binding together of all of us, and as it reached the peak of its intensity blue and white lights came on, flashing, making a real club of the stage. Our hands rose joyously into the air. For a moment it seemed as though we had succeeded in doing that impossible thing, we had made a complete, real, other world, then someone shouted, “Police!” and people were running, falling, getting up and running again. The music stopped. Tristan and Erin and Josh grabbed parts of the sound system, which were, unfortunately, still cabled together. The wires got caught on a tree and they dropped the speakers and ran. I looked for the bag that contained my instructions in case I was arrested, but it was too dark to find an object that size in the disorder of empty bottles and banners, leaflets and posters. Neil was shouting, “Save the puppets! Save the puppets!” so I picked up a puppet, it was massive and difficult to maneuver, and stumbled down the hill, across the soccer field, toward the tennis courts. I was a giant, my shadow enormous in the tennis-court lights. I ran into the street, around the corner, this giant head waving above me like a flag, a totem, a burden. When I had gone far enough and no one was following me, I stopped. Only then did I look unto see whose head I was carrying: Swan’s. Thus the Day of Outrage ended.


© 2008-2018 Paul La Farge. All rights reserved.