Back then I wore my beard long. My temper was short. We all carried pistols and false papers. We raged against the military-industrial complex and the war that wasn’t a war, lighting fuses of Molotov cocktails with disposable lighters. They were better times, no question about it.
In those days, you didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blew. Tune in and drop out was the M.O. We all wanted to change the world, and we knew how to do it. We were The Apostles. Only Jesus (alias) could never write very clearly with spray paint, much less spell anything with more than one syllable, so we became The Apes before we’d even carried out our first action. Soon we dropped the “The” and went with Apes. It was plain and simple and to the point.
Then we went deep underground. This was after Mary and Joseph (pseudonyms) were arrested for shoplifting at Ralphs. We all have to eat. Police discovered Joseph’s real ID sewn into the lining of his hemp tunic and held them both for questioning. Torture was involved. We all knew we were next, so we scattered like cockroaches. We shaved our beards and put on ties. We changed our names and found jobs in the square sector. There was no choice.
That was a long time ago.
As Mr. Zimmerman, I’ve sat quietly in my La-Z-Boy, sipping Scotch and squinting through bifocals at calculus exams, red pen in hand. I eat TV dinners from a TV tray to TV news about once-per-decade marches and movements, protests and riots. I long for the smell of gunpowder and the weight of cold steel pipes, for the slosh of common kitchen cleaners mixed in a bucket and poured into old coffee cans to cake and harden before fuses and timing devices can be added. I try not to scissor the morning headlines for ransom notes.
Sometimes the newspaper looks like snowflakes, other times like paper dolls.
Soon the TV news is full of geopolitical turmoil. First, it’s the Iron Spring, pro-democracy demonstrations across the former Eastern Bloc, which quickly devolve into militant clashes. Next are short-lived conflicts between free speech advocates and security forces across Asia. Riots flare up. The Man snuffs them out. Those protestors need bombs, not bombast.
Then come the student protests. They hit closer to home, in Canada, where people are rumored to be polite and accommodating. But it’s French-speaking Canada, so maybe that makes all the difference. We all remember what happened in Paris in ’68.
I can’t sit and watch forever, alone in a stifling basement apartment. After all, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. I can’t have that on my conscience.
Something has to be done.
So I take it to the streets. That’s where it has to be taken. But it’s been too many years. I’m not as spry as I once was, not as agile of mind or body. I can’t find my glasses until I realize they’re propped on my forehead. I pocket keys, wallet, and Marlboro Reds. I grab a lighter and a can of Mugger Slugger ™ pepper spray. Then I head for the door.
I get winded just climbing the steps to the sidewalk. I pause to catch my breath, reaching for my cigarettes. Before I finished packing them, a man in a navy blue winter hat pushing a grocery cart says, “Bum me a smoke, brother.”
It’s not a question. He has gold front teeth. A buck knife glistens in the mid-morning sunlight.
“No problem,” I say. Then I realize, aloud, that “Big Tobacco takes our money, our lungs, and our lives. We have to fight back!”
“Man, shut up and gimme a smoke.” He wads his fist in my face, takes the cigarette when I offer it. “Now that’s more like it. You got a light?”
I whip out my trusty disposable. The flame won’t catch. I fear the man will plunge his blade into my chest.
Instead, he slips the cigarette behind his right ear and says, “You worthless, whitebread.” Then he rattles down the cracked sidewalk behind his cart.
I take a deep, wheezy breath. I’m undaunted. I’m just getting started.
Around the corner and down the block, I find what I’m looking for. The picket line’s been going for a while. There’s chanting and clapping. There are banners and placards. At last, the chickens have come home to roost.
I slip into a dollar store and come out with a bullhorn. I approach the picket line. Multicolored placards say things like “Writers Are Right!” and “Put Down Your Pen!” Though most of them are entirely blank. I interrupt their garbled chanting with a screech from my bullhorn.
“Why, outraged citizens, are your placards blank?”
“Hey, dumbass, we’re the Screenwriters Guild,” someone yells, I can’t see who. “This is a writers’ protest. Get it?”
I get it. It’s not that funny. Especially since he had to explain it.
By most standards, the protest is meager. Maybe eighteen or twenty people marching outside the Downtown Stadium Cinema 24. They wave their signs and chant their chants. Moviegoers don’t seem troubled by crossing the picket line.
I screech the bullhorn again to grab their attention. Then I sing: “You say you want a revolution? Well, you know, we all want to change the world.”
They’re supposed to sing along. Instead, a thirty-something guy with a carefully trimmed beard says, “Do you mind? In case you haven’t noticed, we’re trying to hold a demonstration.”
“Who is that asshole?” asks a brunette with a diamond stud in her nose.
“Mr. Zimmerman,” I say. “That’s a sobriquet.”
“Somebody get this moron out of here.”
“Just ignore him. He’ll go away.”
But I won’t go away. They need me too much. There’s too much at stake.
Only I pretend to. Back in the dollar store, I check the shelves for common household cleaning products. Also, a copy of Cooking Up Mayhem! since by now I’ve forgotten most of the recipes. Use it or lose it, as they say. I find neither. But the kind sales clerk, who’s also a tool of capitalist exploitation, directs me to the pyrotechnics section. I load up on fireworks and fuses. I also acquire a roll of duct tape, a pocket knife, several disposable lighters, and a nifty backpack to tote everything in. All for eight bucks.
I make some minor adjustments using the knife and duct tape. When I approach the protest for a second time, someone says, “Look who’s coming.” I don’t let it faze me. I smile and hand each marcher a roman candle. They’re already lit. When they start to blow, protesters drop their placards. Some of them squat and cover their eyes. They’re supposed to aim at everyone crossing their picket line (isn’t that obvious?), but most of them shoot into the air or at each other. I’ve never seen such incompetence.
But I use the chaos as a diversion. I light and hurl three sticks of poor-man’s dynamite (twelve M-80s duct-taped together), one at each entrance, one at the ticket booth. “Bomb!” someone yells. People hit the deck. The explosions set my ears ringing, but it doesn’t last. Glass shatters and people scream. I grin to myself. It’s been too long.
Others don’t seem so delighted. I take off running before the first police siren squeals. Protesters and passers-by pursue me, but they’re amateurs, I’m a professional. Also, I have my Mugger Slugger™. I use it liberally. Then I amble away.
Who says the pen is mightier than the sword?
I scan the city through the window of the northbound 68 bus. Four or five blocks up from the movie theater, a mob gathers on the steps of the federal courthouse. I pull the cord to request a stop and crowd toward the door. The driver ignores me. I have to double-back two blocks in the grimy city heat.
There must be a couple hundred people out here. They’re staging a huge sit-in. I’m not sure what they call it, since most of them look too young to remember the ’60’s. Also, they’re all from Mexico and East L.A. I walk the perimeter and don’t hear a single word of English. But they’ve raised a banner, tied it to the courthouse pillars: Janitors for Justice!
Police surveil the scene, or pretend to. This is a federal courthouse, after all. They’ve parked their cruisers on the sidewalk between the front steps and the sit-in. A half-dozen uniformed cops and plainclothesmen lean against the pillars, jawing and fondling their weapons. An underling brings them coffee in paper cups. He bows and scrapes and suffers jokes about fornicating with his mother.
I slip away to the corner gas station, where I purchase a six-pack of Mexican Coke in bottles, an I
❤ L.A. t-shirt, a large black bandana, and a gallon of regular unleaded in a hard plastic gas can. I still have plenty of lighters.
Back at the demonstration, I sidle up to an extended family eating greasy tortas out of plastic wrap. Between bites, they chant right along with everyone else: “¡Si se puede!” over and over again. “Who’s thirsty?” I say, and they all reach out for a Coke. “I only bought six,” I say, “you’ll have to share.” They pass the drinks around, so everyone at least gets a swig. “And I’ll need those bottles back, por favor.”
The pater familias winks as he passes me his bottle. “Is for the deposit, ¿no?”
“Yes,” I say. “No,” I say. “Not exactly.”
The bottles clink in my backpack as I make for an alley. I do what needs to be done behind a dumpster, ripping the t-shirt and pouring the gas. It’s not easy without a funnel. I’m out of practice.
I tie the bandana around my face. I carry my bundle back to the demonstration. The janitors’ chant has changed to “Siempre adelante.” I climb up on the roof of a police car and take my bundle with me. Through my bullhorn, I holler, “Say, you want a revolution?” Their chant falters. Before it resumes, I squawk the bullhorn and repeat my question. By now, cops are on the move. There’s no turning back. I light one of the fuses and hurl a Coke bottle, now a Molotov cocktail, up the courthouse steps. It explodes in a dramatic burst of glass and flames. The air sinks of melted paint. Then I light and toss two more, mostly for show.
“¡Viva la revolución!” I yell.
I expect the janitors to respond in kind.
But they’re wide-eyed with fear. A stampede ensues. The weak and frail will surely be trampled.
In a surge of adrenaline, I bound from the car. I wrench my left knee and almost eat asphalt. But I hobble a few yards, light two more fuses, and chuck the bottles at the cop cruisers. Then in a fit of revolutionary fury, I fling the last Molotov cocktail as high and far as I can towards the retreating pigs. “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!” I scream.
Then, as best I can, I blend in with the fleeing janitors.
Now I need to lay low. Someone could’ve caught me on camera. A police sketch artist might even now be working on a composite drawing of me. Plus, my knee hurts. It’s just a strain, or sprain. Still, I’ve lost some mobility. I need ice and anti-inflammatories. I need to elevate it.
But first, I need to disappear.
I hop on the 56W to Westwood. The bus is packed. It’s hot and stuffy, too. I take a window seat, where car exhaust and toxic fumes blow in my face. I lean my head on the greasy glass and close my eyes.
I dream of comrades-in-arms and plastic explosive and changing the world.
When I wake up, I’m groggy and sticky with sweat. My mind is a dank fog. I shove my way off the bus at the next stop, though I have no idea where I am. But the sidewalks aren’t cracked, the air tastes less of heavy metals, and everyone is white and chic and carries a Chihuahua.
After sitting for so long, I can barely bend my leg. My knee feels tender and swollen. I really did a number on it. In better times, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (noms de guerre) would’ve spirited me away to a safe house, where I could recover without compromising the mission. Or else I would’ve been shot like a lame horse, no questions asked.
No one left behind: one of many Apes mottos.
I push through mobs of wealthy housewives dressed in furs despite the heat. I ignore their whispers of worry and stares of dismay. They’ll probably dial 911 because I’m disheveled and limping and not wearing designer clothing.
I trudge five miles or more into the thick of bourgeois decadence before I come across a Ralphs. It’s just what the doctor ordered. I stumble to the Health/Beauty section, where I find everything I need. I bandage my knee and elevate it on the blood pressure machine. I apply Instant Ice™ and forge a prescription. The pharmacist gives me no trouble. I pop three Demerol and head out to fan the fires of freedom.
I’m blinded for a moment as I step out into the harsh sunlight. Then I see them. A dozen women dressed in matching uniforms: green skirt, white blouse, green vest. They’re Ralphs uniforms. They’ve hung banners and signs. They’ve even set up an information table, where they also accept financial donations to support their cause. These women, all of them tiny, have clearly been exploited by the capitalist machine. It’s written all over their faces.
The women chant protest slogans in high, squeaky voices. For instance, “We’re not rookies, don’t pay us cookies!” This is a new generation of demonstration; no picket line for these women. Instead, they mob practically every customer entering or exiting the store. They jump and squeal and giggle. They chant their chant. No one can ignore them. Most agree to contribute to their cause, though they have no idea what it might be. It’s the most effective (and, oddly, lucrative) protest I’ve ever seen.
It looks like so much fun, I can’t resist. Of course, I’d be right there, fighting alongside these women, even if it were the most boring, pointless protest on earth. I’d show them how to make their own tear gas and the best knots to tie a hostage to a chair. I’d teach them how to rip an alternator out of a 1981 Ford Club Wagon and use it for a blasting cap. I’d demonstrate true revolutionary commitment by handing out leaflets in the most hostile parts of the city in the pouring rain without a toilet break.
Another Apes motto: Everything for the Revolution!
Right now, none of that’s necessary. I follow their lead and accost patrons as they step through those automatic sliding doors. “We’re not rookies,” I scream, “don’t pay us cookies!” I take a box of the cookies the women use as props. I crush some in my hands, some beneath my boots. I hurl them like stones at patrons as they walk down the sidewalk or exit their cars. The customers are disconcerted. They’re confused. Many of them are completely terrified. All those people buying rutabagas and chuck sirloin and bulk couscous aren’t ready for a full-size man, a man-size protest. That’s when I know for certain I’ve still got it.
It’s time to take things up a notch.
Soon there’s a lull in the sloganeering. It’s possible I’ve chased away all the customers. I gather the tiny women at the donations table. I slap down my open palm and yell, “Say you want a revolution!”
The protesters seem baffled. A couple of them drop to their knees to gather coins that have rattled and clinked to the ground. I try again.
One of the tiny women understands. She has French braids and dimples. “We want a revolution,” she says.
“That’s it! All together now!”
“We want a revolution.”
“I can’t hear you!”
“We want a revolution!”
“Now you’re talking,” I say. “Keep quiet and don’t take any more donations. Pocket your money and fold up your table.” I grab a fistful of bills. “I’ll be right back.”
I dash inside and pick up three-dozen eggs, six tubes of shoe polish, an extra-large pack of SqueezeMe™ toilet paper, and a couple cans of spray paint. I stuff it all in my backpack, along with the leftover fireworks, lighters, and pepper spray. On my way to the door, I drop by Customer Service and ask for the manager.
“I’m the assistant manager,” says a meathead with a crew cut. His nametag reads “Jimmy.” “What can I do for you?”
“Where’s the manager?”
“She’s out for the afternoon.”
“Abusing the goodwill of the workers again?”
“No,” says Jimmy in a huff, “of course not.” He glares at me so intensely it’s clear he has a thing for the manager. “She’s at meetings with corporate this afternoon, sir. I can’t see how it’s any of your business.” He wheezes a little. “Now how may I assist you?”
“Tell your boss the tiny women who work here will not back down.”
I unzip my backpack and pull an egg out of one of the cartons. Jimmy eyes my swag with contempt, then picks up the phone. His voice crackles over the intercom: “Security to Customer Service, security to Customer Service.”
“That was completely unnecessary,” I say.
“Then you’re planning on purchasing those items?”
“Of course,” I say, smashing the egg over his head. Then I toss the wad of bills at him. Most of them stick. “Peace, you fascist pig!”
I slip through the fluorescent light and down the burnished industrial linoleum. Before I make the exit, I notice the women working the check-out counters aren’t all that tiny. Not all of them are women. Their uniforms are scarlet and brown.
“Scabs!” I yell on my way out.
The tiny women are exactly where I left them. They know what it means to be rank and file. They’re 100% solidarity. It’s impressive.
I explain the plan, rally the troops, and pass out protest paraphernalia. Several women shoe polish car windows and sliding glass doors. I expect revolutionary slogans, they draw smiley faces and scribble “BFF” over every available surface. I abandon my spray-paint “Hell, no, we won’t go!” and adopt their revolutionary symbols. I want to lead, not co-opt. Others have a field day with the toilet paper. It flies in streaming arcs over parked cars. They wrap a few good-natured customers up like mummies, too. I show several of them how to light a bottle rocket, then turn the fireworks and lighters over to them. They shoot them into the air, into the store, into moving vehicles. They’re a menace to society; they’re on the right track. The protesters don’t waste any time with the eggs, either, hurling them at windows and would-be patrons, parked cars and passersby. Even, unfortunately, each other. It’s high-energy direct action. Our message will definitely be heard.
Sometime in the midst of all the excitement, the Ralphs security guard tries to play the heavy. He chases around the tiny women until he’s winded. Then he comes for me. He’s out of his league. That security guard gets a face full of spray paint (accident), then a face full of Mugger Slugger™. And just like that, the threat, as they say, has been neutralized.
The berserk, matronly woman is a different story. She drops her iced latte and comes at me like a whirlwind, arms flailing. She’s screaming, too. “You have no right!” she says, over and over. I’m stunned for a moment by the contrast; she could almost be someone’s grandmother. But she makes contact with one of her wild swats, knocking the pepper spray from my hand. I take slaps to the head and face and chest. A coppery warmness tingles on my tongue. I wipe blood from my nose and lips.
It’s not that I want to hit her. But she’s no longer a woman, she’s a tool of capitalist repression. An assailant. The enemy. I backhand her with what should be enough force to knock her down and out of my life forever. Only she’s stout as a tree trunk. My blow lands with a meaty thwack. She stumbles a little to her left but regains her balance almost immediately. Her eyes bug a little, though there aren’t any tears. She flexes her jaw and narrows her eyes, spits and splutters with what must be rage. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, maybe it’s lucky aim, but she takes a half-step backwards, then kicks me right in my injured knee. I topple over, howling in pain. Then she kicks me in the mouth and ribs and groin. You’d think she’s done this before. Maybe she has.
“I’m their troop leader, you sick freak!” she screams. “They’re just little girls!”
The TV crews arrive long before the police. (This is L.A.) That should allow me to retreat into the searing afternoon sun, only the evening security guard comes on early. While I’m down, he zip-cuffs me, then Tases me for good measure. I’m not sure how long I’m under. When I come to, the tiny protesters are all gone. So is their troop leader. A half-dozen TV news reporters interview Ralphs employees and customers, all the so-called witnesses.
There’s nothing innocent about being a bystander.
Soon I struggle to my feet and make a break for it. I don’t get very far. I’m woozy, and I can’t put any pressure on my left knee. I stumble and fall flat on my face. It’s a wonder I don’t crack my head open on a parking bumper.
Police sirens wail.
“He’s awake!” yell cameramen and reporters.
They scurry over and stick microphones in my face. They bludgeon me with questions.
“Who are you?”
“Why’d you do it?”
“Don’t you know those girls aren’t employees?”
“I can feel the hunger and suffering of people the world over,” I say. I hope they realize I’m paraphrasing.
“Are you responsible for this afternoon’s firebombing?”
“Did you blow up the Stadium Cinema 24 ticket office?”
“Why has your terrorist cell targeted the Girl Scouts of America?”
“I’m responsible for nothing,” I say.
“Can you speak into the microphone, please?”
“My only responsibility is to the Revolution.”
“The Chechen revolution?”
“Don’t you have any friends or family?”
“Solidarity!” I yell into the cameras.
Then the police arrive. They slap me around and stuff me into the backseat of a cruiser. I sit there, alone, for a long time. I watch the lights flashing red and blue. I wonder why I can’t hear anything, not voices outside or the idling engine, not even the sound of my own breath. Everything’s silent except this ringing in my ears. It’s steady and loud and won’t go away.
It’s a song from another era I’d almost forgotten I knew.
J. T. Townley has published in The After Coetzee Project, Collier’s, Experienced: Rock Music Tales of Fact & Fiction, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Istanbul Review, Metamorphoses, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other places. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia.