Most Bay Area residents will only ever encounter the underground world of the traveling punk in one way. When visiting San Francisco's Haight Street or Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, you will likely step over at least one group of unwashed kids in black hoodies, usually with a dog, usually holding up a snarky cardboard sign requesting change for beer or a bus ticket. Most of Good Citizen America takes a brief glance at these kids and sees only urban blight. On the flipside, a recent Harper's magazine article by Matthew Power, "Mississippi Drift: River Vagrants In The Age of Wal-Mart" followed a group of punks on an abortive raft trip down the Mississippi. Many romantic references to Huck Finn are made therein. An article I vaguely remember reading when I was fourteen, about squatters in New York's Alphabet City, made the kids seem like crafty urchins from a fairy tale. I was about ready to hop a freight and go find them.
Romance and demonization aside, hidden from view is a thriving, fascinating, off-the-grid culture, and as San Franciscans we live in the middle of it without even knowing. All across America are young people living and eating where they can: scrounging free food from dumpsters, squatting in abandoned buildings, riding freight trains, and doing their best to avoid jail time for graffiti, open containers, shoplifting, trespassing. Done partly out of necessity and partly by choice, the Scam Punk life is all about gleaning a living off the ragged edges of capitalism. Starting in the mid-1990's, Erick Lyle, calling himself "Iggy Scam," documented the San Francisco branch of this scene. His illegally xeroxed communiqués from the Scam Punk underground have recently been collected into an honest-to-god book from Soft Skull Press. On The Lower Frequencies had me so captivated that some strangers in a cafe, noting my completely absorbed state, came over to ask me what it was.
Erick Lyle/Iggy Scam has produced and written most of the content for two publications. The first was the Turd-Filled Donut, a free paper distributed via a commandeered corner box, which documented daily life in and around the SROs of Sixth street, where Lyle was living on public assistance at the time. Some favorite articles from the TFD, (which was popular among punks, other homeless, and outreach workers alike) are reproduced here. One is a fairly astonishing Q and A with then-mayor Willie Brown. When told that food stamps aren't valid for precooked meals but SROs have no kitchens, Brown expresses ignorance and shock. He turns to a staffer and asks, "did you guys know about this?" (They did.) Then he gave a great quote, a classic let-them-eat-cake sentiment which, according to Lyle, ended up on Tom Ammiano's mayoral campaign flyers. The other legendary Turd-Filled Donut article was a "scavenger hunt for beer." For those with the patience to go looking and solve all the clues, a six-pack of Tecate hidden in a floating suitcase tied to a pier was the reward. (The prize was found in two weeks.)
After the TFD came to an end, Lyle began publishing SCAM. Begun as a way to disseminate petty larceny tactics, SCAM quickly evolved into a firsthand document of struggling to survive at the margins of dot-com and dot-bomb San Francisco. (See also Rebecca Solnit's book Hollow City and the documentary Boom: The Sound Of Eviction for other dispatches from those times.) Eviction fights, protest marches, neighborhood meetings: Lyle was there for it all. Know those red and green paint blotches that appeared on the side of Mission Street's Bay View Bank building, after all its tenants were evicted to make room from Bigstep.com, a startup that went kaput in less than six months? You can thank Lyle and a couple friends, who shot paint-filled balloons from a rooftop across the street. The dot-com crash was a fruitful time for the punks: so many abandoned lofts to squat in, so much material excess abandoned. Lyle even got a temporary job at a recyclery, sorting office supplies left behind by disgraced accounting firm Arthur Andersen.
On The Lower Frequencies is worth the cover price simply for two of its longer pieces, each of which documents an aspect of San Francisco history you will never find elsewhere. "Hunt's Donuts: The Epicenter Of Crime" began as a stapled pamphlet, SCAM number five and a half (I bought a copy in a comic book store several years ago, and it's now a prized addition to my zine collection). Hunt's, at the corner of 20th and Mission, best known for its mystifying "OPEN 25 HOURS" sign, ended its days as a notorious bazaar for stolen goods and as the dividing line between rival gang territories. A pharmacy now stands in its place.
Lyle writes, "In long nights at Hunt's over the years I would, however, come to see that the 25th hour was not a time, but a PLACE. It was a destination that could only be reached after too much fluorescent light and coffee and donuts. Or heroin and meth and box wine. I made it to that lost continent that night for the first time, when "New York, New York" by Frank Sinatra came on the old Hunt's jukebox. Suddenly, all the sleeping men in the shop lifted their heads off the table to sing along..." He takes this metaphor of the mythical 25th hour and accompanies the reader on a tour of the old mission, detailing the wars between police and young Latino men that have been going on in and around Hunt's since the 1970s. Ssee also "Elegy For The Old Hunt's," a poem by Bucky Sinister, about a guy who gets his heart stolen and has to go to the donut shop to buy it back.)
Just as astonishing is "949 Market," Lyle's record of a few magical months spent squatting in a huge boarded-up complex of buildings on Market Street. After years and years of protests and fights, Erick Lyle and his regular cohort (muralist Zara Thustra, longtime friend and fellow musician Ivy, and others) decided to make a space dedicated to to "What we're for, not what we're against." "I'm just saying that I'm tired of being expected to self-identify as someone under attack, someone who is powerless and who is being forced out. We wanted to do shows that asked, 'What do we WANT the city to look like? How can we make it happen? If we really had all the space everyone says they need to do stuff, what exactly WOULD we do with it?' We wanted to do shows that remind people of the power that they actually DO have." When they broke in and commandeered the building in the summer of 2001, it had been vacant for twelve years. They painted huge murals, hosted music events and cooked food for a free open-to-everyone cafe. They made the most of their time there, until the day that Lyle was awoken by the cops and led away in handcuffs, in his underwear. As of April 2008, 949 Market still stands vacant.
On The Lower Frequencies is not a perfect book, by any means. I'm baffled by Soft Skull's decision not to mention San Francisco anywhere on the front or back cover, even though nearly every page deals with the arcana of City politics. Certain passages are repetitive, covering the same material but written at different times. A little more troubling is Erick Lyle's tendency to view a life of extreme poverty through rose-colored glasses. One could get the sense that the only downside to being homeless and drug-addicted is getting hassled by "Irish cops." He doesn't address the fact that many of the city's homeless end up on the streets as the result of addiction and mental illness, and wouldn't be living that way if they had any other choice.
But the pain and degradation of life on the street is something that gets discussed in the media fairly often. What never gets discussed is the part of that life that Erick Lyle revels in, the beauty and grace, the moments of overwhelming kindness and surprising poetry. "I want to walk down the street and ponder the layers of history and the lives that came before...And, late at night, I like to think that somewhere out in those streets and alleys, the tunnels and doorways, and sleepless hotel walls, there is an idea that might save us all."
I hope he's right.
Drop by Erick Lyle's book release party for On the Lower Frequencies Wednesday, May 14, 2008, 6pm, Music at CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission Street, San Francisco, PH: 415.626.2060. Get full details (at counterpulse.org).