It was the first time my ex had kicked me out of the house, and I don’t remember for what anymore. Something stupid and petty, I’m sure. This time would be just the first of several times, and it was always a power move on his part. His way of exerting his control over me: I disagreed about something we heard said on the radio? Bam!—on the streets in the middle of the night (if it weren’t for my friends who always took me in when this shit went down.)
This forcible removal from my home was effective in rendering me fearful, hurt, and most of all, powerless. I had little money, no home, and no security but for my friends. It was the tough and lovely friend Beckiness who came to my rescue that time. She may be short and slim, but I would never describe her as petite—rather, steadfast.
“Let’s get out of town,” she said. So we loaded our dogs in her 90’s model, Toyota truck (that she did all the wrenching on herself), and left the little town of Paradise, California.
We arrived on the Pacific coast some 5 hours later, and were welcomed into the home of another dear friend. For the next several days I relished the beauty of Humboldt County: the perpetually pounding waves washing away the shouting in my head, the towering redwoods sheltering me with peace. There is something comforting about the massive size and ancientness of the ocean and redwoods—sort of like gazing upon the night sky. A reminder that, in the lifetime of our planet, you are transient and insignificant.
At night, however, I tossed and turned with turbulent dreams, worried about what my future held now. I had staked my life upon this man. I had willingly acquiesced to his demand that to not have a job outside the home, that in exchange for keeping house he would take wonderful care of me. And at this time, I still hadn’t learned what a large error it was to give him my financial security and emotional heart. So I grieved. And instead of blaming him, I blamed myself.
We had been in Humboldt for about a week when we heard about the Occupy movement breaking out on the West Coast. Once again, Beckiness and I packed up our dogs and left for… we didn’t really know what. An opportunity for change. The unknown—which in this instance, filled me with excitement, rather than fear.
I’m not going to pose and say I was a staunch Occupyer—I was just a visitor. Beckiness and I spent a few days at Occupy San Francisco; we were there for the opening day of Occupy Oakland; after that we went south to Occupy Sacramento. At Occupy SF, we danced on the street and charged our phones in the Financial District’s Starbucks—who hated all of us. We marched; we chanted; we held signs. We demanded our right to exist in autonomy. We slept in a squat house. We learned about civil rights from lawyers and what to do if we got arrested. We watched crowd-led, hierarchy-free governance in action. We experienced the masses taking power, if over nothing else, ourselves.
It was thrilling. Exhilarating. I remember a young guy in glasses rushing around with stars in his eyes, gushing about how this was the best time in his life. He had never felt more alive. I could relate. It felt like finally taking control—and control was something I didn’t have in my personal life. For the first time in a long time, I was excited for the future. Our future, which also meant my future. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, but I thought it would be okay.
While in SF, standing street-side in the Financial District, surrounded by glass and shining metal skyscrapers, a stretch limo pulled up and came to a stop in front of me, Beckiness, and a few other sign-holders. The very back window rolled down to reveal a man: white, middle 50s, heavier-set, in a white chef’s coat and chef’s hat over untamed silver hair. He wasn’t at all sleek and slick looking like the towering bank buildings around us. He wasn’t at all who you would expect in the back of a limo. He looked like a man who smoked cigars and drank whiskey (but probably expensive cigars and whiskey), who was probably harsh to his under-cooks in his kitchen, and probably had an armful of tattoos under his sleeves. Someone you might believe was a self-made man, who forged his status through dominance.
He said, “I just wanted to tell you I really support what you all are doing.”
He shared his story, something about how he previously had something like 10 million dollars in the bank but all the taxes and fees and government bullshit had bankrupted him to a mere 1 or 2 million. He was looking at me, but I didn’t know what to say. Judging by our shocked silence, I don’t think any of us did. And maybe all his trappings of power—the limo, the confidence in which he addressed us—intimidated everyone.
Finally, the woman next to me spoke. I don’t remember her face, but though she was small in stature, she had a tough demeanor that was also laid-back and easy-going. Short hair, ambiguously brown skin, canvas pants, and combat boots.
“But,” she said, “you have a million dollars, and a limo, while I sleep on the streets.”
I don’t remember the rest of conversation, except that when his driver drove away he was still insisting he was just like us.
This is just one story representative of all the swirling and contradictory identities and agendas of the Occupy Movement as a whole. We all know what happened in the end: it petered out and nothing really changed. The police were eventually successful in their forcible removal of protesters, using a variety of methods: arrest, confiscation of tents, pepper-spray. They made it clear that these publicly state-owned streets did not belong to us.
Had they not done so, I believe the movement would have died anyways. Contrary to popular belief, living on a sidewalk is a difficult lifestyle to sustain. Some Occupyers went home; some left to sleep on different streets. That control and rush of power we had felt was fleeting. Transient. Perhaps even illusory. A reminder that in the lifetime of the state, we were insignificant.
Days later, after Occupy Sac, I went home. All my stuff was there, and I had nowhere else to go. I needed food and shelter. I had not been given monetary payment for all my hard work in making that house a home; all I had to show for it was the house itself. Which my ex-boyfriend graciously allowed me to return to after my two-week absence.
He said he was sorry, and would never do it again—which was what he would say every single time he would throw me out of the house in the future. Maybe he did genuinely feel sorry, or maybe he just missed having a full-time live-in housemaid, who cooked 2 meals a day 7 days a week, folded every single one of his socks, and washed every single one of his dishes. Someone to mop the floor daily because he refused to take off his muddy boots before entering the house.
Someone he could scream at every other day for about an hour at a time.
The future I had dreamed of at Occupy went back to life as I knew it. Nothing had changed: I had no control, no voice, no love, and no respect. No money of my own. No power to do what I wanted to do. But I did have just enough delusion to believe that this was my fault. Perhaps if my cooked-from-scratch meals became grander, he would show me more affection. If I learned to speak to him in the exact right way—petition him with the proper paperwork for my needs—he would care for them better. If I finished the chores sooner, he would stop criticizing the time I spent in the evening, reading and writing—activities that he insisted were selfish and did nothing to contribute to our household (by which he meant his life specifically.)
I believed that if I just worked harder, he would allow me more power and autonomy. Because in spite of everything, I didn’t stop wanting autonomy. My needs didn’t stop needing to be fulfilled. I was only wrong in believing I could gain that from his authority.
And it was no small, insignificant thing that his authority allowed me a roof over my head and food to prepare and eat. I got to go on small vacations and spend days at the river. He granted me just enough leisure to fool myself into believing that this was what a happy life looked like. That was I well-cared for. If he screamed at me because the “only” thing I made for breakfast was French toast and bacon, well, I had a nice house. And a large backyard with an abundant vegetable garden, and a white-tiled pool that sparkled in the sun to relax in. (Side note, when I visited Paradise last spring that house was a pile of rubble and the pool a gaping black pit.)
But contrary to popular belief, living as a bird in a heavily gilded cage is a difficult lifestyle to sustain. My emotional self and personal needs of autonomy were not only going unfulfilled, but were being heavily damaged. Years later, I would read and resonate with this quote from James Oppenheim:
“Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!”
Even so, humans are resilient creatures, and can live for a long time with starved hearts, as long as we have bread. It wasn’t until my physical safety became threatened that I realized that all the bread in the world couldn’t feed a beaten body left in a ditch, and that I needed to leave. But I still did not have a significant amount of money; I still did not have enough power to seize my power and escape. It was then, and only then, that I reached out to family and asked for a loan. They gave it to me, and this little gift of financial autonomy allowed me to leave my ex’s house (which in truth, would never be mine, no matter how much right I had to it) and make my way back to Humboldt County.
And once there, I was incredibly happy. I was free. I had found my roses under a redwood canopy along the Pacific shore. I had found my little pocket of peace and autonomy.
It is nearly 2020, and about 8 years since my days at Occupy. I am old enough now to know we have been marching for longer than 8 years. We have been demanding equity and justice since before the Civil Rights era, demanding financial autonomy since before the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. I can note the concessions: the undoing of Separate but Equal, the dismantling of Jim Crow, the formation of labor unions. But I see them as concessions, only. Just as Trump’s Impeachment was a concession—at most a slap on the wrist, but not in any way a marker of real change. It was a song and dance; sound and fury signifying nothing. Another empty apology after the umpteenth forcible removal from our home, and the roses in the front yard. White Supremacy, patriarchy, homelessness, capitalism still marches on: problems older than the lifespans of its many generations of casualties.
As I lie on my bed in my rented house, I think of that woman I had met at Occupy SF and wonder if life has changed for her. If she found her way off the state-owned streets and into a bed of her own. As I purchase a meal cooked, not by me, but by a restaurant, I wonder if that chef lost whatever restaurant(s) he owned and whatever summer house(s) he had. As I play with my dog on the beach, I wonder if that excited kid in the glasses ever again felt as alive as he did then.
I wonder when we will be granted the power to plant roses.
Sarama Teague was born in Wisconsin, and is an alumni of Humboldt State University. She currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with her canine companion named Teddy. Her narratives fuse personal experiences with social commentaries. Her article, “Promote Voting Not Tyranny,” was published in the Times Standard in Humboldt, California, and “The Pyramid”, a short story, was adapted for stage and performed live at Dell’Arte International – School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, California.