Al Burian

1. Back in the mythological mid-nineties, when our earth still seemed like it might have a future, I was engaged in the standard idealistic pursuits of my generation: living in a punk house, starving myself on a steady diet of dumpstered bagels, setting up shows in the living room and sneaking out the back when the landlord would come banging on the front door. This happened pretty often. We were on rent strike, and the realty office was located right across the street. Mr. Tate, the landlord, was a notorious character around town, reputed to be involved in all manner of shady and illegal activity, not the least ominous of which was a reputation for burning down his own property so as to collect on the insurance. We were in over our heads. Tate was an intimidating guy, huge and menacing, with resonant, thundering fists. He'd beat on the door, standing outside with his cronies, threatening us with eviction and devastating bodily harm in a rich, sonorous baritone. We'd cower, shaking and giddy with fear. The house itself was a dilapidated shack, and had been sitting unoccupied for quite some time before our arrival. The first night, as we moved in, we discovered that this vacancy was not entirely the whole truth: there was a ragged piles of clothes, some crack-smoking paraphernalia, and the back door had been pried open; tell-tale signs that someone was squatting the premises. We left the items on the back porch with an apologetic note: "Hi, we've moved in here now, we are sorry if we're displacing you," signed with hearts and smiley faces. The next morning we discovered the items had been retrieved, and our letter had been responded to, a parting gift left to us on the door step: in a shoe box was a steamy pile of human shit. 2. Our material conditions seemed to speak against victory. The plumbing was shot, the stove didn't work, and there was obvious major structural damage to the building. Also, there was a rat, skittering amongst our sleeping bags in the night. It took a lot of concentration to maintain a utopian vision. But we were determined. Springing into action, we scoured the streets at night, looking through the trash for furniture, building supplies, food, art, and inspiration, locating these things in the waking world's garbage. We didn't believe that you ever had to buy anything; it seemed that we could fulfill our every need, simply by looking. In a college town, with its constant turnover of transient student population, and an affluent class of professorial types, this turned out to be an exceedingly correct assumption. It was all there for the taking. One could build an entire existence from the scraps of other people's lives, the things that they could find no use for. There seemed no end to the things people would let go of. It was a case of idealism run amok, taken to irrational extremes. By the time we reneged on paying the rent, we'd grown cultish and loopy. Property was theft, we told anyone who would listen, and you could no more own this corner of Mitchell lane than you could the air or the sun. Our ideology was outrageous, but the raw audacity of our actions gave them a compelling adrenalin edge. We were living free, going up against the Man, our house shows and art projects facing down his brutal, thuggish reality. We seemed to be winning, for the moment. It seemed crazily possible that we might just get away with it. 3. One day, exploring a shed in the back yard, my roommate found a treasure trove. Boxed up and left behind in the shed was a collection of letters, photographs, high school yearbooks, and other ephemera- a time capsule, the life of another person entombed in cardboard. Perusing these things led us to decipher that they belonged to a women named Sheri Miller. She'd apparently occupied the shit-box some years before us, and seemingly left in a hurry, if leaving behind such a cache of personal sentimental items was any indication. Or had she left them behind intentionally? It seemed hard to imagine. Who would want to rid themselves of these items, the delicate ballpoint penmanship of high school sweethearts, notes passed illicitly back and forth in math class? Sheri Miller, whose life seemed so ordinary and un-insane: I was fascinated by the documentation, at the glimpse into a past that had deposited her, somehow, in this same strange circumstance, living in this horrible little house. The letters and pictures told an elaborate story, sketched the shores of an epic romance. There was so much possibility. How had she ended up living in the squalid shack across from Tate realty? What was the missing piece of the story that had gotten her from there to here? I'd stay up late nights, reading and wondering. I wondered what her life in this house had been like, what the decor had been, who she had invited over, what her daily routine might have been like. It was impossible to super-impose it onto the life we were living, the band equipment and flyers and fanzines and trash bags full of food. Sheri, who are you and what became of you? What caused the sudden move? Or were you still here, squatting in the dark, homeless and hopeless, when the young punks moved in to displace you with their naive optimistic emulations of desperation? Was it you who took the shit on our stoop that first night? 4. I pondered her fate, knowing that my considerations were futile. This was in an age before people were googleable. The questions were unanswerable. There was no way I'd find Sheri. These days anyone can be found instantly, with no effort. Type in the name and click. Born in North Carolina, she now lives in Vermont. When she is not tap dancing, she is reciting haiku into a hand-held tape recorder. Married with two children, she enjoys sailing and music. Residing in the suburbs outside of Washington DC, Sheri Miller works for the American Pharmacists Association. Or, she is a helicopter pilot working at hospital in Massachusetts. She might also be a drug counselor at a Christian academy in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Sheri has an irresistible smile that brightens any room she's in. She thanks God that things worked out exactly how they did, and claims that she does not regret the hard times, as they were part of what made her who she is today. There is senior account representative Sheri Miller, just as there lesbian health care activist Sheri Miller. Or she may be an ordained minister of the Gnostic faith, albeit one whose flashy, special-effects-intensive web site would seem to belie the very tenets of her faith. So on and so forth. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of versions of Sheri out there, all living wildly different lives. It is as if she left her one self behind in that cardboard box, to splinter into a hundred incarnations, as if she has become a universe unto herself. I am lost in that universe, in her ethereal sphere, the vortex of Sheri. So the question appears to be unanswerable after all. I know the intimate details of her past, and yet it has all added up to no future- or rather, there is a future, but I cannot decipher what it is. I have stayed on course, remained consistent, followed a straight line to a terminus point. Sheri, meanwhile, has exploded in all directions. 5. One night, there was a knock at the door. I was startled from my reading of her letters, snapped awkwardly back into reality, and suddenly I knew: I knew that knock. It was Sheri, back to collect her yearbooks, her love notes, here to reclaim her life. I held my breath, anticipating our meeting, finally, face to face. When I opened the door, I was surprised to find Mr. Tate standing there. "This building is not up to code," he explained calmly, as if it had just suddenly come to his attention. "There are problems with the wiring. You'd better move out right away. I get a feeling the place could burn down any day now." The message delivered, he turned and walked back across the street to his office. We got the hint and moved out the next day. Sure enough, Fort Shitbox burned to the ground within the week, taking the collected memories of Sheri Miller with it. 6. Mitchell lane looks different now. All the hopes and ideals of youth, buried under a parking garage attached to a newly built condominium complex. Tate sold the property to developers a few years ago; that's how things go. You get used to it. You gain nothing by focusing on loss, but it is also undeniable that we lose more than we find. We are clinging to the scraps, trying to forge a future from them, but the bulldozers are closing in all around us. A few blocks away from where I used to live, there is a new house, filled with new kids, doing exciting things. I am living in a shed behind this house. People think I've fallen on hard times, but actually my times have remained about the same. Things aren't so bad in the shed; the price is right, and I have all the bagels I can eat. My meager belongings are boxed up in the corner, and were I to mysteriously disappear one day, future generation could unearth me, archeologically, sifting through the debris in search of who I was. In the evenings, I'll go in the house and join the punks for a meal. There is a calming continuity to their existence. The kitchen cupboards are overflowing with free food, while in the living room band practices, political protests, and play rehearsals are being planned. In the hall, a stack of books waits in limbo, salvaged from the oblivion of the PTA garbage, waiting for a new life, to be sent in the mail to a prisoner or given away to a friend. There is fiery, zealous conversation about gentrification, reclaiming space, and autonomous zones. The material world yields. It gives itself away. All you have to do is stay open to it. Reach out your hand and feel it brush up against everything that's possible.

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