The Two Day Wonder / Memories of Pirate Mike
by Tony Glamortramp LeTigre
I’ll never forget two thousand eleven,
The year i died and went to heaven!
—A rhyme i made in 2013, the year i briefly shared a squat with Pirate Mike
A few pages in honor of my friend, Michael Clift, whom i knew as Pirate Mike, who was reportedly hit by a car while cycling in Texas recently.
Although we were both involved with Occupy San Francisco, i don’t recall meeting Mike there, but rather at Noisebridge hackerspace in the Mission district. I was taking a nap there one evening on “the hacker stacker”—a DIY bunk bed that was an experiment in officially-sanctioned sleeping for that oft vagrant-plagued space—and overheard this guy i hadn’t met before talking with friends about a marathon bike trek he’d recently completed. Mike crisscrossed the country by bike many times, from what i understand. I felt a kinship with him in that some of the technogentsia loathed people like him and myself for dragging radical politics into their supposedly anarchist hackerspace.
I remember reading a logical analysis of the Marxist materialist dialectic in the Noisebridge library one afternoon, and Mike saw me reading it and said something like, “That’s going to be a head full, that’s a serious read.”1
At one point I decided to emulate Mike & make a cross-country trip, but I decided I would make my trip on foot, squatting and hobo-ing my way from coast to coast. I told this to him, and needless to say he approved. So far, I’ve only talked about it, though. He’s the one who did it—and then some.
One night i led Mike and a couple other Noisebridgers on a walk up into Liberty Hill, one of my favorite walks in the Mission barrio. It was around midnight so polite people were asleep, and i brought us to the yard of a building where i’d crashed and stashed myself a couple times. It offered star-spangled hilltop view of the storybook City with its many lights. We hung out, smoked and joked, then moved on. I showed them other mysteries i’d turned up in my wanderings: the house that always had lights on and was eternally under construction that never seemed to move forward; right next to it, my dream house, which i called The Gatsby House, because i read somewhere that was the style of architecture it was built in; I wasn’t sure how to describe it, except that it looked awesome, it never had any lights on and seemed not to be lived in—yet somehow i could never work up the courage to investigate that place. Not far away, i walked us by another oddity set back from the road, apparently built in the style of a renaissance castle. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike was familiar with all these spots beforehand, since he was quite the explorer. I was a mere neophyte compared to him in some ways. Nonetheless, he seemed pleasantly surprised by some of it, and thanked me for the tour.2
Another night at Noisebridge, i remember Mike preparing to leave for the night with his bike: “All right, i’m going to head off to one of my sleeping spots now.” Someone had vandalized his bike earlier that day at the hackerspace. He had detractors and ugly moments, i’m told, but I never saw them.
I remember Mike doing a live remote Q&A at Noisebridge for the premier of a documentary on the issue of veteran homelessness. Not sure if it was “his,” or if he was just promoting it. It was connected to a live premiere of some prestige in L A.3 As i recall, he was holding it down so well, so eloquent and strong with his answers to the questions that were being asked, that as soon as it was over i went up and complimented him on doing such a good job. An instance of saying the right thing at the proper moment. It made his day a little brighter, i think, so i’m happy about that. It should show up well in my next interlife review with the angels of light.4
Then there was the squat we shared, which i christened ‘The Two Day Wonder.’
Nosebleed was its “official” name—i think a play on Noisebridge, which was a second home for so many of us (and an illicit first home for at least a few). I don’t know for sure because i wasn’t the first to occupy and name the place. Mike and another guy i’ll call Brad moved in first, a week or two before myself and the other guys. They kept a very low profile for that initial fortnight, then decided to start living more openly and accept a few more housemates.
Brad drank heavily, listened to heavy metal and was heavily tattooed5; nonetheless, he looked young, giving the overall impression of a kid who had spent some time in jail recently. You would think he was a stereotypical headbanger dude, until he surprised you with a homosexual come-on. the wild card that kept him from being a caricature, a queer wrench thrown into that rusty engine. So San Francisco punk!
The other guys were myself, a tall lanky zine-maker from Portland, OR and member of Homes Not Jails in its last incarnation6; a black hep cat named Edgar, who partied with Bay Guardian reporters and was probably familiar with quasi-anarchist hackerspaces in every major city; and a guy named Keith who somewhat fit the stereotypical “hippie” profile: white dude with dreadlocks, conversing in slow stoner-speak, sharing psychedelically-inspired insights that landed somewhere between mundane, arcane and just plain insane. We were an all-male household, five in number. Except for Edgar, we were all white (by appearance, anyway). Being houseless and on the wrong side of the law for various reasons, we’d experienced enough police harassment and Sit/Lie Ordinance strongarming to get as close to racist/classist oppression as white people can, i suppose.7
By that time i’d been houseless for almost two years and considered myself something of a pro squatter, however much grizzled veterans (pun intended) like Pirate Mike might laugh at such amateur delusions.
The upside of squatting is zero dollars rent and total freedom to spend your days as you please, free of indentured servitude to the corporate ogre; the downside is zero stability, frequent unplanned moves and occasional loss of possessions up to and including all of them. The average life-span of a squat in San Francisco, according to my HNJ cohorts, is three weeks; my own experience more or less confirms that statistic. Moving more than once a month adds up to plenty of stress on its own, but squatters have more to deal with: periodic confrontations with angry property owners, and police, who invariably take the gentry’s side against their ragtag, would-be disseisors.
Mike, being eldest among us, fell by default into the big brotherly/fatherly role, but he was not a domineering alpha, by any means. The first night i stayed there, we agreed to set the roster at five, not to accept any more members (other than overnight guests), and set some loose house rules. (They can only be loose in a household of anarchist cat people.) Brad, at the behest of Mike —who had obviously seen Brad in his cups and deemed it an unlovely sight—agreed not to get too rambunctious. “If it gets weird, i’m out,” i recall Mike saying. I was struggling with meth addiction at the time, and was open about that8; i volunteered to use the hard stuff, if at all, outside the house. Mike approved of this as well and thanked me for it.
At the outset, it felt fine. After lone-wolfing it for so long, i was happy to be part of a group again, building a house with others outside the capitalism box. Safety in numbers, the synergy of human interactions, personality dynamics i’d missed (a little). We all had our failings and foibles and eccentricities, but no one was judging, or hiding in shame. We were all fuckups of one kind or another—and that was okay. It was some kind of wonderful.
We discussed intelligence gathered so far on the property, over dinner and drinks in the kitchen. From the street, Nosebleed wasn’t much to look at, but inside the house was full of retro charm. What it lacked in size it made up with a cozy, finished basement and a fenced backyard with garden. It was an inheritance property. The owners appeared to live in the east Bay. They had major renovations planned that would involve extensive construction, as evidenced by blueprints and other Department of Building Inspection documents we’d intercepted which Mike and Brad had taped up on the kitchen wall. This dampened any hopes for a long-term tenancy, though not completely: we’d all seen enough construction projects stall for long periods, sometimes indefinitely, for reasons one could only guess: owner moves or sells the property, dies, runs out of money; plans delayed or derailed by permits, Planning Department bureaucracy, complaints from other homeowners, etc. Though hope was further eroded by the fact that The Great Recession was itself receding by this point (early 2013), and construction was starting to pick up again all over the place.
Water and power, at minimum, are considered necessary by self-respecting squatters for decent indoor living. In this respect, Nosebleed was a peach, boasting not only these baseline amenities but also a gas stove and furnace, working washer and dryer, and even hot running water—a rare luxury indeed! That first night, i washed a load of clothes and went to bed earlier than the others, setting up my tent in the basement. Indoor camping! I would have camped outside, but Mike wanted us to maintain a low profile.
Brad’s bluster increased in volume as he drank, so that i could hear it through the kitchen floor. He was full of enthusiasm for what the future held. “I CAN BORROW A LAWN MOWER FROM WORK, BRING IT HOME AND CUT THAT GRASS. THEN WE NEED TO DO SOME WORK IN THE GARDEN, PLANT SOME STUFF. WE’LL STREET-SCORE SOME FURNITURE AND SET THIS PLACE UP AND START LIVIN!”
To access the basement, one had to go outside. When i did so, i noticed that our clamoring voices were clearly audible to the next-door neighbors, who struck me as the sort of married couple who wake up early and pack their kids off to school before leaving for work themselves. At that very moment, i could hear Brad and Mike talking, loud as day, about strategies for dealing with cops if they showed up, and how we should fabricate and memorize a story so as not to be taken off guard or caught in a lie if owners or others came calling.
I brought this up the next night, my second in the house. Again we stood in the kitchen eating dinner, by dint of no furniture so far. “You guys, we’ve gotta talk quieter,” i exhorted them. The response seemed to be a collective shrug. Not wanting to come off as a fussbudget, i didn’t press the issue.
After dinner, i took a hot shower, something i’d anticipated with relish all day. When i emerged a half hour later, steamy and well-scrubbed, i was in congenial spirits, starting to really look forward to this little house adventure and already feeling fondness for my surrogate squatter family. Wicked sugar plums were dancing in my head, of how cool and fun this house could be. Maybe we would make it so cool that the owners, when they got wind of our unauthorized tenancy, wouldn’t even mind! The permission squat of my dreams come true!
Next morning around 10 a.m. I was surprised awake by a knock at the basement door. I froze in my tent as i heard someone fumble with keys, then unzipped and peeked out to see a smiling woman in a PG&E uniform walk into the basement holding a clipboard. When she saw me, she put her hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle. “Hi!” she said pleasantly. “I’m just here to take a meter reading.”
She went about her business and left a few minutes later without further interaction. The minute she was gone, i sprang upstairs to tell Mike and Brad. Keith and Edgar were either elsewhere or still sleeping. “Do you think she’ll report us?” i asked, with a pang of sudden guilt, wondering if i might have blown up the squat by indiscreetly pitching my tent in the basement. Mike received the news with subdued displeasure, but was on his way out the door with his bike, and didn’t say much. Brad, who had been sitting in his dark bedroom—which somehow managed to be almost entirely empty and messy at the same time—staring at the floor and listening to metal music in a hung-over stupor, roused himself to investigate. “I’m going to follow her,” he said, and disappeared out the front door.
He returned 15 minutes later saying he’d tailed her back to her vehicle, and wasn’t sure whether she was going to rat us out or not. I was leaving, too, inevitably gravitating to Noisebridge, our shared social addiction. Brad said he’d watch the house, since we’d agreed to do our best to always have at least one person at home, both for the purpose of holding down the fort in case anything happened, and for the practical reason that so far, only Brad and Mike had keys. Hopefully, Keith and/or Edgar would appear to relieve Brad by the time he had to go to work.
That evening i ran into Brad at Noisebridge. He was in an agitated state. “The squat blew up,” was the first thing he told me. Soon we were joined by Mike, Keith, and Edgar, and Brad gave us the full story.
“I was about to leave for work, and i opened the front door, and almost ran right into this weird white lady. I was like, ‘Whoa,’ and she goes, ‘Well, i’m just as surprised to see YOU here!’ She started asking questions, and i was just completely not prepared, and i’m like… ‘Ya GOT me.’ And she takes out her phone and says, ‘You’ve got about five seconds before i call the police,’ and starts tapping numbers. I ran back inside, grabbed my stuff, and took off. And then i look back and her boyfriend is following me in his car, and he’s got his phone out, filming me or something, doing some weird shit. I didn’t have time to grab any of your stuff, guys… sorry.”
We understood. I think we’d all been through our share of squat busts by that point. I certainly had. Mike, no doubt, had been through more than any of us. Nonetheless, he seemed a little disappointed about it. It was a nice house, and we were a fun group. It was too bad the experiment never got to play out. That night, i walked by the house and saw it boarded up, and looked over the fence into the dark, desolate garden we’d hoped to cultivate. Was it the neighbors who ratted us out, or the PG&E lady, or did the owners just happen to come by that afternoon? Hard to say. In any case, that squat, lasting only two days, came to symbolize for me the wasted potential and brusquely shattered daydreams of those attempting to build a better world at this early and subliminal stage of human enlightenment.
So that was Nosebleed: a two-night stand that ended badly, from one of the weirdest years of my life.
It was not the last time i saw Pirate Mike, though. A year or so later, i ran into him in the Mission district. He looked to be at a bit of a low ebb and said it “threw me for a loop” when Noisebridge banned him. Trying to bolster his spirits, i opined that making the Noisebridge 86 page was a backhanded compliment of sorts.
Now that Mike is dead, i wonder if any of the Noisebrigade feels any remorse. Some of them fail to grasp the concept of remediation and lack understanding or compassion for the deleterious effect it can have on members of our community when we exile them “without parole,” as it were. Some of the people banned from Noisebridge lacked redeeming qualities and deserved it, but Mike was not one of them. We want to better than the existing system, right?
RIPPP (Rest in Peace and Pugnacious Power), Mike. You will be missed, but not forgotten.
1As an anarchist, i’ve never been sure what to make of Marx; i’m open-minded enough to explore all avenues that offer release from crapitali$m, but “dictatorship of the proletariat” is a brick wall for me. I don’t want a dictatorship of any kind.
2At the time i was developing a project called PHRED: Potential Housing Resources Emerging Daily, which comprised a database of properties of interest, vacant and unused buildings, squattable properties, secret hiding places, etc. My plan was to imprint it onto a GIS or GPS map. I had a fantasy, shared by some of my partners in “crime,” that at some predetermined future moment, we would all occupy the various points on that map—hundreds, if not thousands of them—at once! The police could shut down a few squats immediately, but they couldn’t stop a thousand of them at the same time! I also wanted to start giving “midnight tours,” sort of like anti-tourist explorations of the city, in the spirit of the Cacophony Society perhaps, and was working on a “Midnight Tourist” map of SF at Noisebridge. Of course, there was the problem of potentially ruining a good thing by broadcasting it. Mike was one of the people whose insight i tapped on the question of how to walk the line between under- and over-organizing.
3I did a web search for the title of the documentary in question, but came up short. Maybe it wasn’t a documentary, but i thought it was. Others may know?
4I’ve been reading The Holographic Universe, by Michael Talbot.
5Brad and Mike competed for title of “most tattooed.”
6Homes Not Jails: The group that rescued me from the street and opened my mind to the wonderful world of rent-free living.
7Edgar knew how to raise the issue of racism and black inequality in just the right tone: neither tiptoeing around the subject for white folks’ comfort, nor ascending the dreary soapbox of oppression. For instance, when we were talking about the police, i remember Edgar saying, “I have to smile and act friendly to them, or they’ll shoot me.”
8Being a liberated queer person, i abhor closets of any kind, and feel that those who live in shame of their drug usage are complicit in The War on Drugs.