The Ballad of Commie Spice

local_cafe The Ballad of Commie Spice

by Stefene Russell

Published in Issue No. 15 ~ August, 1998
I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.
– Joe Hill

Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!
– Pablo Neruda, “I Explain Some Things.”

Contrary to what people think in California the climate in Utah is favorable to growing radicals. They grow here the way buffaloes and Christmas trees grow in Half-Moon Bay. This place produced Bruce “Utah” Phillips, Neal Cassady, Harold Ross, and scores of Armageddon survival zealots. I don’t know if it’s the dry air or the dry dirt, or the hollow earth where the mine shafts were dug out, but this place instills a sense of agitation into you. After all, it’s the place where Joe Hill was martyred and Big Bill Haywood was born.

Joan Baez sang about Joe Hill. So did Paul Robeson. We are still waiting for the Gap to tell us whether or not he wore khakis, but most political-minded people know who he is. Big Bill Haywood is another matter altogether. He was involved in the radical labor movement like Hill was, but he was too wobbly for the Wobblies, too radical for the radicals. Even though he was one of the main forces behind the organization of the International Workers of the World back in 1905, don’t mention Haywood’s name to a Wobbly unless you want to sit home gingerly applying raw meat to your new black eye. He’s not buried in Salt Lake City. He’s buried in Kremlin Square. He was a Commie. You know that little phrase attributed to Joe Hill, “Don’t Mourn, Organize?” Well, he said that to Bill Haywood. It was the last thing he said to the world before they marched him off to be shot.

I don’t know why it is that I’m always looking at my stapler when my malcontent side comes out. Maybe because it’s a cheap stapler, totally utilitarian, lightweight black plastic, and because everyone is always borrowing it. Not that I mind, but then I think that it is not my stapler at all, that it belongs to the company. Then I start to think why is there only one stapler to pass around between five or six people? It’s a cheap-ass stapler. $2.99 at the most. Why not buy six staplers? Then I think, it’s not my stapler. It belongs to the company. Then I look at my computer, which also belongs to the company, and at my desk, and my pens, and my dictionary, all which belong to the company. Then I rub my eyes, because I’ve usually forgotten to wear my glasses, and it feels like someone’s been spraying that super-jet-air-in-a-can in my eyes, because I’ve been staring at a monitor for nine hours. Then I remember I signed a little paper that says everything I write on this computer belongs to the company. Maybe I look at my stapler because it’s the most dangerous thing on my desk.

Bill Haywood grew up on 100 South, where the Salt Palace Convention Center sits today. This is the second incarnation of the Salt Palace, nearly brand new, a gigantic building with a row of arty windmills churning in front and a huge glass entryway that looks like it should contain swimming dolphins and anemones. The ceilings inside are so high that you get queasy just walking through, and the carpets are so busy you’d swear you were in Bob Stupak’s Vegas World. Incidentally, the carpeting had to be removed from the stairs because it disoriented people to such an extent that rare was the visitor who didn’t trip and go pitching down the stairs headfirst.

The Salt Palace is a five-minute walk from my office, and when I walk by there I watch the windmills spinning and think about Bill Haywood’s old house. That was the house that would have been filled with the smells of fresh-brewed coffee and mourning clothes the day his father died, when Haywood was three; and maybe that was where he lay in the dark, his face bandaged, when he lost an eye at the age of nine. Maybe not – because that was also the year he left home to work in the mines.

I know a woman who is a Socialist, a very staunch one. My friend calls her “Commie Spice.” It really pisses her off. Consequently, that’s the handle I use whenever we have Quake death matches in our office. Our General Manager plays, too. He goes by “Hefe” (Spanish for “Boss.”) We swim and run around to find machine guns and armor and we let him have it, but he doesn’t mind. He laughs when we blow him away. The strongest word he ever uses is “darnit!” That’s when I forget about my stare-down matches with my stapler. That’s when I forget that my last name, translated from the Irish (or whatever it is), means “Red.”

Big Bill Haywood wanted to organize all workers into “One Big Union” so all workers would be one force, undefeatable. There is a diagram of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) “One Big Union” concept, based on “Father Hagerty’s Wheel of Fortune.” It’s a kind of sensible, Stalinist mandala. I wish it were painted on the ceiling of the Salt Palace, like a sort of utilitarian Sistine Chapel mural. People my age don’t really get into unions. Most of them work in the computer industry; they don’t dig ditches, they aren’t subjected to eight hours of backbreaking labor. They just have to sit in front of a computer for hours on end. Because that throws your back out more slowly than digging ditches, we somehow feel we have no right to complain. No right to complain about the fact we’re all signing contracts stating we can be fired at any time, without notice, without a reason stated. And it’s not just my company – everyone I know in the computer industry has signed a paper like this. Or papers, rather. Large stacks of contracts stapled together. So many signatures you feel like you’re some kind of notorious criminal, signing autographs.

I had a dream last night, but it wasn’t about Joe Hill, saying he’s alive as you and me. It was about Big Bill Haywood.

He’s just drinking, looking out the window. And outside the window is Quakeworld, but it’s a 19th-century mining town version of Quakeworld. The different game levels are set inside mine shafts, with little coal-cars and abyss-like wells and strange geothermal gases rising from deep out of the earth. The mine shafts sink so deep into the earth that little streams of lava flow everywhere. And dead canaries litter the ground. Like autumn in a land where the birds are attached to the trees like leaves, dead canaries.

I find a channel of water, beautiful briny water with a kaleidoscope of mineral deposits swirling on the surface, so opaque I can hardly see my trusty stapler after I dive in and swim. I’m the terrorist character, the Persian chick in black and red bell-bottoms and an eye patch – one eye, just like Bill Haywood. I’m pushing through the water, holding my breath and swimming through underground tunnels and finally come up inside of a flooded building. Jumping from tier to architectural tier, I make that hwuh grunting noise that all Quake characters make when they leap. And I keep going hwuh, hwuh until I reach the ceiling. Once there, I unfold a big copy of the One Big Union mandala, revised to integrate programmers, html writers, customer service support representatives and database specialists. It’s printed on vinyl, like a Twister game. I pull it out of my pocket, endlessly, then crawl up and staple it to the ceiling with huge, platinum staples.

And then I strip down to my skivvies, a bad pair of practical cotton undies and an undershirt, and set out to sea ensconced in an innertube, playing the ukulele, singing, You have got to reach on up, never lose your soul, ha-ah, I really really wanna, I really wanna wanna zigazaga, I really wanna be, wanna be, wanna be a Commie…

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Stefene Russell is a writer and editor who lives in the Midwest. She also plays in a samba/world percussion band, and still uses a manual typewriter from time to time, including as a percussion instrument.