30 Cyber-Days in San Francisco 1.2

Digital Dustbowl: Squatting On the Dock of the Bay

In San Francisco, you don't have to look far to find the surplus class. Just go down to the old dry dock area, the one that used to hustle with all the sounds and sights of thousands of blue-collar workers repairing conveyor lines of ships, and you will suddenly find yourself exiting the glitzy world of SF gussying up for the millennium, and quick-time entering a surreal world of nomadic bodies and live-in campers squatting on the dock of the Bay. Every night when the sun goes down and the San Francisco cops come up, the squat comes alive with the survival tales of the surplus class living on the physical edge of technotopia, right in sight of the high finance, high-intensity money-spangled skyline with its Trans-America Masonic architecture.

It's a strange and surreal world of disappearances: disappeared ships, disappeared labor, disappeared communities. But in the squat, there's one thing that hasn't vanished, and that's memory. It's a real inter-zone of embedded memory, squatted by people with a story to tell of survivors living on the edge who have beat the odds, and who might be dumped into surplus flesh by the new technological elite - the virtual class - but who have learned new labor skills for the end-of-the-century: laboring, that is, to survive as the vanguard of the disappeared of America. This is what happens to Marx's "dead labor" when it starts to speak.

Take Jesus. He's a tough-ass, mean-thinking Puerto Rican organic intellectual married to a French Maoist. With a staccato way of thinking and a blue-collar way of talking, he puts into words the long-repressed story of the squat. And he's unflinching. "Don't give me that crap about the so-called War on Drugs. The White House is the biggest rock house in America." Or, "If you're poor and black in America, you ain't got no rights. When you're in the projects, the cops will bust down your door every night. In the projects, you're always living with your pants down." Or, "What are you going to say to a kid. Stay in school for chump change, when you could be a high roller starting up your own drug emporium on the street corner in front of your own home. In America, the kids that deal aren't getting drugs by themselves. We're talking here about a big distribution network: banks and cops and government."

And then there's the guy who calls himself the Desert Rat. A black leather cowboy hat pulled down over his eyes, with the strings pulled taut under his lip just above a full salt and pepper beard. He's been living in the squat for a few months, working out of the back of his truck as a car mechanic. He's reputed to be the best auto mechanic in a 50-mile radius of the city. The day we were there, a long line of Saabs and Corollas and Cherokees, straight from the Valley, were waiting in a long, snaking line to be diagnosed by the Desert Rat: delivering up their cars for final judgment - bad timing, burnt-out valves, shocks and struts, clutch and transmission problems, blown electrical fuses, shot computer circuitry, ignition failures, spitting, misfiring pistons. Now, most of the year, the Desert Rat spends his time walking barefoot in the Sonara Desert. He tells us his story sitting behind the wheel of his truck, drinking skim milk straight out of the carton, all the while listening to Jesus and nodding his head in assent. Then he adds: "I first came to SF in 68. Couldn't afford an apartment then, and sure can't afford one now."

This is a squat California style: vehicle-oriented, perfectly nomadic, an interzone, where you can turn on the ignition, and leave at a moment's notice. In America, property's king, and nothing much has changed here. It could be a waterfront, picture window on the bay, suburb for the surplus class. Except it's not. It's got all the pain and the memory of people who have been pushed out of the system, and who have done the next best thing, becoming the lonely coyotes of the surplus class. Refusing service work, they are the last and best of the independent workers: living off the land, reskilling their labor, prophets of the future of blue-collar work in the American digital dustbowl.