I did not come from poverty. I came from an educated family that lived in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Harare, Zimbabwe. My father was an economist, my mother a lecturer at the university. When I turned 20, they sent me to America to obtain a respectable degree (law, medicine, business), thinking that I would return to Africa to own property, accumulate wealth, and marry the daughter of an important man in the Ministry of Industry and Technology or the Ministry of Education and Health. But almost immediately after arriving in the land of milk and honey, I rejected this clear future for no future at all. I came to America for exactly what it is famous for: freedom.
The freedom that comes with riches has its double in another kind of economic freedom: the freedom of owning nothing. Both liberate you from time, obligations, and other people. Because the Zimbabwean dollar was weak, because I could not work in America (I didn't have a permit), because my parents were thousands of miles from me, and because my college situation on the East Coast was not yet sorted out, I quickly and deliberately found myself living with five males in an extremely cheap but huge basement in Pioneer Square.
We entered through the alley between First Avenue South and Alaskan Way. Like all alleys in Pioneer Square at the time and today, it had a whole tribe of rats that competed for resources with a wandering tribe of homeless humans. The entrance to the basement happened to be across from the exit for the Underground Tour. Every afternoon, tourists would emerge from Pioneer Square's underworld, impressed by the dead things—streets, sidewalks, and stores—they had seen. At sunset, the tourists stopped visiting the underworld, and artists and anarchists began trickling into the other underworld.
The basement was not a place anyone was supposed to be living in, an abandoned beauty academy: decaying styling chairs with hydraulic pumps, dusty shampoo bowls, broken manicure tables, dryers on rusty wheels, a wall of cracked mirrors, all covered in years of dust. There was an area converted into a kitchen (a toaster oven, a mini refrigerator, a hot plate, a microwave oven that hummed horribly—the expression "nuking" your food made sense with this Dumpster-salvaged appliance). In the center of the primary area was a blue tent where one of the five of us, Luke, slept. He supplied the basement with eggs from his day job as a baker. None of the rest of us had a job. At the back of the basement was a passageway leading to three offices and a broken freight elevator. Three of us made our bedrooms in the offices. I slept in the elevator shaft.
It was hard to pull a buck from the streets of Seattle (then going through the recession of 1990) into the depths of the basement. Money loathed our place. Once inside, it wanted to flee, to fly back to the streets, to find cover in the drawer of a cash register. Cash always looked so unhappy in our hands. Fresh bills rotted instantly in our soiled pockets; the reason our clothes were so dirty was because we did not have enough cash to wash them. We washed our underwear in the sink and hung them in the dusk and dust of the main area.
We each paid 80 bucks a month, and not one of us ever made the rent on time. I completely depended on miracles to come up with my share. I almost always began the month with absolutely nothing and ended it, I don't even remember how, with 80 bucks going to the landlord. He was letting us live there illegally and only had contact with one of us, Kurt, a funk guitarist with long black hair and a stutter that sliced his words into a mess of phonemes. Kurt lived in one of the offices and slept with no clothes on. Nudity was a common thing in the basement.
And the parties we threw were huge and long and noisy and free. These parties began with a band, devolved into drugs and deeds of lust, and dissipated long after the sun first cracked the night sky. There was lots of sex in the basement, because sex costs nothing. There was lots of Rainier beer, because it costs next to nothing. (Wine was totally out of the picture.) Though only five of us lived in the ruins of the beauty school, it caused us no surprise whatsoever to see one or two strangers drifting past an office door, looking for someone who attended a party, a gathering, a band session that ceased hours or days ago. I recall waking up one afternoon and finding in the kitchen area a woman (a pure hippie flower, with golden hair and a slim waist) and a much-older man she'd met the night before and slept with in some dark corner of the main area. The evidence: a sticky condom. The new lovers were microwaving a moist marijuana leaf for breakfast.
W hat American poverty offers—and this is not the case with African poverty, which is nothing but oppressive—is the possibility that anything might happen: miracles of money, one-night stands, movement to anywhere by any means (back of a truck, back of a bicycle, back of motorbike, back of a bus). Other relatives from Africa came to America and joined the middle class, but to me, the middle-class situation was wholly unappealing. The middle class is immobilized by the heaviness of paying bills, borrowing money, saving pennies, and so on and so forth. It does not have true freedom but is constantly in the situation of longing for it, and always fleeing from the other freedom, the freedom of owning nothing, paying little or no expenses. True, poverty is not pleasant, but it does offer freedom from the pressures of being a constant consumer and borrower. In the basement, I went to sleep at any time of the day, woke up at any time of the day. If Luke happened to say, "Let's go and drink mushroom tea near Mount Index," I would go. Because why not go and do drugs in the woods? What was stopping me?
Often on Fridays I would leave the basement and, if I had any money, eat something small at Mitchelli's, which was across the street and double the size that it is today. (Rumor has it that the long-lived Mitchelli's is not going to survive the current recession.) Or I'd drink at the Pioneer Square Saloon, the only place that did not card me. Or I'd visit the three girls who lived in a loft space around the corner on Alaskan Way. One of the three girls, Carrie Akre, had at the time recently joined a band, Hammerbox, and was working on an EP that another friend, Lisa Orth, eventually released on her label, Big Flaming Ego. Orth often boasted that she got the money to start the label from an insurance settlement for an accident that resulted in a metal plate in her forehead. She would let me touch it.
At Akre's loft, which had an excellent view of the traffic on the viaduct, I listened to music (Billie Holiday, Throwing Muses, Miriam Makeba) and tried to say smart things to one of her roommates, a dark-haired girl I secretly fancied. The order and femininity of Akre's loft gave me a break from the nonstop chaos that dominated the basement. Her roommates were studying at the university, had jobs, and seemed to be building their futures. They even had nice furniture—or it looked nice when compared to what we had in the basement.
One Friday night, I returned to the basement and walked right into a strange scene. Near Luke's blue tent, he and two young women sat in a circle of styling chairs. One woman was largish, the other thinnish. The largish one wore camouflage pants and a black T-shirt. The thinnish one wore a long brown overcoat—with no underwear, skirt, or shirt underneath it. The largish woman (who, I later found out, was supported financially and emotionally by the naked woman in the overcoat) dominated Luke's attention. She was telling him about her military days in Nebraska. She had been a soldier and had seen many awful things.
"I saw it with my own eyes," she was saying. "It's at a base near Grand Island, Nebraska. There are these bees that are the size of cats. They kept them in a black warehouse. You had to go inside to see them. It was an experiment. Genetically modified bees, dude..."
Luke, a fast talker who deeply mistrusted the American government and bought all his reading material at the anarchist supply store Fallout, was eating all of this up, and I was on the verge of laughter. The largish woman looked up at me and saw that I did not believe her one bit. Why would the army make bees that are the size of cats?—that was the expression on my face.
"Look, just because it doesn't make sense to you doesn't mean it's not happening. I saw a lot of things in the army that would blow your fucking mind!" she said.
The hand of the woman in the overcoat gave the army woman's leg a reassuring caress. She had seen her partner in this difficult situation before—seen her go crazy at the nonbelievers.
"The army is experimenting on all sorts of shit, man, that's why I left and why they're after me. They can burst through that door at any moment, kill all of you, and take me away!" The largish woman was now vibrating with rage. Fearing that she might be the one to do this killing, and not the government agents swarming in her head, I left this little scene for the solitude of the elevator shaft.
T he elevator shaft was all wood and rusty metal and dead buttons and levers. I'd appropriated one of the beautician's chairs and placed it next to the mattress on the floor. Luke came in and sat in the beautician's chair around two in the morning. A jam session of funk-punk was raging in the main area. Everyone was drunk or high. The soldier woman was long gone, but other crazy people had replaced her and were telling their impossible stories to the other roommates. The regulars who used to waste time with us included a man who made strange movies with a video camera (I was an extra in one or two of them) and a man who'd been to art school in Chicago and was obsessed with art made by serial killers (nearly two decades later, he committed suicide by walking into Lake Washington).
Luke had something on his mind. With his legs crossed in the manner of that famous photograph of Ian Curtis in despair, and a cigarette in his mouth and a dirt-cheap beer in one hand, he said: "Man, you think you know everything."
"Not true. I don't know what death is," I said. "I don't think anyone can know that. But I do know you can look all over the world and not find one bee that is the size of a cat. That I do know."
Luke's eyes had an almost theatrical intensity. Though crazy for the kinds of pranks he picked up from the punk manual RE/Search, he took himself very seriously. His clothes and manner expressed this sense of self-gravity: dark felt dress hat, paramilitary boots. He said, "Charles, do you want to experience death?" He said it as if it were an option, something we could do to kill a few hours.
"You mean to die and come back to life?"
"No, I don't mean like that... I know of a place where you can experience death without dying."
"And where is that?"
"It's only a few blocks away. It's in the middle of the train tunnel. You can't see anything. Just pure blackness. I have been there a few times with Kurt and feel like going there right now. Go with me?"
In my situation, at my age, at that time of night, with all that alcohol in me, how could I say no?
T he Great Northern Tunnel is one mile long, 28 feet high, 30 feet wide, and 125 feet beneath downtown. Its southern portal is next to King Street Station, its northern portal below Pike Place Market. It was made with James "Empire Builder" Hill's capital and the raw muscle of 350 forgotten men. During the construction, which began in 1903, the miners came across a prehistoric forest. At the center of this long-dead forest, they found a completely preserved tree, which, when exposed to the light of day, vaporized like a vampire into a pile of dust and pulp. Above the southern portal's keystone is the year of the tunnel's completion: "1904." Early in the morning, I found myself standing beneath that date with Luke, my Virgil in punk clothes. We drifted into the tunnel without a thought.
Each crunching step diminished the light behind us; utter blackness was slowly approaching. The tracks were dumb and cold. After walking for about 10 minutes, it occurred to me that if a train were to come through, I would be in a spot of trouble. The problem with the freedom that results from an absence of money, the freedom of limitless time, is that the future loses its power. What only ever matters is the now, the present, the primal moment. Now all of a sudden, the future made an appearance in the dark, and it looked quite deadly. My imagination saw the lights of a freight train approaching me at a murderous speed. I saw its wheels crushing my body, crunching my bones. I envisioned the newspaper headline: "Zimbabwean Drifter Killed in Tunnel." I saw a thousand rats feasting on my bloody remains.
Panicking, I asked Luke, who was ahead of me, what to do if the train entered the tunnel. "Hope for the best," I heard. I looked back and saw that the light at the point where we'd entered was almost gone. But I could not abandon the mission at this point. I was so close to absolute darkness. And besides, going forward was now as good as going back. The best thing to do if a train came through, I figured, was to run to one side of the tunnel and crouch down like some terrified animal as its massive bulk roared past. I pictured this happening again and again on that mile-long walk.
Finally we reached the death that I was promised. It exists in the middle of that tunnel. It is the point where the light from behind and the light ahead completely vanish. You can't see the end of your nose. You can't see your hands. You have almost no idea what your feet are doing. Your body is gone, and all there is is your consciousness. It is the sensation of immateriality itself, which is a kind of transcendence. You feel not so much like you're dead, but surprised by the bareness of your being. You sense it in the area of your chest. It seems to flicker there, it seems so frail, it seems that even a light breeze could blow it out. We stopped walking. Many years later, I'd discover that this experience—this reduction of my whole life to just the heart of being alive—was not anything new or exceptional. It took only one visit to a posh health club for me to realize that the train tunnel was nothing more than a poor man's sensory deprivation tank.
"We are lucky. No trains have come by yet," Luke said, revealing for the first time his own fear. "Let's get out now." I could not see him. All that lived was his voice. And a voice in the dark is Hume's voice of God. We began walking again, the gravel crunching beneath our feet. For a while there was no light in either direction, but then a pin of light danced in the distance. It was far ahead, glowing like a tiny star. (Anyone who has seen my movie Zoo will finally know the source of the opening scene.) One of the tracks reflected the light, barely. With each crunchy step, the light slid into a longer and longer silvery line.
When we exited the tunnel, there was a moon, the lights of a sleeping city, and a rapidly approaching train. We crossed the western tracks, and as we reached a parking lot, the train plunged into the tunnel.
An hour later, I was on my mattress in the elevator shaft. There was a little life somewhere in the basement—two or so people playing faux-Gypsy music. Luke was fast asleep in his tent, and I was looking up at the shaft, which for the past three or so months I had lived here had had no significance at all. Now it seemed to mean something sad and true. It suggested that these days of freedom were numbered. It was just so absurd to be living in an elevator shaft. Eventually I'd reach the end of the tunnel of this particular moment in my life and surface in the world of work and wages.
One day a letter arrived from Zimbabwe. It came from my parents, who were terribly upset about my disappearance from the radar of formal society. The letter was handed to me by my cousin Farai, who was studying electrical engineering at the University of Washington. He and his brother Tendai—a civil engineer who worked on the bus tunnel that had then recently opened and was soon to be featured on the first video by Hammerbox, "Size of the World"—were the only Africans who visited me in the basement, and kept the shame of its chaos and lawlessness a secret from the folks back home.
The envelope Farai handed me contained a check for $1,000. This was the end of the tunnel. That kind of money wanted nothing to do with the basement; the figure demanded that I move to a place that housed normal people and hours. I betrayed the basement and used the check to move into a large house near the corner of Harvard Avenue and Roanoke Street, with two stories, three productive roommates, real furniture, and a standard kitchen. We held parties that came to an end at practical hours. More and more of my friends were university students, and fewer and fewer were punks dreaming of becoming the next Jello Biafra. I was back on the surface of society and beginning the long journey to where I am now—a landowning father, salaried writer, credit-card holder, husband, and filmmaker, who lives in a comfortable Pioneer Square loft with a view of expensive buildings, but who knows the value of owning nothing, making nothing, doing nothing.