Manifold Machinations: Tribute Refined

An essay by Pablo Power for the book “Manifold Machinations: Tribute Refined”

I never did find out exactly when the house burned down, or what circumstances led to the fire. I made the discovery very soon after it had burned down though; that charred, moldy, urinated- on smell still hung heavy on its blackened remains. It’s been over thirty years, but I can still recollect that fetid odor. So vividly, that it follows me around to this day. Or more accurately, I still follow it around.

I was around six years old and lived with my father in Southern California at the time. That was the critical age when I was first allowed to leave home without my father’s supervision, but with strict instructions to not cross any streets, which was meant to keep me out of the path of cross traffic and theoretically confine me to the safety of the block that we lived on, in the idyllic beach community where I spent my early childhood. What he didn’t know, and what I was very careful to never make any allusions to when I’d return from my square block safaris, was that I’d discovered a burned down house, obscured from view behind an overgrown driveway, just around the corner from our own home. It sat near the end of a dead end street and backed up to the scrub oak foothills that were still undeveloped in the early Eighties. I didn’t dare let on to the hinterland that I found up that short driveway, for fear and certainty that my private paradise would be gerrymandered right away from me if he knew where I was riding off to on my bicycle at every opportunity. He was always far more liberal with me than the parents of other kids my age, but I knew that he couldn’t have appreciated me frolicking around in the decrepit, wooden shell of a collapsing building. As thrilling as it was to assert my independence among the peril of its caved- in floors and twisted, broken ceiling joists, I was far more regaled by the mysterious history that the place possessed. I’d while away my spare time combing through the jetsam of the former inhabitants’ possessions, arranging them into collections, and inventing new uses for the bits that I wasn’t sure what their actual use had been. With each visit, I’d weave together a story of the people who had spent their life there, before I happened upon the place and claimed it for my own. As I continued to embellish on that tale, another parallel dialogue began to take shape. One that formed around the growing piles of crushed beer cans, traces of bonfires, and strange writing on the walls, that accumulated between my visits. As I became more familiar with every detail of the house, I was continually and increasingly fascinated by the subtle, but definite changes that would occur each time I returned. What I found most mystifying though, were the writings that built up on the walls over time. Some I could understand, such as people’s first names, but most were more arcane things that I had no context for at that age: Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, and stars that I thought were mistakenly drawn upside down. I pondered the meaning of it all, and questions abounded of unseen figures who made the mysterious symbols and words. I imagined Black Sabbath to be a menacing gang of outlaw bikers, who must have come to the ruined house each night to knock back a few cases of beer, while I slept soundly in my bed. Or The Aerosmith to be a tribe of Indians that still hunted their game across the vast sage bush expanse that abutted my neighborhood, making a cooking fire in a circle of stones, to roast their bounty. I never saw the actual owners of the house, whom I felt I knew after so much time sifting through their possessions, nor did I find out who went to the old house to drink beer and write on its walls when I wasn’t there, but it was that unknown that kept me going back, in search of new elements to weave together in a constant refinement of their stories.

My father is an artist, and at that point was at the beginning of his career as a successful sculptor. The town that we lived in wasn’t far beyond the furthest edges of the sprawling Los Angeles suburbs, so he spent much of his time within the art scene of the city, and would frequently bring me along on these trips. More recently, I’ve come to appreciate the good fortune that I had, being exposed to that culture at such a young age, but back then the greatest impression came from merely driving around the city and being exposed to a subculture of another kind. In our travels around LA, I noticed more strange writings across the city’s walls, from the interstate hi ways, to back alleys of Venice Beach, and the avenues in between. Over repeated trips, I came to recognize that some of them were written in the same style, and repeated in multiple places. I asked my father what it was, who was putting it there, and why. He was able to offer a cursory explanation, which helped to vaguely elucidate what I was seeing, by finally putting it into the context of a person writing his own name. It was explanation enough to assure me that it wasn’t some other biker factions or Indian tribe, but I was still left with more questions than answers. However, once I understood that I was seeing people’s names, I did start to notice one that stood out from all of the others. It was everywhere. In every neighborhood that we went to. On every street and highway that we drove on. It was written up high, in big letters. It was written low, in small letters. It was written plainly for maximum legibility, everywhere: NACHO. The more that I saw it written, the more my imagination conjured up images of who could possibly be so prolific in the repetition, and so daring and brazen in the placement of his name. Who was this mythic superhero? In my pantheon of heroes, I placed him somewhere in between G.I. Joe and Han Solo, and imagined him every bit as capable as both. I anxiously awaited my outings to the city, to keep up with his latest exploits and glean clues as to who could be capable of such exalted acts of derring do. One evening, after I was about a year into my obsession with NACHO, but still no closer to having any idea of who he might have been, my father and I were at my grandmother’s house for dinner. She invited us over regularly, and that evening seemed to be very much like any of those other occasions, so far. I was sitting, listening to the adults talk, and watching the evening newscast on television, which was turned down to its lowest audible volume. As the news anchors were wrapping up some mundane story and making their segue to a commercial break, they flashed a teaser image of the story that would follow the commercial. It hit me like lightning from a storm cloud and I shot up off the couch, in shock and disbelief. They were showing some of the greatest hits of my elusive hero, NACHO, some of the very same ones that I had admired in person, on my trips around LA. “Dad! It’s NACHO! Oh my god, it’s NACHO!” I was totally floored. I ran and kneeled in front of the TV, eyes fixed and bulging, with my hand poised on the volume knob, waiting for the program to resume. When they returned from the commercial, I turned the sound all the way up and inched closer to the screen, rigid with anticipation of finally learning something, anything, about who the phenomenon was. Slack jawed, I didn’t breathe again until the segment ended. His story was two minutes long, but seemed lengthy and episodic to me. It showed more pictures of his name written around the city, while describing him as one of the most abject blights on the entire metropolitan area, then wrapped up with an actual interview of him. He was raffish in his responses to the newscaster’s accusatory questions and resolute in repeating that he wrote his name as an assertion that he was a free individual who could act as he pleased, and was doing no harm in the process. He didn’t look or sound like anyone who lived in my town, speaking in the unfamiliar parlance of inner city youth and disguised behind dark sunglasses, baseball cap pulled low, and bandanna that covered his face. Though my callow vanity did swell at the possibility of making NEWS and seeing myself on television some day if I followed his path, it was a more edifying experience than that. The fact that he didn’t appear to be remotely close to who I’d imagined, reified my curiosities into an urgent need to dig deeper into this parallel reality that existed around me. It would quickly supplant any thoughts of bikers and Indians, and lead me into an obsession that drives me to this day. Being long before the advent of the Internet, and with only a small handful of books and films existing on the subject, it was a challenge that laid forth considerable ground to cover and requiring active participation, rather than passive observation.

A few years later, my father moved to Miami and I started spending summers with him, until moving there myself in high school. My obsession with writing had been through varying iterations since the NACHO days, but landing there brought it into more intense, invigorated focus. With each year that had passed since then, I gained more independence and mobility, so consequently had more freedom to travel around in search of the local writing sub culture, which was abundant at the time. Miami had been through a few generations of writers by then and was in the midst of a second heyday of writing. For the first time, I was able to make contact with its practitioners and their work with a frequency that I’d never experienced. At that rate, it didn’t take long for me to finally garner a broad understanding of who the mystery people were, why they did it, and how. Especially due to the fact that eventually I had become wholly preoccupied with partaking in the act of writing its self. Cobbling together stories of who the writers were, from apocryphal urban mythology and good old fashioned gossip, never ceased to fascinate me. I followed the way they wrote, where they wrote, their different styles, added a bit of conjecture, and extrapolated it all into a patchwork portrayal of the writers’ community as a whole. As a result of the ensuing familiarity though, an essential aspect of what had initially drawn me to that world faded away. My mystification with the back story of how it all happened, imagining how the writings appeared in impossible locations, and the process of piecing together all of the stories, disappeared as I moved from the position of an ignorant observer to a deeply entrenched insider. I started to channel my continuing desire to shed light on the unseen and unknown into creating the narrative of a larger community, which I had found by following the trail of writing around Miami.

In that era, the actual city of Miami was a boundless urban wilderness, with most of its population living peripherally in the suburbs. My quest to fabricate a story of what had formerly been a vibrant city accelerated as I discovered its labyrinthine railroad tracks and alleyways, and explored crumbling neighborhoods, buildings, trailer parks, and homeless’ shanty towns. Not coincidentally, these were playgrounds of the writers, where one could be left alone to create freely, with less concern for law enforcement or property owners catching up to them. But there were other denizens of the dark to contend with in those areas. A population that also sought to be left alone in the margins of society, but were mired in other obsessions, usually centering around mental illness, alcohol, drugs, and sex. It was a world more inscrutable than any other that I had observed or imagined, not mutually exclusive to that of writers, but only tangentially related through cohabitation. Gathering information on this world began as a revisitation of what drew me to the old, burned out house of my early childhood, but this was an entire universe of those houses and with the occupants still living among the rubble. I quickly found something more meaningful than cast off artifacts to pore over and fantasize about, which though I did still find that captivating, was only part of the story. As I roamed and encountered the inhabitants of those areas, I was able to forge connection between past and present, stripping down the fabric of daily lives and histories, to find causes behind people’s actions and have a more circumspect understanding of my own surroundings. In that unseen, overlooked and forgotten world, that’s often dismissed as depressing or too dangerous to confront, I found inspiration. Although I did record mostly frightening, cautionary tales of adversity there, I found value in them all. I found the importance of looking below the surface, not only at what’s pleasant, easy, or directly in front of you. And the value of being open to history’s lessons, not only from books and documentaries of far away lands, but from across town, down the block, next door, or even right at home.

Lessons from history in my own home have defined me in a profoundly deep and personal manner. Among my earliest memories is the awareness of my mother’s two older brothers who passed away soon before I was born, who’s short lives were shrouded in mystery and conjecture. Until I was an adult, there was a tacit understanding to never pry into details of who they were or what led to their premature passings, so I was left to fill in the blanks on my own. I spent years cataloging details from overheard conversations, reading letters they had written, and carefully perusing their possessions that were still in my grandmother’s home, where they lived at the time of their demise. The real answers came slowly over time, but because of my nature to find meaning in the past, I had long since fleshed out a story that was very near reality. I had confronted it, learned, and grown from it. My work was born of that desire, that obsession. Following and documenting others’ obsessions has helped me recognize my own and grow from them, not be debilitated by them. Through my work, I seek out and piece together facets of history and embellish them with new layers, paying tribute to what I’ve sought out and discovered, as a means to keep the past current and relevant, and to learn from it. I find my greatest inspiration in the challenge to confront subjects that may otherwise be avoided or forgotten, and my greatest satisfaction in peeling back the layers of time that obfuscate the most rudimentary aspects of humanity. There will always be more to life than meets the eye. Always more than what’s on the surface. The lessons learned from a journey that started as a child discovering a burned down house, and a fire that still smolders in me today.