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Diary of a Billsticker – Lowell, Massachusetts, USA

A Word to the Wise Guy

Lowell is about thirty miles out of Boston and is apparently ahead of that city (‘Beantown’) in all the crime stats. Lowell has a population of around 100,000 people and many of them are immigrants. These immigrants are the very best thing about America in that there is always a big churn of ideas and many different things are going on. Immigrants always (always!) aspire to a better life and, not having health insurance, they try harder and complain less.

They also make better music in that there is mostly not a pre-existing musical-business structure that sucks all the life out of the sound before it goes anywhere… So give me a wild-cat Mexican band any day. You never see them on television and that’s a good thing and Mexican music in America is firmly ‘of the street.’ I don’t really care who plays well or not, I like to see energy.

Street life in America is a very exciting thing and before the words ‘upwardly mobile’ became unfashionable, you could use them to describe immigrants to America and be right on the money at the same time. I reckon everything bubbles upwards from the footpath and is mostly good. The exception would be the liquefaction in Christchurch of course. This is a very painful thing. But all ‘true’ things come from the street and mostly cannot be stopped. In their growth upwards many things become synthetic and that is harmful to people on a level along with aspartame and high fructose corn syrup.

The ‘things’ that immigrants bring to America draw from many different cultures, and it’s not like living in Mosgiel, though, of course, I have nothing against Mosgiel appreciating that some people enjoy that kind of thing. I don’t know what the deal is with Gore, but that’s for greater minds than mine.

Lowell then is a city wide open, but we have to consider that Mr. Obama has sat at the wheel whilst 800,000 people have been deported from America over these last two years. So I think liberal notions about this government are largely fanciful. The number one thing people want to do against other people is to build walls and all politicians play with the putty. Everything that is not nailed down in America is owned by someone or other and it seems everyone’s got to pay.

Lowell, Massachusetts, is where Jack Kerouac was born and also where the movie ‘The Fighter’ was filmed a couple of years back. That movie features local legend Micky Ward and shows the whole working class nature of Lowell and some of these old industrial Massachusetts cities. It shows that the little guy (the ‘underdog’) can do anything if he/she tries hard enough. As a Russian tour guide once said to me: “Look, the facts speak for themselves, the proletariat is fully capable of doing everything the aristocracy can do.”

I know that and I believe that nearly all aristocrats know really nothing about the street below them. But it’s the promises that are made that keeps the wheels turning in exactly the same way. People go a long way on promises.

Lowell was an industrial revolution ‘miracle’ as a mill town in the 1800s and was then dependent on cotton grown in the South and cheap labour (mainly immigrants) from the North. This whole thing did an about face in the 1920s as cheap labour was followed down into the Southern states of America. By the 1930s about half the people in the town were on government ‘relief packages’ and the town was a mess. I think it’s still recovering.

Now of course ‘cheap labour’ is offshore and the inability of people to work at satisfying jobs is a very harrowing matter for America and large parts of the world. America is now a country of the banks, for the banks, and by the banks (and other financial organisations). These financial institutions are full of people picking money like it was candy and one day it will all come unstuck. It must.

In Lowell, I was carrying poster poems by: David Eggleton, Serie Barford, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, Sonja Yelich, James K. Baxter, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Stephen Oliver, Hone Tuwhare, Jay Clarkson, Hinemoana Baker, Bill Direen, Becky Woodall, and Aroha Harris. These are all a good bunch and I had a really great time putting the posters about. It all calmed my mind and had me focusing on the next poster and not Mr. Obama. I am trying my best to go upwards and like most people some days there is a wind against me.

But, the first thing that happened to me in Lowell was that a guy on a street corner (with a strange and tense cocaine look in his eyes) offered to sell me a boa constrictor for $20. It’s a hell of a thing to keep in a yard and he wouldn’t trade posters for it either. I am always happy to meet these guys who are playing a wild game that is out of the box and he obviously didn’t trust the banks.

Massachusetts has some very strict laws about putting posters on lamp-posts and I toed the line as much as a could and then something got the better of me and I did the reverse. That’s how Phantom Billstickers was built and the devil take the hindmost which the same devil has and often. But I’ve always managed to stumble up again and punch-drunk too. And I’ve carried on. It’s human nature to fight back and people do.

Jack Kerouac wrote a book that personally liberated me (and millions of others). I read ‘On the Road’ first when I was about sixteen and then I took Abbie Hofman’s advice and stole his book. If I had a conviction for that (stealing a book in the 1970s), I’m sure I would now be having trouble down at Homeland Security. These things follow people around like pernicious anaemia and the only doctor available is usually some kind of swept up immigration attorney working out of a Ringling Brothers type tent. She will tell you she has a direct line to the judge and it’s always that there’s “room for one more inside, sir!”

After reading these two mind expanding books (‘On the Road’ and ‘Steal This Book’), I then picked up George Jackson’s ‘Soledad Brother’ which probably had the biggest affect on me of all three. In fact ‘Soledad Brother’ saved my life, but that’s a tale for another day. George Jackson’s words are among the most powerful I have ever read and they changed me.

But, Jack Kerouac invented a whole new kind of writing at a time when writing was pretty damn boring and complacent and he started something that hasn’t stopped to this day. He famously said something that meant to ignore how other people wrote and to forget ‘literary syntax’ (whatever the hell that means) and to break all the rules. So, given Jack Kerouac’s result, we might think that in the breaking of the rules we actually make progress and I remember a fine piece of graffiti I once spotted that said ‘Tradition Kills.’ I couldn’t agree more.

Jack Kerouac was lucky to meet a bunch of like-minded individuals in the 1940s and 1950s and they supported each other as they each put a toe in the literary water. Some of these people were Allen Ginsberg, Neil Cassady, William S. Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, John Clellon Holmes, and Lawrence Ferlenghetti. On first meeting some of them he wrote that they were: “the most evil and intelligent buncha shits.” I feel like I’ve met them too as I met many similar people in Christchurch, New Zealand, back in the 1970s.

They were all ‘good sticks.’

Aye, aye, sir… Mr Kerouac’s bunch was a group that helped to change the world. Maybe they actually set up that change more than any others out there at the time. What existed in their imaginations was what a lot of people obviously wanted. I don’t get that feeling from Jonathan Franzen. I hate sitting around committee tables too.

For me, the first thing about ‘On the Road’ was that it had energy. Then Abbie Hoffman also had energy and George Jackson had more energy than he knew what to do with in that prison cell. What was it, ten years or more for robbing a gas station of $30?

So I think I have the most ideal life in this world. I think the current round of Phantom Billstickers poetry posters are outstanding and it’s the most enjoyable thing going to be driving or walking around putting up posters. I think it’s so damn simple and yet says so much and takes me far away from the endless debate (over stupid things) that seems to be the earmark of modern life.

Mr. Kerouac, having helped to open up the world, died an early and depressed death.

On my last day in Lowell, I stopped by Mr. Kerouac’s grave and cried. I’m sure thousands have.


Keep the Faith,


Jim Wilson


Diary of a Billsticker – Perth Amboy, New Jersey, USA

Perth Amboy is a city about the size of Timaru back in old Aotearoa New Zealand. The city sits on a bay on the Raritan River and is about forty miles from the mystical Jersey Shore. Across the bay is Staten Island. John Bon Jovi was born here.

Perth Amboy is kind of a broken down, rust-belt place with about four cops to each city block. As you get closer to the city council offices, you’ll come across five or six cops to each block. The local mayor was recently found guilty of corruption and is to be sentenced in January. It is obvious that someone or some force is trying to scrub these streets clean and that notion just becomes very difficult when there’s a high level of unemployment and manufacturing is now happening someplace else. This ‘someplace else’ where people use their hands to make something apart from fast food, is somewhere far over the rainbow. One of the nicknames of Perth Amboy is ‘Ambush City’ and in a lot of these places, the most alive thing in town is the interplay between the Police and the population. Of course there’s a lot of crime, there has to be.

The town is like a digital tombstone from back in the Old West. The city centre looks like the OK Corral to me. But I’m never afraid of these things. That’s not what frightens me.

In Perth Amboy, I was carrying poetry posters by about six New Zealand poets and a couple of Americans. It is obvious that there once was some heavy-duty industry in Perth Amboy, but a lot of these areas collapsed decades ago and this city is now attempting to claw its way back. Yet there are numerous beauty salons because in life people have to paint something up and to put a face on. People try and make good of bad situations and the vast majority are not criminals. They live in hope and they wait.

The population of Perth Amboy is more than 50% Hispanic, the majority coming from either Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. No Hispanic (legal or illegal) has ever insulted me in this country. They are not by nature an obnoxious people. So I felt perfectly safe in Perth Amboy, what frightens me most about America is what happens in the ‘better’ cities and suburbs. That’s where the deals are made.

I just work one lamp-post at a time with my industrial stapler and I place my poetry posters for the best possible impact. I remember as I go what Renoir said about the purpose of art being to enliven the walls. Yes, and in a way, you can even look at all the rust and decay in Perth Amboy and think it to be a beautiful thing. I’m sure Nick Drake would have thought this way. The surrounding sadness is kind of exquisite and as you gaze about you still see people doing a pretty good job of holding their heads up high and living yet another day. So these are people you can easily like and I do. This city is just one more place where the notion of ‘hope’ never arrived in town on a freight train because there are none anymore. There’s very little heavy industry now and I’m sure there’s never enough food stamps. So what are you going to do? You can’t really bail a place like this out beyond a certain point because it has to find the bottom and then start again. These people are starting over each day and they kind of look proud to me. They will find a way out. That’s what people do. I have little faith in endless government programmes and I’m sorry about that. I’d rather people made something again.

But, I put up posters. And I always sing as I go and I think about words and poetry. I see people smiling when they read the posters. That makes it for me. On this day, before I finished and went to Ray’s Hell Burgers, I was thinking about the Tom Waits song ‘Jersey Girl’ as sung by Bruce Springsteen. Because as you’re looking at all this stuff in America and at all the rust and decay, you need to have poetry and a firm rhythm in your head. You could get really angry, but everyone seems to do that and I’m not sure what difference it makes. I’m not sure anger really builds anything anymore; it just seems to be more of a fad to me.

In America (or New Zealand) you can’t afford to have your thoughts and emotions thrown off track by either the news media or politicians. One woman, standing for Governor of California, is spending 140 million US dollars on her campaign. She obviously wants it real bad. That’s where heavy industry and all the action is these days, in politics. You just have to have a good profile picture and a few keywords. I remember they once asked Willie Sutton (famous bank robber) why he robbed banks, and his answer, which was priceless, was “that’s where the money is.” Politics is the new heavy industry and if the politicians were any good, then they’d actually be poets instead. So I’m sure, at the most basic level, it is words and music that get people by, whether in Timaru New Zealand or down by the Jersey Shore. Because people are subject to so much rubbish in spite of how clean the streets are kept.

I think the lyrics to the Tom Wait’s song ‘Jersey Girl’ are a testament to hope in difficult times. The elections (for Congress and Senate) are to be held in America this week. I really don’t think much will change other than a different group of politicians will be doing all the talking. And in a couple of years, some other group of people will be calling for ‘change.’ It will go on because that’s where the money is. It’s heavy industry. At some stage, a bulldozer became an election sign.

“I got no time for the corner boys
Down in the street making all that noise
Or the girls out on the avenue
’cause tonight I wanna be with you
Tonight I’m going to take that ride
Across the river to the jersey side
Take my baby to the carnival
And I’ll take her on all the rides.

‘Cause down by the shore everything’s all right
You and your baby on a Saturday night
You know all my dreams come true
When I’m walking down the street with you.

Sha la la la la la la….”

“Jersey Girl” by Tom Waits


Keep the Faith,

Jim Wilson