Here is another chapter of Vox Pop stories.

Vox Pop, Sander, and Me — Chapter 2

Mid-sentence the photographer across the street entered my awareness. How long had he been standing there? Sunglasses, khaki jacket, muscular, bulky camera, snapping photos of me? Me and Holley, rather, chatting about our big plans.

The Vox Pop lease had been signed. It was September 2004 and I’d come down to Brooklyn for my third visit with Sander and Holley. We’d driven to Williamsburg to wander through cafes and discuss what we liked and where we’d innovate. Now, sitting on the bench outside a used-bookstore/café, Holley and I had been immersed in a detailed exploration of the business strategy.

When had the photographer taken up his post? Directly across the street, surely he’d been there for at least five minutes I now realized. I thought about my Eric Carle Museum logo t-shirt. Surely it wasn’t me he was following.

“Holley, how long has that guy been taking pictures of us?”

She laughed. “You just noticed him? Half an hour at least.”

Holley had been among tens of thousands of protestors the day before at the Republican National Convention. She’d been held overnight at a former chemical warehouse dubbed Guantanamo on the Hudson, along with hundreds of other anti-Iraq-war activists: elderly priests, children, pregnant women. Some had received chemical burns or touched asbestos or slept in oil patches on the concrete. “The craziest thing is we were following their route between plastic netting strips down the sidewalk when they wrapped the plastic around us all and took everyone away.” Holley gestured at the photographer, who was looking at us over the top of his camera. “They don’t even care if you know what they’re doing. Look at him. He just wants to intimidate us.”

For me, having driven in from Amherst with my wife and daughter for a fun day in New York filled with business planning and shopping, this experience was disorienting. The idea that hostility toward a protestor at the RNC would extend to assigning a cop to follow her around after her release from illegal overnight detention–nonsensical.

One of the first things that Holley’s boyfriend Sander Hicks and I had established during our email exchange eight months before was that we shared some rather unorthodox views of how the world worked and how it should be lived in. We both agreed with Gandhi that life should be a succession of experiments with truth: it was important to align your actions with your ideals. However, this might mean coming into conflict with people who seemed to be living by received wisdom or blind dogmatism. Although most people thought of Sander Hicks as a leftist, in fact he’d been vocal in opposition to any party line, and had even been voted out of the International Socialist Organization in 1997. Both Sander and I had been businessmen for years, and neither of us had much patience for knee-jerk anti-business attitudes among people active in social change movements. My own recourse was to remind my radical friends that Emma Goldman had once owned an ice-cream store, and William Godwin was a bookstore owner and publisher. The problem I saw wasn’t with marketplaces, but rather capital accumulation among particular market participants unrelated to the real purposes of that market, creating what Fernand Braudel called anti-markets. This was how monopoly power worked: one player used a chunk of capital to under-price all competitors, driving them out of business and raising prices once the field was clear.

Beyond our shared bias in favor of business as a form of social activism, Sander and I had a more specific point of agreement. We both felt the Bush presidency had been stolen at the voting booth in 2000, and we were worried about a repeat of that electoral theft, come November 2004. Vox Pop, founded during this election year, was designed in part as a politically-oriented investment opportunity attractive to anti-Bush activists by virtue of our business’s intent to express political ideas and foster debate.

Finally, Sander and I had discovered we shared a complete disbelief in the official narratives about the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On the morning of September 11, 2001, as I watched on TV as the towers fell, I concluded that like the Iran/Contra affair, this was a black ops action involving elements of the American power system. I felt that just as Ronald Reagan had not been informed of exactly what was being done in the 1980s, so the inexperienced George W. Bush surely had not himself been told about the attacks, but this was only to ensure his deniability, positioning him to state that he’d known nothing about it. The intent of the attacks was obvious: they’d be used as an excuse to launch wars wherever the Bush Administration and its handlers wished. In the ensuing chaos, resource prices would be raised, fortunes would be assembled, and another generation of American youth would be trained and indoctrinated in the science of imperial warfare, helping ensure the competent and lucrative perpetuation of the military/industrial state.

Holley took these ideas for granted too, as–by 2004–did many of our friends. Still, for me, being stalked by a cop brought home a reality she’d become accustomed to since arriving in New York with Sander a few months before. After all, Sander’s activism in the New York alternative media and the 9/11 Truth Movement had picked up right where he’d left it before moving to Taos where he and Holley had met; Holley’s street-based activism was happening in parallel with Sander’s journalistic approach. Hence her lack of surprise at being followed, post-release.

I really shouldn’t have been surprised either. I did know the kind of lives Sander and Holley were leading. When my wife and I had first visited them back in July, shortly after their arrival in Brooklyn, we’d found them living rent-free in a basement apartment of a building owned by the co-founder of the radical alternative news organization INN World Report, for which Sander was working as on-air reporter and fundraiser. INN’s studio in Chinatown was the address my wife and I had first arrived at that day, but being an hour late for our appointment we were sorry to find that Sander had already left. Still, a co-owner had shown us the studios and talked us through the INN project. Free-lancers around the world did first hand reporting and submitted via FTP to the INN servers in New York. The weekly hour-long broadcast, appearing on Free Speech TV’s satellite channel on Dish Network, had the format of an ordinary television newsmagazine. The kind of facts and tone of analysis however were decidedly unusual. Whether the subject was climate change, peak oil, clandestine CIA operations, political malfeasance, or insider trading, high-quality journalism was stating simple facts. This honesty was astonishing to watch as a telecast. It was like living in an alternate universe where TV told the truth.

We’d driven from the INN studio in Manhattan over to meet Sander and Holley for the first time in their apartment in Brooklyn, and then out to lunch, where my wife had asked Sander his motivation for launching a chain of politically-oriented cafes. Sander had surprised us by earnestly launching into a disquisition on the revolutionary presence of the truth of Christ in human history. For me the Gandhian approach to this motive was more familiar, but I did know of Gandhi’s study of Christ. Although afterwards my wife expressed bafflement, I had already had the chance to become comfortable with Sander’s heterodox Catholicism: it was directly out of Ivan Illich and Dorothy Day. In an email earlier in the year I’d asked him whether he was a Liberation Theologist of the kind that got excommunicated by the pope. He’d responded in a one-word email, “Yah!”

Under the police photographer’s watchful lens, in early September, I asked Holley about her own hopes for Vox Pop. She said, “Honestly, I’m just interested in launching this café. If we can open all the others, that’s great, but for me it’s about this community.”

They’d scouted Brooklyn’s neighborhoods and storefronts for two months. I’d talked them out of a location on the edge of Park Slope that I thought was too small to successfully host performances, but when they’d taken me to a rough-seeming neighborhood south of Prospect Park called Ditmas Park, and showed me a closed video store on a Cortelyou Road block with many boarded up storefronts but lots of Asian, African and Caribbean families filling the sidewalks, I was immediately impressed with the corner building’s setback from the curb. I asked the landlord, “Do you own this sidewalk frontage?”

He nodded. “All the way out to here.”

I got excited. “So, we could punch out from the window and build an enclosed awning for exterior seating?”

“Sure, if you want to pay for heating in winter–but what kind of business is this? I thought you were opening a–bookstore?”

Sander explained, “We’re the next generation of media. We speak truth to power.”

Holley clarified, “It’s a café, too.”

The landlord was concerned. “Any cooking is a problem. There’s no space for a kitchen.”

Holley continued, “No kitchen. I’ve managed cafes. We know what we’re doing.”

The landlord was gesturing around the space. “You could rent my storefront around the corner too. They connect through the back wall by the bathroom.”

Sander said, “The ceiling is high enough to build an office loft back there.”
I added, “You could have a children’s play area underneath. And, maybe put a stage in this window?”

Sander responded, “Stage goes in the corner.”

I asked, “Is there a basement?”

The landlord answered, “Basement’s included if you want. It’s not very high.”

So, he’d just offered us a downstairs office and warehouse. Having a full basement would provide space for Sander’s media operation, including the Instabook machine we’d signed a contract for in July. At $2500 per month, this twelve-hundred square foot storefront seemed a bargain.

The landlord was concerned about references and I went to my car and pulled out a notebook of press clippings, showing him the USA Today article from 1991 with color photo of me reading to kids in The Children’s Bookstore in Chicago. “I’ve been running this kind of place for twenty years. We know how to do this.”

Sander convinced his INN World Report friend to co-sign the lease and front the security deposit, and the storefront was ours. On a busy corner in the most diverse census tract in the United States we were ready to launch what Sander Hicks and I thought of as our demonstration store, designed to impress investors with the impact we could have on a target community.

Holley Anderson had more modest ambitions: she wanted this particular café to thrive. But Holley’s vision was to be subordinated to our more ambitious one, leading to ongoing disagreements.

As for me, my key personal goal was to ensure that my novel bookselling ideas were tried, despite the fact that I was living three hours away. So my September afternoon chat with Holley strayed in and out of bookselling theory. That is: I had realized she, not I, would be the one on the ground who’d be attempting to implement the café-bookstore strategy I’d championed for Vox Pop.

 

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