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Reverend Billy Headshot

The Tombs from the Air

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Crunched shoulder to shoulder on a cold bench in the Tombs, with the courtroom hundreds of feet above us on the surface of Manhattan, up there beyond the reach of these hundreds of African-American and Hispanic men. Well, there was me, and then a couple guys who looked like elderly Keith Richards, but without the money to replace their blood.

The floor was covered with men in fetal positions, trying to ball up for warmth. I took my turn on the floor, hoping against all odds to make my white polyester suit into some kind of sleeping bag. I closed my eyes -- warming up on thoughts of Savi and Lena. Only charged with misdemeanor trespass -- I should have gotten signed out of Midtown North. I did the freezing 18 hours in the Tombs (went "into the system") on the request of the UBS bank security people. But maybe after our sermons and songs in their lobby, those guys knew now what mountaintop removal and fracking and tar sands are. That's what they are defending.

This time it was hard. I usually force myself into vivid movie-dreams. (I call it my "jail Zen.") Maybe it was the cold -- I couldn't do it this time. I usually have memories that I go to, and I remember carefully the details of old pine trees in from my grandparents' backyard, and then a cat will turn in the grasses and say something to me, and a dead friend will walk up smiling. And then I'm off to the races, having a movie to watch while my body is cramped in the cold.

I'm in a jet now two days later, flying west toward California where some young people have created a festival called "Think Before You Buy." There is a video screen inches from my face, in the back of the seat in front of me. Will I start a movie-dream there? If I did -- it would destroy my writing. That screen is dark now, but when I took my seat it featured an image of Santa Claus on it. He held a bottle of Coca Cola in the air, chugging its contents into his white bearded smile, under the phrase OPEN HAPPINESS. This was soon replaced by an automobile ad, the new Lincoln Towncar. The tag line for this gleaming item was MORE THAN JUST LUXURIOUS. ITS SMARTER THAN THAT. I spent some time wondering what this means.

The jet is essentially a consumer environment. We are dazzled with repetitive recordings and sky shopping and media, but are told to keep our seat-belts fastened. It is freezing cold here too, but in another way. We're frozen in recycled warmth. In the Tombs, the grandfathers and brothers could burst into laughter, a shouted story always flamboyantly unfolding. Here my transcendence and human contact is my letter to you.