Q&A With Author/Activist Erick Lyle, at Books & Books Tonight and the Firefly Tomorrow
And he chronicled it all in his main zine, Scam, which he published nearly for free by using the old zinester's trick of scamming photocopies from big-box office supply stores. After a move to San Francisco a few years ago, Lyle continued his involvement in squatting and community activism, chronicling it all through more zines and street newspapers. It's from these that he's gleaned the moving essays, oral histories, and urban sociological narratives of his nonfiction tome, On the Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City (Soft Skull Press).
New Times spoke with Lyle by phone recently about the book, his punk rock past in South Florida, and the readings he'll be giving this week, tonight at Books & Books, and tomorrow night at the Firefly. Get all the info about the appearances, and read the full Q&A after the jump.
-- Arielle Castillo
Erick Lyle also reads with Cristy Road, Thursday, December 18, the Firefly, 219 NE 20th St., Miami. Event begins at 7 p.m.; admission is free but donations are welcome. www.thefirefly.info
New Times: I always mentally associated you and Scam zine with Miami proper, but in the book you mention growing up in one of the endless suburbs of Ft. Lauderdale. So which one was it?
Erick Lyle: I'm actually from Boca Raton; I grew up about a block away from FAU. I went to Boca High. I was from Boca by the railroad tracks side; it was kind of more like an old town, it seemed, when I was a kid, and then it was sort of becoming this massive suburb spreading into the Everglades. Marilyn Manson actually went to Spanish River [High School, in Boca Raton], but I went to Boca High.
And when did you first start writing Scam?
The first issue came out on July 6, 1991 at a show where this band Silt from Berkeley played in Miami Beach. It was at a place called the Junkyard, down at the bottom of the island.
Wow, any kind of punk rock space at the bottom of South Beach is ... very hard to imagine. What was it like?
It was kind of like a scummy little warehouse, and it was the last thing of its kind in Miami Beach, for sure. Me and a group of folks that I was friends with did shows there, through part of 1990 and 1991.
But Scam really started when I was living in Ft. Lauderdale. I was kicked out of my parents' house in Boca for good when I was 17, due to sort of an abusive situation with my stepfather, then I moved to Fort Lauderdale to a house that became known as the Fort Lauderdale Punk House. It was just off Broward Boulevard, a couple blocks from the police station.
The zine came about as a way to document - we were really into basically living for free any way we could. We were into dumpster diving, and scamming in various ways, and we were into doing graffiti, and we were into making anti-Gulf-War flyers, and wheatpasting them around town. We were doing things like getting food and feeding old dumpstered pizzas, reheated, to homeless guys in front of the library in Fort Lauderdale. Those were our youthful and not-quite-well-thought -out political intentions. The zine came about as a way to document this sort of lifestyle.
The first issue of Scam was free, because I believed very strongly that things should be free, and if you could make them for free, then you should give them away or trade. I would spend a lot of time figuring out how to get to some Office Depot in Plantation or something so I could scam all these photocopies, then I would go to a show and pass out all these zines.
I decided to charge for it later when I realized that people didn't value things that were given away for free. I would give away maybe like 20 zines at a show, and find like seven of them all messed up in the parking lot at the end of the night. I figured I might as well charge, like, a buck or something.
How and when did you get your old pseudonym, Iggy Scam?
That was something from my freshman year of high school. A kid named Toad started calling me Iggy, and it stuck. Scam of course came from having a zine called Scam. Then a couple years ago I decided I felt really, like, kind of tired of the name. It had become sort of a character or something that I was playing, a role, that was kind of restricting in a certain way.
I was expected to be this, like, drunk, shoplifting, scamming superhero or something, that hopped a train everywhere I went. And I thought it was really silly, so I decided it would be more radical to reject that, and try to live my life as freely as I wanted to in another direction.
When and why did you finally leave South Florida?
That's interesting, because when I left South Florida, things were going really well, and I really, really loved Miami. It wasn't about dissatisfaction. I had been squatting in a 13-story abandoned hotel in Coconut Grove called the Mutiny, that was about 1993. The Mutiny has a real fascinating history, that whole cocaine era.
I was in there for about a year, but I was never kicked out. At the most there were like four or five of us. My best friend Ivy lived there like me, and other members of Chickenhead, the band I was in, and members of the band Los Canadians. Los Canadians played acoustic guitar and wrote a lot of songs in the squat at the Mutiny.
But we were never kicked out - I imagine we could have continued to live there for a little bit longer. I know that historically, there had been different street kids and homeless people who had crashed out in the Mutiny, but we actually sort of put a lock on our floor and brought in furniture and tried to make it more of a living situation, which is something that other people weren't doing. We were cooking meals and had beds and stuff like that.
So at the time I left, I thought things were really perfect, and I decided it was just time to do something else. I had a squat with a balcony that looked across the bay, and it seemed like time to get out and see the rest of the country a little bit. I went out on tour that summer with Chickenhead, and our tour ended in the Bay Area, and I was kind of hanging around out here and met a lot of folks.
I always sort of looked down on people who moved away to the Bay Area, because being from Miami, where we struggled a lot to have punk rock, I always thought people who moved to the Bay Area were giving up because things were easier there. But when I got there I just fell in love with it; I felt like I was really adopted into the scene, and I just ended up staying out here for a while.
I did come back to Miami and lived in Miami again through most of '95 and '96, and part of '97. In 1995 and 1996 we were living in an abandoned house oat in the anchorage in Coconut Grove - I heard a couple months back everyone got kicked out of there. Scam #3 came out in 1997, and I was hopping trains around the country and getting the zine out in different cities, and Ivy ended up out in the Bay Area. I always thought I would come out to San Francisco one day, and when I first came out here, I didn't feel like I had my shit together to live out here. It seemed too intimidating. At the end of '97 I ended up coming back out here for good.
And it's around this time that your book picks up. It seems like most of the pieces come from Scam, or your street newspaper The Turd-Filled Donut, or other publications. But it still all forms a narrative, in a way. How did you decide to organize the book this way?
Instead of making a zine anthology, where I just put everything out, which is pretty common, I decided that I wanted to try to tell a specific story about the recent history of San Francisco, which is sort of also a history of cities in general in the United States. I wanted to tell this history from the bottom-up perspective. Like, what was the economic boom of the Nineties like for those who lived in Skid Row, or were in welfare hotels, or on food stamps?
And then I wanted to carry that further into what was it like, also, for life during wartime, in the new era of war on terror. What did that feel like for those of us who were poor, or closer to the bottom of society in certain ways? So I decided that I wanted to specifically focus on the activism that I had been involved in with a large group of people here in San Francisco - because I thought we did a lot of innovative stuff - and get that feel of the layers of history of that time and tell a different story for the ages of what this time period actually felt like.
How much, if any, was new writing specifically for the book?
Well, there are two ways I could have done this. I could have written everything new, and had kind of a memoir of ths time and gone back and done a lot of analysis of what different activism ideas worked and didn't work, or something. But the way I chose to tell the story was the primary documents. The reader would kind of have more room to use their imagination in a certain way to put the story together. It was almost like making fiction out of nonfiction.
But there are certain characters that reappear throughout, and you can kind of see them in different stages of life and fill in the gaps where things have gone, without me having to explicitly tell you. The last piece in the book was the only thing that was written new, because I wanted to include that story of us playing in City Hall. I wrote that a couple months ago in February or something.
So you were waiting to write a sort of conclusion?
Yeah. I felt like I was editing towards that point.
Your two readings here in Miami are at Books & Books and at the Firefly, which are about as opposite you can get. Books & Books is vital and needed, but it is very effete and liberal of course. And then at a place like the Firefly, that caters to a really specific culture. And in the book, you write a lot about sort of subculture-based activism, and wonder about how much of it really reaches the community at large. How are you sort of dealing with these conflicting issues while on your book tour, and do you change your approach at all based on the venue in which you are appearing? Sorry, this isn't the clearest question....
There's a couple different ways to answer that. For one thing, there's rarely any one or two places in any city where you['re going to reach a real large number of people, know what I mean? And the publishing world is in such sad shape that there are so few venues. That's a built-in problem, not an excuse. And also I'm not so familiar with Miami these days, so I just sort of ask around, and this is what people tell me to do.
Just today I sent a book to Max Rameau, from Take Back the Land, in an attempt to let him know what I'm going and that I'm a squatter. So I wrote to him and said, Hey, I'm gonna talk about squatting. Maybe we can get teamed up in some way or something. There are ways to reach out.
But as far as the difference between the two places, honestly, I don't know what to expect in either one. I'm intending to just go and be myself, and try to represent my ideas, and I can't really do anything more than that.
I believe in the ideas in the book, and I feel that the idea of housing being a right and not a privilege, and the idea that abandoned buildings in downtown San Francisco could be better used for art or community spaces -- I believe that these are pretty common-sense ideas that people at Books & Books, or people at a punk rock space, can all sort of get behind.
I think a lot of the politics in the book may seem kind of radical in one way, but in another seem like common sense. If your intent is to try to take me to task for not reaching out more to the local community there, well, that would be valid. I could, theoretically, if I had done more research sooner, I might have been able to link up with the Take Back the Land folks. But not that they necessarily want me to be involved, either.
After you finish all the publicity stuff for this book, what else are you currently working on?
I'm working on some short stories that are fiction. I'm working on another book for Soft Skull that is ostensibly about things that are written on the sidewalk cement in San Francisco, but is kind of about urban space and walking and reading and loft history. I'm doing a long research project about the Diggers of San Francisco, a radical Sixties group of hippie activists that ran free stores and gave away a lot of free food and were giving away everything for free. That's for a friend's magazine here in town.