All About the gonifs CD: S’iz shoyn farfalen

This is another song I learned from Meyshke Alpert. It’s about going away to jail…a favorite theme for the gonifs. When the band formed back in the 1990’s, as the house band for pirate radio station Radio Libre, we regularly pulled capers that could have put us all away for quite a while. But we were white, & privileged, & educated; I especially was old enough that when I put on earrings & my job-hunting coat & scraped my wild hair back into a ponytail I could pass for a middle-class middle-aged lady (the disguise I am so desperate now to escape, twenty years later!).

Meyshke kindly wrote out the words for me. Roughly translated:

It’s all over,
my youth is over.
The moon & the stars, they’ve gone dark for me.
Oy, good brothers,
I’ll say farewell to you now.
They’re taking me away from you, brothers
& all I can say is,
be well.
Oy, shackled,
they’ve shackled me with a rope.
They’re taking me away to prison,
& they’ll never let me go again.

Radio Libre headquarters consisted of a mixer, a stereo, & two mics set up in the laundry room of a ramshackle Victorian on Balmy Alley. There was a radio transmitter on the back porch, among the plastic buckets of compost created by the Food Not Bombs crew that cooked there once a week. The transmitter was wired by Stephen Dunifer, the pirate radio pioneer who made microradio possible for folks all over the world. You could tune the station in all over the Mission District of San Francisco, & sometimes further.

Jimbo Trout, the banjo player who let me sit in with his band when I could barely find three chords on the accordion, brought me over there & taught me how to run the mixer. Radio Libre set me up with a 10pm slot when I played old jazz, blues, & folk music & sometimes read aloud from favorite books like Sheeper or Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black. I never knew if anybody was listening or not.

But one night, quite late, I was sitting on the laundry room floor with Peter, the gonifs clarinetist, playing Jellyroll Morton in the background & mumbling into the mics.

Peter [speaking into microphone]: Is anybody out there listening?
Me: I doubt it. [pause.] Maybe the FBI.
Peter: Is that true? FBI operatives, if you’re out there monitoring us, don’t be standoffish. Don’t be shy.
Me: Don’t be strangers. Come on, give us a call.
Peter: You know the number, but here it is again…[Phone rings.]

We stare at each other for a moment, petrified.

Peter: Aren’t you going to answer it?
Me: You answer it!
Peter: I’m not gonna answer it! [He answers it.]

It turned out to be one of the Food Not Bombs cooks, Brian, calling in for a laugh. But the amazing thing was, he was all the way out at Ocean Beach, miles away, & he said we were coming in loud & clear.

Last time I saw Brian, a few years ago, he came into the commune garden & showed me how to cut back lilies at the end of the season. I was just thinking of him the other day, as the lilies have finished flowering & it’s time to cut back their luxuriant nest of green leaves to bare pulpy white stubs that will grow again in spring.

Lily plants love to be sprinkled with ashes & because we had such a cold winter last year, necessitating many many fires in the wood stove, they bloomed beautifully this summer. I just got some free lily bulbs from craigslist, called crinum, that turn out to be medicinal. When I looked them up I read that ghosts won’t walk in gardens where lilies are planted. So if Brian has left the planet, I guess that means he will not be dropping in to haunt the garden & admire the crinum lilies. Too bad!

(Brian, if you’re reading this, get in touch. Thanks for the scare that night. That was a good one!)

I used to see Brian, & Jimbo, & the gonifs, & everybody else I knew, at marches & rallies to free Mumia Abu Jamal. I marched for justice, & solidarity, & freedom, & also to brush shoulders with the various activist idealists that I had crushes on. But gradually those people moved away, & Radio Libre got evicted, & various gonifs went back to college to study city planning, or became observant Jews & got married & had babies, or started getting paid to play music & didn’t have time to march for free anymore. The last time I marched (against the same old war) I didn’t see hardly anybody I knew. It was all new people…I guess that’s good, right? But I was lonely. I ended up marching with the Grandmothers for Peace. (I told them I was just a great-aunt, not a grandma, & they said that was fine.)

But thirty years later, Mumia Abu-Jamal is still imprisoned, & has been refused a re-trial, even though a key witness against him later recanted & said she’d been pressured by Philadelphia police into lying on the stand. Before his arrest, Mumia had written extensively about the MOVE bombing, in which Philadelphia law enforcement BOMBED A WHOLE CITY BLOCK to wipe out one vegan Black commune. (In San Francisco, they call that “Redevelopment.”) Unlike the mercenaries who change their tunes depending on who’s paying, Mumia has stuck with his story. It’s the true story of what it’s like to be assaulted by the state; a story that I only sing about, & haven’t had to live, so far.

The gonifs were free to dabble with lawbreaking, & dally with liberation, & then move on. We are comfortable enough with the world as it is; we can survive; & if somebody else’s suffering bothers us, we can look the other way. I remember walking through the Mission, on the way to the burrito place, arguing about armed revolution (our clarinetist was for it; I wasn’t sure) but for us it was a moot point, a philosphical question, a luxury.

Maybe real revolution won’t happen until all of us are so very uncomfortable that we cannot continue. Til then we have to be thankful to the lone holdouts like Mumia, & Stephen Dunifer, & Food Not Bombs, & the commune gardens, who keep cultivating freedom & kindness in whatever little corners they can find, confident that no matter how many times they get cut back & put down & bombed out & showered with ashes, somehow kindness will always manage to bloom again.

Meanwhile I will be grateful to the present lineup of the gonifs, who all agreed to donate their royalties to the Prisoners Literature Project.

The PLP is an all-volunteer project that sends free books to prisoners upon request. One pound of donated books costs $2.24 in postage. When you buy one gonifs CD, our record company, Porto Franco, gives $1 to the PLP. Or people can donate directly to the PLP through PayPal.

Sending a book to someone in jail is an excellent way to celebrate Hanukka Chanuka HanikeThe Festival of Lights!