{ Voices in the Wilderness }
Abby Rowland

godzilla & ben - the new yinzerShe flicks her hand. Stephanie Schaudel shows a picture of the lifeless, eight month old's body is flashed onto the wall—its tiny frame translucent and ghastly against the white cement blocks.
   Another flash. This time, there's a black-and-white photo of a Muslim woman climbing through a gaping hole in her brick home. The hole has jagged edges like a giant scab, ripped open. The woman appears slightly stunned, as though she accidentally let a glass slip through her fingers. She doesn't look victimized, but she is. A poorly aimed U.S. missile tore through her brick wall and invaded her living room.
   "Call your Congressmen," Schaudel says, "Lots of us have called, and they've even told us that everyone who's calling is against this shit. And they've still passed it."
   "It" being a blank check Congress passed which allows the President to declare war on Iraq. Congress's decision dealt a monstrous blow to Voices in the Wilderness—a political group composed of thousands of Americans, one of whom is Schaudel. Members have been visiting Iraq since 1996 in an attempt to end the economic sanctions. With the new war, their work in Baghdad has gotten a lot more important.
   "It's time to step up our efforts!" Schaudel shouts. Her curly hair seeps up the sweat dripping down her reddening face. Her slight frame is huffing and puffing to blow the entire house down. She screams, "Let's show them how much noise we can make!"
   Here in the audience at the Mr. Roboto Project, we all clap. It's automatic; it's almost impossible not to.
   The Mr. Roboto Project is tucked deep in the kind of place that my parents warned me about. Beer cans decorate the concrete below our feet; gang graffiti mocks the words Please Pick Up, Borough Of Wilkinsburg, painted on garbage cans that line the sidewalk. Men leer and ask for change, their liquored breaths acting as a silent threat daring us to pass them by or prove our generosity.
   It's quiet. The neighboring twenty-four hour cleaner has closed, its windows held together by duct tape. I admonish myself for being uncomfortable—for not having tossed back a few shots of Absolut before I left home.
   See, two hundred and sixty punk, hardcore, metal, or otherwise alternative shows were held here last year, and no one owns the place. No one, that is, but many. The Mr. Roboto Project is one of only a dozen or so collectively run music venues in the nation; and last year, it was by far the busiest. Twenty-five bucks for a membership. Rent whenever, for whatever, just as long as everyone's welcome and fifty dollars is tossed in for the lease. Tonight, however, is a benefit for Voices in the Wilderness. It's quiet, it's dark, it's unfamiliar; the wilderness seems to be right here on Wood Street.
   Q (for quixotic, or maybe pool cue?) leans his thin body forward as we step inside. His wiry face is framed by thick glasses, and there's a barrage of black-and-white anti-IMF fliers behind him: THE PEOPLE'S STRIKE: GET TO D.C.! He stretches out his hand while remaining focused on the black man who just walked in the room without paying. I ignore him and think, Oh, shit, is there a secret handshake? I stand silent, like a girl called upon in class while doodling flowers in a cheap notebook.
   "This is a five-dollar/four-dollar show, right, man?" my friend asks. Thank god he knows what Q wants.
   "Uh huh."
   I hand him a five. Q, one of Roboto's co-founders, nonchalantly grabs my hand as I try to pull away. He scribbles a teepee in red sharpie on my sunless skin. My friend hands him an old plastic baggie sagging with four dollars in dimes and nickels. At the sight of our money, the black man who didn't pay stumbles three steps back; his jaw hangs like a skinned tree branch about to snap. He finally realizes that this show is not a free one.
   "Oh, man, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't know." He lowers his head, which is covered in a camouflage bandana that shields most of his eyes along with his head. "I'll leave man, I didn't know." He turns and slithers past the faux wood table blocking his exit. I sidestep to give him room.
   "No, man, that's cool. Stay."
   "Oh, no, I couldn't do that, man." He turns back again, facing Q; his expression flickers something like hope. This black man isn't the kind of person who strangers ask to stay.
   "No, really. Stay. You're welcome here."
   We walk in and I pick the blue bench on the side of the wall; the only real seat in the house. The air hangs smokeless but rich; chilled and smooth like good vodka. A muddy green mural hangs from the wall: "For those hard at work or hardly working, A kind of documentary. Finished Winter '01." In the center, a black-and-white picture of a woman hangs from the wall. She clutches a knife and holds the pointy end in the air, debating whether to kill herself or the onlookers.
   Q slides behind the drum set, facing the audience. I count fifty or so, not bad for a venue that holds 200, max. College kids I recognize from class huddle in a corner—a sea of Abercrombie corduroy. Others are here who I know to be homeless. They're college age. They're stiff and stretched on the floor like stale baguettes on a forgotten bakery window. A pair of older men who look like professors or journalists—or both, maybe—hang in the back like they're watching their children at a soccer match. A young man stands in front of them who is more skeleton than flesh.
   Q speaks. "We're HTML¹. Thanks for coming to the show, the benefit for Voices in the Wilderness." The professor/writer men in the back cheer. "We're so sick of the 9/11 crap," Q taps his drums as he yells. More cheers. "I'm so sick of people using my name to stop someone across the world from doing the same thing I'm doing."
   The band erupts. A bullet-riddled skull that guarded the bass drum clatters and dances to the vibrations. The rest of the band plays with their backs to the audience, random hands rubbing their bodies and adjusting their microphones. I stand on a bench, eye-level with a silver spray-painted robot with a mischievous grin. Everyone salutes the band, the men in the back and the students and the homeless dudes and the man in camouflage who stayed. They're now one monstrous huddled mass.
   The guitarist, a third grade teacher, rips into the microphone: "This is about recognizing those idiosyncrasies, those hypocrisies that go on in our daily life. Recognizing it ... realizing that it doesn't make you a failure." They play on.
   They stop mid-song. Jumping to face each other, their faces slowly twist from confusion to panic to the verge of blame.
   "Is it broken?"
   "Oh, fuck." If they realized they're speaking into the mic, they don't care.
   "Did you break something, dude?"
   "It's broken?" The three of them huddle over the guitar.
   "Oh fuck."
   "That's why it sounds so fucked up. It's broken."
   The huddled mass moans, more commiserating than complaining. The guitarist raises his head and faces the crowd like a surgeon asking a nurse for help. "God, you guys, are we a mess or what? Have I just been a mess?"
   "Yes, you're a mess," shouts back the skeletal boy. "Keep playing. We're all just a beautiful, beautiful mess."

For more information on Voices in the Wilderness visit nonviolence.org/vitw. For more on the Mr. Roboto Project visit therobotoproject.org.


¹According to the quarter-page flyer, it's an acronym for He Taught Me Lies, not Hyper Text Markup Language. (back to text)

back home.