Star-Spangled Fugue

May 2, 2023

If we avoid landmines, we can be a perennial superbloom. We’ll feed on sunlight instead of death. 

The ground beneath us disintegrates into stardust: untethered from the maternal embrace of gravity, are we free?

Between twin bureaucratic bastions is the hotel I work at, a human golgi apparatus. Here I'm a barista, food runner, and server— Bukowski’s Factotum. I tend to herds migrating with seasons of college football. In our benthic workplace ecosystem, I am a detritivore, a creature between dust and sentience.

So I befriended the “temps”: non-contracted employees who use an app called “Instawork.” Some use the flexibility of gig apps to take trips, spend time with family, or pursue creative interests, while others choose to live as modern nomads, roaming herd-less about America’s blossoming gig economy. One of my favorite transient coworkers was an ex-journalist who worked over 100 different gigs across the states in a year, writing about the people and inner workings of kaleidoscopic industries.

“Have you read Kerouac’s On the Road? The one about 50s hitchhikers?” I asked, polishing wine glasses in a windowless room. “He’s my favorite author.”

“Girl, we read Kerouac in middle school. The ’80s were a different time,” he replied. Maybe that’s why our nation romanticizes the road, planting seeds in asphalt fissures.

The Beatniks, "angel-headed" creatives and wanderers, are not an obscure historical fact: their unhinged hitchhiking and backpacking adventures cracked the plastic conformity of the ’50s, igniting the hippie counter-cultural movement. Beatnik Jack Kerouac’s books explore the euphoria and fugue of American nomadism, entrancing our collective psyche with the dream of an eternal road trip. His semi-autobiographical Duluoz Legend, composed of works written over decades, shows a development of thought on nomadism, beyond the epileptic flashes of On the Road.

A stream-of-consciousness novel, On the Road narrates Kerouac’s first hitchhiking trips between New York City, San Francisco, and Mexico City. Its adventurousness collides head-on with the moral certainty of the newly hegemonic, post-war USA. Kerouac and his friends value experiences above material goods, scorning suburbia and its TVs. His muse, Dean Moriarty, exemplifies this: so in love with life that he’s a cheater and alcoholic.

Dharma Bums expands on the spiritual aspects introduced in On the Road, as Kerouac becomes a mountain-climbing Buddhist, a “religious wanderer”. In the midst of an urbanizing, technologically developing America, Kerouac finds humanity in nature and walking with his own two legs. This is no apolitical monkhood. His friend, Japhy, imbues Zen Buddhism with “anarchist ideas about how Americans don’t know how to live.” While hiking, they dream of setting up a self-reliant camp of their friends: inspiring the cascade of hippie communes. Dharma Bums shows how counterculture can strengthen itself through spirituality, which is difficult to police. Spirituality is a cytoskeleton for anarchist, nomadic community building.

In Desolation Angels, Kerouac’s summer alone on Desolation Peak erodes the spiritual optimism of Dharma Bums. “My life is a vast inconsequential epic,” he writes. A stranger steals his manuscripts while he sleeps in a Greyhound Bus. Confronted with the futility of existence, Kerouac finds comfort in his friends, “angels”. Kerouac’s existentialism shows the need for a social support network, especially with the ephemerality of a nomadic lifestyle. We need friends for mental well-being and counterculture. Together, the Beatniks screamed poetry into the void, their echoes shaking Puritan stalagmites. They turned angst into wonder, channeling disgust to destroy – or at least confront – homophobia, violence, and censorship, and to create a kinder world.

The tectonic plates are shifting. How can we adapt activism to match the hyperspeed evolution of industrial capitalism? The radical labor movement can take cues from Kerouac’s ever-changing ideas. Beat art subverts neoliberalism, prioritizing human experience over efficiency, raw, foraged fruit over microwave TV dinners.

The Beatniks wrote a Golden Gate Bridge across the Pacific, to Lahore, where my parents were born. Beatniks made an Americanized Eastern spirituality. Western hegemony – is our sooty aorta, pumping capitalist blood. The Beatniks’ vision combined the American dream of freedom and Buddhist compassion. They smoked hashish, sat on floor pillows, used lotas, and lived in timeless “island time”— like my people. They loved their nation and wanted to nurse it back to health, even if that meant a heart transplant. Culture is our murky subconscious, where evil and good are born. To alter reality, we need to confront our deepest values, like the Beatniks did.

At the same time, Beatniks cannot be separated from their context: the economic prosperity of the 50s allowed them to find jobs in any city, and coast on savings while traveling. Now, the cost of surviving is brutally rising, while our wages are stagnant. Financial stability is a ghost. Also, Kerouac was able to fund his free-spirited lifestyle partially because of his mom, who worked in a shoe factory and sent him money. The generational wealth of white Americans grants them more economic flexibility, i.e. freedom.

Though the Beatniks were inspired by African-American jazz, Peyote, and Eastern spirituality, they did not embrace people of color and women in their social circles. This dissonance was a deadly parasite that tore them apart from the inside. For Beatniks’ American-Eastern values to permeate our ethos, we need to dismantle white supremacy. We must make space for minorities’ voices in social movements. We’re an alien colony with houses built on stolen land. By not making permanent settlements, American nomadism can challenge settler-colonialism, but it must center Indigenous peoples.

Beatnik values were popularized in 60s and 70s counterculture. But mortality is pernicious: the Baby boomers grew up, settled down, and sacrificed their youthful ideals for oily money and stability. The inchoate neoliberalism the Beatniks once fought became entrenched.

The digital gig economy offers a solution to these problems, making nomadism accessible. The apps are free to use and available to anyone with the internet and a phone. Instawork allows planning ahead of time, as workers can book shifts up to about a month beforehand. CouchSurfing, Workaway, and WWOOF allow workers to find free accommodations or a seasonal gig in advance. This gives more reliability than traditional gig work, adapted to our current stormy economy. One of my coworker’s friends uses Instawork to live a van life while supporting his family. We have the internet: now Dean Moriarty does not need to be domesticated. His children can attend online school. More importantly, women are able to be more nomadic now, as they often have to be more responsible for children and family issues than men. Problems of childcare and safety persist, showing again the need for a support system among nomads.

The digital gig economy shows that the internet can change our lifestyles. However, the internet is morphing into its own abstract world. This is a threat to revolution. Even online leftist spaces sometimes warp into hyperreality. Still, fearing technology is more regressive than revolutionary. Beatnik values can help reconcile this – sensation and spontaneity allow us to use technology to connect to the world around us, rather than dozing off into cyberspace.

Gig work offers hope, but could be co-opted by capitalist forces if we are not class conscious. Many of the Instaworkers and Uber drivers I talk to view their jobs as “freeing”, and themselves as isolated outsiders:

“I love having the freedom to make my own schedule,” they say in the submarine glow of employee’s only tunnels. “Working 14 days in a row to have a week-long break is worth it.”

If we want more agency than a virus relying on its host, we need to rethink these liberal notions of freedom and individualism. Beatniks offer an alternative, community-based framework. The Internet provides a petri dish for “gig” work to form a culture, especially post-pandemic. News reporters prophesy that AI will fester its growth in its exodus of traditional jobs. The labor movement should include nomads as a new socioeconomic class.

Syndicalist organizations have a history of limiting their efforts to factories with many workers, the “industrial proletariat”. Karl Marx envisioned “improved means of communication that are created by modern industry,” liberating workers. Now, most people work in the service sector, and more people are working gigs, so this seems myopic.

Growing our vision is possible. Though their workplaces are delocalized, Black domestic workers and sharecroppers unionized on their own, through their strong community, as Angela Davis discusses in “Women, Race, and Class.” The Starbucks union is revitalizing the labor movement now, which I wholeheartedly support as an ex-Starbucks worker. The organizers used the internet to climb over labyrinth walls of communication barriers. We should extend this energy to gig work.

Gig workers are a growing class who hold the hope for revolution. Nomads can change the structure of our class system. Our collective consciousness has already absorbed Kerouac’s “road”: there’s so much to explore, if we are humanist and thoughtful, rather than detached and individualistic. We need social and labor movements to be dynamic — a resilient biofilm. Beatniks, proto-hippies, embody the freeing nomadism that gig work could enable. If we avoid landmines, we can be a perennial superbloom, feeding on sunlight instead of death.

“Safiyya! You need to learn how to lucid dream before I leave! This is what I teach everyone,” said my ex-journalist coworker on the last day I saw him.

Pen your dreams before they evaporate in the sun. Repeat seven times. Then write, “I want to control my dream.”

“If you could lucid dream every night, imagine how powerful you would feel waking up.”

We dream of Howl’s “sea-journey on the highway across America” towards freedom. And we will wake to a luminous Daydream Nation. ■

Layout: Colin Cantwell
Photographer: Annahita Escher
Stylists: Julia Garrett, Joanne Kim & Maryam Khan
HMUA: Angelynn Rivera & Jaycee Jamison
Models: Ava Barret, Tasmuna Omar & Remy Tran

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