In mid July 1988 I did something I hadn't done in awhile and have not done since, I took three weeks off work. I took my beautiful model wife Jennifer deep woods camping in Yellowstone National Park. When I finally do get a moment away, I either live amongst the trees or swim with beautiful fishes in warm waters. Jennifer, a label queen of the first order, wore Chanel boots and a black Azzedine Alaia dress on our first day in. By day three she was all serious camping gear, and hanging food from trees to keep the bears off. A week in she was teaching wayward city folk on how to do everything. We ate fish we had caught, counted a billion stars one by one, and saw the world as it was before there were clubs, cities, and pavement to move between them. We got through the velvet ropes manned by the forest rangers of the valley at Yellowstone, traveled miles on footpaths and back thousands of years in time. We partied with grizzlies and elk and moose and beaver, and the world we knew before seemed even a bigger lie than ever.
When we emerged from the woods ten days later, the small forest fires our ranger friends were battling with firefighters from all over the world, had gone out of control. Exhausted men sooted up like coal miners rested on the sides of the road, while mountains of smoke obscured the once blue skies. Swaths of forests the size of cities were burning this most beautiful place, and it won’t be back again during our lifetime. We were on our way to Yosemite National Park, and we drove through Yellowstone with flames all around. It was a riot of fire, smoke, terrified animals, and courageous, tired men. They stopped our car at a roadblock and told us we needed to drive quickly through and not to stop. We drove down a road with fire on both sides and desperate men with axes and shovels and little else trying to use the road as a fire break, a chance to stop it. I’ve been to Yellowstone ten times since, and I drive through miles of eighty foot trees that were burnt out those many years ago. I’m going back in September and will tell my third lifelong mate what it was like back in the day.
We emerged from the flaming paradise and took a scenic route of campsites and river sides, marveled how grand the Grand Canyon is, and visited dozens of other beyond describable places. We got within striking distance of Yosemite as it got dark. Tired, dirty, and desperately wanting to sleep in a bed of foam instead of a bed of leaves, me and my honey checked into a really nice hotel somewhere in paved America. They gave us our keys and a tub of popcorn to eat with a "large selection of first run movies". I looked at the blonde, white toothed counter girl like those firefighters must have looked at me. My gal claimed dibs on the shower. I looked at my blue eyes bulging out of my dirt covered face in the mirror and remembered those men fighting flames back in the forest. I then sat on the bed, turned on the TV, and ate popcorn. I went to CNN to see if the world was still there. It was August 8th 1988, and the TV showed my friend, mentor and club colleague Rudolf with blood streaming down his face. I screamed, ‘HONEY COME HERE QUICK’ and she did; that first wife was dutiful. We watched a not so quiet riot and many familiar faces battling with police in riot gear. ‘I go away for a week and you see what happens,’ I badly quipped. It seems that somebody had decided to evict the bums, hobos, miscreants, homeless and such that lived in tents not unlike the one I had been living in for the last couple of weeks. The newly imposed 1am curfew on the Tompkins Square Park campgrounds was being enforced by non forest ranger types in blue. The irony was not lost on me as I sat in the quiet of the corporate chain hotel, in filthy clothes with a tub of popcorn on my lap.
A movie about these events will be shown for the second time at 8pm on August 5th. Paul Sevigny, my pal and Beatrice mogul will have his A.R.E. Weapons performing, and all the gang will be there. The riots of the summer of 1988 were the result of overzealous police commanders, who were subsequently punished for their misconduct. The years have seen an annual event celebrating the anniversary at the parks band shell, lest we forget. Clayton Patterson, an international man of mystery and guru of love and fairplay, has put together this wondrous film. The last time they showed it on a L.E.S. rooftop they expected 300 people; 1700 managed to get in and hundreds had to be turned away. So if first you do succeed, definitely try again. I don’t have room to tell you all about Clayton, Billy from Billy’s, the riot and the aftermath; so my editorial team will link you up if you want to know more. Oh, they gave this column a shout out on the flyer for the help I gave them, a mere introduction to the good folks at Webster Hall who are hosting the screening. Yes I will write about your stuff for shameless plugs, inside info, or even a nice tub of popcorn.
Editor's Note: Clayton Patterson wrote to Steve about the importance of documenting a community and a glimpse into his arrest. The letter follows:
There is more than one kind of street photography, and they should all have rights. There is a difference between press and history. Press is about immediacy, history is the long term over view. I do both, as well as a community service; and the photographs have been useful in many ways to many people.
I along with Elsa Rensaa, have amassed the largest archives of photographs ever taken by a single individual of the L.E.S. The photos have changed history and added to it. The archives are wide ranging; as diverse as the community. They are an unrecognized national treasure.
Then there are the books. The next book, which may be three books, is probably the largest peoples’ history ever published on the L.E.S. The series is growing as a substantial historical set of documents - a People's History. Then there is the movie Capture, a documentary about the archives by Ben. vs. Dan Blowback Productions.
What are our rights to document a community? The community has to be involved in its own protection. This has to be an absolute right, different from Marshall Law. Photographing a community is also a defensive action. It creates a memory, which has many uses. The usage of the photograph is not always determined at the time of exposure. If the community cannot be a watchdog of itself, then why not?
On this day there was no danger. NO police Line. No Frozen Zone - no definable line of DO NOT CROSS. He wanted people to be walking, although I was not in anyone’s way. There was no emergency. Kids and infants were on the block, there was no danger; it was about an arbitrary abuse of power. Like the father says over there - PERIOD. This area of the law needs definition, but do we really need more laws?
I often document the cleaning up to leave, and some of that kind of follow-up of fire department. See these shots as has having value thirty years from now. Everything will be different in the future and these will be period pieces. Not everything is about the emergency. Since I am there, I document the moment. And in some cases that is all it is - the moment. But it is that moment, and it has value in the future.