Past the Bouncers
Before John Ross died this January, he asked his family and friends to do the following with his ashes:
Scatter them along the #14 bus route in San Francisco’s Mission District, where Ross lived on and off for much of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
Sprinkle them in the ashtrays in front of the Hotel Isabel in downtown Mexico City, Ross’s home base from 1985 to 2010.
Mix them with marijuana and have them rolled into a spliff to be smoked at his funeral.
A certain half-baked logic ran through much of Ross’s life and writing. For a few years during the Carter era, as he recounts in his (mostly true) memoir Murdered by Capitalism, he spent his afternoons drinking Gallo wine and smoking pot and PCP in the Trinidad cemetery in Humboldt County, California. It was there that he met the ghost of Edward B. Schnaubelt. An immigrant, lumberjack, and anarchist who was shot dead by a neighbor in a dispute over land in 1913, Schnaubelt became Ross’s drinking buddy (in the book, he comes to life after Ross spills wine on his grave) and is his perfect foil: for 300 pages, the duo trade booze and blurry memories of Emma Goldman, the Weathermen, and the Zapatistas, sprawled out in the shadow of a tombstone that reads, “e.b. schnaubelt, born 1855 died 1913, murdered by capitalism.” The symbolism of the setting—a graveyard of American radicalism—is as heavy-handed as the truncheon wallops both men boast of receiving. But the epitaph serves as a crafty synecdoche for the failed history of the Old and New Left that Ross and Schnaubelt tell together, and the memoir is a winning account of myriad lost causes.
Like other American foreign correspondents reporting on rebellion before him—Reed writing on Pancho Villa during the 1910 Mexican Revolution, Carleton Beals in his dispatches on Augusto Sandino, Vincent Sheen on Abd el-Krim in the Moroccan Riff in the 1920s, Edgar Snow reporting on Mao Zedong in the 1930s, Herbert Matthews’s jungle interviews with Fidel Castro in the 1950s—Ross found respect and salvation, and his identity as a writer, in his relationship to the revolutionary movement he promoted. “John lived out his dreams in Mexico,” said Alma Guillermoprieto, who relied extensively on Rebellion from the Roots for an early essay on the Zapatistas published in the New York Review of Books and who knew Ross from the time she spent reporting in Chiapas. “He lived out his fantasies there, too.” When one day a mysterious fax showed up at the office of Ross’s editor at Nation Books, it confirmed how compelling the idea of Ross’s life was to post-’68 leftists. “[Ross’s writing] is a ripsnorting and honorable account of an outlaw tradition in American politics,” read the fax. The sender was Thomas Pynchon and he wanted to support Ross, whom he’d never met, with a blurb for Murdered by Capitalism. Stories like Ross’s, Pynchon wrote, “seldom get . . . past the bouncers at the gateways of our national narrative.”