Barry Smith an ‘American Squatter’
CARBONDALE Barry Smith tends to the extremes, and in certain instances, it’s difficult to pin down the source of this extreme behavior. For 10 years, Smith was a vegetarian; currently, his favorite restaurant is local barbecue joint the Hickory House – and no, it’s not for the coleslaw and veggie burgers. For most of his 41 years, the Aspenite has been notably thin. His nickname as a kid was “Skip,” because his family said he looked like he skipped most of his meals. Then Smith spied on a bookshelf the title “Body For Life,” and zealously adapted author Bill Phillips’ prescription of weightlifting oneself to maximum health. The book is subtitled “12 Weeks to Mental and Physical Strength,” although Smith, in typically extreme mode, has been at it for three years. The result is his present Adonis-like physique.And there is Smith’s habit of documenting as much of his existence as possible, and saving as many of the photos, videos and memorabilia as will fit in his living space. “I’ve always been fascinated with self-documentation,” he said, over tea and bran muffins, freshly baked by his seemingly far-less-obsessive wife, Christina, at the couple’s cozy West End home. “I guess I was always aware that each moment was unique – even the mundane ones. So I was always snapping pictures, rolling video, making bad sketches, or gluing scraps of paper in my journal.”Unlike the food and bodybuilding practices, the documentation habit has obvious, not to mention traumatic, roots.”I think if I were really to trace this back, I remember coming home from first grade one day,” recalled Smith. “I went to put my school papers in my trunk, where I kept them, and the trunk was empty. I asked my mother where my papers were – and she said she burned them. Now, she could have thrown them in the trash, and I could have retrieved them. But no, they were a smoldering pile of ash.”This event wasn’t quite as cruel as it might seem on its face. For in Greenville, Miss., where Smith spent his first 13 years, burning was the preferred method for eliminating unwanted items.
“You’d think it was a Satanic ritual, but it’s not,” said Smith. “That’s just what we did with our garbage. We took it out back and burned it.”OK, so not an out-of-the-ordinary practice. But still …”From that moment, I felt it was an important part of my life. Even at 6,” said Smith. “I thought, these things are precious. Let the obsession begin.”And it never occurred to me that this might have been anything unusual. If you have something cool, why don’t you save it?”••••Smith has found a most productive outlet for his collecting disorder. Two years ago, Smith – whose humor column “Irrelativity” has appeared in Aspen newspapers for more than a decade and is now featured in The Aspen Times – launched his career as a stage performer with “Jesus In Montana: Adventures in a Doomsday Cult.” The one-man, multimedia show, extracted from Smith’s summer spent living with a retired chiropractor he genuinely believed to be the second coming of Christ, made spectacular use of the images he had saved from the episode. Smith – who for years had worked as a professional audio/visual guy – supplemented his narrative with photos of Smith and his fellow cultists and Smith being a kid, Smith believing in Jesus. “Jesus In Montana” has played from Aspen to Fresno and all across Canada; the show earned Smith an Overall Excellence Award for Outstanding Solo Show at the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival. Smith will spend most of the next four months performing the show on the Canadian fringe festival circuit, and at the Orlando Fringe Festival (as well as documenting his travels, of course).Last spring, Smith took the first steps toward the post-“Jesus” stage of his career. Over four consecutive weeks at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale, he presented a remarkable four new works in progress, all in the same multimedia structure as “Jesus In Montana.” One focused on Smith’s move, at age 14, from Mississippi to Southern California; another on his A/V escapades; and one on the time he spent squatting in a London flat.The one Smith has selected as the next phase of his performance career is “American Squatter.” The examination of the year he spent living, on the extreme cheap, in London has its world premiere Saturday and Sunday, May 5-6, at Steve’s Guitars. He will also perform it next month at the Montreal Fringe Festival, and in September at the Vancouver Fringe Festival.In 1988, Smith made his first visit overseas, a three-month jaunt of hitchhiking and railing around Europe. Then it was time to go home, but he didn’t want to. “I had to figure out how to stay for next to nothing,” he said. “London seemed the place to do it. I had very low overhead.”Jolly low overhead, indeed. In the year he lived in London, Smith paid exactly one night’s rent – the first night, when he was in a hotel. The next day, Smith took a job cleaning the hotel, which included onsite housing. Smith refers to that monthlong stint as “pre-squatting. The squatting primer.”Introduction to Squatting 101 continued with another one-night stand, again in a hotel – a creepy, old, out-of-business hotel. “Easily the scariest night in my life,” said Smith. “I couldn’t lock the front door. In the parlor were bullet holes and other classic murder signs. Jack the Ripper – I didn’t usually think about him, but he was on my mind that night. It was the kind of place Jack the Ripper would come to unwind after a night of murdering.”••••
In the Who’s 1973 rock opera “Quadrophenia,” London youths were divided into two groups, Mods and Rockers. Fifteen years later, Smith discovered another sect of the city’s society, perfect for protecting him from spooky hotels and the ghosts of London murderers.
“Hanging out in London, you hang out with certain people and you learn certain things,” he said. “And one of the things I learned about was squatting. Apparently, I gravitated toward people who liked squatting. There were places you could live for free. And that fit perfectly into my budget.”The first spot Smith and his cohorts occupied was a perfectly respectable five-bedroom flat in Hempstead Heath, which featured running water and electricity. As it turns out, it was far too nice. After six weeks, the group was served with an eviction notice. Smith learned an early lesson in squatting: Never squat above your station.
“Usually, squatters pick really crappy places, and no one cares,” he said. “So me and my new squatter friends said, let’s find a place no one will bother us.”Smith and his crew fanned out over London in search of suitable quarters. Looking for a squatting place, said Smith, “is like shopping for an apartment, only with different criteria. Instead of, ‘I think I can afford that,’ it’s, ‘Oh, that looks empty.'” The group settled on “a little shithole in Kilburn. A charming little shithole. Dank, damp, moldy, cold and no electricity. Cheap, dirty. Filthy, actually. But fun and pretty carefree. We were pretty safe because of the crappiness of our spot.”One day, a chap stopped by. “He said, ‘Well, it would be lovely if you leave now,'” recalled Smith. “And I said, ‘Well, thank you for the offer – but no. I’ll take it up with the others, but I don’t think so.’ I’ve had some ugly forays into rent-paying. But neh, that’s not cool.” Only later did Smith find out, from a rent-paying tenant of the same building, that the gent was the owner of the flat. Curiously, Smith never heard from him again, and spent nearly a year in the Kilburn flat, taking such odd jobs as washing dishes in a hospital and manning the assembly line in a crayon factory.••••The obsession with documentation stems from Smith’s late mother, Mousie, who died when Barry was 13. Squatting has much to do with Smith’s father, Brownie, who lives in California.
An integral part of the squatting experience is squalor. (The two words may derive from the same root. Note how they both start with “squa.”) As Smith notes, “Believe me, there was no cleaning involved in squatting. That would be frowned upon.” Cleaning, in all its forms – scrubbing, dusting, organizing, burning – was, however, a holy routine under Brownie’s roof. “He was really into cleaning,” said Smith.” “When it came time for my teenage rebellion, which came a little late, that’s the thing I rebelled against the most.”As with “Jesus In Montana,” “American Squatter” is not just the tale of Smith’s life, but an accounting for his psychological makeup. (The same will be true of Smith’s next show, “Obsession (See It Again and Again and Again),” which he is in the early stages of creating. The show, he said, “covers everything from sex to my love of numbers. And whatever’s in between those two things.”)”You think, by doing the exact opposite of what you’re rebelling against, you’re breaking free of it,” he said. “When, in fact, you’re growing more entangled in it. So my dad loves Lysol; I decide to live in absolute squalor. It wasn’t conscious at the time, but looking back on it, it’s pretty clear.”So “American Squatter” wraps together all of Smith’s forms of rebelling against his parents: “There’s punk rock and skateboarding and everything that was going on in Southern California at the time that was not cleaning-related,” he said.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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