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Monday, January 27, 2003
Here's a first-person account of one of my early "adventures", the anniversary of which is this week. Regular readers who usually check here mid-week, please note that I happened to post two articles this last weekend (on Sat. & Sun., respectively), which immediately follow today's entry. Also, since today's column is rather long, an "attention challenged" readers' version follows the regular one; so, if that's you, just scroll down to it. Looking over recent posts, I don't know why I've written about "religion" so much this week. As the archives show, I usually *never* do. Mostly, because it has a tendency to piss people off needlessly. Ah, well. Read on...

[ IDLE WORSHIP ]

Back in the day, that'd be 1989 to you, one Eric Barbour wrote and posted a series of self-proclaimed "parodies" in which he inserted a number of regular Phoenix (AZ) BBS users into his often meandering text. (A BBS, or 'Bulletin Board System', being a single-computer/single phone/fixed location precursor to today's Internet, but more or less a simpler version of what's used today.)

Evidently, his sometimes-puerile parodies got under the skin of some of those mentioned. In addition to the BBS member-based stories, Barbour also wrote a few parodies of TV shows. It would seem, because of the former, somebody downloaded one of the latter - a "Star Trek" sex story involving Kirk and Spock melding more than minds - written around the same time and mailed them to then-police chief of Phoenix, Ruben Ortega, with a note basically saying "these sex stories were written by one of your employees." (Eric worked as a computer tech. for the Phx. Police Dept at that time.)

That got Mr. Barbour fired, even though - according to Eric - said parodies were posted during non-working hours.

But that firing is why Eric had filed a lawsuit against the city & police dept., for unfair termination, and that's why he was then being followed by police in unmarked cars, just waiting for him to do something unlawful I guess. (Which he had told me they were doing, but Eric being Eric, I thought he was just being paranoid.)

So, if not for his "funny little stories", he and I would've never been caught with that damn yucca.

"What yucca?" you ask. A brief bit of background: About a month prior to the above, the top branch on a yucca plant located on east Van Buren in downtown Phoenix - a strip of real estate known colloquially as "hooker's haven" for the large number of prostitutes then doing late-night business along those street corners - sprouted, bloomed and, as the top yucca branch often does, bent over around the midway point, forming a horseshoe-like shape.

But a growing number of people, a majority being of the Roman Catholic faith, didn't see a horseshoe-like shape in the dried out, bent and misshapen branch.

Instead, akin to the "Jesus in the tortilla" episode, the faithful saw an image of the Virgin Mary. The sighting had already made the "Local" section of the daily paper, but news of the Virgin's arrival had been little reported elsewhere.

That was about to change, thanks to the action of two local "performance artists". The plan was to have said yucca "miraculously" reappear some weeks later at a local gallery opening. Hallelujah, and all that!

As mentioned previously, Eric had claimed he was being followed in unmarked cars, but I chose - to my later horror - not to believe him. I should have, because he was right.

Which is why we were caught. Of course, the police didn't stop us at the time. They just watched, it was reported later, as we took the yucca branch. According to the newspaper stories, the cops following Eric that evening were in too much shock at the time by what they were witnessing us doing, to come to their senses long enough to stop us then and there. (And considering we had to wade through about three feet of lighted candles around the base of the yucca, then set up a collapsible ladder to get to the top, they certainly had enough time to do so.) In fact, it was like an hour later after he and I had gone home when the police finally showed up at our respective doors to take us in for questioning about "theft of a yucca found on public property." (Not a crime, by the way.) They briefly toyed with the idea of charging us with "destruction of a native plant" but thought better of that too. Eventually the charges were all non-yucca related.

We had posted handbills earlier in the evening. There is an archaic law on the books, a misdemeanor crime the penalty for which is a fine &/or six months' time, against "posting handbills without a license." Rarely used, if ever, it makes it a crime to, for example, put up fliers in your neighborhood for a yard sale. If you didn't purchase a license to post handbills beforehand, that is.

*Our* handbills were put up a week after a large contingency of neo-nazi skinheads marched down Central Ave. on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (although still not a state holiday at that time) with nary a peep of outrage nor protest from the local politicians or media. *That* outraged *us*, so we made up a handbill calling for people to "Come Celebrate the violent death of Martin Luther King Jr... Free Food! Prizes!" with the AZ Nazi Party (no such org., by the way.)

The flier listed a time and address (with map) for this supposed "Celebration". The house on the map was the private home of then-mayor of Phoenix, Terry Goddard.

After the police had us in custody for almost two hours, during which I remained handcuffed to a table in an interrogation room, they finally figured that out. One of the few good memories of that long night was being handcuffed, and very much alone, in that room, but hearing from outside the room and a few feet down the hall, the detective in charge loudly exclaiming to his fellow officers, "My God! Tha-tha-that's Mayor Terry Goddard's house!" (sputter sputter, choke choke...)

Heh heh heh...

Anyway, by 9am later that morning, they had dropped all charges against me (around ten, one per handbill found). But not Eric. Same charges. But, see, Eric was the target of their little "sting operation" to begin with, which I guess is why they "cut me loose" but not him... Even though the charges were identical and they didn't know for sure who had posted which handbills where.

By that morning, our escapades were the top-fold top story in the daily 'AZ Republic' and lead story on all the local TV stations.

For the following day's edition (as we had missed the first-day story deadline by the fact of being jailed), a rather bemused 'AZ Republic' writer interviewed us. (She actually said, and I quote, "more 'performance artists' should do stuff like this," then giggled a bit.) In the article that followed, some of the Catholic faithful quoted therein weren't quite as bemused. Reaction ranged from, "I hope they burn in Hell" to "Give us five minutes with the bastards, and we'll beat 'em senseless - they'll quickly learn to pray, believe you me" to confusion, like one woman who commented that she had come to see "the miracle" the day after it had been chopped down and, upon seeing it was gone, guessed that maybe "it had gone up to heaven." (actual quote)

To make matters worse, the (now-defunct) afternoon daily, which had a policy of printing the street (home) address of anybody arrested for a crime, printed both of ours. (Never mind that all my charges had been dropped.) Luckily, we both were in apartments, so nobody knew exactly *which* apartment the so-called heathens were living in - a benefit for Eric, whose complex had 200+ units, a detriment for me, where there were 16 units. So, for damage control, I emptied my apartment of all its furniture (storing it at a friend's), save for a small kitchen table on which I left a Bible, and proceeded to do numerous TV news interviews "at home" where I apologized for any "pain" our actions might've caused and - as any viewer could plainly see - then explained that I had to move because of 'death threats'. (The threats were real, they just hadn't been delivered to my home.)

Eric's lawyer dropped him like a bad Bible salesman, hence his lawsuit was kaput. Score one for Ortega's goon-squad on wheels. Then, Eric lost his job.

In the week that followed, our handbill/yucca escapade was the cover story in the weekly alternative paper (a positive one, with which they included a "Where's Waldo?" type cartoon. Hidden in it were Jesus, Mary, a cross, etc etc.) I later learned that another reporter at the weekly had written his own article, but instead of submitting it to his editor had tried to sell it to the National Enquirer. It didn't buy it. (I'd make the pages of the Enquirer over a year later, however, after exhibiting work by imprisoned serial killer John Wayne Gacy at an art gallery I by-then owned/ran, but that's another story.) A version of the 'AZ Republic' articles were briefed, compiled and distributed by the Associated Press nationwide.

With the Virgin/branch recovered - after intense interrogation, Eric had evidently finally broken down and confessed, "The Virgin Mary is stuffed in my bedroom closet!", where he was then escorted by police cruiser and, thus, the Holy Mother in plant guise rescued - it was then relocated to the nearest Catholic church. (Nearest to its original Van Buren locale, not to that of Eric's closet.)

The faithful breathed a collective sigh of relief. The 'AZ Republic' ran a lengthy editorial page editorial, surmising we had done it to "tear (the faithful) people apart" but that we had "failed miserably, because it only brought them closer together." (For the record, it was done to neither tear apart nor bring together, but only to "change the (spiritual) playing field" for all - believers & non- alike - as they, as a result, looked at both this case of idolatry and, perhaps, their own beliefs.)

After being released on bail, but before his first court appearance, Eric Barbour and his immediate family vanished, not to be seen again. Some think he skipped out of town, while others question the "coincidence" of his disappearance taking place during the time the concrete foundation of a new, nearby Catholic parish was being poured. I guess only God, and maybe Jimmy Hoffa, know for sure.

As for me, about six months later, I opened an alternative art gallery in downtown Phoenix and, as the months wore on, with each successful show mounted, I was transformed (by the press) from "yucca killer" into gallery owner. (A gallery that eventually won a 'Best of Phoenix' New Times newspaper award for, "bringing High Weirdness from the four corners of the globe to Phoenix", thus cutting the yucca references down forever in the local press.)

So there you go. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. []

ATTENTION CHALLENGED READERS' VERSION: God Told Us To.

[From the "Whatever Happened to?" file: You know what happened to Pete. As Yoda would say, "Dashed optimism leads to cynicism. Cynicism leads to sarcasm. Sarcasm leads to 'The World According to Pete'." However, for the whereabouts of the Blessed Yucca see hot-link under PETE MEDIA (on left side of page) titled "New Times calls Pete a 'creep'", written some eight years after the episode described above.]

NEXT TUESDAY: Valentine's Day is fast approaching. Pete needs a date, so he presents "SWM Seeks SWF Stalker". A so-called 'personal ad' & stalking candidate questionnaire. It asks the post-modern question of love, "Will you be my stalker?"

posted by Pete 9:13 PM
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