A Conversation with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Interviewed by Alex Davis-Lawrence · February 2019
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is a prolific and powerful writer, editor, and activist. Her latest novel, Sketchtasy, was chosen by NPR as one of the Best Books of 2018, and is a finalist for a 2019 Lambda Literary Award—an honor her memoir, The End of San Francisco, won in 2013. Other books include the novels So Many Ways to Sleep Badly (2008) and Pulling Taffy (2003), and the anthology Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? (2012), which was an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book. She has edited four additional non-fiction anthologies, including Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity (2007) and That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (2004), and spent ten years as the reviews editor for Make/shift. She now lives in Seattle.
You’ve just wrapped up your tour for Sketchtasy, and you’re back in Seattle. What was the experience of the tour like for you?
The tour was pretty amazing. The experience has really given me energy to continue being in the world. As you know, I did the tour over a long period of time, and I was away from Seattle in total for nine months. I did the east coast first, then the west coast. Every event was different, but what I’ve been thinking of since I’ve finished the tour is the energy that I feel in a room, where the audience is really connecting with me and my work. There’s a direct engagement, and a deep intimacy, and a camaraderie, and a sense of creating a history together. I keep thinking—how do I bring that into my life every day?
I definitely felt that energy at the reading I attended. In terms of the sense of history you’re talking about, I found it interesting to think about the different generations of people who are part of this community… people who are looking at Sketchtasy having been there, or at least been cognizant of that scene and culture as it was happening—as well as people who are looking back on it as history.
One thing that was interesting and that I didn’t expect in writing the book, in writing about this particular place and time—Boston in 1995—is that in some ways it became a generational story. This is a generation of queens and queers who have grown up with AIDS diffusing their desires, and no way to imagine anything else. The characters mostly are in their late teens, early 20s. They’re not the generation of queers who grew up, and then experienced sexual liberation, and then everything fell apart, and people lost their entire circles of friends… they just had to cross everyone out of their datebook because they were all dead. It’s not that generation; it’s a generation that grew up not being able to imagine anything else. And this generation isn’t really talked about as much. We hear about the previous generation, and we hear about a generation after, where there are medications that make HIV into a manageable condition for many, and that’s the generation that started just after the time of the book.
I do think there was a generational pull, and what you’re saying about people who lived through this period, and people who didn’t but who also feel a kind of connection to it—I find that very exciting.
I think that I’m writing against nostalgia. Nostalgia, to me, is a longing for something that never happened. It’s a glossy consumer product that replaces the nuance and the messiness of the lived experience. One thing I think that people are responding to about Sketchtasy is that the nuance and the lived experience and the messiness are there—and that feels exciting, and validating.
I was reading another interview that you gave, and you said something that’s stuck with me: “the opposite of nostalgia is truth, so that’s what I’m reaching for with this book.” One of the things that really jumped out at me about your work is that you almost have the sensibility of a historian. The experiences that you’re capturing and recounting would not be accessible without your writing. And to access that history in a way that provides context, and understanding, and truth—instead of this kind of nostalgic fabrication—might otherwise be impossible.
That ties in to an element of the book that stood out to me, which is how art, music, movies, and books are such an essential part of how Alexa accesses her emotions, identity, and sense of history. At the reading, you described the movies as “something that she used to find kinship with the generation that came before.” What makes art such an important tool for Alexa, and for people in general, as a way to understand their own lives?
I think Alexa—living in Boston, a city rabidly afraid of difference, in a gay culture that mimics some of the worst aspects of straight hypocrisy—just walking around, she’s constantly attacked, and this was true of all the characters in the book, more or less. In order to survive, Alexa has to be critically engaging at all times, and also has to broadcast a kind of toughness. There is a shutting off that is required in that daily experience of surviving brutality. And I think one of the things that happens for her in reading books is that they allow her to have her own emotional response to what’s happening to her, in a way that she can’t otherwise. Ordinarily, she has to keep those responses in, in order to survive. There are two books that are particularly meaningful to her, one of which is Rebecca Brown’s The Gifts of the Body, which had just come out when Alexa reads it, in 1995. It’s about a caretaker taking care of people dying of AIDS—in reading that, there’s a kind of intergenerational kinship that is not possible in her own life.
This is an open question in a certain way, about queer worlds in general… I don’t think there is much of an intergenerational kinship in the world, and part of that of course is due to AIDS and how many people died, but part of it is also due to the kind of segmenting and ageism of the gay culture that exists in the book, which is still the same gay culture that exists now, if not worse, where it’s racist, and homophobic, misogynist, classist, ableist, transphobic, you know, go down the list… that culture doesn’t allow kinship of any sort. There is this unopened question about what is intergenerational kinship, and is it possible?
What can we do to be better at maintaining and building that sense of intergenerational community moving forward—to start bridging these gaps that you’re describing?
I’ll talk about that on a few levels. On one level, on an intimate level, a personal level, the thing that I always think is missing is accountability. If we build accountability in our own social circles, in our own artistic endeavors, in our own creative life, in our own communities, then that’s what actually opens up the possibility for any kind of honest connection. On a larger, structural level, the so-called gay or LGBT or LGBTQ movement is always priortizing the people with the most privilege—and I think what needs to happen is always prioritizing the people who are the most marginalized.
The first scene in the book maps this trend, in a sense… I think 1995 does mark the moment when the assimilationist trajectory of gay politics took over. Before that, for decades, there was a struggle between a liberationist ethic which said, ‘we need to end dominant institutions of oppression,’ and assimilationist ideology, which said, ‘we need to become part of those institutions of oppression.’ Somewhere around 1995 marks the triumph of the assimilationists. Of that pull. In gay, and LGBT, and even queer politics in many ways, I think we’ve never recovered from that. Anything that challenges that stranglehold, and opens up the possibilities for accountability and mutuality and self determination, is something that moves us towards communal possibility, and communication across all the different boundaries of identity that could pull us together, but often set us apart, because of the way that the hierarchies of dominant hypocritical straight culture are magnified in some ways in countercultures, or subcultures, or allegedly oppositional cultures.
Absolutely. My feeling (and I was very young at that time, so this is a case of looking back) is that a lot of what was happening in that moment was driven by capitalism… you talk in Sketchtasy about the ‘Uncommon Clout’ Visa card—the credit card that sold itself on the claim that some of its profits would be given back to the gay community—and you can draw kind of a direct thread from that up through Budweiser sponsoring the pride parade, up through the ostensible progressiveness of Silicon Valley… a sentiment that’s just clearly absurd on its face. That was happening in the 90s in a lot of different areas, this transformation of a subculture into, basically, a demographic. When businesses realize that this community is a demographic they can define, and profit from, and reach into, it starts to shape and reward all the worst sides of that community.
When I’m looking at the political moment right now, I keep finding myself face to face with this type of person who’s ostensibly very progressive, but is essentially just performing this kind of capitalist leftism that ultimately exacerbates the very problems they’re ostensibly fighting. I think this is something that you speak to frequently, and that’s a recurring theme in your work—as with the father in The End of San Francisco with his ‘Stop Family Violence’ stamp, or the opening scene with the fight over the AIDS ribbon in Sketchtasy.
Yeah, the scene that opens Sketchtasy is, Alexa is in a cafe, and basically, she’s just ranting about the meaninglessness of the red ribbon, as an emblem of straight pity for people dying of AIDS. It’s straight people leveraging their pity in order to gain political clout, and she’s like, “it’s just an empty symbol,” and then someone just starts screaming at her, another queer youth, and allegedly it’s about the red ribbon, but it just ends up being ‘you don’t deserve to live,’ essentially. And this is someone who perhaps does not have privilege, but is acting like the people who do, and has internalized that kind of ideology.
You mentioned the Uncommon Clout Visa card, ‘the card that gives back to the gay community, ten cents at a time’—those kind of gestures were relatively new in the 90s, the early to mid 90s, and to see in the intervening 25 years… I mean now, things that I would only have imagined as the most absurd satirical skit, you know, like trans military inclusion… no one would have talked about that 10 years ago, it would just be unimaginable. And that whole so-called issue just emerged because one person, considered the first trans billionaire, Jennifer Pritzker, who is an heir to the robber baron fortune of the Pritzkers of Chicago, donated $1.35 million to this institute called the Palm Center for this particular issue. Then, boom, it’s a centerpiece of the LGBT agenda. So if you ever want to know how much it costs to get your issue at the center of a so-called national movement, it’s $1.35 million, and that’s really cheap. In comparison to national politics in general, that’s awfully cheap. Now we see things, like an article saying, ‘isn’t this amazing, we now have non-binary and genderqueer fashion models,’ and I’m like, ‘No, what would be amazing is the end of the fashion industry!’
When you become part of an oppressive system—the fashion industry, the military-industrial complex—you know, you make it stronger, and it is frightening that people don’t stop to actually think about how participating in dominant institutions of oppression furthers oppression, and instead choose to see that as the ultimate sign of success, or progress. I think that narrative is so misguided.
Right… if the goal is just to have more people, or a more diverse group of people, occupying the top of this oppressive structure, it doesn’t actually change the structure in any way. It just changes which particular individuals are on top. Your piece in the Baffler about trans inclusion in the military was really powerful, and what you’re saying is so obvious when you say it out loud, but it’s just not part of the dialogue. It’s very frustrating.
I wanted to shift the conversation—though I think, of course, all this stuff is connected in certain ways—back to Seattle and to the new book you’re working on, The Freezer Door, which Semiotext(e) is publishing in Fall 2020. I was wondering if you could talk about that project a bit.
I’m calling The Freezer Door a lyric essay, because it circles around this question of desire and impossibility. And through that lens it’s about gentrification, it’s about the hypocritical allure of gay male sexual culture, it’s about the dream of queerness, it’s about Seattle very specifically, it’s about the white picket fence in the eyes—that tech mentality, of a gated worldview, even when you don’t have the gates—it’s about the triumph of the suburban imagination over city life, and it’s about this dream of a city as a place where you meet everyone and everything that you never imagined, and whether that dream can still exist in our homogenized cities of today. It’s in a very elliptical style, where I’m circling around my own experience in Seattle of being in public space, being in the world, and trying to find sex and love and intimacy on my own terms and being stifled, through a variety of tragic encounters.
What you just described brings to mind something Alexa says in Sketchtasy, which I was going to bring up earlier: “There’s a lot I’ll do for tricks—role play, fantasies, whatever—but I’m not going to say I love you. That’s just demeaning.” There’s this way in which love and intimacy, especially in this age of tech and social media and dating apps and so on, has also really become part of this momentum we’ve been talking about, this hungry thing, this system that’s hungry for anything real that can be converted into new demographics and profit. How can we keep love and intimacy protected from that?
I like that you bring up that part in Sketchtasy, because Alexa, in turning tricks, in the whole book really, she’s trying to create her own value system and her own morality that isn’t perhaps what one would generally expect. And sometimes she succeeds and sometimes she fails, but in this particular moment, she has this trick who just keeps saying “say that you love me, say it.” And Alexa doesn’t see sex work as demeaning—that’s what the dominant culture would say, dominant straight or gay culture—but what is demeaning is that people ask you to lie. And it’s a lie about something that actually matters.
In Sketchtasy there is that question of how can love and intimacy be created, and I think in the book, drugs are the way that community is formed. And we know, any reader knows, the limitations of that, but there are also possibilities—drugs and going out and dancing and club culture are how these characters are able to actualize themselves in certain ways. And some of them, they’re the standard self-hating gay men until they take that potion, and then everything changes. Alexa is living inside that hypocrisy, but club culture is also a way of living outside of a certain kind of normalcy. These are characters that don’t live in the 9-to-5 world, they live in the 9 pm to 5 am world. The less they interact with broader culture, the better.
I think the question in The Freezer Door… it’s a similar question but it’s also a different one. First off, Freezer Door is nonfiction, and is very specifically about my life. It may be a central question in my life. The dreams that I want to have, of queer worlds that simultaneously challenge the violence of the status quo and build vivid and dynamic alternatives… I believe in that dream, but I don’t see it in the world. I just see more hypocrisy. And at this point, that hypocrisy in queer worlds is way more damaging to me than the standard kind of moralistic or retrograde straight, or even mainstream gay, morality. I don’t know that I’ve answered that question, as much as I want to pose the question.
I’m reminded again of the reading, when somebody asked a question to the effect of ‘what do you think about drugs?’ And basically what you said at the time is that you felt there was a period when drugs genuinely saved your life, in the sense that they were a thing that allowed you to escape something, at a time when if you hadn’t been able to escape in that way, it would have killed you. But over time, that way to escape trauma in turn can become something that compounds the trauma itself, which seems to be a lot of what Sketchtasy is about.
The characters in Sketchtasy, they’re doing drugs to escape the world. They want to be floating on the ceiling at all times, and yes, like you said, that enables them to create their own world, but it also compounds the trauma. And in my own life—I do think as a teenager drugs saved my life. Looking back, I can think of other things that I did not have access to that might have helped me… but I didn’t have access to them, I had access to drugs. And there is that transition between saving my life, and becoming my life. For me, when I could see that they were becoming my life, I was like, ‘I need to stop, I need to get out of this,’ but not everyone has those self preservation skills in the same way.
I think in Sketchtasy, there’s an open question. Drugs might still be the best choice for many of the characters in this book, regardless of the toll, because what are the other options?
To me, there’s a way this ties back to that kind of affect we discussed, the false progressivism, or maybe in a broader way, to the assimilationist impulse you described earlier. This impulse can be a way to survive, and even appear to thrive, but in the end becomes traumatic, both to your own sense of self and to those around you.
Well, you asked earlier about The Freezer Door, and Seattle—Seattle is a perfect example of a city that believes in itself to the cost of actually creating a self that matters. There’s so much of this sense of, ‘we’re on the cutting edge, we really are a truly equitable culture,’ something like that. [Laughing] I can’t even repeat the rhetoric, it’s so depressing! Until like four years ago, people couldn’t even say gentrification, and now, it’s all about ‘density.’ The rhetoric of the gentrifiers has infiltrated the people who are allegedly against gentrification. That is the ultimate nightmare of neoliberalism.
When I say the white picket fence of the eyes, I mean walking around Seattle, that is how people look at you. It’s the suburban imagination that’s colonized the urban environment. Where people can live in these buildings, like upscale mid-rise apartment buildings where you drive in and never see anyone else and you live in a somewhat luxurious place with a nice view and great facilities to have parties on the roof and you think that’s an urban life. An urban life is about what changes you in the world, it’s about existing in public space, it’s about the dynamic possibility and impossibility of connecting with people that you never imagined you would engage with. But that is not the city that we have now.
In one review of Sketchtasy, by Paul Constant in the Seattle Review of Books, he said that I’m a “chronicler of the life and death of American cities.” And I love it when someone gives you insight into your own process in a review, because I think that is true. When I moved to Seattle, people kept asking me, ‘are you going to write The End of Seattle,’ and we are seeing changes in Seattle that in some ways are similar to the changes in San Francisco. But what is different is that Seattle was already a way more homogenized city—way more. Pre-gentrification Seattle was already more homogenous than gentrified San Francisco. So the changes we have here aren’t making a homogenized city. They’re taking away the little cracks in the armor of the gentrified city. They’re smoothing them over and soon there’ll be nothing.
I will say that one thing that happened on tour—and this is the first time this has ever happened—when I was in San Francisco, I was walking around in the street, and I could not feel it. Everything was quieter, there was no street culture, there was no graffiti, there was no interaction. I found myself one night walking to the neighborhood that had once formed me, the Mission. I had already avoided that neighborhood for, like, the last 10 years I was living in San Francisco, but it was the most formative neighborhood for me as a queer person, as a radical, as someone trying to create my own world in the ruins of everyday violence. And I found myself just walking there automatically, and I was really just looking for… not literal people that I knew, but people that I could feel like I might have something in common with. San Francisco has sheltered outsider cultures that are unimaginable in most US cities, and I could not feel it, I could not find those people, and it took me days to even feel like I was there. And I also felt the way people interacted with me in the street, which is that white picket fence in the eyes, and it felt like it was the same. It really was intense.
Boston, to me… when I’m writing about Boston in ’95 in Sketchtasy, I’m writing about the worst version of a city. Smug and self satisfied. Boston sees itself as the cradle of liberalism. But in reality it’s a city that is viciously afraid of difference. But, I feel like everywhere has become Boston. And in the same way, when I’m talking about Seattle now as a super homogeneous, smug and self-satisfied city that simultaneously is brutally pushing away anyone on the margins—that’s everywhere too. And you have some exceptions, but everywhere these are the successful cities. And what do they do with that success? I think Seattle is a perfect example. To give a tiny little thing that I’m obsessed with, Seattle had this Ride Free area for the buses, starting in like 1980, where within a certain part of downtown, bus service was completely free. And in 2012, one of the most prosperous times in the history of Seattle, what does the city do? They end it!
That’s what money gets you, it gets you an end of social services. It’s so frightening. This is a city that finally is talking about a crisis in displacement and a crisis in homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, but how is the city trying to deal with it? With this rhetoric around ‘density.’ They say, ‘oh, if we just increase the density, if we just upzone neighborhoods, then magically, affordable housing will appear!’ But what actually happens is it’s just giving more space to developers to build a bunch of overpriced garbage. The best example of that is Yesler Terrace, which was one of the largest housing projects in Seattle. It had large apartments, with entire families who had been living there for decades. People had vegetable gardens, mostly Asian and black families, many of them multigenerational, hundreds of people were living there. And they upzoned that area to tear down the projects, so Vulcan Construction (what a great name!) could build luxury high rises.
This is what frightens me so much in Seattle. People still believe this rhetoric! ‘Oh, we just need more density.’ Why don’t you look at actual examples of what has happened in neighborhoods that have been upzoned? Does it actually create more affordable housing? No! So we need a new model. One great model would be to use this huge ditch across from city hall, which is owned by the city and is already in a neighborhood zoned for high rises… the tallest buildings in Seattle are all right there. Let’s just say, conservatively, that they built a 50 story building with 50 units on each floor—that would be 2500 units, with an average of 1-2 people that they would immediately house, in low-income permanent housing—that
would house about 4000 people. All you would need are two of those buildings and everyone who was homeless in Seattle would actually have a permanent home. Instead, what does the city do? They sold it, to a for-profit developer at below market rate. It just depresses me when people are obsessed with the wrong solution.
But also, when I came back here, after being in San Francisco, I was like, ‘oh wait, there’s more graffiti on the streets here!’ Which just shocked me, because once there was no graffiti in Seattle, and I love graffiti. To me, graffiti is about connecting with the urban environment, looking for the messages. Especially these new stickers. The sticker graffiti in Seattle, suddenly it’s political. In the past, it was mostly just people making a cute sticker, which I’m all for, but now there’s all this different ‘anti-bro’ graffiti in the sticker tagging. There’s ‘Citizens for a Bro-Free Capitol Hill,’ there’s ‘Trust No Bro,’’ there’s one with a yuck face and it says, ‘yuck, bros!’ There’s one that just says ‘fuck you techie!’ [Laughing] These are good! And there’s a whole series saying to reject something—reject transphobia, reject the gender binary, reject racism, reject borders.
So it’s interesting, coming back here… you asked earlier, what does that feel like, and one thing that I do feel a sort of hopefulness is in the graffiti. Every dumpster is completely covered, like, covered, you know. I don’t know why the dumpsters are so popular here. The dumpsters in San Francisco have no graffiti on them at this point. San Francisco has a really aggressive campaign against graffiti… friends of mine were telling me you could stencil something on the street and within hours it’s gone, because they have a sandblaster out there.
Whenever people imagine a golden age, sometime in the past, it didn’t exist. And if we’re living in this country, the dominant colonial power in the world… any time that we’re living in is a terrible time, right? And we have to create something else anyway. No matter when we’re living or where we’re living, I think that we have to create something else. The question has come up at some of the readings, ‘so where should people be moving?’ And I don’t have the answer to that question. The actual answer is, we need to create that here-and-now, wherever we are.
In Seattle, at least, what would you like to see more of? What can we do interpersonally or politically right now to help steer things in the best possible direction?
The first thing is for people actually to interact with one another in the streets. The Seattle Freeze, you know, people act as if that is some sort of byproduct of Nordic heritage—but the number of Nordic people in Seattle is like under 10%. And I lived here in ‘96, ‘97, and that term did not exist. People were very friendly! It was actually one of the friendliest places I’d ever lived, at that point. That is a gentrification term, but people act as if it’s something else. It’s also related to the fact that we’re living in darkness for 8 months of the year, so of course people become a little shut down, but let’s push against that, you know. That’s the first thing—people actually interacting with one another, across the lines of identity, in everyday experience. For me, that’s why I live in a city. So much of my life takes place just walking around and looking at things, and wouldn’t it be so much better if I could actually look at things with other people? Instead of gazing at stickers for a ray of hope.
And I think that sort of smug, self-righteous, ‘we have arrived’ mentality, which is so popular in Seattle, is gross. People have to let it go and see the city for what it is, you know—it’s a dystopian tech company town. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other possibilities, but until we actually see that reality… We also need to reject the rhetoric of the people who are destroying it. By that I mean Amazon, or Vulcan Construction—I just love saying that over and over again, ‘Vulcan’ Construction—I love the fact that Amazon and Vulcan Construction are two companies that are destroying our town. And people say, ‘you know, but you can’t be angry at them, they don’t mean it…’ well actually, they do mean it, that’s why they’re here. We need to reach beyond that.
I live on Capitol Hill, and most people know of the gentrification of Capitol Hill, in some sense at least—the tech boys, frat boys. But I think people don’t consider it on a deeper level. This should be obvious, but the people who made Capitol Hill into what it is now were actually insiders, not outsiders. The mini-moguls, the restaurateurs, the people who started the Capitol Hill Block Party, the people who created this subculture as a commodity—those are the people to blame for what Seattle is now, and you can go to any neighborhood in Seattle and see there’s a little group of people who are the ones who have benefitted, and at the same time they act like they don’t like what’s happened.
We need to look deeper. We need to get out of this rhetoric of like, garbage. The suffocating, silencing, slogan-obsessed, rhetoric around density—as soon as you say, ‘Oh, I like density,’ they’ve won. They’ve won, you know. The way that debate is framed is that there are people who are in favor of density, and then there are these rich people who just want to keep their homes. And those people certainly exist, but those are not the two sides! Those people are on the same side!
It’s like, what density are we talking about? I think if we’re gonna talk about density, we need to be talking about a density of lived experience, a density of meaningful interactions, a density of actually caring about one another, a density of prioritizing the people who are marginalized before the people who actually are privileged. There are some great things that have happened in Seattle, like the $15 minimum wage. That’s something that’s actually helped everyone. But what else can we do that actually would help everyone instead of just criminalizing, marginalizing, and brutalizing the people who are most vulnerable, while holding up everyone else?
There’s this nonprofit here called Love City Love, and they basically turn vacant buildings into temporary dance space, more or less, dance or party or art spaces. I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s kind of interesting,’ and then I read this interview with the person who started it, and he said his motto is ‘collaboration with gentrification.’ This is not a joke, he literally said that.
He’s like, ‘People in tech, they need art too! So in my dream world, we could have a Love City Love in the lobby of every one of these buildings.’ But as soon as you’re talking about collaboration with gentrification, you’re just talking about putting a pretty face on homogenization. What we actually need to be talking about is destroying that mentality. This is such a rich city, there’s so much money, and we know the billionaires are never going to actually… I mean, there’s fucking Jeff Bezos, who could just take out his pocket change and say, ‘I want everyone in Seattle to have free public transportation.’ It would cost him, nothing, like nothing, and then everyone would love him! This is how demented these people are. ‘I have so much money, the only thing I can think to do is like, send it to space’—that’s literally his quote!
To tie it back to something you touched on very early—it’s about accountability, right? All that anybody’s really asking—well, I’d ask a lot more, but the most basic thing that people are asking—is that companies be at least vaguely accountable for the changes they’re creating. If you’re an entity that is changing everything around you—strip mining the culture of the city and using it to boost your business—you should have to contribute something back. And it seems that one thing people in Seattle really need, to return another of your earlier thoughts, is more honesty—about people’s position in life, their position relative to others, what the structure of their lives is doing to the lives of the people around them.
One: obviously these people need to be forced to actually fork over their pocket change if we’re going to have meaningful structural change. But, two: we shouldn’t be swallowing their rhetoric and then turning it around and acting as if it was our own idea. People just vomit out the language of the oppressor, then they swallow it as progress. I mean, that might save you money, because if you eat your own vomit, you don’t have to spend much on groceries, but in the end [laughing], you’re gonna die of malnutrition!
Originally published in Moss: Volume Four.
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