The Truce on Christmas

It's a momentarily wonderful life at 924 Gilman on December 24.

It's a wonderful life.

But for the limp coils of tinsel and the half-hearted broadcast of a familiar looped videotape — three logs burning in a fireplace — decorating one restaurant window, Christmas is like any other night on Berkeley’s stretch of San Pablo Avenue. If you’re sauntering down the street just a little past the witching hour, you’ll see scores of homeless people swaddled up tight in their sleeping bags, huddling under store awnings or Sheetrock roofs. This year a few sad sacks gathered in Lanesplitter or Acme Bar to slurp draft beers and play pinball; two lone drifters sat outside nearby, sharing a joint and ignoring a crumpled dollar bill on the sidewalk. By midnight it was so quiet the sound of the 72 bus alone was deafening. You could almost hear dewdrops coalescing in storefront gutters.

A few blocks west of San Pablo — about half a cigarette’s (or half a cream stick’s) walk from the Happy Donut shop — lies the mighty 924 Gilman, the internationally famous, hermetically sealed punk anarchist universe that’s about as far away from Christmas (Bill O’Reilly’s version, at least) as you can possibly get without leaving the country. Every year on December 24, the Gilman volunteers hold a nineteen-hour vigil dubbed the “Anti-Christmas Slumber Party,” starting at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve and ending at 3 p.m. Christmas Day. They set up a few ratty couches on the club’s concrete floor; lay out a table with popcorn, bagels, bite-size pita sandwiches, and hummus; and roll out a video projector to screen movies like Sin City and an as-yet-unreleased documentary about the warehouse itself, which remains, as always, absolutely coated in Sharpie graffiti tags, skulls-and-crossbones scrawled in orange reflective paint, and fliers for underground shows featuring Subincision or the Hellbillies or some other band that had its heyday in the late ’90s. The club is drafty, though poor ventilation allows a variety of smells to precipitate; body odor mingles with tobacco stench and cheap hair-product chemicals. Unfazed, bored punks — or simply those with no place else to go — come in and sleep there at no cost.

This year, a sixtyish guy named Louie sits in the front row, distinguishable mostly because of his two felt hats, one orange and one green. (“I like it because it looks like I have two skulls,” he explains.) If you’ve been hanging around Berkeley a few years, you might recognize Louie as that wiry, reedy-voiced guy who’s always suckering you to buy his poems — meaning you cough up a couple bucks to hear him extemporize for five minutes, and then a couple more to get him to shut up. “I got everything,” he used to boast. “Love poems, sonnets, political poems, blank verse, free verse, couplets, doggerels, poems that rhyme, poems that don’t rhyme … you name it.” Meanwhile, a dude in the back row wearing a dirty cotton skirt and sneakers that look like the spoils from a recent dumpster dive carefully shells peanuts into his lap, while in the club’s front office, a skittish, baby-faced guy named Eggplant paints flames on the walls and fills up a mop bucket to clean the floor.

Founded in the mid-’80s by a group of heady punk rockers and a few benefactors from Maximumrocknroll, 924 Gilman is the kind of all-volunteer utopia that results when a bunch of “low-level shit workers” (in the words of one punk from the documentary) gets to run shit themselves. Historically, it’s been a place where people who probably don’t fit in anywhere else can come and create their own community, and with it, a sense of ownership — if you’re voluntarily mopping the warehouse floor on Christmas Eve, you probably consider 924 Gilman home. Yet since its genesis, Gilman has spawned a whole underground arts scene that most closely resembles that of the squats in Germany: Punk bands come from as far as Mexico and Japan to play there, alongside offbeat yuksters like Alex Knoll, the accordionist Jason Webley (who can get a whole warehouse full of punks to sing the “Aardvark” song, complete with gestures), plus a motley crew of vegan evangelists, tranny rockers, and other social pariahs.

But despite the overexposed and overpoliticized War on Christmas rhetoric that has seized cable news networks of late, there’s still something really pure about Gilman’s event — a punk spin on the It’s a Wonderful Life ideal of the warm, supportive community. After all, the joint’s flagship ideals — kinship, equality, and generosity — recall an original purist notion of Christmas that’s exactly the opposite of the modern version. For one night, at least, this is anyone and everyone’s home, and the punks here are their surrogate family. Alex, the guitarist for hardcore band Acts of Sedition, sits in one of the common rooms trolling MySpace. A girl named Heather sashays around showing off the raggedy skirt and pink tights she found in the club’s Free Pile. Inside the warehouse’s main chamber, folks spread their jackets out as blankets and huddle close together to ward off the cold air.

Once you understand the basic tenets of punk rock — that nobody is better than anybody else, and where you can’t find equality, you impose it — this odd scene makes perfect sense. Gilman is a cool place to go as a teenager, because you don’t have to worry about looking attractive or fronting like a baller or a mack daddy. In fact, you can pretty much wear your insecurities on your sleeve and still be accepted. And it’s a cool place to go on Christmas Eve, if you generally find the holidays too glitzy and overblown, or merely don’t find yourself too jazzed about the packages of rayon socks, Chicken Soup books, and Gideon Bibles waiting under your tree at home.

In all likelihood, nobody at the Gilman slumber party was expecting any gifts this year: no fake Rolexes, no vegan cookies, no battery-powered doohickeys or thingybobs. But as the night wore on and people started to nod off on each other’s shoulders, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas all the same.