cover_story (2006-16)

MAKING NOISE: Rubenstein honks for peace.

The westernmost end of Highland Avenue more closely resembles a bad dinner party than it does a Fort Sanders residential block. Like a table full of opinionated guests, the houses shout at one another from across the street, with sufficient passion and volume to drown out the clatter of nearby trains.  

Each seems emboldened by its own idiosyncratic personality. There’s the Floridian, with its plywood palm-tree cutouts and hot pink brick-a-brac. There’s the Vol Fan, with its faded power-T flags and assortment of orange paraphernalia. There’s The Republican, with its banner proclaiming America’s victory over Iraq, and The Progressive, shrouded in a tangle of bicycles and marriage-equality yard signs. By some thoughtless cosmic seating arrangement, the latter two are doomed to perpetual stand-off—and neither party is afraid to broach the subject of politics.

“Their dogs bark at our dogs,” says Tommy Bensko, a lanky, dreadlock-crowned inhabitant of the latter house, affectionately dubbed the “Biscotheque” (a playful collision of “biscuit” and “discotheque”) by its residents, who refer to themselves as biscotexicans in turn. From his threadbare recliner by the window, Bensko gazes outside into the front yard, oblivious to the hairy bumble bee that’s exploring a burnt-out candle beside his arm.

Kip Williams, a dark-featured twenty-something with a pierced nose, chews thoughtfully on a piece of toast, piled high with hummus and chunks of avocado. “We suspect that their dogs are plotting a pre-emptive strike against our dogs,” he says with a solemn swallow. “Possibly nuclear. We’re not sure yet.”

But counter-violence is one item that’s never on the menu at the Biscotheque. Since Bensko, Williams and three of their friends began leasing the house last September, it’s evolved into something of a headquarters for local activist groups, hosting meetings for everyone from the environmentally-minded Katuah Earth First! to the hip-hop/spoken-work creative conglomerate Black Sunshine.

The house doubles as a free hostel for activist individuals and organizations passing through town. Most recently, the group put up a staff of 13 Greenpeace interns who were in town to protest tissue-paper giant Kimberly-Clark. So long as the weather’s decent, the Biscotheque’s front door is usually open, they explain.

Of the house’s raison d’etre, Williams says, “We share a lot of values, politically and socially. We’re all concerned with a lot of the same things. We wanted to create a community space where we could act on those values and encourage others to do the same.”

The housemates nod in consensus from their respective positions around the room. Melissa Knowles, a pixyish young woman with an attentive gaze, sits cross-legged on the floor, strumming a mandolin. Bensko is now on the carpet as well, stretching his back into an upward-dog yoga pose. Justin Rubenstein pulls his knees to his chest in the recliner, framed by a beam of post-rain sunlight. The only one missing is Kathrine Smith, a printmaking/French/biochemistry major who’s presently out of town.

A tour of the house discloses an overview of the agendas its inhabitants endorse. The sunny front porch, cluttered with racks of secondhand clothing and crates of random wares, doubles as a Goodwill-style free store. Visitors are encouraged to take what they want and leave what they don’t want anymore, fulfilling the first commandment of the environmentalist mantra: reuse, reduce and recycle.

Nestled between boxes, a couple of propane gas tanks lean against the wall. They’re used to cook donated vegetarian items on Saturday afternoons for the local chapter of Food Not Bombs, a nationwide effort to retaliate against the over-funding of military defense and lack of funding for social services. The prepared food is then taken to Market Square and distributed to the hungry. Rubenstein explains that it’s a kind of recycling. “It’s food that’s not quite sellable because it’s blemished [bruised, dated or otherwise not fit to sell],” he says. “It’s destined to be thrown away anyhow, but this way, it’s not going to waste.”

Below the porch, a metal stand props up 20 or so bikes of various styles and colors, forming the premise of Bensko’s pet project: a kind of bicycle library wherein visitors may check bikes out. At the moment, about 15 bikes are on loan, and they have previously been checked out by several visiting groups, including Greenpeace; the Peacepilgrims (who were participating in an Anti-Nuclear International bike ride/march from Oak Ridge to New York City last spring); and attendees of this year’s and last year’s Southeastern Student Renewable Clean Energy Conference, hosted by UT. To assist with operating costs, borrowers are asked to contribute a $5 to $10 donation and a modest deposit, which is refunded upon the bike’s safe return. In addition, says Bensko, “The borrower is encouraged to assist with the initial tune-up and keep the bike healthy and put to good use.” All things considered, it’s a small price to pay for dependable, and environmentally-conscious, transportation.

Bensko founded the library as an independent study a year and a half ago for a sculpture class, and it seemed like a perfectly logical idea at the time. “Since my mother is a librarian and my father is a bicycle, it was only natural that my destiny was to become a bike librarian.” His passion for two-wheeled transport has roots in early childhood; two of his favorite memories, he says, “are riding my first bike as a curious and speed-craving 5 year old, and then later in life teaching a child of that same age to lose the training wheels and discover the same joys I had.”

On occasion, checked-out bicycles aren’t returned, but Bensko credits the generosity of individual bike donors and the help of businesses like River Sports and Earth Traverse for keeping the library going. Currently, the biscotexicans are seeking a new, permanent locale for the library—hopefully, a cheap or donated space that’s central to downtown and campus. Once that locale is established, Bensko says, additional bicycle-oriented community programs can be put in place, furthering Bensko’s dream of “a fully realized bicycle cooperative…similar to what the other cities in our state and all over the country are doing.”

All of the Biscotheque’s residents are advocates of alternative transportation, especially that of the pedaled variety. They host a weekly bike-in movie, typically featuring a socially-conscious documentary, each Wednesday at 10 p.m. in their front yard. The films are projected onto a white tarp strung between two trees, one of which is equipped with a homemade climbing wall. (As for vertical movement, self-propelled climbing seems to be the biscotexicans’ vehicle of choice. Earlier this week, the Biscotheque even hosted a tree-climbing workshop.)

Another possible solution to the transportation problem is parked around back, next to the compost pile and organic vegetable garden. A canary- yellow school bus, purchased by the biscotexicans at a Nashville Metro School Board surplus auction and appropriately re-named the “Buscotheque,” will soon become their main vehicle for long-distance travel—with an environmentally friendly twist. In honor of Earth Day, the University of Tennessee organization SPEAK (Students Promoting Environmental Action in Knoxville) will announce its sponsorship of the bus’s conversion to a vehicle that runs on straight vegetable oil.

“We’ll use it as a teaching tool for alternative energy,” Knowles says, ducking into the bus. Right now, the inside of the bus appears shabby rather than school-friendly, sparingly furnished with a few couch cushions and a garnish of dried roses on the driver’s seat floorboard. But the housemates have big plans for the Buscotheque.

In addition to the fuel conversion, they intend to install a small windmill and solar panel on the roof to illustrate other types of green-energy generation. There will also be a classroom-like interior, an overhead garden, and, if all goes as planned, an indoor climbing wall. The biscotexicans, inspired by a “veggie van” Bensko caught a lift from in California last year, envision visiting grade schools and college campuses throughout the region. At the Knoxvillian’s encouragement, the California van made a stop on the UT campus later in the year, inspiring a great deal of curiosity from between-class students. 

Their toilets flush with gray water, or water recycled from dish, shower, sink and laundry uses, in an effort to conserve resources. To save energy, they rely heavily on natural light and candles, and they have no use for a furnace or air conditioning. During cold winter nights, they close off a single room of the house, turn on a space heater, and huddle together for warmth. “We did have to turn the heat on over Christmas, when we were all out of town, so the pipes wouldn’t freeze,” Knowles says, voice tinged with sincere regret. “That was really hard. Our landlord owes us.”

The latter comment is, however, in jest. The Biscotheque residents acknowledge how thankful they are to have a landlord who’s supportive of their unorthodox lifestyle. The landlord’s own son is involved in organic farming, says Knowles, “so he feels like he can sort of relate to what we’re doing.” The only times he’s had to intervene were on occasions when there were too many bicycles in the yard to mow the grass.

If the exterior of the house is a showroom for alternative transportation, the interior is a museum of out-of-the-box thinking. Décor consists of artifacts from various actions the roommates have participated in. One room is filled with musical instruments, mostly drums and a few horns, which get dusted off every Wednesday for Nuclear Waste of America Orchestra practice. The musical organization, a colorful participant in local protests, is an offshoot of a one-time project called the Utopian Street Orchestra, which traveled to New York City to protest the 2004 Republican National Convention. Ironically, the Utopian Street Orchestra was an offshoot of the Fort Sanders Community Marching Band, which marches across campus, dressed in black, during UT home football games. Call it trickle-down activism.

Another Biscotheque-based organization that shares a pseudonym with the NWA orchestra is Ninjas With Agendas, an autonomous flash-mob-type troupe that was founded to unsettle the status quo through oft-bizarre street theater, typically involving synchronistic events, out-of-place happenings, and staged satires of reality.

But the housemates seem most proud of their actions that are rooted, in some shape or fashion, in social or political commentary.  

Sometimes their goal is to push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable; for instance, a recent action called “Humaniquins” involved three males posing in increasingly erotic positions in front of various storefronts at Knoxville Center Mall, testing how long it would take before people started raising their eyebrows.

Others provoke onlookers to question their own attitudes. For an action called “Patriotic Ninjas,” a group gathered on the corner of Kingston Pike and Concord for a mock pro-war demonstration. Dressed in red, white and blue, they drummed and chanted, “One, two, peace is gay. One, two, peace is…,” into bullhorns and held up signs reading “A violent America is a rich America.” The reaction they got was mixed—“Some people played into it,” Williams explains—but at least they got a reaction. Too often, they’ve found that people walk or drive right past their antics, too numb, busy or apathetic to care.

The same goes for convincing people to be activists, not onlookers, in everyday life. “It’s really hard to get people motivated sometimes,” Knowles says. It follows, then, that many activists have turned to such tools as improv street-theater and other creative measures to get their points across—Ninjas With Agendas and the Nuclear Waste of America Orchestra being two local examples.

The phenomenon was never more obvious than it was during the aforementioned 2004 Republican National Convention, which attracted an estimated half-million protesters and resulted in more than 1,800 individual arrests—a record for a political convention in the United States. Knoxville’s Utopian Street Orchestra was only one of countless creative expressions of dissent. Among the unusual demonstrations, there was a mock countermarch staged by Billionaires for Bush, which attracted an estimated 300,000 participants; a Fox News Shut-Up-A-Thon was held in front of Fox News Channel’s headquarters; AIDS activists organized a naked protest in front of Madison Square Garden; and between 5,000 and 6,000 participants took part in a critical-mass bike ride through the city.

Such technology has made its way into the Biscotheque, and a couple of the biscotexicans have even begun doing freelance Web design. “It’s a great way to connect people all over the world,” Knowles says, pulling out her laptop. She directs its Web browser to the biscotexicans’ Website, www.ninjas, and pulls up a video of a past Ninjas’ action, carefully edited and set to music. The site also contains a calendar of meetings and events, links to other organizations, and prewritten anti-death penalty letters that, with the click of the mouse, can be e-mailed directly to legislators.

Of course, it’s hardly all work and no play at the Biscotheque. There are moonlight biking excursions at Cades Cove, critical-mass rides on the last Friday of every month (with a 4:45 meet-up time, at the Sunsphere) and other activities—many of which, not surprisingly, are of the two-wheeled variety.

One of the residents’ favorite recreational outlets is a game called Fugitive, a sort of urban, Biscotheque-ified variation of the old hide ‘n’ seek-on-the-move standby, Spotlight. Some players are on bicycles, the rest are on foot, and the challenge is for those on foot to make it from a designated starting point in Fort Sanders—James Agee Park, for instance—to a designated point downtown, like the bell on Market Square, without being spotted by anyone on a bicycle.

Each area crossed comes with its own particular challenges. The Fort, a chessboard of houses, streets and alleyways, provides plenty of cover for those on foot, but the wide-open spaces and narrow crossings of the World’s Fair Park increase one’s chances of being caught. Streetlights make downtown’s maze of concrete tough terrain to navigate with any degree of invisibility, as well. Overall, though, Fugitive boils down to a good city-to-dweller bonding experience. It rewards those who know their neighborhood best.

But sometimes it’s nice to just hang out at the house—sip beer on the porch, strum a guitar, and kick a ball around the yard. It’s the best way to scheme up new ideas and to reminisce about what it was that brought them to the Biscotheque, and the idealistic ideology it represents, in the first place. Each of house’s residents cites a turning point in his or her life, a fulcrum at which they determined that the mainstream American lifestyle wasn’t for them. Knowles, for example, explains she grew up feeling outraged at fallacies in the country’s education system, “at how much learning was not taking place.” She started asking the kinds of questions that, in her estimation, traditional academic curricula were avoiding and, in doing so, began realizing what an impact she could potentially have.

Knowles’ parents, she says, have been supportive of her decision to stray from the beaten path, save some natural paternal concern. “My dad is just concerned with me not having enough. We had to have a big talk about it. It’s hard for him to understand.”

Rubenstein’s parents, on the other hand, are perfectly at ease with their son’s belief “that you can live comfortably without money”—just so long as he comes out of it with a college diploma in hand. His father was fond of taking self-sufficient Henry David Thoreau-type excursions in the woods while his son was growing up, and it wasn’t long before Rubenstein began following in his dad’s footsteps.

In high school, he joined an outdoor club, marking the beginning of his own ideological turnaround. “It started to occur to me that it wasn’t just about getting people to go outdoors; it was about getting people to appreciate and take care of the outdoors.” The sight of somebody throwing an apple core on the ground, for instance, no longer seemed like an innocent disposal—in reality, the apple core could be foreign to that particular ecosystem and disrupt the balance of it as a result.

“But it wasn’t just about apple cores,” he says. “It was about these small things that need to be changed in order to change larger things.” In effect, that’s how the residents of the Biscotheque justify their lifestyle: They may just be five people, but each measure they take to pave the way for a healthier world sets an example, creating a ripple effect that transcends their immediate environment.

It’s Williams, however, who boasts the most dramatic tale of lifestyle turnaround. He grew up in a conservative Republican community. In the 2000 presidential election, he voted for Bush. At one time, his idea of community service was teaching abstinence education. But the events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything, he says. “All the immediate talk about revenge, that we would respond to such devastation with more of the same….” Williams shakes his head. Shortly thereafter, he left the religious community he lived in and participated in his first anti-war protest. Today, he credits area groups such as OREPA (Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance) both for initially supporting his transition into the activist community and continuing to support the projects he’s involved with today—including the Biscotheque. “There’s a really great non-violent community in this area that’s been really supportive of what we do,” he says.

In turn, the Biscotheque is supportive of OREPA’s mission, which primarily entails using nonviolent resistance to protest nuclear weapons and the government’s funding thereof. One OREPA action the Biscotheque residents participated in, a protest at ORNL on the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings last August, was particularly unforgettable for Williams. As the police handcuffed those participants who’d engaged in civil disobedience and loaded them into squad cars, Williams received a phone call. His father had passed away.

More specifically, Williams explains, he was allowed to die. His father had been in jail, and jailers had denied him access to his medications—a medical accountability injustice his son is now raising awareness of through activism in addition to seeking legislative change.

If anything, the tragedy served to affirm Williams’ suspicions that he’s doing the right thing, fighting the good fight, speaking up for those who can’t speak up for themselves. It brought a sense of tangibility to a lifestyle that could sometimes feel like ideological shadowboxing, throwing punches at threats that appear to most of us as invisible phantoms: global warming, shrinking pools of non-renewable resources, wars on the other side of the world. Things we can’t see or touch. Things that are easier to just go along with than to fight against, or even question. “This issue [that resulted in the death of his father] wasn’t a new issue for any of us, but it hit a lot closer to home this time,” Williams says.

For a moment, the housemates are silent. Rubenstein stares out the window, past the Biscotheque’s bicycles, to the street where a car is slowly passing. There’s the throaty blare of a train approaching in the distance, accompanied by a slow, rumbling crescendo. Knowles looks up from her mandolin. “There’s always the feeling that you’re not doing enough,” she says.

But the biscotexicans remain hopeful. “Minus the sad air/water quality, Knoxville’s shown me the meaning of community and positive change,” Bensko says. “To an outsider who’s been around, Knoxville can look like a dead horse, but if you’re plugged into a good crowd, it can be a maze of awesome quarries, derelict buildings and family-run businesses.” As a nod to the company surrounding him, he adds “You cherish your friends in a place like this, because sometimes they’re all you’ve got.”