April 07th, 2008
BW: When did you start writing?
OSBORN: In high school. I had a lot of trouble growing up, many kinds of destructive situations. I began writing on my own. Later on I found out there were poets whose lives were as messed up as mine. They seemed to understand me better than anyone in my life.
OSBORN: [Arthur] Rimbaud, [Charles] Baudelaire. And I had an anthology of Beat poets. [Allen] Ginsberg’s Howl and Kaddish. Reading poems helped me get through another hour, another night, another day. I had been very suicidal until then.
BW: How close to death were you?
OSBORN: The first time I was laying, bleeding to death in a park. It was late at night, three or four in the morning, in Ohio. I was very drunk. I had fallen on my head and burst an artery. A police car went by and never even noticed me laying there. I was in the shadows, in the mud, and the blood was just pumping out of an artery in the back of my head. I figured, ‘Well, this is it.’ I remember the grass being wet, and the earth.
All of a sudden, this white Cadillac pulled to the curb, and these strong arms were lifting me to my feet. I was bleeding and muddy and drunk and they put me in this clean back seat and pressed a towel to my head and took me to the hospital. To this day I have no idea who those people were.
BW: Have there been other times when you were ‘saved’?
OSBORN: Yeah. Several.
BW: What happened to turn things around?
OSBORN: I was written off by psychologists, by cops, by judges. I was even written off by myself. I thought, “I’m not going to have a life.” It seemed foreclosed. And then something new happened in my life. One day I emerged, 45 years old, broke, homeless, in a detox centre, with nothing, and I thought, “Well, what am I going to do from here?” I decided I didn’t want to be so self-absorbed. Since then I’ve been able to contribute, to work with other people, and to passionately advocate for others. I’m still kind of stunned, going from one place to another.
BW: Where did you find the will to start working for other people?
OSBORN: I’ve thought about that. It must be somewhere in my background. My uncle organized unions in Toledo where I grew up. I remember him as being a very intense man. He fought the U.S. Army in the streets of Ohio. Strikers were killed. And my grandfather had been a coal miner. He was working in a coal mine in southern Illinois and there was a strike. Scabs were brought in from Chicago, and the miners surrounded them with rifles and opened fire. The scabs gave up, they surrendered, and the coal miners murdered 17 of them. When the coal miners were brought to trial, they were all acquitted. It would have been impossible to convict a miner in southern Illinois for the murder of a Scab.
Growing up, every kind of curse word was common currency except for the word Scab. If you said that, you were saying something really negative about somebody. That was the worst thing you could call somebody, the worst thing you could be.
BW: What about your mother and father?
OSBORN: My mother was a manic depressive and in one of her later manic phases she decided to run for president of the United States – seriously. She happened to be in a psych ward at the time. She had been in the U.S. Army. She would always end up on this ward with Vietnam vets. So one day she announced that she was going to run, and called a press conference. My mother said she was going to run on behalf of all the mental patients, all the alcoholics, the addicts, all the poor people, the Vietnam vets that were so stressed out and troubled.
BW: All the people who were right at the bottom.
OSBORN: Yes, exactly. An irony in the Downtown Eastside is that there are two hotels within a block of each other on East Hastings Street. One is the Walton; the other is the Patricia. Those are the first names of my parents; Walton and Patricia. I think about that sometimes. It’s as if there’s a family connection in terms of trying to defend people who are being assaulted down there.
BW: Do you believe in destiny? Do you have a faith?
OSBORN: I don’t know how to define theology very much, but I realize now that I don’t have the last word. Human beings don’t. We would like to, but it isn’t that way. Other factors are involved. There’s another hand involved, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. The hope of bringing possibilities out of impossibilities, that sustains me. And it sustains some of the people that I’ve met who have said, “Don’t stop. Whatever you’re doing now, just don’t stop. Don’t stop fighting.”
For instance, there has been an intense and relentless police attack on the 100-block Hastings area without taking into consideration that there are other ways to solve the problems around illicit drug use. Those are the sort of things that concern me on a day-to-day basis. That’s why it’s really exciting for me to work with musicians. It’s a way to expand the discussions beyond grinding political meetings or making speeches.
BW: Did you actually record your CD on the roof of the tall building, or is that just a promo thing?
OSBORN: No, we recorded in a studio on the roof of a building.
BW: It’s ironic to be making music on a skyscraper about life down on the street.
OSBORN: What can I say? I guess music can be celestial and down-to-earth at the same time.
BW: What happens if you get hugely successful and you wind up with tons of dough?
OSBORN: I’d buy Woodwards and develop it for the needs of the people of the Downtown Eastside.
Essay Date: 1999