The Reno Matrix
Donald Griffin speaks like he writes. He weaves through images and ideas, the last word of every phrase seeming to trigger a parallel line of thought. He can theorize about unseen dimensions and institutional corruption in the same sentence. Before you know it he’s talking about Sci-fi movies and the descriptive acuity of Stephen King, and after awhile you get the sense that it all relates to each other.
Griffin is a big The Walking Dead fan, and though no actual zombies appear in his writing, the motif of human brains hijacked by forces beyond their comprehension recurs throughout his body of work.
As he puts it, “That’s what we are in a way. Walking around not knowing shit.” In his work, Griffin calls this phenomenon “The Reno Matrix,” an invisible veil hiding what really controls the day to day reality of a changing city. He represents the unseen influence of media with the ubiquity of devices:
Trust issues with computers, disconnecting TV’s, and threw away a hundred phones.
These cuts and bruises prove I learn from hands on.
Without choice of red or blue pill,
I suddenly woke up in the Reno Matrix.
For Griffin, there’s more to life in Reno than what its citizens perceive with their senses. What we see only tells part of the story. This perspective is especially important considering Reno’s evolving climate.
Corporate influences like Amazon and Tesla are changing the city along every dimension. The population is growing. Areas like Midtown and downtown are being gentrified, housing is suddenly inordinately expensive.
A city formerly characterized by low cost of living, dive bars, and casinos is becoming what locals are calling “Mini Portland.” Staple bars like Shea’s Tavern are now bordered by gastropubs and German beerhauses. Midtown’s hip influence extends north toward downtown. The university expands south across the freeway, leveling motels and brick houses.
For many residents, the changes are welcome. But for a significant population of Reno citizens, there’s a steadily shrinking amount of space to exist in.
Who Does the City Belong To?
The city is redefining what kind of place it wants to be, what sort of person it’s supposed to be for. Griffin’s piece, “Who Does the City Belong to?,” (part of which is in video above) questions whether he has a place within the redefined Reno.
For Griffin, there’s a disconnect between the the growth narrative told by developers, hipsters, young professionals and the lived experience of many of its citizens. The narrator states, “The world has an order held in place and designed to keep you in a governmental haze. Hibernating in a lack of knowledge.”
Griffin’s writing punctures the illusion suggested by Reno’s recent development. He comes from a place outside of the mainstream narrative, and it's his experience that allows him to see institutional corruption in a way that’s distinct from Reno citizens happy about the city’s recent changes.
This is part of what attracted Griffin to writing. He writes, as he puts it, for “the people still trapped inside the boxes I used to be trapped in.”
One such box, for Griffin, was addiction. “I was drinking and drugging for 23 years,” he says. He’s been homeless and has had people close to him die of overdose, what he calls the “street form of suicide.”
When he got sober, Griffin felt that he had “woken up” from the Reno matrix. He’s been fortunate to find “the keys” to the life he wants to lead, and he hopes to be a positive influence on the community in the same way that his own influences led him to consider writing in the first place.
Griffin thinks of reality as being different for everyone. For him, writing is the bridge between different people’s perception of reality, allowing him to show where different perspectives diverge and overlap: “You don’t know my world, but I can try to take my world and blend it in with your world.” Writing allows Griffin to talk to himself on paper, and it’s his hope that these conversations will be beneficial not only to those currently suffering from addiction and “living street,” but also to those who might not be aware of the challenges faced by Reno’s homeless and housing insecure citizens.
This type of perspective is becoming more and more crucial as the divide between the Midtown crowd and those checking into shelters and weekly motels grows wider. It’s easy to assume that Reno’s changing landscape is a natural progression, that gentrification is a normal consequence of economic growth. But what makes space for one person can push someone else to the margin, and Griffin’s writing attempts to amplify the perspective of people whose experience contradicts the mainstream narrative. “Normal is a speed on the dial of a washing machine,” Griffin writes, and pieces like Reno Matrix and Who Does the City Belong to? question the assumptions behind mainstream ideas of normalcy.
When Bad Habits of Youth “Become You”
From Griffin’s perspective, some significant factors leading to homelessness in Reno are also overlooked by conventional understanding. A big part of the problem, he says, has to do with Reno’s more notorious industries.
The city’s bars and casinos offer a fairly lively party scene, but for young adults between 16 and 20, Griffin says there’s “nothing to do.” While The Holland Project (Reno’s only dedicated all ages show space) offers about three to four events every week, the lack of structure for young people’s lives, coupled with the town’s party culture, is tailor made for underage drinking and drug use. Experimentation turns to habit fairly quickly, Griffin says, and before you know it, what was your habit “becomes you.” Griffin believes that underage drinking and drug use leads to teenage pregnancy and youth addiction, both of which he sees as significant factors leading to youth and continued homelessness.
The solution for Griffin needs to come at both the personal and institutional levels. “Not everyone is gonna go to college,” he says, and high schools need to offer trade alternatives to the traditional high school to UNR to office job track that isn’t feasible for some Reno students. The educational institutions also need to inspire students to pursue their interests rather than simply shuffling them out into a world as potential employees. Griffin says: “Ask the kids, ‘what’s your dream,’ not ‘who do you wanna work for?’” Offering engaging alternatives and encouraging kids to pursue their passions will, Griffin believes, remedy the feeling of aimlessness and hopelessness that inspires kids to start using in the first place.
All-Out Activism and Engagement
In addition to his writing, Griffin strives to enact change in any way he can : “I got my life back, and I wanna do the same for somebody else.” He’s worked with New Generation Dare (video trailer above), Our Town Reno, The Holland Project, and he is a regular member of the Speaker’s Bureau at ACTIONN (Acting in Community Together in Northern Nevada), whose recent lobbying efforts were instrumental in the advancement of the Washoe County Affordable Housing Trust Fund. His schedule is constantly full, but Griffin says his newfound ambition is not an attempt to “fix the past.” He instead looks to the future, constantly in pursuit of “the outcome” of his actions and efforts. Writing and community activism have enhanced his life, and he wants to spread that sense of power to those that need it most.
Griffin calls this desire the “poet’s curse,” the ability to speak for “the ones who aren’t able to” on their own behalf. His writing attempts to break people out of their day to day assumptions, and Griffin uses digressions, cryptic images, and symbolism to represent how tied up people are within their assumptions.
Griffin takes some pleasure in making his readers work: “I don’t want to give ‘em too much. I want to put it in words they can understand, but I want to lose them a little bit. I wanna give them just enough detail and bring it back and give them the reality in 3D.”
Griffin is a fan of Quentin Tarantino movies, and the non-linear structure made famous in films like Pulp Fiction has clearly influenced his style. It’s precisely this disjointed approach, the type of structure that encourages readers to discover meaning rather than accepting easy interpretations, that a changing city like Reno needs right now.