Westlake Center is full of them–full for a wet, blustery Monday night. They are college-age young or older street folks who have used the safety of youth to secure the best vestibules. There is measured shouting, rapping, guitars. The men have facial hair and those ear stud things and the women look like they could beat you up. They are dressed for streetlit rain.
Every light is green for me as I walk, determined and hood up. I do not have to wait for anything as the wind blows. These people are waiting for something and do not know when it is coming or even have certainty of what it is. They have taped their signs to lampposts, made their garbage bag tents and declared themselves here for the duration whether the lights are on or not.
A drunk woman accosts a tall beanpole kid, his black tshirt and jeans hanging on him like torn sails. “Jezus, back off, just leave,” he shouts at her. “Where’s the fucking cops when some drunk bitch is fucking yelling at you?” I ask a guy next to me what is going on, if the woman is really drunk. Oh yeah, he says, with a light and present gravity. The woman had a small box wine and has been following and arguing with the beanpole kid for about five minutes. Cops are stationed on the mall itself, three cars up on the north end. They came through earlier and confiscated all the tents, but they hang back now, cars off, lights off.
“Are you all with Occupy Wall Street?”
He produces an unreadable but not unfriendly headshake and smile, his eyes focused on something far distant. “I’m just here.”
My bus stops right in the middle of them in about fifteen minutes. Other riders assembled look at the schedule with great interest or peer up the street. They do not engage with the protesters, and the protesters have no interest in them. Heading out to the suburbs is the determined goal for some, irrelevant to others.
I walk through them, not engaging in any exchanges but unafraid and interested. They have clever signs and placards, though a few are Monty Python jokes: statements of alignment with the struggles of indigenous peoples, a universal call for honoring the Earth. I wonder if they realize they can be read as farce. Who reads these sternly worded letters from the People’s Liberation Front?
Most huddle under the awnings of semi-tony shops: See’s Candy has the brightest light and several are there, faces bright as someone explains something very important I don’t remember. The listeners sit with backs against the bright plate glass, half-in sleeping bags, fully dressed with ski caps. An old street man, hair in gritty wisps and teeth like limestone hunks sinking into peat, lies on his side, perched up on one arm as he tells a knot of youth about how it was, really was. He points with plump fingers, the weathered skin bunched up in hummocks of dried out kraft paper, each knuckle line as dark as if outlined in grease pencil. Then the rapping kid, oblivious to everyone, his rap spontaneous and elaborate and out of my memory.
Some of the signs are very good. Most revolve around the we are the ninety nine percent theme, but some are cartoons. One is of three figures: Government sleeps peacefully while Banks count bills with a Teddy Roosevelt grin, leaving Citizen to hold up the marble edifice of the state all by himself. The elephant in the picture above is the only puppetry I see. In the streetlight shadow rain I first thought it was a one-legged man, or a pile of PVC pipe. The eyes snapped it in place: the head of the two-headed thing that directs us as efficiently and with as much wisdom as this hollow head.
Free soup! A thin but not too thin kid yells this out from the one structure allowed to remain: a white box made of thick vinyl tarps strung up on steel poles. Hand drawn red crosses mark where to go for first aid; another sign says MEDICAL ONLY! The kids line up in their dark coats for steaming compostable bowls. It smells fabulous, all carrots and ham.
There is a freeness here, a redoubtable happiness. They are in for the long haul of hauling the highest ideals. On TV they chant they will stay there until the job is done. I am sure most of these kids will. The rain has dispensed with the romantics–only true believers huddle under plastic, unafraid of cops or scorn.
When I was in high school awakening to the larger world and its injustice, I watched those PBS documentaries of the 1960s and felt like I had missed the big city train. The middle 1980s had crushed any last vestige of 1970s freedom: kids listened to the Beatles but nobody dared not wear the various uniforms assigned by class and clique: roper, cool, preppy, rocker. We were bombarded with messages of what to buy and what to worry about not being able to buy, ideals arranged to conform with employability. Nobody had heard of running off to join a commune–it was beyond imagination. Certainly beyond Texas.
I was an angry kid, angry at the starving people, the fortune wasted on weapons too powerful to ever use, Central American funny business to “protect our interests”, forests cut down for toilet paper. It was all right there in magazines. I wrote to my Senators and Congressmen (yes, men to be sure) and received long form letters from Phil Gramm. I wanted to do something important, but was terrified of being found out. The only thing more vile than a Communist was a secular humanist. I ordered The Secular Humanist Manifesto from a New York City P.O. box and hid it in a bookshelf.
My fear seemed sensible. I felt a heavy vacuum pressing down on change and difference. What would I say? Where would I go to say it? The handful of progressive professors or intellectual types I came across, even in Boston, seemed like anachronisms at best. Mostly they seemed like waylaid travelers, far from home and out of money.
Did I really want to shout? I never did, barely even into my sleeve. Shouting meant someone would hear, and I would have to explain. I had seen enough of life to know that most people don’t want explanations, especially long ones.
Instead of shouting I watched; instead of saying something I kept quiet. I was learning about futility. Any kind of change seemed enormous and impossible, as if glaciers had descended. 1991 and the Gulf War brought the closest thing to a thaw. For a few hours on Saturday I stood with a history professor and a few of her church associates on a sunlit, busy street. West Fort Worth is probably even more red than the rest of the county, and we were outnumbered several-to-one by loud people across the street holding up support our troops signs. Drivers honked at them, didn’t say much to us. I took pictures and wouldn’t hold a sign.
Now I watch too, but at least it is real, here with real people doing the real work. I have turned off the TV, tuned out most news, worked to bring quiet and the present within. The anxiety is going. These people do not seem anxious. It may be because they have no end, no goal beyond an ideal, and perhaps not even really any hope that they can be out here and say what needs to be said. Is it privation and risk when you are having fun?
I might sit with them, if it came to it. They don’t have puppets or other silly gimmicks. They blog, take pictures, strum guitars. If it came to it, if I felt the unseen mass shift, I could be brave enough to sit with them. I have done many frightening things this year, and in comparison walking down a street without a permit seems possible and real.
Nobody else has a way forward the powers that be will consider. They have no power but have taken space. They are available for the ideas to come.