I was sitting on a bench on the Lower East Side, waiting for an appointment with my barber, when a homeless lady came shuffling by, dressed in black rags. These were particularly witchy rags, it seemed to me, like she’d bought them at a store as part of a Halloween costume. Like in addition to being homeless she was somehow motivated to accentuate that look, to really embrace it and take it all the way, with props if necessary. I had my iPod with me, tuned to some old podcast, so there was a voice in my ear that was utterly disconnected from the street scene, and the discrepancy had an almost hallucinatory effect, as if what I was seeing was a dream.
The woman had parked her shopping cart several yards away and was rummaging through the nearby garbage cans, gathering bottles and whatever other odd pieces of trash she found useful or interesting. I was gaping at her unabashedly, since, as I said, the reality of the situation wasn’t really registering. This seems to happen to me frequently: Reality doesn’t quite register—but when it does, suddenly and without warning, it crushes me.
Like right now, when to my surprise, the woman stopped, looked right at me, and spoke. Her teeth were black but her eyes were sharp and intelligent. I pulled my headphones out, embarrassed to have fallen into such a solipsistic trance. She smiled: “Have you been downtown yet?”
I stared at her, struggling to understand.
“The protest downtown,” she said. “You look like you’d fit right in.”
The protest. It was September 30, 2011. I’d heard about Occupy Wall Street, of course, but I was startled to hear myself being cast in this light. My hair and beard were overgrown, certainly—after all, at that very moment I was waiting for an appointment with my barber—but had things really gotten so dire? I tried to smile back at her as I shook my head “no.” In all likelihood, she meant it as a compliment, but my vanity was wounded. I’d like to imagine that my beard is much more grand, more regal, than the scruffy growth on some young protester’s chin. Not knowing what to say—how to defend myself, how to explain my extreme self-importance to this poor old woman—I fell silent, and eventually she shuffled back toward her cart.
I got up and hurried off to my appointment with the barber. Obviously it was long overdue.
Several weeks later, on my way home one night, I got stuck behind a man on the 8th Street subway stairs with a bag on his back that was large enough to fit a small piano. Oversized bags of any kind in Manhattan are a pet peeve of mine: Rolling suitcases that drag like dead tails behind the crisscrossing hordes of office workers in Midtown; giant strollers with enough pockets for a baby and its mother to live out of for a month; piles of shopping bags so vast they take up two seats and the entire floor on a subway car. I loathe all of these things. But, for some reason—my arbitrary, peevish mood, perhaps—this guy with the enormous bag was more than I could stand. He was blocking the entire staircase, teetering slowly back and forth. I raced up behind him scowling, hoping he could feel my contempt. But when he turned to look at me, his smile was disarming. He was young, in his early 20s probably, with blue eyes and the scruff of a man who might one day grow a very respectable beard.
“Youfromzoocotty,” he said.
“What?” I said, although I wasn’t even sure he’d asked me a question. As always when I’m talking to a stranger, I felt like I understood nothing.
“Zuccotti,” he repeated. “You from Zuccotti?”
That clicked. It was November 15 and that morning in a surprise raid the NYPD had cleared the protesters out of Zuccotti Park and removed their tents and other belongings, using the pretext that the park needed to be “cleaned” and made “safe” for other New Yorkers to “enjoy” as well. According to Mayor Bloomberg, “Health and safety conditions became intolerable.” I had laughed into my morning orange juice when I read that; it sounded so phony. I could have mentioned this to the man with the piano on his back, which I now realized was probably everything he owned (or at least whatever he’d brought with him to Zuccotti Park), but instead I just blurted out: “Oh, no I’m not!”
And I probably delivered it with some contempt. But not contempt for him or his cause. Once again, I was bristling at being misidentified as part of a group I had no actual relation to. And with that dismissive exchange, our inchoate bond was broken. He turned away, and I pushed past his giant bag and fled into the rainy night.
Two days later, November 17, Occupy Wall Street held their national Day of Action, with marches throughout Manhattan (and other cities too) and a rally at Liberty Park that night. I watched the event streaming live on the Internet from my cubicle at a magazine in midtown, where I was freelance editing for the week. At first, I felt like watching a video of an anti-corporate protest from my desk at one of the biggest media conglomerates in the world was a bit too brazen. But as the hours passed and I got more and more excited text messages from friends, I thought, Fuck it, I don’t really care what these people think and I barely care about this job either.
In fact, I would have been thrilled to have been scolded for watching the video feed. I probably would have even escalated the situation myself. After all, quitting a job is one of the most life-affirming experiences a person can have, and I was itching to get up and leave this one forever. If I was being really honest with myself, I’d have liked to have been downtown, rallying in favor of better jobs, or better benefits, or something. The only thing keeping me at my desk was my sense of commitment: Despite the low pay, long hours, and endless frustrations, I had agreed to do this job and I would see it through for that reason alone. But I certainly wasn’t going to enjoy it.
The next morning, on the subway back to work, the gloomy silence of the commute—the rows of ears plugged with identical ear-buds and eyes trained on rows of indistinguishable electronic devices—was interrupted by the voice of a rabble-rouser: One of those bold men that sometimes takes advantage of a captive subway car to push his own crazy agenda. A hero! The speaker was a black man, middle aged, with a strong beard and a sly smile. He was wearing a high-school-football-style jacket, but on the left breast where a name is usually printed, instead it said simply: “Somebody.”
“Listen up, folks,” he said, looking up and down the subway car at a timid crowd that would not meet his eyes. “Slavery never ended! It has just been given a new name. You all think you’re important people, going off to your jobs, your careers … but you’re no better than slaves.”
He held up a copy of the Daily News. The cover photo was of the bloodied and distraught face of a protester at the previous day’s march, with a condescending headline that read: “For Cryin’ Out Loud.”
“You all work hard, right?” the man went on. “Forty, 50, 60 hours a week, and you think you’re lucky. Well, there’s a lot of people in this city who aren’t going to do anything today.” He smiled, and by this time I’d taken out my ear-buds and was smiling too, almost laughing. “You know what Mr. Bloomberg is doing today? Nothing. Not a goddamn thing. Well, maybe he’ll have another press conference to remind everyone what a nuisance the people that do want to make a difference in this city are. And there’s a lot of other people doing nothing all day too. That’s what they have you for: To do the hard work, to slave away all day at jobs that make them rich.”
No one looked at him. Perhaps they were too ashamed, or angry, or they thought he was the nuisance, another crazy black man on the subway who ought to be ignored. I felt my body getting hot, starting to tremble. He was articulating my feelings so exactly: The dread I feel every morning when I get up to go to work, the despair I feel when faced with the complacency of so many of my peers, the humiliation of being stuck in what feels like a trap. The subway doors opened and people began filing off the train.
“I’ll tell you what,” the man said, still smiling, as people pushed past him, their eyes downcast: “You all should learn the words to Kumbaya. Trust me, it helps.”
As I passed him, on my way out the door to spend another eight hours staring at a computer screen, checking blogs and chatting online while intermittently doing a bit of work, I nodded, as if in solidarity, as if I had something real in common with this man. Maybe I did. And maybe I’d had something in common with the man on the subway stairs I’d acted so contemptuously toward. And with the woman in rags who’d been so polite, so genuine in her assumption that I was part of something. Part of what, however, I still couldn’t say ... and I was worried that this, whatever it was, was already coming to an end, before I’d even had a chance to understand ...
Rob Williams is a mercenary copywriter and copy editor who lives above a meat market in the East Village. You can find more of his stories at www.itmustbebobby.com.