Ladies & Gentlemen at the Rally

by

02/16/2003

E 51st St & 3rd Ave, New York, NY 10022

Neighborhood: Midtown

The cold wreaked transformation: bone chilling and serious, the kind that keeps people home, yet here we were, all of us, shivering, waving signs, gleeful. Maybe half a million, and if the media says otherwise don’t believe it. Half a million! Could we really stop a war? At times like this, people change.

I saw possible proof by the curb. The glut was so thick on 51st and Third that I couldn’t look ahead, so I looked down – at trash. Someone had disposed of a torn plastic bag. Dark green file folders spilled out, and long hanks of human hair. The hair was brown-red and copious but not shiny. It was dull and quite matted, like hair from a white kid who messed around for months with dreadlocks. Then what happened? Did the white kid attend the anti-war demonstration, pass by an office near the UN, and realize that world peace needed him to work there, even if it meant getting a suit and a haircut? Alternatively, did someone in the office go to the demonstration, forever abandon paper pushing for street action, and dump the green files?

By 3 p.m. the claustrophobia was impossible, the cold had numbed my limbs, and it no longer helped that I’d gone without coffee. I plowed and shoved and suddenly found an edge: Europa Market, somewhere in the low 50s by Lexington. On a normal East Side Saturday, customers would have been sitting at the blond tables with their fruit-yoghurt cups and muffins, staring absently at the decorative flasks with dried legumes, worrying about shopping or work or Code Orange. Today it was all anti-war. Forests of signs were propped by the cute tables, with words like “A Bush, A Dick and A Colon: No Wonder Things are Bad.” A family in jeans and lumpy hats huddled on the floor by the gourmet salad area, singing Pete Seeger songs and munching granola from jiffy bags. People with scarves and glazed eyes caressed their beverage cups, trying to transfer the heat. Everyone drank coffee.

Which of course drove them to the bathrooms. Europa Market’s have marble sinks and doors labeled with burnished brass: Ladies, Gentlemen. Normally they are clean and decorous, with fat rolls of paper and no waiting. Today there was a long line and it was unisex. If you were male and someone exited Ladies, you went in. Likewise if you were female and space opened in the other room. Going to the stall, females passed males at the urinals with their penises barely covered. In Ladies, males latched themselves into little rooms, divided by only a wall from females they’d never met whose pudenda and buttocks were bare.

Some people were matter of fact. Others tried their best. “I have been around the world,” said an elderly South Asian man with wire rim glasses and only half of a smile. “Around the world and I think I have never seen men with women in a public bathroom, and women with men.” A thirtyish American in rectangle glasses emerged from Ladies. “I don’t like it. Not at all,” he said and scurried off. A woman peered into Gentlemen and backed away, shuddering. An eight year old in a snowflake-pattern hat rebelled at first. He stepped gingerly into Ladies but bolted, wailing, “I can’t!” “Jacob!” his mom ordered, “just go!!” He slunk back.

My turn came and I ended up in the ordinary place. Still, there was a man next door, and I thought how he could hear my sounds, the prim cataract of a strange woman on a porcelain bowl. I finished my business. But on second thought I didn’t, because I am 52 years old already and who knows when this experience will come again? I got back in line and it worked out. For the first time in my life I strolled past occupied urinals, slowly, gazing without shame at men with their backs to me, meditative, captive, gentle, like cows at a milking machine. I went to the stall, though physiologically speaking I didn’t need to. I sat on the toilet Like my comrade cows at the urinals, I meditated. About change and Peace Now and a half million, Ladies and Gentlemen, mixed up too much now to be ignored

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