The Day The War Started



W 42nd St & 8th Ave, New York, NY 10036

Neighborhood: Midtown, Multiple

At about quarter to five this past Thursday I got into a cab at 56th and Broadway; my destination was the Port Authority and the Short Line Bus to my home in Orange County. It was a rainy, miserable day and I was damned glad to get the cab. My driver was relievedly Haitian — one checks these days.

As we drove down Broadway we saw a huge phalanx of police vehicles almost two blocks long ahead of us, every one of them with their emergency lights flashing in an alarming fashion. My first reaction was, naturally, worry — what now? My second was annoyance — there are too many official vehicles on the road these days with their lights flashing self-importantly. But their slow, almost stately progress down Broadway counterindicated any real disaster and my feelings settled into the familiar groove of commuter pique at obstacle and delay.

Broadway looked to be impossible, so the driver turned left at 50th Street and then right onto Seventh Avenue. But within two blocks we hit terminal gridlock. There was a big hubbub ahead of some sort, complete with television trucks with their satellite dishes and police vehicles alight. So I paid the cab driver and got out to hoof it.

At 47th Street the cause of the blockage became clear: a rush hour antiwar protest march in Times Square. Police were everywhere and protesters were chanting the familiar mantra “No blood for oil.” At that moment of recognition a strong surge of anger shot through me that was both simple and complex. The simple component was: How dare these people get between me and the 5:26 bus? The complicated part broke down like this:

1) A tactical beef: How could they think that a protest action snarling traffic at the city’s busiest crossroads just as tens of thousands of people were heading home could generate anything but counterproductive resentment?

2)An atavistic and surprising, to me, spasm of wartime disgust for their silly rote mottos and reflexive anti-Americanism. These feelings combusted in my brain and I just caught myself before yelling some sneering imprecation at them in native New Yorker fashion.

At that moment there came back to me a gut-based memory of 1970. On date May11, antiwar activists marched down Wall Street to protest the Vietnam War. An American flag was burnt, whereupon an assault column of inflamed construction workers from the World Trade Center site arrived to inflict serious physical violence on the marchers. The police were less than proactive, let’s say, and the construction workers were cheered on enthusiastically by the spectators, almost all of them downtown office workers.

That’s where my parents worked, my father at the Chase Manhattan Building, my mother for Standard Brands, and while they were not among the cheering, they certainly approved of the actions. I know this because they so informed me that night in our Brooklyn apartment, to my utter dismay. As my mother said, and I can quote her precisely, “We went through World War Two, Gerry, and we respect our flag and our country.”

Jesus, World War Two, the trump card in every political argument!

And there were plenty. You can imagine the subsequent conversation, which realized every cliche of generation gap misapprehension but no less bitter for its formulaic nature.

And here I was, 35 years later, about to berate a new generation of antiwar protestors, marching against another American . . . well, another American what? Imperial misadventure? Act of preemptive self-defense.? Whatever it is, my animus against the marchers was discomfiting in the extreme, creating a spasm of self-questioning. Had I somehow managed (baby boomer horror) to turn into my parents? Maybe so. I mean, I hate the way we have entered this war and I have nothing but distaste for and suspicion of the people who have led us into it. I hate what war does to this country: the awful admixture of moistness and macho that news commentators adopt, the smug insider way that the annoyingly endless string of retired general “news consultants” intone “shock and awe,” the mindless, tasteless triumphalism.

But the war itself and the people fighting it for us I don’t hate.

In this mood I walked south to Father Duffy Square, when I heard my name being called. It was a fellow named Ken, son of a noted avant-garde publisher, a fixture at various downtownish and bleeding edge literary events where I sometimes find myself in my guise as an older publishing guy. I said hello, and then, with a confident smile and demonic timing, he asked me, “Want to join the march?” Whipsawed!

But it was never even close.

I shook my head and said, “Ahh, no thanks.” Then I made my way to the bus station in the rain.

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