The funny thing for me about Occupy Wall Street is that without the Internet, I probably would never have heard about it. Wall Street exists for me in three different mental spots. There’s the Wall Street of TV and movies, whose main purpose is to serve as the abstraction by which to compare its counter-metonym, Main Street. That is the Wall Street of whatever is going on right now. Then there’s the Wall Street of my morning commute—which takes up a single spot in my brain as a reference point between Clark and Fulton streets and represents a growing dread about the following 8.5+ hours of my day. And there’s also the Wall Street of reality, the physical space dominated by the banks and the douchebags who work in them, and which I have only visited a handful of times, several of them accidentally.
This third one is also the Wall Street of whatever’s going on right now, of course. And visiting it in person after seeing my Facebook feed turned into a kind of group protest live-blog lent it something of a cinematic, on-set quality, albeit for a very grungy, crowded, and more or less inchoate film.
I will admit that my visit to #OccupyWallStreet HQ followed some initial reluctance. I have spent much of my adult life fleeing activism, after a childhood full of what began to appear, by the early aughts, as so much Homerian breast-beating. I had also become a bit resentful of the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” rhetoric my [doctoral candidate] friends had started bandying about over an “us” that was, as far as I could tell, intentionally undefined. Which, I suppose, makes that statement true, but I didn’t appreciate being shunned for wanting to take a longer view on an evolving process.
But so anyway, then I realized that all I was really doing was holding out hope for something impossible, and I started to think about how the apparently earth-shattering influence of the May ’68 protests has never made any fucking sense to me either, and then also how it was just kind of stupid not to go check out this big important thing that was happening five miles away from my bed.
As usual, however, I did not have my shit together, and I didn’t look anything up, and I even kind of patted myself on the back about it, feeling like I wasn’t compromising any of my “oh, whatever” look-see stance. So as a result, I missed all the speakers and wandered around OWS rather purposelessly.
Here’s what you need to know about Occupy Wall Street. They’re not fucking kidding about the occupy part. From the subway you maunder through the packs of oblivious Wall Street–bound tourists—all somehow unmistakably Middle American or European by their gaits and their shoes—drawn by the faint sounds of people and bongos, and then suddenly you find yourself in the middle of the thing, standing on a chalked Harper’s Index–worthy stat about irresponsible government expenditures, and gazing into a crowd of people in all points of stasis and movement and facing every possible direction.
As I neared Zuccotti Park, a 50-ish townie jogged by in front of me, shirtless and seemingly oblivious to the protests. “So there’s the protesters,” said a squat, hick-accented dude in a Dallas Cowboys hat. And there they were. I had no idea where to go.
Entering the park, I saw a concentrated cluster surrounding a man leading a long call-and-response chant. I forget what he was saying, but it’s not important. Another group hovered around a guy making protest buttons, and down at the buffet line there was a mix of standard hippy fare, along with a big basket of M&Ms, still in the packaging. A vaguely methy-looking middle-aged woman sat at a table, hands atop a cartoonish book/pamphlet called Mommy, Why Do the Republicans Hate America? The “library” along the north end of the park had some predictable titles (Rules for Radicals; The People’s History of the United States; The Chomsky Reader; Readings in General Sociology), and some that were less so (Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays; Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree; Eat, Pray, Love). A couple women snaked in and out of the crowd, handing out pamphlets. I lost mine. A man yelled at me near the food for standing still and obstructing the flow of traffic. There were people sprawled out, defining the pathway with their inert bodies, sleeping (or trying to). Jesse LaGreca was seated in front of a table, wearing the Union kepi and smoking a cigarette. There was an incredibly earnest guy near the library holding a Ron Paul sign. The odor of sage wafted in my direction. I’d forgotten what it felt like to be in the presence of so many old white dude dreadlocks.
All in all, the whole thing had the feel of a more admittedly desultory gathering, like Burning Man or the Oregon Country Fair, mixed with a European–style celebratory grève. I overheard snippets of conversation—an over-enthusiastic young man tried to convince a much older man to hook up with a march when he got back to D.C. An awkward teen broke in on a stranger to ask if she was looking for the face paint. She wasn’t. A soft-spoken post-college guy tried to impress a girl he’d just met by contemplating whether or not to spend the night in the park. It seemed to be working.
I came upon a dark-haired young man submitting amiably to the joking harassment of a couple of older gentlemen. His hand-written name tag said Aaron. He told me he’d come down from Buffalo ten days ago to join the protests. He was maybe 20 years old. He’d joined up with one of the 30 to 40 working groups he said were in the park, organizing different aspects of the “occupation.” He told me about plans to expand into other parts of the city, like Washington Square Park, and to get a warehouse space for when it got too cold to sleep outside. He said the website had already raised about $100,000. I couldn’t imagine finding something to care so much about or doing anything so bold and resiliently optimistic when I was that age, and for that I both admired and felt a little bit sorry for him.
I wished Aaron good luck and walked toward the perimeter of the park. The cops standing watch looked bored, and I couldn’t blame them. Surrounded by a bunch of gawking onlookers, Geraldo Rivera was standing across the street, his back to the masses. I couldn’t resist. As I got there, they were just wrapping up the segment, and Geraldo’s crew was breaking down the gear. A burly, soap-opera-ishly handsome guy was following Geraldo around with a fistful of tissues. A dude in one of those bicycle-cum-skateboard helmets started heckling. “THAT’S GERALDO’S BROTHER,” he yelled. “THAT GUY WITH THE TISSUES IS GERALDO’S BROTHER!” A few people tittered. Tissue-guy grinned and raised his arms triumphantly. I realized that there is a permanently condescending quality to Geraldo’s smile. “HE’S BETTER-LOOKING THAN GERALDO, BUT GERALDO’S MORE FAMOUS!” The crowd squawked. Geraldo and his “brother” looked around awkwardly, as if they hadn’t heard. It was the most entertaining thing I’d seen all week. Everyone dispersed and I headed for the subway. And then I went back to Brooklyn to buy a hundred dollar machine that carbonates water, because I am human, and I am weak.