Today I approached Zuccotti Park from a new direction, after taking the E train to its last stop, the one called World Trade Center. My route to the park took me right past the construction at Ground Zero, where the sidewalks are filled with tourists whose enthusiasm has a very different tinge from that of the throngs who snap pictures of OWS (though I’m sure that some visitors take in both sights with equal interest). How low to the ground the blue and tan tents of the Occupation appeared as compared with the construction crane-studded theater of hubris on display down the street! I walked up Liberty to Broadway, enjoying on the way the sight of a couple of stationary bicycles rigged up as electrical generators that appeared a couple of days ago.
My reading today–poems by James Weldon Johnson, Carl Sandburg, and Robinson Jeffers from the Library of America anthology American Poetry: The Twentieth Century–took second place to my interactions with people. When I reached Broadway, the first thing that caught my attention was a tall, pale young man in a decorative knit cap reading the Sermon on the Mount in what I took to be the Revised Standard Version. (It certainly wasn’t the King James Version, as, for example, it referred to the “speck” in one’s eye rather than the “mote” in thy neighbor’s eye versus the “beam” in thine own eye.) He read very well and the sermon went on for a long time, and seemed quite as relevant to the occasion as most of the poetry I have selected for reading there. When he finished, I talked with him until he headed off to the other end of the park for the noon drumming circle. He said that this was his first time reading anything aloud at OWS, but he liked the experience and thought maybe he’d try it with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. At this, a middle-aged African American man who was holding a sign about the 1%’s fiscal shenanigans and hailing all the tourist buses that passed with a hearty “Welcome to New York!” made a sarcastic comment about how Dr. King’s family has copyrighted his speeches. “Why do you think you never hear that speech? You heard that speech lately?” While I was dimly aware of the copyright issue, I was incredulous that it could really prevent someone from reading the speech on a street corner, but the man was so vehement about it that finally I suggested maybe we needed to hear the speeches of Malcolm X instead. “Which speech do you want?” he shot back. “The one about how the Black man is God and white people are devils?” His eyes sparkled. Touché. “Sure, we need all points of view!” I tried to parry.
While I was reading James Weldon Johnson’s “O Black and Unknown Bards,” a man with a camera asked if he could take my photograph and then rather rudely demanded that I speak my permission for its use while he continued to film me. “You’re sure you won’t sue me if I make some money off this?” And a brown-skinned man with a lovely face and a shy smile, whose name I eventually learned was Joshua, stood listening to the end of the poem and then quoted to me several verses of James Russell Lowell’s “The Present Crisis,” as reminding him in some way of the Johnson poem: “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,–/Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,/Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.” He then asked me if I believe that there is anyone or anything outside us who cares for us in the way this poem describes. I found myself answering at much greater length than I normally would this type of question, and Joshua responded with the most delicate invitation to reconsider my atheism and entertain the possibility of embracing Christian faith that I’ve ever received. He spoke about the terrible trouble and suffering in the world, and how much more acute it is in those countries known as “Third World.” He evoked the despair that we must feel when we consider how disastrously human development has gone awry. He read me a psalm–the 46th. And he proposed that Christ’s message has truth, though not the truth espoused by organized religion–he believes that God will intervene to correct all that is so wrong and to inaugurate a kingdom of righteousness on earth. I thought of the millennial Christians who, a thousand years ago, combined practical rebellion against unjust regimes on earth with a similar faith.
A little later, I found myself talking to a sixtyish woman who said she was on her way to the teacher’s union, and was so glad about what we were doing…a very intense, beautiful woman of about the same age who said, “I’m from Tibet,” and talked to me for quite a while about the people who are immolating themselves there, including, recently, a 20-year-old nun, and what terrible environmental damage the Chinese government has caused by dumping nuclear waste that, she says, has contaminated the sources of the great rivers of Asia that originate in her country–she carefully unwrapped a sign calling for a boycott of China…a woman I’ve seen before, who is a permanent Occupier and today was handing out informational brochures that have been produced to orient people to OWS (we spoke about plans for educational courses at the site, which she said ought to have been part of the movement from the beginning, “But in typical American fashion, we’ve just been having people vote randomly on things they don’t know anything about”)…a petite, well-groomed, rather suburban-looking woman who held a piece of cardboard almost as big as she was with a long hand-lettered message about losing her savings as a result of Wall Street greed, and at 70 years old finding herself in the same situation as so many other people….
Did I mention that Carl Sandburg’s “The People, Yes” is well worth revisiting? Or that I found in the Robinson Jeffers poems I read today a powerful reminder of something in my awareness that at times seems to make me totally alien to the vast majority of people I encounter in the Northeast, that something being my knowledge that the things of the earth are real? And at the same time, what strong distaste I felt–it amounted almost to indignation–for the showy arrogance of his proclaimed detachment from human folly!