Saturday afternoon. I took the Q train up to 57th Street, got out and walked down to Broadway and 50th, where I’d read that the Occupy Broadway action was taking place. Approaching, I saw a modest sized group of people on a concrete plaza set back from the street. A person in a clown face handed me a program; if I hadn’t already been looking for the event, it would have been easy enough to refuse and pass on by. As it was, I entered the plaza and stayed for about an hour, enjoying a rapidly rotating menu of performers. There was the chorus singing satirical, damn-the-imperative-to-overconsumption versions of familiar Christmas carols; the interruption by a small group of individuals representing “the 1%,” their puff-ball-like costumes meant to indicate the all-disaster survival gear required to help them through the coming climate change apocalypse and concomitant civil unrest; the interlude of so-called “karaoke protest songs,” performed by audience volunteers giving dramatic readings of the lyrics from a loose-leaf notebook (I read “Masters of War,” but the best performance was an emotive reading of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry, Baby”); the dance piece involving a large roll of orange netting which the performer used to create a “free speech zone,” along with a series of placards with messages like DISSENT IS AMERICAN; the actress from Amsterdam who wore a starched ruff à la “The Night Watch” to perform one song from her forthcoming show about the evils of excessive attachment to Money; the musical theater group that led us through a recap of the entire plot of a full-length musical called “The Big Bank,” which plot heavily featured decisions about foreclosure; we got to hear a couple of songs from the show, and the accordion-wielding composer invited us to go to Kickstarter and support his efforts to get it produced. It is not easy to keep street theater going for 24 hours without a break!
It was too warm a day for December. In Durban, South Africa, the climate talks were ongoing. I took the E down to World Trade Center and walked to Zuccotti Park past all the fair-weather tourists. There were a few dozen people in the park, more than I’ve seen on recent visits, but nothing much happening that I could see. I went and stood behind the barricades on Broadway and read a few brief poems by Tu Fu and Li Pai and who knows who else from Poems of the Masters: China’s Classic Anthology of T’ang and Sung Dynasty Verse as translated by Red Pine (Copper Canyon Press, 2003). It felt like a lonely and (let’s be frank) rather pointless enterprise, given the general indifference, even though I myself was tremendously interested in the poems, and in the elements of ancient Chinese culture that Red Pine illuminates with his commentary–and most of all, I was fascinated by the panorama of Chinese history that this commentary opens up (not even Cavafy, despite his absorption in the past, matches the Chinese way of constructing lyrics as an intimate dialogue with historical figures who lived literally thousands of years before). On the other hand, a few of the poems have an immediacy that makes them seem wholly contemporary. Sometime in the 8th century, Li Pai wrote:
Flocks of birds disappear in the distance
lone clouds wander away
who never tires of my company
only Chingting Mountain
A couple of men were yelling at passersby, almost aggressively, to come and join in–or using the contrary method, making sarcastic comments: “Don’t be nervous–we’re just Occupying. No need for you to do anything.” I’ve noticed this in recent days, the seeming desperation of some demonstrators now that there’s no longer a critical mass at Zuccotti Park. Before the raid, the place was a natural magnet; it advertised itself. Now comes the bitterness of those who’ve worn themselves out thanklessly for the greater good. I stayed long enough to talk with a 50-ish man from Pennsylvania–Scranton area, I think he said–who was involved on some level back home, said he’d been trying to get down to Zuccotti Park for the last two months and had finally made it. His girlfriend came over and they took pictures. I bought a button for $2 from the patient button-seller next to whom I’d taken up my position. “Oh, you can have it for free,” she said, drawing a distinction between me and the tourists. I gave her the money anyway.