Written originally Saturday, October 8, 2011
Reading Gretel Ehrlich’s meditation on Wyoming life in her book, “The Solace of Open Spaces,” I sit alone on the train into the Chicago Loop where I will wander towards the Federal Reserve Bank to see what I can of the Occupy Chicago movement. Will I be a part of it? Or is my intention only to be a bystander?
My new neighborhood, Lincoln Square, is alive today with the bright colors of fall leaves and a late heat wave of 80 degrees. I walked past the usual strollers and bikes and accompanying children, parents and twenty-somethings on the Square, but I also passed a lively gaggle of middle-aged women with curlers in their hair and cigarettes in their hands outside a darkened beauty shop. Then, there was the music of the young banjo and fiddle players bouncing through the air.
My roommate sits in the quiet, but bustling bookstore across the street from all this action where she is peacefully reading any and all magazines and books in observance of Yom Kippur–not eating or buying anything.
I fell into my characteristic quietness during the debates, which I have often been reassured are “just conversations.” I will admit I have often shied away from these disagreements out of undue discomfort. But I would like to think I have grown to appreciate them appropriately. I found myself last night trying to synthesize both sides of each argument, trying to decide if I were to tell the story of their conversation, would it really be about the ills and advantages of ascribing human emotion onto inarticulate animate and inanimate objects or would it be more about how people hear and talk to each other — simply about conversation itself.
As young, educated people, we are fortunate in our circumstances and continually concerned with the future. What change will we see in our careers, our relationships with others and each other, in our country and in our world?
Is our affluence our defining feature? Is it somehow permanent even as we make our own way or do we stand a chance at redeeming the world in our attempt at thoughtfulness and understanding?
The day after I will wander through protests while my roommate will sit in quiet contemplation and my boyfriend will hurry around flyering for his internship before clocking in at the bagel shop, we will get in a car, drive away from this city for an afternoon and take advantage of the privilege of apple-picking in fall, quipping and conversing the whole way.
After visiting the protest:
When I first arrived at 2 PM, the protest seemed small. One street corner crowded with signs and drumming. I joined a smaller group of people across the street. A few stragglers, wondering like me whether to and how to join in. I walked around the mostly empty block as if dipping my toes in from all sides of the pool. I wound up back in my original spot, observing the whole thing.
After a few minutes of watching, I struck up a conversation with a self-described “white guy with a shaved head” somewhere in his 30s. We talked about why we were there, but not joining the protest, about labels and unifying messages. Then our conversation wandered from one baffling issue to the next: legalization of marijuana, feeding and educating children, rural living, mineral rights, Dick Cheney’s daughter, Reagan, Wal-mart, his NRA membership, my father’s race for Wyoming State Senate as a Democrat after years as a registered Republican.
“You know, I just don’t think I can. If someone walked up to me standing over there and asked me why I was there I wouldn’t be prepared to tell them exactly why.”
“But if there were people lined down five blocks, would you join them then?” He asked me.
“Huh. Maybe I would.”
Eventually we exchanged names and parted. As I turned away, a row of people seemed at first glance to be blocking the street by linking arms until I noticed their fancy dresses and suits and realized the group made up a wedding party. They were posing for a picture in front of the Chicago Board of Trade building. They began moving through the crowd, but without obvious signs of support or dissent. It seemed unclear whether their special day coincided with the protest on purpose or by indifferent accident.
I moved down toward the corner some more and noticed the crowd was beginning to expand onto adjacent corners. Tour buses passed by every 10 minutes or so. Suddenly, a cheer rose up through the crowd and a look down the street revealed a march of hundreds more people wielding signs announcing the “99%.” Loud speakers arrived to unify the now much larger crowd with different groups all shouting “We Are The Ninety-Nine Percent” in a muddled round.
I realized I was excited to be there and happy to be a part of the crowd that had by now enveloped me by infiltrating my observer’s perch. I wanted to join in now–add my voice to the chanting. Of course I knew why I was there, I had known all along. Regardless of a unifying ideology or political point, I was there to be with people, to protest the general and unjust disparity of wealth caused by a seemingly impenetrable web of issues that I cannot pretend to know how to fix.
As I began to ask myself how long I would stay. I looked to my right to see a young woman with bright blue sunglasses and curly hair handing out free bottles of Dasani water. I tried to take a picture of her with my Canon camera, to try and capture some idea, but she moved on too quickly, leaving me to remember the moment the old-fashioned way–with memory and a pen.
As I left, I tried to settle on a simple reason for my being there and some kind of cohesive opinion of the whole event. While I struggled to do so, my mind wandered back to one poster lost in a sea of all the rest. Written out on it were “Occupy Chicago Rules” and the only one I could really read was “#1: Clean Up After Yourself.” Come together, but mind the effects of your own actions.