Visiting Liberty Plaza

A pink unicorn tricycle, Liberty Plaza, NYC, 4 October 2011

To spend one’s days and nights in a New York City park is expensive. At a minimum, one gives up running hot water, protection from rain and cold, convenient access to a bathroom, and most forms of privacy. I’ve done no more than visit the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park, whose older name of Liberty Plaza the protesters have reclaimed, and I imagine that the ones who actually spend the night there know who each other are. Maybe the willingness to lose safety and comfort are proof, in one another’s eyes, of a level of commitment. Maybe the loss underwrites a trust in one another that makes possible the group’s persistent faith in the ideals of openness and democracy.

During my two visits, I wasn’t wearing my reporter’s cap, and I’m not much of a joiner. That left me the role of tourist. When I visited on Thursday, September 29, haphazard eavesdropping seemed to pick up repeatedly the earnest, necessary, and tedious conversations typical of groups of people trying to decide how to make decisions—conversations that tend to become especially byzantine in groups suspicious of hierarchies. But the openheartedness with which people were giving themselves to these tedious conversations was winning, and the protesters’ physical innovations to group interaction were ingenious and looked fun. Since electric amplification is forbidden in the park, the protesters have adopted what they call “the people’s mike”: at the end of every phrase, a speaker pauses while audience members who were able to hear him repeat the phrase for the benefit of audience members who couldn’t. Lest this practice render listeners too fawningly imitative, audience members all the while talk back to the speaker through a variety of silent, waggling gestures: jazz hands pointing upward signify approval, a pinched forefinger and thumb suggest that the speaker cut his message short, and so on. Watching this new semiotics, I found myself wondering, Why haven’t people been doing this all along? It’s as if it took the Facebook generation to make the most of human presence. People of every description were photographing, filming, and recording. Policemen stood around the periphery, gazing into the crowds, apparently looking for alcohol, which the protesters have forsworn, and tents, which city law forbids. The multiplicity of surveillance triggered a little paranoia in me, and I wondered what sort of databases my visage might be appearing in.

When I visited again today, Tuesday, October 4, the food table looked better stocked, but the sleeping area looked more bedraggled. The photographers, meanwhile, seemed more benign; I watched a young man interview a protester on video, and when she asked, at the end, who he worked for, he explained that the video was just for his Facebook page; he added that he was from Tennessee. Whereas, on my earlier visit, strangers had greeted me and asked what I might be able to contribute, today the people who struck up conversations with me seemed to have more-focused agendas. A woman dressed as Marie Antoinette tried to sign me up for wind-powered electricity. A camera crew for Al Jazeera asked me to pretend to be reading an issue of the protesters’ newspaper, the Occupy Wall Street Journal, for the sake of some B-roll that they were shooting. I actually did want to read it, and the outreach table had given away all its copies, so I pretended. The camera guys were willing to let me keep the prop.

Is this the revolution? I haven’t gone to a march yet, and haven’t yet attended the protesters’ twice-daily town meeting, which they call General Assembly, so I’m hardly in a position to say. Some critics have pointed out that the finance companies once associated with Wall Street are now for the most part headquartered in midtown, but the criticism seems to miss the point: Wall Street, as a location, is a symbol. The location of Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, is peculiarly literal. The protest is happening in a particular place; online, one may observe it happening, but one can’t virtually participate; it isn’t clear whether the improvised infrastructure could be transferred to another location, let alone seeded to many locations.

Other critics have objected that the protesters don’t seem to know what they want—an objection harder to dismiss. Indeed, the Adbusters poster that launched the movement asked the koan-like question, “What Is Our One Demand?” Similarly, the “Declaration of the Occupation,” which the New York General Assembly adopted unanimously on September 29, lists grievances but proposes no remedies—or rather, no specific remedies; it does exhort people to “create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.” But details matter in politics; it’s only through negotiation of details that compromises can be reached. Moods—even good moods—pass, and New York City is going to get colder before it gets warmer. Before winter comes, I hope the protesters find a way to disperse their movement without dissipating it.

A WTC memory

A scratched and faded snapshot of the blogger in a parasailMore than a decade ago, I did a little bit of fear arbitrage. I was facing a very minor bit of surgery, so minor that after the fact it turned out that it hadn’t been necessary at all, though of course I didn’t know that at the time. I had decided that I was going to stay conscious during it, on the general principle that it isn’t a bad idea to keep an eye on a person cutting into you with a knife. Indeed, when the fateful day arrived, I was able to watch the doctor making her incisions, and my curiosity turned out to be more powerful than my squeamishness. (I remembered being especially fascinated by the glistening white layer of fat that lay just beneath my skin, deeper than even the worst scraping of a knee had hitherto revealed. At least I think it was fat.) I knew in advance that thanks to local anesthetics I wasn’t going to feel any pain, but to say that I dreaded the surgery would be an understatement. I hate to go the doctor even for check-ups.

Mulling over my fate, I berated myself over my cowardice for days until, in defense against my self-attacks, I started listing things that other people were afraid of that for me held no terrors at all. I had recently seen ads—I no longer remember where, maybe in one of the weekly giveaway newspapers that I used to read at lunch in the local slice joint—for parasailing in New York Harbor. I probably will never have the courage to jump out of a plane, but parasailing didn’t frighten me. By lifting you up into the sky, a parachute-sail proves its ability to keep you up there, or so my mind, surprisingly rational on this point, concluded. If modern medicine had sentenced me to be more brave than I wanted to be about surgery, it only seemed fair for me to reward myself by enjoying a risk that didn’t scare me.

I called an old friend who had survived lung cancer in childhood and had recently started taking multi-day, high-endurance hikes in the West; he was game, too. Across the street from the then-extant World Trade Center, just outside the Winter Garden, where a long quote from Frank O’Hara is carved in marble, we met the two men running the parasailing outfit. They were working-class New Jersey boating guys, a little brusque. I think we paid them cash, but I don’t remember how much—maybe $100 apiece? I remember that it was a lot for a graduate student, but not a lot compared to other New York luxuries. The operators didn’t make any small talk, nor did they offer any marketingesque pleasantries about the adventure we had chosen and how meaningful it might or might not be. They merely nodded to the life jackets, unmoored the boat, and motored out into the harbor with us. In the face of their alpha-male taciturnity, I remember scrutinizing the winch at the back of the vessel for clues about how the whole thing was going to work. For further clues there were only the occasional radio exchanges between our boat and the harbor police, terse and somewhat cryptic, from which I gathered that parasail operators were more tolerated than welcomed by the water authorities, who expected us to wait patiently until more-functional marine traffic had passed. The operators may also have had to clear things with air traffic control, or at least with the nearby helipads—I can’t recall. My friend and I weren’t the only passengers; there was also a man in his early thirties, who seemed to be a financial services type. His wife and elementary-school-age daughter were keeping him company but weren’t going to go up themselves.

It soon became clear that the boating guys hadn’t bothered to explain the parasail procedure to us because there was little for a passenger to do except enjoy the ride. (It was a little like surgery that way.) One at a time, each of us thrill-seekers was buckled into a vaguely diaper-like nylon brace, hooked in front to a large rope and then in back to an unfurled parachute. The boat sped up, the chute began to pull upward, the boating guys paid out the rope, one rose into the sky, and the water and the drone of the boat steadily receded. As the boat zipped back and forth across the harbor, far below, one floated in a fairly grand silence thousands of feet above New York. As you can see in the photo, I was as high as the top of the World Trade Center towers. It was pretty awesome.

After a while one was cranked back down and in. I think the only moment when any athletic skill was at all relevant came in setting foot again on the boat. But maybe not even then. Once all three parasail ticket holders had taken a turn, we headed back to the Winter Garden. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed themselves—even the operators seemed a little jolly—but just as we touched the dock, the little girl on board abruptly vomited. She hadn’t succeeded in keeping her fear for her father to herself after all.