My ‘Thoreau Moment’: A Midnight Run to Zuccotti Park [Part 1]

by libbyliberal 

Last week, sitting in a NYC Barnes & Noble cafe, a message popped up on my laptop alerting me that there was a crisis with the Occupy Wall Street protest. Mayor Bloomberg was demanding the park be evacuated at 7am Friday morning for cleaning and some “NEW RULES” to be applied to the occupiers thereafter.
 
My mailbox began to fill up with alerts from a number of political organizations. I checked the correntewire website - a headline urged anyone who could to get to Zuccotti Park by midnight. One of its links warned about possible arrest and advised bringing something to help recover from pepper spraying.
 
I gulped. What on earth might that be? It seemed surreal to be considering such a situation. Surely it would not come to that. But then again, 700 innocent people of conscience had been brutishly arrested almost two Saturdays ago on the Brooklyn Bridge. I had missed that massive ambush by only fifteen minutes that rainy day.
I emailed an activist friend and told her I was intending to head down there in the next two hours and wondered if she were too. I rushed home in the overcast night. I felt uncomfortably warm. Perhaps the sudden jolt of “occupation” adrenalin was a factor in my noticeable perspiring. I had a vacation day scheduled for Friday. How serendipitous.
 
At home the pragmatic me scurried about in preparation, in complete defiance of my more familiar, less than spontaneous, worry-wart side. Where on earth had she gone?
 
I wondered how many people there were in New York City at the moment hustling to fulfill this same call? I thought of those characters in Close Encounters of the Third Kind who became so obsessed with an inner call to the space aliens’ mountain that they were helplessly reconstructing that destination out of things such as mashed potatoes, etc., to the dismay of their loved ones.
 
I knew I had to join up with those young, noble and committed occupiers downtown. I just had to. I had to do all I could to keep the occupation continuing. At long last there was a sustained expression of justifiable and accurately aimed outrage in the country.
 
I also thought of my favorite Thoreau story when Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Henry David Thoreau in jail and called out, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau called back, “Waldo, what are you doing out there?” Perhaps this would be my Thoreau moment! About time. I had been popping off on internet blogs and comments about people talking the talk but not walking the walk. Time to put my body where my mouth was.
Money? I supposed I had better bring a credit card. In case I needed it for bail? How much was bail for heaven’s sake? I poured out a mountain of dry cat food in a very large metal mixing bowl for my two cats and filled an equally large glass bowl with water. If I did get arrested how long before I would get home again?
 
I checked my emails once again and my activist friend confirmed she was intending to go. Hopefully we would find each other. As I closed my apartment door I noticed my shaking hand as I twisted the key in the lock.  
 
The rain was steadily coming down as I emerged from the subway. A plastic parka would have been smarter than just my sweater hoodie over a T-shirt with an umbrella.. I quickly opened my umbrella.
 
By the time I got to the Park the rain had intensified. I was startled to see half a dozen or more young, parka-ed people zealously sweeping the sidewalks of the plaza, with random people like me having to jump out of their determined ways. I marveled at how they simply ignored -- defied -- an angry driving rain.
 
I wondered which of the large clumps covered with plastic tarps all about me were actual people and which were just “stuff.” I thought of how vulnerable these protesters were each day to the elements without inside shelter. I also thought of the vulnerable homeless people scattered throughout the city, facing down this weather tonight as well as another upcoming winter season. How many would not survive that challenge?
 
Every once in a while thunder boomed. Each time it was met with loud and spirited cheering from all corners of the plaza. I laughed in surprise and delight. The occupiers, vertical and horizontal on the square, took that opportunity to express their brave, defiant, collective spirit, even to a challenge from Mother Nature. How could one not LOVE them?
 
My first verbal contact with a fellow protester was a woman in a bright green slicker. She seemed younger than me, but older than the protesters I had seen so far. The others around us seemed predominantly twenty- and thirty-something year olds.
 
She was trying to locate the place to stow the personal baggage she had brought earlier in the day. She said they had all been working hard with various focuses, renewing the little park. She had tended to the flower beds. Through the veil of rain I noted even in the dark how pretty and well groomed they were.
 
She disclosed that she had decided to take a week’s vacation from her job in western New York state and spend it with the occupation. I loved it. Here was one of my full-out Close Encounters of the Third Kind committed ones who had responded to the call. In fact, I suddenly felt like a pathetic part-timer. Only committing to the next seven or so hours.
 
At that point the heavens opened up and the rain was merciless. I stood there getting helplessly and thoroughly drenched, despite the umbrella. Was I really going to spend the next seven hours in such a ridiculously soaked condition?. I told myself at the end of seven hours I would be able to peel off the wet oppressive clothes and have a nice warm shower back at home. A luxury many of my fellow activists would not get to enjoy.
I squished, in my soggy sneakers, through the puddles farther along down the maze of tarp-covered people and supplies. I spotted my friend near the pedestrian sidewalk.. She was holding an umbrella over herself and a young man with an impressive video camera pulled tightly against his chest. They were deep in conversation. She introduced me to the genial young man. She had been telling him about her own admirable and long-term anti-war activities. When a lull in the rain finally came he began to film her.
 
Wanting to lighten my bag I went off to visit the kitchen area now that the rain had nearly stopped. I noticed a cluster of people standing around a tall young man wielding something in his hand. A Sharpie? He seemed to be writing a phone number on people’s forearms. “What is that for?” I asked. “The National Lawyer’s Guild,” he announced. I gulped and held out my forearm to him as he wrote "212-679-6018." “Call it if you get arrested.” “In fact,” he added, “memorize it in case it fades during the night.” I looked down at the number. My exposed arm around the black digits began to glisten from random rain drops.
 
My friend announced she could use a coffee. The young camera man pointed us to a McDonald’s that was open all night, almost kitty-corner to the plaza on Broadway. I realized that would have been a wise place to have hustled to during that torrential rain ambush. A bathroom break was a good idea. The young man assured us McDonald’s had that precious all-night bathroom. I pumped his hand, as I would all the occupation residents I would meet, and tried to express my gratitude and how important their mission was to the rest of the country. They were igniting hearts, even internationally, to fight the good fight to end profound corruption.
 
The McDonald’s was filled to capacity. I sought out the women’s bathroom line and noticed my friend near the door was again very animated in deep conversation with another young protester. Good for her since the bathroom line was not short and I’d clearly be a while.
 
My friend had allied with a young man in a poncho near the door who announced he had been up for three days. He was nursing a coffee. We squeezed over to three open chairs available at two tables already occupied. The sitters said they certainly didn’t mind sharing the space.
Suddenly about half a dozen police pushed their way into McDonald’s and a woman officer began bellowing “EVERYONE BUY SOMETHING, NOW!!!!” Say what?
 
My friend angrily flashed out to those of us at the table, “That is not legal!” The young people around me looked up alarmed. It seemed so gratuitously cruel, given the insane rain that had occurred outside just a short time ago. Also, considering the time of night, and the fact that the past five weeks was probably the best overnight business this Mickey D’s had done ever. What was the problem letting them use this temporary shelter at the 3am hour to manage to sit down in a dry and warm place?
 
I suddenly thought of the obscenely wealthy Wall Street execs, their towering offices all around us. I thought of one of the top 10 hedge fund executives I had read about who in 2010 earned $900,000 an hour! For doing what, ripping off America? And here were these precious young adults around me, unable, some, to afford even something from the dollar menu as they fought for our democracy. Called out the corruption of the corporate gangsters!
 
I grandiosely (considering I was having my own chronic economic challenges) wished I had money to buy something for every customer there! It made me wonder how these young people were doing financially, given how expensive New York City is, especially the “inconspicuous consumption” that could add up cruelly, even of having to buy a product to be able to use a toilet.
 
The rain had fully stopped as we exited McDonald’s. I was angry and curious about this sudden police presence, but I had finished my food and my friend had put off getting her coffee long enough. We left to walk back through the square to the opposite side. Also to check in to see what was happening on the square.
 
The young man who had bonded with my friend decided to hang with us further. My friend and I both commented on the book he carried with him, “The Rise & Fall of the Roman Empire.” Seemed a perfect read for the OWS protest. He said he got it from the OWS library.
 
He told us a bit about the OWS organization, that he helped with the “comfort” area, in fact, seemed to be actually employed by the system. He confided he was very concerned that some friends he had made while there were now missing. They had participated in one of the marches outside Liberty Plaza and had not returned. Were they locked in jail somewhere? He was also dreading the upcoming showdown at 7am with the Bloomberg cleaning crew and the police.
 
At one point I was telling him about my own shaky corporate job status. He became concerned, and then asked me if I too wanted to work part time during the OWS occupation with one of the focus groups. This was so startling to me. So spontaneous and generous. Here he was living in this “in the moment” environment and yet was altruistic enough to try to help me, a middle-aged plus woman to share the benefit of their assuredly precious and modest paid employment there. My eyes burned with tears at such thoughtful concern for a relative stranger. Empathy. Something I kept writing about, well the lack of, in our American government. It seemed to exist a hundredfold with the citizens of OWS!
 
I had been dazzled by each of the activists I had randomly met so far. They seemed to carry an extra measure of serenity, intelligence and generosity. Not to mention courage, which I would get to witness collectively, as well as my own, first hand, in less than three hours.
 
End of Part 1 [To Be Continued]