by Maxwell James
“WHAT DO WE WANT?”
“WHEN DO WE WANT IT?”
I began making out the call-and-response chants as I arrived at the march’s front.
Through the forest of raised fists, I found the source of the voice over the loudspeaker: a young red-haired woman in standard-issue tattered dungarees and a worn sweatshirt with a handkerchief wrapped around her head and the long wavy hair spilling out the back. She was walking backwards at the head of the march, calling into the megaphone she held up in her long arm. Her body was slender and lithe, like a dancer’s. I was sure many of the other men and women in the crowd were paying as much if not more attention to that body as to the chants.
The words sounded good, I supposed, and the idea of so many people demanding one thing at once was promising. They all looked about the same, and those raised fists suggested they all thought the same, too.
But I’d learnt better. All I could look at were the police skirting the march on all sides. Most tried to pretend that the police weren’t there, to chant, dance and bang on drums as if their cage’s walls did not exist. Very few wanted the reminder of what they were setting themselves against. Those reminders had come in years past, when marches had turned into day-long riots when the city came apart, and for a few hours the vast reorganization of the world had happened.
But the police always returned in greater numbers, containing the pockets of anarchy and waiting for them to burn out their fuel, which they inevitably did as the majority discovered they did not believe in what they were doing enough to fight for it.
The surface of the world returned to normal, and now, on the rare occasions when someone heckled the police — calling them “porkers” or “fascists” — the police just returned with the sort of tolerant look one would give a child throwing a tantrum.
I walked a bit farther forward until I was immersed in a crowd of those who always instigated those punctures in the social bubble. There were more bike cops here pedaling slowly to create a moving cage made of yellow shirts and dour grimaces. They were not taking any chances.
To most people, the marchers in this section looked about the same as everyone else, though perhaps a bit younger. They were dirty, dressed in multiple layers of tattered clothing, unshaven, uncombed, just like all the people with peace symbols and raised fists.
The difference was subtle. The fact that they wore no bright colors was the first sign — all drab earth tones — gray, black, brown, maybe sometimes green. The fact that there was no chanting from this section of the march was another — the sound wafted away and was replaced with an ominous silence. But the most clear sign were the bandanas covering their faces, and the wool caps and hoods covering their heads.
They did not come here to smile, to chant, to see people or be seen. They had more in mind.
Whenever I was around these types, I had a feeling that must resemble having a cocked gun pointed at you. Everything you did and said had very real consequences. I’d known several of them at the bookstore who came in to watch the book orderer’s band. I always felt uncomfortable though intrigued. Sharing ideas with them was impossible — their values were set, and any deviation added you to the daunting list of their enemies.
But at times they made more sense to me than anyone else. They simply stated what they believed, and allowed what would happen to happen. What they lacked was the average person’s fear of direct confrontation. They couldn’t wait to sweep aside the mess.
I thought of Schwartz despite myself. There was a little bit of him in them, or them in him, I couldn’t decide which. They both drew clear lines between what they loved and what they disdained. But Schwartz would never be contained within such a large group of people. He was a group in and of himself, a movement of one. The idea of sharing the same beliefs as large numbers of other people would be a trap to him — as if he were chained to all of these other people, stuck marching in whatever direction the invisible authority of the Movement decided.
At the front of this section of the march, I could see the line of them holding the banner that probably said something like “CRUSH THE STATE” or “NO STATE, NO WAR.”
And the bike cops rode along the fringe, lined up like stones around a flower patch.
Here, where the most freedom was demanded, was where the least of it was enjoyed.
I made it about two blocks. I couldn’t move anywhere but slowly forward. Everyone’s faces were closed and silent. The police shot glances over us like a net.
My house may be a dead end, but at least it wasn’t a trap.
I stepped out of the march. I walked towards the line of police. One of them looked at me, his face hardening from tolerance to the required hatred.
I put up my hands.
“I’m going home,” I said. My voice was even more curdled than before.
He nodded. The look did not go away. But he moved to the side, and let me through. There was a deep puddle strewn with yellowing leaves that I had to jump over to get to the sidewalk. I walked up the block in the opposite direction, then cut across several streets towards the waterfront park. People were getting on and off buses, reading newspapers, and talking on cell phones. The clatter and the calling were faint. The sun was coming out.
By the time Schwartz called me, the sun had dried all the puddles so the leaves crunched under my feet when I went for a walk. It seemed empty out, but I didn’t mind. My neighborhood always gave me the impression that anything important was happening elsewhere. I remembered why I’d chosen it.
Twilight took me by surprise — I’d kept thinking I was going to get to something very important, but had spent the whole day reading, drinking coffee, and lazily strumming chords on my guitar.
But the sun went down, and the phone rang.
I’d been re-reading on the same page of my book for a half hour, and was relieved for a break. I answered the phone. I tingled when I heard Schwartz’s voice.
“What do you want?” I said.
“What, you’re still mad?” he asked as if it had been years.
“What do you think?”
“Oh, Christ,” he said, “get over it.”
“Shut up,” I said.
“Look, I was making a point, and-”
“You were being an asshole. Same as always.”
“Hey, look, just because I happened to make a good point-”
“You judged me. You always judge me. I’m sick of it.”
My voice was no longer curdled.
“Oh, and you and your bunch aren’t doing the same thing?” he returned.
And his voice had that edge of desperation I knew he struggled to hide.
“My bunch?” I said.
“You and your vegan buddies — all you want to do is dictate the way the world should be to everyone. You tell me I’m doing this wrong, and I’m doing that wrong, then I repudiate that and you get all sensitive and run home. Excuse me if I don’t take that so seriously.”
“Yeah, yeah, Schwartz, all you take seriously is your ego and how much of the world you can eat with it. You’re like a cop more than anything else.”
“Oh! And you and your buddies aren’t anything like cops! All you lack is the power to make everyone snap-to. I couldn’t care less what others do. I just defend myself. You’re the ones looking to coerce everyone into some new social order or something.”
“At least we’re trying-”
“Oh, and I’m not? What do you know? What do you know about me?”
I’d never heard Schwartz ask so many questions at once.
“I know plenty. You sip whiskey and wallow in your disdain for the world’s inability to impress you. You don’t do anything to help it along-”
“You’ve got no idea what I do-”
“Because then you’d risk failure-”
“What the hell do you know-”
“And maybe, just maybe, you’d learn that your closed little universe isn’t the all and everything-”
“About what I do?”
“That maybe the world exists beyond your view of it-”
“Shut up,” Schwartz said. The acidic tone dripped through the phone and boiled on my hot skin.
“Am I wrong, Schwartz?”
I don’t know why I was referring to the marchers as “we,” as if I were a part of whatever they were doing. Schwartz just required a counterpoint. I was glad he couldn’t see me through the phone. I was trembling and my cheeks were hot. But my voice probably betrayed me.
“Look, man,” he finally said, “you don’t know anything about me.”
“Yeah,” I said, “you make sure of that, which tells me there’s something you’re hiding.”
“I could say the same about you.”
“You already did.”
“Look,” he said again in a vulnerable, curved tone that captured my attention. “I called because I need your help.”
“You heard me. I screwed up.”
“Do I have to say it again?”
“My help with what?”
“I just... I need you to look at something, okay?”
“Just come over, okay? I’ll feed you whiskey.”
Schwartz had never stopped to notice I hated whiskey. But I’d always choked it down to save face. I remembered once taking a shot with him, quickly excusing myself, walking about a block from the bar, and vomiting. It was worth it.
But I had no choice but to agree. This notion of Schwartz making a mistake was too much to pass up.
“Alright,” I said, “I’ll be over in a few.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2008 by Maxwell James