Without the murmur of a topic to write about, I went snooping around the Occupy New Paltz site last Wednesday looking for inspiration. I heard muffled voices coming from one of the several tents tucked into a corner of Hasbrouck Park. All the flaps were down. Do I knock against the canvas? Will anyone hear that? I decided to just call out. “Shall I come in or are you coming out?” I asked. Within a few minutes a nice-looking young man emerged looking happy, but, I hate to say it, not very clean or well-groomed. It is impossible to shower often when living for months in a tent he told me. He smelled like a person actually does after a few days without the benefit of hot water and soap.
In 1970, my husband and I lived for two months in a tent at Coxing Camp (Split Rock) with a bunch of other hippies and we all smelled exactly the same as he did. Sitting across from the young man at Occupy New Paltz, took me on a nostalgic trip of olfactory sense memories, which allowed me not to judge his condition at all.
I began the interview asking him the typical questions, “What do you hope to accomplish? Have you received community support?” However, I became deeply distracted. He was shivering. “Don’t you have any warm clothes?” I asked. He told me that all his winter clothes disappeared when he was encamped at Occupy Poughkeepsie. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go shopping at the Salvation Army. It’s Wednesday and everything is half price.” We continued the interview on the short car ride into town. “What is the best moment you have had, the worst, the strangest?” I asked.
“The best, well, people bring us food, good food, organic soups, pasta. The worst was probably getting kicked out of Poughkeepsie. The strangest, well, you are. I feel like I am with my mother or something.”
“A lot of people tell me that,” I said.
“Tell you what?” he asked.
“That I am strange and act motherly toward them,” I answered.
“Tomorrow I am going picketing at [a bank]. I will hand out flyers. It’s just to raise awareness about what’s happening in the country; getting people on board with the movement.”
“You can’t go looking like you do. If you want other people, like the people who are banking at [this bank] to relate to you and especially to join the movement, you need to look like the people who are banking there.”
“I don’t believe that appearances should matter,” he replied.
“But they do,” I said.
I related to him a story about Harvey Milk, the American politician who became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Milk wore a white shirt, suit and tie throughout his campaign. He won the support of rednecks, the elderly and everyone else by dressing in a manner that did not separate him from the average person. One time when he was attending an important meeting at City Hall with his assistant, a gay woman, who was also uncharacteristically dressed in a skirt and stockings, he lifted up his shirt to reveal pink underwear. For him the suit was a costume. It was a performance aimed to get a specific response from the audience.
“I am going to buy you warm clothes and a costume for tomorrow,” I told him.
To his credit he immediately succumbed to my point of view. Like any smart activist he was willing to sacrifice, for the moment, his personal beliefs about appearances for the sake of the movement.
On Wednesdays, the Salvation Army is packed. He began to rummage through crowds of people and the racks of pants, looking for his size.
“You are a 33; 34 will be a little too big and 32 just a bit too small.”
“How do you know my size?” he asked obviously taken aback by the intimacy of my statement.
I did not bother to tell him that in my long career as a dance teacher and choreographer, I have costumed hundreds, maybe even thousands, of adults and children only by eyeballing them.
He picked a pair of khaki pants (size 34) off the rack.
“No blue jeans?” I asked.
“I think khaki is dressier. Better for the costume,” he answered.
Next I found a magnificent, almost new tweed sports jacket for only $10. It was warm, too. Originally, it must have cost a lot of money. Definitely a prior possession of someone in the one percent.
From the dressing room he said loudly, “This is so weird. It isn’t me.”
I reminded him, “It’s a costume.”
He looked great, positively Gentlemen’s Quarterly when he came out of the dressing room to model the outfit for me. I applauded.
“You’re going to have a great, wonderful and successful day at the bank. You’ll see I was right. The response will be positive. Here is my phone number. Call me tomorrow and let me know all about it.”
That was yesterday. It’s raining all day today. I wonder if he even went to the bank. I doubt he owns an umbrella.
It would seem from the few people at the site here in New Paltz that his sacrifice is lonely and futile. Not so!
The Occupy Protest Movement, which began Sept. 17 in Zuccotti Park located in New York City’s Wall Street financial district, has spread to hundreds of towns and cities throughout the world. The protests are against social and economic inequality, high unemployment, greed, as well as corruption and the power of corporations. The protesters’ slogan: “We are the 99%,” refers to the growing income and wealth inequality in the U.S. between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population. It’s a massive demonstration for social justice adopted by individuals willing to “drop-out” of mainstream American and “tune-in” to the truth about what is happening to our country and its people. The movement has support from the poor and the wealthy. All political persuasions are represented. It began with mostly young college kids. Now many older people support it too.
Right now it’s chilly, damp and drizzling. I wonder if the young man is handing out flyers in front of the bank or if he is huddled up in his tent, warm in his tweed sports jacket.
After I finish writing, I have nothing much to do. I am caught up on all the little details that comprise daily life. It’s a grey mellow day. I have the time at this moment to do something for the Occupy Movement. The problems in the country and the world are so vast, it’s overwhelming. What can any one person do that is significant or satisfying?
I’ve got some organic chicken and some vegetables in the fridge. I think I will make some chicken soup and bring it to the kids in the tents tucked into the corner of Hasbrouck Park in New Paltz, in Ulster County, in New York State, in the USA, on the North American continent, in the Western Hemisphere, on the planet Earth.
Writers Note: After reading this column, Brent Stewart gave me his approval to have his name mentioned. He is a very affable person and I am sure he would welcome visitors to his tent to discuss the protest. He went to the bank the day after our shopping spree in costume. He told me that when his fellow protestors met him at the bank, they told him he looked prosperous — like he was going in to open an account.