Thursday, May 2, 2013
My Back Pages; Chapter 11: A March March in DC or The Left Becomes Exanimate
Fuck chronology. We'll piece it together eventually. Meanwhile here is a memory from 1982 - some events within a larger series of events that soured me on leftist politics. They may seem petty and personal to the hearer but how do we "decide" what our politics will be? Once one commits to a point of view is it a life-time dedication, a bargain one makes with oneself? Is it true, Lou, that "anyone who ever had a heart - they wouldn't turn around and break it; and that anyone who ever played a part, they wouldn't turn around and hate it?" Seems right to me - the people I grew with hang on to their 60's notions as if losing a cherished world view is the equivalent of losing one's face or name.....
.....It is March 1982, a year into Ronald Reagan's presidency. I was having a second serious enthrallment with leftist political activism, admittedly more due to circumstances of timing rather than any sort of deep intellectual/philosophical growth or rebirth. You see, in 1980 my fledgling (five-year) fling with the Pharmacy field finished fairly spectacularly, finally careening headlong off a cliff in a fiery crash-and-burn career-ending, marriage-ruining finale. But that's another story. I found myself suddenly single, and working as a clerk in a Harvard Sq. record store (fired forthwith for failure to find filchers). Not wanting to let my pharmaceutical facility fester, I also volunteered at two phone-in "hot-lines": the Poison Control center at Boston's Children's Hospital; and "Project Place" a sort of hippie crisis community center that had been operating since the '60s. They also used to run a free ambulance service, and one time saved my life. So, to repay the debt, add some richness to my disconsolate, penurious and now humdrum life without the drug bonanza available to pharmacists, (and hopefully get laid), I saddled up. Left wing politics and helping the homeless were not honestly my top priorities, but were not at all anathema to me yet, either.
At Project Place I worked the phones once or twice a week and quickly became their resident drug expert, helping to train new volunteers. At one time the phone answerers talked folks down from bum acid trips, but by the 80's the counselors were more social workers for the homeless and semi-destitute, and ad hoc shrinks for those having relationships problems. The bulk of the hotline calls though were midnight phone masturbators, neurotic insomniacs, or just lonely or frightened people with little to do.
Most of the dozen or so paid staff and the 50-100 active volunteers were dedicated leftists, the majority female. Nice. What I did not realize that in my absence since the early '70s, the fairer half of "the movement" had "gone lezzie" and I had as much chance of seduction with most Place girls as with the neighborhood kittycat. More with the cat, actually. Not all were gay, though, and I did score a new girlfriend and other friends and eventually met Sarah, my wife, through a friend of a PP friend.
So, it was through that association that I participated in efforts opposing US policy in Central America, in particular El Salvador, which at the time was having a little right-wing death-squad problem. It was to me a sort of Vietnam War redux, so I delved into the policy issue with fervor and outrage. Barry, born again bellicose baby!
So, 3/26/82 it's me and my friends on a big bus to DC to take part in the CISPES (Committee in Support of El Salvador) protest march. Holy 1969! I was excited. On one side - the righteous masses; on the other- Reagan and the El Sal Prez, the caudillo José Napoleón Duarte (who famously during a speech pulled out a machete and sliced a watermelon in half to illustrate his moderate opponents: green on the outside, red [communist] inside). We the people didn't stand a chance, but that had never stopped me.
After a long overnight bus ride from Boston common where I smoked from my backseat perch to everyone's displeasure, we arrived hungry. At a restaurant with my comrades, I ordered hearty fare: cheese 3-egg-omelette, fried brown potatoes, a rasher of bacon, juice and coffee. To my seatmates, this made me a sort of throwback - apparently my eating habits were a source of bemusement to the lefty ladies who I liked. I thought they were kidding but not so, I was seriously being criticized for being a Neanderthalic unhealthy male. Sue D. had brought her breakfast with her in a plastic container: an un-appealing clotty mass of cottage cheese whose whey part and watery part had apparently separated over the hours. It slid onto her plate in glops. Okay, enjoy.
The "march" was next, a cold blustery two-mile walk to the demo site through uninhabited city canyons (it was a Sunday and DC was as deserted as the moon, save for the demonstrators and the occasional cop car. Shops were shuttered and the route was eerily empty of pedestrians). "Leaders" set the pace and led the walkers in shouted, cadenced slogans such as "the PEOPLE u-NITED will never be da -FEATed" and the corresponding español. The echoed chanting to no-one seemed to me hollow and vapid and quite ineffectual, so I discontinued my stentorian efforts, drawing squinty, furrowed looks from fellow marchers, as if from a nosy aunt for failing to participate in a church service hymn.
We approached the rally (http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/workersvanguard/1982/0302_02_04_1982.pdf ) from the north but found it cordoned off with entry permitted only from the south, we were told, I'm still not sure why. The barrier was flimsy though, merely ribbon suspended from pylons, making it tempting just to duck under.
"You better not" said my companion.
"C'mon" I said "No one cares" making a smooth move under the bunting.
But someone did care.
"Hey!" said an alert sentry, one of the "peace police" whose job it was, evidently, to channel all marchers through the correct entrance.
"You can't come in this way" he remonstrated, denying reality.
"Whadya mean? I just did." turning on the wiseacre style, finally having some fun.
"All demonstrators must enter from the south side" he said in the bland, firm, but essentially unanswering manner of security guards everywhere.
"Fuck that, my feet are tired." I said unmoved. My friends remained on the other side of the barrier, pleading looks on their faces.
As the guard walked toward me I noticed the shoulder banner that identified him as "Peace Police", but clasping a clipboard he looked for all the world like a camp counselor, and about as intimidating. For one insane moment I expected him to blow a whistle and tell me to go back to the bus and wait.
He approached, fingering his belt walky-talky as if packing heat. This cat really takes his job seriously, I thought.
"You have to move now!" his voice cracking.
"Okay, I'll move" I said and stepped 6 inches to one side (thinking somehow of Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats in "The Hustler" telling the George C Scott character to move his chair at an all night pool game, and his compliant but defiant 2-inch adjustment). My pals outside the fencing looked forlorn. Now up ran two more peace marshals who seemed eager to use their people skills, but I slipped back through the periphery.
We entered the correct way and I saw that the set-up was less a mass demonstration than a sort of protest bazaar with tables, booths, and vendors stretching back toward where the speeches were to be given. One supposes that after passing some kind of lefty "litmus test", table-station groups paid "rent" to CISPES to help defray the costs. I imagine even the veggie-burger guys had to have some sort of left-wing bona fides.
With time to kill I told my friends I would wander around and meet them back at the veggie-burger stand. At some point I came upon a lady manning (or womanning or womynning) a "Maoist Women" table with various books and tracts for sale (like fish in water no one questioned the incongruity or irony of the event's mercenary flavor). She was striking, if only for her tight-fitting red sweater, emerald eyes, and erect posture. I was eager to see what wisdom or perspective she had to offer. After a brief period I realized she wanted to talk, but not engage in conversation. She spoke in a monotone, looking fixedly at a point in the air. She did not respond to my questions or comments in any understandable way. As she gabbled on in a kind of specialized argot that used key-words such as "dialectic" and "hegemony" repetitiously, I could see that spittle had formed around her lips. The spittle had congealed, describing a white line, and peeling back from that white line was a black line of still older spittle, making a kind of crusty double orb around her working mouth. Her green eyes I noticed now were fully glazed over, giving them a cataracted and unfocused appearance - like one may see in an old dog, or somewhere else I could not quite extract....
The "Maoist Woman" droned on - imperialism this, colonialism that, world domination the other thing, but with no rhythmic sense, as if she were reading aloud from a book she did not comprehend. It struck me as an epiphany! She was psychotic - schizophrenic - like people I had seen on mental wards and in insane asylums! Alarmed, I backed away from Ms. Chock-full-of-nuts. From that point on, I have no recollection of that weekend except a vague impression of anti-climactic soporific speeches.
When I returned to Boston, I looked in The Globe for coverage (The Globe was still a decent rag then). It was there, but buried deep - 20,000 March in DC to End War in El Salvador - just a wire service pick up and there was not even the usual accompanying "local angle" human interest piece such as Jamaica Plain family rides to Washington to Promote Peace in Their Homeland. Nothing. It hit me then - what a complete waste of time this had become - as rote as a post-sneeze Gesundheit, and about as effective in preventing that which preceded it.