In the Battle of the Open Heartby Jason Flores-Williams
You can spend your life dreaming of the infinite beauty of the rain, but there comes a time when you grow tired, the heart fades, and the world becomes ugly. Injustice seems permanent. The entire furniture of existence nothing more than some cheap shit bought at IKEA. The whole manifold of the universe nothing but an excuse to get drunk on a Friday night because that’s as good as it ever gets. And then around that third glass of wine, you start to say,“What about me … I gave,I struggled, I stared the tiger in the eye, so what about me? When is it my turn? When do I get my day at the West Village café after a morning of shopping?” Never mind what it took to get there. Never mind the doubts, questions, sense of weakness, feeling of impotence, lost days, months, years sacrificed toward this thing that I never believed in and promised myself that I would never be. But then there I am at some guy’s house that I went to law school with, standing there with a frozen stupid smile on my face as he takes 40 minutes to tell me about his rug. Yeah, his rug. And the worst part is that when I leave his house that night, I say to myself, man, I deserve to get a rug like that someday. It would really bring my place together.
And so it is that we become diminished. The dreamer inside of us is replaced by the salesman. The poet inside replaced by a consumer. We sell our selves to our selves, repeating the message that this is as good as it gets, until we wake up one day more like a brand than an actual person. A collection of advertisements that we would have laughed at once, but now embrace because it’s just easier. And whenever we hear echoes from that other life where we stood smiling at the rain, we drown them out with shopping, small talk, and by being cold. We become cold. We cut ourselves off from our selves. We cut our selves off from each other. We become isolated, the once-interesting world passing us by in an unfeeling blur. We tell ourselves that we don’t care anymore. We tell ourselves that it’s not worth it. Hope is replaced by fear, openness with hostility, love with anger. We talk too loud on our cell phones, fill the air with fake laughter, bury our heads in screens. We view ourselves with suspicion and others with anxiety. We see others as attacking us and ourselves as victims. And even though the emptiness and falsity left us sick and tired, we still cling to the illusion that America is the best of all possible worlds. And even in those moments when we do see through the veneer, there isn’t anything we can do about it.
But then one night after work I went to the bar in Santa Fe, got my Jack Daniels, and was staring up at the TV, where they were showing this thing going on around Wall Street. Some kids had gotten together and occupied a park down there. I could see the fire in their eyes. The old flame drew me in, caught me off guard, actually made me feel threatened for a second—yeah, like that’s going to do anything—but then I got up out of my seat and told the bartender to turn it up. And what I heard wasn’t the brilliant in-depth CNN coverage—the protestors’ message remains unclear, they’re protesting everything from corporate greed to war—or the philosophers at the table—libtards, get a goddamn job, ya fuckin’ hippies—but the Johnny Cash soundtrack of the good fight—I wear the black for the poor and beaten down—and with a what-the-hell clarity saw that to sit the sidelines on this one would be to render final judgment that I am pro-Lawrence Welk and against Jimi Hendrix, pro-lie and anti-truth, Rupert Murdoch good, cool socialist Jesus bad, John Grisham rocks, Jack Kerouac sucks, minivans awesome, GTO’s terrible, staying home and watching TV fine, long road trips with the top down a waste of time. And sure as the red-orange sun will cross the sky, I set off across the country to reclaim the goneness of my ever-fading soul.
I got in the night of Thursday, October 14, a day late and a dollar short, with Bloomberg using health concerns and cleanliness as a pretext to shut down the occupation. I saw it on the news in the Dallas airport, so on the plane ride in I was already thinking about how to spend my week. Maybe dial up some of my don’t-give-a-shit friends and see who was up to what. Thinking about what hotel to get. One with a bar, hold court, get some quality partying done. If I’m being honest, there was a small part of me that was relieved. An inglorious end to Occupy Wall Street would make my own choices look good. There would be no challenge to my own personal status quo. I could skate in and out of New York with little more than a hangover. Still, I had to at least go check it out. Make an appearance so that I could say I was there. Give it a walk-through, then go to a bar in the East Village and have some fun. Spend the next 10 years telling people how I was part of the Occupation, slept down there for three weeks.
When you’ve made certain compromises in your life, you then look for the bullshit in everything. I am full of shit to a degree, therefore everyone else must be full of shit to a degree. It’s the unconscious, default position for average folks like me. When I got out of the cab at Zuccotti Park, I wanted to see that it was hype, just a bunch of losers hanging out with no other place to go. Same as a hundred other cities in America, except that this was New York so they had managed to spin it into something. But there was no bullshit here. No spin. No hype. This was real. Thousands had come to clean the park and take away the Bloomberg crowd’s excuses: that they were dirty, that they smelled, that they were against the system because they couldn’t be successful in the system. My preconceived notions were swept away and thrown in the trash along with every other piece of garbage. I saw people struggling in the dark hours to save the place that they had come to know as spiritual home, thousands working in the knowledge that the thing they once called their life was no longer their life, but that the brooms in their hands and the wastebaskets in their arms and scrub brushes and spray guns were the tools by which their worlds would once again be made sane.
No pay. No money in it. There would be no stock options. No increase in portfolio. No coke and hookers dinner for doing a bang-up job. So, why? What’s the point? What’s it worth? Why descend on this place and pick up fucking trash? Just let it go. Stop banging your heads against the wall. Stop believing that something beautiful can happen when there will always be poor people, when the rich will always win. Don’t you know what it’s like out there in America? That there are 40-year-old men wearing sunglasses on top of their Florida State caps? That there are salesmen in Indiana who think that Herman Cain might actually make a good president, even though he’s black? The financial flow of history is not on the side of poor people who have dragged themselves out of bed to sweep and clean, but with those who have stolen and taken.
And so the compromised are relieved. The successful are relieved. Vanity Fair is relieved. The New Yorker is relieved. The nine-dollar cupcake is relieved. It was getting uncomfortable. Expensive cupcakes everywhere were being called out by the mere presence of the thing. Pink frosting was being revealed for the completely disgusting crap that it always was. The glittery sprinkles had lost their shine. You could hear it on the streets, questions being asked: Were the glittery sprinkles even worth it? Were they that cool? Do we actually even need glittery sprinkles? Is it wrong for me to have glittery sprinkles when other people have never even seen glittery sprinkles? Enough is enough. You can question the democracy, argue the constitution, bring up Tom Paine, but when you put glittery sprinkles—the very essence of our system—on the table, then it’s time for you to go, gently or otherwise.
But an old music could be heard in Zuccotti Park that night that hasn’t been heard around these parts in a very long time. The music of human dignity, solidarity, and individuals being transformed into one. The music that rises like a prayer for a better world. In other words, the fucking dangerous music. The music that drives the war pigs insane. The music that makes the elite look over their shoulders as they go from townhouse to towncar. They have never known what to do with it. From the grinder of hidden control to the machine of incarceration, they have never been able to silence it. No matter how many prisons they build, bombs they drop, souls they buy, or rivers they poison, they have never been able to make the music of the people go away. The song of truth and light remains, like a sentinel waiting for the dawn.
So, on that dawn the old song was being sung in the canyonlands where a band of three thousand held fast to their ideals, and in the desertlands where the banks had stolen homes, and in the heartlands where farmers had been broken, and in the westernlands where a man felt like less of a man because of what had been taken from him, and in the southlands where a woman stood with her children to say that the spirit of the lord had not been properly kept. So I sat there on a bench now thinking that it would be the worst thing in the world for this to end, and that I didn’t want an excuse to go get a hotel with a bar or call my give-a-shit friends, or to spend the week partying, or doing anything other than being right here, right now, a part of this protest, this living installation piece, this collective poem. And I lifted my eyes and in a moment that this wounded heart will carry with him till the day he dies, I saw the three thousand raise up as one and the old song grow into a thunderous YOWL that rained down on a land that had been made dry.
And when dawn did break, the people were still in Zuccotti Park.
Even the Dead took a break once in a while. Bring a guitar in, synthesizer, xylophone, kazoo, tuba, anything but another drum. And Captain Fantastic over here, what does wearing a tie-died clown hat that you won at the state fair have to do with regulation of parasitic financial instruments and the need for the financial sector to merge with the real economy? And don’t all those wearing V for Vendetta masks know that the licensing on those is owned by Time Warner, the mother of all corporate media? Am I the only one who really gets this thing here? Am I the only who can lead this tribe?
“You look like you could use some vodka,” he says.
“In a trough,” I reply.
Hardhat sits down next to me. I ask him where he’s from. He tells me Long Island as he sneaks into his backpack and pours me a shot then mixes it with a little Snapple. With the first sip I realize that it wasn’t the occupation, but my need to be Mr. Special that was turning me into a jerk. I have a tendency to see myself as heroic in these things, take myself too seriously. I want an egalitarian society, but want to be its leader. Always this sad little need to be better than everyone else, always the ego saying, why aren’t any of these people paying attention to me? Don’t they know how much money I made last year? Don’t they know how cool I am?
We sit together like two guys at a bar. He asks me if I had a good time last weekend. I tell him that I did. He says you’re welcome. I don’t get it at first, then catch on. It’s a union joke, as in the unions in this country are the ones who brought us the weekend. The day starts to warm up. The drum circle sounds better, Captain Fantastic is actually a pretty funny cat, and the kids with masks some of the smartest and most dedicated people here. We sneak more vodka and talk about why we’re doing this. He tells me that he doesn’t like bullies. And that all these corporations are is a bunch of bullies. They pick on the little guy. They beat on the weak. They steal from the working man. They take from the country and wrap themselves in the flag. If it was up to these guys, we’d all be working for a dollar an hour with no health care and our kids would still be sweating it out in factories instead of going to school.
“I don’t care who you are or where you come from,” he said sipping his drink. “You don’t sit there eating Doritos and drinking beer when your neighbor’s getting thrown out on the streets … So what was the best concert you ever saw? Mine was Zep at Nassau County.”
I tell him my best was Social Distortion. We sing Prison Bound together—Oh, I’m prison bound, been caught one too many times—agree that people should sing it when they get arrested. This leads to discussion of the surrounding cops and the overall weird creepiness of the police state, but then we give ourselves shit because here we are complaining about the police state while sipping vodka in the middle of the hottest protest in a generation. Sure it’s a police state, but maybe just like a “Roxanne” sort of police state: You don’t have to put on the red light! 48 Hours. Eddie Murphy’s best? No, the Clumps. Hercules! Hercules! And it is in this least political moment of the occupation, that I feel most like an occupier. Like I’ve always been that way.
A woman comes over and sets up a massage table right next to us. She’s doing free body work for the people that have slept overnight. She hands me the sign-up sheet, smiles, and makes a joke about there being no happy endings. So much for the oppressive political correctness of the left. As I’m talking with another new friend, a businessman from Sacramento, a hand appears in front of me with a cup of chocolate almonds. I take a few, say thank you, and the hand disappears without saying a word. Conversation continues. A sense of community. Generosity between people. An easy flow. Light rain begins to fall, then gets heavier. People start looking for cover. From under a tarp, I feel a hand grab me, a tattooed, pierced face looks out from under and say “Hey, brother, you don’t want to ruin your suit. Come under here.”
The kindness and warmth of the people here makes me feel called out on how judgmental I’ve become during the last few years. Everyone’s a loser but me. I can never be on equal terms with other people. Always got to be better, always got to win. I don’t know if it’s the ego or the system or some sick dance between them. All I know is that I am tired of the thoughts in my head cutting me off from other people.
I get under the tarp and introductions are immediately made. Five guys from across the country huddled together in the blood and guts of the financial industrial complex. Not much is said. No politics spoken. People don’t sit around quoting Marx and Engels when they’re getting pounded by sheets of rain. They just try to stay warm and dry, share a couple smokes, do their best to try and get through this thing. Same as you. They are the 99 percent. We are the 99 percent. You are the 99 percent.
I went out to Brooklyn for the night to take a shower and drink whiskey, but quickly found that I didn’t like being away from Zuccotti Park. It was like going from color to black and white, from a full-scale symphony blasting Beethoven’s Ninth to a cheap alarm clock radio. Life inside the park was vital and exuberant, but go back into the world and it was the same old same. You’d think western civilization would get tired of scowling after five thousand years. Give it a rest. Try something new. Take a shot and see what happens, we can always go back to killing each other later on.
Got back to the park Saturday morning October 15, perfect time to step into the rally. I was in it now, stripped of my bullshit, free of baggage, and having a goddamned ball. We set off through the Financial District, our voices echoing in the ears of those who have plundered this country with impunity. Never again will a Wall Street investment banker, or Wall Street corporate lawyer, hold their heads up high like good men. They’ll probably get away with it because they own the place, then do it again in another 10 years because there are people out there who seem to just like getting fucked. But the corporate veil has been pierced. And no matter what becomes of this movement, this will forever stand as victory.
From the streets of the traitors, we looped up into the swank restaurants and thousand-dollar handbags of TriBeCa and SoHo chanting, “How do we fix this deficit, end the war, and tax the rich!” The beautiful cupcakes were being disturbed, mimosas not going down so smooth, and six-hundred-dollar boots being scuffed as Sergio and Julie beat feet for the door. There would be heartburn. Potential blistering both physical and mental. Well-being called into question, psychiatrists visited, and anti-depressants prescribed. One guy in a yellow cardigan started screaming out the number to his offshore bank accounts, saying that he was sorry for being such a douchey heel. He was forgiven, brought into the fold, and became one of the most ardent of decent guys. Okay, that didn’t happen, but there were people who stopped what they were doing to run over and join. And upon this action there was immense cheering and happiness. Talk about a moment. If you ever want to feel special, go stand alongside an OWS march, make a dramatic outward showing of changing your mind, then suddenly join the protest. You will be treated like the prodigal son you are.
There were thousands now, groups streaming into Washington Square Park from all corners. The feeling of what things could be, laughter filling the air instead of fear. Life not stopping and starting, but always right there with us. The old ancient song of the people forever sung. The assembly convened and informed us that right down the street at La Guardia Place our brothers and sisters were being arrested at Citibank. Those willing to go protest the fuck out of it were to follow the red flag to the corner of the park. A tight group of stalwarts formed ready for action. First Amendment shock troops, keepers of the Jeffersonian flame. We chanted “Let them go! Let them go!” as we came into waves of police protecting a financial institution that stole the pensions and foreclosed the homes of many of their brethren, while blindly arresting those of us fighting for the dignity of the working class. We spread out yelling for our police to wake up, trying to remind them of what side they’re on—“You work for us! You work for us!”—while knowing full well that the banks and oligarchs had bought their guns, batons, and uniforms a hundred years before any of us were born.
We marched by the chess shops, the old stale Village coming alive under our feet, resurrecting one of the great seats of American art and protest now turned into a Disneyland where your bohemian experience is only a swipe of daddy’s credit card away. It was, brothers and sisters, a reclamation, the spirit of resistance returned, screaming, howling, demanding that the moneychangers be forever thrown out of our culture. Enough of your money-dead galleries, money-dead books, money-dead films, sculptures, paintings, and so-called works expressing what you think you think because the thinker doing the thinking is not who or what you think the thinker is. Those thoughts inside your head that you end up calling art, baby—well, they’re commerce. So, kindly take your non-representational cheese plate and let us give birth to something new.
We marched together through the cold machine of finance and transactions, shopping bags and brand names, advertisements and identities, cut outs and copies. The protest nothing less than a prayer to the god in each of us saying stop for a moment and see this work of art called man! You are the heavens and the stars, the burning fire of the sacred heart, the poetry on the prison wall, Black Sabbath doing “War Pigs” in Paris in ’70. This is brought to you not by the soft hands of socialist professors, but by the calloused hands you use to lay the brick, hug your children, cook dinner for your families, and make love to your partner in the darkness of night. This is not about famous people who like giving speeches before going to their perfect lives, but about the shit that wakes you up at 3 a.m. in cold sweats, sends you over to the window to ride out the night with cigarettes and whiskey hoping that no one in your family will know because you don’t want them seeing you vulnerable and weak. The protests may seem loud and wild, but they are about something quiet and still. They are about dignity. They are about freedom. They are about the fact that your soul, your longings, and your dreams are as valuable and important as the richest man in the world’s!
And as we pounded those streets toward Times Square with the beating of fifteen thousand human hearts, I began to see something that was not a protest at all, really, but something much more important. Something beyond the reach of the profiteers that could not be boxed, sold, mass produced, or co-opted. Something that could not be labeled, hung, filmed, painted, or put on TV. Something beyond all usual category, something like laughter at a dreamy Saturday afternoon barbecue on a lake with a beer in your hand, friends all around, cruising free like a skipping rock that hits like 32 skips with that cool curve across the water, everyone losing their minds like it’s the most important thing in the world because it is. Something like when you’re dancing and lose yourself so that everything goes away and you are no longer that girl with student loans, bills on the table, and a boyfriend who never really sees into your heart, but a beautiful blackbird floating above the snow, fearless and brave in a place the smelly monkeymen could never touch. As we marched into Times Square taking the streets that they said we could not have, I saw the mystical cup of coffee in a diner at 2 a.m., the long walk in a new city, that first beer in a new country, a train ride where you stare out the window for a hundred years. With the steam rising from the two orange chimneys and the horses bearing down, I saw a gray and perfectly existential set of waves roll from San Francisco into sweet home Chicago with the salty taste of Philadelphia in its mouth to come slake its awesome thirst in the beer hustle of Coney Island, followed closely behind, of course, by the perfect bowl of New Mexico green chili that turned into a steaming pot of New Orleans étouffée. In those timeless moments of Times Square where the ridiculous giant images of ridiculous giant models made the people look beautiful through contrast, I saw the Real America where we share bread, give everyone a fair shake, and understand the need to tell the Boss Man to stick it where the sun don’t shine because every so often you got to hit the road and clear your head.
And as they tried to divide and conquer with their nets, sirens wailing, paddywagons driving in, I saw my people standing against great goliaths, facing down monsters, fighting a war that is not in faraway lands, but here within each of us. The battle of the open heart. It is the only true fight, and from it all else flows: the content of our character, our sense of justice, our notions of goodness, the way we see each other, and the way see our true selves. This battle, and no other, is the one being fought in this thing called Occupy Wall Street. It is an extension of the struggle within you. It is an extension of the struggle within me. It is the infinite beauty of the rain, the old song, the laughter by the lake, and the goneness of our ever-fading souls.
JASON FLORES-WILLIAMS is a changed man.