What have you meekly acquiesced to, and then regretted it? (This series began with “Crossing the Line“.)
(Part 5 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
“No, I don’t mind,” Althea Gordon said. She spread her arms and looked down in amusement at her signature pink overalls. “They’re actually from the first welding job I had after I changed careers. Well, before I started using my torch to make art, anyway. The foreman there was such a chauvinist that he wanted the rest of his crew to know where I was at all times, lest I injure one of them.”
Her questioner, a twenty-something in designer jeans, gestured with the sunglasses she was holding. “But if the guy was so concerned, why did he hire you in the first place?”
“Oh, I’m sure that if it had been a few decades earlier, he wouldn’t have done it. But as it was, he didn’t have much of a choice. The company had just put some bids out on government contracts, and I don’t think he wanted the EEOC on his neck about violating anti-discrimination laws.”
“So you bought the overalls to rub his face in it?”
“Rub his—?” she said, amused. “No, that’s not my style. He bought them. In fact, he had three sets specially made for me, so I’d have no excuse for wearing anything else. The foreman wanted me to be painfully visible at all times, so the rest of his crew could keep clear. I think he was afraid I’d toast someone’s buns with my torch when he wasn’t looking.”
A wave of laughter swept the crowd, but the woman didn’t join in. Instead, she calmly put her glasses back on and said, “So, did you?” When Althea didn’t immediately respond, she added, “Look, I’ve enjoyed your presentation, and I’d like to help out. Is there something I can do at the new community center you mentioned?”
“Undoubtedly. I’ll be heading over to Kendrik House when we’re done with this. Come on by, and we’ll see what we can do. By the way, what’s you name?”
She smiled. “Dori.”
“Great. I’ll tell the others to expect you.”
Althea Gordon and city councilman Buster Flange were standing on a little stage adjoining the food court at Carson’s Cloister, a quirky mall owned by the man who had offered the local Occupy Wall Street community a vacant building site for as long as they needed it. Buster was wearing the same ill-fitting sport jacket that he usually wore to city council meetings. The two were at the mall this afternoon to drum up support for Buster’s proposed change to the city charter.
It was the councilman’s turn to field a question, so he pointed at a man leaning against the corner of the Thai food vendor with his soda cup raised. “You had a question, sir?”
“I do, Councilman Flange,” he said, taking a few steps closer. “I read your op-ed in the morning paper.”
“Thanks. I wasn’t sure anyone bothered to do that any more. What can I tell you?”
“Well, I have to admit, sir, that your plan to create a new district for yourself out of thin air is pretty gutsy — genius, even. I mean, after all, you have managed to alienate just about everyone in the district that you represent now.”
Buster eyed him curiously. “Are you one of them?”
“Fortunately no. I am in Susan Winston’s district, though, and she’s taken care of that for herself.”
“I see. So what did you think of the op-ed? Would you be willing to vote for my proposal in the next election?”
He shook his head and grimaced derisively. “Not in a million years, and I’ll tell you why. This country was designed as a representative democracy, and that representation is based on where you live. I vote in city elections because I live here. I’m going to vote against Sue Winston because I’m in her district, at least for the moment. What you’re suggesting throws all of that out the window. You say you want to create a new district just for those cretins who keep screaming about being the ninety-nine percent? Well, what makes them more important than anyone else? Why not create a new district just for pedophiles? After all, there’s probably more of them in this town than there are people in that asinine encampment of theirs.”
Buster’s breath had gone ragged, and his right index finger was beginning to twitch. Anyone who’d seen video of him fulminating in the guise of one of his cast of colorful characters, and that probably included a good percentage of the crowd, knew what to expect next. But instead of the shift in body language that usually telegraphed whether he’d fire back as an offended Kentucky Colonel or maybe a haughty Boston academic, he stood motionless for a good ten seconds. When he did speak, it was in very controlled tones. “To begin with,” he said, “there’s more to how this country works than what’s outlined in the constitution.”
His questioner smiled coldly. “And there’s more to usurping control of city government, Councilman Flange, than changing the rules to suit your whims.”
Buster’s posture slumped, and his voice rumbled with the righteousness of a proud defender of the antebellum south. “I’ve had about enough of your guff, sir! Fomenting revolution may be the constitutional duty of every red-blooded American the moment our government turns its back on the principles laid down in the Constitution, but what we’re talking about here today is a way to correct the grievous damage that’s been done to the balance of power in this country. Every level of government, and every branch of it, has been tainted with the lust for gold. Bankers are running the Treasury Department, arms dealers are running the Pentagon, and an almighty cabal of business executives is calling the shots in Congress. It’s high time the people of this country took back control of their government, and this change in the city charter is how we’re going to do it.”
The man clapped slowly as he approached the stage. “Bravo, Councilman Flange. Excellent performance. But don’t you think you’re overreaching just a bit? This is city council we’re talking about, not Washington, D.C. Even so, I’m sure your little tirade there is all anyone will need to realize what a joke you are, and what a load of crap your proposal is.”
Mall owner Sid Carson, who’d been watching from the far edge of the food court, strode directly toward Buster’s tormenter. When the man saw him coming, he turned and headed for the exit. At that point, Sid changed course and mounted the stage. “Friends,” he said, spreading his hands as if he were giving a benediction, “please forgive that. This stage is our public square, and sometimes that means it can be noisy and upsetting, but if we don’t let other people have their say, we lose our own voice as well. For now, though, I think we should call an end to the question and answer session. We’ve already gone long, and I think Councilman Flange and Miss Gordon have answered everyone’s questions. Thank you all for coming.”
Buster stood limply, staring at the spot where his questioner had stood, while the crowd filtered off into the mall. Althea watched him for a moment, and then slowly closed the space between them. When nobody was left in earshot, she whispered, “I wish you hadn’t done that. It’s going to make it that much harder for us to overcome resistance to this idea.”
He glanced at her, and then looked away. “I tried. I really did.”
“Look,” she said gently, “both of us have used crutches to help us deal with being more visible than we’d like. I felt like an idiot the first time I put these overalls on. I mean think about it, a pink welder? But I came to realize that being too visible is also another way to go unnoticed. People will ignore something if it’s too outlandish. So I think the problem that you keep running into is that the personas you adopt when you go off like that are too cliché. That gives people the chance to paper over what you’re saying with their preconceptions about the kind of person you’re doing it through. If you’re going to be stagy, do it in a different way. Find a persona that they can’t ignore so easily.”
He shrugged. “Like what? Besides, the damage is done. Did you see that kid videoing the whole thing? It’s probably been FaceBooked by now, or worse.”
“Maybe,” she said, “but that also means your words are being spread. Believe it or not, there are people out there who are capable of separating the idea from the source. Who knows?”
Carson mounted the stage. “Aside from that last bit,” he said, “I think it went fine. So what are you two going to do now?”
“I’m heading back to Kendrik House,” Althea said, “and Councilman Flange is late for an appointment at City Hall. But I would like to ask you something, Mr. Carson.”
“Last fall, when I helped reclaim the site after that JonesCo-sponsored police raid, I learned that you’d offered it to Wendell Jones if the Occupy ever decided to leave. Why’d you do that?”
Carson’s eyebrows shot up. “Stupidity, mostly. I’m known around here for my support of the disappearing commons. That’s why I set up the public stage, and why people are welcomed to use the food court tables and the free Wi-Fi as their mobile office. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my years in business, it’s that things change, and you need to accommodate it when it happens. I figured it was safe to make that offer because I couldn’t imagine Jones jumping the gun and forcing the issue. Won’t make that mistake twice.”
The community center was a particular thorn in Wendell Jones’ side. A week after the raid, he’d told his foreman to clear the site while everyone was distracted with his legal move to declare the stipulation fulfilled, and by his appearance at city hall to have the site rezoned. A number of workers refused. They were fired on the spot, and promptly made signs so they could block the remaining crew. Jones lost in both venues, and Carson immediately hired the fired workers. It was actually Buster’s sudden brainstorm about creating a virtual district that gave him the idea, but Carson decided to cement his continued ownership of the site by having Jones’ former employees erect a modular community center and offering its use to any distributed community that wanted to reserve time there.
* * *
Dori glanced at the framed picture on the wall, a grainy black and white shot of a pair of striking Wobblies from the 1930s, before answering the multiracial woman seated across from her. “No,” she said, amused, “Kendrik House wasn’t named after that kid in the video.” The kid in question was Kendrik Knox, the eleven-year-old grandson of Occupy librarian Natalie Knox. It was her greeting to the riot police last fall that gave them an excuse to clear the site when the People’s Mike repeated her words in unison, violating the mayor’s new rule against group actions. The video, which had gotten a lot of play in the past half-year, was of him announcing the retaking of the site by supporters who’d seen the arrests livestreamed. “Actually, it’s named after his great grandfather, Oscar Kendrik, the old-time union activist in that picture over there. So are we set now?”
“I think so. Reconnected Nikkeijin finally has a place to meet. Thank you.”
After the woman left, Althea Gordon, who’d been watching from across the room, rounded the reading table, where a young man was reading a book about the IWW, and sat in the visitor chair. “That was good, Dori,” she said. “Have you done this sort of thing before?”
She shrugged. “Sorta.”
A young man in a rain jacket leaned in and tapped on the doorjamb. “Excuse me, ladies. Am I interrupting something?”
Althea rose and turned to see him. “Not at all. We were just chatting. Come on in. How can we help you?”
“Well,” he said, eyeing Dori as he sat down, “someone from AA told me you folks let groups from the community hold meetings here.”
The young man at the reading table looked up from his book.
Dori glanced at him, and then smiled at the newcomer. “We do. I’m Dori, by the way. How can I help you, Mr…?”
“Why be so formal,” he said. “Just call me Mark.”
Satisfied that Dori could handle the screening and scheduling process on her own, Althea excused herself and returned to her nearby studio to finish fabricating a metal sculpture for the new center’s still-bare facade.
That evening, she joined Natalie Knox for dinner with the rest of the Knox clan. After dessert, when the conversation drifted away from current events and the adults started swapping stories, Kendrik asked to be excused and went up to his bedroom.
He’d become a news junkie in the past year under his grandmother’s tutelage, and spend a good deal of his time tracking down the facts behind the headlines with the pad she had gotten him. His newfound motivation was a mixed blessing for his parents, though. On the one hand, he’d become better informed about the world; on the other hand, like his grandmother Natalie and his great-grandfather Oscar before him, he insisted on getting personally involved. That came to a head the day of the arrests. Over breakfast before school, he made the rounds of the video streams from various Occupy Wall Street encampments, and one of them was from his own city. What he saw that day frightened him to the core: his grandmother Natalie was being hauled off by two policemen in riot gear. His father had lectured him repeatedly about the dangers of fighting the system, but that only strengthened his resolve. Instead of going to school that day, he hopped a city bus and went downtown to try to find her. That’s where he first met Althea. It had been his steadfast support of his grandmother that induced the crowd that gathered to tear down the fences and re-take the site. And he was thanked for his effort by being the first to speak on the restored Occupy’s livestream.
Kendrik’s father had led a much safer life than his own grandfather Oscar had, or for that matter, his mother Natalie led now. To convince himself of the wisdom of that choice, he kept memories of the trouble he’d gotten into for even mild indiscretions at his fingertips, and recycled them way past their freshness dates. Tonight was no exception.
But innocuous stories of past foolishness have a habit of bringing up more recent ones, and Althea told them what had happened at the mall. “We were so lucky,” she said. “I think Buster relies on that ‘racist’ act of his to keep people off-balance, but he doesn’t realize he sabotages himself anytime someone pushes his own buttons.” Then she puffed herself out and launched into an impression of his performance. “I’ve had about enough of your guff, sir!”
At that moment, Kendrik came rushing into the room waving his pad. “I think you’re going to want to see this.”
“Kendrik,” his father said harshly, “you’re interrupting.”
“This is important, dad.” He placed the pad on the table and tapped the play button.
The screen showed Dori in the office at Kendrik House. “Why be so formal,” an off-screen voice said. “Just call me Mark.” The camera shifted a bit to take them both in while Althea walked past on her way out.
Althea gaped. “That’s from this morning.”
On screen, Dori glanced at the camera, and gave a spiel about the center and how members of Occupy Wall Street had created it to offer other distributed communities a place to meet. “And if the change to the city charter is approved,” she concluded, “it could be a starting point for creating other virtual districts. So tell me, what organization are you from?”
“There’s an invisible community in this city,” he said earnestly. “When they move into a house or an apartment, the entire neighborhood is alerted. And yet none of these people know whether others like them are nearby, or where they live. Heck, there’s no way to know how many of them are in the city because the system keeps them all under a cloak of secrecy. This community needs a voice. These people need a place to meet one another, because without that, their lives are empty, their world an invisible prison of intense isolation.”
“My god,” Dori said, “that’s terrible. Of course we’ll allow your people to use the center. Does this community have a name? Who are these people? What did they do to deserve such treatment?”
Althea raised both hands, gesturing for everyone to hold their comments a bit longer.
“So, what should I put down,” Dori asked, “for the community’s name on the schedule?”
“All, right,” Althea said, drowning out Mark’s response, “she’s fired. And we’ll have to straighten this mess out tomorrow. There’s no way we can let a group like that use—.”
“It’s too late,” Kendrik said.
“This video’s gone viral. It’s on FaceBook. People are tweeting the heck out of it. There’s even a couple of copies of it on YouTube already. Even if you cancel their reservation, all anyone’s going remember about Kendrik House is that it was willing to open its doors to those perverts in the first place.”
“Wait a minute,” Natalie said suddenly. She scrolled the video back and stopped it at the point where Dori glanced at the camera. “See that? She knew this was being shot. It was planned, and she was part of it from the start.”
“But,” Kendrik said, “who’d want to do that?”
Natalie and Althea looked at one another. “Jones.”
“That guy I ran into at the Occupy site? The developer who wanted the site cleared?”
They both nodded.
“So what happens now?”
Natalie smiled. “We show him something that your great-grandfather Oscar showed me. The work action that his construction crew did was just a warm-up. JonesCo has been hurting people in a number of cities, but so far, he’s gotten away with it. That’s about to end. When we’re through, he’s going to wish he’d never heard the name Kendrik.”
Kendrik’s father glanced nervously at his mother and his son. “You two are going to drag me into this activism thing if it kills you, aren’t you?”
“Damn right, dad.”
(The story continues in “Authenticity“)
Copyright 2013 by P. Orin Zack