Notes From #WallStreet

Meditations in an Occupation

Meditations in an Occupation
Credit: Barry Yanowitz

I arrived at Zuccotti Park for the first time last Friday night as a group of drummers on the east side of the park were performing a collective improvisation—including a guy on a real drum set. It was amusing, but not memorable. I walked into the camp, and soon met three SUNY Stony Brook graduate students: Leo, Danilo, and Dan. “You look like Sparrow,” Leo said. No one ever recognizes me (his father knew me from my website). I’m less famous than the drummer of the Butthole Surfers, whose name is King Coffey.

I and the three students conversed. I asked Leo what he was reading. He said Crime and Punishment. I said, “That’s funny! I’ve just been obsessing on Crime and Punishment!”

At that moment, a woman walked by with a sign saying: “Crime But No Punishment,” about the Wall Street moguls. 

Strange miracles constantly happen there. Liberty Park, as it is now known by sympathizers, has the air of a yoga retreat: a hopeful, asexual giddiness. Though some of the people—sullen punks, Vietnam veterans, black guys bumming cigarettes—are not types you normally see at a yoga retreat.

It was Friday night, and I was hungry, but I couldn’t buy food because I follow the Jewish Sabbath. Within 15 minutes, a guy handed me a slice of pizza.

“Is this vegetarian?” I said.

“It’s vegan!” he said.

I sat by the shrine of the Kundalini yogis and ate. Whole wheat with peppers! Quite tasty. Soon afterward, I was on the food line and received salad with dressing, couscous, macaroni and cheese, broccoli. Simple but very fine fare. I returned to my shrine seat and ate more. During my meal, a female newscaster from Georgia (the country) filmed a report. A cop watched, smiling. All the police I saw were happy. I’ve been watching New York cops since 1958, and it’s always a good sign when they’re happy. I suspect the cops support us. If they have to, they’ll arrest us, expel us from the park, even brutalize us. But deep down, they agree that Wall Street sucks.

As I finished my meal, two middle-aged women from New Jersey walked by. “Can I take your picture?” one of them asked. They were Occupy Wall Street tourists.

“Sure!” I said. “May I unroll my sign?”

“Sure!” she said.

The second woman and I stood together, with my slogan:


Both tourists were delighted. It was like posing at Yellowstone Park next to a bear! I gave them my email address, to send me the photo.

“Do you work around here?” I asked the woman with the camera. 

“I work all around the city,” she said vaguely. “I’m in sales.” Then she grew bolder. “You won’t like me. I work for a pharmaceutical company! But when you’re sick, you’ll love me.”

Another miracle: I went to the encampment thinking, Maybe I’ll give a little poetry reading. To that end, I brought a collection of my poems. After my dinner, a guy told me, “The poetry reading starts at 9:30!”

Suddenly a whole group of my friends appeared: Eliot Katz, Danny Shot, Eileen Myles, Filip Marinovich, Susan Yung. I’ve heard them all read, but never with their voices echoed by human microphones. About 50 people stood around. Ngoma, a Harlem poet and musician, was the emcee.

The big secret of Occupy Wall Street is not that it’s secretly dominated by anarchists. The real inner cabal are academics. Mick Taussig, rogue anthropology professor at Columbia University, was smilingly present. Everyone I met seemed to be affiliated with a college. 

Occupy Wall Street is directed by extremely smart people. Have you read their newspaper, with the shrewd essay by Naomi Klein? This movement has learned from all the failures of the last 40 years of Left activism. In the 1960s, young hippies attempted to overthrow the established order. Their values were completely opposed to those of most working people. Now the young hippies have thousands of signs: “We Are The 99%.” (Besides, the working class is no longer scared of long hair.) The occupiers also refuse to be pushed to the left. They don’t attack capitalism, or even the war in Afghanistan. They just say, over and over, “Why did they bail out the banks, but not us?”

How many demonstrations almost immediately create a library?

“Did you hear about the guy from Argentina?” Stephen, the demonstration librarian, asked me. “They’ve been feeding 1000 people a night here. They didn’t see how they could keep doing it. Then we get a phone call from a guy in Argentina. He knows a church on the Lower East Side that can lend us their kitchen—plus people can sleep there! Now they can cook every night!”

The poetry reading had rappers, neo-conceptual art poets, funny Jews, a Puerto Rican mother from the Bronx. Poetry, I discovered, is improved by a group of intent people chanting back the words. The biggest star was Osagyefo, an ad-libbing Rastafarian who briefly chanted:

Babylon, your throne gone down, gone down;
Babylon, your throne gone down.

Eileen Myles wrote a brilliant poem playing on the absurd solidarity of the audience echoing the poet. “I’m the poet!” she shouted.

“I’m the poet!” we repeated.

“No, you’re the poet!” she said.

“No, you’re the poet!” we echoed.

“No, I’m the poet!” Eileen insisted.

“No, I’m the poet!” we all agreed.

Poetry readings are being held every Friday night at 9:30 PM, unless that changes. This one felt like the first poetry reading of The New Conscious World. 

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