The New Yorker Magazine travels on the Cliffite bus

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Jan 29 12:20:09 MST 2001


By Jonathan Franzen

A couple of Saturdays ago, lacking any better invitation, you might have
got up at five-thirty and left your silk scarves and your cashmere coat in
the closet, put on your beat-up Red Wings and several layers of old wool,
and cabbed up to the Harlem State Office Building, on 125th Street, where
twenty young Socialists, a shoal of fellow-travelling Fordham students, and
two stray Barnard College Seniors who’d been drinking all night at the
Village Idiot were waiting for transportation to Washington. David
Schmauch, a member of the Harlem branch of the International Socialist
Organization, was in charge of the operation. [By Harlem branch, we are
given to understand the Columbia University branch.] Schmauch, who
resembles a clean-shaven Kenneth Branagh, was wearing duck boots, a nylon
parka, and a goofy stocking cap. He’d paid fifteen hundred dollars out of
his own pocket for a pair of antique yellow school buses, and he had sold
nowhere near fifteen hundred dollars’ worth of tickets. One contingent of
sympathizers, he said, had backed out when it learned that the buses had no
bathrooms. You might have been tempted to sneer at this objection, at the
bourgeois primness of it; but after your very slow bus, slowed further by
rain and fog, had made a bathroom stop at every service area along the New
Jersey Turnpike—each stop dilating into a cigarette break and an extended
snack opportunity—you might have wished, yourself, for a motor coach with
self-contained amenities.

On the other hand, the more time you’d sat on a warm, dry bus reading your
fifty-cent copy of the Socialist Worker, the less time you’d have had to
stand in the mud at Stanton Square, behind the Supreme Court, where the
only shelters were the dope-scented porta-potties and the plastic-wrapped
gazebo from which warmup speakers for the Reverend Al Sharpton were fishing
for cheers in a sea of three or four thousand wet non-Republicans. Worse
weather was imaginable: it could have been raining harder. If you’d lucked
onto the slower bus and arrived very late, only your smaller fingers might
have been frozen by the time Sharpton took charge of the mike and stirred
you, against your will, with the brevity and force of his denunciations.
There in the rain, among the wilting placards ("Hail to the Thief!" and
"The People Have Spoken—All Five of Them") and the rain-beaded lenses of
Bertolt Brecht eyewear, you might even have warmed to Sharpton’s cheaper
shots—his challenge to Dubya "to do more than get messy with Jesse," for
example, or his calculated stuttering of "Clarence T-Tom-Thomas."

The crowd was all smiles as it formed a column and marched slowly up
Maryland Avenue to surround the Supreme Court. If you’d been there, you
might have been roused by the ceaseless chanting of "Racist, sexist,
anti-gay, GEORGE BUSH, go away!" and "Hey, Dubya, what do you say—How many
votes did you steal today?" even if you didn’t actually believe that George
Bush was a bigot or that he’d stolen any votes that day. Maybe, long ago,
you felt similarly divided at high-school pep rallies. Maybe, although the
cheerleaders in Washington wore dreads and leather pants and those
burdensome-looking collections of buttons (those rosary-like skeins of
explicit ideology), rather than letter sweaters and pleated skirts, you’d
have once again found yourself simultaneously thrilled and repelled. But
when the sidewalk surrounding the Supreme Court was fully occupied by
drenched protesters, and the chant had shifted to a conga beat of "THIS is
what dem-oc-racy looks-like, THAT is what hyp-oc-risy looks-like," with
hundreds of wet arms pointing at the Court on every shout of "THAT," your
irritation with the self-congratulation of the THIS might have been swept
away by a sudden, overpowering resentment of the THAT: the marble
courthouse that loomed, silent, unlighted, unresponsive, behind a line of
cops in riot helmets. You might have been glad you came down here.

But then, as the line moved on, and you rounded the southeast corner of the
Court, you might have had the deeply weird experience of seeing yourself
seeing yourself. There, in the Florida House on the other side of Second
Street, behind tall windows hung with patriotic bunting, were men and women
waiting for the party to commence, wearing the kinds of suits and shoes
that you’d left at home, eating the kinds of food that you’d eaten in
restaurants almost every night the week before, drinking the eighty-proof
kind of drink for which you were all of a sudden thirsting, and peering out
with a mixture of curiosity and fear and satisfaction at the sodden line of
marchers of which you were at least somewhat, if only for a moment, and yet
not entirely reluctantly, a living part.

The trip back took seven hours. The young Socialists—a first-year
school-teacher; an installer for Verizon, a bartender who was formerly a
soccer star at Brown, among others—compared cell phones, read Marx in
abridgment, unanimously praised "Friends," and split, along strict
gay-straight lines, over the merits of "Xena: Warrior Princess." Few
pleasures compare with that of riding on a bus after dark, hours behind
schedule, with people you violently agree with. But finally, inevitably,
you get dumped back in the city You may still be one version of yourself;
the version from the bus, the younger and redder version, as long as you’re
waiting for the subway and riding home. Then you peel off the thermal
layers, still damp, of the long day’s costume, and you see a wholly
different kind of costume hanging in your closet; and in the shower you’re
naked and alone.

[The New Yorker Magazine caters to the middle-class and can be found
typically in the waiting rooms of psychotherapists' offices. Jonathan
Franzen is a young leftwing novelist (27th City, Strong Motion) who has
been strongly influence--unfortunately--by Salman Rushdie.]

Louis Proyect
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