Shopping

“That was a great idea you had, Clive.”

I remember this email as I’m standing, bike helmet in hand, waiting to speak with an author who has given a presentation at an elegant bookstore in Elmwood. It was the most annoying note I received, by far, three months into Occupy. The author had sent it and asked to be taken off the list.

Was that a compliment? It “was” a great idea, but it’s worth little because the movement debased itself?

The author won’t be free soon, so I converse with the person nearby, a woman well-dressed in casual style, slacks and a careful, lace-edged blouse. She turns out to be a long-time friend of the author, and asks how I know her.

“Occupy,” I say. “She answered an email setting up our blog ‘Writing Occupy.’”

“Oh, Occupy!” Her faced brightens. “We went to a number of their meetings,” she and her friend the author, and, to begin with, they were enthusiastic. The same must have been true for many people, and these two seem like good, progressive, middle-class citizens. Occupy would likely appeal to them. Occupy needs them, too, and the corollary must be true, I think, that they need Occupy.

But the movement soured.

“Why did it fall apart for you?”

I can’t meet her eye, and this surprises me. I try to control the impulse, but find I’m unable to pull my eye into line with hers. I give up and look to the side, hoping not to appear disinterested.

“Two things,” she says and pauses, considering her audience.

“The violence,” I jump in, a not-so-wild guess. “Or the threat of violence?” I’m offering an opening, if she’s inclined to say more.

“Yes. And the Black Block didn’t help.”

“No, of course not.” They had followed Occupy Oakland well, if she knows the Black Block, some of whom justify violence against property and the police, and do that eloquently. My expression of understanding puts her at ease, but she acts as if she’s answered the question completely, with total composure. This is obvious at a glance.

And one glance is all I can muster. I still can’t make my eye obey my will, and this puzzles me. I must be frustrated or angry or something, and nothing has surfaced.

“What’s the other thing?”

“Occupy proved that horizontal organization doesn’t work.” Now she catches my eye and holds it with easy authority, with the air of a professor who’s used to respect.

I’m too flabbergasted to speak. Does it have to be like this, when the crucial moment comes, that words fail? And then it dawns why I have trouble meeting her eye. I’m afraid I’ll see my own cautions, and next I’ll think my support of Occupy is misguided. Too disturbing an issue, and too close to home.

I can meet her eye now, but I’ve got no idea what to say.

I make my excuses and leave this pleasant, independent bookstore and this precise, well-spoken person. I let go of my wish to speak to the author. I’m afraid I won’t be able to look her in the eye.

It takes the whole bike-ride home to figure out what I’m thinking.

First, Occupy hasn’t been visible long enough to prove anything, other than it isn’t an instant fix. And that’s not going to happen. No one can expect an instant fix, for such a variety of severe, deeply rooted, and related ills. So how could Occupy prove anything else, in a short time?

Next, I get the feeling somehow that these women are picking and choosing from a distance, as if they’re in a market. Shopping. And this product doesn’t quite fit what they want. Or what they think they want. Well, is it exactly what I want? We have to notice, in any case, that in the aisle of significant change the shelves are about empty. Do we want a more pleasant package? A different label? Something less expensive?

I get the sense that my acquaintances didn’t read the label, either.

I think the Occupy label says, “Choose this if you’re willing to work. The cost is exactly what you give. If there’s something you want to change, you need to pick up a shovel and get in the dirt with the rest of us.”

It works if you work it.

(With help from John Paige.)

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