For a child of the ’60s, my resume of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is pathetically thin; my record of political activism, even thinner. I missed the ’60s because I was too young — not quite 15 when they ended, and still stuck in rural Pennsylvania with my parents, children of the Depression whose only concern was making enough money for a modest retirement with no pension in sight. On the first Women’s Equality Day — Aug. 26, 1970, the 50th anniversary of woman suffrage — I desperately wanted to wear a “Don’t Cook Dinner! Starve a Rat Today” button. Not a chance: I spent the day behind their diner counter, serving truck drivers, mechanics, Hell’s Angels and other white male working-class heroes. By the time I started college in 1972, the protests that had all but shut down campus in the infamous Spring of ’70 were over; I remember just one bomb threat my first summer there, which turned out to be a hoax. Almost immediately upon arrival, I joined the ranks of journalists, taking a vow of objectivity. (Anyway, we were plenty busy with Watergate.) For 35 years or so, I kept my opinions myself, or at least out of print.
Journalists are supposed to have a social conscience but, paradoxically, no overt political leanings that might compromise their or their publications’ commitment to fairness and objectivity. (I’m talking about real journalists.) But as I rhetorically asked an older colleague at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism last week, when’s the last time we were paid to do actual journalism — in my case, by anyone other than a Stephen Sondheim publication? (Auspiciously, Sondheim’s 87th birthday is the day I am scheduled to receive the first of the payments from Social Security, if it still exists by March, that I intend to finance my escape from this country.) So I’m finally wearing buttons: “Not My President” and “Make American Smart Again.” And now, in my 60s, I can let my inner flower child bloom.
I can’t help envying my friend Mary, a few years older, who can reminisce about how she came to New York as a “hippie chick.” The closest I can come is being able to sing the entire score of “Hair” from memory, not least “Frank Mills,” a hippie chick’s ode to the boy she meant on Sept. 12 in front of the Waverly, as I persist in calling the IFC Center that took over the space. Oh, sure, I wore my ERA bracelet, and we all know how much good that did. International students are routinely shocked to learn there is no explicit Constitutional protection of women’s equality, or even their personhood.
But our National Day of Mourning called for action. I declared Friday a media-free day until Bill Maher returned from hiatus at 10 p.m. (OK, so I cheated a little, reading Paul Krugman that morning. Right on target, as usual.) I didn’t want to spend the day alone and depressed, or doing my usual Friday things and pretending it all didn’t matter. As it turned out, a carefully curated choice of activities added up to an exhilarating weekend.
The inauguration-eve rally at Columbus Circle wasn’t even on my radar until the day before, even though my friend Dr. Carol in Memphis had written: “If I were in NYC I’d be thinking seriously about going to Michael Moore’s rally Thursday. Won’t help anything but damn, it would feel good.” I woke up that morning wanting to go. It was a straight shot on the 1 train, so I had no excuse. Expecting a crowd, I exited the station at the upper end, thinking I’d be on the fringe, but the crowd was moving up Broadway toward 65th Street, where the main entrance had been moved. I followed the crowd, passing the movie theater a friend manages, and the apartment building where I’ve had three Japanese students, and Lincoln Center, where I’ve spent so much of the last 29 years, and Bed, Bath and Beyond, as if it were any other day. Walking was all I was doing, and that’s when the sad truth hit me: I had no idea what to do at a protest.
I thought of calling my dentist, Dr. Alan Goldstein, for tips; he’s a bona fide ’60s radical (who has written a very fine memoir that cries out to be published), and his office on Central Park West is on the rally site, so for all I know he was already there. I couldn’t find my friend who’d be arriving late from water aerobics, a Columbia faculty ex-wife who presumably weathered the ’60s demonstrations there. So I just mingled with the very Upper West Side (and admittedly very white) crowd and worked my way as far south as I could, which was less than a block. It was a strain to hear the speakers, and I’d been there at least an hour before I glimpsed the big screen five blocks away between the taller people in front of me. I cheered when the crowd cheered, without knowing what I was cheering, but with speakers like Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Cynthia Nixon, I found it unlikely I’d disagree with anything they said — as I confirmed that night on YouTube. Dr. Carol was right.
Friday dawned gray and appropriately depressing. At high noon I was in Poland via Skype, discussing such matters as how to pronounce the English R, and at the end I thanked my student for keeping me occupied at the moment America was dying. (Dziekuje bardzo again, Kamila.) I spent the rest of the day volunteering in the one place that, no matter what’s happening outside, always makes me feel better: a theater.
Specifically, the United Palace, the over-the-top 1930 movie palace 17 blocks up Broadway from me in Washington Heights, which is undergoing a renaissance as a cultural center. Its programming nonprofit, United Palace of Cultural Arts, was holding a full day of counter-inauguration activities, led by the actress Ellen Burstyn and titled “Inaugurate Love: Dreaming Our Nation United.” Performances ranged from Tahitian dancers to drum circles to guided movement to a singing cellist to Ms. Burstyn reciting — no, acting — poetry. Dressed in usher/mourning black, I was assigned front-of-house, which in this case meant staffing a lobby table. I gave out programs, asked people to sign up for the mailing list, accepted donations to Planned Parenthood and, as always in front-of-house, directed patrons to the restrooms. The audience was small but steady, coming and going and later returning. Even in the lobby at the United Palace, whose architectural style defies labeling — Baroque-rococo-Moorish, with Buddhas and lion’s heads and a mural of Venus rising from the sea — every square inch offers something to look at, and I found my seven hours there oddly calming.
Thursday was just a warmup for the New York women’s march on Saturday. It took three and half hours to walk a distance I would normally cover in 30 minutes tops, from 42nd and Second (by my assigned 2:30 time slot, the original rallying point six blocks away had been closed) to the Death Star (my name for Trump Tower, just as Ivanka has become Ivita). Those 400,000 other pedestrians made the walk even slower than the M42 cossstown bus. It was by no means just a women’s march — maybe close to 50 percent men, and babies in Snuglis (not one of whom cried), and children in strollers, and people in wheelchairs, and one white-maned lady, spitting mad, pushing a sturdy walker. This being New York, there was talk of dinner reservations.
Though marching alone, I immersed myself in the sea of pink hats and signs covering just about every possible topic — lots of “lady parts” that “grab back,” but also taxes and health care and education, with Harry Potter citations (it seems I’m not the only one thinking of Voldemort these days) to quotations from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I now understand the excitement of mob mentality, having felt the rush that comes from WOO!-ing in waves and chanting “Hey, Hey, ho, ho, Donald Trump has got to go!” and “This is what democracy looks like.”
“Why are you marching today?” a 20-something asked me on the first block. Wasn’t it obvious? “Uh . . . because I’m female?” I responded, then, a minute or so later when I’d had time to think, “Because I have a functioning brain.” Later, I realized I should have added the reason I’d given for chipping in to a Rockettes’ relief fund: because it’s important to show the world that Trump’s hometown wants no part of him.
Today, though barely able to walk, I marvel at how my child-of-the-’60s resume has filled out after all. Sex? Better, surely, than Marla Maples ever had, and with a far finer man. (If you’re alive to read this, it wasn’t you.) I’ve long said I plan to spend my golden years doing all the drugs I was too straight to do in the ’70s, though preferably not in the way my brother, child of the ’50s, did before he died of cancer in September. As for rock ‘n’ roll, there’s a iTunes gift card for my birthday burning a hole in my e-wallet. (Thank you, Lois.) High on my wish list is the Who’s Tommy. By Impeachment Day, I may have no more hearing left than Pete Townshend, but here’s hoping the new regime will self-destruct, as Nixon’s did — only much faster.
Coda: As I post, today is the 44th anniversary of my big break in journalism, Roe. v. Wade. And we’re still chanting, “My body, my choice.”