Occupy! 

by Phyllis Koppel

 

 

The inequality of wealth distribution is finally sexy, and I can hardly believe it! This morning, all the TV shows talk about the thousands expected to gather at the corner of King and Bay to protest against the empire of greed. The Mayor proclaims that people have the right to demonstrate peacefully and that Members of Parliament will march next to labour leaders. Big bank executives warn their staff to “prepare for the worst, hope for the best.” I must participate in this global day of action.

When I was young… younger than now, back when the fire burned in my belly, the poor vs. the rich was my call-to-arms, my raison d'être. My career, photography, paintings…all demanded attention to the inequalities in this word. In the 90’s, my friends cared. We were Toronto’s new bohemians, restless, opinionated and deadly against the power of big business. We were poised to change the world, but nobody listened. Nobody purchased our crappy art.  

In our condo this morning, I must squint at the 85’’ TV to read the placard a demonstrator wields in the air; ‘I got 99 problems but being rich ain’t one of them’. I cry; not because this describes my situation but because three decades ago, it was 8% of the population who owned the rest of us. The desire to march pours through my tears.

Turning the volume up I suggest, “John, let’s go to the march. Let’s go occupy Toronto!” I raise a fist into our condo’s Febreze air and feel the glory of my younger self surge. John won’t go for it. It isn’t his thing. He is a working-class hero who expects nothing from government and wants nothing to do with it. He cannot bother about life’s larger issues when he is busy doing what is right for his family; he does that magnificently. Wiggling in the chair to relieve pressure off his ass John does not reply.

“C’mon! It will be fun!” I prod. “I’ll just take a few pictures and we’ll come right back. We don’t have to march.”

As if speaking were a chore he yawns, “You are such a dreamer. Look at those goofs…” John’s face wrinkles like a tossed piece of paper as he points at the TV screen. “What are they trying to accomplish?” He goes into the kitchen to refill his coffee and a dent on the seat of his chair pops. “It’s cold outside anyway,” he shouts from the Nespresso coffee dispenser.  

“I don’t care!” I catch both of us off-guard with my reply. I have complained about the cold the full decade I have lived here. I never promised I would get used to artic air; I am allergic to winter. “I’ll go myself,” I whisper. I have accused John of being a Neanderthal, more than once, but he has a big heart and God knows, after all the losers I have married and divorced, he’s a keeper.  

“Don’t be ridiculous!” he yells, whisking the sugar spoon in his coffee more vigorously than usual. “You’ll never find parking.”

I know life has taken a sharp turn for me, but I must insist on keeping true to my principles. “I’ll take the damn subway”  

Returning to his dented chair, John reminds me, “You don’t have money to go into town,” but not maliciously - he is right. At an age when financial institutions proclaim I have reached ‘freedom 55’ I cannot afford five dollars to get downtown. According to this country, I wasted fifteen years of my life teaching in the Caribbean since that experience counts for nothing. Here, art teachers are not required in the system, yet the government granted me permanent residency as a skilled worker – they never said my skills were not needed.  

Back home I transformed the lives of my students. I saw children destined for academic failure, blossom because they discovered art and I mattered to them. I commanded respect and... “I’ll drive you down to the madness,” John interrupts my daydream. “I’ll get a kick watching those yahoos freeze in their tents,” chuckling, he makes the chair crackle as he sits to watch TV.  

 

Traffic near St. James Park is like sludge. Cordoned streets block traffic and allow the protestors to march. People rush toward the park, their raucous jeers piercing the air. Mounted policemen look at the maze below unable to restore order. The air is electric.  

“John, why don’t you drive around while I snap some photos” I say knowing driving is impossible in this mess and agree to meet an hour later. The searing blast of icy air as I get out of the car whips around my ears and, struggling to get my camera gear out quickly, the cold tripod slips out of my hand. I pick it up and something falls out of my purse. Someone honks for John to keep moving. From the steering wheel he smiles at me tenderly and coos at the chaos I create, “That’s why I love you crazy woman!” He speeds off, catching up to traffic 500 meters later.

Dense with people and hundreds of tents, the park mushrooms larger, taller. Pitched are bell tents, fly tents and tube tents. There are tipis, tarps, wigwams and even is a yurt that acts as a reference library for the protesters. Inside the tents, people sing and smoke pot, read pamphlets and prepare signs. The air is festive like in a Carnival. People chant, ‘Is it need or is it greed? We are the 99%, who live in a tent, and won’t repent!’ 

I take a picture of a masked Anonymous holding a sign ‘democracy for sale’ and then of a young man hanging upside down from a tree branch, juggling. Small groups gather around organizers who wear red wigs and shout slogans into their bullhorns. A young woman clutches a heart-shaped red pillow in front of my camera, smiling sadly and smelling like cinnamon. I click and move along. A melancholic bearded man holds a cardboard sign, too small for me to read without my glasses, and stands next to a bucket full of something green. Our eyes meet. I near him ready to snap when I read his sign, free peas. 

I cannot identify with these young activists full of weird ideas. Free peas? They are all over the place… juggling from trees? These protestors are callow and don’t understand the woes of the world, and I am freezing. Perhaps John is right…what are they trying to accomplish? Does ‘King High Finance’ care about this circus?

Pitched a couple of days earlier, the camp already shows signs of decay. The garbage bins overflow and tin cans are flattened over trodden grass. There is a used condom amongst the rubble. These kids are not taking the issues they fight for seriously.

I need to get out. I reach for my phone and beg John to pick me up immediately. Before I hang up someone taps my shoulder. Towering behind me is a black man, the red turban on his head making him seem even taller. Convinced he wants to preach to me, I have no time to talk about things I cared about twenty years ago, I start to move away.

The Rasta man smiles at me majestically and his eyes pierce into mine as if we are familiar. His hand remains on my shoulder. “Pardon but…you a teacher in de Caribbean, right? Yeah…me know so,” he says reading my surprised expression. “Me nah can forget me art teacher from when I was twelve.”  

The march is about to start and the volume in the park quadruples. An arm tugs at the towering man, pressing him to return to the impatient crowd. In the urge of the moment, I hand my camera to a stranger; ask him to take our picture. Click. I watch the red turban as he is swallowed into a sea of bobbing heads and signs of discontent.

 

Back in John’s condo I download the files and show him the picture of my unlikely encounter. “Last time I saw him, he was in sixth grade.” I squint…I imagine and try to remember. “He didn’t have time to tell me his name. I don’t know who he is!”  Yet he recognized me…after all these years.

John says, “Your roots spread far from the tree, young lady.” He always calls me that, ‘young lady’.

Some lives are lived gently while others are fast and manic. Mine is slowing into manageable chunks and although I do not understand all of it, I have learned to live peacefully with my discontent. These days, it is hard to kindle the fire in my belly, but I know I’ve mattered and still do.  

Not paying attention to my story, John turns the TV on. ‘Defiant protesters say they will camp until…” I switch the TV off and kiss John’s lips.