The Community Chorus
A personal essay excerpted and revised from an unpublished novel manuscript, BUFFALO BRAIN, a counter-cultural coming-of-age story set in the relatively sane 1960s, long before anyone could have imagined “President Trump.”
I hate crowds. I’ve always hated crowds. That’s why, in the late sixties and early seventies when I was involved in the antiwar movement, I had a serious problem: I could not look forward to going to demonstrations.
I’ll never forget the first big protest march I took part in. It blew me away.
It was 1968. George Wallace had set up his own anti-liberal American Independent Party so he could run for president. How could anyone consider nominating such a racist…! But if the times had changed, he had changed with them. He was no longer running as a racist, a segregationist; he was running as an anti-Communist. And he had come to New York City to campaign.
We (a coalition of various peace groups) had a permit from the city to march. We had a route laid out for us. (I can’t say exactly how many of us there were; our estimates and the official estimates varied, but no one argued for less than eight thousand.) Once we were assembled, however, the cops cordoned us off.
Police barricades were set up everywhere, including right where I happened to be standing. The crowd swelled and pushed. There was no escaping. I found myself pinned up against one of those wooden crowd-control barriers, with nothing to protect me from New York’s Finest.
The cops were mounted on horseback, ready to charge. The rifles they were pointing had fixed bayonets. I stood there, speechless. This was not a reality I had ever imagined myself a part of. This was a scene straight out of Dr. Zhivago. You know the one: The people march for “Bread and Brotherhood” and are mowed down as so much chaff in front of Yuri’s disbelieving eyes.
I thought of all I’d learned and wanted to believe about nonviolent practice. I did my best to establish eye contact with the cop opposite me. I kept willing him to put down his weapon. I tried to tell him I loved him.
I was eighteen years old, unarmed and unathletic, and I’m sure I looked as soft and nonthreatening as I felt. He could have beaten me, hands down, at arm wrestling. He could have caught me running. No contest. Didn’t he have a younger sister or daughter? He looked old enough to be my father. Couldn’t he see that brute force was wrong, that he was on the wrong side?
I wanted to reason with him, to engage him in a meaningful conversation. I had two questions I was burning to ask him: (1) If your opponent, antagonist, enemy—whatever you want to call them—isn’t using physical force, just an argument, what does it say about you if your only defense is to kill or maim them? (2) What does it say about your cause?
How could these cops, these men, face us? How could they go home afterwards and face their families, their friends? How could they face themselves?
Before the demonstration broke up, I witnessed several other demonstrators—mostly skinny guys with long hair, and a few women—being led away, bloodied, by cops. The cops seemed to enjoy twisting their arms behind their backs and bullying them forward with their clubs. Though they had already subdued them, they continued hurting their victims, causing them more pain.
I was lucky. I managed to get myself home in one piece. My only additional interaction with the cops was a verbal one.
As I was making my way to the subway—along with my friend Nina, whom I had happily run into—a gang of young cops approached. One of them taunted me, asking if I was a boy or a girl.
“If you have to ask,” I said, “you’d better get your eyes examined.” (I was not the least bit androgynous. If I was wearing a bra, it would have been a size thirty-six C, and the rest of me was in good old-fashioned zaftig proportion.)
Not to be shown up in the wit department, another cop asked Nina if she believed in free love. She didn’t miss a beat. “Do you think I should pay for it?” she shot back. We ran away before they could ask—or do—anything else.
The next major protest was going to be in Chicago, at the Democratic National Convention. Everyone I knew was planning to go, trying to talk me into going. But no way was I going to go. No way was I going to press my luck.
I was scared. I admitted it. But I didn’t believe I was a coward. I’d never had much confidence in my physical self, that kind of bravery. My strength, my coordination, my speed were never in my muscles. Like I said, I was no athlete. My body was not to be a weapon for or against any war. Whatever strength I had was in my mind. I didn’t want to get my skull bashed in just to prove how bad the bad guys were.
Also, I didn’t believe that the only place for an honorable man—or woman—was jail. When I lived at the CNVA (Committee for Nonviolent Action) in Voluntown, Connecticut, the political commune where I baked bread and did some draft counseling, everyone who’d ever been arrested for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience enjoyed sharing their story. And, of course, anyone who’d actually served time in prison for such an offense was a hero. I, however, had to admit that the thought of being imprisoned or of getting arrested—just the thought of some cop, even briefly, having power over my body—made me crazy.
The only way I could be good to anyone, to any cause, was as a free agent. The thought of having handcuffs around my wrists, of being pushed, forced to march in some direction not of my own choosing…. The idea of anyone being able to force me to do anything! I couldn’t take it. Couldn’t stand it. When push came to shove in reality, outside of our nonviolent-civil-disobedience training sessions, I knew I would never be able to go limp.
History coursed through me. Other people had gone passively, not believing what would be done to them. It wasn’t that I expected another Holocaust every minute. I just didn’t want to risk being in their hands for a second. Putting myself in that position would reduce my struggle for world peace and social justice to my own immediate personal struggle.
Still, in spite of my misgivings, I did attend many demonstrations. Sometimes I’d think of all the people who’d had no choices, whose bodies didn’t belong wherever it was they’d wound up—above or below the ground. I knew that too often the wisest, kindest, noblest individual voices were drowned out or turned a deaf ear to. If someone shouts “Peace” or “Love” and no one listens…. It made me think of Horton Hears a Who. Sometimes we have to put all our voices together. If the orchestra of war is playing loud, we need a large chorus singing for peace. A solo will not do.
It’s still hard to believe, isn’t it? More bombs were dropped by the U.S. on Vietnam than were dropped by all sides in World War Two. I don’t understand it now and I sure as hell didn’t understand it then. But if a New York City cop could have been ready to run me through with a bayonet, I guess Nixon and Agnew could have found reason enough to bomb hell out of Indochina.
So, in the early seventies, when I was a student at UB (State University of New York at Buffalo), I did my share of demonstrating. I marched with lots of other UB students and all sorts of pissed-off Buffalonians.
We’d march downtown, many of us with our arms linked in solidarity, chanting antiwar slogans. “The people united will never be defeated!” is the one I remember best. We chanted it in Spanish, too.
We’d usually rally at Niagara Square in front of the city hall. Every time I saw Buffalo’s city hall, I was impressed by how much it looked like the Daily Planet building in Superman. I’d point out the resemblance to anyone within range. It wasn’t the kind of thing most people noticed. But it was appropriate: What was our rallying about if not “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”?
Anyhow, people who protest together can’t help becoming acquainted, and after several marches and rallies, I started to feel almost comfortable. More and more of my fellow and sister protesters’ faces (if not their names) had become familiar ones. And before too long, the crowds were transformed; they had become my community.
- First published in Bridges (Indiana University Press). Reprinted in Spindle and Contemporary & Literary Horizon
A personal essay based on my experiences living in Debrecen, Hungary, in 1988, when the Soviet Union still existed and its troops were still stationed there.
My friend Éva brought me back a T-shirt from Budapest last week. On the front of it is a cartoon of an old Hungarian horseman dressed in folk costume astride his mount. Instead of working the reins, however, his hands are poised over the keyboard of a laptop computer. I myself do not have a computer. I do not even have a typewriter. You could say I’m becoming mildly obsessed by the difficulty of having to get by without one.
When I sit down to write at a typewriter, it’s like magic. The words come so quickly, I don’t have time to think and I don’t need to. My fingers fly over the keys. The words appear clearly on the page. I sit back and relax. My only task is to take out each perfect page and insert another, the next virgin destined for instant ecstasy. The writing process is pure pleasure.
When I’m reduced to writing with a pen, however, I limp across the barren stretches of blank paper painfully aware of each dragging step. My hand cramps. I can’t seem to find a pen that is a pleasure to hold and, at the same time, generous in the mileage department. Believe me, nothing is more vexing to a prolific Muse than to have to cool her heels while her chosen medium goes in search of another pen because the one they’ve been so diligently working away with suddenly runs out of ink.
You may not be aware, but Hungary—where I’ve been living for the past six months—is homeland of the biro, the original ballpoint pen. Bet you credited an American with that invention, didn’t you?
Hungarians also invented the elevator and the telephone. It’s a mystery how it happened, but the Hungarians, the most inventive people in the world, are also the most unsung. That’s probably why a Hungarian created the most important literary prize in America—the Pulitzer.
Every time a famous writer is referred to as “that Pulitzer Prize-winning so and so,” Magyars everywhere bask in reflected glory. If they are at all like my friends, they won’t be content to bask in silence, either. They will joke and talk about all manner of things. Eventually they’ll tell you about good old Imre.
Imre gave his name to the Americas. I no longer remember the details of the explanation, but it seems “Amerigo” is Italian for “Imre.” The Americas were named for Amerigo Vespucci who was named Amerigo by wise Italian parents who knew how great was Imre.
We’ll always come full circle if we start somewhere in Hungary. Come to think of it, Hungarians were probably the first to circumnavigate the globe.
This brings me back to where I was originally headed. It’s a hard road for a potential Pulitzer Prize-winner when she has to write longhand without a plentiful supply of reliable pens. The first biros may have been wonderful, but the Hungarian pens I’ve been making acquaintance with are notoriously unreliable. They skip like crazy.
I’ve had to enter into a rather shady deal with some Russian soldiers in order to buy some excellent Chinese pens.
The Russians live in barracks behind a fence across the street. Most Hungarians won’t give them the time of day, but I want to practice my Russian. I was never forced to learn it, as the Hungarians were. I harbor no resentment toward the language of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.
These pens, I’ve been assured, will get one hundred pages to the cartridge. I have plenty of paper. I should feel better, but I don’t.
My handwriting is becoming more and more illegible. I’m afraid when I try to transcribe these notes in the future, I might make some dreadful mistakes. Imagine if I forget what I’ve learned here and type up something like: “The Romanians invented the pen, the telephone, and the elevator. Franz Liszt was a Romanian. So was Pulitzer.”
I have to laugh when I remember how anti-technology I used to be. In the late sixties and early seventies, I learned skills like basket weaving and hand-building with clay. Doing everything by hand was a point of honor. I never learned to type until 1984.
And now, how I do miss my typewriter! What I wouldn’t give for my old electronic Adler, its memory of fifty characters, its automatic correction.
Yes, there certainly is a lot to recommend technology, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time. Right now I’ve got to excavate my refrigerator—which, by the way, like so many others in Hungary, is from Russia.
My Russian refrigerator is dark. It owes no debt to Thomas Alva Edison. No light bulb hogs up any of its insufficient space. My Russian refrigerator is small. Of course, I’ve never actually seen how far back into the darkness its interior extends. And I’ve never measured it.
In some ways, though, you could say my Russian refrigerator is heroic. It saves me from myself. It saves me from the dangers of keeping eggs on hand for breakfast—or buttery late-night snacks. It helps me in my battle against cholesterol.
There is no egg tray in this food storage center, no safe place to shelter the vulnerable little ovoids.
But before I get too far ahead of myself, before I plunge you into the darkness of confusion that frequently follows my undisciplined rambling, let me explain: Hungarian eggs, at least the ones I’ve become acquainted with here in Debrecen, do not know the security of cardboard cartons. They are sold loose, individually, and must make their way from the store as best they can in a simple paper bag.
Helpful neighbors have told me to cushion the eggs on the milk.
Hungarian milk comes in little square plastic bladders. These bladders are to be found in the grocery stores—unrefrigerated—squeezed into boxes like passengers in crowded, third-class compartments on Yugoslavian trains. Sometimes they burst, the way bladders do if they are too tightly squeezed for too long a time. (I once sat for thirteen hours on a Yugoslavian train without relieving myself. I couldn’t face the facilities. But that was in 1981—seven years ago.)
I imagine if I were an egg, I would love to be set on top of one of these Hungarian milk pockets. I would feel safe and cozy. Inside the dark refrigerator, my life would be almost as peaceful as it must have been in the nest.
But, surely, I romanticize. Excuse me.
The truth is there are beer bottles, fruit juice bottles, all manner of glass jars that present a danger to the eggs. They are all involved in a constant battle over Lebensraum.
Space is tight between the shelves in this humble appliance. (Where did the notion originate that everything the Russians do is done on a Texas-size scale?) The bottles cannot stand up. They must lie down.
To understand this Russian refrigerator, it is helpful to think of a Russian circus.
Picture the acrobats—those wonderful exponents of physical culture—balancing on each other’s backs and shoulders, creating a temporary pyramid to delight the eye of the most jaded on-looker. Now, on top of the bottles, pile the cheese, the sausage, whatever comestibles you happen to have. On top of this, place the milk; finally, with tenderness, the eggs.
All is well and good. Until you need to add or remove a bottle. You slide one in or out; you upset the delicate balance. The formation was always precarious. The cheese or something else, maybe a pickle, falls out. Suddenly, everything is shifting position. The eggs must attempt to log-roll on top of the now stirred-up surface of the milk. They inevitably fail to maintain their balance. And should you ever wish to help yourself to the milk, you’d better first consider the eggs.
So much for the balancing act going on inside. The real challenge for me is getting the door to shut. It hangs slightly open—like a tent flap—caressing each casual breeze.
Fortunately, I’ve found a nice long, thin, flexible piece of wood. (Picture the circus master’s whip.) I wedge one end of it in the space where the door handle fails to come flush against the refrigerator door. The other end, I stick between the loose molding and the doorway of the alcove the refrigerator sits in all by itself. I’ve had to isolate the refrigerator; there’s not enough room for it in the kitchen. The larger Hungarian-made appliances fit snugly enough as it is.
This arrangement keeps it closed, but it also makes me think twice before paying a visit to the lonely old outsider. It takes a bit of time to get everything just right and sometimes the stick springs back when I least expect it. I could lose an eye.
But with my one good eye, I’ll look on the bright side. I’ve always been in need of knocking off a pound or two. Staring into a dark refrigerator in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep and I know there are no eggs anyway does not inspire the snack artist in me.
But how I do go on. I never meant to get sidetracked describing my ambivalence toward this basically innocuous hunk of Russian metal. I have to find the bottle of vodka I promised to chill for Volya, one of my friendly pen dealers. He’s on guard duty tonight.
If I play my cards right, who knows what rapport we might develop. Maybe he’ll discover a typewriter I could have in exchange for some dental floss, or Dove or Ivory soap—any useful thing from America.
Who knows, maybe we could cultivate a genuine friendship based on something other than economic intrigue and material gain. Wouldn’t that be something. Imagine the ramifications. I might even win a Pulitzer if I write about it.
- Published in Through a Glass Darkly IV (Wising Up Press) and Contemporary Literary Horizon.