Friday, December 3, 2010

Chapter Thirty-One: "From California to Randall's Island"

October 23rd.  Today the Great Peace March completed our walk across America.  Coast-to-coast.  We were, as far as we knew, the largest single group to cross the continent.  We were certainly the most ecstatic.  Everyone was beaming with excitement as we stepped onto the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee on the New Jersey side and started across the Hudson River into Manhattan.  I had crossed the GW Bridge dozens of times, back and forth from our home in Connecticut to my grandparents’ house in New Jersey—the GW was our “over the river” to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving—but always by car, never on foot, and never at the end of an eight-month trek.  Marchers carried banners and flags and signs; we linked arms and skipped and sang.  New Yorkers sped by in their cars, occasionally giving us a beep, but mostly ignoring our parade.  They had no idea we had just walked more than 3,000 miles to get here.  Far below, the Hudson River flowed down to New York Bay and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.  Evan, Iris and I held hands.  Tom was way too excited to hold hands; he clicked photos instead.  He must have taken a hundred.  We practically soared across the bridge, but it still took a good ten minutes to walk the whole span.  I turned around a couple of times to take in the colorful fall foliage on the hills below Fort Lee, but really I was looking all the way back to California.

Iris, me, Evan, Alfred, Kate and Fergus Crossing the GW Bridge...

...Over the Hudson River...

... and Down the Ramp into Manhattan.
New York City peace activists greeted us with smiles and crates of apples and cries of “Welcome to the Big Apple!” as we arrived on the New York side of the bridge.  The walkway spiraled downward to the street below.  Everyone munched apples and floated down Riverside Drive in a long procession to Grant’s Tomb where lunch was served.  By the time we got there, I had lost track of my walking companions, so I sat atop the marble steps, eating my lunch and watching the crowd.  A man I didn’t recognize, a New Yorker, perhaps, climbed like a monkey on the statues.  Marchers sat in groups here and there on the monument steps or on the graffiti-painted benches in the park below, talking and eating.  It felt good to be alone, enjoying a bird’s eye view of the celebratory gathering.  Above the towering columns on Grant’s Tomb, the inscription read, “Let Us Have Peace.”
After lunch, I joined a small group of marchers who climbed the bell tower at the Riverside Church to look out over the city.  I had family connections with New York, but they had skipped a generation, so I was only vaguely familiar with the city and its layout.  My father’s mother, who had died in the Spanish Flu epidemic long before I was born, was a New Yorker.  Her family lived on Perry Street in Greenwich Village.  Her father was a founder of the Emigrant Savings Bank, and a little street corner called Mulry Square near St. Vincent’s Hospital was named for him.  It was on that corner where an all-night diner, made famous in a painting called "Nighthawks" by Edward Hopper, once stood.  My father’s “Uncle Joe” Mulry, a Jesuit priest, was president of Fordham University in the Bronx early in the century.  These were people who had helped build a city, but they were people I never knew.  It was my mother’s mother who had taken us on the bus into the city as children, from Bayonne, New Jersey to Macy’s and Wannamaker’s, the enormous downtown department stores where she loved to shop.  Going into New York with Baba was an adventure.  She expected us to stay with her, to watch where we were going, and not get lost, and we did as we were told.  My parents encouraged a love of the city, too.  Like each of my siblings, I celebrated my seventh birthday with a day trip to see the Empire State Building, Central Park, and FAO Schwartz, the famous toy store.  I didn’t know New York intimately, but as I looked out over the crisscrossing avenues and the bustling passersby, I felt happy to be here at last.  It took a while to realize that if the Great Peace March had crossed America, it meant that I had, too.

Time Told Our Story in a Nutshell
We gathered in tight “city mode” and walked up 6th Avenue and into Harlem.  A strong police escort guided us and hampered our outreach.  We rushed down the streets instead of slowing down to talk with people.  Perhaps it had to be that way, but we hadn’t had such a high level of security since the day we departed Los Angeles.  Though we were kept at a distance, many local people waved and greeted us as we passed.  “Are you marching against crack?” someone shouted.  Crack cocaine was the new street drug.  Crack dealers were brazenly taking over urban neighborhoods, and crack addiction was pulling families apart.
“No, it’s a march for global nuclear disarmament,” a marcher returned. 
Expressions changed to mild puzzlement, but we had to keep moving.  We didn’t have time to explain that we had come all the way from Los Angeles and were headed for Washington, D.C.  At a glance, our cause probably seemed overly broad, or narrow, or just plain impractical for an area faced with a more immediate threat.  A few marchers jumped out of line to have conversations, but except for a brief rally which seemed designed to allow local politicians to garner votes in the upcoming election, we had no opportunity to explain or gain support for our cause.  Still, the people of Harlem were friendly and supportive, and they spurred us on to Washington. 
We approached the East River and crossed into our camp on Randall’s Island.   I was singing, “This land is your land, this land is my land from California to Randall’s Island…” changing the words to suit our surroundings as we walked along.  Our campsite was located under the Triborough Bridge between the South Bronx and Manhattan.  I took in the view across the river.  I had seen the rough parts of a lot of cities, but I had never seen slums that look as though a bomb had fallen on them.  These were, I remembered, scenes from a documentary film called Koyaanisqatsi, the title of which was taken from a Native American term that meant “life out of balance.”  I wondered if people really lived over there.  Meanwhile, under the highway overpass on our side of the river was a crumbling sports stadium that must have been magnificent a half-century earlier.  A dozen or so NYC cops, some on horseback, patrolled the entrance to our camp.  I was glad to see them there.  For the next two days we would camping in, of all places, New York City.
As soon as I set up my tent, I realized just how exhausted I really was.  It had been an exciting day, but the cumulative effect of the march was taking hold.  My hips ached, making it difficult to sit or sleep on the ground; the muscles in my legs were always sore; and my right knee felt rubbery and weak.  I was determined to finish the march, so I ignored my aches and pains and hoped that a period of rest afterward would repair the joints and bring the spring back into my step.  There wasn’t much point in complaining about it anyway: we still had three weeks and two hundred miles to go. 
October 24th was our New York rally day.  We were in “city mode.”  New York City mode.  Big Apple mode.  We all left camp together, forming a main march several hundred strong.  We marched back through Harlem, then down through Central Park to Columbus Circle where we were to be met by “thousands of supporters.”  We arrived in Columbus Circle and beheld the modest crowd who had come to rally with us.  We were accustomed to small turnouts—only Clevelanders had come out over ten thousand—but we had held out a glimmer of hope that maybe New York would be a turning point.  Nuclear disarmament obviously affected everyone on the planet, but from what I had gathered walking across America, it was not a priority with most people.  It made me wonder why we peace marchers took it so personally.  My friends and I joked about why our “thousands of supporters” hadn’t arrived:
“They probably got lost on the subway.”
“Maybe they got mugged in Central Park.”
“Or, possibly, they had something more important to do…”
“Yeah, like returning library books.”
 Nevertheless, we joined with those who had come to walk with us and continued to Dag Hammarskjöld Square near the United Nations.  Our keynote speaker, Jesse Jackson, spoke directly to the nuclear issue.  Yoko Ono, who had made a critical donation that had breathed life into the march back in Barstow, took the stage.  I had never seen her in person or heard her speak.  Her message was simple and brief.  She quoted John Lennon:  “We can make it.  We can make it.  Together we can make it.”  At first I thought maybe she could have said a little more, but on second thought I realized that this was Yoko Ono, our faithful benefactress, and she didn’t really have to say anything at all.  She had already spoken with her actions.  I joined the other marchers cheering her with all our might. 
After the rally ended, the marchers split up and went all over Manhattan to do informal outreach in the city.  New Yorkers were unaware of our presence, and I felt foolish walking around the city trying to get people’s attention.  On the subway ride back to camp, Non-Dairy Jeff failed to convince the rush hour commuters to sing along with him on, “If I Had a Hammer” and “We Are the World.”  I chuckled, but the New Yorkers sat stone-faced. 
On October 25th, our second rest day in New York, an organization called “Peace, Jobs and Justice” coordinated a second rally, but I decided to stay in camp.  I was not inclined to split hairs, but if the rally had been pointedly about nuclear disarmament, I probably would have gone.  Instead, I took the opportunity to rest up for the road ahead.  I ambled over to the long-unused stadium and found that the locker rooms were actually open to us.  They had been recently renovated and were clean, neatly tiled and brightly lit.  After a steaming, hot shower, I spent a couple of hours on the Bookmobile.  Poetry, photography, gardening, and one self-help book about men that presented a depressing and disturbed view that reminded me of none of the men I knew or admired.  I wondered who had donated that little gem to the peace march. 
I walked over to the main entrance and joined Danny, who was on Peace Keeper duty, and a local man named Bradley, a tall man who looked to be in his twenties.  Within a few minutes, I could see that Bradley’s was a fragile psyche wedded with a brilliant mind.  On the one hand, he was informed and well read, and he conversed on any number of topics—political, historical and literary—but he was emotionally volatile, and it didn’t take long to see that his mental stability was uncertain, too.  Bradley wanted to join the peace march.  He was desperate to be accepted.  When we had a private moment, Danny and I put our heads together.  He had been talking with Bradley for several hours and said that the newcomer was out of touch with the most basic social skills and possibly out of touch with reality.  When I expressed serious doubt that Bradley could function in our community, Danny reluctantly agreed.  Bradley’s presence re-opened the question of the Great Peace March as an all-inclusive community.  The earlier situation with Howie had set a precedent that we might deny a person entry into our community or expel a member who proved to be a danger to himself or to others.  With Bradley, we were concerned not about violence but about his inability to meet the physical and mental demands that every marcher encountered.  I agreed with Danny that we would have to shoulder Bradley all the way to Washington, if, indeed, he could make it out of New York without falling into despair.  And, we wondered, if Bradley did join us and then later had to leave the march, would he have the resources to make his way back home?  Danny created a safe space for Bradley to talk through the idea of joining the peace march.  With grace and sensitivity and humor, he was able to show Bradley that while our community accepted him as a person, the Great Peace March was not a good place for him.  It took a while, but eventually Bradley departed of his own volition.
For me, Bradley’s appearance in camp highlighted another emerging issue.  We were about to walk down the east coast, the most populated corridor in the country.  We were living outdoors, camping in urban parks, and sleeping in tents, all with minimal security.  Every night, the Peace Keepers took shifts patrolling the camp and guarding our front entrance.  Many times across the country they had encountered locals who were intoxicated, in crisis, or who wished to do us harm.  They talked people down and transformed anger into lucidity and lucidity into accord.  They were as adept at making peace as they were at keeping it.  I heard one story about a small group of locals who came late one night to make trouble, stayed in camp talking with the Peace Keepers all night and ended up joining us for breakfast.  But starting back in Pennsylvania, several new, unfamiliar faces, joined our ranks every day.  It was increasingly difficult to know who was a marcher and who had just wandered into camp.  I wanted to believe that our community could transform hostility into harmony, but as our vulnerability grew, I wasn’t sure our “mantle of grace” would hold.

Portrait: Peace Marcher
Pang while falling asleep: The end of the march is near.

Sunday, October 26th was our day to depart New York City.  If all went well over the next three weeks, our route would take us down the eastern seaboard: southward into New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and, finally, into the Nation’s Capital.  I awoke to the sound of rain, lots of rain, falling against my tent.  My sleeping bag felt warm and dry and perfect for dozing.  My pink nylon dome still held the night’s dreams.  Our departure was scheduled for 6:30 a.m., but by 6:20, not a soul in camp had stirred.  A distant voice announced a delay in departure until 7:00.  Twenty minutes later, camp was still sound asleep in the rain.  The voice called out again, delaying departure until 7:30.  A full hour later we finally awoke and broke down camp, commending one another on our righteous lifestyle:  “No arms race, no rat race.”