It is a major sacrifice for me to be out of Columbus on an OSU football bye week–I usually want to revel in the comparative silence and sanity of campus those weekends. However, this past weekend I jumped into a sea of humanity (400 thousand people was the estimated final count) marching through the West Side of Manhattan for the People’s Climate March. Already, I am hearing that it was the largest environmental action in U.S. (and maybe world) history. I am proud to have played a small role in it. On a personal note, it was my first time in New York in nearly 20 years, and I could not think of a better reason for being there.
Since Bill McKibben and 350.org first announced the march in Rolling Stone last summer, I had debated whether or not to go, and when the Ohio Sierra Club announced that they had chartered buses for the event, there went my indecision. I paid for a seat on the bus as soon as they were available.
Although I have participated in many demonstrations, marches, and workshops since I was 17 or 18 (my first one was an anti-draft conference at Wayne State University in Detroit in the winter of 1981), I have become increasingly skeptical–if not outright cynical–about the efficacy of marching en masse. This has not stopped me from going to marches, especially when they involve a road trip.
I am not thinking so much that way, and maybe it’s the leftover adrenaline from last Sunday that has changed my mind. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t receive an electronic petition in my email or my Facebook page. Some are silly, some are for very good causes. How much effect do they have? It is good for people to write letters to the editor, post blog entries, and engage in debate on Websites. (My deepest respect goes to the debaters on both sides of an issue who can carry on the discussion on sites like City-Data.com while maintaining civility. Reading any “debate” on Topix will destroy anyone’s faith in humanity.) In the absence of a free press in the 1770s, various committees of correspondence carried forward the idea of independence from England as effectively as George Washington’s army. After the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, the most blatant sign that Richard Nixon had lost the faith of the American people was when Western Union began delivering pro-impeachment telegrams by the ream to members of Congress.
None of this has the same effect of seeing people massed together in one physical space, all for the same cause. This was one of the few demonstrations, I am pleased to report, where I have seen the fewest of the various organizations of dubious credibility and sanity come to piggyback for their specific causes. (You could not go to an anti-war or -nuclear demonstration in the ’80s without running into the odious Spartacist League and their various offshoots.) Since it was New York, there were a few “9/11 was an inside job” clowns, and at the end of the march, there was an old man handing out badly printed flyers “proving” the existence of chemtrails. I think many other organizations realized that their causes and goals would be moot without a livable planet on which to implement them.
I can see the Ohio Sierra Club members trying to one-better one another with stories about how bad the journey to and from New York was. I rode with wonderful people–my friend Steve and his daughter Amelia. (Amelia and I went to the One Nation Working Together rally in Washington, D.C. in 2010.) We met the buses at the Communication Workers of America’s union hall on East Broad St., and I was glad to see my friend Bob, who has been a driving force behind the efforts to ban fracking and injection wells in Coshocton County.
The buses were 2½ hours late in leaving Columbus. This was the first problem. There were two buses originating in Columbus, but a third coach joined us, carrying people from Antioch College in Yellow Springs. The ride out of Ohio, and across the northern panhandle of West Virginia was uneventful. The riders’ enthusiasm was dampened by the tardiness of the departure, and the worry that we would miss most of the march, which was supposed to step off from Central Park West at 11 a.m.
The first “rest stop” was at a closed gas station just outside Washington, Pa. Most of the lights were off, and there wasn’t even a Coke machine outside for people to buy pop. And the restrooms were locked. Other than a chance to get off the bus and walk around (and for the smokers to satisfy their addiction), the stop was a waste.
I kept up an ongoing text exchange with my friend Ken, who lives in Bayside, Queens. He and I met at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly at Bowdoin College in Maine back in 1982, and we have been through flood, fire, and famine together lo these many years. We were trying to figure out where and when to meet. We texted because, among its other faults, the bus had no plugs in the seats, which meant there was no way to keep phones charged. I kept a wary eye on my Nook while I read The Sign of the Four, worried that it would run out of juice before we were even on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
At 8:04 a.m., I texted Ken: About 36 miles from Carlisle on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He was not happy about this: You are east or west of Carlisle? Carlisle is at least three hours away. When we stopped for food and bathrooms at the Cumberland Valley Travel Plaza, I texted him: In Carlisle (Plainfield) now. No outlet aboard bus. 😦 Sharing his worry about timely arrival, I texted him the cities’ names as we passed: 10:16 a.m.: Passing Hamburg exit; 10:36, Trexlertown; 11:19 a.m.: Jutland, N.J.; 12:29 p.m., Almost in the Holland Tunnel; 12:51 p.m.: West and Vestry.
The bus let us off at the corner of E. 86th St. and Central Park West, and we hoped it would undergo some much needed maintenance and repair. Bob and I were sitting just across the aisle from the bus toilet, and it had clogged, and overflowed whenever someone flushed it. I was hoping that the maintenance workers would pump it out and clean it. The temperature in front of the bus was borderline Arctic, but for those of us in the back, it was in the low 90s, since we seemed to be sitting above the engine, and the air conditioning did not work in the back of the bus.
Ken and I exchanged another frantic round of texts before I finally decided to plant myself. I told him I was sitting across from 211 Central Park West, and finally we were able to connect. He enthusiastically joined Steve, Amelia, and me in the march.
It has been a long time since I have felt as exhilarated as I did on Sunday. The frustration about the bus’ lateness and overflowing toilet drifted away as soon as we joined the march (which, thankfully, did not step off until 1:30–not all lateness is evil). People came by and shared apples from large bags, we heard music from all genres and traditions, and saw banners and memorabilia from many colleges and states.
I did have a moment of reflection and mourning as the procession passed The Dakota at 1 W. 72nd St. It was the home of John Lennon, and also the place where he was murdered in December 1980.
The march ended at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, and there did not seem to be much post-march activity. Some musicians, acrobats, and jugglers performed some impromptu gigs, but there was not a speakers’ platform. Ken, Amelia, and I went for the food vendors’ carts.
We all parted company for awhile around 6 in the evening. Like me, Amelia is subject to sensory overload when being around too many people for too long. She headed back to 86th St. by way of 11th Ave. Ken and I walked as far as Penn Station, so he could catch a train to his girlfriend’s apartment in the Bronx. I made my leisurely way north by way of Eighth Ave. and Central Park West. I made a vain search for bookstores and record stores along the way, but the only money I spent was at a Wendy’s, since the chicken gyro I bought from the vendor didn’t sustain me.
Amelia and I decompressed at the Starbucks on Columbus Ave. and W. 86th. I had walked about 50 blocks (from 36th or 37th), and my feet and lower back were sending me not-so-subtle hints that I had overtaxed myself, between that walk and the march. I had some green tea, a blueberry yogurt muffin, and one or two Naproxen tablets. Until we could catch up with Steve and his friend Carolyn, Amelia and I planted ourselves at Starbucks. While several people around us used laptops and iPhones, she and I sat across the table, her with a composition book and hard at work on a short story she was writing, and me with my diary and my vain attempts to set down my racing thoughts about the day and the journey.
We weren’t back in Columbus until nearly noon. Far from functioning again, we finally sealed off the bathroom with heavy tape and posted an OUT OF ORDER sign on the door. (We knew we were in trouble when we saw the giant plastic bag full of litter collected during the eastbound trip was right where we had left it.)
I had thought I would collapse the moment I unlocked my door, but I stayed up long enough to download the pictures I had taken, and to create a new Facebook album. Once this was done, I climbed the steps and fell asleep upstairs, not even bothering to get undressed.
The heroine of Judy Blume’s teen novel It’s Not the End of the World graded each day after she wrote a terse entry about it in her journal. If I had this practice, Sunday would definitely have been an A+ day.
Before pressing the keys that will make this entry available to the whole wide world, I will share this YouTube video, a recording of the live feed from 350.org. As we despaired of reaching Manhattan in time to participate, several people were watching this on their phones.