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By Michael Fine
© 2020 by Michael Fine
This is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are
either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely
Roland Chesney felt outside himself when he came back to the city for the general strike. The city was in his blood, the same but also overwhelmingly different. The grid of streets were the same as they had always been, a logical layout, in numerical order, so you always knew where you were, and the avenues logical as well, once you learned the named ones – Lexington, Park and Madison on the east side, where he never used to go – Amsterdam and Columbus, his city, once, aka 9th and 10th above 59th Street – and Broadway cutting kitty-cornered from east to west as you went north, the hypotenuse, which let you walk or bike from the upper west side, where real people sometimes lived, to the lower east side, where real people always lived, back in the day. Roland knew the city — or at least Manhattan and the Bronx — like the back of his hand. It was tattooed into his brain, memory resident, so elemental that he didn’t have to think about it, he could just look up and know where he was, and the best way to get from one place to the next.
That said, an enormous amount had changed. The double A, the eighth avenue local, which had always been his lifeline, his aorta, was gone. The twin towers, which he had watched go dark in the blackout of 1977 from his place on 5th Street and 2nd Avenue, were long gone as well, collapsed into clouds of toxic dust, falling steel and bodies flying through the air, twenty years ago. The particular toxicity of race and class in New York was less intense than it was, less palpable on every street and in every interaction between people who looked different. The perception among white people and people of a certain social class regardless of race, that blackness meant danger and social inferiority, and the dismay, abandonment, isolation and anger that perception engendered in the hearts of people of color, who were and felt excluded, had once poisoned these streets and avenues with fear, despair and anger. It had been a perception unrelated to ideology and thus particularly painful, so that people who would say all men are created equal would cross the street when a young man of color was walking behind them; so that those people expected that every chambermaid, doorman, street sweeper, ticket taker, train station porter, cabdriver and garment district porter to be black, and without real personhood, and so that those people rarely met the gaze of black people in the streets. White people and the power structure they built dismissed and disregarded great swaths of the city – Harlem, the Bronx, Bed-Sty, the Lower East Side and all housing projects – considering those places to be places that no civilized person would ever go.
The city was different now, at least to the gaze of a white man. Not completely changed, but different from what it was. Black people were still hassled and shot down by police. But the chambermaids, the street sweepers and the garbage collectors were now Central American, Guatemalans and Hondurans. White hipsters had invaded Harlem and Bed-Sty, and people of all colors walked everywhere in the city, without encountering the glare or the gaze of not belonging. Queens had become a United Nations, a quilt of languages and cultures, where cab drivers from all nations lived. The Bronx had been re-created as a middle class place – mostly of people of color now, but now middle class people of color, like the Bronx Roland remembered from childhood, stable neighborhoods on Gun Hill Road, Fordham Road and University Heights, and not anything like the warzone the Bronx had been in the seventies, when it was on fire and the streets ran between collapsed buildings and fields of rubble, when the Bronx looked like Dresden after the war, as if the Germans had bombed us to submission and not the other way around. Now Third Avenue in the Bronx, where the old El used to be, was bright and sunny, and lined with banks that had drive-in tellers, fast food joints and chain stores with bright signs in red, yellow, green and blue. Now, Third Avenue looked like any commercial strip in America, the same stores, the same parking lots, the same signs, in an America where every place looks like every other place, the strange, perverse equality of consumer capitalism. Now the people of color on the streets of Manhattan were often well dressed and self-confident, and people looked one another in the eye as they walked past.
The trash was gone from the streets. There were flowers in the flowerbeds in all the parks and on the Avenues. People were said to be safe in Central Park and Morningside Park. The graffiti, the brilliant bold yellow, green, and blue twisting emanations of color, the repressed soul of a tortured people, was gone from the subway cars, and the city itself, which most people had feared, was now filled with tourists and with light, although too many too tall buildings cast long shadows over the avenues, and kept the cross streets in gloom.
A general strike. It seemed unbelievable. The
spirit of 1848, suddenly manifest in America. People rising up after four years
of repression. The common good rising up, beating back the crass commercialism
of American life. Democracy infusing freedom. Justice defeating greed. The life
of the mind dominant and narcissism cowering in defeat. Who could have imagined
that summer of love was still present, hibernating in the dark recesses of the
Roland had come out of his hiding place in Western Massachusetts to be there, to add his voice to three to four million other voices. It was said there would be people all the way north from 42nd Street and that the crowd would fill the park up to Sheep’s Meadow and beyond, past 110th Street up into the Bronx, and that they would march on Wall Street together. The time had come. Bad ideas and bad faith had imprisoned a culture, had polluted the air and wrecked the climate, had made virtual slaves of three generations of young people who had deigned to educate themselves, had jailed three generations of black men and drug poisoned three generations of poor white people, and now, finally, it was time to pay the piper, as now, finally, people were rising up. The bridges and roads would be filled with people. The clerks and porters and salesclerks and sanitation men joined with college students and high school teachers and doctors and nurses and lawyers streaming in from Brooklyn and the Bronx and Queens. There were people on all the bridges, and the ferries from Staten Island were jam packed with people who sang songs and carried signs, who flowed over the top deck and leaned over the railings. Manhattan was being occupied by the pure products of America, who were reclaiming the city at last.
Or that was the plan. He was one small
man, with one small life. Yesterday he was certain that everything he had lived
for was impossible, that his beliefs were meaningless, an illusion. Today it
seemed as though anything and everything was possible, that what was dead
inside him was coming back to life, and that his dreams, and the dreams of a
generation, and perhaps, of all human kind, were finally to be realized, that
all those years of marching, organizing and hoping had not been in vain.
It was April and still cold, but the sun
was strong. The leaves were not yet back on the trees, but the birds were back,
the robins, their red-orange breasts flashes of hope in a hum colored world,
hopping and flitting with the city sparrows, who had overwintered in the city
and seemed to be able to survive anything. Roland had a scarf wrapped around
his neck against the cold, and wore a green down jacket and hiking boots, and
he walked quickly when he came out of the subway at 59th street.
Here. They were supposed to meet here,
right in front of the statute of Columbus.
Where they had parted ways so long ago.
In fifteen minutes.
The sun warmed his face and the huge crowd lifted him up, a sensation he hadn’t felt in years, as if he had just become bigger than himself, way bigger, like the bridegroom in that fragment from Sappho, or a Greek prophet at Delphi, infused with the spirit of the gods. Columbus Circle. Once the center of his emotional life. Always the center of his city. The Coliseum used to be there. It was now gone. Around the corner from Carnegie Hall. Not so far from the Museum of Modern Art, or the corner, on 54th and 6th Avenue, where Moon Dog, the blind prophet of a lost era, used to sit in his Viking headgear, hum his music, sell books and bric-a-brac, and bear witness to the emptiness of the corporate American soul. The Huntington Hartford Museum had been there for a while. It was gone as well, but that didn’t matter, because no one Roland knew had ever been inside it.
Columbus Circle was where he changed trains, where he walked to when he was going anywhere in the city, what he thought about whenever he had to think of going anywhere in – how far a place was from Columbus Circle – whether he could walk there, of which train he needed to take to get there, and whether or not he’d need to change trains. Geographers use Columbus Circle to measure the distance from anyplace in the world to New York. So, it was the center of the world of others as well, at least to the extent that New York was the center of the world, which it might have been, for a brief, fleeting moment in history, at least in the mind of New Yorkers. Like Roland, who would always be a New Yorker, long after he stopped living in New York
He hadn’t been in love with her, and she knew it. She was the one who had the courage to walk away. He had been lying to himself. He knew what he pretended not to know, and she acted while he was only drifting, taking the easy way out. Comrades, yes. Lovers, for a time. But not in love. That was the challenge, wasn’t it? Being able to love first. And then loving, in fact.
It would be twenty years before he
unlocked that puzzle, and by then it was too late.
The bands were lined up and brigades were forming on 8th Avenue above the park, like they did before the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, only today they wouldn’t stop at the Museum of Natural History, the way they did on Thanksgiving with their silly balloons. Today there would be high school bands and choruses from all over, a line that stretched up through Harlem and over High Bridge into the Bronx, the Pronk folks mixed in with cheerleaders from the high schools, and life sized puppets from Bread and Circus and Big Nazo scattered in among the VFW, the mummers and the ladies from the Order of the Eastern Star. More than amazing. A people standing up together to defend themselves and their democracy. Who would have thought it? Roland thought of all the little meetings and little demos he had attended over the years. Five people in a library. Seven people in a storefront. Three people in a living room. Stupid little demos to try to prevent the invasion of Iraq, or to stand in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong, or Syria, or Nicaragua or Venezuela when their revolutions collapsed into dictatorship, all the way back to Chile in 1971. The same people, saying the same empty words, singing the same self-righteous songs from forty years ago, when the world and its challenges were so different. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Forty years in the desert. Nothing. Endless years of nothing, and then suddenly, this. The millennium, from nowhere. They would stop this government and its kangaroo court. The legitimacy of a government lies in the consent of the governed. Wreck the air, the water, and the sea in pursuit of profit? Misread the Constitution to arm the forces of repression? Use our hospitals and our nurses and doctors as an excuse to milk us for more tribute? Enslave our young people, turning them all into debtors? There is no state of emergency requiring a recount. You lost fair and square. Now the people speak, and you damned well better listen. The sleeping giant has awoken. At last.
Deborah was usually on time. He hurried
back to the statue.
She taught him everything he knew. She was five years older than he was, old enough to have gone south in the Civil Rights Movement, old enough for Port Huron, old enough to know the history of the movement and even to have links to the old left. She taught him about music, about who knew who and who slept with whom and who didn’t get along, about the friendships and relationships that produced the Summer of Love. He was close to Phil Och’s girlfriend. She heard right away about his suicide and went to be with her. Not quite old enough to have been on the bridge at Selma, and certainly not old enough to have been stoned coming through the mob at Beacon or have organized around Emmet Till’s murder. But she knew about all of it, and laid it out for him, stories, ideas, principles, failures and hopes.
He was nobody, just a kid walking into Lowe Library after a snowfall, barely surviving Physics for Poets and way over his head reading Horace and Catullus in Latin, and Homer in Greek. What was he thinking? He could barely form English sentences. He knew about William Carlos Williams and that made him think he could read the classics and write poems? Deborah, on the other hand, was a woman who had lived, who knew people, knew the world, knew what was possible and what was just dreaming, just people believing their own propaganda.
She was building a snow emperor on the steps
of the library, her little bit of political theater, a way to be alive after
eight inches of snow when everyone else buttoned up their coats and walked with
their heads down, afraid to fall.
He helped. He lived in the East Village. So,
did she. They took the subway home together. The rest is history.
The distance between liking and loving is a sea of unfathomable depth. It’s not logical, it’s not fair, or kind or decent — and it’s undeniable. Unavoidable. You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You can ignore it or try to. But it’s always there. He liked Deborah. He learned from her, every day. She laughed at his jokes. She listened when he told stories or dissected ideas. She did good work, first at a community center in Harlem while she was in graduate school. Then at a sweat equity housing group in the South Bronx, totally righteous and very Mau Mau, a bunch of Puerto Rican and African American street kids who occupied abandoned property and taught themselves the trades as they renovated. Solar energy on the roofs. Composing bids and fishponds in the basements. She ran their Vista program and coordinated government relations, so she was a kind of bigshot there, and around the city. And he was just a kid, a student, a half-assed writer in the mornings, a cab driver at night, a dreamer. He felt her awkwardness, her secret discomfort around people, her secretiveness, even with him. Her laughter, at jokes, in the movies, was faked, produced, staged, as if she was acting, timed when others were laughing so she could be part of the herd. He knew she was always ashamed. Many of the feelings she expressed – worry, concern, even righteous indignation, were studied as well, emotions that were designed to look a certain way, to project a certain image, reflect a specific kind of political position.
And he knew that her reach was bigger than
her grasp, that she didn’t understand much of what she was doing, as she was
doing it, or why. She was also secretly ashamed of him and of their
relationship. He was five years younger. She had the right to love who she
loved. But she knew in her heart that no one in her family or among her friends
thought he was right for her, that they all thought she stayed with him out of
her own insecurity, that she wanted someone weaker than she was, someone
willing to be dependent on her.
And that was why, perhaps, he didn’t love
her after all. He wasn’t actually weaker, he was stronger. He felt indulged,
even patronized, true, but even more he didn’t respect her because he knew she
never told herself the truth. She needed someone she could indulge; someone she
could objectify. She didn’t want to see him as he was, and she wasn’t able to
listen, not really. He needed someone who actually knew the person he was.
Or that was what he told himself, after
she walked away. When she told herself the truth that Roland kept evading. That
she loved him in fact. But that Roland didn’t really love her.
Under Columbus. Would he recognize Deborah
after all these years? The hot dog vendors were there under yellow and blue umbrellas,
along with the new and improved pushcarts, the ones that had brilliant white,
blue, yellow and green neon signs, that were motorized so they didn’t really
need to be pushed, and sold all sorts of hallal street food – kabobs, schwarma,
even corn dogs and ice cream. There were
all sorts of vendors, hustling to make a buck: sellers of posters and watercolors,
tee shirts, balloons, counterfeit Gucci bags and hats and scarves of all descriptions.
Three or four of them even had commemorative tee-shirts about the General
Strike that pictured a throng of people clustered around an upraised red fist,
as if the strike was a football team or a rock concert.
The Deborah he lost had been thin, dark and precise — dark shoulder-length hair, dark brown eyes that never looked quite at you, olive skin, no makeup, ever, and a broad, open face with high cheekbones. She looked more like a folksinger than she did an administrator. She dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, but looked even better in a slinky black dress, which she wore when she had to but took off as soon as she could, as if she was never comfortable with her body or any part of the physical world.
How had time changed her? Roland barely recognized himself in the mirror. His hair was thin and grey, and he kept it short now, where before he wore it in a ponytail. His big flowing beard was gone. Now there was just a mustache. The thin shoulders and pale skin of his cloistered, bookish youth had been replaced by a sturdy, squat weathered old man, the result of years in the woods, digging fence posts and dropping logs, but he hunched over some. He thought he looked like a gnome, where he had been tall and thin as a young man. Would she know him? What would it be like to be with her again for an afternoon? Would they still have a connection? Once, she had been a part of him: he really knew her, and she had known him, as much as she was able to know anyone. Was that still there, or would they be strangers, catching up on different lives, narrating the story as if reading from a book?
Roland heard the clop and clatter of hooves on pavement and spun around. Twenty police officers on big bay horses trotted on the Park Drive south, one long block away, above the throng and just visible through the still leafless trees. People shouted as they rushed to get out of the way. The officers sat erect on their horses. Their black helmets glistened in the late morning sun, their blue jackets a strange cloud moving low across the park, a school of fish or a flock of birds swimming or flying together as one. That’s a little weird, Roland thought. Mounted police? I thought the deal was very limited police presence, that the march and the strike had the full support of the Mayor and the Governor as well. Solidarity. Painfully, but finally achieved, after this democracy had looked the chaos and disaster of fascism in the face and had backed away from that. The consent of the governed. The people united will never be defeated. One nation indivisible, the whole so much greater than the sum of the parts. He started to do the math, to play strategist again, to think about the end game, the way his mind used to work on the old days. If there are mounted police here and they are moving south, his brain said, what’s happening in the Lower East Side and at the convention center, where there is room for twenty or thirty thousand police?
“Roland,” Deborah said, and he turned
“Yeah,” he said.
there she was, the woman herself.
Not much different. He held her at arm’s length so they could look at one another. Then he pulled her to him, and she reached up and wrapped her hands around the back of his neck they way she used to do, forty years before.
Deborah was still tall for a woman. She
had the same red-framed glasses and the same worried expression, intense and a
little confused at the same time, the same brown eyes that looked lost, and
worried, always searching for approval and unconditional love, the same broad,
open forehead and brow that knit easily when she was thinking. But her brown
hair was tinged with grey, her eyebrows had become grey and the skin over her
cheekbones had become wrinkled and flaccid where it had once been taught and
smooth. The skin on her neck was now fleshy and wrinkled, like the skin of an
But Deborah wasn’t an old woman. She was Deborah, the same person she used to be. She backed away, looked at him again for a moment, up and down, and then hugged him to her again, holding him as tightly as she could.
“What happened to us?” she said, and
sobbed, and then strangely, uncomfortably, Roland’s throat closed, he was
unable to speak, and his eyes were wet even though it wasn’t raining.
Then something pushed Roland backward. A
shock wave. A wall of sound so loud that people bent over in the street to get
away from it.
Sirens. Sirens everywhere, piercing and
painful, that pushed him and pushed Deborah, a fierce wind that flattened his
skin and his eyes. New York sirens, WHANWAN WHANWAN, WHANWAN, WHANWAN, in and
out, whopping and burning, designed to wake the dead, beat the living into
submission, to cut through glass and empty streets jammed with traffic to make
way for any vehicle that had its siren blaring. But there wasn’t one siren or
one vehicle. There were hundreds. Police cars and police vans which had been
parked on the cross streets and avenues had suddenly come to life.
Suddenly it was impossible to move or to think. Roland couldn’t hear. Deborah tried to speak but stopped after a word or two. She couldn’t hear her own voice. How naïve they all were. Four million people in the street. Did anyone really believe that the forces of reaction, the dark side of the force, would just shrink into a ball and roll away? The other side, those forces of reaction, they were no more than twenty or thirty million people, less than ten percent of the nation — but they had three hundred and fifty million guns. They’d had their four years; and power, once tasted, is a drug like cocaine, a wild high that once you rode up never wants to let you down.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Roland shouted. And then realized he couldn’t hear himself either. So, he gestured. And then he opened his coat and wrapped Deborah’s head in it to cushion her ears, and pushed her down the stairs into the subway, through ten thousand other people who were coming up the stairs, because someone needed to survive this day, and now anything and everything was possible, none of it good, and most of it too painful to bear. There would be tear gas, gunfire, a sky filled with drones and pandemonium in the streets.
“Stop,” Deborah said, as soon as they
could hear one another speak, when they were half-way down the staircase and
surrounded by people. “I’m not going to let you run away again.”
“What?” Roland said. “I haven’t seen you in 40 years. You want to have an argument already?”
“No argument. No discussion. You can do whatever you want. I’m going back up to join the demonstration,” Deborah said.
“It’s a mess out there,” Roland said.
“But it’s our mess,” Deborah said. “Running
away isn’t going to change that.”
“People are going to get killed out
there,” Roland said.
“People get killed out there every day. You can live on your knees. Or die on your feet. There are four million people on the street. We’re old. And everyone dies of something. There is nothing to fear but fear itself,” Deborah said. She turned and walked up the stairs, disappearing into the crowd of thousands.
Stunned. Roland was stunned. Nothing like this had ever happened to him
before. It was like someone had hit him
over the head with a club, like he had been knocked unconscious. But he was
still standing. The subway staircase was cold and dark, because the sunlight
hadn’t penetrated here. There were a zillion people pushing their way up the
stairs. And Roland was in their way, standing there like a lost sheep, not
entirely sure where he was, what he was doing or where he was going.
Someone needs to survive this mess, he said to himself again, hearing the sirens in his brain and seeing pictures of armed men in uniforms and carrying Plexiglass shields, pushing the crowd back. He saw pictures in his mind of drones firing on the crowd and clouds of tear gas. He felt the sting of mace in his eyes, and felt himself gasping for breath, and needing to pour gallons and gallons of water over his face to make the burning stop. It felt real to him, a present danger. Even though none of that had happened to him, and Roland had no idea what was actually happening in the street.
He stumbled down the stairs, forcing his way through the crowd by sticking close to one wall and holding on to the handrail. The handrail was cold and covered with layers of old soft blue paint, which peeled off as his fingernails dug into it. Then he fought his way to the platform. Uptown. He needed to go uptown. His car was in the Bronx. He needed to get away from this madness. Someone needed to survive.
The uptown platform was deserted. A train rolled in, packed to the windows with people, who streamed out the minute the doors opened, the people nearest the doors stumbling out, propelled by the force of the huge throng behind them. Roland stood behind a pillar until there was space for him to move. Then he maneuvered his way into the subway car, just before the doors closed. Stand clear of the closing doors, please, the voice over the loudspeaker said.
But there was no need for that announcement. There was no one on the train but
The doors closed and the train started to move. Roland was alone. Deborah had come and gone in an instant and was now likely lost forever. There was likely to be a maelstrom happening just over his head, on the streets the train ran beneath.
The doors opened at 79th Street. There was no one on the platform. The subway station was empty.
Roland walked off the train. He stood for a moment. There was a rush of air, a cold wind, and
then the flash of the headlight of a southbound train.
The doors of the train Roland had just
come off of closed.
The southbound train roared and shook its way into the station, packed with people and their rowdy doomed lives. Live on your knees or die on your feet. Live forever on your own, or be part of what’s bigger than you are, however doomed or misguided. No one lives forever.
There is only one life.
Roland pushed his way into the throng of
people on the southbound train, alive and dying, standing clear of the closing
doors at last.
All of Michael Fine’s stories
and books are available on MichaelFineMD.com or by clicking here. Join us!
Michael Fine, MD is currently Health Policy Advisor to Mayor James Diossa
of Central Falls, Rhode Island and Senior Population Health and Clinical
Services Officer at Blackstone Valley Health Care, Inc. He is facilitating a
partnership between the City and Blackstone to create the Central Falls
Neighborhood Health Station, the US first attempt to build a population based
primary care and public health collaboration that serves the entire population
of a place.
He has also recently been named Health Liaison to the City of Pawtucket.
Dr. Fine served in the Cabinet of Governor Lincoln Chafee as Director of the
Rhode Island Department of Health from February of 2011 until March of 2015,
overseeing a broad range of public health programs and services, overseeing 450
public health professionals and managing a budget of $110 million a year.
Dr. Fine’s career as both a family physician and manager in the field of
healthcare has been devoted to healthcare reform and the care of under-served
populations. Before his confirmation as Director of Health, Dr. Fine was the
Medical Program Director at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections,
overseeing a healthcare unit servicing nearly 20,000 people a year, with a
staff of over 85 physicians, psychiatrists, mental health workers, nurses, and
other health professionals.
He was a founder and Managing Director of HealthAccessRI, the nation’s
first statewide organization making prepaid, reduced fee-for-service primary
care available to people without employer-provided health insurance. Dr. Fine
practiced for 16 years in urban Pawtucket, Rhode Island and rural Scituate,
Rhode Island. He is the former Physician Operating Officer of Hillside Avenue
Family and Community Medicine, the largest family practice in Rhode Island, and
the former Physician-in-Chief of the Rhode Island and Miriam Hospitals’
Departments of Family and Community Medicine. He was co-chair of the Allied
Advocacy Group for Integrated Primary Care.
He convened and facilitated the Primary Care Leadership Council, a
statewide organization that represented 75 percent of Rhode Island’s primary
care physicians and practices. He currently serves on the Boards of Crossroads
Rhode Island, the state’s largest service organization for the homeless, the
Lown Institute, the George Wiley Center, and RICARES. Dr. Fine founded the
Scituate Health Alliance, a community-based, population-focused non-profit
organization, which made Scituate the first community in the United States to
provide primary medical and dental care to all town residents.
Dr. Fine is a past President of the Rhode Island Academy of Family
Physicians and was an Open Society Institute/George Soros Fellow in Medicine as
a Profession from 2000 to2002. He has served on a number of legislative
committees for the Rhode Island General Assembly, has chaired the Primary Care
Advisory Committee for the Rhode Island Department of Health, and sat on both
the Urban Family Medicine Task Force of the American Academy of Family
Physicians and the National Advisory Council to the National Health Services