We are at the Café Endetté. Here they serve coffee and cocktails and omelets with cheese. A merlette is painted on the window, a goelette is painted on the wall (to remind of simpler times). The street lamps come on one-by-one along the boulevard outside and the yellow light is reflected on the glass. The sun is nearly gone and the sky hangs low and dark, it turns lavender, lilac, amethyst, plum, mad apple, leather, the mauve of Victorian curtains.
A frail boy begs for change from the light of corner outside. He looks around with pale eyes as his mother shouts, more of a shriek, He’s starving, don’t-you-see? He’s wasting away…
Though his sister – she eats potatoes with ketchup at the restaurant nearby.
It is winter now. We wake to dark mornings, the lights on in the building next to mine, warm through the cold and the frost of the window pane. My grandfather loved the cold, and hated it: The creaks and cracks of his bones and arthritic elbows as he pulled himself from bed. Then he played in the snow or went skiing after work. It was he who taught me the meaning of the word comedy, though not sorrow, or sadness, they were kept out of sight, in the closet beneath his long coat and boots.
Ah, says the man passing by, sighing and putting his hands in his pockets. I suppose it is just as well.
Our city is divided into two parts. To the north, where the boutiques and restaurants and high-end condos lie, the fitness studios and their yogis holding pastel mats rolled tight beneath their arms. And then the south, where the black brick of the Boca slums and dormant smokestacks stand tall against the horizon. The boulevard where we sit runs like a long red line through the middle to help visitors understand where one ends and the other begins. There is no confusion here. Railroad tracks crisscross through southern neighborhoods where it is a discussion of welfare, race, and class, while to the moneyed north there is only one way to be.
Our friend is pregnant and celebrating at a table nearby. When there is a discussion of children we raise our glasses and toast the future. But this too is very different in the north vs. south sides of the city. A child can be something of a burden in the south, with the high cost of childcare during long hours at work, the short nights and sick days without anyone to help, and when trying to find proper nutrition in neighborhoods where only convenience stores are common, offering chips, soda, soup in cans, candy, frozen pizza…
In the north, conversely, a gravid mother will shout from the rooftops with cake and balloons that she is having a baby, and that baby (as far as we are concerned) is Jesus or Joan of Arc, they will be celebrated for centuries to come.
But we are all clowns in our comfortable clothes. We will not go hungry, no, we will drink coffee at the café and watch as snow falls softly from the sky to rest on awnings, benches, windshields, pavement from the window. Through the long lines of matching SUVs stuck in traffic. There are so many cars sitting bumper-to-bumper we cannot cross the street. We stay to the south and consider the meaning of movement. From the 14th Century mevement, a change in position, from the Latin movere, to set in motion. Or in the artist’s sense, a movement, a major division in a musical work. And – in the political sense (this is perhaps the most important meaning now): Great change is upon us. People keep their heads down as they pass on the icy sidewalks outside.
The café is where the future will end and begin again as talk of uprising – our promised revolution – is loud and most-persistent here. It keeps our hands warm in the winter. Not the coffee or too-strong cocktails, not anymore. These impassioned words of discontent, the beer-drunk speeches condemning inequality and the systems that make it so, probity and revolutionary spirit not yet turned to action, still only words for now, still abstract – we know what is moral and right, even if we have not seen it, touched it, tasted it, felt it – but when action does come, and the café boils over like those great calderas of N. America to send fire and smoke across sidewalks and roads, new dresses and shoes and fresh-cut hair, replacing the snow on windshields with ash, then it is we who will shout from the rooftops with cake and balloons about the birth of something new.
New Year’s Eve
By night. The sky has turned opaque in the nature of pierre noire – an enormous black stone with fissures like spider’s webs waiting for quarry. The few trees along the boulevard are blacker still, withered without their leaves against the wind blowing this way and that. The air is colder now, the snowflakes grow thin, sharp, hungry and mean. The street is growing louder. Our city is one unsatisfied maw into which we will all disappear. Unless –
The New Year’s Eve celebrations have begun. The sidewalks of the boulevard fill with revelers in their coats and sparkling costumes. It is an oppressive fray, claustrophobic, there is no space now between bodies and faces, arms and legs pushing and pulling together. The crowd heaves, insistent, aggressive, desperate to exist in the elusive space between connection and escape. Without the sort of honest desire that might exist when coming together this way.
The merlette on the window of the café is gone, replaced by a hastily-painted image of a burning torch held high overhead. Black paint, still fresh, runs slowly down the pane. People huddle together at tables, speaking in hushed tones and aggressive whispers. There is a heaviness to the air, the collected weight of excitement and worry hanging just above our heads, a palpable tension that makes the room feel tight, the walls grow close, smaller than before. The bartender Otis fingers the Aquinas medal around his neck. He pours glasses of beer and wine at no charge, looking with a certain anxiety to the street outside. Our promise of revolution now a threat. It is a promise of peace, perhaps, but only after conflict.
The first fight starts outside a high-end cocktail bar downtown. Revolutionaries wear red shirts and chant with clubs and bats. Glass shatters into pieces that glitter on the sidewalk. We are as blunt as tools and not nearly as useful. Hands become fists, arms become metal bars, heads used as battering rams, legs thrash and kick. As police are deployed in riot gear. The revolutionaries move on, forward down the boulevard. Buildings, cars, streetlamps push against them like stones breaking against the currents of a river. They clash with drinkers and police in a disordered mess of chaos and confusion. Two more groups wearing black join the fight. In the smoke of cannisters from the soldiers on the opposite side of the boulevard. It is impossible now to distinguish between who is holding a bottle or glass of champagne and who is holding a club. And so they are treated the same.
The police break up the crowds. The sidewalks clear. The revolutionaries scatter to the wind, moving back toward the Artist’s Quarter through the shelter of downtown’s dense network of buildings and alleys. The freezing streets wither beneath a clouded night sky and the boulevard grows quiet again.
The first real action comes against the penitentiary at the edge of the city. And the detention center for undocumented immigrants there. Three main walls are blown out with dynamite. Those held in cages released. Some of the formerly detained run with a wild-eyed, welcome glee to the streets. Some move slowly, taking each step carefully, deliberately, with an understanding that action of this scale should not be taken lightly. Many remain in their cells, shaking their heads and crossing their arms, refusing to move. No such response is wrong – reaction need not be based on the morals and intents of those who have committed action in their name.
Then the attacks on the Jeweler’s District to the north. Wealthy owners pulled from their offices, the windows broken and interiors ransacked by the mob. There are fights with those who fight back. The streets of the city’s north have become a battlefield. The avenues of the wealthy, hidden behind wrought iron gates and bathed in an organdy glow now a scene of reckoning. It is judgment for those who have lived well in a world of despair, the gap between us grown too wide now to reconcile. The mantra – Eat the Rich –as the affluent of society, the shrinking capitalist class, the criminals who stand above us as our only true authority taking advantage of the hungry and obedient for years, have continuously betrayed their neighbors. They will pay for their crimes.
To the south, the Boca slums, known for a steady hum like a hive of worker bees, have come alive. The people come forth. The working poor who have built their lives through diligence only to be called the lowest of society. But – it is not just the laborers. It is all of those left without hope, disaffected and discontent, those out of work, yes, and all those unhappy in the lives they were forced to lead. As tenement buildings throb and pulse. Rats scramble from basements. Loose bricks pulled free and thrown at police. Pots and pans thrown down from windows. A great swarm of everyone, anyone fighting, mobbing the streets. We are too close and too far away now to stop what has begun, the fire held for so long beneath the surface bursts forth from the cracks to spread across the city.
An explosion ahead. A limousine bursts into flames through the windshield. Homemade bombs in champagne bottles fly through the air and all glass breaks the same when struck. The revolutionaries move on to the park two blocks east. A second faction is at the capitol where a marble statue of the city’s founder is pulled down with rope. It breaks into pieces on the ground. Units of riot police push back behind shields in dark masks and body armor. Flash bangs are deafening bursts of light like fireworks on the street. Trees on fire in Washington park. Tear gas sprayed in great clouds and metal clubs swinging high in gloved hands come down hard on pates. Allies ready with milk and first-aid kits wait in the doorways of the sagging buildings nearby.
Black smoke trails south from the prison. Buildings burn from their windows. Blood runs in gutters and through cracks in the sidewalk. The great bellow of the people so long denied justice echoes from the asphalt. It is physical, something tangible on which to build – it has become the truth it always promised to become. It is furious and strong, but it will not be enough.
It is a physical energy that comes from people, breathing and warm, that does not come from phones or computer screens. It does not come from plastic cards in wallets, from shoes and clothes, from cement buildings or their glass windows and swinging doors. It does not come from the overstated neons and lampposts lining the sidewalk or the red traffic lights hanging overhead. These sedentary things, these inanimate objects and items and possessions that surround us, they are different. They are not one with us. They do not feel as we feel. They have no place in this growing assembly of voice and emotion and strength. They are only in the way.
This feeling spreads from face to face, neck to neck, chest to chest, from each hand and leg and foot, as though we are all connected after all. We are one with each other now, all made of the same pliable substance, all of the same place. We could be either villain or victim. But we are neither. We are hot in cold air, shakingly so. We are a mass of meat and breaking bones, faceless in the tide, part of something far greater than any one of us could ever be alone. To resist would be unnatural. This is something we were born to do, something we were madeto do, and only under different circumstances might we ever have been contented to live in peaceful obedience.
I look ahead. There is a haze, a dissipating smoke that moves like a sheep’s slow herd along the curb. It has a pungent smell. Doors hang loose from their frames, glass like jewels, Indian blue, unnatural sharp reflecting the light of the sky. The Jeweler’s District will keep its name through so much property destroyed. And in this property lies the undue wealth of individuals and nations. Not a symbol, no. A physical statement of the man-made differences between us, as hollow now as an atheist’s voice reading scripture, disappearing with the wind that blows across its remnants. The body of the city moves there – the pulse and anger of the uncentered masses fighting that great monolith of buildings and streets and cars and lampposts of the city. There is violence here, through fire and pain, that great caldera yawning wide with smoke and smoldering ash.
It is then that I see her. Her long hair tied back in a braid, her body pushing forward, dodging with great depth and agility those bodies fighting upright and then falling to the ground. She weaves back and forth, swinging her arms, almost inhuman in her steady, graceful movements. Not one leg nor foot nor fist nor brick nor bar strikes her as she moves. On her face, as she lifts her chin to the sky, is a look that can only be described as joy – a joyful smile – a happiness and thrill as though there is no place else in the world she would rather be. I watch her as she fights, untouched by the violence and commotion around her. I stand there still, a glazed look on my face until suddenly I am struck on the side of the head with something heavy and blunt and I fall to my knees. Reaching my hand out for balance. I fall to the sidewalk.
I look to the smoke rising over the horizon. It hovers overhead for a moment before floating on past the windows of condominiums, past sets of anxious eyes peering out onto the street and waiting for the violence to end. It moves through the fire escapes and TV antennas clinging to brick corners like spindled gargoyles, along the flashing signs and the few still-unbroken windows of the city.
I would run but I no longer have a body. I have no hips or legs or feet or toes to run. My feet are stuck in the mud, tucked deep into the sand of some warm beach as the tide rolls in, bristling in the tall grass of fields of the great, empty somewhere else. I don’t have hands. I can no longer throw stones through glass windows. My hands covered in flour and sugar and milk, covered in clay, held in the warm grasp of my mother as we walk along the sunlit lanes of a grassy world far from this one. There is no tongue in my mouth to yell for beginning or end to madness. If I have thoughts they belong to someone else. I am stuck here, pasted against the wall like a painting in a museum. I am here no longer, and the memory of me will soon fade as well; my mind is the city all at once, and it will fade as the city fades.
My hands fall limp at my sides. I lay still as my vision blurs and fades to black. The last image the street flashes to the darkness behind my eyelids is one of thick military boots coming closer, and a colorful dress that floats like the feathers of some great, tropical bird from the windows of a boutique down to the pavement – there it rests, slack, soon to be trampled by the feet of the oncoming hordes.
Then – as the violent streets grow calm, and the throbbing silence of hereafter pounds with the blood in my ears, the city is quiet again, held in its earned, exhausted peace, almost unnatural in its probing nothingness, the remnant perma-sunned leaves, leftover from autumn, red-gold and brown blowing across the smooth white of snow and the smoke rising from the rubble, indistinguishable from the cold air and light, it drifts on until it reaches the river and disappears forever, becoming one with a landscape indifferent to the endless struggles of humans. It follows our uncertain footsteps as we begin our ascent back out into the world.
Then the sound of a mother, somewhere, sobbing for lost children. And the sound of cars and trucks returning to the roads.