Peace March, 1966
March 31, 1966
I live on 103rd Street near Central Park West, one of the very few whites in a block of Negroes and Puerto Ricans. Garbage strews the streets and children play in it. Their elders view the scene with sullen passivity. Getting drunk seems to be their only retort. The subway strike and the blackout before it seemed not to affect their lives, both being manifestations of a foreign life in a society in which they are kept alien.
When I saw the ad in The Village Voice that told of the Peace Parade down Fifth Avenue on March 26, I had been watching several men and women in windows opposite my building going through an elaborate system of signals, all directed to a window next to mine. One, a man I’d noticed often before, wearing a dirty white trench coat and limping, I had put down as a runner of sorts. Another, a janitor with a carrying voice, still young and dressed always in army fatigues, carries on as the neighborhood pimp. All would appear as Hollywood spies but for their apathetic demeanor. I wondered what Vietnam meant, if anything, to these victims of the Great Society.
I turned on the radio to get the weather and had to wade through a report on the War on Poverty, a bulletin telling us that narcotics addiction threatened our way of life, then came the voice of a hero of my youth, Louis Armstrong, singing about Schaefer’s beer, a premature estimation that 10,000 to 12,000 were marching in the Peace Parade that wasn’t to start for at least an hour and a half. Then I got it: it was 43 degrees and windy with partially sunny skies. I was slightly hungover from a $20 evening listening to Sonny Stitt and Roy Eldridge, both of whom had thrilled me in the late forties and early fifties when we were all young. I would go to the parade to see what youth was up to now.
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I dressed warmly, left my apartment to pick my way through the debris of Friday night’s brawls, and entered the park.
The sun was filtering through a hazy sky, and wind blew dirt into my eyes. The pond is idyllic from a distance, but up close its water is green with slime and dotted with broken buggies, beer cans, unidentified junk. Plane trees with greenish-yellow peeled bark seem the only trees able to thrive in the polluted city air. Even the squirrels look ratty and undernourished.
As I walked, I thought of the 2,000 Vietnamese we were said to have killed in the past week, of the President’s voice when he branded those who spoke out against the killings as misguided, and how carefully parental he made his voice sound, like a misunderstood teacher explaining to his very young students that their welfare was in his heart. Further on in the park, boys played baseball desultorily, some drank from bottles in bushes, others fought in cruel desperation. Here and there an old woman fed squirrels or birds with bread crumbs. A man tossed a stick for his dog to chase. Spring had come to Central Park and was greeted apathetically.
When I reached Madison Avenue, I headed south toward Ninety-Second Street where The Village Voice said that the “unaffiliated” were to gather with “professional groups” and “pacifist groups.” Having spent the major portion of the past fifteen years as an executive of an automobile-leasing firm, giving up finally when I realized the only legitimate concern was the making of money in the shortest and cleverest way possible, I decided that I was one of the “unaffiliated.”
It was a little after 12 when I arrived at my corner. Small knots of people had congregated and were being stared at by the police, who were out in riot proportions. One or two looked at me with the deference I had become used to, and I hoped the small frays in my Rodex overcoat that had cost me $175 a few years ago would be noticed by the young people who were, I thought, beginning to eye me with suspicion. I reached greedily for a copy of The National Guardian being shoved into my hands, sticking my finger through the hole in my leather gloves as I did. I even tried to adopt the sullen looks the partisans were giving the police. But the feeling of alienation was strong within me, and as I pushed past the corner, throngs were on Fifth Avenue, and I saw myself as they must have seen me: a forty-nine-year-old man who could afford to dress well, one with gray hair and a white mustache, an Enemy of the People. When a girl asked me to buy The Catholic Worker, I said in a loud voice that I hadn’t enough money. Several near me tittered, and she said it only cost a penny, or what else I felt like contributing. I fumbled nervously in my pocket and gave her all the change I had, four pennies. A bearded youth gave me a placard to carry, saying “Bring the Boys Home Now!” I was in business.
It was getting on toward 12:30, and I realized I had been foolish not to have had a more substantial breakfast than a cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice. My back, which plagues me from time to time, began to stiffen. I sat down on the low stone abutment of the Jewish Museum to wait for the start of the parade. A policeman, with a forced smile, asked me to please not sit there, that no one was allowed on the sidewalks. I took my stand close to a family group being photographed by the father — two lovely teenaged girls in long straw-colored hair, and their mother. The girls were eager for action. Two middle-aged and respectable couples were working on a banner strung between two wooden poles on which a crude replica of Picasso’s “Guernica” was drawn. The street was filled up. I couldn’t now, if I wanted, leave for food or for any other reason. There was barely room to move without jostling.
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There were several young men looking self-conscious in their attempts to live up to newspaper descriptions of “beatniks,” in long matted hair and beards, talking overly loud to girls neutered by clothing that de-emphasized their sex. There were also those who seemed to be cultivating a look that would brand them as “radicals,” wearing the mask I remembered from the Depression leftists, along with the newer Fuck-Communism-Let’s-Have-a-Ball variety. There were, too, a few teenagers out for kicks. But most of the men and women packed close to me were coupled, concerned and brimming with enthusiasm I had been taught by my daily reading of the press had been stamped out. On no face did I see the signs of cowardice, malevolence, or moral depravity such “peaceniks” were implied to be contaminated with.
A jolly fat man pushed through with a shopping bag, crying out, “The old button man is back with more goodies!” Another, bareheaded and scholarly, followed in his wake, distributing placards, a baby slung round his back, calling out with the placard waved aloft, “Who is qualified to carry this sign? Step right up!” Laughter floated round in the cold air of the shaded street. “I want to see the parade,” a small child’s voice complained. Police had given up their attempt to keep people from the sidewalks; paraders now occupied the window ledges of the Jewish Museum as well as the doorway. Behind me, all the way back to Madison, the street was walled with people. Signs of all kinds were held aloft with now and then a streetwide banner proclaiming the groups to which they were aligned: teachers, scientists from Rockefeller Institute, writers and artists, professional groups. Before me, across the weakly sunny Fifth Avenue, on the park’s stone wall, were photographers taking pictures of us. Over the heads of those in front, the tips of flags could be seen. People were patiently waiting for their time in the sun. Overhead, a plane buzzed and someone shouted, “There they go!” and nervous laughter broke out.
Finally, at close to two o’clock, two flags, one the standard of our country, the other an older standard with thirteen stars in a circle surrounding the number seventy-six. A cry sprang up, building to a roar. The parade bad begun. Veterans from World War II and Korea were in the vanguard. Mothers gathered their children around them, some taking fresh grips on their prams, signs were held aloft as we strained on tiptoes to catch glimpses of the marchers and the signs they carried. The sound of applause was loud.
Cold and hungry, my back threatening to break down at the first wrong movement, I stood in that crowd of dedicated young Americans and allowed their fervor to warm me in a way that food and drink never could. When the word came, we were let into the street, our banner aloft, to walk eight in a line down that sunny street, to the bursting applause of the throngs who lined the sidewalks on the other side of the barriers of wooden horses and policemen. It was like a sudden entrance on a stage lit by klieg lights. To my left a young good-looking couple marched hand in hand, next to them a woman pushed a stroller with a child in it, an old woman in a purple plush hat with pearl hatpin, an ancient man looking grim, two bright young girls with widely staring eyes. I was on the right end of the line on the park side of the street. Marshals in green armbands tried to keep the lines orderly, men with green badges of the press stalked along with costly picture-taking and sound equipment, policemen with bullhorns swaggered as thousands of their co-workers lined the streets facing the spectators. Here and there a small blue motorscooter buzzed by with a blue helmeted policeman on it. The chanting began, slow and faltering at first, then growing as it found its own rhythm: “Peace Now, Peace Now, Peace Now!”
A can of red paint splattered on the asphalt, a scream, then the chanting rose to cover all for a time. I saw faces in the crowd along the route contorted by insane rage, mouths stretched to the breaking point, eyes staring, fists shaking. They were young boys in brown uniforms with orange lettering and green berets, though they were scarcely old enough to have seen action in Vietnam, most still in their teens. They were screaming as loud as they could in scratchy voices. When the “Peace Now” chant died down, I heard some of the words they spat at us.
“Fruits, Communist bastards, cowards!” “We killed two thousand of your kind last week, queers!” “Killing’s too good for you bums!” “Look at ’em, they look like girls! A bunch of dirty girls!”
“Don’t you like girls?” I found myself asking suddenly, my face hot with excitement and embarrassment for having been lured into talking back to them. My marshal came quickly alongside to tell me there was no need to answer. I marched in silence, eyes ahead, my ears ringing with the profanity of the hooligans from the right. It was no longer possible for me, seeing those faces, the signs that urged for more, more bombing of Hanoi and a mining of the Bay of Haiphong, to believe what the press told me, what our political leaders said, that these were men of courage while we, the marchers, were cowards, evil or misguided. Compared to the naked hate on the faces of these sidewalk hecklers, those of the marchers I associated in my mind with early Christian martyrs, as they bravely faced scorn with songs.
The hecklers were only small pockets, isolated by long stretches of sympathizers who clapped their hands and called out encouragingly to us. I saw a Catholic priest bearing a sign saying “FOR GOD’S SAKE STOP IT!” An egg was hurled and it stained the street. An elegantly dressed woman of middle age, heavily painted with snobbery, looked down her nose and muttered something to a man with a cane. Behind them, on the steps of an institution-like stone building, a woman in her twenties in bizarre clothes, showed herself to the marchers, her long legs drawn up and wide apart. She giggled when the marchers looked. Her young man smoked moodily, now and then he raised his fist and screamed some obscenity. The woman laughed hysterically and opened her legs wider.
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Waves of weakness surged through me. My legs, from long standing, would not behave, and I stumbled along like a cripple or one with too much to drink. The sounds were overwhelming. Out of it came the high-pitched taunts of a young fellow, clean and scrubbed-looking, his hands in his pockets as he marched cockily along with us on the sidewalk, one eye out for his two straggling companions. When they cheered him, he screamed louder. He was centering his attack on the woman with the purple plush hat in my line. She was at least sixty and walking was a job. She tried to ignore him. He broke through the line of onlookers to walk beside her. “You filthy old whore!” he screamed, his face pushed close to hers. Above were the fat horizontal ramparts of the Guggenheim Museum. “A dirty old whore!” I moved without thought. I slapped that red young face and saw surprise and fear as police zoomed in to get him. There was some murmuring but I was too confused by the suddenness and unseemliness of my attack to know if I was being praised or put down. But I was pleased with myself, in spurts between waves of self-loathing, when seeing the distorted faces of the anti-demonstrators I appeared in my own eyes as one of them. “Please don’t answer them, and stay in line,” I was warned by my marshal. “That’s what they want. It’ll only get us in trouble.” But when I could look around me, I saw smiling faces, especially that of the old woman in purple plush.
At 72nd Street the march turned into the park, where those before us were lined up along the paths, held back by policemen. From the mall came the amplified sounds of folk singing. There were to be speeches. I had had it. All I wanted was a place to sit and a drink to warm me. I left the march and walked for a time alongside it on the grass, feeling again the difference in my dress, my manner, my weariness. Was I no longer a part of humanity? Had I been led astray too long by the trappings of success?
I had my drink in an Irish bar with a television set blaring out the final inning of the Chicago White Sox–New York Mets baseball game. Here were men said to be of my kind, well dressed, in various stages of inebriation, shouting, faces flushed, about sports. I left to walk back to the subway station and home.
On my block swarms of children filled the streets, their parents shouted up to the windows of friends, who screamed back. Garbage was mashed into the sidewalks and spilled over cans already filled. A four-year-old was banging with two chair rungs on a sheet metal fence, while above him two older boys clung to a fire escape masturbating. On the wall of the tenement was a sign in chalk that said “Fuck China.” I was home.