I was there when the thousands roared and took to the streets. I was there when the unions joined, when South Side teachers walked side by side with North Side hipsters, pushing their way down Michigan screaming slogans a thousand people and several blocks long.
And I was there when the cold whittled down Occupy Chicago to a guy named Steve.
Oh sure, people would come later that cold day in early December. But the mornings belonged to Steve.
He was the one who would greet the work-bound passers-by with a smile whether they growled at him or stuck a fist up and said “Right on.” He was the one who gathered food to share from the shelter where he sometimes stayed. It was some sort of chicken nugget thing the day I was there. Yum.
Steve was smiles and jokes and good conversation. He talked about the cold and about the crowd who claimed to lead Occupy.
“There are 23 different organizing committees,” he said, laughing after I mentioned I had heard that “the organizing committee” was close to brokering an indoor winter location for Occupy.
Steve told stories about standing in the cold for hours, being the only Occupier to actually occupy, only to go for a leak at a nearby McDonald’s to find a flock of ringleaders sitting inside and working on silvery Mac laptops. He laughed at the dueling leaderships, the class warfare to find the 1 percent to lead the other 98.
He talked with head-shaking humor about the clever, educated, collegiate revolutionaries who wouldn’t let anything other than slightly inclement weather stop them from subverting the dominant power paradigm. I mean, sure, the American financial system must be toppled at all costs, but it must be like 50 degrees out there. Can’t the revolution get some cocoa?
Steve was a true believer, despite his well-earned skepticism. He was the one who gathered the food, stood in the cold, fought the power with a smile and handshake, no matter what passing businessmen said to him.
“You got a button?” he asked me.
I flipped up the lapel of my peacoat to show a tiny, black “99% OWS” pin I had taken to wearing, my own little protest against the job I had secretly nicknamed “The Coming Darkness.” A South Side schoolteacher gave me the pin during one of the giant rally days.
“No,” Steve said, breaking into a massive scattertooth grin. “Do you have a button?”
He pulled out a monstrous “We Are The 99%” button, red with a raised fist. We smiled at each other. I put on the pin.
The day I was there, killing a few hours before I met up to geocache with a girl I know, Steve and I were joined by an early comer, a man whose name was erased to me after I lost my notes. All I remember is that, unlike Steve, this man was young, white and covered with stick ‘n’ poke prison-style face tattoos.
While Steve cast an air of being smart but uneducated, the young man was clearly not that bright, but sweet and loyal and noble. He was kind, that was it. Although he would quite obviously prison-shank you if you crossed him. The three of us chatted — homeless old black man, tattoo-faced scary but kind young white one and me, almost ashamed of the reek of money and privilege I was undoubtedly giving off. For hours, until a few others showed up and I took off to see a girl, the three of us were Occupy Chicago.
I was there when the thousands roared and took to the streets. And I was there when silly hippies made asses of themselves (if you read Wednesday’s story). And I had talked to collegiate young organizer types. And 1960s real hippies. And I was once the only one on a packed Occupy day who helped an old man when he fell.
But I didn’t get it until Steve and the tattoo-face man, until three diverse people chatted about what we have in common, both with each other and even with the business-bound passers-by who growled at us and told us to get jobs. We didn’t have to search out our common bond. Following Steve’s lead, that was all we saw.
A shivering old homeless man who loved everyone but was critical of everything — this is what democracy looks like.
Written in June 2012