Read it on Salon
Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
“This Sunday, let’s check out Occupy Wall Street,” Peter says, and it sounds just like last week when he turned to his wife and said, “This Sunday, let’s check out the Museum of Modern Art.” Going to MoMA was something Peter and Lisa had wanted to do since they moved to New York City two years ago — that and eat a hot dog from Gray’s Papaya, get Korean barbecue at midnight, take a boat around the Statue of Liberty and go to a Golden Girls drag show (which was not nearly as funny as they wanted it to be).
“After we check out the revolution, let’s stop by Tiffany’s so I can return that knife set your mother gave me,” Lisa says. She is joking because that’s what this protest is to them. But it is also not really a joke, because Tiffany’s happens to be located very close to the protest. Lisa is very serious about wanting to return the knife set. She does not need sterling-silver knives to butter her toast.
“OK,” Peter says, because this is exactly the kind of thing they do on Sundays. They check something out that they have been meaning to check out while simultaneously doing an errand. That way, the errand doesn’t feel so much like an errand, and any fun they have along the way doesn’t feel entirely wasteful. “But wait, you’re going to bring the set? You want to hold it the whole time we’re there?”
“How long are we planning to be there, Peter?” Lisa asks. “Should we bring our sleeping bags?”
He knows she is joking because they don’t even have sleeping bags; they are not the kind of people who sleep inside bags. Bags are for the things they have; bags are for gifts to be returned; bags are for dead people. They put Lisa’s father in one seven Sundays ago. Ever since then, Peter has been very careful to keep Lisa occupied. He keeps using that word. “You’ve got to keep yourself occupied, Lisa.”
Lisa remembers from her liberal arts education that occupation is the language of colonialism. It is also the language of airplane bathrooms. It is Korean barbecue, then the Statue of Liberty, then MoMA and now Wall Street. What, Lisa wonders, will it be next Sunday?
“We’ll stay a little while, at least,” he says. “Long enough to get a good sense of it.”
And so Lisa gets the knife set and they put on their lightest coats. They head out and pass vendors selling American flags and large photographs and Peter leans down and says, “This one would be perfect for my father’s birthday.” That is next Sunday. Peter’s father’s birthday. He holds up the photograph featuring a man and his golf clubs and in big white letters it says YOUR WORST DAY GOLFING IS BETTER THAN YOUR BEST DAY WORKING. As Peter buys it, Lisa thinks that this is true; she thinks of how the day her father died was the worst day in her life, but probably still so much better than many other people’s days. She thinks of people far away; people who do not have knife sets, people who do not have a set of anything. This is what she says to Peter as they enter Zuccotti Park.
“What?” he says. There are people chanting loudly. Occupy Wall Street is very loud. A leader speaks, and the people around the leader echo the words. In all of Lisa’s life, she has never seen communication work like this. For Lisa, it has always been the opposite; words start out so big and end up so small. But here, the words start as tiny as a rock dropped in the ocean, and ripple outwards until they reach the street.
- – - – - – - – - -
In the park, Peter and Lisa stand side by side, looking at three women dressed in white dancing with dollar bills taped over their mouths. It is performance art. The knife set is heavy in Lisa’s hands. Peter and Lisa stand there watching for what’s got to be at least 10 minutes, and Peter looks around the park, and he almost nudges her to say, “Let’s check out a different part.” He feels an urgency to see everything here, a pressure to do it all, like when they were in London last year for only a day, and had to do Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and the Tate.
But he doesn’t say anything, because he isn’t sure what the appropriate amount of time is to spend at each part of the park. He had the same problem at MoMA. He doesn’t know how long it takes to absorb whatever it is they are supposed to absorb from the women in white, just like he didn’t know how long he was supposed to stand quietly in front of White on White at the MoMA. Just like he stood in front of Lisa’s father’s casket, and thought, How long as the son-in-law am I supposed to stand here? How long until I understand that he is dead? How long until everybody else understands that I understand this man is dead? How long does it take for meaning to transfer from one body to another? Well, he didn’t know. He just didn’t know. He looked at the people dressed in black and stared. He said, “All of this black is starting to depress me,” and Lisa said, “I have learned today that there are 100 shades of black,” and he guesses she was trying to tell him that she was seeing something he wasn’t; she was trying to hint that her version of the world was a much more complicated one than his, and she made sure to do this on a day when he couldn’t argue with her.
So they stand there, silent, staring at the women in white, and Peter wonders how many shades of white his wife is seeing. He nudges her, and says, “Let’s go check out the anarchist section,” and she agrees. As they move through the people, Lisa says, “There’s an anarchist section? Do anarchists even believe in sections?” He sort of smiles, but then says, “They believe in clusters.” He isn’t joking at all. “They really believe in clusters — here, look,” and hands Lisa a pamphlet, Anarchist Basics. Lisa tries to read but is stopped by a man with a long white beard. The man grabs Lisa’s arm, and says closely and quietly to her face, “When you wake up tomorrow, I’ll still be here.” Peter pulls his wife toward him because this is what he does when a strange man threatens something too close to her face.
But Lisa finds something reassuring about this man’s promise; that is the growing difference between Peter and Lisa. Lisa sees it as a promise, and Peter sees it as a threat. And not only that, but Lisa believes him; the man’s beard is so long and white, she believes he has been living in Zuccotti Park forever. The promise reminds her of her father, and how he used to say something very similar to her, when she was younger and afraid they’d all die in the middle of the night for some inexplicable reason. She stands there, with her knife set, and Peter with his golf photograph, and she does not move away. She imagines next Sunday, when the man is still here in his sleeping bag, and they are at Peter’s father’s house in Connecticut. Peter’s father will unwrap the golf photograph, and he will say, “This will look great in my office.” Peter will say, “We got it two blocks down from the revolution.” Lisa can already hear the glass clink against their teeth as they try to drink and laugh at the same time.
Alison Espach is the author of the novel "The Adults." More Alison Espach.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)
Read it on Salon