Tuesday, May 4, 2010

La Règle du Jeu

One day last week I was distracted from reading Les Misérables at work by the news that an angry mob was headed downtown to protest the fat cats on Wall Street. There would be a massing, I learned, at City Hall from 3:30 to 4 followed by an angry short march south. Employed as I am I couldn't get away from my desk until somewhat past five; but I was able to pass a portion of that time in reading the account of the salon to which Marius would be taken by his grandfather as a child among elders. The ultras, survivors of the Terror, refugees returned at last to live once more under a king in a Paris so changed they can barely look at it, hating the new in their old age, hating their old age in the new, up-to-date in despising Napoleon--an irony--they frighten the quiet child. There is a quality of having been unearthed about them; they avoid direct sunlight; I don't recall any mention of food. A contemporary reader draws the obvious conclusion: Anne Rice read her Victor Hugo.

And all the rest of us read her.

I felt tired on my way to the train which I was catching at Rector Street but I decided to walk a block out of my way to observe the angry mob. It seemed too good to ignore as material. Here I was trying to write every day about reading Les Misérables at work and with the revolution in progress one street up I go home to my rooms? What else was I doing a short walk from Wall Street if I didn't bear witness in the spirit of the book I now admire above all other novels?

What would I have been back then? Not an aristocrat. I start to add ", probably" but pause to lay out the rules of the game for myself. Had I come from the same sort of family I do--clergy; poor Protestant clergy--and been the same sort of unmarried woman I am, I would have been--what? A governess at best, more likely a maid. Today I am a secretary; but thanks to computers, now I can be a published writer, too! Another pause, while I take a moment to feel grateful for the labor-saving devices that took almost all the white women out of the serving class and set us in front of machines all day instead. Think: with my old drinking problem the same I might have wound up as a laundress. Dead of syphilis. Existence used to be so uniformly hard and dangerous for single women.

Although many laundresses were artists' models.

I was so glad to miss the rush hour thunderstorm today. Work was slow so I got to leave at three when it was still brilliantly sunny outside and come home and do my laundry plus all this writing. That's what's great about women: just give us another two hours and we can accomplish anything.

There were any number of women of all races in the Wall Street neighborhood that afternoon walking singly towards train entrances in office clothes. Otherwise, the streets were filled from side to side with New York City Police officers, police cars, police barriers, police motorcycles, possibly horses, and police emergency vehicles of every sort except the nice fancy ones that they save for the movies and certain parades. Everything but the best for this angry mob, might have been the message here. Naturally I didn't have my camera with me otherwise I could just be saying See Below for what it looks like in the city these days when an angry mob is expected. It's grim. There is very little space for mob activity. A narrow corridor between crowd control barriers from the sidewalk halfway to the middle of the street is what you get, it's really only suitable for steady walking; no one from outside is going to leap the barricade and join.

And this angry mob was exclusive. The unions, swelling out lettered t-shirts identifying their brotherhoods; rough faces, crude laughter, uncouth midsections; plus a couple of short gray haired lady teachers with gigantic rear ends who were limping past when I arrived--one of them was shouldering a sign that read Greed Is Bad which coming from a teachers' union member I liked--and frankly it looked just like Gangs of New York except that the gangs were being ravaged by middle age instead of by club-wielding enemies. That they were being paid to be there was very much the same, however.

Paid mobs: would I have been part of one? If I'd turned "laundress," probably; but if I'd kept it together, I mean, could you ever have found me where money changed hands and mobs were made? No: and why not? Because I would have been too busy working! What would I have been? I can tell you. Coming back from the shops at five o'clock because the new cook forgot to order the peacocks' tongues so it's an emergency; but a mob soldiers crowds are blocking the streets and keeping me from rushing home.

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