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Memoirs of a Would-be Street lighter

By Gregg J. Kilday

ADMITTEDLY, the time didn't seem quite right for violent revolution, but, what the hell, it might at least turn out to be another Woodstock, and, well, what else could a poor boy do....

Sometime after sundown on Friday, we stopped at this place just off Delaware's John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway. As far as roadside rest areas go, it wasn't any Howard Johnson's. Lacking the proper blandness, the place was creatively ugly. Most of it consisted of nothing but a central lobby, plastic glassy skylights, and a semi-cubistic chandelier. All in all, little more than a retarded version of Miami Beach. Except that off to one side of the lobby, roped off with velvet covered ropes, was a plaster bust of JFK painted to look bronze.

We had only stopped to take a piss. But then, so had a couple of hundred other people who all looked like they were also going down to D.C. (Perhaps all they were saying was give piss a chance? Sorry.) In any case, here we all find ourselves, we being mostly guys, shuffling about anxiously in this neo-Miami lobby, because a bunch of girls have taken over the men's room, complaining something about the lady's john having proved to be inadequate. Now, nothing is less conducive to upholding what shreds of male chauvinism are presently left us-not to mention one's own sense of propriety-than the need to take a good piss. So, unable to shuffle about any longer, a bunch of us joined the girls. Naturally they were all wearing women's lib buttons. And for a moment it did really seem that in that port- Howard Johnson's somewhere off the Delaware Pike the revolution was, quite decidedly, all systems go.

I arrived in Washington too late Friday night to get gassed at Dupont Circle. That was a pretty hard fate to accept-rather like being the last kid in your class to enter puberty.

About one in the morning, a bunch of us drove out to Arlington National Cemetery. A half dozen MP's with jeeps and rifles and all manner of meanness barred us from entering. They told us that the beginning of the March Against Death had been moved down to the Memorial Bridge, then told us to move on.

"I wonder who they're afraid might get into that place?" I asked as we drove off. A voice from the back seat mumbled, "Necrophiliacs."

With the temperature sinking down through the thirties, you'd have had to have been the most masochistic of liberals to have marched against death Friday night. Nonetheless, the liberals were out in force.

The Moratorium people had pitched a series of tents along the edge of the Potomac. There was also a Red Cross vehicle, a refreshment wagon, and a couple of portable johns. To march against death, you had to line up in the dark, the Potomac peacefully smacking somewhere near your feet, then slowly pass through each of the tents, picking up buttons and candles and placards in the process. The lines of people were almost silent, more interested in conserving warmth than maintaining conversation. From up close, they looked like the docile victims of a concentration camp, but when viewed from a distance, the whole scene looked more like some late night revival meeting. In its way, I guess, it was both.

Near the foot of the bridge where the march proper began, a bell tolled every few seconds. A couple of kids, wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags and asking everyone they saw if they had a joint, took turns ringing the bell. We helped them for a few minutes. The bell's clang seemed to affirm the primitive purity of the whole effort. For an army was encamped by the bank of the Potomac, an army silent and cold and dark, waiting for the dawn to plunge its incongruous, unarmed infantry into some kind of crazy civil war battle. I stood and watched the scene, hoping like hell that this was the way things might have felt in King Henry's camp the night before the battle of Agincourt. For a moment one almost wanted to be a liberal again.

Joel and David and I spent the night on the floor of an apartment of a friend of a friend. Joel and David had just come from Dupont Circle. The place was hardly worth fighting over, they complained, little more than a glorified traffic circle. And as for tactics, the leaders of the march had just kept dragging the crowd back into the middle of the circle, and then they would all be gassed out, and then they would just drag them back again. Hell, that was no way to street-fight.

This street-fighting business had begun because of the way we were all dressed. We all wore denims and Joel even had a helmet as well as a pack. He looked the part. A real street-fighter. Until he opened his pack and pulled out an electric blanket.

Before we went to sleep, we tried to figure out what was the most anarchic act possible in Washington. We decided that it would be to blow out the eternal flame on Kennedy's grave.

We slept over. It was almost ten-thirty when the march down Pennsylvania Avenue began, and it was closer to noon when we woke up. But that was alright we decided because streetfighters had to conserve their energies for late afternoon confrontations with the pigs.

A more immediate problem was food; we grubbed about in the refrigerator of a friend of a friend. A good streetfighter had to live off the land, we figured. We were really getting into the fantasy of the thing.

Joel and David invited me to join their affinity group, and, cognizant of the honor, I accepted, only to lose them in the crowd as soon as we reached the Washington Monument.

3:20. A couple of hundred cops began massing on E Street and 13th, right in front of the National Theatre. They all crowded around the back of a Hertz truck. One of their number stood in the back of the truck, calling out each officer's name, and then tossing to each his riot equipment-his helmet and his gas mask. It was just like the way they distribute lunches to the band during? Harvard football games, so I hung around.

The kids and the cops were mixing freely. The black cops were friendliest. They told us that they just wanted to go home without getting their heads bashed in, and we tried to explain that that's the way we wanted it too. The young white cops were less inclined to talk, but it was only the older whites-the sergeants and their captains-who were really antagonistic.

We asked one captain why they were all suiting up right there in the street and he typified the prevalent level of sarcasm by answering that it was only part of their regular Saturday afternoon drill. And then he pretended to thank us for the extra overtime pay he would receive.

Meanwhile, we could hear the orders coming over their radios. There were three main bodies of cops in the city-one at Justice, one at the White House, and this third group on 13th and E. Our group-things were getting so friendly that it was difficult to maintain the proper degree of polarization-was reserved for "general ground control activities." A few squads were sent off to a nearby red light district, two busloads were earmarked for the embassy area, the rest were to wait to mop up the bands of demonstrators that would be straggling back from the Justice Department later on. There was no doubt in their minds that there would be trouble. It was all part of their really smooth operation.

Finally, it just got too cold to hang around any longer, and, feeling like a New Yorker narrator, we said goodbye to the cops and told them we'd be seeing them around.

Down on Constitution Avenue, the WSA demonstration against the Labor Department had already ended. I was sorry to have missed it, because my father works for the Labor Department, and the whole situation was just too Ocdipully-neat to pass up.

There were troops stationed on top of all the government buildings along the way. Lots of the boys flashed peace signs to us and we'd flash them back. I wondered if they envied us our apparent freedom, and then thought how sad it might all be if they were actually waiting for us to free them. I really wish I knew where the army is at.

By the time I reached the Internal Revenue Building on the corner of 12th and Constitution, I could see that the gas had already begun a block further down at Justice.

I decided to stay at the corner, because the whole block was already jammed with people, all kinds of people milling about, just as if we were all spectators at some great circus and the canvas was about to collapse all about us, but nobody quite knew how to panic. There was simply no way to characterize the crowd; the militants must have all been up front because they didn't seem to be in evidence. In the midst of everybody else was a button-hawker with a large, black-felt-covered board, dotted with all colors and sizes of peace buttons. A few kids stood around him trying to decide which buttons they wanted to buy. I swear, but even after the gas really started, that guy still stood there. He must have been the last person to leave the area.

While I waited, I wandered about among the medics, hoping that they might be one of the focal points of the action that was about to take place. (And, anyway, since I had now become an affinity group of one, it was also quite the circumspect thing to do.) But the medics were mostly volunteers, with the kind of nervous enthusiasm common among first year section men. They kept giving every one around them suspicious looks in

an effort to ascertain whether any of us had been stricken down yet. I began to think it might be safer to avoid them.

During that same time, someone had run down the American flag that flew in front of the Internal Revenue building and everyone cheered. Then, half a minute later, someone else ran the flag back up, and everyone cheered again.

And simultaneously, a lot of other guys were wandering around shoving pamphlets into our hands, pamphlets that told all about Campus Crusades for Christ and The Voice of Proprecy.

I began to fear that if this country ever makes it-as a body-to the day of the apocalypse, we're all going to put on a pretty second-rate show of it.

It was something of a relief when the gas finally started. For, by that time, I just wanted to get through with it so we could all go home. (And, in any case, the gas would at least force us to forget the cold.)

Once the canisters of gas began flopping down between our feet, the crowd, without registering hardly any emotional response, began moving slowly but obediently up 12th Street. Up 12th, between the massive, dark blocks that were the buildings of Internal Revenue and Interstate Commerce. I kept getting these flashes of old war movies I had seen where a bomb would plop down right next to your buddy, and you'd see the thing coming at him, and, balm, your buddy would be gone. But none of these bombs were really exploding. I found myself laughing, and shouting happily to someone beside me. "Wow, they're using all the goddamn stuff up on us." It seemed hardly worth their effort, but it was mildly flattering.

And the mass of people continued to file slowly through the dark corridor that passed itself off as 12th Street. A crowd that didn't look so much like a bunch of millennial radicals as it looked like a crowd out of a fifties horror movie, Exactly. That was it. We were exactly like one of those mindless crowds that takes to the street during the final reel of every fifties horror movie. Except that there were supposed to be a monster at our rear, but we had no monster. All we had was a bunch of methodical cops, crop-dusting away like mad. It all seemed vaguely ridiculous to be staggering up 12th Street, coughing into your handkerchief, looking for all the would like a proliferation of defeated Camfiles.

I'm sure that if there is ever a public outcry against the use of gas, it will not be because gas can be used for the purposes of general ground control. Instead, it will be because gas upsets the ecological balance of things.

For, by the time we reached Pennsylvania Avenue, all the birds had taken refuge in one particular tree where they were setting off a tremendous racket. Suddenly, the crowd, which until then had been chanting walk, walk, now began to yell to each other not to go under that tree. And one girl sighed winsomely, "Even the birds are crying." Even? No, only.

Not quite sure what was now demanded of me, I just wandered around for some time. By six o'clock, troops had surrounded the White House, most bank windows had been broken, MPs were stationed at the major hotels to help satirized matrons into limousines, and a pall of gas was spreading haphazardly about the city. The whole affair came off as very South American. So this is what they've been warning us the universities might become, I thought. And then, coming across a book store that had also had its plate glass busted in, I knew I wanted no part of it any longer.

Hitching up Connecticut Avenue proved next to impossible. One old man stopped his car and asked if I wanted a ride out of town. When I told him I just wanted to get towards the neighborhood of the Washington Cathedral, he shot off down the street.

Finally, a bus came along. Joyously, I forked over the thirty-two cents that I had carefully reserved for just such a contingency earlier in the day. I was pleased with my foresightedness, because in D.C. you have to have exact change and even a streetfighter has to face reality every now and again.

The lights inside the bus made my eyes water, but I no longer wanted to cry. Conscious that the half of the people on the bus that weren't demonstrators were staring at the other half of us who were, a little of the old exhilaration began to return.

A year and a half ago, I spent a few weeks tramping about the country for McCarthy. It had been a strange experience, because, deep down, we knew that people weren't voting for McCarthy as much as they were voting for us. That was the only rationale for wasting an hour talking with a suburban housewife or trying to cajole a guy that you knew was an implacable racist into voting for Gene. All the time we had been nothing but walking advertisements, not always even aware of the dishonesty at the very soul of our campaign. Why else did we try to dress hassled but neat, and always make an effort to appear ever so friendly?

And now, on this D.C. bus, here I was, wearing a pair of jeans whose zipper was broken, as well as a jacket that didn't quite fit, and looking just as objectionable as I possibly could. Perhaps, after all, streetfighting was a pretty good deal-at least, it allowed for an indulgence that even the new politics couldn't accommodate.

We spent most of Saturday evening at Frank's house, abut soon discovered that after comparing how seriously we all had been gassed there really wasn't much else to say.

But, dear, dumb, gentle reader, if you're still with me after days and days of CRIMSON elegies on Washington marches, as well as rafts of my own ruptured prose, you're about to hear of the great odyssey that gave meaning to the whole weekend.

Late Saturday night, Joel and David and myself, all newly reunited, set out to seek sanctuary in the apartment of a friend of a friend where we had spent the previous night. I still hadn't figured out the geography of Washington Northwest, and had developed a corresponding hatred for the area.

A ride dropped us off at the apartment sometime after one; we soon learned that the friend of a friend had returned to reclaim the bedroom, and the original friend had taken over the living room floor, and, sorry, but there really wasn't any room left. By that time our ride had also left, so off we set, on foot, to try to reach the house of yet another, friend that lived nearby.

Gradually, I began to wish that the three of us did not look quite so disreputable. Even though I was carrying a typewriter and suitcase, there was little, reason to believe that any law-and-ordered citizen would give us a lift. We walked for about an hour. It wasn't until two in the morning, that we'd realized that we had made a wrong turn somewhere. (Not a meta -physical statement, that.) Instead of being already half asleep on the floor of somebody's house, here we were half asleep on Canal Road, an almost-highway, surrounded by woods and leading into Maryland.

Finally, we put all our junk down in order to rest for a moment. I was on the verge of suggesting that we spend the night in the woods, even though there it would be impossible for Joel to plug in his electric blanket.

Then this voice came out of the woods to our left. Over a bullhorn yet. You boys pick yore stuff up and start walkin down that rode and get outer this town.

Joel looked at me. "I guess I'd better take back all the nasty things I've said about Easy Rider," he said.

Undaunted, I turned toward the woods, feeling not a little silly to be talking to a bunch of trees. "Excuse me." I tried, "but we're lost. Could you tell us where Q Street is?"

There was only silence.

So, praying that a mess of buckshot wouldn't punctuate the aforementioned command, we picked up our junk, turned around, and began retracing our steps back into the city, all the while trying to avoid the occasional car that would try to sideswipe us off the road.

In short, we were scared.

One hour later, though, we were back in front of Frank's, the place from which we had originally started.

In the interim, we had been picked up by a VW jammed full of people, just missed participating in one near car crash, hunted out an all-night theatre only to find it mysteriously closed, and prowled around the grounds of the National Cathedral in search of someplace to sleep.

And, now, at Frank's house the lights were out.

But, being the resourceful streetfighters that we were, we knew that there was only one solution if we were to avoid waking up everyone in the house. Careful not to rustle the sidewalk's leaves, we divided ourselves into three scouting parties and began searching up and down the street for Frank's car. And suddenly thank godthere it was, Frank's white Rambler with its B-school parking sticker on the rear window. Within seconds, we had all crawled inside, rolled up the windows, and locked the doors. Only three hours and it would be dawn. Joel played taps on his kazoo.

As I lay, scrunched up on the front seat of the car, watching moisture form on the windshield, and feeling cramps develop all over my body, I began to smile with a quiet sense of vindication.

For, I hadn't come to Washington to save the country. I had just come to save myself. The country was too deep into its war to be averted by a wayward Woodstock, a gigantic camp meeting where the words love and peace were just as debased and about as obscene as the word fuck .

And neither did I come to initiate the revolution. For revolutionaries are simply too human to be trusted with carrying out a revolution, however badly it might be needed.

No, I had simply come to Washington because on November 3rd, Richard Nixon had tried to persuade me not to do so. To persuade me he had used sloppy metaphors and cheap historical lies. That was untenable. I came to Washington out of hate, because hate, unlike love, is the only pure emotion that one can rely on.

And I also came to Washington because I had read Mailer-yes, we all had read Mailer-Mailer's existential yap and yaw. In coming to the capital there was then the possibility that, while disassociating myself from a government I hated, I could test my own strengths. I could recapture what I missed by missing the Pentagon battle in '67.

I had no political allegiance, being too alienated to trust the liberals and not mad enough to join the Weathermen. As for the radicals, what leadership did they offer? A true radical. I've always held, can hardly ever be a leader. Radicals were made to sit in the back room of cheap cafes, debating ideology. That fantasy appealed to me, but even that had become impossible.

So I had really come only to test myself. And in the meantime to pretend merely to play a role, to be a would-be streetfighter, to laugh at my own needs, to search out ironies and inconsistencies, to hunt down all that was absurd.

For the real self-test had been denied. The march was too bland, the cops were too friendly, and a real confrontation had never come off. For all our romanticizing, the gas had precluded all possibilities of confrontation. How do you fight an element? The use of gas masks makes cops disguise themselves, it denies demonstrators the use of their only weapons, their bodies. Gas had neutralized the situation. So why feel guilty that I hadn't been blinded by it, or that it hadn't made me vomit? Was that the confrontation I had come for? Because if it was I could have just as easily stayed in Cambridge and tried to determine how long I could hold a plastic bag over my head.

Of course one could always throw rocks back into the gas. Into and through the gas, at the windows of banks, specialty shops, book stores. Except that that tactic seemed just another admission of the impossibility of real confrontation.

But I had also been lucky. Unlike most of the others, I had had my tacky bit of existential drama. It had taken place right out there on Canal Road. And now, here it was five in the morning, and I was forcing my recalcitrant body to sleep in the crowded quarters of the car's front seat. The guy with the bullhorn and Frank's white Rambler-they must serve as my moral equivalent of war. Second-rate substitutes of course, but then, you'll have to admit, these are second-rate times we are living in, you and I.

"Who do you think that guy in the woods was anyway?" Joel asked, along about six, as we were all in the process of shifting into more comfortable positions.

"You really think there was someone there?" I asked. "My theory is that the place was a secret government installation, and all we heard was this recording, they've got that goes off every five minutes."

David laughed. "Right-on," he muttered.

Yes, the joke must still be maintained at all costs.

Right-on, brother?

Right-on, sister?

Yes, though I hate to have to say it, right-on!

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