Riding uptown on the bus other day, we stopped at a light right next to the United Nations building on First Avenue and 46th Street.
Typical scene just outside the building gates—hundreds of tourists, in small groups and large, talking, taking pictures, coming in and out of the grounds and the building or just generally milling around; UN security guards and few New York City cops standing at the entrance. And, as usual, an endless flow of traffic headed up First Avenue—private cars, cabs, buses, trucks…
I remember going into the UN—several decades ago. I think it was a class trip I took when I was in high school, back in the day when I was relatively free from cynicism; back when it seemed like the United Nations was a place where the world could really talk peacefully instead of instantly resorting to mindless violence.
Well, the UN’s record for resolving conflicts and preventing wars—despite all the genuine efforts made over the decades—has been mostly a dismal failure. Still, there it stands, towering over the East River—an open invitation to the world to show up and do the right thing.
…As a more or less constant reminder (as if we needed one) that the world is far from anything approaching a state of peace, there are frequent, mostly angry, demonstrations across the avenue. The demonstrators, from a handful of people to an entire city block’s worth, are often carrying banners, waving flags or holding signs—chanting, singing, trying whatever they could to get their message across to assembled diplomats just a couple of hundred yards away.
I didn’t see any demonstrations this day but I did see (and just barely hear) a lone man with a large megaphone standing there shouting across the wide river of traffic at the UN.
I couldn’t tell for sure because the megaphone covered most of his face, but he might have been Asian.
There he was shouting his passionate message while hundreds of people—a lot of them probably on their lunch hour—streamed past, completely ignoring him. And, of course, the crowds across the street in front the UN couldn’t hear him at all.
The poor sap might have been standing in the middle of The Gobi desert or at the North Pole for all the notice he was liable to get. At the moment I was probably the only one in that whole mass of humanity paying the slightest bit of attention to him.
I wondered what language he was speaking; and if anybody during the course of the day noticed him at all, would they even understand what he was saying?
Maybe he didn’t care; because, of course, he had to be more than a little crazy to stand there by himself screaming at the UN, right? What’s the word, monomaniacal?
Or was he heroic? Who knows what government he was criticizing or which vicious dictator he was denouncing? Maybe he was placing himself in danger by saying whatever it was he was saying.
Was he talking about a vital issue that affects millions of people, or was it just a personal complaint about his own poor lot in life?
Did he really expect anything at all to happen, to change, because he was preaching his heart out on First Avenue or did it just feel good to get it off his chest?
I remembered an old saying from my father’s generation, passed down to mine, “You can’t fight city hall.” That old maxim went along with, “Pay the two dollars,” referring to a parking ticket. (gives you a pretty good idea about inflation over the decades).
I grew up (The Fifties) in an era of extreme patriotism and obedience to authority, but I was also taught (by my City College-educated father) that you can and should fight city hall, and that you shouldn’t just let the bastards get away with giving you a ticket just because they feel like it.
This guy, the megaphone man… maybe he was an immigrant who heard that America was a place where everybody had the God given right to speak up to the rich and powerful. This guy had to be the most extreme example of not paying the two dollars and fighting city hall tooth and nail.
He was completely isolated, one single human out of billions, trying to make his voice heard, and at the same time, a perfect representative of 99.99 percent of those billions, trying to hold the big boys to account for their perpetual assaults on freedom and basic human decency.
…The light changed and the bus headed up First Avenue, leaving the great matters of the world behind and also the megaphone man, the noon-time Don Quixote, shouting his message to the uncaring crowd.
I thought about him all the way uptown. Was he one of God’s holy fools, or just another random crack-pot pain-in-the-ass?
Whatever he was, I admired his persistence.
I’d been in demonstrations before—usually part of some march or group of protesters, but this, standing alone, flying solo into the storm, this takes guts. Maybe I should try it one day; get myself a big megaphone and stand across from the UN, shouting as long as my voice would last about all my political, cultural and personal grievances. Of course it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference, but I bet it would feel pretty while I was doing it.