In October, my brother, an author and independent producer who lives in Washington, came to New York on business. Because in addition to being brother and sister (I’m 59; he’s four years younger) we’re good friends, we try to get together whenever we can, so we took this opportunity to have lunch. We went to a fancy midtown Manhattan restaurant, where it was quiet and we could talk. It was a very rainy mid-day in the city; the sky was gloomy, the afternoon had a grim cast about it. But we were happy to see each other and to get the chance to talk.
After checking in with each other about our families, what we ended up talking about was the Occupy Wall Street movement. My brother, Phil, and I will both happily and proudly admit to being old hippies; Alice’s Restaurant was, for me, the background music of my younger years. Phil probably leans more towards Dylan, but that’s okay. To each his own. In any event, we were both energized and deeply moved to be witnessing something we thought we’d never see again: the rising up of the American people to protest a war. This time, of course , it was not Vietnam that was the outrage but rather the war on workers, students, and the middle class.
But what could Phil and I do to support this movement? It was unlikely that we were going to camp out in Zucotti Park, the protestors’ home base. We both have work we have to do and families we have to be with. And even if those were just excuses well, that’s what they were. But here we were now, enjoying sushi in our fancy restaurant on a wet afternoon, trying to come up with a way to contribute. Something that would help us feel that we were doing more than writing a check or arguing with our conservative friends about the value and importance of the movement.
Should Phil write an op-ed? Should I try to get to Zucotti Park on weekends and at least sit in for a while as a symbolic way of showing that I cared about what was happening there and in Oakland and Denver and Atlanta and countless other places? We could do these things but they didn’t seem like they were enough. Or that they would have a real impact. So we parted without a plan. We hugged each other, promised to keep in touch (as we always do) and to keep thinking about this.
And then, as it happens, I was on the train one morning shortly after my lunch with my brother, working on my laptop. On my train ride into and home from Manhattan every day (I live on Long Island), I write. I’ve written two books of poems, a collection of short stories and a just-released novel (Janet Planet; Mayapple Press, 2011) on the Long Island Railroad. I looked up from what I was doing (writing another novel) and was able to see, over someone’s shoulder, a page of The New York Times that had a picture of a homeless camp being burned to the ground in England because some magistrate had decreed that they couldn’t squat on what was essentially waste ground that no one else had laid claim to. So that really helps, I found myself thinking. Make life even more difficult for people whose lives are already in ruins. When did we stop caring about each other and decide it was alright to treat those among us who have the least as if their lives didn’t matter to anybody?
I must note here that when people ask me about the inspiration for my poetry or stories, I usually explain that I don’t believe in inspiration. I believe in work, in discipline. I believe that if you sit down at your computer or put your pad of paper on your lap every day and take pen in hand, you summon the work to you rather than waiting for it to appear before you in the outstretched hand of some angel bearing the gift of golden words. But this one morning, that angel was with me because I wrote a poem in about twenty minutes. And the poem, though it does not refer specifically to the Occupy Wall Street movement, is—at least for me—the embodiment of what I believe the movement is about: caring for each other, the importance of friendship, of equality, of marching on even when the road up ahead is dark. And of course, when you go on a quest into the darkness, how important it is to always bring a dog with you.
As soon as I finished the poem, I sent an e-mail to my brother and essentially said, help me with this. I’m the writer, he’s the video expert (Philip Lerman, my brother, is the former producer of America’s Most Wanted and is currently working on a special for the show, among other projects), so I knew I was going to the best possible partner I could have. He read the poem, loved it, and said he would turn it into a video production. He quickly hired a video crew in New York and in a few days, they went to Zucotti Park and shot footage for him to use. At the same time, I recorded the poem and sent it to my brother as a digital file.
Phil didn’t like my “performance.” I’m used to giving poetry readings but my producer brother felt I wasn’t being dramatic enough—or at least, I hadn’t read the poem in a way that would serve the video, so he gave me some pretty specific performance notes to follow. Even more impressed than I already was with his professionalism, I put aside the fact that I was now being ordered around by my kid brother, and followed his instructions. He was right. The reading I recorded following his suggestions was much better.
He was able to edit the footage in a couple of days and finalize the video, which is now available on YouTube—I hope you will pass it on. But most of all, I hope it helps to get the message out. For my brother and I, two unrepentant members of the Woodstock Nation who are still committed to the idea that we are on this earth to hold hands and help lead each other through this mysterious, confusing, glorious, troubled and all-too-brief life, we think that it’s the least that we could do.