The thousands who marched on Trump Tower in New York right after the election have returned to their hives and lives. Groups in the low double figures sometimes gather nearby at night. I’m the day shift, every day. It feels like the third shift because I’m usually a solitary watchman on Fifth Avenue across the street from the Tower. You can walk the sidewalk in front of the building if you agree to be searched by the police, but they would never let me stroll with my protest sign. You can also go into the Tower if you put your bag through an X-ray machine. I fold my sign into my bag and enter to use the Tower’s underground marble toilet. Down there in the bowels of the ziggurat, I think of Trump way up in his penthouse and a line by the novelist William Gass: “I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.”
Pedestrian movement several blocks in any direction from Ground Trump is curtailed and controlled by the waist-high barriers with metal bars you see at New York City parades. All the varieties of police swarm the area: Secret Service, a SWAT team outside the Tower’s front doors, traffic police in yellow vests, community affairs police in bright blue jackets, regular officers with their low-slung duty belts, undercover cops (I assume), and what my contacts, the blue jackets, call the “white shirts,” the lieutenants and inspectors. Many of the blue jackets in charge of pedestrians are women, Latino, or black, and some nod at my protest signs or even shake my hand when I arrive for duty. I think of them as secret sharers of the sidewalk. The white shirts are mostly white guys like me, and they don’t like me protesting the orange whale Trump on his block, their block.
There is a protesters pen constructed of those metal barriers down the Avenue from the Tower. That’s where the after-work groups of 10 or 20 are confined, shouting out their chants without disturbing those who live in the building. I reject the cage. I take my stand smack in front of what I heard one black cop call the “Black House” so passers-by can take photos of my signs and the “TRUMP TOWER” sign behind and above me. I ask scores of smartphone users every day to post their photos online. Thousands walk past me in a day, and many may read my sign, but the solitary protester can now really multiply his semiotic impression through social media.
I’ll stand at my post for some hours, and then a white shirt will come by and tell his blue jackets to move me. Once I conversed directly with a tidy whitey. He said, “You have to move.” I said, “I’m not impeding pedestrian traffic.” He said, “You have to move if you’re on the sidewalk.” I happened to be standing right at the curb, so I stepped back onto the street, where I was protected by a barrier from traffic. The officer walked off, took out his phone, and I got a visit from the blue jackets who told me to move because they really didn’t want to arrest me.
Speech is free if you’re in the cage or in motion. So I walk, as one blue jacket suggested, “like a turtle” up and down the block because I can’t be arrested—I thought of the root meaning of “arrest”—if I keep moving. I stand still when people ask to photograph my sign, when I’m out of sight of the blue jackets, and when they go into one of their vans to get warm. But “going to and fro on the earth,” as Satan tells God, doesn’t give the same impression as standing firm, hands behind my back, sign hanging from my neck—posing as a lone “heroic” resister against the depredations to come. I’m not stopping any tanks, like that guy in Tiananmen Square, and I don’t want to end up, like Bartleby, in prison, but being solitary is advantageous. One day a woman with a sign stood next to me, and the blues converged to explain that since protesters were now two—a veritable demonstration!—we had to go into the cage.
My first sign, RAGE TRUMPS HATE, was just ambiguous enough to get me interviewed by print journalists from Canada, England, Argentina, and France. And taped by TV channels in Russia, Japan, Sweden, and Kurdistan (whose reporter was amazed that an American knew who the Kurds were). Fox News and CNN are in the media pen right behind my post, but they never point their cameras my way. Like me, the lip-glossed and hair-fiddling talking heads want the Tower at their backs. With plenty of time to think, I imagine new visual memes: “Turn Your Back On Trump” or “Take Photo, Post Tower On Its Head.” When the lights go on to illuminate the TV reporters, pedestrians stop to gawk at them and impede other pedestrians. That’s when I realize police enforcement of the “stay in motion” rule is arbitrary and selective, for officers don’t disperse the crowd of gawkers, valued New York tourists. But if three or four people stop at the same time to take photos of my sign, I’m told to move along by some among the blue jackets. They always cite “higher ups,” and I wonder from just how high up the order descends. I like to think the petty occupant of the penthouse wants to cancel sidewalk mockery as he hopes to cancel Saturday Night Live.
Invariably, the interviewers’ first question of me is not what I have against the outliar[sic]-elect but why I would I be standing by myself holding a hand-lettered sign. I don’t try to change anyone’s mind. But if I’m sufficiently enraged to stand alone out in the cold every day, maybe I’ll inspire my fellow citizens to stay angry. NEW 3 R’S: RAGE, REJECT, RESIST. As another of my signs says, NEVER SETTLE WITH THIS FRAUD. Since it’s mostly visitors who walk Fifth Avenue, I also address them: “TOURISTS: TRUMP TOWER IS NOT AMERICA. IT’S BABEL.” I have some accompanying patter: “Free tour, Tower of Babel, coming down soon.” I want visitors to take home or send home the impression that Trump and his tower of arrogance do not represent America. Of course, I know that’s a lie like one of Trump’s, for greed and hate such as his founded and expanded this land to the California gold Trump loves. But despite my country’s distant and very recent past, I want foreign tourists to know America remains a republic of equal rights and free speech (as long as it’s in motion).
Some passers-by ask to be photographed with my sign and me. My data is anecdotal, but I’d say Canadians are per capita my chief huggers. Maybe no fences do make good neighbors. Europeans with their excellent English pat me on the back and extend their sympathies. On weekends, Latino parents want to photograph their children beneath my sign. To them I extend my apologies. Chinese tourists, of which there are many on Fifth Avenue, stop, puzzle out my signs (GILD IVANKA, GELD DONALD) and ask permission before snapping. Maybe they think I will get in trouble if dissent is photographed. I suppose the security cameras overhead are recording all the activity, so some future anthropologist may modify my anecdotal data. And when facial recognition gets powerful enough, I can scan Facebook and other social media to check if my photographers have indeed posted my impression as they promised.
I don’t get many insults, perhaps because my block on Fifth Avenue with its Prada and Tiffany’s attracts few visitors from the Benighted States of America. Although I know the passers-by have little time to prepare a witty rejoinder to my signs, I’m still continually surprised at how dull the Trumpsters are. Maybe they’re just being charitable when they offer advice: “Get a job” or “Get over it.” I thank them and tell them that I have a job, protecting their First Amendment rights, and that “it”—the profiteering and hate—is just getting started. Some in “Make America Great” caps are curious. They ask, “How much you getting paid?” for they assume that a man Trump’s age must be as gilt-ridden as he. Or they ask, “What country you from?” for they know no native-born American would insult a president, at least one not born in Kenya. Moderates plead, “Give him a chance.” I refer them to Charles Blow’s essay in The New York Times on the subject of “just get along” with the monster and show them one of my signs: I GAVE TRUMP A CHANCE, AND HE GAVE US RACE-BAITERS AND IMMIGRANT HATERS. Then I tell polite pleaders that I may decide to give Trump another chance because I pity their populist loser of the popular vote.
Only once have I had to walk away from a rabid racist and once from a man who wanted Jesus to save me. No one has thrown anything except vulgarities at me, so maybe the generally pacific passers-by should give me hope about “healing,” which for some reason I hear as “heeling.” But the Fifth Avenue demographic is probably not representative, for Manhattanites voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, and foreign visitors are not likely from the undereducated white underclass that flipped blue states to red. Someone told me I was just “picking at the scab,” and if thin-skinned Donald came down for a few words I’m sure he’d say I was “picking on him,” but I believe I’m “picking up on” a tradition of solitary gadflies such as the peripatetic Socrates and sauntering Henry David Thoreau. When Thoreau was in jail for refusing to pay a tax to finance the war against Mexico, Emerson came to visit and asked his protégé, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau answered, “What are you doing out there?” When forced into the cage, I rattle the bars and ask the passing thousands what they’re doing “out there,” bustling along as if a demagogue had not blind-sided our democracy.
Maybe I should have called this piece “Confessions of a Solitary Protester” because I admit I’m traveling to Trump Tower every day partly to heal myself—cure my post-election dysphoria, work out my rage at Trump the shameless sham, rage at the racists who voted for him, rage at his first hate-mongering appointees. I’m already considering my Christmas message: PEACE ON EARTH, PISS ON TRUMP, POX ON PENCE. A novelist who specializes in unreliable narrators, I was angry that Trump beggared my imagination with his extravagant inconsistencies and outright lies. All I could think about writing was signs. The first drafts were way too literary and allusive—“Rage, rage against the dying of our rights.” “Never give in to Trumpelstiltskin.”—so I made my debut with what I hope is not a flash fiction: RAGE TRUMPS HATE, an alternative to all the “Love Trumps Hate” signs I was seeing. The fresh air has helped clear my head, and displaying signs has allowed me to write these words that wouldn’t fit on a piece of cardboard.
Shambling on Fifth Avenue, I’m anonymous, a man homeless in Trumplandia. I had wanted to remain anonymous here, not because I fear our raging Lear or other social media trolls but to head off accusations that I protest for profit (“How much is Soros paying you?” I’m asked) or that I demonstrate to make an impression, to become a Big Apple celebrity like the Naked Cowboy, who prances by some days with “Trump” on his rump, or like Donald Trump the TV boss. But that proved impossible in this publication. So I’ll note that I’ve prepared for hoax-busting by criticizing fiction for 40 years and that I used to be a professor at a real university, not Trump’s Fraud University that cost him 25 million dollars. Whatever millions I receive for these impressions, I, unlike the self-dealing philanthropist, will really donate—to the ACLU. (New sign, just realized: DONALD’S CHARITY: TAKE FROM CHUMPS, KEEP FOR TRUMP, accompanied by sound effect of ringing Salvation Army bell.) I’d invite you to join me on Fifth Avenue, for I have a bag of signs that comment on Trump’s bag of tricks, but then we’d be put in the cage. You could, though, stop by, say hello, and post a photo. As fellow Brooklynite and fellow traveler Walt Whitman says at the end of “Song of Myself”:
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.