The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

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JUL-AUG 2019 Issue

from What Would Emma Goldman Do?

Today is an anti-fracking rally at the state capitol. I am trying to think of just the right sign to make as if the language could save us. I dig in my trunk for poster boards leftover from previous protests and bring a handful of them inside to write on, then root around in junk drawers for the fattest markers I can find. I want these words I scrawl to align the tumblers in all the locked minds of the world so that they open. If I can nail the perfect pithy slogan, we win.

I spread out on the kitchen floor, marker in hand poised above a blank, if scuffed, side of the board. I wonder what Emma Goldman would write. How, Vaneigem, can I break the stranglehold of commodity with my placard poetry? My mind fills with the possibilities of public protest. We are out in the open and owning the message and oh the sweet affirmation that hearing what one screams home alone at a screen is shared by others brings, when images of being outnumbered by thousands of hostile counter-protesters take my mind hostage right here in the kitchen. Right quick, my reptilian brain kicks in, and I picture getting in someone from the other team’s face.

How about it, buddy. Let’s you and me step outside. I’ll meet you by the turned off fountain. You’ll know me by my used sign. I’ll be the one who’s skittish in crowds but truth be told actually enjoys jostling bumping definitely shouting NO FRACKING WAY MOTHERFUCKERS!

Jon has asked and I’ve assured him that I won’t get arrested.

This is a permitted protest, I tell him. As in, literally. The organizers got a permit.

NOT ARRESTED. At the rally the usual throbbing cluster of bodies pumping signs in the air and close smell of chant breath surround me. I don’t want to know anyone’s story, any specifics. I want only to be part of the mass. To be subsumed into the larger organism of utopian urge. I’m having a belonging moment. All of us beautiful freaks and moms. Transgender activists and an abundance of drummers. First Nations, people of color, whites, inner city, suburbans, rurals, and stylized priests with Elvis hair. Suits wearing Converse sneakers. The paid organizers, the drifters, the dropouts, the stalwarts. The cute kids with clever crayon signs (better than mine). Retirees and sane professionals, by which I mean that they are sane enough to know that the future we’re creating is half-lifing itself daily. I see former Occupy allies. I never want to leave. I know myself. I cannot tear myself away which is why I have been isolating. I parked my car in a two hour spot ten blocks off to force me out before too long, because end it will and I still need a job.

All of the power brokers and political players are making their performed entrances into the event. The protesters are cordoned off by ropes, so we noisily line the echoing walkway they must go through to get inside the auditorium. Some of them give us the thumbs up, but I’m not sure why. Politics in the horse race power-grabbing sense? Or politics in the process of governance by which a group of people arrange to make decisions for the good of the community sense? In other words, are they posing for the camera with a baby or do they support our position or at the very least our right to express it? It’s hard to parse from this distance. I wave my sign at them (A LIVABLE FUTURE REQUIRES CLEAN ENERGY NOW!) and try to make eye contact. After a good half hour of rippling my board above my head and being mostly ignored, I bring my sign down to chest level and hold it still, but steady. After fifteen minutes like this, I bring my arms to my side to rest. I look at my feet. Then I look left and right. A woman next to me takes this as her cue to start in on a politics as usual speech. I nod politely and step into the pulsing crowd swelling behind us.

YA DIG? Something like a hallucination, this permeability of separateness. Coming together. Holding on. Becoming each other’s lungs. Following leading but really all of us diving into time together. Some wander away from the herd and have trouble getting back or get picked off by predators at the edges. Others get trampled in the middle. And still others make of it an artful coexistence. Join and separate. Join and separate. I only remember Esther Williams’s name or Busby Berkeley, but those overhead shots of kaleidoscopic patterns of bodily join and separate float in my mind.

As I drift in the crowd, I literally bump into a Friend of Fracking dreaded counter-demonstrator. I know him by his sign. It is professionally printed. NATURAL GAS = JOBS emblazoned with a four color union logo on both sides. The back side of mine has a few footprints, some rusty spots, and smeared hand written type. A L DAY ALL WEEK OC PY WALL STR T.

His face turns angry when he reads the legible side of my sign. I recognize this anger. He is scary and a stranger and yet as familiar as a horror flick. A previous protest. A bad, bad date in college. He’s white. Taller than I am by a good five inches. Wearing construction boots, jeans, and sporting a shaved head. I’m wearing my dried mud coated hiking boots and have rehearsed in my kitchen, so I feel ready to go toe to toe.

In other words, I lie.


Mmmmmwhm mwhm mhwm mmwhwm, wmhm mnm hmh?


Electric car, sir.


Mmmmmwhm mwhm mhwm nnmnh mwhm mhwm!


Nope, not there either. I’m off the grid.

In such a sloganized encounter as this I don’t know how to say if dirtiness wasn’t subsidized at such enormous profit margins to a handful of evildoers (yes, evil!) who sporadically scatter poison-laden crumbs to the rest of us crabs in the barrel to climb over each other for in order to keep everyone in competition and scared and hungry while they jack up the prices on everything even water and soon enough it will be air, then possibly there would be better solutions that this little crab could afford and I WOULD have driven here in an electric car or better yet, not even have to have been here in the first place so I could be home maybe making poems to eventually share with a loving and populous populus in four words or less, so yes – I lie. I do burn oil both at home and on the road. I try my best but take out containers, I can’t say I’ve never touched one. I leave lights on. I’m terrible at mending clothes. But signifiers are nothing if not slippery, except when they’re not, of course. Regardless, I convince myself surprisingly quickly that what I utter to him is really just short hand along the language chain.

He shakes his head, disgusted, and walks away. I almost wish he’d called me on my lie, but there’s not time to get further into it at this point. I need to work my way back to my car to avoid a ticket, as per my plan to extricate myself from getting lost in the cause. It happens that I am following him through the crowd as I head toward the exit. I see him enter a side room. When the door opens, I catch a glimpse. In it tables are set for a meal so plentiful that my presuming mind gets working. I run into politics as usual woman.

Me. Hey, what do you know about what’s going on in there?

Politics as Usual. Oh, didn’t you hear? The fracking industry paid to transport these guys from an out-of-state site where they’re working now.

Me. Politics as usual, eh?

You got that right sister! It’s like I was saying, if we don’t...

Do you have the time? I’ve really got to get a move on.

THE WESTERN FRONT. Back on the street, walking with my sign as tricklings of us wind out through macadam arteries, nodding in solidarity back to our solo identities, I notice a Pepsi van pass silently by, asserting the intransigent force of commerce. How many hours and days and emails and months and phone calls and chants and signs held of shouting and pounding and pleading begging crying to get even the slightest acknowledgment from power? All quiet in the streets, business as PepsiCo usual. I have too many idiosyncrasies to live in a commune. I don’t know what the ideal society should look like. I do know that I want that power is everywhere, not over there where they don’t let me go.

BUT BEFORE I CAN GO ANYWHERE, I GET SICK. The flu, maybe, maybe not, but definitely one of those super colds that hangs on, settles down in the chest for weeks. I had one like this last year. Come to think of it, a year ago at the post-encampment Occupy meetings trying to keep the momentum of protest going many of us were uncontrollably coughing. This time, just days after the rally? Hmmmm. Immunities. Proximities. I’m not entirely sure how I got it, but without doubt I am down for the count, even though I fool myself thinking I will recuperate enough to go for a trot at the gym. Do another job search. Call my congressional representative (who walked past us at the protest). Instead, I flomp somewhere else in the house to pass out for a bout of disorienting day sleep. Fluttering my eyes trying to see where I am the dreams are blending blurring do I know this ceiling?

I overload my system with garlic and oregano oil capsules and float my bladder in vitamin C drinks. The usual lines of defense do not seem to be cutting it. I don’t want to, don’t want to at all, but it seems time to surrender to antibiotics. It is very real that I don’t have health insurance. There’s a doctor’s office nearby that’s not adverse to cutting a self-pay some slack, so I assure Jon before he heads off to work that I will call for an appointment.

Him. That’s probably a good idea at this point. Do you want me to get you anything while I’m out?

Me. No. Yes! Can you bring home swaths of silk for me to blow my nose and anesthesia for my throat?

He kisses me on the forehead. You’re so cute when you’re sick.

Really? Me, plaintively hanging on to any shred of good to come of the misery.

He leans in to give me another peck on the face. I erupt in globule expulsion. He flinches and retreats, says from a distance, Well, you’re definitely...

Don’t say [cough] anything [cough] that will make me [cough cough] not trust you.

I know you hate it, but I can pick up any scripts you need if they prescribe something.

Me, worried. What if it’s viral not bacterial?

Why don’t you just see what they say first.

I escalate. What about all these medications in the water table?

Don’t dump them in the toilet then.

But I’ll be shitting them out! It’s like ratcheting up the pesticides. Turbo charged resistances and insects. We’re doping the planet!

Another coughing spasm takes hold. It’s exponentially unpleasant. I look at him expectantly. As if my expression could force him to cure me.

Him. Want me to call them for you?

Me, feebly. Yes please.

I spend the rest of the day mostly in bed. I am greasy, smell crusty, and my throat is flaming. Head dizzy. Sweaty and shivering. I waddle around with a bag of herbal cough drops for when I can’t take one more hacking fit. Otherwise, I try to be productive and get the guck on up and out. Substantial spitting is so satisfying. I want ice cream and a teddy bear. I feel so shitty I don’t even care about being a statistic.

WE ARE TRYING very hard to keep up. We are not alone but sometimes we are. I want to think I am part of a common cause, but I’m sick. It’s hard to know what to do and others are also sick and we’re giving it to each other and no one is getting better in cross contamination nation. My mother used to fight insurance companies for a living. If there was a way they could deny coverage, they would find it. She was adamant about getting patients what they needed. I love her for that. I still want her though she’s gone. I think I would like Jon to play her role some days. Just in certain capacities. As it is, he made me a fire when he got home so I could have a change of scenery from the bed to the living room couch. It would be ridiculous for me to call him in here to put another log on the fire, but I hear him headed this way now.

To comfort me and maybe himself too, he reads a story out loud when we get to bed. It’s a post-atomic bomb dystopic cover your footprints if you venture out so the looters don’t find you story. I stay awake as the heroes battle the elements, but Jon starts to flag so he hands me the book at the end.

I flip through the pages. The writer of the story includes an italicized epigraph about how she as writer takes pleasure in doling out clues and reveals and misleads drawing her readers along until the surprise. The surprise in her story being the atomic bomb. You can do that as a writer if you know where the story is going and how it will end. Then you can rub your hands together over the material in a state of delighted control.

I close the book, put it on top of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, and stuff my face into my pillow to muffle my heaving. I inhale cotton. After a few stale minutes, I zonk out.

SOME OF US might sleep for days. Might roll from side to back to side to tummy turning seeking never finding respite. Summon the effort to lurch for the ringing phone when it could be the doctor’s office calling back. Fumble through scatterings of tissues and cough drop wrappers to reach a glass of water. It’s apparently a notoriously nasty flu year. Not unique, just miserable. Relinquish all need for solution. Surrender all designs for forging onward. It’s horizontal circular motion twisting in haze. Still the postal service truck guzzles past. Still the trash cans line the street. Always the neighbor’s dog pees wherever he wills. Wrapped in images and gauze, leaking creams and debt – everything.

AT LAST, AN APPOINTMENT. Sitting in the waiting room, the music playing on the paid radio system surprisingly the music I got high to in high school. The dizziness and leaning my head back as cash customer with a cold causing the quasi-remembering but really reinventing the moments the high took hold, also leaning back, back in my teenage bedroom. The double album cover open on my lap, seeds cascading down the slopes. In an Amtrak seat more serious. A doorway of a downtown building. The escalating severity of escape. Imagining the movie of the life as a split screen of the effort toward health in the physician’s office juxtaposed with these earlier disavowals of self. Walking down the hallway to the examining room with an orbit of scenes floating on screens in the air surrounding me.

Blood pressure taken, symptoms extolled, told to wait again for the next level of caregiver. Sitting in the antiseptic salmon colored box of a room, something about all those formica cabinets and thinking about my petty past, I want to rifle through the drawers and steal stuff. Cotton swabs, individually wrapped bandages, and sample size packets of petroleum based goo suddenly seem enticing.

Swinging my feet under me on the exam table, Michel de Certeau’s concept of la perruque comes to mind. Tactics of striking at a blind spot in panoptic surveillance. How am I alone in this room with all these supplies? Why is it taking so long? The posters and pamphlets advertise specialized pharmaceutical products in primary colors. I can hear bits of conversation as various attendants swish in their uniforms past the door. Something in me gets triggered. I pop off the padded bench to listen at the door, afraid it will open. I see my bag on the chair. This familiar object becomes an anchor. I sit hugging it to me while shoving the chair back against the wall. I gasp when the Nurse Practitioner finally pushes into the room. This startles her.

She composes herself. Patting her hand on the table for me to hop up, says, Sounds like you’ve got a cold.

Me, getting up on the bench. Pretty much.

She’s moving around the room deftly. Leans in close. Flashes light in each of my eyes. Pokes funnels in my ears. I can hear her breathing. She puts her fingers on my wrist. Old school.

After a few more minutes of peering and listening, she pronounces me viral.

Nothing to do but rest, she says.

Me. And suffer.

She laughs. That’s right. Rest and suffer.

I’m relieved and disappointed. I thank her, hop down, and write a check to hand to the woman in the window on the way out. After briefly considering it, I don’t take a lollipop. On the way home I stop into a drug store to buy some effervescent tablets to aid sleep. In the aisles of the obscenely bright store, I think about the minutes of mothering I just paid for.

Later that night I remember that I did steal something after all: a moment. This is the way the perruque works, but in my scenario I was paying to be there. In the perruque, it could be a worker who writes a love letter to her husband on company time. Me: I stole to the sink to brush my teeth of cough drop scum before I had my afraid of when the Nurse Practitioner would come in episode. No need to hide this, but I stole it anyway. Imagined myself “caught.”

EVERYTHING IS BEING RETHOUGHT. All life strategies are in flux. What we’d locked and loaded on is a multiplicitous moving target. Shifting philosophical terrain is replacing itself with such rapidity as to be ephemerality defined. A perpetually refreshed amnesiac comment stream.

I wake up. I don’t know what day it is. Am I supposed to rouse myself for another go at it? Is that the door bell ringing? The bed is empty next to me. The mattress is bobbing. Names of recommenders for my next bid at steady income are floating in my head. I count them, click them off like beads on a rosary. I will get up soon, I think. It’s Friday, I figure out. I’ll get up by Monday. Monday I teach in the prison.

Mysteriously I wind up wandering the Book of Revelations online. I’m vaguely aware that I’m dangerously susceptible to succumbing to hardline certainty. It is a risk to be in such a feverishly over sleeping but can’t sleep enough fugue state and drift from the Bible to a TED talk on service oriented capitalism and then back to explications on the new heaven and the new earth for the first heaven and the first earth are passed. All I can smell is menthol. All I can taste is metal. I stagger to my bookshelves, grab Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and fall back into bed.

As more days then nights then days come round and go again, all the while I am in bed, mostly, sometimes back at the computer. Occasionally glancing at a book. Always coughing. Headlines hot link. News alerts light up on my phone. Gun rights advocates are deathly afraid and shouting at a fevered pitch. Sales are soaring. White grannies and even female teenagers are sporting DON’T TAKE MY GUNS AWAY signs at rallies stoking Second Amendment fervor and cold dead hands speak. Some study says there is one gun “out there” for every man, woman, and child in the US. Jon and I each do not own one, so that means there are two people out there with two apiece or one kid with three. Dirty oil pipeline protest action being planned for DC is gearing up. Buses being organized from major cities and I wonder if I will be fully employed in time to go. Fundamentalist Muslim jihadists armed with US made AK-47s take over an Algerian gas plant and vow to continue to attack Western interests in North Africa. The gas plant is internationally owned, certainly for private profit. Four bald eagles have have been found dead and aerial wolf shooting in the US midwest is set to start again. The Earth’s temperature is still rising, glittered gowns are still worn on red carpets, and why shouldn’t a star’s hair curl perfectly during her acceptance speech.

Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be an actress. The long rehearsal hours and many years of rejections and no call backs when I couldn’t even get a second look have all been worth it now that I stand up here before you with this award.

Good for her, I think. Very happy for this beautiful and likely talented woman. Of course her standing up there may have absolutely nothing to do with artistic talent. It’s usually the white males that get the notice, all the more numerous are they as Hollywood engines. Regardless, I do not want to denigrate creative achievement or individual accomplishments. It is not necessarily fair to juxtapose world events like this, I tell myself. Besides, I have my own oh how I waitressed for years and would love to be able to thank somebody for something someday story. I am not entirely comfortable with holding every act up to a long list of suffering and injustice to belittle other efforts on the planet. Not every thought and deed need be scrutinized in this way.

Or do they?

I look for Emma Goldman’s original statement on dancing and politics, and find it.

I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to became a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it.

Still too much phlegm in my cough, but finally I make it through a whole day upright. I will make it to the prison class Monday after all. This doesn’t solve anything structurally, or perhaps even individually, but it’s something to get out of bed for, nonetheless.

WHAT WOULD EMMA GOLDMAN DO? is an autobiographical novel set in late capitalism and climate crisis. The lead character considers her life and politics in comparison with historical and contemporary figures, notably anarchist Emma Goldman, in an effort to determine what would be radical enough to meet the moment. She is on a job search and lives with her romantic partner in a mortgaged house. Self-doubt and online petitions ensue.


Cara Benson

Cara Benson’s writing has been published in The New York Times, Boston Review, Best American Poetry, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and the bpNichol Award. WHAT WOULD EMMA GOLDMAN DO? is her current work in progress.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

All Issues