«By this time, thirteen years ago, the Bush administration had made clear its intention to invade Iraq, using the bogus pretext that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Protests and vigils were held in New York, London, and other cities and towns throughout the world. This is a short piece I wrote after one such vigil in New York.»
March 17, 2003
On Sunday I went to a matinee near Union Square and came home on the Number 5 Bus which comes up Riverside Drive. It makes limited stops, and you have to touch the black tape if you want to get off so a light is turned that says STOP REQUESTED and then the bus driver stops. The stop before mine is 100th Street, at the foot of a hill below the Firemen’s Monument where a year and a half ago and much of last year, people placed pots of flowers to honor the firemen who died in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th. The next stop is 103rd Street, where I got off.
In my elevator, I saw a sign announcing a Candlelight Vigil for Peace at the Firemen’s Monument at 7 o’ clock. I went into my apartment, put down my things, changed my shirt, ate a handful of shelled walnuts and went back down.
When I came outside again, it was getting dark. On the way to the Firemen’s Monument, I saw a family on the sidewalk ahead of me, a little boy and girl trailing behind their parents, each holding an unlit candle. When we arrived at the monument, there was a crowd, although it was not yet seven; and people were holding lighted candles. I heard a low murmuring, and I realized it was people singing. I could make out words, “I ain’t gonna study war no more” to the tune of “Down By the Riverside”.
Well, I have to admit an ungenerous thought. I’m against war, but I’m also against bad singing. I don’t suggest that they are on an equal level of offense but sometimes it seems as though they are.
The ungenerous part was that I had the impulse to leave. I shielded my lighted candle from the breeze and made my way down the steps among the people until I was facing the monument. There I lingered at the bottom of the steps by the bus stop at 100th Street where I had been looking up a half an hour earlier. I didn’t really want to leave so I turned and faced uphill.
Now the crowd was singing “We Shall Overcome.”
“American and Iraqi people,” one man called, and everyone answered, “We Shall Overcome.”
I felt better now and I began to catch people’s eyes and they smiled. One woman’s eyes were watery and her cheeks were wet.
I realized that the people were not singing in unison, but one group slightly after the other, not intentionally as in a round, but in two waves, one to the right of the monument and another to the left, as though one was an echo or actually a ripple of the other. The singing continued to ripple on the marble terrace before the Firemen’s Monument.
To the left was a semi-circle of women, and one of them sang, “How the winds are laughing, they laugh the whole day through…” I knew the song, or rather I had known it once. It was a Joan Baez song, but I couldn’t remember the words until we came to the refrain, “Donna, Donna, Donna.”
And then, by association of ideas, someone started to sing, “Dona nobis pacem.”
Near me, I recognized a man who had been two years ahead of me at Exeter, who was now a writer for the New York Times. When I saw him, I felt suddenly happy, for one thing because I had seen someone I knew in the neighborhood, but for another because a writer for the New York Times was there too, protesting the U.S.’s growing aggression against Iraq. He was holding a candle, and his lips were moving. He was singing. Suddenly the song we had been singing made sense, “We Shall Overcome.”
Someone started “America,” that well-worn song that is sung through public systems when people stand and face the flag. But now suddenly “God bless America ,” had a new meaning. It was not “God has chosen America” or God approves America, or God blesses our way of life. It was not that. It was “God save America, God forgive America, God bless America”, as in “when you are most desirous to be blessed, I’ll blessing beg of you.” (Hamlet to his mother, who has committed adultery.) And when we came to the line, “God Bless America, my home sweet home,” my throat rose and I felt choked, though I had begun by wanting to leave.
About forty minutes later, a man said, “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s a bigger demonstration by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. How many people want to join it?” I knew no one would raise his hand. In matters like this, you don’t raise your hand. You walk.
“To St. John the Divine!” the man said, and people moved away in large numbers, toward One Hundred and Tenth Street.
With fewer people there, the man who had gone to Exeter saw me, and we shook hands, and he introduced me to the woman with him who was his neighbor.
“Were you behind me…” said Eric Pace, and I thought he was going to ask had I been standing behind him throughout the singing, as indeed I had.
But he was asking, “Were you behind me at Exeter?”
“Yes, by two years, “ I said.
We started walking toward West End Avenue; the woman was cupping her hand around her candle which was still lit. We talked about writing, and I said I was writing all the time now, and Eric said, “Why that’s wonderful. Like John O’Hara. Didn’t John O’Hara sometimes write a whole short story at one sitting. But even he didn’t write all the time because he spent a lot of time drinking.”
I asked the woman if she was a writer too like Eric, and she looked at Eric and said, “Well, I have a book with an agent. Does that make me a writer?”
“ You can’t have a book with an agent if you haaven’t written it,” I said.
“There you go,” said Eric.
They were talking about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second book, which had not been successful and they were trying to think of its name.
“The Beautiful and Damned,” I said. And I named the five novels of F.Scott Fitzgerald in the order he wrote them: This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, The Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, and The Last Tycoon,” the way I used to be able to name the peaks in the Great Range in the Adirondacks, and still can name the four starting pitchers for the Cleveland Indians in the American League pennant race of 1949.
“Did he finish The Last Tycoon?” Eric asked.
“No, he didn’t.”
We talked about the imminent invasion of Iraq, and Eric said, “Perhaps some day I’ll understand how Spain became the only nation in Continental Europe to ally itself with America.”
We reached the point where West End Avenue starts downhill toward 96th Street. The woman still had her hand cupped around her candle, but it had burned down to the tinfoil around it and the tinfoil had become hot.
“I’m going to put this out,” she said, “It’s burning my fingers.”
“No, don’t,” I said. And I took out a longr unlighted candle from my pocket. “We’ll light this from yours and blow yours out, and then you can take the lighted candle home with you We do that in the Greek Orthodox Church at Easter to bring light to the houses.”
And we did that and said good-night, and they went off together, shielding the flame.