My friend and I have now given up on the ridiculous idea that we might find each other in a crowd of twenty-five thousand. I am only a few blocks away from the stage from which Michael Moore, Rosie Perez, Mayor De Blasio, Robert De Niro, Reverend Al Sharpton, Natalie Merchant, Mark Ruffalo, Alec Baldwin, Melissa Mark-Veverito, Sally Field, Cynthia Nixon, and others are addressing a crowd that extends into the horizon to the north of Columbus Circle. It’s the eve of the inauguration of America’s forty-fifth president.
We hear the crowds ahead cheering, but we are not close enough to make out what is being said. It occurs to me that now that I am not frantically texting my friend, I can use my phone to live stream the event. Soon, there is a small circle around me, and we, too, are cheering, albeit a few minutes delayed.
A woman is there with her girl, who tells me she is nine. I tell her, briefly, about my first rallies in Armenia, when I was twelve, and the Soviet Union was crumbling all around us.
There is little room. It’s cold. And loud. One of the women huddled around me offers to hold my phone since she is wearing gloves, and I am not. I thank and tell her I am okay for now.
We begin to talk, as people huddled around a shared longing tend to do, as if we know each other, maybe because we know the most important thing we need to know–that the longing we share is for basic human decency and dignity.
My classroom quickly finds its way into the conversation, and I bask in a circle of women who appreciate teachers. We speak of race, public education, our fears, the surrealism of all this. I share that I am preparing to teach a class based exclusively on Baldwin readings.
“All Baldwin class?” one of the women says. “I want to take that!”
“Everyone should be reading Baldwin,” I say, having begun to rediscover him too many years after I had first read too little of his work in college. “No one has ever written like him about race. If white people have a chance in hell to understand and do something about race in this country, they need to be reading Baldwin.”
“It should be required reading,” someone says.
We speak of motherhood. I mention how painful it has been for me to parent lately.
“Oh, my children are biracial, too,” the woman with the gloves says. “They’re African American and Armenian.”
I spread my arms, step into her private space, and envelope her in an embrace of a sister, by a sister.
“You’re Armenian!” I exclaim, reclaiming, for a moment, a kind of pride and solidarity I rarely feel these days.
She is an artist. I tell her about my father’s museums and galleries in Armenia, and about my family of artists. She shares that she is a sculptor, and that she brings art into classrooms. I tell her about my service learning class and my students. Before long, we have built a bridge to keep in contact beyond our encounter in protest. A few minutes later, we lose each other in a sea of twenty-five thousand New Yorkers.
Alone again, I think, how strange it is to be living in a city so big that it is possible to know not a soul in a crowd that spans miles. After all, I grew up in a town where I recognized almost every person I encountered on my way to school.
I have now walked right up to the screen, so I can see and hear clearly. A woman sits down on the pavement and lights a cigarette. A man and woman stand still in an embrace. Two children, siblings, dance around their parents.
I am still tingly from the remarkable, albeit small, miracle that was this meeting, at a protest in New York City, with an Armenian mother, who has raised three children of color, and whose phone had died right before she had ended up within an earshot of the live stream on my phone. Suddenly, I feel I am as big a part of the Universe as I am a small speck in this crowd of thousands of outraged, hopeful New Yorkers. Suddenly, and for a reason I don’t quite know, I feel that I matter.
Cher comes onto the screen, and I think, well, what do you know, there’s another Armenian, another mother who raised a child whose very being might now be questioned and attacked.
There must be other Armenians here, I think.
There must be other mothers of brown children.
There must be other teachers.
There must be other immigrants here.
There must be others who have lived through oppressive regimes.
There must be other daughters of single mothers.
There must be other people here who are as hopeful as they are afraid, as inspired as they are distraught.
There must be others here who long for basic human decency and dignity.
I may not know anyone in this crowd of twenty-five thousand. But I know enough about each person here to recognize that we are united by a desire to see each other survive.
And this is not even our dress rehearsal yet. We are just now warming up our vocal cords, stretching our muscles, putting together the pages that tell the stories of our respective journeys and our shared longings.
We are just now coming together.
We are just now rising up.
We are building our own wall.
We are together.
The crowd on the screen and around me bursts into song.
We sing, our voices vibrating against the hotel that belongs to the man we will never call our president. They fill the City, and rise up into the sky.
This land is your land
This land is my land
From the California
To the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest
To the Gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me.