The Wrong Turn at 5th Avenue
What happened to the protest?
Richard J. Garfunkel
August 29, 2004
New York City is a big place. It’s so big, that millions of people can continue to do their daily activities, and if it weren’t for the overwhelming and pervasive news media, they would have no idea of what is going on a few blocks away. This is the real story behind our short and sweet Sunday sojourn into the big city. Because of our political interests and our disgust with the way things are being run in Washington, we have once again become active in our quadrennial exercise in democracy. So we, like all New Yorkers and Americans, have become acutely aware of the coming Republican National Convention being held in New York for the first time at Madison Square Garden. Over the years the Grand Old Party hadn’t felt welcome in the Big Apple. Maybe it is because New York City has been thought of as a bastion of the Democratic Party and the home of many of its most liberal adherents. But times have changed over the years. After a run of Democratic governors from Al Smith to Franklin Roosevelt to Herbert Lehman ended, the electoral profile of New York began to shift with the ten-year reign of the racket-buster Republican Tom Dewey. Aside from the one-term gubernatorial reign of Averell Harriman that ended in 1958, the GOP has controlled the Albany governor’s chair from 1942 until 1974 (Dewey-Rockefeller-Wilson)! Since those days the Democrats had controlled the State House for 20 years until the current three-term reign of George Pataki. Besides all of that, the GOP has elected a number of United States Senators, which have included, Irving Ives, Kenneth Keating, Jacob Javits, James Buckley, and Al D'amato. So even though NYC has an overwhelming Democratic registration, the city has also elected a number of Republican Mayors since LaGuardia in 1934, which have included Lindsey, Giuliani, and now the billionaire neo-Republican Michael Blomberg. In fact it is hard to tell whether even Ed Koch is still a Democrat.
With that as a background, and an active and visceral distaste for George W. Bush, we decided to add our voices and legs to today’s New York protest and march. Frankly I’m not sure whether we had been to an actual political protest since 1971 or so. Back then, Linda and I, as Democratic district leaders, drove and marched over to the then Congressman Peter Peyser’s house in Irvington. Peyser was a moderate Republican, with an ADA rating of 44, who had been an insurance agent and Mayor of the small Hudson River town of Irvington. He succeeded Richard L. Ottinger, who vacated his seat in 1968 to run for the Senate. In those days his Hudson River district was called the 23rd C.D. Now that district has been dramatically re-drawn over the years, as New York State’s Congressional delegation has shrunk considerably. I believe that the district is now the 17th! We joined a few hundred intrepid souls, incurring on Peyser’s lawn, to protest our incursion into Cambodia. Turn about is fair play! Rep. Peyser was a moderate, and he came out to address our small, but vocal demonstration. I remember him as being sympathetic to our cause and we all went home satisfied that not all Republicans were monolithic dopes. Of course it wasn’t long after that day that Peyser, stung by criticism over his moderate to liberal voting record, joined the Democratic Party.
So here we are on a hot Sunday debating the sense of driving down to NYC, parking up at Columbia, and taking the subway down Columbus Circle, or taking the Hudson Metro North rails to Grand Central Station. As usual I preferred to drive, but the secret to a long marriage is compromise, and I compromised. I decided that Linda’s idea of taking the train wasn’t so outrageous, so therefore we parked at the Tarrytown station, walked up to the platform, bonded with another middle-aged ex-hippie and caught the crowded 12:38 pm express to NYC. We rambled into ancient but stately Grand Central at 1:21 pm and with a short stop to Mandy’s, on the lower level, for a hot dog with sauerkraut, we started our walk towards the Plaza Hotel. There we would hopefully join the hundreds of others who were expected to protest the GOP billionaires who were regally ensconced in their suites. On our way out of the building we met two middle-aged overly bleached Kerry supporters who told us that they had been part of the Bush protest march and that the event was already breaking apart. So here we made our fatal error. Not realizing that there was still a lot of life left in those anti-Bush thousands, we started to walk north to Central Park where we expected the remnants would probably re-gather on the Great Pristine Lawn.
Eventually we reached the elegant Plaza and, lo and behold, we saw two people with a ragged placard talking to a uniformed member of the city’s finest. But, what we did see walking up Fifth Avenue, past the New York Palace, and Tourneau Corner were thousands of mostly foreign tourists, blissfully unaware of what was going on either in Madison Square Garden or the streets around Union Square. What we did hear was the babbling of a hundred different undecipherable tongues accompanying those wide-eyed bodies. In fact the only protest we did see was scores of Chinese men and women holding placards on every corner to free some political dissident in the People’s Republic. To the life of me I cannot remember the poor guy’s name. But after awhile I started to refer to him as Loang Sch’long! One thing I did notice on a number of the tee shirts worn by female protesters, was a reference to the President’s last name and their own unique anatomical part. Boy times have changed. Free speech and all of its boldness lives on tee shirts.
So quickly passing the Plaza and crossing onto 59th Street and we experienced the super-heated odorous line of horse carriages, which reminded me of a scene from Ben-Hur’s stables before the big race. That noxious sensory blast helped hurry us into the Park! Of course as we wandered from the pond to the skating rink that held a children’s amusement ride venue, the dog walkers, the bicyclists and the Pacific Rim visitors had no clue about the protest and we decided to “cut our losses” and head out of the park and over to Temple Emanuel. Located on 5th Avenue, the famous synagogue and its museum’s entrance is on 65th Street, ironically across from the Pakistan Consulate. We ducked in off the hot asphalt to the marble recesses of the gigantic 80 year old landmark and cooled our heals looking at the pictures of the vanished Jewry of Eastern Europe, from the camera of Roman Vishniac, and the silver ornaments donated by the late NY State Judge Irving Lehman. At lease we gained something of interest from this effort. So after departing from the famous building, we walked over to Madison Avenue, heading south to Grand Central Station and the 3:51 pm express to Tarrytown. We did stop in the Margo Feiden Gallery, home of the work of the late great Al Hirschfeld. I had met Margo Feiden once, back in 1970 or so at my old and current buddy Larry Reich’s home in Mount Vernon. She was an acquaintance of Marian Reich, Larry’s mother, and as a result of a party that evening, my good friend Stan Goldmark, who was there also met Margo. Stanley drove home the once-divorced Ms. Feiden and didn’t leave until they were married. A few years later that ill-fated union ended with Stan running out the door for his life and sanity.
Meanwhile Madison Avenue was a virtual ghost street, and except for the rare blue-haired matron who was to be seen venturing out for one reason or another, it was barren and eerily quiet. As we strode past a few people, some sitting in an outdoor café, and others blissfully walking and chatting, they all reminded me of one thing, potential Bush voters. But New York is made up of all types, and that is what is great about America. So here we are, on a quiet hot afternoon, walking briskly down Madison Avenue looking at all the beautiful shops and wonderful buildings while across town somewhere, a whole other reality is happening. We learned by the magic of the cell phone, and through our son Jon in Boston, that we had missed all the real fun and that the action was still going on somewhere downtown. Like the middle-aged graying suburbanites that we are, we hurried into Grand Central Station, went to Zaro’s for some sustenance and a drink and hurried off to track 35. Eventually when we were out of the tunnel I turned on the last few innings of the Yankee game, and learned they weren’t going to win every game with nine runs in the 9th inning.
So New York City was now to be left to the GOP and the Bushites. I, for sure, will assiduously avoid listening to the news for the next four days. I haven’t watched one minute of a Republican Convention in decades and won’t start now. I am sure that there will be some other protests, but none like 1968. Those days seem long over. The Chicago Convention riots certainly helped kill Humphrey in 1968 and anything remotely similar would certainly help Bush in 2004. Political conventions have become long and expensive infomercials preaching to the converted. The power of street theater in this country is a long way from the ugly days of the Vietnam protests and the freedom rides down south. Political fights today are played out on the “boob tube” with dueling commercials between rival groups of “swift boat” veterans. In the City of New York, free speech, and freedom of assembly, as articulated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, can never be allowed to interfere with the future of Central Park grass. In the old days it was the other type of “grass” that people were all “hot and bothered” about. So we missed our opportunity! We wound up like all the other tourists and disinterested folk. We looked at the sites, visited a museum, walked our feet off, had a hot dog and hopped on the train and got back to our air-conditioners, our televisions and our cold iced tea!