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They say journalists are out of touch with the very American people they purport to cover. Well, on the Saturday Bill Clinton is impeached, I join my street-vendor friend Graciela to help her sell Guatemalan imports in the Christmas rush, on her little patch of cracked sidewalk in downtown Philadelphia.
Graciela, a former social worker who trains homeless men to assist at her vending stand, is impossibly busy. She spends half the year working outside here in the worst of weather, and the other half of the year in Central America on buying trips. She juggles her strenuous business, her rambunctious little boy, and her even more rambunctious 87-year-old senile mother. She has two houses, one here, the other there. She works hard for her money.
Though she expects me at noon, she calls me 10 Saturday morning, screeching, “Have you been listening to the radio today? Do you know what just happened to our country?” No, I say, I can’t imagine, unless someone has gotten shot in a civil uprising protesting what one legislator correctly characterized as the current climate of “sexual McCarthyism.”
“What happened? The new speaker resigned,” she says, her voice breaking up into a million particles of regret. Did he? Well, I guess for the Republicans to maintain their moral authority, Livingston had to be sacrificed. Otherwise the impeachment vote might be undermined.
Graciela is angry, the kind of anger I see people have when their sports team blows the playoffs. And then I realize, right now in America, politics has become the new sport. We have two teams, the Demicans and the Republicrats, virtually indistinguishable from each other. Neither plays by the rules. Both sides cheat. Both sides have lost their best players to injuries. And nevertheless, people root for them in that all-or-nothing, passionate, headlong, head-strong way they root for the Yankees in baseball, the Eagles in football, the Flyers in hockey, whatever team is THEIR TEAM. Our team wins, we’re happy, vaulting aloft parked cars, yelling against a cacophony of horns and sirens. Our team loses; we wanna die.
“One more thing,” Graciela shrieks in my ear. “I have a big sign posted on my stand: ‘Stop the Coup. Impeachment Stinks. Support the President.’ A TV station was here filming me for the news. If you don’t want to come in with that sign up, if you don’t feel comfortable with that, I’ll understand.”
When I arrive at Graciela’s stand, the sign is nearby, home-made, oversized black hand-done letters on cardboard, propped up against Haitian tin Creation scenes: Adam, Eve, and the Snake in Disneyland. Overall, the mood on the street is somber, except for the occasional festive jingling of sleigh bells as horse-and-buggies periodically cart google-eyed tourist families around nearby Rittenhouse Square. Joe Barker the natty dreadlocked streetcorner watercolorist is nowhere to be found, temporarily laid low by an asthma attack. Though this is the last Saturday before Christmas, the buyers are not descending in hordes.
But there is surprising solidarity with Graciela’s sign from the customers, a solidly middle-class bunch with money to spend. Most are stunned, incredulous that things have gotten as far as they have. Some time around noon, as I’m having some comforting cream of turkey spinach soup, there’s a short burst of horns blaring; the vote’s in — he’s impeached. I think back to the presidents whose turbulent terms I’ve lived through: Kennedy, Nixon, Johnson, Bush — and I shudder.
Fortunately, some cute young guy needs me to help him pick out a $70 hand-knit Ecuadorian sweater for his mother. He looks at 11 of them before making a choice. So many bright colors are so confusing. Finally, he selects gray because “it’s safe.” Today, everything is a metaphor.
In between customers, my mind keeps returning to a particularly trenchant comment from Captain Trash, the zany Los Angeles biker journalist. “So Willy is in the cross-hairs. Wonder how he feels being the hunted now. Congressional deer hunting on the White House lawn … or is it a wild boar, apropos the Slick One’s home state patron of the muddy-watered art of politics? One thing’s for sure: Kids this Christmas will be getting the civics lesson of the century, and if there was ever any doubt in their minds as to whether or not Santa knows if you’ve been good or bad, all they gotta do is watch CNN and count their lucky pre-hormonal stars …”
Meanwhile, all afternoon, at the other end of Graciela’s vending stand, by the $7 leather-soled woven wool slippersox and the $45 carved wooden statues of angels and saints, Bernard, her slightly demented helper, talks into his hand like an imaginary microphone, greeting passersby as if he is the latest evidence of the impending Apocalypse; Dan Rather quoting Yeats on network news.
If poetry is prophecy, William Butler Yeats’ mystical “Second Coming” (1924) could be a telegram to William Jefferson Clinton and those who torment him:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
“Surely some revelation is at hand;
…. Somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.”
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”
Could “Lion body/man’s head” allude to, er, animal lust? Do “indignant desert birds” equal Congress? And what of “twenty centuries,” as the millennial year 2000 is fast upon us? “Clinton will love it — he’s a real poetry buff — probably muttering it in his ‘stony sleep,'” says University of Colorado Professor of English Lorna Dee Cervantes. “Wow,” she marvels at all the apparent parallels, “Strange life, eh?”