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How to Topple a Wall with a Heartbeat

Nicholas Powers Dec 20

Issue 220

"He won with a metaphor.” I pressed my hands against the air as if touching a surface. “He won with the image of a wall.” They looked at me, waiting for words to strike like a flint on reality, to spark a flash and make everything briefly visible.

“We’re scared.” I walked to the stage’s edge. The audience was sparse but a classic New York crowd. A mix of everyone. A trio of Indian friends sat behind a Latino family. On the other side, a Caribbean couple cuddled next to Muslim women. Students sat side by side with tourists. They came to the Nuyorican Café for a poetry slam. Its high brick walls and theater lights cast us in an otherworldly glow, as if we held service in a grungy art temple.  

“A year ago he was a joke,” I said. “But as he rose, he upended what we took for granted as basic human decency. And now this creature from the Black Lagoon of Capitalism is our fucking president.” Grunting like a movie monster, I reached for the young man in the front row. He laughed while ducking my hands.  

I stood back up and repeated, “We’re scared.” Lowering my voice, I reached for the fear coiled in their guts, to pull it out into open air. “A man who told the nation, we are criminals, rapists and terrorists has been given the power to destroy us. He was given this power by our neighbors. He sold them an image of a wall. A wall against us.”

The Vanishing Game

“Are you scared about Trump?” I asked Abdah. He smirked, put my coffee and egg roll in a bag, then stopped to think. The bodega bell rang, neighbors came in, waved hi. Everyone knew Abdah and the Yemeni crew who worked the store. But did they care that he could be deported? Or put on a Muslim registry?

“I don’t think about him much,” he shrugged. “I know I should but … politics … it’s another world. I just am here.” He tapped the counter. “I work, go home, sleep, maybe girlfriend, come to work, go home, sleep.”

“The Muslim registry?” I asked. “Deportation?”

He shook his head and looked from my questions to the next customer. I said goodbye and walked to the train station. If another terrorist attack happens, will a roundup begin? How deadly will Trump’s scapegoating become? Who will disappear from our lives? Will it be my neighbors? Will it be my students or friends?

Since the election, I think about the undocumented workers in my life. I know their names. I trade jokes with them in the morning. I see them wake up early for work. I ask them for coffee and breakfast. I get out of their way as they haul concrete into construction sites, working themselves raw for a dream.

I imagine ICE teams showing up to handcuff the men, faces tight with rage and shame and fear. How would we feel as the police arrested them? Would we silently wonder, who will they come for next?

I think about the Muslims in my life. I say hi to the North African men spilling out of the mosque on Bedford and Fulton. I banter with Muhammad at the internet café as he prints my poems. I teach and read the papers by young women who wear hijabs and write about straddling two worlds.

What if a Muslim registry is instituted? What if they received a phone call, an email, a letter telling them to report to a station? Would we be ashamed as they were branded with this public mark? Would we express our regret even as we wonder, who will they come for next?

These questions circled me as I arrived at my department. The secretary motioned me over to her desk. “Did you see this?” She held out a leaflet. I took it and read on one side a Conservative manifesto. On the other side in big, bold letters: “Trump has won! America is Great Again! We are watching you, professor!”

“He found it on his desk before class.” She lowered her voice. “He hasn’t told anyone yet. He’s going to ask the dean what to do.”

“Can I copy it?” I held the leaflet so tight, it nearly ripped. She said yes. I took it to the machine, put it on the glass screen, watched the light flash underneath. Walking to my office, I turned it over and over in my hands like the script to a horror movie. I read it slowly, carefully — We are watching you!

The Liberal Elite

My office is lined with articles, my college degree and  Ph.D. On the shelf are books and class hand-outs. All of it useless. All of it like a wall of privilege that left me cut off from the real world.

“We are the most incompetent, liberal elite ever,” I said to no one, said to the world, said as if to apologize. I had taught college for a decade and was used to the prestige. But I was just a token minority in the academy, who jumped at the chance for status and security. Now I felt stupid, empty and small.  

“Liberal comedians could not stop Trump,” I plucked the degree off the wall and threw it. 

“Liberal journalists could not stop Trump,” I ripped an article off the wall and tossed it. 

“Liberal professors. . .” I heard a knock on the door. It was Vick, my student advisee doing his thesis on Orwell’s novel 1984.

“Oh, I thought you were talking to someone.” 

“Just myself.”

“Must’ve been an intelligent conversation,” he said with a smile. He had shaggy hair, a long nose and deep perceptive eyes. He’d drop random Bill Maher lines in class and the other students would turn and look around as if to say what-are-you-talking-about? We went over his thesis draft. I told him it was heavy on political analysis. I asked how 1984 fit with dystopian literature, how it repeated or revised the genre’s tropes.

“The elimination of critical thinking by eliminating language is one,” he said. “To force the human into a cog role in the social machine. But the other theme is romance, how people can express themselves outside the rule of the one party state. Expression is how the self grows and when they express their love for each other, they grow beyond the party’s control. My main critique is that Orwell doesn’t balance it out with the party’s appeal. Like why would anyone vote for, join or support a techno-fascist state? My thesis is that when people are scared, they turn to anyone who can offer them a semblance of order, even if it is at the price of their freedom or well, you know, other people’s freedom. We can see that today with the election of Trump.”

I blinked, began to say something and then just looked at him, as if to say what-are-you-talking about? He smiled and bobbed his head in a happy, goofy way, then looked curiously at the floor, reached down and handed me back my degree.

 Human Writes Day

Walk. Run. Walk. Run. The Nuyorican Café was a block away. Start time for the poetry slam was in a few minutes. I dashed through the door into a near empty hall. The staff had sheepish smiles, as if to say sorry, no one showed up.

The few people there smiled faintly as they looked for a polite way out. I was going to cancel the event when a trio of Indian friends and a Latino family came in. I told them, “Let’s huddle in the front like around a campfire.”

Did they want a quick poetry workshop, like quick-quick? They said sure. They were curious about what could happen. I was too. So I told them, I felt lost since the election. The world I thought existed, didn’t. And how did they feel?

“I don’t like this talk of walls,” the Latino father said. “How they don’t let the refugees in.” His daughter looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. We were all seeing something. I walked away from the microphone and said, “Our new president. He won with a metaphor. He won with an image of a wall.”  

In the back, the door opened and latecomers ambled in. It was a group of young men, stylish hair, stylish clothes, who looked around at the hushed crowd and then at me, weirded out by the intensity.

“We’re in a group therapy session,” I said. People in the rows laughed. “We’re talking about walls. You have any walls you want to break down?” I rubbed my chest. “In here, bro, in here.”

He smiled, shook his head. “I like my walls.” Everyone laughed hard.

“Yes we do,” I teased. “I have mine. I have my ideology. It’s like a religion for me. It protects me. I don’t know what it’s like to live without politics. It’s a good wall that became bad because I’m beginning to hate people I’ve never met because of who they voted for.”

I waited a second, wondering how I could put all this back in. “Who knows someone who could get deported?” I asked. Nearly, half of the crowd raised their hands.

“Okay,” I blew out a long sigh. “Who knows someone who’s Muslim?” More raised their hands. The door opened and again more people came in. I waved them over to the empty seats up front.

I made a stacking motion with my hands. “America was told it needed a wall to keep itself safe. So let’s write a poem about walls. They are a consistent theme in art from the wall of Troy in the Iliad to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. They play one of two roles. A good one, keeps what’s sacred safe. It protects the family, keeps the raging flood at bay. A bad one imprisons us, blocks us from doing something or becoming someone.”

More people came in and I pointed at empty seats. “So write about what are the walls, good and bad in your life.” They pulled out notepads, opening them like a chain of dominoes through their laps.

The two Muslim women finished. I pointed to them and the one who wore the hijab touched it and said, “This is a good wall. I feel protected by it. Even when people stare, it protects me.”

Her friend looked around and touched her cheek. “My makeup is a good wall. I don’t want people to see me without it.”

The Caribbean lady, who sat with her boyfriend, leaned over to high-five, mouthing, “Neither do I.”

Her boyfriend said, “My bad wall is my self-image. It blocks me, I think, from being more, from growing … I don’t know what I’m saying.” His girlfriend put her arm around him. I let him know it was okay and pointed to the Indian man in the back. “When I go home,” he said, “I like that my language is my wall, I feel good inside it. But when I am outside of it, I speak outside myself, if that makes sense.”

More people came in and felt the intense openness and quietly sat down. One after the other, the workshop group talked about the walls they needed, the walls they hated, the walls they were given as children and that seemed to grow up with them, always too high to scale. Their voices shone in the air.

The girl who wore the hijab asked to read her poem. I invited her to the stage. She faced the audience, now a fully packed hall, mesmerized by the alchemy of art. She touched her hijab and looked at me. “It’s about … how a good wall can become bad.”