They made their way out of the parking deck into the frigid air. Henry dawdled at the rear behind the other half-dozen or so of his coworkers so he could watch some of the women in the group as their legs moved in their skirts.
“I never used to pay for parking,” Kevin, one of the other members of the group, said.
“The way I figure it,” Henry said, “I’m old enough, now, that I don’t mind paying for
“Besides, we don’t want to be late,” one of the women said.
“God forbid we’re late to the keynote speaker. They might not let us in the conference! We might have to spend the day at Miss Shirley’s!” Henry said, mock-seriously. “Or maybe go do something worthwhile,” he added.
No one responded. Henry sighed as they all trudged along the street. His eyes moved from one of his female coworkers to the other. Soon, he grew bored and glanced along the streets as they passed. They were near the inner harbor. The air was choppy and frigid; he smelled snow. They’d gotten a couple inches the previous weekend. He could see his breath. There were a few other people walking briskly beside the heavily trafficked road. He heard a murmur from one of his coworkers and glanced to the front. Ahead, past the next streetlight, he saw several tents huddled in a bit of green.
“What’s that?” he asked, but the light changed, and no one answered as they all rushed to cross.
There were hand-lettered signs with political slogans in a pile near the tents. Through the thin nylon of some of the tents, they could see people moving. Some tents were sporty, professional-looking; others were ramshackle assemblages of wood and tarpaulin. There was a booth with a sign that read “Information” and others that offered goods and jewelry. One claimed to be a lending library. A couple people stood aimlessly in the makeshift community; they looked as though they’d just woken up. Henry was surprised that one of them was an older man with a thick, graying beard. Another was a young African American. There were a couple women.
“I didn’t expect to see so many of them,” Mary, one of the older women in the group, said.
“It’s a shame, because the movement is doomed,” Kevin said.
“At least they’re doing something,” one of the younger women said.
They continued chattering as they walked, but Henry quickly tuned them out. He kept glancing over his shoulder as the protestors woke and began to assemble. And then his group turned a corner and the tent-city was gone.
* * *
They barely made the keynote speaker, but it didn’t matter, because he gave the same talk they’d seen on the video back at the office. After that, they broke into separate groups to attend the various workshops their manager had signed them up for. Henry sat in the back of his group for both of the ones before lunch, his eyes shifting from the back of one head to the next, his thoughts going back to the tent city.
They gathered for lunch at a bar a little down and across the street. Henry’s coworkers talked about their workshops, complaints about work.
“You know it snowed last weekend,” Henry said, apropos of nothing.
“Yeah?” Kevin said.
“So those Occupy guys; they were out there in the snow.”
Everyone was quiet; several wore bemused expressions.
“Yeah?” Kevin repeated.
Henry shrugged. “Just must’ve been cold.”
Kevin caught the eye of one of the younger women and both laughed.
“Well then maybe they should go home,” Kevin said.
Henry turned back to stare out the window.
After lunch, they headed back to the convention center to start their next round of workshops. Henry begged out and went to the restroom. He walked in, but didn’t need to go. Instead, he stood in front of the sink, washing his hands until the other occupants finished and left. He took his time drying his hands, and when he emerged, the hallway was empty. He wandered into the open area and found one or two people sitting and typing on laptops or checking messages on their phones. None of them even looked up. He didn’t see anyone he recognized from the office. Ahead of him, the walls were glass. He could see the sidewalk and the street with traffic lurching past. He strolled over to the stairs and then down and to the doors they’d entered that morning.
Outside, a breeze had picked up. As he stepped onto the sidewalk, he had to quickly abandon the ambling pace his distracted mind preferred and join the rush of pedestrian traffic. Without intending to, he soon found himself back at the tent city.
The protestors were awake, now. Henry didn’t know what he’d expected, but it wasn’t this. Some of them manned the booths he’d seen before. A few stood talking to passersby, not aggressively at all. He heard laughter from one pair. Several were carrying signs and circling the perimeter of the camp, but they weren’t chanting, and they didn’t seem as angry as he’d expected. He left the sidewalk and went up to the nearest booth, which is the one that promised “Information.” It was occupied by an older lady who could’ve easily been a history teacher. She watched him and didn’t speak.
“Cold,” Henry said.
“Yes it is,” the woman said, still watching him.
“I saw a cop at the light over there.” He pointed.
The woman nodded. “That’s officer Dillis.”
Henry looked at the woman. “I thought cops were attacking you guys and trying to drive you out.”
She smiled. “They haven’t done that here.”
He nodded slowly. “How long have you been here?”
The woman looked off to the side while she considered. “Oh, about three months, give or take.”
“Really? I just heard about you guys the other day.” She started to reply, but he cut her off. “Don’t you have a job or a family?”
“I was laid off.”
He nodded. “Sorry,” he mustered.
“That’s why I’m here.”
“Huh.” His face settled into a sneer.
The woman said, simply, “I just want a better world for my grandkids.”
“Right,” Henry said. “Thanks,” he added and made his way over to the “Lending Library.” The older man with the thick, gray beard Henry had seen earlier greeted him. “You got a copy of the Communist Manifesto?” Henry asked with a smile.
The man shook his head. “Doubt it.” He motioned towards a couple boxes full of books. “Mostly mysteries and best-sellers. You’re welcome to look, though.”
Henry nodded at the man and moved on. He looked around and noticed the young African American from earlier was watching him. The man nodded at Henry. Henry wandered over to a table where a couple of young hippi-types were selling jewelry, but the man kept staring at him. Finally, he went over.
“Here to join up?” the man said.
“This looks more like a flea market than a protest,” Henry said, trying to smile
“Folks’ve got to eat.”
Henry studied the man. “I guess.” He looked around. The protestors he could see were all dressed conservatively, if not shabbily.
“Skipping work?” the man said.
Henry turned to him with a grin. “That obvious?”
The man nodded. “Yeah.”
“What about you?”
“Unemployed.” He didn’t smile.
“So why are you guys here?” Henry said. It felt like a faux pas, but he didn’t know what else to say.
“Why do you think we’re here?” the man countered.
Henry cocked his head to the side. “Honestly?”
“Yes, please be honest.”
Henry looked around again. “Nothing better to do. Maybe you’re trying to get a handout from the government or get famous or something.” He caught the man’s eye and hurriedly corrected himself. “Listen, I get it. I’d quit my job and hang out if I could.”
“I was laid off,” the man said.
Henry nodded. “Right. No, I get that. If I got laid off, I mean…who wants to find another job, right? When you can hang out on unemployment.”
Color rose in the man’s cheeks. “I put in seventy-three applications after I was laid off. I went door-to-door. Everyone here did. We’re not ‘hanging out.’ And my unemployment ran out months ago.”
Henry raised his hands. “Right, no, sorry. I didn’t mean—“
The man cut him off. “I have a wife and daughter at home, and all of our savings go to diapers and formula. And they’re just about gone.”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s hard, man. It’s hard.” Henry backed away.
The man took a step after him but then let him go. Henry hurried back past the booths and back into the flow of pedestrians. He let them carry him back to the conference center.
He arrived just in time to join the last workshop. He tried to focus, and actually took notes for some of it. Afterwards, he rejoined his coworkers as they left to return to their cars. Henry felt his heart race as they passed the tent-city. He looked for the black man, but didn’t see him.
“What exactly do they want to accomplish?” Kevin asked no one in particular.
“Something different,” Henry said. “Change.”
“Change?” Kevin scoffed. “Let’s just sit back and watch how well that goes.”
“I think that’s the point,” Henry said, carefully. “I think they’re tired of sitting back and watching.”
Kevin didn’t respond. No one else spoke as they made their way back to their cars.