After having stashed our exhaustion at the table and our respective glow sticks and pink headbands on the windowsill, my friend and I excused ourselves to the restroom. It was a white bathroom of the kind of jarring starkness which gives one the rather alarming impression, save the chrome door-fixtures, that one has been trapped within the stomach of an oversized pearl.
It had been twenty minutes since we’d returned from the march, twenty minutes in which we’d shed our exhaustion and cherry-candy-colored glow sticks, and in which my parents had partaken in champagne beer and chatted with other liberals who’d also sought refuge in the Chinese restaurant.
“Trump’s on drugs,” one such liberal had said, the mother of a set of a mother and daughter, the square-ish mouth of the former having traveled, with some menial reduction of scale, to the latter. They sat clustered around the restaurant entrance, an alcove outfitted with a basket of chalk mints and granite tables the color of glazed ham and bruises.
Back at the table I drank my Diet Coke and wondered whether I should be peaceful. It was very difficult, however, to be anything other than actively un-peaceful in eating a mushu pork pancake, which was a task and an altogether messy business, so I believe it was the forest of bean-sprouts and carrot shivers growing out from the wrapper which were to blame for my pensiveness in the tail end of that night.
I wrangled my mushu pancake thinking it over so that, by the time I had switched from defiant appetizer to the hills of thick white rice and rivers of soy sauce running like crude oil in between them, I found myself wondering about those pieces of the evening which we hadn’t left at the table before our bathroom run, but which we’d altogether left behind, twenty miles of BART track and a walk through the rain-dampened sidewalks away: those particular phrases we’d left reduced to paper in the rectangular slots of the Ferry Building’s trash cans. There was something disturbing to me about our having trashed our signs; there was a kind of recklessness, a kind of submission in the act which was out of form from the rain-bogged demonstration which had consumed, beautifully and in certain resilience, so much of the evening.
I ate what was supposed to be my comforting Chinese food in relative rebellion, in defiance against the soothing qualities of the scene, the notes of jasmine in the tea, the pastoral print of vines which crept up the side of a noodle dish. It had pained me the hour before, though I hadn’t had words for it then, to watch the people around me shed the company of their signs. It had pained me to see a pair of previously-chanting blonde women in New Balance suede sneakers trade their sopping signs for the overpriced baby-blue contained warmth of the Blue Bottle Coffee Bar. I’d cringed, in my wet oatmeal colored Birkenstocks and highlighter pink thermal shirt, to have found the que to the Slanted Door running the length of the hall with people sign-free; it had seemed a particular sacrilege that the smell of baked bread was effected by my sister and her friend, now sans-signs, tearing a loaf that broke off in laurels, like a backwards nod to places of democracy, the French Revolution for the dough, the Roman Empire for it shape, to bits in their hands. My friend and I, too were guilty, having, without thought, trashed a dripping representation of the phrase “WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS” for two cups of overpriced ‘Secret Breakfast’ ice cream from the que at Humphry Slocombe.
When I laid on the floor of my friend’s family room later that night, my back warm against the old plaid of a Columbia sleeping bag and beside the hum of the heater, I was confused to have found myself shaken by an article which chronicled signs from the marches having been salvaged by a team of professors and historians, piled into a van from a stretch of chain-link fence in Boston where departing protesters had thought it appropriate to leave them.
In reading the article, in flipping through the images of fluorescent signs in contrast against muddy streets, blank concrete, the variance of Boston’s more and less decrepit brick walls and structures the same calm I’d found in standing earlier in the crowd returned to me. There was something overwhelmingly beautiful about it, which maybe was due the image that kept presenting itself to me given our recent movie-week in Honors English: that of the Russell Crowe version of John Nash gathering poster board along Park Street, but there was a significance which seemed so strong, so concrete in the phenomenon of the collected signs that I found my face salty as I lay there listening to the hum of the heater. There was something reassuring in it, as well; it was an action of reason, of sound judgement; it was thinking aligned with the small but potent reserve of hope which had survived the election and its far-reaching chaos. It was an act against the new administration’s hatred and divisiveness, an act which against talk of building walls was a defiant deconstruction, a movement which in math would be called its inverse slope.
Yes, it was overwhelmingly beautiful, I found, as I lay there beside the heater, with the warmth from the grates emerging to dry little salt-wells on my face. It was beautiful that this saving of signs, this preservation act had restored, if in the space of a few minutes contained 2 AM, that the word ‘conservation’ had been restored to the English language in its more reliable of forms.
* * *
Earlier that night when we were driving home, clicking our red glow-sticks on and off against our stomachs in the backseat, my friend’s dad had laughed at my comment that my favorite poster had been one which had spelled out, rather than that the president was not his president, as we had heard throughout the course of the night heard so often expressed in chanting, but that he was, instead—this in spiky, orange lettering—not his Cheeto. My mom had previously voiced disinterest in such signs; citing the Obamas’ infamous and cool ‘When they go low, we go high’ argument, she called them petty, but I had other ideas about the more combative signs’ messages.
I was happy to find in the article about the salvaged signs, which later in the slideshow of accompanying images had shown the back of a van chock-full of fluorescent rectangles, like scraps of oversized confetti or the clips of color on a no-signal TV, both the “go-high” messages of tolerance and the protruding ‘ck’ of a half-obscured obscenity. I was happy to see the vulgarities and diplomacies stashed alike. Maybe I’m just cautious about erasure, or holding a soft spot for a particularly striking picture of a broken-down paper lunch bag at MOMA, but I was happy to see the totality of the demonstration’s signs preserved together, saved alike for what they were: artifacts of today. I was happy that these 89 cent poster boards, however menial they seemed, were to be recorded as objects that had done what they had: been responsible for the shape of that most important and historical week.
To have preserved only the sunnier signs alone would have been to stifle the truth, an offense as abominable as the new administration’s reliance upon ‘alternative facts’; just as our journalism for the present can’t ignore the more gruesome or unpleasant facts of the day, the reporting we leave for future generations similarly can’t aim to conceal. People need to understand the feelings of this year, both pleasant and unpleasant. People need to be left evidence of our anger, and it is our responsibility, just as it is our responsibility to record the truth, to preserve it. As a friend explained it to me earlier this week, it is our duty to “make sure we tell the story the right way,” with all its elements intact.
The story was contained in these poster boards; these poster boards were there on train platforms across the country as people waited to march, our own there as BART ran through the station, blowing up people’s hair and the thin nylon of coat collars, there on the train as we piled and stood among dozens of other passengers, angry millennials, soft-speaking forty-something men, children in pink and shirts on which were printed words which carried more weight and meaning than they must have been able to read, so much as comprehend.
These poster boards had been conceived and birthed in the movement; my sister and her friend outfitted theirs with their respective messages, filling out letters with bright blue and pink markers under the scrutinizing lemon colored lights of the BART train. In the crowds, they bobbed high above people’s shouts, above people’s heads, and though they began to bend in the rain, to drip color from their lettering, they remained there, with the hardiest of protesters, in their broken-down fibers. They were history, these signs; they were facts to be preserved and recorded.
That was why I was crying, lying there on my back against the warm flannel of the Columbia sleeping bag, why I was glad to have been understood in the car, why I was relieved to have found the little ‘ck’ sticking out among the other posters, this tiny outrage captured now forever like the legs of an insect I had used to admire in the amber bits of the Egyptian room at the Met. That was why I was crying, listening to the persistent hum of the in-floor heater, because history would be recorded. Because people will someday understand, as I understand today, that there is a tenacity in the American people, a remarkable want for and demand of justice, of truth, which rallied around and clung to those values until we discovered them to be “coming to pieces like snow” in our hands.