Sunday August 28
St. Mark’s Place is packed solid with traffic, hardly moving, which is all the more frustrating since we’ve been driving for three hours, hungry, from upstate New York, where Gabe had been at a swords-and-sorcery day camp. The sight of familiar faces from our old East Village neighborhood leading their children clad in kimonos down the street tells us that the blockage up ahead is caused by the fact that a whole block is closed off for the annual Japan festival. (Come to think of it, we’d gotten an email a day or two earlier from Gabe’s samurai swords teacher that he’d be performing…) Later, walking around, I realize that the crush is all the greater because the Japan festival intersects, at Avenue A, with the “Howl” festival, an annual tribute to the late Beat poet Allen Ginsburg, complete with portly bearded lookalikes clad in vaguely “Buddhist” garb reading poems out loud in a kind of high-brow version of Elvis impersonators. (A shave, a white leather pants suit and a pair of Black Flys, and some of these guys could easily have done Fat Elvis.)
Right now, however, I’m stuck, not moving, as my car radio plays the incantations of a Trinidadian DJ pronouncing on matters of religion over a lively jump-up soca beat (reminding us that Labor Day, and with it the great Brooklyn West Indian carnival, the biggest annual street parade in the U.S. is just days away). “Salaam Aleikum to all my Muslim friends,” the DJ shouts. “And to my Jewish friends, Shalom Aleichem. Peace be upon you, Christians and others. Remember, there are many routes to the same place, and in the end what we’re all about is to treat your neighbor as yourself.”
I look up at my neighbor, a guy who I guess is from Africa, driving a yellow cab. Just as he’s about to edge forward, a large black Hummer pulls in front of him, jumping ahead in the line which is hardly moving. He looks at me with an exasperated shrug. I smile back, and we start chatting. After a few comments on the traffic, I tell him I’m from South Africa, thinking this is a better starting point than the more invasive “Where are you from?”
“South Africa?!” he chortles, “Hey, I’m from Zimbabwe.”
Summoning up one of the only bits of Shona I know (I speak few languages, but I can sloganize in a lot more), I answer: “Pamberi Ne Chimurenga!”
Forward with the struggle, it means, an old slogan from the liberation war that ended white minority rule. But I know its back in popular use now among a Zimbabwean population being slowly strangled by the tyrant Mugabe — only three weeks ago, I’d gone to hear the legendary Thomas Mapfumo perform in Prospect Park, and he’d made clear the implications of the Chimurenga spirit for today.
The cab driver’s face lit up.
“That’s right, baby!” he yelled, grinning, flashing me a V for victory as a traffic cop finally waved us through onto First Avenue.