Saturday, January 21, 2017 was bookended by time spent in bars in San Francisco. Regardless of the side of the aisle on which you sit, it was probably a fitting activity for the day after Donald Trump’s Inauguration. For me, it was more than simply having a drink or two because for five hours during the middle of that long day of January 21, I wore a pink knitted hat — yes, one of those, the now infamous ones.
As a writer — an artist of sorts, I guess — I often find myself adrift in the sea of my mind. Following a train of thought, a word, concept or musical phrase, artists get caught up in the whorls and eddies, allowing them to suck us in and lead us to the truth, whether it be a sentence, a paragraph, a symphony or nirvana.
I also talk myself into doing things I possibly shouldn’t and maybe oughtn’t, simply for the sake of experience. You can’t write it if you haven’t smelled the surroundings.
In other words, you have to start with facts, which in this case was a Presidential election that took the nation by surprise.
That’s how I started off with plans to join college friends in Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March. It sounded so progressive, a chance to take society’s temperature. I’d get up bright and early (2 A.M.) to drive to the airport and catch my 6:30 A.M. flight to Baltimore. We’d have a college reunion of sorts (with group hugs and song singing), hop on public transportation to D.C. bright and early Saturday morning, go march and sing with the others along the Mall — and sightsee the Washington Monument along the way —, climb back onto public transportation to Baltimore and eventually make it back to Colorado late Sunday night.
It all sounded exciting, until I thought about it some more because:
♠ I was drowning in work
♣ It’s cold in January in D.C.
♥ I hate to get up that early, unless I’m going skiing — and even then, not so much
♦ I have this thing about being in crowds
The more I thought about it, in a becoming mired in quicksand way of thinking, the more I couldn’t. The trip occupied me day and night — I obsessed — and finally, embarrassed, admitted to myself and my friends it wasn’t going to happen. I hated me. I decided to travel, as originally planned that weekend, to accompany Dr. K to a medical conference in San Francisco. I could work, he could work, the obsessive-compulsive in my head would be happy.
But then another friend offered to knit me a pink hat. A pink pussy hat with ears, to be exact. It was her contribution to the cause.
I thanked her but explained I was going to be in San Francisco instead, that I had a crowd problem. She suggested I could wear the hat in the hotel room.
I was beginning to sound ridiculous, even to myself. I have no problem speaking to crowds. Why couldn’t I be in one? So I signed up for the march in San Francisco. How big could that possibly be, I reasoned? And it would certainly be warmer.
You have to realize, I’m a JAP. Don’t know what that means? Jewish American Princess — and although not of the practicing sort of Jewish-ness, there is still a cultural identity. Celebrating Hanukkah. Getting the manicures. Making dinner reservations. I have a classical music and jazz bent. We JAP’s can become a joke of ourselves. We tend to voice opinions, but not too loudly. Firm but not aggressive; we try to make friends with everyone. We are Jewish, but more than that, we are Americans. We want to fit into our surroundings because of the stories we’ve heard again and again from our parents, those who left much behind in Nazi Germany and other European countries.
I had friends who were pleased I was going to march — that I was breaking out of JAP-dom to speak up — and a few were equally astonished by it. “The pink hats —” they would sputter. “You do know what they represent? They’re so dirty . . .”
The morning of the march dawned on a drizzly San Francisco. Dr. K asked if I’d like to go out for lunch and I declined, explaining I had to work.
And then I changed my mind. It was becoming a common theme associated with the happenings of January 21, 2017.
An elevator whisked us up to a crowded dim sum restaurant where an elegantly dressed Chinese woman asked if we had reservations. I looked down at my ragged jeans and tennis shoes. Clothed for the March, it was obvious I didn’t fit in, and I began to feel uncomfortable. I was as un-JAPlike as could be, at that moment.
“We can seat you at the bar,” she said, her voice lilting and musical, and she gestured to a stretch of glowing cobalt blue glass where lights twinkled, illuminating crystal bottles in immaculate rows. I was beginning to float; it was the surroundings, it was the perfumed air, both floral and subtle Asian spice, it was the lack of judgment from the hostess. We were welcome, no matter what we were wearing.
Still feeling lulled and surreal, we strolled back to the hotel for a quick rest and then Dr. K would head back to his conference, and I would brave the crowds. The pavement was already dotted with groups of women, many dressed in pink, many sporting pink knitted hats. Passersby looked, pointed, comments were discretely made. Market Street hummed with an unseen energy.
Back in the room, I popped on the pink hat and evaluated which layers to wear; the rain, as predicted, was beginning to fall.
“I think I’ll go along,” Dr. K said.
As we walked quickly up Market Street towards the Civic Center, the trickle of people became a steady flow, then a river, then an ocean of humanity. Our steps were slowed by the numbers but not the rain.
I had never been surrounded by so many others. Women, men, children, families — of all ages, races, interests and diversities. We stood in the rain and talked with each other before the rally began. We noted the signs, often laughing at the humor. We clustered, we nudged, we encouraged, we found out about each other.
We stood as individuals with particular wishes and interests, we stood together as a group resolved to right wrongs and promote individual freedoms — a mass of Americana — because that’s what this country is. So many differences, so much uniqueness, and yet so much willingness to acknowledge the sameness.
Five hours later, soaked and chilled, Dr. K and I returned to the hotel to warm up with hot baths before we changed for dinner. The reservations I’d made for a restaurant only half a mile away were impossible to reach, even by foot, so sans pink hat, we walked downstairs to the hotel bar, hoping for a table.
In Maxfield’s Pied Piper Bar, vestiges of the past are notable in the ornately gilded wood paneling, crystal chandeliers and comfy, green leather chairs pulled up to tables. Maxfield Parrish’s original painting, The Pied Piper glows across its 16 foot length, where on the canvas children caper and dance behind the colorful clown leading them to lives unknown. There is a legend, a tale told and passed down from events recorded in 1284 in the German town of Hamelin: a successful rat catcher whose fees went unpaid by the town extracted cruel retribution when he whisked away 130 Hamelin children forever. The painting is honored and esteemed, reflecting San Francisco’s heritage not in so much that it lectures; more that it acknowledges human foibles, weaknesses and folly.
That night of January 21, the normally staid bar was packed to the walls, abuzz with talk of the March, the community, the feelings of inclusion it had engendered. Drinks were ordered, smiles flashed between strangers.
The day was made meaningful because of a silly pink hat.
With the recent turn of events politically and even socially, I’ve become more outspoken in my opinions. As a writer, I express thoughts in novels and on this blog. But I perform factual research first.
I used to worry about what people thought; I’ve come to realize it’s more dangerous to suppress truth. I write stories, trying to make sense of the world, to take its mental temperature and to, hopefully, teach that in the long run, it’s human kindness and decency that wins and is remembered with favor.
Paying the piper is a euphemism of paying a high price for something deemed unfair, that when not paid can end up with dire consequences. We all end up paying the piper for something, whether it be in children lost, momentum redirected, attitudes changed or self-identification taking a different track. I probably won’t put on that pink hat again, but the experience of wearing it and joining with others will stay with me. Life turned a corner that day out on the streets of San Francisco and it’s time to move forward and speak up.
But I’ll still be making reservations for dinner.
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Award-winning author Emily Kemme writes about human nature, illuminating the everyday in a way that highlights its brilliance. Follow her on her blog, Feeding the Famished, https://www.facebook.com/EmilyKemme, or on Twitter @EmFeedsYou . Life inspired. Vodka tempered.
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