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A visit to Wall Street post-occupation

The day after Thanksgiving, I visited Zuccotti Park for the first time. I did so as a tourist, not as a real protester - I was in New York City with my girlfriend, celebrating my birthday, cornily enough. Although I wondered whether it would seem disrespectful, at a place where the angry and the unfortunate have gathered to air serious grievances, to show up just for the spectacle, my curiosity as to what, exactly, was still going on at the Occupy Movement's epicenter 10 days after the police-raid won out.

It had been an unseasonably warm day, but by dusk a mild chill had set in. Quinn was carrying a bag from Ladurée, the deluxe French pastry shop that had just set up its first American location on the Upper East Side, and this, we knew, was the exact wrong thing to bring to Occupy Wall Street, but maybe nobody noticed.

One thing about Zuccotti Park that I hadn't realized from all the OWS photos - where, really, all I could see were crowded bodies and tarps, signs and drums - is that there's no grass there: literally, none. There are geometrically planted trees, whose bare branches and trunks were bound with white Christmas lights, but these emerge from a granite floor. It's not a green space but a gray space - not so much a park as one of those burnished corporate blank spaces that you see in modern business zones and office towers. With the tents gone (banned by court order), Zuccotti Park looks amazingly bare, cold, and lifeless, even with people in it - or on it, since, unlike a real park, it provides no shelter in which to embed yourself.

I arrived late in the evening, after dinner, and found the area surrounded by police. The amount of money that New York City spends monitoring the Wall Street demonstrators must be staggering: cops were all over the park's perimeter, which was lined with metal barriers containing small gaps by which, however, anyone could come or go. There were about 20 people inside, and it looked like a zoo habitat, or maybe a kind of quarantine, the police attempting to contain some potentially massive outbreak by walling-in its first victims.

Before coming, I had, of course, heard all the conservative propaganda that had attempted to discredit the Occupiers - the rumors that Zuccotti Park was rife with rape, theft, and drug use, a hangout for homeless sponges and troublemaking drifters - and I'd read, too, better articles that had described the stunning variety of people who had come to Wall Street to voice genuine concerns and protest important problems: professors and firefighters, laid-off blue-collar workers, students and retirees. It was disappointing to see how, by the night of November 25, it had, to some degree, degenerated into a far less exciting version of the conservative vision.

About a third of the Occupiers did appear to be homeless, some of them sleeping on hard benches. Of the younger people, some looked like college kids while others looked more like Jay and Silent Bob. It was quiet, and the protesters' signs lay mostly on the floor. One Occupier tried to pick up the "human microphone," but his few echoes lost interest once they realized that he wanted only to complain about a police officer who had bumped into him earlier, and ultimately he was interrupted by another voice that announced that a girl's shoes had just been stolen and that we ought to be looking for them. This, too, failed to stir much activity. On the western side of the park, an older guy holding a bag of weed asked me if I had any rolling papers, as if oblivious to the enormous NYPD presence.

I also noticed two rather more serious-looking guys, thirtysomethings, engaged in what sounded like a conversation of substance, and one of them, who maybe thought of himself as one of OWS's ambassadors, shook my hand and thanked me for coming out. This guy, too, seemed tired, however, and I heard him ask his friend, who was apparently from California, whether he'd checked out Occupy San Francisco. The friend had, and the first guy, puffing a visible breath into the night, said, "I bet the weather's better out there."

The Financial District is a lonely place in the dark, its daytime population having retreated to the suburbs and its towers looming above like malevolent giants. At Zuccotti Park, there's no obvious place nearby where you can go to the bathroom; few businesses serve customers in the area for very long after nightfall. It was clear to me that, for the most part, OWS had moved on - the question was, to where? What's the next step? Just recently, the police dismantled Occupy Philly and Occupy L.A., arresting more than 250 protesters.

You never would have guessed by the paltry crowd in Lower Manhattan that Occupy Wall Street has made such an impact on the political landscape that Frank Luntz, the GOP's premier messaging consultant, has had to warn Republican politicians that, in order to win over the American public, they must now publicly pretend to sympathize with the Occupiers, instead of simply condemning them. "I'm frightened to death" of the Occupy Movement, Luntz said.

A lot of people, I know, remain anti-Occupy; they're proud of "never complaining" and of "making do" without handouts - as though the protesters were asking for any. I think these people want to view themselves as the sole creators of their prosperity, to whatever degree they prosper: in their Horatio Alger world, political and economic systems don't shape our lives or ruin them - can-do spirit (or its absence) does.

Maybe these people will be pleased when Zuccotti Park empties out entirely. But protests always end; the question is whether the ideas behind the protests survive, and whether we find ways to implement them. In that sense, OWS has just begun. The Occupiers, I'm sure, have plenty of can-do spirit of their own.

Tagged: Gen Y, occupy wall street