By David Barry Temple
10: Earthquake and Other Shockers 1998-2001
Emerson held the address on a slip of paper in his hand as the daylight hit his climb on the steps out of the City Hall subway station. In 1998, WBAI moved to the tenth floor at 120 Wall Street in the Financial District. Emerson had an errand to do among the business canyons of Lower Manhattan. His mind was occupied, frozen in December 2000. How would he phrase what he wanted to say after he reached his destination, if only he could get into the building? He wasn’t that occupied or cold to notice the new riot resister at the City Hall driveway; how it looked like a subterranean torpedo rising to block passage as an infantryman stood guard. He may not be able to enter and fight City Hall but he had something to say to the hijackers of peoples’ radio.
WBAI was the progressive movement’s mouthpiece in New York City. It was started in 1960 by several World War II conscientious objectors who called themselves the Pacifica Foundation. Emerson remembered listening to Radio Unnamable with Bob Fass all night long during his late teens. WBAI never let the movement down for cutting edge entertainment and grass-root, anti- corporate political open-mindedness. Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez kept it relevant into the 90’s. Emerson couldn’t believe his ears in ’98 when he heard Amy interviewing a dumbfounded Bill Clinton who couldn’t avoid showed his true chameleon colors. Emerson always thought the liberal democrats ruling class had had enough posturing t and went after WBAI full throttle after that.
When one morning before the Christmas break he woke up turned on the radio for news and didn’t hear Bernard White and Amy’s voices, he knew he was witnessing the end of a semblance of free speech on the airwaves.
A few weeks later, over the Christmas weekend, a new general manager was snuck in by the Pacifica board of director overnight and the locks were changed. The old staff was prohibited from entering the studios. There was a gag order on those the station still tolerated.
“Do you feel like something is happening?” Emerson said to his colleagues around the cafeteria table in school that morning. “They’re shutting up WBAI.”
“Even if they were, there are other sources for the news,” a social studies teacher retorted. Emerson knew the difference.
“I feel like there is a coop going on in America; all the trappings of democracy and free speech are coming unraveled.” Of course, his colleagues though he was exaggerating, but Emerson had been an activist since the 60’s; he knew when there was a clampdown coming on. On Election Day in November 1999, the table was set for complete modern end to freedom. On September 11, 2001, the whole thing came tumbling down.
On that frozen December morning, Emerson walked south on Broadway passed City Hall, passed J & R Music World. Trinity Church with its brownstone steeple loomed across the street. As taxis whizzed by, he imagined what Lower Manhattan must have looked like when it was built in 1700. They kept building it back up after it kept falling down from fires and winds. Now, after it had all but been swallowed up, chewed, and spit out into a tourist attraction, Trinity Church stood a few blocks west in the shadow of the World Trade Center, the only warm spot on that cold winter morning.
Emerson turned left onto Wall Street, passed the Stock Exchange, and headed towards the East River. The narrow streets were desolate. The chill whipped up the winding canyons. A few weeks later, after the reality hit, 500 people chanting “Despotism Won’t fly at WBAI” would congregate on the streets outside, but not on this Christmas weekend morning. Emerson alone walked to the entrance of 120 Wall Street. The security cameras had yet to be installed.
“I’d like to speak to the general manager of WBAI, Utrice Leid,” he said as he stood on the other side of a formidable high-backed front desk; one receptionist came around the podium to meet him.
“Who may I tell them is calling?” he replied, arms folded defensively over his suited chest.
“My name is Emerson Davinsky.”
“Are you expected?”
“I don’t think so.”
“One moment please.”
Instead of calling upstairs to the studio offices, before asking that Emerson sign the log, indicate the time of arrival, and get a sticker to plaster onto his coat, one guard stayed with him strategically positioning himself in the lobby between Emerson and the bank of elevators, while the other contrived down the lobby to said elevators and rounded a corner presumably to take one up.
Emerson stood silently, patiently, and avoided making the small talk the guard initiated to feel him out. Secretly, he wished he had a howitzer with him, silencer attached, like he had seen in the spy movies. He then could have shot the guard and made a dash for the next elevator up, taken care of business, given Bernard White his job back and return WBAI to the people. It was not going to happen that way though; Emerson was too peaceful a man to own a gun and he wasn’t going to shoot anyone today.
The security emerged from around the bank of elevators ten minutes later; perhaps he had taken the opportunity to urinate before heading back down with the response.
Ms. Utrice Leid said she doesn’t know you. You will have to leave the premises.”
“But I know her.”
“Please leave now.”
“Could you tell her I think she’s wrong for taking over the radio station and she should give it back.”
Emerson knew this bug wouldn’t fly but he had spoken from his heart. He felt no compulsion to stay home this Christmas morning with his family. He had schlepped down to the financial district to raise the specter of the oncoming backlash. It was what every loyal WBAI listener should do. He turned and left the building without the obligatory ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye.’
Back on Wall Street, he didn’t have to re-button one button on his coat; only wrap the scarf around his neck tighter, like a noose. Bitter New York City winter winds ricocheted between the walls of the steel canyons. They would probably be the walls of fifty-story thick skating rinks in the coming ice age once the glaciers had melted and volcano soot returned the earth to scratch. How many times, he thought, would God have to start over until humanity wised up? Better yet, he mused, why couldn’t God make humanity wiser in the first place instead of evolving dinosaur bones into fossil fuel and assorted Tweedy birds?
On his way back to the City Hall subway station uptown, Emerson passed a vest-pocket park that some corporation had forgotten to build a skyscraper on. Maybe they were waiting for the price of real estate to sky-rocket. For now, it was a rectangular block, not long or wide enough to play football on; not deep enough to stop home runs or wide enough to stop foul balls from smashing windows to its left and right. The man-made park, with leafless transplanted trees without enough branches for a bird to build a nest upon, sat unoccupied on this cold exposing day. A homeless man lay on a spread of cardboard folded like a pup tent over the grill of a steam duct cleverly concealed by the landscaper on a raised garden bed near a park path winding to make a summer lunch-break stroll seem longer than it actually was. Smoking in public places hadn’t been made illegal back then. Emerson stopped to light a cigarette and glace up westward towards the World Trade Center that still cast a shadow for another nine months. No one New Yorker could imagine what was in store for them. Zuccotti Park would be a staging area for attack victims long before it was converted into a world stage for Wall Street occupation.