Thursday, October 20, 2005

Paving The Way

Paving the Way Days Five and Six

October 20, 2003

Dear Friends,

As I write this, the words “ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around” are singing endlessly in my head.  Yesterday was a hard day.  Today was a glorious one.

Yesterday started with an 11:00am rally at Rutgers New Brunswick campus.  I was already anxious before the rally started, knowing we had a 14-plus mile march ahead of us through along a tough road.  Only a handful of students showed up, and I tried to wrap the rally up in half an hour.  But the local organizer insisted that we stretch the hour out to an hour so that we could catch the students changing classes and so that his friend, the amazing Annette Lazzul, had time to arrive and give the closing speech.

We stretched the rally out, and Annette gave great closing speech, making the point that, while a white middle class, Roman Catholic, heterosexual woman who never used drugs, she was also a person living with AIDS.  With Johnny and Diane Williams leading the bucket brigade, we managed to raise $150 in the hour we were there.  (The day before, we had raised $147 just walking down the highway).

Finally, at noon we set out.  It was Route 27 the whole way.  The road was dangerous, with a narrow shoulder, few sidewalks, and no police escort.  But drivers were surprisingly friendly, honking their horns repeatedly.  On garbage truck passed us at least six times, and the driver laid heavier on the horn each time.   We had developed the ritual of marching in silence whenever we passed a cemetery.  Yesterday, at my insistence, we started marching silently whenever we passed a pumpkin patch as well, in honor of all of the dead pumpkins, lives cut short for Halloween.  

With breaks for lunch and the restroom, 14 miles was an impossible task.  We debated, but decided to march until dark.  But once the sun started setting, night followed quickly.  We entertained ourselves with a new chant:  “Bush must be smoking crack.  Tired of being bushwhacked?  Bush must be smoking crack -- Time for us to fight back.”  Amos’ free verse kept us moving went we weren’t laughing too hard to march.  

All too soon, we found ourselves marching along the narrowest of shoulders, in the dark, not even a token street light along the way.  Finally, we agreed to stop, two miles from our destination.

We were all tired, hungry and cranky, but had to be pleasant since our dinner hosts, at the Unitarian Universalist Church had waited late for us and were clearly eager to see us happy.  We then rode to what we thought was our sleeping quarters at Trinity Episcopal Church.  Together, we unloaded the truck and moved all of our luggage into the hall.  Oddly, all the rooms we had been told we could use were locked.  After several phone calls, the mystery was solved.  We were not at the church after all.  We had mistakenly occupied a building belonging to Princeton Theological.  With visions of being arrested on charges for breaking and entering, we quickly loaded up the truck, and finally arrived at our sleeping quarters a little after 11:00pm.

It was one of those days when nothing seemed to go easy, not even going to sleep.  Six of us sharing a room, searched all over for a light switch fruitlessly.  Finally, someone pointed out a sensor.  The bright lights in our temporary bedroom, thanks to technology, were motion-triggered.  My damp towel needed to dry anyway, so it quickly went over the sensor.  We then all laid very still in our sleeping bags, not daring to move until the lights finally dimmed.

This morning started with promise.  We had one shower to be shared by all two dozen people staying overnight.  One of our hosts came at 7:30, with a carload of packages for breakfast.  Out came cereal, hard boiled eggs, coffee, fruit, and sandwiches.  As she set the sandwiches out, I complimented her on the novel idea of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast.  “It’s not peanut butter and jelly,” she replied.  “It’s peanut butter and pickles.”

We entertained ourselves watching each unsuspecting person pick up a sandwich, suppressing our giggles until that special moment when the person got to the first crunch.  That person then became a part of the club, waiting eagerly for the next unwitting source of humor.

By 9:30, we had made our way back to the point where we left off.  We marched into Princeton with a new song, right for the town’s historical roots:

Yankee Doodle went to Wash’ton
Marching down the highway
Calling for the end of AIDS
On each and every byway

Yankee Doodle, keep it up
Yankee Doodle dandy
Calling for the end of AIDS
And condoms for the randy

Our rally at Princeton University had been cancelled.  So we stopped at a triangle in the center of town and held an impromptu demonstration for a half hour, chanting and harassing passers by on foot and in their cars.  We had horns blaring and collected over $100 in contributions before we moved one, proudly singing our new song.

The next several miles along Route 206 were scenic, but narrow, winding and hilly.  Finally the police from Princeton Township came and provided us an escort.  Lunch time came and passed with no place to stop.  Finally, we came upon the campus of Bristol Myers Squibb, surrounded by acres of manicured lawn.  

The police turned us into the long driveway, suggesting this was the best possible place to have our picnic.  Company security quickly came to check us out, but the police explained that we were marching to Washington to end AIDS and we needed a placed to stop for lunch.  Later, the police asked security if we could bring people up to the building to use the facilities.  The security supervisor initially said yes.  But then the Director of Security came down and explained that this was a secured facility.  Without security passes, it would be impossible for us to piss there.

Our police escorts’ indignation made our own needless.  The officers informed us that there was a fire station 15 minutes down the road and assured us that we would be welcome there.  They didn’t tell us that it was fifteen minutes to drive.  Nonetheless, we arrived 45 minutes later, relieved and well received.

The transition from Princeton Township to Trenton was stark and immediate.  Suddenly we went from forest, farmland and McMansions to obvious poverty.  But the transition was obvious in another way as well.  People were far and few between in the midst of wealth, while the streets of Trenton lined with people standing in doorways, hanging on the street, and sitting on stoops.  Then there were the C2EA posters that appeared in the window of just about every business along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Suddenly we had new energy, feeding of the signs and the positive response of the folk along the way.  “If Bush had AIDS what would he do?  Find a cure, that’s for sure,” we chanted over and over again until we marched up the steps of the YWCA – with it’s twelve showers!  Then a slamming dinner at Mount Zion AME Church!  

We have developed a couple of rituals along the way.  The first is to do a few chants to show our thanks to hosts along the way.  The second is of sharing our thoughts and feelings on the events of the day each evening.  Tonight we had our entire host committee with us, as well as half a dozen teenage girl scouts, who helped to serve and clean up.  We chanted a few times, thrilling the girls with “Banana!”, and began going around the room to share.  

Everyone was feeling especially warm.  The bonds among us had clearly grown much deeper for the hardships of the day before.  But it was especially moving to listen to members of our host committee share how much it meant to them that we had come to Trenton.  Individuals spoke about how isolating their work was, how hard it was to live with AIDS in a city so burdened, and how our passing through had brought them hope.

One of the girl scouts told us her mother had AIDS.  She said she always turned the channel on TV when anything about AIDS came on.  But, she said, seeing us and knowing we had marched so far, she was seeing AIDS in a whole different way.

When we left the church, the girls were all waiting on the steps.  They were hoping, we were told, to see us marching away in formation, with a chant.  Everyone was tired and there were a couple of groans, but Amos, who had been hoarse all day, picked up the bullhorn and got us started.  We marched off singing “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”  We thought to sing until we were around the corner, but Amos kept it going until we were again at the steps of the Y.  

Anthony opened the truck and folk spontaneously formed a chain, passing luggage from the truck up the ten steps into the building.  Diane Williams picked up the bullhorn and started softly singing the words again:  

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.  Ain’t gonna let no body turn me around. I’m gonna keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking, a-marching til the end of AIDS.”

Soon the whole line had picked up the tune, quietly singing or humming along as we worked.  I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to a wonderful day.


Charles King


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