Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of excerpts from Jim Gober’s book titled “Deep in the Heart of Occupy Austin.” A new excerpt will be published at OccupiedStories.com every Wednesday, so come back next week to follow Jim though the evolution of Occupy Austin.
After writing most of the day, I left the house in the late afternoon. As I was locking my front door, I glanced over and saw my neighbor, Margret Hofman sitting in her driveway. She is known as Austin’s Original Tree Lady, because of her life-long work for Austin environmental concerns, especially when it comes to trees and tree planting. She is instrumental in implementing the city’s first tree preservation rules and created a registry of Austin’s largest trees. She served on the Austin city council in the 1970′s. Although wheelchair-bound and nearly 90, she is still very interested in what is happening beyond the confines of her home, including the Occupation, of which I am keeping her updated.
She waived me over, and when I told her where I was going, she asked me to check on what the protesters call “The Island” but is actually her namesake park, a small triangle-shaped grove of oak trees and landscaping with a large rock in the middle located across Cesar Chavez from City Hall. It was officially named the “Margret Hofman Oaks Park” less than a year ago to commemorate her work. The island is where most people congregated the night the plaza was power-washed and the arrests were made because a few people refused to move out of the way of the power-washers. It is also a place for the cops as well as the protesters to cool off under the impressive oaks. Margret was concerned it was being trampled by the cops and protesters. I told her I would check on it as soon as I arrived. And of course, it was the first thing I did, and everything was in good shape. The plaque with her picture and information was perfectly positioned on the biggest rock so the golden setting sun would highlight it every day.
While I was there, I noticed a lady standing alone on another rock holding a protest sign. Her name was Carmen. She was born in Puerto Rico, moved to Spanish Harlem, and then moved to Tacoma, Washington. She said the green lands in Washington were so beautiful and a shock after living in the concrete canyons of New York, and she fell in love with the natural spirit that is Mother Earth. At 20 years old, Carmen hopped on a plane and turned 21 on a beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico where she lived for several years. It was there she questioned integrity, common sense and humanity. She believes common sense is stolen from Americans at an early age by our standardized educational system and rigid conformity to useless, degrading and dehumanizing social mores. She sees a society that is so jaded and citified that people don’t even know they are in a daze. It frightens her to see humanity this way-so disconnected from each other.
Carmen was out of the country while the cell phone and PC culture hit in the 90′s and was shocked when she returned because of the human isolation, commercialization and “not one authentic thing coming from anyone.” It is the dehumanization that is going on and how we’ve become incapable of feeling for each other that disturbs her most. She said, “If we don’t have a heart, how do we care for each other?” Carmen went on, “Information is great, but it is only healthy if we can process it and who today can process all this information and still have time to care for humanity? If you have too much incoming information your mind goes mad. That is why we have dissent and stress. The corporations that constantly push out all this worthless information are the root of all this stress.” Carmen said she spends a lot of time in her apartment, or “The Grotto,” as she calls it, and as long as there is food there she can stay safe and happy. And I was guessing she was in her late sixties, but had the skin of a 25 year old. Her beauty glowed from within. A beauty built on a lifetime of awareness and a desire to help others, not a lifetime built on bullying other people, deriding those who she perceived were inferior or having her face stuck into an iPhone or a TV.
After we chatted for a while longer, I walked across the street to the plaza and met Larry. Larry is holding a silent vigil about 150 feet down the street from the honk if yer horny line. He is in his 50′s and after noticing him there every day, I decided to see exactly what he was up to. His sign is kind of hard to understand but the number $40,000,000 is fairly easy to see. So I asked for an interview. Larry is a veteran who had a tough life after the Vietnam War. He found God one day in church with the help of a lady he met a few years back. He prayed that day God would help him build a place for homeless veterans, with hot showers, meals and recreation areas. God also told him it would cost around 40 million dollars to build his dream, and that is what he is asking for by patiently holding his sign, praying and hoping. When Larry left church the day he found God, he looked on the ground and found a 20 dollar bill and thought it was surely a sign; the beginning of his journey. And he’s been on that path every since.
So there Larry stands every day, in the same place he will stand long after the occupation is gone, because he wants to open his heart and help someone else. Although he has nothing of material value, Larry is still trying to get something for his brothers and sisters who suffer so badly. Larry has emphysema, COPD and peripheral artery disease, but is confidant God will grace him with the money he needs for his mission before he dies.
At the end of the day, I looked toward the corner for Larry. He was sitting patiently on the short stone wall that lines the sidewalk, partially hidden in some native grasses under a small oak tree. He was barely visible in the faltering light of the evening, but I could make out his silvery short beard, his sunburned face and clean red button-up shirt. He stared straight ahead into the passing traffic as he could plainly see the clear-cut path to his destiny. His shoulders were erect as any soldier, but even from that distance you could see the exhaustion from pursuing his mission for his brothers and sisters on the hot pavement the entire day. A car, pedestrian or chatty young idealist on the way to the plaza passed him by. Then another, and another and Larry faded into the blue-gray ether of the evening until he was no longer visible from where I was standing.
I chatted with Gabe, who was in his early 20′s, and has a good job as a draftsman. He came out to make his voice heard because he doesn’t want his future consumed with corporate greed at the expense of everyone else. He had everything going for him: a job, good looks, and a heart. He was hardly the bum or wacko the corporate press is trying to make us all out to be. And he had a good point when he said politicians running for office now don’t need millions from corporations, they have a free social network to exploit. They don’t even have to go door to door anymore.
I talked to Zach, who has a PhD in Mathematics and is a teacher at the University. He was discouraged the best mathematical minds are not used to solve societal problems, but are instead hired by money managers and banks to figure out ways to screw people when they invest in the stock market. He was also dismayed that math is not taught as a theoretical problem-solving technique but rather as a series of standard problems, such as 2+2 =4, and if you get it right on the test, you don’t have to worry about math again the rest of your life. He said students aren’t being taught to think, they are being taught to follow.
Then there was a general meeting and time for speeches. I signed up for a short speech by talking to Kevin, a young man in charge of the speech queue, or stack, as it is known throughout the movement. There were quite of few of us gathered around to listen to the speeches and when my time came up I was nervous but grabbed the mike. Here it was:
“I just wanted to mention my neighbor, Margret Hofman. Now Margret came over from Germany after WWII where her Jewish mother died in a concentration camp. Margret was also in Dresden when the allies bombed it and even by a small count over 100,000 people were killed. So Margret knows a little about fascism and Margret knows a little about war, and Margret hates fascism and Margret hates war. And if she could, she would be right here with us right now.
But I wanted to tell you this: The little island across the street is named after her. Margret Hofman was a city councilwoman who was very important in creating the tree-loving environment we enjoy in Austin today. So when you look around, take a look at what Margret has done over the years with her activism and letter-writing campaigns and how even one person who is dedicated enough to a cause can make a difference. If you go over to the island and look at the big rock you will see a picture of her and a little information about Margret. The park is formally named Margret Hofman Oaks.
I just wanted to tell everyone to appreciate what Margret has given to us and let everyone know a little something about the place we call, “The Island.” Before I left today to come to the plaza, I told her I would check on her park and make sure it was OK. And if it wasn’t for that island, the police would have had everyone standing in the street the other night when they came to power wash the plaza. So I just wanted to say thank you Margret, and before I close, could I get a big hand for Margret and all she has done for us and this beautiful city?”
Everyone clapped and cheered and some yelled, “Thank you Margret!” And for the first time I got plenty of the good kind of sparkle fingers before I stepped down. I had just given a perfect speech. It was completely unrehearsed or thought about beforehand. I got up there simply because I loved someone who loved the whole world. A world that tried to destroy her time and again. But somehow, tonight, all of our hearts-Margret’s, mine and everyone’s at Occupy-for a perfect shining moment-had melded into one.
Although it was after midnight when I got home, I could see a dim blotch of light shining through Margret’s antique living room curtains. I gently tapped on the front window. The home healthcare lady that stays with her answered the door and there was Margret, wide awake in her rented hospital bed facing the door so she can see the sunrise every day. I told her everything at her little park was OK and that I gave a little speech about it and had recorded it for her.
As I played it she closed her eyes and listened to me speak as if she was listening to an orchestra inside the most beautiful concert hall in Europe, before the angst, destruction and terror of war and fascism had stolen her mother and engulfed her young and precious life. When it got to the part in the speech where I asked for the applause, Margret noticed it was loud and quite impressive. She opened her eyes and got the attention of her day-sitter who was ignoring the entire scene with her head buried in a newspaper. When the day-sitter looked up, Margret said with a smile, “Do you hear that? They are applauding for me.”
The above was written in October 2011 and just last week Margret took her last three breaths and passed into the garden. Today, I planted a small oak tree she had nurtured in a flower pot on her back stoop. Three weeks ago, Larry had emergency heart bypass surgery. Yesterday, I saw him standing on the corner by the deserted Occupy encampment which lies across the street from Margret’s park. His left hand was holding a wooden pole on which a huge American flag was mounted. It flapped unceremoniously in the chilly February breeze. In the other hand was his sign with the $40,000,000 still clearly visible. The traffic roared by.