Friday, March 19, 2010

Act of Kindness

One blustery night during the winter of 1973 I was leaving a meeting at the Party office on W 26th street. This was during the time in which the Communist Party was under siege by Lyndon Larouche’s “Labor Committees.” They had singled out the Party for annihilation and suspected members were being assaulted on the street with baseball bats and numchucks.

In the tiny vestibule, one of the elderly volunteers who haunted the building was in the latter stages of steeling herself against the bitter wind. She had wrapped herself in several layers of clothing, and was struggling to tie a scarf around her neck. She moved slowly and with difficulty.

I didn’t recognize her, and I didn’t know whether she was one of the volunteers who actually worked- answering phones, stuffing envelopes, operating the mimeograph machine- or one of the legion of Party veterans who just enjoyed a chance to hang out all day in a comradely atmosphere. The latter would sit outside offices, trying to engage busy functionaries in conversation, like the old guys who hung around in barbershops without ever getting a haircut. But the Party always honored its own, and Gus Hall would never have stood for turning away these beloved old-timers.

“Would you walk this comrade to the bus stop?” someone asked me. I would. Her name was Rose and she said she’d been ‘working at the Center” since her husband died eight years ago. She took a bus down from the Bronx (why not the subway, I wondered) and left for the day only after being convinced that she wouldn’t be needed any more. She walked very slowly, and as we crept down 26th street toward 6th avenue I realized that she couldn’t see very well. I suddenly grasped how frail and vulnerable she was, and I wondered what I would do if we were jumped by Larouche thugs.

But the walk was uneventful. She talked about her work in the garment industry, and told a complicated story about how the union had once made a big mistake by electing a red-baiting secretary who “wrecked the Local.” I couldn’t tell whether these events had taken place recently, or decades ago, but the bitter injustice was vividly alive to her.

From time to time she asked me a question, mundane things along the lines of “What time is it?” The circumstances surrounding the comings and goings from the Center, even something as innocuous as “What brings you to New York?” or “Where are you from?” was not something into which a volunteer would inquire. And old timers, for all their insatiable quest for conversation, had little patience for idle chatter and social niceties. They had one big topical preoccupation: Their Story. And as far as Rose could tell I was just one more interchangeable young comrade who had kindly walked her to the bus stop.

I waited with her until the bus came. Once she was safely aboard, I walked uptown toward 43rd street, where I was to meet my friend Liz before another meeting. Snow was collecting in skittish little eddies, the cold was bone-chilling, and Rose had left my revolutionary credentials in tatters. I felt like a lame imposter.

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