Daily News reporter joins Occupy Philadelphia

Posted: October 18, 2011

MY TENT has never been my home or a last resort. It's never been a symbol for change.

The old blue-and-white Coleman rarely occupied a space I didn't rent along some lake on a summer weekend. It's where I crash after campfires and hot dogs, full and content, in a bundle of sleeping bags with my kids.

On Sunday afternoon, though, I duct-taped that tent to the concrete near a fountain on a windswept corner of Dilworth Plaza, adjacent to City Hall. I joined the encampment at Occupy Philadelphia.

During my walk there from the Daily News parking garage several blocks north, I got a few stares and figured some folks had me pegged - a scruffy white male with a backpack and a tent - and knew where I was going. Once I was there and raised the tent, I couldn't help but feel that I had become part of that disillusioned, vibrant mass of people.

As I roamed around Dilworth Plaza through that night, I found the intelligent and politically charged men and women I expected. The nighttime meeting was organized and articulate. They challenged one another for hours, working to form a united front for the day the city asks them to move.

"This is what democracy looks like," the crowd shouted.

The crowd broke up into groups to discuss specific topics, the most important being how to deal with the proposed $50 million renovation to Dilworth Plaza, the plans of which include a skating rink. Construction is set to begin next month, and the tent city will have to move.

Some suggested moving to a vacant stretch of land; others opposed moving at all. One man pointed out that by opposing the stipulations of their permit, they could jeopardize hundreds of construction jobs on the plaza.

When the crowd approved of the comments, they lifted their hands and wiggled their fingers. When an individual spoke, without a microphone, the crowd repeated his or her every word.

"I do not feel," the crowd repeated after one man, "that police are needed during daylight hours."

Other topics included backed-up portable toilets, safety issues and illegal drug and alcohol use in the plaza. One woman said she wanted to be able to bring her children "to show them what is still good in this world."

After the general-assembly meeting, there was an '80s prom party, and the "gutter punks," with their leathers and facial tattoos and little mutts, gathered to watch.

Women old enough to be my grandmother sat alone in folding chairs, covered in knitted blankets. Mothers and fathers were living in the shadow of William Penn with kids younger than mine.

Robert Smith of Rhode Island sat on the ground feeling his first real pangs from Day 8 of his hunger strike. Smith, wearing a Captain America shirt, is a mixed-media artist who recently lost his job at a hookah bar in Jenkintown.

"The owner was behind on his mortgage, and it was hard to pay the employees at that point," the 26-year-old said.

Smith said several television crews wouldn't interview him, because, like Gandhi, he wouldn't stand up for them.

I also found a Teamster, still employed, who grew up in a blue-collar, South Jersey town like I did.

"There's people out there, people I work with, who don't realize that their lives were built on the backs of unions," Curt Molway, of Laurel Springs, told me. "They either don't realize or they've forgotten."

Molway, 44, should have been there, I thought, but I didn't expect him to be.

The biggest reward of being a journalist, for me at least, is when I can challenge preconceived notions, when I can reveal the thousand shades of gray that exist between something deemed black and white.

It's happened to me personally on the job, in prisons, on street corners with prostitutes, and in the homeless encampments hidden deep in the woods or in plain sight in Camden. I'm constantly humbled by how crushingly complicated life can be, awed by those who fight through it, and inspired by those who do something about it.

I thought of the people who stared as I walked to City Hall, too. Maybe some were like me, juggling jobs and worried about their children's future. Maybe they wanted to be there but couldn't. I was being paid, after all.

As night came and the winds picked up, I asked one small group if I could eavesdrop on their intense discussion about the future of Occupy Philadelphia. They voted on it and said no.

As I walked away, one of the men followed me. His name was Kyle, a homeless man from Camden who's lived in Philly for years. Not everyone was comfortable with the media, he said. Maybe we could talk later.

Sure, I told him, my tent is right over there.

When Kyle realized I was staying, that for a few hours, at least, I'd feel the same frigid ground numbing my ribs that he's felt for years, he was surprised. We talked about Camden, where my mother grew up and my grandfather was a mechanic. Kyle was from Parkside, about a mile from their old rowhouse.

Kyle helped me find another roll of duct tape to keep my tent from blowing away. Occupy Philadelphia, like me, seemed to be in bed a little after midnight. The drum circles were quiet, the lights turned down. I kept waking up, surprised to see the yellow glow of City Hall's clock above me.

The conversations I had with Kyle, Curt and countless others in the chilly, autumn air resonate beyond City Hall. We share a commonality with the people in those tents, regardless of whether we join them on the cold concrete or join the chorus that criticizes them.

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