Occupy Wall Street, Faces Of Zuccotti Park: The Hitchhiker
This is the second piece in a series profiling the protesters of Occupy Wall Street.
Balance was standing around with some of the other protesters on the steps near the Broadway entrance to Zuccotti Park Wednesday morning, asking if they knew whether he could move his tent. Someone threw up on it last night, he said. People have been urinating right there in his section of the campsite, getting drunk, getting high. Not that he's against smoking pot or anything, but if you're going to do it, take a walk and keep it discreet.
There's been a lot of tension in the park recently, and much of it revolves around the people who've been hanging out in the big tent next to Balance's. Many of the Occupiers worry that drunks and addicts could sabotage the movement. "But they say they're part of the movement," said Balance, smiling ironically. He referred to their tent as a bar.
Balance, 63, goes by his first name only. He was wearing a fringed leather "medicine pouch" around his neck, which he said was filled with beads from his travels to India, and as he spoke he ran a plastic comb through his beard. He was on one of his trips to India earlier this fall, in fact, looking for an ashram, when his son got into trouble and ended up in jail, prompting Balance to come home to be closer. He figured that as long as he was here, he might as well come down to Zuccotti Park. "It feels like this is the finishing of the story of the movement of what happened with the '60s with 'make love, not war,'" he said.
In 1963, when Balance was 15, he left his family and embarked on life as a traveler. He hitchhiked, jumped freight trains, joined the Jehovah's Witnesses for a while, signed up for the Navy during the Vietnam War and managed to get himself honorably discharged with veterans' benefits after two months. Recently he went on a hunger strike, but when the snow and the cold hit last weekend he got badly dehydrated and checked himself into a VA hospital. As he was leaving, the other men on his ward reminded him that they had a pretty good deal. They weren’t comfortable with the thought of Balance and his hippy friends trying to shake up the status quo.
He replied that the status quo didn’t need much help. If things keep going the way they're going with the economy, he told them, you won't have any benefits left to lose. "The times are changing," he said.
Back in the park, Balance got into a brief discussion of one of the original American radicals, Thomas Paine. By way of explaining his interest in history, he said that one of the advantages of being "homeless as chosen" is that you get to spend a lot of time in libraries.
He talked about some of the places where he's lived recently. Before his most recent trip to India he was in Eugene, Ore., trying to get a government-subsidized apartment through the Section 8 program. Before that he was in San Francisco working at "a grow" -- a marijuana farm -- and before that he was on another India trip, and before that he was at a shelter in San Diego. He pointed out that being nomadic actually allows him to save money from odd jobs and disability benefits for little luxuries. "I like to be able to go to champagne brunches every once in a while," he said.
Balance's frustrations with the people in the "bar tent" reminded him of time spent in Seattle's Love Family, a commune of several hundred people that formed in 1968 and was ruled by Love Israel, a charismatic man with a beard. Israel had a powerful stare -- if he fixed it on you, you felt an instant bond with him, said Balance. Everyone in the family was "married" to everyone else, but over time bonds broke down. "Egos," said Balance. Also: cocaine. Balance recalled that there was a lot of freebasing going on.
Even within the social fabric of the commune, Balance was sort of on the fringes -- a position he tends to prefer. "I don't know what's right or what's wrong, so that's why I don't want to get involved," he explained.
One of the things that he likes about the Occupy movement is that it doesn't purport to have a single "right answer" to the world's problems. "I'm in solidarity with people who are trying to come up with a good question of what this is all about," he said. "We might not have an answer, but we can come up with a good question."