I suppose Clinton used to cause just as much of a mess, but at least we liked him. After a week of increasingly siege-like conditions, this wholesale shutdown of a major avenue, executed without prior warning, felt like a final insult.
When the president drives by, he doesn’t do it alone. After all of the marked and unmarked police cars and vans had pulled into place, the motorcade itself finally pulled into view, watched by helicopters hovering overhead. First came the contingent of motorcycle cops zooming in double file down either side of the avenue, which put into my mind the incongruous image of the Dykes on Bikes who always lead off the Gay Pride Parade. Then came more police cars, and finally a tight formation of two armored limos and a black SUV. And there he was, his waving hand and large head darkly visible through the blue-tinted glass of the limo on the left, furthest from me. It was the closest I have ever been to any president of the United States.
Having witnessed the driveby, I headed back over to the UN to get my lunch. In the plaza across the street from the Secretariat, about 25 people, mostly African but with a few white American supporters, held a demonstration demanding action in Darfur. The leader shouted phrases through a loudspeaker and the rest chanted after him, sounding weary: “Peace in Sudan! Justice in Sudan! Democracy in Sudan! Peace in Darfur! Freedom in Darfur!” No one paid much attention. Having nothing to say, nothing to add, I stood there dumbly until the light changed, then crossed the street and headed for the cafeteria.
As usual, the swirl of international voices and faces and costumes cheered me up immensely. At a table near mine, a man asked the fellow across from him, in heavily French-accented English, whether he was from a mission or an NGO; the second man ignored the question, staring off into the distance. The cafeteria was just redone — a new paint job, nicer chairs — and new blinds veiled the usual wide view of the East River. When they were suddenly raised mid-meal, several people applauded. There was Queens again, with the Pepsi-Cola sign and the Citicorp tower, as a tugboat slowly pushed a vast port-listing hulk of a ship toward the sea.
After I ate, I still had some time to kill (I have two-hour lunches), so I wandered across to the General Assembly Building and puttered around in the UN Bookstore. Toward the back is a computer where employees play MP3s of world music, and I stopped to listen to Caetano Veloso singing the Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers”:
Once there were parking lots
Now it’s a peaceful oasis
This was a Pizza Hut
Now it’s all covered with daisies
I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
This was a discount store,
Now it’s turned into a cornfield
Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle