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Occupy Roann

October 20, 2011

It started out with just one person sitting on the “Welcome to Beautiful Downtown Roann” bench sponsored by Grandstaff-Hentgen Funeral Home.

“I’m here to make a statement about economic justice,” he said glibly.

My quizzical look must have betrayed me.

“Ya know,” he continued. “There just ain’t nothin’ to do here.”

“Oh.”

“No man, seriously,” he continued. “Ever since they got rid of the pay phone, we ain’t got nothin’.”

Ah. The pay phone. The phone company has had a substation in Roann for years and outside the windowless yellow brick building stood a pay phone. Under the phone always dangled a phonebook in progressively deteriorating states of disarray.

For those of us who are less inclined to occupy anything, let alone downtown Roann, the pay phone was more of a nuisance. Benches were on either side of it and in order to walk to the post office (without crossing the street), you had to walk past the pay phone and the gang of occupiers-to-be. Usually, you had to tolerate their unnecessary comments along the way.

“Nice scarf, lady.”

“Lookit that a**.”

“How come you ain’t wearin’ shoes?”

They were waiting for phone calls. This was before mobile phones took over, of course. Once, just for fun, I picked up as the phone had been ringing and ringing. I was on my way home from the post office. No kids in sight. Yet the phone rang and rang.

“Hello?”

“Carmine there?!” It was a teenage girl.

“No, this is Brian.”

“I need Carmine.”

“I’m the only one here. Can I take a message?”

Silence.

“Carmine’s supposed to be there. You know her?”

“No. But I’d be happy to take a message.” I wondered if I was the first person to be polite on the phone with this caller.

“Tell her I ain’t comin’ to the phone to night.”

“Good. May I ask who’s calling?”

Silence.

“She’ll know.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

Seeing no one anywhere nearby, I just hung up the receiver and left. No message. Sorry Carmine.

It was a relief to me, and many of us, when the pay phone disappeared (without warning) about four years ago. For a long time the post and shelter stood, with no phone. It seems to me that the kids still hung around it for several weeks, as if they hadn’t noticed the phone was gone.

I tried to be empathetic to the young man on the bench. “I’m sure there are some people who need to have their lawns mown or odd jobs done.”

He looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language.

A few minutes later, he was joined by another young man. He looked liked he had stepped off a European city bus, via Wal-Mart, with ‘girl’ jeans, untied sneakers and a tight tee shirt covered with a Carhartt’s jacket.

The occupation had begun.

Actually, one of the things I like about Roann is the awesome lack of things to do. It’s a great place to sit on the porch and just listen to birds and peepers. It’s a place where you can walk and meet up with a neighbor and have a spontaneous ten minute conversation that isn’t interrupting the schedule.

I felt bad for these young people, and those who had occupied the benches by the phone for years. Not that they didn’t have anything to do. Rather, I felt bad that they didn’t seem to have the wherewithal to make something happen all their own. Instead, they were content to sit by a non-existent pay phone and gripe about the lack of things to do.

I guess if that’s all the occupying we see in Roann, I’ll be okay with it. After all, in Roann, I am the 99%.

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