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June 13, 2011 / Sheila Dougherty

Diary of a failed activist

I arrived yesterday afternoon at the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, ready for protest. As I wrote last week, I was proud to be part of the We Will Not Be Shushed 24-Hour Read-In. Book in hand, I was ready to join the hundreds — nay, thousands — who would be lining the steps and beyond, reading, to call attention to the planned library-system budget cuts.

There would be so many there that we were limited to 15-minute reading slots — for crowd control, I assumed. I’d have been content to sit out there and read all day, but hey, whatever they needed. My slot started at 1:15.

I got to the library steps at 1 p.m., as directed in my email from the organizers, but there were no silently reading throngs. There was a check-in desk and  some people sitting in chairs under a tent, watching a woman reading. Everyone else was seated at tables with umbrellas.

“Really?” I thought. “There’s plenty of room to sit. They’re making us have reservations for tables?”

Ian, my partner in crime for this afternoon of civil disobedience, came bounding out of the library. “So, when do you go up there?” he asked. He hadn’t received a reading slot, but I didn’t see the harm in having him sit near me and read. After all, we were just going to sit on our asses and read awhile then give up our spots to the next literary protestors. Right?

“Go up where?” I asked. “There? No. We’re just going to sit somewhere and read.” I swallowed hard. “Right?”

“Um, I dunno, Sheila, that woman’s been up there behind the microphone reading for a long time,” Ian said.

“No!” I said. “I can’t do that! I can’t read in front of a crowd. I can’t. I won’t…I didn’t think it was this.”

“What did you think it would be, the Million Man March? That we’d shut down Eastern Parkway?” Ian said, laughing.

“Um, something like that,” I said.

We sat at a table and watched the people get up and read at the microphone. “A piece from Edgar Allen Poe,” said one. “A passage from Herman Melville,” said the next.

I considered the book in my bag; a gigantic tome called The Brightest Star in the Sky by my favorite writer, Marian Keyes. It was the Brit edition and had an especially gaudy cover. For reasons of publishing-world politics and packaging, she’s ghettoized as “chick lit” and likely not very well known among the hipsters that were sitting in front of the microphone. I’m not a book snob and I read everything freely in public — but in silence. I get nervous and stumble over words. I messed up a reading at my grandfather’s funeral. I couldn’t do this to Marian, or to me.

Ian pushed me to do it — “it’s not about the material; if you’re so worried, run inside and get Ulysses.” But I’m not a public speaker, and like skydiving, it’s not a fear I feel I need to overcome to live a full life. But I decided it would only be fair to ‘fess up to the organizers. Especially because I had mentioned it on this here blog and I didn’t want them to come back and yell at me, which they would’ve been well within their rights to do if I had just not said anything.

I approached the table. “Excuse me,” I said to a kind-looking woman. “I had a 1:15 slot, and, I’m so sorry, but…I didn’t know it would involve reading aloud in front of a crowd. I thought it would be…something different.”

“Oh,” she said, “and you’re not comfortable with that?”

“Not at all, ” I said, “I’m so embarrassed, and I’m really sorry, I just can’t do it.”

“That’s OK, it’s not for everyone. It’s important that you came,” she said.

I continued to apologize like a fool, because I felt like one, and this harried-looking guy came over to me. “When is your slot?” he demanded.

“1:15.”

“So, now,” he said, irritated.

“Um, yes, I’m really sorry,” I said, back to the groveling (I don’t know you and I’ll never see you again but please forgive me!)

“Do you have something to read?” he asked, still annoyed.

“Yes, it’s not that, it’s that–”

He didn’t wait for me to finish, just stalked off (btw, he was a hippie, and as I said last week, I don’t go in for that hippie crap, so there you go). I slunk back to my chair, assured Ian that I wouldn’t be publicly flogged (which I’d have preferred to publicly reading). “Ok, MLK,” he said. Which made me smile.

I am glad I went, because it was for a cause I really believe in. Next time, I’ll just be sure not to be such a ditz and investigate further before I sign up for something like this. And who knows? Maybe I’ll sack up and get over my fear if I plan in advance. Eh, probably not. If I have too much time to think about stuff like this, I’ll give myself panic attacks. As I said before, it’s like skydiving.

I suppose it was naive of me to think thousands of people would turn out to support the library. That’s sad, really — it would’ve been fantastic if they had.

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