NY1: Personal Democracy

As if there was any doubt that we all live solipsistically in indie movies about ourselves, it took two days in New York for me to be approached by a total stranger with a proposition on a subway platform. There I was, waiting for the downtown 6 at 96th Street Station, sweating like glacial runoff and leaning against a wall about to unholster the mp3 player. Next thing I know, there’s a grey-haired man with glasses, holding an iPad.

“Excuse me, are you a college student by any chance?”

I am one. I told him so.

“Would you like to earn $75 dollars for two hours’ work?”

I’m in New York on a 2000 euro loan, most of which is spent or rinsing fast, so there is nothing in the world I would have liked more than earning $75 for two hours’ work. I told him so.

I found out later that the guy’s CV included a New York Times bestseller, narration work on various TV shows, spots as a talking head on CNN, busting up a paedophile ring in Thailand while working as a journalist, and an associate professorship at a Virginia college. But on the subway, he was falling on to people, being confused at my .ie email address and pronouncing the word niche as “nitch” when I told him that, whilst I was interested in the type of American political history that he taught, my general focus was on Ireland in the Middle Ages. A nice guy.

The next morning I woke up at 5am and got a subway to the CUNY Graduate Center on Fifth Avenue between 34th and 35th Street, and handed out buttons that say “My Brain Scares Politicians” to four hours worth of people arriving to a conference on personal democracy and the intersection between technology and politics. I generally can’t function till about 1pm even at home, so it took me until about 7.15 to realise that I was a literal stone’s (or badge’s) throw away from the Empire State Building.

Most people smiled and took the buttons. Some, potentially those at the conference for rival stuff to the political social networking site I was creating ground level early morning buzz for, said no or just ignored me and the three American students who’d been more conventionally roped in. The best reactions were from kinda crusty Manhattan wanderers who weren’t even going to the conference but thought the buttons were funny and wanted six so they could give them to their officemate/teacher’s union representative/extended family in the Mezzogiorno (all true).

I met a couple of interesting people, but the best, I think, had to have been the former Wyoming Republican senatorial candidate who failed to gain the nomination by, he claims, one vote.

“Does your brain really scare politicians?”

I wasn’t sure. I told him I thought so but I had no evidence.

“Because I was a politician. And I tell ya, you don’t scare me half as much as some of those fucked up guys.”

He hung around for a while smoking and cementing the impression that he was a vagrant rather than a person on their actual way somewhere. A little after he showed up, a strangely sweet-smelling old Slavic man came and grabbed me heartily on the shoulder and gave me some advice.

“Politics? Same like prostitution. Now you say.”

I said it.

And I made $100 dollars which is, one week in, also the figure representing my total income for the summer. There is something profound to be rooted out in the fact that 48 hours in Manhattan is enough to be invited to promote activism and the liberal version of the “grassroots” democracy to the people of the United States. There’s probably something in the fact that I got paid for it.

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