"Michael Shenker was the greatest man I ever met," said Seth Tobocman at last night's memorial. I can only copy his words: Michael Shenker was the greatest man I ever met. He was also a big piece of this neighborhood and its character.
People are considering a permanent memorial for Michael -- naming a garden after him, for example. This doesn't even remotely approach the significance of Michael Shenker. Someone coined the verb "to shenker" -- maybe for 'illicitly jimmying electricity', or 'opposing all authority flagrantly and fearlessly'. That's getting closer. Fly announced the first Saturday of October as Illumination Saturday for his electricity, literal and figurative. That's a start. There has to be more, much, much more.
Michael was not famous, not a self-promoter, not a national name nor a headliner. He was bigger than fame. Michael's life has something deep to give, and it would be a shame if that were lost to the history of a few brief moments in a corner of the city. His life had something important to say not just to us here in the LES, but for everyone in this city today and (I believe this) for humanity. The funeral banner motto sets it just right,"Would you rather be safe and live in the darkness, or take a chance and live in the light?"
As Seth Tobocman said several times last night, Michael was free and fearless. That's what should be memorialized, not just among ourselves, but everywhere, as a demonstration of the possibilities of life. Everyone should know what the LES was all about, what the LES can grow and create, what kind of courage we aspire to, what kind of independence and commitment and passion. Everyone should know who he was, how he lived and where.
At the memorial last night Seth Tobocman added that he didn't get to walk with Martin Luther King, but he did get to walk with Michael Shenker. I have the same feeling about Michael, but not because of what Michael did or accomplished, or his aspirations or his beliefs, but because he knew how to live, freely and intrepidly, and because he so comprehensively understood his intentions and motives, and expressed those intentions so brilliantly.
I admired Michael not as those who participated in his struggles, by the way. I didn't share with him one of his basic positions and I didn't participate in two of his most important occupations, the squatter's movement and the 'community' gardens. I wasn't a squatter, so I didn't get involved with the movement, and I didn't (and don't) join the garden movement, partly because gardens are not truly public, and partly because the gardens were by the time of the movement, already a sign of gentrification. I've seen many gardens lead to disputes and divisions in a small community -- disputes over space, because the space is quasi-private, not truly public. I believe open space should be wholly public, and while I don't subscribe to any ideology, to me the public parks are one of the few instances of unalloyed success of the socialist ideal: the government keeps it open to all and no one can dispute its space.
Don't get me wrong -- I admire the garden movement as a community movement, and I appreciate its work to keep green space. But by the time the garden movement had begun, most of the gardens in the neighborhood had been transformed from their original Loisaida craziness into a kind of self-gentrification of its own: conventional landscaping made to look pretty in conventional ways; carefully circumscribed plots of tomatoes and vegetable patches, assigned to this or that member. None of this was the character of the gardens when I moved here when locals were beginning to claim the empty lots left by fire and demolition.
Those early 80's gardens were each unique, crazy, original as only the LES could be. Pretty they weren't. The gardens reflected the apartments of the weird tenants: packed with the stuff of some odd mind's obsession, freely spread around. The walls of one apartment flowed with fine copper wires hanging in broad reams like a bright orange waterfall; another piled with furniture to its ceiling, unused and unusable, crowding every inch of space save a narrow passageway to the bed. The people here, their apartments and their 'gardens' had character. It was not about reproducing the comfortable or attractive spaces of the middle class, or the amenities of the suburbs. It was uniquely New York and uniquely LES.
So I didn't share a lot of the struggles that Michael passionately led, or his aspirations. In the 90's I stayed away from community activity entirely, disillusioned after participating in demonstration after demonstration through the late 80's only to watch the fight against gentrification develop into nothing more than a pointless and self-defeating rage against policemen-on-the-job -- police, the lowest arm of government lacking any policy-making, and policemen, working men with little or no understanding of the issues, faced with an ugly task, to stand against the citizen. I gave up any hope for this community's ability to organize beyond its own personal anger. I spent the 90's instead fighting for public higher education against Giuliani's intent to downsize CUNY and limit access to it. I believe in public institutions that benefit all the public. Bob Arihood rebukes me that college is pointless. If he's right, then my efforts were foolish. So who am I to cavil over others' struggles?
At the memorial last night there was a moment of difference between the audience and a speaker. I thought at first it was a blemish, but then rethought. A memorial that is nothing but blandishments and encomiums is not the truth. Michael got involved and that's staking a position. We should remember honestly the real man -- that was the extraordinary man. No one wants to remember the undertaker's make-up.
Besides, you didn't have to share Michael's beliefs to appreciate that this man had grasped the meaning of life, that by guarding his freedom, he'd let loose his passion -- in all directions. Everyone who was in contact with him felt it, judging by the accounts at the memorial last night. He made a difference; he helped a lot of people; he led a lot of struggles; he accomplished something. And he did it out of his freedom and his passion and his brilliance. That's the greatest person I've known in my time. Everyone should know about Michael Shenker. Everyone should have known him. I envy to no end all the squatters and garden folks who got to work with Michael regularly. Once he became a squatter, I didn't get to see him much anymore -- and every single time I walked through the park I hoped to encounter him. I loved to listen to his talk when I did. He should have lived longer. Long live Michael.