RECENT HISTORY OF THE WORKERS OF THE WORLD | Don DeLillo

The day after that he experienced what at first he thought might be some variation of déjà vu. He’d finished lunch and stood at the door of a corner restaurant, able to see, at a severe angle, the lean elderly man who frequently appeared outside Federal Hall holding a hand-lettered political placard over his head for the benefit of those gathered on the steps. He, Lyle, was cleaning his fingernails, surreptitiously, using a toothpick he’d taken from a bowl near the cash register inside the restaurant. The paradox of material flowing backward toward itself. In this case there was no illusion involved. He had stood on this spot, not long ago, at this hour of the day, doing precisely what he was doing now, his eyes on the old man, whose body was aligned identically with the edge of a shadow on the façade of the building he faced, his sign held at the same angle, it seemed, the event converted into a dead replica by means of structural impregnation, the mineral replacement of earlier matter. Lyle decided to scatter the ingredients by heading directly toward the man instead of back to the Exchange, as he was certain he’d done the previous time. First he read the back of the sign, the part facing the street, recalling the general tenor. Then he sat on the steps, with roughly a dozen other people, and reached for his cigarettes. Burks was across the street, near the entrance to the Morgan Bank. People were drifting back to work. Lyle smoked a moment, then got up and approached the sign-holder. The strips of wood that steadied the edges of the sign extended six inches below it, giving the man a natural grip. Burks looked unhappy, arms folded across his chest.
“How long have you been doing this?” Lyle said. “Holding this sign?”

The man turned to see who was addressing him.

“Eighteen years.”

Sweat ran down his temples, trailing pale outlines on his flushed skin. He wore a suit but no tie. The life inside his eyes had dissolved. He’d made his own space, a world where people were carvings on rock. His right hand jerked briefly. He needed a haircut.

“Where, right here?”

“I moved to here.”

“Where were you before?”

“The White House.”

“You were in Washington.”

“They moved me out of there.”

“Who moved you out?”

“Haldeman and Ehrlichman.”

“They wouldn’t let you stand outside the gate.”

“The banks sent word.”

Lyle wasn’t sure why he’d paused here, talking to this man. Dimly he perceived a strategy. Perhaps he wanted to annoy Burks, who obviously was waiting to talk to him. Putting Burks off to converse with a theoretical enemy of the state pleased him. Another man moved into his line of sight, middle-aged and heavy, a drooping suit, incongruous pair of glasses—modish and overdesigned. Lyle turned, noting Burks had disappeared.

“Why do you hold the sign over your head?”

“People today.”

“They want to be dazzled.”

“There you are.”

Lyle wasn’t sure what to do next. Best wait for one of the others to move first. He took a step back in order to study the front of the man’s sign, which he’d never actually read until now.

RECENT HISTORY

OF THE WORKERS OF THE WORLD

CIRCA 1850–1920 Workers hands cut off on Congo rubber plantations, not meeting work quotas. Photos in vault Bank of England. Rise of capitalism.

THE INDUSTRIAL AGE Child labor, accidents, death. Cruelty = profits. Workers slums Glasgow, New York, London. Poverty, disease, separation of family. Strikes, boycotts, etc. = troops, police, injunctions. Bitter harvest of Ind. Revolution.

MAY 1886 Haymarket Riot, Chicago, protest police killings of workers, 10 dead, 50 injured, bomb blast, firing into crowd.

SEPT 1920 Wall St. blast, person or persons unknown, 40 dead, 300 injured, marks remain on wall of J. P. Morgan Bldg. Grim reminder.

FEB 1934 Artillery fire, Vienna, shelling of workers homes, 1,000 dead inc. 9 Socialist leaders by hanging/strangulation. Rise of Nazis. Eve of World War, etc.

There was more in smaller print fitted onto the bottom of the sign. The overweight man, wilted, handkerchief in hand, was standing five feet away. Lyle, stepping off the sidewalk, touched the old man, the sign-holder, as he walked behind him, putting a hand on the worn cloth that covered his shoulder, briefly, a gesture he didn’t understand. Then he accompanied the other man down to Bowling Green, where they sat on a bench near a woman feeding pigeons.

From Don DeLillo’s novel Players.

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