There was a time in the late 1990s when, for people with a certain mind—or heart—about things, fighting the injustices of globalization was frantically important. I was fifteen when the protests against the WTO in Seattle were met with disproportionate violence and more-proportionate media attention; I’m sure there were fifteen year olds who participated valiantly in the protests, but I was at home in New Jersey.
It wasn’t until the next summer that I met the first person who radicalized me or who, at least, made me want to be radical. Megan Wolf was my counselor at the New Jersey Governor’s School. She’d gone to the same school years before, then graduated from Wesleyan and moved to Manhattan. At some point, her name became Mee-gan. This probably happened at Wesleyan. Megan was very hairy, steampunk before we invented it, a grimy flapper. Megan’s boyfriend came down to our campus at Monmouth University for a puppet-making workshop; they were involved with the Bread & Puppet Theater. Megan’s boyfriend was seven feet tall, had matted pigtails, and appeared in a flowing pink dress. I remember writing a poem in early July about being one of two women at Governor’s School who didn’t shave her armpits. It’s missing, but chances are it was profound.
Megan’s role in almost getting me kicked out of Governor’s School is less clear—in my memory, it was entirely my idea to protest a talk given by the anti-choice gubernatorial candidate Brett Schundler, but had I packed my own massive copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves to bring to Governor’s School? That was the book that provided all the statistics and coat hanger iconography we used on our signs.
When Megan wasn’t acting as a glorified camp counselor, she led walking tours of East Village Starbucks. This, I thought, was brilliant. Treating the corporate monolith like the freak it is, exposing its grotesque footprint, making the hacks inside uneasy, and, for good measure, publicly cementing ones own role as a defier. The late 1990s were, in addition to being a time when multinational corporations seemed like a greater threat to people in Phnom Pehn than in New Orleans, a time when people still felt something for St. Mark’s Place. So Megan started her tours at the Starbucks on Astor Place, at the store which faced St. Marks across Third Avenue. And Megan’s way seemed like the correct way to fight.
This is my first weekend living in the city again, and when I went to St. Mark’s Bookshop this afternoon, I saw that Megan’s flagship Starbucks is now something called the New York Film Academy Cafe. It is open to the public, has free wireless, and if its managers squelch unionizing efforts, I assume the young Film Academy students will have a Dean to whom they can turn.
I took weary note of this victory. Every Starbucks has lost its sheen, and today’s most urgent enemies are harder to fight—leading a walking tour of all the BP stations in my parents’ suburb wouldn’t shame any hacks. Most of those hacks know they use too much gas, supplied by a corporation that puts profits over pelicans and people, and they aren’t sure what to do about it. When I knew Megan, I thought I understood the ways to fight: puppets, coat hangers, cross-dressing and shaming hacks. Was I bigger then? Was the world actually smaller?