Eric the Clapper tells us why he claps
The Big Blue Bus heads west. | Eric A. Gordon/PW

LOS ANGELES — “Did you clap tonight?” my faraway husband in Mexico asks me almost every evening when we talk. He’s stuck there for immigration reasons, and I’m stuck here for coronavirus reasons. We haven’t seen each other since early January, except on Facetime.

“Oh, yes,” I answer, and he always likes to grasp the picture of me standing out on my second-floor balcony with a follow-up question. “With Juanito?” (my housemate). “Yes, he always joins me when he can.”

Reports in the media go back to February, when ordinary people in cities around the world stood at their windows or on their balconies to clap, whistle, bang pots, play music, sing, dance pirouettes, all to honor the essential workers dealing with the coronavirus crisis. London, Milan, New York City, L.A., everywhere.

The 7 p.m. din echoing for five or ten minutes every day through the urban tunnels of the modern metropolis was a collective, anonymous gesture, a way of saying “thank you” to the selfless workers helping us at great personal sacrifice, at a time when neither government nor private philanthropy seemed in any significant way prepared to lift up the fortunes of these brave, caring folk. The workers and the clappers come from every nation, every race and creed, united only in gratitude and in the profound sense of making some gesture of positive agency in the face of so much incompetence, fear, despair, sickness, and death.

Here in L.A., all around town, there was a concerted effort to make sure we clapped loud, long, and hard on May Day, and that was the start of my addiction. I guess “practice” would be the correct word. I don’t truly believe I’m addicted, anyway. I have missed two or three evenings of clapping in the two and a half months since, and I did not suffer withdrawal symptoms.

It’s been nice having Juanito’s company as we clap together. Sometimes we fall into the same rhythms and then one or the other veers away from it to establish a new one or a random one. Sometimes I think of a song and clap out its notes. At least once in the course of an evening, I like to pay tribute to the heroic people of Vietnam, survivors of so many invasive wars, and now the world champion survivors of COVID-19. I will never forget that with a population of 100 million, they’ve recorded not a single Coronavirus death if reports are to be believed (and so far I have no reason not to). I clap out what I chanted at demonstrations more than fifty years ago: “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! Vietnam is gonna win!”

A flurry of news articles and videos accompanied the first outpourings of balcony support for the workers. Now you don’t hear about them so much. I know my friend, Uncle Ruthie, over in the Pico-Robertson area a couple of miles from me, is also banging on drums and singing songs every night for the workers, but I really don’t know if we’re the last ones in L.A. still doing it.

For me, it’s not a movement anymore and, I don’t know, for all the good it does the workers, maybe it doesn’t even qualify as solidarity at this point. Is it enough? No, certainly not. We need to pass the HEROES Act in Congress to get more resources into the hands of displaced workers, and we also need to think beyond—way beyond—the utterly shocking imbecility of the “I take no responsibility” Trump administration in handling this multi-dimensional crisis. We need to continue the serious conversation that has already begun: Come January, when we simply must have a new administration in place, what kind of country do we want to rebuild? Same as before? No way. But what?

The intention is to remind passersby that the essential workers are still very much out there and helping us to carry on, even thrive, albeit housebound for most of us. Some of those passing below or across from my balcony are, of course, essential workers themselves on their way to and from their jobs: Only four short blocks away, there’s a handy strip mall anchored by a Von’s and Rite Aid, with a couple of little restaurants and service providers. At times it crosses my mind that perhaps all this is more of a show of calling attention to oneself for being such a noble advocate of the proletariat than providing any actual assistance to them.

But just about every evening there is some response that reminds me that people do actually want to be reminded. Whether they go by on foot, on a bicycle, skateboard, scooter, or in a vehicle, we often get a curious glance in our direction or an appreciative wave. I never really thought much about how different, how individual, and with what distinct meanings waves can be. No one’s given us the stiff royal wave with the gentle swivel of the lower armbones. But we get a flutter of the hands, we get hello waves, we get twinkle hands, we get militant fists raised, once in a while from an arm out a car window or a two-fisted salute from a bicycle (Look, ma, no hands!).

Often, some passing by, either on my side of the street or across the street, will clap along knowingly and sympathetically, at least as a small sign of support, just for a few steps, stopping before they’re even out of range.

At that time of day, a lot of folks are out walking their dogs. They seem to be the least of the wavers and clappers, maybe because they’ve got one hand on the leash and another on the pre- or post-use poop bag. Once in a while, someone will peer upward and grant a friendly smile.

We have our share, too, of the studiously oblivious ones who pass by every night around this time. They visibly strain not to look, not to hear, resolute, hardhearted in their appointed stride.

We find the runners generally the least receptive to our demonstration of solidarity. They’re usually concentrating too much on the cracks and uplifted segments of pavement to pay us any mind. They’ve usually got earbuds in, too.

When someone passes by and might look up quizzically as if to silently ask, “What the hell are you doing?” we’ll sometimes call out, “For the workers!” and they nod, maybe clap once or twice. I had to ask Juanito his opinion on this: When they indicate they’re not an English speaker, and I say, “Para los trabajadores y trabajadoras!”—is that a racist assumption on my part? They’ll often smile in understanding, but sometimes not. Maybe they’re Indian or Persian. Juanito assures me it’s not presumptive of me, just an understandable attempt to reach across languages and cultures. I’ll go with that.

We concentrate our hardest, loudest clapping for two situations. When someone walks along the sidewalk in front of the apartment building across the street we clap strongly because it produces an echo. A lot of folks walk with earbuds in place, so they may be impervious to our efforts, but once in a while, they’ll hear the echo reverberating and look up to see where it’s coming from. We raise our clapping arms a foot higher in a kind of celebratory salute.

The other situation, and it’s frequent, is when a bus or service vehicle goes by. Along my route, it’s the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, but there’s also UPS and FedEx, unmarked white Amazon delivery trucks (the drivers wear Amazon shirts so that’s how we know), USPS trucks, street repair units, gas company and electric company trucks, not to ignore various pedestrian, bicycle and vehicle delivery people carrying pizzas, cartons, and grocery bags. All these folks are the ones we’re clapping for.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor COVID-19…. | Eric A. Gordon/PW

There isn’t as much traffic as there once was on my street, so drivers are going faster. So between the speed, the closed windows (for air-conditioning and against the virus), the radios playing inside their cabs, the conversations they’re having with other passengers or on the phone, and the earbuds, we finally figured out they probably never see and never hear us, and never know we’re there.

So we’ve added a new arrow to our admittedly meager quiver. When we see a bus or service truck coming we start yelling at the top of our lungs, and that has indeed made a little bit of difference. Twice now, as the Big Blue Bus sweeps grandly past—with hardly ever anyone in it, by the way—the driver has given us a nice long toot of his horn. It’s a feel-good moment for us, and I guess it is for them, too.

For the first two months I never saw any activity whatsoever in the third-floor apartment window across the street, until suddenly one day the window opened, someone swept the curtains to one side and joined us clapping for a couple of minutes. I noticed him once or twice since, but he never opened the window again.

In the moment

Why do I continue to clap for these five or ten minutes every night? For me, it has gone beyond solidarity to embrace a kind of spiritual practice, a few moments of Zen concentration that may have little meaning to the world outside my balcony. We all know the famous Zen koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Well, we do hear the sound of two, or four or more hands clapping, but does that make any difference either?

Part of such practice is “being in the moment”—“aware,” “woke”—noticing, observing, being conscious, entering an almost prayer-like state of mind where one can focus aspirationally on a better world even when it seems so far out of sight.

My co-worker John (I believe we’re essential workers, too) is convinced that one day, probably sooner than later, the people in the white coats are going to be showing up at my door. But wherever they take me, I’ll be clapping for them, too! That’ll show ’em!

I go on, for now anyway, still with the hope and occasionally the expectation that someone, sometime will be moved to take their own action, to remember to be grateful for a friend or family member who is an essential worker, or maybe they are one themselves and feel encouraged that on a single balcony on this street there’s a neighbor who’s trying in their own little way to make a difference.

But, of course, I can never forget, this is L.A. Just last night, along came a thin, kind of mousy-looking guy walking west on the sidewalk in front of my house. He had a cellphone held up to his face, so we clapped extra loud to purposefully interrupt his conversation and maybe get him to think about something and someone else for a minute. He looked up to see where the interference was coming from and saw us on the balcony as he neared the house. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” he gushed, clearly thinking we were clapping for him. “Do you watch my show?”


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first book, Five Days, Five Nights, is available from International Publishers NY.

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