I was a Wall Street zombie

Technically, I never worked on Wall Street. But, for a difficult year in my early twenties, I did don a suit
at the crack of dawn and schlep down to one bank or another in the financial
district or, occasionally, to one of its outposts in Long Island City,
Queens, or Stamford, CT. Citibank, Chase Manhattan, American Express, Swiss Bank. I was a perma-temp in a series of glorified
secretarial pools, the highest paid work my liberal arts degree could
secure me, even in the middle of the Nineties dot com boom. But when dressed up as ‘computer skills,’ typing documents for a series of soulless financial
corporations wasn’t exactly badly paid. In fact, it was the best I could do. When, about a decade later, I returned
to New York City a newly minted Assistant Professor, my annual salary, when converted to an hourly rate, hardly exceeded
what Wall Street had paid me. If indeed, it did exceed it.

Of course, that simple conversion, from insecure hourly waged work to a stable salaried career, is anything but simple, as today’s high school and college graduates well know. What chilled my spirit back in those days, what filled me with dread and drove me from the workforce into the dishonored and impoverished ranks of the humanities graduate student, was the zombified state I felt myself enter in each morning, persist in all day, and linger in long into the night. Like the protestors in Monday’s zombie march on Wall Street, I felt like precarious labor for high capital was slowly draining my life blood, taking away my dream of being young and living in New York and slowly transforming it into a grey nightmare.

Ever since escaping that corporate hellhole, I have been reluctant to to ever voluntarily reenter lower Manhattan. So I was surprised, when taking trips there this week to witness and participate in Occupy Wall Street, at the number of voluntary tourists milling around, snapping pictures, happy amidst the crush of police, brokers, street vendors, and occupiers. Considering the Stock Exchange from the point of view of a postmodern flaneur was an arresting thought. Were these shutterbugs appalled, or excited, to hear that the zombies were coming?

“Make a hole and let the zombies through!” could be the refrain for the whole, shifting swarm of people, vehicles, sounds, smells, and sights that have been set in motion around Liberty Plaza since the beginning of the occupation. The zombie is an ambiguous figure, which is part of the appeal and allure.* Unwillingly animated by another’s dark bidding, we grimly shuffle. Hungry for sustenance, we feed our own appetites on the brains, bodies, dollars, and planet of the living. The NYPD strive to maintain the appearance of control over these flows of worker zombies, tourist zombies, protesting zombies, media zombies. Occasionally they break out of their blue somnolence into savage truncheon, kettling and pepper spray attacks, no more zombified than then. 
The people as swarm are not to be conflated with the people as occupiers, although the groups do overlap. Boredom and creativity spills over into spontaneous, coordinated actions that then ignite a spark of recognition in others, who join in. Zuccotti Park is, as performance theorist Joseph Roach might call it, a vortex of behaviors: into and through and around it flow the zombies. But why this place, this plaza that is of, but not on Wall Street?
Zuccotti Park was once called Liberty Plaza Park, and abuts Liberty Street. Unless I am mistaken, Liberty Street derives its name from the anachronistic jurisdictional category of “the Liberties” — the “district outside a city over which its jurisdiction extends” (OED). Wall Street, as many know, is so named for the wall that used to form the northern boundary of the City of New Amsterdam. Thus, just outside, the Liberties, the zone, as historian Jean-Christophe Agnew has shown, of both the market and the theatre in 17th and 18th century Anglo-American moral and geographic imagination. A space of exchange, circulation, theatricality, negotiation, antagonism. And unmarked graveyards. A historical, as well as geographic space to be occupied. Commerce and performance meet, compete, fuse, and confuse in a carnival of time.
Like the undead, then, I clamber out of my grave and shamble down to the City, its wall, and its Liberties. Unbidden but nonetheless drawn by the occupation as vortex. Reanimated by those dismissed and decried by the corporate right wing media as “zombies.” Participate in a scene that is part festive, part fantasy, part hopeful, part enervating, part dangerous, part potential. Make a hole! Let the zombies through. 
Top photo by WarmSleepy.

Tavia Nyong'o

Tavia Nyong’o is a cultural critic and professor of African American studies, American studies, and theater studies at Yale University. He writes on art, music, politics, culture, and theory. His first book, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (2009), won the Errol Hill Award for best book in African American theatre and performance studies, and a new book, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life, is forthcoming from NYU Press in the fall of 2018. Nyong’o has published in venues such as Radical History Review, Criticism, GLQ, TDR, Women & Performance, WSQ, The Nation, Triple Canopy, The New Inquiry, and n+1. He is co-editor of the journal Social Text.