Please note: This is not an individual post or a standalone entry. The following is the 13th installment of a longer tale. As such, I’d recommend beginning at the beginning: A Mightier Penn (1)
It took the better part of a minute, but Holly recognized the distinct sensation that someone, somewhere, eyeballing her. She looked around, side to side, then over her shoulder, before locating the goggling culprit. She saw him, and he saw her in her hodgepodge of loose Indian print skirt, tall leather boots, purple fleece jacket, silver cat-eye glasses, and a cute toboggan of a hat, from which her eye-catching copper hair flowed. Holly disregarded him as a protest oddity and returned her placard to the sky and her attention to the cause at hand.
She had arrived at the day’s protest alone, without invitation or obligation, intent on investing a couple of hours of her time and energy into what she viewed as the betterment of the planet. It was as simple as that. She wasn’t an antiestablishment hippy combatant, wasn’t an anarchist, wasn’t an environmental extremist, Holly was a concerned member of the global community who felt compelled to do something, and so she did.
An associate professor of photography at Queens University, Holly had spent much of the prior evening grading her Intro to Photojournalism students’ midterm projects. Per the assignment, the portfolios were submitted electronically, and Holly analyzed each photograph on her laptop, typing notes and marks in an adjacent window, all the while sipping on a mug of hot tea. When she finished with the last photograph, she rose from her couch, exchanged her empty for a glass of chardonnay, and retrieved a bundle of crafts from a downstairs closet: poster board, paint, markers, glue, and tape. She then setup shop on the living room floor, and spent the remainder of the evening crafting a couple signs for the following day’s energy protest.
On the street before Knight’s headquarters, she held her sign high, but her mind was absent the protest. Instead her thoughts were hung up on the handsome man in the dark suit behind her. Protest were typically filled with human curiosities in costumes that ran the gamut and outlandish props designed to inspire or offend. That’s what made the man in the suit unique. He resembled an executive, attractive but stern, or perhaps a federal agent. Holly again glanced over her shoulder. He was still there, still handsome, and definitely not an FBI agent. He appeared purposeless, misplaced, lost.
Meeting her eyes for the second time, he smiled at her, and Holly realized her glance had elongated into a stare. Busted. Not one to shy away, Holly turned around to face the man. She hollered above the commotion of the crowd. “No sign?”
“Excuse me?” Managed the man, startled by the question. “A sign? No, not on me.”
“What about a name?”
“Um, yeah, Penn,” said Penn, who made effort to bridge the distance between them.
“Well Penn, it’s too bad about the sign.”
“I’m not sure I need one. What exactly are you protesting?”
She angled her sign towards Penn. In block letters it read: ‘Leave it in the ground’. Holly then explained. “The power company is lobbying for approval to expand the High Ridge coal plant.”
Penn ventured closer, until he was standing in conversational proximity. “And I gather you’re not?”
“You gather correctly,” she said. “That plant is a relic grandfathered to operate at dated standards. The company is fighting for expansion because it’s cheaper than building a more efficient facility.”
“That’s funny,” said Penn.
“More random coincidence than funny, but I just drove past that place.” Penn looked around. “And I can definitely see why you have such good support.”
“The more the merrier,” she said, looking about. “And the more folks, the more support, the better.” To punctuate her comment, she reached down and scooped up an auxiliary sign lying at her feet and handed it to Penn. Thoughtlessly, he accepted it without reservation. “And now you can be part of that support and not part of the problem,” she said with Girl Scout enthusiasm.
Penn held the sign waist high at arm’s length, as though holding it for someone else. “Thanks, but I’m more of a bystander then part of the problem.”
“One in the same.”
“If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.”
Penn read the sign he had yet to raise. In dripping red letters, it stated, “Stop Killing Our Mountains”, to which he asked, “Wait, I thought you were fighting the power company and the coal plant?”
“Then what’s up with the killing of mountains?”
“We’re also fighting mountaintop mining.”
“That’s quite a platform.”
“It’s all related. Coal pollutes, but fortunately it only makes half the U.S. greenhouse emissions,” she said with appreciated sarcasm as she turned her shoulders towards Penn. “But the air pollution is only one part of it. Do you know where they get the coal from?”
Penn revisited his newly adopted sign. “Mountain tops?”
“Yup, the power companies shred mountaintops for coal. Literally, they level billion year old mountains for coal, and in the process they create unstable hillsides, pollute our waterways and create toxic ash ponds.”
Penn assimilated the crash course in mountaintop mining and pollution. “So, why do they do it?” He cringed at the naïve question the instant it sailed from his lips.
“Why does anybody do anything?”
Aware of the answer to her rhetorical question, he decided against stating the obvious.
Holly watched as Penn dipped his toe into the pool of social resistance with trepidation, and smiled when he hoisted his sign, and began to tap his foot with the chants of the protest. The sensation was unexpected, but she felt a swell of what she could only describe as pride in seeing Penn, undoubtedly the best dressed attendee, at her sign.
No sooner had the pair acclimated to the scene then the winter sky darkened and the temperature, carried by a changing wind, dipped along with the mood and energy of the electric crowd. Like cows before the slaughterhouse, nervousness began to rile the masses and people started to move about. Holly picked up on the change and chippiness, and began to look around. The previously festive protest now felt combustible.