“The workers asked only for bread and a shortening of the long hours of toil,” Mother Jones said of the events surrounding the first May Day in 1886. “The agitators gave them visions. The police gave them clubs.”
Unlike September’s tepid, government-sanctioned Labor Day, the history of May 1, the International Workers Day, is soaked in blood and class struggle. One hundred and sixteen years ago this week, at a mass demonstration in Haymarket Square in Chicago, a bomb was thrown that killed a policeman. Eight anarchists were rounded up in the aftermath. Four were hanged.
The people at that first May Day gathering, trapped as they were in the formal fashions of the late 19th century, had to rely on banners and signs to get their demands—chief among them the eight-hour working day—across. Not so their rebellious great-great-grandchildren—the last 30-odd years have seen our very bodies become billboards. T-shirts may not be the most flattering garments in the world, but there is at least one factor, aside from their extreme cheapness, that accounts for their popularity: When you have something to say, you can leave the signs home and wear your message on your chest.
On 8th Street, the main artery of a neighborhood that has seen more than its share of radical activism over the years, there are all manner of clever and not-so-smart T-shirts for sale, including at least a couple of genuine left-wing classics. Infinity (20 West 8th Street), one of those stores that specializes in spiked cuffs, tongue studs, and mildly obscene bumper stickers, has a bright red shirt printed with a yellow hammer and sickle and the word propaganda in English at the top and something in Russian across the bottom ($18). It’s a dazzling color combination, but there is some question as to what the shirt is really saying—when a languid clerk was asked to confirm that the Russian word translated as propaganda, he raised an eyebrow and shrugged.
The famous silk-screened image of a beret-sporting Che Guevara, in black on scarlet, is as likely to turn up these days over a string bikini in Cannes as on the back of a proletarian, but for those with more than merely an aesthetic interest in the Latin American revolutionary (he was a very good-looking guy), Infinity offers not just a Che shirt ($18) but a Che temporary tattoo ($4.99).
The day I visited Infinity, no one was picketing a shirt in the window depicting two caricatures in coolie hats and listing a bunch of dumb dirty jokes under the heading “Chinese Menu,” though the garment was more than vaguely reminiscent of those shirts responsible for the recent fracas at Abercrombie & Fitch. In that case, the geniuses at A&F decided it would be fun to sell racist T-shirts with pictures of slanty-eyed fellows and legends like “Wong Brothers Laundry Service—Two Wongs Can Make It White.” (“We personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt,” a company spokesman told the San Francisco Chronicle.) Protests forced A&F to pull the shirts from the shelves and now, like so much other detritus of American society, they are a hot collectible on eBay.
The T-shirts at May Day Books & Info (155 First Avenue) are only five bucks, but the display isn’t much to look at—the goods are under house arrest behind a chicken coop-ish cabinet at the shop’s headquarters, an improvised space in the lobby of the Theater for the New City. Nevertheless, if you can catch the store when it’s open (Thursday to Sunday only) you can pick up a fetching tee with a drawing by Eric Drooker showing a group of drum-beating, gamboling protesters facing off against a line of cops in riot gear who do not appear to be in a dancing mood.
Ephemera celebrating a whole range of struggles—feminism, multiculturalism, gay liberation—illuminates the screen when you click on www. northernsun.com, a vast Web site that sells everything from “I Am a Shameless Agitator” refrigerator magnets ($1.50) to “This Insults Women” stickers ($3) to “We’re Here Queer Fabulous” buttons ($1) . There’s even a great gift item—Mother’s Day is coming!—a silver Darwin plaque featuring a fish with feet ($6).
Of course a fish plaque won’t help mom much against a volley of tear gas. For that eventuality, she needs a proper gas mask from a place like Uncle Sam’s Army Navy Outfitters (37 West 8th Street). “We have Korean ones, Israeli ones, British ones, Canadian ones,” the salesman tells me, waving at a wall of masks. The Korean model is the top of the line, since it’s got a place where you can plug in a canteen for a quick sip of Cuba libre. Plus, if you’re shuttling from one IMF demo to another, the filter lasts a full month. The Korean number is $399, but other masks start at $89.95 and the store is offering 25 percent off. (Guess that anthrax scare is officially over.) Street fighters interested in a less serious financial commitment might prefer a plain camouflage-printed bandanna, to tie over nose and mouth (two for $4).
Some people aren’t merely concerned about an occasional encounter with tear gas; they’re also worried enough about the toxic chemicals unleashed in the wake of late capitalism to insist on alternatives to garden-variety shampoo, toothpaste, and other small necessities. At Prana (125 First Avenue), a natural-food store in the East Village heavy with a pungent mixture of muesli and patchouli (if it’s possible to smell like a year, this place reeks of 1967), there’s a selection of Waleda bath products, a line, according to the firm’s Web site, of “anthroposophic-homeopathic medicine and natural personal care products” that is made from stuff either harvested in the wild or cultivated in Waleda’s own biodynamic organic gardens.
A bottle of Waleda body and massage oil ($11.50) might be just the thing to enhance your first night in a heart-shaped “love bed” from www.thelovebed.com, a Web site with items no environmentally conscious sex machine can afford to do without. The bed, a festival of cheesiness that brings to mind those old TV ads for beautiful Mt. Airy Lodge, has a 100 percent natural latex heart mattress with what the maker describes as “organic cotton and pure grow wool quilted to the undyed cotton damask fabric.” Price-wise, this setup is not for the lily-livered eco-activist: The bed itself is $5495 (on sale from $7900), the heart-shaped pure grow wool mattress pad is $1495, and custom organic fitted sheets are $695. But oh, what fun Emma Goldman, who once said, “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution,” and her beloved, Alexander Berkman, the guy who took a shot at steel baron Henry Clay Frick, would have had rolling around in it.