It was close to 70 years ago that Evelyn Chasan bought a sharp royal-blue suit with a boxy jacket at Klein’s, the fabled department store on Union Square, and wore it to a May Day rally in support of unions and workers’ rights in the adjacent park.
The memory came back to her on Sunday as she joined hundreds of thousands of others to march in sweltering heat and demonstrate deep opposition to the re-election of President George W. Bush.
Chasan, who prefers not to disclose her exact age and wishes to be referred to only as a nonagenarian, leaned over and shared her recollection with her old friend Doris Zaslow as they walked around Union Square.
The pair — one a shade under 5 feet tall and the other just over it — have been friends since they were in their late teens and early 20s, when both moved on the edges of anti-fascist Socialist circles.
They met at one of the many parties — the social, not political kind — organized by fellow progressives in 1938 or 1939, when the world seemed at once a more desperate and more hopeful place. Hitler was not yet a widely known name and social revolution, to elevate the status and well being of the common man, still seemed a possibility to Chasan, Zaslow and their friends.
But then came the discovery of the concentration camps, the Cold War and Senator McCarthy’s campaign to route out all things “red,” even as Chasan’s and Zaslow’ personal lives were changing.
They married and had their children, Chasan and her husband being two of Stuyvesant Town’s original occupants, and Zaslow and her late husband settling in Bayside. As Zaslow became more involved with Judaism and Zionism, Chasan became committed to secularism and focused on strengthening society’s social welfare. Both women became public school teachers and later, guidance counselors.
They have remained friends, part of a small circle of like-minded couples who stayed connected through the decades. This week Chasan and Zaslow reunited, again in common political cause and proudly holding placards high.
As soon as she heard about the demonstration she knew she would be there, says Zaslow. “Even though I’m just an old lady, I want to be counted. I want this statement to be strong,” she said. “On so many issues, the administration is leading us astray.”
Chasan is worried that the current president is dismantling all of the social welfare programs that her parents worked hard to create. “We had benefits that our parents’ generation worked for, like Social Security and Medicare, and now it appears that our children and grandchildren won’t have that at all,” she said.
“We have to worry about our children’s pensions. And it’s one man and his cohorts in the government responsible for all these things. We benefited from the so-called Great Society, which wasn’t great, but a hell of a lot better than it had been. And our children are going to suffer from the decreases. It’s a maternal duty to do what we did by marching.”
Today is a very different time than it was when they were young and first marching. In the late ’30s and ’40s, she felt personally threatened by fascism, Zaslow says. Today “the threat is at a different stage,” with terrorism and worry for the environment and the fabric of American social welfare programs.
She feels more secure as a Jew. And in general, she said, “I don’t feel personally as threatened as I feel the threat for my children and grandchildren. The players have changed, but the worries, the concerns for the future have not.”
“I feel much less hopeful now than I did when I was young,” says Chasan. “If so many idiots could have voted for Bush the last time, and permitted themselves to be bamboozled by actual outright stealing of votes, I don’t have much hope they will continue to do anything much better now.”
For Zaslow, just having been able to participate in the rally was a great pleasure.
“It feels wonderful just to have participated again after all these years and to make a statement, to be one of a half-a-million people,” Zaslow says. “I am deeply grateful that I had the koach [strength] and the chutzpah to go.”