NEW YORK — Almost 90 minutes into his commute from the New Jersey suburbs, Michael Devaney has nearly reached his job on Wall Street. But first he threads through a sea of occupied but stone-still sleeping bags, around bleary-eyed protesters crawling from under blue plastic tarps in search of cigarettes and coffee, and past a sign on a pole protruding from a suitcase.
"Billionaires," it warns, "Your Time is Up!"
It is 7:50 a.m., and another day in the capital of capitalism has begun.
The scene has been repeated now for most of three weeks, as the regular denizens of Wall Street arrive to meet protesters demanding an end to the financial system as we know it. The bankers, lawyers and others climbing from the subways, briefcases in hand, seem largely unperturbed — sympathetic, even — to those who call them the enemy. Mostly, though, watching and listening as the tom-tom beat of the protests spreads from a lower Manhattan park to cities around the country, Wall Streeters sound confused.
What exactly, they ask, do the protesters want?
"They definitely have a right to be here, but they don't seem to have a goal. What is it, to put Wall Street people in jail?" Devaney, who works in information technology at one of the financial district's many banks, asked Tuesday, after crossing narrow Zuccotti Park, on his way to the office.
"There are people who make a whole lot of money, but them making less money? I'm not sure what that's going to do in itself."
In fact, Devaney's uncertainty about the protesters' message is echoed by some of the protesters, themselves. But while the protesters and the protested eyed one another somewhat warily Tuesday, the density that is life in Manhattan occasionally resulted in conversation, and left them wondering aloud what to make of another.
"I'm still trying to figure it out," said Pete McCarthy, a pinstripe-suited lawyer who represents a financial services firm, studying the protesters on his way to work. "What are they saying, 'People Instead of Profits'. What does it mean?"
The Occupy Wall Street protests, which began Sept. 17 in this privately-owned park across the streets from towers housing investment bank Brown Brothers Harriman and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, have spread this week from Los Angeles to Chicago, Portland, Maine and other cities. Protesters have spoken out about the nation's lack of jobs, blaming President Obama and members of Congress. They have criticized corporate lobbyists and employers.
But they have reserved most of their criticism for "Wall Street." On Monday, when protesters dressed as corporate zombies marched past the New York Stock Exchange clutching fistfuls of money, some bystanders shouted, "Get a job!" But others smiled at the street theater.
"It's nice to see that people can come here and say what's on their mind. People can't do that in a lot of countries," said Gary McFelia, a technology consultant from Long Island in the area for business meetings.
Many of those who work in the fabled center of American commerce say they don't take the protests personally.