Essays Issue 3 Nonfiction
The kitchen was in complete commotion. Everyone was running back and forth, kissing and chopping, dicing and dropping and generally making a mess. A girl with fiery red dreadlocks sliced cucumbers, tomatoes,and carrots on the rickety plastic table. A trio of older women with wispy grey buns sweated and slopped food onto paper plates. A dozen more of us slathered peanut butter on dumpstered bread that was still fresh, we promised. The radio blared. Camera crews fumbled with microphones. A burly man tattooed with horns and spirals all over his face washed the dishes with such terrifying efficiency, some thought he was CIA. In two months, I saw him sleep only once: one night after we had all worked for three days straight, he passed out in the booth at Blarney’s Stone, a half-full beer cradled in his crotch, his black fleece leotard unzipped to his bellybutton.
“Thank God you know your way around a kitchen,” said the Medusa with the twisted fire hair. Her name was Anj. She’d finished the salad and was now cleaning the counter, dispensing orders and looking beautiful all at once. I sliced the stale bread faster, scooped the hummus with vigor. There was more bread in piles to the left, she pointed, and we should probably get those bags off the ground in case it rains, right? This was before the interior decorator from western Mass. drove down with shelves and the patience to organize the pantry each morning, grouping beans with beans, jelly with jam, muttering I-don’t-know-why-you-all-can’t-just-follow-the-labels. She had labeled the shelves, after all.
Outside the kitchen, the dinner line snaked past boys in Rastafarian t-shirts rolling loose tobacco into free cigarettes; past mountainous piles of sleeping bags, tarps, toothpaste, and dry socks where, my first day, I had been told to bag up wet blankets and “be careful for needles”; past the first aid station where a handful of street medics played cards under an official duct-taped red cross; around the Internet tower a handful of gangly white tech kids had constructed; and all the way to the west side of Zucotti Park where the drummers never stopped drumming, where the night before I had curled up in my sleeping bag, gazing at dancing images of the Brooklyn Bridge march projected on the brick building across the street.
The strange half-light of New York City evenings was thick with smoke and electricity.
“Have you ever noticed how it never gets dark in this city?” a woman asked my first night. She’s now farming in Puerto Rico; her best friend Shane won a grant from his tribe to go to college. I hadn’t realized, even after living here for almost a year.
“It freaks me out,” she said. “How can you live in a place that never gets dark?”
First came the kitchen, then the helicopters, then the fallen horse. After: the surveillance, the paranoid and rolled cigarettes, the Miller Lites, the eviction. But first—first came the anxiety.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I gasped into the phone. “I can’t breathe.” I was pacing outside a tall shiny office building at MetroTech in downtown Brooklyn. Dozens of people milled about, sitting on benches drinking coffee doused with milk and sugar, carrying briefcases or pushing carts filled with white garbage bags. The skinny, city-planted trees were bare but well-placed. A few yards away, cars and trucks hurtled toward the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan, where they would sit in traffic for hours, throwing dark fumes and shrill honks into the air. I strode back and forth with frenetic energy. My body was exhausted, but I couldn’t sit. I needed to go back inside: the story was due; it was due right now. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I stripped off my jacket even though it was a cold early March. I started to cry.
Time passed in ragged spurts.
My boyfriend arrived. He held me in his arms and stroked my hair. I apologized, and he kissed my forehead. He was supposed to be on a plane, traveling hundreds of miles an hour high above our steel and concrete city to visit his friends.
“They’re building high-speed trains that will take you from France to China in 48 hours,” an old Englishman told me recently. “Hyper-speed. Time and space is collapsing around us.”
I knew something about living in hyper-speed myself. My job was to write dozens of articles a week about this impenetrable city and its six million stone-faced inhabitants. I worked all the time. When I slept, I had nightmares about the people that I reduced to disembodied surnames and eight-word quotes. But shivering outside the office building that I was afraid to return to, I wasn’t thinking about trains or space or time, about stolen identities or inaccurate stories. I was thinking only about keeping my job. I was terrified that I would fail in this career, in this relationship, and in this city—this gleaming, metallic dreamland where life is so fleeting, Joan Didion lived for seven years without ever buying a mattress.
Concealed behind the taut faces and drowned in Friday-night binges, there was an anxiety I couldn’t name. When not thick-tongued or frenzy-eyed from the Xanax and the Klonopin, the Adderall and the Ecstasy, we lived every moment at the yellow threat level that’s haunted our adult lives. Even when everything was right angles and perfect punctuation, our anxiety was too strong. We were cracking.
Within an hour, I was back inside, the story filed, my splotchy red face buried behind the computer screen. That was the beginning.
“We need more food!” Anj yelled,surveying the line that still stretched one hundred people deep. It was past ten o’clock. Shane and I rummaged through the piles, pulling out cans of beans, onions, cucumbers, and yogurt. We sliced more bread—there was always more bread and more apples. Within a month there would be so many crates and plastic buckets of this fruit (there is no better fuel for the revolution than a freshly picked October Mackintosh), that during the raid the police carted off rotten apple pulp along with my friends, my tent, and my favorite pair of jeans.
Skinny men and a blue-haired girl swept the concrete paths. A weathered Zapatista with a cane and a beret ambled along, stopping ever so often to smooth his skinny moustache. From the east side echoed the call and response of the General Assembly as the circle tried to decide what to do about foreclosures and racism and all that fucking garbage piling up. And the drummers—what the hell were we going to do about the drummers? I could barely hear the discussion, but I didn’t care. I had sandwiches to make. I had lives to sustain. I had the girl with fiery red dreadlocks to impress. There was too much energy, too many people, too much to be real, and this evening is really so many scenes, so many splices of insomniac nights that we thought would continue forever as long as we kept the audience enthralled.
I made it until April (one month; 60 stories; 30,000 words) and then switched jobs—left the skyscraping office building in Brooklyn for another in Manhattan where I wrote even more articles at a breakneck speed. There was always the Next Big Story: the debt ceiling, Planned Parenthood, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Casey Anthony. An update on Syria and a critique of the teachers’ unions. Conjectures about the staggering spike in tornadoes (apparently it really is global warming; it’s not just better tornado detection technology). The Women’s World Cup waited with taut, adrenaline-filled expectation on my tiny desk, only weeks away and demanding coverage, Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage that would inspire millions of young girls to play and convince universities to comply with Title IX, 800-word daily filings that would make Hillary Clinton and Mia Hamm proud. Better work than I could offer—especially those days when I took 20 milligrams of Klonopin just to get myself to the office each morning. Another 40 to sleep at night. And coffee, of course coffee. Coffee to function.
No one will read these articles, I comforted myself.
It didn’t work.
Most mornings, I woke around 4 a.m. First, the gasps, the irregular breathing. Next, the hot tightness spreading up my forearms to my shoulders and neck, down my thighs and calves until I clenched the arch of my feet to keep from clawing at my skin. Then, the medicine, the tiny white pills that slid down my esophagus with a sip of gin, dissolved into tiny particles, rushed toward my brain in a stream of blood, crashed through my skull, and Velcro-ed themselves like jetpacks onto the tiny neurotransmitters, zooming back and forth through ever widening chloride ion channels to shut down my nervous system as fast as possible. It’s the same medicine used to treat epilepsy. Within 20 minutes, I’d be calm enough to curl up on my half of the futon bed and sob quietly.
The apartment that I shared with my boyfriend was a single, 220-square-foot room. Our next-door neighbor was a burnt-out strip club. I imagined the women dancing before the fire, hips gyrating, shoulders shimmying. Their performance looped behind my eyelids. The world’s pain appears on women’s bodies first, I thought, creating tiny scars like the first cracks in a frozen lake.
“The body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged workers: the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance,” wrote Silvia Federici. “The human body was the first machine developed by capitalism.”
If so, mine was malfunctioning. I fingered my jutting hipbones with revulsion and fear; I weighed less than I had since middle school. The skin on my legs already bore smooth white remnants of nights, years ago, when I dragged a single-blade razor across my quadriceps, watching the beads of blood spring from the cut like hot tears. I didn’t want my body marked by this world anymore, but I was too anxious to eat.
“The civilizing process, the celebrated march of the mind demanded by capitalism, [has] long entailed the intensification of body-disciplining techniques,” wrote Roy Porter.
Before Freud, some thought mental illness itself was caused by capitalism, that the system drove people to insanity. Then we learned the problem was just hysterical women, so life marched on—and our bodies became the unheeded warning labels, canvases with our economy’s side effects etched in white ink.
On the night of the attempted eviction in October, everything was at stake. A police beating. The destruction of our well-organized shelves. The future of the park. The future of all humanity. But all we were really thinking about was sandwiches. The sleep deprivation, alcohol, and white glare of the police tower stationed across the street were obstructing our vision, but we could still see the thousands of people pouring into the park, their clothing rumpled after riding the overnight busses from D.C. and Boston, their eyes bloodshot from watching the online livestream all night in their apartments in Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. City council members came and children and Grannies for Peace. The city had said that we were to be “temporarily” evicted in less than an hour for cleaning.
We’d spent all night trying to agree on civil disobedience tactics. Should we all sit in the middle of the park, elbows locked with elbows? Should we form standing, roving columns? And what about hard lockdowns: fastening your neck to the park’s metal railings with a bike U-lock, your waist to a tree with a metal chain? Was that too extreme? No, it was a good example—remember, the whole world was watching. The plans were confusing, so we finally decided as a group to stockpile as much water as possible, sit down in the kitchen, and stay there until they carted us off or agreed to dissolve the WTO and IMF, end the wars and tax the rich. Oh, and Stop and Frisk—they had to stop the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk. But even then we knew we probably wouldn’t leave, so we compiled a list of our names and birthdates to report our arrests to the National Lawyers Guild and headed to the bar.
Now, with the entire park packed with people nearly shoulder to shoulder, I was less worried about roving columns and chained necks and more concerned with what to do with these people, these bodies who had traveled hundreds of miles to stand here with us at 4 a.m. in the drizzling cold, waiting for the NYPD or the city sanitation workers to show up, waiting for … well, no one really knew what. In Spain, after la policia raided the square, hundreds ringed the cops for four days, penning the police in so that at least somebody was still there.
“We made jokes that the cops were occupying the square,” said a Spaniard.
I put my head down and started chopping bread, spreading jam, scooping hummus, and before I knew it a rising cheer was spreading throughout the space, tiny particles of air squeezed through vibrating vocal chords until it became an overwhelming din of color and light and sound. The cleaning had been postponed. A celebration was in order. A celebration of sandwiches.
There was one day, I think it was in May, when I went to work un-medicated. I was so proud. Hours later, a panic attack sent me home in the middle of the afternoon, and by the next week I was on three more medications: one to sleep, one to wake up, one to manufacture desire.
Outside, the park was a metaphor: for freedom, for the alternative, for creating space to invent a new reality. But inside—inside this half-acre of concrete that sparked a media spectacle, then a movement, then a brand, then a subculture—inside, the park was real.
This is what I remember:
The plastic drawers in the kitchen under the info table crammed with nametags, sharpies, rubber bands, twine, duct tape, and a stash of expensive dark chocolate bars. You could never find the duct tape, so it wasn’t worth trying.
The gray-water system that didn’t work, even after Jim the Chemical Man from Pennsylvania tinkered with it for four days, driving everyone crazy, until he gave up and doused the whole area in toxic chemicals as his finale.
The back table where I slept during rainy nights next to a boy with tiny pockmarks in his cheeks, him staying up all night to readjust the tarp to keep me dry. (This kindness I learned of later, the night after an NYPD horse fell and kicked wildly at our feet in the middle of a packed crowd in Times Square, and the police hooked his ankle and dragged him off for “conspiracy to incite a riot.”)
My best friend Tom, who slept in a furniture factory and dreamed of writing a children’s novel about a staircase that never ends. His pitch: “Imagine a girl climbing all the way until she reaches the seam between the world and outer space, and the book ends with her taking that first step beyond.”
The night it hailed in October, and Tom took everyone to his friend’s apartment, where they drank forties and climbed up to the roof to howl bare-chested at the moon.
The donation buckets collected each evening by the finance team: Mercury John and Bobby Bailout and Pete, the drug dealer from Boston whom I punched one night in the face. “Well aren’t you a little firecracker?” he asked condescendingly.
The plucky mandolin perched atop the pile of backpacks, rain jackets, and everything else we owned.
The moonshine Jello shots that an old woman delivered to us one night. We slurped them down quickly even though there was no drinking in the park.
Kenny folding and stacking the never-ending supply of cardboard boxes in a marijuana daze. He had the same job at home in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, where he sorted the garbage for his whole building without appreciation, where one day we went to bum cigarettes and give out free food and he’d pointed at small figures on the rooftops and told me “the block was hot.”
The hours that stretched like loose taffy until we shook ourselves, disoriented, and asked whether anyone knew what day it was. Anyone? Our phones were dead; there was only one charging station in the park and all the outlets were taken. “Clocks begat capitalism,” someone joked. We laughed, but he had a point: Without the invention of the reliable pendulum clock, there would never have been the Industrial Revolution.
The donations! The armfuls and FedEx boxes stuffed with non-perishables that, for some inexplicable feeling, people suddenly wanted others to eat. The five hundred corned beef sandwiches from Russ and Daughters; the leftover wedding cake delivered at 2 a.m. by drunken guests. The child who came, parents in tow, to donate a half-eaten hot dog.
The subconscious feeling that my body itself had become a political entity,flesh morphed into the symbol for space, choice, and freedom, even though I was just a volunteer in a free kitchen that had nothing to do with solving systemic inequality.
Without Bin Laden’s death, I would never have made it through May. It was the type of all-hands-on-deck story that required everyone in the newsroom to enlist in the undertaking. The news broke on Twitter while I was in a cab, eyeing the upward tick of the meter’s red, pixelated digits. Soon, I was working too many hours to think about anything, which was just what I needed.
For a newsroom our size, we dominated the story. Osama’s life and death; the CIA and the FBI; Pakistan and Israel; the War on Terror and Leaks on Twitter—any angle we could think of we cranked out, hoping to beat the Times, hoping Homeland Security would do their part to keep the apocalypse at bay. That Thursday, five days after the targeted attack, I drifted into my therapy appointment dark-circled and coffee-stained.
“Bin Laden died,” I said.
The therapist arranged the folds of her chiffon skirt. The air-conditioner sputtered. I imagined curling up on the couch in the waiting room, burying myself with the back copies of Time and Newsweek and The New Yorker and never leaving.
“I haven’t slept since Bin Laden died,” I said.
In the end, our storytelling failed early; we had only 59 nights, not one thousand and one. The plot lulled—just for a moment—and the king came, ordering his men to clear away the tents and rain-soaked blankets, hand-written letters and granola bars, remnants of smashed apples and Lopi’s screen-prints.
But for some of us, it didn’t end.
After I left the park in November, I found that the world had broken open, and the city was filled with the strange, the invisible, the ones for whom time was as winding as the lacy, wrought-iron railings on the fire escapes in the East Village. I could see what was normally hidden. Underground at the Union Square train station, a bent-double man clutched a paper cup with knotted talons. In a Chinatown park, ancient, thin-boned women spent hours rotating their hips in circles, squatting up and down, clapping their hands and pounding their fists against their thighs. Heading outbound on the J train a man named Oscar wrapped himself in a stained baby blue blanket. He had no family in the city because “they ain’t family if they don’t let you sleep on their floor.” That night we slept next to each other on the street, his fat arms wrapped around the skinny waist of my boy.
“See you here tonight?” he asked us next morning as we hurried toward the train, my mind already preoccupied. I had less than an hour to make it to an interview with the editor of a literary magazine who would ask me to write about my experiences with Occupy. It had rained during the night, and I was all wet. I was going to be late.
“Maybe,” I said, because that’s what you say when you’ll never see someone again—someone like fire-haired Anj, who left a few days after we made sandwiches together. Oscar didn’t understand that the night before had been a protest by a community group fighting cuts to shelters, a staging of sleeping bodies for the camera’s lens. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him it wasn’t real.
And who was I to tell Oscar what was real when we wielded insanity like a sword: singing aloud at home auctions until the buyers couldn’t hear the price; sleeping outside when we had empty apartments in Park Slope and Jackson Heights; ambling around the cops dressed as clowns and jokers. When we heard every crackling on the line as the FBI tapping our phones, saw every black van as an NYPD surveillance team. (Only half the time were we right.) When we guzzled Miller Lites and Jim Beam to stop the paranoia. When each scene was spliced and fragmented to incoherence by the helicopters that were always above us: over Foley Square and Wall Street and the National Monument in D.C. Their propellers shredded all of Lower Manhattan into oblivion for hours the night they closed the airwaves and blacked out the media.
By July, the anxiety boiled over and everything was swept away: the job, the apartment, the boyfriend, the future. Even before I took refuge in Zucotti Park, I fled to Buenos Aires, where I wandered among labyrinthine streets and dilapidated pastel houses in La Boca, carried margarita-laden trays in a Palermo discoteca and ate 10-cent pastries for breakfast. At the men’s psychiatric hospital where I worked, the art therapy center had a hand-painted sign at the entrance:
“Si Usted siente que está sufriendo un ataque de pánico, disimule.”
It’s a wry joke that’s difficult to translate, something like: if you feel like you’re having a panic attack, act normal. But there are some moments when we can’t act normal, when we have to let the mask fall just to be sure that there is something still living underneath.
Even now, months after leaving the park, there are still moments when the whole world cracks open right in front of my eyes, and I can see the hope and humanity behind the photoshopped façade. Sometimes, when I run along the East River highway and the morning light refracts off the water just right, I imagine sleeping beside the men curled up on benches near their shopping carts, and I remember why I ended up in the park to begin with.
This happened just the other day. On an early morning run, I watched a curled man rise and, with terrifying beauty, close his eyes, kneel toward the Empire State Building, and conjure Mecca.