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.