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.