Before the Eviction, After the Storm

It was like what a woman who’d driven up from New Orleans told me one night. This was at the Occupy Library, 2 am, I’d just picked up some bedtime reading, a collection of short stories by Cynthia Ozick called The Pagan Rabbi, and of course people were still up talking, the breeze warm that early am, a group of four Hasidic Jews sitting on the broad steps into the park’s shallow stone bowl, singing quiet Hebrew harmony around a soft guitar. The woman’s name was Elisa Miller, 38, Midwestern-born, an out of work landscape architect. She said she hadn’t really laughed since Katrina. “We’ve been occupying New Orleans for six fucking years.” But something had changed. She laughed when I said I was writing for Rolling Stone, danced back, and then feinted a fake punch at my shoulder. “Occupy your life, dude.” She had long straight brown hair and the loose rubbery gestures of someone who’s exhausted and yet glad to be awake, too happy to sleep. “You come here with what you’ve been OCD’ing about,” she said. “First day you’ve got a sign. ‘Tax the Rich!’ And it’s like, sure, that’s a good idea. But then you’re here for a couple of days, you work in the kitchen or in the library, you speak up when you want to, and you get to thinking, here’s exactly what you need. You can march if you want to, but here?” She turned a circle, sweeping it all in, cops included. “This is where we’re rebooting history.”

So it seemed the Sunday following the freak snow storm of October 29th. “What will happen in the winter?” has been a refrain almost as incessant as the drumming. The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. Nobody has “known” anything that would happen so far. Maybe they will endure; maybe they will retreat; maybe Bloomberg will, like the mayors of Oakland and Denver, attack with gas and horses. “Subzero sleeping bags” are a topic of constant conversation in what have become the streets of Liberty Plaza’s very real Sim City, three words murmured or proclaimed with defiance and shivers. The morning after the big snow I expected to find the occupiers blue-lipped and worried. Right before the storm the city had confiscated their generators, used for emergency heat among other things. The bicycle-powered batteries they’d been building for just such a contingency were not yet ready to pedal. The wet snow collapsed tents and the wind snatched away tarps and signs and extra clothing. Copies of the Occupied Wall Street Journal whipped up into the night and plastered sidewalks. It was a terrible storm.

As I made my way to the park the next morning, I came upon sirens, men with rifles, SWAT written across their jackets — Wall Street finally taken, completely closed off. I wasn’t the only one who, faced with barricades and blue shirts, thought this was the end. But it wasn’t Bloomberg. It was Batman. A film shoot. Two actual cops who spotted me taking a picture of a Gotham City cruiser volunteered to make it “real” for me. “Get somebody to take a picture!” beamed one. I passed my camera off to a bystander, and as soon as it was out of my hands he pinned my arms behind my back and directed my body into the back of the cruiser, one hand on the back of my head. “Don’t smile, you idiot,” laughed the cop. “Look alarmed!” I did.

But that was just a show. The real world, that sunny morning, was in Liberty Plaza. I heard it before I saw it: the drums, like they’d been in the beginning, louder than the city. The camp was sparkling, the snow melted, the tents clean, the books dry, jeans strung on clothes lines. The kitchen abandoned its punitive diet of rice to serve up roast turkey for all comers. And they came from everywhere, occupiers and street people and tourist, drawn, like me, to what they’d thought would be a scene of disaster. Some of the tourists picked up signs. “I guess I am the 99%,” said an electrical engineer from New Jersey. An elegantly dressed white haired woman leapt at a chance to work in the kitchen; “I can do that,” she declared. An old woman brought a bag of helium-filled yellow balloons. The drummers, led by a dark skinned man whose face was hidden by a green bandana, sounded like the night’s cold had taught them all a new rhythm, Latin, less angry, like they were laughing behind their bandanas. That night the general assembly would be dedicated to a battle over demands; but that morning, the first of what will likely be a long and hard winter at Liberty, was a reprieve, a fantasy, a multitude, an imaginary city raising its flags.