Friday, January 01, 2021

Toilet Mouse

Things I enjoyed:

Fetch The Bolt Cutters
NO TIME / ooh la la
Bodega Boys

I built a dream around myself in the beginning of the year. I had been elected Co-Chair of the Brooklyn Electoral Working Group in January, a responsibility I still can't believe I was prepared to take on. Here was my plan: Co-Chair Jasmin and I would spend the year commuting between the districts for our endorsed state candidates (we called them DSA For The Many) running trainings, supervising our field event leads, and personally knocking tons of doors. In particular I would spend a lot of time in Marcela's district, where our volunteers would meet up for tacos in Sunset Park after a canvass, or bowl a few frames at Melody Lanes and talk to Pete, the Dickensian but affable fixture behind the bar - a decent prospect, provided we never had to find out what his politics were. Asher and I had talked through an early sketch of an idea to start a DSA bowling league, perhaps mostly a scheme to print up embroidered jackets. And despite being a patron for many years I had only just discovered the gallinitas sold by La Flor. The pefect pastry! The closest thing to lembas bread outside of Rivendell, for only a buck fifty. So I'd make myself fat on those, to boot.

This plan also held that we would run the largest grassroots field operation for Bernie Sanders in advance of his campaign officially arriving in NYC in the early summer. Bernie'd had a heart attack, sure, but his triumphant Queensbridge rally in October with AOC and Tiffany had dazzled us all into believing that through huge effort and left bonhomie that all things were possible. We'd printed our own literature with a plausible caricature of Bernie on it; I had tens of thousands of palm cards shipped from Radix to my little co-working space in Flatiron. We made t-shirts, pins, and so on.

The substance of the dream held at first. Our brilliant Field Coordinator Rachel had organized a series of hugely successful "Big Bernie Canvasses," including one at The Well at the beginning of March that four hundred people showed up to. We ran out of turf!

Marcela threw a party for us all to watch the Super Tuesday returns in the unadorned back room of a subterranean Mexican restaurant on 4th Ave. in Sunset Park. The wait staff wheeled a big T.V. into the room on a cart as if setting up for a middle school sex ed presentation. I got through about half of an unappealing veggie burrito (full of peas and carrots) before the results began to make clear that the knives had come out. I lost my appetite and left early. A week later, Jasmin and I returned to the restaurant for a meeting with Alex and Labiba, Marcela's two young campaign staffers. I went to use the bathroom and realized that the toilet handle was loose; I thought perhaps it had come detached from the chain inside the tank like had happened to my own toilet recently. For reasons I can't explain, I moved the tea light and air freshener from the top of the tank to the sink and lifted the lid off. In the half light of the bathroom I could see that there was no water in it, but to my horror I could make out the form of a dead mouse curled around the flapper gasket. "Hay un ratito muerto en el bano," I tried to explain to the staff.

An ill omen, a drop of blood dissolving in a glass of water. A vanguard of dark clouds advancing over the horizon.

The next week, the shutdowns began. I'd spent the morning petitioning underground at the 36th St. Perfect for canvassing: A wave of fresh targets every few minutes. That afternoon, the Mayor called for a halt to persuasion in the Queens special election. Everyone on the chat wanted to know what we were going to do. Jasmin and I started working on a statement; our campaigns announced they were halting field operations before we could finish writing it up. I packed up a few things from my funky little co-working office in Flatiron and worked from home the next day as an experiment, to make sure it was feasible if I had to do it. But it turned out it wasn't an experiment.

The sense-dimension of the pandemic that struck me the most was how "quiet" the city became, absent the din of human commerce. The birds were bolder, louder. Days without a single person walking down our street, hours without a personal car or bike. Though of course there were so many more ambulances than usual, and you could tell by the continuous sirens. (I would think of the line: You heard the rattling death-trains as you lay there all alone from "The Sickbed of Cuchulainn." But of course they were talking about something else.)

Bernie ended his campaign. For the rest of the year, Nina and I were inside most of the time. We managed to get by on the contents of our pantry for the first month or two, cooking and eating prepared foods at a somewhat higher rate than usual. When our supplies dwindled, we resolved to go to the grocery store at a time we thought they would be the least crowded but wound up overshooting the mark and found that the big supermarkets had all closed early. We'd masked up though (masks still in short supply at this point) and had practically nothing left to eat, so we went instead to Greeny Ivy, the fancy deli on President St. which is open nearly around the clock. We filled our pushcart with staple products, but also with junk food: Cheez-Its, mochi, beer... the pent-up expression of five weeks of self-pity. Our first purchase cost us several times as much as we would have spent on a regular grocery trip. We apologized to and profusely thanked the guy at the register. He told us he was planning to quit the following week. "It's not worth it," he said.

Cheez-Its in particular became a fixation of mine for the duration of the first wave of the pandemic. I insisted we buy family size boxes of every variation: classic, spicy, white cheddar, "toasted" (burnt). We went through all the available flavors of mochi. I made fish stick fish tacos. Nina improvised excellent ratatouille. I honed my "perfect tuna salad" recipe, which includes sriracha, pickles, and McCormick Italian Seasoning.

A word about bread: It's not like bread itself was hard to come by, at least where we live - provided you could go to the grocery store. In fact, if anything was hard to get your hands on it was yeast. The Yuppies had bread fever; New York Magazine was writing articles about home baking and selling OXO kitchen gear in the sidebar. So we stayed away at first until we chanced upon a small jar of instant yeast at Green Ivy on one of our rare trips Outside. It took me a while to produce something edible. My first "loaves" were too flat and dense to even make satisfactory toast, which I now recognize as a consequence of not using a real dutch oven. Eventually I hit upon the "Fast White Bread" recipe from Joy, which worked well enough in the nine-inch loaf pans we kept in the cabinet, and which helped me build my confidence with mixing, proofing, and kneading. The first time we made pizza, with dough from this recipe plus canned olives, a hard-won ball of mozzarella, and a bachelor-size jar of Classico marinara source... reader, I almost cried. Much later, once you could start seeing people in person again, Chi gave me a little container of sourdough starter, which makes everything both easier and more complex.

By spring it had become clear that the work of our campaigns would be done over the phone. The campaigns figured out the scripts and the predictive dialers and handled all the trainings; the only thing for me to do was sign up. So I joined phonebanks on weekend afternoons, and looked out the window at the clouds in the sky and at the little community garden off the street behind my building, now empty most of the time. During weekday evening phonebanks, I watched the sunset while talking to people or waiting for a call; the image of the burning clouds was what I associated with the voices on the other end of the call. The dialing software we were using was operator-assisted, so you could expect that most of your connected calls would put you in conversation with an actual human every 30 seconds or so. It wasn't quite the same as canvassing a building and smelling what everyone was cooking for dinner. But it wasn't bad, either.

In the early summer we began to venture outside every now and then. One of our walks took us west into Red Hook. To keep as far away from other people as possible, we walked down to Van Brunt St. and then took the right at the Tesla showroom down to Imlay. We were at Verona St. in front of what looked like a scrapyard when a large stray tabby cat came around the corner and started rubbing against our legs and purring. We stopped to pet her, and after a few minutes a car pulled up. A woman got out with a bag of cans of cat food. At a safe remove, she explained that there was a cat colony living in the scrapyard, a mix of genuine street cats and some abandoned pets. She said the tabby was a former housecat and that a plan was in motion to scoop her up and get her adopted. The others (there were others!) might be too feral to live indoors. We made several trips back over the next several months, getting to know an orange stripey one and a small tuxedo guy. One late summer evening, Chris biked down from Greenpoint with a backpack full of airplane bottles of Tito's and Jameson, and we sat on the sidewalk in front of the scrapyard drinking as the cats cautiously emerged through a gap in the fence and went about their nighttime business on the waterfront. Late night bicyclists passing occasionally on Verona. An enormous and seemingly empty box truck for a poultry company parked in front of us. A kind of summer bliss.

But first the protests, and the fireworks. We joined the first big rally at Barclays Center at the end of May and tried to trail along with a march at least once a week through July. A pervasive mood of repression and defiance: Police helicopters hovering low overhead, for no credible reason, in the late afternoon; an evening stand-off with the fascists at Barclays Center, or the Manhttan or Brooklyn bridge; and then fireworks, huge and lovely and loud being set off all over the city starting as soon as it got fully dark, and often continuing until well after midnight. Where did they come from? Conspiracy theories held that the FBI was using them to keep dissident neighborhoods up all night, or handing them out to entrap The Kids. But it seemed more plausible to me to imagine guys unloading trunkfuls of discount Roman candles from Jersey and Pennsylvania, diverted from their original purpose of dazzling a lakeshore of guests at a now-canceled county 4th of July celebration.

Election day fell towards the end of June. I'd spent the previous week breaking quarantine at the Phara & Jabari office space at 1039 Fulton, a converted restaurant space like 82 Central. Campaign Manager Nathan had whitewashed the crumbling exposed brick to make it less dusty, and the back room had been converted into a small bullpen for comms volunteers. It was so good to see my friends! We drank piƱa coladas while bundling palm cards and stapling picket signs, people going to and fro largely maskless, a tacit agreement that we formed our own quarantine bubble.

On the day, I got up at 5:30 in the morning and rode my bike over as the sun was coming up. Nathan and I got a couple of big tents set up out front. All the way down Fulton, a row of massive cargo trucks, their drivers asleep in the cabs, formed a wall. At 7 AM the truckers began to wake up, starting up their trucks and pulling away down the avenue. I spent the day handing out warm bottles of water and rubber-banded bundles of Phara & Jabari palm cards. I took an emergency bike ride up to Franklin to buy a megaphone for an impromptu Julia sound car. Late in the afternoon there was a some kind of police action that filled the horizon to the east with a glut of emergency vehicles. A gunman had taken a hostage, we heard? The situation was resolved, somehow. Once the polls closed that evening, it became clear that Jabari held a commanding lead. A film crew that had been following him around jumped into high gear. The results for the rest of the slate were less certain: Phara was within striking distance of Mosley, Marcela had likely lost. Seemingly effortlessly, Kath emceed the livestream that Devin set up. I wrote and tried to deliver a speech over my laptop's webcam from the back room but the wifi failed in the middle, leaving me frozen in gesticulation. What can you do. After midnight the fireworks started.

Because so much of the vote was by mail, we didn't know the full results until July. The mail-in ballots were being counted at a Board of Elections warehouse I didn't even know existed on 2nd Ave. at 51st St. in Sunset Park. I played hooky from work in the morning on the days our candidates' districts were being counted and biked down to greet the people who'd volunteered to observe the count on our behalf. When there was time, I tried to pick up pastries or other treats to hand out. Marcela's EDs happened to come up to be counted on my birthday. In honor of the occasion, I made sure to stop at La Flor for gallinitas on my way down to the warehouse. As I coasted down 51st St. towards the intersection, I saw Marcela and Alex getting out of a car. I took one hand off the handlebars to wave to them and, owing to the heavy bag of pastries unbalancing the other side of the bike, promptly lost control and went flying. Or at least that's how I experienced it - to any observer I most likely just sort of crumpled to the ground. Regardless, I wound up skinning my elbow, and my plastic helmet cracked preventing my head from hitting the pavement. Marcela and our volunteers sang Happy Birthday to me, though, and my blood sacrifice seemed to have been well spent, considering what happened next.

It was in November after the general election when I made my first trip back to my office in Manhattan, to clean it up and dispose of the sad mountain of unused Bernie lit. (Radix, as Fellow Travelers, had offered to recycle it at no charge.) I was prepared to sweep a desk's worth of expired snacks and dead plants into a trash bag and be done with it. To my surprise, my two plants, a spindly aloe and a sprawling snakeplant, were still healthy and green, just as I'd left them. How to account for this? Was a skeleton crew of beneficent custodial staff dropping by with a watering can every month? Or did the plants somehow pull moisture from the air itself, even though there seemed to be none to spare? How did they survive? We sometimes never know our angels, I suppose.

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