Shoes, Cake, Trash, Foucault
I remember my first week at 68 Jay vividly because my shoe broke. It was a cheap pleather boot from a thrift store. As I was walking down the hall to the bathroom the sole fell three quarters of the way off. What to do. I gripped my toes and walked back to the office, the sole slapping behind me. I was 20 and didn’t know what kind of internship this was, so I wore mostly J. Crew, which was normal for me then. My boss, Ali, listened to the same playlist every day, and “This Year” by the Mountain Goats was probably playing when I dragged my stupid shoe back in. She was emphatic that we fix it right away. She would go to the store for superglue and I would dare not reimburse her. I didn’t know anyone or anything in New York, and this kindness was almost too much to bear.
A month later she left for grad school and Chad Harbach became my supervisor. I didn’t know how to make coffee and always used too much. One day he sent me downstairs to get Chock Full o’ Nuts at Snack Town. Where was Snack Town again? I asked, as if I once knew but forgot. You know, he said, downstairs. Snack Town! The real name of the bodega was Bridge Fresh, but we (we!) called it Snack Town. One offering on the deli menu read ONION WINGS.
I spent a lot of time in the office that year. My sublet had weak internet and I didn’t have anywhere to be. On Saturdays, on Kathleen’s invitation, I biked from Bushwick to the office for “Foucault club,” a reading group Mark Greif had started. The book (The Birth of Biopolitics) was not widely available, but everyone else managed to have it (in retrospect: ARCs). To keep up, I read the in-library copy at the main branch of the NYPL on my off days and took notes. I didn’t know what the Chicago School was, or the Frankfurt School, or any other School, and hoped nobody would ask me to speak. Only my longing to be among people who read together, who weren’t students but talked about ideas, outweighed my general terror.
After I’d worked in the office long enough to have my own key, I spent nights alone there, too: proofing, copyediting, flowing text in InDesign. The only other person who stayed past seven was n+1’s subletter, Mark W, a graphic designer who had the interior office. Mark W’s sons were named Keith and Ben, which I thought was funny. One office, two sets of Keith, Ben, and Mark. What were the odds?
Under Carla, the office grew. DUMBO and the building kept changing. Businesses that moved out left their unwanted furniture in the “foyer” of the Pearl Street entrance that we called “the trash stairs,” next to the elevator we called “the trash elevator” (as in, “I forgot my key card, will you call up the trash elevator?”). We scavenged many good items from there, as well as a few bad ones. I remember Danilo, our grad-student intern from Germany who was too smart for the internship, calling the Ikea couch and gray shag rug we’d rescued “disgusting,” which they were. He said we were a real magazine and ought to have real furniture. Another memorable incident from that time was when a woman appeared at our door with an iPad—a rare item then—to ask if we wanted to participate in a survey about chocolate cake. We looked at Carla; it was 5 PM. Why not? We followed the woman with the iPad to a light-filled office at the other end of the floor, where thin slices of chocolate cake were laid out on plastic plates and another woman was standing with her own iPad. I remember wondering how they could afford such a large office space just by selling chocolate cake. The woman asked us what we thought. Only Danilo had eloquent feedback. He said European cake was superior to American cake, which had too much sugar and icing and barely any chocolate. When the woman asked what we thought about the name of the store, “The Best Chocolate Cake in the World,” he said, “It’s a little presumptuous, don’t you think?” Their storefront, in the lobby next to the mailroom, didn’t make it a year.
Another noteworthy drama was when reBar, a bar and event space on Front Street, closed. One day the employees arrived to find the door padlocked and a note on the window that said: “reBar is closed and bankrupt. Do not enter.” The owner had absconded with thousands in overdue wages and the security deposits of 200 couples who had booked it for weddings that summer. He owed the government $1 million in taxes. A day later the cops found him hiding in his apartment. He was charged with tax fraud and grand larceny and pled guilty. I later read an article about the brides who showed up at court to heckle him.
Mark W. moved out in 2012. Ian got a dumpster and Cosme drove the first hammer through the drywall that separated Mark W’s office from ours. Now we had real space. For years, boxes of back issues had towered in the corner collecting dust, mostly boxes of Issue 8—a good issue, Keith (Gessen) always said, they’d just printed too many. He was often scheming ways to unload Issue 8 onto people. In this time of expansion, Ian discovered we could rent storage space in the basement. So began the era of the basement, of which I leave others to speak.
68 Jay had a distinct smell I would describe as neither good nor bad. Whatever it was, it perfumed the whole of my twenties. Every meaningful experience of the decade for me was linked somehow to that office. The rumble of the bridges is still in the background of my outgoing voicemail. It’s hard to remember when the neighborhood turned irreversibly mall-like—with the Sweetgreen, Equinox, Crossfit, West Elm—but I do remember when P.S. Books closed. During its last week in business, the owner spent all day sitting at an upright piano he had wheeled in from somewhere, and he played beautifully. He said it was the only thing that kept him from crying.
I will miss giving instructions to Italian tourists to the F train, miss my guy at the bagel place who said whatcanIgetyousweetie in a single word, miss my guy outside Snack Town who always asked for a little help, miss the woman who every weekday for nine years opened the door to our office at 3 PM and said: “trash?” She wore her hair short, had a stud in her ear, wore jean shorts that stopped below the knee and black T-shirt. In the trash elevator she would gossip on the phone through her headphones. Sometimes she sang. When she poked her head in and said, “trash?” all of us got up and performed the silent choreography of routine, consolidating our waste baskets into one white bag for her. I’ll miss that the most, I think.
No one cleaned the floors. Sometimes we swept, when we had to, before events we hosted in the office, but even then we swept before and not after. Rachel sometimes pushed the dirty mop around and got up the spilled coffee stains near the kitchen corner that had gotten sticky and gathered dirt. At some point Mark Krotov brought in a nice vacuum from home with an extendable neck and on a few occasions I sucked up the hair and dust and crumbs from every corner, even the windowsills, and felt like I was scratching a mosquito bite. Mostly no one minded the dirty floors much, or said so if they did. The dirt didn’t stop us from midday stretches on the ground, we just dusted off the backs of our jeans afterward. We crawled around with baby Daria when she came to visit and shepherded her away from the most substantial dust bunnies.
I had one rule for the basement at 68 Jay: never forget your flashlight. I was mildly terrified of the space—it was dark and maze-like, with a distinct and untraceable smell, and the din of experimental rock bands practicing behind closed doors seemed to echo through the hallways at all hours. To get there, you took the freight elevator down from the fourth floor, which opened at the basement level into a pile of trash. Next, you followed the hand-drawn arrows taped to the hallway walls until you reached the turn with the glowing red light bulb. There, you’d go right, avoiding the large gaping hole in the ground covered precariously by a loose piece of grating. Duck, or you’d walk right into the fly strip black with dead and dying bugs. It was a good idea to announce your approach, because people were often peeing with the door open in the bathroom next to our storage unit. Once I nearly collided with the swinging wooden plank that functioned as the bathroom’s door when a man opened it onto me fiddling with the padlock on our space. He looked at me wide-eyed. “I didn’t know they let anyone rent this one,” he said.
Inside our basement space, you’d find boxes of magazines—hundreds and hundreds of boxes of magazines. There were also dozens of boxes of books, pamphlets, tote bags, miscellaneous glassware, unusable poster tubes, a ladder, and a commercial-grade speaker system. Emily drew a map that I used religiously, until the shifting and selling of inventory necessitated drawing a new one. I loved how the space was indecipherable without it; being able to navigate the basement was like a secret earned, or a lightweight hazing ritual surpassed. I loved, too, how being in the n+1 basement felt like being surrounded by history—over a decade’s worth of words and jokes and insights piled high in cardboard stacks, to be rediscovered and rearranged as new words flowed in. It seemed inevitable that we’d run out of space one day, but also impossible that those boxes, which appeared to hold up the very walls of the place, would ever be moved.
There’s a picture from last December of me and my fellow interns in the basement that was deemed “too spooky for Instagram.” In it, we’re shrouded by boxes and counting the remaining numbers of every back issue, or maybe every Paper Monument book. Behind us, there’s a cobweb covered brick wall; above us, a sprinkler system is inexplicably covered with black plastic bags. The basement map rests on a box in the foreground, under the padlock with the key still attached. The space looks bigger than it is in my memory. The most arresting detail, now, is that we were all wearing dust masks. Behind them, I can tell we’re smiling.
My first visit to the n+1 office did not start auspiciously. I was there for an internship interview, but I could not figure out how to get into the building. Eventually I found myself in the downstairs bodega, still confused, and bought a coffee in an attempt to look casual. I don’t know why I thought I might find some secret door in the bodega.
At the end of my interview, Carla, Dayna, and Amy invited me to take some books from the shelf, and I remarked that it was the first time I’d ever gotten to take swag home after a job interview (and to this day, the only time). I quickly chose a couple items, wanting to make a swift exit before I could fuck it up. But I remember thinking, “I like this place and I hope I can come back.”
I might be in the minority when I say I miss going to offices. I don’t mean to wax too nostalgic, because there are definitely bad days when you’re an unpaid intern sleeping on your sister’s couch. But while the n+1 office wasn’t some wacky workplace full of hijinks, it felt fun and exciting to be there. After the internship term ended, I worked on the n+1 podcast while living in another state, and even then—before we were told to stay at home—I missed going to the office.
My strongest memories of 68 Jay aren’t the big moments; they’re the Monday morning Coffee Klatches (what n+1 puzzlingly calls their staff meetings) and other day-to-day inanities. (Actually, the time we had to clear out the rat-infested storage space in the basement and take everything in a U-Haul to an offsite facility stands out too. At least we got to order Indian food for lunch.) I think what I miss the most about offices, particularly the n+1 office, is the human connection and sense of community that’s hard to experience or replicate when working remotely. I liked the office, I’ll miss it, and I hope we can return to places like that again before long.
I thought I had so many memories in the n+1 office but it turns out most of them take place in adjacent zones. The Verso loft. The basement of the Ace Hotel. The bathroom of that launch party warehouse where I once threw up after half a glass of white wine (?) and then quietly escorted myself out.
A few small images survive from Jay St. proper! Evenings spent brushing shoulders with septuagenarian socialists who all seemed as obsessed with my friends as I was. My favorite mug. My favorite tote. My least favorite kale chips, which I nevertheless ate in droves at the launch party for an author who’d written a tech memoir that avoided proper names. I’d gotten a haircut on my way to DUMBO, and since I’d seen the author that morning at my own office, she would be the most direct witness to My Transformation. When I walked in she said, in an inscrutable tone, “It looks . . . different. More professional?” I spent the night glowering at the crowd, plucking stray clumps of hair from my shirt, feeding on dry leaves.
I really liked going to the parties at the office in the early days because you could smoke a lot. But then I quit smoking.
—A. S. Hamrah
Last Days of DUMBO
My most enduring and totemic image of DUMBO is this billboard that hung over the neighborhood for much of the time I worked there. It advertised the 2019 Edward Norton adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, a hacky, nostalgic fantasy of 1950s New York whose Robert Moses stand-in is plagued by tragic family troubles instead of simply racism and greed. The Brooklyn in the movie is in the early processes of urban renewal, its residents of color facing displacement from various now-pricy neighborhoods as the city razed their homes to build parks and public space that excluded more than they democratized.
I suppose that story has something to do with the prehistory of present-day DUMBO, where for months an image of Edward Norton, standing backlit on the towering bridge, loomed over the real thing. DUMBO always feels like it’s about 70 percent public space, but even before the coronavirus those spaces seemed designed for no one at all. The grassy areas by the water are always kind of fenced off for some reason, and you’re not allowed to sit or climb on the big rocks down there. In the archway under the bridge, narc-y signs admonish that the neighborhood’s Disneyfied acronym stands for “Don’t smoke Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass.” There’s the famous street where you can take pictures for Instagram, but it’s really still for cars. One time I saw a couple in tuxedo and gown, posing for wedding photos in front of the Sweetgreen on Washington Street.
Who lives here? My only case study is a family I used to work for, tutoring a seventh-grader who hated her parents. I hated them too: they lived in a high-rise on Pearl Street and were rich, tasteless, and French, like the croissants down the block at Lassen & Hennings. Their doorman was always really nice to me, but he lived in Brighton Beach.
I don’t mean to dump on DUMBO entirely. It’s a tolerable place to work if you don’t care about things like lunch. It’s a landscape dominated by Citibikes, which are a nice idea, but its streets are all either cobblestoned or unannounced on-ramps to one of the bridges and thus disincentivize cycling or outright punish it. There are lots of businesses that might be great—I’ve patronized almost none of them—all of which have names like FEED (food) or THIRST (drinks) or MELT (ice cream for the ruling class). The air is always kind of cool and breezy over by the Etsy headquarters, in the canyon between buildings owned by Jared Kushner.
Have you ever tried to hang out in DUMBO after 9 PM or so? Unless you had a key to the Verso palace (wifi password: SONSOFGRAMSCI), for a long time the only good nightlife option in the neighborhood was to let yourself into n+1’s handsome office and drink the leftover beers there. Maybe this suggests an unhealthy work-life balance, but there was really nowhere else to go. Working in the neighborhood always reminded me of the characters in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, young publishing-industry laborers who are terrified that the decline of nightlife will mean they’ll have to spend more time in their awkward railroad apartment. I live in a railroad apartment too—you have to walk through my roommate’s bedroom to get to mine—and now it holds all of n+1’s bookstore inventory. We moved out of DUMBO earlier this summer.
All beaches mark the fantasy of an empire’s physical limits, and it’s true that the most appealing part of DUMBO is the shore where it ends. It’s one of the worst neighborhoods in New York, across the river from one of the best, and long before we left for good I felt strongly that the most pleasant things to do in DUMBO all involve leaving. You can walk to the Clark Street subway station, which has those amazing floors and feels like Buenos Aires. You can take the ferry across or up the river—the only municipal transportation I’m aware of where you can also buy beer, and the beer doesn’t even cost that much!—or you can ride down the bike path to Red Hook along the piers. Or you could have the perfect weekday evening and walk across the thundering Manhattan Bridge—really a wild, breathtaking piece of infrastructure—after work, smoke a cigarette over the stupid neighborhood, get dumplings in Chinatown and see a movie at the Metrograph with your friends, a couple drinks afterward, home by 1 AM. I had that evening probably two dozen times in the year I worked in DUMBO and I never got tired of it.
I worked at 68 Jay St. in the mid-’70s, in a nonprofit print shop. I was an offset stripper, which isn’t as sexy as it sounds (my coworkers gave me an apron with “Litho Nymph” embroidered on it). There was one shop per floor, which you got to by freight elevator. The elevator was run by a lovely guy named Ralph, who had Down syndrome and died in his forties. Our shop was so big I could ride my bike around it, plus we had a roof that was almost as big, from which you could see both bridges and all of downtown Manhattan. Downstairs from us was a flavor maker. I don’t know what else to call it—a flavorer manufacturer? They produced huge glass bottles of vile-colored, and even viler-smelling liquids to put into ice pops and Twinkies, I guess. All the workers were Latina.
DUMBO wasn’t yet DUMBO. My boss, a poet, said the York Street F train station, with its long platform, exit on only one end, and massive columns, was designed by muggers. It must have been, because I was mugged there. After that, I rode my bike to work, even in the snow.
I had no business interning at n+1. The magazine, as a rule, published no dead authors. I, on the other hand, grew up poor and thought authors were the dead people my high school teachers forced us to read. I basically didn’t know editors existed. In college, I mainly wanted to do drugs, date, and convince other people I was smart. I majored in English, but I still read almost exclusively dead people. I knew Frantz Fanon and Virginia Woolf, and I had heard of Toni Morrison, but I had not read anything by her. I certainly didn’t know Norman Rush, whom everyone in the office loved. I knew even less about essayists and nothing about literary critics because I barely read books, let alone writing about books, so I had never heard of, say, Mark Greif.
I became an intern out of dumb luck. My senior year of college, I spoke with a professor about struggling to find a job and wanting to write. The professor was friends with Nikil Saval (then editor and now a Philadelphia politician). She told me to apply to intern at n+1. If it didn’t help me write, I could at least live in New York, which I hoped would fulfill my Gossip Girl fantasies.
The application required a written response to a piece from the most recent issue. Having never read n+1 before, I picked it up in the library and read the piece with the title that appealed to me because of my burgeoning nicotine addiction: Kristen Dombek’s “How to Quit.” (The piece solved none of my problems; I still smoke.) Then I wrote a page long close-reading—I didn’t know how to do anything else, and still don’t. When I interviewed via Skype, wearing a tie, Dayna and Carla asked about my interests. I said that I wanted to create a new aesthetic theory, a claim so simultaneously bold, idiotic, and unimportant that Dayna and Carla ought to have laughed me off of the internet forever. I never should have gotten the job, but I did because my Professor put in a good word for me with Nikil. The network of the literary world was small, and the tentacles of my undergraduate institution were large.
I graduated from college on a Monday. The next day, I flew from California to New York and moved into a co-op in Staten Island where rent was $600 a month. The day after that, I rode the ferry into Manhattan and then took the train to DUMBO to get to the n+1 office, where my college paid for my unpaid internship. When I stepped off the York Street stop and looked down the hill to the water—opaque, silver, and gleaming like liquid mercury—I saw a view that had receded so far from memory that it seemed more like a dream. As I followed the crowd pouring out of the subway, the sights tugged at my mind. I had been here before, but when? As I overshot the building in which the n+1 office was housed, I saw a facade and remembered.
I was around 7 or 8, and we had just fled violence in Jamaica for New York, where much of our family lived. My mother and I emerged from underground in the shadow of the bridge and walked downhill alongside yellowed newspapers tumbling down the street. We passed a cheap pan-Latin food joint and an open garage where brown-skinned men in pale gray outfits tinkered with cars. We entered one of the buildings, climbed a flight or two, and entered a large, high-ceilinged room where a redboned man was framing art. He turned around, his eyes lit up with recognition, and he hugged my mother. He was her uncle. For a time, when Mom was a teen, he raised her in his house in Far Rockaway, but today he ran a framing studio for the starving artists who had moved to DUMBO in the ’90s. His dreadlocked son—Mom’s cousin—was there too. He was one of the starving artists, a photographer who made ends meet by working at the frame shop. They and their business depended on the neighborhood’s relative cheapness.
The DUMBO that made their lives possible was so different than the one I stood in on my first day of work. It was full of white people—pushing strollers, no less. A coffee shop occupied the ground floor of what was, I think, the former warehouse that my uncle worked in. And it was clean. Ground-level windows glistened. The sidewalk was paler, as though recently poured. And there was so little trash: the paper yellowed from sitting in standing water was almost entirely gone. What the fuck happened to this neighborhood in the decade—during which time we left New York and moved to Florida—since I had last seen it?
I pondered the question as I found my way back to 68 Jay, walking past a man standing in front of the bodega whom I would give money on many days to come, who sometimes recognized me when I returned after I finished my internship. I hit the button for the elevator and waited for so long I thought it was broken. When it finally came, I filed in with a group of hipsters (who, I later learned, no longer existed, according to one n+1 publication). I got off on the fourth floor and wandered through a maze of hallways made by makeshift walls. (Anyone who has been in the building knows the hallways are rivaled only by Boston’s terrible streets in the way in which three right turns will throw you somewhere far from where you started.) After some searching, I opened the door to the n+1 office.
The high-ceilinged, open-plan room was backlit by large windows that looked out onto the train, which made so much noise that people had to scream to make themselves audible when it passed by. (This seemed like a curious amenity for a neighborhood rapidly becoming New York’s most expensive.) A table sat in its center for the interns: that summer, Laura Cremer, now an editor, Liza Batkin, who became an NYRB editorial assistant, Emily Wang, who became an editor at Triple Canopy, and myself, who became the poor man’s Bijan Stephen. To my right sat David Rose, a Liverpool ex-punk with seemingly permanent eyeliner who had once been president of the LRB but was then a consultant. Just beyond him sat Cosme Del-Rosario Bell, a six-foot-tall Dominican New Yorker constantly wearing a Yankees cap, who was part-time then and is now bookshop.org‘s operations manager (and one of my best friends). To his left was Amy Ellingson, then the business manager who became a doctor. In the farthest corner of the room sat a long desk with two large iMacs perched on a stack of books—makeshift standing desks that remained until one fell without prompting—for Dayna Tortorici, then assistant editor and now editor, and Carla Blumenkranz, then managing editor and now editor for The New Yorker. I would say more about them, but the former was voted one of Brooklyn’s coolest people and the latter edits for one of the biggest magazines in town, so I suspect their reputation precedes them.
I was a terrible intern. On my first day, Carla asked me to alphabetize the bookshelves. I asked her to explain that process to me three times. Was I tired, not listening, or just plain stupid? she must have wondered. When two editors argued—something no one could ignore because the office was small, there were no walls, and every disagreement turned to screaming—I intervened and tried to calm everyone down. When everyone was out at lunch, I picked up the phone, took a call from Ben Kunkel (who was then late filing the Intellectual Situation that would become “World Lite”), but didn’t write down the message, so Carla had to call him back. I was dead weight.
I wasn’t much good at the magazine extracurriculars, either. That long first day ended with softball practice for the annual game against The Paris Review. At about 6 PM, we wandered out of the building to a concrete square nearby with Marco Roth, Keith Gessen, Chad Harbach and Nikil. I was useless because I had no baseball experience and, to make matters worse, I sat on the sidelines and belittled this American imitation of the superior sport: Cricket.
The next day, I rode the train to the game with Carla and Chad. On the ride, I joked about how silly it was that two literary magazines were competing over softball, which Chad, the author of a novel about baseball, received without a laugh. Carla told me the game was deadly serious. (Was she joking? I never found out.) During the game, I sat on the bench and egged on the locals drinking Corona and heckling the teams. Near the end, Chad hit a fly ball that soared beyond the fence, hit a tree, and then bounced back onto the field. He and Lorin Stein, then editor of The Paris Review, yelled at each other about whether or not the ball constituted a homerun. I laughed at the grown men screaming over a kid’s game, an act which assuredly did not ingratiate myself to the people whom, I later realized, I was supposed to be impressing.
My only bigger gaffe came near the end of the summer, at the issue launch party at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, where I met Moira Donegan (now a writer for The Guardian) and Emma Janaskie (fellow Floridian and now associate editor). I got so drunk that I vomited at the end of the night, shortly after which a man claiming to be a Yale graduate student offered me molly, claiming it would make me feel better. I lay down on a bench to calm my stomach—Cosme claims I passed out, but I think differently—and then sat up to finish cleaning. At around 4 AM, Chad and Carla put me in a cab with Cosme, whose job it was to ferry me home. (I think he then fell asleep on the uptown bus and woke up by the Bronx Zoo.) It wasn’t just that I didn’t fit in: I put my foot in my mouth and so far down my throat that I vomited in front of my bosses at every chance I got.
As I failed socially and practically at this new job each day, I still had to ride the ferry to the subway to the same neighborhood where I once visited my uncle and his son, both of whom had long since been priced out of the neighborhood, like the brown-skinned mechanics and the cheap pan-Latin eatery, and be reminded of a city that displaced all the things that I once knew and loved about New York. Even worse, I began to adapt my clothing to the style of the office, transitioning from immigrant to yuppy. I hated the job and the city and the office—drowned that anger in alcohol, weed, tobacco, molly, and acid (though never cocaine; I was principled)—but I also hated myself.
After I left New York to teach at a private high school in Massachusetts, something changed. I came to miss the office and the city. Whenever I took the Megabus down, I stopped by, sometimes to have lunch with Cosme at Los Papi’s, the Dominican joint around the corner, sometimes just to bide my time until I met up with friends. Dayna and Carla occasionally asked me to take new interns out for coffee and to tell them all the things about the job that two editors cannot. (I took this to mean gossip because I knew nothing about publishing.) Over time, I became friends with the people in the office and those who joined later: Elizabeth Gumport, Josephine Livingstone, Rachel Ossip, Mark Krotov, and so many others. When I interned there, I had a huge chip on my shoulder for feeling like an outsider, but I came to love feeling like an insider.
At its best, the office was like a local bar, where I popped in to see my favorite bartender or the friends already drinking there (and quite often someone was drinking beer leftover from an issue release party). It was a place where I met new people at events, including the inimitable Nicolas Medina Mora (one of the all-time great n+1 essayists, among other things), or where I met people who then introduced me to other people, as Marco Roth introduced me to New York’s kindest architecture critic, Thomas de Monchaux. Over time, it was a place where you saw people grow: Books were released, promotions were acquired, and names were made. It was also a place where I grew, quite often from learning how little I knew and, eventually, how little people who talk loudly know.
The office also provided constant fodder for my attempts at fiction, by which I mean the lies I told to friends who knew better than to care about writing. In one story I told to try to impress someone, I spoke about my fancy one-time bosses and their quibbles: I was sitting quietly at the intern table when I heard Carla loudly say, “I know I’m not stupid; I went to Harvard.” Dayna replied, “We all went to Harvard.” It turned out that both Carla and Dayna went to Brown, but what did I care? I preferred the stories to the truth, which was that I fact-checked, read the slush pile, and continued to fail at writing anything worth sharing, let alone publishing. The bare-boned office and the names that I had seen in print afforded all the room for fantasy: for what my life could be, for what writing could be, for what a magazine could be.
But the office was also a workplace, so it was rife with problems. I witnessed my fair share of anti-Black racism there. I also felt misunderstood as a Black person. When George Zimmerman was acquitted of all his charges, the white people in the office expressed shock and could not understand my lack of surprise. (To Dayna and Carla’s credit, they told me to write about it for Keith’s anthology City by City, which I did.) Cosme declined to converse at all and left early to protest. The office was also a place where my employers did not pay me for my work—my undergraduate institution did—despite its espoused Marxist politics. (The magazine eventually started paying interns in 2015.) And it was, as workplaces tend to be, mostly boring, a place where David Rose’s exceptionally straight banana became the talk of the office and the subject of a long email chain.
And that office was inseparable from the processes that extracted labor and wages from the poor Jamaican immigrants that I knew and loved to shore up the value of a neighborhood until they could not afford to be there. My uncle’s frame shop didn’t make DUMBO cool, but it did unknowingly contribute to that effort. From the top of the hill where commuters emerged from the subway, the bones of the street’s manufacturing past were visible in the buildings. Its tombstones gave every workplace its style. Lord knows the exposed brick and pipes hanging from the ceiling in the n+1 office gave it some of its flair. The office was a place that I hated to love, that I loved to hate.
Now, like so many of the things one hates about New York, the office has gone. As is the way with New York, I imagine it will be replaced with something somehow both more expensive and worse, just as the new Franklin Avenue somehow makes me nostalgic for the days when Brooklyn’s streets were dangerous enough to be affordable to people like my family. But I can’t help but hope that the end of the office, and many like it, signals an end to the processes that make New York neighborhoods cool at the expense of the poor folk of color who live there, that let them die at the hands of a virus especially lethal for them, or that actively kill them with policing. I can’t help but hope that, in the space cleared by n+1 and other businesses, a better future is being erected for people like my uncle. I can’t help but hope for some other, better New York. I don’t know what the n+1 office’s physical future will be, but I hope it’s better than its past.