Out of the Fog

We had told the man he would have a warm place to stay the night, and had emphasized the city’s right to shelter. Every five minutes or so my teammate called to see whether the transport was coming, and soon fifteen minutes passed, and then twenty, then thirty, then forty.

In a way I was noticing it, and in a way I was just accepting what was happening to me

Foreign journalists in a Finnish sauna. Via Wikimedia.

This is the second entry in City Mouse, a semi-fictionalized column by Morley Musick. The first is here.

The other weekend, I went to the Russian and Turkish baths at Natalie’s invitation. This is the bath house on 10th Street, famous for its feuding owners, Boris and David. As a result of their fights, they run the house on alternating weeks. David weeks have computers, Groupons, and phones; Boris, no tech at all. 

Natalie had come at the invitation of David Oks, who had become somewhat well-known as a teenager for running the stunt presidential campaign of the aging Alaska senator Mike Gravel. At 16, he had also run an unsuccessful mayoral campaign for the mayorship of Ardsley, New York.

Now he is 22. He has dark eyebrows and a T-shaped patch of hair on his chest. With his large loaner shorts from the spa, pulled high up his stomach, he was the picture of a Jewish consigliere, a character from Michael Roemer’s The Plot Against Harry. In his choice of locale and his affable, distracted, winking manner, David struck me as the sort of person trying to cultivate this old-fashioned persona and to recover (as old-fashioned diners are “recovered” and at the same time transformed by savvy, well-financed gourmets) the place’s traditional role as a meeting place for mobsters and businessmen.

On multiple occasions he referred to “having a guy”—a guy bringing him mangoes from Pakistan; a guy in Tunisia, shipping him “very nutritious” honey from the mountains of Hadhramaut, Yemen. He has written a provocative and astute article based on his time in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and another on the death of global development. 

He now works for Systematic Portfolios LLC. His Signal avatar is Cosimo de Medici, the elder. I surmise he is ideologically flexible. Surrounding him is a motley and largely male crew of young financiers and exiles and politicos.

To this particular gathering David had invited a bitcoin investor and a foreign political analyst who was at the time of our first encounter—at the juice bar—just finishing a Zoom call on the future of democracy.

As the man finished, David leaned into my ear and explained something about him. “I met him abroad. He’s an analyst—everyone said I needed to meet him. He’s from an important family, very, very important.” I found this stranger’s manner very compelling. 

He spoke in a confident and socially adept way that evinced a life spent in powerful circles. In the locker room, he asked a man who had recently been whipped by oak leaves what he thought of the experience.

Pleasantly taken aback, the man replied, “Oh it was great, super great. I felt—well how can I put it. I felt like I was just submitting, getting beaten around, and in a way I was noticing it, and in a way, I was just accepting what was happening to me, because, I like life, I’m psyched on life, don’t get me wrong—but I’m also kinda dead inside.”

We entered the sauna, the hottest place I have ever been. It was dark, with an enormous, primordial oven capped with an iron grate. The sides of the oven were covered in rough, scraped clay. On three tiers of wooden seats sat big, laughing, late-middle-aged men, and younger, musclebound finance guys, and smaller co-ed groups with small swim trunks and bleached eyebrows. These groups eyed one another, the spectatorial greeting the embedded from across the room. 

On one of the higher benches, the bitcoin investor from Indiana started to explain to me why it was he wanted to earn money. He said he wanted to start an institute to study the origins of language.

He said that a student of René Girard—the French anthropologist who theorized mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism, whose work is beloved in Silicon Valley and aggressively promoted, in particular, by Peter Thiel—had applied his teacher’s findings to the fields of linguistics. He said that there was a professor at the university of Quinnipiac who was expounding this theory via a Substack with a modest following.

I asked if this institute’s findings would have political implications and he said that they would: “You’d agree that our leaders today are lacking, right? That there is something seriously wrong.”

“But if we know how language originated, how it really operates, we could start to cultivate better people—people who could really lead. The notion of leadership has really vanished from discourse today. People don’t want to discuss it.”

After talking for perhaps twenty minutes we went outside and jumped into an ice-cold pool. It was so cold that I could not feel my hands or feet. Then we went back into the sauna. Here I began to feel faint.

I asked the investor how the origins of language could be studied in the absence of material evidence. He replied, “It’s a good question. But every conversation carries the trace of an origin, so we can study how people talk today and learn something. And if you think about it, once this idea, the idea of this theory, is disseminated, every conversation going forward, from every person exposed to this idea of the origin of language, will contain the seed of that earlier conversation.”

As I tried to make sense of this thought, a bead of sweat would form at the tip of my nose, which as I breathed in would heat up so rapidly that it scalded the inside of my nose. It felt as if I was huffing boiling water. Soon it became so painful to breathe that I had to cover my entire head with a cold towel.

Then I went back into the ice bath, then a different sauna, with the man from the authoritarian country.

He talked more about his life: how he had recently been captured by former members of the national police, assaulted, asked to sign a declaration of treasons; how gangs and paramilitaries were building infrastructure using funds from stolen oil; how Japanese investors had flooded his country in a bid to negotiate mining rights for lithium; how so and so had been arrested, and so and so’s uncle had negotiated their release; how he had lost friends, many friends, helping to grease the wheels of foreign aid distribution; how nonetheless, he viewed the “bad actors” as in power, and worth negotiating with, as is anyone, at any time, who is in power; how he had shaken hands with a man who’d killed a distant relative; how he had once admired Barack Obama but felt more cynical now; how he taught Rawls to teenagers on Zoom; how he now wrote poems and posted them on Instagram. 

As he explained all these things his body and face came in and out of view through the eucalyptus-scented steam, which billowed randomly around the room. I felt so tired and disoriented I thought I might collapse. A woman sitting across from us said politely, “Hey, excuse me, can you guys talk a little quieter?” We agreed, and she then reclined. “Sorry, it’s just so loud in here. But it’s a great story.”

In the ice pool, one last time, David measured time in the freezing water by listing the names of American presidents in reverse: “Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George Bush Jr., Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr. . . .”

A few weeks ago, I volunteered from 10 PM to 4 AM as part of New York’s street homeless survey, which produces an annual estimate of the number of people sleeping unsheltered each night. My team—consisting of three municipal employees, one architect, and two police officers—surveyed downtown Brooklyn and two train stations nearby. We asked every stranger we saw if they had a place to sleep, then marked their answer down in an app.

HUD requires all cities to conduct the survey in order to receive federal funds, and money is linked to its findings in obscure ways. Advocates in New York and other cities allege that the estimate’s methodology systematically underrepresents the number of people sleeping in the streets for political gain, but city officials say it works well enough.

I don’t know which is truer. What I can say is that the nature of our count felt increasingly haphazard as the night went on.

It was cold that night, with thick dense fog that clung to the ground. The view of Manhattan from the Brooklyn promenade showed only the mid-sections of buildings but not the tops or bottoms. A neon sign for flowers made halos of purple mist.

As we walked through the promenade on the way to our designated zone, we almost immediately encountered a situation that the event trainer said seldom occurred: people asking to be transported to a shelter.

They were two Guinean men, one older, and one younger, friends from home. One of them had rheumatism and they had just been discharged from a hospital, after being discharged from a city shelter, where they had exceeded the sixty-day limit imposed by the Adams administration.

As per protocol, we called and asked for a transport for both of them. Three of my teammates remained behind while another teammate and I, along with our younger police escort, walked on. My teammate was a generous woman with a halting pattern of speech; she helped maintain city records, but seemed to spend a lot of her free time volunteering for immigrant causes. Our officer escort was 24 years old, and seemed shy and uncertain.

Almost immediately we encountered another man asking to be transported to a shelter. As per protocol, we called for help again, this time waiting with him ourselves.

The man had a hard-to-place Scandinavian accent, and wore sweatpants, Vans, and a jacket. On its breast pocket was an inexplicable image of a Lego man, wearing an ascot and a yellow hard hat with Chinese characters written on it. The man explained he had just been discharged from central booking after his wife had called the police on him, for domestic violence.

“I never expected this,” he said. “I’ve never been charged with anything, never interacted with the system. But I had had three or four beers, my wife had grabbed me, and then I pushed her. That was stupid. So stupid. With her she becomes angry gradually—with me it is nothing, nothing and then”—he made an asymptotic gesture—“all at once.

“It’s interesting, booking,” he continued, “it’s very interesting, all of the steps. It really turns you around! It was not what I expected, at all. There were a lot of kids, and all of them looked so young to me. But they seemed used to it. They were such nice people. They were telling me, ‘You’ll be outta here in no time man.’ ‘You got this man.’ ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Really nice people who I would never have expected to meet.

“And then there was a Russian man, he had been there for forty hours. Forty hours! Back and forth between different people. Because . . . there is no food, just water and milk. No, there is bread, sandwiches, but that’s it. The kids throw it down the toilet to clog it. But no one shits there anyway. You would not be able to, looking at the toilets. You just sit around and talk about it. You just say, ‘I can’t wait to go home and take a shit.’”

We had told the man he would have a warm place to stay the night, and had emphasized the city’s right to shelter. Every five minutes or so my teammate called to see whether the transport was coming, and soon fifteen minutes passed, and then twenty, then thirty, then forty. The man began to shiver, and, not having any socks, tucked his sweatpants into his shoes.

Our young officer escort would not talk to the man and I figured this came from a habitual mistrust of the people he had to arrest. I was also quiet at first, following his lead, suspecting I might be being manipulated, and perhaps I was—regardless, it took a shameful amount of time before I finally handed over one of the two coats I was wearing, and my hat.

This was my grandmother’s old hat, a fluffy, black, dramatic piece. The night before I had promised to give it to my friend Ami, who along with Natalie and Lee had thrifted glamorous, flamboyant old dresses to wear to the opera this same evening—but I had forgotten. And hence I still had it, and when I handed it over to this shivering man it felt like one of those old 1930s radio tales where poor and rich are fated to meet, where a totem passes from operagoer to vagrant, and the course of life alters for both forever.

An hour passed and nothing changed—we continued to call for transport, the man continued to shiver, and then fall back into silence. We called for transport again and again.

“I was there for fifteen hours, all alone in my cell—enough time to think,” the man said. “I was in a little room. I thought of my relationship, my wife and I. I love her and she loves me. She is from Egypt. I am from Sweden. We are different people, but we are trying . . . we are trying to do what’s right. We are in couples therapy, we talk about our problems, but we argue . . . We’re not ready for children, I can say that now. And we work together. How will we work together for the same company? I don’t know. I think she is worried about me. I think she did not expect that I would be taken away.”

The man hung his head down, looked at his discharge papers, and began to weep. The officer with us at last called an ambulance.

The man could at least be taken to a hospital, have his vitals taken, and then rest inside. The ambulance arrived almost immediately, along with another cop car. My partner and I waited inside the cruiser with two different cops while the man prepared to enter the ambulance.

Talking to our other teammates on the phone, we learned that the transport had never arrived for the Guinean men either, who nonetheless seemed to have been in better spirits, in spite of their numerous ordeals. While waiting for the van, they had been sharing pictures of their children and discussing soccer. Then the men passed around photographs of the mutilated bodies of protesters who had opposed the Guinean police. “This is what the police do in Guinea,” they had said. “It’s not like in America.”

One of my teammates had apparently also gotten very sick, and when I saw her again all the color had drained from her face; another had stepped in dog shit and was now freezing, having soaked her shoe in a puddle; the other, the architect, had run into a peculiar man I had also surveyed, earlier in the night, named Roy.  

Roy had apparently hung around for a while, convinced my teammate to buy him a sandwich, and then yelled at the Subway employees for laying slices of cheese on top of each other: “Keep ‘em separated! Keep ‘em separated, ya hear!” he called out, leaning over the counter.

When we later stepped outside to continue the survey, we passed by the dog shit again, prompting one of our police escorts to say, “A trip down memory lane.”

The arrival of the ambulance had an odd, almost orthogonal relationship to this broader situation. But it had arrived with an efficiency that was undeniably miraculous, a triumph of civilization essentially unsuited to its deepest problems.

Its red lights coruscated silently and made my shadow flit back and forth, a sort of primitive animation. I thought of the drawings of bulls in one of humanity’s earliest shelters, Lascaux—when lit by fire, they apparently appear to dance.

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