The drastic and simultaneous downsizing of the New York Times, New York Post, and New York Daily News, plus the related constellation of nonprofit outlets, was announced in a press conference in Rockefeller Square. Evidently our bosses felt that sharing the news in public would protect them from the worst of their employees’ rage. But Rita Jacobs, who was covering the event for the Post, threw her shoes at Jason, like al-Zaidi had at Bush Jr. after we’d invaded Iraq. A few of us also threw our shoes, which was nice, cathartic, but then we were jobless and had to retrieve our shoes. “I’m not going to not get my shoes,” Rita told me, when I bumped into her onstage.
Somehow the need to ground every article in a “real, human story” persisted despite the decimation of the journalism industry. Often a policy piece was all that was needed, but the editors always demanded these emotional details. Lee and Akash and I sat around Lee’s kitchen table one evening, eating crackers and olives, pondering this absurdity. It always took countless shameful hours, inspecting impoverished places at random, to find a suffering soul and their soundbite. How was it that we still had to find “the real human” for every story?
We were entertaining the idea that we could support ourselves if it took less time to find these people. I said: “What if we had a delivery app for deeply impoverished, broken people? ‘Oh, we need a mother whose children have lead poisoning? I’ll just order her up.’” Issues would be listed on a menu, and the person who suffered from that issue would zoom over for an interview—like the pizza man. I was just joking.
But then Akash, being a very practical person, one who, you could say, elevated practicality to the level of genius—one who might also remind us of how strange genius can be—he said, “What would be so different about that from what we already do?” His point being that we were already zooming into abandoned lives, shoving our microphones into people’s faces, and asking them to order their sorrow. Shortly thereafter, Akash learned of the Colonel Anderson Prize, announced by a man named David Thomas.
Colonel Anderson was, I later found out, a reporter and civil war hero whom David admired. The philanthropist often dressed like him, wearing double-breasted shirts like those worn by Union soldiers, and subsisting on a soldierly diet of a hard, dense rye bread, which he ate even in restaurants. After years of disorganized research into this Anderson—who had sketched portraits of soldiers, and recorded some of the things they said in a quite beautiful way—David decided to bequeath his wealth to a news team. It had to be a team that produced “stories of astounding humanity, scope, quality, and volume, using the latest technology of the day.” I remember the wording on the reward notice because it read like it was from 1860, combining this antiquated speech with the language, then very much in vogue, of storytelling.
The way the world’s issues would be resolved, David thought, was through storytelling. In lieu of political organization, campaigns, alliances, or violence there would be storytelling; in lieu of policy briefs and graphs, storytelling; through storytelling the myriad differences between left and right, black and white would be papered over, communion of souls achieved, class conflict, to the extent it persisted, vanished through a moving reimagination as a story. I exaggerate, but not very much. There was an advertisement going around at the time that you may remember.
It featured a woman who had been freed after serving a thirty-year prison sentence for defending herself against her abuser, sharing her story. At the end of this account she said, “I love my freedom, nothing is more valuable to me. This bodysuit makes me feel free.” It was a Spanx commercial.
Who was the storyteller, in David’s mind, in the mind of many people, when the word had become debased almost past recognition? The storyteller was not a real person who has gone through life and come out the other side, imprinting themselves faintly, with the lightness of a “potter’s hand,” on public memories, and on events—but rather, a certain tone, an ostentatious, empathic presence that “platformed” other voices, and made them into goods.
The Story had many faces. It was: 1) a legal fiction, invented to protect intellectual property; 2) a discursive device, for projecting corporate credibility; 3) a self-non-relation, a way of talking that keeps life at a distance, structuring it with impersonal forms, so that it doesn’t take one by surprise, or collapse in the night. Storytelling was above all marketing.
Human faces, tall as upended limousines, blazed all night on billboards paid for by Humans of New York and H&M, which had collaborated to celebrate “real New Yorkers.” Narration of their innocuous, pastel-colored lives—lives of successful immigrant e-commerce merchants and ceramicists, and self-actualized youth who filmed themselves dancing alone—appeared with English, Spanish, Chinese, and Bangla subtitles. Then a really vile street artist took photos of people in deep poverty underneath the signs, holding signs of their own explaining their much harder stories. It was a way of playing up the distance between the real New York as depicted in commercials and the real real New York (The Real Real was also a luxury consignment store at this time).
Photographs of the people under the billboards were printed on T-shirts, sold first in Brooklyn fairs, and eventually alongside the “Fuck you you fuckin’ fuck” shirts in the tourist shops in Chinatown. So the dialectic raced along, as if it was the Kentucky Derby, trampling critique and commercialization until the two categories became a kind of slush. Capitalism was late, in other words, very late. So late that it was almost early. But early to what?
One afternoon we met David for lunch. He ate his bread and went on and on about storytelling while we ate aged steaks and roast artichokes. It was the lack of potent stories, he said, that led to people dying under the BQE. Yes, yes, Lee replied, tugging at her ascot, and flashing Akash looks with her shining hunter’s eyes. “That’s why we’re out in the streets every day doing what we do. That’s the point of this publication, to tell human stories.”
Akash stroked his chin as if deep in thought, and emerged with a seemingly childlike but in fact well-rehearsed enthusiasm. “So that’s what you think journalism needs,” he said. “That’s really interesting. It’s a new way of looking at things, to be sure. It could really be necessary, the way things are.” You could tell that David felt his advice was helping Akash to shape his whole life’s directions. He invited us into his limousine.
There he opened a valise full of newspaper articles saved from his childhood—some had also been pasted, mysteriously, to the cupholders inside his car—and, without any explanation, he read the clippings aloud.
“At the beginning of high school, Briley lived in Atlanta with his mother, four younger half-siblings, his grandmother and her partner. A beloved uncle, who was partly paralyzed from a drug-related shooting, died when Briley was 13. The family faced eviction, which they had experienced before. But Briley didn’t dwell on hardship,” he read, then looked at us with a joyous, and expectant look. I didn’t know how to respond. I was confused.
“Wait!” he cried. “Wait!”
“This is the story of a 9-year-old girl and the goat she loved. But it’s also the story of hard hearts and broken hearts, of county fairs and lost innocence. Finally, because of the political power of America’s agribusiness and meat industries, it is the story of a dead goat.
“Last April, a mom in Shasta County, Calif., named Jessica Long purchased a young goat for her daughter’s project in 4-H, the youth organization. The girl, whom we’ll call by her first initial, E., because the case is in litigation, named her goat Cedar. . .”
He stopped again, looked at us.
“Wait!” Another article. Then another.
“That’s touching reporting, David,” Akash said at last, catching the drift, nudging him on.
For the next few hours David showed us various articles from a decade ago—long-form reported pieces that connected the suffering of one person with an issue of broader social significance. A few paragraphs at the beginning, detailing someone’s life, and a photograph of this subject, gazing sadly out of their kitchen window, a shadow covering half of their face. He had reams of faces and opening paragraphs, which he carried with him at all times, like the nuclear briefcase. Then he left us, and said, “This is what the world needs.”
There were onerous conditions to his award. It had to be a crew of six reporters and they had to turn around ten “moving, human stories” each week. Factoring in the time it took us to find sources, especially those who could narrativize their suffering, this was a nearly impossible demand. But with the money he was offering you could start up a real news outlet. It was a lot of money. We sang our praise and wrote warm letters and when Akash wrote up a pitch for the joke idea, the GrubHub-of-affliction idea, David awarded us the prize. We were in shock. It was six million dollars.
By the end of the year, a few thousand people had joined “Source”—that name seemed the obvious choice. The activist and nonprofit world caught wind of it quickly and said we were disgusting. There was also a letter of condemnation from a coalition of journalists saying that no one should trust the articles we released because we paid our sources.
It’s true that, on its face, it was a grotesque idea. That felt especially true on our website, where people were organized by their suffering. We had a color-coded system for managing the hierarchy of suffering: green was for welfare snafus, lead paint violations, legal procedural errors, fertilizer-related illness, corporate malfeasance and minor environmental damage; yellow was for assault in jail, wrongful conviction, citywide poisoning, retaliatory solitary confinement, grievous and preventable workplace injuries, strikebreaking at the national scale, anti-labor espionage of any kind; red was for police murders, police or military torture, counter-radical operations involving violence or murder, war crimes (many of these last categories pertaining to refugees who had lost their homes or family members to American military campaigns). In addition to these ratings we sometimes gave sources star ratings—five stars for very good, or one star for absolutely unreliable, or unbearable to deal with.
We used these categories on the backend to make it easier to find people and write stories. I am proud to say that we had people in the red category.
We were temporarily canceled when screenshots of our system were leaked to the public—but we felt ourselves to be one step ahead of our critics and our consciences. For years people had been asking to share in the profits of their life stories, and here we were, giving it to them. When we asked people on the street to talk to us, these objections seldom came up. They said, “Hundred dollars an hour just to talk? No problem, any time, I’ll talk your ear off.”
Following a robust PR campaign on the walls of welfare and parole offices, housing courts, methadone clinics, and public hospitals, several thousand people had uploaded their autobiographies onto Source. They were written in the many styles in which semi-literate people write, full of ellipses and dashes and smileys, some of it very violent or sad or irrelevant, some of it very nice, but they wanted to be heard, in any case, on many topics.
“My aunt Rose saw me on the corner and she said your gonna die out here why don’t you go back to church and play the drums again like when you was little?”
“I never dreamed of perfect love til I met my WIFE of 30 years who SAVED me and brought me close to GOD!”
“When I go to work I smash a little dent on the metal lining because I want to be remembered.”
“Only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past. Only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.”
The site cut the time it took to write an article by between 50 and 70 percent. We distributed gyroscopic electric wheels all over the city, like those used by delivery drivers and tech entrepreneurs, which could be activated if you had an appointment. People rode the wheels to our office, they were paid a hundred dollars an hour to talk, and then they rode home.
My job, in addition to managing the office, was to liaise between the sources and the reporters. I would meet the sources outside, and input their personal details into our pay system and database. I would request documents to satisfy our fact-checkers, and then photograph the person. Because David was interested in visual storytelling, portraits of people in their homes, and videos, and because we initially had no time to do any of this, I resorted to photographing most people in the courtyard of the former Gowanus projects. Having been taken over by scrap metal dealers after their abandonment, the dilapidated buildings served as an ideal backdrop of poverty.
During the photo sessions, people would smile and throw up a peace sign and I’d have to say, “I’m sorry, but remember that this article is about your being abandoned for two years without trial on Rikers Island.”
Saying that sort of thing made me feel culpable. But David would threaten to remove all of our funding, and sometimes would, for a week or two, if we challenged his views. When I said we were producing taxidermied poverty, he told me he’d put me out on the street. When he asked me to speak about Source to civic boosters in other states, I felt I had no choice but to oblige him.
A consultant David had hired asked me to wear scuffed Converse shoes, and a V-neck T-shirt under a sport coat, in order to evoke a scrappy, startup mentality—small but heavy indignities. “Storytelling is the art of human empathy,” I said. “It requires empathy and it creates empathy. And we’ve finally figured out how to make empathy fast.” “Soul and speed aren’t two words you hear together too often. But here . . .” I don’t want to continue remembering this.
Our stories were effective enough. The pieces had an impact on legislation in many demonstrable ways. They helped to slow and in some cases blockade the defunding of the last remaining social welfare programs. In that respect they were worth the obvious but often minor damage to souls. People were happy to be paid and happy to not see us again.
Things only started to change after Lee’s story on Narcan. A parks worker named Roberta kept vials of Narcan in her coat, and revived a young mother named Giselle. This was during the fall, two years ago, in Washington Heights. Giselle had collapsed while her son was in a store. She had smoked K2, nothing serious, but it was laced with something. She would have died if Roberta hadn’t saved her with the Narcan. And when Giselle awoke, she began to cry and shake, and Roberta told her, everything will be alright, you have to get yourself together. And then she helped Giselle and her son onto a bus.
But then Roberta got on the bus as well, and she asked Giselle to come to us, to explain what had happened. Roberta wanted parks employees to get Narcan for free, and she also wanted to make some money.
Of course Giselle said, “No, I’m just coming back from death” but Roberta reminded her she would be paid three hundred dollars or more for this, and so, after dropping her son off, they logged the event into our system and rode wheels to our office.
It was upsetting to learn they had rushed over so soon after what had happened, but the story received a lot of attention, and a few months later a law was passed, saying that every parks employee would receive ten doses of Narcan a month. There were groundskeepers who saved many lives because of it. Donations flooded in after its publication, so we gave them each an additional three hundred dollars. Giselle was a good talker and made everything vivid.
A week later she called saying she wanted to give her money back. I met her outside our office and asked if she would take a walk with me. She said no, she would speak to me in the doorway. She was 40 or so, with permed hair dyed red and black, and a red varsity jacket with a promiscuous and aggressive Tweety Bird sewn onto the back.
She said, “I want to tell you this right here. You can’t just take people’s experiences like that. You should take my money back right now. You can’t know what I seen during that time, you know? Like, you can’t have no fuckin’ idea what was going through my head.” She was really angry, and leaning into my face.
And she said, “I was carrying my son riding the fucking wheel, to drop him off at his auntie’s house, and I was crying. And he’s saying, ‘Mommy, mommy, why was you lying on the ground earlier, I seen you in the store,’ and I said mommy fell down. And he says OK, but why are we riding this wheel?
“And I didn’t know what to tell him, so I just gave him to his auntie and came right back over here. Sharing this one small-ass wheel with this lady who just saved my life, you know? And I had no time to process this for myself ’cause I’m just fucking zooming, and I’m crying on this wheel, just zooming, literally can’t think of nothing, and the tears flying off my face. And then I remembered right before she got me to talk to you, when I was down on the ground, I saw angels calling my name and my father, he was holding hands with my mom, back in Puerto Rico . . . We was under the coconuts, and the angels was flying down from the branches saying like ‘You did what you could’ and ‘God bless you,’ stuff like that, and I said, ‘No, no I want to live and be there for my son,’ and then they said, ‘OK we’ll see what we can do.’”
She was furious with me and I said many times, “I’m so sorry, is there anything we can do?” Ultimately, she said, “Just be cautious with people’s lives. Just be cautious with it. Don’t go poking around in people’s feelings and relationships cause sometimes that’s not for you.” She didn’t give her money back.
I wanted to keep this incident away from Akash and Lee, although at the time I didn’t think too much of it. At times people regret telling you things—it’s just part of the work.
David stopped by the office more and more often. He brought pizza for the staff, and told us that he wasn’t reading anything but our work. “Oh come on,” I said, “don’t exaggerate.” “It’s true!” he said. “It’s really all I read! I read each piece ten, twelve times!”
Akash pulled me aside and said, “I think there’s something really wrong with him.” Looking at Akash, who had huge bags under his eyes, I said, “Yeah, and you don’t look good either.” “You look terrible,” he replied. It was true, we laughed, and then while he was explaining the great significance of Source in his life, as he gesticulated wildly, quoting various suffering people from our articles, David passed out, his head just smacked down onto the office table. We all rushed around him and he got up, brushing it off. He attributed it to too much salt in the pizza.
Shortly after that, a larger problem arose. As more and more people heard of Source, and as conditions declined in the city, people started to gather outside our office door instead of waiting for appointments. I had to go outside and tell them to go home. “You have to get an appointment. You have to get an appointment.”
But they came with everything already written on paper, ready for us, with pictures, with corroborating testimony. A line would form in the early morning, when I would go on my walks, my only moment of solitude, which I took simply in order to remember I had a body, and even a mind.
Then I would walk up and down the line, saying, “Go home, guys, please. Go home.” But they would not. “I know my life story is worth five hundred dollars at least, bro. I could probably get two million dollars in Hollywood, bro.” What could I say?
They shoved their photos at me. Guys sold ice cream out there. Personal injury lawyers paid homeless people to pass out their business cards in the line. Some of the people we interviewed started coming into the office, trying to get me to sign up for Herbalife health powder programs. And then there were paid-per-photo, undocumented Minnie Mouse mascots, with their obliging, happy expression of inhuman solicitude, who shook down the sources for souvenir pictures. They removed their masks over and over in the summer sun, revealing sweating human faces, red noses, and harried, impatient, angry eyes.
One man who featured in some prison reportage came in to say that I should use my platform to explain that Jesus was Black. At a certain point I asked him to leave the office, but he promptly returned with two more priests, wearing felt robes repurposed from Roman sentry Halloween costumes. They told me that the existence of my 501(c)(3) had been preordained in the Book of Revelation, that my nonprofit was “The Great Satan.”
He said, “And you should know that you going to hell, man. You going to hell.”
The daily lines grew longer and louder. Our neighbors filed a lawsuit with the city to kick us out, and so we moved to a warehouse that was once part of an intermodal transit network. Where containers had been unloaded and moved from ship to truck, and from truck to railroad, there was now a crowd of human faces handled like freight passing through our log-jammed ports.
Inspectors came to demand that people show their wares, see if everything was legal, fit to be sent to the customer; then they were moved to the office, recorded, photographed, fact-checked, sound-bited and block-quoted. A select few of these were deemed ready for consumption: “stories.”
To save time, I hired community liaisons to talk to people, and summarize what they said. The liaisons were all people we had interviewed in the past, which David liked. They rode around on electric wheels, talking to people for seven minutes at a time, evaluating their appearance and way of speaking with an eye to its “human potential”—God help us, the liaisons came up with the term themselves—and gathering what they had already sensed was essential: eloquence and brokenness, soft pliant eyes, a sense of clarity. They picked up on all the tropes right away, instinctively, and coached people behind our backs on what to say.
The lead liaison, Tonya, arrived at 6 AM, soaring through lines on her wheel like an electronic saint. She thrust out her proud and beautiful chin, code-switching between races and managerial levels with exceptional dexterity. “Get that money Black man!” she called out to men who participated in long-term investigations; “You looking so pretty Miss Keisha!” she called to the oldest liaison; and then, to the social workers, who operated three large tables, she whispered in a discreet and official tone: “I would recommend that Lupe Trujillo and Michael Jones enroll their children in the Early Learners program as soon as possible.”
For many months we simply didn’t know she coached the sources, which speaks for itself.
A year later she had partnered up with a coterie of erotica writers and scam artists, and taken over an abandoned dental clinic. There she operated a little business fabricating dossiers of trauma for modest fees. I went there once, and after waiting forty minutes, a middle-aged woman called my name, asked me some questions, and kindly suggested, “Well honey, how about we say you got assaulted at the VA hospital?”
When I asked her what she thought about this job, she said the same thing as Roberta had—“When it comes down to it our lives really ain’t our own.” I heard this phrase again in other places. When I confronted Tonya about her extensive and profoundly dishonest scam operation, she looked down at her shoes and said “You don’t know what truth is.” I looked at her shoes as well. They shone like apples on the tree of knowledge.
People were very desperate for money. Nothing worked, no infrastructure worked—a middle-aged man with an appointment to see us rushed over and was hit by a car. It was his fault, as he had run a red light, but it was a scandal.
The New York Post: “ALWAYS PROTECT YOUR SOURCES? Storyteller killed on way to sell his own tragedy.”
It was not uncommon to see, beside the desperate immigrant riding his GrubHub wheel with a bag full of Poké, the last remaining tuna in the world, another desperate immigrant, on a different electric wheel, on her way to sell a story. In some cases, we learned, they got off the GrubHub wheel and took the Source wheel right as they changed shifts—a whole transportation economy subsidized by Poké bowls and “stories.”
The delivery companies finally replaced bikers and drivers with automated and heated boxes on wheels. In protest, fired Honduran messengers razed robot effigies in Union Square. Others drew cocks on the heated boxes, or slashed their rubber tires. Although these devices had alarm systems, a hit-and-run approach meant you could make off with food before the law had arrived—and so we started to see blue-and-white NYPD bots escorting the caravans of delivery boxes.
At the citywide Zoom meeting where the police bot permits were approved, an older Russian woman called them “Little Stalins” in the section for public comment. Her remark received three clapping emojis. But still, it was oddly touching to see the poor Little Stalins malfunction and bump into walls. I don’t believe they hurt anyone, although, on occasion, they trampled dogs.
A group of kids stole more than fifty of our wheels and filmed a music video on them. They performed a gestural dance that I can only describe as shitting on an iPad, in a nod, I assume, to the tablets we used to perform first intake on sources. The people rolled all around us, ran circles around us as we all suffered our separate problems. I confronted the kids with the wheels one day, saying “Please guys, please. I don’t know what I can tell you but these wheels are the base of everything. Thousands of people rely on them to get to our warehouse and even to get across town. You know the issues with the trains and buses. You know people don’t have cars. I’m not going to call the police, and I never will, but a lot of people in your communities rely on these in order to make money. So you are really taking money away from your own communities.”
They pretended to listen to me, and for a time I thought I was getting through to them. They said that they sympathized, because some of their aunts and uncles used the wheels. But in fact they were just putting on a good show. “Yeah man, that really sucks what we did with the wheels. I really never thought about it like that.” “Wow,” said one of the kids, staring at her shoes, pseudo-profoundly. “A lot of people must rely on you.”
But then she and the boy grinned these huge grins, the wheels they had brought over to me rushed away as if by invisible command, and about thirty children hiding around the Marcy Projects got on and rode them around me, dancing with evocative frowning faces to a new song they had written together. “Ain’t gonna tell you my life (I won’t), can’t compensate me my strife (no way).”
In dreams between waking and sleeping life I saw myself in a bellhop uniform, arranging performances of the poor for owners of pied-à-terres. The audience would ask me in polite tones, “Sir, can we be more moved?” The problem was, when I relayed this message to the performers, they actually moved more, they animated their sorrow more, and this made the audience feel alienated. And so they asked in ever politer tones, “Can we be more moved, sir? Please, can we be more moved?”
I asked David if I might speak at a Los Angeles conference on innovative solutions to social problems. It was an excuse to feel weightless in a chain hotel—I wanted to have one of those pleasant crises depicted in films about sad middle managers, who ponder their grief while floating in bright swimming pools.
A day before I was set to speak, Ira Glass III, the grandson of the famous radio host, published an op-ed about Source that made the rounds among the attendees. He said that Source’s problems—all the fighting, and the car crash, and the neighborhood conflicts, and the wheel songs, and the persistent, inescapable fraud—“this is what happens when you monetize storytelling.”
“We at NPR have been scrupulously avoiding this by letting people come to us and telling stories on their own terms.” And in NPR voice: “We understand that people need money, but perhaps it would be better to let people come on their own terms.” And, “We As Storytellers need to learn to respect people’s lives on their own terms, and to really, truly listen to them, to recognize how little we can know, on our own, from people from other walks of life.” I was burning with anger as I read it. What did Ira Glass III know about any of this, about how hard we were trying to make things work?
At the hotel bar, drinking to excess, I saw Ira Glass III from across the room, and felt a hideous rage in my chest, not directed against him so much as what he represented.
I called out, “Hey! Hey! Hey Ira, Ira Glass III!” He said nothing. “Ira, I’m talking to you!” Nothing. “Hey Mr. Integrity! Mr. Ethics in Journalism!”
“Hey Ira, let me ask you something? Has your group given away seventy million dollars to people? Just straight checks? Have you done that? Have you found a model to keep reporting alive? How many journalists do you have now? Have you changed any city policies? State policies? Federal policies? When was the last time anyone read your work?”
“Hey! Ira, I’m talking to you!” He wouldn’t look at me. “Come here little Ira!” Nothing. “IRA GLASS THE THIRD, COME HERE YOU RAT FUCK!” And then I walked over and took his face in my hands, and made him look at me.
Then I walked away, outside the hotel and into the parking lot, beyond, onto the fringe of a highway, because there aren’t any sidewalks in Los Angeles—it isn’t built for anyone.
There at last, that freeing feeling, like I had been cut off from all social links. I passed under billboards depicting sacred dreams of a normal life, cannabis outlets, fire insurance, and all the stars, priced out of heaven, declassed and descended, affixed to liquor store signs. A group of old men drank Smirnoff Ice below Rose Liquors’ blinking flower. They talked about nothing till dawn raised its bloody fingers.
“I had a old lady once, never did anything for me, but she was nice to strangers. I liked to be around her when someone else was around.”
“This country has gone to the dogs, and that’s nothing new. You think it’s new but it’s not!”
“I say to him, ‘You know what, I’m not a nice guy’ and I think about it, and I’m not. I’m hard! I got a shell built up.”
“This world, man, this world is fucked up.”
“It’ll fuck you over any way you look at it.”
“Yes, it will.”
“It do be like that.”
When I returned from LA, Giselle was standing outside of our warehouse in her Tweety Bird coat, passing out business cards. I asked her how she was, did she still want her money back, how was her son, and she said she was fine, and that she was here to support people. “A lot of people got disorders from talking to you all,” she said, “so I’m just out here saying look, you got a friend out here, you could talk to me, I know people who could help you. Cause you might spill your guts out and not know how to react, you know.”
Within the week, I started to get emails that read:
I am writing to say that your organization has given me dissociative identity disorder.
Some sources ran a publicity campaign where they talked about what it was like to have their stories and pictures out in the world, to be rushing them out for pay, to get ordered around on a wheel “like the pizza man” (the word was by this time an anachronism). They sued us repeatedly and won. They made a bad documentary about the experience, which was purchased by Netflix.
Not a problem at first. We could pay out. I was supposed to make it stop, at the CFO’s request.
I sought out Giselle and asked her what was wrong. “Take me to the founder,” she said. “Take me to the boss, and let me tell him.” I hadn’t seen David for a long time and thought he should know something about his organization. In fact I was glad she said it. “Good, good,” I said. “I’ll take you.”
We got bagels and lox before riding wheels over the Manhattan Bridge. At the midpoint we paused to watch the ferries pass by, the garbage barge, and the container ships. Giselle narrated each kind of ship while pointing her son Georgie’s hand. It was a cold and bright day in late fall. “Georgie loves the boats,” she said, holding him on his own little wheel. “We take the ferry to Far Rockaway when mommy isn’t working, and we go play in the sand. I always take him to the same bakery and get him a little cheese bagel. Right papi? Doesn’t mommy do that for you?” He smiled shyly and tucked himself between Giselle’s legs. “Georgie, tell Mr. Morley about what we learned about boats. Why they float? Remember, papi?” He shook his head, and Giselle looked up at me and said, “Aw, he don’t wanna talk.”
She said she had recently separated, had been born in Puerto Rico, had worked as a chef at a salad company. She spoke loudly, free-associating. She had just taken Georgie to a new Scandinavian-style playground, where they want kids to be free, did I know about that? And did I know that Bronx kids would never be free? And why wasn’t I writing about that? Well, I should, I said. I should do that.
When David’s doorman let us into the elevator, he said in a low voice, “I think something’s wrong with Mr. Thomas.” Giselle looked at me outside his door, and said, “He buy this place with all the money you making from us?”
When David saw her he almost fainted. He cried out, “I know you! I know you!” and led us to a spot on his wall, where he had framed her picture, standing next to Roberta, the parks worker who had saved her life. But in fact there were thousands of our photos—the place was covered floor to ceiling in photographs, stories from our paper, people we had met. There was hardly any room to walk.
“I’m sorry, I’m overwhelmed to meet you,” David said to Giselle, awkwardly kissing her hand, bent in on himself. She raised her hand up, startled, as if a bug had bitten it, and then explained without a prelude: “Listen man, basically we asking you to do this in a more respectful way, that’s all we saying. We don’t want to be driving around selling our life story like no pizza man. We don’t want to take no fuckin’ wheel to get to work, spill my guts to get paid to pick up my kid, don’t want to make myself traumatized man, so I can use a fuckin’ wheel man. I’m just trying to get around and live my life.” She explained how a lot of people would have preferred to be talked to in a more respectful way and over a longer term. She concluded: “I don’t want to have stories to tell you, basically! Fix the train, bro, fix the projects, fix the economy, I won’t have no story to tell you!”
David listened in silence, processing the speech. Then he bowed very low, took Giselle’s hand, and kissed it. “I’ve heard you,” he said.
He gestured to me to give him his ear, almost as if we were in another room, speaking privately. “What does this mean? What does she want? I’ll give her anything. Anything they want they can have.” I felt kind of seasick. Giselle looked at me, confused. She and I went into another room.
“What the fuck was that?” she asked. “I don’t know.” “So he can cry to us?” “I’m not sure.” “So what the fuck was that?” “I don’t know.”
On our way out, David knocked over his Source mug and I felt I ought to return to sweep up the pieces, but he waved me away. His apartment had an overpowering smell.
David died a week later. He had been spending down his considerable fortune rapidly and had not written a will. His heirs canceled our payments immediately, shifting the funds into a new venture of theirs, a chain of eco-friendly golf courses. At this time, four or five hundred people were coming to the warehouse every day.
Mad grief flashed across Akash’s face—and then he deferred the feeling. Lee said, “Fuck it, let’s spend what’s left, just do what we want. Run it all down.” We looked out wearily, from our office window, past the massive crowd, the liaisons, the parked wheels, the iPad Minis, and past the shipping yard, out to the ocean. Just a strip of color at that distance, and very still, embracing the sides of oil tankers.
The last stories we reported without concern for the human as such, or the news cycle. They were long interviews with sources about the things they wanted to talk about: yo-yos, fishing, nail styles, their jobs, Hollywood movies. And then the day came when there was no money left. I had to tell everyone they were laid off, that there was nothing to do. Close to six hundred people were outside that day with their little envelopes. Addressing the staff, I said, Hey, can everyone get into the conference room? We can’t pay you. It was just the one man propping it up. The foundation money is nothing, the donations are nothing, a few hundred thousand dollars, there’s no point in spending it. It’s over.
But the sources had come all the way here from Connecticut? The reporters had dropped jobs in marketing to work here? What?
Yeah, I’m in shock too. But they canceled everything. There’s nothing left.
We can find a solution!
No, we can’t.
An outraged young man asked, “And with everything happening in the city—how can anyone understand it, feel it, experience it, if it does not have a human face?”
“Well,” I said, “I guess the story will not have a human face.”
There was almost a riot in the office—many livelihoods were at stake. We should have said something to the employees, given them advanced notice. I don’t know. And then outside, in the long lines, you can imagine—I went on a loudspeaker and said there was a technical difficulty, that the operation was down for the day—would they go home?
That kept the crowd away for a day, no more. The next morning almost everyone was back. Was the issue fixed? No, I said, sorry. When will it be fixed? OK, I said, We’ve run out of funds.
We don’t have any more money to pay you.
So then I was in fear for my life. People chased me and I hid in the parking lot of the car dealership next door. Robert the manager let me hide in an Escalade with tinted windows, and I picked up Akash and Lee to watch sources break through the glass office doors and tear down the cubicle dividers. A fire blazed inside, but just for a moment. A crew of men we had never seen before showed up, holding metal bats, guarding the entrances to the warehouse.
I could see hundreds and hundreds of people walking in and out of our warehouse from our position in the four-story parking lot. They were talking, laughing, and yelling. When at last I went to talk to the men with bats, Tonya, the head liaison, handcuffed me to the fence. “I’m sorry, Morley, but we can’t let you inside.”
What could I do? I felt some kind of attachment in spite of myself. Later Tonya came up to me with a plate of meat and beans from Malecon. “We’re still thinking about when to let you in,” she said.
It started to get cold. For solace I sang “Home on the Range.” Who knows where an idea like that comes from? The general culture. So much is buried inside us. Where was Akash? Where was Lee? Locked to a post, I watched my office get torn apart. It could be repurposed somehow. Loud sounds emanated from the warehouse, as if our metal cabinets were being toppled and stripped apart. They’re acting without regard to history. Incidental moments in our sententious interviews contain the truth by accident. Approach the truth with humility and it will come to you; otherwise it won’t show itself. It appears. In the corner of the eye.
Tonya took me in after a time, leading me by the shoulder, and unlocked Lee and Akash as well, who I guess had been locked up nearby. “Take a seat guys, Giselle will be with you.” We looked at each other and then at the warehouse, at everything we had built.
There were perhaps a thousand people inside, hustling, moving things into place, taking the cubicles down, pulling out cameras and microphones, testing them, and shooting one another. They were all saying things, performing scenes from horror and romance films, dancing, or doing interviews around tables, looking at each other with serious expressions, imitating famous actors’ depictions of love. Some kids grasped at each other’s throats, or held hands by the podcast studio. Two caretakers from the West Indies reenacted the shopping scene from Desire Eilish’s remake of “Pretty Woman.” Others had built a pyramid. The workspace was gradually cleared away and transformed into a massive urban set.
Giselle smiled triumphantly when she arrived on her wheel, towing her son. She lay down her director’s bullhorn and sat beside us in a chair labeled “Director,” and immediately started a rapid monologue:
“How you doing guys, I’m sorry we had to do you dirty like that. We didn’t mean nothing by it. We got a lot going on and you guys seemed so tripped out so we tied you up. I know that’s fucked up. I guess if you call the police I understand, but you gotta know we’re trying to do something here. We got a lot of people in here, you could see that, haha. We got a lot of people. That’s my auntie over there with the microphone. You remember she came in once because she got cancer from her property? And that’s her boyfriend helping her with the microphone. So we trying to keep everything in the family. This is a movie with a lot going on so there’s a lot of people here. A lot of my own family is here helping out.
“We was all talking, you know, before this. ’Cause I was handing out my card and shit so there was a lot of people talking . . . on WhatsApp! . . . Bro! Y’all didn’t even know! Wowwwww! But we was talking anyway about how this experience was, you know, whatever whatever, how it affected us, whatever whatever, and a lot of us been saying we want to make our own production company. A kind of production company that, we all got shares in it, you could buy shares too, if we went public, that’s what we would do. . . . Cause there’s movies to be made, bro. We got hella movie ideas! And we was talking a lot about that in the chat even before all of this happened. So when it happened and we heard you say there was no money we was like fuck it bro, let’s go! Let’s take them cameras, boyee!
“And we still got love for you all, like you helped us, sometimes, we got to see how some of this shit works just by coming in, and you was cool sometimes about us just . . . lurking, I guess. So we was thinking you could even play some roles. We got a scene with a getaway driver I think. That’s what my auntie wants. So you could do that, Akash, or Lee you could do it, you know ladies could be getaway drivers too, ha! But Morley you gotta be the garbage man, I see you got that garbage man look in your eyes, you know! LOL. I’m being silly.
“So but fundamentally, it’s kind of hard to put a label on this, I don’t want to put limits up, don’t want no blockade on nothing, you know, but we making something with a lot going on, you don’t even know! And I don’t know what you could call it, but you could call it an action flick or something. Cause, you know, action, stuff like that.”
Giselle was then called away. The lights dimmed and multiple directors carrying clipboards shut them all at once.
Carpenters and child artists tear up our pallets, cubicles, and filing systems, breaking down their components and arranging them in the form of the Battery Park sea wall. The office plants become trees, lining Central Park’s bike trail. Our legal boxes take the form of small buildings, bridges, and roads. These papers once housed within—the welfare complaints and discovery and eviction notices—are removed, cut up, and painted, becoming skyscraper windows and rolling ocean waves. Waves composed of real and fake evidence, accumulated centuries of misfortune, are taped together into long streamers which lap at and climb the sea wall, animate, full of life and pain. Kids shake the archives, shouting, “HURRICANE!”
Meanwhile numerous directors issue conflicting orders on cops and property. Wood and cardboard mansions celebrated in one scene are razed and looted in others; officers valorized at one moment are later defamed, their weapons removed, their chins covered in grime. Robbers chase running, laughing bags of cash, played by children; the cops chase the robbers; the banks chase the cops, and the cash bags chase the banks. They sing about the root of all evil while retirees clothed in rags rattle tin cans in stolen carts. The circle expands to make way for their hard journeys, so they can shuffle all night through Gowanus.
The moon rises, the trash cans blaze. The old people sing “No one knows my name” while discarding scrap in burning newspaper fires. Their tin-cans become molten roses, which youth groups acquire, and use as adornment for the half-empty projects, their weather-beaten playgrounds, and the clinics crumbling into the ground. Children climb NYCHA’s last towers, ascending fire escapes in Babylon, surveying storms, and grasping at stagflated dollars falling through federal rain. Not pennies from heaven, but housing vouchers from sulfur clouds, and food stamp raindrops; they call out “FREEDOM” to prisoners with wax wings, fleeing Municipal Corrections. They descend, the gangs of rough angels, on blue salt-banks, singing “This life ain’t our own”—then join bike messengers, home health aides, and fentanyl users, all on their way to the Times Square Diorama. Two thousand of our newly jailbroken iPads stand in for the old monumental ads. Crowds applaud them and shout at their messages. Then they ask for silence—the Red M&M greets them, and begs for their silence too.
He recounts his life, how he’d gone dancing in his youth, at the Blue Moon M&M Club, how he wished he had been more patient with them, and thanks God he’s still alive. He visits his wife’s grave, scraping shoes on the grass outside Green-Wood Cemetery. “I’ll never forget her.”
Unwatched cosmetic vloggers radiate in four corners of the Square. Missing person ads play on behalf of all people. The remaining ad space plays video interviews from our digital archive.
Each of them I can now remember; the jailhouse lawyer, the river dredger, the amputee. I remember how they talked. Their voices race through empty streets as light floods the avenues. As night leaves so do night’s creatures: rats and pigeons leave, security guards leave, street cleaners, dishwashers, fishermen under the viaducts. No one awaits them but themselves. The sun rises and offers no comment.