This weekend, after nearly a month of following Occupy Wall Street from a laptop in the bourgeois comfort of my rent-stabilized Lower East Side studio, I decided to forsake the plush extravagance of a clean, warm, Pillow Pet–filled office cubicle to live with the protesters for a day and find out how they have been able to thrive without shelter or running water. Herewith, the secrets of survival in Zuccotti Park.
1. They don’t need any money. Many kids told me they spent their last dollars getting to New York, but since then, they haven’t had to spend a cent to eat well or acquire basics like a sleeping bag, warm clothes, clean socks and underwear, primary medical care, and even the occasional shower and good night’s sleep indoors. The protesters have built a very well-run services infrastructure, aided by countless New Yorkers who are offering food, supplies, health-care expertise, and the periodic use of their apartments. Hunky Jewish nerd Michael Glazer (Chicago) and petite, hug-dispensing black woman Sparrow Kennedy (New York via Detroit) are among the protesters running the Comfort Station, sort of a freegan’s Wal-Mart made up of plastic tubs full of toiletries and freshly cleaned blankets and clothes. Sparrow (reachable at email@example.com) is looking for more donations, but the protesters do not need any more thongs or high heels. For some reason (Occupy Scores?), they’ve received tons of those.
2. Bedbugs are not a problem, but trench foot might be. My biggest fear going down to Zuccotti was bedbugs — all those unwashed people and communal fabrics huddled together in such a small space. But the folks in the Health Care Station, such as flight nurse Aaron Highfill, said they have not seen the classic sign of “three-in-a-row” bedbug bites. The biggest problem they’ve seen is yucky feet, from the cold and the wet and people not cleaning their feet or changing their socks enough, not to mention all the marching. This is why they need donated pairs of new, warm socks, and foot powder.
Despite the hysterical warnings of the Zuccotti Park owners, the park does not appear squalid. Far from it. But it’s hard to avoid the appearance of a shantytown when, everywhere, you see plastic blue tarps, cardboard boxes, sleeping bags, plastic storage tubs, and backpacks. Where are the space-organizer volunteers to jujj the place up with some smart, stylish storage solutions? (Occupy the Container Store?)
3. Sleep is possible, but not easy. I wondered how the kids were managing to sleep amid the cold (the weather’s been mild, but it gets chilly at night), intermittent rain, crowds, and noise. Well, they aren’t, at least not much — anything between a half-hour catnap and a “good night’s sleep” of five or six hours between, say, midnight and 7 a.m. There is actually a cozy hush that settles on the park after dark, when the gawking crowds and visiting supporters clear out and it’s just the kids strumming on guitars, having their umpteenth political conversation and (adorable!) snuggling with newfound friends.
The secret to sleeping is to make a “sandwich” — first put down cardboard, then a yoga mat, then your sleeping bag. Then get in it wearing many layers, stuff earplugs in your ears (available at the Comfort Station), tie a headband over your eyes, and pull a tarp over the whole thing. Also, even though the city has said it won’t tolerate tents or structures of any kind, the truth is that many of the kids have constructed some elaborate and ingenious makeshift houses. I asked a few to show me their abodes and they told me to go away, slamming their tarps in my face.
4. The food really is good. The protesters eat delicious, healthy, and above all free food, thanks to the well-oiled volunteer machine that runs the kitchen — ferrying uncooked donations into the park, to a nearby church to cook it all up, then back into the park to be served around lunch and dinner. I had some yummy kale-garlic-black-bean thing, spinach-Feta quiche, roasted sweet potatoes, and a variety of hearty baked pasta dishes, and not one but two desserts: a crustless apple-ginger pie and a rustic bread pudding. The food pantry is run by Eo, a Judy Collins lookalike from Woodstock, with an iron but loving fist, like every anarchist kid’s dream hippie mom.
5.No fighting Every night at 7 p.m., at the east end next to Mark di Suvero’s towering, red-beamed Joie de Vivre statue, there is a General Assembly meeting that hashes out the business of the day. Even during a super-prickly meeting Friday on the alleged preponderance of “straight white male” faces going before the media, order prevailed. Heated political conversations abound. “The only rule is, don’t touch anybody,” a rare older geezer like myself told me. There is a certain degree of young male testosterone energy afloat, but I was also struck by how easily gays and transgenders wove into the mix. In the ceaseless drum circle, one of the strongest loci of the testosterone energy, some of the biggest love came for two crazy queens who vogued each other down to the ground.
6. There is Wi-Fi. There is a special cell- and laptop-charging area with two power strips that run on a generator that is shared by the Media Center, where you can borrow a laptop to go online and check your e-mail, etc. There are always volunteers at the charging center now, since it appears this was one of the few areas where thefts have occurred. There is also free Wi-Fi, thanks to one of the occupiers, Isaac Wilder, 21, a Grinnell drop-out who runs The Free Network Foundation, devoted to providing free wireless service. Wilder has rigged up a free Wifi tower at Zuccotti as well as at Occupy Austin, Kansas City, and Chicago. Drinking carrot juice and lying by his girlfriend, Anna, who is still at Grinnell, Wilder assured me that, though the other Occupy sites were impressive, “New York is the cynosure.”
7. Cigarettes are free. One of the mini-legends in the impromptu village of Occupied Zuccotti is Nick Long, 22, from White Plains, who is known by all as “Nick at Night.” Despite his nocturnal nickname, Nick in fact spends day and night sitting at a stone table not far from the drumming circle on the park’s west end, expertly rolling cigarettes for anyone who asks. That means up to 6,000 rollies a day, paid for with a collection he took up independent of Occupy’s finance arm. Long, shaggy-haired, and good-looking, he has found his niche at Zuccotti. But isn’t dispensing free nicotine unhealthy, not to mention supporting Big Tobacco? Long said that people were sending up bulk donations of tobacco from North Carolina, and the cigs served a crucial purpose because “they calmed people down.”