Amelia rides uptown in the creaky old van driven by Jeremy, that creaky old hippie. Suzie is up front in the passenger seat and Amelia bounces along on the bench seat, the city slipping by them in red and white and neon, the city such a different animal when you cut through it by car. Moving fast, away from the sound and smell of it, and it’s swift and layered and beautiful. Especially on a winter night like this, late enough and cold enough for most of the people to be tucked away, and it’s just you and the cabs and the late-night streets and the lights, and you remember why you love this city. Easy to love her again. To look out the window and find the Empire State Building all lit up and the Chrysler Building up ahead and gleaming, and it’s enough to make Amelia go all heart-full and giddy. Enough to make her want to reach out and embrace it all.
The van rolls along First Avenue to the Upper East Side. Jeremy’s not a squatter, but he’s sympathetic. He’s been around forever, and he’s happy to pitch in for a small cut of the haul. He drives them on these weekly excursions into the foreign territory uptown, where the dumpster diving’s the best, the pickings the freshest, the most abundant, the most outrageously, ostentatiously wasteful.
First stop, a bagel place on Eighty-Third and First. Amelia and Suzie get out of the van and go around the back down the alley, Jeremy circling the block so as not to draw attention. A wad of black trash bags tucked into each of their jacket pockets. Pop open the dumpster and rip open a trash bag and there are the bagels, dozens of them. Six or seven dozen, easy, all on their own in the trash bag, no garbage mixed in. Nice and clean.
Next stop, Gristedes. Yogurt, cheese, milk expiring day after tomorrow, still good for a few days. Slightly dented cans of soup. Boxes of cereal with the cardboard bent in. People don’t want to buy dinged cans. Don’t want to buy boxes that show they’ve been touched by hands before theirs. It won’t sell and out it goes and all the better for them, who need the food, who can pull this stuff from the garbage and clean it up and feed themselves and their friends. Save it from the landfill.
But there’s something sad about it, Amelia thinks. The mountains of food. An entire building could grow fat on what they find in the trash. They did the Upper West Side run last week and found five wheels of perfectly good brie behind Fairway. Entire wheels of brie. Who knows why they were tossed. Along with a bucket of olives, bags of slightly bruised apples, bananas showing just a touch too much brown.
It feeds them, yeah, but you have to wonder what’s going to become of a place with so little tolerance for dings and dents, for bruises, for small scars.
The bags are full of food, the floor of the van loaded down with groceries. It’s a good haul, really good. They’ll drop some off at Cat House, at Utopia Squat, at Maus Haus. Plenty of food to share. As the van ambles back downtown, Suzie and Amelia divvy the goods up, getting a bag ready for each building.
First stop is the farthest south and east, dropping food off at Utopia on Fifth and D. Rolling up Avenue D, they head north, over to Maus on Seventh. Then toward home. They drive west on Thirteenth Street. There are four guys in front of the building to the left of Cat House. The light over the door is out, the men blending in with the shadows.
Suzie says, “That doesn’t look like hanging out.”
“Can you see who it is?” Amelia says.
“No one I know. No one who lives in that building, pretty sure.”
“Big shoulders, short hair,” Amelia says. “Undercovers?”
“I’ll pass the word along to Cat House when I run the bag in,” Suzie says. “Amelia, you want to go home and let our guys know? And Jeremy, you mind swinging back over to Utopia and Maus to give them the heads-up? Just so the night watches know to be on alert. Maybe nothing, but better to let everyone know, yeah?”
“Hey, Jeremy? Just watch until Suzie and I both get safe inside before you drive off, okay?” Amelia says.
“Come on. It’s not like they’re waiting to jump us,” Suzie says as she climbs out of the van with the bag for Cat House.
Jeremy catches Amelia’s eye in the rearview mirror. “I’ll wait.”
Amelia goes into Thirteen House with their bag of food. Marlowe is on the door tonight. It seems Marlowe’s always got night watch lately. He’s an insomniac and he says if he’s going to be awake he might as well make himself useful. She tells him what’s up, then goes upstairs to find Gerrit and tells him. He runs upstairs to tell Steve and Ben and then you can feel the whole house buzzing with it, waiting and wondering what’s going to come, if anything.
It’s well past 1:00 AM, and the food is all divided up. Everyone heads toward bed, except Marlowe on the door and Ben on the roof, Suzie circling the streets on bike watch. Amelia feels kind of sheepish, like they overreacted to a bunch of guys standing around outside in the dark.
“We’re all so jumpy,” she tells Gerrit. He’s climbed into bed with her again. He presses against her. The heat coming off his body, the new boldness of his hands. She talks, trying to distract him, trying to calm herself, trying not to mind his being there, and she says, “Maybe we got it wrong. Maybe they weren’t up to anything.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “You were right to let everyone know. We have to be on guard. Even if they aren’t up to something tonight, it’s good to keep your eyes open like that.”
He’s kissing her neck now, easing his hand beneath the waistband of her sweatpants. She rolls away, but he pulls her back against him. He’s half hard and she feels a little jolt of fear, wondering just how far the rules have shifted. “Shhh,” he’s hissing in her ear. “Shhh.” Those hands. She wants to elbow him hard and run from the room, but she doesn’t. They’ve struck this deal over the years, this unspoken deal, and she can’t go back on it now. Certainly not now, with the baby. She closes her eyes. She tries to like it.
Banging on the door downstairs reverberates through the hallways, right up into their apartment. Shouting from the roof, shouting now on the stairs, in the hallway, and they’re both up, grabbing for boots, grabbing for coats, out into the hallway.
Ben is in the hall, eyes wide, nostrils flaring, shouting, “Eviction Watch! Let’s go! Let’s go! Over to Cat House, people, let’s GOOOOO! Lock your doors behind you, barricades down!”
Boards are wedged into place to bar doors and windows, apartment doors are locked, then everyone rushes downstairs and out the front door. Nena closes it behind them, little Carla standing behind her wrapped in a blanket, and they hear her slide down the heavy steel bar that braces that door. They’re twenty strong, together, angry, adrenaline pumping, and Amelia thrilling to it, even though she’s scared. Thrilled and thinking, finally, finally something is happening. Something, whatever it is. They’ve been waiting and here it is, it’s happening now.
Next door, their friends at Cat House are outside, arms linked and blocking the door, and here comes a group from the other direction, coming from other Eviction Watch squats, and everyone joining in, linking arms. The cops are there, three cars with the lights going, and a battering ram—scarred blue metal beast—leaning against one of the cop cars. But only six cops for all these squatters.
Amelia finds Kim. “What happened?”
“Anonymous report about a gun. Someone seen going inside with a gun.”
“Yeah, some bullshit, right?”
“And there you have it,” Gerrit says, his arm linked through Amelia’s and now she’s glad to have him beside her, glad for his touch. It’s cold out, near freezing, but she thinks the shaking in her legs has nothing to do with the cold. It’s an awesome sight, all these people—fifty easy, maybe more—come together to defend their neighbors.
“Godverdomme,” he says. “We should have left you to guard the house with Nena. If there’s any pushing or shoving at all, promise me you’ll get off to the side?”
She nods. “Yeah. I promise.”
Steve’s in front, talking to the officer in charge. Cat’s beside him, angry, obviously working hard not to spit, not to take a swing at the cops. “There are no weapons in this building, officer,” Steve says. “I can vouch for that. We can’t let you search, though. Not without a warrant. There are residents who aren’t home. We can’t allow you to come through. There are no guns here. Could it have been a drill? Or a nail gun?” Steve turns to the group gathered behind him. “Anyone working with a nail gun tonight?”
Ben says, “Yeah. I was.”
The cops don’t know who lives where. The officer in charge says, “Nail gun?” and turns to the other cops and says, “I’m not looking to haul fifty people in tonight. All that paperwork. I’m satisfied I see a nail gun.” The other cops nod and shrug. Who wants to do all that paperwork? “Okay,” he says to Ben. “You bring out that nail gun. And when you bring it out, you do it nice and slow and pointed to the ground and we’ll be okay. Okay?”
Good thing Ben knows Cat House as well as he does, and good thing they all pitch in with the work and know where everyone’s tools are kept, because Ben goes into the building and three minutes later (a very long three minutes and no sound but shifting feet and clearing throats and the cops looking as nervous as the squatters) he comes back out—nice and slow—and he’s got a nail gun and turns it toward himself and hands the butt end to the cop, who fires a round into the sidewalk. He nods and hands it back.
“Okay, folks. Have a good night.”
Just like that, they’re gone. And everyone is cheering and patting each other on the back and excited. They sent out the call, they set Eviction Watch in motion, and it worked. It totally worked.
“Fuckers,” Gideon says. “Good thinking on the nail gun, guys. That was quick thinking.”
“If that’s the best they can do, we’ve got no worries,” Suzie says.
Cat snorts and says, “Baby, that was nothing. You just hang on because this thing is just getting started.”
But still, tonight, success. Tonight, they’ve done something. No one wants to go back to sleep. They all crowd into the Cat House basement community room—because they can, because the building is still open—and someone hauls out some booze and someone else puts on some tunes, and they break out the food that Amelia and Suzie brought back. Ben stands on a table, waving that nail gun around and hooting, and everything is good and hopeful. Everything is right with the world, for now.
Cari Luna received an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. Her short fiction has appeared in failbetter, Avery Anthology,PANK, and Novembre Magazine. New York-born, she now lives in Portland, OR, with her husband, their two children, a cat, and four chickens.