4. The Free Air Society
This post is part of an interactive serial fiction experiment called “A March Story.” Reader contributions are marked as links. The questions between the sections are your opportunity to drive the story; click those to send me ideas. To learn more, read the Introduction. To tell me what you think or get involved, tweet me.
In my dream I was standing in Times Square, looking up. Through a hole in the heavy gray clouds I could see a blue sky. No one disturbed me; people passed to my left and right, to my back and front. No Elmos harassed m;, no one offered me a ride on their double decker bus. I stared straight up at this silver dollar blue patch in the sky, waiting. A rapturous upward stare, awaiting a single snowflake.
The Keurig in front of me clicks and beeps and I pull my coffee cup out. I hate the chemical smell that lingers just above the scent of the brew, but this is faster than taking the elevator downstairs, walking out through security and down the block just to wait in line. I let Future Monica shoulder the cancer risk for Present Monica’s impatience.
I know why I had the dream. I heard the urban legend about the snowflake again yesterday, this time in a conversation between two chatty women in a Starbucks. A child saw a snowflake in Manhattan during the last big snow. In my dream there was no Dome overhead and the sky was free to let its snow fall upon Manhattan. I suppose in dream-logic I was that child, new to this world of New York, awaiting the solitary snowflake and all it meant.
I also assume I had the dream because tonight I go to the Free Air Society meeting. My subconscious is already thinking about their vision of a Dome-less sky above the city.
I’m lost in Dome thoughts as I walk to my desk, so I’m a bit discombobulated when Harold Simmons falls into stride next to me. He is grinning, his hand suspiciously behind his back.
“Tonight’s the night, right?” he asks.
I’d shared the memo I’d found with him. Much to my surprise, he encouraged me to go. “It is.”
“No.” Maybe a little.
“You’re just there to listen. Do your best to blend in.” He’s still grinning a little. “If it turns into a big story, I’ll some other Metro folks to work with you.”
“I can handle it on my own.” We’re at my desk. I sip from my coffee and remain standing.
“You’ll still get the byline, don’t worry.” His grin widens into a smile. This is someone’s father who’s been waiting a full three minutes to tell a joke he’s been planning for hours. “You’re the lead reporter on my Dome Desk, after all.” From behind his back he pulls a small wooden placard. “I had the boys in Supply make it for me.” It reads “Monica LaRosa, Dome Desk.” I laugh out loud.
When you walk east on St. Marks, toward Tompkins Square Park, you are walking below one of the joints of the Dome — where two arcs of glass are arrested in their approach to the earth and hold one another aloft. In most of the city, the Dome lurks unseen between you and the sky, perhaps catching a glint from the sun once or twice but otherwise just dulling the color above. But this line stands out: a crease in the sky.
The crease is especially visible now that we’re in week two of the Dome cleaners’ strike. These glass crevasses in the air capture all sorts of debris. I imagine plastic bags and discarded lotto tickets up there. The subscription inserts that fall out of The New Yorker in a clump every time you buy one. And all of this held together by cold rains and birdshit. From here it just looks like the dirty gray fur of a tarnished polar animal.
The meeting is on Avenue B, on the far side of Tompkins Square Park, in the basement of a bodega. I walk in to see a young man behind the counter reading a New York Post. He glances up and points to the stairs.
The walls around me are concrete, the ceilings low, the bulbs bare. The basement is one large room shot through with exposed steel I-beam pillars. In the back near the stairs is a folding table with a plastic plate of crackers and a couple of cool bottles of beer. I forego the refreshments and grab a photocopied pamphlet instead.
The room is all folding chairs facing the front, where three folding chairs face the back, arranged in a slight arc on a threadbare piece of red carpet. A man and woman with sprays of unkempt curly gray hair erupting from their scalps and worn knit cardigans wrapped around them sit on the outermost chairs and look into the crowd without speaking.
The “crowd” is a dozen scattered individuals, seated in the first three rows in no discernable order other than to not sit directly next to one another. I adopt the same strategy in the fourth and final row, two seats from my closest neighbor.
“The Free Air Society wants air equality,” the brochure in my lap tells me. It’s photocopied and stapled like a zine. There’s a photograph of four human shapes, Xeroxed beyond recognition, sitting on a blanket in front of a castle. “The Society was founded by alumni of Aberystwyth University who made their way to New York, where they missed the salt sea air above their heads. The Free Air Society believes the same air should be available to all creatures who dwell in the City of New York.” I turn the page to see another black and white image, this time of the Manhattan Dome with a circle/crossbar over it.
“All right, let’s get this thing started.”
In walks this James Franco-looking kid with a tiny ponytail and a keffiyeh. He has dark hair and, I see when his deep-set gaze sweeps the room, electric blue eyes.
“We have a new face or two,” he continues, striding up to the empty center chair. “Welcome. This is the Free Air Society.” He stands in front of his chair without sitting and begins to recite from memory: “The Free Air Society wants air equality…”
The two on either side of him join in, murmuring in concert: “…Because we believe air should be the same for all creatures in New York City.”
James Franco continues. “My name is Freeman Bellecourt.”
To his right, the older man: “My name is Freeman Reynolds.”
And to the left: “My name is Freewoman Steinberg-Reynolds.”
Bellecourt looks around the room and makes eye contact with me. I hold the gaze despite the impulse to stare at my Converse. So much for blending in. He finally sits. “The Free Air Society is a place to air grievances against the Manhattan Dome and against the City. As a Society, we offer support and guidance for our brothers and sisters who live imprisoned here. Freewoman Steinberg-Reynolds, the minutes from last week?”
She pulls a notebook from beneath her chair and begins to read. I strain to hear. “February 2013,” she reads, “we began by reading the minutes.” Bellecourt is gesturing hellos to a few in the audience. I recognize, following his nods, the few young people scattered in the audience. They incline their heads back to him in silent greeting. “…Expressed a concern for the quality of air discharged from the Alphabet City vent. Freeman Erickson told us the Dome Maintenance union would go on strike…”
Bellecourt holds up his hand. “Erickson, how’s the strike going?”
“Still strong, Freeman Bellecourt.” This returns a curt nod and the minutes continue. I try to watch Bellecourt without attracting his gaze. He is alert, his ears listening to the recitation but his eyes scanning the crowd, darting back to the door with frequency. He seems in charge of this room, and comfortably so.
When the minutes come to a conclusion, the man on the other side of Bellecourt calls for new business — complaints about air quality that are fielded with replies that explain what arcane form to ask for at City Hall or, alternately how to dial 311. This is the support the Society offers — guidance for how to file a complaint. It sounds to my ear like 311 might be putting this society out of business.
A young woman stands and tells a disjointed story about inspecting the foundation of the Dome in downtown and being stopped by the police. Bellecourt gives her a warning glare. “And then the cops asked me to open my bag, and I literally died.”
“You figuratively died,” corrects Freeman Reynolds.
“It’s an accepted usage now,” interjects Bellecourt, leaning his chair back. “They’re changing the Oxford English Dictionary.” He turns to the woman. “Freewoman McPherson, suffice it to say the police let you go unmolested? Is that all you have to say to this open meeting?” There is an edge here, a warning.
The woman nods and sits, replaced by an elderly man. Bellecourt is not saying much else, but I notice his eyes dart up. A slim, fresh-faced kid in a hoodie walks in. Wait, I know those boyish cheeks — Nate from the Mayor’s office! He’s dressed down, but I recognize him. He nods to Bellecourt as he enters, but as his eyes sweep the audience they find mine. I feel terribly visible. Nate’s eyes go wide and panicky. I see him make a quick gesture to Bellecourt before he turns and leaves.
Bellecourt, without leaning forward, calmly interjects: “Tonight’s after-meeting drinks will be postponed, by the way. Please continue.”
I grab a cracker from the folding table. The meeting has ended, and I’m waiting fruitlessly for Nate to show back up. I wish I had worn a disguise or something.
Outside of that, what do I bring to Harold: a harmless community group with a frenemy in the Mayor’s office? Maybe I misread that memo and it was actually detailing competitive threats to 311?
Bellecourt breaks off from the group gathered at the front. I have a feeling he’s headed my way.
“You,” he says in the most charming introduction I’ve ever heard. “You’re a reporter, right?”
“I am. How did you know?”
His eyes are locked onto mine. “Lucky guess.” He presents a card. “Send me an email this week.”
I take his card, which is a piece of computer paper with perforated edges. “What should I email you about?”
“I’ll tell you later. Just email me. It has to be this week.”
I hope you enjoyed the fourth episode of A March Story. This is the final week of the project, so be sure to get your submissions in soon. The next episode will be published on Wednesday.
Have ideas you want to see in the next episode? Have a word or sentence you want me to include? Tweet me with the hashtag #marchstory.