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.
Aloft, the Dome looks like a cirrus cloud draped across the city. It catches the light of sun and flashes it back at you, obscuring the gridlines below. I watched it with my nose pressed up against the glass of my airplane window when I first arrived; I was mesmerized. Now I’m watching it again on the television as local news channels keep cutting back and forth from aerial shots of New York to aerial shots of St. Peters in Rome.
It’s Wednesday. This is what we know so far: There’s a new Pope. He’s one of those old guys who went in to vote for whom would be the new Pope. After some old-guy-Elks-Lodge politics or sweaty Greco-Roman wrestling, they finally made a decision. They burned up their ballots and added the requisite chemicals to send up their plume of white smoke into the Italian sky. But that is the limit of what we know so far. No papal name has been released, no mortal name. Is it a black Pope? That would be interesting. Maybe an American Pope? That’s unlikely. It seems like three quarters of our newsroom is waiting with fingers poised above keyboards for the answers to those questions. Me, I’m copying and pasting on one of my two screens and watching a feed of Twitpics and Vines flow past in a Tweetdeck column. The crowd in St. Peters looks jazzed.
Copying and pasting is not that complicated, but you have to be careful to copy from and paste to the right places and fix all of the HTML characters that the computer doesn’t fix on its own. At the end of that process, you’ve helped bring another story from 1982 into the digital age. My assignment this month is 1982— bringing online every single newspaper story that wasn’t previously digitzed. They’ve all been OCR scanned into a giant Microsoft Word document and just await my magic touch to breathe online life into them. The process for a single story doesn’t take that long, but each day of the New York Dispatch contains a lot of stories. I suspect there were more stories in the newspaper each day in 1982 than there are now.
The hardest thing about this job, aside from staying awake, is not reading all the stories. Some are easy to skip (how many trend pieces could the Dispatch write about hairspray? The @NYTOnIt account would have had a field day!) but others genuinely catch my interest. The Falklands War or the Air Florida crash down in DC. Controversies over the construction of the new Yankee Stadium in which George Steinbrenner was accused of using the airflow of the edge of the Dome to make Yankee Stadium the best park for home runs in the League. Don’t read MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s headline-baiting attack on Steinbrenner; just type in the HTML that comes at the end of the line break. Paste, submit, on to the next story.
Every couple of minutes I give myself a break and check the pageviews on my first story: “Sullivan Street Bakery: 533 W 47th Street.” Exactly the sort of attention-grabbing headline I always wanted to draft. But thanks to a fortuitous placement in a small corner of the Metro homepage, “Sullivan Street Bakery: 533 W 47th Street” has actually been read (or at least visited) by a fair number of website users. It’s exciting to watch the numbers jump by a dozen or two each time I check in.
The alert breaks through Biggie in my headphones. Then I hear the yell from across the newsroom. “Bergoglio!”
The new Pope.
“Francis the First!”
We have a new Pope. The newsroom erupts with activity — facts shouted overhead, questions lobbed back like the parabolas of ICBMs. Even though I’m viewing this exciting future day from my perch in 1982, it’s still exciting to be sitting near it. Amid the hubbub, Harold my editor walks up and slips a piece of paper on my desk. His eyes never leaving the nearest TV he says to me, “My normal mayor gal is on the Archdiocese today because my Archbishop guy is in Rome. I need you to swing down to the New Museum for this thing with Bloomberg.”
“Of course, boss.”
“It’s Harold. This isn’t going to be a big thing. Maybe just bring me back a quote from the mayor’s speech or the architects. No embellishments.”
“What’s the mayor doing there?”
“Who knows? What does the mayor ever do? But hurry up. It already started.”
I roll out of a cab — receipt clutched in hand — in front of the New Museum. Its mismatched jumble of shoeboxes stretches toward the glass Dome above. I explain to the bored security guard that I’m with the Dispatch and after giving me alarmingly little guff, he admits me to the mayor’s event.
I elbow and shoulder through the backs of blazers, suits, and expensive dresses to gain a view of the center podium. The mayor stands between two people I recognize from my backseat iPhone research as the architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. The mayor is saying, “…and thanks to ambitious vision of world-class architects the City of New York maintains its rank in the world’s most amazing skylines. We are creating jobs and creating monuments to future generations of New Yorkers. I applaud their work and the work of the thousands of New Yorkers who labor together to build incredible buildings like these. Thank you and enjoy the tuna tartare!” He smiles, waves, and begins shaking hands. I pull out my notepad and scribble “architects=jobs,” not for any good reason but to feel like I was doing my job.
As a tray passes by my nose, I help myself to a tiny sandwich of either tuna or chicken salad, the difference between the animals being impossible to discern through the mayonnaise. I ignore the waiter pushing sushi pieces who immediately follows.
I’m hemmed in by the city’s wealthy. They wear pearl necklaces on their necks and distinguished gray around their temples. I’m wearing slacks and a cardigan around my shoulders and am gripped by the sudden fear that both of these items might be terribly wrinkled in the back.
As the event and the waiters continue to swirl around me, I find myself talking to a nice young man. He wears a blazer with a pin in the lapel and looks like he shaves once every one to two hours, or that he’s not yet reached the age at which he can push follicles out of his face. His name is Nate and his hair is blond. We exchange casual small talk; when I mention I am a reporter from the Dispatch he reflexively explains that he is from the mayor’s office.
As he digests the information that I am a reporter, Nate’s posture shifts. He nearly scatters a platter of the famous tuna tartare with an awkward turn right into the path of a waiter. Nate no longer speaks in the loose tones of a young man talking with a young woman he’d like to impress. His words flow in the manner of an inexperienced spokesperson in front of a purely imagined firing squad of the fourth estate. He is giving me a detailed run-down of the mayor’s event. I’ve pulled out a notebook and am sketching out letters, but the only full words I’ve jotted down so far are “Nate” and “sandwich.”
“The Mayor is interested in supporting all job-creating initiatives in the City,” he says, “whether it’s building new buildings or creating new technologies here in the Big Apple.” I make a show of writing down the word “Jobs.”
“Nate,” I ask. “Who is the caterer who provided the sandwiches here at the New Museum?” I’m sure that’s the only part of the story I’d be able to get Harold to print anyway.
Nate answers the question without giving me a name, but instead explaining how the process for event planning works at the mayor’s office, which would seem to involve significant input from Nate himself. I have the sense of his chest puffing out like a rooster’s, but I also see his eyes scanning the room to acquire a new conversational target. I’m happy to let him go. He excuses himself with a mumbled explanation and steps his big clumsy foot out into the path of another waiter, this one bearing a whole tray of shrimp cocktail. I watch as the air fills with two dozen individual crustaceans and dollops of cocktail sauce, resolving in a clatter of silver serving tray and a rain of foodstuff. I wipe some cocktail sauce from my arm as Nate, his face just as red, is busy apologizing to everyone around him. I try to help the waiter up and by the time I look back up Nate is edging away with a binder of papers crammed under his arm, hoping to be redeemed by distance alone. Seeking my notebook — knocked from my hand by an errant shrimp — I find a stray piece of paper.
The page carries the mayor’s seal at the top, interesting. I probably shouldn’t be seeing this. Oh what the hell, I’ll give it a read. The memo line reads: “Radical anti-Dome elements; Threats to infrastructure.” My eyes dart up. I really shouldn’t be reading this. No one seems to be paying attention to me, but I need to get this out of here.
As innocuous as I can, I drop my notepad back to the floor, just an inch to the left of a big glob of cocktail sauce. Bending down, I slip the page, folded into a small square, beneath my bra strap on my shoulder. Then I stand, adjust my cardigan and make for the door.
I’ve found a small park half a block away and am sitting in a child’s swing set, reading this crumpled piece of official paper. It’s a communiqué identifying a group of radicals who intend to damage or even destroy the Manhattan Dome. Really? I would have thought that that idea was long out of style, but according to this paper it’s not only still in fashion, but the subject of a monthly meeting on the third Wednesday of every month. That’s the 20th of this March.
Why is the mayor watching radical groups? I would have thought that would be the responsibility of DHS. Surely anti-Dome groups aren’t actually still dangerous. In the seventies, the Weather Underground included the Dome in a laundry list of domestic targets for terrorism. But when the time came to attack the city in 2001, terrorists choose the World Trade Center towers, built outside the Dome, over the Dome itself.
A toddler passes with her father in tow and I slip the memo out of sight toward my chest.
The memo is also devoid of any purpose. It is simply a declaration of the existence of the group. It states, “The Free Air Society is considered a potential threat to the Manhattan Dome,” but makes no recommendations as to what to do about that.
Well, it’s not a restaurant to review, but I’m sure I can make some time Wednesday night to meet some radicals.
I hope you enjoyed the third episode of A March Story. Next week will be the final week of the project, which means that the episodes will be published at a more rapid pace. Look for the next one on Monday, with another one soon to follow!
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.