Can I get this right? I ask the question whenever I touch the keyboard. My fingertips on the letters, I sense the gulf between reality and how it appears on the page. And the effort it takes to cross that distance.
Who enjoys reading about war and the protests against it? Or police brutality? Or the hypnotic effect of media, or how lives are scarred by violence? Sometimes, I want to look away from the keyboard, to say, no, don’t think about this, no, don’t feel it anymore, no, just use someone else’s language. Breathing slowly, I focus on everyone I love and the world they deserve to live in. And then the words move through me like a wave.
For 11 years this has been the rhythm of my life at The Indypendent. Using the body as a sponge to soak in other people’s voices and squeezing it out, line by line, on the page. Writing is life making its way to language. In my clumsy hands, it often slipped on rhetoric or got snagged on an image or was trapped inside a shiny idea. After hours of typing, I would re-read the story and find where I betrayed people I knew for the pride I wanted.
Sometimes, I wrote the last word at sunrise. Leaning back in my chair, I looked over the article and saw in it, despite my flaws, the real world we lived in. After emailing it the editors, I’d go the roof and watch the horizon glowing red. And those were the sanest hours of my life. Seeing a city wake up, knowing I had tapped into its truth. I gave voice to people’s rage and desperation and hope and rebellion.
It was a source of pride. Maybe a bit too much. I pestered the editors, wanting to know when the new issue was coming, then raced to a cafe to grab the latest edition. I read my article obsessively and once home, placed the paper on top of older issues. Over the years the stack grew and I grew with it. And then I saw in those stories a journey I didn’t know I was on until I made them into a book. It was published, if not widely read, and its words are as dear to me as my own breath.
And now, it is the 15th anniversary of our newspaper. I look at that stack of issues, going back to the very first one, a thin, black and white edition.
It was first called The Unst8ted. In 2000, I saw my future friends on its pages. I wouldn’t meet them until 2004, when I walked into their office. The paper had changed its name to The Indypendent, the place was busy like a beehive, someone slept on the couch as activists rushed in and out, people typed away and the smell of coffee, long nights and stale food wafted through the place. I loved it.
It was more than a newspaper, it was a giant magnet pulling us together. At the editorial meetings, we pitched stories. Some spoke with halting caution, some with hot rage, some with aloof arrogance. Every idea illuminated our sacred dream of a just world. Afterward, we gossiped in the hallways, then went out, reported, researched, wrote and sent back the pieces to the editors, who put it together like a puzzle. When the paper came off the presses, we handed it out on subways and street corners, thousands and thousands of copies like revolutionary pollen blowing through the city.
After giving out papers, I stared at the crowds pouring in and out of the subway, buying magazines or gazing at billboards, and wondered, how could our small paper change anything? But in the oddest, most random moments, I’d see a New Yorker, holding a copy on a bench in the park or on the subway or tucked into their purse.
Sometimes, I’d hold an issue of The Indypendent to a billboard showing a sleek, sexy model, lips pouting as he or she posed on a faraway beach. How we are going to get people’s eyes away from that? Do we need to meet people where they are? Dumb it down?
Frustrated, I’d say at the editorial meetings that we should start a beefcake calendar, get all the men to stand naked holding a well-positioned copy of the paper. Or fuck it, let’s just publish porn but with dialogue of leftist analysis. People laughed or rolled their eyes and then we went back to publishing the paper we knew how to write. It was sober, serious and militant, but not dogmatic, and very earnest.
The sincerity of our paper is easy to mock. I do all the time. But when I see strangers reading it, nodding as they make their way through a story, a pensive, thoughtful expression on their faces, I know why we survive. Our belief that a better world is possible makes our critique of this one, even at its harshest, a hopeful one. They see what we see. The sacred vision that pulls us back to the keyboard like a magnet.
A few weeks ago, I came to our office in The Brooklyn Commons and looked at the dozens of Indy covers on the walls. It looked like a diary of the New York Left. We had covered the movements, the elections, the disasters, the big ideas, the many stepped-on people and the few powerful faces looming over the city skyline. Here was our vision, growing through the cracks of the city. Here was a fresh stack of papers, ready to blow through New York like pollen.
Nicholas Powers is the author of The Ground Below Zero: 9/11 to Burning Man, New Orleans to Darfur, Haiti to Occupy Wall Street (UpSet Press, 2013).
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