The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
— W.B. Yeats
In The Paper’s Midtown Manhattan office, the long fluorescent light fixtures contained the silhouetted carcasses of cockroaches that had died making the journey from one end to the other. The carpet was a Rorschach test of spilled cola, coffee, and cigarette ashes. This was where I worked for the better part of a year.
I call it The Paper because that’s how I thought of it back then, just as “the paper,” as if it were a major daily. At The Paper it was our job, once every three weeks, to tell the stories that the big papers ignored. I spent a summer following an independent mayoral candidate who had no hope of winning. My co-worker Zoe spent several months covering a strike when she should have been working on her résumé. To be fair, The New York Times did briefly cover the strike, but Zoe’s coverage was a lot more in-depth, and I was in love with her.
Though The Paper’s politics were obvious, its objective was to inform, not spread propaganda. It was a grassroots, collectively run, thoroughly fact-checked newspaper. The point I’m trying to make is that it wasn’t like the paper my parents read, whose headlines screamed Marxist slogans at you in a Soviet-era typeface. The day after Barack Obama’s historic election, their paper shrieked: “NEO-LIBERAL OBAMA TO CONTINUE BUSH’S IMPERIALIST AGENDA!” It was as though they wanted to alienate as many people as possible.
My mother and father met as members of a communist organization. My mother’s father had fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe and been recruited by the U.S. Communist Party while working in a clothing sweatshop on the Lower East Side. In an impressive feat of rebellion, my mother had moved to the left of him. She accused her father of being a “counter-revolutionary,” and he said the same about her.
My parents separated when I was an infant, and my mother raised me mostly by herself until she died when I was twenty. By then my father had moved back to Israel, the place of his birth. His departure was no great loss to me as a teen; he’d never been very involved in my life, except to lecture me about the evils of capitalism and ruin virtually everything I found entertaining. For example, when I was twelve, my mother convinced him to take me to a baseball game. Our team won, and I wanted my father to share in the excitement with me.
“We won! We won!” I shouted.
“We didn’t win,” he said. “The only winners are the capitalists who use sports to distract and divide the working class.”
Feeling confused and foolish, I remained speechless as we walked across the stadium parking lot to his car.
My father interpreted my silence as complete agreement with his point of view.
“I’m glad you understand,” he said.
When I moved to New York City in the fall of 2008, I was twenty-eight. It had been nearly half a decade since I’d seen my father. In the previous year the housing bubble had burst, and the entire banking system had nearly collapsed. I felt afraid but also hopeful that an egalitarian society might emerge from the ashes. For the first time, I was living through a historic moment, like my grandparents during the New Deal era and my parents in the sixties.
As I wandered, lonely and aimless, around the city, someone shouted, “Free paper!” and pushed a copy into my hands. I was drawn in by a front-page article that described the financial crisis fairly, yet with a far-left bent. Unlike my parents’ paper, The Paper seemed to speak to me rather than yell at me.
I located its office and soon became a part of its apparatus, a “member” of the collective. Andy, one of the founders, began to mentor me. He spoke gently, yet his brow was always creased. Thanks to him I stopped hoping for the immediate fall of the banks, which I now saw would have the harshest impact on the most vulnerable members of society. Rather I viewed the crisis as a chance to change the conversation, to make the Left’s criticisms of the free-market system seem less extreme, more like common sense. I exchanged my family’s revolutionary courting of catastrophe for The Paper’s more-practical ideology. As an added bonus, this would incense my father.
The Paper used a consensus decision-making process: no change was implemented unless everyone agreed. My father wouldn’t have liked this either. He saw the consensus model as inefficient to the point of dysfunction. Perhaps this was why it appealed to me: it seemed the opposite of the totalitarian leanings of my family’s politics.
Andy admitted that reaching a consensus was slow and messy, but he said it was important that we “make mistakes, forgive each other, and never give up till we find common ground.”
The Paper was a microcosm of the kind of world I wanted to live in.
Zoe joined The Paper around the same time I did. One rainy day she walked into the office drenched and asked if she could borrow someone’s shoes.
“I think mine are ruined,” she said, looking down at her soaked sneakers.
Her request was greeted with silence, and she chewed nervously at a fingernail.
I will not say Zoe’s near-pathological nail biting was the reason I fell in love with her, but there was something compelling about the contrast between her natural beauty and her ragged nails. She was thin and had faded bleached-blond hair that looked brittle but was, I would later discover, remarkably soft. A big purple ring jutted from her left eyebrow — I remember worrying that she would get it caught on something — and she wore what I can only describe as a military jumpsuit, as though she was trying — and failing — to be unattractive.
“You can have my shoes,” I said.
A few months later I moved into the spare bedroom of Zoe’s apartment in Chinatown, bordering the Lower East Side. We were still just friends at the time. She had told me that she “liked girls,” and we’d agreed that nothing “dramatic” would happen between us.
It seemed an ideal arrangement for us both: Zoe couldn’t afford to live there alone, and it had always been a dream of mine to live on — or, at least, close to — the Lower East Side, which felt like my ancestral homeland. We were just blocks from the tenement where my grandfather had lived and around the corner from the sweatshop where he’d first developed class consciousness. Our apartment was also close to the place my mother and uncle had shared in the late sixties, back when the Lower East Side had been a hotbed of left-wing radicalism. My grandfather, who had long ago moved to Yonkers, took it as an insult that his children would voluntarily live in the slum he had worked so hard to escape.
I shared my mother’s and uncle’s appreciation of lower Manhattan. Things that normally would have repulsed me had a certain charm there. For instance, the way the curbs of Grand Street were always piled precariously high with overstuffed garbage bags, like cartoon sacks of money. And how I couldn’t walk after midnight without taking great pains to avoid stepping on a rat. (I found if I treated the rodents with a certain respect and kept my distance, all was fine.) In our apartment roaches rummaged in the kitchen drawers, crawling along the narrow blades of knives with the grace of tightrope walkers — or, at least, that’s how I perceived them.
Some nights I walked by myself to the East River and listened to the trains rumble across the Manhattan Bridge. It reminded me of the movie Manhattan, specifically the scene where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton find themselves on a bench, looking up at the bridge. I can’t tell you why that moment was so romantic to me. Maybe it was because at that point in the film Woody and Diane were still just friends.
I once asked Zoe if she wanted to walk to the bridge with me. “It’s the same bridge as in the movie Manhattan, you know,” I said.
Always a journalist, Zoe immediately fact-checked my statement. “The bridge in the movie is the 59th Street Bridge,” she told me. “It’s, like, seventy blocks from here.”
When Andy offered me advice on my article about the independent mayoral candidate, I didn’t hesitate to accept. It was my first feature, and I needed the help. He and I often met at a bar or cafe on the Lower East Side, but one mild day in early May we took a walk from one side of lower Manhattan to the other.
As we walked, I told Andy that the mayoral candidate often spoke about how gentrification was pushing marginalized people out of their neighborhoods. I asked if that was a good direction for my story.
Andy replied that beginning journalists often make the mistake of letting the subject’s talking points steer the story, adding, “Sometimes we learn more from what we’re not told.”
We reached Battery Park, and Andy leaned back against a railing with a view of the Statue of Liberty and told me about a battle between the Dutch and the British that had taken place on that very spot, about three and a half centuries earlier. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of New York City history and spoke in such detail it was as though he had been there himself. I remember feeling privileged to know him and grateful that he would share his knowledge. I hoped he considered me a friend — or, better yet, a protégé.
Zoe and I saw ourselves as two revolutionaries living on the brink of society’s collapse. We developed a comfortable routine, working on our articles by day and drinking and discussing the financial crisis at night. Since there was no living room in our apartment, the larger bedroom — Zoe’s — became the common room. Most evenings, after we had finished writing for the day, we sat on her bed to talk and drink. With enough drinks the discussion sometimes slipped from the political to the personal. I told her about my mother’s failed suicide attempts and death from cancer. Zoe revealed the cracks in the facade of her upper-middle-class family in suburban Wisconsin: her father’s struggle with severe mental illness and her brother’s drug addiction.
One night, while recounting something particularly terrible that had happened to her brother, Zoe grew uncharacteristically emotional. She cried, and I hugged her for a long time. When I asked if she wanted me to go back to my room, she just reached over me and turned off the light. We held each other in the dark for a while. Eventually we kissed.
For a few weeks Zoe and I kissed now and again, and I slept in her bed at night. I sometimes wish we had stayed just friends, that our relationship hadn’t progressed any further, but it did.
I don’t think I was the first man Zoe had ever slept with, but I might have been the first one who thought of her as his girlfriend.
Zoe didn’t want me to call her my girlfriend. Nor did she want me to touch her in public. We went to a movie once, and when I put my hand on her knee, her whole body stiffened, as though she were playing dead.
She started avoiding me in the apartment after that. And she wanted to sleep alone.
On the advice of a friend, I asked Zoe if we could have one date a week — say, every Friday night — and she could ignore me, guilt-free, the rest of the time. It seemed such a modest request, yet she refused.
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Why can’t we just live our lives?” She compared my date-night idea to having Thanksgiving with her family: some kind of bourgeois tradition. This stung, because there was some truth to it. I hadn’t grown up celebrating holidays. My family didn’t gather to express gratitude. We got together mostly to express anger at the government.
The closer I wanted to be with Zoe, the more time I wanted to spend with her, the more often her bedroom door was closed. The air conditioner was in her room, and on hot nights I would beg to be let in. Zoe wasn’t cruel; she’d permit it. But I knew not to touch her, nor to talk about our relationship.
Sometimes, when she didn’t answer my knock, I’m ashamed to admit I would put my ear against the door to try to tell if she was really asleep. I was stalking my girlfriend in my own apartment, except she wasn’t my girlfriend, and it was her apartment.
In the midst of my semi-breakup with my non-girlfriend, my father e-mailed me to say he would be in New York the following week for a meeting of his new political group. He changed political organizations every few years — about as often as he changed girlfriends. The only relationship he couldn’t leave because of a political disagreement, it seemed, was the one he had with me.
In some respects being a largely absent father was in accordance with his values. He was ideologically opposed to the bourgeois nuclear family, which is why he insisted I call him by his first name, Yossi. When I was a teenager, a girlfriend of his had tried to shame him about this, and he’d asked me to start calling him “Dad” in front of her, but I couldn’t do it.
My father’s e-mail said he would be staying in the guest room of a comrade’s Upper East Side condominium. I arranged to see him there. It took surprisingly little convincing to get Zoe to come along with me. I’d told her how I dreaded these visits since I was a child, as they often involved standing for hours in the freezing cold outside some consulate or corporate headquarters while Yossi yelled into a megaphone about issues I barely understood. As her reason for wanting to meet my father, Zoe cited her journalist’s “intense curiosity.” My family was so different from hers.
We took the F train uptown. In my backpack I had only my journal and a copy of The Paper, which I planned to show my father as proof I had become a serious radical intellectual. Though I knew he wouldn’t agree with my views, I thought he might respect them, or at least respect my level of commitment to them. At the same time, of course, I wanted to defy him, letting The Paper say what I couldn’t tell him to his face. I didn’t expect to change my father’s politics, but I hoped he would feel I had challenged them. I kept reminding myself that he’d gone to live on another continent, and now he was acting as though I were obliged to visit him while he was in town, even though he hadn’t come to New York to see me.
In the spacious Upper East Side elevator, I stood next to Zoe in silence. I could feel my heart beating. I was about to introduce the woman who would not let me call her my girlfriend to the man I could not bring myself to call Dad.
My father greeted us at the door to the apartment. He and I hugged awkwardly, like two junior-high kids slow dancing. His Hebrew accent had become thicker, as it had with each passing year since he’d moved back to Israel. I introduced Zoe, and they shook hands, hers vanishing inside his. My father is over six feet tall and hefty. He looked exactly the same as he had when I’d seen him almost five years earlier, and exactly the same as when I’d seen him a few years before that. It was as though he never aged. He had been balding for as long as I could remember, but had never actually lost all his hair. Despite his size, he always managed to wear a suit slightly too big for him.
The apartment was dusty and huge. Narrow hallways shot off in different directions. Books by and about Marx covered every surface like sleeping cats. My father’s comrades were gone for the day, so it was just the three of us in this untidy space.
We sat down: Zoe and I on a love seat and my father in a recliner, an oak coffee table between us. I figured a father and son who hadn’t seen each other in a long time ought to show interest in each other’s lives before, say, debating the dictatorship of the proletariat. I also knew we both thought we were above such bourgeois manners.
“How was your flight, Yossi?” I asked, immediately realizing I hadn’t prepared Zoe for the fact that I called my father by his first name.
He spit sunflower-seed shells into a bowl on the coffee table and answered, “Fine.” Then he shrugged as if to say he found my question audaciously boring. To the second question I had at the ready — “How is your girlfriend?” — he also answered, “Fine,” in virtually the same tone. I shouldn’t have been surprised. This was the man who had spent most of our father-son quality time explaining the theory of permanent revolution to me.
I hadn’t seen my father in almost five years, and already I’d run out of nonpolitical subjects to talk about.
My father spit out another handful of shells. Zoe hadn’t stopped biting her nails since we’d sat down.
I waited for Yossi to ask about my life, but he didn’t. In a way I was glad. His lack of interest made me feel vindicated. I glanced at Zoe as if to say, See how self-absorbed my father is? But she ignored me.
I’d foolishly thought that her interest in meeting my father might finally be an unspoken acknowledgment that we were, in fact, a couple. I was determined for this occasion to resemble what might normally happen when a father meets his son’s girlfriend. I wanted, as Zoe had accused, a traditional family gathering of sorts. Perhaps she had figured this out, and that was why she was refusing to be my ally against Yossi. I felt set up, even a little betrayed.
My father thrust a copy of his latest group’s newspaper into my hand.
“I thought you might be interested in this,” he said.
The name of the paper was something like The New Vanguard. Its coverage of the financial crisis was more gleeful than informative. The headline was something along the lines of “Let Them Fail!” — meaning the whole banking system ought to be allowed to collapse overnight.
I raised an eyebrow in Zoe’s direction, still hoping she might play the role of supportive partner. See how ideologically immature my father is? the eyebrow said.
Zoe just looked over my shoulder at The New Vanguard with a distant fascination. She was waiting, I was sure, for me to give my father a copy of The Paper. And I did.
And so Yossi and I sat on opposite sides of the coffee table, each reading the other’s publication in silent judgment. Every so often we would raise our eyes above the page like spies, inadvertently meet each other’s gaze, then look away.
This particular issue of The Paper opened with a statement on how the financial crisis was the beginning of a genuine conversation between the working class and the middle class about income inequality.
“Zoe and I helped edit that issue,” I told my father.
His sunflower-seed shells hit the bowl like bullets. “It’s an interesting perspective, but only a working-class uprising can change the system.”
“Why is that the only solution?” I asked.
“Yacob,” he sighed, saying my name in Hebrew. “It’s common knowledge.”
After a year or so of working at The Paper and being tutored in radical pragmatism by Andy, I’d thought I was ready to spar with my father, but I saw now that not much had changed since I was a child. How maddening I found that familiar phrase: common knowledge. He used it in every argument, as if his extreme views were at all common. (A friend I’d grown up with had referred to my father’s wisdom as “commie knowledge” — a joke I haven’t shared with him.)
Yossi’s response reminded me of how, at the age of ten, I’d told him I wanted to be a stand-up comedian, and he’d looked down at me and said, “But you’re not funny.”
Or how he never let me win at board games. Monopoly seemed to bring out his inner capitalist. He would shove the rules in my face and point out some esoteric clause. Through tears, which probably only hurt my case, I’d plead that I had forgotten the rule, and he’d shrug and tell me, “If you ever beat me, you will know you earned it.”
Once again I was losing to my father, but instead of Monopoly, we were playing Who’s a Smarter Leftist? And he was showing me, just as he had after that baseball game when I was twelve, that even when I thought I was winning, I was really losing. It was particularly humiliating for Zoe to witness my defeat. I was letting us both down. But perhaps losing to my father was more comfortable than speaking about the unbridgeable distance between us.
Rather than challenge Yossi, I began throwing him softball questions: our version of a father-son catch. I asked him how the revolution would unfold, what sort of crisis was needed to awaken class consciousness, what he meant by this current crisis being foreseeable.
His answers were all commie knowledge.
I kept expecting Zoe to interject and challenge my father — maybe even put him in his place — but she was clearly restless and bored. She wanted no part of this family dysfunction masquerading as dialectic rigor, not so different from her own family really. Just another fucking Thanksgiving at home.
Having gnawed the nails on one hand to the quick, Zoe abruptly told us she had to go.
I explained to my father that Zoe was covering a strike for The Paper. His interest seemed piqued at the word strike.
Zoe looked anxious, as if she might have to fend off my father’s questions. Or maybe I was just projecting my own anxiety onto her. She got up and let my father’s hand envelop hers again. Then I walked her to the door and hugged her meekly. It was like accidentally touching a stranger in a crowded subway car. I felt as if I should have said, “Excuse me,” or, “I’m sorry,” instead of goodbye.
Not long after my father’s New York visit, I grew disillusioned with The Paper. As when falling out of love, I didn’t notice the gradual descent until I was at the bottom. I recall being with co-workers at an Irish bar in Times Square, where the members often gathered after meetings. Andy maybe had too much to drink that night. He pointed at me and demanded something like: “What kind of penance are you willing to do for the Left?”
I could tell he was joking, but maybe not entirely. I asked him if the several hours a week I spent handing out copies of The Paper on the street — a task the longtime members like Andy didn’t do — wasn’t penance enough. He shrugged, but the exchange concerned me. Unlike many of the members, I had not spent a night (or more) in jail. I had no stories of protests that ended with pepper-spray tears. By shouting, “Free paper!” on Wall Street, I had shown a willingness to suffer only embarrassment.
After that night in the Irish bar, I realized that Andy had never thought of me as a protégé. He had merely wanted to educate me in what he believed was the correct way of seeing the world. In return, I’d tried to make him into a surrogate father, something he hadn’t signed up for.
Then came an incident at The Paper that some of the more dramatic collective members called “the coup.” There were “clandestine” meetings that led to the “expulsion” of a senior member. The language might have been exaggerated, but there were secret meetings, and someone did get fired.
Even before the coup, I had grown cynical about The Paper’s consensus decision-making process. It had always been mostly a charade. Whatever consensus was reached at a meeting was often at odds with what appeared in print. The longtime members — the vanguard of The Paper, if you will — determined the content.
And then there were the political disappointments to endure. No one expected the independent mayoral candidate to win, but I hadn’t thought he would lose so badly. And after the striking workers in Zoe’s story won their court case, their employer just moved the operation to a state with looser regulations. The financial crisis resulted in tepid Wall Street reforms, and the only organized protest movement that emerged from it was on the far Right.
And Zoe asked me to move out, of course. Since she and I had never officially been together, she didn’t feel the need to formally break up with me. She just promised to stay in touch and then didn’t return my calls or texts or e-mails. Being dumped by my not-girlfriend had the same effect on me as all the other personal and political disappointments of that year: a searing grief, followed by the realization that deep down I had been expecting it to turn out this way.
I no longer live in New York. I miss the city much the way I miss Zoe — not often, but intensely when I do, even though I am better off where I am: attending graduate school in the Midwest and in a relationship with a woman who is unambiguously my girlfriend.
I visit New York about once a year, but I don’t read The Paper when I’m there. I rarely have reason to be in the commuter hot spots where eager new members belt out, “Free paper!” Instead I read The New York Times, which is available everywhere and trustworthy enough. Actually I don’t so much read The Times as not read The Paper, because it might lead me to think more than I’d like to about that time in my life, nearly a decade ago. I have forgiven Zoe. I’ve even come to accept that my father is unlikely to change, which is a kind of forgiveness, isn’t it? Yes, I forgive everyone, myself included. But I also remember it all exactly.
That’s where I had planned to end this essay, but then came the 2016 presidential election. The morning after, feeling all the fear and none of the excitement I had felt during the financial crisis, I called my father on Skype.
“I didn’t think this country was so racist,” I said, too emotional to form a nuanced analysis of what had happened.
“All this moral indignation makes you sound like a bourgeois liberal,” Yossi replied. “This is how history works. Now the working class will learn they need to organize and revolt.”
“I just thought we were better than this,” I said, turning off the camera so he couldn’t see me start to cry.
“Yacob,” my father sighed, not noticing my face had vanished from his screen. “I’ve failed to give you a proper Marxist education.”
I didn’t protest. He’d admitted he had failed me. For once, we agreed.
Some details have been changed to protect privacy.