It’s 11 o’clock at night and I’ve just gotten home to the floor-through apartment I share with two other comrades in Brooklyn. We live on the edge of Park Slope, where it’s still mostly Puerto Rican and where it’s impossible to find things we’d gotten used to in our old place in the rapidly gentrifying East Village, like watercress and sun-dried tomatoes. Still, the neighborhood is beginning to change. One of my roommates heard that a dog grooming salon is opening up across the street and there’s a sign in the papered over windows of what used to be a little Dominican Barber Shop that says: Coming Soon! My Sister’s Kitchen – Gourmet Delicatessen. This isn’t good. And means we’ll probably have to move again in the not-too-distant future to someplace else that has yet to be discovered. Some place we can afford. A friend at work told me we should check out a neighborhood called Williamsburg, just one stop into Brooklyn on the double-L train from Manhattan.
Nobody’s home and the phone machine is blinking, so I grab a pen and push the play button. The very first message is for me, from Betty, the woman who is considered my immediate leadership in the structured hierarchy our small, radical political party is based on. “Betty” isn’t her real name; it’s the name she uses when she leads one of the poster and spray painting teams, of which I happen to be a member. We do a lot of postering and spray painting, which pretty much consists of putting leaflets and broadsheets and things like May Day and International Women’s Day posters up on the walls and subways and street corners of our target neighborhoods in the South Bronx, East New York, Harlem, the Garment Center, the factory blocks of Red Hook and (because the Central Committee has determined it’s important) the East Village. The spray painting is another story. We spray paint in a lot more locations around the city because it’s so much easier—you don’t have to mix wallpaper paste and then haul the bucket, along with brushes and the posters or leaflets around—it’s just you and an aerosol can, with another comrade spotting for you, on the lookout for cops. But it’s the riskier of the two activities and the one I’ve been arrested for more often.
“Betty” also leads one of the newspaper selling teams, of which I also happen to be a member. The party has its own newspaper, which we consider our main weapon, the key element in our preparations for overthrowing the government. Because in all that we do—postering, spray painting, agitating on street corners, and first and foremost selling the party’s newspaper—we’re using Mao’s recipe for victory, “Create Public Opinion … Seize Power.” That ellipsis, those three dots, represents the most extreme example of understatement in history.
When “Betty” leads the selling team, she uses the name “Dana.” I think her real name is Rebecca, but I don’t know because I’ve never been arrested with her, and that’s usually the only time you find out the real legal names of the people you’re working with so hard trying to change the world. When I’m on the newspaper selling team with Dana my name is Meg. But when I’m on the postering team with Betty my name is Sarah. I also work three part time jobs, each of which has chosen to call me by a different diminutive of my given name, Katherine. At the Moondance Diner, where I work the 5.am. to noon shift three days a week, they call me Kate. At my part time job with the art photographer I’m called by my accepted “public” name, Katt. And when I nanny (yes, I nanny two days a week for a woman who runs a leather bar in the West Village), I’m called Kit. The only people who call me by what could be considered my real name, Kassy, are my family, my ex-boyfriend and anyone who knew me before I moved to New York. It’s only confusing when I’m really tired.
Of course, I’m guessing when I say that Dana/Betty’s real name is Rebecca, but I think it might be because I was going to have to call her office job one day and when I said, “Who should I ask for if you don’t pick up the phone?” she hesitated and then said, “Beck.” It could be Beck is her last name, but I think that’s stretching it.
It seemed odd to me in the beginning, that we couldn’t just use our own names. But when you think about it, it makes sense. Imagine that you’re arrested and you’ve been working with Dana or Betty or Meg or Sarah. You can’t really implicate the people you’ve been out on the streets with because all you have is an erroneous first name and no last name. If I’m arrested and I end up telling the police the names of everyone on my team, including my leadership, I’m going to have to say something like, “Her name’s Dana, and then, sometimes it’s Betty.” It’s obvious I don’t really know who she is, do I?
In the same way, you wouldn’t want the masses (the people we talk to or sell our paper to on street corners, in housing projects or on the subways), to have your legal name because that would just get them in more trouble and make it seem like they’re either into the organization a lot deeper than they are, or they know more than they should. We want to protect the masses, the people who come forward to work with the party, so we’re very careful not to tell them who we really are. And beyond that, you never know, you might be talking to someone on a street corner in the South Bronx who seems like he comes from the projects nearby, and he wants to know your name and even your phone number, and it turns out he’s an undercover cop. See?
Betty wants me to call her right away. I groan. I have a feeling what’s coming, and I’m tired and I want to pretend I didn’t get her message at all. I’d like to have this one night, alone in the apartment, to do anything I want—or nothing at all. Just one night. But I can tell this isn’t going to be the one. I listen to the rest of the messages, all of which are for my roommates. I feed the cat. I make some coffee, and then I dial Betty’s number and have the following conversation with her:
“Hey, it’s me.”
“Oh, hi,” she says, “you got my message?”
“Yep,” I tell her, hoping she wants to talk to me tomorrow and not tonight, because if she does want to talk to me tonight, she won’t talk to me from her home phone to my home phone. No, we’ll have to talk pay phone to pay phone to be sure the FBI or the CIA or COINTELPRO or the New York City Red Squad isn’t listening in.
“Well, you know.” She sounds as tired as I am. I cross my fingers. “I can’t talk right now,” she says, “but if you call me in ten minutes, that’d be great. I’ll give you the number.”
“Shoot.” I say, meaning, Oh shoot, I have to go out and call you, but knowing she’ll think I mean, Shoot me the number.
“OK,” she says, “but first, do you remember the other day when we were talking about my mother’s dog?”
Oh, god, this isn’t good. I can tell from the way she asked the question, she wants to give me a different code word from the one we’ve been using, which means I have to search my brain to remember this obviously inane conversation from a couple days ago when I last saw her, a conversation that included the name of her mother’s dog, which is now going to replace the code word we’ve been using because someone has decided, no doubt someone way up the chain of command, that code words have to change every six weeks or something.
“Your mother’s dog?” I ask. “Where were we when we were talking about your mother’s dog?”
“At that one place,” she sighs, disappointed I don’t immediately retrieve this singular detail that will produce a new and brilliantly useable code word. “You know, that one place near mid-town, right before we left for that one meeting with that one guy, you know, that one guy, the tall one?
This is a perfect example of one of the purposefully baffling ways we have conversations on our possibly tapped telephones, where everything we refer to takes on the generic description “that one.” So you talk in these seemingly endless, completely moronic-sounding sentences, like the one she just delivered: “At that one place, you know, that one place near mid-town, right before we left for that one meeting with that one guy, you know, that one guy, the tall one?”
“I remember the meeting,” I tell her, trying to recall her saying anything personal, like about her mother, since most of us rarely do. “I remember the meeting,” I repeat, “But … I’m having trouble with the dog.”
“You have to remember. You said it was the same name as some kid in third grade, some little girl you knew with a glass eye.”
“Ah!” The light goes on, and I almost shout the name into the phone. “Right!” I say, triumphant. “OK, yeah, I remember … yeah.”
“Great,” she says, relieved. “Now, let me give you the number.”
“You’re writing this down?” she asks, which annoys me completely, given what we’ve just gone through to come up with the name of her mother’s dog, and because you can’t do what I’m going to have to do next without writing the number down.
“Of course I’m writing it down,” I say, barely concealing my loathing.
“OK, it’s 908-9863.” She pauses. “Read it back to me?”
I spit the number back at her: “908-9863. I’ll call you in ten minutes.”
We hang up.
It’s important to know that the number Betty just gave me is not a real, existing phone number from a pay phone. It’s a coded number within which is hidden the real number of the real pay phone she wants me to call her at in 10 minutes. To discover that real number, I’m going to use our new code word, the name of Betty’s mother’s dog, Josie. Our old code word, balloon, is (as of this moment) out the window.
The first thing I have to do is translate the new code word into numbers. And I do that by looking at the telephone and seeing which number the letters correspond to. The J is a 5 the O is a 6 the S is a 7 the I is a 4 and the E is a 3. So, 56743. Of course, I have a moment of panic, wondering if maybe the spelling is J-o-s-e–y. So, I translate that as well, just so I’m covered, and come up with 56739.
A phone number has seven digits, so it’s obvious this code doesn’t cover the whole thing the way our old word balloon did. It doesn’t matter. You always start at the beginning and, in this case, subtract 56743 from the first five numbers you were given. The caller, the person giving the phone number, adds; the receiver subtracts.
“The caller Adds; the receiver Subtracts.” I used to repeat this to myself like a mantra in the early days because I was always getting it wrong. Not only that, you aren’t subtracting a huge number from another huge number. It’s not 9 million 89 thousand eight hundred sixty three minus 56 thousand, seven hundred and forty three. No, it’s as if each number occupied its own column with the one beneath. There’s no carrying, no fractions.
It’s just: five from nine is 4, six from zero (and zero is always ten) is 4, seven from eight is 1, four from nine is 5, three from eight is 5. And then, since I’m out of numbers in my Josie code, the final two remain as she gave them to me.
Making the pay phone number—and it’s always a pay phone, since it’s impossible for the government to tap every pay phone in New York, and they don’t have the manpower to listen in on every conversation on the streets of the city—… making the pay phone number either: 441-5563 (the ie version) or 441-5953 (the ey version).
Armed with these two versions and a pocketful of dimes I’ve scrounged for the phone, and two pens and a notebook, and my backpack with my wallet and toothbrush, just in case, I start to head out the door. We never use pay phones near where we live, so I’m planning to walk at least ten or twelve blocks down Seventh Avenue toward the more Yuppified part of Park Slope, definitely crossing Ninth Street and maybe even going as far as where the named streets and brownstones begin. Before I go I leave a note for my roommates since I have no idea what Betty might want and whether or not I’ll be heading back home tonight. We don’t keep detailed tabs on each other, but we always leave word when we’re going out late at night for an unplanned meeting or an unplanned call that could become an unplanned meeting.
I obviously know my roommates’ real names. We’ve signed leases together, we get calls for each other from family members and employers. Still, we’re discouraged from getting too comfortable calling each other by our real names and have been asked not to share more than the most essential personal information. As a mock-protest of this policy, the three of us have chosen to call each other Sam. We call the stray cat we took in Sam, as well.
Connecting with the Queen via phone. Don’t know if back tonight or later. See you soon, Sam
p.s. fed Sam at 11:15 p.m.
I put the note on the kitchen table, pick up the fallen matchstick we use as a way of telling if someone has been in the apartment, carefully close the door holding the matchstick in place, and lock the three deadbolts. I head over to 7th Avenue and turn in the direction of 9th Street. “The caller adds,” I can’t help thinking to myself, fingering the dimes in my pocket and the piece of paper with the decoded phone numbers on it, “the receiver subtracts.”