Slickheads Essay

Two blocks east of the river, beside the Williamsburg Bridge, stands a white factory building, seven stories tall, whose windows look onto the bridge and across the river to Manhattan and over the neighborhood’s low rooftops and famous water towers. It is 2011, but this building hasn’t yet been cubed up into condos. Inside, it still looks like 1994, each floor a maze of ad hoc lofts, studios, galleries, and workshops, the stained hallways thick with strange smells and years of dust. A couple of years ago during a party a kid from some band jammed the freight elevator between floors, tried to jump out, fell, and died; the elevator still isn’t working. So to get into the building, you climb steep factory flights of gray stairs up away from the basement, where a giant machine rumbles. By the fifth or sixth floor, it is hard to breathe. It is winter, and the rumbling is a steam heater. Every few hours, it blows scalding-hot, wet air up through clanking pipes into the lofts. All over the building tenants open windows, and long white curtains flutter in the hissing steam. Outside, people are climbing up the steep slope of the bridge’s pedestrian walkway, on foot or skateboard or bicycle. Only a few look at the building, and even fewer try to glimpse inside. I am in here, watching the bridge and chain-smoking.

The sun sinks down behind the bridge, filling this big white room with warm red light. When a J, M, or Z train passes, the room darkens and then flushes red again. The sky turns red, then orange, then indigo, then starless, like every Brooklyn night. It’s happy hour. Half the neighborhood is already drunk on two-for-one drafts or shot-and-PBR deals. All week, the kids in lofts and storefronts who do under-the-radar marketing for creative agencies in other lofts and storefronts have been chasing Oxy with Adderall and Adderall with Oxy. Now they’re pulling bottles of tequila from their desk drawers and texting their dealers. A country band is carrying banjos into the Rod and Gun Club. They’re sound-checking at Trash Bar and lighting the fire at Union Pool. The Shabbos siren sounds across the south side. It’s almost time to go out.

Snow came on Halloween weekend this year, fat slow flakes falling on the bridge, turning the scene outside the windows all industrial Courier and Ives, the Gretsch Building just a wide gray ghost beyond the trains. There was a cold wind blowing the slush around, and I watched people breaking their umbrellas against it and struggling to walk, sliding carefully on the sidewalk. This was the day the heat turned on. First, a clanking from below and up through the walls, then the sound of rushing water, and then, in the large sculptor’s studio that I’ve turned into my writing room, a sound like a teapot ready to blow. Steam shot upward from the end of one of the pipes, and water poured and pooled on the floor. I braced for an explosion but it turns out this happens every time the building warms up. It only sounds catastrophic.

That afternoon a guitar player on a dead-mother bender was walking over from Bushwick in the snow to fuck me, his feet wrapped in plastic bags inside his Converse because he’s too broke to buy boots. I walked down six flights to let him in. I hadn’t seen him sober before, which was why I’d requested the afternoon appointment, but I’d stashed a fresh liter of Jack Daniels above the fridge. The lighting in the stairway was pulsing and dim. Snow from the roof was melting down the yellowed walls and pooling on the landings. We didn’t kiss in the entryway. We made small talk as we wound our way up around the puddles, through the industrial waterfall. A few minutes later I was on my knees. The next week I bought new boots myself — short black boots that lace up, boots from the time of coal and steam, but with heels so high they are always sexual.

April 22

Tomorrow is Monday and the start of week two of the Breivik trial. I’m covering it for the Associated Press. This time last week I was biting my nails and packing all the wrong things in my bag. Now I know to bring twice as big a lunch as any normal day would require, snacks, a big bottle of water (unopened from the store), my more robust computer power cord, and good luck charms. It bothers me a lot that I can’t find my favorite talisman, a gold souvenir coin from the Sacré Coeur in Paris.

Anders Behring Breivik in court is a still and compact man. He wears a dark suit and over the past week has sported three different ties. The large tie knot he favors doesn’t look out of place on him, with his broad frame. When he sits in the witness box, he leans backward and his hands hang straight down in an unnatural position. When I first saw him, on a broadcast in the courthouse pressroom, I asked my editor, who was seated in the courtroom, if Breivik was shackled to his chair. Later, when the prosecutors started asking him questions, Breivik brought his hands up onto the little witness box desk, and I was able to see that he wears French cuffs but appears to be missing his cuff links.

The courtroom is laid out something like a Quaker church. Three unequal rows of pews come together to create a small open space, where the witness box faces the judges’ dais. Two black-robed professionals sit with three lay judges at their sides. Between the judges and the witness, facing outward like the judges but at floor level like the rest of us, sit the four psychiatrists who evaluated Breivik’s mental state. Working in pairs, they came to opposite conclusions about whether he is fit to be held responsible for his crimes.

He is so fair you can barely see his eyebrows. He blinks and flutters his eyes in an uncomfortable way, as one might to adjust contact lenses. His face appeared so immobile while the prosecutor, Inga Bejer Engh, read the charges against him that he reminded me of a newborn. You know the look, when they’re too immature to consciously form expressions: they’re blank except for the little frowns and smiles that flit across in twitches. Engh, who at 41 is beginning the case that most likely will define her career, takes a teacherly, somewhat exasperated tone when she questions Breivik. She often places her right palm flat across her collarbone as she listens.

The charges against Breivik include the murder of eight people who died when he set off a homemade bomb in central Oslo, which wrecked several government ministries, and the attempted murder of nine more people who were seriously injured in the blast. After setting off the bomb, Breivik put on a police uniform he had bought piece by piece on the internet and drove thirty-eight kilometers to the ferry between the mainland and Utøya Island, where a Labour Party youth retreat was being held. The ferry captain believed Breivik was a police officer and took him to Utøya; several people there for the retreat helped him ashore, with his heavy case of ammunition, and became his first victims on the island.

Breivik is charged with the murder of sixty-nine people on Utøya, sixty-seven of whom he shot and killed and two who died while attempting to escape him. One drowned, one fell to his death. He is charged with the attempted murder of thirty-three more people who were shot but survived. He is charged with terrorism, and it is the first time this charge has been used in connection with a homicide in Norway.

Throughout the first week I sat in the pressroom, while my editor and another AP reporter were in the courtroom with Breivik. I didn’t envy them. I was nervous enough being in the same building as the guy. One time he became a bit defensive during questioning, when Engh asked him who gave him the authority to kill all those people. He grabbed the pitcher of water on the table before him and started fiddling with its plastic cap. I lost focus as I watched his hands twist the cap, tuning out his voice as he uncharacteristically struggled to phrase himself. I felt that he was about to smash the pitcher on the table and use a shard to slit his own throat, suddenly, like in Michael Haneke’s Caché. I had to take a deep breath and look away for a second. When I looked back, Breivik was sipping water from a white plastic cup and calmly answering Engh’s question.

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