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In May, my friend Kari told me about the Festival of the Future series of indoor and outdoor exhibits at the New Museum on Bowery.
“It’s called Ideas City,” she said, and I was immediately sold.
It was a steamy afternoon that was getting gross with the amount of people and the air sitting around the buildings. We wandered around with red balloons encouraging people to learn more about AIDS research and HIV testing. We spent some time sitting in on a hackathon tracking black spending. And we collected a bunch of temporary tattoos from environmental activists and landscape architects studying how to better use the land and resources we already have. We walked up and around a side street that started with a few food vendors and some refreshing-drinks. Past that, everything seemed to devolve into experiments. Here try some smog meringue. Behind that, check out a huge mural-in-progress, all outlines and potential.
As we made our way down, we came across a long table where a couple dozen people sat haphazardly, munching on watermelon and pumpkin seeds. They tore off pieces of delicious loaves and dipped them in seasoned olive oil. One woman carefully eyed a pomegranate, and, unable to find a utensil, started cracking it on the edge of the table.
“Whoa,” I said. “What is this?”
“I have no idea.” We walked all the way to the end of the table, watching these people sit and enjoy their meal. At one point, we stopped and a man waved us over.
“Come sit!” he said. “Eat something.” Kari and I looked at each other and shrugged. We took a seat at the table.
“What’s the catch?” I whispered.
“Do we need to sign up for something?” Kari asked.
“Nope,” the man said. Then, he took a step back. “Oh, I’m not in charge. I’m just eating.”
“Who’s in charge?” I asked and he just smiled.
Then, the man produced a knife. Let me pause here to acknowledge that this is an odd circumstance in New York City, but I assumed it was part of the festival. If this were any other situation, I’d be in a cult by now. The man deftly sliced open our watermelon and then went back to his own seat.
“This is all so…” I said.
“Odd,” Kari said.
We sat down around the free food, bottles of water and cups. On the tables were unsharpened pencils, pencil sharpeners, and stacks of paper with questions about affordable housing, whether we felt we paid too much for rent and how racial discrimination is tied to the housing crisis. As we sat there, abuzz with watermelon and happily full of bread, we were discussing housing and inequality, recycling and food waste, with some volunteers from the festival. We wondered whether this was what the good parts of communism felt like. People would walk by and look at us, the same way we looked at people a few minutes before and we waved them over.
“So this is the future?” One man asked.
“You want some watermelon?” I asked, all wide-eyed and Midwestern sweetness. I recruited more people to our table and a woman used the plastic cups to scoop out watermelon and share them with other new friends at the table. After awhile, a tiny light of skepticism creeped in and leaned over to check for tiny cameras or wires under the tables, recording us. I was disappointed not to find anything, but then I started to scan the buildings and found a couple cameras, slightly obscured but attached with duct tape. I waved at one, so they would know that I knew that they were watching. Then, I grabbed some more bread.
A bunch of kids in matching t-shirts ran over and stood in awe in front of the table.
“Can we have some?” one of the tall kids asked. He was already reaching for the watermelon. My good teacher instincts were suddenly headbutted by this new life path I was taking. I looked at him and smiled.
“Of course!” I said. A teacher behind him tilted his head, as if to say, “Really?
“Umm…the food isn’t mine? So, that is entirely up to your teachers,” I said carefully.
“Awwww man…” the kid said.
“There’s plenty more for when you get back.” I mouthed “I’m sorry” at his teacher, who smirked as the hustled the kids away from free, delicious food on a hot summer day.
Eventually, we wandered off to check out more sites at the festival and I tried to shake off the daze of the situation. We were talking to one woman who worked for a group that helped felons get their records expunged and she said, “You know I heard there are people giving out free food and water on the corner.”
“Yes!” I said. “You have to go get some.”
An hour or so later, on our way back, we saw the kids from earlier painting in the unfinished murals, brushes in one hand, chunks of watermelon in the other.