Writings & Whatnot by Rob Hill
I got off the train in Bushwick as I had been instructed in the email. The hefty umbrella I had brought along turned out to be unnecessary, since the sun was now out and showed no indication of going away anytime soon. My profession often brought me out to this part of Brooklyn, but the directions led me into an area that looked unfamiliar. I walked past 99-cent stores and all-night laundromats and restaurants with menus in Spanish hanging in the windows. Somewhere along the way I crossed the border into Queens without anyone stopping me and asking to see my papers.
I passed squat buildings with rounded facades, car services, tax preparers, tiny travel agencies that looked like a front for something illicit, old men with huge bellies sitting on folding chairs and staring off into space, excited little hulahooping girls, and withered old gypsies scavenging for refundable bottles in the unlikeliest of places. The menus in the restaurant windows changed from Spanish to Polish. I found the sandstone row house bearing the address which I had hastily scribbled on the back of an eviction notice. In the enclosed concrete yard out front was a row of black trash barrels that looked like they could easily store an unconscious body. A broken pink tricycle was chained to the iron fence, its decapitated handlebars lying nearby.
I rang the doorbell to what I assumed was apartment six and waited. There was no visible intercom so I figured it might take a while for the tenant to put on his shoes and whatever else required putting on and come down the stairs to let me in. But more time passed than I thought necessary. I rang again. If he wasn’t home after setting up this appointment with me and making me come all this way out here I was afraid I might behave unreasonably. A short man with a false leg approached from behind me and hobbled up the stoop. I stood aside to let him brush past and unlock the door with the key that was chained to his beltloop.
“You come in?” he asked me in secondhand English.
“I’m visiting apartment six.”
He nodded and held the door for me. I stepped out of the sunshine and into the bleak hallway that smelled overwhelmingly of chalkdust. I thanked the man and started up the narrow stairs. He watched me from below, a strange mask of a smile on his face which I didn’t know how to interpret. As I climbed the steps made grunting noises like I was hurting them. My foot nearly came down on the carcass of a something that wasn’t quite a cockroach lying bellyup on the second floor landing before I spotted it in time.
I reached the third floor and knocked on the door to apartment six. There was a rustling from within and I saw a shadow momentarily obstruct the light behind the peephole. The door opened to reveal a disheveled man in his mid-thirties. He wore a wrinkled t-shirt depicting an anime squirrel in a fedora. His eyeballs looked like they had been hastily shoved into their sockets.
“Ambrose?” I asked. He blinked at me a few times. “I’m Daphne. We were supposed to meet for a session today.”
He snapped out of his trance. “Oh. My doorbell doesn’t work. I’m sorry, I forgot.”
“Do you want me to come back another time?” I asked this politely but as far as I was concerned only one answer was acceptable.
“Yeah. I mean, no. Come in. I was just working.”
A short hallway opened up to a larger space which looked like it would have been ideal for an artist’s studio, but strangely I saw no trace of an easel or art supplies. The apartment smelled of rotting wood and overcooked potatoes. He removed a stack of hardbound books from a frayed wicker chair and offered me a seat.
“Is this to be a nude?” I asked.
“Yes.” Then, hurriedly, “You don’t mind, right?”
“No, I’m used to it.”
As I started to disrobe he sat down before a wobbly table and opened a laptop adorned with a sticker of Aquaman that appeared upside down when the lid was open. “Now for this first scene I need you draped back and looking forlorn, maybe a little pensive.”
“No problem,” I mumbled through my sweater, pulled comically half over my head. I watched him stare wordlessly at his laptop, as if he had forgotten how to operate it. “So you paint straight onto the computer, huh? That’s pretty cool. Keeping up with technology and all.”
He looked startled. “What? No. I’m not a painter. I’m a novelist.”
I continued posing for him steadily for the next few months. He paid well and never got weird on me, at least not any weirder than the usual artists I worked for. Along with a few other modeling jobs I made enough to avoid being evicted, which was pretty much all I could wish for. A year later when his book was published everyone agreed he had captured my likeness remarkably well.
Entries from Lightning Boy’s diary:
Oct 3. Foggy tonight. My favorite weather for crimebusting! Ideal for dramatic silhouettes on rooftops. Dust Devil and I noticed some suspicious activity along the waterfront just after midnight and closed in to investigate. We hid behind some crates and waited with bated breath as several fedoraed shadows slipped out of a warehouse. Escargot smugglers, it later turned out. As they came around the corner, we pounced. DD took on four of them at once! He whirled around so swiftly they could barely see him. He’s a real force of nature! I managed to tackle two of them myself. Another stepped out from behind a crate and aimed a nickel-plated pistol at DD but I was able to zap him with a lightning bolt just in time. “Thanks, Lightning Boy!” DD exclaimed, as his fist crashed into the lantern jaw of a hoodlum. Once all the bad guys were KO’ed, we tied them up and left them for the police. Then we celebrated our triumph with a large pizza with extra sauce from Minnie’s. A job well done! We returned to the Weather Shack feeling good about events. My new iron-on lightning symbol on my bicep is giving me a rash. I wonder if I’m allergic to the fabric.
Oct 4. Slow night. Spotted a jaywalker on Sardine Street, but decided he wasn’t worth the effort of apprehending. Patrolled Thai-town on the lookout for secret opium factories with little result. Stopped in for a chat with Captain Blighter at police headquarters. His daughter Angela is engaged to an air traffic controller. Blighter thinks he’s a decent enough fellow, but not very motivated, career-wise. He assured us we’re invited to the wedding (as our alter egos of course). I’ll admit to being a tad jealous. That Angela is a real looker. I sure wouldn’t mind rescuing her from a villain’s evil clutches.
Oct 5. Light drizzle. We interrupted a hardware store robbery on the east side of town. Just one holdup man with a ski mask and an unloaded gun. Routine stuff. Later we met up with Ratso, our trusty informant, in an all-night cafe. He tells us there’s an ugly rumor going around the underworld that there’s something unsavory between DD and me. “That’s absurd,” I said. DD says it’s just a psychological trick used to bolster their confidence. I suppose he’s right. On the drive home I suggested altering our costumes to something a little more loose-fitting, but DD says tights are a superhero tradition which must be upheld. Gosh, sometimes he can be so maddeningly conservative.
Oct 6. Slow night. An alarm went off at the Museum of Yogurt but it turned out to have been triggered by the night watchman. Accidentally, he says, although I have a hunch he did it on purpose as an excuse to meet DD and me. But I have no real evidence, just a suspicion. Before we left he asked us to sign his logbook. Sketched up some designs of a new, more hiphop-flavored Lightning Boy costume. Haven’t the nerve to show them to DD.
Oct 7. Clear skies. Constellations prominent. I think I spotted Pegasus, though I’d left my astronomy guidebook at home so I couldn’t be positive. We busted up a gambling racket in the Tenderloin district. Went well at first. The ringleader tried to escape but DD cornered him in an elevator and dealt him a crippling blow! But then one of the crooks taunted us using a derogatory slur which insinuated an inappropriate relationship between DD and me. I got really mad and socked him right in the nose, breaking it. Blood everywhere. Boy, I can really pack a wallop! DD later said I overreacted, which was very unlike me. “It’s just cheap innuendo,” he said. “Don’t take it personally.” He never gets his tailfeathers ruffled over things like that. He was right, I suppose. We cut short our patrol so I could take it easy. We swung through the drive-thru of Tasty Burger and DD ordered me a strawberry shake. He knows I love shakes. He can be very conscientious sometimes.
Oct 8. Stopped a truck hijacking down in the warehouse district. I blinded the driver with a lightning bolt and he crashed into a telephone pole. Then DD dispatched the hijackers without much fuss. DD has taken to calling me “Lighty.” I hate that. Especially when he does it in front of the bad guys and then they snicker at me. Boy, does that make me feel stupid. Next time he does it I think I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear him. I’ll look away as if lost in thought while he keeps repeating it until he finally says “Lightning Boy” properly. Then I’ll turn my head and go “yes?” That should get the hint across, I think.
Oct 9. Slashed my goshdarn finger on a goshdarn barbed fence while we were chasing after a pursesnatcher. DD asked if I wanted him to kiss it and make it better. I thought he was joking at first. He sounded disappointed when I laughed it off. Sometimes I don’t get him.
Oct 10. Uneventful patrol. Ended up at the arcade playing pinball. I know we should be pleased when crime is low, but sometimes I get awfully restless.
Oct 11. Took a bit of a spill over a parapet this evening while chasing a cat burglar. Luckily a fire escape broke my fall, but I bruised my shoulder something fierce. Boy, am I getting clumsy lately. While I sat there trying to get my bearings, DD came up and started rubbing the sore spot. I’m not very comfortable with personal contact and asked him to stop. He sulked the rest of the evening. What’s that all about?
Oct 12. Wow. I’m still not sure how to process what happened. Still shaken up. Captain Blighter woke me by coming to the door of the Weather Shack early this morning before sunrise. Instead of coming home after our patrol last night, it turns out DD headed down to the docks where he was picked up by an undercover cop. Blighter was vague about the charges but apparently it involved something inappropriate with a minor. I insisted it couldn’t be true. Nobody was more wholesome and law-abiding than DD. He must have been framed by a conniving evildoer. But Captain Blighter said, “Trust me, there wasn’t any room for misinterpretation.” Sure, DD had been behaving a little strange the last week or so, but I can’t believe he’d do anything with such flagrant disregard for the law. My mind is still reeling. I just can’t find it in my heart to go out on patrol alone while DD is locked up in jail.
Oct 13. Captain Blighter says the police intend to make it appear that DD was killed while foiling a bomb threat to the city. They don’t want word to get around about his arrest. Blighter says if DD’s integrity is tarnished it’ll be a big win for the bad guys, which will boost their confidence and might lead to a rampant city-wide crime spree. I can see his point. Gosh, so I guess this spells the end of the heroic duo of Dust Devil and Lightning Boy. I suppose I’ll need to look for a new line of work. Or maybe I can find a new mentor. Perhaps Cougar Woman could use a sidekick. I’ll ask her when I see her next. I would need a new identity of course. I wonder if Puma Boy is registered.
Crux showed his identification papers to the guard and gave the password: “Dervish.” The guard nodded curtly and pressed a button that opened the gate. Crux went through. He entered the drab brick building that served as headquarters. A poorly-lit hallway brought him to a low-ceilinged briefing room where he found several surly soldiers clustered around a tactical table. He felt them size him up as he entered and he returned the favor. He wasn’t going to have any trouble from them, he surmised with confidence. And even if he did it would be short-lived. Coolly, he pushed back a folding chair and settled onto the seat, resting one of his heavy combat boots on the rim of the chair in front of him. He began to pick his teeth with a wooden splinter.
The General came into the room, reeking of authority. His eyes were piercing, like a bird of prey. A scar ran along the crown of his bald head. The amount of shit he gave was little to none. “Alright men,” he began, and all spines in the room instantly straightened. “Here’s the situation. The Nazis have captured Professor Logworm, the imminent nuclear physicist. Their interrogation methods are, let us say, notoriously infallible. It is imperative we get him back before he spills the proverbial beans. We know he’s being held in a fortified castle in Bavaria.” He indicated a spot on a map of Germany which hung on the wall behind him. “So here’s what’s going to happen. Tonight the lot of you will be flown into enemy territory where you will parachute down behind enemy lines. You will have to make your way through the Black Forest without detection. The castle is built atop a cliff with its back facing a sheer drop. You will have to scale this back wall where it is minimally guarded. Hanson here is an expert mountain climber and will lead this stage of the assault.”
A wiry man with a pencil mustache acknowledged this with a slight nod.
“Now two of you, Rickard and Drubber, speak fluent German. You two will be given forged papers and will make your way through the front gate by impersonating inspectors. Your task is to cause enough of a distraction to let the rest of the team slip into the castle unnoticed.”
Drubber, a preposterously muscled American, spat on the floor. “I work alone.”
“Not this time,” said the General. “And spit on my floor once more and you’ll be mopping it up with your face.”
Drubber turned crimson but said nothing.
“Now,” the General continued, “we’re almost certain the professor is being kept in a cell down in the catacombs.” He unrolled a scroll of paper and laid it across the table. “Fortunately we managed to get our hands on this blueprint of the castle. The most likely spot you’ll find him is marked here. We expect the professor will be in no condition to climb down the castle wall so once you find him you’ll have to burst your way out. We’re counting on the element of surprise for this. Crux here is a mechanic and hotwiring expert. It’ll be his job to locate a vehicle on the premises to use for your escape. Once you cross the Gotterdammerung River you can blow up the bridge behind you to slow down your pursuers. Garbo here is a demolitions technician and he will handle that. We’ll have a plane awaiting here,” pointing on the map, “at the abandoned airfield near the village of Löffelstadt to fly you the hell out of there. We are calling this mission Operation: Bandersnatch. Now then, any questions?”
“Yeah,” said Crux, leaning back in his chair. “I have one.”
The General’s eyes narrowed. “Well?”
“Can we warn the Nazi pigfuckers ahead of time that we’re coming, to make it a challenge?”
Crux sat on the edge of his cot cleaning the blade of his V-42 stiletto. He was ordered to get a few hours of sleep before the flight was to leave, but he was too pumped with adrenaline for that. He held up the knife and imagined it slicing through the jugular of a Nazi. He knew how to cut to ensure a maximum amount of pain. When it came to Nazis he despised a quick death.
He took out a photo of a voluptuous blonde in a sweater. This was Vera, his girl back home. Or at least she had been. She didn’t understand why he hadn’t taken a safe desk job back in the States when he had the chance. She didn’t understand that the Nazis needed exterminating. And he couldn’t do that from behind a desk. Before he left the States she angrily told him she didn’t want to see him again. But he knew she would change her mind when he returned. She was nuts about him, he knew, and she couldn’t just walk away that easily. Besides, who in their right mind would turn away a war hero? He tucked the photo in the breast pocket of his uniform for good luck.
There was a knock on the door. Crux grabbed his pack and went out to an idling jeep. He climbed in and was driven across the base to the runway where the others were assembled beside an awaiting B-17.
“Good luck, men,” said the General, giving a stiff salute. “Don’t let me down.”
They climbed aboard the plane and moments later were airborne. They rode in silence. Crux lit a cigarette to pass the time. His nerves were rock steady. His years of dedicated training culminated in this moment. He was ready to spill some Nazi blood.
“We’re over Germany,” the pilot called back to them over the roar of the engines.
The team triplechecked their parachutes and got ready for the jump. The pilot opened the drop hatch. A burst of bonechilling air rushed into the fuselage. The forest below scrolled by like the perforated roll of a player piano. The pilot gave the signal. One after the other the soldiers leapt out of the plane into empty space. Their parachutes could barely be seen against the inky night sky, like shadows of jellyfish. Crux glanced down to see the dark earth rushing up at him. He saw what looked like a small clearing and aimed for it. A gust of wind dragged him in another direction, directly towards a cluster of trees. That was all he needed, he thought, to get tangled up in the branches of a tree and have to cut himself down.
He crashed full-force into the upper reaches of a Norway spruce. His head caught in the V of a protruding branch and he heard a sharp jarring snap, which turned out to be the sound of his neck breaking.
“What’s it like living in a funeral home?”
I swallowed my bite of peanut butter and jelly sandwich and shrugged. “I dunno. What’s it like not to?” This was my standard response, by fourth grade having been asked that question more times than I could count.
“Aren’t you scared of ghosts?” The boy with the rhubarb-colored hair wasn’t going to let the matter drop that easily. His brother, who looked just like him but in a smaller size, stared wordlessly by his side while clutching a pimply red gym ball.
“No, I’m more scared of burglars.” Which was true. I had this terrible dread of someone breaking into the house and silently watching me sleep. Or watching me through the window, despite our living space being on the second floor. As for ghosts, I never understood why people assumed they would haunt funeral homes instead of the places where they had lived. Or died.
I finished my sandwich and went back inside the school, leaving the inquisitive brothers to their game of dodge ball, or whatever it was. The rest of the afternoon I spent at the back of my classroom absently doodling in the pages of my textbook. When the final bell for the day rang, I was the first one out the door. I climbed down beneath a stone bridge and walked home along the creek that snaked behind a row of houses. It was my favorite route to take home, though I was more cautious near the water ever since the previous winter when I had fallen through the ice.
That night just as I had drifted off to sleep something jolted me awake. I sat up and listened but whatever it was did not repeat itself. I heard a stirring in the hallway, a murmur of voices, and knew it hadn’t been my imagination. Whatever woke me had alarmed my parents too. I crawled out of bed and went to find out what was going on. I found my mother in the kitchen looking out the window at the yard below. When she heard me come in she turned and smiled but her eyes weren’t smiling.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Your father’s gone down to look. Just stay up here, okay sweetie? Why don’t you try going back to bed?”
Something in her voice convinced me that now was not a good time to question her. She gave me a hug and I returned to my room where I lay in the dark staring up at the glowing constellations on my ceiling. I had that feeling like when you wake up at someone else’s house in the middle of the night and for a moment you aren’t sure where you are. I thought about the two boys from school and wondered what it would be like to live in an ordinary house like the people on TV shows, with a driveway and a mailbox beside the road and neighbors in similar houses and a phone that didn’t have to be answered in a professional manner and where I could play without being told to keep it down during business hours. It might be fun or it might be dull.
I intended to stay up until my father came back so he could explain to me what had woken me. But I rested my eyes for a few minutes and when I reopened them it was morning. The sun cast long spidery shadows up my bedroom wall.
“I have something to talk to you about,” my mother said when I emerged from my room. She sat me down on the living room couch and faced me. She explained to me that the night before a man came to our back door and shot himself with a gun.
“Why did he do that?”
“He must have been very unhappy. In a way it was considerate of him to do it on our doorstep instead of in his home where a loved one might have discovered him. Other people aren’t as used to death as we are.”
She told me I didn’t have to go to school that day if I didn’t want to. Then she made me poached eggs and toast for breakfast. Extra runny, like I liked them, so that the yolk seeped into the toast. I spent the rest of the morning on the couch reading an adventure story about smugglers in the Everglades.
And that reminds me of the time I nearly cracked the secret of the universe while hallucinating in a dentist’s chair. I wasn’t there for a serious operation, just a filling that needed to be replaced. After strapping the mask over my nose that would pipe in the nitrous oxide, the dentist courteously explained in some detail what he intended to do, but all I heard was the song playing behind him. The last fairly lucid thought I had was “I didn’t know Hendrix did a cover of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’…” then I climbed into my bathysphere and descended into the roiling wet clouds, where oddly-shaped bubble creatures floated past, peering curiously at me through a porthole in the hull of my craft.
As the procedure commenced it occurred to me that this particular dentist’s voice sounded exactly like that of every other dentist I’ve had occasion to lean back for. Sure, one might expect the terminology to be similar, but these were even the same mumbled asides, even the same random off-key hummings. I’ve had several dentists over the years of varying ages in different parts of the country. Yet at this moment they were all one and the same. A dentist archetype. The conversation between him and his assistant was identical to every conversation between every dentist and assistant that has ever taken place. Fragments of dialogue wafted into my ear, each triggering bouts of deja vu. A tricky procedure described as “heroic.” A gruesome hatchet injury once encountered in dental school. I could even picture the setting, a cabin stocked with lumber somewhere up north. I’ve heard this dialogue all before.
I then understood that the Dental Experience is something recorded on a tape and replayed every time the patient reclines in the dentist’s chair. There is nothing to fear, the hypnotic tape loop reassures me, because everything is familiar. This is all routine and your well-being is in good hands. You’ve been here before and you will be here again.
And this led me to reflect on the nature of control. Clearly I was not the one in control of this situation. I willingly handed over the reins fifteen minutes ago (or was it three hours?) when I stepped into this office. The dentist could, on a whim, swing a sledgehammer at my jaw and there was little I could do about it. In this impaired state of mind I might not even recognize that as something I would wish to avoid happening. I pondered what a powerful worldly figure would do in my place. How would Charles Foster Kane react to placing his fate in another’s hands? Would he simply not let himself be put in this situation? Perhaps Charles Foster Kane would sooner have a mouthful of rotting teeth than entrust his safety to another.
Then, like a camera filming itself, I thought of myself sitting there trying to make sense of everything. Consciousness is a detective, I realized, eternally puzzling over what is occurring, attempting to make sense of its environment, to piece together meaning out of the disparate clues it finds. But a detective is also a nuisance, a monkeywrench in the machinery. In order to pull off any sort of repair work or self-maintenance such as this, a greater mechanism would have to decoy the detective long enough to work unobstructed, to prevent it from meddling. And that’s exactly what the purpose of the nitrous oxide is, a wild goose chase to distract my thoughts from what is really going on. I’ve voluntarily come in and placed myself completely at the mercy of the dentist. Or did I? Certainly he is functioning under the same principle. Perhaps he is merely an instrument of the maintenance department. This whole thing could be taking place under the influence of some kind of metaphysical nitrous oxide.
A distraction, that’s all this is. A distraction in the system. Then suddenly I understood everything. With an almost audible click the whole nature of the universe made sense. As if stormclouds were lifted and I could see into the distance in all directions and knew precisely where I was. The face of the clock was fallen away, exposing the tiny mechanical parts underneath. Everything was so simple and so obvious. I nearly motioned for the procedure to be halted. To hell with my teeth, I had seen the truth. I needed to scribble down this vision of clarity before it was obfuscated. I needed to ask for a pen and paper. If only I could remember how to speak.
And then I noticed the music playing was no longer Hendrix. It sounded familiar though. The melody resembled the song “Such Great Heights.” Not the original, but it could have been the delicate Iron and Wine version. And then I knew something was wrong. This was not part of the script. That song hadn’t even existed the first time I visited the dentist. It would have been impossible to encode into the tape loop. Something must have short-circuited. An interference of signal. The song was a tip-off that the pattern had been broken. The detective in my head bolted upright.
I opened my eyes and realized I was in the same room I had originally entered. I had been sitting there the entire time. I hadn’t gone anywhere. Certainly not for a subterranean ride in a bathysphere. The office around me looked unbearably ordinary. The mask was removed. I was handed a complimentary toothbrush and ushered on my way.
Groggily I stumbled outside into the daylight. I crossed the street to the park where some jazz musicians were gathered, hammering away at an obscure Thelonious Monk tune. I sat on a bench while my head slowly cleared and the feeling seeped back into my jaw, trying to make sense of all this, to reconstruct the state of mind that had led to my recent epiphany. I had a notepad in my lap, ready to jot down the faintest hint of the secret, but my mind was a blank. I felt the despair that for a fleeting moment everything made sense and then was spirited away, like a dream whose wispy tendrils eluded my grasp. Like a pearl disappearing into the murky depths of my soup. A tune whose melody I’d forgotten. Hopelessly I put away my empty notepad, the victim of a cruel joke. Why would the universe reveal its secret to me only to snatch it away again? What was the purpose in that?
And then a bird shat on my bag.
It was the morning of my execution. My head was throbbing from all the drinks I had, perhaps unwisely, downed the night before. I’d made the rounds of the bars in the village and everyone, knowing it was to be my last night alive, bought me enough drinks to drown a battalion. It was quite the occasion. Instead of my usual sorry rags I wore a tailored velvet suit made especially for the event and everyone was most impressed with my striking appearance. But as I lay sprawled on my bed blinking in the stern morning light, my brain stuffed with wet starfish, I regretted not having exercised a little more willpower.
Heroically I made it onto my feet and staggered to the sink to splash water on my face. I squirmed into yesterday’s clothes, now splotched and rumpled, and stepped outside, shielding my eyes from the stabbing daylight. No one along the street said a word, but nodded respectfully as I passed. Often I had felt shunned by the villagers who considered me a mere wastrel with nothing to offer the community. But today was different. Today I was something of a celebrity.
There hadn’t been an execution in the village in a very long time. Generations, in fact. Which meant no one was entirely sure how it was supposed to be handled. Tradition had it that the subject was to lie with his head resting on the rail that ran through town square as a steam train was driven over him. However no one was old enough to recall actually having seen this occur. This sounded to me like an especially gruesome way to die and, though I hadn’t spoken against it out of deference, secretly I hoped an alternative method could be settled on before the hour came.
I made my way along the narrow town streets, bidding a silent farewell to the places that had been my home for so long. The rows of stone buildings seemed distantly familiar, as though I’d known them only through secondhand descriptions and was now seeing them for the first time in person. Mr Pilsner leaned out the door of his barber shop and nodded in my direction. I’d gone to him since I was a boy but didn’t remember him having such a prominent scar on the crown of his bald head. For the first time I pondered the peculiarity of having your hair cut by a man with no hair of his own.
I watched two slavering dogs chase each other in and out of a blind alley, stirring up dust. As a little kid, I was convinced this alley contained dead bodies. I would refuse to pass in front of it until one day my exasperated uncle dragged me in against my will and pointed out to me that the lumpy shapes which had so terrorized me were just discarded bags of sand left over from the flood season. I passed the bakery where as a boy I had perfected my pilfering abilities. The woman who owned the shop wore a glass eye, which unnerved the other schoolchildren but never bothered me. While she cursed her indecisive customers I would walk out with a whole loaf smuggled under my coat. Early mornings I would often loiter outside, inhaling the narcotic aroma of baking bread.
After crossing a stone bridge, I followed the winding street until I reached the cobblestoned town square where my friends Mink and Pulse greeted me. Both wore wrinkleless grey soldier uniforms. Mink had her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. Pulse looked impassive in dark sunglasses. Already a crowd had begun to gather near the fountain of a urinating boy, but kept at a respectful distance from me. The town hall clock indicated it was a quarter to noon. High overhead the sun glared down without mercy. I went over to the train tracks and crouched beside them. Gazing down the tracks I saw the dark spot of an approaching train far in the distance. Vibrations coursed through the steel rail. I imagined resting my head upon the steel and calmly waiting as the great mechanical beast bore down on me while the earth trembled and the engine screamed. At once I decided my nervous system was simply too fragile for me to be executed in such fashion. Tradition or not, we would have to find another way. The crowd began to close in. I could sense their anxiety. They were eager to watch an execution but unsure of what to expect. There was no one in charge to oversee the proceedings. Mink and Pulse stood on either side of me to protect me in the event that the unsettled crowd decided to take matters into their own hands. A hot noon sun has been known to stir up violence in the restless.
As the train clamored into the square I saw that it was filled with grimfaced soldiers, some hanging out the sides, and knew they had come to ensure I didn’t attempt to escape my fate, something I would never consider. But the villagers milling around me were confused by what was happening. Some suspected the soldiers had come to rescue me and deprive them of their spectacle. Or even to attack them. The iron beast screeched to a halt and the soldiers leapt off. The anxious crowd of villagers knew better than to rush the soldiers but were insistent not to yield their space. The air was tense and ripe for violence. This really was poorly organized.
The soldiers took their positions and the crowd glared at them. The soldiers had no leader either and were following no strategy other than their instinct to appear imposing. The crowd was a breathing entity. I recognized none of the faces now, though as individuals I had known them my entire life. Mink batted away several hands that reached toward me. Leaning toward Pulse, I suggested in a murmur that, should things get out of hand, he should be the one to execute me by firing a bullet into my brain. He didn’t like my idea, not even when I suggested he make it look like his pistol accidentally discharged while he was protecting me. I worried that without his intervention, the impatient crowd, feeling cheated, might lose its senses and viciously rip me apart. I felt I deserved a more dignified end than that.
I heard several small explosions but was unable to tell from which direction they had come. Among the surging crowd I spotted several pistols which had been drawn from waistcoats. A sudden pinched sensation at my side made me realize one of the shots had struck me. I looked over at Pulse to see if he had changed his mind and fired the shot, but his sunglasses hid his expression and I was unable to tell. His pistol was in his hand but it was pointed towards the ground. I felt a warmth spread through me, as though several quickly downed shots of vodka had suddenly kicked in. I slumped forward and people stepped back to make room. I hit the cobblestones lightly, as though gravity had lost much of its reign over me. Lying on my side as the onlookers fell silent, it occurred to me that the thoughts now swarming in my mind were to be my dying thoughts. And, somehow, I knew that these dying thoughts would be recorded in the annals of the universe, in a great memorial library of the cosmos where all dying thoughts are filed for posterity.
And what coursed through my mind at that moment, I recognized with dismay, was a nursery rhyme I’d learned as a child. I couldn’t remember the words. They were probably insignificant. Something about a greedy fish that gobbled up more than it could eat. Or maybe it was a bird. I couldn’t remember. It was a ridiculous melody caught in my head, like a ribbon threaded through a confusing series of clockwork.
This then was to be my contribution to eternity.
Autumn was running a little late this year. Not until mid-November did the leaves hastily crispen and drop off the trees, practically turning orange on their way down. No excuses were given and few demanded any. In Washington Square Park shortly after dusk a darkly sweatered pianist hunched over a baby grand on wheels, traipsing through some Chopin with ghostly fingers. Every time the wind shifted direction the spray from the fountain blew onto his piano and he disgruntlingly stood and wheeled it a couple inches away.
The great arch behind him was ablaze for the evening and passing tourists crouched at low angles with their cameras, attempting to capture the pianist posed dramatically against the lit arch in the background. A woman strolled up with her tiny dog, dressed in a striped convict’s outfit, and dropped a couple of coins into the black bucket beside him. They tinkled against some other coins already there. The pianist finished his tune to limp applause. He glanced around briefly as if remembering where he was and what he was doing there, then plunged into some Rachmaninoff.
Nearby two men brooded over a stone table on which sat a Smurf-themed chess set. They appeared irritated by the commotion. A dazed woman with a penguin-shaped backpack stood motionless in the fountain, seemingly unaware her clothes were completely soaked. She may have been entranced by the music, or by something entirely different. It was hard to say. A small mopheaded child cautiously approached the piano, pushing her pet monkey in a stroller. Only standing as high as the pianist’s bobbing knee, she studied him as some kind of curiosity. A lanky kid rode up on a skateboard, grabbed a handful of cash from the bucket, and scooted away. The pianist didn’t notice, too engrossed in his own playing.
An old man with a pointy white beard, wearing a ruffled dress and carrying a silver wand, made his way over, displaying a poor sense of equilibrium. He looked cold with his knobby knees exposed. A few alert tourists took this opportunity to snap photos of the unusual sight. The old man, standing uncomfortably close, listened for a few moments. Then he reached up and beaned the pianist on the head with his wand. A spell was broken. The outraged pianist leapt up and chased after his assailant but tripped over someone’s cart of refundable bottles and fell sprawling. The old man nimbly swerved through the crowd and disappeared down MacDougal Street.
Rubbing his bruised shin, the pianist returned to his instrument. To those still gathered he announced, “This next piece will be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard in your life.” He glided into a delicate number by Beethoven, the one that was later hijacked by Billy Joel. He played with great conviction, his tousled hair hanging down over his forehead, his back arched and his eyes tightly shut against distraction. The crowd listened with mild interested, some straining to remember the Billy Joel lyrics. Several of them wandered off, looking for something else to photograph.
It had been snowing relentlessly for days and the cars parked along the streets of Hell’s Kitchen were buried up to their side mirrors. Coming down the brownstone stoops, owners gripped their shovels with gloved hands and growled at the work that lie ahead. Scarfed and hatted pedestrians kept their heads low against the wind and tried to circumnavigate the pools of slush which formed at every intersection without getting a bootful of chilled water. Newscasters on the radio were having fun coming up with names for the storm that referenced the end of the world, then chuckling at their own wit.
Two children, exiled from a shuttered schoolhouse, busied themselves by building the snowfort to end all snowforts. It had taken them the better half of the day to burrow in from the bottom using an old coffee can, and out the top, forming a combination turret and observation post. Their little blue knit caps peeked conspicuously out from the mounds of white as they prepared to do battle with an invisible adversary. Their armory of snowballs was well-stocked. An ambitious photography student slipped on a patch of ice and broke her camera. She sat with her legs splayed, gazing mournfully at the wreckage.
As the clouded sun quietly toddled off to bed, the blankets of snow took up the task of reflecting the city lights with enough intensity that the sun was hardly missed. The evening sidewalks were lit by a moonglow, as though they had somehow become gently radioactive. A stooped woman in a green parka took her dachshund for a walk. The dachshund sniffed the frozen ground at the base of a tree, uncertain. It lifted a hindleg without much enthusiasm, but conditions didn’t seem right. The dog abandoned this attempt and continued along in hopes of finding a more suitable spot to conduct its business farther ahead. The stooped woman just wanted to get it over with so she could go inside and bathe her feet in scalding water.
An Irish youth came bursting out the entrance of the corner pub. Without hesitation he bounded across the icy sidewalk and dove headfirst into the snowbank with a muffled crunch. His short legs flailed in the air, like a vaudeville clown wedged in a barrel. His companions who followed him out of the pub doubled with laughter at his sudden lunacy. He pulled himself out, shook the snow from his wet hair and grinned.
“What if there’d been a hydrant there?” a laughing girl exclaimed.
He shrugged. “There wasn’t.”
Strolling down 52nd Street between Fifth and Seventh Avenues, one notices the plate glass windows and steel frames of banks and hotels, the numerous revolving doors and loading docks. Though the signpost on the corner designates this as “Swing Street,” even the casual observer must note that there is nothing remotely swinging about this particular stretch of concrete and steel. Aside from the banks there are a few clothing shops, a FedEx store, a Sheraton Executive Conference Center, The Paley Center for Media, and a certain well-known coffeeshop whose origin can be traced to the northwest coast. The only thing within sight that seems even mildly historic is the 21 Club, a former speakeasy, with its balcony of cast iron lawn jockeys.
From the nineteen thirties to the fifties it was a different story. The streets were lined with Victorian brownstones ablaze with ghostly neon, thriving nightclubs with names like The Onyx, The Three Deuces, The Famous Door, the Downbeat, the Yacht Club, Jimmy Ryan’s, and, later, Birdland. On any given night one could drift from venue to venue, falling under the spell of such jazz legends as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, Lennie Tristano, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young, a pantheon of the greats. Bird’s tortured flights of freedom. Monk staggering over broken keys. Tristano’s tempered trapezoids. Dizzy’s musical puns. Every night up and down the block it all came pouring from the entrances.
As bebop gradually infiltrated mass consciousness, 52nd Street was its headquarters. This was serious music to be listened to, to be studied and understood. Never mind that corny dance jive of yesterday, the syncopated high hat seemed to proclaim, the real questions were being asked right here. Glenn Miller had been lost during the war and this was his replacement. And it spoke in a language better equipped to deal with postwar existential terror, a jagged dialogue of flatted fifths, not known for nothing as the Devil’s Interval. Blackclad femmes with cocaine eyes watching from the front tables. An audience of hornrims and goatees, nodding in rhythmic conspiracy. A few undercover narcotics agents towards the back attempting a low profile. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and the room is smouldering. A tousle-haired trumpet player comes tottering off the bandstand in a heroin haze, beats a fast exit up the fire escape as a cigarette girl creates a diversion. But everyone listens.
By the mid-fifties the street was in decline. Many of the clubs had adapted into strip joints where the music decidedly took a backseat to the action. Rock ‘n’ roll was the new kid in town. Jazz was doomed to be usurped by rock, as youth discovered it didn’t want to analyze from its chair, it wanted to shake, rattle, and if possible, roll. And youth has in its possession the disposable income, so naturally it will be targeted by those whose business it is to dispose of it. Ma and pa still remember the Depression. They’re going to be much harder to separate from their savings. But their affluent offspring are ripe for the taking. So if it’s a simple beat and a curled lip the kids want, a simple beat and a curled lip is what they’ll get.
In 1959, Miles Davis made headlines after getting roughed up by a cop in front of Birdland for refusing to be pushed around. Miles’ name happened to be on the marquee but the cop was more concerned with the white woman at Miles’ side. A photo circulated showing the musician bleeding from a head wound as the police took him into custody. A decade later he was to corner rock music on his own turf and have his way with it on the infamous Bitches Brew album.
But by then the last jazz club had boarded its doors and the whole place sentenced to the bulldozer. Swing Street in any recognizable form disappeared without a trace. Its heyday can only be glimpsed in surviving photographs of the period, and as a fondly recreated set in Clint Eastwood’s tribute to Charlie Parker, Bird. Some shots of a washed-up Swing Street can be spotted in the film Sweet Smell of Success, as Lancaster and Curtis are leaving the 21 Club. The western end of the row is now affectionately known as “W.C. Handy’s Place,” though who in midtown today even remembers who W.C. Handy was?
He makes his entrance. Sxip Shirey, the mad impresario in the pinstriped suit. The great maestro of the maelstrom. An unholy alliance between Dr Caligari and Archimedes, between Svengali and Gyro Gearloose. Equal parts lion tamer, carnival barker, vaudeville buffoon, gypsy fortuneteller, madcap inventor, and serious composer. A table at his side contains a hodgepodge of junkyard toys transformed into musical instruments through some devious form of alchemy. Mutant harmonicas, dented music boxes, marbles spun in a bowl, dinner bells, bicycle chimes, a megaphone, pennywhistles duct-taped together. When piped through his assortment of pitchshifters and echo units the most docile of flutes becomes a catastrophic pipe organ, bellowing straight from the bowels of a demon.
Sxip Shirey has been a fixture on the New York avant-garde music scene since the glory days of Coney Island, where he entertained the rubes at Steeplechase Park. As a dashing young snake oil peddler, Sxip offered the gathering crowds a mysterious elixir which for mere pennies would cure both halitosis and impotence. He befriended the local fire eaters and stiltwalkers, and palled around with Gummo and Chico Marx before they struck it big. Some claim to have been present at afterhours jam sessions featuring Chico on piano and Sxip on a secondhand accordion. Some have even suggested Sxip had a hand in originating Chico’s signature shoot-the-keys trick. He performed for such luminaries as Roosevelt and Freud while sultry gangster’s molls watched from the wings. At night he slept behind the carousel and dreamt of bigger things.
Sxip firmly aligned himself with Nikola Tesla during the great debate between alternating and direct current. On catching wind of Edison’s infernal plot to electrocute an elephant and therefore demonstrate the alleged danger of Tesla’s alternating current, Sxip rushed down to the boardwalk just in time to witness the poor creature collapse in a sizzling heap. He had been too late to stop it. Glowering, he cursed Edison soundly and ever since has harbored a disdain for the electric lightbulb. To this day he prefers candlelight.
During the twenties Sxip visited Berlin to absorb the thriving cabaret scene. He stayed in the same hotel as Christopher Isherwood and in fact makes a small appearance in the novel Goodbye to Berlin. He once notably performed a birthday toast to Marlene Dietrich at the Wintergarten. In return she gave him his first ocarina, which he still cherishes. Although Sxip felt at home in the decadent Weimar Republic among the flappers, transvestites, and dope fiends, he was convinced by an apprehensive Fritz Lang that the political situation was getting out of hand. He soon returned by steamship to America.
Sxip settled in Hollywood in the early fifties to compose soundtracks to various science fiction films. Some of his scores include instrumentation commonly assumed to be the theremin (predating Bernard Herrmann’s landmark use of one in The Day the Earth Stood Still), but which are actually conventional horns recorded with varispeed techniques. Though proud of his work in film, Sxip left Hollywood embittered by the assembly line mentality of the studio system which he felt devalued the artist. Nor did he like what the California sun did to his complexion. However, his lengthy correspondence with electronic pioneer Raymond Scott dating to this period is due to be published next year by Oscillator Books.
Surprisingly, Sxip mostly sat out the sixties. One would assume his often eccentric and irreverent stylings would fit in seamlessly with the psychedelic aesthetics of the time period. But Sxip took that decade to lay down his tools and do some serious soul searching. He traveled extensively in Eastern Europe and became fascinated with the Balkan and klezmer cultures he encountered there. On returning to New York he drew on these influences to form the Luminescent Orchestrii, a popular attraction on the Lower East Side with their unique brand of Romanian gypsy punk.
Which brings us back to today, with Sxip in the role of master of ceremonies for the strange and wonderful Evelyn Evelyn sisters at the Lucille Lortel Theater deep in the groin of the Village. He entertains the crowd with tales of sharing a toilet seat with Bertolt Brecht and displays his talents at silhouette puppetry. Then he lifts an instrument from his wunderkammer and erupts into another tune. He is an urban witchdoctor, dancing on footpedals and conjuring locomotives out of the stage and jet engines out of the baffles. Images of whirling carousels and gold teeth fill the theater, of bellydancers and swordswallowers, of vapor trails and teakettles and lids of steamer trunks slamming. And with his blessing he sends us back out into the streets of New York, a little better prepared for what we will find there.