2012 • Skills: Writing
Excerpted from a novel in progress; published in Newtown Literary #1, November 2012.
Sugar Qi hopped down the stairs from the M train at Knickerbocker Avenue, clutching an iPhone and unsure of her next move. On the sidewalk she leaned against a green-painted subway pillar to check Twitter one more time. She’d been doing this obsessively all night and wading deeper and deeper into the RSS feeds of her preferred music blogs, in search of a decent show to check out. It was a Friday night in Bushwick, for fuck’s sake. There had to be something.
She looked around. The street was bustling with the usual mix of Puerto Rican and Dominican families and gentrifying artkids, but nobody who looked interesting enough to follow. Then she spotted a telephone pole with a big mess of fliers and papers stuck to it. Of course: the real bleeding edge of Brooklyn wasn’t on Twitter, it was on a typewriter. Or maybe letterpress.
There weas all kinds of bullshit stapled to this pole. Rooms for rent, theremin lessons, CSA memberships, an art show in the basement of a live poultry store. But the one that caught her eye was a pastel-blue sheet of paper with little on it besides the scrawled words “LIVE MUSIC.” Some place called Carlos Slim’s. Rather than staples, this one was hung with a single long, rusty nail driven through it. Nice touch.
She looked up the address on Google Maps and set out beneath the sickly trees and sporadic orange pallor of the flickering streetlights. Since arriving in New York, she’d spent most of her time between Williamsburg and Bushwick, each ridiculous in its own way. She heard occasional bits of lore about Williamsburg’s rough-and-tumble past, but it was pretty much overrun now by parents, weenies, and olds. Bushwick, on the other hand, was still a vast landscape of neglect — either benign, malevolent, or cultivated, depending what block you were on. A luxury condo building, next to an open-air scrap yard, next to an elementary school, next to a converted loft building full of 22-year-olds and bedbugs, next to an artisan donut shop, next to an Eighteenth Century Dutch church, next to a stoner-metal nightclub, next to two housing projects? Sure, why not? It was a neighborhood molded by generations of profound selfishness and indifference.
These were her people.
After a little confused wandering around she found Slim’s. Its only identifying markers were a neon sign that read “B R” and a light-up Schaefer logo in the window that had probably been installed when the brewery was still up the street. Inside, there wasn’t a single person who had been born yet when it closed. A petite Asian girl in Barry Goldwater glasses was a prime cut of hipster sirloin in a dive like this, and Sugar knew it. Heads turned toward her as she pushed through the crowd and she drank in the attention like the beer someone was surely about to buy her.
Sugar was wearing a vintage skirt that looked like it had been made from the drapes in a Sicilian retirement home, a lopsided, loose-knit sweater cape and a camisole with no bra − not so much leaving little to the imagination as inviting just the right amount of imaginative speculation. An intricate tattoo stretched from forearm to forearm across her boyish chest and bony back. Her hair was short and wild, with a bold streak of pink against the black on her left side, and a thickly painted thunderbolt bisected her face from forehead to jawbone in blue and pink. On her Tumblr she’d captioned it “Suicide Girl who dreamed she was David Bowie’s grandma.”
She wedged herself up against the scuffed, sticky bar in a slot that was nowhere near large enough to accommodate her and was attended to almost immediately by the male bartender. She sized up the chalkboard beer menu and loudly ordered a shot of Old Crow and a Narragansett, a can just as cheap as PBR or Genny Cream but with a whiff of irresistibly obscure nostalgia for salty Rhode Island dockworkers avoiding their wives at the local watering hole after an honest day’s labor.
It worked, because the guy on Sugar’s left, who was in direct contact with about a third of her body, said “I got it” when the bartender slid the chipped shotglass and cold white tallboy across the bar and asked for five dollars.
She gave the guy a quick but conspicuous once-over. He looked like a lumberjacking fashion model: wearing the right clothes, but way too skinny to be a real person. She smiled at him and threw back the whiskey.
“Thanks,” she said, popping the top on her beer and chugging it. He was not particularly tall, and she leaned in closer, making sure to keep her eye level below his.
“Great tattoo,” he said, in the halting, terse cadence of barely audible bar conversations.
“Thanks,” Sugar said, bringing her mouth so close to his ear she was sure he felt the yeasty moisture of her breath. “Can I tell you the story? It’s got, like, a totally narrative flow to it.”
“OK, so check this out. Our story begins in China. The dragon.” She pointed to the spot above her right breast where the beast’s head burst through a thicket of black orchids and breathed a fiery cascade of black ivy up her shoulder and down almost to her wrist. “My parents were born there. I wasn’t, I was born in Seattle. I don’t think anything on here represents that, actually.” She made a show of looking down her shirt, pulling at the fabric to give him, just for a split second, an unobstructed glimpse of what lay beneath. Then she twisted abruptly around, contorting her arm to indicate the spot between her shoulder blades where a pirate ship, tossed by rough seas emanating from the ivy that curled around her shoulder, was hitched to a knotty web of rope that ensnared the dragon’s tail. “Maybe the boat?” she said.
“Maybe,” the guy said, nodding. “Yeah.”
“So what about you, are you from Bushwick originally?” Sugar asked, abandoning her tattoo story, since she couldn’t think of anything else to make up about it at the moment.
“Uh, no,” he said after a pause, seemingly unsure he heard her right. “Michigan. Outside Detroit.”
“Rock City,” she said. “I thought there was supposed to be a fucking band here tonight.”
He tried nodding again, then looked aimlessly around the jam-packed bar, as though he might discover one.
She turned to him, finishing her beer with a sip so aggressively long that she had to catch her breath afterwards. “Look, Michigan,” she said, pounding the empty can down onto the bar. “I’m far too close to the ever-present specter of death to spend all night tickling your dick. There are three things I’m looking for tonight. How about you just let me know if you think you’re up to it.” She counted them off on her fingers, displaying the matching lightning-bolt designs on her nails. “Dudes with guitars. Enough alcohol in my bloodstream that I could run over a baby with an e-bike and not notice. And a big load of sour cream in my chalupa − and I’m not talking about the La Carcachita truck. What do you say, El Guapo?”
Sugar knew she had abruptly brought this encounter to its turning point, but she was impatient. She could feel her face flushing from the alcohol and the idea of staying in this place had become intolerable to her, like an itch behind her eyes. She started craning her neck towards the door.
“OK, so, I know a place,” the guy said, hesitating. “But it’s, well… it’s in Queens.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s bitchin’,” Sugar said. “Maybe afterwards we can hang out in your mom’s basement and watch fucking TRL while you feel me up.” She hefted her satchel, which had been on the floor between her feet, and moved to leave.
“No, check this out though,” he said, reaching out to grab her shoulder and turn her around. She was pleasantly surprised by this show of assertiveness, even if it was defensive.
“It’s not like a place full of old Greek guys playing backgammon or some shit,” he continued. “It’s like a crazy, fucked up old factory or warehouse or something. It’s abandoned, full of old machines and stuff, but this guy lives in it. And people just come in from wherever and like, live there, play music, make art, do weird computer shit. And they have shows, like with actual bands that are on tour. It’s totally illegal. And basically a secret. But I can get us in. If you’re interested.”
“Okay, you’re giving me a major boner,” she said, falling into him and clinging to his arm, wrapping her sweater cape around his midsection, looking up at him with hungry eyes. “What do we do, hitch a ride on the back of a dump truck?”
“No, it’s just the L to the G to the 7. No sweat.”
* * *
“No sweat” was not something you said about late-night subway rides in the outer boroughs if you wanted to be taken seriously, a fact that didn’t sink in with Sugar until it was too late. Drunk as hell and charged with restless energy, she got antsy on the L train and found the wait for the mercurial G just about interminable.
“I don’t think I’ve ever actually been to Queens,” she said, hovering in the yellow stripe on the Metropolitan Avenue platform and shooting quick glances up and down the tracks into the darkness. “What’s it like?”
“I’m not sure how to explain it,” the guy said. “I guess I would say that it’s … real.”
“That’s ass,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Do I look like I want to go someplace ‘real’?”
“Don’t you ever get tired of all this, though? Of, I don’t know, just of Brooklyn?” he said. “Sometimes it seems like there aren’t any real old-school New Yorkers here anymore, you know? But you go to Queens and it’s like, there’s no bullshit. It’s just people living their lives. Whole lambs hanging in the butcher shop windows. Awesome little neighborhood ethnic stores and restaurants that nobody else knows about. Fat old Italian guys who still smoke in the neighborhood bar. You know. Real shit.”
“I don’t want to die in Queens,” said Sugar, on one leg, leaning dangerously out over the edge of the platform. “You want to climb down on the tracks with me and lay some rail?”
“I don’t want to die under a G train,” he said with a smirk.
“I already know where I’m going to die.” Sugar quit her dance around the platform edge and enveloped herself in the sweater cape. “In a FUCKING HOSPITAL.”
An awkward quiet smothered the eerily filthy station, drawing surprised, curious and annoyed looks from the smattering of hipsters and middle-aged Polish people they shared the platform with.
“Um,” the guy said eventually. “Sorry. That was weird. I don’t know how we got to talking about death so much. I’m not usually so morbid.” He made an awkward try at chuckling ironically.
“No worries, not your fault,” Sugar said. “It’s probably because I’m dying.”
He gave a little snort and seemed to be waiting for a signal from her as to whether he should continue with the rest of the laugh.
“Of cancer,” she said.
She watched intently as his face tried to decide how to react: the skin-tightening mask of shock; the false calm of disbelief; a confused rejection of his own senses; a flash of frustrated anger at striking out so absurdly; the eyebrows’ attempt at knowing, comforting sympathy; and the complete incoherence of the final, despairing short-circuit. This all took about ten seconds.
“Shit,” he said thickly.
“I’m checking into the cancer center tomorrow,” she said. “Which is why you’re gonna throw it in me tonight.”
He opened his mouth slightly, as if to say something, but the look on his face told Sugar that the words were weighed down with the futility of seeking a sensible way to comfort a horny, dying stranger with a pirate ship tattooed on her back.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s in the early stages. My oncologist says I can still fuck.”
Sugar didn’t like surprises, and what she liked about this routine — she called it “A Dick Before Dying” — was the way it forced the guys to reveal themselves. The cocky ones reacted as though they’d been contacted by the Make A Wish Foundation and it was an honor they’d been secretly expecting all along. The sex would usually be OK, but they were stingy afterwards, since they’d already given her the greatest gift of all. The neurotic ones just freaked out, but would usually let her have whatever she wanted just to make her go away. And then the nice, boring ones would just shut down, and there was no telling how it would end up.
This guy, who had now resorted to just mouthing things wordlessly, had firmly established himself in the latter camp. She had flustered him enough already that he lacked the presence of mind to even tell her his name. Hopefully his friends at the magical lamb carcass warehouse or whatever-the-fuck would be a little more entertaining.
And then, finally, they heard the telltale clanking of the rails, followed a few seconds later by the train trundling into the station. As if a switch had flipped somewhere inside her, Sugar practically skipped towards the door.
“Come on, slut,” she said. “We’re going to Queens!”
It was only about ten minutes to Court Square, the last stop, where they transferred to the 7. As they rode the glass-enclosed escalator to the elevated platform, Sugar stared wide-eyed out the windows at the dark, deserted streetscape of Jackson Avenue like a kid on her first trip to the aquarium. “Wow,” she said. “It’s like Brooklyn without the people and buildings.” On the platform she gawked at the Citibank building, towering apologetically over a landscape of warehouses, dumpy row houses, vast taxi lots and pits full of festering black water lined with orange construction fencing. “People work here?” she breathed. Then in the other direction was the Queensboro Bridge. “Beige cage,” she intoned. When the 7 pulled in she caught a glimpse of its passing insignia and squealed, “It’s purple!” During their quick ride, just two stops, she leaned in again as she had at Slim’s, this time whispering, “They all look so miserable,” and “Is everyone in Queens this ugly?”
He had no rejoinder, nothing but uncomfortable silence.
But even silence wasn’t very quiet on the subway. The resonant clattering and steely squealing of the jerking, aging cars offered a welcome distraction for Sugar, whose repertoire of offensive non-sequiturs had been depleted by the long trip. She listened to it almost meditatively, closing her eyes, taking a break from her surroundings, which she did truly find to be oversaturated with uglies and sads. After a few seconds she noticed an odd sound amid all the heavy machinery. Something wispy, metallic, even plaintive. It sounded vaguely like someone playing the harmonica, but without the usual bluesy honks or nasal huffing. The phrase that came to mind, even though it made no sense, was “like a harmonica played with a violin bow.”
Then again, for all she knew, the undercarriage of a subway car could have all kinds of wispy, metallic and plaintive parts in it. Besides there wasn’t actually anyone on the train playing the harmonica — nobody holding out a grimy baseball cap or Mexican cowboy hat as the train barreled underground into Hunters Point Avenue, nobody insisting that she have a blessed day or offering to accept a smile in lieu of loose change.
Maybe she’d just been in New York long enough that the sound of broken things banging against each other reminded her of music.
* * *
They got off at Vernon-Jackson, the last stop in Queens before Manhattan, and climbed the stairs into Hunters Point, the heart of Long Island City. He led her north up Vernon Boulevard, which was packed with bars, restaurants, cafès, boutiques (for both people and pets), art galleries, high-end real estate offices and odd faux-antique stores — for about four blocks. They went seven. Nothing remained but bodegas, garages, trade union offices, Italian social clubs and aluminum-sided houses.
Then they turned left, and the scene before them was enough to make her miss upper Vernon: a pitted, unlit street with pockmarked sidewalks lined with scrap houses, factories and warehouses, all in varying stages of underuse or slouching abandonment. They were facing the East River, just a few blocks down, fenced off by a strip of late-model luxury high-rises that looked to Sugar like two dozen suburban high schools stacked on top of each other, or dormitories for the Division-I douchebags who were outgrowing Murray Hill.
“Where the fuck are we? The Red Hook pavilion at Epcot?” Sugar said.
“It’s right on this block,” the guy said, pointing to a decaying four-story brick building with indifferently boarded-up windows that would have looked more neglected than most on the block if not for the dim flickering light and shadows of movement on the top floor.
The door was unmarked, unguarded and unlocked. He shoved it open with not-inconsiderable effort to reveal a wide concrete staircase lit by a hanging bare bulb, its spillage revealing the dim suggestions of rusty, forgotten industry and decades of transient junk.
“We gotta go upstairs,” the guy said.
“No shit,” Sugar replied.
As they climbed, the muffled sounds of music and people milling around grew louder, and at the top was a door with a guy working it. He was perched on a stool, nattily turned out in tiny pants, a skinny tie and a vest, the glow of his iPhone reflected in his cherry-red Wayfarers. He looked up as they approached and Sugar’s guy just nodded at him. He, in turn, nodded his head in the direction of the door, which had a strip of scrap metal affixed above it with the words “The Silent Mill” screen-printed on it in stylish Gothic letters. They entered.
The door opened onto a massive, open space that looked like a cross between a loft studio, an art gallery, a rock club, a tech startup, and the common room in a college dorm. It was busy but not quite crowded, underlining its insider cachet, and it smelled of beer, pot, sweat and bicycle tires.
The walls were lined with paintings, grainy blown-up photo prints, collages, drawings and other sorts of things that could be attached to a wall, including the obligatory deer’s head and a grease-caked plastic menu board from a deli with the letters rearranged into the last stanza of Bukowski’s “Beer”:
rivers and seas of beer
the radio singing love songs
as the phone remains silent
and the walls stand
straight up and down
and beer is all there is.
One corner contained a ramshackle wooden structure with a series of doors; in another, people and their laptops were huddled on couches and chairs around low tables and surrounded by disassembled, reassembled and bastardized vintage electronics, including a pinball machine and something that looked like a hollowed-out arcade cabinet. The rest of it was scattered through with an assortment of beat-up sofas, chairs and tables. On the far wall, in between the kitchen in one corner and a pile of pipes, planks and a single stump-limbed but provocatively dressed mannequin in the other, was the band, rocking moodily with a revolving sequence of images and video clips projected on the wall behind them, providing most of the room’s light.
“Dude,” Sugar said. “Yes.” She was already starting to drift away towards the stage as the guy stuck $10 in the coffee can mounted on the wall with a “$5 suggested donation” sign duct-taped to it.
There were five guys on the stage: a guitarist, clean-shaven and dressed like a ’50s greaser with a David Lynch hairdo; a bass player in a tweed vest and pants singing falsetto lead vocals through the tendrils of his mustache; another in a white fedora playing the keytar and a synthesizer; a drummer, with the drummer’s typical aversion to wearing shirts; and the fifth in a tie and sunglasses with a saxophone slung around his neck. They were pounding out a leisurely, steady brand of 1998-Sunday-morning-VH1 soft rock nostalgia that Sugar in that moment found bizarrely enthralling.
But then some guy bumped into her while expounding upon a piece of art on the wall, and hearing the phrase “mythological taxidermy” broke the spell. She noticed that her guy had gone in the opposite direction, opening a refrigerator near where they had come in.
As she got closer she saw the fridge had another can stuffed with bills stuck to its door. “Make a donation in my name?” she said as she pulled the door open to reveal rows upon rows of cans, bottles, cheap beer, craft beer. She grabbed a can of Tecate and popped the top gleefully.
“Are you sure that’s, you know, a good idea?” the guy asked as she downed about a third of it in a single greedy swallow. He looked genuinely concerned and generally bewildered. “I mean, if you’re going to the, you know,” — he lowered his voice — “to the hospital tomorrow.”
She belched loudly. “I’ll take that under advisement, Dr. Flannel,” she said. The alcohol flooded her body, making up for the lost time on their journey to the middle of nowhere, and she felt herself starting to let go again. The music called to her, and she began moving toward it.
This time he followed. But now that they were here, there was no longer a reason to fight the urge to be bored with him. She just wanted him gone.
The band finished a song to scattered applause. “Thanks, we’re AIDS Parade,” the bass player said, as the face of Johnny Depp morphed into a skull on the wall behind him (a clip from Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, as everyone in the room surely knew). Then the drummer tapped his sticks together, and they were off again.
“So the bass player,” the guy said loudly into her ear, leaning in close to be heard, smelling warmly of beer. “His name’s Peter. He’s the one who basically owns this place. He lives here. Some other guys live here too, some guys from the band, some other guy who’s an artist, I don’t know who else.”
“So I guess he’s the one who’s gonna do me in the pail tonight,” she said.
He looked stricken. Sugar rolled her eyes. This guy was about as much fun as a pimple on her cunt. She felt bodily attracted toward the loudest point in the room and no longer saw any reason to resist. “Okay, homes, smell ya later,” she said, and darted into the crowd to go join the AIDS Parade.
Closer to the stage the crowd had massed into a thicket of emotive masculinity. Sugar sliced a path to the front like a knife through artisanal Gouda, dropping her hobo sack and closing her eyes until there was nothing left but sound.
As her beer hand rose into the air and she dipped and gyrated, she felt the male gaze pawing at her body, grasping, aching to seize and possess. She gave it up, leaving it behind to be devoured, and passed into a kind of reverie. Soon she would be the hunter again, pouncing on the keeper of the roof she would sleep under tonight, the provider of tomorrow’s breakfast. Now, for as many songs as AIDS Parade saw fit to play, she would dance.