Matthew Licht

Big City Dreams, Part 1

Dreams are not zen. Or else they’re pure zen, i.e. nothing.

Dreaming mind is zen mind. The body lies immobile, forgotten, left behind. Dreaming mind concentrates on dreams, and dreams are only dreams. The world’s a dream, including you, whoever you are.

Nights were enlivened with Art Deco New York. The dream city looked the way a big city should, in my mind.

While awake, I try not to get hung up on appearances. I also try to keep life simple, as far as living conditions, material necessities and interactions with other people are concerned, without being tooneurotic about it. The city’s packed with neurototypes. Neurosis is my business. I do removals. But I couldn’t seem to remove Art Deco New York from my own dream life.

The scene was usually a theater at night. The place is deserted. Light shines from comedy-tragedy mask sconces onto rounded velvet seats in sensually curved rows. Nothing’s happening onstage. No music, not a sound. But the theater’s alive.

On the walls, bas-relief dancers stand frozen in clingy costumes. Plume-helmeted warriors look like they’d run shrieking, hands held high, from the first noise of conflict.

Outside the theater, the city breathes, pulses, vibrates. Boogie-woogie bounces off chrome and stone, throbs life into elegant, hardworking city people as they go about their meaningful business.

A Zeiss planetarium projector in the middle of the theater takes up space—devours it. The popeyed monster exudes death-rays, dreams of conquest.

The Deco theater is a secret place. I feel I shouldn’t be there, though I’m dressed, uncharacteristically, for a night on the town. It’s like I’m pulling some REM-phase B&E job, but it makes no sense. The Deco bas-reliefs can’t be removed without ruining them. The exquisite fixtures are too bulky to boost. The predominant wood is ebony. Everything metal looks like plutonium or heavier, and glows with a potent warmth. The theater’s separate components would be meaningless. You can’t steal a whole theater.

 The place’s enhanced gravity made every movement as ponderous as a promenade through the Elephant Room in the Museum of Natural History, at a time when the Chrysler Building spoke like Ernest Hemingway. Why was I going to the theater every night? How much were tickets?

Deco arabesques tendriled into meditation. Bubbles rose through water, wind blew across glaciers and sand dunes, but were displaced by stylized dancers and heroic workmen frozen in action, their statuesque bodies sheathed in diaphanous material carved from stone or cast in bronze. Streamlined automobiles glistened with chrome as they rolled down uncrowded streets lined by skyscrapers. The aparmtents inside swung with elephantine furniture and bakelite cocktail accessories. People in plush clothes slugged their highballs. Airplanes like stars streaked overhead. Silk hankies fluttered goodbye at the streamlined airport, where searchbeams dissected the indigo sky.

Deco made a mockery of meditation. Impossible to follow a Constellation on an imaginary Denver-Chicago flight. Gangsters kicked open swinging doors with pewter intarsio inlays. Nickel-plated Tommy guns spat flame to syncopated explosions and screams of agony. Molls in ostrich plume bikinis pulled the triggers, grinned sadistically through lashings of lipstick. The airplane screeched its aerodynamic-fender wheels, sent up crushed-eggshell clouds, taxied into the lobby of a Midwestern Moderne hotel where Raymond Loewy, Walt Disney and Howard Hughes had gathered in a conspiracy to capture American imaginations.

Art Deco is the opposite of the Zen aesthetic.

Zen, like magnetism, has a flip side. The pressure of concentration, over time, can in rare instances lead to the formation of diamond mind. The same pressure can crush other minds, cause them to crack, darken.

Zen has a positive gravity that impels adepts towards what’s good, what’s clean. Or so I like to think.

The flip side is Black Zen.

Enmity’s a concept as old as humanity. Animals may kill each other, but they’re not enemies. The word itself has fallen from use. I don’t own a fork or chair, but I have an enemy. His name is Lester Frills. He calls himself the Pope of Black Zen. He calls me the zen garbageman. Or scumbag. Or motherfucker. Or, more disturbingly, biscuit-butt. Lester Frills might be the flip side of me. A psychoanalyst would have his work cut out for him, on that count. Shrinks charge $200 for a 50-minute hour. I don’t have that kind of dough. My clients pay much lower rates.

Money. Ambition. Accumulation of surplus crap. People move to the Big City for many reasons. Desire becomes disease.

I dropped out of college into the Sanitation Department. Family connections did the trick. The job-market was DOA. I took up zen because the end result of human effort, endeavor, desire, need and ambition, i.e. garbage, drove me nuts.

Nobody should stare at garbage too long. Shrinks charged $100 an hour, but at least you got 60 minutes in those days. Zen was free. My first donation to the zendo, after they finally let me come in and kneel, was a near-spherical black rock I found on a dune on a beach just east of Amagansett, a possible meteorite. The roshi smiled enigmatically, nodded, pocketed.

Zen was a good deal, basically. Let’s put it that way.

Cleared my mind, cleaned out my cluttered pad. Out with ambition, desire, craving, dissatisfaction, envy. Sour refuse slowly turned into a perfume of freedom. Removal of the unnecessary became a mission. Serenity is the only valuable commodity, and it can’t be traded, bought or sold. It can be removed, however, by insubstantial dreams.

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