Matthew Licht

Big City Dreams, Part 3

After weeks of increasingly florid Deco dreams, a letter came from Lester. He tore the words he used to write it from the pages of fashion mags. 

Hey streetsweep, 

Had any sweet dreams lately? You have? Well, quelle surprise! You dream at my command. Your dream’s what I demand. For reasons I can neither fathom nor stand, I’m unable to tweak what I seek. Discover the place that I desire, or I’ll make life painful for one you admire.

Ta-Ta,

Lester Frills

Pontifex Maximus de la Zen Negrissimus

Dreams are private property that doesn’t take up space or weigh one down. Lester wanted the theater in my dreams. I was reluctant to relinquish ownership.

My enemy somehow projected his covetous fantasies onto the screen of my dormant brain. The infinity loop-shaped Zeiss planetarium projector was the only thing that looked out of place in the glittering dream-theater. The projector, I suspected, was Lester’s oneiric burglary tool. 

Lester had gotten wind of buried Art Deco treasure. Though frivolous and excitable, he’s no fool. Advertising’s an exact science. Lester was a master at putting desires, cravings, insatiable urges and unreasonable hopes into people’s heads. Dreams were the logical next step. Dreams follow dream logic, in that they embroider upon unconsciously perceived reality. Lester conjured the picture, the REM-phase brain does the rest. Lester wanted the theater for one of his Deco-enforcement schemes.

Zen practice is to see the world from different angles. I assumed the theater was real, locked away and forgotten somewhere in the city. A theater isn’t inherently evil, or necessarily a weapon. A theater’s a neutral space where action that simulates life is performed and repeated. Lester Frills had become a career criminal. His illegal actions either enrich him personally or help him achieve his ambitions. Lester was an aesthetic totalitarian. He wanted to impose his baroque tastes on others. He needed the theater as a platform from which to launch his insane directives, but couldn’t find the place on his own.

Lester would never approach me as a regular client. Picture him showing up at my pad with his entourage of incroyables and merveilleuses to spray spittle and bad breath about a problem he wanted discreetly and efficiently solved, for an agreed-upon fee. A recovery, in this case, not a removal.

Lester’s style is far flashier. He must issue ultimatums and take hostages. 

The gentle way of dealing with an opponent involves seeing things from the opponent’s perspective. He pulls, you follow. He pushes, you step back. The strategy, in either case, is to go further than your opponent intends. Gentleness has an unbalancing effect. Pivot unexpectedly, place your center of gravity immediately below your opponent’s, throw him clean across the mat room.

There was a judo dojo a few flights down from the zendo in the cast-iron building where the way began for me. Some nights I’d hit the dojo to wrestle, flip, fly and wear myself out before I went upstairs to kneel, turn off my mind, cancel my self. Other nights I’d clear my head first, then flap flip-flops downstairs, deposit them at tatami’s edge, bow in. 

Zen roshis don’t hand out belts to indicate achievement. They hand out brain-twisting riddles, and pole-whacks on the back if they catch you in an improper kneel or with a thought adrift. 

After years at the judo dojo, Sensei Shiyama handed me a strip of black cotton batting, thumped my shoulder, then flipped me towards the ceiling. 

The enigmatic, unbelievably pricey shopwindow was on the way back home. 

‘Nice pants,’ I thought. ‘Nice sweater. Nice long-sleeved T-shirt.’ What the hell, I thought, I just made black belt. It’s only money. Those clothes are good quality. They’ll last forever, and won’t go out of style. I’ll wear them all the time. They’ll attract good-looking babes I can take out on dates.

There was an acquisitive reflection in the spotless window. I scrammed out of  SoHo, spent the rest of the evening on my knees, followed an imaginary cloud as it wandered across a starless night sky. 

Sensei Shiyama objected when I showed up the next evening with my tattered white belt around my waist. 

“Ah so. You presume to affect self-effacing modesty. You must learn to accept corruption and blackness. Accept it humbly.”

He sent me away. Sent me home to figure out blackness and whiteness. To my shame, I never went back. 

Zendo and dojo were forced out of the cast-iron building by Manhattan real estate’s harsh reality. The zendo moved uptown, way uptown.

Intuition said Lester’s theater of dreams was mid-town, in the Theater District. I mean, where else would anyone stick a theater? So I cased the Eldorado, the Fuller Building, the lobby of the Film Center, the Association for the Deaf. Tourists snapped pictures of a New York nutjob absorbed by Deco vibes. Under the statue of Atlas at Rockefeller Center, a little girl gave me a plastic gold ring set with a plastic diamond. I reached in my hakama, pulled out a netsuke carved from a discarded billiard ball. That was all I had. If I’d had a million bucks, I’d have given her a million bucks. Isn’t that what a diamond ring’s supposed to be worth?

A Radio City Music Hall usher let me in for a look. The zen get-up works better than the old Sanitation Department badge. The kid wouldn’t have let an off-duty garbageman in for free. 

The theater in the dreams was even grander and more Deco-rous than Radio City. Bigger organ. Plusher seats. More ornate on the palazzo-tile floors. More Brass-o on the brass mouldings. More cloud-like bulges on the ceiling. More African jungle hardwood on the railings and wainscoting. More bas on the reliefs. 

Bopped up 6th Avenue to Central Park and hit the Hayden Planetarium, which was Deco-deserted except for the custodian. She had red hair on top, the rest of her was poured into a bottle-green velvet uniform. Lost in thought, she leaned against a zigzag and starburst-patterned pilaster. I rapped on the Deco window.

“Hare Krishna,” she said, when she opened up.

“May you be enlightened,” I said, and pictured ways we could attain satori together. 

“If you’re looking for cosmic visions, this is the place. But we’re not open to the public on Mondays. Come back tomorrow afternoon.”

“Don’t misinterpret the hakama, Miss. Just clothes, is all. I’m an investigator. What I’m after is Deco.”

“Then you hit the jackpot twice, zen dude. Come on in. Aren’t you cold?”

“The uniform’s a problem at times, I admit. Thanks.”

Her name was Jena, pronounced the Italian way, as in Lollobrigida, but spelled like the former East German city. She made us a pot of tea in the employee lounge, then we went on a tour of her private Deco universe. Jena was totally taken by Deco. Deco was why she took the custodian job. She didn’t need a job. She had two Ph.D.s The kind from Columbia and the kind where Papa has Dough. I felt I could confide in Jena. I told her about my dreams. 

Jena let me examine the Hayden’s Zeiss projector. The thing was possessed of an alien beauty, like a creature from a Deco horror movie. She wouldn’t turn it on, though. She was worried an alarm would sound. I was alarmed at how turned on I was by Jena. I was supposed to be on a case. 

“Can this gizmo project anything besides light-pictures of stars and planets?”

“Strictly show-biz. Supernova science blab sells tickets. Did you know they’re planning to demolish the planetarium?”

“You mean this wonderful place, which got an honorable mention in ‘Catcher in the Rye’, isn’t landmarked? Wait a minute…who’s planning the demolition?” 

Lester Frills might destroy Deco masterpieces city-wide for the same reason kooks kill movie stars and pop idols. They want a piece, something they can hold onto. They want to be inextricably linked with someone they admire, even if their star’s stardom is an artificial concoction devoid of meaning or substance. 

Lester said he’d hurt someone I admired unless I located the Deco theater. Who were the zen stars? Is zen stardom possible?

The Deco theater was hidden underground, or in some crazy skyscraper attic. I asked Jena if she ever had Deco dreams. 

“My dreams are disturbingly mundane,” she said. “I dream, for instance, that I’m a waitress at a cafeteria. I dream of washing dishes, calculating taxes, typing letters for businessmen, a steno girl doing shorthand laps in the typing pool. In a black one-piece, not a bikini. Occasionally I dream of counting objects. Things I own, and things I’ve never seen before in my life. I hate my dreary dreams. My fondest dream is to never dream again.”

There was a Deco dispensary downstairs. Colliding, exploding galaxies upset certain sensitive high school students. Girls, mostly. They went to lie down on the green Deco fainting couch until their cosmic angst dizzy-spells dispersed. 

Jena peeled off her green custodian rig. I doffed my zen garbageman costume. Nude, Jena was glamorous. And glabrous. Not a hair anywhere. A redhead only on top. She playfully licked her left armpit. I nearly shot a load. 

“Pretty weird, huh? Like I never hit puberty. But I did, I assure you.”

Puberty stayed hit. Puberty never recovered.

Jena knocked off at 11, when the night custodian checked in. He made no comment on her dishevelment and heightened color. 

Jena disappeared into the staff locker room, came out dressed in understated clothes from nocturnal window-shopping in SoHo before the Real Estate Boom. She said she’d help to find the theater of dreams. 

Jena’s ride was a Hudson Custom 8 sedan. Her grandpa had been an executive in the extinct automotive firm. Among the car’s details was “Jena” in a scroll that fused into the speed-lines of flowing fenders. I didn’t want to breathe on the paint-job, or leave fingerprint smudges on the door handle. The front seat was a Jean Dunand davenport. Jena checked her lipstick in the bakelite rearview mirror. 

“On second thought, you drive,” she said.

We slid towards each other. Jena went up. I went down. Eventually we pulled out.

Streetlights and headlights shone on snow that fell lightly but steadily. The theaters let out. Women’s furs gleamed and bristled with ice-diamonds. Men wore hats in response to a style twitch in magazines and movies. Jena gave directions for a car tour of Deco Manhattan by night. We passed registered landmarks, and buildings I’d never heard or dreamed about. The tour ended at her place. Her town house, rather.

Not Deco, she said. Streamline Moderne. I had a lot to learn. A Northwestern Indian totem pole leant against the far wall of the heated underground garage. A birch-bark canoe hung from the ceiling’s beams. A Hollywood Oscar™ stood bald, gold and dickless among cans of paint and other household maintenance products on a zebrawood shelf. 

In the kitchen, Jena fished champagne from the icebox. Fred and Ginger would soon waltz in for cold bubbly and effervescent repartee. Tom would chase Jerry while the honey-voiced lady of the house mounted a chair and screeched for the colored maid. Al Capone’s goons would kick open the door with their two-tone brogues, spray us with hot lead. 

Jena’s library was all Deco. The books, I mean. Picture books and first editions with embossed covers, ink illustrations. The bookshelves were Deco, ditto wall sconces, reading desk, chairs and the sofa where we wound up wrestling again. Jena pulled apart her boiled-wool jacket to reveal coral-pink porcelain.

***

Big City Dreams, Part 1
Big City Dreams, Part 2

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