Matthew Licht

Big City Dreams, Part 4

Jena sprawled on her bed, partly covered by a China-yellow blanket. Dawn light shone through the wooden Venetian blinds on the windows of her room. I let myself out of her townhouse and entered Central Park to meditate.

Dizzying Deco spires were like the bars of a stylized urban cage. Kudus with corkscrew horns peered timidly from the bushes of The Ramble, and a first edition of The Green Hills of Africa. A white whale leapt from The Lake, and Rockwell Kent’s inkwell. I thought I was losing my mind, so I headed up to Harlem for an emergency Deco exorcism with Roshi.

Lester Frills cackled and gurgled like a loon over the sound of rice-straw flip-flops that flapped on fresh snow.

Roshi’s rosewood staff beat a syncopated drum solo on my shoulders. Whack, smack, crackety-crack! Roshi lost his almost otherworldly reserve and split his pole of discipline on my spine. His Queens accent rose to the surface when he suggested we knock off and head out for beer.

“You oughta leave the city for a while,” he said. “Look at some hills, trees, rocks. I’ll give the Saugerties roshi a buzz, tell him you give good garbage koan.”

Roshi doesn’t know about my investigation and removals sideline. It wasn’t the right moment to enlighten him on that score. Instead, I told him about Jena, omitting the hairless details.

“So take the tasty redhead with you. It’s not against the rules. Besides which, there are no rules. Except no whistling. Or tap-dancing.”

“Can’t do it, sensei…I mean, Sal. Someone…there’s trouble. I can’t explain. Don’t press me on this. Can’t leave town, either.”

Reverend roshi sensei Sal dug into his hooded sweatshirt, came up with a pair of perforated disks. One was milky jade, the other brushed brass. He handed them over.

“Last time I was in a spiritual jam, these got me through. I can’t explain it, and there’s no guarantee. Past performance is no indication, and all that shit. Look, there are two sides to everything, except in the alternate universe of uni-dimensional singularity. Usually, there’s more than two sides. Things, people and ideas are more than they seem, or less. Multifaceted. Layered. In and out. Try to see the problem from all possible angles before you draw conclusions. How ‘bout whiskey chasers, next round?”

“Sure, man. But this one’s on me. Thanks, Sal. Loads.”

Sometimes booze makes the universe more clearly ponderable than hours of za-zen.


The phone rang when I got back to my vehemently non-Deco pad. Someone was watching the place.

“Whoa-ho! The Zen Garbageman swings again. He shoots his unaimed arrow, and scores! That little Jena Panhard is one tasty piece of chicken tail, aka the Pope’s Nose. Hot-cha! You’re getting warm, streetsweep. I can feel it. But you need to work faster. Furthermore, I can practically taste your minimal brain cells grinding out a scheme to cross me in this affair. Don’t even premeditate it. Erase it from your thoughts and dreams, or I’ll erase someone who’s meaningful to you. I’ve got Rei.”

The meaning was unclear. “Ray of hope? Ray of light?” Lester Frills might’ve turned into a conventional religious nut, and shifted his headquarters to a baroque church. He raved, swathed in satin finery, a jewel-encrusted tiara on his head. “Corvette Sting-ray?” Lester zoomed off in a curvaceous hot-pink getaway car.

“Rei Kawakubo, you fucking dolt.”

Rei means take a bow, in Japanese. Rei Kawakubo was admirable, no doubt about it. There is a zen of clothing. Some fashion designers have Buddha nature. The world would be a less interesting, more totalitarian place if everyone dressed the same. Think of Mao’s blue pyjamas, Adolf Hitler’s brown shirt-and-armband look. Rei suggested possible, peaceful, well-dressed worlds.

A thoughtfully-dressed Japanese woman was handcuffed to a radiator in a lunatic’s overdecorated lair. Gagged, frightened, her almond eyes bulged and darted nervously behind thick black glasses.

Too many boilermakers had gone down. This was no time to run out and rescue captive clothing designers. Better try to talk Lester out of it, slur him away from his evil plan, whatever it was. I thought he might listen to reason. Man, I was bombed.

“Let her go, Les. I haven’t found your theater yet, but I’m on the case. I…I got a hunch I’m real close.”

Maybe he had a polygraph machine hooked up to the other end of the line.

“You lie, trashman. You are nowhere near. You have not got fucking clue one.”

“Well yeah, OK. But, kinda let her go anyhow. I wanna help you, Lester. I’ll locate the theater of your dreams. Or is it the theater of my dreams? In either case, I’ll track the place down. But what do you want it for? You’re not going to blow it up, are you?”

Penn Station, going down. Doors slammed shut forever on another of New York’s shambolically convivial taverns. A boulevard of indecency transformed into a bland Disneyland in the name of real estate development.

“Well, what does anyone need a theater for?” Lester’s tone had changed. For a second, he sounded human again. The second passed. “I want everyone to see my show, you silly ass. Everybody must see my show!”

Lester’s maniacal rant turned into a yelp of pain, distinctly female.

“Have you ever tweaked a top fashion designer’s nipple, trashboy? Oh, it’s delicious. The feeling of power, elegance, power over elegance, overpowering elegance. Find my theater.”

He hung up, hard. Telephone buzz became an instant hangover.

Find a forgotten theater in the big city, in the dead of a cold night, like a needle in a haystack of skyscrapers, a pearl lost among theatrical swinishness. I couldn’t even walk a straight line. Perfect. There aren’t many straight lines, in nature, or in Art Deco. I hit the bricks.

Bip, bop, beedle-ee-oh. Broadway, the electric boulevard of Broken Dreams, with a white light for every broken heart, a purple heart for every wounded soul, from the Assault & Battery up to Albany. Twee-oh! Shoop-de-woop. Times Square! Fresh air! Pubic hair! None there. Oh yes there is. Dig it, we’re on the Deuce.

 Not much left of its former scabby glory. Fast food and T-shirts all over. Can a city be turned into a T-shirtburger, sold and consumed? Little monastic Rei Kawakubo fusses and frets over how long is too long on a long-sleeve T-shirt. Long-T to reveal, not conceal, the body underneath. Long-sleeve T-shirts sold in the former Longacre Square cheaply turn you into the Statue of Liberty, a dancing skeleton, the Empire State Building, a sexy naked woman or dime-store Fred Astaire in a 100% cotton XL tuxedo.

 Costumes peel to reveal the body of a Broadway baby, a dancer, actor, singer. Skin sells tickets to Oh, Calcutta! Talented young people who think they got what it takes show up in the big city to make it there so they can make it anywhere. They show up, show off. And another hundred people just got off of the bus and they’re looking at us. We got off of the bus only yesterday, at the Port of Authority Bus Terminal. Seems like yesterday. Now the bus station’s lightened and brightened of pimps and pushers, cleansed of bums who dragged their asses across the linoleum leaving shitstain slug-trails and make the tourists wish they had flamethrowers. City of strangers, beset by the dangers of greed and ambition. Lose your soul, your self, in a hall of funhouse-mirror shop-windows. And another hundred people just got off of the train, to stand in the rain and blow out their brains.

Grand Central glittered in the taxi-light night. Soul-dead real estate developers conspired with politicians to blast train stations to kingdom come. Penn Station’s downfall didn’t satisfy their sick cravings. They plopped the Pan Am Building on top of Grand Central before Jackie O flashed beams of preservationist sanity from behind her big black glasses. Save that train station! Jackie, oh! Stu-dee-o! Studio 54. Gone. Oh no! Yoko. Ono. She’s behind big black glasses too. Skeedle-ee-woo. Jackie! Yoko! Ah! Ooh! Rei! Hoo-ray! New York’s a ballsy, gutsy, crazy lady. Alex Katz got it right, with giant billboards in the night. Pix of ambitious lady-faces strung out along the Deuce to greet those who just got off of the bus into the filth, the grime, the crime. Cardboard glory fizzes like cheap champagne when you pop your cork in New York.

The Chrysler Building’s the biggest bottle of cold bubbly there is. The isoceles triangular skylights on top are like the spikes in Lady Liberty’s crown. Liberty enlightens the world, then plants her torch in Jersey and sits za-zen to enlighten herself. Liberty in flowing green robe, severe Buddha smile flitting on her full lips. Without a care. And without a hair, like Jena. Oh, Jena! Have you seen her? Holy lotus-blossom jewels in the sky! Jena, Jena, Jena, they cry! Skat-tat-tiddly-wop.

Nearly knocked the Chrysler doorman down. Only wanted to get close enough to whisper in his ear. “Hey mac, there’s twenty bucks in my hakama says you’re gonna let me in to ride the bas-relief, nickel-plated, mahogany intarsio elevator all the way up to the mythical Cloud Club for drinks with the cool, crazy Art Deco ghosts.”

“You’re drunk, chief. Back the fuck off.”

He shoved. Could’ve grabbed his wrist, sailed him out onto the Deuce in front of a bus that bops to the beat of the dance of death. But I backed off, as ordered, looked up. An airship was moored to the chrome needle. Circular searchlight beams played on her silver skin. Chrysanthemum fireworks flew and blew, dangerously close to her hydrogen filling. The frozen flashes sparkled, as Heaven frittered away its glittering snow. That was the Chrysler Corporation’s way to greet important guests. Hop a zep, sail through cotton-candy clouds, come sink a cocktail or two at the Cloud Club. Seal the deal. Connive and steal. Blow blue smoke-clouds from a fat cigar, sit back in your broad-shouldered pinstripe suit, look up at the zigzag ziggurat ceiling from the comfort of a bulbous club chair with cream-colored leather piping at the seams. Exhaust clouds from chrome Chrysler tailpipes means you make millions, baby.

Mob-linked wrecking crews dismantled the Cloud Club years ago. Interior Deco-rators raided the loot. A city’s treasure, dispersed by avariciousness. High winds that blow down broad boulevards make approach by zeppelins an impossible dream.

A phantom dirigible plummeted to the on the terrazzo-, palazzo- and chrome-inlaid sidewalk, bounced away, unscathed. The revelation came: the theater’s in there. In the Chrysler Building. In the basement. Underground, like a cave.

A stop-light blipped from red to green on Lexington and 40-Deuce. Traffic rumble rose to a bass-note and washed past.

“Sorry, guy,” I said, to the doorman, hands up in a peace gesture. “Just an idea, that’s all.”

Uniformed Chrysler goons won’t let you in for a nocturnal snoop. Skip-bop-doodle-dee-shoop. What you need is a lady on your arm. Namely, jingling carrot-topped jazz baby Jena Panhard.

For a sobering effect, take a walk down the Deuce to the Hudson. The river, not the streamlined automobile.

The Deuce was boarded-up XXX porno dives, peep shows with permanently closed eyes.

The Deuce was crowded with ghosts, like the Cloud Club in the Chrysler Building’s attic and the unseen phantomatic theater lurking in its basement. The river was frozen nearly solid. I could’ve walked across to New Jersey. Or uptown, home. But it was too cold, too far.

Jena wasn’t too thrilled about being roused at 3 a.m.


Big City Dreams, Part 1
Big City Dreams, Part 2
Big City Dreams, Part 3

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