Matthew Licht

Big City Dreams, Part 5

When I woke up in Jena’s Donald Deskey platform bunk, she’d already run off to her Planetarium guard job. I skipped meditation, hit the Panhard mansion’s private library.

William van Alen designed the Chrysler Building. Acrimony arose between the architect and his automotive client. Motown hicks insisted on mock-Tudor furnishings for the Cloud Club. Mr van Alen tried to set them aesthetically straight. Unpaid bills and breach-of-contract lawsuits eventually fade away. Businessmen die, and their suits and ties end up at the Salvation Army. But gleaming towers scrape the star-filled sky forever, or for a long time, anyway.

There are no stars visible from the sidewalks of New York.

Stars form the van Allen Belt, which anyone who pays admission can admire at the Hayden Planetarium. Jena was there. A looming Zeiss projector whirred to life somewhere. Lester Frills’ remote-control dream machine beamed a reverse-time telescope vision of William van Alen and Edward Durrell Stone in a meeting. The men had already downed too many mar-toon-eyes at the Stork Club.

Stone was flush with cash from the colossal success of his Radio City Music Hall. William van Alen was embattled, embittered. His Big Auto client pinched pennies till they bled. The only thing Detroit cared about was owning the world’s tallest skyscraper. They couldn’t see his creation as a world-wide beacon of Deco-American optimism.

William van Alen gulped dry gin and rumbled, “Stone, those Detroit gangsters and Texaco cowboys screwed my Cloud Club. Now they’re trying to stiff me out of my fee. Help me screw them back. I’ll siphon funds out of Chrysler and Texaco, clear out space in the foundations. That’s the last place they’ll look, even though it’s strictly bottom line, with them. I hand you the dough and carte blanche on the design. We’ll get Donald Deskey involved, bring in all the hot boys. We’ll create our own theater down there. A stage for you know what.”

Edward Durrell Stone’s hands twitched. He knew exactly what van Alen was talking about. It was a show he too desperately wanted to see. As soon as he was sober again, he’d hit the drawing board.

A waiter in white tie brought a fresh bottle of champagne from gay Paree, in a Dunand ice-bucket. Pop went the cork. Splish-fizz went the bubbly. Stemware clinked, Deco architects drinked…drank…drunk to a Deco deal, done.

Stone said, “We’re too good for them, Billy. They don’t deserve our sparkling diamonds.”


Paul Poiret will run up the costumes. Cassandre will design the posters. Donald Deskey will handle stage design. Dave Tough will slam down syncopated Synthetic Cubism on the drums. Django Reinhardt will jangle a D’Angelico guitar with ivory inlays on the fretboard. Nijinsky, all thumbs, and Josephine Baker in her G-string of rhinestone bananas will fling themselves across the intarsio parquet.

Lester Frills struts onstage in ostrich plume drag and lip-synchs “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

The injured Chrysler Building folds in on its chrome-molybdenum girders. The spiky headpiece, the eagle-head and flying-hubcap flanges sink into a cloud of cocaine, plaster dust, gilt and glitter. Looks like Lady Liberty’s flashier kid sister being sucked slowly down into the New Jersey swamps in a blizzard.

The disastrous vision filled me with horror and grief. Whatever ghoulish spectacle Lester Frills was planning had to be stopped. But first I had to find him.

New York City absorbs flamboyant macaw-men and bird-of-paradise babes such as Lester and his gang of Black Zen boys and girls. A flaming tiger slips into a fake-fur warehouse and disappears.

Lester would emerge from his spidery hidey-hole when I found the theater. Hand over the keys in exchange for quivering, bound Rei Kawakubo?

Peel the bandaid gag off her lips.

She whispers a fashion koan.

What happens after that? No insights occurred. I went out to look for Lester.

A once-admired shop-window had been raped. Showroom dummies with glass eyes, fake eyelashes, erect nipples had taken over. Over-designed furniture was jumbled together for a backdrop. An amphigory of useless accessories, plastered with corporate logos, burst in hideous fireworks over a compulsive-shopping soundtrack that thudded like the sex-and-torture moans from grindhouses on the Deuce. Come inside for a $3 thrill! Seats the color of rotting liver, floors sticky with spilled sperm and soda pop. Furtive figures fumble, feel, find each other in the fug and flicker. 42nd Street was the black belt on Manhattan’s waist.

No belts needed, for the clothes that once hung suspended in SoHo thought-space. You put them on, they stayed put. They fit, no matter your size or shape. They looked right, gave the wearer confidence. Such clothes exist only in the mind. They once existed in a shop-window. Rei Kawakubo showed the world another way of being dressed. In other words, not naked.

A 7th Avenue dumpster yielded discarded bolts of gray worsted and navy blue cotton jersey. Look, you can make your own clothes. Sewing requires patience. Cover your body thoughtfully before you enter the outside world for the day. The world is thought made visible. A skyscraper’s an idea dressed in steel and stone.


Jena, a red-headed panther with a flashlight, opened the Planetarium’s back door. We sat through the spacy matinee together. There was no other audience.

When she punched out on the streamlined Burroughs wage/time tabulator, we had a theater date. The show was at a theater only a few people ever knew existed, and most of those who knew were long dead.

The usual zen rags wouldn’t do. Jena knew people in high corner offices at the Chrysler. She was welcome anytime. Passing as her spiritual adviser was implausible.

Jena’s auto executive grandfather’s business suits still hung in one of her walk-in closets. Jupiter Panhard was a huge man. Jena got busy with the safety pins. We only had to get past a sleepy doorman.

Being driven around Manhattan felt wrong. When you’re used to walking, machines powered by dead dinosaur ooze are bizarre. When Zeta Centauri aliens train their Zeiss telescopes on the Earth, they see dinosaurs. Light travels at a constant speed in all directions. On Earth, we stop at red lights, emit engine noise, heat and toxic fumes. In Buck Rogers movies, and in William van Alen’s dreams, Deco spaceships built like flying skyscrapers buzz around the Van Allen Belt in silence, with no exhaust.

What would a zen skyscraper look like? Does an architect have Buddha nature? Should a zen buddhist belong to a Cloud Club that would have him as a member? Jena was so beautiful, the traffic lights turned green. While I dreamed up ridiculous koans, she let the Chrysler Building doorman help her out of the car.

She handed him the keys. They jingled like money. “Any space you can find, Reeves, as long as it’s within a block or two. Me and Daddy Warbucks here might have to make a quick getaway. There might be gunplay. Oh I would not entirely rule that out. Come along, dear.”

Chrysler Building doormen dream of roaring-30s scenarios. They accept packages, sign in surly bike messengers, hail taxis for rude businessmen in the rain. No tips, no thanks, no appreciation, no respect. Then the lady for whom glorious confections of steel are hurled skywards materializes out of a dream. At the wheel of a gargantuan American automobile—who cares if it’s not a Chrysler?—dressed in a gown that turns life into an endless party. So what if the shmo in the shotgun seat looks like he’s never stepped out of a car or worn a suit or leather shoes with hard soles, fer chryssakes.

Jena danced across the lobby. Red-eyed security cameras stared as a dream went by in real life, but nobody was watching the show.

Silver okapis with horns like narwhals’ tusks grazed spear-grass under stylized clouds, rainbows and lightning bolts in a geometric elevator jungle lit by interpenetrating diamond sconces. Jena bubbled over. We were in.

How cool, to be a pretty lady who snaps her fingers and the world does whatever she wants. She pulled me into a clutch. Crinoline crunched against chrome. She hit the SB button. We went down.

The sub-basement service elevator went down even further.


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