Matthew Licht

Big City Dreams, Part 6

Mr van Alen didn’t waste much pencil lead or blueprint paper on his masterpiece’s netherworld. Polished cement floor, and a labyrinth of plywood doors straight from 8th Avenue hardware stores. The Chrysler Building’s basement reeked of disinfectant and mildewed mops, but it was a secret agent Shangri-La for Jena Panhard, the rich girl who dreamt of washing dishes.

“Where’s this theater you dreamed up? We don’t have much time. There’s cameras everywhere. Chrysler security guards are watching to see if we do dirty stuff. They’ll call the cops. We’ll wind up in handcuffs. They’ll throw us into separate cells at Riker’s Island. Dyke matrons will rape me with a mop handle.”

Mop handles are the stuff of wet dreams, for some rich girls.

No alarms sounded as we tried door after door. Liveried Chrysler Corp security couch potatoes snoozed as ghostly images danced from square green screen to square green screen. Soundtrack of snores, an audience share of zero, our late show was a brain-dead sleeper.

Unless Lester Frills was watching. What Security outfit would hire a wild-eyed, flowery weirdo as a rent-a-pig?

Security camera scans might be good meditation material. Zen adepts rack up hours like airline pilots. I lost count of meditation time long ago, but the zen clock never stops ticking. I popped locks, shouldered doors. Jena acted impressed.

There were no secret stairwells, or sliding doors behind the elevator. No hollow floors, no batpoles to slide down. Besides, Jena was wearing a Poiret gown.

During the search, I tried to telepathically transmit Deco dream pictures to Jena’s Deco-radar.

When the Deco Theater case closed, and whatever in-Deco-rous disaster followed on the heels of Lester Frills’ musical ambitions, the next job would be to remove Jena Panhard’s dull-as-dishwater dream life. Figure out how Lester’s dream-projector worked, and give Jena Deco Technicolor Nirvana-dreams. The words and music came from out of nowhere:

“Take my dreams,

Make my dreams,

Come completely true…”

A song for groggy muted horns and torch singer in the Rainbow Room. Jena took up the melody.

“Attractive dreams

moon-light my way/

Banal nightmares will fade away.

Dream me to serenity/

Dream for two in the Big City.”

Piano notes tinkled and trailed off like flowers from a happy childhood. Jena said she had to use the little girls’ room.

The sub-basement grotto had a little girls’ room. The door was suspiciously ornate. Sparkplug inlays sparked and metal-flake comets streaked. Nickel-plated letters spelled out “Little Girls’ Room”.

A Deco architect’s signature on a top-secret collaboration.

The women’s toilet was a small Art Deco treasure chamber. The streamlined stalls were pink shellac. The sea-green tile walls had a waving seaweed motif. Jena hummed a song from intertwined dreams, and hoisted Poiret silk. I pushed panels, rapped for false walls, tapped the mirror over the sink where jazz babies sprinkle their pinkies after they tinkle.

Live, Strive, Dream was etched on the silvered glass. A phony reflection gazed out.

Lester Frills snorts rails of crystal Brain Drano off Deco mirrors, lifts his head, offers the rolled C-note to the next person in line. That was me.

Too late to pull back. The mirror was stuck to the wall with Deco-rative nipple-shaped screws. Jena giggled as I twiddled them. I pushed the glass. No give to it. No choice but to smash the thing. I shrugged out of the jacket borrowed from Jena’s dear departed grandfather. Off with the wig-hat. Off with the pants too, what the hell.

The key to breaking things is to concentrate on the space behind them.

“Stand back, Jena. They hadn’t invented safety glass when this was made. Close your eyes.” Too bad about the last part. I wanted her to see me smash something heavy. But if I messed up, she wouldn’t see a fist turn into a bloody cauliflower.

Hadn’t done kung fu in ages. Take a stance, go into a trance. The mirror image became an opponent.

Before I could yell hi-yah, the mirror slid inwards. The sinks sunk into the floor with a hum and were covered by a trapdoor whose intarsio inlay read, Live Strive Dream. A woman in a pointy-ear bat headdress spread her bat-wing cape in a gesture of welcome. There was a door where the mirror once hung. Beyond was the Deco theater of New York dreams.

“How’d you do it, Zee Gee? Power of peaceful meditation?”

“Uh yeah something like that I guess.” A glimpse of oneself the way one is was the price of admission.

We went in. The mirror door and fake-sink floor whirred shut behind us. Chrysler goons would burst in on an empty Deco Little Girls’ Room.

Jena waltzed to the proscenium. Her gown rustled, her heels clicked. She vaulted onstage. I settled on a gilt-and-black velvet seat.

“Dance,” I said. “Bring the place to life.”

Fresh air blew in from a pine tree forest in the Poconos or Adirondacks. The pressure of Jena’s feet on the stage boards summoned a Wurlitzer organ from the orchestra pit. Jena’s clothes fluttered in a major-chord breeze. A spotlight shadowed her like a moonbeam on a lake as she danced. No underwear, no hair down there, Jena’s silhouette laid bare in bas-relief.

Satori, or as close as this zen garbageman had ever been. I stomped, clapped, whistled like a wolf while Jena whirled, twirled and frugged. “Whoo! Aw, take it off, baby. Strip! Peel! Shake it!”

Nirvana, transcendence, cosmic consciousness, right in your face. Twenty years in pursuit of The Way, and you act like Joe Lunchpail.

A Paul Poiret gown fluttered like a butterfly wing. Where had Jena spent her off-hours from the Hayden? Billy’s Topless? The Baby-Doll? In answer to the koan, a Zeiss projector descended on cables from the ceiling and bombed to life with strobes, red-and-blue laser beams. Jena’s nude body glowed. The Man in the Moon snorted neon cocaine from a magnesium-flare spoon and turned into a banana on Josephine Baker’s Van Allen Belt.

Champagne corks popped, the fizz flew. The music said, Dance, dance, dance, dance.


Dazed, Jena and I circumambulated the Chrysler Corporation’s skyrise. The phone rang in one of the last glass phone-booths left on Manhattan Island.

Lester Frills drooled into an over-designed techno-mouthpiece on the other end of the line.

“You brilliant, beautiful Sanitation Department sanitary napkin, you. You found it. They hid a diamond on 47thStreet. Can you comprehend the genius? I’m ready to take possession. In other words, gimme!”

“Not so fast, Frills. First, I want Rei. And if you harmed a hair on her head, I’ll personally tear you a new one.”

“Slapping Japs ain’t my style, Garbage Dumpster. Wipe the jism out of your mind’s eye and you’ll see where she’s stashed. And you can have her. Man, I’ve had more fun playing parcheesi with showroom dummies. Collecting stamps is Studio 54 compared to her aphorisms. You two’ll get along like a fucking maison de couture on fire.”

Lester’s dream projector blazed a Japanese Living Treasure™ of avant-garde fashion design, suspended from a ceiling in a squalid shopping mall. Rei Kawakubo was a prisoner of SoHo.

“Tell,” Lester rasped. “Give up the secret for entry to my stage. I wasn’t able to glean the proper phrase or gesture from my dream-surveillance mechanism network. Tell me how you got in, or I’ll send 10,000 volts through little Rei’s fashion-puppet strings. She fries like teriyaki.”

“You mean tempura,” I said. “Go down to the little girls’ room. Look in the mirror, and Live, Strive, Dream. See yourself the way you are.”

“Cinch! It’s show time!” Lester crowed in triumph. “Make sure you reserve your banquette seats now, you socially mismatched lovebirds. Attendance shall be mandatory.”

The early-morning Chrysler doorman yawned as he held the door to Jena’s Hudson. Instead of a tip, I handed him a koan. “If you stage a musical and no one shows, does it count as a no-show?”

The key is to never take no for a Noh.

Rei Kawakubo was strung up in the sub-basement of her former flagship store. The place was packed with overpriced sneakers, designer jeans, and T-shirts. She must’ve suffered horribly. I cut her down, pulled the gag from her lips. After a few minutes, I put the gag back on and left it there until we reached the zen diner. Rei broke her fast with edamame, sea salt and green tea.

“Green is most problematic color,” she said. “But look ah-so smashing next to black.”

She handed me a perforated disk of sea-green jade on a string braided from human hair. Hers. “Amulet,” she said. “Protect you from vanity and acquisitiveness.”

The zen waitress misunderstood. She brought Rei a tempe omelette with banana tea and asparagus mist. We laughed, then contemplated uneaten food on the table.

Pollice collared Lester Frills in the Chrysler Building’s sub-basement ladies’ bathroom. Security staff spotted him pressing his face against a mirror, muttering magic mumbo-jumbo from old movies, turning chimp-like backward somersaults of rage and frustration.

The cuffs went on—snap! Entrance to the Theater of Deco Dreams forever denied to those incapable of self-perception. Lester begged the arresting officers to put him out of his misery.

Police dumptrucks carted off his state-of-the-art Karaoke sound system and costume changes.

Every now and then, I head the Hayden Planetarium towards closing time. A pretty lady locks the place up for the night and we walk downtown to take in a show under the Chrysler Building. The show is us, our dreams.

Lester can’t interfere with our dreams from his cell at Riker’s Island. He wouldn’t be interested, anyway. His life has changed. He got married. His husband, who’s built like the Sears Tower in Chicago, claps, laughs and shakes his head whenever Lester performs, “Drag Me In! Drag Me Out! Drag Me Off!”

Jena said she dreamt of a wooden house near a beach, set among dunes covered in waves of sea-grass. The house was full of happy mixed-race children.

Rei Kawakubo opened a new store at an undisclosed New York location. The phone number is unlisted. No one is allowed in to shop. There’s no merchandise on display, nothing to buy.


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