It started like a whisper, a fall breeze through the drying leaves of September’s trees. We overheard words dropped like cigarette butts and unwanted taxi receipts, snippets of clandestine conversation intercepted while standing in line at the deli or crowding onto the morning L train.
I began to wonder if people in the neighborhood were doing more drugs than usual, because, at first, the buzz of the streets took on a feeling of excitement. People seemed more on their toes. The once-removed attitude I had come to expect seemed to quicken a little. I thought everyone was suddenly looking to score. Or that perhaps the slight drop in temperature or change in barometric pressure had brought about a reverse vernal effect, and everyone was looking to go home with somebody new.
Veracruz on Bedford was full as always. I never went there. I wasn’t cool or tattooed enough to join the mobbing slew of hipsters lining up to slurp frozen ’ritas at happy hour, arrogantly peering out the open French doors. But now, as I walked by, the eyes spooled out to me, begging me to tell them something, anything, that would satiate their curiosity, however briefly, and give them something to whisper in the dead hour before bedtime.
There were more sirens than usual, whining off into the distance at all hours, singing their sad song of delight, bouncing off the walls of buildings and down sidewalks that scrolled out of sight, blaring by in a swirl of lights that splattered our wonderstruck faces with crimson and blue. Something strange and mildly sinister was clearly afoot, but there was no answer forthcoming, and we tried to tune out or turn down the din and incorporate it into our lives as background music, like chittering cicadas and staccato sprinklers oscillating back and forth over the green lawns of a long Indian summer in suburbia.
The papers gave us no clue. We checked the metro section and found nothing out of the ordinary, and the obits were no help either. But we knew. Somehow we all knew. Something was happening. Our world was changing around us, and it was bigger than the influx of yuppies and trustifarians, bigger than the impending grand opening of the mini-mall in the old Real Form Girdle factory, bigger than Plan Eat Thai moving to a new space. There was a shadow falling over us, an uncertainty. We could feel that uncertainty in our bones and our boots, in our carrot juice and our bagels, in our 3:55 final shot and our 4:00-in-the-morning slice, in the Village Voice ink on our fingers, in our American Spirits.
Anecdotes were traded by osmosis. Sitting at a bar or coffee shop, we could smell each other’s thoughts, and each unfinished story became urban legend overnight. This is the way we learn in the city, through innuendo and rumor.
An ambulance arrives at a residence and there’s a woman shrieking on the street. Passersby see the gurney, the shrouded figure, but no one knows what happened, or why. “He was only 35, maybe younger.” “The girl went back home, out West somewhere.”
Half-swallowed anecdotes and rumors became fact, stepping the transubstantiating boundary between the ephemeral and the realm of the solid, the undeniable.
Olive and I, no different from any other couple in the ’hood, bent over the kitchen table night after night as the light faded, the sun setting earlier and earlier.
“Supposedly she took pills.”
“I hear he stabbed himself somehow. A kitchen knife or something.”
“Gas. The oven, I think.”
“A light socket? I don’t buy it. There’s not enough juice in these old buildings to kill.”
“It sounded crazy, but you should have seen the look on her face.”
It wasn’t anyone we knew. Not yet, anyway.
Crews had started to pop up in Manhattan and, just as in Williamsburg, it seemed that a gang-style grassroots approach netted more survivors than a centrally organized effort. You can only trust the people you run with, the kids who will save your ass because you saved theirs yesterday, whether that means fighting off a maniac in the throes of a suicide attempt gone bad, swatting away rabid rats, or just offering an encouraging comment to someone about to slip into despair.
“All right, I’m going in,” Jack said. He gave me a nod and I threw the door open. We were investigating a short, squatty building off of Bushwick that was rumored to be a mess. Other crews had backed away from it, and I was determined to clean it up. We were on the top floor—you always work your way down—and this was the first apartment we’d tried to get into.
The door blew open again and Jack jumped back into the hallway. I slammed the door behind him.
“Rats! Holy shit, I’ve never seen so many rats,” he said.
We all started yelling as Jack opened the door again and the eight of us darted into the apartment with our eyes stinging. Rats swarmed about our feet, disoriented and scrambling for cover. I stepped on one and almost fell.
“All right, let’s fucking bomb it.” I made the gesture for “bombs” to one of the huge Poles, who was carrying most of our auxiliary effects, shaking my hand like a spray can and making a psssst sound. The Pole handed me a four-pack of bug bombs, the kind you use to clear a house of fleas or cockroaches. They don’t kill the rats, but the rats hate them and will generally leave the room when they smell the foul gas.
Luz tied her handkerchief around her face, and her voice came out muffled. “How many years are we taking off our lives with this stuff?”
“I don’t know, babe,” I answered. “How many have you got?” I put my handkerchief on like an Old West cowboy in a dust storm.
Chico, Luz and I shook bombs and Jack pulled the door open and we hit the buttons on the bombs and threw them in. Jack slammed the door and silently counted to twenty to give the rats a chance to get out. We all started yelling as Jack opened the door again and the eight of us darted into the apartment with our eyes stinging. Rats swarmed about our feet, disoriented and scrambling for cover. I stepped on one and almost fell. I caught myself and heard the cute girl from Group D squealing and Chico muttering under his breath.
“Don’t even look! Fucking fan out, people! Let’s get out of here!”
The Poles disappeared into a bedroom, reappeared through the haze carrying a corpse, and started for the door.
“Window! Window!” I shouted, and picked up a TV remote from a side table and threw it at the window to get their attention. You don’t have time in a bomb-out to mess with stairs. The Poles broke the window out with a boot and a gloved fist and tossed the body. They headed back into the same room and I knew there were more.
Phil and the cute girl from Group D followed them in. There was another doorway, and Luz and Chico came out pulling a bloated corpse. There was a corpse on the front couch, and Jack and I hoisted it up and out the window. As we were about to dump it over, a rat fell from the curtains and Jack jumped.
Luz buzzed past me, stepping over swarming rats. “That room’s clean.”
“The back,” I said, pointing in the direction of the Poles. We took a step in unison and saw the Poles coming out with another, and behind them, Phil and the cute girl from Group D, each of them cradling a small, crumpled shape. They had found the remains of two dead children, no older than eight or nine. Tears streamed down the cute girl’s face, and I didn’t think it was just because of the gas.
I took the body from her hands and barked at Chico, “Get her out of here!” and tossed the body out the window, watching it fall four floors to the grassy front yard. Phil followed suit and gave me the sign for “clean,” like a salute that missed.
“Go! Go! Go!” I screamed, and we all piled out of the apartment stumbling over each other and the running rats, and Jack slammed the door. A rat squirmed under and Chico shot it dead out of spite.
We ran downstairs and fell outside, collapsing on the front stoop and panting for breath and tearing at our masks and scratching at our tearing eyes. Phil passed out water and we tried to recover. As soon as I could breathe, I reached for my cell phone.
“Neil? It’s me. Listen, we gotta get some more guys over here. Yeah. I’m at Bushwick and Devoe. It’s fucking bad. If anyone calls in, get them over here. And tell Bernie to send someone over with more bombs. Yeah, it’s that bad. Right on.”
I hung up and shut my eyes, tight, watching the blood flow through my lids and trying to make the headache go away. I opened them quickly when I heard someone screaming.
The cute girl from Group D was plunging her knife into her breast. Luz was wrapped around her, trying to wrest the knife out of her hand.
“Get away from her!” I barked. “It’s too late!”
The cute girl managed a swipe at Luz and cut her a good one across the forearm. Chico grabbed Luz and pulled her away. She was yelling obscenities and thrashing her head from side to side as the cute girl from Group D shoved the knife in and out of her own chest until her torso was a bloody confetti of shredded sternum and tissue. She lay flat on her back in the matted grass with the knife protruding, her hands out to either side of her cocked head, hands open and begging for forgiveness.
“Damn it, damn it, damn it, goddamn it,” Luz spat as Chico tried getting her to sit down on the stoop so he could look at her bleeding wound. One of the Poles took a blanket out of a rucksack and laid it across the girl’s cute, dead face so we wouldn’t have to look at it. I reached for the cell phone and called Bernie.
“It’s me. Yeah, Bernie, I’m sure you’re busy. You need to get someone over here, right now. Bushwick and Devoe. I don’t care. Leave them there. I DON’T FUCKING CARE, BERNIE, I GOT A MAN DOWN AND I WANT HER REMAINS REMOVED.” I hung up, sat down on the curb and ran my hands across my stubbly head.
I’ve seen better days.
I must have seen better days.
I miss the yuppies.
I miss the Williamsburg bohemian yuppies with their designer dogs and their square-shouldered swagger, the women’s hot black slit skirts and minimalist makeup, the men’s casual slouch jeans and no-starch shirts. I miss the Upper East Side mavens with their haughty Oscar de la Renta noses, their Lexus smiles and gleaming BMW teeth. I miss the West Village old-schoolers with their pretentious and patient endurance of the come-hither gay boys, the “What has the neighborhood come to?” and the “I have to leave town on Gay Pride and Halloween,” and I miss the homosexual yuppie ecstasy culture, wannabe Republican and insisting “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” I miss the Technicolor yuppies clogging the former drug jungles of Alphabet City, slinking down lettered avenues all dressed in black and anointed with delicate scents of microbrew beers and Nat Sherman cigarettes, gathering in hibiscus clusters to preen and guffaw over the latest office gossip and last week’s episode of Sex and the City. I miss the Union Square late-afternoon sunset watch on the south-side steps, the huddled backpack-bearing masses yearning to spend free, to worship at the altar of the Virgin Megastore and pray for more meaningful one-night stands and more Helmut Lang minimalism in their lives. I miss the afternoon Soho runway of crowded, narrow streets speckled with oversize sunglasses and begging-to-be-recognized wish-I-were-a-model nymphettes, tiny and anorexic in Calista Flockhart glee, seemingly on the edge of slipping down a storm drain and disappearing in a dreamlike flush of glamour, laced with the delicate aroma of Obsession by Calvin Klein. I miss the Central Park matching jogging outfits and the Rollerbladers decked out in fashion-forward crash gear, the hushed conversations held between panting breaths, betwixt the rhythm of $200 running shoes with patented features—a peacock mating ritual in pitch-black shades and Lycra action wear barely containing the whimsical yearnings of the flesh. I miss the Tribeca cavalcade of overpriced restaurants owned by celebrities, the reservation-required dominance of overbearing, prettier-than-you hostesses and swishy waiters who specialized in drinks or order-taking only, leaving the food-running and bussing to the hordes of minority minimum-wagers and welcoming with open arms anyone with the scratch to order delicacies unerringly, drink from the correct glass, shovel with the proper fork, tip exorbitantly and never break the façade of a stiff smile and cheery, shallow conversation—the agreed-upon convention that dining in public is a private affair. I miss Coffee Shop on Union Square, Layla on West Broadway, Spa on 13th—all the magnets for yuppies and their money-grubbing ilk, those simple-minded capitalists with their vacuous simplicity, drawn to the simple pleasures of fine clothes; high-paying, low-impact desk labor; and tasty, sweet cocktails that bring lithe intoxication, weak-kneed recovery, and for-a-limited-time-only sexual pleasure exercised in reckless abandon in a stranger’s apartment, hushing cries and weeps of orgasm under bedclothes and fancy feather pillows, buried below the radar of a roommate’s ear.
I miss the YUPs, the SYPs, the GYPs; the slackers, the hipsters, the whiners; the come-latelies, the girl Fridays, the go-to guys; the suits, the stiffs, the execs; the moguls, the magnates, the self-appointed magistrates; the CEOs, the CPOs, the COOs; the indifferent and ungainly and impressive. I miss them in their terrifying and alienating hauteur, snobbery, selfishness, hedonism, aggression, ambition, delusion, subordination, didacticism, autonomy, and superiority. I miss their takeovers; their sitcoms; their gather-round-the-water-cooler gossip; their rampant greed; their blind subservience to a status quo of their own design; their unerring fallibility in any social situation requiring tact; their pushy manner on the sidewalks and subways; their malicious, derisive glares at street people, the homeless, and blue-collar losers alike; the Wall Street Journals tucked in the armpits of their thousand-dollar suits; the Gucci handbags slung viciously alongside their graceless, full-figured or slender-hipped bodies; their phony laughs and guffaws; their practiced smiles wielded mercilessly on the “service industry”—their “Keep the change” and their “Ciao.”
I miss their bad example and my bitter reaction and contorted oaths. I miss the color they add to the sidewalks, the density and elbowing they add to a barroom.
I miss their differences from and their similarities to me. I miss their bad example and my bitter reaction and contorted oaths. I miss the color they add to the sidewalks, the density and elbowing they add to a barroom. I miss the hated wheels of progress and consumerism that they continue turning, tirelessly. I miss their humanity, epitomizing weakness and strength in every crushed white cigarette, every raised taxi-hailing hand, every signed deal and every Starbucks double mocha latte Frappuccino and every secluded online call to Cosmo.com to deliver the latest Gwyneth Paltrow movie, a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milanos, a tub of Häagen-Dazs and a bottle of Pellegrino.
I miss them, more than anything, not for the hole of hatred I once harbored in my heart for them, but for their livid, animate existence purely, no matter how paltry or pale or simpering they ever appeared to me. I miss them because they were alive. They walked, they talked, they ordered a slice. They took cabs and they rode the subway, they made money and spent it, they were upright and mobile. They breathed, they ate, they shit; their hearts beat and their eyes wept. They sweated. They came. They wiped the crust from their eyes in the morning and the jam from their toes at night. They showered and brushed their teeth. They worried. They loved. They hated with abandon. They felt small and inadequate; powerful and fulfilled; empty and frustrated; abandoned and blamed; championed and adored.