West Midtown, when empty, could seem like an ancient old growth forest formed of concrete, granite, iron and glass. And like such a forest it had a dual nature— peaceful yet simultaneously seething with hidden aggressive life. Frank loved the Garment District with its dark wholesale streets crowded with the warehouse traffic of hand trucks, men in coveralls, the cheap-suit salesmen, the buyers and bums. He loved the smell of the clothing racks hung coats and costumes that rolled across the sidewalks and the plastic bags that protected them from the grimy Manhattan air. He loved the robust draught of truck fumes contrasted to the delicate scent of pre-wrapped luncheonette sandwiches arranged in piles for garment workers on the run. Frank had a thing for pre-wrapped sandwiches, no matter the content—egg salad, tuna salad, cheese and tomato, ham and Swiss. Taste is largely olfactory, he’d heard, and there’s nothing like the smell of fresh Saran Wrap and mayonnaise while you’re eating your American cheese sandwich and looking at a window display of women’s millinery or the latest men’s overcoat trend. Now that was living in the moment, Midtown style, the busy mindfulness of the modern flaneur.
His sense of adventure was directly related to New York’s famous commercial segregation that made for strange, often isolated, “zones” of commerce that could be traced back to the city’s earliest days. Manhattan, for much of its existence, was made up of specialized districts, and then districts within those districts forming like polyps in the warm prepared climate. Within the Garment District, for instance, was a little known, but highly entertaining, Taxidermy District and within the Taxidermy District, was the smaller Glass Eye District and within that was the Embalming Fluid Wholesale Distribution District and within that was the Brass Casket Handle district which pressed like a tectonic plate up against the Photography District.
It was by more than mere coincidence that Taxidermy and Garment Sales, Casket Handles and Clothing Carts, Photography and Glass Eyes shared adjacent space in this quarter of the city. They also shared certain residual strands of economic DNA. Product populations often drifted and the informing chemistry of one sub-group might bend slightly and the phenotype could then change just enough such that the embalming fluid eventually turned into developer solution which (a posteriori) needed cameras for its cause, and of course glass eyes followed in evolutionary sympathy, in the same manner in which moth wings take on the appearance of irises and pupil as a form of disguise. Sometimes the smaller districts expanded to encompass the larger like a vast commercial amoeba devouring its own family. But the membranes were porous and leaky and you might get Developing Supply stores that also sold casket handles or dressmaker’s dummies in adjacent showrooms.
It was all guided by an emergent principle that not only created these isolated areas of commerce, but fostered as well a bizarre moral and linguistic autonomy. It was said that deep inside certain areas of Manhattan, dialects were spoken that were unknown except to perhaps one hundred men and women whose living depended on such arcane tongues. Business cards passed among strangers; they were slid across lunch counters and tucked in cigarette packs or match boxes. Such a card might advertise one thing on the front, a product line or brand name, and something entirely other on the back, an event or club with a phone number. Indeed, auctions and entertainments took place that a stranger in the area would have no knowledge of but could be gleaned by the dim and unexpected lights in the backrooms of wholesale girdle distributers, or in the small print on posters for “trade meetings” and “guild conventions” or “First Monday of the Month” celebrations of new “accessory lines” such as faux-Masonic haberdashery or the conjure staffs designed to match the 3-button Moroccan blazers that were all the rage this season.
There was, however, a downside to this economic segregation. As with any animal group or tribal affiliation, the restricted medium of knowledge transmission bred a distrust of outsiders, which, in turn, bred a local, if unsanctioned judicial system. It was easy to insult or put-off the various tribes, not knowing their customs. Fight or flight, persecution or tolerance, subscription or ridicule—these were all possible. Without doing anything at all, one could find themselves on the wrong side of fierce debate. A stranger could be brought before the bar for thought-crimes they would be wholly unaware of.
In this way the city and the human brain were similar. Take for example the bickering categories of personal memory. Frank’s mind was compartmentalized, like the city, into its own little districts of emotional import butting up against one another. These thought patterns and grids could be mapped onto those of the real city, and that made walking in the city a convenient metaphor for the self exploration. But like the city, the deeper you went in, the more intricate and specific the subject matter that contained you, until you were trapped in a personality trait that you might not like. But if memory led you there, it seemed logical that memory could lead you out. Recollection could be a narcotic and a form of salvation. See that shadowy figure coming down the street with some product in his hands. You were either in the market, or you weren’t.
Indeed, memory junkies were a common subgroup of New York resident. You could often hear them in bars and cafes yammering on and on about how something or other used to be, but was no more. These people formed clubs and made appointments so they could talk to each other even further about the past—later on, in some near future when things would be even less like what they had been. They often lived so completely in their fandom and illusion that they paid no attention to the world changing before their eyes, nor did they feel the door slamming at their backs. One constantly read in the local papers about some man or woman getting hit by a truck or a delivery cart piled high with the must-have new technology or this season’s trendy floor covering, or worse, the dreaded specter of social change—whatever the future was delivering that wasn’t expected or looked for. Some people simply died in their apartments surrounded by mountains of memorabilia. Others could be seen wandering the city streets looking forever lost—strangers in the very world where they had been raised, a world they once understood.
And Frank was very much this kind of stranger—looking for things he thought he remembered, but which he may have fabricated after the fact in his ongoing effort to make a life that matched his fantasies. Often as not, he could not find those places that “used to be.” Indeed, he might expect to confront a well-remembered building facade, a store or a street corner from his past, and that loaded location would turn out to be a contemporary shoe outlet, a fast food restaurant or a bank branch that he’d never seen before, and then that little piece of his identity would be called into question. This caused a Post Traumatic False Memory Syndrome (PTFMS) from which he would suffer excessively from the fact that his life hadn’t actually happened the way he thought it had, but was instead something he created over time using a feedback loop of mutating images and false narratives, all to the purpose of covering a deeper secret, a more profound reality that he did not want to face.
Case in point: On this Good Friday evening in the late 90s, Frank was looking for a glass eye store that he thought he remembered being somewhere around 32nd or 31st. Back in the 70s, he’d be walking from his dishwashing job downtown, up the old Bowery of bums to Astor Place and then up 3rd Ave and over to Broadway and into the 30s. He would always look for it. To be accurate, it wasn’t really a glass eye store, it was a taxidermy wholesaler, who, understandably, also sold glass eyes. There was an entertaining window display including the sort of bad stuffed animals that you see in third world natural history museums. And there were jars of chemicals and clear fluids containing suspicious floating lumps. But what Frank remembered best were the trays of colorful eyes, some of which had labels next to particular pairs: Timber Wolf eyes, North American Piebald Weasel eyes, Atlantic Sea Bass eyes, Midwestern Raven eyes, etc. There were human glass eyes too, in different colors. These eyes were for movie masks, robots or wax figures such as the ones at Madame Tussaud’s up on 42nd. The point is that here it was two decades later and Frank would still look for that store. He wanted to see his reflection framed in that menagerie of wild eyeballs so he could say to himself: “I was here before and here I am again!” There was comfort in that, the comfort of the Eternal Return working its changes on the infinitely small Frank Payne scale.
Perhaps this was how life was meant to be, a series of reflections that acted as a scaffold for the self. But Frank wanted more than that; he wanted allegorical significance. Allegory combined cliché with archetype and Frank longed to be a customer in the brothel of archetypes, where there was always a clichéd comfort to be had for an unreasonable price. And if he failed in this quest, he could always claim that failure was his mission, his message to the world. People could some day read the epic tale of Frank Payne as a classic tale of failure, and they would take a lesson from it and laugh, and go on to live good lives doing fulfilling work, with beautiful spouses and children who loved them. But this was not to be Frank’s path.
Frank may have been an atheist, but he felt a certain affinity to Bunyan’s salvation-seeking hero. The baggage of that pious traveler weighed constantly upon his shoulders, along with a naïveté that would never leave him, an awkward alienation that kept life both interesting and terrifying. Let the negative become positive; let Frank Payne become Frank Bunyan, the pilgrim in the Slough of Despond, the sensualist in the flesh stalls of the Vanity Fair.
And so as Frank was feeling bad about his place in the world, he came to Sixth Ave where he turned south. He soon came upon a building that had special significance for him, one of those buildings from your far past that stands out like an old and bitter girlfriend by the side of life’s highway, someone he once wronged, now pleading for attention, demanding responsibility for what he had done and who he had been. This particular building was on the southwest corner of 24th St. Back in the 70s Frank had lived there for a while, in a room upstairs. It was 11 dollars a week at the time. And there was a bar downstairs. It was a stripper bar called Billy’s Topless, a friendly neighborhood place that sometimes had free food. But Frank noticed that it wasn’t Billy’s Topless anymore. There was an “s” inserted into the old sign so that it read Billy’s Stopless. The mad puritanical mayor of New York, Rudolph Guilliani had forced the spelling change to conform to his Christian morality. After all, toplessness bred danger. Breasts turned men into infants and that led to perversion and eventually to murder. But ‘Stoplessness” made no sense, unless of course it was a reference to the movie, They Shoot Horses Don’t They. Where people danced until they died. Frank went in for a beer. “For nostalgia’s sake,” he told himself.
But something had changed inside. The charge was gone. It could be said the Stopless was less erotic than the old Topless. A certain ennui had taken over the dancers who just didn’t seem to be into the work. Straight ahead titillation had given way to costuming, bad acting. It was acting alright. As Frank watched the ladies cross the stage it occurred to him that he might be watching a burlesque version of the Seven Deadly Sins. There were no posters announcing a “theme night,” no flyers—perhaps it was accidental. But the women onstage did seem to live up to some allegorical calling. Sloth was lazy and barely danced. Gluttony carried a piece of cake on stage, which she ate and smeared some on her face, then invited the leering audience members to “Share a bite,” for a tip of course. Pride had no body issues at all and strutted on stage, pushing her chest out and spinning the pinwheels on her brazier. Envy got in an argument with Lust, who was chatting up one of her best tipping customers. Wrath was in a bad mood and snarled at everyone and didn’t get any tips. Greed was constantly counting the money in her G-String, after which she too hectored the customers because it was never enough.
Indeed, for a minute or two Frank felt as if he were sitting in a Pieter Bruegal-esque performance of the classic medieval sin parade done up in a “downtown” post-modern milieu. He could imagine the discussions that might take place among academics, if said academics happened to be sitting in a strip bar—stimulating PC discussions about the male gaze, and the objectified female body and historical archetypes as a form of oppressive currency. It was a serious discussion. But the Seven Deadly Sins motif wasn’t serious. It was funny to Frank. It was funny because these character traits were no longer considered sins at all. They were virtues. The modern citizen was supposed to be an over-consumer, an over-eater. He or she was supposed to be envious of their neighbors and prideful of their accomplishments. In fact, the economic system would collapse if this weren’t true. Capitalism depended on the Seven Deadly Sins. Think about it. The Seven Virtues would never sell anything. Most of them had become character flaws that could actually spell economic doom and personal failure. After all, Chastity doesn’t beget tomorrow’s consumers. Temperance doesn’t make for black ink. And Humility, forget about it, you’d be laughed out of town. Like everything else you have to do in this culture—it boiled down to rationalizing your bad behavior in order to pay the rent.
Even though good old Billy’s had lost some of its neighborhood feel, the audience was still there—and they had their reasons. Some were lonely. To others it was an expedient, a few minutes spent alone in the bathroom and they could simply go home and forget about desire. For many it was a reason not to go home at all. Frank was sitting at the bar when one of those audience members, who introduced himself as John, right out of the blue, began defending himself against what he thought Frank had accused him of.
“Look, I like the girls here,” John said, “used to anyway.” He seemed to choke up a bit when he said it. A tear formed in his eye. So John drank from his beer, then wiped his nose on his sleeve hoping to disguise the embarrassing display of nostalgia.
“Yeah, they’re alright,” Frank agreed,, trying to be personable without prolonging the discussion..
“But you can’t see nothing anymore,” John continued. “Me, I want the real thing, know what I mean?” He held out his hands in a lewd cupping gesture and made a weird gurgling sound.
“We all want the real thing.” Frank said. “Sadly, we’re probably never gonna see that again.”
John nodded, confused by the oblique nature of Frank’s comment. Then he changed the subject: “Look pal, at least they don’t cut you with a broken bottle or steal your wallet while you’re sleeping. This is a nice place.”
Suddenly the light in the bar seemed to shift, and Frank noticed a scar on John’s face that ran from his ear to the corner of his right lip. He began to worry about the future of their conversation, where it might lead. Fortunately, right at that moment the line on stage shifted to the right and a new dancer came out from the dressing room. She was someone Frank knew from the neighborhood, an artist, and he didn’t want to be seen by her. He had his reputation after all. Besides, the coincidence gave him a convenient way out. He checked his watch. “Shit, I got to split,” he said with false urgency.
John with the scar on his face was nonchalant about it. He was used to being abandoned, and he hadn’t really wanted to talk to Frank anyway. “Safe home, brother. It’s late. Watch your back.”
Frank stepped out into the Sixth Ave. night. It was late. It was late in the evening. It was late in the century. It was late in the death throes of the American Dream. It wasn’t really safe to be on the streets, much less searching for a way home.
–an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by Carl Watson