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Bombing the Ghost

by Elizabeth Kadetsky


The girls from Harlem used to cornrow Freddi’s long, silky hair for him in class. Once, he left a note for me in marker on the mailbox outside my building, his script white on the blue metal: TO LIZ ♥ FREDDI. Then he gave me an LP, the liner sleeve tagged and pieced up with cartoon images of him and me gazing in amazement at the beauty and large size and bright colors of his lettering.

Freddi took me bombing one night with his crew—Dark Side Artists—with Anthem and Shark, some other girls too, Psyche I think, and a few who didn’t tag. We entered the tunnel at the north end of the Eighty-Sixth and Broadway station and walked on a thin ledge, at platform level, toward the southern periphery of the ghost station at Ninety-First. The guys were dressed alike in long wool army coats and carried messenger bags heavy with spray cans. It was two a.m., and there weren’t supposed to be many trains.

Sharkie had prepped us in case there were. One came while we were in the tunnel between stations. We hurled our backs against the wall and made ourselves thin on that narrow width of ledge, like 2-D cartoon characters. I felt a thrill at the speed and energy of that stream of subway cars, that endless one-against-the-next charging by so fast.

“Stand clear the sizzling mainline,” Shark had also warned us, about the third rail. Our subway stop at Stuyvesant High was on a curve, so there was a metal grating that shifted outward to connect the platform to the subway car when the train arrived at the station. “Stand clear the moving platform,” an announcer always said. Shark’s phrase was a play on that.

I wasn’t scared. The subway felt to me like a machine so familiar it could have been an extension of my body. My bicycle felt that way too. Maybe my mother’s sewing machine was that way to her—she worked in fashion. Maybe for Jill, my older sister, it was the piano, or her guitar.

Sharkie had the mouth. “Make yo’self slender,” he also instructed us. “Slendah like Donni”—meaning Donni the comics character, not the bomber who was up everywhere, Dondi, but playing the pun. Sharkie talked like he was black, but he was five foot three with hair like the Gerber baby’s and eyes, we used to say, that were red, white, and blue. Dark Side Artists was mostly white. “Anybody got cash-ish?” he’d say—or he’d comment, if anyone asked, that he and I knew each other because we were “spoons” together, by which he meant Stuyvesant kids who smoked pot outside the greasy spoon on Fifteenth Street, Tony’s, during lunch or after school or while we were cutting.

Sharkie and I lived on the same train line. It was always rush hour, and inside the cars there were always men leering, drooling, and groping. Rush hour was so bad a lot of times the train pulled out on a platform of commuters, leerers, lurkers. Sharkie taught me how to climb on between cars. You pulled back a spring-loaded gate with one hand, and with the other detached a vertical bar that held horizontal chains. These chains acted as a barricade between cars, so holding them to the side, you could step onto the rusted outer platform of one of the two facing cars. From there, you reconnected the bar. Sharkie and I then stood opposite one another, each on the lip of a car.

This activity infuriated the train conductors and transit police, so you had to “make yo’self stealth,” as Sharkie said. Every once in a while a transit cop came running for me across the crowded platform just as the train was pulling out, and we smiled and waved goodbye at him. “Latah fo’ you,” gloated Sharkie.

Sharkie was always smoking a joint when I saw him on the train. “Yo sistah”—cough, cough, exhale. “Make yo’self slendah. Transit cop ’most caught you by the locks”—which long hair Shark then touched, and I shrank away because Sharkie was half my height. On those days I showed up to class stoned, and if I bumped into Sharkie at lunch at Tony’s, we went to Stuy Park and smoked more.

I’d rather know you’re doing it someplace safe, said Jill’s and my mother, about the drugs, by which she meant we could party at our place. She wanted to see things from the inside out.

~

We got to the station: 91, read old mosaic lettering. It looked almost like a functioning train stop, but abandoned like that and unlit, it made me feel out of my body, as if I were looking down on a dream I’d had. I was living in a postapocalyptic future, but somehow I could look back on it already.

The girls watched while the boys and Psyche worked fast with spray cans. The images were black and gray and rounded—it was hard to make out what made them pretty in the dark. Freddi was the talent; he was making a precise outline, which the boys teased him for. Freddi’s messenger bag was loaded with about two dozen bright colors of paint, but no one ever got past the second color because we heard something on the tracks. Probably a rat. We sidled along the ledge again and exited the station back at Eighty-Sixth. Coming up to Broadway into a flat, predawn glare, we must have had the dazed expressions of underground creatures, and I felt something like that, as though we occupied a subterranean world and no one knew what lurked there but us. It felt intimate, secret, ours.

Afterward, we walked the three blocks to Central Park and watched the break of day, in a sky so pale and purple the sun looked like a moon. We went out of our way to get back downtown via the local, so we could watch that ghost from inside a subway car and witness what commuters would see tomorrow. The station wasn’t much, still underground-black, the platform grimy and littered with slips of refuse, charcoal-covered and impossible to distinguish. It was just shapes and a creosote smell.

I rode home from Freddi’s on my bike. I felt like wind, flying through orange air, racing into the sunrise.

~

When I got there, I found my mother sitting on the sofa with the cat, the lights still on. Her eyes were glassy. I’d noticed with my girlfriends and myself that taking acid made us more beautiful, our skin dewier and our cheeks pinker. This was the case with my mother now too. A project lay abandoned in the sewing machine at the other end of the room.

“Are you tripping?” I asked. It was what you said when someone was obviously tripping, because otherwise they wouldn’t tell you. Jill once spent a whole day with her boyfriend without his ever knowing. So you had to ask to find out, otherwise they’d play a game on you.

My mother was whispering to the cat. “Check this out,” she said, looking up at me. She gestured with her eyes to the cat’s eyes.

“Yes?”

“He trusts me completely,” she said. It might have been true; the cat was gazing up at her with a hypnotized expression. Our cat had a hair-trigger personality, sometimes fritzing out like he’d touched an electrical wire. Sometimes he chased Jill into the closet. The cat’s eyes looked glassy too.

“Did you feed Cuckoo acid?”

“No.”

“Did you take acid?”

“I always say if you guys are going to take drugs I’d rather you do it where I know you’re safe. It was in the freezer. Look.” She gestured back at the cat. “Watch this.” She placed her pinky finger inside the cat’s ear and gently screwed it in.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

She twisted her long hair behind her in a manner that she must have picked up from Jill, then shook it out and peered back at the cat. “Cuckoo,” she gently whispered, and made cooing noises while the cat continued to gaze back at her, transfixed.

~

I go to the Strand this week and sit in the graffiti section for a long time, trying to fix an image of the pieces from that night—Anthem, Shark, Freddi. There is a wall of photo books on New York graffiti. DSA has disappeared from cultural memory, but one of the books talks about Acid Writers, a crew we knew. These books are in the art section, near monographs on Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. The information clerk has never heard of Haring. I want to shake her. That this work earned a place in the art section is testament to its enduring value. And yet her ignorance somehow obliterates it. What is its value?

I feel overwhelmed by what I’m seeing—so full and vital. I can’t quite articulate to myself what the feeling is, can’t find words for it. I have become aphasic, like my mother now, with emotions and sensations bigger than any vocabulary available to express them. Why does this feel so good? Am I the only one who feels it?

Back home that night, I watch Downtown 81 for the fifth time, a movie by Glenn O’Brien documenting the Lower East Side art scene of that year, featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat and Debbie Harry as leads. Most of the film was shot at night. There is graffiti on every wall, squiggles that, when I look hard, turn into tags by people I knew. Jill’s social circle overlapped with Basquiat’s. There are scenes in nightclubs where my friends and I used to sneak in—legal was eighteen, so looking fifteen you got by. At Peppermint Lounge: Basquiat with his corkscrew dreads, held off at the velvet ropes.

I remember standing right there with Jill and her crowd—I think it was New Year’s Eve exactly, 1980, me sallow and shapeless. A boy told me I looked like Bianca, I looked like Brooke. I didn’t feel that power, but I was buzzed, coming down from tripping, and the notion felt sparkly. He was already creating a mythology of us. We all were.

The camera lingers on a night scene around the corner from where I live now, at Fourteenth Street and Second Avenue, two blocks from the old Stuyvesant High. In the frame is a neon banner: DISCO DONUT. It’s a KFC now. Trannies used to hang out there; that’s what Sharkie called the girls, “trannies.” Mornings when we came from the subway, the ladies sat in a gaggle at the curb drinking pop and slapping each other and talking in high voices. It was a half beat before AIDS. Git that purple thang off yo’ head! one of them trash-talked Psyche once, because of her psychedelic scarf. Git that purple thang off yo’ head! After that, everyone greeted Psyche the same way.

There is a shot of a desolate Astor Place, facing down Lafayette onto what is now a Walgreens. The street is broad—imposing, empty. The buildings are large against an open sky. Today at that corner the horizon is cluttered with wavy-shaped postmoderns by Fumihiko Maki and Thom Mayne and Kazuyo Sejima. Last year this was the corner of Starbucks and Starbucks, but recently the company got clear on business smarts and shut down the second.

I want to set the images right, in the present. This moiré is making me dizzy, the overlay of then on now—all the different then’s. I want to settle the visual, fix the now so it’s sharp, not nausea-inducing, so it overtakes this persistent past.

How does one attach to the present when it is so constantly under construction? My maps are forever remade. The MTA keeps reconfiguring that iconic subway map in another new way, into a new icon, with routes that crisscross over the routes of the past, so quickly changing.

This summer there is a new M line. Why is it orange and not brown? Why is the M doing something completely different from what it used to do, acting like another version of the F? It’s all wrong. But I know it will only briefly seem wrong to me. They’ve switched things up on us enough, we know we’ll get past this problem of adjustment. We got over the conversion of the RR, the splitting of the NR, the dissolution of the QB. We adapt.

~

I finish watching the movie for the sixth and seventh times, then write to Anthem. I ask him to fill in my memories of that night at the ghost. Like a lot of people I grew up with, he now lives in Upstate New York.

He replies saying he wasn’t there, or at least in his memory he wasn’t. He says it was probably just Shark and Freddi. But he remembers the art. He says he thinks about it a lot still. It was stunning, he says. Like me, he also has discovered that DSA ranks not a single hit on Google. “It saddens me that such a cool bit of history has gone undocumented,” he writes. “When Freddi granted me membership it was like I had won an Oscar or something.”

He sends me images of art he’s making now. It’s beautiful, in the same style as then—tags and pieces, but on paper or screen, not walls. “If there were movies of our high school years, would you watch them?” he asks. “Or is reconstructing those years more interesting?”

 

Elizabeth Kadetsky’s short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and as “distinguished” in The Best American Short Stories 2010. Her personal essays have appeared in The New York Times, Santa Monica Review, The Antioch Review, and elsewhere. A 25-year practitioner of Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga, she lived in India as a Fulbright Scholar and wrote a memoir about her studies with the yogi BKS Iyengar, First There Is a Mountain (Little, Brown, 2004; Dzanc rEprint Series, 2011). She is visiting assistant professor of creative writing in fiction and nonfiction in Penn State’s MFA program. (10/2011)


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