||Mount Sinai, on Madison and 100th, represents the northern-most border of moneyed Manhattan. The 23rd Precinct, a couple blocks east on 102nd, is at the southernmost strip of hard-up Harlem. New York is full of unmarked boundaries, but none like that which separates the double-digit upper east side from the triple digit no-mans land beyond. You can feel the change within a measured footstep. Assuming you cross the divide, that is. Most people don't. Stay in their own little holes their whole miserable lives.
At the Precinct, the recalcitrant desk sergeant makes the hospital receptionist look like the guest list girl of your dreams, the one who would open the ropes for you at twenty paces so you could just glide in without breaking step. Still, better the two-three that than the Dirty 30, whose greatest contribution to local crime is the recently recognized and nationally (but not locally) shocking news that it took over the crack dealing business from the local gangsters. There they'd probably have arrested me just for the fun of it. Here, it still takes me an hour to get any help at all, and even then I have to go through the same routine about Skippy being my blood brother and all that bull. The desk sergeant tells me the detectives are all in the field as he puts it, like I'm crazy to think I might expect to find a cop in a cop shop on a Saturday night. I ask if theres any report I can see and he almost laughs. I ask if anyones been arrested and he tries to straighten his face, but still he shakes his head. No, he says, there have been no arrests.
I leave my number, as if it will go anywhere but the trash can, then walk home alone, up Third Avenue, past the Housing Projects with their names symbolizing freedom -- Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Weldon Johnson whoever he may be -- and architecture impersonating prisons. Around the entrance to the last of these buildings a convoy of police cars, ambulances and a fire truck to complete the set are dealing with the latest Saturday night crisis. Once was a time I'd give a damn but this violence shit gets so familiar it's hardly worth bothering with. (Until it gets personal, of course.) Still, it's bought the homies out en masse to see the show, forcing me into the street to avoid asking them to move aside, but I can deal. I've crossed the divide enough times to know both sides of it. I'm comfortable in the city. I'm resilient to its stress and strains. Like those beautiful skyscrapers with which Manhattan makes its boldest claim to fame, I might bend in the face of a storm but I never break. Skippy, though, tonight he got bent and broken. Big time.
A group of near-teens are sitting on one of the rare stoops on East 111th Street, the few other buildings on our block being straight-rising apartment houses or decrepit warehouses. It's four in the morning but with the arrival of summer, it's hot out and a lot of kids round here, they don't want to think they're missing anything, so they stay up all night, shooting the shit and acting tough. Trying to gain props off the real homies, the hoods and the gangstas. They nod to me in recognition. Skippy and I have generally been made welcome here. It's like they think any white boys crazy enough to live in Harlem should be shown some respect. Until tonight, I guess.
"Any of you see the shooting?" I ask.
"What shooting?" says one of them. For a moment I think he means which one out of several and I'm about to get specific but then I realize he's simply displaying the manner of the street: don't get involved.
"None of you saw nothing?"
They shake their heads, mutter earnest negatives. "I didn't see no shooting tonight, man, not on this block," says a kid who can't be older than twelve. He's wearing a Knicks cap and I know his name is Antony. I figure him for a good kid. In usual circumstances, you'd imagine him growing up just fine. Here in Harlem, however, staying up all night on the street, the chances of his staying straight are slim. "Saw an ambulance come this way though," he continues. "That Skippy got hurt?"
"Man he look baaaaad." Antony sounds quite excited about it. "How many times he got shot?"
"There wasn't no shooting, remember?" I walk on. One of these little kids could have pulled the trigger for all I know. Everyone's fronting in this city. Sometimes you tear that front down and there's this whole other person behind it, sometimes you tear it down and it turns out that's all there ever was - a front.
When I get to our own building, it's to find yellow police tape attached to blue police barriers. Do Not Cross. Crime Scene. But there are no police on duty to enforce any of it, so I step underneath and through. The Wire was right about the pool of blood. There's almost enough to swim in. There are footprints around its edges, like people have been avoiding it. I can't say I blame them. I could leave it to the super to clean up but chances are he won't. It's hard enough getting him to put the garbage out. And I don't really wish it on him. His job's disgusting as it is. At Hedonism, us bus boys are always trying to think of worse jobs than our own. It keeps us sane. We've been running out of new ideas recently, though. We're pretty damn low on the employment totem pole.
I don't want to go to bed with this reminder of Skippy's misfortune haunting me from the hallway, so I go upstairs to our second floor railroad apartment to fetch a mop and a bucket from under the bathroom sink and return back down to wipe away as much remains of the night's violence as I can. Then I get a better idea. I go back to my room, tripping over Skippy's record box in the hallway, sending various twelve-inch singles flying which I promise Ill put back in the morning. I get my paint brushes and a fresh canvas and the sole bottle of Stoli I keep in the freezer for emergencies. I'm fired up now. Inspired, you might say. I come back down to the hallway, put the canvas on the floor near the bloodstains, kneel down and place my brush in a pool of red human ink. It's congealing now, almost like an oil paint. It's perfect.
I start painting and, to my own sudden surprise and somewhat morbid horror, I immediately find myself in what I call the zone, that buzz of creativity provoked by chemical endorphins rushing through the brain, shutting out all other thoughts as it forces me to focus on the task in hand. As much as I can think of anything else while this natural trip is ongoing, I think of Skippy and the fact that his own brain is apparently not functioning at all, but that only causes me to drop further into the zone and concentrate harder.
The greatest thing about the zone is that you never know what you're doing - you just place your faith in the endorphins to do it for you. Which is why, without having consciously thought of it, without even sketching it, I find my brush painting the shape of a gun. I approach it from Skippy's point of view, looking down the end of it, which makes it easier to ignore the fine details and concentrate on the emotional effect. There's a certain pop aspect to this angle too, which would appeal to the part of my nick name associated with the most famous of all New York's nightclubbing artists if it was something I was really thinking about. But I'm not. I hardly know what I'm doing. I'd like to think this is some kind of statement, a comment on New York's appalling rate of gun-related violence in the rawest material possible, but on the other side of the zone I know the truth, that I am simply venting my anger in the most immediate manner available.
It takes me beyond dawn to do the job properly, an ongoing battle against the drying of the blood and the professionalism of the project. During the time that I'm painting two of the building's Hispanic tenants come down and out to their early morning jobs - in the subways, bodegas and whatever. They look at me as if I'm crazy and I can see them thanking the Lord that they don't have to put up with more of us Caucasian savages moving into their neighborhood. Naturally, when I say my good mornings and offer to explain myself they go blank. They know nothing about a shooting. Why should they? It's not their concern.
Finally, I am finished. The canvas is covered with a replica of a revolver, viewed staring down its smoking barrel, dripping red in my buddy's blood. What stains remain on the now-dry floor I'll leave to the super after all. Exhausted yet euphoric, I go to pick up my materials and then remember one last thing. I spit into a small stain of blood on the concrete and pick up some sand from the fire bucket kept permanently by the door. It makes for a dirty paint, darker than the rest. I use it to give the work a title in the bottom right hand corner, and then I drag my materials up to the apartment and prop it up at the foot of my mattress, where I stare at it, fully clothed, totally exhausted, swigging furiously from the vodka bottle, willing sleep to overtake me as the title and the image imprint on my increasingly drunken mind. Red. I will dream of blood tonight, if I dare dream at all.
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