May 29, 2010

Libation to a Waterfront

Myk Henry and Marisa Sullivan, circa 1990, photo by Jessica Nissen. Originally published in TDR (The Drama Review 37 no. 3) 
The Cat's Head, Constructing Utopia in Brooklyn and Dublin, by Melanie Hahn, TDR, Fall 1993. (PDF download 2MB)

Myk and Rube were talking with the fire chief, and talking easy with him, and the first thing that came to my mind was … That makes three Irishmen, maybe we’re in luck. It was still early in the evening, but five hundred people had already gathered in the lot on the north side of the warehouse, waiting to get into the great charred hulk that ran from Kent Avenue right up to the waterfront.

A pyramid of beer kegs had been stacked inside the warehouse, a stage erected, and a gigantic polystyrene worm was billowing along the ceiling. All manner of unearthliness had been deployed throughout the cavernous space, and a small army of young people was busy at work all over the space. And then the fire department had arrived to shut it all down. Who knows what Myk and Rube said to that fire chief on that warm spring night in 1990 to get him kindly to turn a blind eye and be on his way.

“Now then, Chief, ye don’t want yer cottage in Greenpoint to be worth fekkin forty grand forever, now do ye? What de ye tink this is, Chief, a fekkin motorcycle club?” Well, I’m sure that’s not exactly what they said to the chief, but it has always been a mystery to me how they persuaded New York’s Bravest to back off and allow 2000 people to pile into a building for which the word “condemned” would have been an understatement.

Not that there are that many Irish in Greenpoint. But this fire chief must have been. It’s the only way I can explain it. And not that Myk and Rube had bogus lace-curtain Irish accents like that, not at all, Myk is a mellifluous Dubliner, and Rube was one of those original American hipsters (before the word became a pejorative) with a soft voice with a built-in chuckle in it. But you get the idea. This was an Irish deal, I’m sure of it. I could tell from thirty feet away.

For you see, there was to be a moon howling that night, a calling down of Hecate, a goat-stomp to the Goddess of Fertility. And the Irish are sensible people in this regard. They heed the fiddle. The firemen skedaddled, though not in fear, not New York’s Bravest. For they all returned later in the night, one by one, in mufti this time, to get a closer look at all these strangely beautiful women.

In any case, the fire department did stall the opening for a few hours, during which time the few hundred early arrivers in the lot to the north of the warehouse became rather incensed at not being allowed into the building. Brooklyn was the very stigmata of malhepitude in those days, and you just didn’t make a voyage like that from the East Village all the way out to “Avenue E” (Bedford Avenue) to stand in a trash heap on the waterfront. Our names would be dirt if we didn’t bring some game to the situation, and fast.

I ran back to my storefront on Bedford Avenue and North Fifth Street (where the “Subway” sandwich shop is now) and grabbed the “light guitar” — the crutch with the six light bulbs of various colors screwed into the neck where your tuning keys would be, and the buttons on the bridge to blink them, and a big dimmer bulb at the base was your wa-wa lever. I ran back to the warehouse and plugged this contraption into the generator.

Then I stood out on the corroded landing dock before 500 pissed-off East Village assholes and I played that guitar. Someone put “Smoke on the Water” over the PA, and I played that guitar, casting colors all about in the night. It was a smash hit. It was the shit. A reporter from the Village Voice happened to be in the crowd and I got a sweet little write-up a few weeks later.

As I played the light guitar, it felt like a dream. And as it happens in a dream, if you are the center of attention, or if you are in the midst of some commotion, you turn your head briefly to the distance, just askance you turn your eyes and look away, and always, in a dream, as you know, there is someone, or something, standing there, apart from the commotion.

I looked to my left toward the river, where the reeds grew tall from the wetlands that had reclaimed the waterfront in those days before the whole place was paved over. And there standing in the reeds, all in a row, were seven comely maidens dressed in the whitest, fluffiest gowns of goose feather I had ever seen, shining bright and lovely in the night they were. Only later I learned that these were Marisa’s Peaches. At the time I felt upstaged, intimidated by these rarefied females who signaled something far more strange and interesting than my pinch-hit performance. I was caught up in the rough and tumble of it all, caught up in the reality of the derelict waterfront and of the inscrutable crowd that was moving upon it.

But from the moment at which it occurred to me that it was like a dream, the evening behaved like a dream. The uncanny obtained, in the realization that this was an event that aligned itself with the sequence and the symbolism of dreams. There was no “program” or “lineup,” but rather a calculated weirdness that incited spontaneous weirdness, which in turn was answered by calculated weirdness. Thus did the night never quite touch the ground.

May 15, 2010


You, gargantuan prow of insatiation
Slammed into the rectilinear sky,
On what dawn did your hollow fury
Turn to the inverted world.

What thou, behemoth! Plying maw,
The pinking rictus of a thug’s dusk
That teethed upon the Erie Canal
And whistled down the rails to war.

Long years came shank of beast,
Bolt of cloth and mustard seed
To thy clarion of tons and wheels.
And then came pay dirt you had never seen:

Th'ethereal phosphor Hubris
Pitched on the jut of your bow,
Burning the oil at ungodly hour,
Beatitude’s illumined cube.

Then maenads all dressed in white
Tore at the flesh of your fruit,
All in a row in the river’s reeds,
And slowly goes the night.

Rapture of thy keening toil,
Cant of the rooftop’s leaning sky,
Sweep down shaft to peeling depth,
The very echo of your belly sweats.

Bold city under siege, spare of line
That braced the mind and steeled the heart
To polygons of shifting art.
Yours is the song of the earth.

What heathen glow unearthly cast,
What Midas touch on river’s breeze,
What obscure torque of your concretion
Could cause such things to pass.

Thee, candescent juggernaut,
Infeudated brawn of faith,
By one confounded calculation
Transfigured in occulting light.

Once you were the wings of Gotham
And the pinion of her spine,
We anoint thee now a motherfucker,
And here is the fury this time.

Ethan Pettit, May 2010