(FPM's contribution to the 1st Pioneer Works' Zine Exchange in Red Hook, Brooklyn)
This is a 20 page zine with 2 stories about street music, graffiti, underground concerts, mass shootings, ironic musicals, disappointment and being stuck inexplicably in new cities. Emma Marks and Ilan Moskowitz put this together for a small press meeting of the minds on June 5th, 2015 in an institute brimming with artistic support.
PRESERVING THE CON OF PUNK ROCK WITH OVERPRICED MUSICALS
By Ilan Moskowitz
There was an old black dude outside the musical. He wore a tuxedo with a matching top hat and a purple cravat. The term ‘musical’ is a broad one, certainly not the kind of theater this production was zoned for. Technically, the ‘musical’ was a nightly cabaret satire. “Best pay for a nightly cabaret job in San Francisco!” For a point of reference, no other contenders existed in such a category besides the North Beach strippers down the block.
Like most fixtures in San Francisco, the decades-old play, one of the psychedelic city’s few original additions to musical theater (despite having no original music of its own), obtained its building through an effeminate tycoon’s generous donation in the 1970s and the creator’s babyface before his botched plastic surgery took the man (and his play’s creative) life. The musical never moved locations because it couldn’t afford actual rent in such a boomtown, especially not over by the legitimate musicals downtown with their clothed actors.
This decaying show ran the same two hour set of songs and lines nine times a week. It had been a decade since the creator/head writer died, his widow keeping the staff from changing his previously socially aware, topically amorphous satire right down to the two unwavering casts of aging actors. She haunted its rows nightly with her ghoulish botox. The production was more of a static landmark in the 2010s, a purgatory that cast members kept trying to exceed without any other ship to jump to in a city of horrible musical theater (an irony in a town full of homosexuals).
This old black singer, the Duke outside, had auditioned for the musical years ago. Considering he told folks he’d been performing on those streets for the last two decades, it had to be before that. Telling people how long you’ve been doing something, especially if they can’t do it themselves, makes you seem like a professional. The Duke’s voice carried in terms of booming distance, slamming through the air from behind his tombstone rows of teeth, but the weight of a tune or even an in-key pitch was too much for this explosive sound to hold. The Duke mostly stayed between the slim intervals in the bellowing tonal depths of Old Man River like the way that he stayed this musical every day telling folks he was the “official warm up” and getting ample tips in his hat.
Arturo opened the musical’s doors quickly, guitar slung across his back with no bag. It was for a gig later, something he didn’t look at as a profession. The Duke saw an opportunity. Arturo was wearing his usher’s uniform that had the musical’s name and insignia on it. “Ah, you are in luck,” grinned the Duke with those cracked, tombstone teeth, redirecting the crowd towards the usher. “My official accompaniment, courtesy of the musical, is here!” Arturo froze. He couldn’t believe the Duke was pulling this shit. It was quite the risk on the Duke’s part, the mark of a grifter, not a showman. It implied that the Duke sized Arturo up in one cursory glance, something which, under more comfortable circumstances to the young guitarist, would have caused Arturo to throw the old man into a raging mosh pit. For Arturo had only learned guitar to replicate the sounds that brang him joy: oldschool punk and hip hop, the rootsier the better; anthems of unbeaten drive amongst performance industry day jobs like those of Arturo and the Duke. Down the block there were all the strip clubs on Broadway, another facet of the same exact performance industry day job circuit. It was easy enough to run into these troops at the liquor stores, some un ushers’ uniforms, some in jackets over G-strings, all getting drunk enough to perform their night shifts.
Those strippers hung out front of their clubs and waved to people like Arturo with his guitar and his uniform. They knew that he was never going to stop, that no one who did stop at their building would have anything as interesting as musical ambition slung to their back. Most would have all their ambition bulging through their thin pants pockets. Once, Arturo played a set at one of these stip clubs, the mafia themed one on the corner where they warmed up the drunks with the burnout bar bands on fridays before the girls clocked in. The pay was alright but nobody liked Arturo’s punk covers. He wasn’t playing music for those people though, that was their own misperception. Arturo performed with this mindset not out of pretension, but because he was barely playing music to begin with. Arturo’s goal with the instrument was to share his love for punk or hip-hop anthems but not to pander. This was quite unlike his usher work, which had become a tomb. In his dreams, Arturo found himself clocking onto shifts, seating unruly ghosts of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush, Jerry Brown; the job ate the five hours Arturo managed to get of shut-eye each evening without offering compensation.
Still, performance day jobs had their advantages over working deep friers at the Pier (straight up North Beach from the musical if you took Lombard). Nobody in a costume at a musical ever lost an arm to boiling oil, even if they had to take frequent recovery breaks for the ‘Peter Pan’ hoists herniating their flight-weary backs. They were covered though. Arturo, even as an usher, got in on this shoddy, city mandated health insurance plan with his 15-an-hour for the prevention of tourists using cameras during a musical.
The theater sat in the cameltoe of fragrance between Chinatown and what would have otherwise been called ‘Little Italy’ in any other city. Every window in cafe-encrusted North Beach, including those outside the theater, displayed stacks of cannolis; decadence at a finger’s touch. Tourists exiting these bakeries tipped the most. The extended hands or hats demanding money in this part of Lombard were always accompanied by some kind of performance, something justifying a spectator parting with a twenty dollar bill. It was payment for impressing their children, giving them memories.
It wasn’t necessarily so innocent. Maybe some of these cannoli toters knew the truth, wearing their bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts, perhaps running some tourist industry back home and on vacation in San Francisco to study the fake smile of formaldehyde in these kitsch neighborhoods: the drugs and booze flowing through the veins of everyday tourist trap performers’ bodies that kept the show going in any kind of job that made the layman say “boy, it’d sure be nice to do (blank) for the rest of my life!”
The Duke saw he could make big money with Arturo, working his crowd as a contingency for pity pennies if Arturo turned out to be a crap guitarist. It was win-win except for he bet wrong on the kid’s style. Nobody looks like a punk in their day job duds. The Duke didn’t know that Arturo only knew the most offensive sing-along tracks from the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. The Duke didn’t know this hidden obsession had gotten the guitarist fired for not learning the Hokey Pokey at an otherwise cushy children’s music gig for which Arturo had been hired weeks ago; a busy opening preschool season.
This preschool job had been a chance Arturo took to dig his way out from the musical’s oppression with the body of his guitar. It was a freelance gig based on his forged resume. Because what was Arturo supposed to say, that he was very experienced playing NoFx covers at strip clubs and bars? The guitarist had a feeling things would go to shit as he blasted It Ceases to be Whining (When You’re Shitting Blood) by Bomb the Music Industry! on the commute to that classroom shift. Such feelings were important to heed. His grandmother had been an occultress, practicing santeria with her cigarette foil in the backyard shrines of Arturo’s childhood home. He had inherited these premonitions, but playing three-chord pap for these toddlers paid excellently. It was worth sticking his neck out despite the universe’s hints. Hell, if Arturo could hold the preschool gig regularly, it would get him out of that North Beach tourist trap for good. So of course at the preschool a little girl cornered Arturo between classes on the first day, asking provocatively “What are you even doing here?” It was her first day of any kind of schooling. It might have been an innocent enough question. She had seemed upset all during Arturo’s sing-along version of Can I Kick It by A Tribe Called Quest (2 chords and a Lou Reed sample, as inoffensive as Arturo could get with a perfect synergy in the styles of Arturo’s playing - “alright kids, when I say ‘can I kick it?’ you say ‘yes you can!’”).
The hot latin blooded musician flippantly responded to the little girl: “Because I’m apparently a glutton for punishment, sweetheart.” His accent was still strong, straight from Calle Bucareli in Mexico City to what had been the epicenter of punk in the 1990s. It was 20 years too late but nobody ever says that in the fan zines released abroad. The morning had been a nightmare of glaring, fresh-out-of-grad-school teachers who saw through Arturo’s forged resume and hated his employer for it. Arturo smiled weakly. “What’s that mean?” the little girl asked with her wide eyes and blonde hair no higher off the ground than the torn knee of Arturo’s jeans. “It means” Arturo sighed, “that I apparently hate myself as an artist so the intent, one would extrapolate, is I mean to cause myself pain in favor of learning my craft.”
One of the fresh-from-certification teachers heard this and came over from across the room where she’d been herding a queue of towheads for juice boxes amidst rainbow carpeting. The young preschool teacher gave the guitarist a tongue lashing as she hauled Arturo to his car in the parking lot. “It takes a lot of nerve to call yourself an artist when anyone in that room who wasn’t born three years ago knows those dumb cover songs of yours. You didn’t write one thing you played in the last four hours, none of it being appropriate for children. What was your motivation? You think none of us can read music? I’m a classically trained cellist. I’ve played at Juilliard. All you just did was shift your hand around two strings of an instrument designed for much higher purposes. Then you tried condescendingly talking existentialism to an impressionable little girl . . . Now that I can smell you, I also believe you are drunk. Goodbye.”
Except for the drinking part (which was never exceptional so long as the fridge was stocked with beer) Arturo’s housemate said similar things of Arturo’s music. This housemate had to hear ‘practice’ all the time for these short lived, naval gazing strip club and dive bar shows that always left the crowd annoyed. Arturo played his songs like a weapon against anyone watching him. He wanted them all to sing but hated poseurs. He was just doing it to escape this performance day job nightmare. It had started as a beacon to find this scene which he sadly discovered after migrating no longer existed. That corroded though and he’d become an aimless wanderer in the performance dayjob industry of an expensive city.
The funny thing about punk rock is, dead, undead or in a coma somewhere in the record collection of Henry Rollins, that it’s snotty enough to encompass all other kind of music through very reduced, aggressive covers. Arturo, taking on the old crooner’s challenge amidst this throng of sweaty out-of-towners, initially thought of Caroline’s 1980 No Wave version of Is That All There Is? (which got banned by Leiber and Stroller). Instead Arturo called “My Way, Sinatra, starts with an E.”
“I know what Sinatra starts it in,” chuckled the Duke, who was wrong because this was the key in which Sid Vicious had covered the Paul Anka penned Sinatra anthem. The tourists clapped, it was something globally recognizable. Vicious, in his version, referred to the song as I Killed a Cat in multiple of his final performances (post-Nancy). If Arturo didn’t know how to play classics like these, he might as well have hung up his plastic, back pocket day job flask forever. The Duke reeked of this same sort of performance dayjob formaldehyde, the blunting of any previous standards to make that buck around ‘the craft’ as was supposed to be inspiring. Arturo had always chucked his guitar behind the lockers in the house staff locker room, hiding it so the classically trained pit musicians didn’t get on his case. Unnecessary confrontation made one a bit too close to a Nazi Punk; a Skinhead. Instead Arturo saved his auditory dagger of punk rock fury, the painful street syncopation of his rhymes, hiding the guitar behind that locker every time he had a gig. Arturo respected the musical’s home base in this sense, for the musically literate orchestral pit slaves, operating on the higher level of functions for their instruments, threatened every night to erase every classic like I Killed a Cat in Arturo’s head for the sake of every downstroke being some rigid house cue for his patrol. Once again, the pay was stable for the poor, idealistic migrant and the objective simple: no tourists, even with their hundred-fifty dollar pageant tickets, were allowed to take photos. Such photography would display for the world, if put on the internet, how limited this musical’s legendary effects budget was.
With Arturo walking over from the doorframe of the musical’s house entrance, the Duke cracked his knuckles, repeating the key signature under his breath as though he had any control over his low booming voice. “Sinatra, My Way, E. Sinatra, My Way, E.” The crowd clamored. Hot San Francisco sun above was sliced at an angle by the hills leading up to Golden Gate Park. Lombard Street extending behind like a tongue from the ocean through the peaks of either hill of North Beach.
Arturo strummed. The Duke sang entirely out of time and key, the crowd loved how loud he was. Arturo got through the “regrets I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention” bit and was rounding the end of the few chords Vicious’ studio band (provided by the treacherous Malcolm Mclaren) had reduced the original 1967 French pop hit that in turn was adapted by Paul Anka. The usher’s fingers slid back along that one A string in a 5th chord, a power chord to the E fret, played here with only three fingers. Then with just a beat’s notice, he slid up a whole step to the F. From there Arturo danced about yelling “Sweet lovely death, awaiting your last breath, oh sweet death, one last caress!”
The Duke looked perturbed, having obviously never listened to the Misfits despite, like most San Franciscans, wearing a small Misfits skull, this one designed like a Dia de Los Muertos confection in honor of the 2009 World Series San Francisco Giants adopting the New Jersey horror band’s insignia. What a shame, thought Arturo as he circled the singer and tourists thrashing away at his six string. The Duke had a pretty good range for the Misfits’ singer Glenn Danzig if he only knew the words.
Arturo gleefully howled verses to Last Caress at the crowd. “I’ve got something to say, I raped your mother today and it doesn’t matter much to me as long as she spread! . . .” Then he ducked into the musical, down the stairs and through the locking doors to the service staff’s lockers. What a great start to a shift, thought Arturo as he chucked his guitar behind the lockers before anyone in the house band could see. Then Arturo swigged away at his back pocket gin.
“You’re going to have to play a song for me if you want to leave.”
“But you already said I could leave, I’ve got a gig in an hour!”
“Yeah, but I didn’t see your guitar then. That’s so cool. I never realized it before, but for all our nights together at this show . . . do you bring it often? I don’t know, I pegged you for a drummer when you mentioned the gig. You should play something.”
“Russ, I got a show to get to.”
“I don’t see why you’re ushering if you play that thing. Couldn’t you be in the house band?”
“It’s just . . . not my scene. I really shouldn’t play right now. There’s a show going on upstairs, this is just a break, remember?””
“Not your scene? Now I’m interested, you got me. Are you poolsharking? I want to know what your style is more than ever. I’m going to sit right down and eat this hamburger. You play me one song before I’m done and you can go.”
“Come on, man, that’s not fair. You already said I could leave.”
“I just explained to you about the guitar, man. You shouldn’t carry a thing like that if you don’t like getting asked to play.”
“Russ, this is a musical. You’re literally wearing a tux. There is a performance upstairs in its third act right now.”
“. . . Really?”
“Man, I never know when one act starts or ends. I just follow those song cues.”
“So you know when we do the parody of Madonna with the cone bra and Bill Clinton?”
“With that corny dress joke? ‘I must’ve missed it, come again?’ ‘no Bill, this time it’s mayonnaise.’”
“Yeah, just play a song, wash that shitty Madonna music outta my ears.”
“You’re in a tuxedo and there’s a band upstairs playing for hundred-fifty dollar ticket holders . . .”
“. . . but I’m down here eating a McDonald’s hamburger with a Budweiser in a paper cup so that botox faced widow upstairs who owns more of this production than she knows what to do with doesn’t get me fired before my wife and kids can see any of the flimsy benefits from this only job I ever held . . . Just play music, Arturo. That’s what instruments are for.”
“Come on Russ . . .”
“You know why they hired me, Arturo?”
“Because I used to look really good.”
“You know why they kept me around?”
“Because they felt bad about taking that away from me . . . plus they already had my tux size fitted. I didn’t used to have these bags like this or such pale skin. And you know, refitting a suit like this is expensive and it’s poor hiring practices, borderline illegal to only hire for a position based on height and weight.”
“Yeah, because we’re in service and not the cast. Those guys are on individual diets as per their contracts.”
“So that balances things out, right? You and me aren’t too different for you to play me a song.”
“At the risk of not being able to leave and perform in a show elsewhere.”
“Exactly, I said we weren’t TOO different.”
“. . . Man, how can you expect me to perform down here? That’s worse than the Duke’s singing bleeding through the walls outside and the management hates that guy! What’re they gonna say if I’m going that and I work for them?”
“You forget, I’m house management, I say it’s fine. They’re just playing old songs up there that don’t cost much to license anymore, anything you could hear if you flipped on the oldies station on the boombox there. It’s a parody musical, we haven’t had one original song here since the night we opened. They do that every night. How often do you bring your guitar?”
Arturo didn’t say how long he’d been storing that six-string behind the lockers. “. . . Those guys up there are playing Smooth by Santana perfectly.” He said instead.
“I hate that song.”
“Me too, but they’re perfect at it, reading right out of a book. What could I possibly bring to the table here, this is their home base . . . what if they hear me backstage through those flimsy prop walls? . . . Russ, anywhere but here I feel at home with this thing, but . . .”
“Arturo, Arturo, Arturo; I see what you mean now about this musical not being your scene. In fact, I also take back what I said about letting you go early.”
“What do you expect? Your story has to be some kind of a lie. You couldn’t possibly have a concert you need to go play with that attitude. Haven’t you ever played around anyone before?”
“Yeah, it’s just . . . You know, what if they can hear me upstairs?”
“They can’t, this place may be old but the acoustics were squared away when the original creator was still alive; the heyday. Come on, maybe I’ll like it, surprise me.”
“ . . . Okay . . . This one’s called Bath of Least Resistance by NoFx. Their record label, Fat Wreck Chords meant a lot to me in the 1990s. It’s why I came to this city and saying it like this makes me feel like one of those obsessive Japanese tourists. But . . .”
“Just play the song.”
“ . . . I’m a psycho-babble-brain, a real life Looney Toon, a mixed up maniac, I’m certifiable, so put me in a room like they did Jack Nicholson, and give me thorazine cuz all I wanna do is sing traditional songs that I like to sing in minor technologies, not making cents (sense?) off it, so please throw my head in a tub, I could really use the cerebral scrub, wash away what I know, it’s an overrated frontal lobe . . .”
“That was on Punk-O-Rama 5, on Bad Religion’s label, two years before Process of Belief came out and Gurewitz rejoined the group.”
Arturo was suddenly quite confident. He put down the guitar. “Number 6, actually. And yeah, Bad Religion was still on Atlantic Records at that point, exiled from their own underground label in the failed quest for stardom beyond their audience’s . . . style, I guess you could call it.”
“Punk-O-Rama 6 was the best one.”
“Number 5 for me, that comp changed my life. Hell of an album. I bought every CD that compilation was promoting.”
“It’s not silly that you came out here chasing that scene, I was out in Antioch during the 1990s. I grew up there. The music was hella poppin’! Brad from Sublime used to get so wasted at my mom’s place that on the last ‘thank you’ track on 40 oz to Freedom, he shouts her out for never calling the cops on his barking dog. Now Fat Mike from NoFx has his own musical, Home Street Home to preserve that scene while any new potential musicians in this city get bought out by the pay-to-play developers. It’s like a faux-independent, past its prime remake of the big label musicals Green Day has been releasing since the naughties from their mansion recording studios. That stripper collective down the block, the punk one with all the crazy looking entrapanuer sexworkers just got priced out, you know? Where’s all the aging punk rockers in the Haight, Mission or wherever to preserve those scenes? They’re making musicals, playing to the masses with kitsch like our show going on above us. Ska’s dead but less revered than punk rock, I think it overdosed with St. Brad in the 1996 and now there’s some kid your age, Arturo, filling in with Bud and Eric, worshipping that goddamn waste cadet St. Brad as some kind of role model. It reduces the portions of Sublime’s music, keeps it around on life support for the bucks because St. Brad is only relevant twenty years later because he truly believed in combining hip-hop, reggae and punk rock and didn’t let his privileged upbringing or drug problem screw with that creativity. Brad made music wishing he could play gigs with Bob Marley, The Specials, the Vandals, and never compromised even though his white college boy sound, the never ending destruction of it kept him from getting on labels like Bad Religion’s Epitaph with controlled fires like NoFx. In that sense, my dead friend lived like a mess despite his set of pipes, smoked meth constantly to keep himself creating and died that way. There’s no more guidance in that for a Saint than praying to a Phish concert. I got a daughter, you know, it’s . . .”
“Russ, I godda go play this show, where you goin’ with all this?”
“Somebody out there needs this music as bad as you do, Arturo. That’s all. Don’t doubt it so much. If nobody needed it anymore, there wouldn’t be anybody out there trying to preserve that old sound past its expiration.You keeping it close to your heart will help others, maybe even cut through all the kitsch.”
“I thought all this punk rock was just a conspiracy to keep blue hair dye and spiking gel in production. You know, like a daylight’s savings time for the counterculture . . . ”
“Get out of here smart ass before I finish this hamburger and have to clock back in and be accountable for letting you go early.”
“Did I tell you me and the Duke had a little duet before the first show this afternoon?”
“Oh lord, what did that shameless opportunist sucker you into playing?”
“It was the other way around, I bait-and-switched the sleaze with Last Caress for My Way.”
“Duke’s probably got a perfect range for Danzig.”
“Man, my thoughts exactly! That’s the only range he’s got, really. But so goes your ‘official warm up’ out there.”
“You work here too, Arturo, that makes him OUR ‘official warm up’ out there.”
“Yeah yeah, Russ. See you.”
Arturo went down through Chinatown and onto the BART with a Budweiser in hand, guitar strap newly broken and clutched by the neck in his fist. The effort had expanded his mitt into a blood-gorged mass and he shook off the cramp inside a moving high-speed rail from the Montgomery Street Station. A woman vaulted onto the trains just as the doors closed on the next stop, Powell Street. Her face was just blank, staring ahead and crying. The side of her head was shaved and there was a lifelike tattoo of a pink, squishy brain penned to one half of her scalp. The rest of her body was littered in tattoos beneath a black tank top and had nearly as many piercings all over. Her hair was pink.
She came over to Arturo with his guitar, tears streaming down her cheeks and simply said “Someone opened fire on the Pride Parade. My friend just got shot . . . I need to hear a song.”
That was hardly an unusual sentence to hear, unfortunately, in San Francisco. Every Pride Parade, a huge event in such a city of open sexuality, always stirred up somebody who was better left alone. One year previously Arturo had witnessed some Nazi Punks stomping an otherwise innocuous naked man strolling down Market Street with a camera alongside the parade for his possibly corrupting the eyes of passing children. Had the man bothered to put on a thong or some sort of cock sheath it might have only resulted in one of his shoulders getting crushed. Gangs like the Mexicans, the Chinese or the Bloods/Crips also used all the commotion to make hits on the train tracks, from where this tattooed woman was running. Arturo nodded silently at the pink haired woman’s words. He had no clue what to play.
His fingers slid around the A string until they hit a familiar riff: “I am an antichrist, I am an anarchist, don’t know what I want but I know how to get it. I wanna destroy a passerby!”
Then, through her tears, she picked up the words:
“Cuz I wanna be wanna be anarchy!”
“In the city!” Arturo mimicked Johnny Lyndon’s record banter. Nevermind the Bollocks may have been a shitty London boutique’s attempt to co-opt a junkie style of New York music in the late 1970s, but it certainly held the test of time. That pink haired woman looked at the singer and invited him to sit closer. She had stopped crying. Her breasts, in a jet black bra, were heaving, soaked, glistening through the tear in her makeshift tank-top. The fabric looked recently torn, like it had been ripped in the rush to the train. The moment those Powell doors opened she’d run in. Her eyes had those instant cartoon bags around then, stretch marks from being extended open too far, too quick. They were unable to close. She stared at Arturo with those vacant eyes now so full of appreciation. The painful screeching sound of the BART train behind had been used by George Lucas to create the X-Wing noise after using those same trains during their construction as a prop to cart shaved bald extras, on weekend work releases from the local halfway houses in the ominous THX-1138. No one in the train besides these two seemed to exist.
The woman asked Arturo, close enough by then to feel her body steam, if it would be weird her kissing him then. “No,” Arturo said. Then they entwined, mashing against the train window, fingers grabbing at each other’s tattoos. Their teeth connected so tightly they clicked, lips churning into all contortions, tongues latched and unlatched beneath closed eyes, one composition of four lips.
The train came to the stop just before Arturo needed to disembark for his gig.
“I godda get off in a moment,” he told her. His clothes were drenched in his sweat as the car picked up movement again and the guitar clicked into his boots. He didn’t even know her name. “But I really fucking needed that.”
“No,” she said, “I’m from SoCal, I’m just here for the weekend. I needed that too. I still do. Stay with me. This feels so good. God, I need this right now.”
“This feels great,” Arturo admitted. She was totally out of his league with his one pair of pants and constant uniform for lack of other attire. She saw the torn look in his eyes.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I’m playing a show” he said. “You should come with.”
“I can’t. I need to see if my other friends are alright, we have a hotel rented just south of San Francisco.”
“I can’t ditch this show, my boss made me promise I wouldn’t give up on . . .”
“Oh,” she cut in, “then kiss me until you need to leave. Don’t let me go.”
They embraced again and the train began its approach to Glen Park Station (both the train stop and the name of the bar Arturo was playing). This was the second to last southern Bay Area Rapid Transit stop within San Francisco city limits. The car lurched. The tattooed woman and Arturo looked up and opened their eyes. Lips parted distractedly with an ephemeral strand of saliva left to linger. His arm was still cradling her back. Her hair was almost purple, the kind of shade that only professional hairdressers possessed. In the side of his tattooed brown forearm Arturo felt her phony nails, pretty as they were now that he noticed them. These took a lot of upkeep unless she did them herself. Punk rock, from its co-opting by Malcolm Mclaren's London Sex Boutique with his band The Pistols, has been intrinsically entwined with fashion. Colored hair and ripped jean aesthetics were sold by any of the punk records on the market in an unspoken way with all the anti-establishment, anthemic compositions. It was a way of life, one which required an aesthetic. Hairdressing must have been this woman’s profession back in So-Cal, as it was for many of the women Arturo noticed in these Californian punk rock shows. He still didn’t know how to feel about it. They were all primped finer than any quinceanera princess in Mexico. It was just posturing.
The lights in the train car flickered. Outside the windows were the wires of the train tunnel, lit only by the deep orange service lights running alongside like road lamps astride a highway strip.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the train will be held up for the next . . . you know, I honestly have no idea . . . ” said the conductor over the speakers.
Brand New Cadillac: a complete history of Detroit
By Emma Marks
“Je m’appelle Cadi,” she explained.
“Right,” the realtor nodded, “Well, here are the keys,” tossing them onto the worn, wooden table, “Upstairs is the bedroom, bathroom, and a spare room. Your father thought you’d want a computer desk, so we moved one in. Past this vestibule is the kitchen. You have a living room, some closets, and the boiler room down here. I turned the heat on a few hours ago. The heating has been checked out, so nothing to worry about there.” Cadi walked past the archway into the kitchen. Bits of floral wallpaper remained. The far brick wall of the living room was licked by fire damage. She turned to face him and nodded.
“And, uh, your father wanted you to have this,” he added, more gingerly placing a small black case beside the keys. “Just be careful that the safety is on when you’re not using it.”
“Merci. Thank you,” Cadi fidgeted nervously with the handle on her suitcase. As the realtor took notice, she assured him, “I am here for the...uh...business. On Livernois.”
“Right,” he said, noticing now that, despite her poise, she couldn’t have been older than his own daughter. “Take care of yourself.”
He let himself out and Cadi set down her bag to relieve her shoulders. She removed her hair pin and tried to shake out the jetlag. As she sat down at the kitchen table, she heard the door open.
“You’ll want to lock up,” the realtor said, catching a glance of Cadi with her hair down. She nodded.
The car jolted as Cadi drove over an invisible pothole turning onto Livernois; the light from the sunrise barely caught the road’s crevices in its pink hue. The streetlights were off when she left, and she squinted when the few other cars on the road passed.
She found a makeshift parking space in front of her store, and pulled her boxy Dodge between a crumbled pillar from a neighboring building and her uncle’s Volkswagen. The bell rang as she entered. The shop was empty but for the furs protected by locked metal grates on all four walls.
“Bon jour, Cadi,” she heard shouted from the back. She found her uncle’s face in a convex mirror. He smiled at her from his workbench.
<How are you Pascal?>
<I’m well, darling!> he said, as he stood up from the metal folding chair which scraped on the floor. He lifted the fold down table which divided the two rooms and came over to embrace his niece. He smelled of Gauloises and leather. <And you?> The smell made her eyes well. He pulled away to offer her a cup of tea and her tears evaporated quickly. She sat with him a while, enjoying the leisure time and the company of her uncle, the one who encouraged her painting when she was young. His hands were stained with dye and they shook, which she didn’t remember from her childhood.
After a while, he showed her the bookkeeping office. A desktop computer sat low amid cupboards full of account information, tax refunds, and receipts. Several boxes crowded the desk, and the filing cabinet made the room too small for the swivel chair to spin fully.
He gestured for her to enter, sighing apologetically.
“Merci,” she said.
Cadi brushed her teeth over the cracked sink to avoid dripping toothpaste on her nightgown. The tile floor was relievingly cool on her feet after the hot shower. Her brown highlights were caught by the yellow light as she looked at herself in the mirror. After rinsing out her mouth, she looked up to observe her reflection. A larger bump than usual poked out from under her gown. The best dinner she could forge from the corner store was pasta, pizza sauce, and half a pack of Camels.
To the left was her bedroom. The string of lights she used to frame her window glowed from within. Her father had shipped her bedding, and in the dim light it almost looked like home. Ahead, the desk sat in a separate room. The chair’s back was turned toward her, as if busy in its stagnance.
She walked into the spare room. It was not yet an office, but pregnant with the possibility. A box of receipts hinted at the conception of that identity. The desk was well made. She marveled at its weight. Solid slabs of walnut held steady against her elbows as she leaned forward in the chair. She waited to hear the orchestrating noises of a city around her, telling her when to move. No sirens or celebratory shouts were heard. She couldn’t hear much more than leaves rustling, which was even lonelier than the usual bustle of nature. This place was artificially silent, specifically ignoring her.
Missing her cue to inhale, she choked on a sob. It wasn’t fair, she thought. The injustice came down in torrents as she realized that her exile was a punishment. She was an embarrassment. The faces of professors who failed her, suitors she dismissed, and - above all - the face of her father bailing her out of jail flashed through her mind. The storm had its own melody to perpetuate itself.
Eventually, the sobs reached their decrescendo and passed. Still, there was silence outside. Cadi refused to let the silence further penetrate, so to barricade, she retrieved her suitcase. She pulled out a remote speaker, her phone, her charger, and her sketchpad with a stick of charcoal.
She scrolled through the her phone. She passed the local bands, the few attempts she made at American music, and the long list of electronic musicians to find Piaf. The silence would be halted. The ghosts of Detroit would be forced to wait outside while Edith Piaf sang boisterously to rouse the troops in Cadi’s empty house.
The drawing began with an outline of an oversized head, and a distorted eyeline to allow for a large mouth. She wanted it wide open and screaming. The face began to take on the traits of Piaf, but she sketched a dress she’d seen on Diana Ross. She finished the figure with a curly head of hair. She drew a dated microphone in front of the singer. The words coming from the figures mouth read “Allez venez Motown.”
The large panel of found wood was propped up at an angle against the back of the house. Edith Piaf trumpeted in Cadi’s ears as she set up her paints. Her alley stretched back toward some abandoned looking sheds on one side, and a drop-off above an old workshop on the other. The piece of wood towered over her while upright, but when leaned at this angle she could reach the tops of the afro she’d begun to paint. She shook a can of light brown to establish the base of the hair. She wanted a glow to come from within the layers.
She followed the sketch, making the mouth strained and wide, while the dress was contoured to the body of a nonchalant diva. The microphone began as silver. As she reached for can of blue for the finish, a shadow began to grow on her painting. Cadi took off her earphones. She turned and tried to see past the floodlight, but saw homogeneous darkness. Walking to the other side of her yard to escape the blinding light, she felt the silence creep over her. She ran inside and locked the back door.
Her hand shook and slightly rattled the paint can she was still holding. Forcing her hand to steady, Cadi held her breath, waiting for the silence to cue her breathing. Footsteps emanated from the vestibule. She escaped to a fantasy of what her evening would have been had she sat upstairs and enveloped the receipts she organized at the furrier that afternoon. She wouldn’t have left the door unlocked. She wouldn’t have paint on her nails, and snot on her lips. She wouldn’t have a stranger trying to unlock her gun case.
She felt the keys to the case grinding in her pocket as she took a step toward the vestibule. The girl’s face peeked from behind the archway. A man’s face greeted her from less than a foot away, looking equally startled. She drew her paint can and held the trigger. Blue paint collected around his brown eyes, flecking his hair and pooling in the hard creases of his eyelids.
“No!” Cadi shouted. It was the only word that came to her. “You cannot be here!”
“Shit!” the boy shouted, clutching his face, “Fucking cocksucker!”
As the boy stumbled backwards, Cadi dropped the can and pulled out her keys. She found the smallest one and inserted it into the gun case. As she pulled it out, the boy opened his eyes wearily and looked at her, light blue paint dripping down his dark nose and into his mouth. He froze.
“No,” she said again, pointing the gun with both hands, first at him, then the door. The shake in her fingers made the gun rattle, the sound of which was much duller and more plastic than the spray can. He bolted, not sufficiently shocked for Cadi’s taste.
Cadi had prided herself on her knowledge of guns and self-defense. It had often served as a conversational defense against men she met in France. If a man knew less about combat than her, she would embarrass them with questions until he excused himself. Now, with a gun pointed at the face of a man about her age, her expectation of the satisfying shock factor fell flat. She ran through the door and fired twice above her head into the darkness. Only the silence responded.
“Nice coat,” the young woman said from down the aisle. She was also wearing a three-quarter length fur coat, but it was muskrat instead of mink. The girl’s friends were combing through the beer cooler while she perused the wine section.
Cadi looked at her, furrowing her brow with confusion, but smiling.
“Your coat,” the girl gestured by tugging on her own collar, “It’s hot.”
Cadi grasped the meaning of her gesture, and smiled again. “Thank you,” she said.
“Are you going to the factory tonight?” the girl asked.
“Tonight? Nothing,” she said.
“Do you know where it is? My brother is the DJ. Same guys who do funk night in the bank building.”
Cadi nodded, smiling, and turned toward the girl with an ambiguous submissive gesture throughout her body. The girl was about 23 or so. Her friends seemed like they could be older. The girl wore a knit cap to encase her dreadlocks. One dread traced her jawline and knocked against her jugular with heavy glass beads.
“Your hair,” Cadi pointed, “It’s nice.”
“Are you French?” the girl asked, picking up on Cadi’s accent.
“Je suis Diana,” the girl said crudely. No nasal accent came into the pronunciation except for her own midwestern palatals.
“Enchanté,” Cadi said, charmed, “I am Cadi.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Diana’s friends clustered around them. A man in a leather jacket carrying two cases of PBR kissed Diana on the cheek. “Who’s your friend?” he asked.
“Carlos, this is Cadi. She’s French.”
He set down the two cases of beer. “Nice to meet you,” he said, taking her hand in both of his and lightly kissing it, “Is she coming with us?”
“Do you want to come?”
Cadi looked at the group. She looked at her bottle of wine, and considered the box of files sitting in her back seat.
“I will come,” she said.
They piled into a yellow SUV parked shabbily in front of the liquor store. Carlos hoisted the beer into the trunk before getting into the driver’s seat. Diana sat in front.
“I’m Jan,” the boy sitting on her left said, extending his hand. Cadi shook it, and Jan smiled warmly. “That’s Alexis,” he said, pointing to the girl on Cadi’s right. She was staring out the window, mouth agape. “She’s peaking,” he explained. Jan reached into his knapsack and found a pint of whiskey, offering it first to Cadi. She accepted.
“Yo!” Carlos shouted, “Pass it up here next.”
Carlos weaved between lanes, forgiven by the sparse population of drivers, while he tried to sync his phone to his radio. Electronic music started to blare from the back speakers, and Carlos turned it up.
“Nice!” Jan shouted, referring to the music, and passed the bottle up to Carlos.
“I know it!” Cadi shouted, “Caravan Palace!”
Carlos glanced at her in the rearview mirror and winked. Diana passed the bottle back to Cadi. As she took a drink, Alexis started to howl. The whole group joined in and Carlos rolled the windows down. Heat blasted from under the seats and blew cigarette smoke out of the windows. Cadi reached for her pack of Camels.
Diana offered, “I’ll trade ya,” and handed her an American Spirit.
They parked in a narrow space on a stretch of untended grass behind the factory. People were pulsing through the lot, retrieving, imbibing, and locking things in their cars. The lot was filling up even as their group finished the last of the whiskey. Cadi saw Diana and Carlos slip something green onto their tongues and wash it down with the last rotation.
Everyone was responsible for as much beer as they could carry. The boys each chugged one can as they filled their pockets. Cadi’s stockings held two cans each, and were thusly filled by Diana. Alexis was already gone, and had found her way inside. The rest of the group entered, and Jan pulled Cadi to the back where a line for the bathroom had formed. It was unclear what was being sold, but a young man sitting behind a fold out table counted money from a cashbox while smoking a cigarette.
“Tom!” Jan shouted. The man looked up, and a warm recognition washed over his face. The two men stayed in a long embrace.
“This is Cadi,” Jan said, pointing to his companion, “She’s a friend of Diana’s.”
“Pleasure,” Tom said, hugging Cadi for an equal length of time, “Bump?”
Cadi smiled, not understanding that she was expected to respond. Tom smiled back and Jan started to speak. The two men conversed while Cadi looked around. A wall divided the room they entered from what was presumably a stage. Cadi spotted Alexis staring up toward some rafters, then noticed there was a group of people around her doing the same. She walked over to Alexis and stood beside her. Alexis reached for Cadi’s hand without looking. She found the fingers covered in blue paint, and pointed them toward the ceiling. Cadi craned her neck. Two artists were improvising a mural in spray paint from a scaffold. One had begun painting half of a woman’s face, and the other had begun on the face of an animal.
“Let’s dance,” Alexis said, and took Cadi around the wall and into a sea of people. The variety of costumes and smells was overwhelming. Different oils and incense saturated the clothing of everyone around her. After ten minutes of pushing through the crowd, the girls were about in the center of the dance floor. Alexis started to dance with a shirtless boy she tapped on the shoulder. The two danced with an acknowledged gap between them. First, Alexis’s chest would protrude, forcing the boy’s bare chest to cave, then the opposite shapes formed, never touching.
Cadi closed her eyes to help herself find the beat. She found it in her shoulders, tossing her upper body weight from side to side until it flowed through her arms and then her legs. Her hair brushed across the tip of her nose as she swayed. Two hands slid on either side of her hips and she froze, looking up to see Alexis still dancing. She jumped forward and turned to see Carlos dancing to her rhythm. Alexis hopped to where Cadi had been, and danced against Carlos’s body. Diana had started sharing space with the shirtless boy, the two trying to mirror one another.
Cadi closed her eyes again, and kept dancing.
“Allo?” she answered, recognizing the number as her father’s, “Allo Papa.”
She sat down on the bench that complimented the end table in the vestibule. Carlos and Diana could be heard laughing from the living room.
<Cadi, you are late with the receipts again.>
<I’m sorry, Papa. I have been busy.>
<I am making friends, Papa.>
Her father took a breath, <Cadi, the business is closing. There is no business in Detroit anymore.>
<What about me?>
<You will come home when you finish.>
<But I like it here, Papa.>
<We are selling all our property once you finish the paperwork, Cadi. Don’t disappoint me again.>
He hung up the phone. Cadi silenced her cell and placed it back in her pocket.
“I think we could do this one behind Woodbridge,” Carlos said, holding Cadi’s sketchbook up as she re-entered.
“Who was that?” Diana asked.
Just then, Diana’s phone started playing Motor City is Burning. She picked it up, and answered, “Hey! We’re at Cadi’s. Where-”
The silence swept in. A tinny Alexis could be heard panicking on the other end. “Blue?” More soldiers of the silence marched into the room. Carlos and Cadi sat staring at Diana as she paced alongside the firelicked wall. “How long ago did you call the-... We’re on our way.”
The three of them piled into Carlos’s Jeep and peeled out of the driveway. Carlos’s driving was ideal for emergencies. They made it downtown in ten silent minutes.
Alexis was outside, rocking herself back and forth in the yellow porchlight. She was sitting below the broken front window. “He was crying,” she said, “Blue tears. I offered him a seat, but his friends burned the couch.”
Cadi froze in the driveway. The smell of smoke became overwhelming as she approached. Blood was pooling from the bottoms of Alexis’s feet. Carlos and Diana ran toward the door, but Jan emerged pushing them back, “There’s nothing left.”
As she sat against the floral wallpaper, Cadi flipped through her sketchbook. She scanned over the Piaf sketch, and realized she’d drawn the hands backward. She found a few sketches by Alexis, identifiable by their precision and light lineweight.
It had been a month since the fire. Alexis had taken an offer for a ride west with a friend she met in the hospital. Diana and Carlos were living with his parents in Warren until they had enough money for New York. Jan had moved somewhere north of Detroit but Cadi hadn’t heard from him since Alexis was discharged.
As she flipped the page her uncle’s farewell letter fell out. On the same beat as a bird’s song from outside, she opened it. A breeze swept into the room and she began to reread what he had written:
<My dear Cadi,
It was a great pleasure to work with you. You have grown into a lovely young woman and I am sad to leave you. Your decision to stay in Detroit has brought grief to the family. We plan to sell the house soon so you may come home. However, it is very difficult to find buyers.
Your father is sorry that he could not visit this summer, but we hope to see you soon, darling.
Cadi flipped the sketch pad over to the rhythm of her own time signature. She ran her hand down the pulpy textured paper, found her cue, and sank her pencil into a fresh page.