In Your Element

Rich wrestled into place the steel strapping, crafting a hand forged bracket to join the two TVs hauled from dumpsters he’d stacked atop each other, then drove down two bolts. Now he could watch the game. The television’s two small three-watt speaker drivers torn from the cabinets floated three feet above the structure mounted at the end of twisted sections of threaded rod, a length of wiring dangling from each down into the back of the sets. The assemblage was planted atop a wooden plinth crafted from sanded and finished scaffold planking—a poor man’s Nam June Paik, Rich thought. Who are we kidding? This was no artwork. It was rather a desperate project in procrastination, a time killer to avoid committing to a genuine statement. In fact, he realized while focusing on the object’s functionality, the Keith-Haring-like meander of brush stroked glyphs across the television cabinets was the last thing he had painted, hadn’t even cleaned the brushes, and now the bristles stiffened with thickened enamel, sat useless in a Café Bustelo can by the slop sink.

“They fucking cut from the Yankee game for this?” he said aloud, setting down his pony Bud and walking over to check the volume knob. It had gotten loud. One set had been tuned to the news, one to baseball, now each displayed a shot of a police helicopter in some urban environment. It looked familiar to Rich. Text across the bottom of each screen read “Live— Williamsburg, Brooklyn.”

“The windows are rattling from your TV!” Rich heard as Z’uade, the Loft Queen, entered his studio. “Why is it so loud? You are violating the integrity of the studio—it’s morally abhorrent.”

“It just got louder on its own,” Rich said softly, in the way you speak when confronted by a mental case on the subway. “They do that with commercials, play with the levels—though it’s illegal. There’s your morality issue.”

“I wouldn’t know. I don’t watch television. Just lower it—now!”

He turned to look out the bank of frosted wired windows that spanned his studio. There was a panoramic view of industrial buildings, smaller World War II era aluminum sided residences, their yards crusted with blue lead paint stripped off the Manhattan Bridge a few months earlier and 100 feet in front of him a blue and white police helicopter hovered level with the fifth floor studio. He could see the crew.

“So the cops are violating the studio integrity, you see?”

Z’uade appeared paralyzed, incapable of parsing his humor and unable to respond. She looked across the rooftops as if for the first time and ignoring the police activity, pointed to a two story garage completely polychromed. “I do enjoy that mural. What a powerful Jungian symbol. Some enlightened artists must work there.”

“Buick Grand National,” Rich replied. “Fastest production car of 1987. That’s the symbol. And that’s a chop shop—they’re enlightened crooks.”

“What? I never will understand you,” said Z’uade. The loft queen leased the entire factory floor, subdivided the space with sheetrock partitions and rented these raw studios to less well financed artists, a mix including those fresh out of art school and art monkeys for Soho art stars. In this she saw herself as an arts patron. Rich’s rent payed her Yale MFA loans.

“This crime scene on TV?” Rich pointed at his sculpture, “that’s a roof across the empty lot, corner building on South 5th. They found another body there. I’m thinking of going over there to take in the scene. Want to come?”

“And who cares why that helicopter is out there?” Z’uade asked.

“They’re calling it a serial murder now, five women killed across Williamsburg—body parts everywhere—so I’d care if I were in that demographic,” Rich replied.

With a theatrical prance, Z’uade left Rich’s studio. “Perhaps, at the crime scene,” she called back from around a partition, “ you would be in your element?”

The studio intercom buzzed. Rich watched the helicopter peel away—fascinating machine—and gain altitude, then clicked the ancient console, mottled with colored fingerprints aside the elevator door.

“Order for Jackson—Empire delivery. You come down, OK?”

“I’m sending the freight elevator down.”

“You come down come down now—OK,” the intercom voice iterated.

Everyone was demanding. What’s the point of this half-assed delivery, may have to go back to rice and beans. They delivered. Liquor store guy delivered. Only these guys didn’t want to hustle. Yeah, a few Chinese made the supreme sacrifice lately, but every job had its risks.

Reaching overhead to grasp a greasy piece of web belting Rich pulled down the freight door and as it rolled downwards, shouted out again in appeasement, “My Chinese order is here—got plenty, glad to share if you want some?”

“I’m not putting grease and MSG in my body, so no thank you,” Z’uade shot back instantly, straining to hold it together.

Opening the elevator door onto the loading dock, Rich caught the late afternoon sun raking the cobblestones and cracked concrete; the golden hour was the one time of day the block resembled Hollywood’s evocation of the area. Every fucking movie was shot here. Two lanky Chinese stared at him, one a head taller than the other, but sharing the same indifferent look. A banged-up Ford Taurus, mountain of folded menus piled on the dashboard, was idling. One guy held out a yellow plastic bag laden with Styrofoam packages; the other, shorter Chinese man held the same colored bag, wrapped tight into a cylinder, clenched with two hands over his groin. The shorter one stared unblinkingly at Rich as he jumped off the concrete dock. “You got everything? Chopsticks, hot sauce?”

“Everything—OK. Ten dollar seventy nine.”

“You’re always forgetting stuff,” Rich said ignoring the imperative to pay and searching through the bag. “Hey, hey, hey! Where’s my eggroll?

The taller deliveryman studied his receipt, and instantly rattled off the litany: “You order: half chicken, fried rice, broccoli, bean curd… NO eggroll.”

“I didn’t order, I get—I got a free eggroll coming. Always been that way.”

“Yeah free eggroll only you order ten dollar. This order $9.99—then tax.”

“Are you shitting me?” Rich yelled. The short one stepped back, his hands moving across the cylindrical bag.

“I ordered ten dollars. Says right here on the menu: ‘free wings or eggroll.’ You owe me an eggroll!”

The man stood stoically, robotically repeating, “No more eggroll.”

Rich was looking forward to the grease bomb. They weren’t a good thing, rather an experience that resonated. Norman Mailer he had read, was fond of them, inspired the writer to craft aphorisms, likening incongruous things to “an eggroll without the mustard.” Rich reached into the cargo pocket of his camo pants, pulled out crumpled bills and change, handing over the exact amount to the lanky deliveryman’s outstretched hand.

“OK. You got Tip?”

“Everything you’ve done for me? No problem, I got something for your ass.” Rich returned to the freight elevator door, the shorter one watching intently. He retrieved a plastic bag with a dozen coke cans and tossed it at the couple.

***

Earlier in the morning the supply truck arrived at Empire Chinese. The Chinese driver pulled the tractor trailer onto the sidewalk aside the factory façade then guided two Mexican workers who hoisted pallets of cabbage into the second story chute opening. “Gong, you make all the eggrolls, alone like in jail,” the driver said to Gong, who stepped onto the pavement from a basement door, “a stupid job! Come, I bring you with me to the farm; Long Island is a beautiful land, not like this.”

“I like the work, no problem,” Gong replied, happy to hear a fellow Cantonese speaker but not revealing the belief it was the magical arm of his ancestors that guided him to the paper slip at the employment agency wall announcing this job, and here he could finally train and perfect his family style. “Crazy; you can work at restaurant, good customer—Jew Devils good tips, no black devils like Brooklyn. Think, I see you next month.”

The cabbage loaded, Gong only had to prep the automated machinery for the next batch and began removing the spent oil from the frying vats. Six months of frying and cooling had turned the once clear running soybean oil viscous and a deep, warm brown, the color of roach eggs caked in a tenement kitchen wall. The oil filled two dozen jugs, 100 gallons, which Gong hauled up the stairs, through the open iron gate to the sidewalk. He now ran a steel pole through the handles of the last eight jugs, and checked they were balanced four aside. Gong looked up to see a passing helicopter, its flight path directly over Kent Avenue heading north. The shimmering shadow cast by its rotors passed over Gong and danced down the block. Flicking away his butt, Gong squatted in the center of the pole, shouldered the bar and stood erect. He estimated 160 pounds, like carrying a man—perfect weight to train his legs—and began his third trip that afternoon to the empty lot three blocks away.

***

Near midnight in Brooklyn Kum Kau was a hectic place, swamped with thugs in bulbous Goose Downs, seniors, art students and drunks. Shouted menu items were continuously barked and at “Order ready, three eggroll—pick up” a woman in a head scarf and ankle-length denim skirt made her way to the counter. “Ema, TREIF—TREIF Ema!” a creamy faced twelve year old boy with tightly curled peious pleaded to her. The mother removed an eggroll in its glassine sleeve, biting in angrily, and amid the double parked cars along Myrtle Avenue, a trio of bearded members of the Satmar sect in a Ford LTD station wagon had witnessed enough. Evidence for the Beit Din to move forward, the child will be rescued, a kidnapping will be arranged.

In a sleepy section of the northernmost Bronx, T’Shawna Cates, a NYC Traffic Enforcement Agent, bulging out of her police-blue polyester uniform sat awkwardly squeezed into a plastic-topped booth of the Lucky One eatery. Earlier, the rookie meter maid had yelled through a bullet proof partition at the counter woman, “Lemme get small pint beef and broccoli—make that with no sugar, no salt and no MSG—DOCTORS ORDERS.” Then, turning to address a group of Catholic school girls in tartan skirts on line behind her, anticipating their solidarity, added, “and better get that right or I WILL HAUNT YOU. You feel me?”

“OK. OK. You take number four special?” a shrill voice replied, coming from a tiny, thin Asian woman behind the yellowed, densely scraffitied Plexiglass. “Come with pork fried rice, free eggroll, free soda, only one dollar more.”

Not passing on the upsell—the rookie meter maid was reveling at the substantial increase in income from her first city job in the subway as a Porter/Platform Cleaner where her lunch routine was restricted to climbing the station steps to the McDonalds at 96th and Broadway each day. She hated those steps. Now she enjoyed treating herself to restaurant meals three times daily. She was polishing off her 2400 calorie meal with pin-point accuracy, applying a stream of corn syrup-based orangey sauce squeezed from a packet atop the ultimate piece of her bonus eggroll, when T’Shana believed she was reliving the time she plummeted ten stories in the Highbridge Projects elevator. A wave of lethargy then swelled upwards as blood sugar spiked, an overtaxed gallbladder sputtered, kidneys coughed, anxious thoughts of fulfilling her summons quota danced in her mind’s fog. “This was a mistake,” was all she managed to say aloud before falling into a diabetic coma. “EATER METER MAID TOWED AWAY” The New York Post headline would read the next day, after emergency medical technicians, unable to free T’Shana from the booth called on firefighters who then deployed a diamond bladed demolition saw (not the Jaws of Life as TV news reported) to tear out the entire store front and hack the booth free. They then hoisted T’Shana atop a flatbed trailer hooked to the dark blue tow truck the agent had previously called to remove an illegally parked car she had triple ticketed, which transported T’Shana—still seated at her lunch table—to Jacobi Medical Center.

***

On the 100th floor of the World Trade Center, John Pat McGurty, a junior trading associate, wore his lucky Gucci tie to work, a lime green silk affair diagonally patterned with golden chain links, scored at a deep discount after winning a tug of war with a slim black man, is the story he would tell anyone complimenting the tie. A shouted threat of, “I’ll take you outside and knock you to Queer Street, sweetheart” led the other bargain shopper to drop his end after the two simultaneously unearthed the luxe tie from a pile at Century 21. John Pat was hooked on a cold call trying to dump a sketchy appliance maker stock on a London client from South West Asia, his specialty, when the lunch he planned on eating while studying his “Series 7 Test for Dummies” text was delivered to his desk. But as the adrenalin of closing a sale mounted, a compulsion to bite something struck. He reached for the aluminum pie tray tightly packed with a heavily sauced Chinese three portion combination lunch and opening the container with one hand fished out the eggroll packed atop. John Pat’s beer belly, which manifested the previous year in his final semester at Fordham, not a bit diminished from a bench pressing regime at Powerhouse Gym, extended to the desk edge, the Gucci tie draped across, forming an undulating runway between the lunch container and his lips. “Listen, Patel, I’m telling you everyone and their brother’s gonna have a George Foreman grill, we’re talking hundreds of millions, you’ll thank me for this.” Biting into the freshly fried eggroll a burst of hot oil scorched John’s mouth. When he instinctively tossed the appetizer back into the container, a mélange of oil and viscous brown sauce rained down the length of the tie. “FUCK!’’ he screamed into his headset then heard, “Mr. John Patrick, I don’t appreciate this. I will have to reconsider the purchase.”

***

Along Chambers Street, long-time veteran of the Archer foot messenger service and Non Commissioned Officer in the New York Army National Guard Jose Morales, returning to his midtown office, paused in the marble vestibule of the Tamany-era building where he’d just dropped off an envelope to fish a roach from the bottom pocket of his Army issue field jacket. He fired it up, retrieved a single fulfilling drag, then waded into a throng of bargain shoppers and lunch breaking municipal workers. Ever open to an opportunity, Morales saw one as he fast approached a popular food cart that had earned a Zagat rating for its eggrolls. A growing line of customers shaped up aside the cart parked in front of a luggage shop amid a mountaneous array of polychromed rolls of duct tape. He quickly sized up the scene. Two elegantly dressed women, one with a rolled copy of the T-Magazine which had guided them to the cart jutting out of her purse, had forked over a twenty dollar bill (regular customers knew to have a single ready for speedy service) and as the eggroll seller fished in his apron for eighteen dollars change, Morales acted. Without stopping in his stride he reached past a sneezeguard, a Plexiglass piece just large enough to pass the minimal demands of the inspector from Worth Street, and as if willing into being this confluence of elements conducive to theft, effortlessly swiped an eggroll that apparently toppled from an oil slicked pyramid of the things. “I’m not conceited, I’m convinced—I’m the best,” he announced to the whole of Chambers, and emulating John Travolta chowing down on a slice, strutting down the block in the intro to “Saturday Night Fever,” he theatrically chomped into the eggroll, instantly spitting out the mouthful. “Shit is raw, cold—CONIO!” For a heartbeat Morales considered returning the item for a replacement, demanding his dollar back too, but in frustration he spiraled the remaining eggroll at a grouping of pigeons along the curb. They languidly fluttered out of harm’s way, descending to pavement to eagerly peck at the object which had rolled to stop against a fire hydrant, indifferent to the temperature of the appetizer.

In each of these events the eggroll at the center of the scene was made in Gong’s factory.

***

Across the roadway a group of four black teens were efficiently moving along the column of parked cars, two on either side checking for open doors. Shorty spotted Gong.

“Yo, check it,” he told the crew, losing interest in their task, and began to follow, trailing a few car lengths behind Gong. “Let’s jump him.”

Hold up. They Chinese know Kung Fu.

“That’s bullshit niggahs be saying—one ching-chong in school, we housed his hat, his school bag, he just cried. Soft as baby shit.” Gong, reaching the vacant, lot squatted and set down the jugs, lining the grease containers aside the 16 he’d set earlier along the curb. He took his staff and balanced it over his shoulder, began his return march to the factory, passing the pack of teens wordlessly. “In my province,” he thought nearly aloud, “children were in school or working. What did they do all day? Who fed them?” He hadn’t turned down from fighting similar boys when he was on the bike, delivering for the restaurant in Fort Greene. Even the time they produced a gun. His uncle loved to play the staff and taught Gong well. Spearing ankles first, then reeling silk, the upward strikes of the enchanted magical staff form would sweep them off the sidewalk like dry leaves.

Returning to the gate he’d left open, Gong casually looked at the group, huddled twenty feet away, and descended.

“Yo, Shorty—man up. Go down there,” one said, and Shorty, the smallest in the bunch, stepped hesitantly towards the entrance.

Gong’s head popped upward, returning to the street with a box of fortune cookies the supply truck left. Pigeons, he found, wouldn’t eat the things, just batted them around. He reached into the box, held a cellophane package towards Shorty. “Cookie, you take all, for you OK,” pulled an insincere ear to ear grin.

“Put it down yo. Yeah don’t play me, you gonna grab me down there,” Shorty shouted so his crew would hear.

Gong recognized fear in the eyes, left the box and descended to his world, he had training to do.

Energized by the leg workout, Gong rolled up his left sleeve and began striking one of the basement support columns he’d wrapped with a tangle of cotton aprons, slightly blunting the concrete surface. Fifty strikes inside, fifty out, his forearm was numbed when he remembered to hit the switch that refilled the oil tanks, and started a production cycle. He traversed a diamond mesh steel walkway to where the basement opened into a vast atrium. Above him the enormous hopper filed with cabbages towered twenty feet to the ceiling. Below, radiating from a bearing four stainless blades each eight feet long gleamed, spanning the space, the only rust free metal in the entire factory. He checked if the eggroll wrapper chute was filled, the frozen sheets staked in racks fifteen feet up, and walked up a half flight walk way, dumped a fifty pound bag of premixed seasonings and chemical preservatives and a hundred pounds of frozen pork slime into the mixing vat.

The rusted bolts at the base creaked, rocking in their mounts as the tremendous torque bore down, broken bearings meshed unevenly and the air filled with a grinding metal-on-metal shriek. The sidewalk above shook as the automated factory was now set in motion.

Gong now opened a folded paper envelope, removed a handful of dried herbs which he massaged into his arm, then unsealed a three foot tall terracotta jar on the floor adjacent to the column. A pungent urine odor filled the air, displacing that of cabbage brine. The recipe handed down from his uncle, and to him from Gong’s great grandfather, he submerged his arm to the elbow into the amber liquid.

Shorty froze at the base of the steps, the crunching machinery stopped his heart, transfixed by the whirling blades, when Gong turned around, his bare arm gleaming wet and deep red. He smiled… “OH HO SHIT,” Shorty screamed, before shooting up the steps. “YO they got a machine. HE KILLING NIGGAHS IN THERE. BREAK OUT!”

***

“Ain't no entertainment like this in any Manhattan bar, you got to catch this open mic at the Ships Mast on Berry and Second—that's Brooklyn—I got a story for you," Rich told his buddy the newspaperman, calling from the corner pay phone. “Starts at seven but I’ll be there at six, I’m done painting for the day. See you there.”

Rich was chatting with the bartender, noting his D.A. hairstyle complimented the bar decor when the newspaperman arrived. “You guys aren’t on top of this serial killer, not like the Post,” Rich said as the newspaperman took a seat. “This isn’t news. Junkie hookers are always getting killed," the reporter said, "what’s really going on is there’s an agenda there, get the police pressure here. It’s real estate, that’s what it’s about. Ten years from now this will all be condos, clean streets and boutiques, like the Lower East Side.”

“The South Side? Are you kidding?” asked Rich. “From Dumbo to Greenpoint you got the most polluted stretch of real estate in the nation, heavy industry was here for decades. We got fuckin Radiac here—it’ll never get cleaned up. But there’s lots of news around here, I could fill the paper myself just walking around the studio every night.”

“If you got stuff on the killings I don’t care about it,” said the newspaperman. “What’s your story?”

“You know I’m out on the loading dock with a smoke this morning and this limo pulls up. Guy steps out, crisp white shirt, spit shined brogues, no business type you’d find around here,” Rich recounted. “I recognize him from TV, it’s our congressman; I ask him what’s up. He’s going to see this artist in my loft, getting a piece of sculpture for his new ambassadorial home—Clinton is making him ambassador to India.”

The newspaperman’s eyes widened. “That’s a story.”

“Gets better. I checked with Rachel, she ain’t getting paid—congress guy wants it on the arm, and we’re talking a major sculpture, and she’s good with that. Exposure is what he said.”

“That’s huge, that’d make the wood. You got an eye for a story, and your location is excellent. We’re tied up with staffing all sorts of bullshit. Give the night editor a call, he gets in at nine. Pitch him this stuff, he’ll put you to work.”

“Ah, I got my painting ...” Rich trailed off realizing how uncertain he was. When someone throws you the ball, run with it. Not like this painting thing came with a guidance counselor.

Walking warily along the dark gantlet of Berry Street, Rich reached the site under the helicopter to find a police officer at the factory entrance unreeling yellow crime scene tape across the sidewalk. He struggled to tie knots. A middle aged man in a tweed cap with an array of SLRs strapped to him, one gripped in his hands like a pistol, approached Rich. “You my words?”

“The paper sent me,” Rich said, not understanding.

“Words. I tell you, going to be hard getting an eggroll anywhere tomorrow,” the shooter gloated in an actual dem, dees, der accent. Rich felt an urge to hug him. “Amazing equipment, makes all the eggrolls for the East Coast, as good an industrial accident as it gets. No one inspects this stuff.” The photographer shook his head at that thought. “Used to make all the cole slaw for all the Greek diners. Now they’re hard to find now.”

“What’s it look like in there?” Rich asked, pointing at the opened gates leading to the basement.

“Like a giant bloody Chinese chicken salad.”

“So there’s nothing to see?”

“Nothing except this—” The shooter moved a piece of plywood leaning against a fire pump revealing a human arm lying on the pavement.

It may have been the nausea, but Rich thought he saw an aura shimmering around the limb, like the glow of a Bruce Nauman neon sculpture.

“Soon as this cop turns, I’m shooting it with my flash. This will make the wood.”

Contributor

Howie Stier

HOWIE STIER—a journalist by avocation—is the son of a death camp survivor, father of a Canadian entrepreneur and quit smoking after the World Trade Center blew up atop him. He attended the Bronx High School of Science, returned to that borough at the peak of New York's violent crime and reported on the murder and mayhem for a major metropolitan newspaper. He covered the Entertainment-Tonight beat from red carpets and the back alleys of Hollywood Boulevard for national celebrity rags, he's contributed to ARTnews, LA Weekly, New York Magazine, Vibe and hammers-out fiction set in Brooklyn from a corner of the hippest neighborhood in the nation, North East Los Angeles. Visit Legmanla.com—it's intoxicating!

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