The Crime Wave
They say there is a crime wave. Every inch between my eyes and my shins wants it to be real, to be an actual meteorological event, here in New York, to mark my arrival. I keep looking up at the sky, expecting a gruesome wall of bad intentions with a flotsam of crowbars and knives that would suck me away into the gutter, leaving me miles away with nothing in my pockets, with no faith in my heart and no rings on my fingers. To wash me clean with dirty America.
In a way, I think it would be liberating, a different, more refined sort of freedom.
I tell this to Dr. Monoli and she frowns. She tells me that I don’t really understand what the papers mean, that it's propaganda, and then asks me if I am making fun of the city, which has real problems, even if they’re different problems than what I experience back home. She changes her tone when she says the last part, as if someone is watching, like she’s being interviewed on a tight-faced contemporary talk show. I’m convinced that Dr. Monoli interviews herself in her head every night before she goes to sleep, to keep her delusions alive. I’d ask her, but she rarely lets me ask anything at all. Introspective questions here take on a strange value, like unnecessary buttresses or calls to battle.
The sun is setting and we are sitting on a patio attached to the hotel Dr. Monoli booked for me when I first arrived. Every 10 minutes or so, as she depletes the melting blob of burrata with crackers made from nuts, she comments on the hotel, saying oh this is actually pretty nice, isn’t it? Each time, I nod and say that it is, even though I only stayed here one night.
Dr. Monoli chose me to come to New York because I was by far the best English speaker out of all the people who lived in the neighborhood they were canvassing, in my shining Astana. I didn’t even live in that particular neighborhood, I was just visiting a friend to watch television and have the kind of augmented and dangerous sex we read about in the pdfs our other friends downloaded from a respected institute in Lima run by ex-members of a prominent Nueva Ola band, but I was stopped by a NYU research assistants and asked if I lived around there, if I spoke English.
Why, yes I do! I’d said, trying to make my voice sound smoky. None of the other participants had any idea whether or not I lived around, the neighborhood is block after block of apartment buildings growing out of a desperately preserved premodern market, with its tents and wood and all that. I said my family had owned a fruit stand for two generations. I’m not even from Astana.
Now, I’m in New York and wishing that Dr. Monoli would take a deep breath and do something perverse. The weather is right for it. There’s a crime wave after all. I imagine the blaring of sirens competing with the howling of all sorts of animals coming into the city, getting drunk on the water that sits in the unscripted holes through the concrete face of this tight-lace reality.
Dr. Monoli asks if I can write 1000 words about social media use among people my age (28) in Astana because she says we aren’t getting anywhere, which is mostly because she’s been talking about her son’s drug problem for the last 45 minutes. I just nod along, but I want to tell her that it’s her own fault that she encouraged him to become a lawyer. What did she expect when she suggested he take ketamine therapy to deal with his depression? That she told him she’d pay for it. He’s never touched that stuff before, she says, and I know she’s faking it and lying and I smile to myself to the cavern of screaming fans that lines the walls of my brain.
Dr. Monoli pays the bill and looks at me deeply, almost sexually, as if paying for me is a release of epochal gratuity that shakes her to her core. I only had a lemon-flavored sparkling water and didn’t touch the burrata so I just stare as she throws her phone into her purse like she’s trying to keep something down in there.
Leaving her to herself, I sail through the chrome and wood, past lobbies, into the mirrored elevators where I stare at myself descending, and down onto the busy avenue. As I look up at the skyscrapers, the texture is wrong, but from them I feel a sense of radiating criminality, but it’s too refined, like shitty liquor that’s been bottled in fine crystal and sold and sold and sold until everyone in the world thinks it’s good and so it becomes good. I walk until I find the first and most impressive cathedral and imagine the Gangster Saints chanting from machine gun turrets embedded in the stone that’s way less ancient than it looks.
I close my eyes and walk up the limestone steps and imagine that my legs can actually feel the softness of the stone, that if I eat my way through them with clenching toes, I might arrive at some vision at the heart of everything. I remember Dr. Monoli asking me if I could possibly produce the alcoholic sparkling milk drink common to my region. I nodded vigorously and imagined her frothing at the mouth as I stand shirt off above a massive steaming cauldron I’ve somehow gotten into the 200 square foot student room that she secured for me at the university after I left the delicious hotel. I get it wrong and the whole thing goes sour, a toxic cloud emerges, it spreads through the poorly ventilated building and wilts the body-positivity construction paper signs someone has tacked up in the hall. The students become incensed, they begin to rage as if all the manners and none of the knowledge has been stripped from them. All the while, Monoli is sitting at the edge of her seat. Her button up poplin shirt from Tory Burch is getting soggy and she is staring deep into the pot, while I continue to stir, not quite sure what to do.
The church is dark and I’m disappointed by all the ropes keeping me from everywhere. The lights are electric, which is fine, but I want something a bit more cultural. I want the repentance to be thick – if all these people are Christians and there’s crime flowing up through the cracks, then why is everyone here a tourist? I make a mental note to have Juju generate one of her fun Venn diagrams with cute anime graphics demonstrating the similarities between tourists and criminals.
Getting absolutely nothing from the church, I walk back out to the street to try and continue my cultural experience. If I can’t get at the refuse of crime, its vapors, I might as well get straight to the source. I head into the subway, start to touch the tile wall but stop – I have to wait. I reach deep into my denim painters shirt that I bought in a little shop by the river and pull out the small tablet with a name I can’t remember from a guy taking part in another research exchange group from Tbilisi. He wears clothes made out of rugs and listens to music that sounds like turkeys developed quantum travel technology and used it to infuse nuts with the sounds of stars dying.
Everything is fine on the subway. There are a few cops and I think, finally, but then they’re everywhere and remind me more of sports players than the soldiers I’m used to seeing. Someone says something to me in Chinese and I bow even though I have no idea. They raise their eyebrows and say something else then run to catch a train. I wait, not getting on anything.
Some guy with a tattered suit walks by and I follow him for a bit, but he just walks up the stairs, down to another platform, then repeats the same thing, and I get bored. I remember a clip from the Johnny Carson show that I used to watch. My mother would watch VHS recordings with labels written in purple pen on duct tape that looked demonic somehow, like a color dreamed up in an industrial waste pit. She never let me watch them, not because of the content, but because it was her time, and I think she was afraid I’d tell my friends and their moms would think she was uncool; they had an occult system, in their social group, that categorized taste and popularity based on decades of American talk show hosts and they held Carson in low regard, like people who hate the Beatles, to be cool. I tried to tell an NYU student this and they started to talk about cargo cults, and I zoned out looking at their stupid bangs and thick glasses, and it seemed like they were sexting.
One day back then, before the VHS player blew up and the ladies moved onto new ways to dissect themselves, I was entranced by a snippet I caught of Carson from the crack in the door to my mother’s room. I quickly found it again on YouTube. It was from the late 70s and Dean Martin was on. He swaggers across the stage, drink and smoke in hand, a rich buttermilk suit and golden tie framing his tan face and brown dollop of hair, like an angel-knight. He sits down, eyes puffy like a desert sage behind lopsided caramel glasses. He is absolutely blinkered and he sits down next to Johnny and says this is it, huh? swaying back and forth in his seat, legs crossed like a dandy. He asks Johnny if he’s going to be one of those hosts that doesn’t let him smoke and Johnny says no and the crowd goes absolutely wild. It was glorious and gruesome, and I shed a layer of skin reading through all the comments that said things like this sort of entertainment will never happen again. As if they can’t see that Martin is winking with his whole body, how it’s all just a cover and a joke and sure, it’s never been like that again, because it’s never been as honestly gruesome. Grandpas can be embroiled in the criminal element, too.
Finally, I decide that Manhattan is not where it’s at, that I need to get out further to experience real crime or at least the miasma of it, the vapors. I ask someone on the platform which train goes the furthest. They look at me not with annoyance but as if me talking to them has saved their life in a small way, as if I was spontaneity and CINEMA itself, a golden youth, and they point me to a train and yes, it’s going far, all the way to deep Queens and they ask me where I need to go but I forget whether to nod or shake my head and get onto the train immediately.
I sit and it smells fine. I feel like I am on the train for hours. My ears pop every time the train goes further underground, under the river, under the world, through the center of fire and disease and back again to the quiet lull of people staring at nothing or staring at nothing on their phones or playing some strange color block game that I haven’t seen anyone play for years. I begin to think I’ve gone back in time and realize that I’ve been feeling that way for weeks. Maybe I’m just now noticing. The door between the trains opens with a metallic whoosh and I throw my head up, eyes wide like a hyena.
The stops on the digital timeline on the wall become less and less and eventually I feel I should get off, so I do. The station is filled with people going to work or coming home and there are a few people sitting on their bikes like watering horses and another is yelling at the beleaguered but unphased woman who is trapped at the information stand, behind the glass and stickers. I linger for a moment. Then another. A half hour goes by and the people switch and someone else is yelling. Someone else is begging and I give them three dollars and nothing happens. I expect the dark clouds to part, for the nephilim to come down, but still no, nothing – it’s thin.
I see two youths with baggy pants making a fuss, playing music simultaneously from both their phones so the two sources sort of annul the presumably very violent lyrics, cancels it out, like two old people talking at the same time in a way that doesn’t expedite communication but solidifies a feeling, a lifetime of feelings. I follow them. I think about dialectics and wonder what the opposite of my state is. Probably taxes or a hippie vision quest, where no one realizes the shaman lives in the jungle because he’s been expunged for molesting someone.
It’s very dark and I feel that’s encouraging. I see a few people who look exactly like they do downtown, like someone from the 90s TV shows I used to watch. They look afraid of the tired people around them and I feel that’s encouraging. I keep following the youth and they are completely confident and unaware and I feel that’s encouraging. I remember the look on my uncle's face when I threw a baseball through the case where he kept his Star Wars dolls and I feel that’s encouraging, too.
After 15 minutes or so, the pair stop at a Taco Bell, the first I’ve seen. I realize I’m hungry and I get behind them in line to order.
My phone with its temporary SIM buzzes. It’s Dr. Monoli.
What you said about my son was the nicest thing I’ve heard in about a century, she texted. I couldn’t remember.
Waiting in line, under the fluorescents that light up the greasy wrappers strewn like glacial boulders across the tables, I think about online shopping. A light blinks outside for a moment as if it might give out, but then it endures.
After I finish eating, I find my way back to the train station, even though I want to get lost, to wander into some forbidden turf, but none of the night people, even the ones who are obviously just roaming around, give me a second look. I realize that it must be my appearance. I send Tumi a message and ask if they can transfer me the money they owe me for setting up their psychedelic cosmetics brand (which I labeled with German Christmas iconography) on the Block Chain to sell to sad Japanese people. They immediately agree and apologize for forgetting.
I take the train a few stops and ask the man sitting next to me if there are skyscrapers at each one. He’s sleeping. Finally, I get off again and am in Brooklyn, apparently, but the people around me look nice, like from catalogs, even when they’re obviously trying to look shitty. They’re young but out of school and soft like uncooked clay. A few older people in denim and leather walk around, confused, like they just woke up from a coma. I walk into a store with plants in the windows and a light-bulb-text sign. It’s obvious they’re closing. Perfect, I think and buy myself a camel peacoat and a satin Oxford shirt that fits my lean body perfectly as well as clean brown loafers. I take a picture in the changing room and send it to Tumi who sends me a cumming emoji. Worth the wait? they ask.
On the street, people have tucked their way into smaller restaurants and I feel too tired to try and find a housing project and wander around. I think that I’ve gotten off my mark, that it shouldn’t be my goal to be the actual victim of crime. It would be a too-little bite, like a shot in the arm instead of a waterfall, and I think that maybe what’s required is time sped up really fast. I ask my phone if any drugs have a “time-lapse” effect and I only get a bunch of essays about movies with drugs that use visual methods to portray the metaphysical “slipperiness” of contemporary “subjectivity.” I turn it off.
My mouth is dry and my stomach is that double-empty that you get after taking serotonin drugs. I walk into a bar with brass detailing and a roof of fake rusted tin, and I recognize the clash but the bar is made of a nice wood, walnut maybe, strained and smooth. It’s warm and LED lights are on and a group shouts around a new retro pinball machine in the back. A few men are there, at the bar. They wear almost the same clothes as me except some have ties and most have skin like the milk concoction in my dream. Their faces are smooth like Johnny’s and I finger my own neatly cut beard that stretches down below my Oxford’s collar.
Soon, I’m drinking with them and having so much fun, strangely, drinking beer and shots, each to compensate for the other and the yelling to compensate for everything else. It feels familiar. Soon, they drag me with them, calling me Peter for no real reason. We get out onto the street and one of them pukes all over the sidewalk and a Hasidic woman tucks herself into herself furiously. They call a car and I’m very drunk so I get in. I’m the last one and the boys are inside piled on top of themselves shouting Peter, Peter, Peter and right before I lift my other foot off the ground I can feel a pulse, the deep thrumming of the sewer below and I look up, down the street filled with couples and men in large parkas and flat brim hats now and I see a pile of perfectly tied black trash bags stacked high. I swear I can see them trembling, shaking in anticipation.
Ben Dreith is a writer living in Brooklyn. His fiction has been published in X-R-A-Y and Fugitives and Futurists, and his reviews covering the neo-decadent fiction movement can be found in Maudlin House.