We always knew we were just passing through. My friend Dan lived in a meat locker — which made sense, since it was the Meatpacking District — in the back of a metal shop with the shop’s owner, who slept in a loft with rice paper walls suspended from the shop’s ceiling. It was all illegal, but there was nobody to say anything. There was a bar called the Man Hole just down the street, and another bar like it a couple doors down that I can’t remember the name of. When I visited Dan we’d play music together in the shop. We started off on just violin and guitar, but soon we were trying out horns and drums. We couldn’t play them to save our lives, but we could play them with each other. We started getting more people to play with us, too. We were carpenters and grad students, deli workers and graphic designers, but none of that mattered when were together. We’d play and then walk down Gansevoort Street, which was deserted and still old cobblestones then, and we’d go to the bar that wasn’t the Man Hole, and we’d get well drinks and talk about going south, or going to Eastern Europe, or to South America, but none of us had the money for that kind of thing and we all knew it.
But that made the parties Dan threw pretty good. Maybe twenty or thirty of us at a time would get together. We’d draw the curtains over the windows at the front of the shop — the front was all windows, a bay door that was all glass — and we’d set the bottles down on the shop equipment while we listened to recordings of music we didn’t understand and then try to play it, with enough energy to make people dance, and we’d do that until the light filtering in from the front told us the sun was coming up, and it was time to go home. We’d drift apart in the pink dawn, heading in different directions, like spies protecting a secret.
The shop owner was a nice guy. He was in his sixties, and had put in his time, making sculptures and machine parts. He’d done well enough to be semi-retired now. He slept in the loft when he was around, but he was upstate more and more often. He’d bought a cabin outside one of those ragged towns in the Catskills that he was fixing up whenever he had the chance. He liked parties, said he used to throw a lot more of them. He loved that Dan was doing it now. He said it reminded him of what his own twenties were like Then he’d talk about how the neighborhood was about to change. It didn’t seem possible to look at it. But somebody kept coming around, offering him a lot of money for his spot. Half again what he paid for it. In time, it was double, triple, and still ticking upward in a steady beat.
It was a countdown clock. The shuttered meatpacking plant on the corner got renovated and turned into a restaurant. The Man Hole closed and became a designer clothing store. Gansevoort Street wasn’t deserted anymore, and when Dan and I went out for a drink at the other place, we were underdressed.
In time, that bar got replaced, too. Another restaurant opened on the other side of the shop. At last, someone made the owner an offer he couldn’t turn down. It was life-changing money. Enough that he didn’t have to worry about money again.
So the owner told Dan he had time for one last, big party. Dan got the word out and everyone showed up — everyone who’d ever come in the past, and everyone who’d always meant to come. It was maybe two hundred people, and a quarter of them had instruments with them. The owner opened the front of the shop all the way up to the summer air. He let out all the secrets. The party spilled across the sidewalk. There was music playing on a stereo inside, and Dan and I and maybe twelve other people started playing on the street outside. We’d gotten pretty good by then, and we kicked up a big sound.
I can remember so much from that night. People going to the restaurants on either side of us, in much nicer clothes, stopped and stared. They wanted to come in but were afraid, even when they got invited. Is this some sort of underground club? one of them said. Meanwhile, our people had open bottles on the sidewalk, or they carried them in their hands, lifted them in the air while they danced to us. We’d dragged a couple of the workbenches onto the sidewalk and a couple sat at the end of one of them, making out, a lot. Within twenty minutes her shirt was half off and her legs were wrapped around his waist. His face was buried in her chest. She had her eyes closed, her mouth open. The people kept coming and there were more and more bottles, and we all knew we had never played as well as we played that night. Everything was clear. I didn’t know it, but that was the last time I’d ever play with Dan. When the owner moved out, Dan moved to Staten Island, and we still saw each other around, at parties and shows, but we never seemed to have our instruments with us.
Suddenly it was ten years later. I had moved out of the city years before. Almost everyone had. We couldn’t make rent anymore. But a friend named Megan was coming into town, someone who had done very well for herself. She asked if we could meet up. Of course, I said. She gave me the address of the hotel where she was staying and I went back to the city.
The address was familiar and it occurred to me that it must be close to where the machine shop had been. But when I got to the street, I didn’t recognize anything. The things that had replaced the old things had already been replaced again. The outline of the machine shop building I was looking for was gone. It had been replaced by the hotel.
I needed a password to get into the place and Megan hadn’t given it to me. The concierge, a woman dressed like a razor, looked at my clothes — they were same clothes as they were 10 years ago — and knew I didn’t belong. She waited in silence while I called Megan, and Megan came down to get me.
There was a party in the penthouse, and Megan told me to come. Maybe fifty people were there. The music was loud and no one was dancing, and they all had cocktail glasses in complicated shapes, drinks of two different colors. The conversation was polite and witty but it was obvious nobody in the room was there to have fun. They were angling for something. Money. Sex. A better job. More power. They took one look at me and knew I had nothing to offer them.
“Let’s get out of here,” Megan said. We ended up walking for block after block, looking for a new place to land. We never quite found one.
A few weeks later I learned that a celebrity, a comedian, was found dead in that hotel, floating face-up in the bathtub of his room. His system was swimming with drugs. It was unclear if he’d overdosed or drowned, if it was suicidal or accidental. No prior history. Nothing was clear, and it never would be. And I thought of that last party, and the guy who owned the shop, and the bar I still can’t remember the name of. I thought of Dan, of the two of us trying to figure out how to play music in that meat locker. We didn’t know anything then, either. But maybe we always knew from the start.
Listen to music from the last party
Brian Francis Slattery is an editor, writer, and musician. He’s the arts editor for the New Haven Independent, the author of four novels, and co-author of Bookburners, a serial with four other authors. His ethnomusicological studies were most recently supported by a grant from the Lester D. Marlborough Foundation for Archival Spelunking and Excavation.