We Always Knew We Were Just Passing Through

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.