In the Glow by Nick Mamatas
Though she left her husband for reasons even she didn't fully understand and was now homeless for it, Julia was okay. She was white, and had a purse full of money, and wasn't shy. She spent a lot of time in diners, staying far too long into the night, recharging with coffee and pancakes, and reading the free weekly newspapers and pick-up magazines that littered the streets till the seats went up onto the tables, thanks to our arms and backs. Were Julia a character in a movie, perhaps a waiter would have taken her home, or maybe she would be given an apron and a job right on the spot by the burly Greek owner, because she looked so sad yet strong. But Julia was not a character in a movie, and could hardly be said to look sad at all. Her eyes were wild like the streets used to be, before the neighborhood was gutted for the stadium and the high-rises.
Julia showered at the Y and bought new clothes at local stores — "what am I bid?" fishnets, and pencil skirts, and T-shirts with rhinestones and winking cats on them. And tiny boots. She made friends on her second night, thanks to a broad red smear of lipstick and the quivering excitement of thirty hours awake. It was at the Kellogg's Diner, whose old sign hinted at some ancient relationship with the cereal company, in a ratty booth. A young man and woman, skinny in striped shirts, with Buddy Holly glasses (matching) and haircuts (similar, but not identical) that Julia decided to christen The Institutional as it seemed like the kind of work a state employee with a head shaver and a spastic client might do as part of mental hospital intake. They had a petition, Julia had a smile.
"We oppose the construction of the stadium and the new condos," the woman explained. Her name was Alysse, she said, and she was worried about rising rents, increased traffic loads, and the decline of working class neighborhoods and ethnic diversity. The man, her boyfriend surely given the body language and peculiar choose-shirts-from-the-same-pile-on-the-floor wardrobe they were both a'rockin', nodded in agreement. He was called Davan. Julia told them her name was Julia.
"Are you two lifelong Brooklynites?" Julia asked. "Any kids?"
"No, but I've been here a long time," Davan said. "Three years."
"Eight months for me," Alysse said. Julia nodded in a way that compelled a couple to slide into the seat on the other side of her booth.
"Gentrification, eh?" Julia said. Davan spread out flyers, a clipboard, pictures of the proposed stadium and a poor black child holding a toy, and a leaflet with a grotesque caricature of Peter Neads Fishman, his head like a swollen light bulb and nose a frankfurter.
"This neighborhood used to have character," Davan said, "It still does, really," said Alysse, with a wave around the diner.
"Isn't the stadium already a fait accompli?" Julia asked. And indeed, the stadium, at least partially constructed and wrapped in a web of scaffolding and flapping tarpaulin, was clearly visible through the window of the booth in which the three were sitting.
"It's about consciousness," Davan said. "Remembering history."
"Yeah. That's what it is for me. I mean, I didn't even know there was a problem after I moved here, and then I met Davan. Why can't I live in a neighborhood that isn't been torn up to make way for some decamillionaires to buy condos from a billionaire?" Alysse said. Julia just stared, a forkful of pancake dripping syrup back onto the plate by her mouth. The fork was smeared with red from her lipstick. Then Alysse added, "Well, why can't I live in this neighborhood without a stadium and the condos?"
"Because the stadium and the condos are already there."
Davan smiled. "Yeah, well, it's not like we can blow it up. But we can limit its impact. Payouts to displaced families. The minimum plan for new construction around the stadium. Light rail."
"I don't agree with the light rail," Alysse said. "I'm a traditionalist. I like the grand old subway stations, even if the paint is flaking off the pillars and the tiles are cracked and the public restrooms are closed forever."
"They stink like pee, the subway stops around here," Julia said. "I suppose because the restrooms are closed forever. One of those unintended consequences, I suppose."
Neither Davan nor Alysse quite knew what to say in response, so they laughed, Davan more than Alysse. He liked the idea of an attractive woman speaking about urination while eating pancakes in a greasy spoon. "It felt like a sliver of authenticity in a world of contrivance," he would later write in a blog read by a handful of his friends, and by Raymond as well.
Julia took the clipboard and signed her name to the petition, then crossed out her maiden surname and wrote Raymond's name, Hernandez, next to it. She wrote the address of the Kellogg Diner itself as her address, and a phony but plausible-seeming email address for her contact information. "Now what?" she asked, sliding the clipboard back.
"Thanks," Alysse said, and she moved as if she wanted to slide out of the booth, but Davan was rooted in his seat. "Well, we're raising consciousness here," he said. "We have extra petitions, if you want to start collecting signatures. It's not that we're going to submit the signatures to Fishman — you can't change a man's mind against his own interests, at least not when they're as rich as Fishman, and have the city council as personal servants — but it's a way to start conversations."
"We're autonomists," Alysse said, believing that the word explained it all. Julia made a gesture somewhere between a shrug and the anxious wave of one's hands you might see an impatient shopper do at the supermarket when two carts want the same patch of space in an aisle.
"We don't believe in telling people what to do," Alysse said. "I mean, who are we to come into this neighborhood and tell the families here to go out and protest, or to try to lead them?"
"That would make us as bad as Fishman," Davan said.
Julia nodded, her chin wrinkled in a mimicry of thoughtfulness. "Yes," she said.
"I mean, it would be great if people around here would just wake up," Davan said. "And do something. Picket, stop the construction workers from coming onto the site. The project only needs to fall behind a few months for the entire sports season — basketball, hockey, the circus, all sorts of things — to be fouled up. He'll lose millions, maybe even fail to complete it."
"It could become a community garden, or a homeless shelter, or something for the people," Alysse said.
"It could at least stop subsequent investment that doesn't take into account the community." Davan said.
Julia nodded. "But you don't want to tell anyone to do this, or arrange it with
Davan leaned back in the booth, the cheap upholstery squeaking under him, and held open his arms. "We're not Malcolm X here. We can only make suggestions. And ask people to take their own petitions and spread the meme."
Julia said, "Meme?"
"An idea, in people's heads. They're like genes, they propagate themselves. A 'do something' meme. If we talk to one hundred people, and ten of them take the meme and it evolves into ten new ideas—"
"Descendents of the original, primordial idea," Alysse said, interrupting.
"And that means ten modes of attack on the development process, ten modes which likely cannot be predicted—" Davan continued.
"Or stopped." The couple smiled together, like they practice it often, or live in an apartment so small that their habits and expressions cannot help but be mixed together, like their CD collections.
"Well, what are you going to do about memes like 'I can walk to a Nets game and not have to pay for parking,' or 'Working-class families are boorish and gauche and some expensive condos will bring in a bunch of nice white kids with money to spend on pancakes and photocopies'?" Julia asked. She winked too, and the tip of her tongue darted out to catch a drop of syrup on her lip.
"Yeah, or 'Who are these two particular white kids who haven't even lived here very long pretending to be outraged by gentrification?', right?" asked Alysse in return. Julia said "Just so," and Davan huffed, sitting up very straight.
Julia leaned in close and said, conspiratorially, "Have we just infected you with our memes, David?"
"Davan," said Davan. Julia glanced over at Alysse, who appeared bemused.
"Davan," Julia said, "I'll be right back." And she got up and left the diner. Alysse noticed for the first time that Julia didn't have a purse or even a coat, and the night was fairly chilly. "Bye!" Alysse called out, ready to say something else, to intervene somehow, but Julia only said, "Yahbye!" and trotted through the exit.
After three minutes, when the check came and Julia had not yet returned, Davan figured something out as well. Alysse paid the bill, because it wasn't fair to the waitress if the diner was stiffed, and because Davan's freelance job as a graphic designer is generally either feast or famine, and this month was all famine.
Julia went to the Y, where her stash of cash was kept in a locker, and removed seventy-five dollars. From there she stopped at several bodegas and dollar stores, buying cheap white soap — Ivory mostly, but various off-brand soaps as well, some with names and lists of ingredients presented in Spanish. At one, she even bought a two-wheeled wagon in which to carry the soap.
By 1AM, Julia had reached the stadium. Scaffolding is hard to climb, she found out quickly enough. Julia could never do a pull-up. But, in the maze of barriers that sealed off the sidewalk on both sides, Julia found an opening and in that opening stood a Dumpster, its flaps closed. Julia emptied her two-wheeled wagon of the bags of soap bars and placed them atop the Dumpster, then scrambled onto it herself. From there, she was able to reach the first of several catwalks with relative ease. First she hefted the bags of soap up, as she had done on the Dumpster, and followed them to the next level.
On the catwalk, Julia teetered, unsure of the planks under her feet and the sight of lampposts at eye level. The cars already began to look smaller, like toys. But still she climbed, tossing the soap up first, nine bags of stuff swung high and then pushed, and then with a sharp intake of breath she reached up and pulled herself up still higher, past the first layer of tarp and to the second.
High enough, she thought, she hoped. It was windy and cold, probably, and Julia was never a broad woman. The weather cut through her bones, even as her heart and lungs boiled in her chest from the exertions of the night, the excitement of the moment. She opened the first bag and unwrapped four bars of soap. She put the wrappers back in the plastic bag and, grabbing two bars in each hand, reached out and scraped the soap against the exterior wall of the stadium, right on the curve facing the intersection.
It took a long time and the whole of the bars to form the first letter. Julia's arms tired quickly, but she persevered. There was plenty of time till the sunrise, and she could work even through the dawn thanks to the curtain of tarps hanging behind her. After carving out the I and the J and the U, she had the thought, it seemed, that construction may begin before dawn. Isn't that everyone's complaint, after all, that jackhammers growl to life and pound the sidewalks at 7AM, and that morning commutes are forever being snarled by backhoes and trucks full of sewer pipe. She redoubled her efforts as best she could, sweating and dirty through the sooty night, except for her hands and arms, which were covered in the slippery scents and bubbles of soap and sweat.
Julia dreaded the possibility of making a typo — maybe she thought the word Soap-o because that is the sort of person she was — and wiped her eyes with the back of her arm, but only succeeded in making them sting. Soap. Her blouse, drenched, was no better. Then she tried a tarp, and the rough weave of fiberglass scratched her face, but did finally clear her eyes. She stepped back carefully, but still felt her stomach swirl up her spine like a snake on a branch. The world turned upside-down for a moment, and Julia reached out wildly for a handhold. Julia's hands were slippery and her knees buckled from the realization, and the phantom taste of a face full of concrete, but she managed to hug the lattice of metal piping, hooking the bars on the curves of her elbows. She felt a sting on her tongue, bile and vomit from the fear. It fell viscously from her mouth.
Finally, Julia turned back to her work, more careful than before, her arms taffy from the scraping of the soap to form those thick wide letters. Every soap wrapper, each little cardboard box, was placed back into one of the plastic bags from the convenience stores. Y was triumphant, a cheerleader with arms splayed, holding pom-poms. The Us were easy, almost soothing, though they required extensive kneeling. Sadly, Julia had to make the O as a U with a little half-oval on top. The round joviality of O was beyond the medium of concrete and soap, at least given the work that had come before.
When Julia was done with the message, she turned and tried to pull the tarps from the scaffolding, but her hands were still slippery and her fingers weak and stiff from all the grasping. She tugged hard and nearly stomped her foot. Julia had to swallow that urge, just to avoid falling from the scaffold and hitting the two paths on the way down to the sidewalk. Still determined, she lowered herself down, one level at a time, like an infant scooting down a flight of steps on legs and butt, till she hit the Dumpster with a satisfying thud. She opened the flap that she wasn't standing atop, and instantly found a shark-finned shard of cement. Then it was back up the scaffolding, and the slicing went easy.
Julia collected the bags, put the cement shard in one, and looping her arms through the handles, gingerly made her way down to the ground level, awkward as if trying to play violin with a pair of bat wings for arms. The sun was muscling its way up the river by the time she was done. Julia hopped on a bus, she didn't know which one, bags and all, and didn't get off till she was back in Manhattan.
That morning the side of the stadium, which didn't have a name yet as the rights hadn't been sold, though both Costco and the Harriman family were said to be interested, had a message for Brooklyn.
Police were called, and two patrolmen dutifully appeared to write things down in their little pad. Neither knew which song it was from, though one of the construction workers, an apprentice carpenter had it stuck in his head because he drove past the old World Fair's ground in Queens that past weekend. The foreman called for the sandblaster and by 10 AM the morning crew had managed to permanently engrave the message into the wall. It had only been soap, after all. It rained that afternoon.
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