Pat a Cake
Lenny Stein, East Village auteur, named by his Ma for Lenny Bruce, found himself glued to the side of the chainmail fence that looked over the brightly lit chasm of twisted metal and debris hundreds of people worked manically and painstakingly to clear. Here, the unending call of voices, whir of machinery. Lenny glanced up at the embracing hulks of the massive dark buildings and saw now in the warmth of their darkness how they were like some Disney cartoon, comforting animals. He gagged, inhaled too hard and started coughing, reached for the paper mask in his pocket. The string was missing, he noticed as he brought it up to his nose. Had X-Files, his Persian kitty, eaten it? He recalled having to wrest the mask from the paws of the kitty who thought it was a catnip mouse. Yes, there were even claw marks gouging in tiny holes. A bit was torn off the end, savagely eaten. Not totally airtight. Sweet X-Files, his powerball of a kitty, constantly gagging on hairballs. He’d found the kitten, a tiny ball of fluff, mewling outside a Chinese restaurant one night, took her home. Her had got her past a bad cold and a case of malnutrition. She was now going on strong two years. But here was not such a swift gasmask. The Taliban would surely laugh themselves to death if they knew.
His old leather briefcase hanging from his shoulder, overpacked with prime pages from scripts-in-progress, notes of indie film openings, bootleg dvds, religious tracts of all faiths including a schedule from the more glamorous uptown Kabbalah Center Madonna was now touting, commie newspapers disseminated by ancient hippy friends, all sorts of coupons to be clipped, recent and old copies of the New York Press and the Brooklyn Rail, for God knows the Voice was unreadable with so much advertising and such a sellout these days. Ma kept warning him he would lose everything if he didn’t clean it out. He kept promising to, but the precious load continued unedited. He kept the briefcase next to him in bed in case Ma might grab it, clean it out, exterminate every vestige of hope he might have, as she did in the ‘Extermination of 1998.’ He was so blown away and pissed off, he disappeared to Berkeley for weeks, staying with a girlfriend there just to work his feelings out. Why couldn’t Ma understand the beauty, the ‘exigencies’ of process he had built his life and work on, how it always tore him up, nostalgia and the passing of time. If he found himself throwing away anything at all, he would go insane with grief, sob for hours. That’s how he so often ended up doing nothing at all. He would be incapable of editing, writing, and shooting, “Just focus on the now,” his ex had told him. “But Ma doesn’t like ‘the now,’” he explained, No future, no possibility either. She’s only interested in preserving the past. If you’re not in Ma’s museum, you’re nowhere. Hey, she did good, cleaning up the Holocaust and such, putting the cousins and grandparents, etc. into their eternal frames in the albums with adjoining commentary like some Hitler Hallmark Series, but it’s hard for her to deal with anyone but the Rabbi, period. “So know it,” the girlfriend said, “and proceed.” The first days back, Lenny slept with the briefcase nailed down in his arms. Lately though, it had been creeping off past the bed. On one occasion, he woke up realizing he’d left it outside his room in a demilitarized zone. He ran butt naked out of the room clutching a pillow to his private parts to get it. There it was, still standing in total grandeur where he left it. A few hours more, with the light of dawn, his briefcase stuffed with precious items may have been a goner. But hey, there was his trusty old black notebook in there, notes on shoots, poetry, and girls’ phone numbers. How could a genuine Ma toss all this into a dumpster downstairs so you have to climb in right in front of the demolition guys and root down there among the broken doors and bricks and plaster to find what you could? It’s not like he didn’t love her. Maybe it was all the rage to clean the world up of its untidiness afflicting her from the Holocaust. But still. Was it fair to erase other people’s lives?
Lenny’s shock of graying black hair seemed to stand straight up, his mournful eyes under wirerims glittering hard as he brought his trusty old videocam up, aiming it directly at the busy Site. You never know, you could be taken for a terrorist doing absolutely nothing these days, but to film the Recovery so brazenly was a serious matter. One needed to film it for the soul. He hoped he wouldn’t get caught.
Here now, someone was singing, coming nearer in the dark. It was the worst, most godawful rendition of ‘I’ve Got the World on a String’ Lenny had ever heard in his life.
“Oh hey,” he heard himself scream happily, for it was ‘Ipod’ as they called him, the nutty cameraman everyone saw everywhere, always plugged into his white earplugs, always dreamily pointing his cameras at everything in sight. Warm brown eyes, a shock of chestnut hair that begged Brylcreem, a goodnatured soul wheeling in delight under the broken skies, always rapt with joy in the company of so much brotherly love among the vast crews arriving from all over the nation and world to dig out the Twin Towers. The red kerchief the guy had tied over his jaw doubled as a gasmask. He would appear a bandit from the gunslinger days except for his bevy of cameras hanging from his neck.
Len lowered his cam, the eye gently landing on Ipod. Ipod came to a halt with a flourish, stopped singing. ‘I’m in love,’ he concluded his song, tore out his earplugs with a wide grin.
“Strip wind,” said the guy.
“Yeah, yeah,” agreed Len. It wasn’t windy at all, but maybe he meant something else by the remark. “Cloud sticks in your throat.”
The guy nodded back vigorously.
“Can’t take it in fact,” Len went on. “Look at my mask.” He pulled it off his nose and showed it to the guy who was now leaning against the chainmail fence with what looked like exhaustion. “Think I’m prepared for any of this nonsense? What do I care if women wear veils? Some of it I find it really cool. Vote, or don’t, if you want. They should be allowed anything, Iran or what? And what about this new anthrax scare? Check your cable bill for spoors? I can’t take it. With the rate the plaster is coming down on Ma, she’ll never be able to spot anything. And what about my bad eyes?” Len pulls off his glasses, rubs his eyes, then polishes his lenses with the back of his jacket sleeve. He puts them back on, then inhales deeply at the sight of Ipod and that of the Recovery dig lit in the night behind him.
“Maybe I should get Ma some kind of spacesuit to see her through. It’s been on my mind. I mean, they let us know you’re not safe drinking your MickyD orange juice in the morning, or Al Qaeda will get to my egg mcmuffin before I do. They can keep it. Think of all those boxes of old sea rations I passed up in New Jersey last year. Coulda got us through. I could have some kind of emergency bunker thing by now, but OH NO, I’m not prepared to live with such insecurity. What about this duct tape business? Do you know how to deal with it? I dozed through the tv report on how to protect yourself from poison gas. I mean, I’m embarrassed to ask anyone for weeks now how do you get duct tape off the subway doors before your stop comes up? What if you can’t? Wow, I see you have the new digitals there. How did you do it?”
“Camerbe,” answered the man proudly.
“Yeah, yeah,” agreed Len. “You can never be prepared enough.” He gestures at the cameras. “You’ve even got the new Rebel. I see you everywhere. You musta got some good shots.” Ipod was nodding, but pointing at Lenny’s webcam.
“Super Eight, yeah! I came in with the dinosaurs. I’ll go out with diners on Mars. But look, I came here tonight to test out an idea.” He gestured at the scene beyond the chainmail fence, the litter and jumble of massive carnage over which cranes and vehicles traversed tentatively, under the intense white light of stadium lamps that lit a massive dark sky.
“The view. See how the view shifts? Look, there where the sky begins. Can you get a clear fix on anything there? No, you can’t. You know why?”
Ipod murmured excitedly, deep in his throat.
“It keeps moving, is why. The sky keeps moving. I mean, I saw it in my footage. I thought maybe the cloud got in, ruined my camera. No. About a billion pounds of cement, glass, and steel, poison gas, all just hovering out there. Hitting us, the city. The EPA gives it a clean bill of health, while we gotta be dead meat, all of this going directly down our lungs. Whaddya think?”
Ipod, staring hard at the sky, stepped back. Recoiled.
“Mazing, “ he said. “Merz.”
“Murderers. Exactly. Al Qaeda's not even in the running anymore.” He extended his hand to Ipod. “Lenny Stein, East Village auteur.”
“Ipod. I heard you go by that name. I read about it in the Talmud. How important to take on a new identity, to have a new life…”
“Ippps,” the guy started up appreciatively.
“Superfragilistic,” agreed Lenny. Here he was so taken with his good fortune of meeting this guy and their future discovering the new world together. “How about a beer at Blarney Stone?”
They started off then. After a second, Ipod stopped, overwhelmed with a thought. Pondering, he looked at the ground while Lenny stood waiting for his remark, yet could only murmur something deep in his throat. It barely got out, a long anguished moan.
“Stuck, yeah?! I can believe it. A few beer’s’ll unstick ya. Easy to get stuck in some kind of metaphoric state. I can’t really locate myself except somewhere between Dostoyevsky and MickyD these days. We’re all trying to puzzle it out,” he nodded while Ipod was passing him up, a smile lighting his face.
“Neocon escape artists having us eat our own kids for lunch, dinner, and breakfast,” Len was saying between bites of his club sandwich with fries while Ipod gazed on happily past his huge chunk of corned beef, the cabbage pushed aside. They sat at a table to the side of the long bar there in the dark reaches of the Blarney Stone on Fulton, down past the winding streets of massive office buildings. Not long past ten p.m., the place was still alive with guys and girls, recovery site crews winding down.
“We’re funneling billions and billions of our dollars into dream programs, CIA, FBI, who in the same office, are not allowed to share the basic info. Genius technocrats who can’t even get themselves to the bathroom on time designed our intelligence systems. Al Qaeda's plans were known more than a year ago, yet the contempt these agencies had for each other a year ago led us to this pie in the face. Some pie.”
Len saw that Ipod was inhaling hard, nodding in agreement. The guy was exhausted.
“We got some narcissistic jerks here asleep at the wheel. Driving planes through buildings? Seven-year-olds could have thought that up. I bet they did. We have no respect for the seven-year-old mind.They do. Omigod.”
“God less,” Ipod sat up and blurted out.
“God’s last?” queried Len.
“Less, less,” Ipod nodding hard.
“YEAH, yeah! I get it. God-less. Us. We’re the ones with no God. Godless Infidels. Yikes!”
“With ippp….” began Ipod.
“Ipppp?” wondered Len.
Ipod fingered the wires to his ipod, nodded.
“Infidels with Ipods. YEAH, “ Lenny jumped up, screaming with joy. “I get it. Tech is anti-God. Think. This will usher in a new era of film. Hawks, Ford. A new age coming in at us. Imagine the Searchers made with their Arab counterparts. DAMN. Oh, look.”
“This guy Ford. The tv guy. Comes in here every night.”
Tall, sparkling and craggy, the guy was loping through the front door of the bar. His eyes shone as the bartender greeted him across the room and reached for the bottle of Cutty Sark.
“Neee,” cried Ipod, for he seemed to pour forever.
“Some neat shot, yeah!” laughed Len. Hard for him, losing his son here. Imagine, a top trader for that company that refused to leave their desks. Left his show to run the food pantries.”
The older actor held a copy of the Times under his arm while he surveyed the diningroom. The two of them caught his eye. He grabbed his glass from the bar and presented himself at their table.
“YOU SEE THIS?! Ford was crying, opening up the newspaper and shaking it at them. “The Bastard cooked up the Patriot Act, making freedom illegal! What kind of b.s. is that?”
“B.S.,”replied Ipod simply.
The place was packed for dinner with crews ending their shifts at the Site. Blinking hard and almost keeling over, IPOD lurched in the front door. Weighted down by so many cameras hanging around his neck, he sagged for a moment. His eyes were red above the death stare of his hanging gasmask with the goggles. Everyone paused in their conversation, staring up at the door. There was a roar of greetings.
“IPOD,” people shrieked happily. He was grinning hard now at the roars of offers to buy him a beer. Reddening. Stunned with delight, nearly strangled by the camera straps. He has to take them off one by one, put the cameras on the table.
“HEY,” Len cried from somewhere in the crowd.
“Yeah!” he returns.
“Join us.” It was Ford’s voice. Were they at the same table?
“Your horses,” he found himself screaming back. He gathered up his things. “Hold ‘em, yeah. Hold ‘em.” Ipod was laughing to himself. Gasping with exhaustion, he tried to accustom his eyes to the dim seascape of bar. Guys and girls were busy, excited everywhere, telling stories, having fights, drinking hard, all glowing in the darkness. Barely surfacing, he made out Len sitting to the side of Ford, the sleek old jaguar holding court as usual in the back. At his side, his latest squeeze, Ginny the cop, with her frizzy blond mane poking itself out her cap. There were the usuals surrounding him, engineers and firefighters giving Ford the daily rundown’. Ipod makes a mad dash for the empty chair at the table, yet the day piles up at him.
Slow fall of ash. Feels himself wheel around. Sail. Sail past the icy figures. Drum down, white hush. Question. Question what? Your legs buckle underneath,.yet you. Yet you what? Need to clean the lens. Bit of lens tissue, you laugh. To actually have some lens tissue now, the entire world coming to an end. Shiny, the blood under that. A girl there. How could this possibly be West street, even if the sign says so?
Light burns into the nuclear storm from a gutted laddertruck.
“Hey, guy, you checking into the hotel?” He wakes, some kind of IV in his arm. Devastated, the ultra modern hotel lobby. A giant hand ripped the windows and the walls out, tore the computers up and threw them all about.
“I wanted to get some shots.”
“Looks like they got you.”
“Survivors?” he felt himself asking.
“Did you come from the Towers?” they asked.
“Hey. Hey.” They call to him. Why can’t he answer back?
Breathes. He feels himself breathe. Feels his own smile sparkle out at them, the crowd brimming with talk, glances. Everyone smiling at him. Bovis guys, he hears them talking hard. Heroes, our ironworkers. This, their day saving the earth. He’s gotten up to get another beer, With that in hand, he plods through the crowd smiling. The tvs rage at them now. Bush. Missiles now, airplanes. The hard rasp of the President’s voice.
“What is he hiding, anyway?” he finds himself screaming.
“You alright?” Ssomeone asks.
“Our flag,” Bush rails at them.
But he flips open his own wallet, and there Gray is. One of those mornings they came off the Westside Highway to deliver the cakes to Gracie Mansion. Their first orders of that first year. Yes, it was true, he was difficult. The Mad Queen of Cakes, himself, insisted on excellence at all costs. “ But you know I love you,’ Gray would always remind him. Insecure, inferior in fact, as he had been ‘straight’ all his life. His first week running the pastry department of Windows on the World, met Gray in the elevator. It was a case of instant enchantment, of seeing Gray ‘in his whites’ for the second or third time. They met for drinks. The rest, history. The only problem that one morning he slept in the morning of that special breakfast for Risk Waters. Gray said he would cover. ‘No worry, love.’
Pat a cake
Pat a cake
Put me in your oven
And here I am.
photograph by Iannis Delatolas