Published Feb 01, 2002It's my last day in New York, thank Allah, because I've been getting into fights and taking mind-altering substances, laughing one minute and crying the next, and missing the Muslim like crazy. Most of my friends here seem to be handling "the new normal" reasonably well, probably because their old normal was already pretty abnormal to begin with, compared to the average punter's notion of normalcy. But what I want to know is, what's the new abnormal? Some of my more crazy acquaintances graffiti writers, underground artists, anarchist hooligans have interpreted the events of 9/11 as a vindication of their already radical beliefs vis-à-vis the quasi-evil, imperialist corporatised behemoth otherwise known as the USA, and have kicked their quotidian routines of hell-raising and hullabaloo into high gear. Some of my previously somewhat apolitical friends in the fashion world seem to have become a little more militant, probably because the destruction of the World Trade Center inconveniently fell smack dab in the middle of fashion week, forcing the cancellation of some of the most eagerly anticipated shows. (The temporary closing of Century 21, the large store near Ground Zero that sells designer clothes from past seasons at radically reduced rates, may also have contributed to their new-found political fervour.) But to many New Yorkers who survived the war zone that was pre-Guiliani Gotham (riots, ubiquitous sleaze, crime in the streets you know, the good old days) it's pretty much business as usual.
Amongst my New York friends, the one who seems to be handling it the best is a stripper/performance artist/writer who I'll call Dolores. Dolores, who can at times be quite dolorous, is an expat Canadian who moved to Los Angeles when she was 18 to become a high class call girl, racking up a star-studded clientele including the likes of Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, the Shah of Iran, and either Sid or Marty Croft, I can't remember which, one of the creators of H. R. Puffnstuff, She married a famous punk musician to get her green card, and currently works with a famous HIV+ performance artist known for his blood-drenched, ritualistic displays of body-modification and sexual deviance. She's also a terrific writer who will soon have her day in the sun, which she better not stay out in too long because it might render her botox injections superfluous.
On my last day in New York, Dolores and I meet for lunch in the East Village at Life Cafe, which I call Death Cafe just to be contrary, and she bends my ear about how she's been coping with the 9/11 aftermath. Taking the proactive approach, she immediately volunteered for the Red Cross and spent three days a week working the graveyard shift, midnight until eight a.m., serving meals and coffee to the firefighters and cops working at Ground Zero. This had a certain irony attached to it, considering that she usually works a similar shift at the strip club where she serves up a different dish to roughly the same clientele. With such close proximity to all the pain and sorrow going on down there, she unavoidably took on the role of empath, sharing the grief by listening to all the horror stories. However, unlike those who reacted to the tragedy by becoming knee-jerk patriots with blind revenge on their minds, Dolores became a sort of double agent, using her access to the Ground Zero team to learn all she could about what really happened before and after the disaster, all the stuff that doesn't make it into the media. I can't really go into too much detail, but apparently there's a lot of stuff that doesn't add up. Like the fact that there was a general alert for everyone to leave the Twin Towers at least half an hour before the first plane hit, but many of the bosses ignored the warning and told workers that if they left their desks they'd lose their jobs. Or the fact that as soon as the authorities recovered the gazillions of dollars worth of gold bullion that was buried underneath the rubble, Guiliani tried to call off the excavation of Ground Zero, including the search for bodies, resulting in the major brouhaha between the cops and the firefighters. Little things like that.
The best story Dolores tells me is how one night while she's performing a lap dance for a firefighter, he starts to tell her about all the various body parts that he's gathered from the site, some of which are hanging in his van in various kinds of bags and containers, depending on their particular state of composure or decomposure, whatever the case may be. And you thought you lived a glamorous life.
On my last night in New York I'm invited out to some bizarre location in the middle of Queens to a porn-esque fetish studio appropriately called Gotham to visit my friend the underground sex goddess Kembra Phahler. Kembra has worked for this particular company for years, performing in such classics as Bent to her Will, Boxing Bitches, and P.L.O.W (Punk Ladies of Wrestling). She tells me that they're currently working on a little number featuring a bearded fellow dressed up like Osama bin Laden who is being sexually tortured by a couple of dominatrixes, including Kembra in a black burka, and that I should come out and snap some pics. I eagerly call the Lower East Side car service and head for the armpit of America.
I should have known this was going to be more difficult than I thought, because the last time I took a car service to Queens, to visit the set of Harmony Korine's movie Julien Donkey-boy, the driver got hopelessly lost, forcing me to sit in the back seat for a good hour and half while he figured it out and I almost peed in my pants. And that was during broad daylight. This time it's pissing rain and pitch black, blacker than the blackest bowels of hell. To reinforce this image, we pass by a horrible accident on the freeway going in the other direction, a jack-knifed tractor-trailer that has squashed a tiny little VW bug. It's just like the scene in The Shining in which Scatman Crothers encounters a similar sight on his way up north to see what evil is going down at the Overlook hotel.
Once we get to Corona, Queen's, the driver, who's a young, extremely cute Puerto Rican guy with a ponytail, follows the street I've requested but runs into a dead end before we get to the correct address. This means the street must continue somewhere else, but unfortunately it literally takes him two hours to find out precisely where. As we drive around in circles, passing the same squalid buildings draped carelessly in depressing, half burnt-out Christmas lights, I try to talk to him, but as it turns out he doesn't speak a word of English. Fortunately I have my cell phone with me, so I call Kembra to get directions. Unfortunately, the borough is planned so haphazardly that there's no way to describe where we are, or for her to describe how to get to where she is. It's a truly Kafkaesque nightmare, which only ends when I finally communicate to the driver through a combination of sign language and telepathy that he must pull over and ask directions. After several stops at convenience stores and gas stations, he finally finds someone who speaks Spanish, and somehow, miraculously, I arrive at the studio only two hours late.
Unfortunately it's now close to midnight, and they've already shaved off Bin Laden's beard; he's lying strapped face down in the middle of a studio floor covered in chains and hot wax and god knows what else. The owner of the studio, his cameraman and several other employees are standing around, barking out directions. They all seem to be over 60. The still photographer looks like a member of the Hell's Angels, and the transvestite who is being lashed and tortured turns out to be a production assistant who just got promoted to star earlier in the day because one of the performers neglected to show up. The blond dominatrix is an old pro who really knows how to flail and whip. Amidst all the activity stands Kembra, who is quite deliberately phoning in her performance, speaking like an automaton and looking distractedly over at me and giggling. Apparently she's doing the video mostly because she owes the owner of the company a couple of favours, so she doesn't want to have to over-exert herself, and who could blame her?
Between floggings, I get a chance to chat with the transvestite, who looks like she's in her late 30. She's out of shape, and a bit out of sorts, her wig slightly askew, hobbling around in her size 13 pumps. She complains to me that when she was a man, other men treated her quite respectfully, but now that she's a woman, they're always trying to beat the hell out of her. But she doesn't seem to mind that much. Her back is covered in huge ugly welts and long bleeding lines from the whip. I snap a few photos of the carnage.
Unfortunately Kembra has already retired her burka for the evening, and she's also neglected to mention that the studio owner would go Al Qaeda on my ass if he caught me taking pictures. Fortunately, she sneaks the burka, which she has created herself, into a bathroom and invites me in for a little impromptu photo shoot. Her face veiled, she pulls up the long black garment to reveal her black stockings and garters, and then her shaved pussy. It's very political.
Fortunately, Kembra has an SUV, so she drives me back to Manhattan. Unfortunately, she doesn't really seem to know how to drive. But that's okay, because we have a great conversation on the way home. Despite my ordeals when working with Kembra, the pleasure of her company always makes it worthwhile.