ARTS AND LETTERS
by Forrest Hylton
A fragment from Isolate Flecks: An Anatomy
Leo Kaufman had gotten so used to playing the bohemian Jew from Manhattan that he forgot what it was like to be one. Columbia had kids who could play the bass, who could write poetry. They practiced all day in the basement of Delta Phi, versified at the Hungarian Pastry Shop until closing.
Wisely, in my opinion, Leo dropped the artsy act—kept the poses—and stuck with social justice. That was always his thing. Dinkins crack days winding down, signs of planned shrinkage within quick walking distance. Plenty of good to be done.
Leo spent most of his time in the reading room at Butler, picking up girls over cigarette breaks, wearing flannel shirts and watch caps, his hair and beard ever more wooly. I think he even smoked a pipe. Double-majored in history and poli-sci. Posters of Subcomandante Marcos, García Márquez, and Fidel, Zapata and Pancho Villa. Had been to Chiapas: organic coffee, fair trade. How many could boast of such an achievement in 1995?
Young women loved it, or at least the activist types he ran with did.
Real revolutionary, as Shorty Andrews liked to say.
Now that Leo was no longer in show biz, out of Vance’s orbit, he gravitated downtown toward Shorty. Just starting to produce, making a name for himself as a DJ—the pilgrimage out to Queens, I think it was Flushing, or maybe Corona, I’m not sure—he went to Queens to meet Clive Chin, who had heard of Prince Neutron. Liked the fidelity to the roots. Reminded him of Randy’s. But not too derivative.
Leo was drawn to fame and scenes, so Shorty was the logical choice.
Plus they were family, and acted like it in those, the heroin years. I could call them the pharmaceutical years. But it’s the heroin that sticks with me, since Leo moved downtown, started law school at N.Y.U. Which is what he told every young woman he met, that voice of his. “Law and public policy.” That and, “Yeah, I’m here with Shorty. He’s my cousin. I just got back from Chiapas, actually an encuentro at the aguascalientes.”
At least he was honest.
Shorty finished up his film studies, as he liked to call them, moved to a third-floor walkup off Utica near Jah Life’s record store, cleaned up with a hundred weight of collie weed, and new, healthier surroundings, like the Three Star Juice Bar; hipped Leo to the scene in Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Bed-Stuy—Leo shifted from Asian to West Indian in terms of fetishes—got an M.F.A from Tisch with his dad’s money, did a decent documentary about Jamaican music in Brooklyn, produced a record with Axelrod and the German vocal sensation, Ras Seven, featuring the 12” tracks Ism Skism, Ruff-n-Tuff, and Dub Suburbs; made an appearance on Reggae Riddims, another with Stretch and Bobbito, then followed Leo out to Williamsburg, which was ready to receive them both.
First, though, he got a woman pregnant. Oddly enough, given Shorty’s crowd in those days, she was like him: Jewish from New Jersey, and rich. Mildly bohemian when they met, but not for long.
Liza Reiff. We’ll get to her.
Leo had Bedford covered: lived on Driggs, worked in Bushwick, right off Myrtle. I hardly ever saw him, since I was living in Spanish Harlem and taking the crosstown to Morningside Heights. But I introduced him to Catalina Arbelaez one night at Clemente Soto Vélez on uhhh, I think it was Rivington and Delancy. No: Rivington and Delancy run parallel, so it was Rivington and Suffolk, or Rivington and Norfolk. Before they cleared the Puerto Ricans out.
She was there with some musicians, friends of Darío’s band.
Carm wasn’t there. I think she’d already left, because it was after I got the visit from the F.B.I. I was pretty drunk, presumably leering at Catalina, but she didn’t seem to mind, although that could just be my memory. Turns out she is paisa, but not like I thought. She’s from Barranquilla, raised in Medellín. Or vice-versa, I don’t remember. You can’t tell from her accent, because she speaks like a paisa or a Barranquillera depending on whom she’s speaking to. To whom she’s speaking. Circumstances.
Speaks English in the gringo art world, I assume. Anyway, she was part of the Colombian scene then, much more than I was certainly, but when she tried to tell me about her installations and the concepts behind them, I handed her off to Leo, whose Spanish was good enough.
She did most of the talking.
I figured she was fishing for a gringo, but I was still hooked on Carm—lost and lonely like in country and western songs, looking to take it out on Catalina, but happily—since Leo married her—that never happened. I ran into them a couple times after that at Darío’s gigs, we went out for drinks and coke after hours, but I left for Medellín briefly, moved to La Paz for a while, and came back for the wedding, which was the year I was in the eco-tourism biz.
I remember because I flew out of Barranquilla, nearly got detained by the fat-ass security guard, fucking corroncho, who suspected the crap from Bolivia that I was giving to Leo for a wedding present was valuable—pre-Colombian origin. I had to smash a fertility figurine in order to make my point. I gave Leo an awayu from Chuquisaca with these two fertility figurines—the ones that survived the massacre. He loved them.
Leo had been insistent about me coming, said it was something karmic, so he got in touch with my mother—I was pretending to be off e-mail that year, as if I was writing my dissertation—she was probably hoping that seeing the gang together would help put me back on the straight and narrow. Bring me to my senses.
I got pretty drunk at Leo’s wedding, though no more so than anyone else. Must have sounded dangerous and exotic, not to mention obnoxious. Pretty sure I didn’t say anything about chainsaws and decapitated banana workers in Palomino, 50 meters from the nearest army post.
The true dimensions of cocaine running. Which I was not involved in, thank God.
Talked about real estate with Linc. As in how one might get into it if one had money to invest. Shorty wasn’t around somehow, though he later followed Fullstop Throttle, kept the rhythms going all night.
Don’t worry about Linc. We’ll come back to him.
Through Stretch Armstrong, Shorty Andrews got work consulting for the revised and annotated version of Yale University Press’s Anthology of Hippety Hoppery: Classic Lyrics from Afrikka Bambatta to Cornel West, edited by Mike D. with an introduction by Cornel West and an epilogue by Jello Biafra. Apparently they had botched any number of songs almost beyond recognition the first time, and since that made the Chronicle and the New York Times Book Review, such as it was, there was pressure to get it right.
So they reached out to Stretch Armstrong. “Armstrong runs local dance label Plant Music with Dominique Keegan of electronic duo Jouissance, and is more likely to spin a loose mix of house, techno, and rock remixes than rap these days.” So sayeth the Brooklyn Bridge.
Without realizing it, Shorty had followed Stretch’s career trajectory.
Shorty only agreed to fix the songs he knew by heart. Felt he might make college more interesting for culturally deprived youth, hiphop having died so ignominious a death.
No funeral. Never found the body.
Although an anthology from Yale University Press…
It’s 20 dollars, there is no guest list. You gotta take your shoes off as you come in through the metal detectors. Any drugs found on you, you will be exited from the premises immediately. Guys on the left, girls on the right…
Tryin to get up in this spot…
Oh! You think you all that, shorty?
Brooklyn in the house.
Yeah, mothafucka, bring that shit the fuck up. What’s up motherfuckers, welcome to the motherfuckin tunnel nigger, the fuckin danger zone, we gonna start this shit the fuck right, the way everything in hip hop should start—Ima tell you like I tell these niggaz every day, I’m like a fucking condom: you don’t fuck with me you fuckin die, bitch. These motherfuckers come in the tunnel, thinking it’s a good idea.
The tunnel’s like unprotected sex, nigger. It may sound good, but it’s fuckin dangerous. We motherfuckin ghetto. We like project parties, bitch. We like community centers. Niggaz is bustin, niggaz is goin crazy, don’t you dare wear your fuckin chain down here, nigga, we’ll snatch that shit like it ain’t nothin, you can’t come down here on no happy shit, cause niggaz get fuckin rowdy, nigga. Fuck you and fuck what you stand for. We gon start this whole fuckin shit right: the pain in the ass way, the Funkmaster Flex way, the Big Cap way, the motherfuckin DefJam way.
It don’t get rougher than that. You motherfuckers ready for the pain? Ok, we’re reloaded. You motherfuckers think you big time? Fuckin with Flex and Cap, you gonna die big time.
Here come the pain: play that shit, motherfucker.
Where Brooklyn at, where Brooklyn at, where Brooklyn at, where Brooklyn at…we gon do it like this, you better check it: I got seven Mac-11s, about eight .38s, nine .9s, 10 Mac-10s, the shits never end, you can’t touch my riches even if you had MC Hammer and the .357 bitches: Biggie Smalls, the millionaire, the mansion, the yacht, the two weed spots, the two hot glocs, that’s how I got the weed spot—I shot dread in the head, took the bread and the lambspread.
Little Gotti got the shotty to your body, so don’t re-sist or you might miss Christmas: I tote guns, I make number runs, I give MCs the runs drippin’, when I throw my clip in the AK, I slay from far away, everybody hit the d-e-c-k, my slow flow’s remarkable, peace to Mateo, now we smoke weed like Tony Montana sniffed the yeyo, that’s crazy blunts…
Art cannot save anyone from anything.
Back from another stint in Afghanistan, Zeb Vorticelli was wearing a black t-shirt with “Torture” written in red across his chest, through which his physique was held in high relief. At 40, he looked like he could have been an amateur middleweight, or a stevedore. He wore a black watch cap and large, flashy sunglasses perched up on his head. He was drinking Maker’s Mark neat, or maybe it was…I don’t know…along with some kind of stout or porter, I don’t remember. Who cares. The main thing about Zeb, besides his mighty pen, is his voice and his mouth. If I don’t interrupt him preemptively like this, he’ll rant until the fucking cows come home, to employ his lexicon.
Following ZuZu Jefferson’s opening.
Dramatis Personae: Zeb Vorticelli, Myles Crawford-Nanetti, Malachi Moore, Shorty Andrews.
We’ve got two fucking settings, man: search-n-destroy and counterinsurgency. Since Kennedy and Johnson, or Eisenhower. Anyway, that’s the argument of the editorial. When are you going to write that column about Harley’s latest? Christ, compared to what Harley does, that shredded red underwear on the clothesline bullshit, my taste is practically fucking Stuckist…
Thou suckest? Have faith, not even the best of us are free from the taint of mediocrity.
Stuckist not suckest, Malachi. Brits. Charles Thompson? But I know what you’re saying, how none of us is free, not even you. You want to write about that for the Bridge? We’d love to have something from you, man. I assume your fiction is spoken for, not that I would try to compete with x+y2=fun, you know, I mean, as if anyone could, uh, compete with the likes of Duncan MacKinnon and Vance Whitestone, creators of that legendary memoir Fretwork, flagship of the literary avant-garde, Inflected Press. You don’t have to give me an answer or anything, just think it over. I’m a fan of Enlightened Whores. And it looks like you’re the next fucking Bolaño. That’s what they say.
Nuff respect mon. Babylon himma loot himma shoot, Babylon himma brute. Righteous truth telling me bredren, Malachi himma tell da half dat’s never been told.
Uh-huh, except I was talking to Malachi here—Malachi, you’re Argentine, from Spain, right? British stock? Border collies and wellingtons? Sheep ranches? So you’ll think about it? How we’re all doomed? Three thousand words, five cents a word? Meantime, how about a short interview?
Talk to my agent.
Question for you, Shorty. Are you still producing, uh, Designer Vagina, Orgasm Inc., and Miley Virus and the STD’s?
Wait a second, Zeb—you give him the store but you want me to write about Harley’s shredded red underwear? I’m depressed enough. Having to write about Harley could make it worse. And I’m guessing it wouldn’t do wonders for your relationship with Becca Kaufman. Plus, the Stuckists? The movement looks good on paper, but have you seen the paintings?
Myles, you’re joking, right? She’s still married to Harley, poor thing. Or do you mean that grant I’m, ah, trying to hustle from her—fuck the starving artist bullshit. Anyway, you want to write about the Stuckists instead?
No, no, not the point. Plus that would be a short piece. Five to ten syllables, tops. A haiku.
Malachi, you up for that piece about freedom, how none of us is free?
I could write about reggae maybe. Mikey Jarrett in Bushwick. Soul-2-Soul, Broadway and Lafayette. Did you know he lived there in the ’70s and ’80s? It was no man’s land, then. Abandoned.
You mean before Leo Kaufman improved it?
Jarrett’s what you Yanks call a Founding Father. Which I learned from Shorty, who knows him. Downbeat and Big Youth, too. Used to be Panamanians, Dominicans, Haitians, Trinidadians, Bajuns, Jamaicans. Nostrand between Dean and President. After the fires.
I see. Our readership is, uh, not really up on that sort of thing, you know, a lot of whiteys and Asians, arts and letters, you know, probably more into what Shorty’s doing now, or Dermot Trellis’s latest, but since you’re making me an offer, we could make an exception. I gotta run it through committee, you know, democratic process and whatnot, but it should be a go. Here’s my card, e-mail me with your timeline and your angle.
Iman nah use nah e-mail y’know. Nunna dem cel phone needer. Iman nah work for no C.I.A.
Shorty, man, please, I’m uh, talking to Malachi…
It’s true. No e-mail, no phone. Monroe Jefferson takes my messages. You know him?
Uhhh…I didn’t think this would need to go through…
Or leave a message for me with Shorty. Shorty’s very generous with his friends, and I’m lucky to be in that select company.
I know you’re the wordsmith, man, but I’m not sure about the “select” part.
Which adjective would you prefer?
I’d probably just leave it at “company.” Delete “select.”
But you won’t be editing me, will you?
Quick question. How do you hook up with the hotties without the gadgets?
Can’t educate im fi no equal opportunity, taking bout our freedom, y’unnerstan, Iman nah depend onna Babylon technology. No woman no cry.
I’m confused. Shorty, you’re not Malachi’s spokesman, are you? Slugging it out with Vance and Duncan? They’re right over there with Leo, Becca, and Harley. Let’s go kick their asses…I think ZuZu would be impressed.
I and I come in peace, me bredren, Iman nah mess wit police an thieves, killin da nation wit their guns an ammunition. Tanks and praise fi Jah…
I was kidding, man, and don’t fucking get me started on Haile Selassie, an African autocrat of the worst kind. Okay, maybe not like Idi Amin bad, or the Marxist generals who overthrew him, but don’t give me any bullshit about African fucking kings or Lions of fucking Judah, man. I’ve been to most of east-central and southern Africa, some parts of west Africa, some parts of the Maghreb. Not nice places. Some of the most fucked up, corrupt, and criminal post-colonial states in the world, in fact, and even though most of it is whitey’s fault, the African ruling classes fucking outdo each other in venality and reactionary tribalism, man. Ever been to Africa? That is one fucked-up continent, whether you’re talking state, class, gender, or ethnicity. Centuries of Western civilization can do that to you. Makes Colombia look like fucking Switzerland.
Africa unite, fi we movin to our fatherland, fo we goin to our promised land…
Hate to break it to you, Shorty. They’re coming here, no one’s going back there. You want Africa? Head over to Midwood. Or on Knickerbocker, selling hats, socks, and sunglasses. Been to Harlem lately? They hate each other. That’s Africa, man. That’s your fucking diaspora. Anyway, Malachi, let’s do that interview soon.
Call my agent.
Malachi Moore had to be in Brooklyn. Something about Hart Crane, Zukovsky, and Reznikoff (I stole the idea from him, but he’ll never find out)….
His first novel was a finalist for the Premio Herralde when Moore was 19, published in translation by Inflected Press a few years later—which is really just Vance Whitestone and Duncan McKinnon, of course—with blurbs from Bolaño, Vila-Matas, and Paul Auster.
Moore ran away from writers, at least famous ones, some of whom wanted to meet him through his agent, Monroe Jefferson. Who was ZuZu’s brother and therefore Duncan McKinnon’s brother-in-law.
Moore usually appeared incapable of hypocrisy, even of the polite kind—a mania he picked up from reading a biography of Wittgenstein—using his eyes and hands to indicate he was listening. Nodded his head yes or no, emphatically. Liked painters, poets, especially musicians. Listening to them talk about their work.
Apart from the pseudo-saintly bullshit about humility, Malachi Moore presumably tolerated Shorty because of their shared love of reggae and dub, but also the parties and the girls, who couldn’t believe Shorty actually knew a famous writer. “Like Henry Miller. We thought they were all dead except for Dermot Trellis. I saw this Hermann Broch death mask the other day on eBay? It could have been a forgery, though. A mask of a mask of a mask, you know?”
That’s what Margot said.
How he pushed his glasses up his long, equine nose when he leaned forward to say hello. His father’s people were export merchants of British stock. Porteños por excelencia. His mother’s people had been assimilated in Vienna before becoming successful enough in commerce to marry their daughter to a son of the Moores.
Moore knew where he came from.
Shorty Andrews did but didn’t.
About the Author
FORREST HYLTON is an Associate Professor of History at the Universidad de los Andes, and the author of a bi-lingual novel, Vanishing Acts: A Tragedy, along with several books on Latin American history and politics. Beginning in September 2012, he will be a post-doctoral fellow at NYU's Tamiment Library, where he will be completing research for a book entitled 'Doing the Right Thing': Labor, Democracy, and Organized Crime on the Brooklyn Waterfront During the Cold War.