Gods of New York

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"Stop fanning yourself!" yelled the comic-book-store manager, Stan, snatching the improvised cardboard fan out of my hand. "The customers don’t realize it’s hot until they see you fanning yourself. Then they leave!"

No one needed reminding. It was August in New York. The A/C was broken, again. I was running the cash register, sweating in cut-off shorts and a ripped T-shirt. My hair dye (Manic Panic’s Plum) had stained my neck. My bare legs stuck to the vinyl stool where I was perched in between displays of Serial Killer Trading Cards (a huge seller) and dusty kids’ cards, something proto-Pokémon.

When Stan was done yelling at me, he gave me a little shoulder massage and called me "kid." I rolled my eyes at Darrell, one of the gay guys working the floor. He smiled back. Stan was straight and nerdy, but for some reason (probably related to marketing) he only hired twenty-something gay men and dour teenage girls. I was fifteen.


That summer, my best friend Asia and I were living at my parents’ East Village apartment while they were away for the summer. Asia and I stayed very busy. When not at the comic book store, I was in a summer program at Columbia. Asia was taking art classes at the New School and working at a political office. We still had plenty of time to stay up late, cooking pasta shells with butter and salt for midnight dinners, drinking way too many screwdrivers and chain-smoking Camel Lights.

Mostly, I worked at the comic-book store (which was exactly one block from our apartment) in the evening —  six p.m. to one a.m., when the store closed. I rang up stacks of vintage Supermans and little Japanese toys and Archie comics for people way too old to be reading Archie comics. Once a shift, I got everyone’s deli order and walked down the street to gather up a bag full of sandwiches and sodas. For a week or so there, we were all really into turkey on a bagel with mayo and lettuce, but usually the sandwiches my co-workers wanted were very fetishistic — leaf lettuce, not shredded lettuce, three kinds of cheese, the long rolls, not kaiser.

After we closed, I stayed an hour or so to clean up and do inventory. The street outside was as busy as it was in the middle of the day, so I was never worried about going home so late. The only time I was ever scared was one night at two a.m. As Darrell and I were finishing up, a huge man banged on the wood-and-glass door (we didn’t have the gate down). We saw him through the window and cowered. He banged again, loud. "What do you want?" Darrell called out.

"A Cable card!" the guy boomed. "I’ve got my money right here!" Sure enough, he was holding his two dollars in one hand and pointing at the X-Men display with the other. Everyone was buying X-Men comics like crazy that summer because they came with free cards inside. Everyone wanted to find a Cable card, as they’d printed the fewest of those. It was like the golden ticket. I’d actually started to suspect there were no Cable cards, and that all these X-Men fans were deluding themselves and doomed to own 5,000 Storms.

The stories were real stories. There was dealmaking and violence and wistfulness. I ate it up.

"Come back tomorrow!" I said. "We’re closed." The guy, who looked rather like Cable himself, finally left, and Darrell and I looked at each other and cracked up.

I always made sure to work Sundays, too, from noon to six, because that was the only time the workaholic manager took off. Sundays were fun. We turned off the classic rock. We fanned ourselves with impunity. We talked about belt buckles and boyfriends and the worst regular customers, like the guy who would yell at you if you handed him back pennies in his change. "I DON’T TAKE PENNIES," we yelled at each other.

And we read. A lot. Sunday was like Stan’s worst nightmare, all of us leaning against displays, giggling, fans swooshing, greasy, mayonnaise-y fingerprints all over the merchandise. It was on such a Sunday that I found Sandman. It immediately replaced Hal Hartley films and the semi-random Scarsdale band Too Much Joy (the album Cereal Killers was on repeat for the entire summer) as the primary influence on me and Asia.

Written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by various people, including the regally named Malcolm Jones III, Sandman was one of the smart-people comics, bought by twenty-one-year-old former art students with good haircuts and cool shoes and by thirty-eight-year-old guys in bands that were actually good. It was common to see Sandman in a stack with back issues of Hate and Love & Rockets. Every Sandman had a zillion references, from Greek mythology to Shakespeare. When you got the obscure ones, it made you feel smart, like you’d just finished the Friday crossword puzzle.

And the stories were real stories. They were all about humans getting tangled up with gods — the gods in this case being the Endless, seven brothers and sisters named Dream (the title character, and star), Desire, Despair, Destiny, Delirium, Destruction and Death (portrayed as a hot, funny, casually goth-y girl). One or the other of the Endless would get his or her (or in androgynous Desire’s case, his/her) claws in a person, and page after page of dramatic dialogue and artsy illustration would ensue. There was a lot of dealmaking, and violence and wistfulness. I ate it up.

Some of the storylines took place in parts of New York I walked through every day. In one of my favorite mini-stories, Death has a talk with a skateboarder in Washington Square Park, where we bought pot before we realized 1) it was frequently oregano, and 2) we were girls, and girls never had to buy their own drugs.







Asia and I didn’t relate to the human characters in Sandman. They sniveled. As teenage girls in New York with essentially no adult supervision, we felt as powerful as gods. We went wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted. We weren’t into clubbing, although we went a few times just to prove to ourselves we could sail past velvet ropes. Mostly we just walked around the city at all hours, making fun of people we passed. We ate a lot of oranges and muffins and drank a lot of bad coffee. Sometimes we’d stop at a diner and get some French fries or call up some friends and go sit in someone else’s living room, but mostly we’d just walk and smoke and judge people. We lived by the moral code of the Endless, which is to say we lived as though we had no morals at all.

While most of the girls who bought Sandman were all about Death, with her ankh and her eyeliner, Asia and I emulated Delirium, Dream’s space-cadet younger sister. She had multi-colored hair and an affected childishness. She would absentmindedly create little universes out of thin air and say things like, "I think, and I think and I think . . . I think I think too much." She was our guiding light — a deity who was enthusiastic, we were sure, about staying up for days, going for twelve-hour strolls from one river to the other and back again, doing original combinations of drugs, and getting into conversations with NYU film students we met on the street.

Sandman made me torture men for sport when I was fifteen.

Nearly every night, Asia and I would go out and throw ourselves on the mercy of the city. How did nothing horrible ever happen to us? Asia says it’s because we were smart. "Sure, we’d take pills from that twenty-six-year-old MTV dancer who was our new ‘friend’," she says. "We just wouldn’t take them right then, with him. At the end of the night, we’d empty out our purses and compare notes. ‘I think that’s ecstasy, but it might be a roofie,’ you’d say. I’d nod back and solemnly reply, ‘It’s hard to say. Let’s split it.’"

Impossibly, we were virgins. In spite of what must have been dozens of late-night encounters with men we knew from high school or from parties or from the park, we never actually had sex, rarely even got close, and I credit Sandman with keeping us pure. We were far too into the aesthetics of sex, the power involved, the mystery and the magic, to actually dirty our hands with the act itself. Now that I think about it, we were especially into the power.

The Religious Right is correct on exactly two scores: virginity can be a big deal, properly exploited; and what you read, listen to or watch can make a huge difference in how you live your life. Conservatives are smart to get sexy movies banned from Wal-Mart. I can believe kids shoot each other because of video games. Wilco made me throw my live-in boyfriend out of the house when I was twenty-two. And Sandman made me torture men for sport when I was fifteen.

Asia and I had company over all the time. We took our male guests to the roof and smoked and looked out at the city and said witty things. We played word games, like the one where you have to name famous people with names starting with the last letter of the last famous person’s name: Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, Yanni. About people we knew, we said profound things like, "It’s like she’s standing on a stool with a noose around her neck, holding knives in each hand, calling out, ‘Don’t hurt me! Don’t hurt me!’"

One young man we’d lured into our spider’s den was named Kyle. He lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and smoked so much, we were sure, because he looked so young and was trying to facilitate wrinkles. We got him drunk and when either one of us got up to go to the bathroom or the kitchen, the other flirted like mad with him. By the end of the night, he was convinced he was going to sleep with at least one of us, probably both. But when he said something to that effect, we acted like he was crazy. He started to think he was crazy, I think. But we just smiled and laughed and said goodnight, then showed him to the door.

We were highly amoral that summer, but it was mostly in self-defense.

My favorite encounters were with those high-minded men who were "above" sleeping with virgins. They would lecture me for hours on their sophisticated values, inevitably quoting Kierkegaard or some other neurotic philosopher. Then as soon as they got to second base they’d get this look in their eye like they were searching for a reference to justify their rapid change of heart. Without Marvell at the ready, they would just sort of sputter, and I would have to somberly insist on not corrupting them. I wasn’t all that keen on maintaining my virginity, but I didn’t want to sleep with a hypocrite.

Asia and I finished all such nights together, alone with our Too Much Joy and overflowing ashtrays. Kyle later got revenge by inviting us over to his house to do mushrooms and then throwing us out of his apartment, leaving us to find our way through the Polish enclave and back to Manhattan while peaking. But hey, we deserved that. And we managed to find a car service and had a perfectly lovely day in spite of him. So there.

Asia agrees with me that we were highly amoral that summer, but argues that it was mostly in self-defense. "When I think about that summer there are two things that stand out," she says: "1) the fact that we were so consistently so responsible, and 2) that feeling (which there really should be a German word for) of ‘I’m a teenager — why isn’t my life like The Breakfast Club/Some Kind of Wonderful/My So-Called Life/Weetzie Bat?’ We partied, and went to our jobs, and kept ourselves safe, and wandered around, wistful, making fun of everyone. That’s a funny combination, but I think it’s true."

I felt like the most powerful, Delirium-inflected girl in New York until one day at the comic book store. I showed up for work and there was a new girl sitting at the cash register, Victoria. She had perfectly applied make-up, an indeterminate accent and multi-colored hair —  hair exactly like Delirium’s. It might as well have been drawn on her. By comparison, my purple-tinged hair looked frumpy and suburban.

Victoria was very pretty and very haughty. Stan hovered over her to make sure she was comfortable. Darrell complimented her clothes. She was, horror of horrors, younger than me. She was the real god. I was just an imposter, one of the stupid mortals always trying to steal a Bezoar or otherwise become immortal. When we were introduced, Victoria raised one perfectly pierced eyebrow and sneered. And at that moment, I felt Death tap me on the shoulder.  



©2007 Ada Calhoun and Nerve.com

Nerve consulting editor and Babble editor-in-chief Ada Calhoun has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, a contributing editor and theater critic at New York magazine, and her softball team’s MVP.