The first rehearsal of our yet-to-be-named band was held at the Monotreme Institute for Extraordinary Art, and was not exactly a success. It had been a long week. At work, as clients called with urgent branding issues, I felt my rock gland shriveling, my indie secretions going dry. I needed an urgent dose of vitamin GBV.
Glooming up the workplace further was Para. One day she was as loving as a chocolate lab, winks and nudges galore. The next day she passed my desk, on her way to the bathroom, but gave no acknowledgement that Gary Benchley sat mere feet away, chock full of humble love.
My desk looks out at the bathrooms, so I had no choice but to sit and wait for the hiss of water through the pipes, followed by the quieter sound of the sink. Finally, the door opened to show Para’s slender outline, framed by the fluorescent lights of the women’s room. I winked to her, and she smiled thinly in return. It was like we were passing ships, and I was running up flags to signal: Para, the man you’re ignoring has mapped your inward parts with the tip of his fingers! Love him! But she wasn’t looking. She only sailed back to her desk. Later in the day, the process repeated, and before I left, it happened once more. For the duration of those bathroom visits, I knew what she was excreting, and when. But I did not know her heart.
The next night I went over to Para’s. We watched three hours of TV without saying much. Whatever was wrong, we weren’t talking about it. She needed to get up at seven in the morning to fly to Pittsburgh for a meeting, and she’d been having trouble sleeping—I snore a little, and kick around in bed, and it was going to keep her up. She decided it was best to say goodnight, and I went home on the G train.
Walking into my apartment at midnight, I heard strange grunts emerging from Charles’s open door. Down the hall, David was leaning by the window smoking a cigarette, listening to the same noises. I walked gingerly past Charles’s room, looking in long enough to see that, indeed, he was having sex. The woman in the bed looked like Patmavadi, but I wasn’t sure.
Gary: [Whispering] What the fuck?
David: You’ve never seen this before?
David: He won’t close the door. He wants the sexual energy to be shared with the rest of the world. Closing the door ruins the communal human experience.
Gary: Oh. God.
David: [motioning towards the open door] Come on.
We walked the few steps down the hall and stood quietly in the doorway, watching Charles’s ass bob up and down. It was Patmavadi underneath him. Her eyes were closed, her mouth open, breathing hard. David exhaled a large plume of smoke through the open door and shrugged. The impassioned couple was lost in their own world, no idea they had an audience. After a minute, I followed David into his mostly empty room: a bed, a chair, and a desk, with a laptop and family pictures on the desk.
Gary: That is disgusting.
David: Reminds me of college. [puffing on the cigarette] I asked him to shut the door a year ago, and he gave me like a half-hour lecture on qi. So now I’m like, what the hell. Free entertainment.
Gary: I can’t believe we were watching that.
David: Tantric shit. It goes on for hours.
David: Yep. Not me. If I wanted to have sex for hours my girlfriend would demand overtime. Time is money. Want a cigarette?
I turned him down and sat on the edge of his bed. We talked about his demanding girlfriend who also worked in finance. I’d never seen her, because he wouldn’t bring her back to the apartment. “No need for her to see this,” he said. “She thinks I’m worth a damn.”
David made good money, but he had a sick mother and half-employed father. “I hand them about $4,000 a month for meds and miscellaneous,” he told me, motioning to the picture on the desk. It was framed in silver. In it, his mother wore a blue blouse and his father was in an orange blazer with a red tie.
Gary: That’s a lot of money.
David: My dad hates it. Pride thing. But my mom is so proud. That’s a good son, you know? He writes the checks. [long pause] Sometimes I think she got leukemia just to see if I really love her. [stamping out his cigarette] But I love her. I just love the moms.
He put his hand on the picture frame. I said, “I love my mom, too.”
David: [Nodding] You have to love her. You were inside of her. I mean, think about that. You were just hanging out inside your mom’s uterus for nine months.
Gary: Come on.
David: Seriously. How can you not love a woman when you’ve been inside of her for nine months?
Gary: It sounds like that’s what Charles is aiming for right now.
David: It’s the ultimate.
It surprised me when I blurted out that I loved my Mom. She and I had been calling each other on the weekends, but those calls were just short summaries of events, everything-is-good-talk-to-you-soon. Now, suddenly, I wanted details. I wanted to know if the car was out of the shop, if my sister liked her internship in D.C., how my brother was doing on his aircraft carrier. I wanted to know who was playing at Valentine’s. I wanted to tell her about Para and ask her advice. I wanted her to wake me up in the morning and make me pancakes.
David and I sat together, two men who didn’t know each other very well, sharing a moment of mother-love.
David: And what about your Dad?
Gary: Well, he doesn’t really get what I’m about. We don’t talk much.
Charles and Patmavadi showed no signs of letting up, so I cleared out for a while. The night was warm and dry. At first I was heading for a drink, but none of the bars looked welcoming, so I kept walking, past the clubs and old warehouses, until I came to the water. There, in the company of other wandering silhouettes, I looked out at midtown, and listened to the river as it lapped the moldy rocks.
Had anyone else ever been this lonely in New York?
I didn’t stay low for long. Looking at the buildings and lights rising over the dark of the East River made me feel bigger than my problems. The skyline reminded me of the way music looks in a mixing program on a computer. In Pro Tools, songs are shown as waves. Loud parts of a song are high peaks; quiet parts are valleys. Manhattan looked like that, peaks and valleys, a song thirteen miles long.
I tried to hum the buildings, remembering the parts of the city I couldn’t see. The song opens very quietly, in the park at the Battery, but then gets Nirvana-huge with Wall Street’s distortion and noise. Then it fades quickly, but only to build up to the climax of midtown. There you come to the Empire State Building, huge and orchestrated: grand piano, drums, and acoustic bass. Still heading uptown, it gets a little quieter, with another loud moment for the Citibank building (that building is definitely a synthesizer solo). Once you pass midtown, the song begins to fade, all the way to Inwood.
The skyline was a song played at the biggest concert in the world. Listening to it from the shores of Williamsburg, I was both on stage, playing the New York song, and listening in the audience. A few feet behind me, a man said to his girlfriend, “Isn’t this better than television?” I couldn’t hear her response, but I nodded, and watched a tugboat steam south towards the Atlantic. I thought: that’s a good job. You get off the land, wave goodbye to your depressed, distant girlfriend, and take to the rivers in your tug. You can forget everything that’s happening on land, navigating by the lights of the buildings.
Still, you spend your life in service of the bigger boats. Sometimes I feel shame at not already being famous. Not ambition, but shame, as if I’ve failed. I wonder if that’s something people always felt, or if it’s new.
I turned my back on that massive stage of river and skyscrapers, walking back to the streets, to the clubs and warehouses, the endless string of young Billburgians. Once more I was in the audience. The tugboat gave a goodbye toot behind me.
Rehearsal was on Saturday. On Friday night, my father called. Aside from telling him my phone number and address when I moved, we hadn’t spoken since I’d been in New York. But my father is a career politician, a state assemblyman, and just leaps into conversations without worrying about context.
Gary: I was just talking about you.
Dad: There you go. Me too. How’s things?
Gary: Doing good. All great.
Dad: Your cash stream is OK?
Gary: Limited, you know. But I’m doing fine.
Dad: You’re still a secretary?
Gary: Office assistant.
Dad: But you’re still looking for something more permanent.
Gary: It’s OK for now. I’m working on some other things.
Dad: You know, you’re in the finance capital of the world. There are a lot of jobs in finance.
Gary: Oh, I know. My roommate works in finance.
Dad: Might want to get some advice from him.
My father told me about work, how much he was doing for the people in his district. There were zoning laws and budget planning. There was a quest for funds for a senior center and new rules regarding parking permits. He was planning barbecues with friends to watch the Democratic National Convention. His wife Pat was to be promoted to a senior position in IT at the NYS DMV ASAP, and her daughter, Kris, was away at science camp.
Gary: Sounds busy up there.
Dad: I tell you Gary, you put a broomstick in my ass I could sweep the capitol floor.
Gary: [laughing falsely]
Dad: So how are things with the ladies?
Dad: Out there playing the field.
Dad: Met anyone special?
Gary: I think so.
Dad: Good for you. She has a name.
Dad: Nice name.
Gary: I’m working hard, Dad. I’m starting a band.
Dad: Excellent! Just as long as you keep your priorities. Bank account first, right?
Suddenly I was very tired, so I begged off the phone. We promised to call each other more often, a familiar promise, and I put the phone in its cradle. Nine hours later I woke up with the sunlight, with a knot in my stomach. First rehearsal.
Scott and I picked up Jacob with his bass and amp, which he threw into the back of Scott’s Element, alongside Scott’s smaller, portable Yamaha synth and my Fender. Scott and Jacob shook hands, and with a bootleg of the new Interpol on the CD player, we took off for Monotreme.
Katherine answered the buzzer. “Welcome, bitches,” she said. We lugged our equipment up to her room. She had shoveled her clothes out of the way and moved her bed to make a rehearsal space around the drums. To start us off, Scott put a CD into Katherine’s stereo and shared the music he and I had already created. Katherine began to giggle. Emboldened by her giggle, Jacob said, “I mean, I’m all for reverb, but…”
Scott made a sour face, put out at people impugning his studio wizardry. I began to panic. What if, after all the work to bring everyone together, no one got along?
I realized that throwing four people together—two of them strangers who’d never met, and one of them, Jacob, who thought I was a racist profiler—was not a recipe for instant rock greatness. I had that feeling you get when you take someone to see a movie you truly love. You’ve talked about this movie for days. And they agree to come, and you can’t focus on the movie because you’re so worried they won’t like it. You watch them watch the film, and the movie starts to look terrible through your eyes. This had happened to me in college, when I took a date to see Old School.
Now, looking at the three faces of my bandmates, I had that feeling at 50,000 watts. I decided to reiterate the policy of true honesty.
Gary: All right, Jacob says too much reverb. Excellent. Everyone needs to say exactly what they feel about this band. We have to have total freedom to be critical.
Katherine: Good. Because that sucked. Too much noodling.
Gary: Thanks, Katherine. Scott?
Scott: Yeah, thanks.
A long silence.
Jacob: So how do we get started?
Gary: Maybe we could play a cover.
Jacob: What do we have in common?
Half an hour later, with a few dozen bands mentioned and discarded, Katherine went online and got the chords for “I Walk the Line,” printing copies for each of us. Scott counted it off: 1, 2, 3, 4. And then nothing happened. We all just looked at him.
We tried again, and this time everyone started to play. Scott was able to do something nice with the grand piano sound on his synth, and Katherine played a steady four on the floor beat. Jacob and I struggled.
Scott: Let me…can I?
Jacob: Go ahead.
Scott: Let’s see. It’s [playing synth]. OK, F, G, A. Then…huh.
They worked together for a while, until Jacob had it down. At the same time, I looked at the tablature and tried to figure out the fingerings. Finally we gave it another try. What followed was the strangest, least competent cover ever attempted: as I stomped through the song (A, E7, A, repeat, A, D, A, then back to A, E7, A) on my Fender, Jacob picked up the bassline and began to play with confidence. He looked amused. I looked over to see Scott nodding at Jacob, and felt a huge sense of relief. Katherine was smiling.
Scott went to change some setting on his synth and accidentally triggered a preset, one we’d used before over at his place, called ‘Computus Maximus,’ all saw waves and delay. Suddenly, “I Walk the Line” became IDM, and Katherine, inspired, began to hit the snare in a harsh, military rhythm. Jacob stuck to his bassline. I tried to sing as I played. But the combination was a bit much to handle. “For you I’d, uh, know, to tide. You’re the line, the walk I tide,” I sang.
It ended not with a bang, but with a whimper, and with laughter from Jacob.
Jacob: That was fantastic. Johnny Cash on Mars. Keep that synth sound.
Gary: Kind of not bad, right?
Katherine: Industrial Johnny Cash works for me.
Scott: Except for the music part.
Gary: But we’ll get that.
I could tell even Scott, though still grumpy, was engaged. This was something we could build on. We tried it again, and now came into more focus, everyone figuring out their place. And in the middle of the sounds, I thought of my father. Here at Katherine’s apartment, we were creating something new. Working in finance, how often did you get to create something totally new?
Actually, we were playing a cover of a 35-year-old song. But the point is that something was happening. Where before there was nothing, there was now music. Yes, it sounded like a giant robot attacking a bag of marshmallows. Yes, we were turning one of the most essential, minimal songs of the last 50 years into a cross between the Butthole Surfers and Vangelis. But it was a start. Everyone liked this movie.
We decided covers would be the way to go while we got used to one another, and picked out a few more to prepare: “Hotel Yorba” by the White Stripes, “What is the Light” by the Flaming Lips, and “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart. The last was Scott’s suggestion, because it lent itself to long synth solos.
Jacob: So what are we calling this thing?
Gary: I’ve been giving it a lot of thought.
Katherine: Me too.
Awkward silence. No one wanted to go first. Secretly, I wanted to call the band ‘The Gary Benchley Rock Experience,’ but I didn’t think that demonstrated a proper community spirit.
Gary: I was thinking we could call it ‘No More Bullies.’
Gary: I don’t know.
Scott: How about ‘The Yellow Skulls?’ I think it would make for cool posters.
Katherine: It sucks, but besides that it’s real good. I always thought there should be a band called ‘Porn Biscuit.’
Scott: Why that?
Katherine: It’s two things everyone likes.
Jacob: There’s already a New Pornographers.
Katherine: But they lack biscuits.
Jacob: I’m anti-porn.
Katherine: Why’s that?
Jacob: Because it’s exploitative.
Katherine: So you’re into, like, Andrea Dworkin?
Jacob: I think she’s crazy.
Katherine: Thank God.
Jacob: But that doesn’t mean her conclusions are wrong.
Katherine: I like looking at cocks.
There was a moment of quiet as we absorbed the conversation. I stared at Katherine, not sure how to respond, then looked over at Scott.
Scott: Yes, Gary, I like looking at cocks, too.
Katherine: Good for you.
Jacob: I’m just saying—
Katherine: That you’re a self-hating cock-haver. I know the type. Oh my God, I do.
Jacob: [exasperated] I am not a self-hating cock-haver.
Katherine: So you’re a non-cock-having self-lover?
Jacob: I definitely possess a cock.
Katherine: See, there’s that word. Why do you have to possess cock?
Jacob: Come on.
Katherine: Are you afraid it’s going to be taken from you? Is cock some sort of commodity you can own?
Jacob: I didn’t—
Katherine: I’m against that. I think cock belongs to the commons. It’s for everyone. That’s why there’s the Washington Monument.
Jacob: [Slowly] You’re full of shit.
Katherine: [Winking, nodding] Yes. Bitch.
Gary: So we don’t call it ‘Porn Biscuit.’
Scott suggested that we table the band name discussion and come to the next rehearsal with lists of ideas. We went through “I Walk the Line” again, without much improvement. Finally, we called it an afternoon, and Scott, Jacob, and I said goodbye to Katherine and went down to the car.
Gary: Dude, what time is it?
Gary: Oh no.
Gary: Let me borrow your cell.
I had a date with Para. We were supposed to meet at a movie theater in Brooklyn, to see Spider Man 2. Then, I hoped, we would walk through the park and talk seriously about the relationship, and work out how to fix things. The movie was starting in six minutes. The date was my idea. The pleasure of the afternoon drained away, and I began to imagine the look she’d have, her Gary-is-tardy face.
The connection crackled, but both Jacob and Scott heard Para curse me loudly when I told her I was late. “I’m standing here,” she said, and the cell phone connection cut her voice down to a snake’s hiss. I promised speed.
Gary: Scott, where is the Pavilion theater?
Scott: The Pavilion?
Scott: It’s like half an hour away. It’s way the hell out by Coney Island.
Gary: What? Moviefone said it was…what, do I take the train? I am in such shit.
Scott: What the fuck were you thinking? Why the hell would you say you’d meet her out there?
Jacob was laughing.
Scott: Oh, wait, the Pavilion theater?
Gary: [in a panic] Yes.
Scott: It’s like three minutes from here, you dipshit. It’s right by the park.
Gary: You suck.
Scott: Get in the car.
We climbed in, and Scott drove.
Jacob: [whining] Oh, no, Scott! Moviefone said it was…oh…oh…no…ohhh!
Scott: Poor Gary.
Gary: I hate all of you.
Jacob: [in a low, growling voice] Save it for the Krauts, kid.
Gary: What is that?
Jacob: It’s from a war movie. Home of the Brave. Except they say Japs, I think.
Scott: So you like war movies, but not porn?
Jacob: That is correct.
After a few minutes, as I sweated from lateness nerves, Scott and Jacob began making up titles for gay war porn films. They were made for each other.
Scott: Pearl Necklace Harbor.
Jacob: [thinking] Cramburger Hill.
Scott: [blurting] Shaving Ryan’s Privates.
Jacob: [long pause] Glory…Hole.
Gary: And don’t forget The Cunt for Red October.
Jacob: Shut up. Shut up.
Scott: Gary, we’ll tell you when it’s OK to talk.
They hadn’t met until a few hours ago, now they had a friendship based purely on mocking me. We arrived at the Pavilion. Para was waiting, scanning the sidewalk for me. Her mouth was pinched, eyes asquint.
Scott: There she is, Gary.
Jacob: Over there? [long whistle] By the look on her face, someone fucked up.
Scott: Not me. I know how to use a clock to keep track of time.
Jacob: Me too. The big hand is over the little hand. Just like at Michael Jackson’s house.
I jumped out and Para watched me pull my Fender from the back of the car. “The guitar is coming to the movie, too?” she said, turning her head to look at nothing, then back to me.
“I’m sorry, baby,” I said, kissing her check, and closed the hatch. She said nothing, and I said goodbye to Scott and Jacob, both smiling hugely at my suffering.
Para wasn’t sure if I’d show up, so she hadn’t bought tickets. Walking to the window, guitar in hand, I prayed to God the movie wasn’t sold out.